Scammers Worthy of Respect

I appreciate folks who are good at what they do, including criminals. Once someone stole my backpack while the strap was around my ankle underneath a desk in the far back corner of a busy Internet café in Quito. Picturing that talented thief slipping cat-like under the desk and slicing cleanly through the strap only made me think, well done sir, it was an honor to be burgled by a professional of your caliber! Another time I was pickpocketed by a group of boys who packed in against me in a crowded bus in Kathmandu. I immediately detected what had happened and peered around at the expert team, all looking perfectly innocent, and nodded my respect saying, “Well done lads!”

In the same vein, I respect a well-crafted street con. I have been privileged to observe some quality teams in action. I’ve watched them practice their craft in Calcutta, Manhattan, Moscow, Cape Town, and elsewhere. One of the most impressive was a group plying their trade on La Rambla in Barcelona. They were working the classic shell game. The dealer kept expressing all expected chagrin and frustration as he lost bet after bet and handed over fists of cash to an enthusiastic group of “players” who exclaimed their delight at winning most every round.

Here’s the thing, even knowing it’s a scam, even knowing that all those “players” were plants who were hamming it up just for my benefit, it was still really, really difficult not to think I could win too. I watched all those rubes who were obviously not as smart as me win on bets against the clearly inept shell dealer. And when they lost, it was obvious to me every time where the pea actually was. The lure to join in, even knowing it’s all a scam and that I was the mark who was reacting exactly as they hoped I would, was still tangibly powerful.

The reality of course is that I had no hope of actually winning. The players only “lost” when they wanted to lose and I only knew where the pea was when the dealer intended for me to see it. Even if I were to win a few rounds, it would only have been because the dealer wanted me to win so that they could suck me in even deeper. To think I could beat them at their game would have been the height of foolishness.

I can even give some respect to more “upscale” confidence artists. A televangelist for example. These guys are really masters of bilking people out of a lot of real, hard-earned cash for nothing more than the promise of a heavenly pig-in-a-poke. Even a pyramid scheme scammer deserves some credit in my estimation. They manage to convince people they can make money by doing nothing. While in reality, the only folks that make any money are a few of the top level investors who make enough to sell the lie that everyone below them will profit as well.

I am even willing to give some level of respect to the reprehensible low-life’s who recently called up my son’s grandparents claiming to be him and asking for emergency bail money. Pretty bold and brassy to pull that off!

You might think I have a warped and misplaced set of values, as evidenced by my willingness to accord some respect to unsavory criminals. Maybe you’re right. But even I draw the line at stock traders. Despite my low standards, I can muster no respect for them.

Stock trading is just too big a scam, even as compared to organized religion. It is too entrenched, too manipulatable, too exploitable, and too consequential. It is not only destructive but unnecessary.

Look, of course I recognize the need for banking. We cannot function without socially responsible lending and credit. I also recognize the need for financial vehicles to grow our wealth and to support us in old age.

But despite the apparent “winners” in the market, stock trading does not meet any of these goals in a socially equitable or sustainable way. Stock trading is not, needs not be, and should not be, an essential vehicle for raising funds, growing wealth, or securing our futures. Not when it is such an inherently extractive and destructive force in the world.

Stock investment does not make investors “invested” in those businesses in which they hold shares, encouraging responsible long-term caretaker-ship of those companies. Quite the contrary. Stock investment promises maximum rent-seeking wealth extraction for a given investment. It only encourages investors to push companies into short-term dividend maximizing policies at the expense of workers, the environment, and the companies themselves. Shareholders exert their influence to extract maximum profit and move on as soon as soon as they have milked that cash cow dry. Day traders exert the same pressures even more ruthlessly and carelessly through their investment activities.

And even though the system allows just enough “winners” to make everyone imagine that they are smarter than the system or luckier than the system, those “winners” only make enough to entice others to invest and siphon more money from the middle class into the investor class. And as most of those “winners” eventually discover, as does anyone who thinks they are “winning” at that shell game on La Rambla, their winnings will evaporate quickly if they play long enough.

So no. Even though I can respect grifters of all sorts, I cannot offer even a begrudging modicum of respect for stock traders. They are unnecessary, rent-seeking, exploitative parasites who only extract money, real blood and heartbeats, from the little guys who think, like me looking on at the shell game on La Rambla, that they too can profit by playing the game. The stock trading game may not be controlled by one dealer, but it is an emergent form of the shell game that dupes millions of people into betting and ultimately losing.

So what is the alternative? On that I take my advice from WOPR in War Games. The only way to win is not to play. Instead invest in real, tangible assets and in hard work over get rich quick schemes. Build instead of extract. If you have more money than you know what to do with, try giving it away to support lasting and socially constructive efforts.

A Healthy Model of Equality

Thomas Jefferson prominently enshrined the phrase “all men are created equal” in our Declaration of Independence. This phrase has ever since embodied perhaps the single most important and enduring foundation of the American experiment (see here).

Certainly all people of good-will respect and value this “immortal declaration.” And certainly no one limits their interpretation to the literal meaning of the phrase. For if children quickly and demonstrably became unequal, the idea of equality at creation would lose any practical or useful meaning whatsoever. So we generally accept that “created equal” also implies that we remain equal throughout our lives, independent of what we do or do not accomplish in life.

But this must be much more than a mere rhetorical or theoretical equality. It must extend far beyond a mere begrudging recognition that all people have the right to basic human rights and dignity. It must be a practical working belief that operates at the real functional interpersonal level which allows us to work together in this human project as equal partners.

Indeed, without a sincere and unqualified recognition of the equality of all individuals, our social fabric cannot endure. It is not possible to have a fair and just society if we feel, even deep down, that some are deserving and others are not; that some are superior merely by virtue of their social status or race or gender or even by their level of accomplishment in life. To allow for such fundamental bases of inequality is to travel down the road toward slavery and subjugation and exploitation and ultimately into the abyss of social disfunction.

Yet, moving beyond a mere allowance of certain inalienable rights to a true respect for each individuals capabilities and worth is not easy. In fact that is a huge understatement. For in our everyday life in every social interaction we see that people are simply not equal. It is laughably obvious that in fact we are not equal by wide margins. Some folks are brilliant, others stupid. Some sane, others insane. Some gifted, others inept. Some strong, others puny. Some have lived honorable lives, others lives of ignobility.

The truth is, we cannot help but observe glaringly wide disparities on any measure of worth you care to assess.

So how can we truly hold the ideal of equality alongside the reality of inequality harmoniously in our minds? How can we sincerely believe in equality without lying to ourselves about the reality? And how can we acknowledge the reality without lying to ourselves about our belief in the ideal?

This requires some rationalization. Rationalization is not a bad thing. We all have to find some coherent model for reconciling contradictory ideas. Therefore, we all must find some kind of understanding that allows a recognition of equality to thrive, fully and harmoniously in our individual brains and in our collective psyche, alongside the reality of inequality.

You may already have your own rationalization that works well for you. But here’s how I rationalize it. It’s not perfect, but no model can be. It has long worked pretty well for me.

  1. Excluding physical or chemical debilitation, a human’s total capacity to think is neurologically dependent upon their physical brain capacity.
  2. All human brains are the same size, or close enough as the differences do not matter. Therefore our total brain “power” is essentially the same and all of it is used in some manner.
  3. Brains exhibit a wide spectrum of capabilities. Think of it as an impracticably wide bar chart. Each bar is a narrow trait, like perhaps “math,” or “kindness,” or “neuromuscular control,” but much finer grained than those.
  4. Everyone’s bar chart is a unique. It is a signature of who they are. Everyone has some high bars and some low bars. But the total area under the bars adds up to the same total power.
  5. Some bars are particularly valued by society at any given time, some are measured on an SAT exam and some are not. Some make you a business tycoon, some a starving artist. But although some signatures may be seen as more important to society, or lead to greater success, all are equal and all are valuable to society.

So, in my rationalization all people are truly equal. True, some may be less appreciated or less helpful in a given situation, but all are nevertheless worthy of true respect in my mind for their unique strengths. There is no contradiction whatsoever with the observed differences between individuals. Aspiration and reality are fully reconciled.

This model has helped me to reconcile equality with differences. It has in fact helped me appreciate equality by virtue of our differences. It has helped me to feel proud of my own personal strengths while simultaneously humble about my weaknesses and while still being as worthy and as flawed as anyone overall. It has helped me recognize that being smart or skilled in one area does not make anyone particularly smart or skilled in another. That has helped me apply a healthy level of skepticism to opinions put forth by “smart” people in areas outside their proven expertise and to allow that otherwise uninformed people can offer valuable insights in others. It has helped me understand that traits like “smart” or “sane” are not simple binaries but complex and nuanced and somewhat arbitrary. We are all smart in some things and delusional others (see here). It has also helped me to value undervalued traits and to recognize that disrespecting people for one very low bar of their chart does not mean you disrespect them in totality and that respect overall does not require you to respect every trait.

And further, we should value the undervalued signatures in our society more than we do. It is our failure and our loss if we do not identify and utilize whatever unique strengths each individual has. There are no useless skillsets, only underutilized and underappreciated skillsets.

I think these rationalizations have led me in a healthy direction. Maybe this model will help you come to a more healthy and helpful view of equality as well.

The Impending Doom of Written Language

Sci Fi and Fantasy are often lumped together, but they are very distinct literary forms. The core difference is not simply whether the subject matter is dragons or space ships, but whether the subject matter is plausible or not. Whether it could become reality. Dragons could be Sci Fi if originating in a plausible manner and if they adhere to the laws of chemistry and physics. Conversely, a space ship becomes fantasy if it jumps through time and performs “science” feats what would consume fantastically implausible amounts of energy. Lots of Sci Fi fans are actually consumers of fantasy every bit as unrealistic as Lord of the Rings.

Really good Sci Fi is not merely plausible, but likely, even predictive. Great Sci Fi is unavoidable, or more aptly inescapable, given our current trajectory.

But even mind-boggling Sci Fi can often reflect a disappointing lack of imagination.

Take for example the obligatory transparent computer screen that we see in every Sci Fi show. Or even the bigger budget full-on 3-D holographic computer interfaces that provide eye-candy in every major feature nowadays. These look cool, but are probably pretty unimaginative. Plausible and likely, but crude interim technologies at best.

Take for example my own short Sci Fi story Glitch Death (see here). In it, I envision a future in which direct brain interfaces allow people to use computers to “replace” the reality around them with perceptual themes. In that future, we skip quickly past archaic holographic technology and beam our perceptions directly into the brain.

But even that only touches the surface. For example, why would a future direct-to-brain technology be limited to flashing words across our visual field and allowing us to hit “virtual buttons” floating in mid-air? To explain my thoughts on this, let’s digress and talk about math for a moment.

Today we have entered a time where math hardly matters anymore. Oh yes, we must of course understand the concepts of math. We must understand addition, division, and even the concepts of integrals and derivatives and more complex algorithms. But we don’t need to learn or know how to compute them. Not really. We have computers to handle the actual manipulative mechanics of numbers. Most of us don’t really need to learn the mechanics of math anymore, even if we use it everyday.

We are already well on the way there with language as well. We have devices that “fix” all of our spelling and formatting automatically. We don’t actually have to produce typographically correct written text. All we need to do is to communicate the words sufficiently for a computer to understand, interpret, correct, and standardize. We are at the verge of being able, like math, to simply communicate concepts, but not worry about the mechanics of language construction and composition.

So, back to my Sci Fi vision of the future of direct-to-brain interfaces and their likely ramifications. Interfaces like the one envisioned in Glitch Death would soon make written language, and perhaps much of verbal language, prohibitively cumbersome and obsolete. Why shoot words across our visual field, forcing us to read, comprehend, process, and assimilate? Why indeed when the computer could instead stimulate the underlying processed and interpreted symbols directly at their ultimate target destination in our brain. We wouldn’t need to actually read anything. We would simply suddenly know it.

In this situation, we would not need written material to be stored in libraries in any human recognizable language. It would be more efficiently housed in computer storage in a language-independent format that is most closely compatible with and efficiently transferrable into the native storage of the same concepts in the human brain.

In this future, all of which is directly in our path of travel assuming we survive our own follies, we deal at basic symbolic levels and tedious processes of math and language become largely offloaded. Forget tools to translate human languages. We will be able to simply discard them for a symbolic language that essentially transforms us into telepathic creatures. And in this form of telepathy, we don’t hear words in our head. We just transmit ideas and thoughts and understanding and experiences with the aid of our computer interfaces. The closest depiction in popular Sci Fi is perhaps the implantation of memories in the 1990 film “Total Recall.”

A real fascinating unknown to me is, how would humans process and interact without language? Do we require at least an internal language, internal dialogue, to function? I have always wanted to be a subject in an experiment to be made to forget all language, say by hypnosis or drugs, and to experience functioning without it. Like a dog might process the world. Technology may inevitably force that experiment upon us on a huge social scale.

It’s not true that “A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Magic would defy the fundamental restrictions of physics and chemistry. That’s how we’d know the difference. A telepathic future facilitated by direct-to-brain computer interface is Science Fiction, not Fantasy.

Blogs are Tweets for Adults

The other day author Ta-Nehisi Coates made some comments about Twitter that really spoke to me. Read them below or watch the interview (see here).

I think for somebody like me who is most comfortable, and more than comfortable, feels that what I have to give are ideas and notions that take a lot of time to cook, you know that have to marinade, that have to be baked, have to be in the oven for a little while, something like twitter is death for me. It was probably bad and it would have been much much worse because I think it incentivizes two things that are not good for my process, it incentives immediate reaction and it incentivizes argument.

I don’t know why it’s that way but people I have met or know in real life are one way in real life and if you saw their twitter persona you would be like is that the same person? I think for me it would be corrupting. I shouldn’t be able to broadcast everything I’m thinking. I shouldn’t even have the power to do that. Because you can say I have the power to do it but I’m not going to do it, that’s not how the world works. You’re gonna do it because like all humans we’re weak, you know?

This sentiment by Mr. Coates really summed up my own feelings about Twitter and social media more generally. I’ve certainly felt the siren song to tweet. I’ve even wavered under the urging of others to get with the program. But I’ve never tweeted more than a handful of times and then only to announce a particularly important blog article.

The reason I have resisted tweeting was articulated by Mr. Coates in his interview. Twitter would be corrupting for me. I prefer writing a more well-considered and fully developed blog article than be restricted to a shallowly supported tweet followed by an increasingly argumentative tweet storm as I battle to defend it with essential nuance.

Does Twitter have any redeeming value? Of course. Lots. It is a great way to network and organize, to get a message out, to build brand value, to excite lots of people, and to mobilize a community of like-minds.

But, the benefits of Twitter (and social media in general) do not immunize it from criticism and at least recognition of its limitations and even dangers. There are benefits to having guns handy too, but that does not negate all the harm they do. And as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out, Twitter also encourages and facilitates the worst of our natures and undermines the thoughtful, considered sharing of ideas in a positively persuasive manner.

This positive and productive sharing of ideas is where blogs shine. Certainly with respect to Twitter, but even in comparison to nightly news shows or what are often tedious and inflated books, blogs serve to give regular folks a right-sized forum that encourages and facilitates the best of our natures. A good blog requires the author to actually think an idea through completely and present it in a clear and concise fashion.

And with that as context, I want to take this opportunity to thank those of you who make the effort to slog though my blog on occasion. This is now my 164th figmentum. My first article was a post about the television series Penny Dreadful back in May of 2015 (see here). And although I garner only a handful of readers, one occasional thumbs-up from any of you means far more to me than a thousand likes on Twitter.

I appreciate you for being the kind of reader who is willing to invest your valuable time in what are hopefully thoughtful and well-developed articles (by me or by other bloggers) that not only entertain but sometimes might even inspire you.

Hopefully I can bring you another 164 installments that contribute in their small way to the productive sharing of thoughts and ideas in a world beset by tweets.

A Right Makes It Right for the Right

In order to continue to rationalize and legitimize their support for Trump and all of the reprehensible things he says and does, Conservatives have had to abandon any semblance of principled ethical decision-making. They have retreated in their ethical justification to one recurring assertion…

Well he has the Right to do it.

We hear it all the time nowadays. But look, let’s be clear. We value and respect the Rights that we afford to each other through social norms, mutual respect, and as codified in our Constitution. But let’s also be clear, simply asserting that one has a strictly legal right to do something does not make it right to do. Acknowledging that someone technically has a right to do something does not excuse one from recognizing any other ethical considerations.

Having a legal or technical Right to do something doesn’t make it a wise thing to do, or a courteous thing to do, or a sensible thing to do, or even an honorable thing to do. In fact, sometimes asserting one’s Right is a dick thing to do. It may even be a selfish and unconscionable thing to do. Asserting a Right can in fact be the sociopathic thing to do.

It may be my Right to wear my stovepipe hat in a crowded movie theatre, but it’s a dick move. It may be my Right tell you that your little child looks like a mutant Klingon, but no one should do that. It may be my Right to exploit loopholes so that I pay no taxes on my millions, but really? And it may be my Right to brandish my gun and wave my Confederate flag around, but is it really right to exercise those particular Rights in that manner?

Similarly, the Congress may technically have had the “Right” to block Supreme Court Nominee Merrick Garland for eight months, but it was a dick thing to do. They technically had the “right” to appoint Amy Coney Barrett only weeks before a Presidential election, but it was still hypocritical and low-class to assert that Right. The President may technically have the “right” to personally intervene in Federal criminal cases to serve his own personal agenda, but it is still wrong. Trump may claim a “right” to grant pardons to anyone he wishes, or redirect resources, or to have private conversations with dictators, or any of a million other things. He may have the “right” to lie about matters personal and official, but it is still unethical. Simply put, his “right” to do those things does not make any of them the right thing to do. It certainly does not excuse them or make them into behaviors that we must accept.

It is not surprising that Trump, self-serving child that he is, would assert a “right” to do practically anything he wishes. Nor that Mitch McConnell would assert that any dirty tactic he may employ is within his “rights.” But it is really sad that so many outsiders, so many pundits and elected representatives, folks whose ethical responsibility it is to be ethically responsible, respond to concerns about ethical integrity only by saying “well he has the right to do that.”

Claiming that someone else has “the right to do that” is a weaselly and cowardly attempt to appear ethically-grounded while in fact abandoning anything beyond a pathetic pretense of ethical integrity. Conversely, quite often the truly right thing to do ethically is to put aside one’s own personal selfish “rights” to service a far greater and more noble good.

And it must be pointed out that very often these “rights” invoked are usually not affirmative, specifically granted rights, or even generally accepted rights. Most often these are matters of common human decency that no one ever felt they needed to enumerate in some gargantuan list of all the things no honorable person would ever do, or would even think of doing.

The lack of a specific prohibition is not a Right.

Yet, for the most part, this is the new Trumpian ethical low that we Americans have fallen to. If your totally reprehensible and unthinkable behavior has no specific law against it beyond hundreds of years of decorum and mutual respect, then you claim that it is your “right” to do that thing. And if you are a partisan or sycophant, you excuse that behavior by simply pointing out that it is technically and legally within their rights.

Invoking a technical right to do something is one of the most abused, misused, disingenuous, and yes even unethical, levels of ethical thinking and behavior. So realize that when apologists justify bad behavior as a “right,” they are almost certainly resorting to the weakest possible justification that they hope sounds principled, lofty, and unassailable.

We should not so easily let them off the ethical hook by simply invoking this sort of disingenuous justification.

The Greatest Failure of Science

Before I call out the biggest, most egregious failure of science, let me pay science some due credit. Science routinely accomplishes miracles that make Biblical miracles seem laughably mundane and trivial by comparison. Water into wine? Science has turned air into food. Virgin birth? A routine medical procedure. Angels on the head of a pin? Engineers can fit upwards of 250 million transistors in that space. Healing a leper? Bah, medicine has eradicated leprosy. Raising the dead? Clear, zap, next. Create life? Been there, done that. It’s not even newsworthy anymore.

And let’s compare the record of science to the much vaunted omniscience of God himself. Science has figured out the universe in sufficient detail to reduce it to practically one small Standard Equation. It turns out to actually be kind of trivial, some would say. Like God, we can not only listen in on every person on the planet, but no mystery of the universe is hidden to us. We have looked back in time to the first tick of the cosmic clock, down inside atoms to quarks themselves, and up to view objects at very edge of our “incomprehensively” large universe.

Science routinely makes the most “unimaginable” predictions about the universe that are shortly after proven to be true. Everything from Special Relativity to the Higgs Boson to Dark Matter to Gravity Waves and so many other phenomena. Nothing is too rare or too subtle or too complex to escape science for long.

Take the neutrino as just one representative example among so many others. These subatomic particles were hypothesized in 1931 by Wolfgang Pauli. They are so tiny that they cannot be said to have any size at all. They have virtually no mass and are essentially unaffected by anything. Even gravity has only an infinitesimal effect on neutrinos. They move at nearly the speed of light and pass right through the densest matter as if it were not there at all. It seems impossible that humans could ever actually observe anything so tiny and elusive.

Yet, in 1956 scientists at the University of California at Irvine detected neutrinos. Today we routinely observe neutrinos using gigantic detectors like the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole. Similarly we now routinely observe what are essentially infinitesimally tiny vibrations in time-space itself using gravity wave detectors like the LIGO Observatory.

The point is, when talking about anything and everything from infinitesimally small neutrinos to massive gravitational waves spread so infinitesimally thin as to encompass galaxies, science can find it. If it exists, no matter how well hidden, not matter how rare, no matter how deeply buried in noise, no matter how negligible it may be… if it exists it will be found.

Which brings us to the greatest failure of science.

Given the astounding (astounding is far too weak a word) success of science in predicting and then detecting the effects of even the most unimaginably weak forces at work in the world around us, it is baffling that it has failed so miserably to detect any evidence of the almighty hand of God at work.

I mean, we know that God is the most powerful force in the universe, that God is constantly at work shaping and acting upon our world. We know that God responds to prayers and intervenes in ways both subtle and miraculous. So how is it that science has never been able to detect His influence? Not even in the smallest possible way?

Even if one adopts that view that God restricts himself rigorously to the role of “prime mover,” how is it that science has found nothing, not one neutrino-scale effect which points back to, let alone requires, divine influence?

It is mind-boggling when you think about it. I can certainly think of no possible explanation for this complete and utter failure of science to find any shred of evidence to support the existence of God when so many of us are certain that He is the most powerful force at work in the universe!

Can you?

The Emergence of Malignant Liberalism

I defy anyone to question my liberal credentials. I’m now in my sixties and since my youth I’ve raised my voice against Conservatism, Religion, Guns, our War Economy, Unrestrained Capitalism, Blind Patriotism, Social Injustice, and Environmental Abuse. I’ve spent many years volunteering and working around the world at all levels of the global socio-economic spectrum. I’ve written and spoken out about difficult and delicate topics both formally and informally. I’ve received threats, including death threats, and been often told explicitly to “love it or leave it!” Despite all that I have always proudly identified as an “extreme Liberal,” if not a radical one.

So it is with a sad heart that I must acknowledge that I’m now embarrassed to identify as a Liberal. For me, the Liberal extremists have jumped off the deep end and I refuse to follow them into the abyss. Liberalism has grown and mutated into something almost as toxic as the social poisons they claim they wish to cure.

Modern Liberalism has metastasized into something akin to a religion.

Like religious people, the new Liberals have their rigid dogma. You must prove your devotion by adopting all the accepted language of the religion. You must be willing to dutifully demonstrate your devotion by declaring your preferred pronouns. You must accept every tenet, behave just so, or risk their form of excommunication, the terminal cancellation.

Like “born again” religious fanatics, these Liberals talk of being being “woke.” They tend to be upper-middle class people who suddenly discover the “devil” of poverty and injustice. They then take up their verbal swords with religious fervor to spread their message and enforce their dictates. They wield the language of their religion with terms like “intersectionality,” and “toxic masculinity,” and “microaggression,” and “appropriation” with all the pseudo-scholarly conviction of a television preacher.

And like religious zealots, they have unwavering conviction that their cause is righteous and just and that it is their newfound mission to force proper behavior upon others by any means necessary. Any collateral harm to individuals is justified in service of the long-term mission. Like any religion, they preach love and inclusion while practicing hate and exclusion.

Frankly, as with religious leaders, I suspect that for most of the hard-core Liberal fanatics it’s not really about the mission at all. It’s all about reveling in the role of spiritual leader. Of establishing oneself as one of the “high holies” who sits upon a moral throne above all others.

For vast majority of “regular” liberals, life is now all about towing the line, keeping your head down, saying the right things, not saying anything for fear of saying the wrong thing, and staying silent when others fall victim to the new inquisition – all in the hopes of keeping the wrath of the righteous woke from coming down upon you.

Religion doesn’t have to be religious. Secular causes can serve all the same base emotional and social functions that religion does. And when they do, they are vulnerable to all the same terrible excesses.

As an atheist, I’m repelled by any religion, particularly secular religions that rise like malignant creeping vines to crush the life out of important social causes that I care deeply about.

Perhaps now I’ll be told once again to “love or leave” this power-crazed liberal nation.

Would you Buy a Used Car from this Guy?

Used Car SalesmanWhen someone makes a claim, how do you decide whether to accept it or to reject it? Ideally you make an independent assessment of the truth of the claim. But that assessment must necessarily factor in, and factor in quite heavily, the character of the person making the claim. Do they have legitimate knowledge regarding the claim, do they have ulterior motives to misrepresent their claim, and do they have a history of making false and misleading claims?

If any such character questions fail, one should be legitimately skeptical of any claim made by that person. As judges in court proceedings often instruct their jury, if a witness is caught in even one lie, it is reasonable to be skeptical of their entire testimony. If enough questions of character arise, then one should be skeptical that even the most legitimate-sounding claim made by that person may simply be “too good to be true.”

The merits of a claim can be misrepresented. Therefore a character assessment must sometimes be factored in even more strongly than our judgement about the merits of an assertion. Conversely, we should seriously consider even doubtful claims from those of high character and a strong record of being correct.

An offer is a kind of a claim. An offer makes an implicit claim that you have something of value to the recipient that you are willing to share. As with any other claim, the decision whether to accept or reject the offer must necessarily consider the character of the person or entity making the offer.

President Trump has made more false claims that one can count. Well, actually someone did count more than 20,000 false and misleading claims just since taking office (see here). Moreover, he has unfailingly demonstrated that he lacks judgment, is completely self-serving, has total disregard for facts and truth, and considers fakery and manipulation to be a high ideals. He lacks any ethical core and even his sanity is in legitimate doubt.

Given his deplorable character and his clear and almost entirely blemished record of deceit, it is truly mind-boggling how anyone can believe anything Mr. Trump says, no matter how plausible it may sound or how much they want it to be true. Gullible people are those who believe false claims, often willfully ignoring the character of even known liars or confidence men making the claims. Anyone who believes anything Mr. Trump says without exceptional external validation is simply gullible.

Similarly, one cannot be criticized for being skeptical regarding any offer made by Mr. Trump or by his Administration. It is unfortunate when public officials pretend to ignore his character when expressing skepticism regarding his policy offers and recommendations. For example, in interviews regarding Trump’s offer to deploy Federal police into cities to deal with rioting, several Mayors have been asked “Would you reject Federal law enforcement assistance if the offer did not come from the Trump Administration?” The question suggests that considering the source of the offer would be somehow “politically motivated.” Those Mayors tend to skirt the character issue completely and give vague answers about how Federal assistance is not needed.

The correct answer, both rationally and politically, should be “Of course I have to consider veracity and motives of the person making any claim or offer, particularly one of such great consequence as this.”

And of course Mr. Trump’s character must influence the reluctance of those Mayors to accept his offer of “assistance.” If the same offer was made by any of our previous Presidents, it might be reasonable to consider it more favorably. Those Mayors might feel far more comfortable in doing so because no other President has demonstrated such an egregious degree of disingenuous lies and manipulations for their own benefit or spite. Coming from any other President, Mayors would have less reason for concern that the offer was politically motivated let alone another step on the road toward the realization of his Dictatorial aspirations. If the offer had come from any other President, those Mayors would have had far less cause to consider that the offer originated from a morally corrupt and even mentally unstable individual.

It is of course unfortunate that even if Donald Trump were to make some claim or offer that is actually truthful and helpful, most sane and ethical people should be rightfully skeptical of it. That is why an individual as fundamentally untrustworthy as Donald Trump should never hold a position of public trust.

 

The Bridge that Binds

RelationshipsOur consciousness is like a lone person wandering around within the confines of their own small island-body. We see people on their own islands all around us, but we can only wave and call out to them at a distance. But sometimes, miraculously, we happen upon a rope-bridge spanning the void at the same time that another discovers their end of the bridge, and we can come together, embrace, and share our islands as one.

Unfortunately, rope bridges easily fray, and all of our running back and forth together inevitably wears them out. If we are not extraordinarily smart and careful, the tenuous bridge binding us together collapses irretrievably. How do these interpersonal bridges get frayed and can we prevent it?

Four years ago I blogged about the relationship between memory and happiness (see here). Long story short… the better your memory the more unhappy you are likely to be. People with “good” memories invariably remember every insult, every slight, and every disappointment. Those painful memories pile up and eventually weigh one down with bitterness, regret, fear, and anger. These are often directed toward your partner.

When it comes to maintaining a close, loving relationship, a bad memory can be a good thing. Sure you may forget that occasional birthday or anniversary, but you can chalk that up to your bad memory. Hopefully your partner will forgive those oversights. But much worse is to carry every inevitable and unavoidable insult or emotional injury with you in your unforgiving memory banks – especially since it is likely to get worse and worse with each recalling (see here).

But how does a person with a good memory forget a bad experience? Excellent question. One thing you can do is to consciously resolve to wake up each day like Lucy Whitmore as played by Drew Barrymore in “50 First Dates” (see here). Resolve that even though you may indulge in being justifiably crabby, sullen, snippy, or plain pissed with your partner till bedtime, come morning you’ll reboot and revert to normal, just like Lucy. You may need to “show them how it feels” or simply shut down emotionally for a day, but don’t carry it on past the morning light.

And if you are the on the receiving end of this behavior change, don’t adjust to a new normal too quickly. Help make it easy for your partner to return to normalcy without either of you losing face.

Because if both partners do not reboot quickly, you run a even bigger risk than adding on another toxic memory. You run the risk of falling prey to an insidious type of “behavioral memory.” What happens is this sort of sequence… say you get angry with your spouse so you do or don’t do something in response. In the morning you feel not ready to let up so you don’t. Throughout the day, you continue with your response, because you now feel awkward going back. By the next day, you no longer know how to go back. Your temporary anger or hurt reflex has become internalized and both you and your partner have adjusted to it. Now, it’s a permanent part of your relationship and there is no way back. You may forget the precipitating event, but your response has become a permanent behavioral memory. It is your new normal, and it diminishes your relationship. The bridge between your islands is frayed and weakened.

So, after a trying episode, wake up like Lucy and try to forget your pain or anger from yesterday. Of course you can’t and shouldn’t forget real abuse and mistreatment. But do try to let go of those minor spats with those who you love and who love you. Don’t allow something relatively minor to fester and grow. Most importantly, don’t allow your response behavior to become ingrained as a permanent behavioral memory.

Second, be on the lookout for any time when, in response to hurt or anger, you say to yourself “for now on I’m gonna…” This is almost always something unfortunate. When you hear yourself think that, just stop that line of thought. Don’t make behavior changes that arise from negative reactions.

If your partner didn’t laugh at your joke, don’t resolve to never tell jokes again. If your partner insulted your lasagna, don’t resolve never to cook again. If your partner shrugged off your hug, don’t resolve to never to risk showing affection again. Each time you decide to make some long-term change out of hurt or anger or just as your sensible adjustment to your partners behavioral change, just stop as ask yourself if your reaction is really worth the cost. Don’t whittle away at the bridge that binds you together.

Finally, if your partner does establish a destructive new behavioral memory, try not to adjust to a new normal too quickly or too deeply. Don’t lock in their behavior through your own adjustment to it, as reasonable as that may seem. Remain open to creating or finding opportunities to restore or strengthen the precious bridge you share.

The picture accompanying this article tells a tragic story of a couple that didn’t start out more interested in their cell phones than in even a merely perfunctory embrace. They started out strongly connected and madly in love. But years of memories that only fester and grow have wedged them apart. A hundred ingrained behavioral memories have destroyed all that they once gave them so much joy. Now their once mighty bridge is merely a tenuous thread.

You don’t need to become them. Choose not to become them. Choose to be Lucy.

 

Three Major Flaws in your Thinking

BrainwavesEEGToday I’d like to point out three severe and consequential flaws in your thinking. I know, I know, you’re wondering how I could possibly presume that you have major flaws in your thinking. Well, I can safely presume so because these flaws are so innate that it is a statistical certainty that you exhibit them much the time. I suffer from them myself, we all do.

Our first flaw arises from our assumption that human thinking must be internally consistent; that there must necessarily be some logical consistency to our thinking and our actions. This is reinforced by our own perception that whatever our neural networks tell us, no matter how internally inconsistent, nevertheless seems totally logical to us. But the reality is that our human neural networks can accommodate any level of inconsistency. We learn whatever “training facts,” good or bad, that are presented to us sufficiently often. Our brains have no inherent internal consistency checks beyond the approval and rejection patterns they are taught. For example, training in science can improve these check patterns,  whereas training in religion necessarily weakens them. But nothing inherently prevents bad facts and connections from getting introduced into our networks. (Note that the flexibility of our neural networks to accommodate literally anything <was> an evolutionary advantage for us.)

Our second flaw is that we have an amazing ability to rationalize whatever random facts we are sufficiently exposed to so as to make them seem totally logical and consistent to us. We can maintain unquestioning certainty in any proposition A, but at the same time be perfectly comfortable with proposition B, even if B is in total opposition with and incompatible with proposition A. We easily rationalize some explanation to create the illusion of internal consistency and dismiss any inconsistencies. If our network is repeatedly exposed to the belief that aliens are waiting to pick us up after we die, that idea gradually becomes more and more reasonable to us, until eventually we are ready to drink poison. At each point in the deepening of those network pathways, we easily rationalize away any logical or empirical inconsistency. We observe extreme examples of this in clinical cases but such rationalization affects all our thinking. (Note that our ability to rationalize incoherent ideas so as to seem perfectly coherent to us was an evolutionary necessity to deal with the problems produced by flaw #1.) 

The third flaw is that we get fooled by our perception of and need to attribute intent and volition to our thoughts and actions. We imagine that we decide things consciously when the truth is that most everything we think and do is largely the instantaneous unconscious output of our uniquely individual neural network pathways. We don’t so much arrive at a decision as we rationalize a post-facto explanation after we realize what we just thought or did. Our consciousness is like the General who follows the army wherever it goes, and tells himself he is in charge. We feel drawn to a Match date. Afterwards when we are asked what attracted us to that person, so we come up something like her eyes or his laugh. But the truth is that our attraction was so automatic and so complex and so deeply buried, that we really have no idea. Still, we feel compelled to come with some explanation to reassure us that we made a reasoned conscious decision. (Certainly our illusion of control is a fundamental element of what we perceive as our consciousness.)

So these are our three core flaws. First, our brains can learn any set of random facts and cannot help but accept those “facts” as undeniable and obvious truths. Second, we can and do rationalize whatever our neural network tells us, however crazy and nonsensical, so as to make us feel OK enough about ourselves to at least allow us to function in the world. And thirdly, when we ascribe post-facto rationalizations to explain our neural network conclusions, we mistakenly believe that the rationalizations came first. Believing otherwise conflicts unacceptably with our need to feel in control of our thoughts and actions.

I submit that understanding these flaws is incredibly important. Truly incorporating an understanding of these flaws into your analysis of new information shifts the paradigm dramatically. It opens up powerful new insights into understanding people better, promotes more constructive evaluation of their thoughts and actions, and reveals more effective options for working with or influencing them.

On the other hand, failure to consider these inherent flaws misdirects and undermines all of our interpersonal and social interactions. It causes tremendous frustration, misunderstanding, and counterproductive interactions.

I am going to give some more concrete examples of how ignoring these flaws causes problems and how integrating them into your thinking opens up new possibilities. But before I do that, I have to digress a bit and emphasize that we are the worst judge of our own thoughts and conclusions. By definition, whatever our neural network thinks is what seems inescapably logical and true to us. Therefore, our first thought must always be, am I the one whose neural network is flawed here? Sometimes we can recognize this in ourselves, sometimes we might accept it when others point it out, but most of the time it is exceedingly difficult for us to recognize let alone correct our own network programming. When our networks change, it is usually a process of which we are largely unaware, and happens through repeated exposure to different training facts.

But just because we cannot fully trust our own thinking doesn’t mean we should question everything we think. We simply cannot and should not question every idea we have learned. We have learned the Earth is spherical. We shouldn’t feel so insecure as to question that, or be intellectually bullied into entertaining new flat Earth theories to prove our open-mindedness or scientific integrity. Knowing when to maintain ones confidence in our knowledge and when to question it, is of course incredibly challenging.

And this does not mean we are all equally flawed or that we cannot improve. The measure is how well our individual networks comport with objective reality and sound reason. Some of our networks have more fact-based programming than others. Eliminating bad programming is not hopeless. It is possible, even irresistible when it happens. Our neural networks are quite malleable given new training facts good or bad. My neural network once told me that any young bald tattooed male was a neo-Nazi, that any slovenly guy wearing bagging jeans below his butt was a thug, and any metro guy sporting a bushy Khomeini beard was an insecure, over-compensating douchebag. Repeated exposure to facts to the contrary have reprogrammed my neural network on at least two of those.

OK, back on point now. Below are some examples of comments we might say or hear in conversation, along with some analysis and interpretation based on an awareness of our three flaws. I use the variable <topic> to allow you to fill in the blank with practically anything. It can be something unquestionably true, like <climate change is real>, or <god is a fantasy>, or <Trump is a moron>. Alternatively, if you believe obvious nonsense like <climate change is a hoax>, or <god is real>, or <Trump is the greatest President ever>, using those examples can still help just as much to improve your comfort level and relations with the other side.

I don’t understand how Jack can believe <topic>. He is so smart!

We often hear this sort of perplexed sentiment. How can so many smart people believe such stupid things? Well, remember flaw #1. Our brains can be both smart and stupid at the same time, and usually are. There are no smart or stupid brains, there are only factually-trained neural network patterns and speciously trained neural network patterns. Some folks have more quality programming, but that doesn’t prevent bad programming from sneaking in. There should be no surprise to find that otherwise smart people often believe some very stupid things.

Jill must be crazy if she believes <topic>.

Just like no one is completely smart, no one is completely crazy. Jill may have some crazy ideas that exist perfectly well along side a lot of mostly sane ideas. Everyone has some crazy programming and we only consider them insane when the level of crazy passes some socially acceptable threshold.

I believe Ben when he says <topic> is true because he won a Nobel Prize.

A common variant of the previous sentiments. Ben may have won a Nobel Prize, he may teach at Harvard, and may pen opinion pieces for the New York Times, so therefore we should give him the benefit of the doubt when we listen to his opinions. However, we should also be cognizant of the fact that he may still be totally bonkers on any particular idea. Conversely, just because someone is generally bonkers, we should be skeptical of anything they say but still be open to the possibility that they may be reasoning more clearly than most on any particular issue. This is why we consider “argument by authority” to be a form of specious argument.

It makes me so mad that Jerry claims that <topic> is real!

Don’t get too mad. Jerry kinda can’t help it. His neural network training has resulted in a network that clearly tells him that <topic> must obviously be absolutely true. Too much Fox News, religious exposure, or relentless brainwashing will do that to anyone, even you.

How can Bonnie actually claim that she supports <topic> when she denies <topic>???

First, recall flaw #1. Bonnie can believe any number of incompatible things without any problem at all. And further, flaw #2 allows her to rationalize a perfectly compelling reason to excuse any inconsistency.

Clyde believes in <topic> so he’ll never support <topic>.

Not true. Remember our flaws again. Clyde’s neural network can in fact accommodate one topic without changing the other one, and still rationalize them perfectly well. All it takes is exposure to the appropriate “training facts.” In fact, consistent with flaw #3, after his network programming changes, Clyde will maintain that he consciously arrived at that new conclusion through careful study and the application of rigorous logic.

Sonny is conducting a survey to understand why voters support <topic>.

Social scientists in particular should be more cognizant of this one. How often do we go to great efforts to ask people why they believe something or why they did something. But remember flaw #3. Mostly what they will report to you is simply their rationalization based on flaw #2. It may not, and usually doesn’t, have anything to do with their extremely complex neural network programming. That is why “subjective” studies designed to learn how to satisfy people usually fail to produce results that actually do influence them. Sonny should look for more objective measures for insight and predictive value.

Cher should support <topic> because it is factually supported and logically sound!

Appeals to evidence and logic often fail because peoples’ neural network has already been trained to accept other “evidence” and to rationalize away contrary logic. It should be no surprise that they reject your evidence and conclusions and it doesn’t accomplish anything to expect Cher to see it, let alone berate or belittle her when she does not.

And that brings us to the big reveal of this article…

There is a fourth flaw that is far worse than the other three we have discussed so far. And that is the flaw that most of us suffer from when we fail to integrate an deep awareness of flaws 1-3 into our thinking. We may not be able to completely control or eliminate flaws 1-3, but we can correct flaw number 4!

This discussion may have left you feeling helpless to understand, let alone influence, our truth-agnostic neural networks. But it also presents opportunities. These insights suggest two powerful approaches.

The first approach is more long-term. We must gradually retrain flawed neural networks. This can be accomplished through education, marketing, advertising, example-setting, and social awareness campaigns to name a few. None of these efforts need to be direct, nor do they require any buy-in by the target audience. The reality of network training is that it is largely unconscious, involuntary, and automatic. If our neural networks are exposed to sufficient nonsense, they will gradually find that nonsense more and more reasonable. But the encouraging realization is that reprogramming works just as well – or better – for sound propositions. And to be clear, this can happen quite rapidly. Look at how quickly huge numbers of neural networks have moved on a wide range of influence campaigns from the latest fashion or music craze to tobacco reduction to interracial relationships.

The second approach can be instantaneous. Rather than attempt to reprogram neural networks, you force them to jump through an alternate pathway to a different conclusion. This can happen with just a tiny and seemingly unrelated change in the inputs, and the result is analogous to suddenly shifting from the clear perception of a witch-silhouette, to that of a vase. Your network paths have not changed, yet one moment you conclude that you clearly see a witch, and the next it becomes equally obvious that it is actually a vase. For example, when Karl Rove changed the name of legislation, he didn’t try to modify people’s neural network programming, he merely changed an input to trigger a very different output result.

I hope these observations have given you a new lens through which you can observe, interpret, and influence human behavior in uniquely new and more productive ways. If you keep them in mind, you will find that they inform much of what you hear, think, and say.