Category Archives: Critical Thinking

Pertains to discerning authentic truth, bias, and achieving the civil discourse essential to democracy.

Gun Sense

Gun Violence to Gun Sense*

*”Gun Sense” (instead of “gun safety” or “gun control”) is a term used by Moms Demand Action
It seems to me that the problem of gun violence is really several different problems with guns as a common factor. Our thinking is easily muddied by the tragedy and intense media coverage of mass shootings. It’s useful to discuss five separate categories of gun deaths, each of which may have a distinct solution.

Annual US Gun Deaths

Evidently we are disproportionately fearful of personal violence. The statistics clearly show that “bad guys with guns” are a rarity. Two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides. Most homicides (80%) are committed by a person known to the victim—and half are romantically or socially involved. Holdups, home invasions, and mass murders are quite rare.

On any given day, absent a recent gun incident, only 2% of Americans would rank gun violence as the number one problem the nation faces. This constituent complacency is possibly the biggest barrier to legislation reducing gun violence. The gun industry get its way most of the time.

profit fearThe National Rifle Association (NRA) has successfully established itself as a political third rail for any individual politician of whom they disapprove. Despite the fact that only 26% of NRA members are activists who want no government restrictions on guns, the NRA has formidable lobbying clout. It’s the money that flows to the NRA from the gun manufacturing industry that makes the organization influential. It’s gun profits more than pro-gun extremism or Second Amendment zeal that stiffens NRA resolve.

HOW DO WE CREATE GUN SENSE?

The various loopholes and gaps in our present gun control laws are deliberate, most of them fostered by the NRA and the gun lobby. Their strategy of obstruction is revealed by these tactics:

  • Encumber regulatory agencies by understaffing (defunding personnel) and imposing burdensome procedures and paperwork
  • Resist all regulatory legislation by threating political attack ads and making strategic campaign contributions
  •  Conceal the public health problem by suppressing government collection of gun violence statistics, create gag rules on medical professionals, and block transparency of data
  •  Litigate every new regulatory initiative
  • Shield gun makers from product liability suits with laws that convey tort immunity
  •  Promote broad-based gun ownership with fear-based, self-defense arguments
  •  Block accountability for transfer, lost or stolen guns by constraints on record keeping that make it tedious and time consuming, if not impossible, to trace a gun or audit a buyer’s eligibility
  •  Impede efforts to add dangerous people to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database

It’s business as usual for the army of industry lobbyists who subvert democracy to advance special interests. The effect of these tactics is to allow guns and ammunition of all sorts to be bought and sold freely in public and private channels with little or no accountability for vetting the buyer.  Illegal “straw-man” purchases are common because it’s hard to actually prove such cases in court and the courts tend to treat them lightly.

ACCOUNTABILITY

The automobile may be a metaphor for how guns should be handled. Liability for what happens with a car rests with the owner who holds title. Owners are not only liable, they are also required by law to carry insurance. Automobiles must be registered annually. If gun owners were required to carry insurance and were liable for injuries caused by gun accidents, there would be a very powerful incentive to secure guns and ammunition.

Mandatory registration would make gun trafficking much more difficult – nobody knowingly buys and drives a stolen car – you must have a valid registration and title for a car. NRA gun zealots fear that such registration is the prelude to confiscation (it’s a tacit admission that gun ownership is not an immutable right). The 2008 Heller decision by the U.S. Supreme Court could be reversed, restoring the notion that one’s right to gun ownership is linked to “a well-regulated Militia” as the opening phrase of the Second Amendment states.

ACTIONS

Fix 1: Public Health

We need to learn as much about gun-related, public health issues as we can, share the knowledge, and then build practices and programs that will lead to solutions. Medical professionals should be encouraged, not be prevented from seeking information about gun access.

Public Health Summary

  • Fund CDC research on the health aspects of gun ownership
  • Openly publish the facts about gun injury
  • Make health care for depression and other mental illness easily accessible
  • Encourage medical professionals to make gun access part of the patient profile

Fix 2: Education

Gun PosterizedThe idea that one needs superior force to vanquish evil and resolve conflict is deeply ingrained in all of us. It’s the essence of popular adventure stories that our heroes prevail with “guns and guts.” Super heroes don’t lead “win – win” negotiations: they slug and blast their way to overpowering the bad guys.

But the Hollywood epic is not the real world. Far from it. Enlightened people back off, cool off, and work it out. Completely independent of the gun issue, our society needs to learn peaceful conflict resolution in family and school settings. Spouse abuse, battery, and simple assaults are far too common. Mature, sober adults don’t slug it out or shoot each other.

 

Videos like this paint a fantasy picture of how armed intervention saves the day.  In the real world, bad guys don’t faint conveniently.  The more probable scenario is the ex-boyfriend making an unwanted visit. He advances trying to sweet talk the woman out of the gun, or flies into a rage … a happy ending is not likely.

The most common homicide starts with a disagreement or an insult—then escalates. It happens in social situations among people who know each other. If one or more have guns, shots are fired. The police arrest everyone involved and leave it to the judge to sort out who did what to whom. (I’d bet that most self-defense gun owners have little awareness of those dynamics. Nor do they appreciate that brandishing a gun or firing shots will almost certainly get them arrested.)

Safe handling of guns requires knowledge, skill, and practice. Police and the military drill until the practices are instinctive, and then they periodically demonstrate their mastery of the skill sets. You can’t safely be a casual gun user. Buying a gun, firing it a few times, and then locking it up until you need it does not instill the calm and instincts necessary.

In your church and community life support “Love Thy Neighbor” by advocating peaceful conflict resolution, fact-based education about gun safety and lethal force, compulsory safety training for gun purchasers, and awareness that “guns and guts” is storybook stuff.

Education Summary

  • Promote compulsory gun safety training
  • Create public information campaigns about responsibility and consequences:
    o Gun owner’s liability (like auto owner accident liability)
    o Permissible use of lethal force (tragic mistakes happen under stress)
    o “Shots fired” usually means arrest and court appearances (cops let the court sort out the facts)
  • Teach peaceful conflict resolution in schools and families
  • Counter the Hollywood “guns and guts” hero fantasy

Fix 3: Accountability
Currently, Americans can easily purchase and keep their firearms legally and anonymously. More laws is not the solution. When all U.S. federal, state and local gun laws are tallied, they number more than 20,000. Yet one can buy a gun from a private seller and take it home without any paper trail or public record. With the exception of certain major cities, that’s legal. Federal gun control is at the point-of-purchase. Once you get it home, most states and municipalities have no restrictions on gun possession.

Accountability Summary

  • Prevent informal and unrecorded gun transfers (mandate licensed dealer oversight/documentation of transfers)
  • Require digital transfer records to facilitate tracing of guns used in crimes
  • Extend record retention period (currently background check compliance is not auditable after 3 days)
  • Expand background check data base—include those on terror watch list and no fly list (add appeals process)
  • Repeal immunity for manufacturers for after-sale liability
  • Create truth-in-advertising requirements (like FDA drug and cigarette health warnings)
  • Mandate minimum safety training and liability insurance for gun owners (like car insurance)
  • The seven fixes listed above can’t be done quickly or easily. There is controversial politics involved. It requires a persistent grassroots effort and includes getting corporate money out of politics.

Fix 4: Restrict Military-style, Rapid-fire Weapons

Despite the drama and media hype, mass shootings are not the priority in terms of number of deaths. If we accomplished the forgoing fixes for Public Health, Education, and firearms Accountability, the problems of preventing Mass Shootings would be much simpler.

Certain weapons are unusually dangerous in the hands of an agile shooter because they are designed to quickly maim or kill many people. The challenge is to draw a clear distinction between such weapons and others that look similar but do not have that capability.  With a high capacity magazine a semi automatic can fire 30 rounds in ten or fifteen seconds.

The law already recognizes limits on second amendment rights. For nearly a century the US has made it nearly impossible for a civilian to own a machine gun, weapons like the one in the video are not machine guns. Paired with high capacity magazines, the difference in firepower is trivial.

The Second Amendment likewise does not prohibit licensing of gun owners or registration of firearms. Those government actions are inhibited by political pressure from gun activists who fear government confiscation of firearms. In fact dedicated gun enthusiasts often obtain one or more classes of Federal Firearms Licenses (FFL) classified as dealer/collector licenses. These licenses impose responsibility for secure handling and accountability that keeps weapons of all kinds out of criminal hands. At the same time, they grant privileges such as possession of otherwise-prohibited, fully automatic guns and make it lawful to ship weapons, parts and supplies. The licensing process involves an interview as well as a more rigorous background check than the NICS check done by dealers. Presently the number of FFL “dealer” licenses exceeds the number of Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. This may be a result of the lack of a ranked system of licensing for responsible citizens owning or possessing firearms.

Adding a ranked system of owner licenses would bring similar disciplines and practices to all gun owners. But fear of government overreach energizes the opposition to such common sense controls. Americans have no such fears about automobiles, so we have a system of driver testing, licensing, and vehicle registration with complete reciprocity among the states.

That doesn’t prevent auto sport enthusiasts from building or racing whatever vehicle they choose. For public safety governments do regulate public racing events, and prohibit racing on the highway. Why should gun ownership and use be different where public health and safety are involved?

Ranked licensing would reward the dedicated enthusiast or collector for rigorous safety practices and strict compliance with firearms regulation.    These carefully vetted and highly responsible private citizens would enjoy privileges, conveniences and benefits denied to the less accountable individual. Licensing would codify the responsibility that goes with the right to bear arms.

Restrict Military Weapons Summary

  • Basic firearms licensing categories
    o Target practice (limit up to 8 or 10 shots per reload, semi-automatic or revolver)
    o Hunting (as above, but as locally lawful for hunting)
    o Self-defense (handguns and long guns, up to 8 shots per reload)
  • Unusually dangerous gun license category (e.g., for collectors and museums)
    o Tactical (as above, but for larger magazines and rapid fire enhancements)
    o Military (fully automatic, unlimited clip/magazine enhancements)
    o Machine guns, disguised guns, other ultra-lethal gear

CONCLUSION

Gun violence is foremost a public health problem. When gun advocates say, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” they are partly right.  Not all people can handle the responsibility for easy access to a tool that’s lethal and accident prone. Guns are very different than kitchen knives;  their lethal reach is instant, far more devastating, and extends hundreds or thousands of feet.

With at least 250 million guns in private hands, possibly 375 million, and with no central record of who has them, it is and will always be nearly impossible to absolutely control any class of firearm. But with strict gun laws and appropriate licensing, we can empower enforcement to distinguish between lawful transfers among law-abiding citizens and undesirable transfers to criminals and others who should not possess firearms.

Licensing and registration laws impose accountability by their nature. It’s worth noting that the expansion of concealed carry licensing has not been accompanied by a balooning of gun violence. Thus far the statistics support the gun enthusiasts claim that arming responsible people poses no increased public hazard.  Perhaps we can affirm the Second Amendment right to arms and simultaneously make it harder for fools and killers to get guns.

What can we do to replace “gun porn” and gun violence with gun sense? We can take action by addressing the Public Health issues, provide accurate and widespread Education, require sensible Accountability, and Restrict Access to military-type, rapid-fire weapons.

Make Our Democracy Work

We must support our elected representatives at all levels, especially federal, to make the necessary fixes. Send a letter or postcard to your Congressperson and Senators asking that they actively work to free the CDC from the constraints Congress has imposed. Remind them that our gun problem is primarily a public health problem. We need to let science study it. At the same time we need to full fund and empower the ATF to enforce existing law.


8/6/16 Corrected statistical typos. Less than (<) was reversed in first table, percentage of NRA members supporting background checks is 70 to 74% so only 26% support no government restrictions on gun purchase. NRA has done its own studies and claims a different result.
This essay is based on a multimedia presentation by Richmond Shreve 8/4/16, Pennswood Village. A bibliography of principal sources is posted separately.

 

Slight of Hand

It’s all about controlling the conversation. In high-pressure sales, and in intense face-to-face negotiation a deal maker wants to control and direct where the conversation goes.

T sketchTrump has the instinct and he’s honed it over years of business. His racist remarks about the judge hearing the Trump University case caused the media to turn away from the case itself, which points to Trump’s predatory lack of character and integrity, and possibly fraudulent actions. The headlines and sound bites focus on the inappropriateness of an off-cuff remark. Trump’s base likes that he is not politically correct. But they probably won’t like that he exploited people much like them. The diversion was damage control.

When Hillary Clinton attacked Trump in her recent foreign policy speech criticizing Trump’s public statements and concluding that Trump was not fit to be President, Trump did not respond to the substance; instead he dismissed it as “pathetic.”  When Elizabeth Warren took him to task he referred to her as “Pocahontas.” The media reverberated with the drama, again not engaging the substance of the criticism of Trump.

This weekend [June 12] the New York Times published a feature article detailing how Trump succeeded in making millions while his casino businesses were floundering. The eventual bankruptcies cost investors and creditors billions of dollars. One source estimates that Trump presided over the loss of $4.7 billion dollars of other people’s money. Somehow he was able to pay himself while shifting the risk and losses to others — a world class slight of hand.

Earlier in the week USA Today broke a story about hundreds of small businesses and employees of Trump enterprises that were not paid what they were owed. Trump has been involved in 3,500 litigations and often intimidates those who seek to collect what’s owed by alleging poor or late work. The little guy knows that the big guy can afford to have lawyers rag him around for years running up fees and so they settle. The Wall Street Journal termed this “hardball” business practices. The rest of us call it bullying and being a deadbeat. Trump boasts “I always win, that’s what I do.” It might be more correct to say that he makes losers of those who trust him.

All of these practices model different ways of gaming the system. It’s not creating honest and lasting value. And it’s certainly not about mutually beneficial business undertakings. It is all about using leverage and getting over on the other guy — a con game, the art of the grifter. Notions of stewardship and integrity are utterly absent. It’s the same sort of mentality that produced the 2008 economic collapse. And now we have a master practitioner who would be our President.

God save America.

 

The “Silent” Minority

Disaffected, Angry and Fearful

Since Donald J. Trump became a serious contender for the GOP nomination there have been many writers and a few academic studies that have sought to profile those who follow and support him.  We know a whole lot about what they don’t have in common: they aren’t all Republican, nor churched, nor old, nor male, nor poor. They are likely to be white or latino, working class, and socially conservative. They tend to be from authoritarian families. Their assessments are binary: winner/loser, truth/lie, good/bad, friend/foe.  (I’ve listed reference links for these demographics at the end of this essay.)

A viral email dating to 2012, right after President Obama was re-elected, contains angry sentiments that we’ve heard echoed by Trump and the people who support him. Various versions exist reflecting embellishments added as it was forwarded from person to person. Though it has been falsely attributed to a US Marine Corps Vet, or to Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, the actual source is unknown.

The American Dream Ended …  (Snopes.com version)

“The American Dream ended last night in Ohio.

The second term of Barack Obama will be the final nail in the coffin for the legacy of the white Christian males who discovered, explored, pioneered, settled and developed the greatest Republic in the history of mankind.

A coalition of Blacks, Latinos, feminists, gays, government workers, union members, environmental extremists, the media, Hollywood, uninformed young people, the forever needy, the chronically unemployed, illegal aliens, and other fellow travelers has ended Norman Rockwell’s America.

The US Constitution has been replaced with Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals’ and Chicago shyster David Axelrod, along with international socialist George Soros, will be pulling the strings on their black puppet to bring us into the New World Order.

The Republicans ran two candidates who couldn’t even win their own home states, while circus clown Chris Christie helped Obama over the top with a glowing ‘post-Sandy’ tribute that elevated the phony ‘Commander-in Chief’ to Mother Teresa status.

People like me are now completely politically irrelevant; I will never again comment on or concern myself with the aforementioned Republican coalition, which has surrendered our culture, our heritage and our traditions without a shot being fired.

You will never again outvote the people who gave Obama four more years. It will take individual acts of defiance and massive displays of civil disobedience to get back the rights we have allowed them to take away. It will take zealots, not moderates; zealots who will never ‘reach across the aisle’ to RINOs, to right this ship and restore our beloved Country to it’s former status.

Those who come after us will have to risk ‘their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor’ to bring back the Republic that this generation has timidly frittered away due to white guilt and political correctness.

My wife and I will now put our anti-ACLU Nativity Scene on display, and start wishing everyone a “Merry Christmas”. And enjoy the rest of our lives in our 50’s-throwback Village of (Redacted) Lakes, here in (Redacted) Harbor.

Atlas has Shrugged, and John Galt has left the building.”

Knowing that I collect and study them, a conservative friend receives many such viral messages and forwards the most provocative ones. In March of 2016, three-plus years after it was originally posted, it was still in circulation   In this instance my friend noted that it expressed the feelings of many people he knows.  The broad scope of the response to Trump suggests that he is right about that. Many of Trump’s applause lines evoke the emotions expressed in this piece.

Viral emails get forwarded exactly because they express a feeling that the sender likes and wants to share widely. Although the original writer remains anonymous, the forwarder is known to his correspondents. When this happens countless times over a several year period it demonstrates that lots of people endorsed the sentiments. It doesn’t seem to matter that the content isn’t logical, and doesn’t pass the sniff test for factual basis.

My knee-jerk reaction when I first read American Dream Ended was to characterize the writer as a defeated white supremacist bigot. It’s easy to make that casual assessment, but not likely to contribute anything to solving the social problem. Since beliefs are primarily influenced by social environment and not by facts, it’s foolish to ignore and marginalize those who hold what we deem to be such ignoble sentiments.

On reflection, I realize that I have friends who don’t speak of such feelings in polite company, but actually harbor them in secret and feel frustrated, angry and ashamed. It’s understandable that they might look back wistfully and see the less enlightened 50’s as a time when they could be themselves. As it is they must watch their words.

Trump’s public appearances attract like-minded people. Trump doesn’t shame them for politically incorrect sentiments or behavior, and in words and actions he evokes the emotions encourages followers to let loose. Polite society is shocked and scornful but Trumpists, having found their tribe, simply don’t care. Indeed, the more criticism Trump draws, the more loyal and fired-up they become.

Like The Rest of Us, Only More So?

To some degree most of us share deep dissatisfaction with the present political climate and the legislative stagnation and gridlock that seems to grow ever worse. Few of us have escaped the economic consequences of the 2007 Great Recession. Though we disagree on the causes and remedies, all of us recognize the social problems of poverty and diminishing economic mobility. Trumpists are much like the rest of us except that in venting the pent-up rage, they blame all the wrong people, and look for a ruthless strong leader to fix it, make it great again.

Norman Rockwell’s America, wasn’t as idyllic as some people remember it. With few exceptions his paintings remind us of what we aspire to, America at its best, not the unsentimental reality of the street.  Most of the “rights” Trumpists feel they have lost, weren’t ever rights, and Trump can’t deliver on his implied promise to Make America Great Again for his followers because that perfected America never existed – at least not for the 99 percent.

Anger at Being Left Out

It’s not patriotic or socially acceptable to be angry at America. Yet for many shirt-sleeve workers the American system hasn’t been working for a long time, and they have lived with smoldering rage they couldn’t express openly. Conservative writer David Brooks described them as: “ … a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams. The American system is not working for them, so naturally they are looking for something else.” And there’s another kind of alienation that’s more social in nature, the mainstream of society disrespects and shames them for their “ignorance.”

To muster our empathy, let’s imagine walking in their shoes. How frightening it must be to jobless with no prospects. How shameful it feels to fail in supporting your family even though you desperately want to work.  How humiliating to have no marketable skills. How depressing to have permanently lost your retirement nest-egg or your home in a market downturn that others have mostly recovered from.

If you’re self-employed, how frustrating to experience your independent small business burdened by fees and taxes when it’s hard to even meet payroll. How enraging to be fettered and delayed by unhurried civil servants secure in their recession-proof jobs.

Although the discontent has been rising for decades, established leadership is reactive rather than creative.  For the prosperous, the good life is secure and it’s instinctive to stifle change that could be disruptive.

The establishment is inherently risk-averse and defensive.  Neither posture supports visionary thinking. They fail to see the threats and opportunities coming until it is far too late to adapt. We see the pattern play out daily in the Opinion section of the Wall Street Journal. When you are happy with the way things are, it’s hard to embrace change or to recognize any need for it. Enter Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Case in Point: The GOP Establishment

The GOP successfully built their base from a coalition of evangelicals and several flavors of populists. But in most policy matters the establishment “business suits” were acting contrary to the interests of the “shirt-sleeves” that made up 70% of that base. Now, thanks to Trump, it’s coming unglued and the shirt-sleeve Republicans (and Democrats) are awakening to how the suits have been ignoring them. Bernie Sanders addresses the ignored needs, while Trump blatantly exploits the fears and emotions that the GOP panders to with more nuance.

One of the consistent failings of the GOP has been the failure to see big challenges coming. That is the essential nature of establishment conservatism. “Don’t fix what works,” might well be the slogan of the GOP establishment. GOP ideals (Free markets, small government, low taxes, deregulation, and a disbelief in central social planning) all come from the instinct that nobody is smart enough and pure enough of character to engineer a better future. Centrally controlled economies fail. There are no historical successes. Conservatives prefer to allow events to run their course unfettered except by the invisible hand of Darwinian efficiency. The industrious will prosper, the lazy and incompetent will suffer the deserved consequences, and society will be the stronger in the end. It’s a hands-off no safety net philosophy that is fiercely individualistic and reactive. Big forward-looking ideas, at least for organizing American society, are not sought or valued.

Laissez-faire economic philosophy looks impartial and reasonable for those whose fortunes have prospered – the top of the food chain. But unfortunately not everyone, and certainly not a solid majority of the people, feel that they have prospered economically or otherwise. Fearing the popular appeal of the big idea politics of the left the GOP has reacted by opportunistically crafting positions that attract groups of single-issue voters: evangelicals, gun enthusiasts, right-to-lifers, and militarists. This last includes people whose livelihoods depend on maintaining and equipping our large military. Loyalty to the GOP is rooted in an emotional appeal to an instinctive fear or personal belief. It’s reactive, not visionary.

This aggregation of individual issues is not a natural union of like minds it’s a circling of wagons for collective strength. The GOP establishment doesn’t have the votes to prevail on its own.  “My enemy’s enemy is my friend,” seems to be the unifying glue.  For years the leaders piloted the GOP on a course that protected the interests of the fortunate and successful, shielding wealth. They used rigid party discipline and policy to uphold the collage of single interest postures that bound the other two-thirds of the base together.

To divert the attention of the base from their lack of participation in the growth of personal wealth, they systematically spread disinformation such as “trickle-down” supply side economics and the notion that lower taxes on the wealthy result in more jobs. Despite unprecedented reserves of cash in blue-chip industry, the consumer demand that actually drives commerce and jobs has been slow to recover.  Reduced taxes on the wealthy enacted during the Bush years failed to bring offsetting economic growth and while the rich got richer, the nation got deeper in debt.

Rana Foroohar writing for Time (4/4/16 issue) describes how little of that protected wealth actually is engaged in producing anything real:

“Experts including Adair Turner, the former
head of financial regulation in the UK, estimate
that only about 15% of all capital flows within
America’s financial system end up making their
way into the real economy. The rest of that money
just rotates around the high-finance microcosm,
enriching the 1% as they buy and sell existing assets
to one another, bidding up their value, while
failing to invest in research, products, jobs or innovation.
C-suite executives, likewise, contribute
to the sort of “quarterly capitalism” by seeking
out Ding Doodle—style deals rather than making
long-term investments. That has begun to worryy
even some of finance’s most accomplished players.
(Warren Buffett, Larry Fink and Jamie Dimon recently
met in secret to discuss how to fix corporate
governance.)

Anti-democracy Tactics

The GOP also opportunistically gamed the system to acquire more power. The tactics include: gerrymandering of congressional districts to ensure election of GOP legislators; conservative stacking of the Federal and Supreme Court benches; killing public funding for National Public Radio; building the Fox News Propaganda machine; promotion of discriminatory voter ID laws; weakening the labor unions; and eviscerating campaign finance laws. The wealthiest GOP supporters created PACs and Super PACs to fund political advertising and elect GOP candidates. Though politically effective, these measures did nothing to help the plight of increasing numbers of less successful wage-earning individuals in their base.  They became Romney’s infamous 47%.

Until Trump rallied what I’m calling the silent minority, the GOP held them spellbound with bright shiny objects like flag-pin patriotism and propaganda that said big government was the problem. The GOP raised fearful specters like socialism, health care death panels, and they vastly over-hyped the threat of weapons of mass destruction and lately the menace of terrorism and of ISIS.

The political establishment of both parties largely ignored long-time and emerging issues that have seriously hurt the silent minority. Among these are the disruption of American manufacturing by international trade agreements, the insolvency of many pension programs, the short and long-term effects of the Great Recession on the middle class, wage stagnation for four decades at least, and the chronic neglect of US infrastructure.

Looming in the future as threats are: global climate change, global scarcity of essential resources like clean water, air, and even food, loss of unskilled work to robotics and automation, and conflict arising from religious extremism. To add insult to injury, Social Security and Medicare may be unsustainable if not reinvented. Bernie Sanders preaches a vision of a better deal, and Donald Trump plays to the fear and anger. The establishment didn’t see them coming.

“Us” versus “Them” Mentality

Many of those who write or read about Trumpists are looking for affirmation that they are somehow morally flawed and different than the rest of us. We want to believe that Trump followers are an anomaly – not regular people. Media reporters have jumped on photos of a campaign worker with tattoos allegedly identifying her as a white supremacist.  But the data does not support such broad stereotyping of Trumpists. There is vastly more to be learned by searching for our similarities.

Fr. Richard Rohr, OHM addressed this in one of his recent meditations:

“Our lack of human compassion is rather starkly revealed in most of the candidates we consider worthy of public office in the United States. I am not sure if this is as much a judgment on the politicians’ delusions as it is on the spiritual and human maturity of the American electorate itself. That so many who call themselves evangelical (“Gospel”) cannot see through this charade, has become an embarrassment for American Christianity. Many now see our cultural Christianity really has very little to do with Jesus. Any candidate is praised and deemed worthy of high office because we think, “He speaks his mind” (when it is actually our prejudices that he is speaking aloud). Two thousand years of Jesus’ teaching on compassion, love, forgiveness, and mercy (not to mention basic kindness and respect) are all but forgotten in a narcissistic rage. Western culture has become all about the self, and that is just way too small an agenda. The very self that Jesus said “must die” is now just about all that we think about!”

Our enemy is not “out there” somewhere, it is us. It is American Individualism run amok. We operate on the assumption that opportunity is so abundant that anyone anywhere in this country can make his or her way if they only try. When the facts contradict, we seek out or invent a distinction that defines “us” as different and better than “them.”

You can’t have a serious conversation about our times without hearing assessments like these.

A retired professional planner from Staten Island (direct quote):

RW: I’ve much to say re politics, but let’s leave it at this:  Cruz is more dangerous than Trump, who just wings it.  Republicans are no longer conservatives; they are right-wing reactionaries.  Real conservatives are respectable establishmentarians, wary of change unless tested and proved, respectful of precedent, hesitant to engage in foreign interventions, advocates of free enterprise, not monopolies and corporate welfare, and skeptical of government social engineering attempts. They are not interventionist, pro-Israel neo-cons, supply-side, trickle-down economists with no regard for consequences, nor advocates of government prohibitions on abortion or government restrictions on voting rights.  They are for individual rights, not against them.  Nor are they racists.  Todays Republicans are; they should not be called conservatives.  (And Democrats are wimps.)”

Truck driver retired from the USAF (paraphrase of a longer conversation):

MS: “I usually vote republican. At first I liked Trump, but lately with the stuff he’s been doing, not so much. I just don’t like Cruz and I don’t think he’d get much cooperation from congress. Hilary’s the best qualified, but I don’t trust her. And Bernie Sanders is a socialist.”  [MS says he doesn’t know who he’ll vote for.]

Jeff Sharlet writing in the New York Times Magazine (4/12/16)

After the Youngstown [Trump] rally, I drove to the only bar I could find still serving food and found myself sitting across from a group of three supporters. Mike was a union electrician, Shawn a dispatcher and Jackie a nurse. “Definitely a racist,” Shawn said of Trump. That did not appeal. But who would receive his vote? “Definitely Trump.” Mike was a probably; Jackie wouldn’t say, but she seemed to be sliding toward Trump. Only the bartender, Shane, was holding firm for the Democratic Party. He couldn’t believe his friends. “Trump’s not just a racist, he’s a [expletive] psychotic racist!”

“So are half the people who walk into this [expletive] bar!” Shawn shouted back. He did not want to be racist. He did not want Trump to be racist. What he wanted, he said, was a better job, the kind of job Youngstown used to be known for.

That was what Mike wanted too. We drank another round of fireballs. Mike’s probably-Trump began inching toward certainty. Another round. Then he suddenly roused himself, rising up from the bar. “I don’t care if you’re racist!” he shouted at a room by then nearly empty but for us. “If you’ll just bring back one [expletive] steel mill!”

Shawn nodded, seriously. We drank to the dream, the steel mill they knew was not coming. It felt good, at least, to believe.

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Interviews with Trump supporters reveal a common theme: they like Trump because he’s a brash outsider – and he’s really shaking up the insiders.

Lots of people cheer Trump exactly because he blurts out what’s on his mind, or seems to. He’s obviously not scripted and handled by a team of spin professionals.  He’s not part of the business-as-usual Washington establishment. He’s generated billions of dollars’ worth of earned [free] media by being unrestrained – not unlike the shock-jocks of radio. You could paper a wall with the magazine covers and political cartoons that feature him. He entertains and energizes followers by appealing to emotions instead of presenting rational ideas.

Trumps critics explain his appeal as a mainline zap to the “lizard brain” – that part of the brain that’s most primitive and wired for instinctive survival. It’s the domain of fear, hate and mob behavior. For people who feel anxious and threatened, irrational arguments, obviously unsupportable or untrue claims don’t matter. What does matter is the resonance with something instinctive deep and dark in the listener.  It’s a gut level thing – bold, assertive, impudent, aggressive, powerful and confident. “Make America Great Again” translates make me feel secure and good about myself again.

At this primitive level feelings reign; and facts, logic, and sensible thought fail. Condemn this as “ignorant” at your own peril, because we all, as humans, have areas where we function on emotion and ignore (or don’t seek) the facts. It is how we are wired. Much of becoming an adult is training ourselves to temper our lizard brain instincts.

By way of example, consider the enormous attention we focus on acts of terror. The rational mind knows that our individual personal odds of falling prey to a terror event are vastly lower than suffering a home or automobile accident. Yet as a nation we spend billions on anti-terror measures and still don’t feel entirely safe. We certainly don’t dread automobile travel, or the flu season that way. The most important personal life-choices we make (who we love, what we eat, what we do for fun) seldom involve much rational thought. We actually function on an emotional level most of the time – all of us. We regard those who appear to be entirely rational as cold and alien, like Spock of Star Trek.  Donald Trump knows this. But does Hillary?

 

Compassion not Confrontation

Most of the press and the GOP establishment wrings their hands over how to stop Trump, as if he alone and personally were the problem. In my view he’s just the latest opportunist exploiting the emotions of those we now term Trumpists. His “leadership” is more a cult of personality than a political movement. I call his followers the silent minority because they feel alienated, disrespected and repressed in a society that shames people like them. If you accept that “they” are like us only more so, then confronting them as outsiders can’t work – it only alienates them further and fuels their anger.

George Lakey, a Quaker activist, teacher, and writer asserts that practicing compassion and nonviolence is the only strategy that stands any chance of success.  In his March 18, 2016 Essay How Empathy, Not Protest, can Defeat Trump and Right-wing Extremism he says,

“Donald Trump’s March 13 rally in Boca Raton, Florida, was revealing. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank left the press corps and inserted himself into the core of the giant crowd. In that rally protesters had been screened out. Trump brought forth his usual inflammatory rhetoric, saying he might pay the legal fees of someone who sucker-punched a protester. Milbank reports, however, that the rally remained fairly tame. When Trump eventually asked, “Do we have a protester anywhere?” no one responded. Where was the drama? Milbank noted, “Trump and his advisers seem to delight in the confrontations, which fuel the crowd’s energy.

Lakey goes on to demonstrate that angry confrontation won’t be effective. Trump crowds feed off the energy of conflict. Lakey’s low-drama strategy is not intuitive but it makes great practical sense. I recommend visiting the website, reading the essay, and also reading the reader comments and Lakey’s very illuminating responses. For real-world tactics, Lakey suggests a Swarthmore source that documents 198 nonviolent actions and reports on their use and historical effectiveness. He promises to write more in future posts and suggest a strategy.

They Aren’t Going Away

The members of the Trumpist Silent Minority live among us and they aren’t really that different from us. Actually my late father harbored some of those bigoted sentiments while being outwardly politically correct. I recognize them in his stories about war experiences, and his patronizing attitude toward certain minorities, and his simplistic framing of complex social issues. Some of my fellow firefighters were like the writer of that viral American Dream email. They may be closet bigots, but they are also men who are bold and selfless when faced with danger.  In other words the anxieties and feelings that draw a person to the Trump personality are not as aberrant or weird as some media would suggest.

We are all part of the American whole, and America is part of the community of humanity. We can’t build walls or hoard resources to defend ourselves from the social problems of sharing this little planet. Like it or not, we are all in it together for the duration.

 

Media Opinion and Analysis Considered for this Essay:

Donald Trump, American Preacher – Building a congregation for his prosperity

Who are these idiot Donald Trump supporters?

Measuring Trump Supporters for Intolerance

Not Even My Wife Knows …” Secret Trump Supporters

We Asked 8 Trump Supporters Why …

The Befuddling Connection between Trump and His Supporters

Some of My Best Friends are Trump Supporters

The Myth of the Trump Democrat

What do Trump Supporters Think About Climate Change?

Why Economic Anxiety is Driving Working Class Voters to “Trumpism”

Don’t Be Fooled – … ‘silent majority’ doesn’t exist.

The Republican Crackup

A Strange but Accurate Predictor of Whether Someone Supports Donald Trump – WaPo

Who are These Idiot Donald Trump Supporters?

The Huge Cultural Shift That’s Helping Trump Win Evangelicals

What Republicans did 15 years ago to help create Donald Trump today

Who are Donald Trump’s Supporters?

Who Supports Donald Trump?

No, Not Trump, Not Ever – The New York Times

How Trump Happened

The Trump-Berlusconi Syndrome

Why Trump? « George Lakoff

Chris Hedges: The Revenge of the Lower Classes and the Rise of American Fascism

The Elements of Trumpism

Why They Voted for Trump

 

 

 

$500,000,000 per victim?


We can expect a lot of people to be more hawkish in the wake of terror attacks, most of them old men who never wore the uniform. I thought you’d enjoy this item:

“The US spends more than $500 million per victim on anti-terrorism efforts. However, cancer research spending is only $10,000 per victim. Evolutionary psychology may offer an explanation for this irrational threat amplification.”

The whole article can be found here: http://thinkbynumbers.org/government-spending/false-sense-of-insecurity/

Terrorism is a reality of life in a radicalized world. Even if we completely locked down society it can’t be prevented. Consider the French resistance in Nazi occupied France. With informers everywhere, a massive troop presence, and a disarmed populace, small resistance groups continued to function.

ISIS does not restrict itself to military targets and easily finds soft targets to exploit. When we respond with actions that expend large sums, commit our military, and suspend our own freedoms we accomplish more for the enemy than they could ever hope for by his own relatively weak powers.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I still like my decade old idea of pay-as-you-go combat financed by a surcharge percentage added on everybody’s taxes, with mandatory national service for all citizens. It would make hawks weigh the costs politically and economically.

Suck it up, America. Accept that we live in a world of dangerous ideologies both abroad and here at home. And war is not the answer. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan should have been learning opportunities. Combat is expensive and doesn’t have much favorable impact on extremist ideas.


3/25/16

Great op-ed in the Washington Post (click)
RS

“The Donald” Exercise in Web Propaganda

Viral email messages, a stealth tool in political motivation, abound during political campaigns. I collect them as samples of propaganda because they are so blatant that they make good examples when I want to talk about critical thinking. The same propaganda techniques are widely used in popular media, especially MSN and Fox News — they are just more nuanced.

So in this post I wanted to deconstruct a viral email that is circulating among conservatives. email pix I have redacted the email names but othewise what you see is what I pulled from my gmail inbox.

Click the image to view the actual PDF file. I have added notes which you can point to and read and I’ve highlighted certain words and phrases that triggered my skepticism.

My aim is to show readers how easy it is to spot inauthentic information, and deliberate dis-information if you train your eye.

The first thing you will notice about the item is the very large font and the use of red type. The sender uses all-caps in the subject and the phrase “a must read”.  So from the outset, there’s lots of hype; and that’s often a signal that it’s not credible.  The body text repeats both the words and the emphasis and tells us that the author is a very important, educated, and credible source … at least if you are a fan of conservative opinion. But the adjectives are too over blown and the sender’s evident need to promote the author triggers my skepticism.

Reading further, the use of common clichés leads me to suspect that this writing is not the work of a high profile PhD affiliated with a scholarly think-tank like Heritage Foundation.  The overuse of absolutes like “all”, and “never” begs credibility as well.

The further down the page you get, the more the language sounds like a rant. The writer uses certain phrases as if they were well accepted and shared by the reader. Among  like-minded people already wedded to his point of view, those phrases would have special meaning. For insiders the language is familiar and evokes a belief, for outsiders it sounds oddly dogmatic. The “us” versus “them” mindset pervades the piece. It smacks of conspiracy paranoia.

After reading it through I noted that there were no actual facts or verifiable examples to support the writer’s assertions or speculation. It could not have been authored by Bennett or anyone else of his education and experience.  Sure enough, a quick web search revealed that Snopes had discredited the item long ago. The PDF has live links to fact checking commentary. Bennett did not write it, and actually contradicted it in an interview. But most of you probably guessed that it was bogus without fact-checking or even finishing the article.

 


 

Read about Skepticism Triggers here (click).

 

It’s about Vision and Fear

I’ve been pondering the motivations of voters who rally around each of the candidates, as have most of the wonks in Washington. talk aboutAn article in the NY Times examined the things candidates talk about in the debates and presents a  chart to illustrate the relative frequency each topic gets discussed.  Take a moment and click on this link so you can see the whole graphic: Which Issues Each Party Debates, or Ignores.

If you were asked to place the issues on the chart without seeing the article, I suspect you could replicate it by making the left side “visionary” issues and the right side “fearful” issues. I suppose I should not be surprised.  Those who ardently believe that government should be smaller and do less, find it hard to come up with positive ideas for action that will muster voter support. Fear is powerful substitute for vision.

The GOP has incited fear very effectively to manipulate elections. Newt Gingrich at the January 24, 2015 Conservative Freedom Summit set the stage for the present campaign with a veritable catalog of fear triggers the GOP could use.

For those who see the nation as a community that looks out for one-another aided by government, big ideas and grand visions abound. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist, is widely faulted for espousing issues and ideas that are unworkable and might wreck the economy if attempted. Hillary Clinton is accused of being too pragmatic, and practicing the tepid politics of the possible.

Trump’s authoritarian anti-establishment posturing plays to fears and resentments under a banner of “Make America Great Again,” an undefined goal that calls forth the sentiment that the establishment has disregarded and disrespected Americans with 1950’s values and sensibilities.  It’s not so much a vision as a retro-fantasy about how things were once better.

In a commentary in today’s NY Times Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue that Hillary actually is visionary.

Mrs. Clinton has put forth an ambitious and broadly popular policy agenda: family and medical leave, continued financial reform, improvements in the Affordable Care Act, investments in infrastructure and scientific research, measures to tackle global warming and improve air and water quality, and so on.

But voters and pundits alike complain that she’s a cold-eyed realist who hasn’t articulated what George H. W. Bush once wistfully referred to as “the vision thing.” Instead, it’s Bernie Sanders who has been cast as the visionary in the Democratic contest, an idealist brimming with inspiring (if often unrealistic) proposals.

The bulk of the article makes the historical case for government’s role in out national prosperity and individual well-being. It’s more about how the current political discourse ignores the facts of our past. In effect it implies that Hillary actually has the key to making America great, but keeps it hidden.

Our nation badly needs a dialogue that reminds Americans why a capable government is essential and how much we are paying for its erosion. Mrs. Clinton understands this, but she may have neither the opportunity nor the inclination to say it.

I think the authors are on to something.

 

 

Machines that Think

When I was a kid in high school sixty years ago the transistor had just been invented and transistor radios were a novelty. philco transistorsIn 1960 when I graduated from the US Navy’s Electronics School they devoted only one week out of 28 to the transistor “because you might run across them someday” in the military gear we were being trained to maintain. It was only a year or so later that I was beginning to see transistors in super-secret cutting-edge gear.

In 1966, working for Gates Radio Company, I was selling broadcast quality stereo sound mixers with all the glowing vacuum tubes replaced by tiny transistors. Yet our vacuum tube powered computer still filled an entire room and was controlled with stacks of IBM punch cards. There was a staff of several people that kept it running 24/7.

A few years later in 1979, a young statistician working with me in my marketing research department at Sandoz began using the first Apple computer for survey tabulations, bypassing the company’s lethargic and bureaucratic IT department. We got better results faster and the move heralded the demise of the “big iron” computer for our sort of work. One guy with a spreadsheet program could do what had previously taken an organization of highly skilled people weeks to do.

Today spreadsheets and word processors are standard personal computer applications. Now the latest “gee whiz” tools are vastly more sophisticated. For example, I can design and test complicated electronics gadgets using a four dollar app on my iPhone. Engineers at electronics design labs, using industrial versions of this software, can complete a design, test it and improve it in the simulator part of their software, and then submit the perfected design to the lab for fabrication. The working physical prototype device composed of thousands of tiny transistors and component parts is “printed” and delivered back to the design engineer in a matter of hours – virtually untouched by human hands.

Accelerating Change

Dramatic, isn’t it? The computer went from being a mechanical toy to a ubiquitous tool for commerce and science. It truly is amazing. Various technology leaders have been following the trend that was born at the beginning of my career. It is accelerating fast, and it will continue to change the very nature of human vocations. Electronics technicians who actually work with soldering irons and components are a vanishing breed. Radio Shack is in bankruptcy. Amateur Radio is a vanishing hobby. Most electronics are disposable and it is hard to find a real TV repairman. The cable guy is a mechanic with little or no knowledge of how the wires and boxes he installs actually do their magic.

Tool or Threat?

A long-time friend and business colleague made a sweeping gesture toward a mostly vacant cluster of office cubicles saying, “See that? I don’t need half the people I once did. Nobody in my executive staff has a secretary.” He pulled out his smart phone. “Don’t need one. This does all that – appointments, meetings, mail, reminders.” Pausing, he shook his head and his voice became grave, “Don’t look back over your shoulder, there’s somebody who will do your job better, faster, and cheaper than you.

Smartphones

He’ll work twenty-four seven, doesn’t need benefits, doesn’t get tired, doesn’t take days off.” He patted the pocket where he’d put the phone. “It’s coming.”

For my friend, the smart phone was a tool but he could see the threat, and for the clerks and secretaries he once employed, it was a jarring career change.

It was the 2007 recession that forced his downsizing, and technology filled the voids. That trend continues. I am a reasonably fast touch typist. I still prefer to compose at the keyboard, but I don’t have to. I can dictate my words onto “tape” or directly into my computer. The voice recognition software I use types faster, spells better, and is more accurate than I am. Only because I share an office with my wife, and the sound of my dictation distracts her, do I continue to type for myself.

Clearly technology will continue to eliminate human jobs that involve repetitive routines or processes. In other work it will reduce the level of skill needed. In college I learned drafting with a pencil and T-square. I had to acquire the skill to visualize three dimensional objects in two dimensions, and to draw lines of various thickness and weight to visually represent them. Today, computer aided design or CAD has made the old butcher-block drawing board obsolete. I have another four dollar program on my phone that does excellent drafting, no manual skill required. I also have programs that let me create beautiful graphics with photos, illustrations, dramatic fonts, and render them as press-ready posters, banners, postcards, etc. I’m not a career commercial artist, but my hi-tech tools let me do professional level projects. And yes, the tools continue to evolve.

Machines that Think

The Washington Post published an article headlined, “Apple co-founder on artificial intelligence: ‘The future is scary and very bad for people.’”

Wozniac and Jobs

Wozniac joins others like Gates, Jobs, Hawking, and Musk in this view. Ordinary work for people is becoming obsolete. The industrial revolution of the 19th and 20th century led to an era of leisure for the common individual in industrialized societies. A person could work a 40 hour week and have evenings and weekends free, enjoy paid holidays, vacations. Children didn’t need to work to help support the family. Where once only the rich had time for education and the arts, a large middle class gained access to affluent lifestyles.

Will human creativity be immune to the relentless assault on human vocations? Maybe not. Consider the musician’s new tools. Electronic synthesizers allow a person with piano keyboard talent to simulate a huge repertoire of instruments. Percussion, strings, woodwinds, brass, as well as other-worldly electronic tones are all available. He or she can create and save a continuous loop of sound to produce the background rhythm of drums, then add another loop or two that supplies the bass beat, and then improvise a melody.

The “one man band” has come a long way in recent years. Barbara Streisand, with four talented musicians using these tools produced the sound of a full orchestra and simulated the acoustics of a great concert hall – all in the coziness of her home garden. And yes, similar music tools are all on my iPad.

I have no musical training at all, but I can craft New Age sounds and harmonies by drawing patterns on my touch screen computer. With little effort except to discern what sounds good to me, I can make music, save it, and play it back at will. Yes, the computer can render my humble effort as a printed musical score, even though I can’t read it. If I write lyrics, it will translate into any of several languages as well. How much of a leap will it be for a computer to anticipate what will sound good, and generate original music and arrangements?

It is easy to imagine that computers could analyze the elements of the most popular music, determine what is most likely to please, and generate new tunes.

Networks of Machines

The internet has not only enabled us to instantly communicate with far flung networks of friends, but it has also allowed networks of  machines to communicate and coordinate with each other and become the Internet of Things (IoT). These networks are ubiquitous and largely invisible to the average person. I’ll point out a few.

Aircraft

Commercial airliners have sophisticated autopilots that are capable of flying the plane from shortly after takeoff and actually landing it at the end of the trip. These systems also detect pilot error and sound warnings when not actually controlling the plane. The automated systems within the plane can take into account all of the variables: engine performance, air speed, ground speed, altitude, heading, control position, etc. A computer processes this information and optimizes for efficiency and may even anticipate and compensate for changes that affect the smoothness of flight. The aircraft interacts with Global Positioning Satellites (GPS), radar systems, and ground control so that it “knows” the position and course of other aircraft and even weather systems. During final approach and landing the aircraft gets feedback from ground systems plus its own systems to adjust for deviations from the correct glide path. We are not all that far from having aircraft that can fly themselves better than humans can. What’s missing is the ability to deal with the unexpected emergency in the creative way a seasoned pilot must. But how many pilots will still have the necessary skills if they seldom actually fly the plane “by the seat of the pants?”

Cars

We already have cars that can parallel park themselves better that most humans. Google and others have been experimenting with self-driving cars with considerable success. But unlike aircraft, the auto must deal with road hazards: debris, potholes, animals, children and other pedestrians, rain, snow, ice, and impaired human drivers. They will also have to win the confidence of human passengers and  government regulators.

Yet autos already have some advantages with more to come. The anti-lock brakes (ABS) on virtually all current models of cars can stop a car faster than even an experienced race driver because ABS applies the maximum stopping traction to each individual wheel, automatically adjusting for changes in traction due to road surface. The race driver must apply pedal pressure just short of locking the wheels. Often one wheel locks briefly despite skillful braking. On an eighteen wheel semi, no amount of driver skill can prevent lockup. ABS reacts faster and is more adaptive than humans can be.

We can now buy systems for cars that warn when we are closing on another vehicle or obstruction too fast. But before long cars will be equipped with wireless networking that will power an ad-hoc network in which each vehicle can be aware of the location, speed and direction of its neighbors on the road. Such a network would allow the auto to “see” around corners, over hills, and through rain and fog. It’s easy to imagine that these smart cars could also communicate with the traffic signals and a highway network to allow traffic to synchronize speed taking into account conditions not yet visible.

In such a system, vehicles could move like a flock of birds in close formation without danger of the sort of pileup collisions seen on today’s freeways. The day may be coming when it’s not legal to pilot your own car on high speed roadways.

Banks

I never visit my bank. It’s in San Antonio, Texas and I live in Newtown, Pennsylvania. If I want to deposit a check, I snap a picture with my phone, select the account, enter the amount and the bank reads digital codes on the check image, and credits my account. Somewhere in the process a human must view the image to verify the amount, but even that may soon be automated.

Machines communicate with each other to make these transactions possible: my phone sends data over the internet to my bank’s computer and the bank authenticates me and my phone. Then the phone interacts with the bank computer to validate the check image as readable. Finally the banks computer acknowledges the transaction to my phone and the phone displays the new balance. I can pay bills in much the same way. My bank in turn uses the Automated Clearing House (ACH) network to process the check with the issuing bank and move the funds. All of this is machine talking to machine.

Artificial Intelligence

Actually the forgoing examples are not artificial intelligence; maybe we could call them artificial skill systems. Intelligence implies the capacity to learn, create and adapt – that is to think autonomously. The capacity to transfer learning by language, to anticipate, and to adapt ourselves proactively sets us apart from other life forms and from the machines we have thus far created. Frankly, we have a lot to learn about how our human brain and nervous system works to enable us to think.

Pure logic and analysis alone do not suffice. Humans who lack compassion and emotional affect are regarded as psychopaths – deficient in qualities essential to socialization.

The fictional Mr. Spock, portrayed by the late

Spock and Kirk

Leonard Nemoy in Startrek, was a character who functioned rationally lacking the human emotions of his crew mates. The Doc Martin character, of the British TV comedy, seemed to lack the ability to fully experience or express emotions – a flaw that is the source for the hilarious situations that have entertained viewers for several seasons. These two fictional personalities dramatize the huge difference between he purely analytical/logical and actual human thought.

That’s not to say humans can’t be fooled by machines. In June 2014 a computer dubbed with the name Eugene Goostman succeeded in passing the Turing test by fooling more that 30% of the humans who interacted with it into thinking it was a human.

Technology and the Internet have evolved to assemble, organize and retain knowledge. But can’t (yet) synthesize new facts and theories. It has evolved to execute complex processes including many that once required skilled human craftsmen. The graphical user interface (GUI) combined with voice recognition allows humans to interact directly, as if with another human. A familiar example is Siri, the iPhone application that interprets human speech to look up information and execute requests. If you ask Siri, “Do you love me?” she responds, “I respect you.” It’s the programmer’s sense of humor, not the computer’s.  Even Siri is not intelligence, it’s just another human to machine interface.

Scientists are experimenting with machines that mimic neural networks and it looks like they will succeed. Indeed there is a branch of statistics, Artificial Neural Networks or ANNs, that is inspired by biological neural networks. This science is applied in creating the computer software that powers voice and image recognition systems. ANNs will be the fundamental building block for genuine artificial intelligence. When such networks can autonomously adapt themselves and self-replicate to extend and enhance their functions, then the dividing line between biological and mechanical intelligence will begin to blur. Just this week Amazon announced the availability of a product for software developers that makes AI tools for machine learning affordable.

If we now have excellent voice recognition systems, reliable image and fingerprint recognition, and computers that can fool people in conversation, is it so hard to imagine genuine artificial intelligence? Ex Machina Screen ShotA newly released film, Ex Machina, contemplates the consequences of simulating a flesh and blood woman named Ava. She, another recent film contemplates a computer operating system that so realistically simulates human behavior that its owner falls in love with it after naming it Samantha.

Human Obsolescence

We Are Changed by our Technology

I learned, albeit with great difficulty, to add, subtract, multiply and do long division in elementary school. In college I mastered the slide rule for speedy multiplication and division. Today those skills are regarded as nice but not so necessary. Kids use very sophisticated calculators

Middle School Calculator

that will not only add, subtract, multiply and divide, but also graph functions such as quadratic equations. Applications can be added to one’s smart phone that do these things and more. The ubiquitous spread sheet software “Excel” includes the most sophisticated business and scientific formulas, and templates are available for such common tasks as calculating mortgage amortizations. You no longer need to know how to do these things, you just need to know how to find the software that does it for you. Our machines are making us lazier if not actually dumber.

My daughter, when she was a teen, worked at a fast food restaurant twenty years ago. She quickly became the cashier for her shift because she knew how to count out the change. Today, the register calculates and prints the amount of change for cash transactions, but increasing numbers of customers just swipe their credit/debit cards. No employee needs to know how to make change. Some businesses must shut down if the computers aren’t working because there is no way to transact a sale without them.

Cursive writing is not taught in many elementary schools. In a business world of keyboards, email, phone texting, and voice recognition, who needs to write fast manually? Indeed, we are instructed to print when filling out paper forms.

Do kids still learn to tie shoes in the age of Velcro? Firemen, sailors, and boy scouts once learned basic knots. No more. Firefighters are taught only the figure eight knot today because it is almost impossible to tie wrong. The fact that the knots don’t come out easily doesn’t matter. Ropes are replaced after a single fire scene use to prevent failure due to concealed damage, and special fittings and tools make knot tying unnecessary. Like knitting, machines have made knots a hobby skill.

Dependence and Automation

Clearly many of the skills that are basic to self-sufficiency are vanishing. Few people today have the ability to service their own cars, sew clothes, or maintain their home appliances. One needs a specialized computer to diagnose problems, and “repairs” are  commonly replacement of a modular component unique to the product. Though our appliances are remarkably reliable, with service lives of ten years or more, we often opt to replace them when they brake. A single repair can cost 30% of the “new” item’s price. Competent technicians bill at labor rates of $100 an hour, and charge for travel time.

Automobiles are built by robots. Robotic ArmOne manufacturer actually used dancing robotic arms in their ads. Although such systems are the rule in large assembly line manufacturing, the age of automation in the small mid-scale industries is dawning. In a recent article from Ziff Davis (zdnet.com) Greg Nichols reports:

“Last month’s Automate 2015, which organizers bill as the largest showcase of automation technologies in North America, signaled a change in the wind for light manufacturing.

Alongside the beefier industrial robots, a handful of well-packaged, low-cost collaborative bots for small- and medium-sized businesses had industry-watchers abuzz. Much of the chatter has focused on the obvious: flexible automation technology is now available at a modest price point. That was bound to happen sooner or later, but the real significance, and the reason big shifts are in the offing for light manufacturing worldwide, is that the new devices are coming along at precisely the right moment in the economic recovery to make them primed for quick adoption.”

There are two obvious trends here: Machines are getting better and cheaper, and ordinary people are not only becoming dependent, but they are being replaced in the workplace. What hope of gainful employment does a kid have if he possesses only limited manual skills, no math, and a stunted ability learn because of poor skills at reading, writing, and analytical thinking?

Granted, personal services and creative careers are not easily automated. None of today’s robots can compete with a caring health aid, or social worker. People like fine dining and the luxury of personal service. Except for speed and convenience, we don’t like vending machines or even cafeterias. The Automat of the early 1900’s is a novelty today. It didn’t really automate food preparation, it just mechanized self-service.

Wages in service jobs have been stagnant for decades when adjusted for inflation. Most do not pay enough to support a family without some supplementary income from a spouse or a second job. It’s not likely that the service sector is going to expand to replace the vanishing manufacturing jobs. In the more skilled tiers of technicians and mechanics who support machines, the trend is toward fewer people, and more highly trained people. I have a friend who has made a good living as a diesel locomotive mechanic. Most of the maintenance and repair work on these mammoth machines is done at depots specially equipped for it. A “dead” locomotive can usually be towed to the depot where specialists work on it in a more factory-like setting. My friend is one of the few generalist mechanics who travels afield to the equipment. Unlike many of his peers, he understands locomotives, he works autonomously, improvises temporary repairs, and does whatever it takes to “get her rolling.” There aren’t many like him.

Another friend services commercial kitchen equipment. He’s well past retirement age and he laments that few of his younger protégés seem to have the “common sense” to figure out what’s not working and repair it. If the fault isn’t a visually obvious burnt or broken part he says they are stumped. Where do we learn such common sense?

My generation tinkered. Boys like me made soap box cars out of salvaged wheels from baby strollers. We took apart broken clocks to see what made them work. We built tree forts, and rafts hammering our thumbs more than once as we learned to use tools. We serviced the lawn mower, or a moped, and thus learned about engines. We had erector sets and built stuff. We became good with our hands and inventive with our minds.

Many of today’s kids spend most of each day in programmed activities mostly for school and sports. Idle time, such as there is, is spent on entertainments like video games, facebook, youtube, etc. None of these activities demand autonomous self-directed effort, nor do they require much innovation or creativity. They are formulistic or reactive.

In the workplace, jobs that require doing just what one is told pay less than those that require one to be a self-starter who figures out how to do the task at hand. Indeed the formulistic and routine jobs are exactly the jobs that presently are most easily automated. Meanwhile, if anybody can do the job with minimal training, there will be lots of job candidates. When supply exceeds demand, there is no incentive to raise wages above minimum.

Jobs that require one to recognize and prioritize what’s to be done pay better because they require original thinking and judgment. These jobs are less easy to automate. And jobs that require one to invent original solutions can’t yet be automated.

As automation marches on, where will the young people who can’t or won’t think creatively find work? We already have large numbers of poorly educated urban poor, and it looks like there will be fewer and fewer good paying jobs for the ordinary Joe with no special skills or knowledge. The picture of ever larger numbers of ignorant people with poor employment prospects, people who are discouraged, hopeless and angry, is chilling.

It takes about 16 school-years to achieve the necessary educational foundation for the good jobs of the future. It takes spiritual and personal maturity to imbue a person with the attitudes that make for success. If a kid blows off the opportunity for a public education and arrives at the age of 18 barely able to read, the path to personal success is steep indeed.

Automated Supervision

United Parcel Service (UPS) uses a network of computer systems to track the movement of each package from source to destination. The massive amount of data they have for every part of the logistics process allows them to establish norms for performance. Those little brown computer clipboards the drivers carry “know” just how long it should take to deliver every item. If a driver’s performance slips, he will find a supervisor with a clipboard riding in the cab with him to observe every move. He can lose his job if he can’t meet the norms. Obviously, as the poorer than average performers at the bottom of the bell curve are eliminated, the norms move relentlessly higher.

Amazon uses similar technology to evaluate warehouse workers. Fast food restaurants, automotive service shops, and countless other employers are able to measure individual performance against such norms. Even the medical profession has data to track the “productivity” of clinic doctors. It is not an artifact of some dystopian future, the work that is uniquely human is being expedited by dispassionate machines here and now.

Convergence

This essay has highlighted present-day technology that is converging toward machines that think. These machine will not only reason, but will employ brain-like networks to do non-linear processes that emulate the creative and innovative processes of humans. The day is at hand when people can’t discern when they are interacting directly with a machine and not another human.

I’m 75 and don’t expect to live to see the first computer that is truly indistinguishable in its thinking from a living person. But I’m confident that my grandchildren will witness the phenomenon. Those sentient computers will also be networked with others. Unlike their human progenitors, they will have few, if any, communication failures, personality clashes, emotions, and guileful deceptions. They will have access to huge amounts of information. They will process that data at speeds that will be even more awesome than today’s terabyte triumphs.

Humans may become the least reliable, and most non-essential part of the process. So if devices with artificial intelligence are smarter, faster, less error prone, incorruptible, tireless, immortal, and capable of emulating humans in all important intellectual ways, will they acquire souls? Will they become autonomous beings with values and purposes humans did not program? Will it be unethical to pull the plug?

A group of inventors, seeking to build a robot that could safely search the rubble of collapsed buildings for survivors have begun to study ways to make a bio-mechanical hybrid. Somebody hit upon the idea of equipping a large roach with a kind of backpack containing electronics that would control it as a human rider does a horse. They found it surprisingly easy and created a working prototype with materials available at the local hobby store. I couldn’t help comparing the remote controlled roach to a hapless UPS driver as I watched the Youtube video.

Creepy, isn’t it?

 

 

 

 

http://www.zdnet.com/article/inexpensive-table-top-robots-will-disrupt-light-manufacturing/?tag=nl.e539&s_cid=e539&ttag=e539&ftag=TRE17cfd61

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/04/08/driverless-cars-will-probably-make-a-lot-of-us-motion-sick/?wpisrc=nl_wnkpm&wpmm=1

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/04/23/this-terrifying-microsoft-ad-suggests-youre-not-working-hard-enough-in-the-bathroom/?wpisrc=nl_wnkpm&wpmm=1

Fear

For about 10 seconds our conversation was impossible. Two Navy jets on final approach to the US Naval Station just a couple of miles from where we are camped made a deafening roar that it was impossible to talk over. “The sound of freedom,” Mark declared after they passed.

That sentiment has provided me with a lot of food for thought over the last several days. It’s is emblematic of the widely held belief that our overwhelming military strength alone is capable of safeguarding our freedoms. Although I recognize our need for strength, I question the scale of our military and the focus. Russia and China together spend half what we do each year. I think a great deal more than military power is required to keep us free. In fact I’m coming to believe that the greatest enemies toward freedom lie within our own society. Continue reading Fear

Conspiracy Thinking

More than a half century ago, when I was a teen, I enjoyed reading science fiction. It was the 1950s and reports of flying saucer sightings regularly hit the news. Tabloids carried accounts of alien abductions. The movies and fiction writers exploited the public’s interest and produced all manner of fanciful entertainment that speculated about what it would be like if space aliens were among us.  There was a TV comedy staring a Martian.  Not surprisingly, there was a fringe of believers who speculated that aliens had secretly taken over the US Government. Continue reading Conspiracy Thinking