Sunday, October 25, 2015

Junk Science: No, Slime Mold Isn't Intelligent

I saw this on YouTube:

Anthony's Carboni's misleading comment here earns this video a coveted "Junk Science" badge from me. Why? Well, it's not for the science per se... it's due to his claim that the mold finds the shortest path between food sources, with "no wrong turns" in the maze. Now, that may simply be a poor choice of words, but in science education, words matter. As I explained in the comments,
"No wrong turns" is not how I would describe what I just saw in this video. The mold filled the maze and then retracted to leave a path with the smallest surface area once the goal had been found. In science it's important to be accurate in our observations before we start wondering if the behavior we observed is intelligent.

Here's WHY the choice of words matter. In response to this comment I was asked, "How do you know the mold filled the maze and then retracted?"

Ignoring the fact that I just said how I knew it in the paragraph above, I'll expound: I watched the video and paid attention to what I saw.

Freeze the video at :52 seconds. What do you see?

No wrong turns? BUSTED.

There are plenty of "wrong turns". The mold simply takes all paths at the same time. Now forward to 54 seconds. What do you see? 

The correct solution, by brute force approach.

A jump-cut to support Carboni's misleading statement "No wrong turns". In fact, the mold made no turns at all... it expanded outward to fill the available space, which happened to be maze-shaped. In computing, this is described as a brute-force approach. The mold's biology allows it to explore every path simultaneously, much like a program that spawns separate threads to explore every decision it must make. Brute force solutions are quick and accurate if you have the means to implement them, but they're pretty much the opposite of "intelligent".

But the question did make me look for another source to validate what my eyes told me here. Sure enough, more detailed descriptions reveal that this is exactly what happens. The mold expands outward, and as it retracts, it leaves behind slime. It "understands" absolutely nothing about its environment. It doesn't re-try used paths simply because slime mold won't grow on pre-existing slime. A bit more digging uncovered the original video, uncut and reasonably titled:

Note that in the actual experiment, the mold doesn't just expand to fill the space, it's deliberately placed by the researchers to fill the space before the experiment begins. This is a starting condition of the experiment. The original researchers do not interpret this as intelligence, and are very clear as to the mechanisms they think are being exercised. In Scientific American, however, Ferris Jabr accurately describes the behavior, but then proceeds to misinterpret it as intelligence. Fortunately, the headline writer almost got it right:
"How Brainless Slime Molds Redefine Intelligence"
Replace "Slime Molds" with "Reporters" and it's spot-on. In order to interpret this as intelligence, we have to redefine the word. It's not the mold that does that... it's the person reporting the findings. The further removed he is from the actual research, the more sensational the headline.

Again, we must be accurate in our observations before we start inferring intelligence. For instance, planets are not round because they "know" that a sphere is the most compact solid form. Nor does a meteor follow the most energy-efficient path to a planet's surface because it has the uncanny ability to compute such a path. They do these things because the laws of physics make them inevitable.

Likewise, if a body is amorphous (like a slime mold's) and needs to connect to as many food sources as possible, how could it not wind up tracing the shortest path between them? The mold isn't going to survive if it just spreads out and dries up. The nutrients must be disseminated throughout the organism, and in doing so efficiently, the organism is going to retract to the most economical shape. It cannot help but conform to the laws of physics and chemistry.

The fact that this solution is not intelligently arrived at doesn't mean we can't USE the phenomenon intelligently. But we don't have to imagine that it's something it's not while doing so.


The obvious and inevitable rebuttal to all of this is the assertion that we don't really know what "intelligence" is... so how can we say that what the mold is doing isn't intelligent?

That's actually pretty easy, particularly to anyone who's ever tried to program an artificial intelligence. Basically, I won't give a biological organism more slack than I'd give a machine when evaluating its intelligence.

When you look up "intelligence", you find a laundry list of attributes much more varied and broad than the few listed by Carboni, all joined with the conjunction "and". Intelligence is a lot of different abilities taken together. One of the reasons that a true artificial intelligence has not yet been created is that many of these things are extremely hard to implement without biology. And these same things are crucial to the development of intelligence. Biological organisms are bristling with sensory apparatus, even in a single-celled creature. Our computation and our chemistry are integrated in a way that is simply impossible to build into a computer. And it turns out that chemistry and physics naturally follow behaviors that are difficult to express mathematically. Because of this, when we see such behavior (as in the slime mold) we tend to jump the gun and conclude "intelligence!"

But while defining what intelligence is may be very difficult, that's not the problem at hand. It's not terribly difficult to point out something that's not intelligent. There are a vast array of machines and objects that do seemingly intelligent things without expending a thought. Nevertheless, we know that they're not intelligent, as the behavior they exhibit is produced "mechanically" (according to strict rules, be they physical, chemical, or software-modeled).

Some of these are obviously mechanical, such as the MONIAC computer, a water-powered analog computer that models the economy. Some are less obviously so, such as IBM's Watson computer that won Jeopardy! Siri, a chess program, or the ghosts in Pac-Man may appear to be intelligent: they're not. AIs that are designed to pass a Turing Test are deliberately structured to conceal their nature in order to 'game' the evaluation. That one may fool an examiner doesn't make it "intelligent" any more than a lifelike sculpture is an actual person.

Personally, I'd say the slime-mold's behavior is pretty obviously mechanical, as it behaves in exactly the fashion and using exactly the techniques that it would had it been artificially designed in a way that uses no decisions whatsoever to solve the problem. In other words, it's the solution that I would implement if I couldn't be bothered to design an AI. That's how I understood what it was doing at first glance.


Personally, I appreciate the artistry, but I'm too fond of the human body au naturale to ever consider modifying such a perfect work.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Myth of the Star Trek Economy

Seen shared on Facebook:

Source unknown. The quote, however, is from Captain Picard.
It was spoken to Ralph Offenhouse in the TNG episode,
 "The Neutral Zone"

My response is this: "Keep sayin' it until you believe it, Picard. And while we're waiting for that, explain how it is that Humanity is SO advanced that Voyager's crew gambled away their replicator rations (i.e. FOOD). Explain how it is that Quark managed to have a 'profitable' business on a Federation space station. Explain to the satisfaction of any intelligent, attentive listener exactly why it is they shouldn't laugh dismissively at the lie you just told."

Actually, that's the response I did make. And the retort was that Quark made profits because the writing on DS9 was bad; that "the Ferengi never made sense...why would they care about 'gold pressed latinum' if any replicator could make it by the tons out of toilet paper?"

Naturally, as explanations go, that one (the writing is bad) is completely unsatisfactory, as it is a meta-explanation that must resort to stepping out of the show's fictional setting. In other words, it's so bad that it can't be made within the scope of the show at all. How do you explain to someone "in universe" that he's "written badly"? An explanation must account for the things we see, which must take precedence over the things that are said. Where they differ, the person who's talking is mostly likely wrong.

Besides, the value of latinum as a currency was due to the fact that it could NOT be replicated, as confirmed by Memory Alpha.

Very little of what is said about Star Trek's post-scarcity economy jibes with what we actually see of the society in action. What we actually see is that when commodities grow abundant, the economy gravitates toward using as currency those things that remain scarce, such as the un-replicable "latinum" or artifically scarce rations. Far from outgrowing their "infancy", the people of that century go to extraordinary lengths to maintain it. Picard's statements would appear to be largely political propaganda.

While the Federation's citizens pay lip-service to the idea of there being "no money" by the 23rd century, and that phrases like "bought" and "sold" were simply "figures of speech", a closer inspection of their actions reveals that this simply isn't true. Some examples are collected at Memory Alpha so I don't need to reproduce them here. But notable is the fact that the list of exceptions to the Federation's "no money" economy is longer than the list supporting it.

Many of the missions of the Enterprise revolve around trade disputes and agreements. These would be unnecessary if everything could be had via a conversation with a replicator. Arguments that these "trades" are for the sake of maintaining relations fall flat: the moment the Federation revealed replicator technology, they would be exposed as manipulative liars, undermining the trust on which the relationship is founded. As it stands, no one really attempted to explain the transition from the Federation 'credit' of the original series to the supposed money-free society of the movies until the devaluation of the credit was featured in James Cawley's Star Trek: The New Voyages ("To Serve All My Days") as a problem that would have to be resolved.

I find the best solution to the conflicting statements is that replicator technology is an energy-hungry technology that is most practical on the small scale.  It provides only limited production capacity and requires extremely high energy availability. A space station or starship is a decidedly atypical closed environment which makes it unusually well-suited to the use of replicators (due to the absolute need for recycling and the surplus energy of matter/antimatter conversion. Our perception of the ubiquity of replicators is colored by the fact that all Star Trek series are based on and around space-based Starfleet locales. It's simply an example of a military technology that's not in widespread general use.

This explains why farming is still hugely important to Federation planets, as we've seen in episode after episode of the original series and its successors. It's why shipments of mutant triticale strains were vital to the survival of Sherman's Planet in "The Trouble With Tribbles" and "More Tribbles, More Troubles". It's why the first thing colonies would do is establish agriculture.

Outside of Starfleet and Federation government jobs, on the larger scale, trade is necessary. The agreements are as important as they are portrayed. And we know that people still engage in commerce, because we see them do it. But the lack of an accurate description of these facts points to the fact that it's not the Ferengi who are poorly written, but the Federation. But again, that's a meta-explanation. Staying inside the narrative allows us to infer quite a lot about the politics of the Federation... a politic that is merely hinted at, but which reveals the "post-scarcity economy" to be a political mantra. Picard is simply one of those loyal Party members who repeats it.

It would not be the first time that an ideological narrative failed to jibe with reality.  For instance, here in the United States we still proudly proclaim ourselves to be "The Land of the Free" though we are not the freest nation in terms of economy, or even in terms of Liberty. We imprison more of our citizens per capita than any nation on Earth. But we are "The Land of the Free".  Wink, wink.

I'm from a rather large "fused family". There are eight of us siblings and step-siblings. One of my sisters is what both of us would describe as a "tree-hugger". When I say it, I mean it as distinct from a conservationist. A conservationist takes personal responsibility for the environment. A "tree-hugger" would impose obligations on others that they don't necessarily follow themselves. A "tree-hugger" is in it out of emotion: he's just fine with cutting down a small forest to build a "natural" log cabin so as to be in touch with the environment; but would decry industrial foresting, even though it is plainly well-managed and renewable. Industrial farming is decried as bad, but Heaven forbid we should consider the environmental devastation if the Earth's seven billions all attempted to live off the land individually. I mention these things because they're examples of holding two diametrically opposed ideas in one's head at the same time... which is exactly what Starfleet officers do when describing their economy.

Another example: that same sister would not eat meat that had been raised on our farm. Now, keep in mind that we raised the animals specifically to eat them, to be more self-sustaining, and to be closer to the source of production. Nevertheless, it was morally abhorrent to her to eat an animal that she had "known" (even though she never actually worked the farm, and her "knowledge" was theoretical at best). But it was perfectly OK in her mind to serve meat that had been purchased from a butcher. It is impossible to get from her a clear answer as to why the industrial harvesting of trees is atrocious, but the industrial slaughter of animals is acceptable... until you use the words "industrial slaughter", at which point it's a tragedy until the next meal. She simply doesn't accept that there's a conflict, and will not consider the proposition. Two competing philosophies reside in her head, and they've never met one another.

In the future of Star Trek such doublethink is par for the course, just as it's par for the course for the Star Trek fans of today. A friend of mine once claimed that she loves the 'fact' that in Star Trek everyone's vegan. When I asked where she got that idea, she responded that Riker said so outright. Here's the quote:

Note that it's not what he actually said. People do eat meat, but it's artificially produced. (Actually, he said it was "inorganically materialized", but scientifically speaking, that's nonsense. Organic molecules are those complex molecules that contain carbon, whether they're in a living thing or not.) Remember, replicated matter is the real thing. They're the same molecules; they've just never been alive. But aside from that, note that it's completely acceptable to Riker to serve up live animals to those who require it.

And here's that same Commander Riker loading up on Klingon delicacies, including gagh (which properly should have been alive). Clearly, these folks will eat whatever's put in front of them; and preferentially, too, as a matter of practice. The scarcity of meat on a starship's table would seem to be less a matter of ideology than preference:

It takes quite a bit of selective attention to interpret any of this as 'veganism'. Under similar circumstances, a Vulcan would have stuck to vegetables. Nevertheless, people see what they want to see. My friend maintains that the humans of Star Trek are vegans, though it's plain to see that they will readily eat meat.

The record of meat on Federation tables extends before and after the Next Generation. Starships of Kirk's day had a galley, and he once ordered the cook to make sure their Thanksgiving meatloaf looked like turkey ("Charlie X"). Kirk would have enjoyed a chicken sandwich had it not been eaten by a tribble ("The Trouble with Tribbles"). Miles O'Brien stated that his mother used real meat when cooking ("Lonely Among Us"). Sisko's Creole Restaurant served up authentic seafood ("Homefront"). In point of fact, Riker's "no longer enslave" claim could easily be interpreted as preferring free range meat. Obviously, the circumstances of living aboard a starship would make this impractical. And even that doesn't stop the Bringloidi colony from bringing farm animals aboard as they were being relocated in the episode "Up the Long Ladder".

Whatever the truth of the Federation economy (and diet), one thing is clear: 'Hoo-mans' are rarely honest about themselves, even when speaking amongst themselves, whether in the 23rd century or the present. For a show that is renowned for hiding pithy social commentary about contemporary issues within its storylines, this unintentional running gag is perhaps the most damning social commentary of them all.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

This is a Crumple-Horned Snorkack

This is a Crumple-Horned Snorkack.

Isn't it lovely? Clearly, only God's hand could make such a beautiful creature. Surely no human being could conceive of such a thing.

OK, so maybe God had a little help from a human being armed with the GIMP and a picture of a Blackbuck antelope that he found on the Web.

I'm posting the Snorkack to introduce a trend I've noticed, which is fast becoming a peeve of mine. That is, obviously Photoshopped images -- many of which are exceedingly badly done -- which are posted as evidence of God's divine hand.

And let me be clear that I'm not peeved at the people who re-post these images. They're just passing on what they got from a source they trusted. I'm not necessarily peeved at the ones who made the images... after all, I just made a Snorkack. I am peeved at the ones who pass these off as glorious nature, because they're liars.

If you're doing this, you're not being clever. We know there are gullible people. We know there are people who know nothing of astronomy or meteorology, or biology. You don't get points for taking candy from a baby. You might have gotten points for helping to educate them, but you missed out.

Here are some recent examples that have made me cringe:

This one was labeled "This is a rare Albino Bald Eagle". Uhm.... no, it's not. But that's not so bad, all things considered, as at least it's not a Photoshopped image.

The striking, regular pattern of black feathers, as well as the color of the legs, beak, and eyes tip you off that this isn't an albino anything... not even leucistic. It's just mis-identified.

It's a white-bellied sea eagle, which is indigenous to Australia and the South Pacific. Its conservation status is "least concern".

And it's not particularly "rare", either. There are something between 10 thousand and 100 thousand of them in the wild.

But it is a beautiful animal.

Then there was this thing:

The image on the left was posted with the caption, "Very Rare Red Owl, only God's hand can create such amazing unique beauty."  Well, no. Again, this is a very human hand, armed with a copy of Photoshop and an image from the Web. This Furby wannabe is a carefully cropped and re-colored image of a Philippine Scops Owl. The original picture is on the right. It's by Brian Santos, and was found on the Owl Pages website. I'm hoping Mr. Santos doesn't mind my use of the image for the purpose of editorial comment and to restore credit where it's due. You'll notice that the doctored image was carefully cropped to remove the copyright notice.

The image bugs me, not only because Santos' copyright was removed, and not only because it was colored, but because someone thinks that this DayGlo® monstrosity is an improvement over the tasteful blonde natural coloration of the bird. And by saying "..only God's hand..." the hoaxer tells us everything about his opinion of himself. It shouldn't surprise you that I disagree vehemently.

Next up, an image labeled "View of Last Night's Blood Moon from Charleston, S.C." posted on September 29th, the day after the lunar eclipse:

I live in South Carolina. This isn't a view of that eclipse. It wasn't taken from Charleston. It wasn't taken on that night, or any other night. It's not only a Photoshopped image, but it's incredibly badly done, at that. Notice:
  • The Moon is upside down. This image was taken through a telescope, not a camera, and the horizon was put in later.
  • The color banding is horrendous. It's indicative of severe color manipulation. This is possibly a sunrise, tinted and darkened considerably.
  • The skies over Charleston, SC were completely obscured by clouds that night. You couldn't have taken a picture like this if even if the Moon were upside down. But even the skies were crystal clear, this is still an impossible picture because...
  • ...the Moon is in the wrong place. On September 27 in Charleston, SC the eclipse started around 8p.m., but the eclipse wasn't total until about 10pm, which is when it would be seen as a "blood moon". Well, at that time the Moon over Charleston was significantly higher in the sky. Based on the size of the disk, this image depicts a Moon that's maybe 2° over the horizon. The actual Moon was at around 39° at the time.
An image like this is just a Photoshopped image... until you put a time and date on it, and claim it's an event. Then it's a fraud. This image is a fraud.

Here's what the Super Blood Moon actually looked like from a cloudless venue that night.

This was taken by Max Grobecker in Wuppertal, Germany. Note the high angle over the building. (about 26° according to Stellarium) Note the orientation of the Moon's markings. Note the gradation of the color, as the Moon moved along the edge of the Earth's umbra. Note the natural coloration that wasn't filtered or manipulated.

Again, I'm not particularly bothered by the people oohing and aahing over doctored images. They don't know better. I am bothered by the liars and frauds who present them as real.

Rant complete.


Well, it was complete. Then I started repeatedly seeing this thing tossed around Facebook:

The accompanying text is typically, "A phenomenal photograph of our home cradled by clouds, from the Hubble telescope."

NO. IT'S NOT.  First of all, the Hubble doesn't point at the Earth, and even if it did, it only takes long exposures and the Earth would wind up streaky. Also the scale is very much off. As art it's nice, as a photo manipulation it's clever, but as "from Hubble" it's a fraud. A beautiful fraud, but still.

Here's what the Earth really looks like from space:

This was taken from the Deep Space Climate Observatory, from a million miles away. It's the first picture of the entire sunlit side of the planet. See how tightly the atmosphere hugs the Earth? And the clouds are well below its limits. It may not be as poetic an image, but it's real.

Rant re-completed. For now.

DayGlo is a registered trademark of the Day-Glo Color Corp... the world's largest manufacturer of horrendous, mind-battering fluorescent hues.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Libertarian Cookies

I have a recipe for the best damned sugar cookie ever.

It's an old recipe that dates clear back to the time of the Revolutionary War. But don't let that put you off... these cookies have been praised over the centuries by people who really know their cookies, including the famous French chef, Frederic.

Nevertheless, a friend approached me today to complain about the recipe.

Friend: Dave, those sugar cookies you recommended to me taste like dirt.

Me: What do you mean?

Friend: You told me that they'd be the best, lightest, sweetest cookies ever. But they're not sweet at all! They taste like dirt!

Me: Did you put in enough sugar?

Friend: Of course I did!

Me: How much?

Friend: None at all! Sugar is bad for you!

Me: How do you expect them to be sweet if you took away the sugar?

Friend: There you go again, misrepresenting things! Nobody took away the sugar!

Me: So where's the sugar?

Friend: Locked in the cabinet, of course! Sugar is bad for you!

Me: But the cookie itself is missing an essential ingredient, that being the sugar.

Friend: Sugar's not essential. Nobody needs that much sugar!

Me: So did you substitute something else? Stevia, maybe...? Or molasses?

Friend: I have zero tolerance for sugar.

Me: But surely you can't expect the cookie to turn out as promised if you refuse to follow the recipe.

Friend: I followed the recipe! It tastes like dirt!

Me: The recipe calls for the sugar to actually be in the cookie.

Friend: That recipe was written long before people knew how bad sugar was for you. Besides, they never anticipated modern refined sugar. The sugar of their time was a lot simpler and harder to come by. 

Me: So why didn't you at least substitute natural cane sugar?

Friend: You're not paying attention. Nobody needs sugar! Maybe professional bakers, but they're regulated and have the proper training to use the sugar properly.

Me: So you'd rather leave it out and have a disgusting dirt-cookie?

Friend: Nobody left anything out! It's right there in the locked cabinet!  Idiot
And your cookies are still terrible!

Me: How would you know? You've never tasted one.


For having read through that you get this nifty sugar cookie recipe:


  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla or any other flavoring
  • 2 cups flour (approx.)
  • cinnamon and/or nuts (optional)

Cream the butter and sugar. Beat the eggs and add to the milk. Sift flour and mix baking powder with 1 cup, then add the rest of the flour, and gradually add more if needed to make a dough stiff enough to handle. Place in refrigerator to harden. Roll on floured board 1/4 inch thick. Shape with cookie cutter. Sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon, and chopped nuts, if desired. Bake in a quick oven (375 - 400F) for 8 to 10 minutes.


When you've never tasted real freedom, it's easy to complain about the sham you've been fed in its place.  

Yes, of course it's a rant. It's applicable to all of the rights that we lock away in the cabinet because they're "dangerous". It's about Free Speech relegated to "zones" on campuses, or done away with whatsoever. It's about freedom of religion when that freedom is forbidden in public spaces. 

But now playing: The usual crying about the Second Amendment from the usual quarter. And it's accompanied by the usual hypocrisy.

The Pope is surrounded by Swiss Guard, who are armed to the teeth for his safety. On the whole, it works very well. Yet the Pope chides the manufacturers of the weapons purchased and used by the Church.

The President is surrounded by Secret Service, who are armed to the teeth for his safety. On the whole, it works very well. Yet, speaking for our government, the President would limit such protection to himself.

For twenty-five years our schools have been surrounded by signs advertising the complete lack of opposition to anyone who wishes to take a life... signs which are practically an invitation to any who would cause mayhem. On the whole, it doesn't work in the slightest.

The Pope and the President are surprised at this.

When the complete lack of security doesn't work to secure anything, the people who demanded that their children be left out as goats for the T-Rex call the police, who are armed to the teeth, but always arrive too late.

The people are surprised at this.

Having chosen to discard the Second Amendment, and having done everything in a way that ensures deaths that could have been avoided had the Second Amendment been observed, the people who caused the problem complain that the Second Amendment is at fault. They cry that "something must be done", but that "something" is never to empower law-abiding citizens to take immediate action against the immediate threat that they face. They continue the illogical narrative that places blame anywhere but with the guy pulling the trigger, and if only they could find this magical source of the problem, the lions will become vegan just as they falsely claim is the case in every country but ours. But they never find that source, and mass shootings still occur even where the guns are banned.

Why am I not surprised at this?

Photo credit: Drop Sugar Cookies by Vanessa Myers via Flickr.  (cc-by-sa)

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Pot-smoking Chimps and the Seductive Power of Power.

In my last post, SC may legalize pot, and this libertarian doesn't care, I pointed out that my libertarian position is not dependent on a desire for legalized drugs, but for increased liberty. I don't much care for recreational drugs, and I'm not in favor of laws to "legalize" them. I'd much prefer to get rid of the unnecessary laws that criminalize them. Adult citizens can and should be empowered to make such decisions for themselves.

Now, as sometimes happens, even when I take a conservative position ("I don't like drugs"), I fall on the foul side of people on the Right ("'Decriminalize'? What'choo talkin' 'bout, Willis?"). That has happened here.

It has now been suggested to me that I'd rethink my position if I had teenagers.

My response was, I think, measured. The fact is I have three sons, and no... that doesn't make me re-think my position. Nor should it.

You see, nothing really prevents teenagers from having ready access to drugs. I daresay that they can get them as readily (or moreso) than you can. The law has never stopped them, just as it never stopped my peers when I was in high school in the 70s. Nevertheless, not only did I not turn to drugs, but those of my peers who did smoke turned out OK.

No one was ever cured of alcoholism by Prohibition. That's just another drug, and the problem with drug abuse and addiction isn't something that's fixable through legislation. My kids don't do drugs not because of fear of the law, but because they have the confidence to make their own decisions. Part of my job as a parent was to inculcate in them exactly that confidence. It comes from knowing Right from Wrong and choosing Right.

My youngest two have recently turned 19. It may be that they'll take up some drugs someday, and it's quite beyond my ability to prevent at this point. But I doubt it, because education and attention alone seems to have worked quite well to get them past that suggestible stage. You may find that the greatest part of peer pressure is not knowing your own mind. In today's world of fatherless, rudderless households, this is exacerbated by having been trained by "the authorities" from an early age that others should do your thinking for you.

"Don't try this at home, kids!" Sound familiar? It means, "Do as I say, not as I do." When you use this sad cliche your underlying message is that you are specially privileged in a way that they are not. When you're talking to a minor, that's fine because you are privileged by age and experience. Not so when you're talking to adults. When they have attained the age of majority, your days of condescension should have come to a close. While you may still have experience they don't, they now are of an age where they can determine for themselves whether to follow your advice. They're adults, just like you.

The Law is a Tool

But, comes the answer, I prefer to have the law as a tool on my side.

That's great for you when the law is backing up decisions that you would make for yourself. But other people like having the law as a tool on their side to help them prevent bad behavior, too. That becomes a real problem for you when they're trying to prevent behavior that you find either desirable or totally innocuous and no one else's business. The law is not and has never been intended to be a tool that exists for the purpose of extending your will.

Even when you wield it, this "tool" erodes your liberty in ways that you cannot argue against, as you are admittedly in favor of such controls in principle. It's only when you're not holding the reigns that it becomes a problem. How, for instance, is it possible for you to argue against Sharia law when it is patiently explained to you that it is a "tool" to help prevent bad behavior and bring people closer to Allah? Are you going to claim the exercise of Liberty that you so frequently toss in the ashcan when applied to others? This sounds entirely hypocritical... like it's nothing more than a double-standard.

Which of course it is. And your argument is now doomed, your logic expended. All that's left to you is the exercise of power, which will destroy you as soon as it falls into the hands of the "other side". You can't even complain about that, because you did it. And that's exactly the refrain we hear in politics today: "But they did it, too!"  As if that's alright.


I no longer have this dilemma. I now have one inviolable rule, which is to extend to others those inalienable rights that are not only laid out in the Constitution, but which I reserve for myself. And if you can't live under that rule, then you can't participate in our government. As a citizen, I make you take an oath to that effect, whether you're a dogcatcher, soldier, congressman or President. Furthermore, I say that if this is an issue that is not delegated to the Federal or State government by their respective constitutions, then the decision-making is rightly reserved to you and me, just as the Constitution says. I explained this to my correspondent as follows:
"Now, as I don't do drugs, and you don't do drugs, and the two of us presumably teach our children the same thing, I doubt that there is any disagreement between us as to whether someone should do drugs.  
"However.. I have no moral dilemma when it comes to asserting my liberty, as I do believe in asserting that same privilege even to those who make decisions for themselves that I would not make in their shoes. Considering that this is the Constitutional approach, I personally consider it far more 'conservative' than any interventionist approach. I realize that this is not the current state of the language... I simply hold that it's the language at fault and not my position."
I don't intend for that to sound confrontational. I'm largely describing the point at which I personally came to the conclusion that it is this acceptance of inconsistency causes far more and greater problems than the Left or Right are trying to solve.

Both the Left and Right attempt to assert control over individuals who, if we truly believe the high-sounding words of the Declaration, are created equal to those who would 'govern' them. When I saw that this was equally true of my own position, then I had no alternative but to recognize my own hypocrisy and reject it. So now I'm politically Libertarian (because -- on paper -- our government can be described as nothing else), while continuing to advocate and make for myself conservative choices.

And that's OK, because no one has ever been brought to God by the imposition of another man's will; just as no one has ever been made generous by being taxed, or virtuous by being fined, or content by being confined. These are things that people come to of their own accord, given free will and positive examples.

I did receive a response:
"That's all fine. Personally, I don't want that crap around!"

In other words... all that talk of Liberty can take a back seat to the personal desire for control. And that pretty much sums up our entire political landscape in every conceivable direction, even when talking to those who believe they believe in small government. So I ask myself:
What is more dangerous to society and this country... a neighbor who smokes pot in his own place, or an intrusive government that wishes to control my actions?
Hmmm... let me think on this now....

The intrusive government. That's FAR more dangerous.

That's my final answer.

Photo credits:

  • American Flag by uhuru1701 via Flickr
  • Chimp Lookout by Brian Harries via Flicr
  • Composited by Dave Leigh. Creative Commons license. By-ShareAlike