Monday, November 17, 2014

What's in a Word? Genocide.

There is a famous thought experiment that goes,
"If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it does it still make a sound?"
What about this thought experiment?

"If there is no word to describe the systematic and premeditated extermination of a large group of people of a particular ethnic group or nation, is it still a crime?"

Essentially no. The Nazis prosecuted at the Nuremberg trials were charged with crimes against humanity, exterminating citizens of other countries. At the time, what you did in your own country was not a crime, no matter how many people you killed; so the Nazis could only be indicted for crimes that took place across borders. 

The movie Watchers of the Sky chronicles the emergence of the term genocide. Raphael Lemkin first coined the word genocide in 1944. Naming the crime was the first step to declaring it an international crime.

Lemkin was a Polish Jew who emigrated to the US from Germany in 1941. It was his study as a youth of the Ottomans' persecution of the Armenians and Assyrians that motivated him to dedicate his life to criminalizing genocide so that its perpetrators could be brought to justice. 

Lemkin drafted the UN resolution known as The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. He relentlessly pushed for its adoption, lobbying shamelessly around the corridors of the UN to anyone who would listen, and the convention finally came into force in 1951. Prosecution for genocide is still not easy, but it would be impossible without the pioneering work of Lemkin. His work on genocide shows the power of a word. Naming the evil was the first step in criminalization.

The movie was partially inspired by Samantha Power's book on genocide, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Power appeared several times in the movie; her cool and dispassionate account of truly atrocious events made them even more sinister. The US Ambassador to the UN, Power is one impressive woman. She had me in tears at the 2008 TED conference, when she told the moving story of Sergio de Mello, the UN envoy killed in a terrorist attack in Iraq.

You might wonder where the title Watchers of the Sky came from. We're told at the close of the film. It comes from a comment by Tycho Brahe. Brahe was a Danish astronomer who spent his life meticulously recording observations of the night sky. When asked what value these observations might have since he had broached no new theories, Brahe stated that these observations would save future Watchers of the Sky years of work. Lemkin felt that his life's work in gaining acceptance of genocide as a crime would similarly make it easier for future prosecutors to nail those who commit genocide.

The movie was beautifully wrought. Black and white trees etched against the horizon dissolved into streams of refugees, fleeing from many genocides of history. My friends and I all enjoyed this movie. Well, maybe 'enjoy' isn't the right word. We were engaged, we were enlightened, we were dismayed, we were moved: those are some of the right words.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Death with Dignity

As the Canadian Supreme Court hears the case for assisted suicide, it would be a good time to watch How To Die in Oregon. It would be particularly meaningful for Canadians, so many of whom are thinking deeply about these issues at the moment.

I saw this movie, which documents how assisted suicide works in Oregon, three years ago at Hot Docs (reviewed it here) and it remains one of the most powerful movies I've ever seen at Hot Docs. There are several ways to get this movie online.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day. Time to remember that the first ever programmer was a woman. How far women have descended in the tech world since then.

Ada Lovelace wrote what is considered to be the world's first program between 1842 and 1843, as a footnote(!) to the translation of an article by the Italian Menabrea. Even then, modesty reigned supreme.

Did you know that Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron? Her mother was so embittered at her husband for the scandalous life he'd led that she had Ada tutored exclusively in Mathematics in order to smother any poetic tendencies inherited from her father.

But it makes perfect sense that someone at the nexus of mathematics and poetry should be the first computer programmer. Truly excellent software is like poetry - elegant, lean, with not a phrase out of place.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Exponential Function and Ebola

 "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." 
Albert Bartlett, Professor of Physics, University of Colorado
You know the exponential function, the one which starts off so slowly you can hardly see it increasing until it literally takes off with increasing acceleration. It's often called, pejoratively, the hockey stick, when salespeople protest that sales may be small now, but just wait for next quarter!

The exponential function is particularly interesting right now because of the Ebola crisis, which is spreading at an exponential rate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have published that the cases are doubling every 15-20 days in Liberia and every 30-40 days in Sierra Leone and Guinea. It has been clear that the crisis was underestimated in the early days, probably because people didn't understand the inexorable power of the exponential function. There's the same effect in misunderstanding climate change, where feedback mechanisms cause changes to proceed exponentially.

Here's a chart from Wikipedia as of October 16, 2014, showing the number of cases of Ebola. It's a classic case of the Exponential function.

Not all exponentials are bad. I've written in a previous post about Ray Kurzweil. He also adamantly argues that people underestimate the power of the exponential, particularly as related to technological progress, which he considers unilaterally good. Some people might find his conviction that technology to support immortality is just around the corner a bit, well, spooky.

Then there is the Indian legend of the mathematician who did understand the power of the exponential. In fact, he lost his head over it! Here's how Wikipedia reports the legend.

When the creator of the game of chess (in some tellings an ancient Indian Brahmin[1][2] mathematician named Sessa or Sissa) showed his invention to the ruler of the country, the ruler was so pleased that he gave the inventor the right to name his prize for the invention. The man, who was very clever, asked the king this: that for the first square of the chess board, he would receive one grain of wheat (in some tellings, rice), two for the second one, four on the third one, and so forth, doubling the amount each time. The ruler, arithmetically unaware, quickly accepted the inventor's offer, even getting offended by his perceived notion that the inventor was asking for such a low price, and ordered the treasurer to count and hand over the wheat to the inventor. However, when the treasurer took more than a week to calculate the amount of wheat, the ruler asked him for a reason for his tardiness. The treasurer then gave him the result of the calculation, and explained that it would take more than all the assets of the kingdom to give the inventor the reward. The story ends with the inventor being beheaded. (In other variations of the story, the inventor becomes the new king.)