Friday, June 17, 2016

A Tobacco-Based Second Amendment

It is extremely rare to hear someone refer to the entire text of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Instead, so entire sentence doesn't have to be quoted, people more typically say "Second Amendment" when claiming a right exists to unrestricted gun ownership.

The Second Amendment:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Quoting the entire sentence is a problem for pro-gun advocates because it includes the context of a "well regulated militia" as the reason for the "keep and bear arms" part at the end. This context should be the basis for talking about this amendment because it contains the logic for the amendment itself: we need X, so let's allow Y. If the reasoning for the end of the sentence wasn't necessary, it wouldn't be included for us. So, we should look at the reasoning, which can be seen more clearly by doing a thought exercise with the amendment's framework to see what holds up.

For centuries leading up to the American Revolution, tobacco was used as currency in some of the colonies. Tobacco was, for a time, essential to the operation of the economy in these areas. Imagine for a moment that the Revolutionary War started a few decades earlier than it did, a time when tobacco was still being used as a currency. If that had happened, it's entirely possible that a version of what we now know as the Second Amendment would have been written to protect tobacco:

Currency being necessary to the economy of a free State, the right of the People to grow, cultivate, and sell tobacco shall not be infringed.

After tobacco was replaced with a different form of currency, would it be proper to still let people grow tobacco without restriction if it was decided otherwise by lawmakers? Of course not. What about after it was scientifically shown that tobacco use kills millions of people every year? Would we still insist that we can't regulate tobacco based on an ancient law from a time when tobacco was used as money? Some would, of course, as pro-gun forces do today with the Second Amendment. But it would be an untenable argument—just as untenable as a pro-tobacco argument would be based on a similar contortion of logic.

The Second Amendment includes within it the reason it exists, meaning it should self-destruct if that reason disappears, something that has certainly happened. We don't need citizens for a bring-your-own-gun militia system because the military, the FBI, and many other agencies are in place to do that now. To insist an ancient document written when a gun was lucky to be shot once per minute on a good day should apply to guns that can now be used to kill dozens of people per minute, and by people who have nothing to do with a defunct militia system or any other "well regulated" agency.

We can be better than this if we want to. We just have to want to. And logic supports wanting to.

Monday, June 6, 2016

A Discoverer Of Facts Can't Make Them Disappear

A recent article in the New Yorker—"The Fantasy of the Deathbed Conversion"—refuting the bogus claim that Christopher Hitchens was giving up atheism for Christianity just before he died reminded me of something I want to share.

One of the many things I find faulty about human thought and behavior has to do with giving power to dead people, as I have written on this blog before. Related to this problem is the proclivity by some to give the power to invalidate a scientific discovery to the person(s) given credit for its initial discovery while they are still alive. Perhaps one of the most famous of these assertions is the Christian claim mentioned in the New Yorker article that Charles Darwin refuted evolution before he died. Leaving aside the fact this didn't actually happen, even if he had done so it would carry no weight because evolution is a scientific fact that has no connection to any person's assertion about it one way or the other, including any originator of any discovery.

To accept this type of flawed thinking, every discovery would have to be abandoned at any point during the life of the discoverer(s) if the directive was given by that person(s) to do so. Evidence wouldn't matter, a state that would be about as far away from the scientific model as possible.

No person has the power to simply speak and invalidate facts, no matter who that person happens to be. Discoveries are independent from their discoverers—and from everyone else, for that matter.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Rich And Poor Include Paths To Unethical Behavior

When it comes to people acting unethically, I think the poor and the rich have something in common. People with no money often have to act unethically because their livelihoods are constantly under threat, so they are susceptible to being forced to act as they wouldn't otherwise. Those with a lot if money have a much lower change of facing consequences if they act badly, so they have little motivation to act responsibly.

So I think being dirt poor or filthy rich include traits that steer us toward bad behavior. Unless we reduce the numbers of both, we will always be faced with a constant stream of unethical behavior.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

"Never Forget" To Heal, Not Hate

I'm weary of the "never forget" sentiment we so often express after a tragedy because I don't think it's usually meant as a door or a path to healing. It seems to me that it's meant as plea to remain wounded and to inflict harm on others as revenge. While I'm sure there are some people who claim to see the "never forget" declaration positively, I think it's never going to be pure for them; it will always be debased and corrupted by the negative side of the assertion. I don't know of an ideal solution, but whatever it may be it will need to contain the idea that the horrible acts of our past shouldn't rule our future.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Need For Heroes, Regular And Super

One of the types of stories that get regularly refuted by the people at Snopes and other organizations are ones based on the hero motif. One example of this can be found in a posting called "Pentagon Daycare Corral" from In this story a group of marines is falsely given credit for rescuing 40 children from a Pentagon day care center on Sept. 11, 2011 in the wake of the crash of Flight 77 into the building. In another Snopes story called "Home Invasion Thwarted," a false story about an 11-year-old girl killing intruders is revealed.

There are surely thousands, maybe millions, of stories like this we humans have been sharing with one another since we began to tell stories. The need to come up with heroes seems to be innate, driving us to believe them to be true, even when they've been discredited. We want heroes to praise and in some cases even worship and stories allow that to happen.

When thinking about this I can't help but also include all of the religious tales humans have always been telling. Not all hero stories are religious--stories about Paul Bunyan and George Washington are two common examples--but I don't think there's a religion that doesn't contain a plethora of them. They seem to be required to form a religion, and so much so that hero stories will be concocted from scratch to support the religion. And because we tend to like these stories enough to believe them without too much scrutiny, their connected religions become believable too.

With that being said, the reason I thought about writing this short piece on this topic that has been covered over and over by many others, is my thoughts about the relatively new phenomenon of the superhero. What is probably a 20th century invention seems to coincide with the growing acceptance of science in the 19th century, which got another big boost with Albert Einstein's discoveries in the early 20th century. Even if it was only at a subconscious level, people must have had a sense that insurmountable evidence was being accumulated for religions and their heroes to continue being taken as truthful. This is a guess, but in response I suspect that some people came up with the superhero--figures like Superman--to leap over the new scientific evidence that was killing the old heroes. A "super" hero could withstand the attacks of science, and maybe even integrate into a new society that was abandoning old myths and the heroes contained within them.

Even if this notion is true, we still create "regular" heroes like the ones mentioned in the two Snopes stories above. For whatever reasons, we just like heroes, super or not. And if there aren't any real ones, we'll create them when we feel the need.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The False Virtue Of Personal Beliefs

Story: Tow truck driver refuses to tow motorist over Bernie bumper sticker

Within this story is the ridiculous but accepted idea that it is a virtue for people to "fight for what they believe in."

"Something came over me, I think the Lord came to me, and he just said get in the truck and leave," said Ken Shupe of Shupee Max Towing in Traveler's Rest, S.C.  "And when I got in my truck, you know, I was so proud, because I felt like I finally drew a line in the sand and stood up for what I believed."

When people act on their beliefs simply because they are beliefs, then that person is immoral because beliefs are not virtuous by default. They can be absolutely horrible, as is the case with this tow truck driver who left a woman stranded on the side of the highway because she had a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker.

We need to quit promoting this anything-goes-if-I-believe-it claim as something worthy of praise. Our attention should be on the results of actions claimed to be based on beliefs, which have no basis for being considered virtuous simply because they exist.

If your beliefs suck, then they deserve to be abandoned. That is the virtuous thing to do.

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 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.