Sunday, January 17, 2021

Know Thy Enemy

Yin and yang stones

This country is in a bad way now. We have two dominant political forces: call them Democrats and Republicans, or Liberals/Progressives and Conservatives, or Left and Right, or Blue and Red states. Each side, supposedly, is one thing, one creed, one code, one truth. And the other side is … dogshit.

We no longer can see with eyes of questioning, of forgiveness, or charity. Instead, we see with the interpretations put into the public mind by the left-dominated mainstream media or by the equally powerful and deeply saturated right-dominated alternative media and “talk radio.”

In the eyes of the mainstream media, anyone who is not a true-blue Democrat is a xenophobic, Bible-thumping, Sieg-heiling, Neanderthal subhuman. In the eyes of the alternative media, anyone who is not a red-state Republican or, more recently, a Donald Trump supporter is a marshmallow, America-hating, Marxist- and/or Soviet- (or Chinese-Communist–) loving, pajama-boy elitist. We carry the caricatures in our minds and see them instead of the people and positions we meet in real life, on the street, and sometimes in our own families.

And what is the reality? Most people vote according to their family traditions, perhaps according to the political environment they picked up in college or in their earliest job environments. People tend to stay with the party they adopted in their youth and seldom, if ever, examine their assumptions and associations in order to change their allegiance. But, for most people, their politics is not an all-consuming pastime. Neither is their religion. They are too busy making a living, raising children, worrying about the mortgage or doctor bills or credit cards, furthering their education, or rooting for their favorite sports team.

And what’s wrong with that? These are the things that people can choose to do and have an effect on in their daily lives. Supporting a party or a political cause is a distant second. Unless a person is monomaniacally focused on the political issues of the day—attending rallies and marches, writing to state and federal representatives, contributing hard-earned cash, and yes, voting once every two years—the issues addressed by political programs and parties are abstruse, nebulous, distant in time and place, and not all that personally interesting. For most people, political movements are figments of their imagination, taking place far away and in the distant future, the stuff of “well, if this goes on” and “one day, eventually.” Political concerns are not real, not personal.

And when someone does care about politics, what is actually going on in their mind? For most people—not the addicts, but most of the people you meet—their personal views are shaped by those same childhood, adolescent, and young-adult attitudes.

For most people on the Left, the attitude is one of concern and compassion. They want a better life for the people around them, both near and far, who may not be faring as well as they believe they themselves are doing. They see for people of other races, classes, and ethnic backgrounds a distinct lack of the opportunities and benefits that they themselves have had, and they feel badly about this. Their concern is that everyone—in America and all around the world—get a good life and an opportunity for peace and prosperity. This attitude may be based on non-economic, magical thinking1 and presumes that this good life is infinitely divisible and universally obtainable. And if it’s not, then it should be. And then society or the government or the party in power should be forced to provide it.

For most people on the Right, the attitude is one of responsibility and self-reliance. They want that good life for themselves and for others, regardless of race, class, or ethnic background, but they believe it can only be obtained through personal effort. That a person can realize benefits and seize the opportunities that come along only by preparing oneself and one’s children through a mindful approach to life. Such an approach involves dedication to a certain sober style of living, respecting others and the rules set by family and society, getting a good education to the limits of one’s abilities, working hard at a meaningful job, and saving for whatever the future may bring. If other people fall short in this regard, then it is through their own fault. This is hard economic thinking, and if the person can’t help him- or herself, then society or the government can’t do much more.

If there is a dominant streak in either view, the Left is aspirational while the Right is foundational. The Left’s programs appeal to emotional attachments and sensitivity, while the Right’s programs appeal to detachment and stoicism. These root feelings go back a long way in human psychology.

I am reminded of the two great variants in Buddhist thinking. In the original dharma, or ideal truth as taught by the Buddha himself, a person achieves mastery, breaks the karmic cycle, and enters Nirvana upon death only by having a correct understanding and practicing the right beliefs and actions. This is the Hinayana, or “Lesser Vehicle,” approach, the path of the individual seeker. But going that route is hard: you have to put off family attachments, daily business, and the distractions of living. This is the conservative view. You really have to shave your head, put on a saffron robe, pick up a begging bowl, and live like a monk, focusing only what will get you into heaven. Most people don’t have the strength or such focused purpose—and it would be terrible for society and the rest of us if everyone practiced this form of Buddhism. For one thing, humanity would die out for lack of procreation!

And so, over time—and certainly after the Buddha’s own lifetime—the Mahayana, or “Greater Vehicle,” tradition arose for the rest of us. This form supposes that those who are about to become Buddhas themselves, the bodhisattvas, store up so much positive, karma-calming energy that they can share it with those who pray to them. The bodhisattvas become like angels or gods—whom the Buddha himself either denied or found irrelevant to the process of personal salvation—and dispense compassion and personal salvation to those who believe and generally try to do the right things. This is the broader, more social view of the situation. They don’t deny the reality of the narrower view, but they try to allow for—and provide some path and benefit to—those who show human frailty.

Another set of roots to today’s parties can be found in ancient Greece. In Athens after the Peloponnesian War (431-403 BC, which the democratic, philosophical, free-thinking Athens lost to the dour, tight-lipped, militaristic Spartans), a dominant school of thought arose with Plato and his mentor Socrates. They were philosophers but also radical thinkers, which was the reason Socrates was tried and sentenced to self-inflicted death. Plato’s best remembered work—or at least the one that most people read in college—is The Republic, and you can consider it as recoiling from, or trying to reconcile with, the views and attributes that Sparta imposed on the Athenians. The Republic that Plato describes is not a democracy, and it’s not a nice place to live: popular opinions are repressed, the population is socially regimented, with music and the arts strictly prescribed—martial music is the only kind allowed—and all the important decisions are made by “philosopher kings.” Hooray for the philosophers, but not so good for anyone who disagrees with them. That would be the little people, the hoi polloi, the no-accounts. It’s a streamlined state where you shut up and pull your oar.

This kind of thinking, that better minds than yours know what’s good for you, has come down through the ages. It certainly drove the aspirations of both military conquerors like Alexander and Caesar and religious inquisitors like Torquemada and Sir Thomas More.2 It erupted in the French Revolution when the philosophes, or public intellectuals, tried to remake society all at once along perfectly rational lines and failed miserably, bringing on the Reign of Terror and rise of Napoleon. We see it today in the Progressives of the early twentieth century, encouraged by Woodrow Wilson and empowered by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wanted to radically remake society along scientific and liberal lines. Their beliefs are definitely utopian—aspirational—and waste no time on the traditional social mores and attitudes—foundational—with which everyone is familiar, even though the results are sometimes unpalatable.

With these last comments, I consciously reveal my own biases. My politics are somewhere in the middle of all this, not absolute, and nothing pure. I am a little-D democrat and come from a Christian- and Western-based conservative tradition. I believe in the freedom and agency of individuals to shape their own lives. I am socially liberal—in the old sense of the word, based on freedom, rather than the modern, “woke” sense, based on identity and conformity. And I am fiscally conservative, concerned about preserving my family’s wealth, paying my taxes, and the limiting the national debt. At heart, I want me, my family, and my friends to be left alone—with a safety net, of course, and the protections of enough government regulation to guard against systematic looting by the rich and powerful. And I think most people want this in some form for themselves. Where we draw the line, I think, is on whether we trust other people to be able to live according to their own thoughts and desires, or whether they should be helped, or forced, by wiser heads to live a better life.

But no matter which side of the line you occupy, only a select few among us are actually red-faced, bellowing demons intent on burning and destruction. Most of us are kindly folk who want good things for other people. But that may be too much like crazy thinking these days.

1. Most of human life is based on non-economic and magical thinking. That is why lotteries and Ponzi schemes are so popular. It’s the triumph of emotion—hope—over hard-headed reality, of dreams over certainty, of “what might be” over “what is.” If we woke up every day conscious of how perilous living is, how close behind is the tiger tracking our footsteps, and how quick collapse, famine, and death can come to any one of us, then we wouldn’t get out of bed.

2. Utopia—which is based on two Greek words for “nowhere”—was the title of More’s vision for a perfectly orderly society. It wasn’t such a fun place to live, either, because farmland, people, and all of their associations were mechanically redistributed for the benefit of more rational production, among other things. More was another reformer—except when it came to religion, where he adhered to church teaching to the point of burning heretics alive.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Revised Honor Code

Knight in armor

Cadets at our military academies are supposed to have an honor code. It is engraved in stone on each campus and reads: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do.” Apparently seventy-five cadets at West Point were accused in December of cheating on a calculus exam; so maybe faith in the code is not as strong as it once was.

For some of us, honor is an important part of character that is hardly taught in schools anymore. For some of us, honor comes from the teachings of our family, our fathers and mothers by word and example. And honor has more depth than the cadet code, which is really too easy.

Aside from the simple negatives of not lying, cheating, or stealing, an honorable person has many positive actions he or she needs to undertake. One such is keeping your word. If you make a promise, even one that is merely implied by your assurances to another person, then you are honor-bound to keep it or fail and perhaps die in the trying. One’s word is a commitment, and any pledge is sacred. This applies not only to friends and families but also to the people with whom one associates, perhaps even former and potential enemies. For this reason, an honorable person is not easy or loose with his or her commitments. An examined conscience—and a knowledge of what one’s life is worth, because that person has fully considered the possibility of losing it—necessarily limits the ways and directions in which he or she might spread personal loyalties. Being ready to try and die is serious business. Giving oneself an escape clause, by not really “meaning it,” is the sign of a weak character.

In that same line, an honorable person pays his or her debts. Gambling debts, personal loans, extended credit, even serious favors, and other obligations weigh upon his or her soul. And the sooner they are paid off, the happier the honorable man or woman feels. While he or she will not necessarily reject an offer to rescind a debt or cancel a loan, the honorable person will not seek it. And the person will realize that being forgiven a debt or loan creates further obligations that are moral, personal, and perhaps payable only in the future. All of this is because the honorable person sees existence, life, and one’s passage through it as a kind of balancing act, an attempt at equilibrium. What is taken or accepted must also be paid back or given again. Good deeds are repaid with good. Bad deeds receive retribution. This is not “an eye for an eye,” because vengeance is a choice that can be rejected. But to achieve peace and the benefits of a quiet life, the honorable person must be ready to sacrifice.

The honorable person is not just honest in words but also in actions. That is, he or she lives according to a professed faith and set of beliefs. This does not necessarily require faith in a god—personal or distant—or some other form of supreme being.1 But a life of honor means being consistent as a whole person. Believing, speaking, and acting are a conscious pattern that is based on either a conception of the truth or acknowledgment and acceptance of lies. The honorable person knows that inconsistencies, falsehoods, and the lies told to cover up the inconsistencies creates a pattern: a personal maze full of dead ends, with no clear way through to success, a quiet life, and a good death.

The honorable person also treats others—or at least those whom he or she is prepared to accept as peers—with respect and good intentions. Respect may be offered provisionally, and good intentions may be extended as a gamble, to those with whom the person is unfamiliar or whose status remains in doubt. Enemies once declared may be fought and defeated, but all others should be granted the benefit of the doubt. Respect and benign—if not positively good—intentions create the easiest path for a person to achieve that success, quiet life, and good death. The paths of suspicion, of deceit and double-dealing, of putting personal interests first—all of these lead to chaos. And inviting chaos is not what the honorable person does.

Ultimately, the honorable person serves a higher purpose than satisfying oneself and fulfilling personal desires. Such a purpose may not necessarily involve the sacrifice of surrendering to the needs of other people. It may involve sacrificing in order to hone a talent and develop a skill or an art form that—eventually, in the long run—might give aid or pleasure to others. But for the present, that effort and sacrifice might look like selfishness. Still, it is serving a purpose beyond immediate pleasures and careless actions. Similarly, the person might sacrifice to become a better advocate, or the creator of some useful invention or positive belief system, or a soldier willing to give a life for the benefit of culture, society, or country. This higher purpose is unique to each person —but it is always there.

Compared to these various dimensions of honor, the code of the cadets is just too simple, too easy. And yet, in the December calculus exam, the little boys of West Point could not even serve that. We can weep for them.

1. I myself have no supernatural allegiance to such a being. But I do have faith in the consistency of certain processes: the interactions of physical laws, which we are discovering even now; the operations of evolution to maintain a viable kernel of life in a changing earthly environment; the efficacy of basic moral laws, which play out in different cultures and different times; the beauty of the human mind and of the universe which we inhabit. These things are good enough for me.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Actions and Consequences

Total honesty

Because I am an atheist, not believing in any god or even in eternal life, people sometimes wonder how I can construct and abide by any moral values. They believe this is impossible without a supernatural judge looking over my shoulder and promising existential and eternal justice if I should transgress his/her/its moral code. Fear of far-distant, drastic consequences is, for them, the only reason a person would obey any kind or law or attempt to do the “right thing.”

But I do have an extra-human judge, built into the natural structure of human life and enshrined in the basic laws—derived from human observation—of physics and of social interaction. This natural truth is that actions create reactions. Actions have consequences. And they don’t have to wait for me to die to make their judgment and take effect.

If I do something obviously wrong or unfair in the sight of other human beings, they will generally notice. And that notice will lead to comparable counteractions on their part. Perhaps they will merely avoid me by withdrawing from my acquaintance and friendship, or shun me by casting me out of their social circle. If my actions are disagreeable enough, they may seek to inflict punishment by fining me—taking my property—or by denying my civil rights, and perhaps even taking my life.

Ah, but what if I can act in a way that my action, such as a masked rape or hidden murder, is not detected and so passes without consequence in the sight of others?

This proposition presumes that I am a creature of singular time, having no memory of past actions or expectation of future actions. And perhaps, if I were such a solitary, amnesiac, unsuspecting presence in the world—a true psychopath or sociopath—then I could get away with a clever murder.

Like most people, however, I am a creature of experience and habit. The things that I do affect my perceptions of risk and reward, of safety and vulnerability, of opportunity and danger. Having discovered that I can get away with brutalizing or killing another human being, or performing any other act that the majority of humans might disdain or consider shameful, I would as a thinking person be tempted to try it again. And as the risk in that first incident appeared small, so the risks in subsequent endeavors will appear smaller or, conversely, the rewards that I might expect to derive will appear greater. And whatever the calculation, my perception of the world and human action in it will be changed, so that I would be less emotionally reflective and involved with the consequences of the action. Eventually, those consequences would catch up with me. Eventually, other people would notice, trace a connection to me, and I would suffer.

But what happens if the world I inhabit is filled with people just like me in that emotionally diminished state, who are without memory or expectation, all psychopaths or sociopaths, all clever opportunists with impaired ability to see and judge, shun and punish? Do we not then have chaos without a supernatural judge and the promise of eternal torment if we break an externally imposed code?

Ah, but we don’t live in such a world! Most people do not have to quote scripture or a book of laws to identify unfair, callous, unfeeling, and damaging actions. Most people learn the basic truths about honesty, reciprocity, “fairness,” and keeping faith from their dealings among family members—often taught as precepts by mothers and fathers—and on the playground. Let someone hurt you enough times—a father who beats you without cause, a friend who cheats you and others in games—and you quickly come to realize the difference between good and bad behavior. It doesn’t take a god, avenging angel, or eternal hellfire to convince most sociable people that life goes better when we are honest, courteous, and deal fairly with others.

Now suppose that the consequences of my action are so delayed that an observer cannot trace the path from cause to effect.

For most of us, such an observer would include our own selves, because the consequences of actions are indeed sometimes hard to foresee. And in that case, we have to adhere to the folklore of our culture, passed down by parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. They have a greater experience of life, as well as the folklore passed down in the generations before them, that suggests the long-term consequences of casual actions. So when your mother tells you not to litter—not to drop that candy wrapper on the ground but instead hold it until you find a trash bin—she is conveying the knowledge that the wrapper won’t suddenly disappear or disintegrate, even if it has passed out of your mind and awareness. It will collect with other discarded materials into an unsightly mound and decay only slowly, over months and years. Or it will fall to some better-trained person who comes after you to pick up and dispose of it in the bin. Or the city will be required to hire someone at public expense to come along and collect the dropped trash—and in the meantime, until that thoughtful person or paid sweeper next passes this way, the area will look unsightly.

Part of that folklore may include a religious dimension and the invocation of an all-knowing god to look down upon the world, note personal transgressions, and ultimately pass judgment on the individual at the time of death. Think of this as a shorthand version of passing along the rules for living, useful when parents and grandparents are either too busy to explain everything to a child or not completely observant themselves.

Actions have consequences, and human beings evolved to survive by observing the world, noting relationships, making rules for themselves, and recognizing their own part in the process. This habit of understanding through self-reflection is going to be part of any civilization of sentient beings. We will even encounter it out among the stars. Perhaps they will also have gods. Perhaps they will have a civilizational rulebook. But they certainly will have morals.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

BC and BCE

Christmas star

The Jewish calendar dates from the biblical date of the world’s—or rather, the universe’s—creation, according to the twelfth-century (AD, in the Western reckoning) Jewish philosopher Maimonides. That’s a pretty important event. For the religious observances of Jews everywhere, the year is now 5781 AM (for Anno Mundi).1

The Islamic calendar dates from the Hijra, the year that Mohammed and his followers left Mecca for Medina to establish their first true community, or ummah. For them, it is now 1420 AH (for Anno Hegirae).

The ancient Romans counted their years from the legendary founding of their city, approximately in the year we would call 753 BC. If we still counted the Roman way, it would now be 2773 AUC (for Ab Urbe Condita). Similarly, the Greeks of approximately the same period took their dating from the first Panhellenic Games held at Olympus in what we would call 776 BC, presumably the first time that all of Greece came together as a people. In that system, it would now be 2796—although the Greeks counted loosely in units of four, the span of years between each set of games, going back to the most recent games or forward to the next set. And the events themselves were suppressed in 394 AD, when the Roman Emperor Theodosius imposed the newly established Christian calendar on the Greeks.

The Chinese calendar was established in the fourteenth century (BC, in Western reckoning) and traced back to the Emperor Huangdi, who is supposed to have worked out the cycle of years in 2637 BC based on astronomical observations of the Sun and Moon. It doesn’t really matter what year it is in China today based on this calendar, other than for religious and festival purposes. The modern Chinese follow the Western calendar.

Western Civilization took the starting date of its calendar from the birth of Christ, a big event for those who had recently converted from their pagan rites to the new religion. And it is now 2020 pretty much around the world, based on the spread of Western trade and business. We used to call this year Anno Domini (from “Year of the Lord”), and any year before the start of the Christian calendar was then “Before Christ.”

Somewhere along the line, probably about fifty years ago, scholars started calling the current years CE (for “Common Era”), because we all use this Western reckoning anyway, and the years from before this start were BCE (for “Before Common Era”). Presumably, scholars of Jewish, Muslim, Chinese, or pagan faiths found it disdainful to identify the date with a Christian reference. So they kept the accounting but changed the words around to be less offensive.

And isn’t that just the ultimate in hypocrisy? Use the Christian calendar but don’t actually acknowledge it. Pfui!

If you want to abandon the Western, Christian tradition, let’s not take the easy path. Here are some alternate datings we might adopt in a totally nonsectarian fashion, basing our counting on something important to today’s crop of irreligious scientists.

We could, for example, celebrate the first use of a printing press with movable type, by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, which started the revolution in information technology and popular literacy—at least here in the West. Of course, the first thing Gutenberg printed was the Bible, so that’s still kind of a religious holiday.

We might base the calendar on René Descartes and his publication in 1637 of the Discours de la Meéthode, the traditional founding of the Scientific Method. His line of thinking cleared out much of the superstition surrounding natural events and led to our technocratic view of the universe. Or we could recognize Isaac Newton, whose Principia Mathematica in 1687 laid the second brick in the foundations of the scientific revolution, and whose other studies led to our better understanding of gravity, light, and optics.

Or we might celebrate Alfred Einstein’s theories of Special Relativity (1905) and General Relativity (1916), which turned Newton’s gravity, the simultaneously occurring universe, and our understanding of space and time on its head.

Taking up any of these developments as the most important events of the modern world would make our age relatively short: just 581 years for the Information Age, or between 333 and 383 years for the Scientific Age, or only 104 to 115 years for the Relativistic Age.

If you prefer hard mechanical achievements to philosophical personalities, you could base the calendar on James Watt’s technical improvements in 1776 on Thomas Newcomen’s original steam engine of 1712, which kicked off the Transportation Age; on the Manhattan Project’s fission bomb of 1945, which started the Atomic Age; or the first working transistors developed by a team at Bell Labs in 1954, which kicked off the Computer Age—with the help of Alan Turing and the primitive computational devices of the previous decade. Any of those events would give us an even shorter history—most of them putting us still in the Age of Discovery.2

But for now, until the modern era settles down into a quiet, respectable, backward-looking middle age, we’ll just have to muddle along with “Before Christ” and “Anno Domini” and their secular equivalents. And that’s a good thing, because the computers could change their dating systems more easily and a lot faster than any of us humans could learn to handle a new calendar.

1. For now, we will ignore the fact that for some of these reckonings the calendar is based on the lunar cycle of 28 days, and so the year may have more than the 12 months, or the year less than the scientifically measured 365.25 days, to which we all are accustomed. And anyway, Christ wasn’t exactly born on December 25.

2. Think of the development of the first truly portable artificial intelligence and its control of existing computer and automation systems. Think of the time when we will develop the first fusion reactor that puts out more energy than it takes to ignite, which will revolutionize our energy production. This age has a long way to go yet.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Apocalypse Never

Apocalypse meteor storm

All versions of popular politics are to some degree insane. This is because they try to reduce a complex, variegated equation into a simple, understandable formula. And then they try to produce the formula as some version of reality. Not smart.

I pity the Marxists and their brothers and sisters among the socialists and other collectivists. They believe that if they can reduce economics to a system of distribution governed by dispassionate technical experts in the government, then poverty, unmet needs, and inequality will disappear. Then history—the history of colonial exploitation, aristocratic dynasties, and economic revolutions—will come to an end. By invoking the power of a single-minded state and the obedience of all who dwell within it, they believe they can achieve paradise on Earth and that nothing will ever change after that.

I pity the libertarians and their brothers and sisters among the anarchists1 and rabidly rugged individualists. They believe that if they can end the stultifying maze of laws and regulations raised by an archaic and backward-looking society, then humanity will be freed to become truly dynamic and creative. Then human creativity will be invited to achieve … what exactly? Honest relations among men, between men and women, between parents and children? The opportunity for each man and woman to get—and take—what they want in a paradise where the ripe fruit is always low on the tree and everyone has a set of pruning shears? I’m not sure what the point of anarchy would be.2

The socialists and other collectivists don’t understand that the human condition is compounded of desire, restlessness, and imagination. Oh, and not a little greed and envy. The underlying principle of economics, all economics, is that wants and needs are infinite while resources are finite. From this principle the marketplace naturally arises, where people measure their wants and desires against what they will have to pay in terms of their time, energy, and the stored value of these gifts in currency.

This is true even in fantasy futures like Star Trek’s, where unlimited energy through matter-antimatter conversion and unlimited material goods through energy-to-matter replication can satisfy all human needs. Do you know what it costs to generate a few grams of antimatter? The stuff is more valuable than gold or diamonds. And do you know how much energy it takes to transmute streaming photons or electrons into protons and neutrons and them fuse them into the atoms and molecules of actual matter? Your whole society would go broke in a nanosecond trying to burn enough antimatter to make a replicated dish of ice cream. And none of that will bend the “fabric of spacetime” so that you can go galivanting through the galaxy with warp drive. But I digress …

Any political program that tells you wants and needs can be satisfied equitably by relinquishing human initiative to a dispassionate government—or to an incorruptible team of robots or artificial intelligences, because we know how inventive humans are and how easily machines can be hacked—is selling you utopia, the place that never was or will be, Heaven on Earth, a dream.

The libertarians and anarchists don’t realize that the human disposition is not kindly—not where matters of life and death and the survival of one’s children are concerned. The underlying principle of society, of all social organizations, is that the individual must give up some measure of freedom to achieve some measure of safety. From this disposition arises the tribe, the village, the nation-state, and the civilization that imposes laws and asks for obedience. And when an individual will not observe the laws and render obedience, it imposes sanctions and penalties.

This is true even in the many post-apocalyptic futures, played out in endless movies and television series, where society has fallen apart due to nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, or other unspecified collapse. Then the average human being—and even those among the main characters with superior intelligence, coping mechanisms, and fighting skills—are free and happy for about five seconds. But if they are lucky and the writers of these stories are smart, they quickly begin to form tribes and villages with laws and protections, recreating civilization all over again. The clean slate is not a happy state but a dangerous place that no one wants to occupy for long.

The political programs that work are those that recognize human and resource limitations, the need for compromise, and an understanding of the balance between personal freedom and cooperation. There are no end states, not on either side of the spectrum. No one will achieve any lasting condition of total control or total freedom. The Nazis and the Soviets tried the former, and their Nirvana lasted twelve years in one case and seventy in the other, and they caused untold suffering in one case and bitter stagnation with a heap of suffering in the other. No one has yet achieved much in the way of unlimited freedom, although the French Revolution tried and quickly—just about four years, with devastation already brewing—devolved into political infighting and the Reign of Terror, complete with daily executions. People simply are not designed, morally or psychologically, to be transformed into paradise all at once while still living.

And the reality is that any society after an excursion into totalitarian control or social anarchy always reverts to some kind of economic and political mean. The average citizen still has to get up in the morning, go to work, take care of the family, and pay taxes. The sun rises and sets. Life goes on as a struggle. And it will be this way until the sun burns out or humanity dies out and leaves the planet to the care of the earthworms and cockroaches.

This country, with its blend of free-market economy and shareholder capitalism balanced against a system of government taxation, regulation, and safety nets, enjoying a huge admixture of technological imagination and creativity, has come the closest to satisfying the most needs of the most people—ever, in the history of the world. Yes, there are pockets of want and misery, although our poor people are rich compared to most of the developing world. This is why other people are willing to walk across deserts and suffocate inside freight containers in order to get here. We can always tinker with the blend of freedom, regulation, and technology, nipping here and tucking there. But we throw away the whole thing and start again on a dream of total control or total freedom at our peril.

And that is the politics of realists, not dreamers.

1. And yes, anarchists often ride along with the Marxists and socialists in the early stages of the political struggle, believing that the fastest way to get to Nirvana is to begin by tearing down the structures that already exist.

2. Although I sometimes vote with the libertarians—being a small-government, more-market, greater-personal-freedom kind of guy—I really do not understand the extreme position or the hunger of the anarchists. (Remember, I’m not a purist or absolutist about anything.) In my view, the anarchists are not moving toward anything good but away from a political and economic situation that they find too complex, too boring, or too troublesome to be allowed to continue. It’s a form of nihilism.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Life Without Fingernails

Robot head

I tend to keep my fingernails short—not into the quick but close to it. So every month or six weeks, after trimming them, I experience a week or so when I exist like one of those robots with grip-sensitive finger pads like we see on television and in advanced science articles but not much with which to cut or scrape. Articles written about robots deal with joint articulation, wrist movement, and grip pressure. But no one seems to imagine what a humanoid robot without fingernails would go through on a daily basis.1

Take that little spot of dried goo on a mirror, plastic countertop, or other and more scratchable surface. Abrasion with a fingertip or a rubberized grip pad won’t quite wear it away. The keratin in a fingernail—akin to the protein that makes up strands of your hair—has just the right combination of hardness, flexibility, but ultimate softness and “give” to wipe away that spot without marring the underlying finish.

Take Ziplock bags. When they really stick, so that just pulling on the outside or inside bag material merely tears along the zipper seam, only a fingernail gently inserted between the two lips can tease them apart without compromising the bag’s sealing properties.

Take the snap tabs on soft drink cans and the peelable edges of the stickers on fruit, the price stickers on items intended as gifts, and virtually anything else that adheres or clamps but is intended to come loose with a soft edge and a little pressure. Trying to get a purchase under that edge with a fingertip, using friction from the ridges of your fingerprint, will almost but not quite work. To really get a grip, you need a fingernail.

And, as I read somewhere, while fingernails originated in animal claws, fighting weapons for everything from house cats to bears, their main evolutionary purpose in humans has been to anchor the skin around the fingertip, enhancing our grip on everything we grasp.

Consider every time you use a fingernail in your daily life, every time it has saved you going into the utility drawer for a screwdriver or a spatula, and you can see where lack of nails would hamper the effectiveness of a humanoid household robot. To overcome this disadvantage, designers would have to give the machine an extensible blade of soft-but-not-too-soft plastic—and replace it every time it wore away in use.

About the only thing a human does that a robot doesn’t is scratch him- or herself, and for that fingernails are perfect, too.

But maybe we shouldn’t speak too widely about the usefulness of fingernails. When the apocalypse comes, we can send messages on the underside of peelable stickers and store life’s essentials in Ziplock bags—and then use them to defeat our robot overlords.

1. Of course, most robots in the real world to come will not have humanlike hands, with fingers, opposable thumbs, and gripping pads. They will not be the bipedal, mannequin-bodied, humanoid surrogates imagined in early science fiction like I, Robot. The mechanisms that we wish to automate will have intelligence embedded in their systems. And the artificially intelligent software that guides and makes decisions for them will be so easily reproducible and installable that no one would bother to pay for a multi-function humanoid robot.
    Would you design a robot with just two cameras for binary vision, two audio receptors for directional hearing, two hands to grip a steering wheel, and two feet to operate accelerator and brake pedals in order to drive a car? And what then—your robot chauffeur would get out, go into the kitchen, pick up a paring knife, and slice carrots? Of course not. You would automate a self-driving car with multiple cameras and other sensors, including radar, and hook its decision-making capacity directly into the engine and brake management systems. And you would have a separate kitchen ’bot to prepare and serve food. A thousand other chores would be handled at the point of function by specifically designed automated systems. That is the future we’re headed toward.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The End of the Republic


So here we are. A narrowly contested election brought strong hints of vote fraud on many levels and by various means—but with no evidence that either the mainstream media or half of the electorate will allow. An enfeebled candidate for president and an unpopular candidate for vice president have won a huge number of votes in key precincts despite minimal campaigning and public appearances, against a president who aggressively campaigned with rallies attracting thousands. And this is after four years of “resistance,” claims of Russian interference in 2016, an attempted impeachment, and a sudden virus outbreak that has been surrounded by conflicting projections, recommendations, claims, and statistics. And now, failing to get behind the presumed winner and showing “unity” is an embarrassment. Something is not right.

And yet … if there was massive and coordinated vote fraud in the battleground states, I can see why most local judges and the media—even nominally conservative reporters and commentators—are reluctant to give it credit and expose it. The consequences for the nation and the democratic process would be just too catastrophic, with civil disruptions and the threat of war such as we haven’t seen in more than a century and a half. Reasonable people would want to draw a curtain on the situation in the same way that the Warren Commission, charged with probing the assassination of John F. Kennedy, sealed its evidence for 75 years: if their probe had exposed evidence of the Soviet Union or Cuba planning and pulling off the murder of a sitting President, the public outcry could have forced Congress into declaring World War III. Better to throw a blanket over the whole thing.

But if there was coordinated election fraud, then I would feel like an old Roman at the end of the Republic, where Caesar had just been declared Dictator for Life on the strength of his personal legions and then assassinated. And the result was not a return to the normal political process but a free-for-all.

The interesting thing about the Roman Imperium is that the term imperator did not originally mean “emperor”—that came later—but simply “field marshal,” reflecting the leader’s military backing.1 And yet, while one man held total control of the state because of a personal military force, all the forms of the republican government were obeyed. The cursus honorum was still in place, and Roman citizens of good background still filled the correct political and religious offices. Each of the Caesars was officially simply consul for the year, elected along with a nonentity whom he named to be his co-consul, but everyone knew where the real power lay. None of the ancient and sacred laws of the Twelve Tables was changed. They simply meant nothing important anymore.

The same thing could happen in the United States. Without the input of the people through a trustworthy voting process, all the forms of the republic could be maintained and still mean nothing. You wouldn’t have to change a word of the Constitution if you simply decided to accept a different meaning for the words.

None of the forms of government put in place by the main body of the U.S. Constitution have changed. We still formally adhere to the separation of powers of the legislature, executive, and judiciary branches and the checks and balances put in place to keep one or the other from taking full control. And yet over the years—and this has happened on numerous occasions—the power of the executive has expanded with administrative offices that are largely unelected and at the operative levels not even appointed, and yet they interpret the laws made by the legislature. And when Congress won’t give a powerful President the results he—so far “he”; we will see in the future—wants, the President whips out a pen and creates an executive order. The judiciary at the state and federal level then interprets the laws, the executive orders, and the Constitution itself according to their own political likes and dislikes. Meanwhile—at least over the last two decades—the legislature has been free to engage in partisan squabbling and gridlock, achieving little of note, while the country’s government keeps evolving and advancing in the direction of administrative and judicial law.

If you were to create a “heat map” of where the actual power and authority in this country exist and compare it to the structure envisioned in the Constitution, I believe you would find massive areas of non-overlap.

The Bill of Rights would be no more sacred. Protections for freedom of speech and religion in the First Amendment would still be guaranteed. But as the past year has shown, your freedom to assemble and worship can be curtailed in the event of a public calamity like the pandemic. Certain words and phrases have long been banned and punished as “hate speech.” And now we know that your freedom of speech may be freely infringed by a privately operated communications system, part of the “social media,” if the operators believe it contradicts the narrative imposed by the ruling majority.

Sure, the Second Amendment guarantees your right to bear arms—but we could interpret those words so that they apply only so long as you are a member of the army, the national guard, a police force, or other “well regulated militia.” There is nothing in there about hunting or defense of home and self.

Nor would it be “cruel and unusual punishment,” according to the Eighth Amendment, if we kept you in permanent solitary confinement or filled you with mind-altering drugs to treat your chronic “social psychosis” and “false consciousness,” brought on by your non-supportive political views. These are medical treatments after all, not punishments.

And so it goes. As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” And two plus two equals five.

As Benjamin Franklin also supposedly said, in response to an inquiry about the outcome of the Constitutional Convention in 1787: “A republic, if you can keep it.” And yes, like the old Romans of the first century BC, we can keep all the forms, all the laws, all the words written down in ink on parchment or cast in bronze, and still have something different.

Whether we can do anything about this—and whether anyone who benefits from the current situation cares—is another matter. When no one cares, then it doesn’t matter.

1. The early Romans had seven legendary kings, the last one ousted early in the sixth century BC. That started the Republic, with its popularly elected government offices up through the leadership position of the two co-consuls, who together served alternate months for only one year and then could not be re-elected until after another ten years. This was supposedly a guarantee against one man becoming too powerful.
    The experience of being ruled by kings was apparently so awful that the Romans were simply allergic to the title “king.” They probably would have joined the conspirators en masse to tear Caesar apart if he had taken that title for himself. A dictator—the word just means “speaker”—serving for a select period, even for life, was the closest they could allow themselves to come to monarchical authority in a period of crisis. However, when Caesar’s legal heir Octavian first avenged the assassination and then succeeded Caesar as leader of his armies and head of the state, they accepted him as princeps—“leader” or “first citizen,” from which we get the word “prince”—as well as the imperator. And by the time Octavian, who was subsequently styled “Augustus,” was an old man, the Romans accepted his rule as being effectively hereditary. They got themselves a monarch anyway, but by another name.