Trump says arm teachers — “problem solved!”

February 24, 2018

Fact: the more guns are around, the more guns get in the wrong hands, the more people get shot by them, and the more also get shot accidentally.

Many Americans keep guns at home, fantasizing that it’s protection. Fact: over a thousand children are killed annually, and thousands more injured, by those guns in the home. Instances of their actually protecting anyone are, in contrast, vanishingly rare.

Teachers with guns thwarting school shootings is likewise a fantasy. Fact: much more often, having more guns firing, in chaotic circumstances, will increase casualties. Much more often, teachers will use those guns wrongly, rather than against school shooters. And much more often, guns will get into the hands of kids, with altogether predictable horrible results. Much more often. These are incontestable facts.

No constitutional rights are absolutes. Freedom of speech does not protect shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Religious freedom does not protect human sacrifice. The right to bear arms doesn’t cover nuclear weapons. Nor should it cover military-style assault weapons whose only purpose is to kill a lot of people fast. Such weapons have no legitimate sports, hunting, or self-protection purpose. They should be banned.

Fact: this will never happen as long as Republicans, beholden to the NRA and gun nuts, remain in power.

Fact: Trump is a deranged ignoramus.

November 3, 2020: problem solved!

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Does the Second Amendment cover fake guns?

February 21, 2018

Dodie Horton is a huge Trump fan who felt his election restored America. She’s a pistol-packing gun rights enthusiast, and Louisiana state legislator. Horton was featured on NPR’s program, This American Life.

She’d been approached by some local law enforcement about what they considered a serious problem: fake guns, brought by kids to school, that look like the real thing. So Horton duly introduced legislation criminalizing that. Kids as young as kindergartners could face up to six months in jail for bringing fake guns to school.

There had been the famous case of the seven-year old suspended for chewing a pop-tart into a gun shape. School shootings have made us crazy. What could be crazier than banning pop-tart “guns” — but not military style assault weapons? Well, at least the pop-tart kid wasn’t jailed.

It didn’t seem to Horton that her bill was a crazy overreaction to the fake gun problem (if it is a problem). But she was devastated when her GOP and gun rights pals fiercely turned on her. She pleaded with them: This isn’t gun control! It’s fake gun control! Fake guns aren’t guns!

Nor was she struck by the incongruity of what she was saying. Fake guns? Lock ’em up! Real guns? No problem!

But the gun rights crowd did oppose her bill. Not because it would be loony to jail kids for fake guns — but because of the sacred Second Amendment. They were unmoved by the argument that it refers to “arms” and fake guns aren’t arms.

This American Life interviewed an NRA guy, asking him to explain how Horton’s bill could possibly transgress the “right to keep and bear arms.” After hemming and hawing, he finally said it’s not an actual violation of the Second Amendment, but the “appearance” of one.

In other words, they are so absolutist about gun rights that not even fake guns can be banned from schools — let alone real ones. Maybe I was wrong when I said the Second Amendment obviously doesn’t allow howitzers — or nuclear weapons.

This American Life. You gotta love it.

The dreamers’ nightmare

February 18, 2018

The Senate has failed to rescue the “dreamers” — young people brought here as children, without legal status. A big majority of Americans favor such legislation. And nearly every Senator voted for it.

So why the failure? Because they backed different bills, none of which got the 60 votes needed. So they can tell their constituents, with straight faces, “I voted for the dreamers bill — it’s the other party that blocked it.”

In fact it was Trump. When in September he cancelled the DACA program, with crocodile tears, saying he hoped Congress would fix it, he lied as always. He was taking the dreamers hostage, demanding as ransom funding for his wall (the one Mexico was supposed to pay for), and also a big cut in legal immigration. Backed by a farrago of lies about how the existing system actually works, and scaremongering about crimes by immigrants (who on average actually commit fewer crimes than the native born). Though previously lying that he’d sign whatever dreamers bill Congress passes, now he’ll only sign one including his two poison pills — my way or the highway. His plan got the fewest Senate votes.

Meantime, refugee admissions are way down in the past year; putting into crisis the infrastructure of charities that help them.

The Know-Nothing Party’s flag

It’s now clear that racist hatred of immigrants is the core raison d’etre of today’s Republican party. It’s not the first time we’ve had such a party. The previous one, in the 1850s, was the Know-Nothing Party.

Failure to pass dreamer legislation is emblematic of our galloping democratic dysfunction. Part of it is the Senate’s 60-vote rule (they passed the tax bill using a gimmick to evade it). Sixty votes are required to end debate on a bill. Through most of our history, only very rarely would a bill’s opponents “filibuster” it, forcing the issue of closing debate. But now it routinely applies to every bill, a symptom of today’s hyper-partisan scorched-earth politics.

That’s just one of the problems that saw our democracy already in real trouble even before 2016. But now it’s exploded into a grotesque caricature — with a president who trashes every ideal, principle, and value America used to stand for. A racist, uncouth, incompetent ignoramus; a fraudster rip-off artist; a preening egomaniacal mental case; a prodigious liar; a sex criminal; a Russian stooge; and did I mention racist?

Still, in the latest polls, over 40% of Americans give him a thumbs up. Among Republicans, 89%.

Happy “President’s Day!”

Being and nothingness: How the brain creates mind and self

February 14, 2018

Phineas Gage was a big name in brain science. Not a scientist — but a railroad construction foreman. Until in 1848 an accidental explosion rammed a three-foot iron rod through his cheek and out the top of his head.

Gage actually recovered, with little outward impairment. But his character and personality were transformed. Previously admirable, he became an irresponsible jerk. A part of his brain governing temperament was destroyed.

This famous case opens Antonio Damasio’s landmark 1994 book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Though not the latest word in neuroscience, I felt it was worth reading, in my eternal quest to understand the most important thing in the world — my self. What, in that sentence, “I” and “felt” really mean.

I’ve written about this before; here are links: (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7).

Of course, like everyone, I know perfectly well what being me feels like. But why does it feel that way? Why does anything feel like anything? By what mechanism?

Obviously, it has to do with the workings of the brain. I say “obviously,” but some might disagree. In fact, that was “Descartes’ error” of the book title — the famous philosopher posited the mind being something apart from anything physical. Like the idea of a soul. But these are nonsensical concepts. Not only is there no evidence for them, there’s no possible coherent explanation for how they could be true. There’s no plausible alternative to our minds being rooted in the workings of our brains.

Yet it’s difficult to come up with a coherent explanation for that too (so far, anyway). Brains have been analogized to computers, but computers aren’t conscious (so far, anyway). It’s been suggested that the difference is complexity — the brain’s trillions of synapses vastly dwarf what’s in any computer. Still, this seems more like a label than an explanation.

Some common-sense ideas don’t work. Like there’s somebody in charge in there, a captain at your helm. That’s certainly an illusion — the mind is bottom-up, not top-down. That is, whatever you think you are thinking, it’s not the work of some central command, but a product of a lot of undirected neuronal signaling, actually distributed among various brain modules, that somehow comes together. Similarly, we imagine seeing as a “Cartesian theater” (named for the same Descartes), i.e., as if a signal coming in from the eyes gets projected onto a screen in the brain, viewed by a little person (“homunculus”) in there. But does the homunculus have a Cartesian theater — and a smaller homunculus — in its brain? And so forth? The idea falls apart.

Further, not only is the mind not somehow separate from the brain, it’s not even separate from the whole rest of the body. Another point Damasio makes clear. “Keeping body and soul together” is a paradoxically apt expression here, because the brain evolved, after all, as a device to keep the body going, for its ultimate purpose (to the genes) of reproducing. So the body is the brain’s primary focus, and monitoring and regulating the body, and responding to its cues, is most of what the brain is doing at any given moment. (Thus the sci-fi notion of a disembodied brain in a vat, having normal consciousness, is probably absurd.)

To understand how the mind works, the concept of representation seems crucial. (No mentation without representation!) Start with the idea of reality. There is a reality that obtains within your body; also a reality outside it, that you interact with. But how does the mind perceive these realities? Through senses, yes; but they can’t give the brain direct contact with reality. The reality outside — it’s raining, say — cannot itself get inside your head. It can’t be raining in there. It’s even true of your inner bodily reality. If your stomach hurts, you can’t have a stomachache in your brain. But what your brain can do is construct a representation of a stomachache, or rain shower. Like an artist creates a representation of a still life on his canvas.

Of course the brain doesn’t use paints; it only has neurons and their signaling. Somehow the brain takes the incoming sensory information — you see it raining — and translates it into a representation constructed with neuronal signaling. A mental picture of the raining. And notice this can’t merely be like snapping a photo. The representation has to be sustained — continually refreshed, over some length of time.

This is starting to be complicated. But more: how do “you” (without a homunculus) “see” the representation? Why, of course, by means of a further representation: of yourself perceiving and responding to the first one.

But even this is not the end of it. It’s actually three balls the brain must keep in the air simultaneously: the representation of the reality (the rain); second, the representation of the self reacting to it; and, finally, a third order representation, of your self in the act of coordinating the prior two representations, creating a bridge between them. Only now do “you” decide you need an umbrella.

This at least is Damasio’s theory, insofar as I could understand it. Frankly that third part is the hard one. I’m a little queasy that we might have here another endless homuncular recursion: the representation of the self perceiving the representation of the self perceiving . . . . Yet we know the buck must stop somewhere, because we do have selves that somehow know when it’s raining, and know they know it, and grab umbrellas. And one can see that the first two representation levels don’t quite get us there. So there must be the third.

Pain too is a representation. When the body signals the brain that something’s amiss, it could register the fact without suffering. The suffering is an emotion, triggered by the brain creating a representation of “you” experiencing that feeling. That’s why it hurts. Of course, we evolved this way to make us respond to bodily problems. Rare individuals who can’t feel pain damage themselves — very non-adaptive. And Damasio tells of one patient with an extremely painful condition. After an operation snipping out a bit of brain, he was thoroughly cheerful. Asked about the pain, he said, “Oh, the pains are the same, but I feel fine now.” His brain was no longer representing pain as suffering.

Meantime, while the mind is doing all that representation stuff — continually, as new signals keep arriving — keeping “you” in touch with what’s going on — there’s yet another ball it must keep aloft: who “you” are. Part of it again is the bodily aspect. But you’re not an empty vessel. Damasio likens the representation of your self to the kind of file J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI might have kept on you. Though it’s not all in one file, or file cabinet, but distributed among many different brain modules. It includes data like what you do, where you live, other people important to your life, knowledge of your entire past, and your ideas looking ahead to your future. Everything that makes you you. And it’s not just filed away; all of it the mind must constantly refresh and update. To keep in being the “you” in its representations of “you” interacting with realities like rain or pain.

Of course all the foregoing is merely schematic. We know how painters paint pictures, but how, exactly, neuronal signaling does it remains a very hard problem. But yet again we know it must. There’s no alternative.

And for humans at least, we do know at least part of the answer. We know how to paint word pictures. And they entail a lot of metaphors — another form of representation. In fact, thinking this way is so second-nature that most of us have struggled to imagine what thinking without words could be like. Of course, other animals do it, and have consciousness, without language. But undoubtedly having it is a tremendous enhancer for the three-stage model via representation that I’ve described. I think it gives humans a much deeper, higher-level self-awareness than other animals enjoy. (Damasio, somewhat enigmatically, says this: “Language may not be the source of the self, but it certainly is the source of the ‘I.'”)

What Damasio’s book is really famous for is his take on reason and emotion. Phineas Gage’s iron rod opened not only a hole in his head but a window on the subject. Damasio also discusses the similar case of “Elliot,” a normal, smart, successful man until a lesion destroyed a bit of his brain. He was still perfectly rational. But like Gage’s, his life fell apart, because he could not behave as reason dictated. The explanation turned out to be a loss of emotional capacity. Emotions give us the reasons to utilize our reason! Elliot no longer cared about anything; not even his life falling apart. The lesson is that emotion and reason are not, as many people imagine, separate or even at odds with one another. They are bound together. Moreover, emotion on its own terms isn’t unreasonable. There are always reasons for the emotions we feel (or if not, that’s insanity).

A final point. While Damasio’s book helped a bit, I still can’t say I have a good handle on what accounts for this phenomenon I experience as being me. It still feels like a will-o’-the-wisp that slithers away whenever I try to grasp it. And as difficult as it is to grasp being in existence, it is likewise difficult to grasp the idea of nonexistence.

Chris Gibson thinks we can put America right

February 11, 2018

He calls himself an optimist. He believes we’re on the wrong track, but can fix it.

After a 29 year military career, Chris Gibson won a New York congressional seat in 2010 as a Republican; then “term limited” himself in 2016, and became a college professor. Too bad, because the GOP sure needs such good guys.

Now he’s authored a book, Rally Point: Five Tasks to Unite the Country and Revitalize the American Dream. Sounds like every politician’s book. Nevertheless, my wife* and I went to a January 24 luncheon, hosted by the Times-Union newspaper, where its editor Rex Smith interviewed Gibson. I read the book.

Gibson feels the Republican party has strayed from its true conservative principles. (Some of his points echoed my own commentary in that morning’s paper.) He starts with the nation’s founding precepts, discussed with rare erudition and depth. For him the key idea is pursuit of happiness. He doesn’t mean hedonism, but invokes the ancient Greeks’ concept of eudaimonia, a life well lived; and psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, culminating with self-actualization. America was founded on the premise that government’s job is to promote such human flourishing. Really a revolutionary idea at the time.

Here Gibson distinguishes between America’s two chief ideological currents. Traditional conservatism saw government as a facilitator and referee, to enable people to thrive in their own individual ways (exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt and his restraints on corporate power). Liberals and progressives, in contrast, want a more activist government, seeking to achieve outcomes, regulating everything in sight.

But obviously that dividing line has become very muddled. Gibson harshly criticizes modern Republican hostility toward equal rights for sexual nonconformists, as violating true conservative principles. And the religious teachings so many Republicans profess to follow. Gibson’s watchword here is “love,” which seems absent from today’s Republicanism.

He worries about the nation’s fiscal future — a subject I’ve harped on for years. In brief, government cannot keep spending way more than it collects in taxes. We borrow the difference, and can borrow a lot, yet the limits will be sorely tested in years ahead as deficits continue growing; while interest costs eat us alive. The recent tax legislation, even if boosting growth, will add to debt. Fiscal responsibility is another bygone traditional Republican conservative principle. The whole nation now ignores the debt issue — sleepwalking over a cliff.

A further problem Gibson sees is legislative abdication in favor of executive and bureaucratic fiat. Successive Republican and Democratic administrations are each denounced by their opponents as abusing power in imposing policies undemocratically. Gibson says this undermines legitimacy and divides the country; whereas issues being instead resolved through legislative give-and-take stitches the country together.

Gibson is pretty good on diagnosis; less so on remedies. It’s the usual wish list: campaign finance, gerrymandering and lobbying reform; term limits; motherhood; and apple-pie. And a balanced budget amendment — oh, please. As if the nation could, like Ulysses, chain itself to the mast to resist the siren song of spending. (The latest congressional budget (busting) deal shows the two parties can happily work together to waive such limits and raid the Treasury.)

Gibson also feels the Republican party is redeemable, and can be hauled back to its traditional principles — which he even imagines can unite the country. More fantasy. My old GOP is now the White People’s Party; a zombie that’s undergone demonic possession. There’s no exorcist in sight. (Gibson never even mentions race or immigration.)

And Gibson stresses that citizens must insist that their elected officials act responsibly. When 38% back Trump no matter what, and American political life has become a partisan tribal bash-fest. How do we cure this? Nobody has a good answer.

It’s often lamented that only half of Americans vote; even less in non-presidential elections. Republicans cynically work to make voting harder (mainly for Democrats). That truly stinks. But will more people voting cure our political ills? Non-voters tend to be the least informed and engaged citizens. Their participation will not elevate our politics.

Gibson also decries moral decay — too much materialism; not enough communitarianism and religious faith; with reinvigorating the institution of marriage being vital for raising the kind of good citizens he envisions. He wants to reverse our sociological history. (And strengthen untrue beliefs.)

Further, he sees a need for real leadership (his emphasis) that can rally the nation to do what’s needed. Yet elsewhere he says a strong man is not the answer. “The man on horseback” myth I’ve written about. Trump said, “I alone can fix it,” and Gibson thinks Americans are wrongly attracted to such authoritarianism because we’ve lost confidence in our ability to tackle problems democratically.

But the book’s conclusion says that “historically the American people follow leaders who inspire the best in us and who treat people with dignity and respect. Americans believe in founding principles and our own exceptional way of life and ultimately will not give that up for authoritarian approaches.”

I would have said exactly the same thing myself . . . until “grab them by the pussy.” Too many Americans no longer seem to understand, let alone honor, the nation’s founding principles, ideals, and values, that Gibson is so eloquent about. Without a populace being invested in those ideas, they cannot endure.

Am I too cynically harsh? As I said at the start, the GOP desperately needs people like Gibson. If the party had more of them, I would not have left it.

* When I asked her about coming, her “yes” actually surprised me; but she’s a remarkable person full of surprises.

 

Stock market drop

February 10, 2018

I didn’t grasp how much the market had fallen till I received this account statement in the mail from my brokerage:

 

God and the Super Bowl

February 8, 2018

My local paper’s “Voices of Faith” column, on Super Bowl weekend, was authored by Richard John Mouw, “professor of faith and public life” at a California seminary. He discussed a past Sports Illustrated cover story: “Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?” His essay appears to be on the level, not satirical. (At least not intentionally.)

Mouw noted several theologian colleagues doubting God has anything to do with deciding football games. But that Reggie White, a Green Bay Packers player and Pentecostal preacher, disagreed. White questioned what basis scholars have for thinking God doesn’t take sides. Didn’t he intervene in David’s fight with Goliath?* And what about “Jesus’ victory over death?” White reportedly avowed that God “doesn’t think much of losers.”

Mouw takes a middle position: “God cares much about how the game is played . . . the physical prowess that is on display in a well-played game.” He also says God similarly enjoys a well-written poem, or Bach concerto. And when “a player makes a spectacular catch, I imagine the Lord saying to himself, ‘Nicely done! This is one of the reasons why I created the human race!'”** However, Mouw doesn’t think God is a fan of any particular team.

He is all wrong. In this year’s Super Bowl, God was rooting for the Eagles, for the obvious reason that Brady and the Patriots are cheaters. (But he denies helping the Eagles.) Also, God does not like poetry, nor Bach’s music. He prefers instead a good short story; in music his tastes run to heavy metal.

He also enjoys a good laugh. And he certainly got one from Mouw’s essay, and people who imagine not only knowing an invisible deity exists, but more, his mind. They can’t quite manage to square their concept of God with all the evil, suffering, and injustice in the world. That’s chalked up as mystery. But they do know God’s tastes in literature and music, and the specific ways in which he enjoys football games.

In fact, he prefers soccer. Those heretics believing differently will burn in Hell forever.

* Actually, no. Nothing in the Bible fable suggests David didn’t win through his own skill.

** Is it also one of the reasons why he afflicts players with concussions?

America’s democratic voting threatened

February 6, 2018

Trump’s “election fraud” commission was aimed at justifying Republican efforts to keep Democrats from voting. The commission’s ignominious demise doesn’t end those efforts, to craft voter ID requirements surgically targeting the kinds of ID poor, minority, and elderly voters (mostly Democrats) are least likely to have. But this is only part of what’s happening. Here are three further flashpoints:

1. The Constitution requires a decennial census, the next in 2020. The Trump administration is severely underfunding census preparation, presaging a fiasco. Why would Republicans deliberately sabotage the census? Because it’s used to apportion congressional seats and electoral votes among states, and for legislative districting within them. A fully accurate census would count more poor and minority citizens, especially the growing Hispanic population.* That would reduce Republican electoral mojo. Better for them if the census fails. Of course, that prevents fair apportionment.

2. Another voter suppression tactic is to simply throw voters off the rolls. Ohio has adopted the nation’s most stringent scheme, purging people who have not voted lately. Hundreds of thousands of registrations have been voided — two-thirds Democrats. That would clearly violate the Help America Vote Act (adopted after the 2000 Florida mess), which says non-voting is not a permissible basis for canceling someone’s registration. Except that Ohio first sends a postcard asking for address confirmation; voters who don’t reply are purged. Will that suffice to evade HAVA? The Supreme Court will decide.

3. Russian disinformation and other skullduggery threw the 2016 election to Trump. They also tried to hack voting systems — apparently failing. But given their success on the outcome anyway, they will surely try again in 2018 and 2020, stepping up their game. Vote hacking is a particularly acute concern; among all state and local election systems, there are bound to be vulnerabilities that sophisticated, determined hackers (especially with government resources) can defeat.**

Trump, of course, is deranged regarding his 2016 “great victory,” refusing to acknowledge Russia’s role. Putin didn’t expect Trump to win; his real aim was, and continues to be, messing up our democracy. He doesn’t want it to stand as an attractive contrast to his authoritarian kleptocracy. Russia’s own elections, of course, are a sham (Putin won’t even allow his leading opponent on the ballot). He wants our elections to look just as bad, another symptom of a supposedly degenerate West, versus Russia’s cultural “moral strength.” (And many Russians do see things this way; talk about shit-hole countries!)

Please think how big a threat this is, to America’s character and way of life. A bigger threat, actually, than WWII’s Nazis or Japanese, or even the Cold War’s Soviets. None of them could really have destroyed America. But if trust in our democracy falls apart, our country is as good as destroyed. Many Americans already think the system is rigged and big money buys elections. If we can’t even trust the counting, we’re sunk.

And what is the Trump administration doing about this existential threat? Denying it even exists. Indeed, helping it along, with its own efforts to undermine free and fair voting.

* There’s also a proposal to ask census respondents to state their immigration status — obviously aimed at reducing the Hispanic count.

**A novel, Shelley’s Heart, featured a presidential election stolen by computer chicanery. Surprisingly, it was published back in 1995.

Upgrading to Humanity 2.0

February 4, 2018

Tech guru Ray Kurzweil called it “The Singularity” – when artificial intelligence outstrips human intelligence – and starts operating on its own. Then everything changes. Some, like Stephen Hawking, fear those super-intelligent machines could enslave or even dispense with us.

But in my famous 2013 Humanist magazine article, The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement, I foresaw a different trajectory – not conflict between people and machines, or human versus artificial intelligence, but rather convergence, as we increasingly replace our biological systems with technologically better ones. The end result may resemble those cyborg superbeings that some fear will supplant us. Yet they will be us. The new version, Humanity 2.0.

I call this debiologizing, not roboticizing. We may be made mostly if not wholly of artificial parts, but won’t be “robots,” which connotes acting mechanically. Humanity 2.0 will be no less conscious, thinking, and feeling than the current version. Indeed, the whole point is to upgrade the species. Two-point-zero will think and feel more deeply than we can. Or, perhaps, can even imagine.

This transformation’s early stages fall under the rubric of “enhancement,” referring, generally, to improving individual capabilities, via pharmacology, hardware, or genetic tinkering. This gives some people the heebie-jeebies. But every technological advancement always evokes dystopian fears. The first railroads were denounced as inhuman and dangerously messing with the natural order of things. A more pertinent example was organ transplants, seen as crossing a line, somehow profoundly wrong. Likewise in-vitro fertilization. The old “playing god” thing.

The fact is that we have always messed with the natural order, in countless ways, to improve our lives. It’s the very essence of humanity. And the “enhancement” concept is not new. It began with Erg, the first human who made a crutch so he could walk. (No doubt Glorg scolded, “if God meant you to walk . . . .”) Today people have prosthetics controlled by brain signaling.

A lot of it is to counter aging. Euphemisms like “golden years” can’t hide the reality of decline, always physical, and usually (to some degree) mental. We’ve already extended life far longer than nature intended, and make people healthier longer too. If all that’s good, why not strive to delay decrepitude further still – or reverse it?

And why not other interventions to improve human functionality? If we can enable the disabled, why not super-able others? If we use medicines like Ritalin to improve mental function for people with problems, why not extend the concept to improving everyone’s abilities? Through all the mentioned means – pharmacology, hardware, genetics – we can make people stronger, healthier, and smarter.

Yet some viscerally oppose all this, as a corruption of our (god-given?) human nature. Paradoxically, some of the same people are cynical pessimists about that human nature, vilifying it as a fount of evil. Is it nevertheless sacred, that we shouldn’t tamper with it? Steven Pinker argued persuasively, in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, that humanity has in fact progressed, gotten better, and better behaved, mainly because in many ways we’ve gotten smarter. If we can make people smarter still, through all those kinds of technological enhancements, won’t that likely make us better yet, kissing off the ugliest parts of our (god-given) nature?

The idea of people being able to choose enhancements for themselves also irks misanthropes who see in it everything they dislike about their fellow humans. It’s the ultimate in sinful consumerism. An illegitimate “shortcut” to self-improvement without the hard work that it should rightly entail, thus cheapening and trivializing achievement. Life, these critics seem to say, should be hard. By this logic, we should give up washing machines, microwaves, airplanes, all those “shortcuts” we’ve invented to make life easier. And go back to living in caves.

A perhaps more serious version of their argument is that enhancement, taken sufficiently far, would strip human life of much of what gives it meaning. Much as we’ve progressed, with washing machines and microwaves, etc., and with health and longevity, still a great deal of what invests life with meaning and purpose is the struggle against the limitations and frailties and challenges we continue to face. Remove those and would we become a race of lotus-eaters, with an empty existence?

But consider that early peoples faced challenges of a wholly different order from ours. Getting food was critical, so they sacralized the hunt, and the animals hunted, which loomed large in their systems of meaning. Now we just saunter to the grocery, and that ancient source of meaning is gone. Does that make us shallower? Hardly. Instead it liberates us to focus upon other things. Maybe higher things.

The fundamental mistake of enhancement’s critics is to imagine life for a Human 2.0 by reference to life for a Human 1.0, when they will be as different as we are from our stone age ancestors. Or more so. Our future descendants, relieved of so many concerns that preoccupy us (and not detoured by supernatural beliefs), will find life richer than we can dream.

Of course there will be profound impacts – economic, environmental, cultural, social. Not only will 2.0 be very different, their world itself will be transformed by that difference. But with greater smarts and wisdom they should be able to deal with the challenges.

Our species is only a couple hundred thousand years old; civilization, ten thousand. Billions of years lie ahead. Thus we are humanity’s infancy. Adulthood will be really something.

 

 

Believing six impossible things before breakfast

February 2, 2018

Nunes

The House Intelligence Committee voted for releasing the memo by its Chairman, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, attacking the FBI and Department of Justice — but voted against allowing release of a rebuttal by its Democratic members.*

Trump will clear the Nunes memo’s release, against the strong objections of his own FBI and Department of Justice, who say the memo gives a false and misleading picture, and improperly spills classified information and threatens national security. Even Republican Senate Intelligence Committee members opposed this.

“This is my credibility number”

The Nunes memo charges bias and conspiracy within the FBI and DOJ to undermine the Trump administration. Trump today tweeted that those agencies “have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.” Even though the heads of both agencies are Trump appointees. (And former FBI head Comey was also a Republican — whose actions regarding the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation likely threw the election to Trump).

House Speaker Ryan defends Nunes’s actions as a proper exercise of Congressional oversight. Nunes is a Trump toady whose smearing the FBI and DOJ is really an attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation. They’re preparing Republican partisans to disbelieve whatever Mueller comes up with. The regime’s media mouthpiece, Fox Fake News, parrots this party line. All their outrage is directed against the investigators — not the Russian subversion they’re investigating!**

And what does the Nunes memo say? Reportedly, it merely alleges the FBI was politically motivated and unjustified when it secured a FISA warrant for surveillance of Trump campaign operative Carter Page, who had Russia connections. That’s it. (The warrant was obviously amply justified.) And Republicans are still banging on that Mueller’s investigation is supposedly corrupt merely because a former staffer, who was in fact fired for it, sent private messages opposing Trump’s candidacy. Does this discredit Mueller? They’re discrediting only themselves. Their charges of bias and conspiracy are ludicrous.

And who’s “politicizing the sacred investigative process?” It’s uncanny how Trump’s attacks always apply more to himself.

To knowingly twist the truth to degrade public confidence in these agencies, undermining rule of law and investigation of foreign meddling in our election — in order to inoculate Trump against likely charges of obstruction of justice — itself constitutes obstruction of justice. Trump’s complicity in Nunes’s criminality compounds his own offenses.*** These actions furthermore border upon treason. The Russians by themselves could not damage America more.

Trump on Thursday delightedly quoted Senator Orrin Hatch that he’s the greatest president in American history. Including Washington and Lincoln? Yes, said Hatch, according to Trump, who apparently believes this. “Why sometimes,” Alice said, “I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” She must have been a Republican. (Hatch denies Trump’s tale.)

* Reminds me of my report, as an administrative law judge, recommending against the Public Service Commission’s plan for the Shoreham nuclear power plant. The Commission (unprecedentedly) tried to stop my report being made public. But one Commissioner appended it to his dissenting opinion.

** The White House has meantime ignored the law in refusing to implement the sanctions on Russia that the Republican-controlled congress almost unanimously enacted.

** It is a perfect example of the common law crime of misprision.