Sunday, November 17, 2019

Good Effort

French marketplace

To start with, I am a convinced free-market capitalist, so this meditation is going to sound biased to some ears. I believe that people are individuals with free agency,1 and so they are the best judges of how to spend their hard-earned money: on which goods, what quality of goods, what level of service, and what place of purchase. They are also the best judges of which jobs they want to or can do, how much effort they will put in, and what place of employment will best suit them. I believe that people make an honest choice between Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee, and that this is their own business.

I also believe that shareholder capitalism, as it’s currently practiced, is the most democratic method of funding an economy. People put their savings—their nest eggs, their windfalls, and their 401ks and pension plans—into stock shares and bonds, or manage them through a financial services advisor, and this money fuels economic development. People invest their savings where they feel comfortable, have the most trust, or share a vision. And the essence, here as in the marketplace, is that a million individuals are making a million decisions that seem right to them—as individuals.

With a bachelor’s degree in English literature, my first job out of college—obtained through the good graces of one of my professors—was as a junior editor at the Pennsylvania State University Press. It was there I learned my first real trade and became a successful editor and writer. Unlike most university presses, the director and senior editor tried to publish valuable works that would sell in the marketplace of ideas—rather than simply functioning as a publishing service for the university’s own scholars. That is, they expected most of their list of books to earn a return in sales. And I was treated like any editor in traditional publishing: I had to perform to a work flow; maintain high standards of manuscript preparation, galley proofing, and overall timeliness; and earn my paycheck each month. But at the end of that year, when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania experienced a $400 million budget shortfall during the recession of 1970, and it was a choice between plowing the roads and paying the salaries of junior editors and adjunct professors at the state university, I was let go. Good effort on my part and on the part of the university press management was not enough. For all their market savvy, the Penn State Press lived or died by allocations from the state budget.

After that experience, I went to work in the private sector. First, I was a trade-book editor at Howell-North Books, correcting manuscripts of railroad history and Californiana for a market that was interested enough in railroads and California history to pay for our books. Next, I went to be a technical editor at Kaiser Engineers, producing engineering proposals and reports for million-dollar projects on drop-dead schedules. Quality, speed, and responsiveness to customer expectations and requests not only earned my paycheck at these places but offered advancement in the organization. The budget was under our own control, not the number-crunchers back in the state capital.

My late wife graduated with a degree in history but, in the economic environment of 1960s San Francisco, the best job she could find was in the typing pool at Western Greyhound’s downtown offices. All her acquired knowledge and historical insights didn’t count so much as her typing speed. She quickly tired of being just a set of fingers, obtained her Master’s in Library Science, and went to work for the prestigious Bancroft Library on the University of California Berkeley campus. She stayed there until retiring almost three decades later as Head of Public Services. Every year, the Bancroft director had to fight for budget allocations against the rest of the library system and the university as a whole. Every year, my wife had to figure out how to maintain the collection and provide access to scholars using only the staff and budget she was given. Good effort were important but not sufficient for success.

I believe that people are pretty much the same, whether they work in private business or the public sector. Everyone—almost everyone, that is—gets up in the morning and wants to do a good job. They want to be productive, get smiles and thanks from their customers, however they define them, feel they’ve done something worthwhile at the end of the day, and earn their paycheck at the end of the month.

For ten years in the 1980s, I worked in Corporate Communications for Pacific Gas & Electric Company. Yes, that PG&E, which has recently been shutting off power to wide swaths of Northern California because their aged equipment and ill-maintained rights of way have started horrendous wildfires. People affected by these “public safety power shutoffs” blame the company for misallocating funds, skimping on maintenance and using the money instead for management bonuses, and generally goofing off at all levels. But while the company may have made mistakes, it is not run by fools and wastrels. When I worked there, PG&E people prided themselves on providing reliable service, maintaining a tight system, and keeping the lights on and the gas flowing.

What most people don’t realize is that PG&E—and any other regulated utility—is not exactly a private-sector business. When I first got there, I once used the word “profit.” Oh, no, no! I was told, by no one less than the chairman himself: “We earn an authorized return on investment.” That is, the shareholders put up their money—the result of selling PG&E stock in the equities market—to build new plant and facilities. In return, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) grants them money taken out of rates to pay back that investment plus a designated percentage return—which is usually a bit higher than one could make on bank savings or would pay on a bank loan. To earn this return, the plant has to be “used and useful”; so the company cannot just build redundant and overlapping facilities and make money on them.

But aside from new buildings, power plants and gas pumping stations, powerlines and gas transmission lines, every other aspect of the gas and electric business was and is a “passthrough” in the rates the company charges. PG&E buys fuel and natural gas, wire and pipe, line trucks and equipment, tools and office supplies, and made not a penny on the sale of electricity and gas over and above the cost of these expenses. PG&E employed 23,000 people, at the time I worked there, but makes not a penny on their efforts above their regular salaries, benefits, and stipulated bonus programs. A customer service rep’s smile earns neither her nor the company not a penny more in rates.

Instead, the company goes to the CPUC every three years with the “rate case.” This is a showing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), who is also employed by the CPUC, as to what the company needs in customer payments in order to provide electricity and gas to customers in its service territory: so pipe and wire, so many trucks, so many people, so much for system maintenance, so much for clearing trees and brush in the powerline rights of way. And the CPUC staff faces the company lawyers as opposing counsel to challenge every article in the rate case in order to hold rates to what they believe is “fair and reasonable.” In the end, the ALJ and the CPUC decide what PG&E can spend in each category and recover in rates. And the CPUC keeps close tabs on PG&E’s books, so that if the company were stinting on maintenance and tree cutting but then paying out extra into management bonuses, the hammer would come down pretty quickly.

PG&E employees—at least when I worked there—wanted to give good service, keep the lights on, and make their service territory a good place to live. But they are not stupid. They know that, unlike a Starbucks or Peet’s Coffee—where good products in a wide selection, and good service with a lot smiles, can keep customers coming back, because they have a choice—the average PG&E customer has no real choice of provider, will pay what the state commission decrees in rates, and will get the level of service that wiser heads in San Francisco will allow.

Everyone, most everyone, wants to do a good job, but they are also aware of the internal and external incentives. They know how much control they have over outcomes. And when choice of products and services is nonexistent and the outcome is predetermined by number-crunchers far off and far up the line, then selection and service suffer. Putting that control over valuable public goods and services into fewer hands and at even greater distance—whether through stricter and more complex public oversight and regulation, public takeover of service providers, or outright government control of production—is not the key to public happiness. Or so I believe.

1. See A Classic Liberal from December 2, 2018.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Allergic to Chaos

Mandelbrot fractal

Mandelbrot fractal

The other night I attended a concert by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra.1 While the music was excellent, I had a “disconcerting” moment in the prelude, during the time that the audience was still filing into the auditorium and finding their seats. Rather than a curtain coming up on the whole ensemble of 36 players seated and ready to start, the stage began with empty chairs and music stands. Then, one by one, at intervals of about a minute, each player entered, took his or her seat, and began playing … something.

What each player was doing seemed like random practice: trying out a series of chords, working out a difficult passage in the evening’s music, or just tuning up the instrument. The point is, the playing was totally uncoordinated, bits and pieces rising and falling without any linkage. At one point, I turned to my companion in the audience and quipped, “I suppose they do this so it will sound better when they all start playing together.” It wasn’t quite cacophony,2 because each fragment was a nice bit of music in itself, when I could isolate it, and the overall effect lacked the crash of garbage cans, swell of police sirens, and screech of brakes. But it wasn’t exactly pleasant.

In fact, after a few minutes, I began to feel a certain discomfort, then anxiety, depression, and other negative symptoms. I actually tried to close my ears with my fingers at one point. And this reaction reminded me of something I knew long ago: that I am allergic to chaos.

This isn’t just a philosophical or political aversion. I’m not making a statement here. I just can’t stand a prolonged state of disorder, without pattern, without sense or direction. And I don’t suppose many people can—or not without suffering negative symptoms such as I did.

You would think that I then must hate nature, which is itself fairly chaotic. But within the movements and displays of the natural world, there is generally a pattern that can be discerned in one pays attention over time. The wind in the trees, the falling of leaves or blowing of snow, the ripples in sand dunes … all are patterned. Each trunk and limb in the forest can bend only so far, and then it must bend back, so that the swaying of the trees has a regular span and rhythm. Each wave on the beach is followed by another in a regular succession. Birds migrate with the seasons. Bees swarm and then find their hive. Night follows day follows night. The Moon progresses in its phases, and shooting stars come in orderly streaks from a focal point in the sky. Even the eruptions of volcanos and their lava flows tend to follow a pattern over time.

The trouble is that, given a patternless chaos, my brain automatically tries to make order and sense of it. I try to find a pattern, at some level, large or small, like the inner workings and infinite regression of a Mandelbrot fractal. I do this even when I know there is no pattern and can be no pattern. That night at the concert I knew and understood that all of this musical nonsense and not-quite-noise intentionally held no pattern. And yet my brain tried to make music out of it.

This may explain why I am made nervous in crowds—aside from the obvious possibility of a mob breaking out and carrying me off screaming—or in packed spaces like restaurants and, ahem, theaters before a show starts. There can be found patternless voices, snatches of conversation, and random bumps and thuds. There chaos hangs in the air, mutters and teases at my ear, and sends my brain into fits trying to isolate snippets and make sense of the loose and vacant chatter.

This may also explain why I am made nervous by the laser light shows that generally accompany rock concerts as well as by the jumble of flashes and bangs that generally form the “blowoff” ending to a fireworks display. One, two, or three rockets exploding together and mixing their starbursts and showers, or the calmly rotating reflections of a disco ball … these are agreeably patterned. The sporadic lightning and booming of twenty rockets going off at once, or the artfully programmed confusion of light beams swirling, swooping, and dancing on smoke … that’s nervous-making.

While I am a dedicated wargamer and love the simulated strategic problems of a miniatures battle or board game, I would hate being in a real war. Even when an opposing gamer makes a surprise move—and it’s interesting how, at the height of battle, the reactions of other players are generally not all that surprising—the situation is still somewhat controlled. We have rules in each gaming system about how far rifles and artillery can fire, how far a unit of troops or vehicles may advance in any one turn, and what sequence of play each side must follow. The progression is orderly if not exactly predictable. But in the real thing—and I know this from having played paintball, which is a lifelike tactical engagement, with all its crawling around in the dirt trying to find cover, except that plastic shells filled with water-soluble paint replace actual lead bullets—fire comes in from all sides, intermittently, without any sequence or pattern. You lift your head to look one way and—splat! A sniper who’s been watching your position has just torn open your skull. Surprise, you’re dead! My brain hates that! There is no way to predict disaster and guard against it.

But all of this is not to say that I hate uncertainty. That is a different thing. I am quite comfortable with unanswered questions, like the nature of God, the origins of life, the conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination, and other situations that may or may not be ultimately knowable but right now are open to question and speculation. In fact, I am more comfortable with a complex uncertainty (e.g., how do those mutant geniuses manage to solve Rubik’s Cube with just a few twists?) than I ever would be with a simple but possibly wrong or inadequate answer (e.g., God said it, the Bible records it, I believe it, that settles it). I can tease out and isolate the uncertainties and missing pieces of an argument or line of reasoning. I don’t have to squash or answer them. My brain is satisfied with just knowing where the potholes are.

But in a flood of random sounds or the flash of random lights—think of the display of little twinkling bulbs that 1950s television shows used in a display panel to suggest a computer at work—I am bothered because the signal becomes indistinguishable from the noise. You cannot isolate and examine uncertainty when an overall pattern does not even give you a framework to begin analyzing.

So, while the chamber orchestra may have found an interesting and dynamic way of bringing the concert experience into focus, they also point to a certain weakness. Thank goodness, this group plays mostly classical works that celebrate order, transition, and resolution, rather than some of the more modern composers—here I’m looking at you, Shostakovich!3—whose works are sometimes indistinguishable from disorganized noise itself.

1. The program started with the Faust Overture by Emilie Mayer, a 19th-century German composer of whom I had not previously been aware. That was followed by the more familiar Fifth Symphony of Beethoven. The treat of the evening was hearing Music Director Ben Simon and various sections of the orchestra “disassemble” the Fifth to show how the composer used key changes, variations, and repetition to build this musical masterpiece.

2. If you break this word down linguistically, kak in Greek means “bad,” and phonia means “sound.” So this is—now from Latin roots—dissonance or “bad sound.” Given how kak and its variations are usually rendered in many languages, it could also be “shit sound.”

3. Although I am partial to his Symphony No. 10, particularly the rousing and martial Second Movement.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Magic of Steel

Samurai swordmaking

About a dozen years ago, I tried to by a steel rod that I could use in my karate training as a bo staff. This karate weapon is like the ancient quarterstaff that Robin Hood and his forest band used, but much faster and in greater combinations of moves. Even though the word “bo” means wood, I already had staffs made of fiberglass and aluminum. I figured a weapon made of solid steel would be unbreakable and invincible. So I looked up a steel fabricator online, called them, and tried to place my order.

“What are your specifications?” the polite woman on the sales desk asked me.

“Oh, I want a rod about six feet long and half an inch to an inch in diameter,” I said.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “What are your specifications for the steel?”

Ah! Well. Um … I did know what she was talking about. Any aficionado of pocket knives who peruses the catalogs knows a bit about Rockwell hardness, edge holding capability, rust resistance, and so forth. But what did I want in a staff?

When I was growing up and became interested in knives as both tools and weapons, as well as kitchen utensils, I asked my father—a mechanical engineer who had to be familiar with the properties of various metals—why we didn’t have stainless steel pocket knives. He said that stainless steel was too soft, with a consistency more like stiff taffy, and it could not be ground to take and hold an edge. Nowadays, however, through the work of chemists and steelmakers, we have stainless blades that are as strong as carbon steel, just as good at edge holding, and yet rust free.

In the end, I asked the steel fabricator for a rod of the most “vanilla” metal they had, middle of the road on all specification, except for stainless. They sent me two in the order, and I still have them. But just unpacking the things, I knew I had made a mistake. A six-foot rod of one-inch diameter weighs about thirteen pounds—far too heavy to swing at the speeds of any bo kata and still hold onto. One slip and it would go flying across the room. Still, the experience of purchasing a steel bo had been instructive.

I have long thought it a shame that this country buys most of its steel from China, Japan, and even India. The company called “U.S. Steel” used to be one of the powerhouses of our country’s industry. Steel is the metal of civilization. It’s what we use to build bridges and skyscrapers. It’s the rebar in every concrete structure. It’s the main ingredient in our automobiles, still ahead of aluminum, plastic, and carbon fiber. That we apparently don’t make it anymore, that we rely on overseas, practically Third World countries to supply our steel is a shame.

But it’s not that we don’t make steel in this country. We just don’t make large volumes of non-specific steel for I-beams, rebar, and other general utility purposes. We let the Japanese, the Chinese, or whoever else wants to build a plain old steel mill do that. Instead—as my father knew back in the 1960s and ’70s—we are the world’s leader in specialty steels, metals with specific qualities of hardness, ductility, flexibility, compression strength, rust resistance, and other measures of performance that are dictated by the composition of metal additives in the steel, its carbon content, its treatment, and its finishing.

For example, ball bearings must be extremely hard steel, because they work under the pressure of weight loads, but that kind of steel can be fairly brittle. Tool steel, the sort that goes into drill bits and chisels, must be extremely durable but also shock resistant, because they may be used to cut and shape other metals, including lesser steels. A knife blade has to be durable to stand up to shocks, hard enough to hold an edge, but also ideally resistant to rust in daily use and just sitting in your pocket, where it becomes subject to the moisture surrounding your body.

So when we speak of steel anymore, think of chocolate. The most popular brand in this country, the kind you get out of vending machines—the kind that’s made in great bubbling vats, distributed in boxcar lots, and sold everywhere—is Hershey’s. It’s not bad chocolate, as far as milk chocolate goes. But it’s not special. And it does have a sort of grittiness and leave an oily feeling in the mouth that children don’t mind but that connoisseurs care about. This is bulk chocolate—not the kind they use in making truffles or gift boxes with assorted flavors and fillings. If you want something special, with a particular texture, flavor, cacao content, and so on, you go to a premium chocolatier. The Swiss make fine chocolates for the discriminating baker and the customer’s palette; they let the U.S. pour out vats of Hershey’s milk chocolate.

The Swiss are to chocolate what America has become to steel: the experts in taste and quality.

Being a karate buff and an admirer of oriental martial arts, I used to think that the highest quality of steel—the magical stuff that can cut through anything, hold an edge forever, and never be bent or broken—was found in the samurai sword. We’re not talking about the swords that the Empire turned out by the carload for junior officers at the end of the war, usually cut and hammered from truck leaf springs. No, I’m talking about the ancient art of the sword as practiced by Japanese smiths for centuries—the kind that The Bride sought from Hattori Hanzo in the Kill Bill movies.

The Japanese have made samurai swords for hundreds of years. They work and fold, work and fold the steel, over and over again, to give it strength. They make a certain kind of steel with toughness and flexibility for the back of the blade, and another kind that can be ground sharp and stay sharp for the steel along the edge. These two are then put together: the edge steel in a groove that has been shaped into an ingot of the back steel. The combined blade is then pounded into shape while red hot to weld the steels together, then plunged into water or oil to temper them. The different steels react differently to the sudden temperature change, with the blade steel extending and the back steel contracting at different rates. This bends the blade backward and gives the sword its characteristic curve.

Layering the steel to give it strength, which the Arab and Spanish steelmakers did with Damascus steel, is an old trick.1 But it is only really needed when working with low quality steel that contains a lot of impurities. The Japanese swordmaking artisans would smelt a large lump of steel for just one or two blades in a backyard kiln made of bricks and fired with charcoal. It’s a creative and humanistic approach, requiring great knowledge and the skills acquired through centuries of trial and error and passed down from master to pupil. But the process lacks the precise, scientific control of a modern blast furnace. So these artisans had to layer their steel to drive out the impurities with repeated hammering and to give the steel the strength of many welded bands. A modern steelmaker only makes Damascus steel for show now, not for any inherently superior strength.

Steel has almost magical properties of strength, hardness, durability, and now resistance to corrosion and other specifications. These qualities have made it the favorite of tool makers and armorers over the centuries and to builders and engine makers in the last two hundred years. It was even chosen as his party name by a world leader, Stalin. But anymore, when you think of steel, think of chocolate.

1. It was the Arabs of Damascus, in ancient Syria, who are supposed to have invented this work-and-fold technique of forging, and so they gave this particular kind of patterned steel its name. The Moors brought the technique into Spain, which was also known for its fine steel blades. Tradition says the Damascus steelmakers didn’t temper their red hot blades in water or oil but instead plunged them into the bodies of slaves, to temper them in blood. But that is probably a myth.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Crazy People Among Us

Depressed person

Just like the poor, the mad have always been with us. They only present differently in society at each stage because we keep evolving our labels, diagnoses, solutions, and attitudes for dealing with brains and personalities that do not function within the societal parameters set by the rest of us “normies.”1

This is one reason you don’t see references to “schizophrenia,” “bipolar disorder,” or other psychological conditions in ancient or even near-modern literature. The first concepts of psychology as a science really came about in the late 19th century with practitioners like neurologist Sigmund Freud in Vienna and pure scientists like Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig. Terms, diagnoses, and approaches have been evolving ever since and are still being continually re-examined and refined today. The science, such as it is, moves back and forth between seeing psychological conditions as issues originating in the realm of ideas (e.g., bad thinking, childhood mistreatment, mistaken perceptions of reality, or spiritual or moral dysfunction) and in the realm of brain structure and biology (e.g., physical trauma, inherited or acquired disease, and maladjustment of the brain’s neurotransmitters). Or some of both, I would think.2

In ancient times, in the surviving literature, you seldom saw outright references to madness. This is not because madness and insanity did not exist, but because people who were either born with faulty neural wiring or became ill through mistreatment and cumulative trauma died at a young age through starvation or misadventure, or were kept as a shameful secret in a back room of the castle or by the hearth in the family hut, or found some niche in society where a loose attention to reality was either no hindrance or an actual boon. Such a person might become a shaman, or an oracle such as the priestesses at Delphi, a spiritual leader, or if the person had a knack for jokes and storytelling, a king’s fool. Many positions in society benefit from a loose association with reality, an unusual or altered viewpoint or perspective, or the flights of fancy that others can interpret as being in touch with the gods, the future, or the forces that drive fate.

Certainly, it has been suspected that Joan of Arc was an undiagnosed schizophrenic, and the religious orientation of her voices and delusions fit in well with the needs of her king and her society during the Hundred Years’ War. And certain forms of autism and some personality disorders can be useful in giving a religious figure, a politician or war leader, or any kind of craftsman the fixity of purpose, the literal interpretation of facts and intentions, and the firm resolve needed for success. Such people are not usually easygoing or pleasant to be around, but in the right situation they can get the job done.

There are also degrees and variations of psychological conditions. A person may be “high functioning,” meaning that he or she can get along in society and manage not to be ostracized or killed while still dealing with a diagnosable condition. This realization comes under the heading of “Some people are just odd.” And again, some personality conditions, in the right niche, can prosper where the rest of us with conventionally “normal” viewpoints would flounder or suffer from distraction or terminal boredom.

When societies, particularly in Western Europe, became more crowded, urbanized, “civilized,” and socially conscious, the “crazy” people—perhaps pushed out of their comfort zone by the stresses of urban living—could neither find an acceptable niche in society nor survive with their diminished wits and skills. Then the concerned citizens wanted some decent provision to be made for their welfare if not for their declining mental health. So medieval hospitals like Saint Mary Bethlehem in London soon were repurposed as refuges or asylums for the insane and the incapacitated, usually under dispensation or with support from the crown. They were an unhealthy cross between hospitals with no positive medical regimen and debtors’ prisons from which there is no escape. The inmates were allowed to sit in their current condition, sometimes in their own filth, muttering or raving to themselves, with minimal care. Or they would be given over to experts and reformers who would attempt cures based on the latest moral or religious philosophies. “Bethlehem” became “Bedlam.”

The practicalities of warehousing the insane—out of sight of society and out of both its and the patient’s mind—developed along with science and medicine. Patients were eventually put in padded rooms and under restraint, and sometimes lobotomized, shocked, or otherwise physically altered, until the 1950s. Then the drug generically known as chlorpromazine, or Thorazine, was developed as an antipsychotic, an anxiolytic, and—well, actually, it’s a form of sedative. It is hard for a patient to “act out” and become a nuisance to the staff when his or her mind is in a deep fog. We have since developed other and better medications to specifically treat psychosis, depression, mania, anxiety, and the other specific symptoms of recognized diseases. These drugs—often prescribed in “cocktails” of two or three at once—mostly work on imbalances in the brain’s various neurotransmitters, which regulate communication across the synapses between nerve cells. All of these medications have some measurable side effects, although the newer versions are often less intrusive than the older models.

With proper medication over the long term, and with sufficient “talk therapy” to explain the patient’s condition to his or her satisfaction, a moderately to severely ill person can now become essentially “high functioning.”

Also in the 1950s, we began to see a change in the popular culture regarding “insanity” or “madness.” Stories and movies like The Snake Pit, Harvey, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest told of innocent, eccentric, and sometimes just careless or carefree persons being railroaded into insane asylums, sometimes with the connivance of an uncaring judge or covetous relatives, and then fighting to get out. The fear of being incarcerated without cause or cure, like the Victorian fear of falling comatose and being prematurely buried alive, drove changes in society.

In California, the legislature passed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act in 1967, which went into full effect in 1972; other states passed similar legislation at about the same time. The California act regulated involuntary civil commitment to a mental health institution. Basically, a person in any mental condition can only be held against his or her will for 72 hours (three days), and then only if he or she can be considered “a danger to self or others, or gravely disabled.”3 This is the premise of state’s Welfare & Institutions Code (WIC) 5150. After 72 hours, the person must be given a hearing before a judge, where the committing officer or county mental health representative can show through examination that the person is still dangerous or disabled; that may extend the commitment up to 14 days (WIC 5250). And after that, presumably with further treatment, another hearing can extend the hold for an additional 14 days, especially if the person is found to be suicidal (WIC 5260). And then, if the patient does not agree, he or she must promptly be released. This is why most court-ordered, mandatory treatments such as for alcohol or drug abuse are only for 28 days; after that, the person must either be charged under criminal statutes or released.4

This and similar legislation has the effect of going into the mental hospitals and asking, “Who here does not think they’re ill and so should be released?” And since anosognosia, or lack of insight into one’s own condition, is a symptom of most mental illnesses, the patients—whether they were wrongfully committed or not—all asked to be let go. In 1963, during the Kennedy Administration, the Community Mental Health Act was passed to provide local services for the mentally ill, allowing them to live in and become part of their local communities. But the act had no accompanying funding and remained an optimistic and hopeful ideal. In California, mental health services are funded and provided locally at the county level. Of course, it’s a lot more difficult, costly, and time-consuming to provide for people in the community on an individual, meet-and-greet, case-management basis than to assign them to a bed in a state hospital and care for them someplace far off in the hills. But that’s now the law.

Which means we are pretty much back to the pre-urban middle ages. Parents are caring for their severely disabled son or daughter, housing them in a back room, trying to get them the time-limited and inadequate care available under the county system or through private insurance, and eventually providing for their special needs with a modification in their wills that accommodates ongoing care and conservatorship after their own deaths without jeopardizing the disabled person’s access to public services. That, or the mentally disabled relative is turned loose by society to survive on the street as a homeless person, anesthetizing his or her mental condition with drugs and alcohol, scrounging in garbage cans for sustenance, and generally dying young.

But I don’t believe in end states. Every time, every system, every current condition is a point on a curve, in transition to either a better or a worse future state. And I believe that the thrust of science and technology—in this case, medical science, psychological understanding, advances in neurology and physiology, and pharmaceutical discoveries—is upward. That things will get better.

Our science will either improve the level of treatment available on an individual, personalized basis—perhaps with better medications, better understanding of disease processes, or therapies assisted by artificial intelligence—or we will develop more attractive, more socially acceptable, more comforting and caring treatment centers—perhaps on the basis of assisted living communities and therapeutic resorts. In either case, the under-funded, over-stressed, catch-as-catch-can approach of current community services cannot continue: the families caring for their wounded children will fail through exhaustion and revolt, and the society plagued with needles and feces in the streets and tent cities under its freeway overpasses will demand a better solution.5

One way or another, we must recognize, accept and care for the crazy people among us—or slip back into a dark age.

1. That is, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous and other affected circles, the “chronically [or habitually] normal people.”

2. The one thing that cannot cause psychological injury is the sort of direct emotional and intellectual manipulation suggested by popular stories and movies of the early 20th century and referred to as “gaslighting.” You can intimidate people, confuse them, make them weary and angry, you can break down their social and emotional defenses, even cause them to lash out in fear and frustration—but you cannot “drive them [clinically] insane.”
    Of course, through profound exposure to bad experiences such as a total reversal of a person’s life condition, a violent trauma, cumulative fatigue or injury, especially in wartime situations, and other severe dislocations, a person may suffer continuing emotional distress: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is a real psychological condition with recognized symptoms and recommended treatments. It can happen to anyone. But still, the trauma has not driven the person “insane” in the old sense of the word: laughing manically, cackling inanely, and seeing phantasms.

3. And it has been decided judicially that a person who can only feed him- or herself by scrounging in a garbage can does not fit the definition of “gravely disabled.”

4. Two exceptions exist. At the first 14-day hold, a person deemed to be gravely disabled due to mental illness (WIC 5270) may be held for an additional 30 days. And a person who has made a serious threat of substantial physical harm to another person (WIC 5300) may be held for an additional 180 days.

5. We are already seeing a backlash in the form of Laura’s Law, Assembly Bill 1421 from 2002 in California, inspired by a young woman killed by a man who had refused psychiatric treatment. The law allows for court-ordered Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) for people with severe mental illness. It is based on a similar statute in New York State and is being adopted elsewhere.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Three-Fifths of a Person

White-faced human

It was a compromise made in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution1 that “other persons”—that is, enslaved people—should be counted as three-fifths of a person in the census for the purpose of allotting a state’s members in the House of Representatives, votes in the Electoral College, and direct taxes.2

Note that this clause does not mention “slavery,” “slaves,” or any race by name—except Indians, who didn’t count, having their own tribes and nations and, eventually, their reservations outside the jurisdiction of federal and state governments. But everyone knew whom the drafters were talking about: the Africans, brought to this country in chains and bound to their masters as chattel, the same as any cow or pig. And I am sure that many people in the 18th and 19th century assumed, on the basis of their own prejudice, that the three-fifths referred to the subhuman state of these bound people, not worth a whole white man in terms of spirit, understanding, and mental capacity.

But that is not at all the case. The “three-fifths clause” was intended to preserve the representative structure of the new federal compact. Under the Constitution, each state was apportioned two Senators in Congress, regardless of the state’s size or population. That way, every state got an equal say and share in governance. But then each state received a number of Representatives in proportion to its population. That way, individual citizens would get representation in proportion to their presence in the state. A populous state like New York gets two its Senators and, while it started with six seats in the House in 1789—because the whole nation had a much smaller population back then—that number has waxed to 45 seats in 1933-53 and waned to 27 seats today. Meanwhile, Alaska, with a territory about equal to an entire third of the “Lower 48,” gets its two Senators and just one Representative.

The justification for and the reasoning behind the three-fifths clause was that states with large slave populations would get outsized representation in Congress and in the Electoral College if each of those non-citizen, non-voting persons, living essentially outside the body politic, were counted towards representation. The Old South, plus any new states entering with the institution of slavery, would get an excess number of representatives and electoral votes. Since the slaves themselves would have no vote and therefore no say in the election of these representatives apportioned to their number—would not actually be represented by them—and so would not have their own needs and desires heard and presented, this excess of members in the House and the Electoral College would then be under the control of the voting-age white men. And that would give the latter more power and representation than the Constitution intended.

Without the three-fifths clause, the Old South and the slavery it spread to any new states would dominate the Congress and the election of the President. They would have an unfair advantage over the future, no matter which party was dominant in those states.

One could say that the same holds true for the status of women. They were counted in the census but were non-voting (until the 19th Amendment, passed in 1919) and therefore were impaired as citizens. That was an unfortunate oversight of 18th and 19th century minds and prejudices. But for the purposes of state representation in the federal government, the non-voting status of women did not sway the power of any state one way or the other. Women and men were present in roughly equal numbers, and that proportion was unlikely to change drastically with demographics and thus skew a state’s representation.3

The reasoning behind the three-fifths clause would apply today to the situation of open borders and unrestrained, undocumented immigration. Democrats and Progressives tend to favor open borders on humanitarian grounds. Republicans and Conservatives tend to oppose them on grounds of representation. Some people think the Conservative side fears that immigrants from Mexico and Latin America will generally vote for Progressive and Socialist causes. But that would only happen if the immigrants became citizens and acquired the right to vote—which one hopes would happen eventually but will not, in any numbers, happen right away. The alternative, one might believe, is that certain districts could illegally give these undocumented residents ballots and then happen to count them in a blatant violation of election laws. And that would be wrong.

The worse problem is that these undocumented residents would be counted in the decennial census, which currently has no way to differentiate them from citizens with voting rights and visitors holding valid visas, green cards, or other documentation but without the privilege of voting. That is, these undocumented residents will count towards an adjustment of the seats in Congress and votes in the Electoral College for any state in which they settle, but they will not then have the vote to ensure their own representation. They would increase the power of the legal voters in the state, but the state’s newly seated Representatives would have no real cause to hear and present the concerns and desires of the state’s undocumented residents. The latter would be used in a powerplay, the same as the slaves in the Old South if they had been counted one-for-one.

I have another reason for disliking open borders. People coming into this country without some form of official recognition—visa, green card, citizenship—are and will always be subject to restrictive immigration laws and the prospect of punitive deportation for any wrongdoing. Sometimes those laws will be enforced, sometimes not, but the threat will always be there. And that is a fact. But this situation also puts these people in the shadows, living as second-class residents, vulnerable to being bilked and defrauded, finding valid employment only in sweatshops and the gray market, and unable to go to the authorities for redress of wage and hour violations because of their status. This isn’t right. It represents a new kind of slavery.

And if we are going to apportion representation and electoral votes on the basis of non-voting residency, why stop at people? I can foresee a time when issues of environmental vulnerability and human-caused damage require representation for the non-human element, for endangered species and even trees. If we start counting trees along with people—and these days, it wouldn’t totally surprise me—then the world flops over, and states like Alaska and Vermont become the representational and voting powerhouses. But the presumably human representatives who took their seats in Congress would not actually be held accountable by the trees and so would only increase the power of the human voters in those states.

And that just wouldn’t be right—even if you counted a tree as only three-fifths of a person.

1. Article I, Section 2, Third Clause: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

2. Obviously not the federal income tax, which was not imposed until the 16th Amendment, passed in 1909.

3. Unless you counted the territories of the old and wild west, where men usually outnumbered women. But that situation tended to even out with the arrival of civilization—and so of women and families—which generally occurred before a territory could apply for statehood.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

God and the U.S. Constitution

The U.S. Constitution

I am an acknowledged atheist. I don’t wear the label proudly or in rebellion. I know that this admission sets me apart from many of my friends and fellow human beings. I am an atheist not because I know a secret that others don’t, but because I lack a gene or a brain circuit or existential antenna that would let me commune with and feel the presence of God.

In my conception, in this absent state then, God—or Yahweh, Allah, Brahma, or any other name you use—is still a good idea. That is, for most people, the Existential Being that we revere and worship is a conception of goodness personified, something to strive for and emulate, a guide to right action and good thoughts, an inducement to calm and serenity.1

In my conception, this godhead exists in the human mind, is transmitted through spoken and written words, and in utter reality has no existence outside of human thinking, action, and cultural conventions. In other words, do I believe that an immaterial Being, a palpable Force, a Spirit or Intelligence, Creator of the universe as well as of the human form and mind, has an actual presence out beyond the stars and existing for all time and outside of time? For me, no. For others, possibly yes to probably maybe.

But god, godhead, the idea of a loving, creative, affirming presence seems to be part of the human psyche. I credit this to the fact that humans, with our brains and developed skulls larger in volume than the pelvic passages of our birth mothers, are born prematurely, with soft heads. We therefore require the loving attention of our parents through the first couple of years of our being. It’s not for nothing that we think of the godhead then as a either or both Sky Father and Earth Mother. We needed these beings, both distant and close, from our first moments of consciousness.2

In the same way, the U.S. Constitution is a human idea—an ideal, if you will—that has no existence outside of the human mind and the actions it engenders. Like the idea of a god, it is formed in words and written down on parchment and printed in booklets, the same way that God is revealed in the Bible, the Quran, or other sacred texts. But the Constitution has no other physical presence or existence outside of the human mind. It has no force that the human mind does not give it.

And yet the Constitution has a powerful influence in American life. We refer our laws and practices back to it. We see it as the ultimate test of rightness for the American culture and virtues. It has stood for 229 years. It has been amended twenty-seven times—the first ten of those at its very creation and called the “Bill of Rights.”3

Today, we seem to be undergoing either a schism or a reformation with regard to the U.S. Constitution. On the one hand are the originalists, who want to strictly construct its language according to the words on the page and the body of legal practice surrounding the interpretation of such texts. On the other hand are the proponents of a “living Constitution,” who want to interpret the text in terms of the current culture and mores, and pin the words on the page to the presumed intentions and attitudes of 18th-century white Europeans who could not have anticipated our technically advanced, multicultural, and supposedly superior view of law and justice. To the latter, the Constitution is a good start but needs work. The disagreement over interpretation seems to center in that same Bill of Rights and not so much in the basic structure of government laid down in the main text.

Although that governmental structure, too, is under subtle attack. Consider the movement away from laws being written in compact, comprehensible, easily analyzed form by the Legislative branch and merely enforced by the Executive branch—toward a Congress that writes long, abstruse bills full of intentions and to-be-desired end states, which are then left to the Administration and its Cabinet departments and alphabet agencies to interpret into regulations and laws. This isn’t so much a direct and reasoned attack on the Constitution and the government’s structure as a decades-long, bipartisan, and mostly lazy approach to sliding responsibilities around from one branch that has to fight for reelection every two or six years onto the other branch whose staff of bureaucrats and regulators is largely unelected and insulated from public criticism.4

And what happens when the popular belief in the rightness of the Constitution or the power of God goes away?

We can see in the sober words of G. K. Chesterton what abandoning the guiding notion of God and the principles of religion has wrought in our current culture: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” Socialism, Communism, environmentalism (absent of, and even opposed to, human values), “the arc or history,” and every other -ism, doctrine, cult, and clever notion springs forth as a mainstay of human thinking. It’s not just that many of these doctrines are destructive, unstable, or unsustainable in the long term. They are also not as hopeful and sustaining in a person’s everyday life as the belief in a benign and loving presence. Prayer offers the believer, at the very least, a little daily chat with a presumed intelligence that is stronger, wiser, and more forgiving than the believer him- or herself might personally be. Adherence to the tenets of pure social justice, environmental sacrifice, or some other collective doctrine usually entails a bitter denial of personal hopes.

In the same way, if we abandon the strict construction of the U.S. Constitution, its Bill of Rights, and the various modifying Amendments, we are left with the personal opinions of competing politicians—and those guided by some social, political, or economic theory with which the rest of us might not agree. The Constitution and its constituent Amendments are remarkably silent on issues of social, political, and economic theory, other than support for the individual in particular and the people in general against the tyranny of the state or the majority in control of the government. It’s a pretty lenient and forgiving structure; other systems of government are a lot more aggressive and demanding.

But again, in my conception, none of this is dependent on outside, impersonal forces. Both God and the Constitution are human creations, operating wholly within the scope of the human mind, and having effect only through the interactions among those who so believe in the first place.

These are, ultimately, fragile things.

1. Unless, of course, you worship Satan, the Devil, Baron Samedi, or some other dark force—and then your heart is in a different place from mine.

2. I imagine that a race of intelligent sea turtles would have a very different conception of God. They are abandoned by their mothers as a clutch of eggs in the sand, are warmed by an invisible Sun, hatch by the light of the Moon, and scramble across dry land to find the ocean, pursued all the time by hungry gulls and other predators. I imagine their God would not be caring or life-giving at all, but cold and distant like the Moon itself.

3. That is, the rights that citizens have above, beyond, and preceding the Constitution, as inalienable rights that come from some source—God, perhaps?—greater than the state or the federal union and the document that binds that union.

4. This is a basic problem with democracy. Ultimately, the people who have to run for office must seek approval from the voters. You do this in one of two ways: offer favors, projects, and advantages that other politicians can’t or won’t offer; or avoid association with damaging and restrictive laws and their effects that the voters won’t like. Promise the sky but avoid the whirlwind and the lightning.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Myth of Powered Armor

The Human Condition:

The Myth of Powered Armor – October 6, 2019


Boston Dynamics robot “Atlas”

I have been re-reading William Barton’s When Heaven Fell, about Earth and the rest of the galaxy being overrun by our computer overlords with the assistance of the finest fighters among the universe’s species—humans, it turns out, among them. In the novel, powered armor with semi-magical properties of endurance, impenetrability, stability, and power supply plays a big role in battles, turning frail human bodies into invincible supermen, something like the comic-book hero Ironman.

Soldiers in the field do need some kind of protection against shrapnel and spent rounds, like helmets and sometimes a “bulletproof” vest. This is all light, unpowered body armor, more a guard against scrapes and cuts, concussion and sucking chest wounds, than invincible Ironman stuff. But the impact of large rounds and high explosives will defeat the purpose of anything you can feasibly wear on your body. We have known since World War I that anytime a human crew has to move into a shitstorm of firepower, you put them in an armored vehicle: a tank or personnel carrier. And that was a hundred years ago.

Today, we try not to put people into these situations at all. If there is immediate, lethal, unrecoverable danger, we will send a drone or a robot. With current technology, a robot’s responses are limited, so we use them in static situations like investigating unexploded bombs and entering for surveillance purposes buildings that are about to collapse. But as robots and automata become more agile, dexterous, and intelligent—through the marriage of AI to machine bodies—we will use them in more active roles.

We already fly unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, by remote control to perform surveillance and ground missions like bombing and strafing where a human pilot’s endurance, attention span, and bladder capacity might not hold out in the cockpit. Instead, the pilot sits on the ground, in a comfortable chair equipped with a videogame console, and flies the vehicle. If he or she needs to take a “bio break” (as we used to call it at my old biotech company), the pilot can pass control to another human or put the machine on autopilot. With satellite communications, the pilot does not have to be in the same country, not even in the same hemisphere, as the active machine itself.

And that’s just today. Again, with the mating of AI and better machines, we are not far from fielding a legion of robot soldiers that can act independently—or under the satellite control of a human expert sitting comfortably in a chair—to conduct our wars. One of the great lies told to American audiences came in one of the Star Wars prequels where the fighting robots were depicted as fragile imbeciles. One blaster shot, or even a sharp jab with a human elbow, and they fell apart. They moved stiffly and stupidly, and they were mowed down by ranks in combat. Maybe war is stupid, but its machines won’t be. The robot warrior of the future will be more like the Terminator and less like an animated broomstick.

The trend away from putting humans in harm’s way started, I think, in the 1970s. We sent people into space, into orbit, and to the Moon in the 1960s and early ’70s as a matter of national pride and endurance—and it was glorious. But we never went back, and not for reasons of economics or public boredom. We have no reason to go back to the Moon in human-rated ships and spacesuits. What we need to know, we can find out with satellites in orbit and robots on the surface, which are far more robust, cover more ground, and don’t suffer from inattention and boredom. Sending humans to do observation, research, and gee-whiz science experiments—dropping a feather and a hammer in the vacuum on the Moon’s surface—is valuable only for the “you are there” experience. Humans looking through camera lenses and probing with sophisticated equipment whose reach exceeds our five senses can cover more ground at less expense.

It’s even less important to send human beings to Mars and the other planets: other than astronomical, atmospheric, and geological studies—plus the off chance of discovering traces of life—we have no pressing economic need to colonize these distant and hostile environments. Not when so much of our home planet is easier to get to, make habitable, and profitably exploit for a much larger proportion of our population.1 It would be easier to level the top of Mount Everest and then build and supply a five-star hotel with Olympic swimming pool there than to put a habitat on Mars. Actually living on Mars, after the novelty and the science experiments had worn out, would be tedious beyond belief.2

When we need to go back to the Moon, or on to Mars or Alpha Centauri, to establish a human base and the a prioris for colonial expansion, we will do it handily. We will build on what we learned in the 1960s Space Program and in other endeavors like deep-sea exploration, cybernetics, and our robotic explorations. Sending and attending to human bodies will then be a subset of existing technologies. But human beings living in domes or underground, visiting the surface only with robots or in spacesuits—think mobile, compact, Earthlike habitats—will not be the point. Eventually, we will have to terraform the planet or moon.

This is not an easy prospect. Terraforming first of all implies a breathable atmosphere. We humans like 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 0.9% argon or other inert, nonpoisonous trace gases. We like a surface pressure of 14 pounds per square inch, although that’s negotiable within a few pounds either way. And our lungs are pretty delicate, so we don’t like nonnegligible amounts of fine dust or spores or hostile proteinaceous substances. The Earth can hold this atmospheric mix at this pressure because of the planet’s size, volume, and density, and so its mass and surface gravity.

The Moon can’t hold on to much of any atmosphere because its gravity is one-sixth that of Earth: all of the gases—which are in constant motion on a warm body, especially under the bombardment of the solar wind—take one bounce, exceed the gravity’s escape velocity, and fly off into interplanetary space, leaving a vacuum. Mars, with a surface gravity only two-fifths that of Earth, can’t hold on to any molecule much lighter than carbon dioxide. And even with that heavy molecule—which flows down onto the floor and into depressions when released on Earth—the Red Planet supports an atmosphere with a pressure only 1% that of our home. Think of flying a jet up to about 80,000 feet—more than twice the height of Mount Everest—and opening a window; that’s the atmosphere of Mars.

Terraforming any planet that does not have Earthlike geodetic specifications3 would require adding significant mass to the planet—something we cannot currently do—or running the atmospheric processors overtime at high pressure to make up for the gases lost to escape velocity. Either way, it’s going to be an expensive proposition, and the result will probably not be stable enough for people to bet their lives on.

No, human beings are not going to become super soldiers in their own frail bodies, or go out among the stars in their shirtsleeves, until we can solve some intractable problems of materials, mass, and energy supply. But when we do solve those problems, the sky will no longer be the limit.

1. And as for mining the asteroids for their mineral riches, when the time comes it will be much better to send intelligent machines than clumsy and inattentive human beings in spacesuits.

2. Oh, we’ll do it. After all, we have a continuous human presence at various national bases on Antarctica, and there is still scientific work to do. But no one moves there to live—to colonize the continent, make a life, and raise the next generation of “Antarcticans.”

3. And then there’s Venus, which is the most Earthlike of this solar system’s planets. But, because of its atmospheric composition and fractionally greater proximity to the Sun, the atmosphere is a high-pressure Hell composed of hot carbon dioxide laced with clouds of sulfuric acid.