Posts Tagged ethics

The singularity is nigh

The singularity is, by one definition, the first point at which an artificial intelligence equivalent to that of a human is created. There are several ways this could happen, but there is one that I find particularly interesting and that I which I envisioned in a kind of post-apocalyptic story some time ago. Recently, I learnt that a rudimentary first step in realising this future has been taken by science: scientists have mapped the brain of a worm and used it to control a robot.

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Real meat pollution

“What if you could turn it all around? Lose weight, regain the ridiculous energy levels of your youth [….] How about if you could do that while still eating really well? You know… all the good stuff […] juicy steak, eggs pretty much any way you like them, roast chicken, heavenly bacon and more?” – The Real Meal Revolution

The above is a quote from a suddenly popular book, The real meal revolution, which proposes that people should follow the Banting (low carb, high fat) diet for weight loss and health (it is essentially a paleo-style diet as I understand it). In two previous posts I considered, respectively, healthy eating and ethical eating. One of my problems with these new-fangled diets, in my opinion, is that they make it much harder to do something I find to be an ethical imperative: eat less meat.

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Food wars (Part 2)

In a previous post I briefly discussed the difficulties of trying to eat healthily with all the pseudo-scientific claims about what is healthy. The topic of food ethics is, perhaps, even more convoluted. Vegetarians, vegans and environmentalists all have a view. There is Fair Trade and non-GMO (Monsanto is evil, apparently). With all this clamour there are so few unambiguous truths and I feel I would need several PhDs and two lifetimes to be able to sift through it all.

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Subtle murder

A little thought experiment

Imagine that you could buy suicide bags  (as the name implies these are bags used to commit suicide) at your local supermarket and that in fact you are the owner of one such supermarket. You see that a lot of kids from the neighbourhood are buying these bags. As a good citizen you are naturally concerned, and so you ask one of the kids, one who had bought a bag just the previous day, “are you trying to kill yourself?” “No,” he replies, “we just like the feeling.” He also informs you that, actually, the bags are not that effective – they only kill some of the time, and sometimes you have to use more than one. You continue enquiring and find that, in fact, some kids have died, mostly ones who kept using the bags over and over. “Did they want to die?” you ask. “No, no, of course not. They just couldn’t stop, the kid answers nonchalantly.” Read the rest of this entry »

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False advertising

What do you do if a company makes some puzzling claims on their website? Well, you ask them about it. I recently did this for a well-known investment house in South Africa. You can read about it in this blog post from my other blog J delta rho. Here is an extract:

I recently ventured into a bit of consumer activism and want to relate the experience – not to blow my own trumpet, but to encourage others to be more vigilant. I was looking at the webpage of a well-respected investment house in South Africa last year and read about their investment approach. Buried in this “investment philosophy” was the following sentence:

The word “pragmatic” refers to the Charles Peirce School of investment philosophy, which advocates taking a practical approach to matters with reference to historical events.

I found this rather interesting – I had never heard of the “Charles Peirce School” and I immediately googled it… read more here

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Good-guy, piracy


This post by a fellow blogger has questioned whether piracy is a bad thing. In a previous post of my own, you may recall, I explained why I now avoid pirating anything and I stick to this as my reasons for doing so are as valid as ever. However, to pretend that piracy has no good effects at all would be silly. That is what I want to highlight today. Read the rest of this entry »

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Christian Prayer Center scam

Sometimes you find things on the internet that fill you with a righteous rage. So it was when I friend send me the link to Christian Prayer Center accompanied by a sad smiley face. The site was not in good taste, but it seemed benign on the surface. Closer inspection revealed a scam that’s a mockery of Christianity. My friend’s instincts were spot-on. No prayers are made or answered at Christian Prayer Center.

Let’s start with most damning charge that can be laid. They charge for prayer. Almost as if it were like buying detergent. A quick Google revealed that others had come across this site before and had detailed the process. You actually have to submit prayer request before being told you have to pay for it. This is disgusting.

They sell an offensive book that suggests you can pray so that your prayer will always be answered. Here is the blurb:

Have you ever wondered why God answers some prayers faster than others?

Does it matter how specific we are in asking for what we need?

What can we do to guarantee that our prayers will be answered every time? 

If want to learn more about how to harness the fantastic power of prayer, I highly recommend “Miracles Through Prayer” by Pastor Randolph McFinn. 

This enlightening guide details the five principles of effective prayer. Using real-world examples and easy-to-follow instructions, it’s the perfect resource for both the loosely religious and the highly devout. It answers questions many of us have about how prayer works, how God responds to our requests, and how to always make sure our prayers get answered.

This book is available for a limited time through the Christian Prayer Center for 20% off the cover price plus FREE shipping. Order your copy today and unlock the full potential of prayer.

What I find interesting about scams like this is how subtle they are. There is a way to make sure your prayers are always answered: pray for God’s will to be done (I suppose there is room for debate about this). But this is not what they mean. They mean that if you prayer for, say, financial success, then this is what you will get. The testimonials on the website are mostly of the following nature:

“When I got in from work this evening, I received a letter from IRS: Certificate of Release of Federal Tax Lien. The letter stated that over 10,000 dollars of back taxes has been satisfied. Thank you for all your prayers and I look forward to successfully sharing the job I will be landing next Tuesday.” -Joyce C.

This is a “prosperity gospel”: the idea that following God leads to success in (material) life (it doesn’t! It leads to success in your spiritual life.) Perhaps the most disingenuous part of the blurb, for me at least, was this: “it’s the perfect resource for both the loosely religious and the highly devout.” It is of course not true that prayer is more effective for the “highly devout” (although you can argue their prayers tend to be more in-line with God’s will). What is disingenuous about this statement is that it implies its perfectly OK to be ‘loosely religious’, that God is perfectly fine with people bending his arm for favours and doesn’t care at all about the lives they lead.

I am not against books that teach people how to pray. I am not against people giving and receiving prayer requests. These are good things. But prayer is about talking to God, not getting things from him. And prayer is not a game of numbers. It doesn’t matter how many people pray for you. And it certainly doesn’t help to pay them. It is sad that there are people that will exploit our basic human need to connect with the divine.

I am posting this in the hope that it will help prevent a few gullible souls from falling prey to these prayer-thieves. In the meantime I will send off a little prayer for these charlatans: I do not pray that they may receive their just desserts; rather, that they may feel, truly feel, the guilt that comes with true repentance and that they will be forced themselves to pray, to the God they have abused, for forgiveness.

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Don’t trust research, not even your own

The more research I do (and I have not done much) the less I trust other research, and the less I trust my own.  When you read a paper in finance you will invariably find significant results that support the author’s conclusions.  When I run regressions, my results are weak, sometimes contradicting my hypothesis sometimes confirming it.

Read more of this post on my other blog, J delta rho, here….

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We are all thieves: the cost of piracy

I used to download tons of movies, series and software (and occasionally games) and I convinced myself that it was not doing any harm. But it was. Piracy is a problem, both ethical and economic.

  1. As long as people pirate with impunity there will be pressure to enact legislation that will restrict what we can do on the internet. We saw this with SOPA, when even Wikipedia protested. However, next time such efforts may fail. I like a free internet. Piracy threatens internet freedom. This is not the fault of the multimedia companies: they have a right to seek legislation to protect their revenue.
  2. Freedom may also be restricted in other ways. The DRM on games has become increasingly restrictive and I refuse to buy ebooks partly because the DRM is annoying. There may come a point when movies are no longer sold on DVDs. Instead, perhaps, everything will be streamed in encrypted format using special software to make it harder to copy.
  3. The arms (and legal) race between product providers and piraters (which is most noticeable with games) is a cost to society.
  4. The makers of a product should have a right to receive revenue from the use of that product. You may argue that such revenue is unfair (for instance if the producer has monopoly power), but the solution is not to pirate. If you want a product, you should pay for it. If products are priced too highly, then this is a case for some kind of anti-trust commission or the government could consider subsidies.
  5. Piracy impedes the natural functioning of the economy. The more people there are who are unwilling to pay for movies and series, the harder it is to produce good quality movies and series. The industry will fail if it cannot profit. I do not know how profit figures look at the moment, but it is probably television channel subscriptions and cinemas that keep the industry going. What happens when people stop their channel subscriptions? The younger generation is far more technological and far more likely to download rather than pay. Will they change their habits when they grow up?
  6. It does not matter if downloading pirated media is legal in your country. The ethical and economic implications are the same.

As a Christian, I think piracy is unethical. As an economist, I think it is dangerous. Electronic media is a good with a positive externality when produced – lots of people get to use it for free. Too little is usually produced of such goods. At the moment, I think it is inertia that is keeping the system going. Perhaps soon a tipping point will be reached where there are too few people willing to pay.

I have sympathy with the fact that some people really cannot afford to buy movies or series. And renting is expensive (at least it is in the Netherlands). But the problem is, how poor is poor enough? I am by no means rich (but that depends on your perspective), but by buying second hand and old movies and some of the cheaper series, I have gotten by. First see what you can buy legally before just hitting “download”.  Perhaps, if you have access to broadband internet and a computer you are rich enough.

Piracy is probably also responsible for the demise of DVD rental stores. There are few left in the Netherlands. They are probably suffering everywhere. That these stores are going out of business is not bad per ­sé. Schumpeter’s creative destruction says such things must happen. And replacement business models are on the rise, but they are at risk of dying in infancy.

Piracy has both highlighted and a consumer need and made it harder to profitably fulfill that need. Consumers want what they want when they want it. On demand. And they want a large selection. Pirate Bay provides this. You search for what you want. You download it. No fuss. Pay on demand services such as offered by Amazon and iTunes allow much the same thing. But they will only work if people are willing to pay rather than simply downloading. At the moment, in the Netherlands, people are not willing to pay and on-demand services are not popular.

I think perhaps the best solution is something akin to that offered by, which allows you to stream videos for free, but with ads. They also have a subscription service with more content. Hulu is currently only available in America and Japan but I hope that it will expand to other regions as well.  Hulu’s solution only works in places with high bandwidth, of course.

I understand there is certain grandeur, a nobility, to the idea that all content and information should be available freely. However, such freedom comes at a cost.  I cannot comment on the intentions of creators of Pirate Bay and Napster or even Aaron Swartz. Perhaps they were noble. But the path market failure is paved with noble intentions.

(I admit I do not know all there is to know about the current market for digital media, so if I have said anything nonsensical, please leave a comment.)

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