Apr 18

“The Right to be Free of Arbitrary Arrest or Long Imprisonment Without Trial”

So you hear about somebody who has practically gotten caught red-handed while murdering a family in their own home. If you’re like most people, your first thought is that this sicko should be put in a straitjacket and locked away if not put to death for what he did. It’s an ordinary human reflex and maybe he deserves it. But, in America, that doesn’t mean he’s not going to stand trial when it’s his turn because we have this thing called the Bill of Rights, which along with addressing many flaws in the judicial system that the Founding Fathers considered important issues, forbids arbitrary arrest and long imprisonment without trial. The Sixth Amendment specifically reads:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

It’s a way to avoid the scenario like you might have seen in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” in which a man accuses a romantic rival of treason to the Crown, thus removing him from the picture by having him locked up without so much as an appearance in front of a judge. And of course the accused manages to escape and comes back to haunt his accuser under the guise of the Count. Most prisoners in that situation wouldn’t be so lucky. You think it’s bad that innocent people are sent to prison now, it was really bad when you could be locked up just on a whiff of suspicion. Some nations are still that way; in fact, the notorious North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un disposed his uncle over such crimes as not clapping enthusiastically enough! No hint of anything resembling a trial, either.

Obviously, some people don’t think such things could happen to them. You hear about the guy who spent years in solitary confinement because they basically forgot about him and the chick who got charges dropped after ten years in jail without a trial, but those are fairly infrequent in America. More common are the cases in which somebody got off because he claimed that too many Twinkies caused mental impairment. They still call cases like that the “Twinkie defense.” I’m not making this up. But if you tried the Twinkie defense in some little dictatorship, they’d probably just laugh at you, assuming you made it as far as the courtroom.

One thing that will make justice tricky on Mars is the fact that we won’t even have formal jails. At most, we’d be able to confine a colonist who has snapped and become a danger to his own habitat while we decide what to do about it. We just don’t want to take too long, because we might someday need that habitat as a backup when another one malfunctions. It also wouldn’t look so good if he hangs himself out of sheer despair of ever seeing another human face again, not that we really need a psychopath running loose just so he has company. So by the time it even becomes an issue, we could all be so used to settling such things quickly that anyone who tries to pull some “procedural” claptrap to delay the process could just be looked at like he’s weird right before we vote that idea down. Then it becomes a matter of the best way to handle our violent psychopath in a world in which there’s no easy way back to Earth and psychiatric services are very limited. (Yeah, I know. It’s very possible that a future Martian society will be a harsh one by most standards. But at least it’ll be a fair one if we do it right.)

Most criminal cases don’t involve a violent psychopath. Fortunately for us, most infractions in a Martian colony will probably just involve something minor enough that assigning the most onerous chores will be the usual penalty. A few months of having to go out and sweep the dust off the solar panels should be punishment enough for most people. But at least you’ll have a chance to explain yourself in front of your fellow colonists even though that, too, could well be embarrassing enough when you’re living in a community where everybody knows everybody. Getting accused of something can be a nuisance even when you successfully prove that you couldn’t have been the guilty party. But once you’ve had the chance at a fair trial, you can hopefully slip back into obscurity (assuming you’re not one of those ex-convicts who just can’t seem to keep their names out of the newspapers) and get on with your life.

The Right to a Speedy Trial

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Apr 18

“The Right to be Free of Chattel Slavery”

Image Credit Yah’s People

Sometimes when I walk through the halls of Illinois Central College, I see one of the local campus organizations raising funds to stop world slavery. You an actually take a quiz to see how many slaves make the products you use at their booth. I’ll buy a brownie if it’s really going to help even though stopping slavery is going to be more complicated than just giving them fifty cents. Slavery might still be illegal in most of the Western world, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still exist.

When most Americans think of slavery, they tend to picture an ugly part of our history in which most black people were slaves, and then there was a war. It gets dismissed as something that happened in the past even though we’re still kind of dealing with the consequences. It wasn’t easy to go from pictures of slaves working on Southern plantations to Barack Obama and we still get accusations of racial profiling in law enforcement. But the improvements here in America don’t really help that kid who is out harvesting chocolate instead of going to school because his master said so. Fair trade is good, but not when the landowner is a dishonest one who pockets the profits instead of using the extra money to pay his workers.

“The right to be free of chattel slavery,” as Robert Zubrin’s Martian Constitution puts it, doesn’t mean you don’t still have to work for a living. It just means that, if you hate your boss, you can choose to tell him what you really think of this job without much more worry than maybe having to find another one. He can’t sell you. Even if your stuck with a contract, well, I hope he didn’t hold a gun to your head and make you sign it, and you might have a legal case if he did. Until then, consider that a lesson to never let yourself get so desperate that you’ll sign any piece of paper that comes your way, read everything carefully to make sure you’re not going to get burned by the fine print, and make friends with a good lawyer who can interpret any unintelligible legalese for you.

That’s right, contracts can be trouble. Indentured servants are just one step above slaves in that they’ve agreed to work for somebody, usually in exchange for payment of a debt or lump sum up front. And sometimes they didn’t even voluntarily agree to it. Families have sold their daughters into prostitution rings and suddenly they have a “debt” they need to work off. When the pimps can tack charges for room and board on top of the original “debt,” it becomes one that never goes down. In some countries, that’s technically illegal but enforcement is lax and the pimps tend to have an inflated sense of entitlement. On one documentary I saw a while back, one prostitution ring had been raided and the man in charge wanted compensation because those girls were expensive. That’s compensation he’s never going to get because those girls were technically never his property in the first place.

But what if you did voluntarily agree to such a thing? Depending on the terms of your contract, you might not be entirely out of luck. One thing I’ve liked about being a freelance writer in my spare time is that it’s not too hard for me to pick up a few jobs on the side when I want extra money. Robert Zubrin’s fictional native Martian in “How To Live On Mars,” a frontiersman to the core, suggested picking up some extra jobs here and there if you’re unlucky enough to have had to rely on the Martian Authority to pick up the tab for your trip from Earth. That can be valid on Earth, too, if you can find the time and energy for freelance work and your boss is a reasonable one who respects you as someone who is moving up when you come to him with your offer.

On Mars, we should all theoretically be equal or at least part of a true meritocracy in which you don’t get ahead by acting like a lazy jackass who tries to make everybody do your work for you. We should just all accept that you don’t buy and sell people the way you would chickens, and people should have the dignity of being their own masters who at least decide what they’re working for. Mars is not going to reward the couch potato any more than it rewards the kind of idiot who winds up in Losers’ Row. But at least you’ll have the right to tell another person to go stuff himself if he tries to turn you into a slave.

Slavery Around the World

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Apr 16

The Right to be Free of Warrantless Searches

Image credit Political Chips

So you’ve got a couple of police officers knocking at your door and they want to search your house for contraband weapons. If you’re a smart American, you’ll want to see a warrant first. Two reasons: First, they’re required to have a warrant to make a search, and, second, what if they’re a couple of crooks posing as cops and they’re pulling an elaborate ruse to get into your house and rob it? It wouldn’t be the first time a couple of creeps posed as cops and, anyway, there is such a thing as the Fourth Amendment that reads:

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

Michael Badnarik Explains the 4th Amendment

If you really are hiding a rocket launcher in your house, shame on you and it’s your fault if it goes off in your basement and ruins the foundation of your house, but that doesn’t mean cops can search your house just anytime they feel like it. Imagine living in a country that doesn’t guarantee protection against unreasonable searches. Sometime after Albert Einstein had left Nazi Germany, he heard that the Nazis had ransacked his old house, looking for dangerous weapons. He was heard to comment that they wouldn’t have found anything more dangerous than a kitchen knife. This sort of thing was happening all over Germany besides people being arrested for no better reason than that they were Jewish. It was fortunate for Einstein that he was able to find a comfortable research position in America. Too many other people weren’t so lucky. This is what happens when civil rights are thrown out the window. Could it happen in America? It will when the Constitution becomes no more than a piece of paper to be waved around when convenient and put away when it gets in the way of something the government wants to do.

It has happened on infrequent occasions such as the Red Scare in which McCarthy and his associates were wiretapping just about everybody who was at all influential without bothering with warrants. They wanted evidence that Communist agents were everywhere. Normally, illegal wiretaps would never have been admissible in court, but this didn’t stop McCarthy from trying and actually succeeding in destroying the careers of a lot of good people over a few youthful indiscretions such as supporting organizations that were front groups for the American communist party. It was fortunate that McCarthy eventually imploded and took most of his cronies with him.

You’ll probably think that this will never happen to you until you’re confronted with a wiretap conscript of a phone conversation you had with a friend in which you casually mentioned that you wouldn’t mind seeing that jerk of a boss get hit by a pickup truck or something. Hey, I’ve put up with the lame boss too and it doesn’t justify even making idle threats when going to the job sites would be a more effectively way to deal with the situation. But, unless the police have a legitimate reason to think you’re going to be the one with the pickup truck, they shouldn’t be wiretapping your phone in the first place because that could have just been you venting your frustration.

“The right to be free of warrantless searches” is as much about avoiding the damage caused by an ungentle search as it is about keeping the authorities from wasting their time on people who are probably innocent. If they’re searching for pot, they’re thinking of all the places that an imaginative pot dealer could conceivably hide it, so they take apart the mattress. In America, you probably take it for granted that you would be paid for the mattress whether they actually find pot or not because, effectively, it was seized property. In countries that don’t guarantee that you’ll be compensated for it, you would be out several hundred dollars because a really good mattress is not cheap and the police simply would not care because it’s not their problem. (Being paid for seized property is in the Fifth Amendment if you’re curious.)

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with Mars. If you have a vague memory of some dude who sells vanity deeds for Martian real estate, you’re right, but that won’t mean much unless you actually go out and put a homestead on “your” land. In that case, I pity the fool who goes out and tries to search your homestead for an illicit moonshine still. Once we’ve reached the point where Martian colonists don’t necessarily have to live in communal frontier settlements where just about anything is put in a common pot, that is going to happen at some point. Until then, the worst of it will be tracking down whoever’s been stealing all the carrots or using more than his fair share of the power.

Cases Involving the Fourth Amendment

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Apr 16

The Right to a Comprehensive Legal System Based on Justice and Equity

Do you ever hear about how certain types of people are disproportionately sentenced to longer jail terms? If you live in America, you might have. Of course, a lot of people take the attitude of, “If you do the crime, you do the time.” I’m not advocating releasing potentially dangerous criminals from prison right this minute, regardless of what race they are, and I’ll admit that I have very little patience for people who play the race card when they know perfectly well that they have it coming. They do it because they know it works. And I won’t argue with the fact that places that are tough on crime tend to have lower crime rates. Even the rampantly liberal California has tried with the “Three strikes and you’re out” policy designed to get repeat offenders off the streets. Ideally, a few years in prison should make people think twice before having a relapse anyhow. But a system that favors the rich over the poor even when their cases are very similar is flawed.

It’s easy to blame the judges for being human. They can make mistakes, a small minority could be bribed, and you hear about activist judges whose rulings have little to do with the laws on the books or who made the better case. In fact, we won’t get a judge that is 100% impartial on all issues until we can automate the job. A computer wouldn’t get emotionally attached to the issue at hand or bring its own opinions into the case. With some completely honest programmers, it could at least be counted on to make rulings based on whomever delivers the best case with completely legal evidence. Until then, the best we’ll be able to do is the jury system. I know it’s a nuisance to have to serve as a juror, but juries of average citizens can at least consider the facts of a case from the perspective of people who have everyday lives outside of a courtroom.

On the flip side, some judges probably wince inwardly whenever they watch a defense lawyer on the government payroll make some rudimentary mistake. A lot of judges used to be lawyers, so at least they know the ropes pretty well. This defense lawyer might be somebody who just graduated from law school and is building experience so he can get into a private firm. Or he might be getting pretty close to retirement and just doesn’t care about his reputation anymore. These are the ones who usually get assigned to defendants who can’t afford a lawyer of their own. As any savvy consumer know, your cheapest option isn’t necessarily your best bargain and that’s how you hear about rich lawbreakers getting off with lighter sentences. They can simply afford lawyers who know how to either win criminal cases or get a good plea deal.

So the wealthy businessman gets the good lawyers and the public defenders get this arrogant little twerp who has been accused of a drive-by shooting. (Yeah, I can sympathize with the public defenders too. They get stuck with all the shit that goes on in the ghetto.) And that’s just America, theoretically the land of equality for all that the capitalist system seems to reward both the people who suck it up and do what it takes to succeed in life and the ones who don’t cheat too obviously. Putting all the lawyers on the government payroll and paying them all equally might seem to solve the problem if people wouldn’t howl about the inevitable addition to the national deficit (Does the government really need to be paying that many more salaries?) and the truly good trial lawyers wouldn’t howl about having to take a cut in pay. Make all the lawyers equal, and theoretically that will be a first step towards leveling the playing field between the stock broker who is accused of running a Ponzi scheme and the teenager who is accused of stealing somebody’s wallet. But I’m sure we all know that’s not going to happen.

You might be one of those people who just takes it for granted that your judicial system is skewed one way or the other. Some places go way beyond handing down tougher sentences for certain minorities. You might have heard about India’s caste system in which there is a whole group of people that is considered “untouchable” and gets stuck doing everybody else’s dirty work. The issue appears to crop up every election season in India: Some politicians just shrug and say that’s just the way things are. Others want to have a form of affirmative action in which a certain number of jobs are set aside for the “untouchables.” Probably the issue won’t ever become solved until everybody quits worrying about whatever the equivalent of India’s caste system is in your country and, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr. here, simply judge people not by the color of their skin or any other factor that they can’t change, but by the content of their character.

You could Google actual lists of the most corrupt countries on Earth. If someone screws you over and you can’t afford a bigger bribe than your opponent, you might as well forget about justice. The people who complain about the privileges of the rich and powerful ought to be focusing on corruption on this level. At least in America, Microsoft won’t really have a leg to stand on if you decide to buy a custom-made computer with Linux as an OS. It would be very difficult for them to force the right to establish a monopoly in a kangaroo court even when the judge owns Microsoft stock. If he’s honest, he’ll remove himself from the case for a conflict of interest.

Remember that direct voting thing I was talking about in another blog post? That’s probably going to be our method for settling disputes on Mars in the absence of a formal courtroom. I won’t say it’s going to be a perfect system. It’s always possible that Fred will be spending a lot of time trying to ingratiate himself with other colonists so he can call in favors the next time George accuses him of something. Then he’d better hope that his fellow colonists don’t already have him pegged as a suck-up and general troublemaker. There are bullies who can be charming to everyone but their chosen victims, though, so George would be well-advised to have video evidence on his side. This would theoretically not be too difficult with the Mars One system unless Fred has been tampering with the cameras.

However, there are benefits to having direct voting as a justice system. I’ve said that we’ll probably have some kind of a barter system on Mars. If I had to use my avocados plus take on a lot of chores just so I could bribe enough people to vote my way, it would probably get to the point where it’s just not worth it. And our fictional Fred is lazier than me. So I could possibly use the Socratic method to make both Fred and his supporters look like idiots by exposing weaknesses in their arguments or at least helping the supporters see that Fred is all hot air and no substance. Letting George win this round could make Fred think twice about causing trouble in the future.

Would it be possible to have a completely perfect justice system? Not for as long as humans are involved. Not even the jury system is foolproof when so many jurors just want to get the verdict in and go home. You hear so many stories of people going to jail for crimes they didn’t commit partly because of stuff like that. That’s why America has so many constitutional guarantees designed to protect people from runaway law enforcement and judicial systems. It’s a way to put checks on a system that everybody knows is going to be flawed anyway.

More On This Topic

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Apr 15

The Right To Own Property

Image credit: Secrets of the Fed

You own a nice home in the suburbs. The biggest nuisances involved are keeping up with the mortgage payments, mowing the lawn and handling the occasional home improvement project. The winter’s been especially harsh this year and maybe you need to think about taking care of that draft by the window that seems to have gotten worse.

But now the government comes in and says they need your property for a special project. You’re going to get a fair price for your house right? Apparently, not if you live in Russia. A lot of people have been forced out of their homes to build the Olympics complexes and they haven’t been compensated for the loss. A lot of those dogs running around on the streets might have belonged to those families and were probably as confused and dazed by the loss of their territory as their humans were. I think a lot of Americans forget that people in other countries don’t necessarily have the same rights we do, including the right to own property and be compensated if the government needs a place to put a new Olympic stadium.

Eminent Domain Abuse, Right Here In The U.S.

It does call up images of Arthur Dent from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy laying across his porch in a last-ditch effort to save his home, doesn’t it? And they blamed him for not going to the basement of the local city hall to view the plans, too. It’s like they expect people to be out doing their shopping and they decide, “Hey, I think I’ll go to the city hall to make sure they haven’t been up to any monkey business,” like it’s completely routine to get your house seized for a new freeway. It could happen to you if you aren’t careful.

It also helps to know a good lawyer who knows about eminent domain law. There are actually people who specialize in getting property owners the best possible deal when the government wants to take over. The truly good ones can shut the whole thing down in cases in which eminent domain is being abused, and it does happen. Reference a recent case in which the court ruled against Bluegrass Pipeline’s wish to use eminent domain to seize land easements so they could run a natural gas pipeline through. Despite their claim that it would serve the public interest, eminent domain in the United States was never meant to serve businesses that simply want to avoid negotiating with landowners that don’t want to sell their land in the first place. One shouldn’t become complacent, however. One single court case means nothing when Bluegrass Pipeline announced plans to appeal and somebody’s car wash is about to be seized because a wealthier businessman wants to put a shopping center on that property along with neighboring properties.

“The right to own property” is inevitably going to become a hot issue on Mars a few generations down the road. At first, we’ll just take it for granted that everything in our little Martian settlement will be held in common. You could probably even swap bunk beds if you wanted to though your own bed might well be the only private place you have. However, eventually somebody’s going to get flat out fed up with his fellow colonists and want to bug out with “his” share of the resources. Do we stop him on the grounds that the oxygen generator he wants to take is needed by the entire colony? Or do we have enough spares that we can be pretty much like, “Screw it, get lost, feel free to come crawling back when you’ve had enough,” and let him go off into the hinterlands with his own habitat and basic survival supplies? Maybe we need some clear demarcation that these things over here belong to the community as a whole and these are the things that belong to each colonist. Then if we have to use somebody’s individual resources, it’ll become a matter of, “Hey, if I could borrow your Android tablet for a few days, I’ll help you plant that basil you’ve been wanting,” instead of just some thug in authority saying, “Give me your tablet.” Maybe by then, the idea of personal property could well be just a leftover figment of the human animal’s instinct to carve out his or her own space and the third- and fourth-generation Martians just consider private property to be your own habitat and whatever’s inside that you legitimately own. But if somebody else wants it, this should be a matter of two people negotiating a fair price or maybe the owner of the habitat simply refusing to sell. I’ve told people that you’re not going to get around the fact that Mars will have an economy even when you want to leave behind the worst elements of capitalism. Greed is one of those elements and local governments seem to enjoy flexing their muscles just to prove that they have the little bit of power that they have along with suiting the purposes of their friends in big business. The Fifth Amendment was designed to put a stop to that kind of behavior.

Any theoretical future Martian government shouldn’t get involved in a private matter like somebody wanting to trade habitats unless it can conclusively prove that the colony will turn into a flaming rubble without intervention. Even in the case where we need a makeshift jail, it shouldn’t be hard to just confine somebody to his own habitat. Otherwise, everybody will be better off simply acknowledging that there are some things that the colony owns and other things that are private property that the owner can sell or use.

More About Eminent Domain in America

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Apr 14

The Right To Self-Government by Direct Voting

Image credit My Cute Graphics

So we’re all going to Mars. Well, maybe not all of us, but enough of us to get attention. Mars is millions of miles away from Earth at its closest (no, it never gets close enough to look as big as the Moon to the naked eye). That leads to interesting questions of exactly what we’re going to do about a government on Mars. Considering the fact that just getting there is expensive and difficult if you go by the number of probes that have failed over the years, it’s very probable that most Earth governments won’t even bother trying to enforce their will at first. Besides, Mars One is going to be an international effort, so the Russians in our settlement probably won’t take it very well if some outside American people show up and try to boss us around. So an independent Mars could be pretty much a habit by the time travel between the two planets becomes reliable and routine enough to make governing the planet an issue.

Which means we’ll be on our own. At first, our community will be small enough that it won’t be too difficult to call everybody together to hash out issues that affect the entire colony. Everybody gets one vote, and everybody should be responsible for their own vote so they take their share of the blame for a decision that went wrong. You don’t get out of being the dick who bullied everybody into voting a certain way, either. That kind of coercion should have immediate and strict consequences. If you’re such a spoiled brat that you have to have everything your own way, you don’t belong on Mars anyway.

Such direct voting should become another habit that becomes ingrained into the settlement as it grows. However, like most good things in life, it shouldn’t be a matter of, “My ignorance is as good as your knowledge.” If the Martian electrician tells us that our lights are flickering because somebody needs to go out and dust off the solar panels, the dimwit who tries to call a vote on whether they really need cleaned even though he can’t come up with a better option could just annoy the other colonists enough that the only vote that happens is him being voted the designated person who goes out with a broom.

When the colony grows large enough, do we vote for representation or do we continue with direct voting? Imagine having an auditorium big enough to hold hundreds or thousands of people. It might make more sense to have people remote in through videoconferencing. Of course, debating could take ages when everybody wants to have their say, although we could cut down on the filibusters by limiting the time that each person has to speak. Then we can just get on with it because nobody wants to be sitting around all day when each of us has work to do.

And then there’s the issue of voter fraud. To me, the whole debate in America over requiring a photo ID to vote shouldn’t even be happening. The generally accepted rule is one person, one vote, and it’s not racism to require people to prove that they are who they say they are. Say what you want about the DMV, but it shouldn’t be impossible to get a driver’s license or at least a state ID if you’re an American citizen. On Mars, proving your identity should be as simple as setting up some biometrics. It would only take a second to press your thumb against a thumbprint reader before you vote, and your entirely unique thumbprint would be your credentials. I’m sure somebody would notice if you cut off somebody else’s thumb and b

Apr 13

The Right to Access to Means of Mass Communication

Image credit OECD

If you’re reading this, you probably take for granted that you can hop onto the Internet at any place you can get a Wi-Fi connection so you can check your email and catch up with all your Facebook friends. It’s a poor day when you don’t watch at least one funny animal video on Youtube, and of course you chat with your BFF who lives two states away on Skype anytime you can both get a free hour in your busy lives.

But imagine if you couldn’t do any of these things because your national government has figured out that the Internet is a useful tool that rebels can use to communicate. Iran has actually severed the trunk cables going into its country that serve as the Internet’s backbones. So much for what Robert Zubrin’s proposed Martian Constitution calls “The right to access to means of mass communication.” Not only does every petty dictator on Earth dislike the fact that access to the World Wide Web means access to new ideas, but they also want to shut down ways for rebel cells to communicate. So if they aren’t knocking out access to the Internet by physically taking sheers to the cables, they’re blocking websites that are widely popular in the Western world. As we are seeing in Syria, the rebels are not always the good guys — a case in which a good cause gets hijacked by bad people — but it’s really not that easy to create a new social network if you lose access to Facebook and Twitter.

Some of the younger folks probably wonder what in the world we did before the Internet. Well, news still had ways of spreading. We had “snail mail,” town criers whose job was to shout the news to anyone who was interested (this was, of course, before we started tuning in to the 6-o’clock news), and eventually everybody had a telephone, radio and television. I actually remember from the time I worked in one of Sprint’s call centers that there was one state that constitutionally guaranteed phone service. I think it was Tennessee, but don’t take my word for it. This is a way to stay connected in a world in which everybody can just go their own separate ways.

Next time you get another “buy one, get one free” offer in your in your inbox, that’s businesses taking advantage of mass communication for their marketing. Those guys behind the “Nigerian lottery” scam do the same thing. These are some of the most annoying aspects of mass communication, but if you just delete them without opening them, no harm done. Do these guys deserve access to mass communication? It’d be easy to ban some of the more annoying TV commercials, but where does it stop? There’s no law against marketers wasting their money though one might wish that they would come up with a demographic for wannabe Martians and quit wasting dollars advertising Cover Girl products to me. (Are you listening, Youtube?) That’s the annoying side of mass communication but not entirely worth giving it up for.

The bigger irritants are the governments that completely control mass communications. You know the ones. The Soviet Union used to either own all the newspapers and TV stations or control them in other ways. China has ways to punish reporters and bloggers that post things that oppose the official stance on issues. That sort of situation defeats the purpose of having mass communications in the first place. It’s not very conducive for encouraging healthy debate because it slows down the spread of new ideas. Even if you’re an American who complains about news services being skewed towards particular agendas, at least you can choose whether you want to watch CNN or FOX or leave the TV off altogether and start your own blog. If you lived in China, you wouldn’t even have CNN and FOX as options and you might end up in a prison in which the guards find novel ways to abuse prisoners if you run a blog that the government finds offensive.

There are ways to play around with data even if you don’t censor certain websites or content. Net neutrality is such a hot issue in America because it’s possible to throttle certain types of data. The Internet can, for instance, tell the difference between a packet of streaming video and a piece of a Word document. It’s possible to give priority to the streaming video over the Word document and even block those data packets based on where it’s coming from or where it’s going. When you hit the “send” button, it will happen pretty quickly unless your ISP is fooling around with your connection or you just don’t have great service to begin with. The main fear is that, in the absence of net neutrality, ISPs will be able to turn the Internet into a subscription service similar to the way satellite TV is now. That’s bad news for college students who do a lot of their research for a paper online and it’s bad news for small bloggers like me who have a tough enough time competing with Yahoo News and the FOX website as it is. Freedom of the press won’t mean much if nobody sees what I publish because “The right to access to means of mass communication” got sacrificed on the altar of the almighty dollar

What will “The right to access to means of mass communication” mean on Mars? Well, in this case, the laws of physics will limit our access to any Earth-based websites. If we want to email each other, we’ll probably be relying on Microsoft Outlook or something similar and a mail server. The real-time nature of Facebook, Twitter and Skype will probably make them useless for anything other than sending messages to friends and family on Earth. A central server will probably update a cache of frequently visited websites on a regular basis. In time, we’ll probably have our own version of the World Wide Web and everything that goes with it, and hopefully anybody who sabotages it by severing the trunks will face harsh penalties regardless of who they are.

More About Net Neutrality & What It Means For You

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Apr 10

“The Right to Knowledge of All Government Activities”

If you’ve followed the Edward Snowden thing, you probably wouldn’t be too surprised to hear that the government can spy on you using your own cell phone and laptop. It’s one of those times when those nutcases who see government conspiracies everywhere suddenly don’t sound so crazy. It does make you wonder what else the government is doing without telling you. Section 5 of Article I of the U.S. Constitution does require that each house of Congress regularly publish a journal detailing its activities, as quoted here:

Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy; and the Yeas and Nays of the Members of either House on any question shall, at the Desire of one fifth of those Present, be entered on the Journal.

You might note the “in their Judgment require Secrecy” part. If you subscribe to satellite TV, you may have noticed that the Senate and House of Representatives each have their own TV channels (C-SPAN) and it’s interesting to watch if you want to see how they operate or just get some laughs out of the latest filibuster. There have been incidents in which one of our representatives in Congress called for a closed session, blacking out their respective channels, and got accused of pulling a stunt. And of course you wonder what went on during that closed session. It’s very possible that they talked trash about one particular part of the United States or passed a bill expanding the powers of the CIA while enjoying the fact that they weren’t being monitored.

It does happen. Sometimes I think they count on the fact that not many people pay attention to what they actually do when they’re at Capitol Hill, and they complicate matters by making their bills excessively long. Remember how huge the Affordable Care Act was? The condensed version is nearly 1000 pages long. Did they really need 1000 pages to basically require Americans to buy health insurance the same way most states require that vehicle owners buy insurance for their vehicles and require insurance companies to cover them? If you just look at the table of contents on the actual bill, you’ll notice that it was quite a complicated document that covers such line items as “Protection for recipients of home and community-based services against spousal impoverishment” and “Increasing the Supply of the Health Care Workforce.” For all its complexity (and it’s obvious that they wanted to make sure they covered all their bases), it’s probably never going to be perfect. And it’s likely that nobody is going to want to curl up in their easy chair and read such a long, dry document during those miserable rainy evenings. You could slip a lot of line items into a bill that nobody’s ever going to read. Kinda makes you wonder why the U.S. Supreme Court struck down line item vetoes, doesn’t it?

But I’m not here to bash the Affordable Care Act. It’s shaking up the industry, especially health insurance, and getting rid of the excuse, “We’ve always done it this way,” is not necessarily going to be a bad thing once things settle down. Bills get passed that nobody really knows about and Edward Snowden really just proved two things. First, the government can hack your laptop and install malware as easily as that shady fellow who wants to steal your bank information and they are equally unlikely to just come out and tell you that they’re doing it if they use the excuse that it’s for “national security.” You can forget about warrants when there are courts that exist only for the sake of granting law enforcement agencies the right to make searches that would otherwise be illegal. Second, large corporations are very unlikely to stand up to the government when their records get subpoenaed and especially when they can get some kind of payoff for forking over your supposedly “private” records to the government. And then they try to do damage control and cry to the public about how the government bullied them into doing it when they get caught. The government complains that Snowden actually helped America’s enemies because now they have to develop whole new tactics to stop terrorist attacks, but you really don’t need to collect entire terabytes’ worth of phone records when it would make more sense to use some restraint, forget about just collecting everything, and tell Sprint, “Hey, this guy’s a known jihadist who has a cell phone contract with you, we want to know who he’s been talking to.” I’m sure that would save all the expense of having to buy the hardware to store all that data while reassuring people that the Constitution still exists when word of what’s going on finally gets out. And now everybody’s mad at the U.S. government for not telling them that they can be spied on at any time. That would make for a decent case for transparency in government operations. If you explain in advance why you think you have to install malware on laptops, you’ll still have to make a very good case for what you’re doing and consistently stick to established law when it comes to actually implementing your plan because you can be sure that people still won’t like it, but at least we can have that debate without trying to turn a fellow who really didn’t do a lot except let us know what was happening into a scapegoat. Watch the lawsuits for essentially making unwarranted searches come out of the woodwork, folks.

As with “The right to all scientific knowledge,” most people won’t even care and some people will probably just take their laptop to their local computer nerd to get the malware taken off when it starts to affect the machine’s performance. And there are people who would probably try to entertain the creeps listening to their cell phone conversations by talking dirty to their girlfriend. (Yeah. If they’re going to do it, you might as well give them an earful, right?) Knowledge of all government activities simply means that people who actually care can hold the appropriate government officials responsible when they cross the line. The government is afraid of that, so they often rely on both the complacency of the majority and their ability to classify anything they don’t want getting out so that nobody finds out about it. And then there’s a big blowup that usually involves strained relations with foreign nations and citizens calling for the heads of the responsible parties when we have leaks on the level of Edward Snowden’s revelations. It’s not likely that the CIA or the NSA will take the hint and clean up their act unless somebody is around to hold their feet to the fire. Maybe it shouldn’t have even been a surprise that they can listen in on people’s electronic communications. But they wouldn’t have been this embarrassed if their programs could have been more openly scrutinized and the people who went overboard held responsible. Knowledge of all government activities does not necessarily mean compromising national security when you occasionally have to send out Navy ships to catch some pirates and don’t want them finding out until after the fact. Then you can go to the newspapers and say, “We did this, this and this, and captured X number of suspected pirates.” Then the whole thing can be analyzed by the talking heads. That allows for more accountability in government and a better way to ensure that all of our other enumerated rights remain secure.

What Kind Of Harm Does It Do, Anyway?

Plenty, as these books illustrate.

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Apr 10

“The Right To All Scientific Knowledge”

So you probably take it for granted that science has a way of weeding out junk ideas. It’s called peer review. If other scientists can’t reproduce your results, maybe something weird happened in your lab and worms can’t actually absorb other worms’ memories (if worms have memories) just by eating them. Even the best scientist can subconsciously get so emotionally attached to a theory that he ignores data that doesn’t support it, or perhaps a clerk made several unfortunate typos while transcribing your results into an Excel spreadsheet. That sort of thing can lead to serious egg on a researcher’s face when his work washes out in the peer review process.

Not that the peer review is perfect. Good ideas have fallen by the wayside simply because the scientific community just wasn’t ready for them. Even when it works, it takes time for a theory to be accepted. It really hurt a lot of people’s pride when Copernicus theorized that the Sun was the center of the solar system, simply because it forced them to get used to the idea that Earth isn’t the center of Creation. You still see people who refuse to accept that the entire solar system doesn’t revolve around them and become very offended when somebody tries to point that out to them. Personality flaws aside, people gradually accepted that Earth has now been shoved to nearly the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy, and even that isn’t the entire universe.

It’s worse when governments get involved. Because federal governments fund much of the scientific research that goes on around the world, it’s not hard for them to yank grants and other sources of funding over a technicality or simply slash the across-the-board budget for all sciences. Besides the fact that it’s hard to do good science when you have to beg for handouts during every fiscal year, it’s not difficult to imagine that support can be yanked simply because the government doesn’t like the results. There are people who say that the number of scientific papers that support climate change outnumber the ones that don’t only because scientists know that their grants will be canceled if they publish results that might debunk climate change. While I’ll never deny that us humans have had an effect on the natural world and I won’t say pollution in big cities can’t be a problem when you see recent stories about all the smog in China, anyone who cares to look up the data might notice that there’s a correlation between the amount of solar activity and Earth’s temperatures. The Sun is capable of delivering more energy to Earth in an hour than we use every year. That’s hitting a target that probably would have looked like a colorful little golf ball to the Sun if it was capable of seeing. It’s known that the Little Ice Age of the 18th Century roughly correlated with something called the Maunder Minimum, a time of record-low solar activity. Yes, we did see increased industrialization as we started to come out of it, but we also saw increased solar activity. However, it’s almost like the government doesn’t want you to know that, so they fill the relevant headlines with talk of “climate change” and ways that we can solve it. Only we won’t ever really solve either ice ages or times when the Earth gets hot enough to melt polar caps without a way to convince the sun to behave itself. However, any scientist who says that, even the ones who study solar activity, could be facing a budget cut even though the government tries to use excuses like sequestration.

Do the results of a scientific study get skewed? Sure they do. Sometimes scientists get paid by a large corporation to study their drug and then somebody cherry-picks the results that prove that it’s safe so that the corporation can get a pass from the FDA and run advertising on national TV. You know the ones that promise to treat your constipation and your erectile dysfunction – the sorts of things that most people don’t like to talk about, but there they are right on your screen. I don’t want to accuse the scientists in this case because any smart consumer knows not to trust a study that has been funded by the corporation.

It’s much easier to just pick two data sets that might seem unrelated when you look at them separately and put them together to prove a correlation. Any smart scientists knows that correlation does not imply causation. You could, for instance, track both the average IQ of the United States’ population and the number of immigrants that came from Africa over the past few decades. What would those two sets of data tell you? I honestly couldn’t tell you, but I do know that the vast majority of the people living in the United States of America today were not born in Africa. So any attempt to use a chart with these two variables to make the point that immigration from Africa has any significant effect on the average IQ in the United States would not only be pointless, but could also be construed as racism.

It’s not just about the ways that government can censor scientists who disagree with its propaganda machine, and they have more weapons than just money to do it. Any government with an agenda can silence a scientist that gets out of line, as Oppenheimer’s peers found out when he was marginalized by a U.S. government under the influence of rampant McCarthyism. Besides, anybody with a point to make can go into an organized debate with information he cherry-picked to support his argument or simply make stuff up. The important thing here is people’s right to make informed decisions and that means allowing access to scientific information without trying to bottleneck it based on whatever message you’re trying to get across.

That’s going to be a tough concept for certain government agencies to wrap their heads around. Those people who talk about how the government was behind everything from assassinating Kennedy to the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks only get fueled by revelations like the documents that Edward Snowden has released so far. And of course the military could be sitting on anything from the next Manhattan Project to little grey aliens. If you want to know about something the United States government is doing, go to the appropriate agency’s website and fill out a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. If they aren’t going out of their way to keep it a secret for the sake of “national security,” you might well get pretty far. In fact, I might go to the NASA website and ask for information on old rocketplanes like the X-20 “Dyna-Soar” when I finish up this blog entry.

A lot of people people will ignore the science, no matter what the issue of the day is. You know the type. They might be the ones who only cared about making the basketball team or the cheerleading squad in high school and still don’t see how science can improve their daily lives even while they play on their iPad or tune in to the daily weather report. They might be the ones who are so bound up in their own beliefs that they won’t change their minds no matter what you say or the amount of evidence you have to prove your point. However, that would be their choice in an ideal world in which a student working on his doctorate dissertation won’t run the risk of having his work seized and classified because it possesses eerie similarities to a top secret weapons system being developed by the military.

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Apr 09

The Right to be Free of Involuntary Military Service

UncleSamDid you serve time in the military? If so, I bet it wasn’t exactly fun, especially if you got deployed somewhere. You’re living on lousy rations, you know you could be facing the enemy at any time, you hear all kind of stories about retired veterans being treated lamely by the Veterans Affairs office, and what’s going on with a shooting at Fort Hood AGAIN?! This is the sort of thing that is going to give people second thoughts about serving our country.

Don’t get me wrong, military experience can be a good thing. The Army has been curing immature twenty-somethings of their undisciplined habits for centuries. You’re out there toting a gun and you’re scared and you wish you had listened to your parents when they told you to apply for scholarships. You learn skills that can transfer over to the civilian work force if you know how to translate what you picked up into a resume that can be understood by most employers. (And, to all employers out there, veterans are very employable if you don’t mind setting up a booth at the local veterans’ job fairs.) In fact, I can’t necessarily say that mandating a couple of years’ worth of military service the way Israel does is really a bad thing when you consider that they’re a little country with enemies on all sides and their crime rate is lower than you see in the U.S. Apparently, you see fewer people getting killed by gun violence because they have armed guards at the entrances to all the schools and because most people know how to use guns safely (Yes, Israelis can get a license to own a gun) besides the fact that they probably had all the immature behavior knocked out of them during their military service. Heads up, America – all those stories you see about some psycho getting into schools and killing children has only happened twice in Israel in the past forty years because there are people in uniform with guns who can stop them and Israel is tough on crime.

Is mandatory military service for everybody? Probably not. In America, we don’t really need it and the draft has been unpopular since Vietnam anyway. If we need more people in the armed forces, we just ramp up recruiting and expand the budget to suit. The downside is that people in the 18-to-25 bracket with no military service have an unfortunate tendency to hold on to their undisciplined immature years longer and they can still get themselves killed for no more reason than that they were dared to do something. The upside is that people have more choices about which branch of the military they go into when they voluntarily sign up for the armed forces than they would have if they were drafted.

And why did so many people get killed in every American war since World War II? Blame the politicians if you want. A lot of the people who write the rules of combat have no connection with the realities of the battlefield. In Vietnam, our combat personnel had to put up with rules that you couldn’t go after an enemy fighter plane if it crossed the Chinese border and it was almost impossible to disrupt enemy supply lines because people in Washington sat around drinking tea and worrying about what would happen if we provoked the Chinese and the Russians. This was during the Cold War era when everybody was freaking out about potential nuclear war, so in some ways it was understandable that we didn’t want to upset the Soviets too much. Containment policies don’t help much when you’re shackling your own men and you aren’t in those little countries to just win this police action and go home. Nobody wants to be drafted when you know you’re going to be stuck in a hellhole for years because the Politically Correct movement doesn’t want to get tough with the enemy.

That’s why you start seeing all those cases of PTSD. It’s not just people whining about what they went through in places like Afghanistan. Their minds get stuck in the “fight or flight” response to danger. Fourth of July fireworks can trigger a flashback to that time they had missiles going off all around them. Some veterans come back nearly unrecognisable to their own families. If you draft a scared kid who is barely out of high school, give him a gun and send him off to kill somebody who is trying to kill him, there should be some way to hold you responsible for picking up the pieces when it’s over.

I probably shouldn’t get into whether Mars is going to have a military, but it would kind of make sense considering it’s named for the Roman god of war. Inevitably, Earth is going to have to respect the fact that it’s tough to enforce laws from an average distance of 225 million kilometers. At first, we’ll probably be thumbing our nose and saying, “If you want us, come and get us.” If somebody decides to get macho and try to enforce their way with us, well, by then we’ll probably have worked up enough expertise with surviving on Mars to basically do what the original American colonies did. We know the landscape and we’ve built up enough technical know-how to have fun with your space hardware. We’ll take over your spacecraft’s computer while it’s still in orbit and laugh at you as we listen in on you explaining to your version of Mission Control how you ended up landing in the wrong place. There might not be need for a war and all the unpleasantness that goes with it at all. You respect our independence and we’ll respect the fact that you finally made it to Mars. Here’s my reaction when somebody suggested that somebody outside Mars One might want to join our colony (from the Aspiring Martians Forum):

ScreenshotYou may notice that the person who commented below me thought I sounded like somebody out of “Firefly.” While I don’t follow that show, I can see where he was coming from. I’m not a big fan of starting a fight, but I’m no pacifist, either. If somebody tries to pick a fight and actually manages to corner me, I have a mean right hook. And I’m no fan of the idea of involuntary military service, either. I simply believe that people have the right to join their nation’s armed forces and it’s great for teaching discipline, but they shouldn’t necessarily be made to do it.

The Military Draft Handbook

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