Archive for September, 2015

Muslims Killing Muslims

September 27, 2015

imagesIn the news: Over 700 killed in a human stampede at the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

A presidential candidate was recently asked whether something about Islam makes its adherents prone to violence. The politically correct answer, of course, is “no;” George W. Bush flattered Islam as a “religion of peace.” My answer is different.

A greatly disproportionate number of the world’s violent conflicts involve Muslims, and it’s not because non-Muslims are picking on them. Most victims too, of movements like Al Qaeda and ISIS, are Muslims.

thOne might say it’s a matter of culture, not religion, but the two are inextricably intertwined. It’s dangerous when a religion claims a huge cosmic truth, inspiring condemnation of anyone not with the program. Thus Christianity too has a blood-soaked history; but Christians have mellowed out, finally recognizing the desirability of coexisting with other opinions. That’s a maturity still eluding the Muslim world, much of which still holds the outrageous doctrine that apostasy gets the death penalty. And that can apply even to narrow doctrinal disagreements within Islam.

I refrained from using some of the stomach-churning images I found

I refrained from using some of the stomach-churning images I found

Quite simply, Muslim culture does not respect human autonomy. That’s a recipe for violence not only with other cultures but within Muslim communities themselves. Just one manifestation is “honor killings.” What else can we make of fathers killing daughters for (perceived) misbehavior? (And often by horrific methods.) Yes, there is indeed something about Islamic culture making people prone to violence; and if it’s not exactly a matter of religion, certainly religion does not inhibit it.

So now we see Muslims killing each other on a religious pilgrimage. Okay, yes, it was accidental, and similar things have occurred elsewhere. But over 700 deaths? And, I’m sorry, but “accidental” doesn’t quite cover it. For it to happen, many people in those crowds had to behave a certain way, they could not have been – in that moment at least – in a reverent, love-your-Muslim-brother state of mind. How easily they forgot their religion, even while on a pilgrimage.

images1This kind of thing is why religion, to me, is a cruel joke. People don’t need religion to be good. Human beings are naturally good, most of the time, and when they’re not, religion doesn’t help. It tends to be more an exacerbating factor than a mitigating factor.

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Deep Down Dark: The Chilean Miners’ Rescue

September 22, 2015

You are in a small hole inside the very bowels of a mountain, with thousands of feet of rock between you and daylight. Then the mountain violently convulses, and you are irrevocably sealed in.

UnknownThirty-three men were thusly trapped in the 2010 Chilean mine saga, chronicled in Hector Tobar’s book Deep Down Dark. He evokes well what it must have been like; though we pampered Eloi can in truth hardly imagine it.

The word “miracle” is used a lot (including in Tobar’s subtitle). I don’t like the word, implying something supernatural, which of course doesn’t exist (if it did, it would be natural). Epicurus, shown pictures of sailors who prayed during storms, and survived, asked, “Where are the pictures of those who prayed but drowned?” If you think God saved someone from a disaster – why did he cause the disaster? And what of those who perished?

Unknown-1Some of those Chilean miners credited God for their rescue (though not for the disaster). Of course it was actually the tremendous efforts of human beings who achieved it. Those miners were from the bottom of society, but their lives mattered enough that others would, almost literally, move a mountain for them. A great testament to human solidarity in an age when cynics cast people as selfish and uncaring.

But calling this “miraculous” is understandable. This mine’s safety picture was, well, not the greatest, by far. And the mountain’s internal structure had been undermined by a century of tunneling, so when it finally imploded, it did so cataclysmically, immuring the miners behind a stone megalith the weight of two Empire State Buildings. Yet not one of the thirty-three was even injured.

Those outside could not know anyone down there was alive; it seemed unlikely, and reaching them anyhow impossible. Initial rescue efforts were derisory, with the mine’s owners missing in action.

Piñera

Piñera

However, Chile had a newly elected president, Sebastián Piñera, not one of the customary lefties, but a former businessman; and he got involved, also not customary in such situations. It was a big risk for him; a tragic outcome seemed highly likely. But, told that a rescue was at least theoretically conceivable, Piñera set in motion a gigantic effort, which ultimately became an international project, tantamount to a moon shot.

It took over two weeks just to ascertain the miners’ survival and location. Imagine what it was like in that dark hole for those weeks, with almost no food, and rescue very unlikely. And, when finally contacted, the miners were told, “We’ll have you out by Christmas.” This was in August.

But in the event – with Americans arriving on the job – the rescue was achieved on October 13, 69 days in. Nothing like this had ever been done before. They basically had to invent the means, on the spot.

What impressed me most in this story was what did not happen. No “Lord of the Flies” here. Now this was a pretty rough bunch of men; not your country club metrosexuals; in just about the most desperate situation imaginable. But civilization is not some thin veneer coating our animal selves; the men did not lose their humanity. One pair almost came to blows, but hugged and made up before that happened. Another pair later did exchange a few blows. That was it.

Unknown-2Psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted a famous experiment wherein students role-playing as prison guards soon became genuinely brutal toward the “prisoners.” Zimbardo saw this as showing not that people are inherently bad, but that they respond to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Yet why did those students in a lab behave so badly – but not the miners trapped and facing death?

Frankl

Frankl

I’m reminded also of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, inspired by his concentration camp experience; there too, circumstances wherein you might expect people to lose their “do unto others” scruples. But many did not, as Frankl relates. Instead, the extreme circumstances gave them purpose and meaning.

True, human beings can, and sometimes do, behave horribly. But mostly we do not. And the record of history shows we are getting better over time. imagesThis is why I am a humanist, and an optimist.

The App Generation

September 17, 2015

imagesMaybe you’ve noticed a lot of folks fixated on their phones. Recently I saw some college kids at a bus stop, three fiddling with phones, the fourth not. “Hey Dude,” I said to myself, “where’s your phone?” As if on cue, he pulled it out and looked at it. Then I saw a kid riding a bike, with one hand holding a phone raised to his eyes!

The App Generation, by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, explores how this technology is changing us. The focus is on young, mainly middle class Americans. “Youth is going to the dogs” has been a constant refrain in every generation, literally since ancient times, and certainly many people (older ones, of course) see something deeply amiss with how pervasive smartphone technology has become.

images-1The authors’ verdict is mixed. They focus on three “i’s” – identity, intimacy, and imagination, and how they’re affected by apps. For troglodytes, “app” is short for “application,” a computer program, that can be installed on a smartphone, such as a game, navigational aid, communication thing, etc. That “etc” is very broad and today there are apps for just about everything in life. Uber is an app for getting a car ride. Tinder is an app for getting a hook-up. (A “hook-up” is what used to be called a “date,” but minus formalities.)

Unknown-1Hence the concern that we’re becoming creatures of our apps. But the authors see this cutting two ways – whether apps are enabling (good) or create dependency (bad). It’s the difference between utilizing apps to enhance your experience of life, providing more and better options and ways of achieving objectives – or, on the other hand, having your life governed by the apps, so you become a virtual clone of all your fellow app slaves.images-3

“Imagination” refers to creativity, which can certainly be aided by apps, giving users more artistic outlets and avenues for self-expression. But the other side of the coin is doing things the way the app guides you, not breaking out of that box. This can indeed be a negative for those at the most talented end of the bell-shaped curve of creativity. But for the mass in the middle, I think the enabling aspect must far outweigh the dependency aspect, allowing people to be creative who just didn’t have the opportunity before.

“Identity” concerns one’s life project of building a persona. This requires some introspection. Through the ages, technological advancement’s main thrust has been to liberate us from drudgery, giving us not only material goods, but more freedom to think about the big questions. Apps can do this too, making much of life a lot easier. (Smartphone teens hardly know the concept of being lost.) But they can also swallow up life, becoming life. The book quotes one teenager: “On Facebook, people are more concerned with making it look like they’re living rather than actually living.”

Unknown-4“Intimacy” concerns human relationships. A common complaint is that people get together for dinner, say, but spend the whole time with eyes glued to phones. And that we’re actually losing our facility for face-to-face interaction. Yet in the smartphone era, it certainly seems there’s a lot more human connectedness going on. I’ve wondered what all these people, always on their phones, actually have to say to each other. But of course that’s not the point. The connectedness itself is the point, as though society is becoming like a giant ant colony of shared consciousness. However, as the book’s authors ruminate, keeping in touch is not the same as really relating to another person. Many people actually seem to maintain their webs of smartphone connections in a narcissistic way – constantly tapping each other on the shoulder, as it were, as a way to verify that “I really exist, I matter.”

Here again, the technology can work as a facilitator, or actually an impediment, depending on how it’s used, and the kind of person using it. And of course, the kind of person you are can be shaped by such pervasive technology.

Unknown-5Many modern parents are more connected to their children than I am; smartphones certainly enable helicopter parenting. The book notes that some kids are sent to “no devices” summer camps with two phones, one to turn in and the other to hide, to keep in touch. And a lot of parents try too hard to shield their children from any difficulties, disappointments, or unhappiness, making them less prepared for life’s vicissitudes. The authors worry that youngsters are becoming too risk averse, less open to experience and serendipity – preferring to remain within an app cocoon, going through life as though on a predetermined railroad track with no deviations tolerated.

But query whether all these sociological phenomena are down to just one technology. Human society has been changing ever more rapidly as all forms of technology have flourished, altering beyond recognition the conditions of our existence.

Unknown-3It can be hard to balance all the considerations and judge whether life is becoming better or worse, or just different. But every technological advancement through the ages has been met with critics deploring it. Writing was condemned by Socrates in fear that people’s memory capability would atrophy from disuse; similarly some pundit recently fretted GPS will ruin our directional sense. Indeed, many people today see the whole human enterprise as deplorable, and if we destroy ourselves, we’ll deserve it. I disagree. That human enterprise has always been about overcoming an impersonal, cruel nature, to make our lives better, and we’ve succeeded spectacularly.

Unknown-2In the end, people themselves must judge, for themselves, whether something enhances their lives. (I hate all politics premised on someone else knowing better.) And the veritable tsunami force with which not just youngsters, but people of all ages, everywhere, have embraced smartphone/app technology, suggests you have to be pretty brave to tell them all it’s bad.

UnknownI say this from the objective standpoint of a non-convert. I don’t even own a smartphone. This blog post was written with a quill pen, on parchment, and uploaded by carrier pigeon.

 

Telling It Like It Is: My Presidential Campaign Speech

September 12, 2015

Unknown-1My fellow Americans:

I didn’t want to run for president, but alas now I must. Mr. Trump supposedly “tells it like it is.” Unfortunately he – and other candidates – tell it like it isn’t. But I believe Americans can face reality.

This is a great country, but it wasn’t anointed by God to be that always. It requires work and even sacrifice. It’s not “morning in America” now – it’s getting late in the day.

Problem One: we face financial ruin. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were great programs, as long as three or four times as many people were working (and paying taxes) as collecting benefits. Unknown-2But that ratio is inexorably falling as lifespans rise. If nothing is done, these programs will swallow up the entire federal budget, leaving no money for anything else.

As a nation, we’ve actually been spending way more than our income for years, borrowing the difference (much from China). We could do this thanks to historically low interest rates. But at some point the debt’s size will outgrow what the financial markets can tolerate, causing our interest costs to balloon. Then we’re fucked.

Ignoring all this is the Obama administration’s seminal, historic failure.

Like Winston Churchill, I offer nothing but blood, sweat, toil, and tears. However, we remain a very rich people, who can afford to take care of the less fortunate. What we cannot afford is welfare for the better off. Social Security and Medicare will be phased out for higher income people. Taxes will rise too.

imagesSome of that money will go to infrastructure, on which we’re way behind, threatening our status as a world-class country. That spending will create a lot of jobs. I call the program “America Works.”

Another reality is that we cannot insulate ourselves from global economic competition. But free trade benefits more Americans than it hurts. No more stupid whining about “shipping jobs overseas.” If a product or service can be produced better and/or cheaper in India or China, that’s where it will be produced. American businesses that cannot match them will fail and won’t be able to employ anybody.

And did you know our rate of creation of small businesses (responsible for most job growth) is way down? images-1We’ve made it increasingly hard for businesses to operate, what with all the taxation and regulatory hassles. For starters, Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank must be repealed.

A lot of folks, concerned about inequality, think businesses make people poorer, with “profit” a dirty word. That thinking must end. It’s successful, thriving businesses, making money by producing things people want, that make everybody richer. Otherwise nobody has a job.

images-2But job skills that used to assure a good life increasingly don’t cut it in today’s world. The real inequality problem is not the 1% versus the 99%, it’s the well educated versus the less educated. I know, people have been yakking about education forever, and there’s no magic bullet. But a quarter of Americans dropping out of high school cannot be tolerated. A great expansion of school choice would inject a much needed competitive ethos. And we need a rethink on college costs, because subsidizing tuition only enables colleges to raise it.

On all these issues, I will work with both parties, seeking compromise and consensus. We must end the culture of partisan demonizing, and recognize that Americans of all political stripes all sincerely want what’s best for everyone, disagreeing only on how to achieve it. Nobody’s evil (or very few).

Unknown-3Foreign Affairs: no more “leading from behind.” That doesn’t mean rushing into wars. But President Obama got the balance wrong between caution and assertiveness, shredding American credibility and making a world much more disorderly and dangerous. America must take the lead and act resolutely to nip conflicts in the bud. There must be no reprise of Ukraine. And if we decide ISIS must indeed be fought, then Heaven help ISIS.

The UN, as a vehicle for international order, has long been broken, due to bad guy vetoes. I will push to create a new “League of Democratic Societies,” with strict membership criteria (like the EU’s), to assume the role the UN cannot.

One last thing.

On May 14, 1938, my mother stood on the deck of a ship as it passed the Statue of Liberty. She was a refugee from a murderous tyranny. America has always been the go-to place for people seeking better lives; and that’s been one of the key things that has made America great. images-3Because such people, willing to give up everything comfortable and familiar, with the ambition to start life anew, even risking their lives to get here – those are the best people. We need more of them.

Elect me and we’ll keep America great.

Of Quantum Mechanics, Cabbages, Kings, and Carpets

September 8, 2015

imagesAstronomer Arthur Eddington said the universe is not just stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine. I’ve written about the biggest question: why does it exist at all? There’s no answer. (It isn’t God, since the same question applies to him.)

Lately I’ve been reading, in Brian Greene’s book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, about quantum mechanics, governing the submicroscopic realm – very different from the physics of our everyday world. And indeed stranger than we can imagine.

Bear with me here:

Unknown-1Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle says one can, for example, know an electron’s position, or its speed, but not both. Measuring the speed makes it impossible to determine its position. The explanation, physicists tell us, is that an electron can be understood as a “probability wave” – it doesn’t actually have a position, merely a sort of mist of possible ones ranging from more to less probable – across the entire universe. It’s likely nearby, but the probability of its being light years away, while exceedingly tiny, is not zero. Measurement causes the probability wave to collapse into a precise location.

Now, a certain experiment created two “entangled” particles, shot out in opposite directions, such that when a characteristic about one, something called “spin,” was measured, that inferentially revealed the spin of the other – seemingly avoiding the uncertainty principle, because with regard to that second particle, nothing has been done to cause its probability wave to collapse. Spin is random, indeterminate until measured – yet what is measured for Particle A will apply to its entangled partner B – instantaneously – even if it’s across the room (or the galaxy).

Unknown-6But in a famous 1935 paper, Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen posited that quantum mechanics cannot be a complete description of reality because notwithstanding the uncertainty principle, a particle must actually have a definite position and a definite speed at a given moment. They couldn’t accept that Particle A would somehow communicate its spin to Particle B, insisting instead that both, when created, must have been somehow pre-programmed to give the result they gave upon A’s measurement.

This seems intuitively reasonable. But guess what? The experiment (I won’t go into the details) says no – proving that the spins of entangled particles are not somehow baked in at their genesis but, rather, become reality – for both – only at the exact instant of measurement – no matter the distance between them.

This mind-bending result might seem to violate not just common sense but the cosmic speed limit (which is the speed of light). However, there is an explanation in Special Relativity: something appearing to be simultaneous from one vantage point may not be simultaneous from a different moving perspective (which I cannot claim to truly understand).

images-1Be that as it may – the described behavior of entangled particles might strike you as so esoteric that it has no relevance to our everyday existence. Yet it goes to the heart of our understanding of reality. Which is a version of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” – that is, what happens in one place is separate from what happens in another place – because there is such a thing as “a place.” Entangled particles belie that notion, and reveal that space – the space we inhabit – is not what our common sense intuition tells us it is. If those particles can do what they do, then what seems to be the space separating them is meaningless – or in effect nonexistent.

Unknown-2This computer and the desk on which it stands seem to be solid objects. But they are comprised of atoms which we know are virtually entirely empty space (or “space”). And the same is true even of the particles comprising atoms. And so on. The more one tries to drill down to the ultimate reality at the heart of existence – its nitty gritty structure at the sub-sub-microscopic level – there’s no there there. I have a sense that the ways in which physicists talk about it are really metaphors. Our grade-school picture of the atom looking like a miniature solar system is such a metaphorical construct.* It’s not reality. Unknown-3And I suspect that, imagining a “Fantastic Voyage” sending super-miniaturized observers down into that realm, they could never be small enough to penetrate to the ultimate substrate of existence.

Yet that literally inconceivable substrate somehow aggregates into the physical world of shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings. The mystery is vastly more profound than anything in religion.

To conclude, I will quote the philosopher Woody Allen: “What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”Unknown-5

* Might this also be true of the infinitesimally teensy vibrating strings that string theory posits as the ultimate constituents of matter?

Michael Gerson on Obama’s Syria Disgrace

September 7, 2015

I don’t normally “re-blog,” preferring my own words. But Michael Gerson’s latest column about Syria says it better than I could (click here).

Unknown-1That photo of the dead child grabbed our hearts. As if we never knew of the tens of thousands of other child Syrian victims — some literally tortured to death by Assad’s regime.

Gerson’s eloquent indictment of American passivity is not mere hindsight. At every stage, the poor decisions seemed clear to many observers (me included, as my blog readers may remember). And this isn’t just about fuzzy humanitarianism (not to disparage that); less pusillanimous policies would have better served our hard-nosed geopolitical interests.

Unknown-2On top of it all, as Gerson notes, Germany has thrown open its doors to all Syrian refugees, taking in hundreds of thousands, while America has taken very few. Shame on us.

POSTSCRIPT: When I mentioned this to my daughter — working in Jordan for an NGO helping Syrian refugees — she replied, “The United States takes in more refugees than any other country.”

The Wright Stuff

September 3, 2015

A contraption hangs from the ceiling of the Smithsonian’s atrium, largely of wood, cloth, and wire, appearing somewhat like a mutant kite.

When I go there and look upon it, I genuflect; it is for me the closest thing in the world to a holy object.

THE photo - December 17, 1903.

THE photo – December 17, 1903.

It is the first airplane.

Literally.

Reading David McCullough’s book, The Wright Brothers, was a similarly emotional experience. This is the essence of why I am so proud to be a member of the human species.

We arrived on this Earth with nothing, given nothing, but our bare hands, and the brains in our skulls. And with them we’ve made lives worth living.

imagesFor millennia, we gazed up at birds and yearned to fly. With that, fittingly, McCullough starts his book. The ancient dream of flight was not just for fun. Whenever I fly across the country in a morning, I look down upon the rugged terrain and think of the pioneers and what they suffered to make the same trip taking months in their wagons. And about John Adams (in another David McCullough book) and his many travels full of difficulties. Always keen to get on with things, Adams loved speed; if he could make 45 miles in a day, he felt he was flying.

But actual flight had seemed a vain quest, with top minds declaring it impossible. It was in fact a fiendishly difficult problem, which the Wright Brothers tackled in the best human way: methodically, intelligently, indefatigably, scientifically. (At one point in the book, I said to myself, “What they need is a wind tunnel.” And so they created one.)

Yet this pair of bicycle makers from Dayton, with no university education, and backing from no big institutions, weren’t entirely starting from scratch.Unknown-5 Isaac Newton said that if he saw farther, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants. The Wright Brothers too benefited from the efforts of predecessors, notably Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute, but also centuries of effort in physics, mathematics, engineering, materials science, and so forth. Thus theirs was not the triumph of two Ohio brothers alone, it was a triumph of the whole human enterprise.

I take pride in the achievement not only as a human being but as an American. It exemplified not just the best human virtues but the best American ones. This is where those virtues can find their finest flower. Maybe it’s something in the water.

All this I ponder with a lump in my throat every time I board an airplane. Unknown-3And some people who were awed by that first flight on December 17, 1903, lived to see men fly to the Moon – carrying with them, as a tribute to the Wright Brothers, a small piece of their 1903 plane.

With that – again fittingly – McCullough ends his book.