Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Tie Between "Free Range" Kids And Guns

Gun advocates hang their hat on the claim that we're all in danger pretty much all the time from pretty much anyone, and people should carry guns in response to this paranoia. (Crime rates are actually quite low.) This attitude has resulted in more states passing laws that allow for more guns, despite clear evidence that tighter gun controls result in fewer gun deaths, a fact that keeps being lied about by pro-gun politicians.

As with most issues where people take a side, there is what I think is a largely subconscious effort to remain consistent to the declared principle(s) behind someone's stance. This fear of being seen as a hypocrite is strong because if an underlying bedrock reason for holding an opinion can be seen as being applied inconsistently, then the perceived support for the opinion becomes untenable.

One of the ways I think this has currently manifested itself has to do with children being able to be outside without parental supervision, most commonly on their way to and from school. This issue has become so prominent that a recently passed federal law permits kids to be outside on their own (but sadly doesn't supersede local laws.) The issue is part of what's called the "free range" movement, a unfortunately sad name that gives the impression that kids are to be equated with farm animals.

One case where this paranoia has made news is from a school in Texas that threatened parents with being arrested for trespassing for walking their own kids to school, letting alone having kids walk by themselves. The official claim for this bizarre policy is, of course, safety, the same claim made by gun advocates.

To me this is an attempt to remain consistent to the pro-gun idea that we're all in danger all the time. If kids are allowed to walk or ride their bikes to school on their own, there has to be an underlying understanding that they are safe in doing so, something that is counter to the pro-gun claim that we're not safe. So, in order to be consistent to pro-gun principles, kids getting to school on their own can't be allowed to happen.

We do ourselves such a disservice when we try to hold on to a declaration when we discover the basis for it has been removed or never existed. We should be open to the modification of our behavior and ideals based on evidence of what does us the most good, not what serves a false consistency to faulty claim.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Jim Crowing LGBT Rights

Story: Who's behind the new LGBT bathroom laws?

In this article it is explained that the new "bathroom laws" and other "religious freedom" efforts aimed by conservatives at making lives more difficult for LGBT people comes on the heels of the recent SCOTUS decision allowing for gay marriages. This feels very much like the efforts conservatives initiated in the wake of the Civil War and the end of slavery. Not able to keep slavery intact as it was, conservatives instead instituted a series of laws aimed at keeping former slaves and their descendants in subservient positions. It's hard to see any substantial difference between these two sets of conditions. What a shame we all have to keep fighting a fight that has been decided in favor of progress.
 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Invisible Hand Repurposed To Build A Wall Between Rich And Poor

The number of corporate mergers and acquisitions has been a normal and growing part of our world for quite some time, even though there are recent efforts to slow them down. But what I think people ignore when they start talking about the idea that corporations should be able to grow in this way is its place within capitalist models.

The core principle of the "invisible hand" of capitalism can only be considered if there are a large number of very small players, a condition that is best to keep competition from disappearing. A small number of very large players is a condition that kills competition; it evaporates in favor of an anti-capitalist protectionist mode. Those people who own and run the largest players in the economy are looking to remove competition through acquisitions and mergers, something that removes any hope for any theorized invisible hand to have any role, other than to build a wall between rich and poor.

We've been through this kind of thing before, and we responded with what are known as anti-trust laws. But these laws have been weakened or ignored for many decades now, allowing for the eroding of an economic environment that looks to maintain competition in favor of one that subdues it. The "too big to fail" problem is a symptom of this movement toward larger players.

I think we need to embrace the joint ideas that public-motivated regulation is necessary to stop the concentration of power in the hands of a few rich and powerful people with control over large corporations, and continuous evaluation of the results of our efforts in order to make adjustments that keeps bureaucracy functioning smoothly and motivated to maintain the public good without becoming punitive. We can help fix the first problem by keeping corporations from becoming too big (and breaking up the huge ones that already exist), and the second problem with mandatory voting so everyone has to evaluate and help make decisions about what's going on.

We can build a society that benefits as many as possible, but not if we fail to see how the over-concentration of wealth and power works against almost all of us, and don't reverse the lack of participation in the democratic process.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Can Humans Cut Down Trees If They Fall Down On Their Own Too?

Story: NASA visits Bill Nye’s Facebook page and gives climate change denier a righteous smack down (similar story here)


I find it difficult to understand people who makes claims like this. It would be like asserting that since trees fall in the forest without human involvement, they can't be felled by humans too. Nuts.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Doing Our "Selfs" A Favor

I have posted in the past about how I think we incorporate into our "self" not only our bodies but they things we think. Because of this, we act in a similar self-defensive manner when our bodies are attacked and when what we think is attacked. This default human behavior holds us back and causes a great deal of turmoil in our lives. Instead, we should make every effort to have flexibility as part of the self instead. This way we can not feel threatened or insulted when something we have asserted to be true or false is found to be incorrect.

This Ted Talk by Julia Galef, Why "scout mindset" is crucial to good judgment, makes the point using a metaphor of the solder v. the scout. It's a nice way to see it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Democracy And The Prisoner's Dilemma

A recent story that touched on motivations for voting one way or another has reminded me that elections can be seen through the lens of the famous Prisoner's Dilemma psychological game. In that game, two "criminals" are offered plea deals to turn in their partner but both will go free if neither confesses, and neither knows what the other will do.

It seems to me that there is a similar game people need to play when they vote because they do not know for sure how everyone else will vote--or how many people will vote. If someone wants to vote for the person they feel is the best choice but know their vote might be more strategically placed for someone who is less desirable but far more acceptable than someone who is completed unacceptable, what does one do? Do you take the "deal" and accept something less-than-perfect in order to be sure the worst choice doesn't win, or do you hope that the votes in the unknown block go with the best choice and give that person the win? How will those people answer this same question?

So, I'm left asking, is the democratic process as we know it doing the best it can do for us? If not, how can it be improved? Should we all get a chance to change our votes after an initial count is made public?

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Happily Infecting Ourselves With Our Own Flaws

Story: After the Fact: In the history of truth, a new chapter begins

For a while now I have reached the opinion that humans are too flawed to retrieve facts and base our actions upon them. Part of the reason is that whatever we think are facts today are subject to being falsified because we made the original judgment based on imperfect information. We can never know what we don't know, and when that changes with new information we still won't know what we don't know and can't take it into account.

This article reminds me a little of something I read five years ago or so (in New Scientist, I think, but not sure) an article about how much Einstein was opposed (and still is in some circles). Before he came along, science was something considerably more tangible to the scientists of the time. The scientific discoveries of the 18th and 19th centuries were able to be easily grasped by anyone with even a moderate education. But Einstein told everyone that what they understood was in some ways an illusion and the universe couldn't be properly understood using the facts and discoveries made up to that time.

I do think empiricism is in error because we humans are involved in the process, forcing a result with flaws. We can minimize those flaws with time and taking steps to accommodate our contamination of what we do. But I'm not sure we'll ever be able to totally get out of our own way.

In the article it is suggested that everyone is after facts, which I don't thin is true at all. What a lot of people are after is a justification for their opinions in order to call them facts. If we were actually looking for facts, we would have a pretty large consensus on just about everything. But we haven't, which to me just shows how much we happily infect ourselves with our flaws.

Friday, March 18, 2016

America: Faux Democracy

Taken together, the refusal to let a SCOTUS nominee come to a vote in the U.S. Senate, the various voter suppression laws that continue to be passed, the delegate system used by the major parties to choose presidential candidates, the electoral college, gerrymandering, and more all add up to a faux democracy. We are pretending that we have a We The People-based system in the U.S. that is so valuable we go to war against countries to impose it. But all the evidence shows we're faking it for the sake of those who think it would be awful to let We The People get anywhere close to actually participating in a system where they matter.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Era Of Each News Story Being A Profit Center

The following is from a recent job announcement for a reporter for a Gannett newspaper:

We're a Gannett newsroom, which means we're online first, reporters produce video on their company iPhone, and we watch our analytics the way a beagle watches rabbits. We know what people read, so people read what we write.

This might seem innocuous at first, but this attitude is why we don't get enough quality news. What this tells us is that news sources are treating each story as an independent profit center, meaning the writers and editors are going to be looking to provide what gets attention, not what's truthful or necessary. News, in order to serve its purpose, is to inform with as little bias as possible. It's also a good thing to ignore what the majority of people think they want to read  a good deal of the time.

The movement toward stand-alone online articles since online access as grown is hurting the overall quality of what we are given by those supposed to inform us. When news came in a package with other more "juicy" items in a newspaper, magazine, TV show or radio station, the news was usually subsidized by them, where the income from entertainment shows and other items helped fund news programs. But this move toward the smallest unit of media needing to fund itself is forcing more of what we read to be based on the money each item brings in, not the value of the information being delivered so that we can at least try to maintain an informed public.

News by itself will never be a way to make a lot of money. If we don't realize that and take steps to provide high quality news in large quantities, even if it doesn't make money, our future is not going to be based on what matters.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Common Sense Is A Liar

Story: Most Popular Theories of Consciousness Are Worse Than Wrong

This is one of very few mainstream articles that talks about this in a framework that I think actually makes sense. Leaving aside the problem of a concrete definition of consciousness, the issues is almost always approached as if it's something largely non-physical. By looking at it this way, we start off with a falsehood meaning any conclusions will be untenable. Remember GIGO?

In order for us to find out truths about anything, we need to remove ourselves as much as possible from the investigative process. I know that's hard to fathom, but we are getting-it-wrong machines when left on our own to figure things out. We need processes that pull us away from how we search for what we're looking for.

As this article's author writes, we are often basing our pursuit on what makes intuitive empirical sense to us, which is a path to failure. Human "common sense" is not our friend. It is a deceiver that lies to us constantly.

Friday, March 4, 2016

MIchael Shermer Outs Himself As A Conservative Ideolog

Story: Is Social Science Politically Biased?

Michael Shermer has just outed himself as a conservative ideolog. In a recent essay posted online by Scientific American, Shermer tries to make the claim that social science itself is biased against political conservatives. His attempt contains the bullshit claims that liberals have "a lack of moral compass that leads to an inability to make clear ethical choices, a pathological fear of clarity that leads to indecisiveness, a naive belief that all people are equally talented, and a blind adherence in the teeth of contradictory evidence from behavior genetics that culture and environment exclusively determine one's lot in life."

He would probably claim that this is a statement of stereotypes rather than his own mindset, but that would be false. He seems to be trying to get away with making these claims without having to take responsibility for holding these ideas himself. If he wanted to distance himself from these groundless stereotypes, he would have included language that directly states they are invalid ideas. But he didn't. He's being as slimy as a politician, not a style a scientist should emulate.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Electronic Voting Machines Are Not Exempt From Human Mischief

Story: Austin radio station flooded with reports of voting machines switching votes
(Similar electronic voting fraud stories here, here, here, and here.)

I have always been afraid of electronic voting machines. From my experience (and probably the experience of anyone else who has worked in IT for any length of time) people will exploit holes in programming in any electronic device wherever they exist. And if one can't be found, it will be created. There is no way voting machines would somehow be exempt from this human proclivity. It's simply nuts to think otherwise.

In order for any democratic process to be as close to valid as possible, it needs to be the expensive and messy way--hand-written ballots counted by multiple people. There is simply too much temptation for fraud to remain free from it by handing over the reigns to people and a process with a proven track record of mischief.
 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

"Local Control" For Conservatives Is A Principle Failure

It has long been a part of conservative dogma that laws should come from lawmakers "closest to the people," meaning local governments should have the most control. But that is apparently only true for conservatives when the federal government passes laws that apply to everyone, not for state governments that do the same thing--as long as the state laws align with some other element of conservative dogma.

In Oklahoma, there is now a ban on local governments regulating fracking, and in Alabama local governments can't set their own minimum wage. In Arkansas there is a new law that stops local governments from giving equal rights to people based on sexual identity and orientation. There is no outcry from conservatives claiming these (and other) state mandates to local governments should be invalid based on their principle of local control being left unopposed.

This is just one of the supposed principles that conservatives claim for themselves that falls apart for them when applied in real life. It should be embarrassing for them to so easily watch their principle evaporate, but it's apparently only embarrassing for those of us who must watch from the outside.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

On Scalia: The Motivation For Evil Is Not Its Vindicator

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has resulted in some people looking to praise him even though they otherwise disagreed with him generally. I find this hard to understand because it gives more weight to a person's personality or stated purpose for something rather than the actual results. It's similar to people who are supported with the claim, "At least they fought for what they believed in," which is not a virtue--not by a long shot. People can believe literally anything. Literally anything. What a person is fighting for is what should be judged, not the "integrity" used to do the fighting. With this logic, the absolute worst of humanity's behaviors can be justified or mitigated by "believing in them" enough. What a truly disgusting ideal.

There are so many issues on how to see any particular judge or justice that it's impossible to outline them here. But one of the things I remember about Scalia when I've read some of his rulings and writings is a fairly consistent claim that his personal views are not interfering with his conclusions. It seems to me that someone who makes such claims as often as he does is actually doing what he's claiming not to do. (The "the lady doth protest too much, methinks" line comes to mind as something similar in play with him.)

Perhaps I can wrap up some other thoughts more briefly with a reference to the iconic blindfolded Lady Justice. The image is to convey the supposedly laudable ideal that justice should be "blind." I find this to be a completely wrong-headed idea, at least given the way it's taught. What would be much better is an image of Lady Justice with a patch over one eye in place of the blindfold and the other eye looking carefully through a magnifying glass Sherlock Holmes style. No law can ever be written that would cover every action in which humans engage, and taking a close look at the details of any given case is utterly necessary for justice to be considered in play. To be purposely blind to this fact is to be anti-justice, in my opinion. No two actions are ever identical and will in a large number of cases have unforeseen and relevant circumstances to consider not covered in the law. The idea of "extenuating circumstances" is part of this problem, but it doesn't nearly cover everything, and so are legal contradictions that have to be sorted out regularly.

Why is this important? Because Scalia was one of those people who claimed that original intent was paramount. This might seem like a good idea at first, but as mentioned above, no laws can ever be written that can cover every relevant element. There needs to be some method of adaptation within the judicial system without having to rely on legislatures to overcome their political and personal handcuffs. Judicial discretion should be in play, but not if it's based on trying to figure out how 18th century life lines up with 21st century life and then trying to guess what people who have been dead for over 200 years would think about it. We should not be giving power over our lives to those who are dead, just like we should not want power over the lives of people who come centuries after us. It's nuts to think that's rational.

For this reason (and what I see as Scalia's twisting himself into mental knots in order to make sure people are treated as outsiders to the very judicial processes meant to protect them), I don't see Scalia in a positive light. To do so would be an enabler in the same way psychologists use that term. What he's done has harmed millions upon millions of people and that's not nothing. Abstractions do not exist in the law; real people have to live with what's decided. If anyone wants to claim that he's just doing what he thinks is best, I see that claim as untenable as saying the same thing about Jenny McCarthy, those who burned witches and sacrificed virgins, and those who claim slavery was something positive for slaves. Some people have claimed Scalia was a "nice guy" among similar claims. A person's temperament when ruining the lives of uncountable millions of people is not a valid mitigator of evil. The old story about a wolf in sheep's clothing is entirely relevant here.

Finally, what I think is a messy but more level-headed alternative is to set up cases with a checks and balances system that mirrors the House and Senate, with a jury being the "House" and the judge being the "Senate." Both the jury and the judge would have to agree on the outcome of a case for it to "pass" and agreed upon sentence be imposed. This way judicial discretion would be mitigated with any potential biases put in check, and the jury wouldn't be able to be too biased either. It would result in a lot fewer guilty verdicts, but I think the overall outcome would be much better. If a ruling(s) ends up being offensive enough, the legislature can pass laws directly on point to the issue(s) in play.

Friday, February 5, 2016

New Attacks on Bernie Sanders Part of Status Quo Defense


Story: Sanders under fire from Senate Democrats

People tend to support the status quo even if it's awful, especially people in power. It's a similar mindset at work when people who are enemies within a group (i.e., familes, religions, countries) come together to fight an enemy from outside that group, sometimes saying "it's none of your business" or something similar.

This human failing has a name: Status quo bias. It is just one of quite a few biases that stop us from being rational and move away from what we're doing, even when it would be overwhelmingly positive to make changes.

I think this fear is also tied to a tendency we have to keep connected to the past in some fashion. We find meaning and support from linking where we are today with what we think happened in the past. We do this with religious texts, people & families, constitutions & laws, social traditions, etc. This impulse also leads us astray by giving too much weight to expired circumstances. What we did before were decisions not only misinformed by our many biases, but falsely point to what we should do now because we're not taking into account that conditions have changed, as they always do.

In order to improve how we and our descendants live, we must embrace rational changes based on the best information we have about our current conditions and minimize as much as possible the power of our biases to give us comforting false answers.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

GMO Attention Misdirection

Story: The Debate About GMO Safety Is Over, Thanks To A New Trillion-Meal Study

 I've never had a problem with the safety of GMOs and I think that issue is distracting from the patent-based issues that are more important. It's complicated and I don't understand it all, but there is something really creepy about being able to patent life, something that is routine for GMOs.

I understand the need for a limited level of protections for patents and copyrights, but I am weary of laws continually being changed to keep GMO foods from becoming part of the public domain. As has happened with copyrights being extended to ridiculous lengths of time, patents will no doubt come under the same pressures and I suspect lawmakers will give in to the patent holders.

The world's food supply shouldn't be subject to the possibility of being held hostage by private companies who are run by design for the maximization of profit for a small number of people. It's more than a bit scary.

(A posting with some more details on legal issues here.)

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Pirate Democracies And The Second Amendment

I am currently reading my way through Under The Black Flag, The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly and I wanted to share some things I found interesting from chapter 5 having to do with the typical way pirates organized themselves.

First, they were democracies. Unlike the crews of other ships, with each person having a vote, pirates elected their captain and the others who held positions of authority. They could also be voted out at any time. The entire crew voted anytime a new destination needed to be chosen. Pirate crews were also typically much larger than what was used on merchant and military ships. Finally, each ship had a set of articles they all had to sign, also agreed to by voting. The document outlined how each person was to be compensated, what payments were made for serious injuries, along with other rules to govern behavior.

In one of the examples of a set of articles that survives, I found it interesting that it included a section that appears to be very close to the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment: "To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlass clean and fit for service." The book doesn't mention it, but it seems to me to be highly likely that a similar provision was common among articles created by all pirate crews.

For me, this helped give some related context to the acknowledgment of the need for the Second Amendment in a country that didn't have a large standing army. A "well-regulated militia" was the bulk of any potential army of the day when called to fight, and for that to be an option the people had to be able to "bear arms" in order to fight when called upon. The thinking is very closely related to the highly regulated pirate ships so they would be equipped to fight when called upon to do so. 

While I think I have always known that the Second Amendment was never meant to give people the right to "bear arms" universally under any circumstances, this pirate reference gives me a better picture of the mindset of the day when it comes to hand-held weapons and getting organized in some "well-regulated" manner when the need to fight arises.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Past Is Not Qualified To Rule The Present

Story: Texas governor calls for constitutional convention

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called for a constitutional convention of states to offer nine amendments in order to “restore the Rule of Law and return the Constitution to its intended purpose.”

This idea of making sure we try to align ourselves at any point in time to some point in the past (assuming we could even figure that out) is just nuts. We do not live in the 18th century. We live in a completely different society and we have much better information now on which to make decisions on how to solve our problems. Just like we would never be arrogant enough to come up with a set of rules today that we demand be used by our descendants, we shouldn't impose that burden on our ancestors.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Danger Of Stories As A Mechanism To Deliver Facts

Story: How Stories Deceive

"When a fact is plausible, we still need to test it. When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true."

This article made me think of a recent commercial for "60 Minutes" I saw where instead of pushing the program as news, they were touting it as a story-telling TV show. I was put off by it when I saw it because telling a story requires no facts to be told and is, IMO, a step down from real news.

But we now live in a time where our long history of telling stories to one another is gaining ground on fact-based news as a means of learning something, even though what we "learn" this way is much more likely to be fraudulent.

A good story is something that we easily remember, which is one of the reasons it works. We remember it largely because we can relate to the emotional hooks in a good story which make it easy to recall when we encounter those emotions again. A set of facts is something we have a much harder time to recall and fit into our everyday lives because the emotion has been largely stripped away; we don't readily see the relevance to ourselves. This is why overblown stories about terrorists resonate, but facts about climate change do not motivate people. In addition, being entertained is something we wish to recall, whereas being bored isn't.

It would do us a world of good to be skeptical of any claimed facts when we feel too emotionally attached to the story within which they were delivered.  

Monday, December 21, 2015

Defending Steve Harvey's Miss Universe Blunder

Believe it or not, I'm going to come to the defense of Steve Harvey, and it's based on the format of the card he was given from which to read the names.

One of the things that is known (but often forgotten) in marketing when it comes to image ads is that a certain amount of consistency matters. It is a misnomer that the biggest, brightest, boldest thing in an image will draw the eye. We tend to keep focused on the things that are close to the first thing that draws our attention and subconsciously see things that are too different as distractions to be avoided.

As examples, two outfits who know this and make a fortune from this knowledge are Google and Facebook. Their ads look pretty much just like everything else on the page and they make incredible amount of money from people who click on their ads. If flashy images that look different from everything else worked, they would be doing that. But they don't because what they do works.

This is an issue in play with display ads in general, including billboards, newspapers, and other online display ads. If the ads themselves are too variable in colors, images, and font sizes--or too close in proximity to other ads that are too different from it--then the ads become less effective. Whatever catches the eye first tends to be the template on which we continue to pay attention. There are always exceptions, but in general this is what we do.

Now, looking at the card with the winners' names, the first two runners up were the first things on the top of the card with the winner being noted in much larger type and on the other side of the card. Given the enormous number of other distractions going on, plus the term "1st" being used for the first runner up, it's not surprising that Steve Harvey thought that name was the last name to worry about and was the winner. His eye was not drawn to the larger type, a feature that backfired.

If he was more aware of the general format of the event (maybe even had some sort of dress rehearsal for it), it would not have been an issue.