Archive for the ‘life’ Category

The Ginsburg seat: into the abyss

September 19, 2020

We were already at Armageddon. Pandemic and economic collapse, schools closed, racial turmoil, and our political tribalism climaxing with the most divisive and consequential election ever, likely headed for a fought-over result.

And now this. Armageddon squared. Buckle your seatbelts, it will be hellacious.

Weeks ago I wrote a blog post hypothesizing Justice Ginsburg’s death just after a Trump election defeat — and suggesting nonviolent resistance to stop his nominee’s confirmation. But now Republicans can’t be stopped from ramming it through.

The religious right has fought forty years for this, and won’t be deterred from grabbing what’s probably their last nick-of-time opportunity. A Supreme Court majority ending the right to abortion. Which only a narrow minority of Americans actually supports. Such a ruling, in this febrile political climate, would be insanely divisive, shredding the Court’s already frayed legitimacy, and indeed that of our entire civic edifice.

They don’t care, obsessed with this one issue. Willing to burn the house down to get their way on it.

Trump’s likeliest court nominee is Amy Coney Barrett, who seems to feel her religious beliefs supersede the constitution and rule of law. Putting such a person on the Supreme Court is also insane. But why not go for broke?

Only 27 years ago Justice Ginsburg was confirmed by a vote of 96 to 3. That was in a very different country. We’ve always had intense political battles, to be sure, but with all sides committed to bedrock democratic values. That meant accepting pluralism, recognizing opponents’ legitimacy. But Republicans have given up on that. Exploiting levers of power to illegitimately manipulate the system. Like trying to win elections by keeping as many citizens as possible from voting.

And seizing a Supreme Court majority to undo Roe v. Wade, likewise contravening the essence of democratic culture. Simply filling a vacancy might have been legitimate — except for their having previously stolen a seat by blocking Obama from filling it. Their dishonest pretext for that should apply equally to the present vacancy, but of course they’ll hypocritically compound the dishonesty by flouting their own precedent.

Pro-lifers rationalize all this as necessary to combat the supervening moral evil of abortion. But such ends-justify-means thinking is always morally fraught. While a rational analysis of the abortion issue makes it far from black-and-white. And ironically, a Guttmacher Institute study found no link between a state’s abortion restrictions and its abortion rate. A new factor here is increasing use of abortion pills, with no office visits. Probably making the anti-abortion crusade doomed anyway.

Meantime pro-lifers’ refusal to consider the consequences of their single-mindedness is itself profoundly immoral. Consequences like degrading our civic culture by putting a sociopath in the White House. Undermining America’s character as a democratic society founded on truth and reason. This has global impacts on human lives. Two hundred thousand of which — not embryos — have been lost so far in America’s Covid-19 disaster, most of them thanks to Trump being president.

Thanks to the so-called “pro-life” movement.

Rhapsody in Blue

September 17, 2020

I’m no music buff. But being human I enjoy music; mainly music inspiring positive emotion. Often supplying my own words to go with it.

I visit New York City for a yearly midtown event (pre-covid). And hurrying through the rumbustious streets of this city of cities, my inner ear always hears Rhapsody in Blue. Setting the experience to music.

What a pleasure to find in The Humanist magazine an article about Rhapsody by arts editor Daniel Thomas Moran. Discussing its 1924 composition by George Gershwin. But also its meaning. Moran beautifully expresses my own feelings evoked by this music.

It was a sound track for New York, but more, for all of America and what it represented. I can’t improve on Moran’s words:

“[I]t embodies all the hope and exuberance of America at its finest. It was the Jazz Age and the Industrial Age, and the time of an American artistic renaissance in culture and literature . . . .

“It was a time when all our best years seemed ahead of us, when the cauldron of culture and national identity and the embrace by all of that thing that we felt was American was at full boil, in full blossom.

“[W]hen we as a nation and a people seemed to be lifted skyward both literally and figuratively. We were strong and sure and passionate, inspiration was abundant, and we were willing to do the work and take all the risks.”

Yes, this is what I hear in the music. But notice that the foregoing is written in the past tense. That American spirit of Rhapsody in Blue did endure for several decades more — but then lost steam. And in the last few years has fallen off a cliff. Today the country’s psychic ethos is very different. No longer is Rhapsody the anthem of a vibrant American heart and soul. Instead we have the empty, truculent mockery of “Make America Great Again.”

Yet I will end with the words Moran did: “Even in the exuberant echoing vibrato of the opening notes, we can recognize the distant sounds of hope.”

Economics and sex

September 10, 2020

(NOTE: the following was actually written before the pandemic (I have a backlog). Question for discussion: how is this analysis altered, if at all, by the new economic environment created by the pandemic?)

I heard Professor Paul Hohenberg review Binyamin Applebaum’s book, The Economists’ Hour. That title plays off “The Children’s Hour” with a hint that economists don’t do much better. The book chronicles recent decades when they had much influence on policy. Hohenberg says two things ended that: the 2008 financial crisis, leaving economists with egg on their faces; and Trump’s election, blowing up the whole idea of relying on expertise.

Government used to be dominated by lawyers, Hohenberg noted. But that was when it didn’t do much. That changed with the Depression, WWII, and the rise of the welfare state, with government now seen as managing the economy.

The basic challenge there is stability. Its textbook is John Maynard Keynes’s 1936 opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Positing a tradeoff between unemployment and inflation. If unemployment is low, businesses must compete for staff, driving up wages, which must be recouped through raising prices — inflation. Which tends to feed on itself by shrinking the value of paychecks, driving workers to demand still higher pay. It was thought some optimal unemployment level would keep things in balance.

But the ’70s brought “stagflation,” high unemployment coupled with high inflation, breaking Keynes’s law. The explanation, Hohenberg says, was demographic. Baby Boomers reaching adulthood flooded the workforce. Also women, now much freer to work outside the home. These extra working hands produced much wealth and higher living standards, but the economy couldn’t create new jobs fast enough, hence high unemployment. While higher family incomes boosted consumer demand, pushing up inflation.

It took a serious recession to break stagflation, thanks to Fed Chief Volcker aggressively raising interest rates. Since then, the problem has actually been to get enough inflation to avoid deflation, a different economic curse.

Keynesianism also meant government stabilizing the economy through the stimulus of spending when it’s weak, borrowing the needed money, then reversing course when the economy is strong. Stimulus does seem to work, notably in 2009. But it’s unfortunately addictive, and politicians like to keep the spigot open even when the economy is booming.

Meantime the anti-Keynesian stagflation episode brought to the fore a different economic theory — monetarism, personified by Milton Friedman, arguing that it’s really through regulating the money supply that government controls economic ups and downs. But just as Keynesianism proved oversimplified, monetarism too is not the whole story.

There was also “supply-side” economics, touting tax cuts as stimulus, arguably engendering enough added economic activity that the cuts would actually pay for themselves. This has been widely derided. However, there ought to be some optimal level of taxation, enabling government to collect enough revenue while maximizing the economic activity that produces earnings to be taxed. Whether tax cuts “pay for themselves” probably depends on how they’re structured and who benefits.

With my bodyguards in Somaliland

Hohenberg also discussed free market fundamentalism, trying to limit regulation so that business and industry can just get on with wealth-creation. I have noted, apropos my Somaliland visit, how government’s scant regulation there actually leaves businesses vulnerable to predation and thus inhibits economic activity. Here again the issue really isn’t regulation versus no regulation. It’s having the right kind of regulation that protects the right things, thereby maximizing economic opportunities. But that’s hard to do, and government hasn’t proven very good at it.

Also a butt of ridicule is so-called “trickle down” economics. This relates to the cause du jour, inequality. There’s a notion of equalizing things by just taxing away the wealth of the rich. (Sanders says billionaires should not even exist.) It’s legitimate to have affluent people pay a greater share if government needs the money to fund what it does. Taxing them simply because some envious people feel they just have too much is not any kind of “justice,” social or otherwise.

Hohenberg observed that, ironically, economists get attention when there’s debate but not when there’s consensus. They almost unanimously support a carbon tax; politicians almost unanimously demur. And while practically all economists say trade is beneficial, few politicians have the courage to argue this, and so the public increasingly rejects it.

One audience questioner posited we should just seal America off from global trade and meet all our needs domestically. At least we’d all have jobs. Whereas trade leaves too many without — increasing our impoverishment, ever more Americans unable to afford all the goods being imported.

This idea is indeed commonly believed. But it’s quite false. As Hohenberg explained, the autarky envisioned by the questioner would send consumer prices through the roof; buying stuff cheaper from China than we can make it ourselves saves us money and thus enriches us. The savings we can spend buying other stuff we do make ourselves. It’s also untrue that the average American has been growing poorer. Average incomes have been rising, and trade plays a role in that.

And it’s also untrue that “we don’t make anything anymore.” We manufacture as much as ever, but can do so with ever less labor; it’s advancing technology and automation, far more than trade, that’s responsible for reduced manufacturing employment. But that increased productivity also makes us richer. It frees up labor to do other things, particularly in services, which consumers increasingly spend money on. There’s a notion that producing intangible services is somehow less real than manufactured goods. That’s yet another fallacy; people’s willingness to pay money for something decides its value.

And finally, what about the “sex” promised in my heading? This illustrates another concept of economics. Called “bait and switch.”

My beautiful birthday brunch buffet

September 8, 2020

I’ve always loved food buffets — being able to taste many different flavors. (Maybe my welcoming immigration is psychologically related.) One of the reasons I’ve so enjoyed cruises, with a buffet at every meal. Of course, that kind of experience has been unavailable for half a year. Indeed, I’ve lamented to my wife that food buffets may actually never return at all. Something I regard as a tragic loss to our quality of life.

Yesterday was my birthday, and she surprised me with: a brunch buffet! A lovely gourmet spread, with some of my favorites: olives, cheese, cherries, dates, cupcakes, pastries, banana bread, chocolate pudding, orange slices, and more. Everything absolutely delicious.

But not as delicious as she is — my best birthday present, every day.

“I’m not making this up” — Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits

September 3, 2020

This book was in my cupboard for years — okay, decades. I noticed it was published during the Reagan administration when I pulled it out and decided to read it, as a counterpoint to having just finished philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s The Power of Ideas. Dave Barry would have titled that book The Power of Boogers.

I say “cupboard” but it’s not a “board,” actually a bunch of boards assembled into what might more correctly be termed a cabinet. Nor has it any hooks to hang cups. What made me call it a “cupboard” in the first place puzzles me now, but never mind. It’s where I put volumes bought at used book sales on the deluded theory that I’ll someday read them. I also intend to sort my drawerful of assorted size screws someday.

Anyhow, the foregoing represents my lame attempt to capture the flavor of Dave Barry’s writing. He’s no Isaiah Berlin. But then, Isaiah Berlin was no Dave Barry either.

My local paper used to carry Barry’s humor column. His accompanying photo, with its ridiculous smirk, looking like he’d just swallowed a mouse and was about to burst out giggling, always said to me, “Seriously?” Regretfully, googling didn’t turn up that picture to show you.

This book, Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits, begins with a chapter titled, “Why Humor is Funny.” (Berlin might have seen a tautology there.) The chapter is a probing disquisition exploring humor’s historical antecedents from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Woody Allen. I’m not making this up (as Barry himself would say). And it’s all contained within less than three pages. Of fairly large type, no less.

The best source for jokes, Barry asserts, is the Encyclopedia Britannica. No, really — its article on “Humor and Wit,” which he calls a “regular treasure trove of fun.” To substantiate this — well, actually to assure us he’s kidding — he quotes “a real corker.” Tell this joke at a dull party, Barry says, “and just watch as the other guests suddenly come to life and remember important dental appointments!” (Exclamation point in original.)

Here is the said joke:

“A masochist is a person who likes a cold shower in the morning, so he takes a hot one.”

Far be it from me to dispute Dave Barry on what’s funny or not, but I laughed out loud. In fact, the above is a conceptual mate to what is actually my own favorite joke:

Two guys in a bar start chatting. One confides, “I’m a masochist. I love pain and suffering.”

The other says, “Funny thing. I’m a sadist. I enjoy inflicting pain. In fact, I’ve got my basement all set up as a dungeon, with whips and everything.”

“What are we waiting for?” says the masochist.

So they go, he’s stripped to the waist, chained up to a post, and the other guy gets out this great big whip, and he’s cracking that whip, and cracking it, and cracking it.

“Well?” the masochist says impatiently. “Aren’t you going to whip me?”

And the sadist says, “No.”

We’re told that if you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny. Jokes work through ironic confounding of expectations. Here, the sadist actually does inflict pain, by denying the masochist his heart’s desire; in the shower joke, the masochist does it to himself. But both jokes have a further layer. Denial of what the masochist craves makes him suffer. Yet isn’t suffering what he really wants after all? This raises deep philosophical questions about the meaning of suffering, and of happiness, that Isaiah Berlin might address.

But it is, admittedly, a weakness in both jokes that neither involves boogers.

Here is my second most favorite joke:

A bald man [note, this is an important detail; the joke is less funny if you’re not picturing the man as bald] walks into a doctor’s office with a frog atop his head.

“What seems to be the trouble?” the doctor asks.

And the frog says, “I have this man stuck to my ass.”

Do you see what I did there? Once again, jokes are about twisting expectations. Here of course one expected the man, not the frog, to answer. My drawing particular attention to the man’s baldness served to heighten that expectation. This is the difference between mere joke telling and comic genius.

But Dave Barry really is a comic genius. One of his chapters I found especially amusing told about a 452-page document printed under the auspices of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, with every single word crossed out. That by itself was not a laugh riot. We actually expect such absurdities in the realm of government. No, what really tickled my funny bone was that the document was on sale by the Government Printing Office, for $17 — and Barry related that 1800 copies were sold. For the record, that’s more copies than were sold of my book, The Case for Rational Optimism. Perhaps mine was less wonderful. Or perhaps my publisher missed a good thing by printing it with no words crossed out. Live and learn.

Being myself a person who has often written about religion, I thought I’d conclude with this trenchant observation from Dave: “The problem with writing about religion is that you run the risk of offending sincerely religious people, and then they come after you with machetes.”

I’ve indeed experienced this.

Demise of the dinosaurs

July 28, 2020

I heard a talk by Frank Wind (pronounced as in “gust of” rather than “wind up”), a retired geologist, on the dinosaur extinction.

Frank started by saying Darwin is his patron saint. He also cited a book by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction (concerning the one currently underway), and a New Yorker article by Douglas Preston, The Day the Dinosaurs Died. That was actually the fifth and (until now) last mass extinction of species on this planet, 66 million years ago (MYA); the first occurred about 440 MYA. The most severe was the Permian Extinction, about 250 MYA, killing over 95% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial ones.

Those early creatures must have really pissed off God. Except, of course, that he created the whole shebang a mere 0.006 MYA. To be exact, in 4004 BCE. On October 2. At 6 PM. That was the calculation of Bishop Ussher, by parsing the Bible’s chronology, in 1650. Which Biblical literalists today still take as gospel. They place Noah’s flood at 2348 BCE, which did for the dinosaurs. But even that theory is a bit problematical, unless you suppose every dinosaur species literally missed the boat. Indeed, Frank showed a cartoon with the ark departing, two dinos standing ashore, one saying to the other, “Oh, crap! was that today?

And the dinosaurs could not have died out much earlier because, of course, death itself was introduced into the world in consequence of Adam’s “sin.” But actually, the Bible has nothing at all to say about dinos, which were not even discovered until the 19th century.

The whole concept of extinction wasn’t really a thing till then, most people (well, Christians) believing life on Earth unchanging. Discovering dinosaur fossils threw them for a loop. And even science at that time was kind of stumped to explain how such a whole big range of creatures could have more or less abruptly vanished from the scene.

Not until recent decades was a good theory offered, by Luis and Walter Alvarez, father-and-son scientists. They ascribed dino extinction to a huge asteroid smashing into the Earth. There is evidence of such impacts happening periodically, in the form of 190 craters. And the Alvarezes pinpointed remains of the gigantic 66-MYA Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan peninsula and coast. They also found much evidence in the geologic record, identifying a distinct boundary between sedimentary layers at just that time, with the in-between layer being notably different, showing a very high iridium content, which could only have come from an extraterrestrial source. Such evidence is found as far away as New Zealand (can’t get much farther), proving how dramatically the planet’s environment was affected. Frank also pointed to  some fossils discovered in the U.S., showing directly how animal life suffered.

His talk included some vivid descriptions of just how catastrophic an asteroid hit that big would have been. Unfortunately I missed that part because the talk was on zoom and my internet connection cut out. But you can fill it in from various disaster movies you’ve seen.

Not all scientists buy this asteroid theory. They don’t deny the impact, but don’t think it alone can account for the extent of the extinction. Pointing instead to a spate of big volcanic eruptions that seem to have occurred shortly before. But they accept that the asteroid didn’t help.

We may miss having dinosaurs around (though we do have birds, which are their descendants). However, Frank pointed out, it was the demise of the dinos that cleared the way for the flourishing of mammals, which in turn led to the evolution of you-know-who. Though some misanthropic cynics would say this was not such a blessing.

Reopening schools

July 24, 2020

Trump wants schools reopened. Because he cares about kids’ education? (Note, that was a laugh line.) No, of course he cares only about himself, seeing open schools as the ticket to economic rebound, his only hope for re-election.

You might think that in his desperation, he’d do what’s really needed to reopen schools and the economy. His latest briefing took matters a tiny bit more seriously. But just a tiny bit. Even now Trump is still trying to keep federal money for testing and tracing out of pending legislation!

Covid forces tradeoffs between economic and health concerns. Life has great value, but it’s not infinite, and it’s not necessarily crazy to posit that the lives saved are not worth the enormous economic costs — which, after all, themselves affect lives and their quality. Unfortunately, thanks to Trump, we took the economic hit, but because of an atrocious lack of leadership and relenting too fast, got the health disaster as well.

For schools, the tradeoffs skew differently. Keeping them closed cripples the economy by forcing parents to stay home with kids rather than work. (This is Trump’s real animus.) But the damage to children’s education could actually be lifelong, with the missed classroom time never made up. Zoom lessons are not the same. The impact on poor children, less able to participate remotely, is all the greater. They will fall further behind, widening inequality. And out of school they’re more likely to suffer abuse, malnutrition, and mental problems.

The World Bank estimates that losing five months of school will cut the lifetime earnings of affected children by $10 trillion, equal to 7% of current annual GDP.

Against these huge detriments, the health risks are smaller than for other societal sectors. Studies indicate that children are much less susceptible to infection than adults, and way less likely to die. And infected children seem to be less contagious. One reason is that they’re shorter. The virus-laden droplets they eject tend not to reach higher altitudes where adults can ingest them.

So I too actually want schools reopened. But it entails serious risks that must be seriously addressed.

Much unlike Trump (who simply threatens to force schools to reopen, ready or not), Joe Biden has presented a careful comprehensive plan for reopening schools while minimizing the risks. His plan follows CDC guidelines. (Which Mike Pence said schools should feel free to ignore. Yes, our national covid response coordinator actually said that.)

The plan’s key elements are clear:

• First, schools can’t reopen where the virus is not under control. That requires masks, social distancing, and intensive testing and tracing. (On all these, America is still an underachiever.)

• The most vulnerable (mainly older) teachers and school personnel must be specially protected.

• Good supply of masks and PPE.

• Reduced class sizes, staggered schedules, and other measures to prevent crowding.

• Giving schools the money needed to meet added costs for PPE, sanitizing, reconfiguring classrooms, etc.

• Communication with parents, giving them confidence they can send kids to school in reasonable safety.

• Where schools cannot provide full in-person teaching, much more is needed so all students, but especially disadvantaged ones, can fully participate in remote learning programs.

Some further thoughts: with all the unemployment, shouldn’t we hire some people to help bring kids up to speed on learning? And shouldn’t we consider shortening if not eliminating next summer’s vacation?

Other countries have implemented plans like Biden’s with good results. I note that the elementary schools I’ve been supporting in Somaliland seem to be doing great at working with (very poor!) children stuck at home. Surely we should expect as much for America’s kids.

Find the details of Biden’s plan here:  www.fsrcoin.com/98.html

(As a contributor I received it from his campaign. As a former Republican donor, I get all their e-mails too. The contrast is stunning. The Biden ones are always sober, serious, fact-based, inspiring confidence. The Republican messages are an hysteria of wild falsehoods.)

Why Pro-life Christians should dump Trump

July 13, 2020

To some Christians, abortion is a primal sin blighting America’s soul. It’s a supervening moral issue guiding their politics; they can’t imagine voting for a pro-choice Democrat.

Pro-life is a legitimate moral stance that can be debated. Abortion does end a life. It’s reasonable to hold that at some point a woman bears some moral responsibility toward a life she’s carrying.

But can this justify support for Trump?

Michael Gerson (a Republican pro-life Christian) explored this in a recent column. He too, of course, understands why moral feelings about abortion drive some people’s politics. But he sees a problem when this becomes “a moral claim without a limiting principle.”

Abortion cannot be the only concern. Life is never that simple. You also have moral responsibility toward your neighbors, community, nation, and world. Their collective fate matters at least as much as the unborn. Gerson is saying that when you’re willing to justify anything in service to a single concern, sacrificing to it everything else, that is actually morally wrong.

Especially when it means supporting a man who, in so many ways, is shredding the basic principles, values, and ideals that used to govern America and its global role. That affects many more human lives, and is thus more morally consequential, than abortion.

Christians have a special burden here. They need to apply their overall Christian ethics not just to one issue but to the whole waterfront of what should be powerful moral concerns. The number of U.S. abortions is exceeded at least tenfold by living children who die of preventable illnesses globally. And shouldn’t “pro-life” mean wearing face masks and social distancing to keep people from dying of covid-19? And compassion for suffering refugees and their children? And when an obsession with abortion leads Christians to support a pussygrabber president who lies relentlessly, enflames racial divides,* flouts rule-of-law and democratic values —who rips children from mothers’ arms and puts them in cages — their moral compass is out of whack.** They’ve made a deal with the Devil. Jesus would not approve.

Furthermore, Gerson points out, such obviously messed up morality undermines societal respect for their religion, and its overall sway. People see it and conclude this religion is for the birds. Why listen to Christians prattling about morality when they clearly just don’t know right from wrong?***

Gerson also thinks they’re naive to imagine getting their way through raw political muscle. The hardline pro-life stance actually commands the support of only a small minority of Americans. At the end of the day, says Gerson, pro-lifers “are only going to win the abortion debate if we persuade enough people . . . We are not going to prevail by gaining power and imposing our view.” Persuasion requires thinking about how their arguments look to people coming to the debate with very different perspectives. And Gerson suggests that having those pro-life arguments linked with Trump — with all his baggage of vileness — “is not likely to be helpful.”

An understatement. Moral blindness has led them to miscalculate spectacularly in hitching their wagon to Trump. He is going down, and will take them with him.

* For some (not all), pro-life actually camouflages even from themselves what really drives their politics — hostility toward “the other” — other ethnicities and nationalities.

** Meantime, falsely claiming to “protect women’s health,” they try to restrict abortion by, for example, requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges in local hospitals, or even regulating abortion clinic corridor widths. Such dishonesty belies their movement’s moralism.

*** A true morality must be grounded in the reality of the world. Religion’s false reality undermines sound moral thinking.

Trump’s death rallies

June 16, 2020

Many Trump supporters still think covid-19 is a hoax.* Now he invites them to stake their lives on that.

He’ll hold a rally June 20 in Tulsa, Oklahoma; later in Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina. The main thrust is to show America back in business. Evoking Admiral Farragut — “damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

For the Tulsa rally, the New York Times reports, Trump campaign officials foresee no social distancing or mask wearing, because Trump doesn’t want to be seen with people doing that. And because such precautions “would be unnecessary because the state is so far along in its reopening.”

Most states are reopening. Some, like New York, cautiously, keyed to falling infection and death rates. Others — mostly red states like Oklahoma — willy-nilly, actually disregarding the disease’s trends, rising in many of them.

In Oklahoma the virus is not receding. And remember that Trump supporters are the most likely to ignore the threat, to have already heedlessly exposed themselves to it, and hence are the most likely to be walking covid bombs.** A rally with thousands of such people crammed closely together, indoors, with no protective masks, is called, in the lingo, a “super-spreader” event. Or let’s just call it insane.

That epitomizes Trumpdom.  Here we see this con man’s narcissistic vanity trumping even the very lives of his fans. Plumbing new depths of depravity, he draws them  literally to their deaths. (They’ll be required to sign waivers, promising not to sue.) And still they love him.

Insane.

But this is Trump’s political strategy in the face of the health and economic apocalypse his fecklessness surely worsened. Act like it’s all over with. Even as the death toll rises. Damn the torpedoes!

And even this may not be a bridge too far for Trumpsuckers already cocooned in the alternate reality he spins with Fox News’ help. If Fox simply stops talking about covid carnage, it won’t be happening. Except to those actually dying. It’s said doctors bury their mistakes. Trump is trying something similar.

* Coin World reports a widespread conspiracy theory that Australia’s $10 bill proves it’s a hoax, orchestrated by billionaires and governments to force vaccinations on the public. Pointing to design features they say picture the virus, and show Bill Gates at his desk. Those actually, Australia’s Reserve Bank says, show the country’s wattle plant, and the writer Mary Gilmore, so identified on the note. Also, it was introduced in 2017!

** The big annual national coin show slated for Pittsburgh in August has not (yet) been cancelled and organizers promise plenty of precautions. But I will likely skip it, sadly, because it will draw Trumpsters who blow off precautions and thus irresponsibly endanger others.

Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?

May 29, 2020

That’s the title of a book in the Edge series edited by John Brockman, each containing short essays by a wide range of leading intellects answering a question.

The internet clearly changes how we behave, and live. But think? A much harder question because how we think is not, to begin with, well understood. But the answer is probably closer to no than yes, because our brain function is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. And it’s increasingly clear that much if not most of what we think of as thinking takes place on a level below conscious awareness. What you think you think and what you really think can differ.

Humans have developed ever more sophisticated tools to facilitate thought. First, language; then writing; both really huge add-ons to our pre-installed neuronal thinking apparatus. Then disseminating written language via printing. The internet, important though it is, must be seen as yet one more such tool, like an external hard-drive appended to our basic thinking machine. Which still remains basically unchanged.

But it bears noting that Edge asked a cultural elite about their thinking. Not “the man in the street.” Naturally many Edge responders emphasized benefits in terms of pursuing their intellectual, research, collaborative, scientific endeavors, etc. I was reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s saying religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people. Smarter people aren’t necessarily better people. But in some ways the internet is a good thing for very smart people and a bad thing for the rest.

Those writing Edge essays can use it very advantageously. Some did bemoan being distracted by extraneous stuff. Cat videos? But cat videos are harmless. What very smart people don’t get waylaid by is all the internet’s toxic crap, all the stuff reinforcing pre-existing misconceptions, the political craziness, all the conspiracy theories. They’re too smart for that.

Notice I’m saying very smart people. Unfortunately being just “smart” isn’t enough. The anti-vax hysteria shows this. Anti-vaxxers are actually, on average, smarter than average. But not as smart as Edge contributors, who would never fall for such harmful nonsense — spread mainly by the internet.

The difference is that Edge writers and their sort tend to have a deep grounding of knowledge and understanding about the world, to vet things like anti-vaxx, creationism, new age fads, Trumpism. Too many others lack that: blank slates onto which rubbish sticks as well as truth. Suckers for hucksters, charlatans, and demogogues.

Roger Schank’s essay put it thus: “The intelligentsia may well be getting smarter because they have easy access to a wider range of good thinking, but the rest of the world may be getting dumber because they have easy access to nonsense.”

Or Mark Twain (supposedly) said: a lie can run around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on. That was before the internet really got going. And the book was published in 2011, before a lot of the worst net-instigated problems became evident — before anti-vaxx really exploded, and of course before we became aware of the pernicious aspects of social media, especially in relation to the 2016 election.

Changing topics, I’ll quote Alun Anderson’s essay: on the net, “[i]n a few hours, an innocent can see more of the pleasures and perversions of sex . . . than an eighteenth century roué could experience in a lifetime devoted to illicit encounters.” It really was so challenging back then. I’ve written previously about online porn’s ubiquity profoundly affecting this most elemental aspect of human life. In advanced Western societies, at least, sex has become a lot more open than it used to be, for a long time already, and we’ve grown somewhat jaded. This moderates the impact of widely available porn. But consider societies that remain more traditional. Anderson, with some experience of them, does so. He believes this aspect of the internet (a very big aspect indeed) will ultimately shake their foundations.

Stay tuned.