Surviving as an entrepreneur

It only occurred to me recently just how difficult it is for most people to pursue entrepreneurial activities.

The stats of success for small businesses are notoriously bad. The stats for successful startups is significantly worse. Tiny fractions of a percent actually make it to being profitable, and the road to going from new novel idea to successful business is incredibly difficult. It is uncertain and a process which evolves as you make it happen. You start with nothing, and work for nothing to build something of value, never knowing if you will even make revenue let alone turn a profit until you reach that point…and sometimes that point is months or even years after you start working.

How many people can work for years without making money?

Pretty close to 0% I would guess. It is a very privileged minority who can work on a project for years without needing to make money while they do it. Just think about how much this amplifies the difficulty of making a startup you are working on successful. If a startup is already an incredibly challenging proposition – something which is necessarily an unknown proposition, which unfolds as you manually force it all to happen by virtue of your own relentless will, held back by endless setbacks, disappointments, distractions, mistakes and common human flaws – then multiple all of that difficulty by the factor of “Must also work part time to fund this endeavour”, then you now have a situation where you have an incredibly difficult thing to do and only some of your spare time to do it in.

It is amazing anyone ever succeeds.

Of course, the standard solution to this is to pitch early. Get seed funding. Then get series A funding. Get a few million dollars of someone else’s money behind the project, and finally you can just get to work. Money is no longer an issue; not survival money anyway, business money is always going to be an issue but at least you can focus on working for a while without worry about being able to feed yourself, pay rent or catch a bus.

But pitching to investors really isn’t a perfect solution. Pitching doesn’t just automatically lead to instant money. First of all, investors want to see that you have already demonstrated that your product is viable, or is going to work because it has some early traction. So you must have already put in crap loads of work (for free) making something which proves you’re worthy of their money. Then you will need stop working on your project and instead start working on pitching full time (also without pay) so that you can find the right investor(s) who understand your vision.

It is very rare to get investment from the first investor you talk to. I’ve heard numbers where people have to meet with 50-100 investors before they finally get funding, spending 3 to 6 months, or even longer, to secure funding. That is 6 months taken away from working on the project! And again, you’re somehow meant to survive through that whole process… Either you are already independently wealthy, or you’re only pitching part time while you work to survive…or you are lucky enough to have a family or partner successful/generous enough to support you while you work.

When you consider all of the factors against success, and then think about them being constantly reapplied over time; difficulties, rejections, changes in strategy happening every week, every month for many months… the psychological toll is significant. My suspicion is that most startup failures are actually a result of attrition. That is, they would keep pushing and trying if they had the resources to do so, but the constant set backs and rejections are all happening under the shadow of “How much longer can I keep this up for before I lose my house/can’t afford food/disappoint my family for the last time?”

My suspicion is that if this ever-present shadow of ultimate-failure was removed from the picture, there would be a lot more interesting and progressive startups out there…

The Luxury of Being Able to be an Entrepreneur

My life as an entrepreneur has been incredibly lucky. I stumbled into my first business straight out of University and made a fantastic low-effort easily monetised website which then paid me a small income for many years after that. That small income – never quite enough to thrive on, but always enough to get by – gave me the freedom to explore several business ideas over the last 5 years.

At the beginning of 2012 I started working on rbutr, and it became my whole focus. I had actually already stopped paying adequate attention to my first business, and 3 or so years after starting to neglect it, it’s income has now dwindled down to a trickle. With that now the case, I am made doubly aware of just how much support I have from my awesome family. My parents and my partner both are incredibly supportive and explicitly provide the security in my life which ensures that I have the freedom to continue working on a project which has no promise of making money any time soon.

What a luxury I have…

rbutr is one of those projects which is going to change the world. But if I didn’t have the freedom to pursue it relentlessly on account of a bit of early luck, and an awesome understanding and supportive family (who are by no means wealthy, btw, just very generous and understanding), then rbutr could easily become just another footnote in the history of failed efforts to make a difference.

I know that no one else sees the importance of rbutr as much as I do. I know that no one else will make this happen if I don’t. I also know that when it happens, everyone will look back and point out how obvious it was, and how they ‘had the same idea’ and “I could have made that!” But no one else will, because it is bloody hard to do.

I have had great luck. I have incredible support. I got so lucky when I found my partner, Craig, who is an incredible developer that just made the MVP happen within a month. I am lucky that we have been able to build a small group of true fans that keep pushing this project forward. I am lucky we have had other friends start helping out, volunteering their time to work on this project… We have had so much go right for us. And we’re still a million light years away from ‘success’. We could disappear tomorrow and a tiny fraction of a percent of the world population would even remember that we tried.

This shit is hard!

But I have the vision so strongly planted in my mind now that I cannot unsee it. I know where this is going, and it is amazing. I am just lucky that I don’t have to walk away. Not just yet anyway. I am running out of time…I have that shadow hanging over me (in my case, it is a baby due soon combined with the end of savings and a guilt of being so dependent on family)… but that is my issue which I need to solve before I hit that wall.

The point I am trying to make here, is that even with incredible luck in the form of an early success, an incredibly supportive family and girlfriend, and a startup idea that is truly revolutionary, which has some strong traction and powerful allies, I’m still in a position where there is a chance that I can fail just out of attrition. If we don’t get funding within the next few months, or start bringing in a revenue, then I will be forced to get a job. And that kinda sucks….

The Value of a Successful Startup

This leads me to the second part of this post: successful startups are a big deal.

When someone makes a Google or a Facebook, they take an idea, and they turn that little bit of nothingness into a great big money making machine. And I don’t just mean for themselves, I mean a machine which makes money for thousands of employees, for all of the businesses that they do business with, and most importantly, tax revenue which ultimately is intended to benefit everyone in society.

When you look at the fact that the large tech companies of the USA (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc), those companies have the same amount of revenue as Australia’s largest companies (mining, banks and grocery giants). That is, tech companies which (largely) sell non tangible substances (software, copyright, advertising) to a global audience bring in as much revenue (and much more profit) as companies which have to either extract limited resources from the ground, or sell real goods to consumers, or take a cut of transaction costs of Australians. Clearly non-tangible products sold to a global market is of a far greater value to the Australian population than companies who take a cut out of our own resources?

Getting a Google equivalent company in Australia would have such a huge impact on our economic position that it would be worth investing a lot of money into it, right? When you can take an idea from nothing, to 60+ billion dollars in revenue (again, from people all over the world) each year… that must produce a phenomenal return to the Australian economy in the form of jobs and tax revenue.

Surely this outcome is something worth fighting for?

Giving Entrepreneurs a Fighting Chance

What can we do to help improve our chances of finding Australia’s Google or Microsoft? How about removing that ‘shadow’ that hangs over all entrepreneurs? How about making it so that people feel free to work on projects which don’t make money, and aren’t even certain what the final product will look like, without fear of starving or losing their lives and family?

There are a couple of ways to do this. One option is to make a startup focused system, similar to what the Startup Chile program did, but focus it on Australian startups (instead of global), evaluate a pool of applicants and provide generous grants to a certain number of companies each year, giving them all the oxygen they need to keep pushing their idea uphill. This is one narrow method of solving this problem – though it still suffers some of the same limitations experienced by normal pitching (you need to prove your business worthy and spend time perfecting your pitch before you are likely to get the money).

A better solution is to embrace the concept of a Universal Basic Income.

If everyone had access to a guaranteed income which would be sufficient to ensure food and rent, then you would empower innumerable people to take the risks necessary to chase their startup dreams, and push forward on them relentlessly until they succeeded, or at least exhausted their own confidence. You would empower the exploration of ideas which may seem crazy, but also might just change the world.

The finding of another Google, Facebook, Microsoft or Apple would offset the cost of funding these dreamers many times over. It may not cover the costs of providing a Basic Income to everyone, but that is a wider question already well covered elsewhere. I just wanted to point out that it is generally acknowledged that funding many startups is the best approach to finding ‘the one’ which makes so much money that all of the other ‘losers’ are so insignificant in their costs as to not even be noticeable (<- this is a big link because you really should read this to understand how significant this point is!).

Giving everyone a Basic Income won’t make them all Elon Musks, but it does give them the security to try to be, and thereby the opportunity to prove themselves, or not. The ones who fail get to try again, or return to normal employment, or whatever else they wish without ever facing the specter of ultimate failure (abject poverty). While those who succeed – even if it is just 1 or 2 or 3 of them in total – will earn their way off the basic income into the lands of the ultra-wealthy. Where their business will more than pay for itself and all of its fallen brothers, and where the entrepreneur who made it will also hopefully be happy to pay the high taxes appropriate to their absurdly large income, at peace with the fact that they are only in that position because of the tax-sacrifices of those who came before them, not naively holding on to the easily-disproved notion that they made it ‘all on their own’.

No human has ever made it all on their own. We are a social species, and we depend on each other for everything. Let’s accept that fact and empower as many people as possible, and make the world a better place for everyone.

 

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How to criticise Richard Dawkins

  1. Criticise him or something he said
    Either take something has has said out of context, or exaggerate it into something unreasonable, or just jump on the tall poppy bandwagon and assert that he does more harm than good, and is offensive, strident, or any other of the standard list of acceptable words used to criticise him
  2. Pre-empt any defense by declaring defenders fanboys
    If you assert that anyone trying to defend him is unthinking and reactionary, then you don’t need to deal with their actual defense because you have ‘poisoned the well’ in advance.
  3. When someone makes an argument in defense of Dawkins, dismiss it as sucking up to their idol/hero
    Building on top of the previously established expectation that they are mindless fanboys who will defend him no matter what, simply ignore the argument and discredit the person by assuming that they are defending him because they hold him in high regard despite his (assumed) terrible action/personality/beliefs etc
  4. Ignore the original criticism and start calling Dawkins a bigot as justification for you criticism
    You don’t want to get caught up in the details of what Dawkins may or may not have actually said…they get too tricky. Just go back to the tried and tested surefire line of “Dawkins is a bigot” No one wants to get caught defending a bigot, so the fanboy is sure to back off with this line.
  5. Block them.
    You just can’t reason with some people. No matter how much you ignore their arguments, insult them, insult other people without true justification and attempt to socially vilify them through implication…they just refuse to see reason.

Maybe next time you will be luckier to meet more people on the ‘Dawkins made me embrace religioun’ bandwagon. Because no one ever became religious before Dawkins started campaigning against it.

And just remember people – if you ever want to become a world renowned expert in any field – you better damn well be absolutely perfect in everything you do and know plenty about every field of knowledge.

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When you’re stuck in a political ideology, reality looks like a competing ideology.

I just watched the Bolt Report and found myself raging at an interview with Tim Blair (32min in) about the ‘bias’ of the ABC. Apparently all of the main reporters on the ABC are lefties, and there are no conservatives.

This is the problem with ideologues – they don’t see the middle. They don’t see reality. The only see “My position” and “everything left/right of my position” which is clearly biased (because it doesn’t agree with me).

The line which made me lose it was this one:

…on global warming, well you know that’s a fantastically long record of bias. You will remember a few years ago when the ABC actually ran a British global warming skeptic documentary and afterwards Tony Jones had to run a sort of a television counseling session for traumatised ABC viewers. It was hilarious.

Here’s the deal – reporting the scientific consensus is NOT a political ideology. If the ABC reported the GM crops were dangerous, and that wifi causes cancer, or that alternative medicine was just as valuable as real medicine, then you would have a case for claiming that the ABC had a left wing bias (ie: reporting things believed by many left wing extremists, that are otherwise not based in reality), but they don’t. The ABC is designed to report reality, and when your ideological view is so far out of alignment with reality, then that reporting might appear biased to you, but that is because of your own bias.

Playing the non-scientific documentary about climate change skepticism WAS prsenting a bias. A right wing bias, which has no connection to reality.  You can’t assert your right wing ideology as a basis for changing the reporting of scientific facts. End of story.

Bolt followed up the line above with:

the assumption seems to be… that conservative journalists can’t be impartial, but the left can

highlighting my point, which is that if your bias is so far to the right (or left) that you think that objective reporting is biased, then there is nothing anyone can do to help you. Genuinely objective journalists, genuinely reporting the news as objectively as possible look ‘left’ to you, because they are left of your position. This doesn’t make them actually lefties, it is just how the appear to the right.

And similarly, if you ask the socialist groups out there who want capitalism torn down completely, they will tell you that the entire media is right wing. Maybe the ABC needs to get more socialist reporters on it, you know, to balance out all of that right wing bias it has by defending vaccines and denying the efficiency of homeopathy….or whatever it is that pisses the far left off.

You can’t force an objective organisation to start saying that vaccines kill, that GMOs are harmful or that global warming isn’t happening! Doing so is to move it from objective fair reporting towards your ideological bias, and while, obviously, that is the real goal here, I am pretty sure most people would agree that leaving the ABC as an objective source is far more desirable than bringing in a few conservative reporters…which is what Bolt seems determined to do… ‘in order to balance’ the network out.

Because obviously 10 people in the middle of a see saw is always balanced out by one person far out on the tip of ONE side.

 

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Is the singularity upon us?

I feel like the singularity is inching up on us and no one is noticing because they’re all waiting for the fireworks.

Over the last couple of days I have seen headlines about Google’s self driving cars being announced, automation due to cut 50% of all of the US’s jobs, and just now Skype announcing a real time translator service. Oh, I almost forgot – Watson designed a BBQ sauce?!?!?

So of course none of these things are the singularity. But damn me if they aren’t all parts of the future vision we have all been told about for so long. Robots. AI. Real time translators. The general outsourcing of all of our menial tasks and complications in life. Our phones have already taken over our memories, and provided us with instantaneous global chat, voice comms and video calls (4g is pretty awesome, and it isn’t even new anymore), and I don’t think most people even realise that this has happened. It feels like everyone is still waiting for this future, and missing the amazing things already happening.

But just going back for a minute to the automation of our driving, our labour, our translating and to some extent, our thinking, I have noticed lately that it seems like the guys involved in Futurism (see /r/Futurology for example) are the only people genuinely switched on enough about what is happening and where we are going to have the slightest clue how to handle the approaching economic apocalypse.

Seriously – 50% of all jobs about to disappear. Driverless cars putting all taxi drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers….well, all drivers of all descriptions, all of them out of work….

As I joked with my friend on Facebook, the obvious political response to this problem of approaching joblessness will be to cut welfare so that people will be so desperate to get jobs that that desperation will magically create jobs out of thin air.

OR, a sensible person might start considering what is going to happen in a world where ‘jobs’ are no longer what people do. How does our ‘get a job’-centric society deal with the end of jobs?

I don’t think there is a coincidence that the people who have started championing Universal Basic Incomes are quite closely tied in to the Futurist crowd. It is one of the obvious solutions. In a world where costs to produce are approaching zero, and production is growing all the time, it just makes sense that we find a new way to ensure everyone gets a fair share of that arrangement, and those who improve it further get rewarded fairly (by getting more, but not in a way which detracts from the wellbeing of others).

I won’t get into it too much, but I just wanted to say those two things. 1. I think that if you aren’t paying attention to where we are going, then you’re already behind. and 2. Universal basic income is no longer just a crazy hippy commie pipe dream. It is rapidly becoming a necessary next step just to ensure the system doesn’t collapse under revolution.

 

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Australia’s Welfare Needs to be Increased, not Cut Back

I was told over Facebook just today that these new changes to welfare and medicare that The Liberal Party are trying to bring in won’t make anyone starve. Of course this claim shows a complete ignorance of what life is like on Newstart and disability, and also highlights how strong ideological thinking is, where evidence and data are ignored because an ideology tells us that something should be better, so we assume it is better.

Why find out whether people are struggling to survive on Newstart currently, and then get the data on how the new changes will change their situation, when we can just outright assert that there won’t be any real negative change, and then assume we are right?

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Some Thoughts About a Basic Income in Australia

I only heard about the concept of a basic income for the first time in the last year but immediately loved the idea. I especially loved the overwhelming successes which each trial of it seemed to return. Nonetheless I hadn’t taken the time to consider exactly how such a thing would be funded until today.

First of all – what is a Basic income? It is the idea of replacing a welfare system (which only helps people who are in dire need of it) with a guaranteed basic income for all people regardless of whether they need it or not. This overcomes a number of the problems of welfare (the fact that welfare disincentivizes getting low paying jobs for example). But I won’y waste your time explaining the intricacies of the concept or arguing for it here – it has already been well done elsewhere:

And one final point which sticks in my mind whenever I think of Basic income, is the results of a recent study which found the best way to help people in poverty is actually to just give them cash and let them do with it whatever they want: What Happens When You Just Give Money to Poor People?

Australian Budget, Welfare and Basic Income Cost

There is a lot of attention on the Australian budget atm in Australia and it has motivated me to look into our numbers recently. I found this fantastic breakdown of last years budget: Budget 2013. It tells us that last year we spent just under $400 billion dollars. And roughly $138 billion of that went to Welfare.

A fortnightly payment on Newstart (our jobseeker payment system) is worth about $510. If we take the idea that someone is meant to be able to live on Newstart (and that is debatable), then we’re looking at roughly $255 per week.

If we then pay that amount of money to every single person in the country (22.68m) each week, that will cost the government about $5.8 billion per week, or $300 billion per annum. Nearly the entire yearly budget of Australia, and more than twice as much as the current spending on welfare.

It is a bit more complicated than that of course, because usual basic income systems don’t give the full amount to children, so not everyone would get the entire amount. And there would be some level of overhead – but it would be insignificantly small since there would be very little work involved to ensure the payments are made.

Is It Possible for Australia to Have a Basic Income?

Looking at the numbers as they currently stand, clearly we can’t afford it. I mean, there simply isn’t any way we could cut other expenses nearly enough to be able to afford the $300 billion (minimum) of a basic income. BUT, economics is of course more complicated than that. There are of course ways of increasing government revenue. And there are other ways of keeping the overall cost of the basic income down. As I said above, children would receive less for instance.

One idea which came to mind for cutting the cost is to not actually make it universal, but make it universal for lower income earners. As soon as your income (total including the basic income) reaches a certain threshhold ($60,000 pa? $100,000 pa?) your basic income starts to be incrementally decreased. This in effect acts as a steep tax for higher income earners at a specific level, but the real negative of this system would be that it would probably create more overhead and the need to administer the system. A more reasonable approach would be to leave the basic income as a universal system, but simply increase the tax rate of higher income earners overall. So this no longer makes an ‘effective tax’ out of losing the payment, but just increases the amount taxed in our existing taxation system. This method would also be applied more fairly and universally across all higher income earners than just people at a specific threshhold income.

However, it can be said that income tax has a negative affect on the economy (I would argue that the benefits of removing poverty and the lower class and replacing it with a strong guaranteed middle class) would more than compensate for the cost of a higher taxation – but nonetheless, let us accept that higher income tax may have negative affects. So one suggestion is to implement/increase land tax.

And Finally, it is possible for Australia to over spend and go into debt to fund this. Australia currently has the second lowest debt of all of the OECD countries. Our debt is about 60% of our yearly budget, compared to the UK debt which is almost twice their yearly budget, and the US debt which is roughly 4x their annual budget. Of course debt for debts sake isn’t great – but debt to fund an investment can be the most powerful debt possible. Especially when your debt is charged the sort of interest rate that government debt is charged. (To make this point more sound, if you could borrow or at 5% and lend at 10% – would you rather borrow nothing, $100 or $1 billion? If you answered anything other than $1 billion, then you don’t understand maths.)

Why Do it?

If we’re going to have to increase taxes to be able to do this, it better be worth it right? Well, I think the destruction of poverty in a country is a pretty powerful reason alone to do this. This not only affects the lives of those in poverty, but of everyone in society as there would be less crime (less theft out of desperation) and a general improvement of society as more people have the luxury of attending school/college/university or pursuing their dreams rather than feeling trapped by their circumstances.

The benefits of a basic income are numerous, and the long term returns would be immense. I expect most of the article linked to above have already covered that though. So I might just leave it here. It is late. I might proof read this tomorrow or something…. 🙂 Goodnight.

 

(looking at my last few blog posts, it is no wonder my blog will never become popular – who else is interested in economics, drug policy, vaccination, non-monogamy, religion…etc.)

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What Is Skepticism For? The Case for Skeptic Activism against The War on Drugs.

I’ve never been much of a drinker. I didn’t do it at all until late into my 20s, and since then only very rarely have I bothered. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life. Drug taking has been almost completely non-existent in my entire life and I spent the first 30 or so years outright denouncing them.

I tell you all of this because I am about to make an argument in defense of drugs and drug users, and it has become standard practice to minimise anyone who defends drugs as a ‘pot head’ or a ‘junkie’ or some other ad hominem attack to save the effort of actually engaging with the arguments. I am no pot head. And I am definitely no junkie.

With that out of the way, I think the War on Drugs, and with it, public perception of drugs + public policy on drugs + media representation of drugs (which is a whirlpool of feedback loops) is just about one of the most harmful things our society does to itself. And I believe that the Skeptic community should take a more active role in fighting against this harm.

Why The Skeptic Community?

It is true that many organisations already exist which are fighting for legalisation, deciminalisation and other reforms on the drug law front, but they are usually fighting on the political level and are also usually ignored by the mainstream (both the media and the public) because “…you know… potheads.” The skeptic community has the advantage of NOT being about drugs, but being about good science. That is what makes this proposition so powerful for undoing this harmful set of laws.

rock fishing is one of the most dangerous sports there isBut why should the skeptic community care? Because my understanding of what the skeptic movement is really about – at its roots – is correcting false beliefs to reduce harms. The objective is to make the world a better place by saving people from themselves. To save people from using useless medical treatments, or to save people from wasting money on useless rituals, treatments or activities.

Skepticism is about destroying false beliefs. And social perception of drugs, thanks to decades of propaganda and manipulation by governments and the media, is so out of line with reality that we are perpetuating incredibly harmful policies out of fear and ignorance when we should be basing our policies on science, knowledge and rationality.

This is what skeptics fight for, and I see no reason why this fight should be any different to any of the others skeptics pick.

Why Drugs? Why Should Skeptics Care About Drug Law?

Skeptics should care about drug laws exactly the same way that skeptics care about vaccination.

Imagine a world where 50 years ago some extreme political party got into power in the USA and decided that vaccination was a dangerous act, and needed to be made illegal. They start massive advertising and propaganda campaigns and convince the majority of the population that vaccination is a dangerous activity for which there is no possible benefit. They highlight every adverse reaction, twist evidence to suit their agenda, and gain a popular support of outlawing vaccination.

vaccination and drugsImagine a modern world where people have to get vaccinated in secret, with vaccines they can’t be sure are what they are meant to be, and with needles which might be reused. Imagine the media covered every single adverse reaction which ever occurred, and talked about people dying and contracting blood born diseases from shared needles, despite the fact that these problems only exist because vaccines are illegal (ie: not a product of the vaccines themselves). While the media is covering every negative aspect of vaccination it is of course only covering 1 in 200 of the complications experienced with alternative medicines. The public is justifiably convinced that alternative medicines like homeopathy and acupuncture are perfectly safe, while vaccination is a high risk treatment which doesn’t offer any benefit to the receiver.

And then someone suggests that maybe the skeptic community – so concerned with saving people from misinformation and scientific manipulations – might want to perhaps argue for the legalisation of vaccination again.

  • “But we don’t deal with that. Lets stick to what we know…”
  • “That is an issue for lawyers and politicians. We are just concerned with pseudoscience and the paranormal”
  • “I just don’t understand why vaccination is something we should care about?”
  • “Research has shown how harmful having backroom vaccinations can be. It is clearly dangerous, you shouldn’t do it, and there is very little science supporting the value of vaccinations! And your conspiratorial talk of government controlling research makes you sound like a nut job.”

This is what I see when I suggest skeptics care about drug laws. Willful avoidance of engagement with the issue, and dismissal of the fact that governments have very clearly controlled the substances (halting scientific research in many ways) while simultaneously funding many studies in order to prove their existing biases. This fact is most strongly highlighted by the fact that David Nutt (winner of the 2013 John Maddox award for defending science) was fired from his government position for reporting that many illegal drugs were far less harmful than the legal drugs, thus the laws should be changed to be more scientifically consistent. The government (usually through ‘drug abuse’ organisations) has been funding ‘drug research’ for decades with the clear intention of finding specific results. For example, the most recent study to get a lot of press because it found ‘abnormalities’ in the brain of ‘casual’ marijuana users, was in part funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The press derived from this paper was clearly designed to hype the somewhat biased language used in the paper.

What’s All the Fuss About Anyway? What is the Harm in Protecting People from Drug Abuse?

ecstasy is no more dangerous than horse ridingI’m so glad you asked! Because we all know that drugs are bad and dangerous and harmful right!? Well, yeah, there is some level of truth to that. Like driving cars. Or mountain biking. Or horse riding. Everything in life contains risks and we all have to choose what level of risk we are each willing to accept. When it comes to drugs though, for some reason personal autonomy is not an option.

So yeah, drugs can be harmful, but this is where the science really matters – How harmful are drugs exactly?

This is where David Nutt’s research becomes incredibly important. He was actually trying to answer that question. And when his findings highlighted the inconsistency between the actual risks associated with particular drugs and their legal status, he was fired for actually reporting it as such. Nonetheless, we can still thankfully see the results of his research and see that many drugs are actually less harmful to individuals and society as a whole than the legal drugs and many other activities which no one would ever consider criminalising.

So that is the first point here; our laws do not represent the actual risks involved, and thus the notion that our laws are there to ‘protect people’ are immediately questionable.

But the second point is far more important – these laws are outright harmful.

If someone smokes a joint, it might have negative affects on their brain (an incredibly slight chance) – but if that same person is caught by a police officer with that one joint, it could get them a permanent criminal record which will affect them for the rest of their life. That is real and genuine harm that lowers individuals well being, chance of success and happiness in life.

  • Placing people in prisons for personal choices – that ruins lives.
  • Being able to use drugs as an excuse to disproportionately target one socio-economic or racial group above all others – that is a real harm.
  • Driving an elastic market underground and creating drug cartels who are already on the wrong side of the law, thus have no reason to obey any other laws – that is a real harm.
  • Not providing a safe way to buy chemicals which people continue to buy despite the laws, thus risking overdose or taking poisons instead of the intended substance – that is a real harm.
  • Spending billions of dollars to enforce these laws while making zero actual progress – that is a real harm.

motorcycle racing - more dangerous than most drugsThe costs of the war on drugs, to individuals and to society as a whole is incredible. This is why I believe it is one of the most harmful things our society does to itself.

I am not alone.

The drug reform movement is growing. Breaking the Taboo is a great example of this, with Richard Branson, US Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and leaders from Colombia, Switzerland, Norway and Mexico all coming out against the war on drugs. Even the Wikipedia page on the War on Drugs paints a bleak picture of that policy. And then you have examples like Portugal, who took steps to decriminalise personal quantities of drugs in 2001 and have had many successes in their experiment.

The war on drugs is winding up, and there is growing support for reformation of drug laws around the world, but it is still taking an incredibly long time. And while this is happening, we have people spending their lives in prison for petty and harmless crimes. And we have people being sentenced to death for drug trafficking. As if that fact wasn’t bad enough, dare to publicly speak up to defend these people about to be murdered by governments on the basis of global propaganda, and people actually defend the governments rights to do it. People respond with “well they knew the chance they were taking when they did it!” Very caring and compassionate that is! I wonder if those same people would be so blase if an extreme Jewish sect started stoning people to death for working on the Sabbath? Or if they defend the rights of extremist Muslim groups who kill women trying to get an education. They all knew the risks they were taking too, surely?

The harms of this global persecution of drug use and drug supply are devastating and inhumane, and they need to end. If we could help speed this process up, and bring drug laws into alignment with the best scientific knowledge, than we can make the world a better place and save many lives.

What Skeptics Can Do

Like most things, it starts with self education. Watch this talk by David Nutt and you will have a much better understanding of the drug-law situation than 99% of the population. If you can, watch Breaking the Taboo too. Understand the manipulations present in past drug research – for example, read this comic to see how research has been used to produce desired conclusions and then the correcting studies have been largely ignored. And of course, if you want to know anything about any drug, then Erowid is generally recognised as the most comprehensive and reliable source of information about drugs (and I have been told that Bluelight is great too).

With knowledge on your side, then I think we need to start considering drugs (or drug law? or ‘the science of drug harm’?) to be one of the subjects skeptics care about. We should be inviting people like David Nutt to talk at our conferences. We should be publishing articles about the science of drug harms in our skeptic magazines to help inform more people about the situation. We should be blogging about it. We should be challenging people when they make untrue statements about drug harms.

We have to break through this fear of talking about drugs. We can’t let social pressure and policy pressure stop us from bringing objective scientific information to the public. We have to break out of the propaganda!

Lets make the world a better place and focus our laws on the real criminals – not on the people who want to enjoy life in their own way.

.

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Apologetics for the Status Quo

I have a few philosophical obsessions/interests in my life, of which 3 are:

  1. The desire for extreme longevity
  2. ethical non-monogamy
  3. atheism.

These subjects interest me greatly and have each lead me to stand apart from the mainstream in many ways (though atheism is of course becoming much more mainstream all the time).

That said, I accept wholeheartedly that other people don’t have the same interests or desires as me. If you want to die in old age. Fine. If you want to believe in God. Fine. If you are certain that Monogamy is the only option for you. Fine.

But I am starting to get incredibly frustrated by the apologists out there who argue for the maintenance of any of these status quos.

With all 3 of these status quo situations, people who argue for their maintenance are as much a consequence of the system as they are part of its perpetuation. And the blindness to this reality is so very difficult to overcome within the usual 30second snippet interactions. You actually have to tear down the whole system and start again before they realise that their arguments only make sense ‘because that’s how it has always been done!’

It feels like arguing with a slaver who insists that slaves actually like being given structure. Or misogynists who insist that women like having lower positions in companies. And then having them point out examples which validate their arguments. yeah, it might even be true…but only because the system is rigged to make it true, and because people are incredibly malleable and so adjust to the bullshit world they are raised in.

So yeah, you have convinced yourself that you ‘really want to die in old age’ – but I promise you that is only because you resigned yourself to that fate because it feels helpless and pointless to do otherwise.

And I bet that 90% of the people out there who are CERTAIN that monogamy is the only option for them, would be certain that they could never be monogamous if everyone was non-monogamous. It is just a coping mechanism because from early childhood it is made clear to us that there is only one option, and to fight the system is pointless and a lost battle. You must step in line, and you might as well ‘enjoy it’.

So then, when people ‘cheat’ in the rigged system which they had fooled themselves into believing they wanted, everyone acts shocked. The blindness of people looking in on this just leaves me dumbfounded.

sexual healing screenshot don't get caught south park

 

It reminds me of a great South Park Episode called Sexual Healing. Here are a couple of excerpts from it:

 

Chairman: I’ve gathered you together here because you are the best minds our country has to offer. As you’ve all seen on the news, our country is facing a major crisis, and we need to find out what’s causing it. [the men glance at each other] Why? Why are rich successful men suddenly going out and trying to have sex with lots of women?
Expert 1: [with mustache and black coat] Tiger Woods was only the most prevalent, but our data shows that the numbers are growing. David Letterman and before that, Bill Clinton. There’s a pattern here, people.
Expert 2: [with mustache and midnight blue coat] Why would a man who’s famous and makes tons of money use that and have sex with lots of different women? [glances at the woman to his left, then looks ahead again]
Chairman: [stands up] Aand these rich celebrities have perfectly good wives at home. Why would they even think of sex with others? Dammit![pounds the table with his right fist, but manages only a soft blow] I want answers!
Expert 3: [balding, with lab coat] We believe that it may be an outbreak of sex addiction, sir.

 

Chairman: Mr. President, in every test the results were the same. The monkeys who were given cash always acted out their sexual addiction to dangerous levels. It appears that money has a direct effect on the virus’s ability to develop.
Obama: So we must keep our nation’s youth away from money and success.
Chairman: No good, Mr. President. Because we’ve learned that sex addicts will find ways to make money and become successful in order to feed their addiction.
Obama: You mean boys will start working towards being rich and successful just so they can one day have sex with lots of women??
Chairman: Yes. That’s why we decided to look at the cash itself for clues! We tried to find something in the hundred dollar bill that could explain why this is happening now. Then we looked at the backside, and found this. [points to the picture of Independence Hall on the back of the bill]Independence Hall.
Obama: The birthplace of our country.
Chairman: We believe something is happening in Independence Hall that gives money its power over men.
Obama: Independence Hall… Independence Day… Aliens… Gentlemen, I might know what’s causing the sex addiction outbreak. This is highly classified, but… in 1947 a flying saucer was discovered in Roswell, New Mexico. Two deceased alien bodies were recovered and hidden from public knowledge. They carried… a virus with them. A virus that only barely stopped from spreading all over the country.
Chairman: And you think that these aliens… could be back with a new virus? One originating from Independence Hall causing rich successful men to have sex with lots of women?!
Obama: [seriously] It’s the only explanation that makes any sense. [glances at Michelle, who doesn’t react, then looks at the chairman again]

 

 

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Christianity

These are not new, but I often forget them, so I wanted to post them somewhere so I can find them when I need them.

The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.
Yeah, christianity makes sense.
and then there is the following, which is a greatly summarised version of the version below:
god will sacrifice himself to himself to appease himself

The Plan of Salvation

(as written by Mageth on Infidels)

God himself created man and woman and placed them in a garden, in “his own image”, but got righteously angry at them when they ate, against his wish, and after being tempted by a talking serpent that god himself had somehow allowed to slither about in the garden, a tasty, beautiful fruit, though he himself had placed it there but neglected to instill in his creations the knowledge of good and evil so that they would know it was wrong to eat it. Being omniscient, of course, he knew all this before he started, but was apparently unable to do anything about it because he had planned it this way from the beginning, and apparently god cannot change anything he already knows, in spite of the fact that he’s omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent.

Later, God himself impregnated a virgin so that he himself could be born a human, a ManGod. This was necessary, apparently, because only his own ManGod blood could appease himself and deliver humans, who he created, and who he knew would muck things up by eating the fruit, from his own righteous anger.

Of course, he waited several thousand years to implement this divine plan, in the meantime taking the righteous action of drowning every creature on the planet except a few he could stuff on a boat. Not to mention handing down a Law that served to further condemn every one of us, and in which Law he himself had them frequently sacrifice animals to appease himself, though he knew the blood of animals didn’t really appease himself.

Much later, god, in a garden, prayed to himself to “take this cup” away from himself, though he himself knew that he himself had planned the coming events from the beginning and knew that not even he himself could save himself, even though he was god and omnipotent, omniscient, etc. Accepting this, he said, in effect, “Not my will, but my will.”

God then sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself. (or had himself sacrificed; not much of a distinction between the two, really) Before dying, he himself asked he himself why he had forsaken himself.

He himself, being dead, then raised himself from the dead less than 40 hours later, though he himself had said he’d be dead for three days and three nights, which he could do because he was still alive, and later he himself pulled himself up into heaven where he himself apparently already was, and where he himself is described as now sitting at the right hand of himself.

He himself then sent himself (or a ghost of himself, if you please) back to earth to be a comfort to us, though he himself is still sitting at the right hand of himself.

And, glory hallelujah, he himself promised that he himself will return someday, though he himself is already here, and will still be there, to snatch up those who believe the god blood sacrifice story he himself told us, and kill the rest of us who don’t believe the god blood sacrifice story, no matter how nice we were otherwise. But, since killing us isn’t enough to appease his righteousness, he himself will then judge us, though according to ManGod he himself will also not judge us, and being a god of love will cast most of us into hell for an eternity of suffering. He has to, of course, because he is a righteous, just god, and can’t figure out a way to save anyone who hasn’t been redeemed by god-blood, even though he is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, and loves us all.

 

So yeah. Christianity seems pretty silly to me.

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Debating Creationists (Or any other anti-science position)

So Bill Nye just finished debating Ken Ham at the Creation Museum and I actually sat and watched the whole thing live. I have tended to agree with Richard Dawkins about the problems of debating creationists, and the fact that Bill Nye agreed to this intrigued me (since it seems most people agree with Dawkins here, and there have been very few high profile science educators doing these sorts of debates for many years now).

Why We Should Debate Creationists

However, in considering what Nye could do with this debate I started to change my mind. That change was confirmed when I saw the 500,000+ live viewers of the debate on YouTube (and who knows how many more will watch it over the weeks, months and years to come). So apparently there is an appetite for this sort of a debate. Apparently people want to see it. And by agreeing to do these sorts of debates….by going in to the heart of the beast (The CREATION MUSEUM no less), you are getting knowledgeable scientists in front of the very people who most need to hear what they have to say!

Think about that. If Dawkins or Bill Nye went to Tennessee and did a talking tour, would one tenth of that audience have turned up at his lecture? No. But they will turn up to watch their favourite Creationist teach him about the Bible! So this sort of event is a great opportunity for Science educators, what can we do with it?

Don’t Debate – Just Teach

We have the audience we most need to reach, so lets take advantage of that. How do we do that? We focus on teaching them science. Forget the debate. Don’t even bother trying to win it…. just focus on teaching the audience something that they can grasp in the short time you have, and something they will remember. Then keep hammering it home.

And that brings me to the critical part of this article – as much as I love Bill Nye, and appreciate the pressure of performing live in a clearly hostile territory, I found myself mostly disappointed with what he said during the debate. No doubt he did say some great stuff which should have left any creationist stuck for an answer, and hopefully questioning how it is that they believe what they believe, but unfortunately, he also said a lot of things which didn’t do that very well. And the lots of things which weren’t spectacular, can unfortunately drown out the few spectacular things. I know they shouldn’t, but they do. And so the problem is that the audience is quickly distracted away from the strong point which is challenging their beliefs, and they refocus their thought process on this new weaker point which they quickly dismiss because *insert mental gymnastic reason here*.

Watching Bill list of all of the reasons we know the universe is the way it is felt like he just wanted everyone to know all of the knowledge behind all of those facts…but this isn’t how it works. Instead it sounds to the ignorant like Gish Gallop and none of it actually sticks because they don’t really understand what any of it means. It is all just words, until something is actually explained in detail!

There cannot be any assumed knowledge in a debate in the creation museum!

Don’t Skim Many Points. Teach Deeply on Few

I think Bill tried to cover too much ground and didn’t go into nearly enough depth in any of them to actually show how and why they are justified. By skimming across the surface this way, you end up actually coming across to them exactly like they come across to us. “We know radiation exists, therefore we know radiometric dating works, and that is how we date the age of the planet!” sounds as compelling to them as “The Bible tells us God made it” sounds to us. “Radiometric dating tells us” doesn’t actually explain anything…

So, what I really want to encourage future debaters to focus on doing when given this opportunity, is to pick the strongest 2 or 3 pieces of evidence we have for our scientific worldview, quickly put them in context of all of the other pieces of evidence perhaps, but then spend your entire allotted time explaining exactly how it is that we know those 2 or 3 pieces of evidence. TEACH the audience the history of that knowledge. Show them the experiments which verify it. Explain the logic behind it. And then just keep hammering those three points.

If you pick your points well, you can probably structure it so that you can keep coming back to one or the other to address the same questions and claims Creationists will always come up with. Say you pick Limestone creation as one of your points. You can use that (and that alone!) to show how the story of Noah is impossible. And you can use it as corroborating evidence to give us an indication of how old the planet it. And you can use it to show that we know about tectonic plate movement and uplift etc.

Pick a couple of key pieces of knowledge, explain them well, then use only those pieces of knowledge to rebut everything they say, and show how we know what we are talking about. (and of course, occasionally remind them that this is just 3 of hundreds of lines of evidence that we have.)

And if we have more of these debates, and every different debater picks different points to argue from, we might slowly teach the creationists geology, paleontology, astronomy, biology etc…. one subject at a time.

Shane

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