Ethical democracy: An exercise for the reader

With a title like the above, there are so many things this post could be about — the last few days and weeks have been excellent for providing examples of less-than-ethical democracy. But this post is in fact about none of them — it’s about a tricky personal conundrum I faced today, in exercising ethical democracy.

The thing is, I’m not a US voter, or citizen. But I am a US taxpayer and legal resident at the moment. Tomorrow the US Congress will be voting on a bill (of which more later) on an issue very dear to my heart — because it represents probably the largest ongoing damage that the US does, every day, to the poorest of the poor in the developing world and especially Africa (of which I am a citizen). So the question for the reader is: should I phone my representative in Congress and ask them to vote the way I’d like on the bill?

The bill in question is the huge farm bill, and more especially the Fairness Amendment component thereof. US (and to be fair, European) farm subsidies are a mess: they cost the taxpayer huge sums, benefit predominantly the largest agribusiness concerns instead of small farmers, offer only marginal assistance to hungry people within the US and EU, and make it impossible for developing world (especially African) farmers to compete on the global market. For instance, farming cotton in Texas costs about three times the raw price it does in Mali, on the southern edge of the Sahara. But after subsidies Malian farmers can’t compete — and so huge areas of Africa aren’t even being farmed. Cotton is Mali’s main commercial export, despite this huge disadvantage — so one can only imagine the huge difference even a small tweak to the subsidies would make to the 10 million inhabitants of this desperately poor country. And as in cotton, so too elsewhere — US and EU farm subsidies are together larger than the total GDP of sub-Saharan Africa. But enough rant — contact me if you’d like more!

Anyway, the Fairness Amendment is a step in the right direction. The vote is tomorrow. In the end I went ahead and phoned my Congressional rep — using this really convenient and easy service.

Now the more suspicious amongst you might think that what this post is really about is getting those of you who can phone US representatives without suffering any complicated ethical choices, to indeed go ahead and phone. In fact, you might even be right. But I am also interested in what people think about whether it’s ethical for me to make such a phone call.

And yes, it’s been a while since my last blog post. I have a few stacked up awaiting typing, but this one came first thanks to the obvious deadline. Thanks for your patience!

Oh, to be a fly on the wall…

A line from an article about US election irregularities:

In Kentucky, a poll worker was arrested for trying to throttle a voter.

What?!? Throttling a voter?? Sounds like there might very well be a very, very interesting story behind this one. Any suggestions on the last thing this particular voter might have said, just before being throttled?

Here’s one to start things off: “So I just pushed this thing here, and now I’ve got this blue screen saying something about an illegal operation…”

New estimate on Iraqi war deaths – one in forty

Just released (see, for example, this Reuters article) is a new study, which aimed to estimate the number of Iraqis who have died as a result of the US invasion in 2003. The methodology involved interviewing randomly sampled families, rather than more passive studies involving, for example, morgue reports. The conclusion is that the death rate since the invasion has been about two and a half times higher than that before the invasion, as a result of all causes — including violence, breakdown in medical services, etc. This translates into 655 000 additional deaths, or one in forty Iraqis.

It is studies of this sort which once again show that invading a stable country, even one ruled by a brutal regime, does NOT improve the lives of the people within the country. And it certainly can’t improve the world’s image of the invading country. I just hope that one day soon American society will start really asking itself how this tragedy could have been allowed to happen, and how the US world view needs to change to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

Arctic ice shrinks 14% in a year

New studies from NASA (JPL) and elsewhere show a 14% reduction in perennial (ie. survives the summer) Arctic ice in just one year, from 2004 to 2005. Supercomputer models had suggested that the ice (and, incidentally, polar bears as a species) would all be gone by 2070, but this is far faster even than those predictions.

This might be a good time to turn off a light, or take your bike to work tomorrow. Just a thought.

Co2 levels in ice cores

In the news today: new studies of gas bubbles trapped in Antarctic show that current CO2 levels are higher than those for the last 800 000 years — and that the growth in CO2 levels over the last 17 years is so fast that it would normally require over 1000 years of natural variation to produce the same change.

The past 800 000 years includes many ice ages, and interglacial warming periods between the ice ages. The CO2 level fluctuates in step with global average temperature. So we’re looking at a change that in the last 17 years has been larger than that associated with a mere ice age (though luckily other changes are also associated with ice ages). But our CO2 emission rate is still increasing.

Apportioning the Internet

The control of the infrastructure of the Internet is a controversial issue. Recently in the news was the refusal of ICANN, the governing organisation of the domain name system, to approve an application for the creation of a “.xxx” domain — aimed at sites providing pornographic material. The issue is deciding just who actually made the decision. But it’s definitely not the only issue of global fairness in Internet infrastructure.

The problem is that ICANN makes domain name decisions which are then effectively binding on the world (though China may be thinking of breaking ranks). But in general, the rest of the world has to follow suit if the Internet is to continue to work smoothly.
Continue reading “Apportioning the Internet”

When do we learn?

Education and learning are strange beasts. At school and university, people seldom understand even close to everything, and forget most of what they did understand soon after the final exam. But yet we trust doctors to prescribe correctly; professionals to know their jobs; or professors and teaching assistants to know what they are talking about. Where does this knowledge come from??
Continue reading “When do we learn?”

Same-sex marriage in South Africa

As you may have heard in the news, on 1 December the South African Constitutional ruled that the wording of South Africa’s Marriage Act discriminates in an unconstitutional way against the rights of homosexual couples. The government now has to rewrite the legislation to allow same-sex marriage. The judgment is of course exciting and a triumph of South Africa’s ambitious constitution. But the text of the judgment raises some interesting questions relating to whether individual marriage officers with contrary religious beliefs should be required to marry same-sex couples.
Continue reading “Same-sex marriage in South Africa”

False starts and things that matter

As the rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina starts, so too do people start asking questions about what went wrong in New Orleans, and the lessons that should be learnt. Notwithstanding a huge global warming wakeup call, the main conclusion seems to be that the US failed spectacularly to protect its poor and black citizens. The Economist front page calls it “The Shaming of America”, and editorials everywhere are calling it wakeup call to the nation.

The problem, though, with wakeup calls is that they so seldom lead to any real change. An excellent editorial in today’s USA Today compares and contrasts Katrina’s wakeup call with another of 40 years ago — the Watts riots of 1965 in Los Angeles. They were substantially more violent, but (insofar as I can tell as a foreigner) made affluent America aware of the depth of poverty and anger of the social and racial underclass of the country. The result? According to the USA Today editorial, poverty levels in Watts are actually higher today. And, of course, they weren’t the last race riots that LA was to see.
Continue reading “False starts and things that matter”

Complexity and abstraction

One of the key challenges that arises in almost any context is how to deal with complexity. Probably the most powerful tool we have to address it is abstraction — ignoring details in favour of a smaller set of information, at some “higher level”. I’ve been thinking recently about how abstraction appears, with varying success, in so many areas, and in particular what differentiates different problem areas in which abstraction is more or less effectives. This two-part post will meander vaguely through a few of those areas.

I’ll start, appropriately, in physics. Thermodynamics is an excellent example of abstraction at it’s best — macroscopic quantities of gas, say, have on the order of 10^27 molecules, but we can describe their behaviour very well using only the variables temperature, pressure and volume. Thermodynamics passes two test I’d like to propose for the appropriateness of abstraction:

  1. There exists a useful cutoff scale. Considering the behaviour of the gas at “macroscopic” length scales is a well-defined, useful definition, since the molecules are so much smaller.
  2. The different length scales decouple well; or to paraphrase, there is little behaviour loss from ignoring interactions at a smaller scale — thermodynamics describes the gas really well.

Continue reading “Complexity and abstraction”