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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

Don’t Believe your Eyes

eyesToday I wanted to talk about perceptions. Not our feelings, but what we actually see, feel, smell, hear, and taste. That is, the “objective” inputs that drive our feelings. Should we really “only believe our eyes?

I think not.

In my book (see here) I talk about how we should be skeptical of our own memories and perceptions. Our memories are not recordings. They are docudrama recreations drawing upon various stock footage to put together a satisfying re-imagining. We remember going to the beach as a child. But in “recalling” details of that experience, we draw upon fragments from various sources to fill it in. The “slant” of that recreation is strongly dependent upon our current attitudes and biases. Our re-imagined, and often very distorted memory then reinforces what we believe to be a “vivid” recollection next time we recall it. Over time our “clear” memory can drift farther and farther from reality like a memory version of the “phone game.”

I contend that our brains work similarly with regard to our senses. We don’t see what we think we see. Our perceptions are filtered through our complex neural networks. It is a matched, filtered, processed, censored, and often highly biased version that we actually see, hear, or feel.

We know that our subconscious both filters out much of the information it receives, and adds in additional information as needed to create a sensible perception. I always favor a neural network model of brain function. As it relates to perception, our neural network receives a set of sensory data. It matches that data against known patterns and picks the closest match. It then presents our consciousness with a picture – not of the original data – but of that best-fit match. It leaves out “extraneous” information and may add in missing information to complete that expected picture. That is, we do not actually see, hear, smell, or taste a thing directly. We see, hear, smell, or taste a satisfying recreation that our network presents to us.

This should not be controversial, because we experience it all the time. Based on sparse information, we “see” fine detail in a low resolution computer icon that objectively is not there. We fail to see the gorilla inserted into the background because it is out of place. We are certain we see a witch or a vase in a silhouette, depending on our bias or our expectations at that moment.

But though this should be evident, we still do not take this imprecision seriously enough in evaluating the objectivity of our own memories or perceptions. We still mostly put near-absolute faith in our memories, and are generally even more certain of our perceptions. We believe that what we perceive is absolutely objective. Clearly, it is not.

In essence, what we believe we objectively recall, see, hear, or touch is not the thing itself, but a massaged recreation of our neural network match. The version we perceive can often be wrong in very important ways. Our perceptions are only as reliable as our neural networks. And some neural networks can be more compromised than others. We can recall or even perceive radically crazy things if our neural network has been trained to do so. I campaign against belief-based thinking of all sort because it seriously compromises these critical neural networks in crazy ways.

Even more unrecognized are the ways that this phenomenon is largely ignored as it impacts scientific research. Scientists often give far too much credence to reports of perceptions, often in extremely subtle ways.

As a simple illustration, consider how we often mock wine connoisseurs who claim to taste differences in wines but cannot pick these out in blinded studies. However, consider the confounding impact of their (and our) neural networks in even this simple case. When experiencing a wine, all the associated data is fed into the drinker’s neural network. It makes a match and then presents that match to the consciousness. Therefore, if the network does not “see” one critical factor, say color, it matches to white, not red, and presents and entirely different taste pattern the the drinker, ignoring some “extraneous” flavors and adding some other “missing” ones.

These same kinds of neural network matching errors can, and I have to assume often do, confound even more rigorous scientific studies. And they are further confounded by the fact that these mismatches are typically temporary. With every new set of data, our neural networks adjust themselves, the weightings change, to yield different results. The effect of a drug or placebo, for example, may change over time. If scientists see this, they typically look exclusively for other physiological causes. But it may be a neural network correction.

That is why I always admonish my readers to stick with inputs that will strengthen your neural networks toward sound objectivity rather than allow them to be weighted toward the rationalization of, and perception of, beliefs and nonsense. But since none of us can ever have perfect networks, or even know how accurate ours performs in any given match, we all need a healthy amount of skepticism, even with regard to our own memories and perceptions.

I further urge scientists to at least consider the impact of neural network pre-processing on your studies, and to develop methodologies to explicitly detect and correct for such biases.

 

The Night the Starship Crashed

bandDuring the 70’s and 80’s I attended hundreds of rock concerts and saw most every famous and not-so-famous band that toured throughout those decades. Most were really fun, some were memorable even, but only one stands out as truly epic. Even now, over 40 years later, I recall the event vividly and thought I should memorialize it here before it is completely lost from human memory.

It was 1975 when a friend and I went to see Jefferson Starship in concert at the sports arena in Milwaukee. Starship (see here) was still popular enough at that time to pack such a large venue. As the crowds were slowly meandering in and taking their seats, the preliminary band began to play. Of course audiences are conditioned to largely ignore these startup bands, but this band could not be ignored. It didn’t take long for the chattering to die down and for people to hurry to their seats.

Only few songs in, people began to stand, dance, and clap uncontrollably. The lead singer was a stunning girl with long-black hair whose voice thundered like the gods. Next to her was a quiet blonde with equally long hair masterfully plucking her guitar with cool confidence.  A young guy was handling his lead guitar with the bravado of a superstar, swinging his arm across the strings with wild abandon. Bass and drums were equally well-manned with boundless energy.

It was probably three quarters of the way through their stunning performance, that I fumbled through my pockets to find my ticket stub. I had to know who this band was. Squinting to find a name on the torn paper under sporadic flashes of colored light, I finally caught one word. It said simply “Heart.”

Yes, the largely unknown prelim band was none other than Heart (see here) introducing new songs from Dreamboat Annie (see here) that would soon be blasting non-stop from transistor radios and car speakers all across the nation.

When their set ended, the crowd was on their feet roaring with excitement. I have never seen a preliminary band, even in a major double-bill, work an audience into such a frenzy. The applause continued on long after they stepped off stage with people begging for an encore, even though no opening band would ever do that.

The story doesn’t end there. After a long wait, Starship finally came out. Their performance was tired and unenthusiastic. The audience, especially after being pumped up by Heart, needed far more then they could offer. People started to tune out and talk among themselves. Their response died down to scattered pity-applause.

At one point, some bored and impatient people started calling out “White Rabbit, White Rabbit” which was one of their biggest early hits. Rather than take the opportunity to reclaim their audience, lead singer Grace Slick sneeringly told the crowds “we don’t want to do that old shit anymore.

With that, the audience had enough of their Starship ride. Almost as one they joined in a defiant new chant. “Heart, Heart, Heart” they demanded, over and over, “Heart, Heart, Heart.” It was a crushing rebuke of the legendary Starship and an unprecedented anointment of the young breakout band. I don’t know how long after that night Heart continued to open for them, but I cannot imagine how that magnitude of upstaging could be tolerated by Starship.

That was the epic night that the Starship crashed and burned in Milwaukee, and a shining new star took their place in the music cosmos.

Heart, we’re still Crazy on You.

 

Sucks to be Tom Friedman

FriedmanIt must suck to be Tom Friedman right now.

Mr. Friedman is clearly wigging out, and I think I understand why. He recently wrote an NYT Op Ed in which he railed against the extremist positions of the current Democrat candidates (see here).  In it, he grossly misrepresented their positions in ways that surely he knows rise to the level of outright lies and he resorted to wildly exaggerated “end of the world” ravings about the dangers they pose.

But think of it from his perspective. Thomas Friedman has made a huge name for himself as a leading champion of radical centrism (see here). So for him, the current times are an existential threat. For him, it must be viscerally tribal. That was apparent when he appeared on Lawrence O’Donnell to discuss his article. He seemed panicked and frustrated and angry and defensive. In short, he seemed to be speaking from a place not of intellectual authority, but of gut-level lash-out emotion.

I suspect he is in this berserker frenzy because his radical centrist worldview, his tribe, is under serious attack for perhaps the first time in his long occupation of the middle ground. He has seen Donald Trump defy his radical centrist prescription for success on the Right and winning. He also sees the Progressive Left winning a lot of hearts and minds with their left-of-center ambitions. He sees that Joe Biden, the current flag-bearer of radical centrism, may not win the day. And most of all, he fears deep down that radical centrism is no longer a tenable position, suggesting that maybe it never was.

If non-centrist newcomers and their “radical” ideas continue to take hold and show success, that threatens the very foundations of radical centrism. The success of a progressive agenda would undermine a lifetime of preaching for moderation. He cannot allow his entire career, his very faith in radical centrism, to collapse around him.

So he lashes out.

And it is not just Tom Friedman, but also the many newscasters and pundits and politicians who are emotionally married to the radical middle. They cannot allow the Progressive Left to ascend. So they dismiss Elizabeth Warren as too ambitious, they call the Squad naive, and they label Bernie Sanders as a Socialist at every opportunity. They rush in quickly to defend Capitalism and all the tenants of centrism including incremental change and pragmatism and realism.

In his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King identified “well-meaning moderates” as the most frustrating obstacles to meaningful change (see here). Similarly today, we still have a huge number of radical centrists like Tom Friedman who insist that it is too early, that we are asking too much, and that we should just be patient. They use any manipulation to make you feel afraid of any course other than radical moderation.

Unfortunately the planet Earth will not show us any further patience. Fortunately, more and more leaders are stepping up and refusing to defer to the evangelists of radical centrism like Thomas Friedman. More and more refuse to accept the artificial limits these “pragmatists” impose on what dreams we are allowed to dream and what bold new solutions we are allowed to embrace.

Personally, I hold no animus toward Thomas Friedman or all those passionate devotees of the radical middle, but I hope their worldview is discredited and crumbles beneath their feet. If not, the best we can hope for is too little too late.

 

Humans are Inexplicable

brainWhether it be in science or business or politics or popular culture, we expend an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to figure out why people do whatever people are doing. We seem to have more analysts than actors, all desperately trying to explain what motivates people, either by asking them directly or by making inferences about them. For the most part, this is not merely a colossal waste of time and effort and money in itself, but it stimulates even greater wastes of time and effort and money chasing wildly incomplete or erroneous conclusions about why we do what we do.

Asking people why they did what they did, or why they are doing what they are doing, or why they are going to do what they are going to do, generally yields useless and misleading information. It is not clear that people actually have distinct reasons they can recognize let alone articulate. It is quite likely in fact that most of the decisions we make are made unconsciously based upon a myriad of complex neural network associations. These associations need not be rational. These connections don’t need to be internally consistent to each other or related to the actual outcome in any way. But in our post-rationalizations and post-analyses we impose some logic to our decisions to make them feel sensible. Therefore, the reasons we come up with are almost completely made-up at every level to sound rational or at least sane to ourselves and to those we are communicating to.

The truth is, we can’t usually hope to understand our own incredibly complex neural networks, let alone the neural networks of others. Yes, sometimes we can identify a strong neural network association driving a behavior, but most determinative associations are far too diffuse across a huge number of seemingly unrelated associations.

The situation gets infinitely worse when we are trying to analyze and explain group behaviors. Most of our shared group behaviors emerge from the weak-interactions between all of our individual neural networks. The complexity of these interactions is virtually unfathomable. The challenge of understanding why a group does what it does collectively, let alone figuring out how to influence their behavior, is fantastic.

If you ask a bird why it is flying in a complex swirling pattern along with a million other birds, it will probably give you some reason, like “we are looking for food,” but in fact it is probably largely unaware that it is even flying in any particular pattern at all.

So why point all this out? Do we give up? Does this imply that a rational civilization is impossible, that all introspection or external analysis is folly?

Quite the contrary, we must continue to struggle to understand ourselves and truly appreciating our complexity is part of that effort. To do so we must abandon the constraints of logic that we impose upon our individual and group rationalizations and appreciate that we are driven by neural networks that are susceptible to all manner of illogical programming. We must take any self-reporting with the same skepticism we would to the statement “I am perfectly sane.” We should be careful of imposing our own flawed rationality upon the flawed rationality of others. Analysts should not assume undue rationality in explaining behaviors. And finally, we must appreciate that group behaviors can have little or no apparent relationship to any of the wants, needs, or expressed opinions of those individuals within that group.

In advanced AI neural networks, we humans cannot hope to understand why the computer has made a decision. Its decision is based upon far too many subtle factors for humans to recognize or articulate. But if all of the facts programmed in to the computer are accurate, we can probably trust the judgement of the computer.

Similarly with humans, it may be that our naive approach of asking or inferring reasons for feelings and behaviors and then trying to respond to each of those rationales is incredibly ineffective. It may be that the only thing that would truly improve individual and thus emergent thinking are more sanely programmed neural networks, ones that are not fundamentally flawed so as to comfortably rationalize religious and other specious thinking at the most basic level (see here). We must focus on basic fact-based thinking in our educational system and in our culture on the assumption that more logically and factually-trained human neural networks will yield more rational and effective individual and emergent behaviors.

 

The Tragedy of Game of Thrones

GoTsucksThe popular meme going around is that everyone was very disappointed by – even angry about – the Game of Thrones final season, particularly the last episode. Actual statistics reveal a different story. Almost half of the viewers were satisfied with the series and only about one third felt “sad” about the final season. An impressive 44% loved the series from start to finish  (see here).

I felt sad AND loved the series from start to finish.

Clearly a very negative meme about GoT emerged over the last couple seasons. But this was to be expected. Few shows can maintain such an extraordinarily high degree of hype for more than five seasons (let alone eight) without being turned upon by popular culture, regardless of the quality. It actually surprises me that as many as 44% of viewers remained satisfied to the end. Count me among that 44 percent.

I acknowledge that people have valid reasons for complaint. While the negativity is not limited to the final episode, the series finale certainly left a lot to be desired. It seemed like a hastily constructed effort to wrap up a series that had been suddenly and unexpectedly cancelled. It was not fully fleshed out and lacked any epic twists or surprises. No bigger-than-life heroes emerged to allow the viewer to reach satisfying closure after all the preceding sadness and horror.

But much of what disappointed many is precisely what impressed me. I credit the authors and producers for not caving under pressure from vocal fans and critics. They stayed true to the story and to the characters. Game of Thrones was never a Tolkien-esque fantasy nor a superhero blockbuster. It was essentially a Greek tragedy, populated with powerful yet deeply flawed people who could never hope to live up to the expectations that others placed upon them, or in the case of Daenerys, her own unrealistic expectations. The games of the powerful were never noble and their machinations and best efforts only resulted in senseless, horrendous war and suffering.

That was the story.

The series ended exactly as it should have ended, overwhelmed by appalling misery and death. No heroes emerged because there never were any. There were only tragic figures who had no hope of overcoming their baser natures. Jon could never be the hero we wanted him to be. All he was ever capable of was one craven dagger thrust before slinking off into anonymity. Jamie was always a fool for his cold-hearted sister and it was fitting that he expired with his head on her bosom as she gazed away with deathly-cold disinterest. Tyrian remained a soft-hearted fool to the end, transferring his hopes from one flawed leader to another. The emotionally stunted woman that Sansa became was little improved from the self-serving child we first met in Winterfell. Likewise, her sister Arya sailed away from her story arc, from all her promise, without distinction, again running away from relationships and responsibilities just as she had always done.

The only character to show consistent courage and wisdom was Varys, and he met an ignominious end leaving behind no brilliantly laid plans to save the kingdom from beyond the grave. There was one character, albeit a minor one, whose arc was about overcoming hardship and finding heroism, and that was Gregor Clegane. He suffered through horrendous adversity with dignity and became the unlikely anti-hero who battled his soulless monstrosity of a brother to the death. This had no significant effect on world events, however.

The Game of Thrones series lived and died just like its characters – tragically. It had great promise, but it never could be what we hoped or wanted or needed or would have liked it to be. It could never live up to our hopes and expectations for it. It could never make us feel good or give us a happy ending, let alone a satisfying ending. It was all about the senselessness of war and the folly of human beings, and the series could not leave us with any more than that.

Game of Thrones was an unflinching and uncompromising depiction of a humanity tragically inadequate to the challenges of their day. Their failures were vividly brought to life through amazing visual storytelling. Like its characters, the series was all it was meant to be, all it could be. It painted no rosy pictures and remained true to the end. Its greatest disappointment is perhaps that it depicted too much reality and not enough fantasy.

Game of Thrones is a cautionary saga that makes me hope that our humanity can face the existential challenges of our day, like Global Climate Change, with more courage and wisdom than those larger-than-life “heroes” of the Seven Kingdoms.