Archive for July, 2022

Consciousness Revisited

July 29, 2022

At the used book sale, I explained, “I’m buying this because I debated this author on this subject.”

It was David Gelernter, Yale professor and computer science guru.* His book is The Tides of Mind – Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness. At a local appearance I had challenged his assertion that no artificial system could ever be conscious. I said what the brain does, in creating mind, is not magic; an artificial system replicating its functions could replicate the results. Gelernter insisted consciousness comes from neurons and neurons only; no neurons, no consciousness. Yet neurons are physical objects, not magical either; in principle they’re reproducible.

His position that there’s something ineffable about consciousness that bars an artificial version strikes me as a sort of nonscientific mysticism. Evocative of how old-time science, baffled to understand what life is, had recourse to the notion of an inexplicable “elan vital.” Today we know better.

Gelernter is religious. Early on he says, “The scientist explains the origins of the Universe with a logical argument. The religious believer tells a story . . . Only the logical argument has predictive power. Only the story has normative moral content. Only a fool would pronounce one superior.”

Here’s the problem with that. Science’s power in explaining reality is unarguable. But the “normative moral content” of any given religious belief is highly arguable. I view the moral stories told by conventional religions as hopelessly muddled, being based on false premises. So, yes, I do pronounce the scientific perspective superior.

The book’s key concept, as per the subtitle, is that consciousness operates along a spectrum. The top level entails high focus, with memory use disciplined, thought being rational, reflection and self-awareness strong. The mid-level is less focused, memory use ranges freely and occasionally wanders; “thought seeks experience;” emotions and daydreams emerge. At the lower level, “memory takes off on its own,” thought drifts, reflection and self-awareness are weak; emotions bloom; we fall asleep.

Sure; we all experience these varied sorts of mental states. But Gelernter makes far too much of his hierarchy and applies it far too rigidly.

He posits that the top of the spectrum governs early in the day, when one is sharp, and it’s basically downhill from there. I myself feel my brain does work best in the morning. And I can plunge down the spectrum fairly fast, especially late in the day. But we spend very little time at Gelernter’s lowest level; basically just while falling asleep. (Sleep itself, in his system, is something apart.)

He seems to say that at the top of the spectrum emotions are held at bay. That’s nonsense. There is never a time when a normal human being is not experiencing emotions. And Gelernter’s fundamental mistake here is drawing a dichotomy between emotion and reason. They’re inextricably entwined; it’s emotion that supplies the impetus for using reason. While I’m writing this, my rational functioning is in the foreground, but there’s always a substrate of emotion humming along. I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise.

Here’s an example of the didactic way Gelernter applies his system. Referring to John von Neumann, he suggests that a “first rate mathematical genius soars higher in his logical thought than nearly anyone else,” being “in the region of ‘exceptional wide awakeness.'” Serious mathematics does require bouts of intense concentration. But so, in their many varied ways, do many other human undertakings. The idea that von Neumann ascended to some higher level, breaking through the ceiling of Gelernter’s spectrum, strikes me as nonsensical.

Right after this, he quotes a young Napoleon saying he does “a thousand projects every night as I fall asleep.” From that meagre crumb, he contends Napoleon did the opposite of von Neumann, expanding the spectrum at the bottom; “the need for sleep isn’t felt until farther than usual in the down-spectrum trip,” which “keeps a mind afloat and awake that would otherwise have long since sunk into sleep.”

But maybe Napoleon merely suffered from insomnia. I sometimes have a similar “thousand projects” night not because I’m expanding the spectrum’s bottom but because my mind just won’t shut up.

More broadly, Gelernter thinks there are high-focus and low-focus people. The former tune out all the “noise” that distracts the latter. But there’s another side to that coin. “Keats,” he goes on to say, “had a different kind of low-spectrum genius. He was able to reach a state of perfect quiet watching, of near-pure experience where the mind, perfectly dilate, floods with being. The average person is nearly asleep at the point of reaching such a state. But Keats was able to be (just be), yet remain awake and aware.” (His emphasis) This is nonsensical pseudo-profundity.

Gelernter does write endlessly about that low spectrum level when one transitions to sleep. Though again that’s a tiny part of one’s day. Further, he repeatedly describes the mind’s workings there as entailing some coherence; though bizarre, making a certain sense, telling a sort of story. Supplying an example from his own experience, involving eight sequential images, all anchored in reality, with an explanation for each. My own experience is diametrically different. Trying to fall asleep, I’ll sometimes make a conscious (!) effort to stop thinking thoughts altogether. And I’ll start seeing images so random, so meaningless, sometimes grotesque, they obviously were not consciously produced. “Good,” I’ll think; that signals I’m falling asleep. Thus, oddly, I am still awake. But not for long.

This is not a science book; nor exactly a philosophy book. It’s about the workings of mind, consciousness, self, human psychology, all entwined. An effort to supply the insight we’d wish introspection could, but cannot. One cannot look inward because one is already there.

Gelernter’s bete noire is “computationalism” — analogizing the brain to a computer’s hardware with the mind as software running on it — which calls the most intellectually destructive analogy in at least the last century. Yet Gelernter seems to forget it is indeed an analogy, not a description of reality. And the analogy is useful in debunking Cartesian dualism — the idea that mind and brain are separate. Now that’s a destructive idea that has bedeviled thought for many centuries. No, minds don’t work exactly like computers. Yet (as Ray Kurzweil’s book, How to Create a Mind, explained via neuroscience) there are many parallels between the workings of brains and computers.

At the book’s end, Gelernter says (his emphasis) “[t]he spiritually minded person experiences something: the unity of many people, objects, or events — or of everything in the cosmos.” He stresses this is not a belief in underlying unity, but the direct experience of it — “a far more formidable thing. Cosmic unity becomes an emotion.” It makes some “feel the presence of God.” This too is not a (mere) belief —”one can be argued out of a belief, but never out of a feeling.”

That seems flatly untrue. But a “belief,” by definition, has to be based on something (even if wrong). It’s “feeling” that should carry the modifier “mere.” A feeling can be based on nothing at all. Surely it should not trump a “belief.”

Applying his spectrum theory of mental functioning, Gelernter argues that ancient people operated lower on the spectrum more often than most moderns, and “spiritually minded people were more common.” As was the “spiritually inspiring feeling of cosmic unity.” And people were “more emotional” (his quote marks) than “we cold fish.” Thus they “would have been more ‘plugged into’ each other, more apt to feel each other’s feelings.”

As a student of ancient history, I find this bunk. If ancients were better at feeling each other’s feelings, how come they so often practiced shocking barbarity? They did have much human connectedness — within the confines of a tribe or band. Evolution programmed us to stick together with our mates, but to regard all others as threats. Only in modern times have most of us (apart from Russians) grown beyond that, our ambit of sympathy widened to encompass more people less like us. And so man’s inhumanity to man has lessened.

And I don’t buy theories that earlier people had mental lives fundamentally different from ours. I’ve written refuting Julian Jaynes’s notorious “bicameral mind” theory that the modern sort of consciousness only suddenly emerged around 1000 BC. Modern humans evolved tens of thousands of years earlier with minds functioning exactly as ours do now. If anything, they’d have been forced to operate more at the spectrum’s higher end, because it was much more challenging just to stay alive.

The “cosmic unity” idea might sound like an elevated “spiritual” one. But what exactly does “cosmic unity” mean? Gelernter writes of “a transcendent unity among far-flung objects and events . . . which often (though not always [!]) suggests one creator who stands outside his creation.” Not to me it don’t. Indeed, it’s quite a wild leap. Gelernter also says (his emphasis) a “feeling of cosmic unity can make a person feel outside of — over and against — creation.”

All this, if actually saying anything at all, is moonshine.

Is everything in the cosmos interconnected? Well, yes, in all deriving from a single event, the Big Bang; and being embedded in Einsteinian space-time, all made of the same particles, all following unwavering laws of physics. Is there something “spiritual” there? The word seems meaningless. If anything, the facts bespeak an ultimate materialism. Everything in and about the cosmos is anchored in a physical reality. Does any of it suggest a God? Certainly not. God seems wholly superfluous. (As LaPlace told Napoleon, “I have no need of that hypothesis.“)

But is it awesome? Yes. Now that’s a word that does have meaning. The vastness of the cosmos is awesome to contemplate. As are those facts about it I recited. And the fact that I came into existence with a mind to contemplate them. Meanwhile reality’s deepest truths still elude us. Either it had a beginning, or didn’t. Is it infinite, and if not, what lies beyond? Neither conundrum can our minds encompass. Likewise the final mystery: why is there something and not nothing?

Call all this “spiritual” if you like. I prefer to say simply: it is what it is.

* I had another connection to Gelernter: the brother of the Unabomber, who tried to blow him up, had been to my house.

My Full English Breakfast Dinner, and Hot Doggerel

July 27, 2022

Watching some TV show with my wife, we heard the words “full English breakfast.” And, just being goofy, I piped up, “I’d like a full English breakfast.”

“What are you talking about?” she said. “You eat very little for breakfast.”

“Well then,” I replied, “I could have it for dinner.”

So when I came down tonight for dinner, that’s what she presented me with.* Of course it was delicious. What a gal.

Sometimes for dinner it’s hot dogs. When the frankfurter is longer than the bun, she cuts off the ends to make it fit. I call these Procrustean Hot Dogs.

Here’s an interesting hot dog fact (that I heard on NPR’s news quiz show, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me). In the annual July 4 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, the record, by Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, in 2021, was 76 wieners (with buns) in ten minutes. I challenged my very smart wife to guess how many the winner ate in 1980.

She said it must have been much fewer, and guessed ten.

The answer, according to WWDTM, is nine.

But I looked it up and find that the actual number was 9-3/4!

* Including: Eggs, Bacon, Sausage, Baked beans, Fried mushrooms, Fried tomato, Fried toast

Cry, The Beloved Country: South Africa

July 23, 2022

The story was too good to be true. South Africa’s white-minority “apartheid” regime, oppressing the Black majority, was long decried. Then F.W. de Klerk, a reasonable man, came to power. Nelson Mandela, leader of the Blacks’ African National Congress (ANC) was released after 27 years in prison. A great day for optimists when he marched out free, heading a parade. He and de Klerk negotiated a peaceful transition to democratic rule. Millions of Blacks voted, for the first time ever, in 1994, making Mandela president. Who proved a saintly visionary, striving to heal the nation’s wounds and uplift everyone.

Then, like George Washington (and unlike too many African leaders), Mandela retired.

Followed by Thabo Mbeki. No Mandela. Mbeki’s chief claim to fame was his denial that HIV causes AIDS, and concomitant promotion of quack remedies. The resulting death toll horrendous.

Next: Jacob Zuma.

I was flabbergasted they actually elected so obvious a rotter. (That was before America elected Trump.)

South Africa has an indirect system, with the president effectively chosen by ANC insiders. They knowingly picked so totally corrupt a man believing it would mean party time for them.

Like Mbeki, Zuma too had a crackpot health theory. In his case it was a quack notion for why his profligate sex life entailed no STD danger.

Zuma had a golden opportunity to confound expectations and become a hero, merely by being a halfway responsible president. But such opportunities are never taken. Power never makes bad men better (as I wrote awaiting Trump’s inauguration).

And so the grifters hoping to exploit a Zuma regime were duly rewarded. It was open season on the public treasury. So egregious that a new term was coined: state capture.

Zuma’s chief partners in crime were the Gupta brothers, an Indian-born trio of manipulators, to whom he gave free reign in looting public coffers. While the long-suffering Black population, yearning for better lives with their beloved ANC in power, would have to wait longer. Zuma did nothing for them; only for himself and his cronies. South Africa is a mess. Yet the ANC continued winning elections.

After two stinking Zuma terms, in 2018 Cyril Ramaphosa became president. A long-time ANC operator who also had gotten rich thanks to the post-1994 dispensation. But compared to Zuma, Ramaphosa was a saint who somewhat credibly promised to turn a page. Yet he won only by a hairsbreadth — over an ex-wife of Zuma. The ANC’s predatory pro-corruption wing being still very powerful.

A commission investigating state capture, headed by the chief justice, recently issued a blockbuster report detailing the rot under Zuma. Two Guptas, having skedaddled to Dubai, have been arrested there, awaiting extradition. Meantime, in 2021, an order to jail Zuma pending trial for corruption provoked gigantic riots, with hundreds killed and immense property damage that South Africa’s limping economy could ill afford.

But while Ramaphosa is indeed a vast improvement over his predecessor, his halting clean-up efforts leave many observers disappointed and frustrated. A second term for him is in doubt, given the powerful forces within the ANC still arrayed against him. And the ANC may not win its customary majority in the next election. A leading opposition party is the Economic Freedom Fighters, perhaps more accurately labeled the “Rabble Rousers” or “Economic Sanity Fighters.” While the Democratic Alliance, the moderate, middle-of-the-road, responsible opposition party struggles. Typical.

Back to Zuma. I understand greed; and friendship; sort of; but when it comes to Zuma and the Guptas it blows fuses in my brain. Okay, they were pals; “blood brothers” even, I don’t know. But Zuma had huge power independent of them. What hold did they have over him? To give them the run of the country for their own rapacious benefit? Prostituting himself to them?

Philosophers (like Epicurus) have taught that wealth, power, and fame are snares, quests that actually disserve true happiness. But “greed” is an overworked word. It’s a human universal; everyone would rather have more than less. Riches give you nice houses, food, travel, cars; sex. But there’s a point of diminishing returns. Yet what’s less understood about the rich is how wealth is a way to keep score. You want more money not to buy more stuff but to run up your score, which puffs up your ego.

But was Zuma really benefiting himself? He did get wealth and power, but earned not fame but infamy. In what kind of cramped, stunted mentality could his wealth — so obviously ill-gotten, indeed gotten by sacrificing everything for which anyone would actually admire someone — compensate for that sacrifice?

I don’t get it. I must be a fool.

Sleep and Body Rhythms

July 20, 2022

Sleep’s important role in health and longevity has grown increasingly apparent. Sleep well nightly and you put off the Big Sleep.

I was a sickly kid. But now, at 74, my health is great, with no meds. I’ve also been fortunate to always follow a very regular sleep pattern. The two are evidently related.

We all know we’ve got built-in body clocks. But how they work, exactly, has been a tough scientific problem. I recently read a book by Steven Strogatz, Sync – The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order, with a most interesting chapter on sleep.

Experiments have put volunteers in isolation rooms with no time clues. They’d sleep whenever. One researcher (Michel Siffre, in 1972) nearly went nuts partway in, begging to be let out. His collaborators outside disregarded this — dubious ethics, I think.

Anyhow, such experiments have shown our body clocks are not exactly 24 hours — typically a bit longer. But the subjects would not necessarily get into a sleep schedule resembling “normality.” Sometimes staying awake longer, and also sometimes sleeping longer. But here’s the interesting thing. The longer sleeps didn’t typically follow the longer wake intervals. Instead, a longer time awake is often followed by a shorter sleep. There seemed no rhyme or reason to this.

Our natural rhythms also include temperature fluctuations. Body temperature rises and falls during the day, seemingly separately from the body clock governing sleep. However, experiments have now actually revealed that the two are not unconnected. And our biological signal for hitting the sack is not feeling tired or sleepy — it’s when body temperature peaks. Going to sleep at that point in the cycle means sleeping long, with temperature now falling into a trough. When temperature starts rising again, that’s the wake-up alarm.

So even if you were tired after long wakefulness, if you go to bed when temperature will soon rise, that will wake you regardless. This is also the time when cortisol (a hormone) is being pumped out, raising alertness.

This pattern explains a lot of accidents, which tend to occur when people are at work in the wee hours, fighting their body thermometers, with brains not operating optimally. Thus TMI, Chernobyl, Bhopal, Exxon Valdez.

Ever notice how, if you stay awake for a long stretch, you become groggy? But if you push through it and keep awake, the grogginess dissipates and you get a “second wind.” What’s really happening is your body temperature rising back up. Likewise many of us feel drowsy in mid-afternoon. Guess what? Another temperature trough. Temperature is on a regular cycle.

“REM” refers to rapid eye movement, during sleep; it means we’re dreaming. Typically the longest and most intense dreams occur later during the night, before waking. But here again it’s been found that REM sleep does not follow the overall sleep time-picture. Instead, it too is governed by the temperature cycle — occurring just after the body is coldest. That’s why we often seem to wake up from a vivid dream.

But again the question is — how does this work? Do we have some sort of internal clock regulating it? Strogatz says that rather than having a clock, a person might be a clock. That is, such time-keeping is built into every component of the body. Body parts removed and kept alive in a dish still exhibit circadian rhythms.

Yet there seems to be a master clock regulating the whole system, apparently in the part of the brain called the hypothalamus. But how exactly that brain module performs that function remains something of a mystery.

Note that body temperature typically has peaked and is starting to fall just a couple of hours before a typical late evening bedtime. That’s what Strogatz calls a “forbidden zone” where it’s hard to fall asleep. Hence if you go to bed early — for instance, knowing you’ll have to get up early — it doesn’t work. This also accounts for a lot of insomnia — people trying to sleep at the “wrong” times given their body cycles.

But what about light and dark you say? You’re right. Daylight is indeed a powerful cue that keeps our body clocks constantly adjusting to the outside environment. This is especially important because as noted, our circadian rhythms are typically set on a schedule slightly longer than 24 hours. Why, is unclear. But without constant readjustment, we’d be haywire. Which in fact afflicts blind people, 80% of whom experience chronic sleep disorders. And the other 20% are apparently not so blind that their photo receptors can’t register any light at all — even if they cannot “see” it.

Understanding Mass Shootings

July 17, 2022

Yes — another droplet spit into the vast ocean of verbiage on this topic.

We think shooters are nut cases. Obviously they’re not normal. But “mental illness” is too simple a label.

Start with this: “No man is an island.” Though we are, in a physical sense, separated from each other by impenetrable physical barriers. So could you be fine living in isolation from all others, if that suited you? But it almost never does suit — because our long pre-history of living in groups, and surviving by group cohesiveness, programmed our genes for communal living. That’s the import of “no man is an island.”

And someone who feels they’re an island — marooned there involuntarily, exiled there — keenly feels a need to do something about it.

I’ve been reading Francis Fukuyama, a political theorist, one of whose key themes is the universal thirst for recognition — that is, other people acknowledging your dignity and worth. Situating you within that cocoon of social integration. It’s a key driver in political life. And here again, to feel excluded from that roils one’s psyche.

This is largely a problem of modernity. Earlier societies were organized in such ways that it was really impossible for anyone to be an invisible island. Modern societies are more atomized; we are much less embedded in all-enveloping social constructs, much more on our own. Nevertheless, the evolution-instilled human social instinct is still so strong that most people find ways to express it and live connected lives. But some do fall between the cracks — making it a painful challenge to find meaning in their lives.

We recently viewed a documentary about a young man named Tyler Barris, who epitomized this. Comprehensively a loser, not just unable to find a societal role through work, but bereft of human connections. He tried unsuccessfully to become a star video game player. A sometime girl friend was interviewed, but their relationship seemed ephemeral.

Barris was not a mass shooter. Instead, he found he could achieve “evacuations” by “swatting.” Mostly just calling in false bomb threats and then reveling in the news coverage of the resulting evacuations, and the attention he got on Twitter. One time he targeted a TV news station itself. It gave him the sense of being able to control something that mattered in the world; a way to make himself matter. Make himself seen (he didn’t really try to stay hidden). Even though others were not seeing him as a human being of dignity and worth but, rather, a little prick. But that was better than nothing.

Barris shrugged off a brief jail sentence. He started doing swatting gigs for hire by other losers. One involved a 911 call summoning police to a supposed hostage situation in someone’s home. A man was shot dead; triggering two later suicides. Barris, hardly bothering to cover his tracks, got twenty years.

His kind of mentality may provide some insight into the heads of mass shooters too. Who decide that’s the only way to make themselves matter to other people. Even while others don’t actually matter to them, as people. We call that psychopathy. Certainly true of Barris.

While psychiatric intervention might help, this seems more a problem for social workers. To identify people suffering from this syndrome, working to counter their feelings of isolation and insignificance. But that’s a very tall order indeed. It goes with the territory that such people are “under the radar” — unseen. (Until it’s too late.)

Of course this is not a total explanation for mass shootings. And focusing on mental health is a distractive refuge for those who’ll do anything to avoid truly addressing our gun violence problem. All the mental health efforts in the world would barely nibble at the social pathology described here.

But we could readily make it much harder for its sufferers to get guns. Especially guns whose only purpose is killing a lot of people fast. Our allowing anyone to buy such guns is insane.

Now that’s a real mental health problem America has got.

The Bong Bong Problem

July 15, 2022

Ferdinand Marcos, elected president of the Philippines in 1965, became a vicious kleptocratic dictator ruling by violence and torture. Overthrown in 1986.

Now his son, Ferdinand Junior, known as “Bong Bong,” has been elected president. His infamous 92-year-old mother Imelda Marcos (she of the great shoe collection) preened at the inauguration.

It was a two-to-one landslide over the runner-up (seemingly a good sober candidate). I don’t know if Bong Bong is a chip off the old block, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and the auguries aren’t encouraging. It’s not that Philippine voters have forgotten the Marcos nightmare. They actually seem to have romanticized the memory into some halcyon dreamscape (according to polls reported in The Economist).

Bong Bong succeeds Rodrigo Duterte, another charming character (not) whose signature policy was combating drugs by murdering anyone accused of involvement. Many thousands — many of them innocent — were killed. Duterte’s daughter has just been elected vice president. Oh, and Duterte also warred against press freedom, a lead Bong Bong seems to be following.

Why do people vote for such creeps?

Like Boris Johnson, who’s finally been forced out as Britain’s prime minister (blaming everyone but himself), after much of his government quit, no longer able to stomach his parade of misdeeds and lies. Johnson was a thoroughly irresponsible chancer from the get-go; his leadership the degradation of a once-proud nation. At least the denouement shows Britain’s Conservative Party still puts some value on truth over lies. (Whereas our Republicans have put a huge lie at their core.)

Johnson’s signature policy was Brexit — Britain exiting the European Union — via a 2016 referendum. His campaigning for it vaulted him to power. A big problem ensued. Brexit portended a hard customs border between Ireland (in the EU) and Northern Ireland. Johnson swore he wouldn’t permit that — until he did, agreeing a deal putting the customs border in the Irish Sea. Hardly a solution, which he then sought to violate anyway.

The Brexit referendum itself was a stupendously boneheaded voter blunder, obvious at the time. A mindless anti-establishment lashing out, against the EU and EU-loving elites. Also venting hostility toward immigration.* It’s become increasingly clear how much Brexit impoverishes Britain — especially those lower socioeconomic echelons who voted for it.

And so it goes.

Yeats wrote the epigraph for our times — “the center cannot hold . . . the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In France’s recent parliamentary election, President Macron’s responsible, reasonable, centrist party lost to the extremes — LePen’s populists with a witch’s brew of Brexit-like policies, and an alliance headed by Mélenchon, always called a “left-wing firebrand.” Firebrands start fires.

Colombia has elected a leftist radical president over a right-wing asshole, after sensible moderate candidates were eliminated in the first round. An all too familiar story, lately seen too in Peru, then Chile.

And how many countries get suckered into electing “strongmen” whose chief strength is crushing democracy? Ortega; Maduro; Erdogan; Putin; Lukashenko; Orban; Modi; Sisi; Bukele. Brazil’s Bolsonaro will try to pull a Trump when he loses this year’s election. Mexico’s Lopez Obrador is not too authoritarian, mainly just a feckless jerk, whom his people love as though sainted. Sri Lanka did see off the Rajapaksas, only to bring them back; plunging the country into total chaos and upchucking them again. Even in Italy the center seems to have collapsed.

The late 20th century saw a great expansion of democracy. Since then a great rollback. Dictators have upped their game, but in large part it’s voters collaborating.

Humans evolved to thrive in social groups, instilling us with good detection instincts for liars and creeps. But somehow those instincts often fail when it comes to politics. As in America, in 2016. We did manage to reverse that act of political insanity — temporarily at least. Now we’re learning more about Trump’s despicable coup attempt, to overthrow our democracy based on a giant lie, all of which his party whitewashes and defends. You’d think that would destroy its legitimacy. But no, it’s poised to win control of Congress in November’s elections!

And so it goes. Voters — you gotta love ’em.

* Somewhat ironically, Britain’s front rank politicians now include the names Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Nadhim Zahawi, Kwasi Kwarteng, and Sadiq Khan.

Daniel Sloss’s 100% Rule for Relationships — The Perfect as the Enemy of the Good

July 12, 2022

Daniel Sloss wished his girlfriend would just die.

Saving him the stress of a break-up. His 2018 Netflix stand up comedy show is very funny. Also very serious.

His basic theme: most people waste their lives with a sub-optimal partner. When at age 7 he asked his dad the meaning of life, the answer likened it to a jigsaw puzzle, which we assemble without having the box picture to reference. So we work from the corners and edges, eventually filling in the middle.

And in a relationship, the question is how the other person fits into one’s puzzle, and helps complete the picture. But Sloss — at 26 — felt that a relationship actually distorts the picture, from what one’s true self would fill in. Thus subverting the true self.

He did manage to extricate from that girlfriend he’d wished would die — in his telling, a girlfriend from Hell — but the experience seems to have poisoned his take on the whole subject. He deemed it okay to be single, and thus true to one’s self, rather than compromising it in a relationship. You have to love yourself first and foremost. He posited that if the other person doesn’t love 100% of you — that is, including all your bad points — they don’t really love you. And while you might seemingly love each other for a few months, after that initial rush, not likely.

Sloss stressed more than once that there are 7-1/2 billion people out there, the perfect partner surely among them, so why compromise with one less than perfect? Actually, about half that 7-1/2 billion are the wrong gender; most are in the wrong age bracket; or not single; or don’t speak your language; et cetera. Checking out more than a few is logistically impossible. And your attraction to an ideal match might not be mutual.

So now we’re really looking for a needle in a haystack. Sloss’s shtick exemplifies the perfect as the enemy of the good. While he held that nothing short of a 100% match would do, I’d suggest accepting 90%. Maybe even 60%.

I spent twelve years with a gal who’d soon fallen out of love with me. That made for a tortuous relationship; when she finally left me for another man, I was partly devastated, but also partly relieved. And, apropos Sloss’s talk of wasting one’s life, I did see a wasted decade. Yet it made me a deeper human being — and paved the way for a better future. After that, I was ready to accept 60%. Though I lucked out, and got 100.

I did love myself, but wanted more. Yes, singlehood is okay, but we are biologically programmed by evolution to crave connection to others. My life would be far less meaningful, to me, if not deeply shared with another.

And if another person alters your jigsaw puzzle from what it would otherwise have been, that’s not a bad thing. Your original picture was not an immutable sacred one. It was instead a work in progress; and we grow as people when our puzzle picture is changed by other people crashing into it. That, indeed, is life.

Someone can love you without loving literally everything about you. Sloss himself also suggested that the other person’s quirks you don’t love are actually part of the overall package you do love. Seemed at odds with his general message. But no two people can ever be perfectly compatible. The key is for both, wanting a mutually rewarding relationship, to accept each other’s picture, and work with it.

And while no two people are entirely alike, Sloss talked as though there’s always a fundamental incompatibility. But though we say “everybody is special,” the reality is that most people are not that special. There’s a standard model. And falling in love without a perfect match is extremely common; there’s even a bit of truth in the notion of opposites attracting. People’s differences can complement each other. Meantime there’s a basic quality of humanness that everybody shares, and part of it is that good will can overcome differentness. All this explains why most people do wind up more or less permanently in a relationship with another. It obviously must satisfy some deep human need.

Many writers have eloquently extolled the virtues of solitude and solitariness. Yet loneliness is a major societal problem; kind of an epidemic. Life is about maximizing feelings of well-being, and loneliness is a big impediment, a source of widespread pain. (It has something to do with the opioid crisis.) If the alternative is loneliness, then accepting — even embracing — a 60% relationship can make much sense.

Steven Pinker on Rationality

July 8, 2022

(This was my July 5 Albany Library book talk; slightly condensed)

Steven Pinker is a Harvard Professor of Psychology; a 600-pound intellectual gorilla of our times; author of a string of blockbuster books. His latest is Rationality – What it is – Why it Seems Scarce – Why it Matters.

In 2011, he wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. AndI recall where a radio interviewer was, like, Pinker, are you out of your mind? Violence declining? But of course that was well supported by evidence.

So now it’s Rationality. And many will similarly say, Pinker, are you out of your mind?

Evidence for human irrationality does abound. And this might seem the worst of times for a book celebrating rationality, with two big elephants in the room stomping on it.

One is American politics. Some voters have always behaved irrationally, yet the system functioned pretty well nevertheless. But now the inmates have taken over the asylum. Or at least one of our two parties; and recalling Yeats’s line: the best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Then there’s the international sphere. The Better Angels book emphasized three quarters of a century without wars among major nations. Russia’s Ukraine war blows that up. An assault on rationality.

But maybe, with the world seemingly gone mad, this book on rationality is actually timely.

The core of rationality is logic. Pinker gives the example of a logic puzzle, involving four coins. I’ll omit details; most people get it wrong. But Pinker says we’re better at applying logic when it “involves shoulds and shouldn’ts of human life rather than arbitrary symbols” like in the puzzle. He calls this our “ecological rationality,” our horse sense (though horses don’t have it to anything like our degree).

Here’s a simple logic problem that even many mathematicians, including Paul Erdos, have gotten wrong. The famous Monty Hall problem. On “Let’s Make a Deal,” there are three doors, one hiding a car and two hiding goats. You pick Door #1. Then Monty opens Door #3 to reveal a goat. Should you switch to Door #2? Most people say the one-in-three odds haven’t changed. Wrong! Monty opened Door #3 knowing it had a goat. He didn’t open #2 which, you therefore now know has a 2 in 3 chance of hiding a car. So you should switch.

Pinker emphasizes that rationality is goal oriented, saying “Do you want things or don’t you? If you do, rationality is what allows you to get them.” This entails using knowledge, which he defines as “justified true belief.” People are again logical and rational (generally) in everyday life, but too often fall down on the “justified true belief” thing.

Pinker suggests that seeking an ultimate philosophical reason for reason is misguided. Any postmodernist’s attempt to argue against reason implicitly concedes that rationality is the standard by which any arguments, even arguments against rationality itself, stand or fall. (Similarly, the assertion that nothing is really true would — if correct — apply to that assertion itself.)

And rationality is not just one among many alternative ways of seeing things. Not, as Pinker puts it, “a mysterious oracle that whispers truths in our ear.” Indeed, “reason is the only way we can know anything about anything.”

There’s a common idea that reason and emotion are separate, at odds with each other. Pinker quotes David Hume that reason is, and should be, “the slave of the passions.” While neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has shown that emotions give us the motivations for deploying reason, so the two are inextricably linked. Then Pinker notes that some of our goals can conflict with others; and “you can’t always get what you want.”

We furthermore have goals we don’t even choose, programmed into our genes by evolution. One rational goal may be a slim, healthy body; also making you more sexually attractive, thus advancing a gene-based goal of reproducing. While conflicting with a desire to eat a delicious dessert — which also serves an ancestral genetic goal, to load up on calories when you can. We use our reasoning minds to mediate among conflicting goals.

But of course not with perfect rationality. Scientific work, notably by Kahnemann and Tversky, has revealed many seemingly irrational human cognitive biases. Also programmed into us by evolution, during our long hunter-gatherer past. For example, we fear potential losses more than valuing gains. So may pass up a chance to win $5 if it means an equal chance to lose $4. Sounds irrational. But for our early ancestors, a “loss” could well mean death. And Pinker poses the question, what could happen to you today making you better off? What could happen making you worse off? A lot worse off? So maybe our loss avoidance bias is not so irrational.

And even if, in isolation, some of our ancestral cognitive biases still seem irrational, realize that we’re talking about short-cut heuristics enabling us to make quick intuitive decisions about stuff coming at us every hour of the day. If you had to think your way rationally through all of it, you couldn’t even function. But using that repertoire of innate heuristics, we do function quite well. Making their use quite rational in a broader overall perspective.

Now, what about morality? Hume famously said you can’t get an ought from an is — in other words, how things are (i.e., facts) can’t tell us how they should be (moral laws). Thus there can be no true moral laws, only opinions. Some solve this by invoking God as the source of morality. But that was knocked down by Socrates, in Euthyphro, asking whether something is moral because God says so, or does he say so because it is moral? If the former, why submit to his arbitrary edicts? But if God does have reasons for his moral rules, why not just embrace those reasons and skip the middleman?

Meantime, Pinker says morality is all about how we behave in relation to others. And there we can rationally recognize everyone’s right not to be unjustifiably messed with. If you feel free to bash others, you can’t say they cannot bash you. Thus Pinker posits impartiality as key — nobody’s personal perspective can override those of others. Which is basically the golden rule.

And note that this does not mean self-sacrifice. It’s actually rational from the standpoint of self-interest. Because it makes you feel good about yourself, and also makes a world that’s better for everyone, including you.

There’s a chapter on critical thinking. Pinker catalogs a host of traps we fall into: the straw man argument, moving the goal posts, what-aboutism, ad-hominem arguments, and so forth. Alas such things “are becoming the coin of the realm” in modern intellectual life. And Pinker quotes Leibnitz in the 1600s envisioning a world where all arguments would be resolved by saying, “let us calculate.” Lyndon Johnson liked to quote, “Come let us reason together.” Yet Pinker comments that life is not that simple, and doesn’t work by formal logic. We know what words mean, but applying them in the real world can be challenging. You can get in a lot of trouble nowadays trying to define the word “woman.”

Another chapter deals with probability and randomness. Many people have only a vague sense of what probability really entails. Do you fault the weatherman who said there’s a 10% chance of rain, and you get soaked? Or the political analyst who gave Hillary a 70% probability of winning? And we tend to judge an event’s probability by the availability heuristic, another Kahnemann-Tversky cognitive bias. That is, we judge how likely something is by how easily examples come to mind. Like with plane crashes.

In a state of nature, lacking better information, that’s not necessarily irrational. But modernity does give us better information, telling us plane crashes are much rarer than car crashes. Yet many people operate on the opposite assumption. And the availability heuristic scares people off from nuclear power — we vividly recall a few high profile accidents (which actually killed very few) — while ignoring the tens of thousands of deaths caused annually by air pollution from conventional power plants. They don’t come to our attention. Pinker calls the news media an “availability machine,” serving up stories which feed our impression of what’s common in a way that’s sure to mislead. (It’s why people always think crime is rising.)

The book goes through many examples of how we commonly misjudge probabilities. For example, it’s reported that a third of fatal accidents occur at home. Does that mean homes are very dangerous? No; it’s just that we spend a lot of time there. We confuse the probability that a given fatal accident occurred at home with the probability that a fatal accident will occur while at home. Two very different things.

Or how about this? A majority of bicycle accidents involve boys. Does that suggest boys ride more recklessly? Or — that boys ride more than girls?

We also overrate the significance of coincidences. I’m often at my computer typing, with the radio on. Is it spooky when I hear a word on the radio just as I’m typing the same word? Not really. I type a lot of words, and hear a lot of words. So such coincidences are bound to occur regularly. Even sometimes with obscure words. My favorite instance: Equatorial Guinea mentioned on the radio just as I was working up a coin from that country. What are the odds? Well, finite.

There’s a chapter on Bayesian reasoning, named for Thomas Bayes, an 18th century thinker. It’s all about how added information should modify our predictions. Like in the Monty Hall problem: his opening one door added information. A key concept is the “base rate.” Suppose 1% of women have a certain disease. There’s a test for it, 90% accurate. Suppose a woman tests positive. What is the chance she has the disease? Most people, including doctors, give it a high probability — forgetting the base rate, which is again only 1%. Bayesian math here tells us that with a disease that rare, a test 90% accurate will produce about ten times more false positives than true ones. So the gal’s likelihood of having the disease is only about 9%. In Bayesian lingo, the 1% is the “prior” — prior information giving us expectations we modify with further information — the test.

One of the most hated theories of our time, Pinker says, is “rational choice theory.” Associated with Homo Economicus, the idea that people act to maximize self-interest. Well, of course we know they do; yet don’t always. Pinker cites an experiment where money-filled wallets were dropped, and most got returned. However — was that really against self-interest? Again, most people feel good about themselves when doing the right thing; shameful and guilty otherwise. And what is life about, if not feelings? Pinker comments that rational choice theory “doesn’t so much tell us how to act in accord with our values as how to discern our values by observing how we act.”

So far I’ve talked about making decisions and choices for ourselves. But it’s another thing when dealing with someone else who’s also trying to maximize their self-interest. This is game theory, which Pinker says explains a lot of behavior that might seem irrational. He mentions the game of chicken, which I once wrote a poem about:

Here’s the trick to playing chicken:

You just keep driving straight,

And don’t swerve, ever.

The other guy will always swerve first.

You’ve got to be crazier than the other guy.

And if the other guy is crazier than you,

And doesn’t swerve,

And you’re killed in a fiery crash,

So be it.

The classic illustration for game theory is “the prisoner’s dilemma.” Two partners in crime are interrogated separately. Each is told that if he rats on the other, he’ll go free, and the other gets ten years. If both talk, each gets six years. If neither talks, each gets six months. So collectively they’re better off staying mum, but only if both do, and neither knows what the other will do. Self interest for each says talk. And if both talk, they’re screwed with six year sentences.

There’s seemingly no good solution. But if the game is repeated, it turns out the best strategy is tit-for-tat — betraying a partner only if previously they betrayed you. And in fact much of human social life resembles this. We indeed behave toward others like it’s a repeated series of prisoner’s dilemma; and that’s why social cooperation tends to prevail. We still can get “the tragedy of the commons,” where individual self-interest ruins things for everybody. But that’s not actually so common. People mostly restrain themselves.

Next topic: correlation does not mean causation. The concept of causation, says Pinker, is at the heart of science — figuring out the true causes of things. So we can do something about them.

Pinker likes to put some humor in his books. A husband couldn’t satisfy his wife in bed. They consult a rabbi. He suggests they hire a buff young man to wave a towel over them in bed. It doesn’t work. So next the rabbi suggests switching: the young man shtups the wife while the husband waves the towel. An lo, great results. So the husband declares to the young man: “Schmuck! Now that’s how you wave a towel.”

And that’s how Pinker illustrates the concept of causation.

So finally he gets to the question: what’s wrong with people? Saying we have a “pandemic of poppycock.” Belief in Satan, miracles, ESP, ghosts, astrology, UFOs, homeopathy, QAnon, 2020 election fraud, replacement theory. And when science produced one of its greatest near-miracles — Covid vaccines — a lot of of Americans said no thanks.

Pinker acknowledges that all the logical and cognitive pitfalls he discussed play some role. But none of that could have predicted QAnon. He also won’t blame social media, pointing out that conspiracy theories and viral falsehoods are probably as old as language. Look at the Bible — talk about fake news. Meantime, even the most flagrant conspiracy mongers still behave, in mundane day-to-day life, with great rationality. So what indeed is going on?

For one thing, rationality can be a nuisance, producing unwelcome answers. Pinker quotes Upton Sinclair: it’s hard to get someone to understand something if their income depends upon their not understanding it. So we use motivated reasoning to reach a preferred conclusion. Indeed, Pinker says the true adaptive function of our reasoning ability may be to win arguments: “We evolved not as intuitive scientists but as intuitive lawyers.” Thus confirmation bias: we embrace any supposed information that confirms a cherished belief, while dismissing or disregarding anything discordant.

However, Pinker suggests the rational pursuit of goals needn’t necessarily encompass “an objective understanding of the world.” Which might conflict with, for example, a goal of fitting in with your peer group (a big propellant for confirmation bias). Pinker calls this “expressive rationality” — adopting beliefs based not on truth but as expressions of a person’s moral and cultural identity. (A related word perhaps strangely doesn’t appear in the book: groupthink.)

Pinker focuses here on our political polarization, between what have really become “sociocultural tribes.” Resembling religious sects “held together by faith in their moral superiority and contempt for opposing sects.” True of the woke left, but especially Republicans, now epitomizing members of a religious cult — whose sense of selfhood depends upon their not understanding that their deity is a stinking piece of shit.

But most Americans actually consider themselves less susceptible to cognitive biases than the average person. That’s the Dunning-Kruger effect — people with deficient thinking skills lack the thinking skill to recognize their own deficiency.

So Pinker says the paradox of how we can be both so rational and so irrational lies in self-aggrandizing motivation. Just as the core of morality is impartiality, likewise with rationality, one must transcend self-interest. I try to apply an ideology of reality — shaping my beliefs on the facts I see — rather than letting my beliefs shape the facts I see. But that does not come naturally to most people.

As Pinker notes, the most obvious counter-example is religion. Yet this book about rationality has relatively little to say about religion. Perhaps Pinker feared turning too many people away from his message. But “faith,” as Mark Twain put it, means believing what you know ain’t so. Believing things despite lack of evidence; even in defiance of evidence. And Pinker does say, “I don’t believe in anything you have to believe in.”

But what does it really mean to believe something anyway? An interesting question. Many religious people believe they’re going to Paradise. Yet few are in any hurry to depart. Pinker distinguishes beliefs consciously constructed versus intuitive convictions we feel in our bones. And we divide the world into two zones: hard factual reality, where our beliefs tend to be accurate and we act rationally; and a zone where reality is more elusive, a zone of mythology, not undermining our day-to-day functioning. There, even holding a false belief can be rational in the sense of serving certain goals — making one feel good, tribal solidarity again, or avoiding fear of death.

Pinker does fault our society for failing to sufficiently inculcate some of science’s foundational principles (which contradict religion): that the universe is indifferent to human concerns, that everything is governed by basic laws and forces, that the mind is something happening in the brain. Thus ruling out an immortal soul.

But, ever the optimist, he also reminds us how much rationality is actually out there. Some people distrust vaccines, but not antibiotics (and so much else in modern medicine and science). And culture can evolve. Ours has evolved tremendously; a lot of what was acceptable not so long ago is no longer acceptable. (There may be some overcorrection.)

It’s a battle against what Pinker sees as a “tragedy of the rationality commons.” Wherein self-interested and self-motivated argumentation gobbles up all the space. Yet he thinks the greater community can mobilize against this; for example, internet media in particular have awakened to the problems, roused by two big recent alarm bells: misinformation about Covid, threatening public health, and about the 2020 election result, threatening our democracy.

The final chapter is titled “Why Rationality Matters.” As if that still needs answering. Pinker presents a whole catalog of how common mistakes of rationality cause concrete harm. He cites one study identifying 368,000 people killed between 1970 and 2009 from blunders in critical thinking. I said to myself: really? Only 368,000? And of course countless Americans died from Covid irrationality.

Yet still, immense technological progress, improving quality of life (and its length) has been achieved through rationality. Likewise our moral progress, in a great roll-back of cruel unjust practices. Pinker says that in researching this, his greatest surprise was how often the first domino was reasoned argument. Very powerful after all.

I would add that globally speaking, a huge factor propelling human rationality has been the spread of education (the Dunning-Kruger effect notwithstanding).

Well, it might seem like I’ve veered back and forth between positive and negative. But I’ll conclude with the book’s final words: “The power of rationality to guide moral progress is of a piece with its power to guide material progress and wise choices in our lives. Our ability to eke increments of well-being out of a pitiless cosmos and to be good to others despite our flawed nature depends on grasping impartial principles that transcend our parochial experience.”

That is, rationality. Humanity’s best idea.

Introducing a Revolutionary Device to Save Civilization from Lies

July 4, 2022

Lies are as old as language. We once thought the internet would make us smarter, by providing access to a world of information. But it has weaponized disinformation. We’re having an epistemology crisis, many people falling into quicksands of falsehoods, or not knowing what to believe. Threatening the underpinnings of democracy and civilization itself.

But imagine having a device you can rely on to sort truth from lies. Well, now it’s here! Three leading technology firms have joined in an unprecedented alliance to create the Goopplesoft AI Truthfulness Oracular Revealer (GATOR). Just point it at any information source — a TV, computer, smartphone screen, newspaper, etc. — or your Uncle Harry — for an instant reality check.

This is not virtual reality, or artificial reality, but real reality. Where two plus two equals four. If someone says five, the lie will be exposed. So will every other kind of untruth.

The GATOR comes in three attractive colors: baby-bottom pink, glaucous blue, and boiled-frog green. With an equally attractive price of just $99.95!

How does it work? Not like conventional “lie detectors,” which are so problematic as to be mis-named. GATOR instead uses Artificial Intelligence (AI). Such systems have been advancing for a long time. A basic approach has been “deep learning,” like where you feed a program a zillion cat pictures, from which it trains itself to recognize another picture as showing a cat. Of course such a system is limited; it can’t identify a dog.

But now researchers have been developing “foundation models,” with broader capabilities. One method is to feed in millions of words of text. The program hides a word from itself; tries to guess the word; then examines the result. Repeat millions of times and the system not only develops deep intuitions about language, but even what amounts to some understanding of the world.

The Economist magazine recently focused on this. The cover art (see picture) was created not by a human but by an AI system — instructed with nothing but the headline!

Such AI principles power the GATOR. Having access to a vast corpus of information about the real world, which has been uploaded to the Cloud. When asked to evaluate any assertion, the device will search through that gigantic database, finding every relevant fact, integrating them all with its own basic knowledge, and producing an answer that has a correctness probability of virtually 100%.

So just point your GATOR at some TV broadcast — Fox News, for example. Or some politician — Donald Trump, for example. Or at any piece of text, any social media post, any website, or at any person bloviating in real time. You’ll know instantly whether what you’re seeing or hearing is true or false.

Just think how useful this will be with regard to advertisements. You can even bring it to church; point it at the preacher.

Admittedly many questions don’t have factual true-or-false answers. GATOR can’t tell you whether abortion is moral. But a lot of important questions — despite being widely contested — do have actual answers. The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Vaccines don’t cause autism. For those we shouldn’t need AI. But apparently many unassisted human brains do need such help.

Indeed, GATOR will change the world. Resolving that age-old conundrum, “Who are you gonna believe — me, or your lying eyes?”

The trouble with this country is . . .

July 1, 2022


I used to think bemoaning low voter turnouts was misguided. Because non-voters are the less engaged, less informed, not likely to enhance the electorate’s collective wisdom.

More recent history has changed my mind. What were once dismissed as fringe extremist views now hog the public square. The internet is a big factor, giving them a louder magaphone.* But voting proclivities are also crucial, with ideological zealots the more motivated to show up.

Thus moderate middle-of-the-road viewpoints get shoved aside by the extremes. Especially in primaries, where candidates are chosen. There turnouts are much lower than for general elections, because less informed voters don’t grasp their importance; in many cases it’s the primary that matters more. America being so gerrymandered, November elections are often foregone formalities, with real decisions made in primaries. And with primary turnouts so low, zealots can run amok.

Look at evangelical Christians. They vote. There’s almost no such thing as a non-voting evangelical. Giving them political mojo way greater than their actually small numbers might suggest. They’re only something like 15% of the population, but because they all vote, they call the tune in the Republican party, through its primaries; and parlay that nationally because their high turnouts also enable Republicans to win elections they’d lose if participation were more equal.

That’s how they succeeded in overturning Roe v. Wade, in the teeth of majority opinion. The anti-abortionists simply voted more. Trump won in 2016 by a relative handful of votes, supplied by high-turnout evangelical zealots, while millions of normal folks stayed home. And Trump packed the Supreme Court to overturn Roe.

Voting’s importance is highlighted by that history; and by the great Republican project of handicapping opposition voters and then further trying to corrupt the results. This evil is best combated by burying it with votes.

Highly mindful that throughout most of human history (and in so many places even today), ordinary people were powerless, voting is for me a sacrament. Asalient act of participation in social solidarity with my fellow citizens. It’s one of humanity’s mightiest inventions, that changed the world. It’s tragic that so many people take it so lightly.

They’ll say voting for one bunch of politicians over another is pointless. Even seeing refusal to vote as somehow high-minded. Such nihilistic cynicism disregards what voting actually is. If those politicians are useless it’s because people reward what they do by voting for them. It’s voters who are the problem. And the answer, surely, is not to not vote; but instead not only to vote, but to vote perspicaciously.

Another syndrome is a feeling of powerlessness, that one’s vote doesn’t matter, and it’s all controlled by big money anyway. True, mathematically a single vote won’t likely affect the outcome. But the outcome does matter a lot, and it’s determined by all our votes collectively. And while money has power, it can’t force your vote. Political annals are full of candidates who spent millions on campaigns, and lost.

Admittedly too many voters seem unable to distinguish responsible from irresponsible candidates, even good from evil. And in many nations, reasonable moderate centrist candidates often don’t even get enough votes to make a runoff, leaving a choice between extremes. But despite all this, we’d still be better off if more people voted. Better a muddled middle than giving zealots free reign.

Feelings of powerlessness particularly afflict Blacks. It’s true they still get a pretty raw deal, in a lot of ways — making it all the harder to understand their failure to fully wield their greatest weapon, the vote. To understand why so many just don’t bother. There are numerous obstacles, but a lot more Blacks would be able to vote if they were sufficiently motivated and realized its importance.

If every one of them did vote, this would be a different (and better) country.

* A typo, I meant “megaphone,” but when I saw what I’d typed, I decided to leave it.