Archive for December, 2012

Guns ‘n’ Schools

December 27, 2012

imagesThe National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre has blamed the Newtown shootings on just about everything and everybody except guns and the gun-fetishizing culture the NRA promotes. He thinks the answer is armed guards in every school (cost be damned).

Maybe this is a job for TSA – they could deploy flocks of uniformed personnel, and full body scanners, to make going to school as tortuous as getting to a flight. Sure would reduce unemployment.

We have a right to own guns, just like any other sporting equipment, which doesn’t even depend on the Second Amendment. But there’s never a right to be free of reasonable regulation to prevent harm to others. Indeed, the words “well regulated” appear in the Second Amendment itself. And assault weapons are not “sporting equipment;” their only conceivable use is to kill people, and lots of them. Surely it’s reasonable to ban such weaponry, just like banning mustard gas or anthrax spores.

But note that Adam Lanza didn’t even use assault weapons. In fact, no conceivable reasonable gun restrictions could have blocked him. Lanza didn’t buy the guns; they were his mother’s.

images-1This highlights another point. While gun ownership is often vaunted as protection against bad guys, in actuality overwhelmingly more bullets wind up in family members than baddies. Many such shootings are accidental, or suicides, and many victims are children. Guns in the home kill vastly more kids and spouses (many hundreds annually) than intruders (close to zero).

We’re told that responsible gun owners safeguard their weapons to prevent mishaps. Sure. As if everyone is responsible 100% of the time. There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip. The fact remains that if you own a gun, it’s far more likely to injure a loved one, or you yourself, than some criminal. As Mrs. Lanza learned.

So how do we prevent mass shootings? Having fewer guns around would help. That Chinese whacko stabbed a lot of people, but none died. America’s murder rate is way higher than in Europe, and it’s not because Americans are bloodthirstier; it’s the guns, which Europeans control quite strictly.  A twerp like Lanza would not likely have been able to kill anyone if his mother hadn’t been a gun enthusiast. That kind of enthusiasm should be societally discouraged and stigmatized, rather than celebrated as the NRA does. (The “sport” of shooting innocent creatures, causing suffering and death, is barbaric and atavistic.)

We’re also told more must be done about mental illness. Fine; probably. But unfortunately derangement is a fact of life; the kind of sicko who could shoot a six-year-old in the face will always be with us.

images-3But my main recommendation is to calm down. The NRA proposal for armed guards in every school is lunacy. What schools don’t need is more guns in them! (Note: There was actually an armed lawman in Columbine.)  Even with an occasional Newtown, schools remain one of the safest places anyone can be. Just as, despite the occasional crash or terrorist episode, you’re rarely safer anywhere than while flying. (And that would remain true even if the TSA were mercifully abolished.)

Child safety is important, but the idea that we can or should strive to reduce all dangers to zero is a fantasy. Life itself is inherently unsafe. And however dangerous guns are, there’s something we all own that’s far more dangerous: automobiles. They kill many more kids than guns ever do.

Am I just being too rational?

The Dust Bowl

December 21, 2012

imagesWe’ve watched Ken Burns’s film, The Dust Bowl. It was a compelling story – with great modern resonance. Here was a huge environmental disaster, indisputably caused by human action.

There was some undertone that the farmers involved had been foolish, even somehow culpable. I don’t think so. They weren’t trying to get something for nothing. To the contrary, they were questing for the good life by dint of hard work, trying to produce food to feed the world; trying to do what humans have always done, to wrest a living from the fickle and often treacherous earth.

Many today likewise call us foolish and culpable for our role in climate change. But the story is in essence the same. We’ve just done the best we can to make lives for ourselves, by utilizing the planet’s resources to the limit of our abilities. That’s not blameworthy; it’s positively noble. The alternative would have been squalor.

images-2 What ensued in the dustbowl was horrific. Farming had left the soil vulnerable to wind, and when there was a drought, the wind picked up the dusty soil and whipped it into giant dirt clouds. It was the land turning on humankind with a spiteful vengeance, almost as if it was trying to cough up and spit out the people, much as the people were coughing up the dirt that clogged their lungs. Let alone making a living there, you just about couldn’t continue living there at all. Yet with a perseverance almost unimaginable, many somehow hung on; images-1while many, with a perhaps equally admirable pluck, struck out for what they hoped were greener pastures.

Some sensible voices advocated capitulation. The dust storms were ravaging the land year after year, and there seemed to be no way of combating them, ameliorating them, or adapting to them, much less stopping them and reversing their terrible effects. Why not just abandon the great plains, as a lost cause, a dream gone awry?

But that’s not what humans do either. Our whole history is a battle against nature, we’re not made for surrender. She is powerful indeed, but we have a comparably powerful weapon – our brains.

And so, finally, we deployed that weapon, and battle was joined. Though monumental were the forces confronting us, we figured out what to do. With a lot of help from (yes, admittedly) the government, different and better farming techniques were developed, and with the return of rains, the problem was solved, and the land’s bounty was restored.

So is all fine now? Of course not, it never is. Life is never simple. The film’s end suggested that today’s farming techniques, with intensive mechanized irrigation, are depleting the aquifer, and the water will run out in a couple of decades. Well, maybe it will. images-3But we’ll figure out how to do something different, just as in the 1930s we figured out a different approach when hit with the dust storms. Indeed, just as we did 10,000 years ago when our hunter-gatherer modus vivendi gave out, and we had to do something different, so we invented agriculture in the first place.

The Underground Railroad – Lessons for Today

December 15, 2012

I recently attended a presentation by Paul and Mary Liz Stewart about their Underground Railroad History Project. The “railroad” was a network helping escaped slaves get to freedom; the Stewarts have located and restored an Albany building important to it. I want to make a few points.

imagesAlthough we are familiar with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass as black leaders of the movement, in fact many whites were active too, as shown by the Stewarts’s presentation. Those white citizens took to heart the Declaration of Independence’s words, “all men are created equal,” and viewed blacks as fully human beings, entitled to such equality.

This I find remarkable. Slavery was a widely accepted institution of long standing which, after all, was expressly endorsed by the Bible. Blacks had been taken from what was generally thought to be African savagery, and now mostly existed in a state of degradation. That blacks and whites are the same species, biologically virtually identical, was not scientifically obvious at the time. To the contrary, many scientists seemed obsessed with proving the biological inferiority of non-whites (as Stephen Jay Gould elucidated in The Mismeasure of Man).

For a white person of the mid-1800s to see past all this and recognize the humanity of blacks, indeed their equality, was advanced thinking of a very high order. And yet such views, while not exactly common, were not so rare either, and nor were they confined to an elite intelligentsia. Certainly John Brown, for example, was no member of that class, but was so passionately anti-slavery, and a believer in social equality for blacks, that he gave his life to the cause.

John Brown as portrayed by John Steuart Curry

John Brown as portrayed by John Steuart Curry

Brown, in launching an armed insurrection, was an extremist, but even for whites who merely provided aid and comfort for escaped slaves, the risks were serious. Such conduct was a crime under federal fugitive slave laws, punishable by a fine of $1,000 (equivalent to perhaps $20,000 in today’s money) and 6 months in jail. Defying such laws required real courage.

Slavery and racism are fixtures in the catechism of misanthropy, indicting humankind for its sins. And yes, those sins have been real. But here we have the other side of the coin, a testament to “the better angels of our nature.” Even so long ago, people were able to rise above baser thinking, and embrace truly enlightened humanistic ideas. My belief in Mankind is grounded in the fact that we are not forever condemned to act as animals, but have been proven capable of nobility.

The concept underlying fugitive slave laws was that escapees were stealing the property of their owners. Never mind that slaves had all been stolen in the first place from their original and true owners – themselves. Why was it ever legal to sell such stolen “property?” As if going to Africa and grabbing human beings were no different from harvesting cocoanuts. (We even went to war against Britain in part because the Brits were doing exactly the same thing to us – grabbing men off our ships to force them to work in their navy.)

Henry Clay

Henry Clay

The draconian fugitive slave law – it even required northern citizens to assist slave catchers! – was part of the Compromise of 1850, the last great effort of a dying Henry Clay (who had similarly engineered the 1820 Missouri Compromise). It was a “grand bargain” to resolve a north-south political crisis over slavery and save the union. The crisis concerned the potential extension of slavery into the vast territories newly acquired from the Mexican War. The fugitive slave law was a big concession to southerners, in exchange for limitations on slavery in the territories.

Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster

But this was anathema to anti-slavery northerners like Daniel Webster; it seemed they would never agree to a fugitive slave law. However, on the Seventh of March, 1850, Webster rose in the Senate to deliver his long-awaited verdict, and it was a bombshell. Searching his conscience, for the good of the country, Webster endorsed Clay’s compromise. For this Webster paid a heavy political price; maybe even the presidency. But the compromise went through, and the union survived, for another decade at least.

The issues of taxing and spending confronting America today are very serious, but certainly no less serious than the issue of slavery that so bitterly divided the nation in the 1850s. Where is today’s Henry Clay? Where is our Daniel Webster?

How the Mind Works (Or Can It?)

December 3, 2012

UnknownYou’re parachuted onto an alien planet. Of course, the language is unlike any you’ve ever heard. In fact, imagine further you don’t know any language – or even what language is. Yet your mission is to decode the language, just by listening, so you can understand and speak it.

One more thing: you’re two years old.

Of course, we all do this. That’s amazing. Seemingly impossible, if you think about it. And what does “think about it” really mean?

I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s 1997 book, How The Mind Works.* My main conclusion: it can’t.

Though I must admit I don’t understand all of the book. And, to be sure, nobody truly does understand how the mind works. Pinker gives us the best scientific insight.** We do understand a lot, in schematic terms. But I’m the kind of guy who wants to know on a nitty-gritty mechanistic level how the neurons actually carry out the processes and encode the information they’re supposed to. I want to understand how my mind carries a picture of my mother; and nobody can yet really tell me.

imagesIn my own last book, I cited the language example above; another was hitting a baseball. As the ball is pitched, the brain has a fraction of a second to gauge its speed and trajectory – a particularly difficult problem because remember that you’re seeing it from the worst possible foreshortened head-on perspective. Then you must calculate the exact mid-air spot where the bat will have to be to intersect with the ball, a window of opportunity lasting milliseconds; then calculate the exact arm movements needed to get the bat to that rendezvous, at the right angle, at exactly the right moment; and finally transmit the requisite instructions to the muscles. All this has to happen in a second or so.

I say it can’t be done. The mathematics are beyond complicated. But, you say, your beer-soaked loser brother-in-law does it regularly? Hmm . . .

Now, leaving aside physical feats like that, you might suppose that pure thought is pretty simple business. You’d be wrong, as Pinker’s book makes clear. Ever the careful analyst, he dissects down to its nitty-gritty what a “thought process” must entail. Suppose you have a bunch of information about a family and want to figure out whether X is Y’s uncle. Simple? Pinker takes us through the logic steps – for images-1pages and pages before you get to the answer. (Reminded me of Principia Mathematica wherein Russell and Whitehead sought to ground mathematics in pure logic and after literally 362 pages finally proved 1+1=2.)

So no thought process is “simple,” not at all, when you really, er, think about it.

And how ‘bout them eyeballs?

Here’s where it gets truly hairy. To begin with, the problems of interpreting what is seen are immense. Remember that baseball coming straight at you. Figuring out what you’re seeing when you see a three dimensional object, with two eyes each seeing a slightly different image, the two having to be collated, with a foreground and a background, together with a whole mess of other objects, some of them partly in front of others, under variable lighting conditions, that may be right side up or upside down, near (and seemingly large) or far (and seemingly small), and moving at great speed besides – whoa!

Nobody has ever been able to program a computer that comes remotely close to sorting this out.

images-2But that’s only the beginning. The really hairy problem is how the results of such visual interpretation are seen by the mind. No, there isn’t a little man in there viewing images projected on a screen. Now, as I sit here writing this, I “see” a rather complicated scene. You could render it into language – there’s a vase of a certain shade of blue, of a certain shape, with a bunch of a certain kind of flowers in a certain configuration, in front of another one . . . to actually get in all the details would take quite a lot of verbiage, that could fill a book; and it all could be encoded into ones and zeroes, like a computer does with pixels. And the brain could process that. But what I’m seeing is not a welter of ones and zeroes. I see an image. How can that be? Without a little man?

Pinker actually suggests that at least part of it involves literally physically mapping a picture across the brain. He cites an experiment with a monkey viewing a bull’s eye target, with a brain scan of neural activity showing a similar bull’s eye pattern. Well, maybe. But I can’t be convinced that such a mechanism accounts for the finely-grained complexity of what I’m seeing right now.

And this all concerns seeing what’s in front of us. But we can see other things. Things we remember (like that picture of my mom). And things we only imagine.

images-3Dreams of flying are common. In mine, I can swoop at high speed over a landscape of great intricacy, changing by the millisecond. How does my brain create that imagery? Sometimes I wonder whether it’s as simple as a program instructing me to imagine I’m seeing a complex landscape. But how would my imagination comply, supplying what is certainly experienced as detailed visual imagery?

It’s a chicken-and-egglike conundrum. I can accept that visual information goes from eye to brain, and the brain can know what’s being seen. But, again, how do we experience it not as information but as a picture? There’s got to be a little man in there! (And of course a little man inside his head . . . )

That’s why I say this too can’t be done.

But, to be serious, the point is what a fantastically advanced, profoundly subtle technology the human mind is – far more than anything Apple has come up with. And I haven’t even mentioned consciousness! Siri is one smart cookie, but doesn’t know she exists, and that’s a giant chasm between us.

Unknown-1Religious believers look at all this and say it could only have been designed by a divine intelligence. I draw the opposite conclusion. I can’t see any single mind, no matter how divine and omnipotent, designing such a system from scratch. It could only have evolved stepwise over eons of time by an iterative natural trial-and-error process. And, of couse, if you do envision a divine intelligence capable of such a feat – who the heck designed that mind? As Pinker says, religion answers baffling mysteries with ones even more baffling.

* A little out of date, admittedly, but while our understanding of the subject has grown since then, it has not radically changed.

** And being Pinker, it’s not all dry and pedantic. One topic deeply explored is how the mind works in sexuality. He quotes an older hooker mentoring a younger one who can’t understand a rich handsome man paying for sex. “Honey,” she’s told, “he’s not paying you for the sex. He’s paying you to go away afterward.”

In Pursuit of the Great White Whale

December 3, 2012

As explained in my recent post, the best way to raise tax revenues, mainly from the rich, is to cap deductions, avoiding the politically charged issue of raising tax rates. Republicans seem open to this. But President Obama and the Democrats are not; instead, they seem Unknownpositively obsessed with raising tax rates. It’s no longer just about revenues, or even merely making the rich pay more; it’s a line in the sand for a top tax rate restored to 39.6%, and not a tittle less. They pursue this as some kind of vendetta, as Ahab pursued his great white whale.

Both sides are blameworthy, pushing narrow partisan interests while convinced of rectitude. But the Democrats now outstrip the GOP in zealotry, in their evident sangfroid approaching the fiscal cliff. They even seem to think going over would be good for them. Here’s why: in the first place, they figure they can pin the blame on Republicans. And secondly they see this as a white whale trap (this is the Patty Murray plan; she’s an extreme liberal Senator from Washington). If nothing is done, all the Bush tax cuts will expire on January 1. Republicans wouldn’t have the votes to restore them for the rich, while Democrats would bring forward legislation to re-reduce tax rates for the non-rich, and defy Republicans to oppose that. Gotcha!

images-1And because they thusly think they have the upper hand, Democrats aren’t being serious at all about spending cuts, even reducing what they’d previously offered Republicans in trade for higher taxes. The cuts on offer now are paltry, and mostly smoke-and-mirrors besides. No wonder Republicans balk. Democrats want them to: it’s “Make my day.”

They feel cocky and empowered because they won the election – “decisively.” How often do we hear that? But a 50-48% win is not what I call “decisive.” The electoral vote was more lopsided, but only because a passel of swing states went by the narrowest of margins. And though they gained a few seats, Democrats failed to capture the House of Representatives. The fact is that the country remains closely divided; the election changed nothing, settled nothing.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that going over the cliff briefly is not catastrophic, because then the parties will scramble up a deal. I’m not so complacent.

Firstly, the mere fact of Washington actually letting this happen would be terrible for the economy, eroding confidence in our political system even more than it was already eroded by the partisan games of the last few years. Remember that the fiscal cliff was created intentionally, to force the parties to compromise. And if they can’t compromise when up against such a deadline, why expect a deal without one? Once over the cliff, a kind of virginity will be lost. If the sky does not fall straight away – but only in slow motion – there will be even less impetus for a “grand bargain.” Furthermore, Democrats will now have actually bagged their white whale – tax rates will rise for the rich – thus leaving no bargaining chips for getting anything done on spending. So nothing substantive will get done.

bigstock_sinking_ship_in_the_sea_187677741-300x225America is the Pequod. The Democrats will party on deck while the vessel takes on water below.

Call me Ishmael.


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