Category Archives: Saving the Planet

I Want to Sing a Love Song

In today’s world, it’s tough to feel positive let alone inspired by anything. It’s all too easy to think that the worst of us represent all of us. It seems like heroes only ever existed in comic books and today even they have been reinterpreted as deeply flawed creatures.

But true heroes do exist in the world. Singer, songwriter, and activist Harry Chapin was one such real life hero. I was reminded of this when I watched the marvelous documentary about Harry called “When in Doubt, Do Something” on Prime Video (see here).

If you are still a huge Harry Chapin fan, you should watch this documentary. If you are wondering if Harry Chapin is the guy that did “Cat’s in the Cradle,” you should watch this documentary.

Harry Chapin was a musical genre all to himself. Although a few other artists might be identified as storyteller musicians, I doubt that even they would feel worthy to be placed along side Harry Chapin in that category. He told emotionally raw stories, set to the backdrop of sweeping cello strings and ethereal falsettos that bore right through the heart to the soul of the listener. Real, basic, everyman stories that anyone can relate to. His story songs ranged from comedic to sappy to dark but he told all his stories fearlessly. He didn’t pontificate. He was never so obvious as to entreat us to “give peace a chance” or “love one another right now.” He didn’t tell, he showed us universal truths by showing us the everyday people he brought to life through his music.

If you are interested in my recommendations, I’d suggest “Mail Order Annie,” “Mr. Tanner,” and “A Better Place To Be” as just three. If these don’t make you emotional you may have trouble passing the “I am not a robot” test.

Besides being a prolific songwriter and tireless performer, Harry was also a pragmatic idealist who devoted his energy and creativity to combating global poverty, hunger, and homelessness. During the Carter years he gave everything one could possibly give in service of his fellow human beings through both his music and through his dauntless legislative lobbying on behalf of humanity.

One thing that the documentary illustrates vividly is that everyone who interacted with Harry Chapin, and Harry reached many, many people, has their Harry Chapin stories that they can never forget. It is not undue hyperbole to say that most anyone who heard his music was deeply touched. Those who saw him in concert or in more informal performances felt forever connected to him. And those who lived and worked alongside him were transformed by him.

I’m no exception to that. Although I’m only one of millions that were profoundly touched by Harry Chapin, my own Harry Chapin stories are still unique. In true Harry Chapin tradition here are two of them.

I was tending bar in my early twenties. It was one of those local corner family-owned dives there I mostly poured beer for regulars. Every Friday night this young couple would come in and sit at the bar. I never actually learned their names but we had a ritual. At some point during the night they would play “Taxi” on the jukebox and the three of us would share six and a half intimate minutes while we sang Taxi along with Harry Chapin. Like honoring some reverent moment of silence, none of the other working-class patrons would so much as shift on their stool until we were done.

To appreciate my second Harry story, you have to understand that I always went to see Harry Chapin in concert whenever he played in the area. One week, the radio stations kept promoting his upcoming concert at the local Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee where I lived. On concert night, the DJ mentioned that the Harry Chapin concert was to start shortly and I realized that for some reason I had never bought a ticket!

Just out of hopeless desperation I drove over to the PAC. There was no one in the lobby as the concert had already seated. I nevertheless walked up to the ticket window and inquired. Of course there were no tickets left. Sad but unsurprised I turned to walk away but hesitated when I noticed another employee come in from the back and whisper to the agent. The agent turned back to me and said that there was a no-show and they were putting the ticket up for sale. Of course I snatched it up!

It turned out that the ticket was row AAA, the very front row, dead center. I had the best seat in the house to enjoy that Harry Chapin concert. Eventually, Harry came out for the encore. He did Sniper. Now you have to understand, Sniper is a 10 minute magnum opus, exhaustively relating the gut-wrenching story of a clock tower sniper. It was probably longer in concert.

And for this song, Harry came and sat on the edge of the stage with his guitar, feet dangling just inches from my knees. At the finish, exhausted and sweat covered, Harry ended the epic climax of the song. While the audience cheered he just sat there, looking directly at me the entire time, spent and flushed, yet with the kind of connection one only imagines experiencing in feeling of true love at first sight.

I found I just couldn’t clap along with the rest of the audience. I couldn’t call for yet another encore. I feared he might think badly of me, so I just pursed my lips and nodded as if to say, “It’s OK. You have given it all. You don’t have to give any more.” Harry nodded back, every so slightly, and I could see he understood and appreciated my holding back as perhaps his loudest applause of all.

Well, that was my Harry moment was back then. The documentary brings back those memories and shows me how very common my moment was for anyone who interacted with this exceptional human being. But that doesn’t make my moment feel less special. On the contrary, it makes me appreciate him even more.

Harry, you taught me to look at people with all their flaws and quirks and see them as worthy of love, understanding and respect. You taught me to look at all the darkness of the world, to expose it, even to battle against it, and not become jaded or disheartened by it but rather embrace it with compassion and even humor.

I wish there were more like you in the world, Harry, and it is our loss that you died so young. But the fact of your life makes me confident that we all can be better as well.

Harry still reminds us that we are all not just represented by the worst of us, but that we are all also represented by the best of us.

Pandemic of Delusion

You may have heard that March Madness is upon us. But never fear, March Sanity is on the way!

My new book, Pandemic of Delusion, will be released on March 23rd, 2023 and it’s not arriving a moment too early. The challenges we face both individually and as a society in distinguishing fact from fiction, rationality from delusion, are more powerful and pervasive than ever and the need for deeper insight and understanding to navigate those challenges has never been more dire and profound.

Ensuring sane and rational decision making, both as individuals and as a society, requires that we fully understand our cognitive limitations and vulnerabilities. Pandemic of Delusion helps us to appreciate how we perceive and process information so that we can better recognize and correct our thinking when it starts to drift away from a firm foundation of verified facts and sound logic.

Pandemic of Delusion covers a lot of ground. It delves deeply into a wide range of topics related to facts and belief, but it’s as easy to read as falling off a log. It is frank, informal, and sometimes irreverent. Most importantly, while it starts by helping us understand the challenges we face, it goes on to offer practical insights and methods to keep our brains healthy. Finally, it ends on an inspirational note that will leave you with an almost spiritual appreciation of a worldview based upon science, facts, and reason.

If only to prove that you can still consume more than 200 characters at a time, preorder Pandemic of Delusion from the publisher, Interlink Publishing, or from your favorite bookseller like Amazon. And after you read it two or three times, you can promote fact-based thinking by placing it ever so casually on the bookshelf behind your video desk. It has a really stand-out binding. And don’t just order one. Do your part to make the world a more rational place by sending copies to all your friends, family, and associates.

Seriously, I hope you enjoy reading Pandemic of Delusion half as much as I enjoyed writing it.

But What Would We Do Without Religion?

As an author who focuses primarily on science, fact-based thinking, and atheism, I find that many of my conversations end up stuck in religion. Even those who share a clear and open-eyed view of the completely delusional belief pattern of religion, as well as the real social harm that it causes, still end up at stuck at “yea, but we need religion.”

Their suggestion is that, despite the obvious insanity of it, we’re stuck with religion. After all, some people clearly just need religion to better cope with life. They need the support that religion provides, whether real or fantasy. Implicit in this acceptance is the assumption that there is and can be no secular alternative. We have become co-dependent upon our mass delusions.

To those folks I say, look, we’d be completely fine without religion. In fact, if a miracle actually happened and religion disappeared from the planet, it would be quickly replaced with far more healthy fact-based alternatives. The disappearance of religion would open the space at least for rational secular alternatives to blossom and grow to fill any sane, legitimate need. All the money going to churches would be available to them to grow and flourish.

We have plenty of secular support systems already. We have an arguably helpful and supportive secular government, charities, clubs and associations of all sorts, NGO and volunteer organizations, and familial and interpersonal relationships. If religion were to disappear, I am fully confident that there are plenty of fact-based support and comfort systems that would expand and blossom to provide socially healthy alternatives to provide any legitimate benefits that religion may offer.

You know, we are always irrationally fearful of losing anything we have, even when it is harmful to us. Yes, cigarettes are killing us but don’t you dare take them away! Perhaps gas stoves are no longer needed and are giving our kids asthma, but you can pry my gas stove from my dead burnt fingers!

Moreover, we have a tendency to put too much emphasis on what little good someone or something offers while minimizing all the negatives. At one company we had a true bad apple named Tanya. Tanya did virtually no work and spent all her time proudly fomenting dissent. Yet when I asked my boss why he didn’t fire her he said “well if I did who would do the little bit of work she does?”

Finally, we have another tendency to think of things we rely upon as indispensable, irreplaceable. I am a fan of Amazon, but many folks think it is terrible. Yet, most would not wish to do away with Amazon because, after all, we depend on it too much. Like it or not, they would say, we need it.

But I think it is safe for me to assert that you’d be just fine without your cigarettes or your gas stove. Work will go on just fine with Tanya gone, and in fact less can be more and productivity will probably increase. Someone will pick up her work with hardly a notice. And if -<horror> Amazon went out of business tomorrow? The market would quickly adjust and you’d have plenty of ways to buy whatever it is you need. Within weeks they’d be no more than a distant memory, like Montgomery Ward or Sears and Roebucks.

Similarly, we overly focus on whatever good comes from religion and we mistakenly worry that it is indispensable and irreplaceable to meet our needs. We practically imagine that civilization would crumble without it. But it would not. We’d do just fine, and, as with Tanya gone, probably much better. As much as Amazon executives or church leaders would like you to believe that they alone can sustain you, they are not truly essential and irreplaceable. No one and nothing is, including religion.

So fret not for the loss of religion in the world. The planet will keep spinning and people will end up in a much better place when we finally escape from our delusions.

Animals are Little People

Like many, I opine quite a bit about the harms caused by social media. Let’s be clear; those harms are real and profound. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge all the good it does. Social media has many well-acknowledged benefits as related to social networking and support, I’d like to point out two less obvious benefits, namely as they relate to science and animals.

For some quick background, I always heard that people spend lots of time watching video clips online. I assumed they must be endlessly entertained by “guy gets hit in balls” videos. But my son sent me some links to clips on the “InterestingAsFuck” subreddit (see here). They were really engaging and gradually I started to watch them more and more. Now, my wife and I ravenously consume the clips daily and can’t ever seem to get enough.

The first great thing is how many of the video clips involve science. These clips tend to demonstrate science principles and phenomena in incredibly engaging and inspiring ways. Some are certainly presented by scientists, but most of the presentations feel accessible, home grown, like real magic that you could be doing too. I have to think that this tone and style of presenting science has a tremendously underappreciated benefit in advancing or at least popularizing science and innovation.

The second benefit of these videos is their effect on how we relate to animals. Throughout history, we have seen ourselves as separate and above animals. While we might acknowledge theoretically that we are animals too, we still view them as relatively primitive creatures. We have zoos that are intended to help us to appreciate animals, but while they offer some exposure and appreciation, they generally just make us feel like we are in a museum, watching uninteresting stuffed figures behind bars and glass required to keep us safely away from their dangerous animal natures.

But then we go to InterestingAsFuck, and we see video after video of animals relating to humans and other animals in compellingly “human” ways. We see animals playing, teasing, problem-solving, sad, fearful, happy, proud, generous, and yes, sometimes selfish and even vindictive. And not just dogs and cats. We see videos that focus on behaviors of and interactions with the full spectrum of animal life on our planet, from eagles to microbes. They all demonstrate profoundly “human” behaviors.

We see videos of animals helping other animals, even ones that are traditional enemies or prey. It is incredibly gratifying that humans are included in this. We see videos of humans helping animals and animals helping humans. In fact, we see almost entirely positive interactions between humans and our animal cousins.

You could visit a hundred zoos or spend your entire life on a farm, and not be exposed to the tiniest fraction of incredible animal interactions captured in these videos. But once you watch enough of them, I find it hard to imagine how people could not be changed by them. It is hard to imagine how, having seen so many extraordinary examples, one could continue to dismiss animal behavior as just “mimicking humans.”

I hope, perhaps I am naïve, but I hope that after exposure to positive social media like this, most people will come away understanding that humans did not just suddenly appear on Earth; that all of our behaviors and emotions evolved and can be seen in our animal cousins. Animals are more like little people, like toddlers on the evolutionary ladder. As such, they deserve far more respect and appreciation than has traditionally been afforded to them.

If you don’t agree, follow InterestingAsFuck for a while, and see if you can still continue to dismiss any due recognition of animal feelings and emotions as mere projection.

Perhaps, just perhaps, social media can inspire us to engage with science, and with the real world around us, in ways that documentaries, and safaris, and zoos, and college courses have never been able to achieve.

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.

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.

Any Fool Can Do It

SurvivorOn October 9th, 1989, I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “The Survivors” that made quite an impression on me. In it, Captain Picard and his crew encounter an elderly couple living in an unnatural oasis on a devastated planet. It turns out that the wife is a phantasm, an unknowing replica of the actual wife, now long dead. She was conjured by her husband Kevin, a godlike being who was devoted to her before her death and who has remained so centuries after.

By the way, Kevin was played by the iconic character actor John Anderson (see here). You probably don’t know his name, but if you watched any television from the early 50’s to the early 90’s, you cannot fail to recognize his distinctively Lincoln-esque countenance and voice.

Anyway, at the end Kevin reveals his shameful secret. When the planet he was living on with his wife was attacked by hostile aliens called the Husnock, he tried his best to use his powers to trick or dissuade them. Those efforts failed. Refusing to take any life, even those of the deplorable Husnocks, Kevin stood passively by as they devastated his planet and killed his wife along with the rest of her people.

The anguish of this loss caused him to lose control of himself, releasing a momentary outburst of uncontrolled rage. As Kevin told it:

“I went insane. My hatred exploded, and in an instant of grief, I destroyed the Husnock. I didn’t kill just one Husnock, or a hundred, or a thousand. I killed them all. All Husnock everywhere.”

What touched me was not merely the poignant tale of grief and loss and shame and regret. What touched me was what was implied by the story. What touched me was what else the story of Kevin teaches us.

Take note that Kevin was essentially a god. Unlike Thanos, Kevin didn’t need to expend all the power of the Infinity Gauntlet. It only required one stray thought for Kevin to selectively exterminate billions of lives. He was that powerful.

So after watching this episode, I asked myself the logical question. Given all that power, and given Kevin’s deep love and mourning for his wife, why didn’t he simply think her back into existence? Why didn’t he bring back all her people and restore her planet? In fact, given his deep regret, why didn’t he bring back the Husnock and direct them along a better path? Of course he would have… if he could.

The only answer is, he couldn’t.

So the truth, the revelation, the epiphany for the viewer must be that any fool can destroy. Tearing down is easy. It can be done with one errant thought. But even an omnipotent god cannot easily create. Even one as powerful as Kevin cannot in a million years ever recreate what he can mindlessly destroy in an instant.

We humans are certainly not gods, but in this regard we are the same as Kevin. We can easily, even unthinkingly, break a dish, crush a rose, tear someone down, shoot a gun, dash a hope, take a life, smash a historical relic, burn a building, bomb a city, nuke a country, even devastate a planet. Any fool can destroy. But it is immensely difficult, even impossible, to create or restore any of those things.

And what makes us immeasurably worse than Kevin is when we take pride and joy in destroying. When we believe that destroying makes us powerful. It does not. Any fool can destroy. Fools destroy because it makes them feel powerful.

However, it takes real strength and true genius to create.

This applies not only to physical things but to ideas. Any fool can knock down ideas. Any fool can pick them apart and tear them to pieces.  It takes an exceptional person to conceive new ideas and to build on the ideas of others rather than take delight in crushing them.

And this applies to ideas like Democracy as well as to our institutions. It required generations of strong and wise people to create our democratic ideals and institutions. But it only takes a few short years for a weak-minded and craven fool like Donald Trump to mindlessly tear them all irretrievably asunder. Feeling power and even pride in the “dismantling of the administrative state” – without building something stronger and better upon it – is the work of fools.

And we have no shortage of fools.

Why Advocates Fear Success

LettingGoWe often see it in parents. Parents expend much of their lives raising their children. More than raising them, passionately advocating for them at every stage. They have built a home around them. They have expended much of their wealth to help them grow. Their emotions and their self-identity are wrapped up in their role as parents. They have done everything possible to help their children to succeed. Yet, allowing them to actually succeed, to fly from the nest and diminish their own role as parents, can be those parents’ most difficult challenge.

Similarly, success is the most fervent hope of advocates, yet it can be the most difficult thing for them to accept. Letting go is often difficult not only for advocates, but even more difficult for advocacy organizations and for an entire advocacy movement. You became impassioned, you rallied, you worked much of your life, your built institutions, you fought many battles, maybe even bled, to advance your cause. It’s understandable that it can be hard to let go. Particularly hard when your advocacy is not only your passion, but all you know how to do. Even harder when your financial livelihood and the financial livelihood of so many others depends upon the continued necessity of those advocacy institutions you have built.

The result is that many advocacy groups have a very difficult time dealing with success or an evolving social situation that has made them increasingly irrelevant. Even when 99% of their mission has been achieved, or when far more important issues arise, they still insist they need more funding, more effort, more time, more dedication, because there is just so much yet to be done. They begin to minimize their own accomplishments and exaggerate the remaining problems, so as to justify their continued relevancy as activists.

All movements go through a life cycle, and retirement is not easy for any of them. But I’m not going to name names. I’ll leave that to you to consider. I will say that I myself have long been passionately active in the atheist movement. However, as greater acceptance of atheists has been achieved (although very far from sufficient), as Trump has emerged as an existential threat to Democracy in America, and as climate change has emerged as an existential threat to the planet, I gradually let go of atheism as my primary issue. It wasn’t easy. I did go through a stage where I insisted that atheism was still a vital cause because religion is so much a foundational issue enabling all these other problems. But even that argument, while valid, sounds clingy and desperate to me now compared to so many other immediate threats, like healthcare.

Speaking of healthcare, I do feel compelled to point out one specific case in point, Culinary Union Local 226 in Nevada. They strongly oppose Bernie Sanders because of his proposed Universal Healthcare Plan (see here). They have reportedly gone so far and to pressure and intimidate members who support Sanders.

By the light being shone in this article, it should be easy to see why they would so vehemently oppose Sanders. Let’s face it, while Unions advocate for their members on a wide range of issues, healthcare is their clear raison d’être. Since healthcare in America is so prohibitively expensive, and since while other abuses still exist these are no longer the days of Upton Sinclair, people are driven to unions largely for assistance with healthcare. If Sanders were to eliminate healthcare as a major problem, those unions would lose their major point of leverage. They would no longer be desperately needed by members to advocate for their healthcare.

In my opinion, Culinary Union Local 226 and others are not unlike parents who would rather undermine a daughter’s impending marriage than allow her to leave their nest for a better life. Even if you accept their argument that they are only advocating as best as they can for their members, they are shortsighted because their current “gold” healthcare plan is always at risk. Of course, from their perspective, the risk of losing it is why their members need to continue to support and fund them. And from a more principled perspective, their “we got ours” attitude is simply unconscionable for the good of our nation overall.

 

Champion of Nonsense

RandFrom climate change deniers to religious believers, there is certainly no shortage of intellectuals championing nonsense in the public sphere. But today let’s focus on the Champion of Libertarianism, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Libertarianism is an extremist version of barely restrained Capitalism. While it may sound reasonable and appealing when presented by a faux-intellectual like Paul, it falls apart completely under the slightest scrutiny, just as it did when Rachel Maddow probed just below the surface of Paul’s position on privatized lunch counters (see here).

For a Libertarian zealot like Paul, Socialism is his most horrifying nightmare. It is therefore unsurprising that in response to increasing public support for Socialist policies, Rand Paul wasted no time in publishing a book denouncing it (The Case Against Socialism).

In making his “case against Socialism” Rand Paul focuses mainly on historical bogeymen by raising the long-dead specters of Stalin and Mao Zedong. In a television interview just the other day, he was asked what Millennials in particular who support Socialism don’t get. Paul replied that they don’t get that Socialism means that the government owns all means of production and that it has been a disaster in every country in which it has been tried. He went on to once again invoke the horrors of Stalin and Mao Zedong.

Here’s what Paul doesn’t get or does not wish to acknowledge. Supporters of Democratic Socialism are not advocating those extreme forms of Socialism. They are not advocating that the government seize all private enterprise. And further, there is no reason to think that such Socialist extremism is inevitable, likely, or even possible in America.

Paul’s entire premise against Socialism is based on an obviously specious argument. It claims that Democratic Socialism is evil because something else called Socialism was evil. It’s the reverse of the logical fallacy used by gun zealots who claim that since revolutionary era guns were protected, modern guns should be protected.

Consider this analogy to understand what Paul is doing here. It is like he is railing against tablets. Tablets, he says, are evil. They waste paper and the spiral binding can cause cuts. We did away with tablets long ago and these Millennials who support them simply do not understand how dangerous they are. But no, they are talking about electronic tablets, not spiral notebooks. And similarly they are talking about Democratic Socialism, as practiced in Norway and Finland, not what was once called Socialism in China or Russia.

If we reflected the same disingenuous form of argument back against Paul, we would say that what Paul doesn’t understand is that Anarchy has been tried and it has always been a disaster. Of course, Paul is not talking about total anarchy when he talks about modern Libertarianism. And likewise no one supporting Democratic Socialism today is talking about the form of socialism attempted by Stalin or Mao Zedong (see here).

Further, when Paul claims that Socialism has always been a disaster, he fails completely to recognize that modern Socialist countries are at on the top of every measure of health and happiness (see here). Nor does he happen to mention that virtually every country that has adopted the more Libertarian economic policies of Milton Friedman has suffered direct human and economic calamity on a massive scale. This was excruciatingly documented in Naomi Klein’s landmark book (The Shock Doctrine).

So no Rand Paul. Sorry, but it is not the supporters of Democratic Socialism that don’t understand history. You are the one who is either delusional in your blind rationalization of Libertarianism, disingenuous in your rabid fear-mongering of Democratic Socialism, or most likely both.

Thank you Greta

gretaIn this blog installment, I defer to 16 year old Greta Thunberg. Her words at the United Nations were arguably the most powerful and important words ever spoken on this planet. I shamefully accept her condemnation as part of those generations that selfishly did far too little too late to avert or even mitigate an undeniable impending climate change cataclysm.

I can only hope that should we somehow manage to avoid a total collapse of our planetary ecosystem, future generations will point to her speech as having sparked the turning point away from the abject collective folly of humanity.

Please watch Greta and really listen to her. If you have already seen it, watch it again and listen even harder.

Greta Speaking at the UN