Author Archives: Tyson

About Tyson

Love writing all kinds of stuff including fiction, non-fiction, editorials, etc. But writing software is the only writing I do for love AND money!

I Say Give Them Time

As my readers know I occasionally take exception to comments made by highly respected intellectuals. I hope that when I do so it is not to engage in a gratuitous attack, but to offer an important counterpoint. In that spirit I must take exception to recent comments made by the highly respected thinker and author Malcolm Gladwell (see here).

The comments I refer to were offered by Mr. Gladwell when he appeared on The Beat with Ari Melber last week. The full text can be heard on the Ari Melber podcast dated July 3rd, 2021.

Mr. Melber introduced the segment by pointing out that we live in a period in which Republicans are attempting to revise history and promote lies. He asked Mr. Gladwell for his thoughts about all of that and whether there were any solutions. It should be noted that this question was asked in the context of promoting Mr. Gladwell as an expert on human thinking and behavior.

Here is a slightly polished transcription of the response by Mr. Gladwell:

I think about the role of time. I wonder whether we’re in too much of a hurry to pass judgment on the people who continue to lie about what happened on Jan 6th, there are many forms that denial takes. One of it is that I honestly don’t believe that anything went wrong there. Another form is that I do believe but I’m not ready to admit it yet. A lot of what looks like a kind of malignant denial in the republican party right now is probably just people who aren’t ready to come clean and renounce a lot of what they were saying for the previous four years. I say give them time.

While this admonition for patience may sound superficially learned and wise, I find it naïve, wrong both theoretically and factually, and damagingly counterproductive. While I certainly don’t expect Mr. Gladwell to cite all his supporting evidence in a short interview segment like this, I don’t believe he has any. I suspect this is simply well-meaning but unrealistic platitude, analogous to “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That’s OK, except that he is putting forth an unsupported platitude as the conclusion of a purported expert in human thinking.

But such an expert on human thinking should understand that neural networks simply do not function in a way that would make “give them time” a reasonable strategy. As long as Republicans continue to hear the same old lies repeated over and over, they are not going to eventually recognize and reject them. Repeated exposure does not reveal lies but rather transforms our brains to accept them more deeply.

Our neural networks are influenced mainly by the quantity and repetition of the training “facts” they are exposed to. They have little capacity to judge the quality of those facts. Any training fact, in this case any idea the neural network is exposed to, is judged as valid by our neural network machinery in proportion to how often it is reinforced. And by the way, I know most of us want to believe that we collectively are not so susceptible to this because we want to believe that we personally are not. But we are.

So, my objection to Gladwell is that he does not truly understand how our neural networks function because if he did he would understand that “I say give them time” is counterproductive advice at this time. Now, yes, it would be good advice if we were confident that Trump voters are being exposed regularly and primarily to truthful information. If that were the case I would agree, yes, give their neural networks more exposure time. However, I don’t believe that there is any reasonable basis to think that giving them more time will serve any purpose except to further reinforce the lies they are continually exposed to from Trump, the Republican Party, and Fox News. We are simply not ready to just be patient and let the truth seep in and percolate.

The more nuanced advice, in my opinion, to the question posed by Ari Melber is that we must discredit and stem the flow of misinformation from these sources and expose Republicans regularly to truly factual information. Once we do that, then, yes, I say just give them time for their neural networks to become comfortable with it. With enough exposure their neural networks will transform whether they want them to or not. But to accept the status quo right now and “give them time” as Mr. Gladwell suggests would be horribly premature and ill-advised.

False Positives and Us

Cognitive scientists often discuss various forms of cognitive bias. Confirmation bias is just one well-known type (see here). Recognizing cognitive biases in all their forms is really important. But that effectively only focuses on symptoms. not the underlying causes or mechanisms of cognitive biases. In order to better overcome them, we also need understand the mechanisms that give rise to them.

As I discuss at length in my book (see here), our brains are essentially pattern recognition machines. Almost everything we do is a form of pattern recognition. And evolution has tuned our pattern recognition neural networks to err strongly on the side of false positives.

Here’s an example I often use to illustrate the importance of false positives. Imagine when we were evolving as animals. There were real tigers in the forest that were a mortal threat to us. Therefore, our neural networks were trained to recognize even the most vague hint of a tiger in the trees as a real tiger. It did not much matter if we imagined a hundred tigers that were only shadows or leaves blowing in the wind. What was critical however, was that we not miss even one real tiger, no matter how cleverly it concealed itself. An extreme bias toward false positives was a gigantic evolutionary necessity.

The result of all of this natural selection is that today we both benefit from and are hampered by powerful neural networks that are tuned to err strongly on the side of false positives. This is particularly acute when it comes to anything that might threaten us or distress us or make us uncomfortable.

This soft-wiring of our neural networks on the side of false positives not only underpins many of our cognitive biases but has huge ramifications in our social and interpersonal interaction.

For example, false positives certainly bias our perception of any *ism that offends or distresses us. If I am sensitive about my hair, I almost certainly detect far more insensitive comments about my hair than are objectively real. This is true of any *ism that impacts us, whether it be sexism, racism, or any other form of bigotry or hostility. And let me be very clear. All these things do exist and do happen, but I’m making the claim that any given individual almost certainly detects many false positives that are not really incidents of it.

This expands on our usual assessment that I am “sensitive” about my hair. Such prosaic sensitivity can be seen as a another symptom of these underlying mechanics. Our understanding of the false positive bias of our neural networks helps us understand how and why this happens and make us better able to accept it in others and defend against it in ourselves.

This is important because our exaggerated perceptions based on false positives have huge repercussions for individuals and for society. They cause us to react negatively in situations where such a response is actually counterproductive. It also exaggerates our feelings of anger and hostility which not only produce unfortunate behaviors and emotions, but those false positives also act as new legitimate “facts” that “train” our pattern recognition brains to recognize even more extreme false positives. Our biased perceptions and our memories of those false perceptions serve to reinforce our biased neural network in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Soon we see our *ism everywhere, we hear it in every comment, see it in every glance, and respond with depression and anger which make it still worse.

These same mechanisms play a critical role in our one-on-one interpersonal interactions as well. If our friend or spouse says something we find bothersome or offensive, we quickly become attuned to it and start to see it in every nuance of expression and hear it between the lines in every comment. This reinforces our neural network to become even more sensitized toward it, detecting even more false positives. We can soon get to the point where there is nothing you can say, or even not say, to the listener that is not further evidence to support their feelings. We can quickly become surrounded, even paralyzed by all the tigers in the shadows.

Certainly merely being aware of this mechanism of false positive pattern recognition does not eliminate our susceptibility to all cognitive biases, but I think that understanding how our pattern recognition network functions is essential to protecting ourselves against perceptions that are not realistic or healthy. I know that for me, understanding how I am vulnerable to false positives does not immunize me by any means, but it does help me on many occasions to recognize and to push back against my own pattern recognition biases. And this is true even for perceptions or memories that seem incredibly real and compelling. Having some appreciation, and some humility, with regard to how susceptible we are to false positives can have a tremendous impact for the better.

What Pinky and the Brain Can Teach Us

Some of you might remember Pinky and the Brain from the 1990’s or from the revival series released in 2020. But whether you were a fan or not, these genetically enhanced laboratory mice have a lot to teach us all about creative interaction and collaboration.

The Brain was brilliant and preoccupied with conceiving and executing hairbrained schemes “to take over the world.” His dim-witted companion Pinky didn’t care about taking over the world in the slightest but was irrepressibly delighted to join in anything fun.

While most of their schemes flopped hilariously, some succeeded quite well. Regardless of their level of success however, none would have even gotten off the ground were it not for their unlikely collaboration. The Brain on his own would have gotten completely fixated on a scheme without ever seeing obvious flaws or considering alternate options. Pinky, with his right-brain churning away madly could never focus on anything long enough to carry it forward on his own.

Pinky and the Brain are like individual left and right brain hemispheres, divided into separate bodies. And we get to watch and laugh while learning how they work so well together both creatively and logically.

Here’s an example I made up to illustrate of one of their planning sessions..

Pinky I have it! An infallible plan to take over the world!

Egads, really Brain? Oh do tell!!

Look at these schematics Pinky. This device will place jellybeans strategically along the sidewalks to lure people to this park [thrusts pointer toward map]. You know people cannot resist jellybeans. Once the mindless throngs have been lured into the park, I shall announce my candidacy for President and promise jellybeans for everyone.

Narf! Brilliant Brain. I mean no one can resist jellybeans can they? And you can put the red ones on the grass and the green ones on the red carpet so no one can miss them!

Excellent idea Pinky, let me just add that to my calculations…

Oh, but wait Brain… what about the white ones? I mean no one really likes the white ones do they Brain? What are they anyway, coconut? They don’t taste like coconut, narf!

Hmm, excellent point Pinky. I shall have to rethink this entire plan. Let us regroup tomorrow night.

What are we doing tomorrow night Brain?

The same thing we do every night Pinky, try to take over the world!

So, here’s what I’d like to point out about this highly compressed illustration. First, Brain comes up with an idea. Pinky enthusiastically supports the idea and suggests how it can be improved. Brain incorporates the improvement. But then Pinky spots a possible flaw and Brain realizes he must rethink at least a portion of his plan.

In real life, creative thinking must occur this way to be successful. As author Bob Samples pointed out in his book The Metaphoric Mind (see here), effective creative thinking alternates between logical progression and unrestricted lateral thinking. Or as Samples calls it, logic and play. One must move down a logical path sufficiently to develop it, but must also be willing and able to jump out and head in a different direction if that looks more fruitful.

If one remains locked in a single logical train of thinking, there is a huge chance that the thinker becomes blinded to how increasingly ridiculous that train of logic is becoming. Even if every little step is perfectly sound and logical, such paths can end up concluding that benevolent aliens are going to pick us up after we drink poison. Likewise, flighty thinking that cannot settle down to develop an idea sufficiently can never take it anywhere.

This leads many people to think that their role in creative interaction is to play the curmudgeon, the devils advocate, the nay-sayer, the flaw-finder, the pick-aparter. By doing that, they think, they are contributing positively to make ideas better. But unfortunately this does not work if that is all you do. All that such behavior does is to smother every new idea in the crib before it ever has the chance to grow.

Likewise, others believe that if they’re just unfailingly positive, support every idea no matter how objectively flawed, they are helping. They are not. All they are doing is enabling ultimately doomed trains of thought to steam-roll over a cliff.

The best approach is the one modelled by Pinky. He is unfailingly positive and does not poke holes just to show how smart he is or in some misguided view that doing so is the best way to help. He gets genuinely excited and enthusiastically contributes new ideas that make the plan even better as long as he can. But, if he does see a major flaw at some point, he points it out. Despite his investment in the plan, Brain responds appropriately. He bonks Pinky on the head if the objection is silly, makes adjustments if it is substantive, or heads back to the drawing board if it is a fatal flaw.

So when you collaborate with a friend or colleague on a new idea, try to emulate Pinky and the Brain. Help develop ideas as long as you can before poking holes. If holes appear after carrying the idea along a ways, play with divergent new approaches and carry those forward as long as you can. Keep the idea bouncing around like a volleyball. Don’t spike it prematurely into the dirt. If you are all alone for now, use the Pinky and the Brain inside of you. If you do, you’re much more likely to take over the world, maybe even tomorrow night.

Lost Pet

Meh poor beloved Norbert has gotten himself lost or maybe worse. Norbert is jus’ a wee-bitty feller. Cute as can be. He’s really a well-behaved li’l dragon, well fer a Norwegian Ridgeback anyways. Poor thin’ mighta gotten lost in the Forbidden Forest seeyin as he likes to play with his critter friends chasin’ ’em around an’ such. I’m jus’ beside mesself wit’ worry ya know. <snif>

So if yeh see him, send him home to Hagrid in the Caretaker’s Cottage won’cha? Only don’ get too close. I mean, he wouldn’ hurt yeh or nothin’, not on purpose anyways. But he does get a bit skittish around strangers. Tends to bite a tad… well an’ claw truth be told… an’ belch flames and whatnot, bless his wee soul.

Anyway, keep yer eyes out fer my sweet los’ Norbert won’ ya? All the kids love ‘im like a brother! They mus’ be missin’ him sumthin’ terrible! <sob>

Cars Have to Go

I’m not a huge fan of private enterprise and I don’t hold much hope that for-profit ventures will save our planet. But if there is one single private product that I desperately want to see exceed expectations, it’s Zoox (see here), or at least something like it.

Zoox is a startup taxi-share service that was acquired by Amazon for roughly a billion dollars in 2020. Unlike other taxi-share ventures, Zoox will be totally automated. You summon a driverless Zoox vehicle using your smartphone, it pulls up, the doors slide open, you get in, and the Zoox takes you to your destination. Since no driver’s compartment is needed, Zoox is designing their vehicles completely from scratch to seat passengers. It looks a bit like one of those Ferris-wheel cabins with doors on each side and center-facing benches. The all-electric vehicles can transport you to your destination at expressway speeds up to 75 mph.

Why am I so enthusiastic about this venture?

It is unquestionable that private automobile ownership has been one of the key drivers of all the amazing progress and advancements we have made since the early 1900’s. But it is also unquestionable that private vehicles have brought with them terrible side-effects to our societies, our cities, our health, and our planet (see here). The simple truth is that traditional car ownership must change dramatically if we are to survive as a sustainable planetary civilization.

I know that the vision of Zoox in the short-term is simply to complete with traditional ride-share services like Uber and Lyft. But we need to carry this much, much farther. I want to see, like yesterday, a total shift away from private vehicle ownership to a near-total reliance on driverless shared-vehicles like Zoox. We need to get to a future where private vehicle ownership is simply too impractical, too expensive, and too inconvenient to continue.

Consider the benefits of doing away with private vehicle ownership…

  • Driving will be far safer if we take human drivers and poorly maintained cars off the road.
  • Automated cars can operate in the most energy-efficient manner.
  • Computers are not subject to road-rage.
  • Driverless vehicles can’t be used as weapons.
  • Driverless, pool vehicles require far less police enforcement.
  • Driverless vehicles would allow us to begin to redesign our spaces in a way that is more conducive to human quality of life rather than for automobiles.
  • Sharing of pooled cars means far fewer cars sitting idle much of the day and more efficient resource utilization overall.
  • Since too many folks feel compelled to alter their cars to make them as obnoxiously loud as possible, corporate-owned vehicles will be quieter and create a more pleasant environment for everyone.
  • Frees people from insurance, maintenance, and liability risks and expenses.
  • Without private vehicles people will “cruise” less for fun thereby saving fuel and creating less pollution and less congestion.
  • Fewer cars overall means less space dedicated to public and private garages and more for cheaper and denser housing and business space.
  • Driverless vehicles make new innovations like tunnels, vehicle conveyor belts, and other exciting transport solutions much more feasible and cost-effective.

Look, I know that these ideas are all heresy in a nation that is still in the throes of a century-long love affair with their cars. Heck, I love cars too. But the simple truth is that traditional car ownership, however we might tweak it, is not sustainable if we wish to survive as a planet. We have to make big changes and that means big sacrifices. If it means that I can no longer feel pride in my cool car, that I give up the joy of working on it, that I stop going cruising on Sunday afternoon, and that I wait a few minutes for my robo-car to arrive… that’s a small price to pay to save the planet.

I know that many will say that even if I’m totally right on all counts (and I am), people will no sooner give up their private automobiles than their guns and their Bibles. But to that I say, no, we can get there. And soon. All it takes is that we make shared, pooled, driverless vehicles so easy, enjoyable, cheap, and safe compared to private ownership that people would be idiots to own their own car. Or, if they are idiots, they can no longer afford to own a private vehicle.

And the other big reason this could actually happen is that in this one unique instance the self-interest of Amazon and other private companies aligns with the sensible and right solution for people and for the planet. This is one public-private partnership that our government should help in every way to make a reality.

America Without God?

I don’t often rebut other articles, but on occasion I feel that I would be intellectually negligent not to do so. One such article that requires a response is entitled “America Without God” (see here). It was recently published in The Atlantic by contributing writer Shadi Hamid, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute. This article is so bloated with egregiously specious arguments that it is a real challenge to rebut it concisely.

The tl;dr that is being put forth by Mr. Hamid boils down to the following fallacious assertions…

  1. Religiosity, or religious-like conviction, is a universal and unavoidable human condition that must inevitably manifest itself in some fashion.
  2. This “religiosity” is nebulous, but seems to be defined by Hamid as an innate human compulsion to embrace an “ultimate loyalty” expressed through “strongly held ideological convictions.”
  3. As religion has declined, the resulting “God-shaped hole” has been filled by a similarly fervent set of political convictions.
  4. This “sublimation” of religion into politics has not resulted in a more rational world as promised and expected. Therefore, secularism is disproven as better set of beliefs.
  5. Religiosity cannot be “effectively channeled into political belief without the structures of actual religion to temper and postpone judgment.”
  6. Christianity is superior since it motivates people to be forgiving and to “withhold final judgements for another time – perhaps until eternity.
  7. Without a religious reawakening, we are left with either “world-weary resignation,” “violence,” or a “divisive wokeism.”
  8. Therefore, we should give up on secularism and re-embrace Christianity as our best hope for a better world. If we do not, dire consequences will result.

Sigh, where do I start?

First, like many articles in The Atlantic, this one is bloated and convoluted and loaded with gratuitous and irrelevant references and quotes. I don’t know if this is simply to fill space, or to argue by quantity, or to argue by creating the perception of authority, but one should not be misled into thinking that because it is hard to follow that it must be really smart.

By way of contrast I will quickly and clearly list some of the problems with this article…

  1. There is no evidence that “religiosity” is a necessary or unavoidable condition. It may be difficult to stop drinking whisky without dipping into the cooking sherry, but this does not disprove sobriety.
  2. The vast majority of Trump supporters are also the most gullibly religious believers in our population. They did not turn to Trump to fill any “God-shaped void.” They embrace Trumpism because their religious rationalizations have conditioned their brains to accept nonsense.
  3. The Left has not embraced “wokeism” to fill any void left by secularism just as atheists in general have not felt compelled to turn to anything beyond sound rational thinking.
  4. To assert that “secularism has failed” as a given is a ridiculous claim. First, we are still hugely religious as a nation. Second, secularism HAS succeeded dramatically in making our nation a saner and more inclusive place for all and has protected us from the worst extremes of religious zealotry.
  5. To claim that Christianity “tempers” our worst impulses is again asserted as a given without any serious credibility. There are countless burned, tortured, and lynched spirits that can attest to Christian forgiveness.
  6. And why is an eternal deferral of judgement and punishment a good thing? Justice must be timely to be fair and must be exacted in the real world.
  7. Lastly, but hardly the last flaw, is the fear-mongering that forms the final argument. Embrace Christianity or all the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah will be befall you!

The author is clearly motivated by a revulsion of Trumpism, a movement only rational-sounding to religious magical thinkers, then makes a false equivalence with wokeism, and concludes that the problem is secularism and that the cure is yet more religion. He attempts to maneuver us into an intellectual false choice between a secular dystopia and acceptance of organized religion as the only possible alternative. This is, quite simply, nonsense.

Look, I know I am being harsh. But this is a high-profile article that is receiving a lot of publicity. The author is out on the interview circuit spreading this nonsense of pro-religious manipulation and fear-mongering on talk-shows all across the country.

The truth is that we have not yet given secularism a chance to show us a saner world free from religion. The truth is that many of us are atheists and quite comfortable. We will not recant on our death bed nor will we ever pray in a foxhole, and we do not need to fill any God-shaped hole with Trumpism or Wokeism or any other *ism.

Now, that is not to say there is no problem. I have always emphasized that as an atheist I would not want to simply “do away with religion.” Religion has trained our brains to accept nonsense. We must fix that first or else we’ll simply adopt other nonsense, yes like Trumpism.

Reason can be our rock. Our best hope as a species is not merely the least destructive catechism of nonsense. We can learn to be rational. That is why my focus has always been on teaching fact-based thinking rather than attacking religion. My book (see here) was based on the premise that we must eliminate magical thinking, religious or non, by teaching rational thinking.

So I have still not given up on the vision of a rational, ethical, and healthy secular world and I assume John Lennon would not take back his words either…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

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.