Net Neutrality is not about freedom

This post is addressed to all the proponents of net neutrality on the grounds of the freedom of choice of the consumer. But net neutrality has nothing to do with freedom.

The principle of net neutrality is that internet service providers should treat all content equally so that the consumers choice of content is not influenced by the speed at which that content is available.

Let me rephrase that principle without changing its meaning. Internet service providers should not be allowed to contract with content providers on mutually beneficial terms with regards to the speed at which the content will be made available to consumers.

Rephrased like this, it is clear that the principle is not about protecting the freedom of the consumer but about restricting the freedom of the service or content providers to spend their money as they see fit.

Proponents of net neutrality claim that its violation will make it more difficult for startups to compete with bigger companies because they do not have the money to pay the service providers for preferential treatment. That is true. All of the following is true too.

Startups do not have the money to pay great salaries. So how about pay package neutrality? Companies should not be allowed to pay more to attract employees because higher salaries influence the choices of employees.

Startups do not have the money to buy large offices. So how about office size neutrality? Companies should not be allowed to have more spacious offices because spacious offices influence the choices of employees and even of clients.

Startups do not have the money to purchase expensive routers and server farms. So how about infrastructure neutrality? Companies should not be allowed to have redundant server capacity.

Startups do not have the money to purchase advertisements on television. So how about air-time neutrality? Companies should not be allowed to spend more than a certain amount on advertisements.

Startups do not have the money for expensive quality control. So how about quality neutrality? Companies should not be allowed to spend more that a certain part of their budget on testing.

All of these absurd examples indicate the absurdity of the principle of net neutrality. The internet is nothing more than servers, routers, cables, spectrum rights etc. All of these are privately owned and privately maintained. Decisions on the use of these resources rightfully belong to the owners of these resources. That is what freedom means.

Like all violations of freedom, the principle of net neutrality hurts the profitability and efficiency of the most successful producers. And that hurts all of us.

Falling into the Islamist trap

Unlike the recent senseless massacre of children in Pakistan, the attack on Charlie Hebdo is a calculated ploy. Considering the reactions to the attack, the ploy has succeeded.

The perpetrators of these attacks are on a mission to establish a totalitarian Islamic State. A mission not shared by most followers of Islam. They are forced to operate in secrecy and take on the might of most governments. The only way they can succeed is to enlist broader support for their murderous ideology and foment a mass movement.

Most men are too busy living their own lives to bother establishing any kind of state – Islamic or otherwise. Most men are actually just ballast, too confused about the issues at hand to participate in any radical action. Mass movements do not take birth in an atmosphere of peace. Men take up arms only when they are convinced that they are under attack, that they must act immediately to defend their values.

The ploy of the Islamic State is to create an environment where Islam is seen to be under attack. And all the well-intentioned but clueless defenders of free speech, in re-publishing the offensive cartoons, are creating exactly such an environment, achieving for the Islamists what they could not have achieved by themselves.

Most men have little interest in offending others. Even less in ridiculing an abstract idea like religion. But this attack has succeeded in getting people who might never have known of Charlie Hebdo or their offensive cartoons into proclaiming “je suis charlie”.

The issue here is not the right to the freedom of expression. That right is sacred but using it to express what one would not normally express is self-defeating and silly.

The issue here is not the validity of Islam – or any other religion. All religions are fallacious, but ridiculing people’s beliefs is not the way to win them over.

The issue here is how to make the Islamist trap fail, how to prevent the Islamist desperadoes from gaining influence over the majority of Muslims. The key to that is to recognize that men are individuals. They represent themselves, not any community, and certainly not any abstract idea like religion. The actions of individuals professing a particular religion cannot be directly used to judge that religion, and certainly cannot be used to judge other individuals professing the same religion. Attacking the religion merely serves to confuse the judgement of the people professing it, people who would never resort to violence under normal circumstances.

Whether Islam deserves to be ridiculed or not is irrelevant. The murderous pawns of the Islamist State do not represent Islam any more than a peaceful Muslim going about his own life represents Islam. They are all individuals, with their own ideas, responsible for their own actions. Islam stands on its own. As does every religion and every abstract idea.

On Tyranny

I have decided to come out of hibernation and revive this blog. This post is an easy start – with not much original content!

In the last month or so, I read two of Robert Heinlein’s novels – “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and “Stranger in a Strange Land” and am very impressed, delighted even, at discovering an author whose ideas are a breath of fresh air. And so I noticed a quote on the editorial page of today’s Times – a newspaper I usually ignore almost entirely. Here is the quote:

“There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.”

If the point needs to be illustrated with a concrete example, here is a post on the workings of the IRS in the United States by a blogger I very much admire:

Sadly, having argued numerous times with the proponents of involuntary taxation, I have come to the conclusion that imagining a system fundamentally different from the status quo is too difficult for most people. And the nonchalant acceptance of tyrannical political systems is just one manifestation. The same nonchalance can be seen in other areas of life as well. More on that later – particularly in regards to the theme of Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”

This is my 200th post: Problematic self reference?

Consider the statement (call it p):

This statement is false.

Is p true or false? If it is true, it contradicts itself. So it must be false. But that is what p states, so it must be true. Liar’s Paradox.

On the face of it, it seems that the problem with this paradox is either self-reference or bi-valued logic itself. If the problem is bi-valued logic, it seems that a lot of math is suspect, in particular proof by contradiction. Proof by contradiction is a staple of math as I know it, and giving it up would be difficult.

For a long time, I thought that the problem here was inappropriate self-reference. But not all forms of self-reference lead to contradictions. Self-referencing statements are even used in proofs of theorems, the Godel’s incompleteness theorem for example. The title of this post “This is my 200th post” is a self-referencing statement (incidentally, it is true). It does not lead to any contradiction. If the problem is inappropriate self-reference, what forms of self-reference are problematic? Change the liar’s paradox to “This statement is true.” and there is no contradiction. The form of self-reference is clearly the same. What then?

q: This statement is true.

If q is false, it contradicts itself. So q must be true. This does not lead to any contradiction. Assuming bi-valued logic is valid, q is true. But what does q mean? What is true? As I see it now, the problem with the liar’s paradox is that just like q, it is empty, devoid of any content. There is nothing in it that can be either true or false. In other words, it is not a statement at all because it does not state anything about the world. Mere adherence to rules of grammar does not produce statements.


My uncle died today after having seemingly recovered from a fall, with less than a week left for his son’s planned marriage. I didn’t know what to say when I went to visit my cousin. Instead, I spent a long time listening to others attempting to console him and my aunt. And thinking about what was being said.

My cousin was blaming himself for giving his father some medicines, wondering whether they had an adverse effect. I listened to people consoling him by talking of fate, how people die when their “time comes”, and how nothing that he did or did not do would have changed that “time”.

My aunt was mourning the tragic timing of the death. I listened to people consoling her by telling her that one’s entire life is determined when one is born, but we don’t know it and have to live through it.

I listened to people say that one should not grieve over the dead because it causes anguish to the dead man’s soul.

I listened to people say that my uncle would be reborn as my cousin’s child.

Inevitably, the occasion brought back memories of the time when I lost my father almost 10 years back. I was 19 then. Nowhere as mature in my thoughts as I am now. But I didn’t believe in fate, souls or rebirth then. I knew that the loss was permanent. I remember refusing to pay tribute to my father’s body saying “That is not my father”. For weeks, I was aware of the loss in every conscious moment. Thanks to Ayn Rand, I held on to one thought: I will not allow this to affect me. I succeeded.

Sad as it is, the death of one’s loved ones is a part of life and all of us have to deal with it at one time or another. Death always gives us a rude shock, it shows us that our plans can be overturned in an instant, that we are not fully in control of our lives. To deal with that, one needs to find some way to reduce the anxiety one feels when one is not in control. And fate is the way people have invented to do that. Instead of serenely accepting a world where there are many things over which they lack control, people prefer a world where everything is out of their control. Perhaps it helps them. I don’t know. It wouldn’t help me.

Moral responsibility in relationships

The comment thread on my previous post raised some questions about the nature of values in a relationship and what it means to owe something to somebody. In this post I intend to explore these issues deeper.

A person can be a value to me merely by virtue of existing (so can things). As an example, a baby is a value to the parent in just this way. A person can be a value to me by virtue of his actions even when those actions are not personal. Sachin Tendulkar is a value to me because of the way he bats. Ayn Rand is a value to me because of the works she wrote. The latter is an example of a person no longer alive. Clearly there must be a difference in what (if anything) I owe Ayn Rand as compared to what I owe my parents. This difference arises from the nature of values I receive in these two cases. The values I receive from a hero or a role model with whom I have no personal interaction are non-exclusive. The production of those values is not directed towards me and my consumption of those values does not cost anything to the producers of those values. In contrast, the values that I receive from my parents or in any inter-personal relationship are exclusive. They are directed towards me. The time and money spent by my parents on me was spent on me. It cost something to them.

Exclusive values can be traded. Non-exclusive values cannot. A personal relationship – in as much as a relationship means something more than the existence of two people – is based on the long-term trade of values. This is not to say that non-exclusive values are not important. Many personal relationships would be impossible without non-exclusive values. But it is the trade of exclusive values that makes a relationship personal.

In the context of values, one owes something (exclusive values) to somebody when one is the recipient of exclusive values under mutually acceptable terms (the mutual agreement is usually implicit).

What does one owe one’s parents?

Context: A delightful discussion on email, delightful because this is the first time I am engaging in serious personal discussion in a written medium.

Intuitively, one owes quite a lot to one’s parents. But in a matter as important as morality, one cannot rely on intuition alone. These matters must be examined rationally, ground up.

Choice is a crucial aspect of morality. The unchosen is not subject to a moral analysis. Being born was not a choice I made. I do not owe anything to my parents merely because they gave me birth. Asserting so would be subscribing to the duty view of morality. On the other hand, giving me birth was a choice they made. And this choice does impose moral responsibilities on them. This is a special asymmetry in a parent-child relationship as opposed to other relationships.

If one’s parents have fulfilled their responsibilities – and most parents at least try to do so – then one owes them respect for being moral people. The better they fulfill their responsibilities, the greater this respect should be. The same kind of respect is due to any person who acts morally. The respect due to one’s parents is just a specific application of the principle of justice. However, by virtue of living together, one has far better knowledge of the actions of one’s parents. And so, one has better grounds for respecting one’s parents than people about whom you do not know as much.

When a child is still a baby incapable of doing anything on his own, the flow of values is completely one-sided. The parent gives, the child receives. The responsibility too is entirely on one side. It is the parent’s responsibility to give and the child’s right to receive. The parent deserves nothing more than respect for fulfilling his responsibilities. The child does not owe anything specific to his parents up to this point in the relationship.

As the relationship develops, as the child grows and becomes capable of exercising choice, the initial asymmetry reduces and eventually disappears. The relationship becomes a normal relationship based on an exchange of value. The exchange of value in any relationship between adults is conditional. Both parties must provide value, else the relationship cannot last. Moral responsibilities are the terms on which values are exchanged. Sometimes these terms are explicit, most often they are not. Particularly in a parent-child relationship which only develops into a normal relationship over a long time, the terms are overwhelmingly implicit. But it would be a mistake to believe that the terms do not exist, or that different principles apply to a parent-child relationship than to one between adults. A child begins life with no moral responsibility towards his parents (or for that matter towards anyone else). As the child becomes an adult, he acquires moral responsibilities towards his parents over a period of time by participating in the implicit terms on which values are exchanged between him and his parents.

Because the terms on which a parent-child relationship is built are overwhelmingly (and inevitably) implicit, one experiences the moral responsibility towards one’s parents emotionally rather than rationally. Yet – borrowing Rand’s words – emotions are not tools of cognition. When one is faced with a dilemma, emotions are not enough to enable one to resolve it. One needs a full, explicit understanding of all relevant facts and principles. And that is the greatest responsibility any person has – to try to attain such an understanding. The specific application of this to the parent-child relationship implies that the child, once he grows up, should evaluate his childhood, evaluate his parents and then decide what he owes them.

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