Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Two Waitings

November 19, 2021

In 1977, when Avon published my fantasy novel, my middle initial was omitted on the cover. So we got a tart letter from the other Frank Robinson — Frank M. —a more prominent writer. Thought his name was being ripped off.

I’d never read any of his books. Decades later, I chanced on one at a library sale, and stuck it on my shelf. Then I picked up one by Ha Jin only because my wife and I had read aloud together another novel of his.

Those two books sat side-by-side on my shelf for a long while before I suddenly noticed both had the same title! — Waiting. What are the odds? Then I saw both were published in 1999! The coincidences tickled me enough to read them.

Frank’s is no literary masterpiece, but entertaining in its way. As a writer, I liked seeing how he managed to put across what was really a preposterous premise. That when Homo Sapiens supplanted the Neanderthals 35,000 years ago, another different species, resembling us more, managed to survive, living hidden among us. Waiting to consummate some final triumph over us. Mind control helps.

I have little truck with fictional psychic powers. And that those “Old People” could somehow maintain a separate bloodline for over a thousand generations seemed absurd. The novel acknowledges interbreeding, but says with two different species, any offspring were sterile, which nobody noticed. (We’ve since learned many humans have a little Neanderthal DNA, disproving the sterility theory.)

Nor did anyone notice these “Old People” were, well, physiologically not human. Until one doctor stumbles on an autopsy. The doc’s murder, to silence him, launches the book’s plot.

Which got convoluted. And the book seemed padded with much extraneous scene-setting. And what was it with all the coffee? OK, characters would drink some coffee. But this author seemed besotted with coffee shtick.

A line near the end made me laugh out loud: “Back at the house on Noe, he and Mark had taken a nap, then gone out shopping for a Christmas tree.” Mundane normal life. But after the cataclysmic (and bloody) denouement just hours before? “Shopping for a Christmas tree?”

Ha Jin’s novel concerns Lin Kong, whose girlfriend is waiting for him to divorce his wife. Who ever heard of such a story? (Quite a contrast to Robinson’s outrageous premise.)

The writing style is matter-of-fact. But not spare in a Hemingway way. Wouldn’t be bad if the story weren’t so enervating. We’re told early that the wait will be eighteen years. Then we’re led through the whole numbing saga.

It takes place in China from the mid-’60s through the ’80s. She’s an army nurse; Lin an army medic, in a loveless arranged marriage with an older woman, back in his home village, which he visits just once annually. Neither relationship entails any sex. Might have enlivened the narrative.

I was struck by just how regimenting, oppressive, inhumane really, Chinese communist society was. That shaped the course of Lin’s life. The contrast with free-wheeling American life was stark. China loosened up somewhat after those times; yet Xi Jinping seems intent on carrying regimentation to new heights. How do the Chinese stand for it? Actually it seems regimentation is in their DNA, very different from ours. Being cogs in a machine suits most of them just fine. And they actually profess revulsion toward America, as no model they’d wish to follow.

Lin’s introspection toward the end was touching. His wife had refused a divorce; but a rule allowed it unilaterally after 18 years of separation, and (contrary to my expectation) Lin actually does it, and marries his girlfriend. She makes up for lost time in the bedroom. Then come twins. But Lin isn’t happy. It all feels like a chore, imposed on him. He doesn’t feel he really loved either wife. Considers himself a useless man, his life wasted; and he’d indeed seemed a passive sort to me. Yet others see him as very fortunate. On that note the book ends.

Xi talks of the “Chinese dream.” It’s no analog to what we call the “American dream.” Xi means China being pre-eminent in the world. If the whole world becomes more like China, I’d call that a nightmare.

“Intelligent Design” — Another View

November 14, 2021

You’re walking in a forest and find a watch on the ground. Seems obviously the intentional creation of an intelligent designer. Applying this analogy to all creation has always been a central argument for creationism or “intelligent design.” Originally introduced by William Paley’s famous 1802 book Natural Theology. Many religious believers do look at nature’s intricate clockwork and cannot see how it could have arisen without an intelligent designer. Just like Paley’s watch.

The fallacy here is that the watch is purpose-built, unlike anything in nature, which never aimed to produce exactly what we see today. Instead it’s an undirected process that could have produced an infinitude of alternative possibilities. All existence is just whatever happened to fall out of that process — very unlike a watch made according to plan by a watchmaker.

Recently I encountered an 1813 essay by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (“A Refutation of Deism“) with a different but compelling answer to Paley’s watch analogy. One assumes the watch was designed “because innumerable instances of machines having been contrived by human art are present to our mind . . . but if, having no previous knowledge of any artificial contrivance, we had actually found a watch upon the ground, we should have been justified in concluding that it was a thing of Nature, that it was a combination of matter with whose cause we were unacquainted.”

Shelley goes on, “The analogy, which you attempt to establish between the contrivances of human art and the various existences of the Universe, is inadmissible. We attribute these effects to human intelligence, because we know before hand that human intelligence is capable of producing them. Take away this knowledge,” and the whole idea collapses.

Finding a watch in a forest might again seemingly suggest some non-natural origin. But suppose you find not a watch, but a mouse. You’d have no doubt of its naturalness. Yet if you think about it, the mouse is actually a far more intricate little “contrivance” than a watch. Most people accept that the mouse resulted from a billion year process of natural evolution. As Shelley said, if we knew nothing of watchmakers, we’d assume the watch must have somehow arisen that way too.

Creationists rhapsodize about how perfectly organisms seem fitted for purpose. Shelley refutes this too, with the observation that “if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest,” humans could not exist. Every living thing must of necessity be fitted to its habitat. No fitness, no animal.* So it’s far from miraculous. Shelley realized this even without the benefit of Darwin’s later elucidation of evolution (the real explanation for it all).

Creationists mistakenly characterize the idea of evolution as a random chance process, which of course could not produce anything like a watch or a butterfly. But evolution is in fact the opposite of random. A ruthless process of eliminating what doesn’t work. Actually, evolution operates by serial kludges of modification to what came before, often resulting in very imperfect matches of form to function.* Wouldn’t a really intelligent design for humans include a third eye in the back?

Shelley was, again, not a scientist but a poet. And wrote this when just 21 years old! I was blown away by his essay’s trenchancy, how beautifully he made his points, in plain clean language, not the convoluted prose so typical then. And so iconoclastically outside the mainstream of the time too. (He was expelled from Oxford for his atheist writings.) What an amazing testament to the power of the human mind. One might almost call it a miracle.

* Richard Dawkins has observed that predator animals are well fitted to catch prey; prey animals fitted to escape. So whose side is God on?!

** https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/unintelligent-design-–-why-evolution-explains-the-human-body-and-“intelligent-design”-does-not/

Black holes and humanity

August 22, 2021

The force of gravity is proportional to mass and diminishes with distance. When a star dies, there’s a lot of mass in a pretty small space, and no more force pushing outward against the gravity. So the star crushes down, becoming even smaller and denser, further concentrating the gravitational force pulling toward the center. With enough mass it condenses into a tiny nubbin, with gravitation so great that nothing, not even light, can escape. That’s a black hole.

With a ratio of mass to volume virtually infinite, the normal laws of physics cease to apply, which is called a “singularity.” Many formerly doubted this could occur in reality. Now we know it does. There may be a black hole at the center of every galaxy. Meantime, black holes’ weirdness captured popular imagination. Gravity so strong it sucks in anything getting near, while nothing gets out. “Black hole” became a useful metaphor (especially in 2017-21).

When we discovered the Universe is expanding, running that film backwards gets you to something that also has vast mass concentrated into virtually zero space — again a singularity where the laws of physics break down. This has led to speculation that the “Big Bang” and black holes are connected — that a black hole could detonate big bangs — perhaps answering the conundrum of seemingly getting something from nothing. With new universes being birthed all the time out of black holes.

You may have seen in 2019 our first photo of a black hole. We watched a great Netflix film about the scientists working on what was a massive photography project. A big problem was that a black hole is, well, literally black, no light escaping. But it does produce “Hawking radiation” in the surrounding space.

Still, getting a photo was a huge challenge because so few photons reach us across the cosmic vastness. The film illustrated this vividly by first showing a grid of squares, with one small square containing our solar system. Then it zoomed out to show that whole grid as just one square in a far bigger grid. Then it did it again. And again and again and again. I lost count, before we finally saw a grid big enough to contain both our solar system and the black hole.

That was one of two the team targeted. The other was a thousand times bigger — and a thousand times farther away.

The paucity of photons reaching us meant an ordinary telescopic photo would be, like, one or two pixels. Hardly helpful. To get a decent meaningful image would have required a camera the size of the Earth. So that’s what they built — by coordinating a whole slew of telescopes all across the planet. Each making images simultaneously. Having good visibility conditions at all of them, simultaneously, was a problem too. Somehow they succeeded. The result was an immense amount of data shipped on hardware from all those locations to a central clearinghouse where computers could put together the pieces of this stupendous jigsaw puzzle. Revealing the picture of a black hole.

Meanwhile . . . the film also focused on a group of theoreticians working with the late Stephen Hawking, he of “Hawking radiation,” the leading thinker on black holes who practically invented them. The main concern was with what they called the “information paradox.” “Information” here means more than its common parlance; it refers to what’s encoded in the structure of any physical object. In that sense, your body, for example, entails many trillions (or quintillions?) of bits of information. Throw it into a black hole and that information seemingly disappears. That bothered the theoreticians, a lot, contravening their intuition for how the Universe should operate. (This is about as well as I could manage to understand the matter.)

So they banged their heads against the mathematics. I didn’t begin to grasp the interplay between the very complex mathematics and the physical phenomena. But finally, it seemed, they did get the sums to work out such that information sucked into a black hole is not truly annihilated but is conserved in some manner.

But here is what struck me viewing this film. All the numerous people involved in these enterprises, especially the photography effort, exemplify what I see as our great human project. To understand — everything. And to use that understanding to imbue our lives with meaning and fulfillment. With nothing given to us but what we seek and find ourselves. Everything else pales beside the immensity of that great human project. Membership in this species fills me with pride.

The truth about UFOs

July 22, 2021

They’re out there! It’s real! The government finally admits it!

Um, no.

For all the media frenzy, the actual story is a big nothingburger. The Pentagon produced a document saying reports of “unidentified aerial phenomena” by U.S. military personnel are for real. Meaning that, yes, some military people did report such unexplained sightings.

Which tells us nothing about what the explanations might be. The Pentagon says it cannot rule out extraterrestrial explanations. That tells us nothing either. Actually, it’s overwhelmingly likely that the true explanations are prosaic.

Many people have always reported witnessing all sorts of strange, seemingly inexplicable phenomena. Often their senses deceived them, something extremely commonplace. Or their stories were embellished. Or simply didn’t happen. Many people telling such tales have a screw loose. Or dishonest motives. (Another whole category is in the religious sphere.)

I always apply Occam’s Razor, also known as the principle of parsimony. Telling us that the simplest, most mundane explanation for anything is the likeliest. When a story is seemingly inexplicable, the likeliest explanation is that the facts are somehow wrong, or misinterpreted.

I recall seeing a remarkable UFO video. Real, not doctored. Filmed through an airplane window, it appeared to show a bright saucer-like object flying beside the plane and making weird zigzag maneuvers defying the laws of physics.

Unexplainable? Turned out to be just a bizarre reflection of a cabin light from inside the plane.

My UFO skepticism is very great. I actually consider it likely that intelligent life has evolved elsewhere. But the distances between stars are stupendous, and planet hopping would be a formidable challenge for even the most scientifically advanced civilization. Would they make such a prodigious journey — merely to lurk silently in our skies, doing nothing? Or, even less plausible, to abduct occasional humans for proctology exams? As if beings with the capability of traversing the cosmos would have anything to learn that way.

If UFOs were really visiting us, there’d be no mystery about it. We would know it. (Just like if there really were a God, there’d be no mystery.)

Covid-19: Now the Republican Disease

July 15, 2021

The ultimate political wet dream: a deadly disease that, somehow, selectively targets the other party.

U.S. Covid cases and deaths are climbing back up. Spurred by the especially nasty Delta variant. Deaths are 99.5% unvaccinated people. And most unvaccinated people are Republicans.

They’ve needlessly brought this holocaust upon themselves, by politicizing Covid, and vaccines in particular, bathing in a sea of lies, and making vaccine refusal a “freedom” issue. As in freedom to jeopardize not only your own life but your family’s and neighbor’s. (All of ours, actually; failure to end the pandemic allows further variants to emerge, potentially one that defeats the current vaccines.)

Vaccination’s alleged risks are simply lies promoted for various bad motives. Fox News creeps like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham are especially culpable. But even if most of the claimed vaccination risks were real, your risk of illness and death from Covid is still vastly greater. The anti-vaxxers can’t do math.

Not only are unvaccinated people now the ones really in danger from Covid, but the risk rises steeply with age too — and Republicans, on average, tend to be older. Furthermore, especially if you’re not vaccinated, mask wearing offers much protection. And who refuses masking? Republicans again.

So Republicanism is becoming a major health risk. Will insurers start asking for party affiliation — and charging Republicans more?

Dr. Michelle Fiscus, a top official of Tennessee’s Health Department, has been fired for promoting vaccination for young people. In today’s political climate, that’s a firing offense. Similar stories proliferate in other states.

At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, America’s failure to meet vaccination targets was greeted with raucous applause. These people — who call themselves “pro-life” — were cheering the march of death. “Macabre,” said columnist Michael Gerson, wondering how we got “to such a strange, desperate place.”

Remember Trump actually claiming huge credit for the “warp speed” vaccine development? That was then; now he’s silent. If Trump runs in 2024, you might think he’d want his fans vaccinated so they can live to vote for him. He could put out a video urging that. Why doesn’t he? Because he himself is trapped in the deranged alternate universe that is Trumpism.

Vaccination refusal is the apotheosis of the Republican flight from reason, decency, reality, and sanity. They’ve made war on truth; on voting rights; on immigrants; on the press; and much else. Now their war on vaccination is actually a war upon themselves.

Maybe cosmic justice.

How many brains do you have?

July 13, 2021

Though some people are called brainless, most would say they have one brain. But how many minds do you have? Perhaps a trickier question. You might say you’re “of two minds” about an issue. There’s even a phenomenon called “split personality” (or “multiple personality disorder”).

While we do talk of “the brain” as a unit, we also speak of right and left brains with differing functionalities. The left brain being more logical, the right more intuitive and creative, and so forth. But there have been cases of people losing one hemisphere, yet able to live fairly normally, the remaining hemisphere taking over the other’s duties. On the other hand, I’ve written about a stroke victim whose damage was in the right hemisphere, enabling the left to become more dominant, changing her personality.*

But it gets yet more interesting.

The two hemispheres are really quite separate physically, being connected only by a clutch of fibers called the corpus callosum. A conduit for messaging between them. Now, it’s been found some epileptics can be helped by severing the corpus callosum, keeping seizures from passing between hemispheres. The patients seemingly unharmed.

They’ve been the subject of experiments testing the effects of thusly splitting the brain. Each hemisphere controls the opposite side the body. You can show each eye different things. In one experiment, the right eye saw a snow scene, the left a chicken claw. Next, the subject was asked to choose something related from among a group of various pictures. One hand picked a snow shovel; the other a chicken. Logical enough.

But then the subject was asked why he’d picked the shovel, which he could see he’d done. However, the speech center is in the right hemisphere, so it does the talking. And the right hemisphere was unaware of the left’s (through the right eye) having previously seen a snow picture. So he answered, “The shovel is to clean up the chicken shit.” In other words, having no access to the real reason, lodged in the other half of his brain, the half that answered made up something plausible.

This shows just how separate our two hemispheres can be. And the import can be greater than mere choosing among pictures. In one case, a man’s arm reached to hug his wife, while the other arm punched her! Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran reports a patient whose right brain professed a religious belief while the left said he’s an atheist (logically enough). One can imagine two hands fighting over an election ballot.

The real-life model for the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man was found to have been born without a corpus callosum. He could read two pages of a book simultaneously, one with each eye. Memorizing each too, instantly.

All this helps us regarding the problem of understanding consciousness and the self. Which in fact science has not yet cracked. The split-brain stuff reminds me of Daniel Dennett’s concept in his (optimistically titled) book Consciousness Explained. He rejected our commonplace notion of some sort of captain at the helm in our minds, the “I,” who makes decisions. Dennett said it’s more like a scrum of mates fighting over control of the wheel. And it does seem that a lot of competing and often contradictory notions bubble up out of various modules in the brain each running their own separate sequences, until one dominates sufficiently to cause an action to be performed.

Some see the split-brain experiments as showing we are all actually “split personalities.” That we really do have two separate minds co-existing within our skulls, one in each hemisphere.

But let’s remember that literal split-brain is a very special case. Most of us have an intact corpus callosum enabling the two hemispheres to coordinate. Like in a marriage, only more so. I think that normally the two hemispheres work things out. When they can’t, that’s mental illness.

* https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/a-stroke-of-insight/

Let’s talk about climate change (no, really!)

June 23, 2021

My Humanist Group hosted a (pre-pandemic!) presentation by Tim Guinee, promoting the hoax of human-caused global warming. Just kidding; actually, it was a really excellent explanation of the reality, so I’ll recap it. Then offer a few points in response.

Our atmosphere is actually just a very thin sheath around the planet. It traps solar radiation, warming the Earth, and making life possible. But there can be too much of a good thing. Case in point: Venus, warmed to a toasty 867 degrees Fahrenheit. Carbon Dioxide in our own atmosphere increases its heat trapping effect. Today, mainly through fossil fuel burning (and despite the Paris agreement), we continue to increase atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, topping the previous high 3 million years ago — with sea levels 30 meters higher than now.

So 2019 was the 43rd consecutive year with global temperatures above the average. (New York’s rise exceeds our national average.) Guinee showed charts with the temperature bell curve moving toward the right; while the overall shift may seem small, it results in far more episodes at the extreme end. Thus heat waves have killed tens of thousands.

Most excess heat gets sopped up by the oceans. This has caused wobbles in the jet stream current, trapping weather systems like hurricanes and thus intensifying them. Also, warmer air above the seas increases water vapor, making for bigger downpours, now being called “rain bombs.” The Northeast has seen a 71% rise in extreme rainfall events since 1958. Builders of Kentucky’s full-size Noah’s Ark replica sued their insurers because it was damaged by rain!

The added heat also pulls moisture from land, causing droughts, and forest fires. Recent Australian fires are reckoned to have killed a billion critters — not counting insects, frogs, or fish. We’re also losing tree cover, which feeds back to more warming. While more warmth means more disease-carrying insects, like ticks, and additional air pollution, also adding to human death tolls.

And of course melting Greenland and Antarctic ice raises sea levels, endangering coastal habitations.

Guinee noted that the world’s poorest (who benefit least from fossil fuel burning) suffer the most from climate change.

But his message was hopeful. He noted that deployment of solar and wind power and electric cars has vastly exceeded projections from not long ago. These technologies are improving while costs are falling; this can make adoption of new paradigms quite rapid (look at cellphones). While some worry about economic costs of combating climate change, Guinee pointed out that since 2006 Minneapolis reduced emissions by 20% while its economy grew 30%. And in 1860, America’s biggest capital investment was in slaves; yet we successfully transitioned beyond that.

But people understanding the problem doesn’t mean they’ll act accordingly. Indeed, token actions can induce complacency. And we need big national and international efforts. But small actions can inspire greater ones and create new social norms. Guinee concluded that what we really need is a “mature leap of faith.”

All this overlooks the fact that if God didn’t want temperatures to rise, they wouldn’t.

But back to reality. Climate activists focus almost entirely on curbing carbon emissions. There’s a missionary zeal to this, demonizing humanity as guilty of raping the planet, and prescribing as penitence a hair shirt of dialing back economic activity. However, asking people to accept reduced lifestyles is totally unrealistic. And anyhow, global warming is already baked in, and temperatures will still rise even if we cut carbon emissions to zero. Thus we must give much more attention to investments aimed at preparing for adaptation to higher temperatures. And also more intensively research options for geo-engineering, that is, pro-active measures to reduce global temperatures (like mimicking the effects of volcanic eruptions, which do that). But climate activists resist such efforts as antithetical to their insistence on carbon reduction.

They also tend to resist expansion of nuclear power, which any rational carbon-reduction strategy must prominently include. In terms of climate, nuclear is actually the cleanest possible energy source. I just read a big article in The Economist about renewable power sources, highlighting all the obstacles to their deployment to the extent needed. Astoundingly (to me), the word “nuclear” nowhere occurred in the article.

Further, though you wouldn’t know it from listening to climate warriors, carbon is far from the whole picture. About a quarter of global warming is caused by methane — which, ton for ton, over 20 years from emission, causes 86 times more warming than carbon dioxide. And the good news is that methane could be reduced without incurring the economic damage associated with carbon dioxide. A major methane culprit is the process of extracting and transporting natural gas; with the mundane problem of leaky pipes playing a big role. Reducing these losses could pay for itself because methane, unlike carbon dioxide, is a valuable commodity. Farm animals are another key source of atmospheric methane; that could be meliorated by tweaking their diets.

Republicans’ deranged war on Fauci

June 8, 2021

Just when you thought Republicans could not get more insane . . . .

Now they’re rabidly focused on demonizing, of all people, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of America’s disease control agency since 1984. They hate Fauci for being the pandemic’s antithesis to Trump.

How crazy is it to intentionally spotlight the difference between the two? Trump fumbled for two crucial months while the virus spread; admitted downplaying the danger; his briefings were orgies of self-praise, misinformation, and divisive insults; pushing conspiracy theories, quack cures, and injecting bleach; encouraging resistance against his own shut-down guidelines, masking, and social distancing. All this utter idiocy surely caused most of our 600,000 deaths. While Trump disparaged and tried to sideline scientists like Fauci — a contrasting voice of reason and responsibility.

So what’s their beef against Fauci now? A trove of emails from early in the pandemic they say show he misled the public about its origins, to protect the Chinese government. Of course that’s a ridiculous lie. Of course. Republicans no longer even remember how not to lie.

Scientists, in the pandemic’s early days, scrambled to get information, so naturally their messages evolved as knowledge increased. To concoct from that a case that Fauci lied is itself despicably dishonest.

Central here is the “lab leak” theory for Covid’s origin. Originally dismissed because the virus fit a familiar well-understood pattern of jumping from animals to humans. The “lab leak” theory is lately getting a second look, even while the scientific consensus still deems it highly improbable.

Republicans now accuse Fauci of deliberately downplaying it. Why would he? A Chinese shill? But anyhow the emails actually show the exact opposite of what Republicans claim. In fact, as scientists go, Fauci was unusually open-minded toward the “lab leak” idea, refusing to join others in dismissing it.

Yet undaunted by truth and reality, Republican “stars” like Rand Paul, Josh Hawley, Steve Scalise and Elise Stefanik are thundering for a full-blown investigation of Fauci and his emails. (While opposing a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 violence against the very institution they (supposedly) serve in.)

They seem desperate to find some way to undermine the Biden administration’s credibility and support. The broad American public is comparing Biden’s honesty, decency, competence and leadership against his predecessor’s total shit-storm. Guess which they prefer? No matter how often Republicans screech the word “Socialist!” Yet instead of trying to run away from their shit-storm, they somehow imagine winning the next election by mythologizing it.

Note: this piece practically wrote itself. So clear is the reality. Long accustomed to genuine political debates about genuine issues, I can’t help despairing that so many Americans fail to see what are so obviously lies and nonsense from what are so obviously bad people. Fauci versus Trump on Covid? Are you fucking kidding me?

The Republican party is insane. Supporting (almost) any Republican is insane. Returning them to power would be insane.

Manifesto for a new political party

June 4, 2021

We have a two-party system. Except that one is no longer a responsible legitimate party. After 53 years as a Republican, I became a Democrat as the only sane option. But I still hanker for a good second party, and I’ve thought about what it might stand for. I have no illusions that it could spring forth in today’s America. But, as an exercise in political imagination, here is the platform:

1. Truth and honesty. This even being on the list — let alone as #1 — is a sad commentary on today’s Republicans. Inhabiting an alternate reality of lies. Many Republicans know it. Bad faith pervades the party.

2. Civic virtues — democracy, decency, civility, tolerance, fairness, compassion. Sad too that this requires stating. We’d thought our democracy was secure. Now we know it needs defending. This includes the right to vote itself.

3. Science acceptance — this goes with #1. Science is not just another viewpoint, it’s how we know things. Republican rejection of science — on evolution, climate change, covid, you name it — makes it a party of fools.

4. Racial comity. Our history of slavery still afflicts us, its legacy a factor in Black Americans, on average, living less well than whites. Most fundamentally, many still feel they’re not accepted or treated as fully equal. Simply put, we must ensure such treatment. This certainly means no tolerance for racist or white supremacist views. Or police abuse. It’s not “law and order” (and not “freedom”) when police — armed government enforcers — overstep their authority.

5. Freedom of speech. Democrats are too tolerant of intolerance. True, some viewpoints can be deemed beyond the pale (See #4). But most such issues concern what should be matters of legitimate debate. We must end the McCarthyism of punishing people for their opinions. Republicans do it too, persecuting apostates from Trump worship.

6. Free market capitalism. It’s not some system thought up by ideologues, it’s how people interact economically absent interference. And businesses trying to make a buck by selling stuff gives us the goods and services underpinning our advanced living standard. Of course there must be laws and regulations to prevent abuse (we have laws against jaywalking) and there are some functions the market cannot fulfill. Otherwise, consumers and society reap the bulk of the wealth created, when markets are competitive. Anti-competitive government actions and regulatory capture are key problems.

Many Democrats romanticize government running everything. Such a concentration of power would be the antithesis of democracy.

7. A caring society. America is a very rich country. We can amply ensure every citizen has at least minimally decent health care, shelter, nutrition, etc. Don’t call it socialism or “social justice,” it’s simply recognition of our common humanity.

8. Equal education opportunity. Its lack is central to inequality. People born in disadvantaged circumstances are put further behind by rotten schools, that tend to go with the territory. Democrats have a poor record here. School choice would help. By failing to invest in all our children, we make adults who are burdens rather than productive citizens.

9. Global human rights. Remember George W. Bush’s second inaugural, casting America as the global promoter of democracy and human rights — widely mocked by cynics? But being seen as standing for what’s right, and for humanity’s highest aspirations, is key to America’s own global standing. And a more democratic and thus more peaceful and prosperous world benefits America.

10. Free trade. Both parties have lost their way, succumbing to narrow interests at cost to our national interest. Free trade does hurt some people, but makes us collectively richer. If other countries harm themselves with protectionism, we shouldn’t respond by doing likewise. It’s not a zero-sum world; freer trade globally makes all countries richer — again good for America.

11. Global engagement. In both the above respects, “America First” should not mean America alone, retreating behind walls. Since 1945, we led the way building a rules-based world order aided by a network of alliances with nations sharing our values and aspirations for human betterment. We have benefited hugely, yet again making a world in which America itself can best flourish.

12. Church-state separation. One of America’s greatest blessings. Freedom of religion shouldn’t mean government favoritism toward religion — a source of woe throughout history. Church-state separation has benefited religions, it’s a key reason why they remain so strong in America compared to Europe. Those trying to tear it down play with fire.

13. Gun control. All rights are subject to reasonable regulation to protect the public, and that includes gun rights.* America’s unique proliferation of guns is a major contributor to violent crime. We must act to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, and ban military style assault weapons.

14. End the “War on Drugs.” Drug use should be a medical matter, not a criminal one. The drug war itself harms society vastly more than drug use ever could. While achieving almost nothing. (Psst Republicans: this is another “freedom” issue.)

15. A welcoming country. America, uniquely among nations, is blessed by the diversity of enterprising people who chose to live here. They enrich us, culturally, economically, and spiritually. As Ronald Reagan said, America is a shining city upon a hill — whose wall has a great big door.

This platform distills a lifetime of thinking and political engagement. Is it so radical? Radically reasonable and rational perhaps. Yet can we imagine an American political party with such a program — and winning elections?

*The Supreme Court seems headed for an insane contrary ruling.

Crimes and brains

May 31, 2021

In Maryland, not long ago, a boy of 13 was riding in a car involved in a gang-related shooting. The state is one of many with the “felony murder” doctrine — any role in a felony that results in death can entail a murder charge. Maryland also authorizes judges to send children that young to adult court. The boy got 40 years in prison.

Harsh? Actually, a sentence of life-without-parole has not been uncommon in America even for juveniles under 18 — until in 2012 the Supreme Court ruled that out, except in rare cases. But such youngsters are still often treated as adults in the criminal justice system.

Neuroscience has found that the human brain doesn’t develop to maturity until well into one’s twenties. Particularly laggard is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making. We’ve always known teenagers can be irresponsible, and this brain research explains it. They just don’t yet have the mental equipment — we’re not talking about simple stupidity here — to regulate their behavior in a mature adult way. Thus their greater proclivity to act in ways that break the law.

They normally grow out of it, and don’t become hardened criminals. Unless they’re put in prison for years alongside older people who are hardened criminals.

While the mentioned brain maturation is normal, another large segment of our prison population consists of people not psychologically normal, but instead mentally ill. A very different thing. The “insanity defense” in criminal trials is actually very restrictive, rarely invoked. Most people who commit crimes because they’re mentally unbalanced wind up in prison.

That’s no surprise. But I recently learned another aspect of this that I hadn’t realized. Another big part of the prison picture is brain injury. Not psychological, but physical, resulting from a knock on the head. Here again the prefrontal cortex (behind your forehead) is prominent. Damage there can also impair judgment. People who act out violently due to brain injury constitute a major segment of our prison population.

Who are the most likely sufferers? Those living where street violence is common, and where their own parents are more apt to knock them around. Receiving hits on the head damaging the brain — causing behavior that leads to prison.

And of course a great many people are incarcerated in the “war on drugs.” I’ve written before how crazy this is. You might defend it if it actually curbed drug use, but of course it does not, while the drug war itself rampages a path of destruction throughout society, destroying lives not only in prison but in a penumbra of other human impacts. Drug use should be a public health matter, not a criminal justice one. (We are, very slowly, at last moving in that direction.)

I am not a bleeding heart, blaming “society” for crime, nor believing a lack of free will relieves us of responsibility for our actions. Misdeeds merit punishment. But, in all the ways I’ve explained, we go way overboard on that. Thus America has by far the highest incarceration rate of any country on Earth. This wasn’t always true. Our incarceration rate has exploded over the last few decades.Surely not due to way more crime. It’s because our criminal justice system is way out of whack.

Too often failing to give people help instead of prison terms that wantonly destroy lives. Like when a 13 year old is sentenced to 40 years. We should instead treat with human compassion people who are drug addicts, who commit crimes because their brains aren’t fully developed, or were damaged by injury or illness. We as a society have no such excuses for the crime of how we treat them instead.