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Month: March 2009

Iraq to start executing gays this week

by David Veksler David Veksler 11 Comments

More than 100 prisoners in Iraq are facing execution – and many of them are believed to have been convicted of the ‘crime’ of being gay, the UK-based Iraqi-LGBT group revealed this afternoon.

According to Ali Hili of Iraqi-LGBT, the Iraqi authorities plan to start executing them in batches of 20 from this week. There is, said Mr. Hili, at least one member of Iraqi-LGBT who are among those to be put to death.

That innocent people die for their sexuality is a moral atrocity.  But many thousands of people (mostly women accused of extramarital relations) die in the Islamic world every year.  What’s really outrageous is that thousands of American soldiers died and trillions of dollars were paid to support regimes fundamentally opposed to Western values in the name of democracy.

Update: On the Afganistant front, Hamid Karzai just  “signed a law the UN says legalises rape in marriage and prevents women from leaving the house without permission.”   Obama is raising the defense budget 26% above that of Bush, so you can bet that many more American soldiers will die to keep Muslim women slaves.  God bless democracy!

On Down Syndrome and other self-inflicted tragedies

by David Veksler David Veksler 105 Comments

Earlier this week Salon published an article about a mother dealing with an adult Autistic son, who’s out of control violence led her to desperate measures. Her story reminded me of the angry responses I’ve received whenever I’ve written against Down syndrome.

Dozens of parents have responded to each post, claiming to have adorable little children with Down’s. (The context to keep in mind here is that Down syndrome is now an optional illness, now that safe and effective testing is available for all mothers in the developed world.) Yet, I haven’t received a single comment from parents of adults with Down syndrome. Where are all the adorable little adults with Down syndrome?

I suspect there are three reasons why I haven’t seen their comments.

First, many of their children died prematurely due to the many health complications of Down Syndrome. (See previous posts for details.)

Second, many children have grown up to become severely disabled adults, and are living in mental institutions at taxpayer expense – or sometimes, in homeless shelters or on the streets.

Third, the minority of parents whose children survived to adulthood and who remained committed to taking care of them on their own know that their adorable babies turned into incomprehensible, obstinate, sullen, capricious, and sometimes very violent adults. Their mental illness makes the world an incomprehensible place to them, and their unpredictable behavior makes them bewildering to their caretakers.

Have you ever noticed the ratio of mentally disabled children to that of mentally disabled adults in social situations? The apparent disparity goes beyond their lower life expectancy. I suspect that the surviving retarded children grow into retarded adults, fundamentally unable to deal with civilized life, and hidden away in homes and institution and highway underpasses.

My point is that human disabilities, mental and physical, are a tragedy to be avoided at all costs, not something to be accepted as unavoidable fate, or worse, to be cherished for their uniqueness. They ought to be screened, aborted, and engineered out of the human race as soon as medically and technologically possible. If this is obvious to you, great. Unfortunately, inexplicably, even rational people whom I respect differ with me on this issue. The only proper response for parents who make such choices ought to be moral condemnation: if they have chosen to have crippled children, they ought to condemned, and all the pain, frustration, violence, and expense caused by their choice ought to be placed squarely on the parents.

(In response to the inevitable comments, I must emphasize that the condemnation extends only to the parents. Like all human beings, the victims of their parents’ choice ought to be cherished, and every effort should be made to integrate them into society and make them productive adults.)

One last observation: I’ve already written how many parents who choose to have Down children treat them as religious icons when they are small. When they grow large, how many of them treat them as pets that have grown too large to keep in the house, and delegate them to a locked basement, or a mental institution?

Update: Thanks to everyone for their comments. Rather than trying to respond to individual comments, I have summarized my response here: The One Minute Case for Designer Babies. Many of the other comments address abortion and eugenics. I responded to those arguments in this post.

Winning marketshare by giving away your intellectual property

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

Suppose you start a small tech startup and invent a revolutionary device with tremendous potential. What would you expect to be most profitable – to make the device yourself, to license it to large manufacturers, or to give away licenses royalty free to anyone who wanted them?

The first two choices might seem reasonable, but why would you want to give away something you created? In the case of Zylog’s Z80, the third option turned out to be the key to success. Zylog was started in 1974 by an engineer who came up with a superior design to that of giants like Intel, HP, and DEC. Getting the tech industry to adopt an architecture controlled by a small unproven startup would be impossible, so Federico Faggin decided to give away his creation. Thirty five years later, his chipset is still in widespread use in numerous electronic devices. Even though Zilog never made more than 50% of Z80 chips, Federico used his success to found a chain or highly innovative and successful companies.

A similiar process happened with WordPress, the most popular blogging/content management software on the web.  Matt Mullenweg was 19 in 2003 when he took on an abandoned open-source blogging tool, and created a powerful content managment suite with a strong community.  By virtue of being free, his software quickly took over from (initially) technically better, but costly alternatives.  Although the software is free, the services and consulting work needed to support it proved very lucrative.  A few years later, the company he started to support his work is (rumored to be) worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

"The patent system is not just broken, it is poisonous."

by David Veksler David Veksler 2 Comments

Good article from ZDnet:

Bill Gates [once said] that software patents had the potential to put the industry at “a complete standstill” and with good reason. If the sort of protection Microsoft now claims for itself had been available to CP/M then, Microsoft would never have created its monopoly, nor amassed a fraction of its power.

Now [that] it has, the rules have changed. Microsoft is perfectly happy, while proclaiming openness and interoperability, to find a company in dire financial straits and then threaten it with expensive legal action over what any self-respecting programmer would identify as a hackish kludge–something that advances the art of computer software not one bit.

(See also the case against software patents.)

Are politically-incorrect Google search results being censored?

by David Veksler David Veksler 1 Comment

I recently searched for the words “capitalism definition” on Google, and saw this at the bottom of the first results page:

In response to a legal request submitted to Google, we have removed 2 result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may read more about the request at

When I followed the link, the only information I could find is that an “Internet Watch Foundation” has submitted a “Child Pornography Complaint in Google Search.”

It appears that the “Internet Watch Foundation” submits a list of URL’s to Google which must be removed from search results. Google must do is – it may be held legally liable if it judges which URL’s are acceptable on an individual basis and makes a mistake. I tried some alternative searches and skimmed through the results, but I was unable to find anything non-political in the searches, much less pornographic.

This seems dubious to me. Various organizations are submitting a secret list of sites which are automatically removed by Google based on secret criteria. If the website was truly illegal, then why not prosecute the webmaster and take it down? The fact that it was delisted and not taken down suggests that it is not illegal in its jurisdiction, yet judged not worthy for me to see. I have no way to verify whether I am being prevented from seeing legitimate political speech, and even if I did have a way to find out which website was blocked, if the website really is child porn, viewing the site carries severe criminal penalties.  (Actually, even attempting to view illegal content is a criminal offense.)

While law-abiding citizens have no way to know which websites they are forbidden to see, it is easy to browse anonymously with an anonymizing proxy.  You just can’t speak out about the sensorship.  

By the way, Australia already censors politically-incorrect websites, and has threatened to prosecute anyone who links to them.

1 in 31 U.S. Adults are Behind Bars, on Parole or Probation

by David Veksler David Veksler 3 Comments

1 in 31 U.S. Adults are Behind Bars, on Parole or Probation.  The majority of these convicts are morally innocent – they are political prisoners – victims of the governments “war” on forbidden plants and chemicals.  

I wonder how this percentage compares with Stalinist Russia?  No, I’m not equating the two.  But when masked men burst into your home at night to shoot you or drag you away, you might feel that they are not so different.

Ideas for improving writing

by David Veksler David Veksler 2 Comments

George Orwell’s essay on the use of the English language encouraged me to think about how to improve my writing by applying lessons from neuroscience and  cognitive science.

One idea is to optimize cognitive load.  By cognitive load, I mean the effort it takes to understand the ideas I want to convey.   Effective writing needs to maximize the density of ideas being presented, without exceeding the rate at which the reader can process them.  Because we can only think about a few things at the same time, we need frequent breaks in text to process information before moving on.  If I make my writing easier to understand, I can tell the reader more with the same number of words.

Some ideas for optimizing cognitive load:

  • Minimize word length. Long and unusual words take longer to identify, so I can improve my writing by using smaller and more familiar words.
  • Ditto for sentence size and paragraph length.
  • Shorter words and different-sounding words in the same sentence are easier to remember.
  • Analogies and figures of speech require an unnecessary cross-reference, so they should be minimized.
  • Repetition is crucial to forming long-term memory.  You can improve memorization by using spaced repetition – “a learning technique in which increasing intervals of time are used between subsequent reviews.”
  • Improve the retention, relevance, and utility of writing with frequent examples and references to the reader’s existing ideas and beliefs.
  • When appropriate, leave the outline in the final text, and use thesis statements rather than subjects.  For example, see my one minute cases.

Some things that disrupt cognitive efficiency:

  • “Cue words” are abstract concepts that can trigger emotional responses that blocks rational analysis. For example, President Obama’s speeches are full of words like “democracy”, “faith”, “reform”, “challenges”, and “destiny.” (It is OK to use these words when they are necessary to convey an idea and placed in an unambiguous context.)
  • Group affiliations are another kind of trigger word – when a reader identifies the author as belonging to either his or an adverse group, it triggers a distracting emotional response.
  • Logical fallacies.  Even if the logical flaw is not detected, it adds to the cognitive load without adding to the readers knowledge.  If detected later, it erodes the credibility of the entire argument.

One criticism of this kind of writing is that it has limited emotional appeal.  Emotional impact is important – it tells the brain make ideas more memorable.  I wonder if anyone has systematically thought about how to add emotional impact to writing.  What kinds of emotional appeals rely on logical fallacies, and what kinds best reinforce the lesson being taught?