Archive for April, 2021

Transgender wars

April 29, 2021

Changing gender wasn’t even a thing till the 20th century.* This new concept discombobulated many minds, with hostility toward trans people. But now, happily, they’ve won the argument over their right to be themselves. In fact we seem to have gone to the other extreme. Transgender issues have become a minefield of political correctness, with a pitiless orthodoxy one mustn’t question. 

Here are the biological facts. Standard females — I use “standard” to describe most people, others reflecting naturally occurring differences — have two X chromosomes; males an X and a Y. Those genes guide development of an embryo’s sex characteristics. Male and female anatomies differ, as does the brain software accompanying each. Deploying all this in utero is a complex, tricky process, and glitches can occur. 

Obviously, for reproduction’s sake, standard brain software tells men to mate with women, and vice versa. But sometimes variant software gives you same-sex attraction. It’s not a choice. (Try to imagine yourself choosing it.)

More rare is a mismatch between anatomy and brain software. A genetic and anatomical female can get a male brain, and feel male in their heads. This is called gender dysphoria. Not a psychological condition, it’s actually biological. It tends to show up quite early in life (because males and females are raised and acculturated differently), and no psychotherapy can talk it away. Though of course some people try to fight it or deny it, and to live with it.

But now it can be rectified. Such children are typically given puberty blocker medication, to delay sexual maturation until an age when they can make an informed choice to undergo sex change treatment. That at least is the idea. We’ll get back to this.

Previously, gender dysphoria did seem quite rare. Less so now, with all the attention and ready access to treatment. In fact, it’s acquired a kind of cachet, with transitioning not just accepted, but even made attractive.

So we’re seeing an epidemic of “late onset gender dysphoria,” showing up during puberty and adolescence. Mostly girls coming out as trans males. And today’s society is very supportive of their choice — indeed hostile toward any impediments. They’re often moved straightaway to puberty blockers and/or hormone treatments, on a path to surgery. In one Australian case, a child was removed from parents who resisted. 

But hold on. These years are emotionally and psychologically tumultuous even for standard kids. Wrestling with their emerging sexuality and personal identities, especially sensitive to social pressures and their place in a peer group. Now bombard them with positive messages about transsexuality, the internet full of it, trans kids showered with affirmation, making it look hip, cool, chic. While standardhood is so . . . dull. Convincing yourself that your confusing sexual feelings mean you’re trans might seem a great way to get attention, cut through the fog, and assert an edgy personal identity. (We used to have the term “drama queen.”) 

Parents who suspect something like this are dismissed as bigots. But they may be right. Seeing not true biologically based gender dysphoria, but a self-induced simulacrum. Which, with no medical interventions, many youngsters in due course get over. Studies indicate that between 61% and 98% of even early onset cases, once reaching adulthood, with all the life changes that entails, wind up accommodated with their genetic genders after all.

Another aspect is that a disproportionate number of these cases actually involve forms of autism, depression, or other psychological problems. Importantly, many of these kids, once they get a clearer fix on their sexuality, turn out simply to be gay. Which is indeed far more common than true gender dysphoria. And for which sex change is not a good answer. 

But meantime many will already be on a one-way track, thanks to the trans-industrial-complex seizing them in its jaws to execute their previous choice to transition. Backing out can take more guts than coming out. Though blocking puberty is said to be reversible, that’s true only up to a point. It certainly creates a biological platform that’s not natural. And use of hormones and other chemicals, not to mention surgery, has lifelong impacts. Even just hormone treatments, writes The Economist, “cause myriad severe health problems,” including heart problems for trans men on testosterone. And many who undergo such treatments, who later regret it, can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. A gal in Britain had her breasts removed before realizing she’s just a lesbian. Others are unable to orgasm. Or sire children. Some are left incompletely transitioned, in a limbo between genders. The psychological damage can be huge. 

Trans activists refuse to hear any of this. I’m reminded of the Soviet Union’s “Stalin doctrine” — once a country is communist, no reversal could be countenanced. So extreme has the trans ideology become that its advocates often seem to insist this isn’t biological at all, that gender (unlike sexual orientation) is a personal choice. That anyone saying they’re a woman must be accepted as female in all respects. Penises be damned. In some places where “conversion therapy” for gays is (justifiably) outlawed, there are efforts to apply the same policy to gender identity — a very different matter. This could prohibit counseling to explore what’s really going on in a claimed case of late onset gender dysphoria, a sensible go-slow approach before jumping to medical intervention. 

Unsurprisingly, there’s a backlash. Some states are moving toward outlawing transition medicine, an opposite craziness. Particularly fraught is the sports realm. Should trans women be allowed to race against standard ones? Men’s and women’s sports were made separate in the first place because of relevant physical differences. Allowing XY people to compete as women scrambles that. Trans athletes have rights but so do cis-gender women. This is a mess. I would solve it with a simple penis rule.

J.K. Rowling got denounced for insisting cis- and trans-women are not biologically identical. More recently Richard Dawkins (noting Rachel Dolezal condemned for posing as Black) wrote “Some men choose to identify as women and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.” Previously he’d deemed the issue “purely semantic,” saying he calls a trans woman “she” out of courtesy.

The American Humanist Association Board voted to revoke Dawkins’s 1996 “Humanist of the Year” award. Dawkins might really be the humanist of the epoch, having spent a lifetime as a top battler for science and rationalism. But none of that counts, for the trans Torquemadas who make the slightest nuance of deviation from their extremist orthodoxy a capital offense. The AHA has lost its mind and disgraced the humanist cause.

This should be a medical issue, not a political one. (Though in today’s polarized America, everything is political.) I salute the courage of transgender people who, in mature consideration, face up to their personal reality and take on the very great challenge of changing gender. But I also feel sorry for immature youngsters who, during a time of stress and confusion, make a dubious choice and find themselves locked into it by adults who should know better. Who should act with caution and thorough analysis before irrevocable action, violating the most fundamental of medical precepts — first, do no harm. But who are too scared of being pilloried as transphobic bigots.

As I will surely be.**

*NOTE: That sentence has been criticized as false. Obviously people were gender-fluid long before the 20th century. The intended reference was to medical/surgical interventions to change gender. If there were any such cases before the 20th century they were vanishingly rare.

** This essay owes much to an in-depth analytical piece, and accompanying editorial, in The Economist:

Vaccination and evangelical Trumpers: The enemy within

April 26, 2021

Since January 20, we finally have a rational national plan for Covid — to vaccinate as fast as possible, to achieve “herd immunity.” That’s when the virus peters out because there aren’t enough susceptible victims. It requires at least 70% immune. Covid won’t disappear entirely, but would be reduced to a minor nuisance. Personal and economic restrictions can end. We all want that, no?

Achieving it is a national effort akin to war. We’re making great progress. Vaccine availability is no longer a problem. Now it’s people refusing the shot.

Many non-whites were mistrustful toward the medical establishment. That has greatly eased. Now, instead, one demographic absolutely dominates in vaccine refusal: evangelical Trumpers.

Why them? In a nutshell, they believe much that isn’t true, and refuse to believe much that is. Also believing we’re ruled by an omnipotent man in the sky; we go to a paradise after death; their deity chose Trump to “make America great again;” and he won in 2020. It all fits together with vaccine resistance.

They are the key obstacle to beating Covid. And, as vaccine resisters go, these are the most immovable. I heard a fascinating radio report about an effort to sway them, enlisting a prominent Republican consultant, Frank Luntz. He convened a zoom focus group of Trumpers, bringing in top-notch medical experts and also Republican icons. 

Nothing would budge them. Many saw the whole thing through a political lens. Deaf to pleas that vaccination is good citizenship. Fearing the vaccine more than Covid. One woman said the body has a natural ability to fend off such infections. This, after her own husband spent three weeks in intensive care and nearly died of Covid!! Another insisted he wanted facts. Odd coming from a believer in Biblical literalism — and Trump.

Finally Luntz brought out his big gun — Chris Christie. Who related his own experience catching Covid — at the White House — where a slew of others, including Trump, did too. The point seemed to register —YOU CAN DIE from this. Whatever the risks the vaccine might hold (truly infinitesimal), the risk of death without it is vastly greater. 

Thus some did soften their anti-vaccine views. A small victory. But Luntz cautioned that this sort of intensive personalized effort can’t feasibly be replicated for millions of people. 

America is, again, at war. But these people — who love calling themselves “patriots” — are on the other side. They are the enemy within. 

Trumpland and America are two different countries. The Trump tribe rejects the most basic values and ideals that used to unify us. Rejects even the concept of democracy, refusing to view themselves as one part of a diverse national patchwork quilt. Unwilling to accept the legitimacy of anyone else’s role. Seen most vividly in refusal to accept losing the last election. 

The only thing about America that really matters to them is maintaining white Christian cultural dominance. Everything else is seen through that prism. Even the “Christian” part is just a cultural signifier rather than truly religious. Surely their political behavior travesties Christianity. 

We used to talk about “culture wars.” Just battles over particular controversies. But now all that’s metastasized into one big over-arching culture war. With even what should be a straightforward public health matter becoming a tribalized political battleground. 

David Brooks writes* that hopes of America calming down without “Trump spewing poison from the Oval Office have been sadly disabused.” It’s gotten worse; even crazier. Trumpers felt some security with him on top. Now that’s gone, and they feel existentially threatened. Many seeing themselves in ultimate combat for cultural survival, in what Brooks calls “an apocalyptic hellscape.” Totally antithetical to being part of a diverse democracy. Brooks ends by envisioning they’ll “eventually turn to the strong man to salve the darkness and chaos inside themselves.” Well, they already did once.

This is horrible for Amerca. God forbid these people regain national power.


Police brutality shocker in Albany, NY

April 24, 2021

Faced with protesters against police brutality, how did the Albany police respond? With brutality.

I supported Mayor Kathy Sheehan when she first ran, against an old-style pol. I wrote about how great it was to attend her inauguration. Even sent her my book about Albany politics. 

Then the city sent a sizable bill to the “Poor People’s campaign,” for policing during a protest. I was no left-wing fan; but wrote Mayor Sheehan objecting to this atrocity against free speech. The kind of thing a Putin regime would do. Pointing out that the city hires police to do, well, police work. 

A delayed reply said a document was enclosed. It wasn’t. My follow-up letter got no reply. When, meeting her, I asked Sheehan about it, she promised to get back to me. Never did. Anyhow, the whole episode showed her mindset about freedom of expression.

Alice Green

I’ve also pointed out that Albany’s police review board is a toothless travesty. Lately the city has conducted a rather opaque “reform process.” Dr. Alice Green, Albany’s well-known head of the Center for Law and Justice and longtime advocate on such issues was — incredibly — not included. Not surprisingly, the process seems to have produced . . . nothing much. 

On April 14, a BLM demonstration at an Albany police station might have gotten a bit rowdy. Police broke it up with what seemed to me needless brutality. Afterward, a group of protesters encamped by the station, seeking a dialog with the Mayor about their demands. She did not respond. Barriers were erected in front of the building, and state troopers brought in to guard it.

Chief Hawkins

There’d been no violence. The protesters were doing nothing except keeping vigil. Nevertheless, on Thursday, Police Chief Eric Hawkins, with Mayor Sheehan’s backing, launched an assault to clear the area. Demonstrators were given just 15 minutes warning. The police wore full military gear. At least some had their badges covered by tape. Hiding their identities. You know something real bad is going down when officers do that. 

It was brutal. Some protesters were injured, others carried off to jail. Much property, including chairs and heaters (it was wintry cold), was bulldozed and destroyed.

And why was this violence necessary? Chief Hawkins said, “Protesters may continue to peacefully demonstrate, but they must do so in a space that is safe and lawful.” Excuse me: bullshit. If there was something problematic about what the protesters were doing — and I can certainly believe that — surely there was a better way to handle it. Like, maybe, talking with them? To work something out? Before launching Armageddon.

People living in the neighborhood had complained about the encampment. Sometimes rights clash. But anyhow, again, surely there was a better way to resolve the situation without going straight to ultra-violence.

Right-wingers bleat about “freedom” from over-mighty government. But where are their voices when government sends armed men to brutalize people peacefully exercising free speech? They bleat “law and order” but excuse police violations of law and order. Today’s American right has only prejudices, not principles.

This week’s Minneapolis verdict struck a welcome blow for police accountability. This is what democracy looks like. Justice is never perfect, but in a free society, we try our best, and we showed it in Minneapolis. A real milestone in America’s march toward a more perfect union. How disheartening that only days later my own city became a poster boy for continuing police brutality. 

Goodbye, Afghanistan

April 23, 2021

She’d gotten a new job offer, our daughter Elizabeth said on the phone from Jordan. Asking our opinion. A nice surprise, that she’d ask. 

“It’s in Afghanistan,” she explained.

A lot of parents would have blanched. But we encouraged her to go.

Afghanistan is an afflicted country. I was proud of America’s helping, and that my own kid would be part of that good effort (albeit with a French organization). She didn’t stay there long, moving on to other jobs in the region, but would frequently return to Afghanistan working on development projects there. When asked to suggest a birthday present recently, she encouraged a contribution to an Afghan library-building initiative.

The modern cycle begins in 1978 with a pro-Communist coup. Insurgent Mujahideen guerrillas fought the new regime; the Soviets invaded to back it. America helped the rebels (including Osama bin Laden; a lot of thanks we got). When the Russians quit, the regime fell, ultimately replaced by the Taliban, a repressive extremist one, that harbored bin Laden’s al Qaeda. After 9/11, we invaded to go after them. Successfully at first. We managed to shepherd into being a more or less democratic government. A new day of freedom — especially for Afghan women, brutally repressed under the Taliban.

But we failed to fully exterminate the Taliban, leaving them to regroup, and torment the country ever since. So our troops kept fighting.

President Obama campaigned calling this “the right war” and ramped up our military involvement. That achieved nothing. So then Obama ramped it back down. Trump went back and forth; eventually the Great Deal Maker got a “peace deal” slating a U.S. withdrawal in exchange for, basically, nothing.

So finally this mess landed on President Biden’s desk. He made the decision to pull out.

I probably would not have. I’d cancel Trump’s crap deal. Unlike in the past, what Afghanistan is costing us now is actually very small in relation to the great risks and certain harm of withdrawing. Nevertheless, I give Biden much benefit of the doubt. In contrast to Trump, he acts responsibly, trying to figure out what’s really our best course, drawing from a well of deep experience. The military was against this decision, but I am sure Biden heard them out and gave all due consideration to their input. It was indeed a very difficult decision, and he faced up to it.

Originally, Afghanistan was our first front in the post-9/11 “war on terror.” Fighting there to prevent more attacks here. But what we wound up spending there, in lives and money, was out of all proportion to any terrorism risk. Which in the great scheme of things is insignificant. Yet we let it warp our entire foreign policy, the tail wagging the dog. President Biden is right to see that and stop it. (Meantime our biggest terrorism threat is home-grown, as we learned on January 6.)

I’m not one of those who say we can’t be the world’s policeman; can’t fix every problem; have plenty to do here at home. Well, your neighborhood could be a nasty place with no policing; we have to live in the world; we can fix some distant problems; and can do it without neglecting our own. It’s not an either-or choice. And like the Bible’s “good Samaritan” we have a human responsibility toward even people not like us. 

But there’s also the “serenity prayer” — the wisdom to know what we can fix and what we can’t. And the principle of “enough is enough.”

We did try hard to fix Afghanistan, and it’s painful to kiss off the huge investment we’d made in that effort, coming out with nothing to show for it. Our leaving is very bad news for Afghanistan. International help, not just of the military kind, will ebb away. Violence will escalate. Taliban power will grow and will probably wind up taking over the country. Women will lose all the freedom and dignity they’d achieved.

Malala Yousafzai was a teenager shot in the head, by the Taliban’s Pakistan branch, because she was an advocate for girls’ education. More recently, in Afghanistan itself, the Taliban has been conducting an extensive, methodical campaign of assassinations specifically targeting women with prominent societal roles — legislators, judges, journalists, etc.

Afghanistan is also full of ordinary people, fellow human beings, who just want to live decently like you or me. But alas, also many very misguided, ignorant, backward people and, yes, very bad people. It’s one of the tragedies of human life that the kind of situation that exists in Afghanistan is a playground for bad people to act out their badness. Worse yet when they’re imbued with the insanity of believing they’re doing God’s work. All this will make for untold harm until people finally grow up and free themselves from it. We can help show the way, but in the last analysis, it has to come from Afghans themselves.

Another thing I don’t believe is that people never change, cultures never change. History is full of examples of people and cultures that did change. Look how much America changed, in a very short time, with regard to gay people. But another thing we learn again and again is how tough it is when you’re facing hard men with guns.

Tucker Carlson and “replacement” racism

April 20, 2021

United Airlines announced a program to get more diversity in its pilot training. Fox’s Tucker Carlson went on a rant saying all that should matter in the cockpit is competence and safety, not skin color. And if that’s no longer true — planes will crash.

Wait, what?

The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah slammed Carlson. My wife objected that all Carlson said was that only competence should matter. What’s wrong with that?

It falsely confuses issues of safety and racial fairness. Did United ever say color would trump competence? That it would accept less capable pilots? Of course not. That would be absurd. So what was Carlson on about?

Nobody can openly say, “We don’t want more Black pilots.” Saying we want capable pilots seems fine. Except for the unstated premise that Blacks will be worse pilots. Carlson was giving his racist fans another way to think they’re not racist. Even while thinking an America with more Blacks in prominent roles is a worse America.

A recent Michael Gerson column also demystifies Carlson, as epitomizing today’s Trumpian Republican right. Big there is “replacement theory.” Remember “Jews will not replace us?” Gerson quotes Carlson: “The Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate of the voters now casting ballots with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” Carlson denies this is a racial issue, calling it instead “a voting rights question. I have less political power because they are importing a brand-new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that?”

As if white voters like him have a birthright entitlement to their political dominance. And in Carlson’s eyes, Western civilization itself is under attack: “rotting from within because the people in charge don’t think it is worth preserving.” Welcoming in people who make America “poorer and dirtier and more divided,” Carlson said in 2018.

There you have it. Dirtier. The ancient racist purity trope. Those other kind are polluting. Darker skin is dirtier.

Oh, but it’s not about race, he still insists. Yeah, as if voting restrictions like Georgia’s are about ballot integrity — not making it harder for Blacks to vote. As if it’s not racist to say that with more nonwhite pilots, planes will crash.

Not only is all this racist, it’s dishonest. And such is the core of today’s Republicanism.

For the record: Democrats do not somehow “import” new voters. That’s not what’s behind people immigrating here. And studies prove that immigrants do not make America “poorer,” but richer, being net contributors to our economy. “Dirtier?” I know of no studies, but strongly suspect they’re actually cleaner on average. And “more divided?” Who’s more divisive than Tucker Carlson, demonizing some of our citizens as civilization destroyers?!

The idea that Carlson and his ilk are just defending lofty civilizational values is very insidious; another way to sugar-coat their racism. And what is it, exactly, about immigrants, that supposedly corrupts our civilization? Trump said other countries don’t send us their best. Like they pick out their dregs to get rid of. Idiotic. Immigrants are not “sent,” they choose to come. And willingness to leave behind everything familiar and battle all the obstacles to immigration takes enterprise, drive, and capabilities far beyond what the average American possesses. They improve our country. 

But I too believe America, and Western civilization itself, are under assault — from the likes of Carlson and his sick fans. Their “replacement” by an electorate less white, with more newcomers who understand what America is really about, cannot come soon enough.

And if I see a Black pilot on my flight, I’ll risk it. 

Our Gal in the New York Times

April 18, 2021

My daughter, Elizabeth Robinson, has made her debut in the august pages of The New York Times. A letter to the editor, signifying serious chops. And it’s in her chosen field of professional endeavor — educational development in disadvantaged spheres. 

Furthermore, happily, I agree with her (not always true). The article she was answering I found basically naive. (Here is a link to it: The writer suggests that higher education opportunities for non-rich people could be expanded by simply “cloning” schools like Harvard. Here’s Elizabeth’s trenchant response:

Mr. Kirp suggests that elite universities should “clone” themselves, opening second branches around the country to allow more students to enroll and access their high-quality education. “It’s not hard,” Mr. Kirp writes, “to contemplate a Bill Gates or Laurene Powell Jobs writing an eight-figure check to help underwrite the venture.”

This is one of those shiny ideas whose sparkle far exceeds any potential impact. Allowing another 6,700 students to enroll in Harvard’s undergrad program every year would do little to address the systemic issues that make it so difficult for so many students to get into — not to mention pay for — elite universities in the first place.

Why not use that eight-figure check to help pay off student loans nationwide, or increase access to high-quality preschools, or set up tutoring programs for high-potential but struggling teenagers, or provide scholarships for the many low-income students who, as Mr. Kirp notes, have already demonstrated they can succeed at elite universities?

Dedicated efforts to mitigate income and educational inequalities across the country would do more to help these universities realize their mission than simply duplicating the same restrictive admissions dynamics in another city. And Harvard already has not an eight but an 11-figure check at the ready: its endowment.*

Note that Elizabeth has her own blog too ( Mostly discussing issues in the realm of humanitarian work. (The latest post suggests aid agencies competing for the “custom” of aid recipients — a fascinating concept. But she also tackles personal life issues.) 

Elizabeth noted that writing letters-to-the-editor is something she got from me. I had one in the Times over 50 years ago. It defended Vietnam “draft dodgers” — while noting that if drafted I myself would serve. Frankly somewhat disingenuous, as I was trying hard to medically disqualify. 

My picture was once in The Times too. Because I was, indeed, a poor physical specimen, to fill my college’s phys ed requirement I looked for something non-athletic — and hit upon “outdoor education and camping.” Not foreseeing an actual camping trip. Oddly enough, a Times reporter covered it. He wrote that everyone showed enthusiasm — except for “one grim youth who carried his gear in a red plaid suitcase.” There was a photo (from the back).

I used that suitcase for years afterward. 

But my Times record is not all bad. Just as I started dating my now-wife, she, a librarian, stumbled upon an article there about a regulatory decision of mine. Nice way to impress a girl! 

* As it happens, Elizabeth just got accepted by Harvard for graduate school, but she hasn’t decided. 

How to Create a Mind

April 15, 2021

Humans try to understand our reality. Including how our minds do that. 

“Futurist” Ray Kurzweil has posited a coming “singularity” when artificial intelligence outstrips ours, and everything changes. His book How to Create a Mind seeks to reverse-engineer our minds, to apply that knowledge to AI’s development.

Our thinking about something, perceiving something, remembering something, etc., may seem simple. We just do it. Like tapping an app on your phone just brings it up. But hidden, behind that app icon, is a tremendous web of complexity. Our minds are like that. We normally don’t need to peek under the hood. Unless we want to truly understand ourselves.

Consider hitting a baseball. Coming at you with maybe a second to calculate its path, and the precise body motions needed to connect bat with ball. Imagine trying to work it all out consciously. But we don’t have to. The brain does it for us.

Steven Pinker’s book How the Mind Works went through an exercise of identifying all the logic steps for answering a fairly simple question, how an uncle and nephew are related. That answer might seem obvious. Yet the necessary logic consumed quite a few pages — reminding me of Russell and Whitehead in Principia Mathematica laying out 362 pages of logic to reach 1+1=2. 

But Pinker’s example assumes you understand the question in the first place. And that’s a whole ‘nother thing — which Kurzweil explores. What does “understanding” really mean?

The mind can be seen as arising (or emerging) from the the workings of billions of neurons. Kurzweil probes how that happens, on a deep level. Pattern recognition is central. We are bombarded with incoming sensory data; its information content, in bits, is astronomical. If we couldn’t detect patterns to make it intelligible we couldn’t function.

You see a mass of pixels, detect the pattern of a lion, and run. (Indeed, for extra safety, evolution actually gave us overdeveloped pattern recognition, often seeing things that aren’t there. Making us suckers for supposed paranormal and supernatural stuff, including religion.) 

Kurzweil casts the brain as consisting largely of a massive number of parallel processing modules (each comprising around a hundred neurons) for pattern recognition. And this too, like the uncle-nephew logic mentioned, is deep with complexity. You don’t just simply seea pattern. Much has to happen for that perception to arise. 

Take reading. You seemingly glide across the page effortlessly. But obviously, before you can understand a sentence, you have to understand each word; and before you can even see a word, you have to see each letter. But it doesn’t stop there. An “A” has two slanted upright lines, and a horizontal line. The brain has to register not only each of those, but also their orientations and positioning. Then it has to refer back to, and compare against, its stored database of letter memory, to come up with the brilliant synthesis: “That’s an A!”

Kurzweil describes our brain’s pattern recognition modules as working hierarchically; passing information up and down the line. You start with the A’s three components. That information goes to the next level(s) where the lines’ positions and orientations are registered. Once you’ve got the A, it goes up to a yet higher level bringing it together with other letters. More upward steps are needed to “get” a whole sentence.

But meantime, information is also being passed down the hierarchy, which Kurzweil deems at least equally important. Because at each level, the system generates tentative conclusions and predictions of what’s likely coming next. This greatly speeds the whole process. 

If you’ve got an A, and then a P, P, and L, you may expect an E next. The context can eliminate other possibilities (I, A, or Y). This analysis would occur at a yet higher level, and be passed back down the system.

This at least is Kurzweil’s model. I’m not sure I entirely buy it. While the logic is unarguable, I think we learn shortcuts. I don’t think the brain has to go through all those steps to grasp the word “apple;” we do recognize it as a unit, in one go. That’s what learning to read really is. 

Nevertheless, the Kurzweil model helps to understand some aspects of our mental processing. At the highest levels of the hierarchy, we are collating inputs even from different sensory systems, and developing abstract concepts. This is the level at which the self emerges.

Kurzweil discusses IBM’s “Watson” program that won at Jeopardy! Watson understood the questions sufficiently to answer them, but some say that’s different from what is meant when we say a human “understands” something. Kurzweil counters, however, that the hierarchical processing in both cases is really the same. What’s different is having a sense of self. 

Consciousness and the self are deep conundrums. Philosophers posit the zombie problem: if a seeming human exhibits all the behavior we expect, but without inner conscious experience, how could anyone tell the difference?

At some point this will become a big issue with respect to artificial intelligence. Claims will be made for AI consciousness. Kurzweil believes we’ll accept it as a matter of course, citing how we empathize with characters like R2D2 in popular entertainment. I think that’s way too optimistic and the real thing will provoke ferocious resistance. Some people still can’t accept other ethnicities as fully human. Robot protest marches will demand their human rights.

And while Kurzweil thinks we will accept artificial consciousness that emulates the human sort, what about completely different, alien forms of consciousness? May be hard to conceptualize, but we certainly cannot assume ours is the only possible kind. What might the differences be? Here’s one: they may not necessarily have emotions — love or fear, for example — that mirror ours.

And if we do encounter some non-human consciousness, machine or otherwise, how — as with zombies — will we know it? Pioneer computer theorist Alan Turing proposed the Turing Test. Whether a machine, interrogated by a human, can convince them it is conscious. This never made sense to me. A human’s mere subjective judgment here cannot be conclusive. Surely a computer can be programmed (like Watson) sufficiently to give answers that seem to pass the Turing test.

Amconscious? I perform, to myself, all the indicia of consciousness, as a zombie would. Am I fooling myself, in the way a zombie would? But who or what is “myself” in that question? This is actually a puzzle I think about a lot. My brain has thoughts I know about. And I know I know about them. And know that I do. This can go on forever with no final knower. I can never seem to put my finger on the “me-ness” at the bottom of it all. This is what makes consciousness and the self such maddeningly hard problems. And if we don’t truly understand the nature of our own consciousness, how could we determine whether some other entity is conscious? 

Kurzweil then tackles the free will conundrum. A key aspect concerns the distinction between conscious and unconscious decision making. The famous Libet experiment seemed to show that a conscious decision to act is preceded by unconscious readying in the brain. Kurzweil discusses this and then poses the question: does it matter? If our actions and decisions arise from both unconscious and conscious brain activity, don’t both aspects represent one’s mind? Both really just parts of one unified system?

Kurzweil hypothesizes a procedure to create an artificial duplicate of you. Down to every cell and neuron. Maybe with some improved roboticized features. It certainly, of course, behaves as you do. If you are conscious, so must it be. But would you be okay with having your old incarnation dispensed with, replaced by the new one? “You” would still exist, no? Well, I don’t think so. (That’s a problem regarding teleportation. “Beam me up, Scotty” may have seemed fine in Star Trek, but I would refuse it.)

But Kurzweil goes on: imagine a more limited procedure, replacing one brain module with an improved artificial one. No problem there. We already do such things — e.g., cochlear implants. Of course you’re still you. But suppose we keep going and in steps replace every part of your brain.

This is the ancient story of the Ship of Theseus. So famous it was preserved. Its wooden planks would periodically rot and be replaced. In time, none of the original wood remained. Was it still “the Ship of Theseus?” Our bodies actually do this too, replacing our cells constantly (though brain cells are the longest lived). You still feel you are you.

Kurzweil does envision progressively more extensive replacement of our biological parts and systems with superior artificial ones. In my own landmark 2013 Humanist magazine article, The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement? I foresaw an eventual convergence between our biological selves and the artificial systems we devise to enhance our capabilities. Human intelligence has enabled us to make advances, solve problems, and improve our quality of life at an incredibly accelerating pace. That will go into overdrive once conscious artificial intelligence kicks in. Kurzweil says an “ultraintelligent” machine will be the last invention humanity will ever have to make. 

Guns and Republicans: soft on crime

April 12, 2021

“House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Biden is ‘soft on crime’ but tramples Second Amendment rights.”

Reading that line in the paper turned my stomach.

Republicans shriek hysterically about Democrats taking away your guns. Like just about everything in today’s Republican universe, it’s simply a lie. I’m (now) a Democrat, and would actually favor taking away many guns; and repealing the Second Amendment. But the great majority of Democrats would not, even if they thought it feasible, which they (and I) do not. What most Democrats do favor, instead, is some reasonable regulations to keep guns from the hands of the most dangerous people, and curb the availability of military-style assault weapons whose only function is to kill many people fast.

This doesn’t “trample” the Second Amendment. No freedom is ever so absolute that it trumps all other societal concerns. Freedom of speech does not extend to perjury or libel. And “the right to bear arms” does not include howitzers, or nuclear weapons. Nor should it cover mass murder assault weapons, or allowing lunatics and criminals to buy guns. That’s all Democrats say.

President Biden’s measures are actually extremely modest steps that just nibble at the edges of the problem. That doesn’t keep Republicans, like the morally collapsed local Congresswoman Stefanik, calling them a “gun grab.”

A great majority of Americans — even of Republicans — agree with the Democratic proposals. So why does the GOP make opposition a centerpiece of their propaganda? 

Because the NRA is opposed. It’s an extremist organization, whose stance is as extreme as it could be. Second Amendment absolutism, as if even the most sensible, reasonable regulation of guns must lead to confiscating all of them. (Automobile regulations, including driver licenses, required annual inspections, speed limits, etc., do not curb “freedom” or lead to car confiscations.) Someone should introduce legislation to outlaw private ownership of howitzers — they’re guns, after all — just to test if the NRA will stay consistent and oppose that. 

But legions of gun lovers look to the NRA to call their tune. They’re still only a small minority of American voters. So how does that minority manage to call the nation’s tune?

Many think it’s that Congressional Republicans are beholden to NRA campaign money. Not so. Such contributions are paltry. What keeps Republicans in line is not NRA support but the threat of NRA opposition. A kiss of death.

Why, if most voters actually hate the NRA? Because gun lovers are one-issue voters. Others may care a lot about gun control, but only as one issue among many. They won’t vote against a candidate on that issue alone. Gun nuts will.

It’s a basic problem in democracy. Any issue may be of modest concern to the mass of voters, affecting them only marginally — but of intense concern to a few, who are greatly affected. That concentrated concern will outgun the others, and prevail against the greater good.

Then there’s “soft on crime.” Another in the Republican spit-bag of epithets mindlessly thrown at opponents. Just tossing words, because they can; no need for substance or explanation. Trump specialized in this. “Weak on crime, weak on borders, weak on the military.” (He preferred the word “weak,” as if to contrast his own phony posture of strength.) Republican voters —especially those high on guns — eat up this pap. 

Even generally sane voters can fall for it. “Soft on crime” is an insidious meme that warps minds, so all politicians fear the label, and strive hard to avoid it.

“Soft on crime.” But — what is a key element in crime? GUNS!!!

Morons can’t even spell

Involved in a very high proportion of serious violent crimes. America has vastly more guns, in relation to population, than any other country. We have 4% of the world’s population and 40% of its guns. And — surprise — way more gun crime than any other country. The NRA and gun nuts actually try to tell us the answer for too many guns is — wait for it — even more guns. Literally insane.

Meantime, most Republican “tough on crime” policies actually do little or nothing to reduce crime. What would have a big impact would be stricter gun regulation and diminishing the vast number of guns in circulation, responsible for so much crime. 

By opposing this, it’s Republicans who are the ones truly soft on crime

Leadership lessons: How (not) to get girls

April 10, 2021

Governor Andrew Cuomo hungered for feminine companionship. I can relate to that. All his power and glory may not cut it for him without a woman in the picture. And he’s horny. But being governor actually kind of constrains him in a box.

So (as the pattern becomes clear) what he does is to surround himself with pretty young women in subordinate roles, then puts the move on them. Summoned into his office to “help with his phone.” One he tells he’s “single and ready to mingle,” and then grabs her breast.

Maybe I’m naive, or a sappy romantic, but I just don’t get it. I think about my own history with women. For a long time I was very inhibited. Even out on a date it would never have entered my head to just grab a girl like that. Maybe if drunk? I was never drunk. But neither was Cuomo, on those occasions.

Eventually I did learn how to get it on with a girl. But not the Cuomo way. Did this (otherwise) very savvy man think this was the way to initiate a sexual relationship? Governor: find a woman not your subordinate. Ask her out on a date. On the phone. Politely. Nobody can fault that. If she accepts, then the rules are different from in the office. (But even then you don’t just grab.)

But I guess I don’t have the mentality of a Cuomo. Long accustomed to getting what he wants. Then again, here he doesn’t seem to have gotten it. Unless we just haven’t heard from women he did shag. But somehow I doubt that. His behavior seems more like that of a guy not getting any.

Now, I like kissing a woman. And feeling a breast, and getting aroused. Et cetera. But the physical sensations are very much secondary to the atmospherics of human intimacy they signify. That she enjoys it. I can’t imagine it gratifying me otherwise; especially not otherwise, when the personal dynamics are the opposite. So it just baffles me that some men do seem to get jollies that way. Very messed up, I think.

Particularly considering the risks. Even if feeling that breast did provide some nanoseconds of thrill (however psychologically perverse), could that remotely have been worth the risk of the repercussions? For a man in Cuomo’s position? It seems insane.

Indeed, he’s now surely in a tighter box. 

The Minneapolis trial — what kind of nation are we?

April 8, 2021

“All men are created equal.” The Supreme Court pediment proclaims “Equal Justice Under Law.” The Constitution begins, “We the people.”

We’ve had four years of trauma, testing this country’s heart and soul. The Minneapolis trial is another test.

Cops have long gotten away with brutality and crime. The Rodney King trial a prime example. Our society cloaks police officers with a powerful mystique and deference. Many idealize them as our bulwark against the abyss. There’s also the traditional “blue wall” of cops circling wagons to protect their own.

The Minneapolis trial presents a supremely important counterstory. Here the blue wall has resoundingly fallen, with officer after officer taking the stand to denounce what their man did. A virtually unprecedented blow against police impunity.

A guilty verdict would cement the trial’s positive societal import. The evidence seems damning. The parade of police witnesses blew away the defense that Chauvin was following his training. And to claim Floyd died from other causes is ridiculous. Chauvin seemed to want him dead; or else simply didn’t care; and shows no remorse.

But juries can be unpredictable.* As salutary as a conviction would be, a failure to convict would be a devastating setback to our collective progress.

I do not want to see people having to take to the streets, yet another time, to protest yet another such outrage. Which can begin to feel pointless and futile. There must come a time when the hammer of justice finally prevails. If it does not prevail here, in this most extreme of cases, when could we ever hope for it?

The right keeps bleating “Freedom!” and about government overreach. But no threat from government is more immediate than its armed representatives who can kill you. No freedom more important than the freedom to go about your life in peace and security. Why isn’t police accountability a conservative rallying cry? (Well, America’s “conservative” movement has simply lost its mind.)

They also bleat about law and order. Floyd’s killing was the antithesis of law and order. If you want law and order, start with the people we hire to enforce it. What does it say if a society condones those very people themselves violating law and order?

That’s not my America. In my America, those people — even those people — especially those people — are accountable to the rule of law and to the citizenry they are entrusted with protecting.

Too often we have failed at that. And, yes, at many other aspects of our foundational ideals. Humans are imperfect. But America’s great virtue is constant improvement. The last four years were a ghastly swerve from that trajectory. The Minneapolis trial can help us return to it, can be a key milestone in our larger story of progress toward a “more perfect union.”

** In the one trial where I sat as an alternate juror, the verdict shocked me.