Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Google is Not a Doctor

Yes, I recognize the irony that you probably found your way to this post by way of Google. Nevertheless, I'm not dispensing medical advice; merely logic.

I see more and more signs in doctors' offices that remind us that Google is not a doctor. Variations include "Do not confuse your Google search with my medical degree." While Google can be useful as a search tool, the doctors have a serious point, because most searchers not only do not limit themselves to reputable sources of information; they have no skill in determining what actually comprises a "reputable source".

Let's look at some examples to see how Google can fail you:

One case is the efficacy of vaccines. Although scientific studies have found no causal link between vaccines and autism, thousands of people avoid vaccines through fear-mongering induced by celebrity endorsements bolstered by flawed and debunked studies that have gained a sort of zombie life through constant repetition. And because of this, some diseases that had been eradicated in the United States have made a comeback due to the vaccine avoidance combined with the re-introduction of these diseases via immigration from less developed nations where the disease still exists. Had more people been properly vaccinated, the disease would not resurge. It doesn't help that humans aren't very good at assessing risk. Despite all evidence, fearmongering has lead many people to conclude that they'd rather face the risk of death than that of autism. And this is despite the "left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing" situation of others declaring that "autism is a difference, not a disability" Comparing risks, anti-vaxxers would prefer a known cause of death to an unproven cause of "difference". This is simply not rational.

Rather than listening to others within their limited "bubble", the anti-vaxxers should defer to medical opinion. But in Google searches, the anti-vaxxer will find plenty of confirmation for their bias. Disinformation is in the top responses because, generally speaking, on social platforms the people who seek out such topics are searching using terms that skew the results and return an inordinate amount of social media rather than professional opinions. On those social media platforms, through confirmation bias, they upvote the responses that makes them feel better about their own opinions.

Google will almost always tell us what we want to hear, because SOMEWHERE in the noise and babble of seven billion voices, you will find others who will tell you exactly what you want to hear. Whether it's about climate change, the reality of the Moon landing, or the roundness of the Earth, you will find loud and aggressively worded defenses of all sides of any topic. Some of them are objectively correct, some aren't; and much of the time you are not qualified to determine which is which.

--==//oOo\\==--

Here's a hypothetical example:

Suppose you're looking at a case study: a 32 year old Caucasian cis-gendered male, with no physical diseases or abnormalities. Nonetheless, this person declares that he is "a paraplegic trapped in a healthy body". He refuses to walk on his healthy legs, though they cause him no physical pain. He uses a wheelchair, and insists on living the lifestyle of a paraplegic. He has gone so far as to modify his automobile with hand controls. In every respect, he seems quite sincere. He then visits a surgeon to have his healthy limbs removed so that his outward appearance will validate his self-image. This is a strong hypothetical, as it's not hard to confirm that such persons do, in fact, exist.

It would be difficult to find a surgeon who would not conclude that the patient has a form of somatic dissociation or somatic delusion and refer him for psychological treatment.

Now, suppose you did a Google search on such a condition, which resulted in many results from reputable medical sources that confirm (in rather dense technical jargon) that this is likely a psychological condition. But due to the nature of search engine rankings and the actual phrasing of the search, the top responses come from social platforms (such as Quora.com) where all of the opinions are from the patients themselves, rather than from medical professionals. A typical top response might include the following:
"Doctors know there’s no such thing as genetic anatomy or any number of other made up terms like 'normal limb development'. A person’s Hox genes code for the development of the fetus, and account for variations of limb development.
"During fetal development these genes determine the production of retinoic acid and FGF hormones and those determine what happens next.
"The phenotype, the actual expression of the genetic code into a real body happens in the influence of those chemicals. The result depends on not only which chemicals are being produced but whether the receptors are properly formed. At the end you end up with a baby with fully formed or truncated limbs. The rest of the body of an infant doesn’t much care.
"Further when we artificially remove the limbs of a person we really are changing the way their entire body is interacting as if they had been born without limbs.
"Doctors know that when the two things, the phenotype and identity, don’t agree that they have a surgical candidate. What did you think the answer would be? That’s the answer for nearly every doctor, and the professional organizations like the AMA, APA and AAFP. It is what is taught in medical school. It is well supported by research and it is well documented by the presence of real life people like me."
However, "Saying it don't make it so."

Again, the disinformation is a top response because, generally speaking, on social platforms the people who seek out such topics are those that have the disorder, and through confirmation bias, upvote the response that makes them feel better about themselves. The response may look legit, because the responder has included enough jargon to sound scientific without being obscure. Of course, there are logical fallacies in the response, but these are easily missed by those who aren't looking for them. Other people may therefore take it at face value, concluding erroneously both that the person who is best qualified to opine on a condition is always the person who has it; and that the person responding is doing so truthfully, without bias.

Of course, the response is hogwash. Doctors know that normal limb development is not a "made up term" and that there are distinct differences between people who are born without limbs and those whose bodies are artificially altered. They know that someone with a somatic delusion is delusional. They treat the statements of the patient skeptically, as data rather than as knowledge, because they know that the response of the patient is likely to be biased in favor of "normality". Few people want to be "abnormal"... not even Napoleon Bonaparte in a roomful of Bonapartes. And many patients are simply incapable of accurate self-assessment.

Yet, while professional ethics should demand that the surgeon assess the patient scientifically and objectively, you will still find surgeons willing to amputate the patient's perfectly normal limbs. Rather than looking at the bulk of the literature, the Google searcher may cherry-pick these outliers as "proof" that the "medical establishment" sees this somatic dissociation as a normal condition best addressed by body modification. The patient will dismiss science and preferentially select opinions from others within their own "bubble".


--==//oOo\\==--

But you don't have to go to extreme case studies to recognize that laypersons are often simply wrong. They haven't studied (hence "laypersons") and repeat what they have heard or what they suppose as fact. And unlike in this blog, where I insist that everything is an expressed opinion that you should verify, they fail to label their statements as opinion. Hence, it's important that you learn the difference between reputable and non-reputable sources.

The effective practice of medicine is not done through public consensus, but through science. Google is NOT a doctor.


https://www.irishexaminer.com/viewpoints/columnists/terry-prone/no-medical-cure-yet-for-doctor-google-and-the-know-it-all-patient-424923.html


Monday, December 24, 2018

NEW GAME: Lyra

Let me tell you about Martian Cake: Through his telescope, a Martian sees an Earthman approaching in a rocket, and wants to make him feel at home. So he bakes a cake. Unfortunately, all he knows about cake is what he's seen through his telescope, so he substitutes local ingredients. It looks beautiful, but the Earthman is immediately poisoned upon eating it.

That's the design conceit of the game of Lyra. What might Chess look like if it were "re-created" by someone who's had glance at the game, but never learned the rules and doesn't even quite remember what the pieces look like, or even what size the board is? He knows that the pieces move differently from one another, and one piece is more important, but that's about it. As a result, this game is played on a 6x6 board and the movement of every piece has changed (other than the General, which moves as a King).

As might be expected, this isn't as good as "Earth cake" (Chess). However, I'm tweaking the rules as gameplay, and may introduce variants. At the end of the rules pdf I've noted a few that I'm playtesting. So far I particularly like "Pyrrhic Victory".

WHY?

Lyra game in progress
"Design conceit" aside, I wrote the game purely because I had built a very beautiful 6x6 physical board and pieces, and just wanted something different to play on it. I made the pieces visually unique because playing it with Chess pieces is mildly confusing (though it can be done).

It's named Lyra merely because I like the name.

STRATEGY

The game itself has some interesting features:
  • The Assassin piece takes on the movement of the last piece it captured in addition to its own. 
  • Soldiers do not move or capture like pawns. 
  • Officers (Lieutenants and Captains -- and Assassins who have captured either of them) can step over friendly pieces. 
  • The pieces are designed to have weak spots. Proper play should find and exploit them.

With a smaller board, the pieces engage much more quickly than in Chess, so there is no en-passant. Also, since officers can step over friendly pieces at any time, there is no castling, and nothing like a Knight. And since movement is generally limited to a maximum of two steps, you won't generally find a lot of back-field infiltration in this game. It's very much a field of battle with a definite front, and draws are common. Since the pieces are more similar in strength than in Chess, a game tends to be either cautious dancing or a bloodbath.

I would recommend that you take advantage of the leaping ability of your officers to get them onto the field quickly. You'll probably find your Lyran General much more active than a Chess King would be.


HOW TO PLAY

You can download the rules here: Lyra-rules.pdf

As for equipment, you can play it just fine on a chessboard. Just set the knights aside and ignore the outer ranks and files of the board. But if you'd like to make a set like mine for yourself, I'm not going to pretend this was difficult. I cut a 12 x 12" inch sheet of plywood, glued some 2" tiles (from Home Depot) onto it, and then grouted it as you would a floor. I affixed it to a 12 x 12" picture frame in place of the glass and backing. The pieces are made from bits of craft wood that I got from Hobby Lobby: balls, eggs, doll pin stands, and screw-hole caps.

Or, you could play against a computer using Zillions of Games. Here's the file containing the game: [Lyra.zip]. Keep in mind that you'll need a copy of Zillions of Games to run it. Registration is only about 25 bucks and for that you get, as the name implies, a potentially unlimited supply of boardgames, card games, and puzzles.

I just finished creating the ruleset for Zillions this morning (Christmas Eve!). It actually plays a decent game, and follows all the basic rules, including the wonky captures of the Assassin piece, and the fact that officers can jump over friendly pieces.

I'll add some variants later, but I wanted to get this out as a Christmas present to anyone who reads this.

A nice box completes the set!


--==//oOo\\==--

If you have Zillions of Games, you might try my other games for it:
  • Jedi Chess pits a powerful Sith Lord and his apprentice against the Jedi Order. The Apprentice moves like a Chess Queen; the Sith Lord combines the moves of the Chess Queen and the Knight.
Jedi Chess
  • A variant of Jedi Chess (found in the same file) called Rebel Chess pits the Emperor and his new apprentice, Darth Vader, against an army of familiar freedom fighters. Vader moves as a Queen. The Emperor's power is waning: here he combines the moves of the Chess King and Knight.
Rebel Chess variant
  • Qui-Vive challenges you to place five pieces in any of the following arrangements: V, +, X, /, \, ̶, or |. It's harder than it sounds, because the computer is doing the same thing, and it's very good at setting two different patterns at the same time. I would say Zillions plays this at expert level. Of course, you can choose to dumb it down.
Qui Vive


Monday, December 17, 2018

Pressure!

I saw the attached pic in a Facebook group, and of course someone cried "sexism!" Someone always cries "sexism" at the sight of the female form, though sweaty images of Conan never elicit the same criticism. Apparently, it's only the sight of women that these people hate. Sexist, indeed. If you think it's sexist that women are shaped differently than men, you should take it up with God... or your psychiatrist.

Of course, they have convinced themselves that the "sexism" is that the women are depicted as having female shapes rather than being hidden under bulky suits. But does that criticism have legs?

FUN FACT: to be effective, a pressure suit does not have to provide air to the skin. It has to provide pressure. The pressure provided by an elastic, form-fitting garment will do. Don't take my word for it; believe NASA. Here's a link to the Bioastronautics Data Book, second edition. 200 mm Hg is barely tolerable; but look at page 5: a properly fitted elastic suit can protect you down to 15 mm Hg.

So, trope though it may be, those tight form-fitting reflective suits of the fiction of yesteryear have a certain plausibility. And of course, we don't know what they're made of, and whether they're constructed of some memory material that's more responsive to pressure changes than mere elastic. This would be a minor advance that is far more believable than, say, the magic gravity deck plating of Star Trek and damned near every other sci-fi darling. Granted, you still have to provide temperature regulation and protection from radiation, but that could be done with a relatively svelte oversuit; you don't really need a huge bulky space suit to do the job. Inside the ship, where the oversuit isn't needed, it would be entirely plausible that the skintight pressure suit alone would be used as safety equipment.

Indeed, it would be somewhat easier to provide said pressure to the female form than the male in certain areas due to the nature of the ... er... "baggage" inherent in the male form. And yes, it may very well have that "thong" to keep it tight. And men's suits would of necessity be constructed a little differently, being bulkier around the nethers. If you'd like to argue that point, I'll happily discuss your own sexism. Even in the future, some men will have balls. Nevertheless, concerning these "space catsuits", where in my youth I might have said, "That's ridiculous," I now know better.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

The Mother of all Weird Dreams

HOLY FREAKIN' MOLEY! I took a nap and had a weird dream that was the mother of all weird dreams. I just now woke up, not because it was a nightmare, but literally so I could say "what the f...."

Way too many details to even write down, but I'm going to put down some of it before it's gone.

It involved my parents selling the farm and buying renovations for their suburban house. It wasn't just that they were alive in the dream. I was genuinely surprised to find them not dead, and they knew they had been, but didn't seem concerned about that. The renovations involved installing sunlamps in the ballroom (which we never had), and the sunlamps making everything grow. And when I say everything grew, I mean everything. The house became a mansion. Not gradually... it had always been a mansion, except that everyone remembered when it became always-been-a-mansion. And somehow we had a verb tense for that. Peanuts became worms, and inanimate objects like furniture became weird living parodies of themselves. Not cute ones, either. They bit and shit and pissed on the floor, and smelled horrible. My little sister (who doesn't even exist) started turning into a bison, and a friend-of-mine-who-I-don't-know turned into a turtle who offered the bison a ride on his back. We tried to get away, but the mountains were right next door, and it would take a week to get there on turtleback. The scope of the renovations had grown as well, and now workmen and painters were balancing on two-by-fours (stood on end), and my parents saw nothing weird at all. They simply insisted that when you do renovations you're bound to have a few setbacks.

This thing was wall-to-wall "Lewis Carroll meets The Sound of Thunder". What the hell did I eat?

--==ooOoo==--

That all sounds nice and linear when I read it back, and I'm happy to have the benefit of a moveable cursor instead of quill and ink. In experience, it was anything but linear. And some of it, I don't even have vocabulary to describe. The change to the house was quick, but everything else was gradual, and history kept changing with the physical changes. So in part it was history-changes-reality and in part it was the other way 'round. And you could tell which was which, and describe it, but I don't know whether upon waking I've lost the language of the dream, or whether I merely dreamed its existence and took for granted that the words were there.

Friday, August 31, 2018

100% Your Responsibility

Seen on Twitter:

Let's translated that into English:
"Don't tell us YOU'RE good, because we don't want YOU. We're attracted to the toxic guys. So be a good little pathetic loser and explain to the really hot, dangerous, attractive guy how to be non-toxically hot, since we ourselves haven't the slightest clue as to what that actually means. YOU'RE the nerd... YOU figure it out. Then go way, creep."
Seriously, that's how this comes across to the audience for which it's intended. We've seen it a million times before: women who make poor choices and then complain about their poor choices to the better choices they will never choose. This meme is a silly, puerile demand, and putting it in all caps does not make it so. Let's be clear: no one is compelled to be your Knight in Shining Armor, and your vocal pronouncement of such an onus is an embarrassment to the Feminism you claim to embrace.

We have many thousands of years of experience with a singular Human truth: the only person uniquely qualified to turn a man into a good man is a good woman. As uncomfortable as you may find it, there are differences between men and women. The vast majority of men and women are both cognizant of and comfortable with those differences. If you are not, the fault lies not with the differences themselves: it lies within you.

There are people who have trained themselves to believe that simply because our technology has changed, we have changed as well. Humans of millenia past have written on subjects that we ourselves find relevant and fresh today. They were by no means even the slightest bit less intelligent, emotional, logical, or insightful than we are now. In the meantime, our technology has progressed to the point where many of the divisions of labor that were created in prehistory are no longer applicable. It does not follow that our brains have changed apace. A bird, without instruction, is capable of weaving a nest. Very complicated behaviors are hard-wired into the complex meat-computer in their skulls. Do you think that you were spared that? Why? If you have any genuine respect for the science of Biology whatsoever, you must surely realize that the chance of your position being true is infinitesimally small.

The mere fact that a man is a man doesn't make him "toxic". Or, put another way, the fact that you're not a man doesn't make your selfish demands that the world bend to your will any less toxic.  Fair treatment is for everyone. But fair is fair. It is the sole responsibility of each of us to look at ourselves and our surroundings; to objectively assess what and where we are; and to know our own desires. In so doing, sometimes we find that what we want just isn't out there. But that doesn't mean that it's someone else's responsibility to fashion it for you. Just like the inventor who creates according to his or her need, you have the tools and responsibility to create what you need... or to make do. Is that fair...? Yes, because we're all in that boat. It's called being Human.

A Strange Game...

To repurpose a quote from WOPPER (War Games, 1983), Social Outrage is "A STRANGE GAME. THE ONLY WINNING MOVE IS NOT TO PLAY."

From HotAir.com:
Wil Wheaton Driven Off Social Media By ‘Very, Very Angry’ Social Justice Warriors

How about a nice game of Chess, Wil?

And in your downtime, you might consider whether all of the people you've attacked and/or supported the attack of were any more fairly treated than you feel yourself to be now.





Saturday, August 11, 2018

Scalzi's Logical Fallacy

I'm going to take just a bit of time to illustrate for you a particularly prevalent celebrity logical fallacy.

If you're old enough, you may remember commercials like this:



"I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV..."

This is called a false appeal to authority. It's when someone presents an opinion by someone else who is in turn presented as a "trusted source"... a source who by education, training, and/or experience can give accurate information. In the advertisement above, Peter Bergman is not a doctor. Whatever the benefits of the product are, he's no more qualified to expound on them than any other paid spokesman or consumer. The qualifications he assert ("I play [a doctor] on TV") are irrelevant.

In the Vicks 44 commercial, Peter Bergman did not make that false appeal: the ad writers did. They chose a spokesman that many people in the audience would have seen in a medical setting, acting like a competent doctor. Bergman is there to gain the trust and acceptance of the audience due to this familiarity. Fundamentally, a false appeal to authority is an emotional appeal, not a logical one.

More and more, we've seen celebrities set themselves up as "authorities" on various subjects upon which they are no more competent than any interested amateur. This is a bit distressing, as it's one thing to point to a false authority, and quite another to set yourself up as one. You should, at the very least, know your own limitations...

...which brings me to John Scalzi:



Now, what he says about healthcare and a space force may or may not be true. It's not the purpose of this essay to determine that. What I am addressing is the fact that Scalzi is no more qualified to say it than you are.  The only part of this statement upon which he's an authority is "I FEEL".

Scalzi is indeed a science fiction writer. He has indeed won a Hugo award. It is not my purpose here to criticize his writing skills. But those skills do not translate into real-world expertise in either healthcare or military matters. Nor does his non-fiction writing give a hint of any hidden qualifications in these matters. And if he'd stuck to his qualifications and simply said, "I feel that the United States needs quality health care for its people far more than it needs a 'Space Force'", I wouldn't be writing this post.

So how can a presumably intelligent human being make such a mistake? I can speculate about two reasons. One is subliminally disingenuous. He is trying to persuade, and if a reader is balancing on the fence, perhaps adopting a false air of authority will pull the reader to his side. The second is that he may actually believe himself to be an authority. Reality can be a dangerous thing for fiction writers. It's not their stock in trade. They make up the technologies they write about. They make up the aliens, the politics, the conflicts, the resolutions. They may write on behalf of characters who are flawed but the authors themselves control those flaws... and strengths. A fictional character achieves what the author wants him to achieve because the author wants him to achieve it. Even the physics of science fiction bend to the will of the author. Whenever a science fiction writer utilizes "technologies" such as faster-than-light travel, he or she displays a willingness to set aside reality for the purpose of telling a story.

That's a lot of control. It's a lot of power. It's certainly seductive to imagine that one has as much control and power over the real world. Unfortunately the real world is not as accommodating as a word processor.

Scalzi does correctly state that his actual qualifications are that he writes science fiction. We know that this indicates a willingness to set aside reality for the purpose of telling a story. We also know that a false appeal to authority is an emotional appeal. And we know that intelligent people know their limits. I'm giving Scalzi the benefit of the doubt when I assume that he chose to step outside those limits. Whether what he says here is correct or not, such "qualifications" cannot gain him non-skeptical agreement on logical grounds.



By the way, this isn't the only logical fallacy present in this tweet, but I leave it as an exercise to the reader to identify the others. You shouldn't need an expert, as logic is something that can be practiced by any competent human brain.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Supreme Court: Free Speech Means Free Speech

A year ago, Emily Jashinsky reported in The Washington Examiner:
It's a little puzzling that this was reported in the Opinion section rather than as a straight news, because it's mostly straight news, and the small bit of opinion at the end of the piece is easily edited.

In summary, the case "Matal v. Tam" concerns a dance band ("The Slants") whose application for trademark protection was denied under a Lanham Act provision prohibiting the registration of trademarks that may “disparage ... or bring ... into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” 15 U. S. C. §1052(a).

In a unanimous decision, the court upheld the First Amendment and declared the clause unconstitutional. The court unambiguously declared, "We now hold that this provision violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend."

Here's the court's actual decision [PDF]

Never mind speech that might offend. Unambiguously offensive speech is protected.

And that's how it should be. As has been mentioned before, popular speech needs no protection, and cannot be the reason for the existence of the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment. As stated by Justice Kennedy:
"A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society."
In their decision, the court holds that the trademarks people choose for their businesses is private speech, not government speech; and that it does not become government speech due to the issuance of a trademark. It is therefore protected, and the disparagement clause of the Lantham Act is therefore unconstitutional.

The court further opines, "We need not decide today whether respondent could bring suit under §43(a) if his application for federal registration had been lawfully denied under the disparagement clause." This is because the disparagement clause itself is unconstitutional and may not now be used as a reason for denying a trademark. In other words, the issue is moot.

--==//oOo\\==--

What the Examiner's story fails to mention is that the members of The Slants are Asian Americans who chose the name to "reclaim" it and strip it of its negativity. In my own opinion, denial of the trademark itself constitutes the government telling a group whether or not they should be offended by the labels they apply to themselves. I see this as being blatant patronizing. Can you imagine telling a Black rapper he can't use the "N" word because he should be offended by his own usage of it? Same thing. 

Thin-skinned opponents of Free Speech should count their blessings. Many countries, including Western societies such as those of the UK and Australia, have no such Constitutional guarantees of protection.

The defense against offensive speech are two-fold: 1. You don't have to sit and listen to it, and 2. You have the same right to voice your own dissenting opinion. Opponents of Free Speech would do well to heed the words of an English author on this subject (often attributed to Voltaire):
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
-- Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1906)
I myself spent seven years in military service voluntarily defending this and other unalienable rights for people with whom I disagree on a great many things, so it warms my heart to see the Supreme Court affirm something that has been well understood from the very inception of this country until it was forgotten by ignorant academics who, to their everlasting shame, should know better.

As I mention above, this was decided and reported a year ago. So why am I blogging about it now? Because many of the people who were ignorant a year ago are just as ignorant now. And if it was shameful then, it's a bloody disgrace now. It's time to speak up and let others do the same.

Friday, June 15, 2018

North Korea

It astonishes me that people who ostensibly want peace are so stubbornly, obstinately opposed to it when it looks like they'll get it from someone they don't like.

I've never been a fan of Trump. You only have to look in the archives of this blog where I called him "unelectable". Obviously I was wrong on that point. But let's give credit where credit is due.


This has Trump opponents squirming, although by every objective measure... EVERY objective measure... Trump has earned the nomination solidly. Do not forget that this same prize was presented in 2009 to a former U.S. President despite having had no achievements warranting the award, as nominations for the award had closed only 11 days after he had assumed his office.

Trump, on the other hand, has Korea.

Now, we can cringe at his methods. But it's important to remember that previous efforts and previous methods failed... every single time. Albert Einstein is apocryphally credited with the observation, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. It's not lunacy to recognize lunacy and to take a different approach.

Trump's approach is outlined in a video, produced for an audience of one (Kim Jong-un), and presented at the beginning of the Singapore negotiations:


The New York Times decided to lampoon the approach with this opinion piece: Trump Made Kim a Movie Trailer. We Made It Better. Oh, if that were only true. But it's not. This edit was made by people who clearly don't understand... well... much of anything, and who allow their emotions and tribal politics to stand in the way of actual results. This attitude is exactly why none of the previous approaches have worked, so forgive me if I'm unimpressed by the flawed criticisms of those who have repeatedly embraced failure.

To understand why this video (and approach) is likely to work, you first have to understand who Kim Jong Un is, and understand what the end-game is. What is the actual goal?

Though Trump's opponents would like to cast him as simply a despotic tyrant, this falls far short of the full picture. Kim Jong-un did not subjugate his people. That was done decades before his birth, by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung; and it was carried on by his father, Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-un was born into this dynasty in 1984, and was raised from birth to do the same. He has known nothing else. As the heir to a dynasty, Kim Jong-un does have the vanity which makes this sort of presentation effective.

North Korea development
compared to its neighbors
He is also someone who sees the vast difference in prosperity between his own country and that of South Korea and the rest of the world. He's not blind. And he actually wants that stuff. Again, the video targets those things that are important to him. He's the audience, not you. The fact that "you're not fooled" is a silly observation. It's not intended to fool you.

It's not intended to fool Kim Jong-un, either. And this is where it moves beyond mere propaganda.

The video tells the truth.

Although the options may not be as binary as depicted in the video, North Korea's present state isn't very far from the worst case as depicted. And South Korea's present state is very much like the best case as depicted. That's how effective sales pitches are done.. by showing the best possible outcome. By throwing away the nukes, opening the borders, and welcoming investment, North Korea can actually achieve exactly what the video promises. At the very outset of open relations and investment, labor costs in North Korea will be miniscule, and North Koreans can exploit that to raise themselves by their bootstraps, just as the South Koreans, Japanese, and many other Asian countries have already done. They will become prosperous and peaceful.

A taste of respect
Kim Jong-un wants Korea to be accepted into the family of nations. The way to do that is to do it. So we see the U.S. and North Korean flags side-by-side as a taste of the respect that Kim could have permanently should he change his ways.

This meeting in Singapore was intended to give Kim a realistic path to everything he wants in terms of material, culture, and respect. That path is peace.

And that's what we want, too. That's when we focus on our goals. If we were small and tribal, we'd insist on punishment being heaped on Kim Jong-un for the current state of affairs, and for the actions of his father and grandfather as well. But that will not get us to peace. So is it unfair to "let him get away with it" by casting a despotic ruler as "the hero of his people"? Well, think about it... if you're literally born into a position of ultimate power and you voluntarily decide to step back from that so that your people can benefit with jobs and money and comfort and prestige, then the label fits. And if you can persuade someone to do that, you deserve a Nobel Peace Prize.

Bad behavior hasn't gotten Kim anywhere. But good behavior must be rewarded, or you're just not going to get it. The commentators who opine that Trump is "giving away too much" fail to see the reality that Trump's not giving away anything that won't be returned. Opening North Korea to investment will yield profit. Not only will North Korea improve, but so will the investors. That's something that even Kim can see and our socialist-minded Left ironically can not.

If you look at that and still want to be small and tribal, so be it. But you're not proving your intelligence, and your derision is simply reflected back on you. You are easily ignored, as well you should be.

Nothing in life is guaranteed. This may not work. In part it depends on gaining the buy-in of small and tribal people. But it's far more likely to work than anything we've done so far.

Credit where due.

Bill Maher gets it. Watch this.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Consequences

Roseanne Barr tweeted a racist comment and her show on ABC was immediately canceled.

I'm fine with that. Since her show is on ABC, she's effectively an ambassador of the company, and they don't want to be associated with her any longer. That's their right.

Let's get this out of the way so we have context: the tweet in question was about Valerie Jarrett, a Black woman born in Iran who Barr compared to what you'd get if the "muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby".

As I was driving home from Charlotte today, a man named Anthony called in to WBT to remind us all what idiots sound like. He started with, "I gotta admit, when I read it, I chuckled a little and just moved on," and went downhill from there. The tweet, he said, might be offensive to some people, but he didn't find it to be offensive because he's "not in that demographic". He went on to decry the lack of "true free speech" because a person could be fired for speaking their mind. Only the "independently wealthy" can have "true free speech", according to Anthony, because only they don't have to worry about losing their livelihood. Anthony's not at all concerned with his seeming paucity of empathy or compassion. In his world, if you're not the butt of the joke, it's OK to laugh. But Anthony is extraordinarily concerned with "true free speech", and the fact that we are not immune from the ramifications of our actions.

Welcome to the real world that's always existed since Time began, Anthony. Free speech or not, you must face the consequences of your decisions.

Let me put it this way:

Just because you are not entitled to a pair of bulletproof shoes, that doesn't mean that you're not free to shoot yourself in the foot. Just be aware that when you do, you'll have a bullet in your foot.

And yes, there will be blood and pain and possible amputation, and you probably won't be able to work, and you might lose your house and car; all because you were stupid enough to shoot yourself in the foot without thinking about the pesky matters of cause and effect. And yes, someone who's rich enough just might be able to afford a pair of bulletproof shoes. But that's a rare individual, and you're almost certainly not that person.

Most of us who have studied the Constitution even a little are aware that the First Amendment doesn't absolve us of responsibility for what we say. We are aware that other people have rights, too; not just ourselves. And our rights are not limited to those that are enumerated in the Constitution.

Jerk
For instance, if while exercising of your freedom of speech, you show yourself to be a jerk, I might exercise my right not to associate with you. If I'm your employer and you loudly piss off my customers, I will fire you. Keeping you around is bad for business. You have the freedom to be a jerk. I have the freedom to fire jerks in my employ.

So if you freely choose to be a jerk, it is with the full knowledge that making that choice means that you are prepared to be treated as you yourself might treat any other jerk. That doesn't in any way negate the fact that it's truly your free choice.

The thing about true freedom is that it is dangerous.

It is not simply that you accept the consequences of your actions; it's that you are responsible for them.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Frogger and Lessons in Self Destruction

Back in the 1980s, when I lived in England, I would sometimes supplement my income and develop my programming skills by writing software for the TI-99/4a Home Computer. One of the programs that I wrote was a blatant rip-off of the arcade classic, Frogger. Parker Brothers later released an official version of the game, but in some ways mine was much better.

Not my version, but mine looked pretty close.
the center on mine was a grassy strip.
On the TI, Frogger was a very easy game to program. The TI-99/4a's capabilities included 32 moveable sprites, all with automatic motion and collision detection. And in Frogger, most of the objects on the screen aren't really animated... they just move. So there's not a whole lot for the programmer to do other than move the frog. That meant that after coding the basic rules, I had a lot of free memory.

So I decided to use it.

In my version of the game, instead of simply becoming an "X" or a skull and crossbones or boring instant dead frog upon a collision with a car, the frog's death was gloriously animated.

  • He flattened out. 
  • His eyes bulged a little. 
  • Blood oozed from his body in an expanding puddle, accompanied by a sound effect: "glug, glug, glug".

I worked for the better part of two days just getting that sound effect right.

Having completed the game, I had the neighbor's kids play test it for me. And after a long spate of testing, their scores were abysmal. So I watched them play.

They weren't even trying to win the game. Instead, they were deliberately sending their kamikaze frogs into the thickest traffic just to watch the poor creatures die. And then they'd do it again, and again. They'd end with a score of zero, and laugh uproariously. Seriously, I could have left all of the game mechanics out of it and just animated dying frogs, and they'd have loved it.

This wasn't what I intended.

The experience taught me a bit about game design. I should have made the winning condition even more entertaining. So with the few bytes I had remaining, I gave it a very nice animation if you succeeded in saving all of your frogs. Few players ever got that far, because killing the frogs was so damned easy and fun... and to learn about the winning condition you'd have to get past the deaths: something most players just didn't do. The result of saving the frogs was entertaining, too; but it wasn't easy.

If I had really wanted people to play the game as I intended, I would have had to change both the reward and the punishment. But I was pretty damned proud of that frog's death, and kept it in. Besides, I'd already gotten all the experience I'd needed from writing the program. A few people still bought it (I only sold a few of anything back then, really), and I imagine they happily whiled away the time killing frogs and gaining nothing.

This taught me a bit about human nature...

Why do people do self-destructive things? Because that's what people do when they believe that destruction is more entertaining than winning. And if winning is hard -- even if it's rewarding -- they go for easy entertainment, even if it means death. I've seen it happen many times over the years, and each time I think about my version of Frogger.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

In Defense of Books

As I write this, I am literally surrounded by books. Yesterday, a millennial (and one of my own children!) announced to me that he had probably read his last book. There are so many media forms proliferating, he told me, that he was making a conscious effort to focus on the new rather than those that were on their way out.

The thing is, though, that books are not on their way out. Sure, the codex might be superceded. But the codex is simply a form of delivery. A codex is what we think of as a physical book... multiple pages bound on one side, that can be flipped through. But before that, books were delivered on scrolls. Before that, they were impressed into clay, or carved into stone. Today, they're delivered electronically. And we still read the books that were previously delivered on scroll, or clay, or stone. The form of delivery is not what makes a book. So here are just a few thoughts on why books themselves are not, nor will they become, obsolete.

1. Books are slow and deliberate in their creation. They deliver the distilled, deliberate thoughts of their authors. No other medium can match this -- not film, not a blog post, not a podcast, not a lecture, and certainly not any of the phone-friendly byte-sized forums.

2. Books are personal. They're usually not written by committee, and when they are, it's a small collaboration. Through a book you can peer inside another human brain.

3. Books endure. When you're reading the "The Gallic Wars", it is Julius Caesar himself who is speaking to you. No one else. It matters not whether the words themselves are written on a parchment or vellum scroll, a codex, or an ebook. The book itself is a form of expression that transcends its medium.

4. Books use language to its fullest. Books use descriptive language without crutches. The visuals and emotions are those that they impart through language alone. Because of this, a great author MUST tap into the universalities of human emotion and experience in a way that no filmmaker can begin to match.

5. Books take time to read. They are to be savored, not devoured. We dwell in them. There's no set length. There's nothing that flies by to be missed. This is time employed by the reader to build the world that is given in blueprint form by the author, and the reader related because he is invested in that creation. In itself, reading a book is a skill far more advanced than the mere interpretation of the printed words. It is an active engagement of the mind and imagination of the reader. And yet, it's not a difficult skill.

6. When an author elicits emotion from the reader, it is a deliberate act. It's not the instinctive response of an animal to the purity of a tone or a particular facial expression. It is a difficult and subtle craft to -- through words alone -- coax the reader into a particular frame of mind and Make. Him. Feel. It is this deliberate impartation of emotion that raises the craft of an author to Art.

7. Books -- particularly classic books -- are honest. They depict what is, as understood by the author. They need not check boxes for political expediency. As such, books are intellectually dangerous. This is why books are the first expressions of speech to be banned by those demagogues and manipulators who are vulnerable to the truth. Those things that are MOST dangerous to tyrants are the very same things that are MOST necessary to maintain our liberty. This is why it is the freedom of the press, and not that of guns, that is avowed in the First Amendment.


Monday, May 14, 2018

About Consent

Seen on GlobalNews.ca:

Parents should ask babies for consent before diaper changes, expert says — here’s what she meant


What she meant is clear... but that she's fundamentally misguided is equally clear. This does NOT foster an environment of consent in any meaningful way, and it's destructive, to boot.

Consent is for peers. For instance, politically in the US we can have a "consent of the governed" (at least on paper) because we recognize that all citizens are peers. But what if your child says "No"...? He still needs his diaper changed, or a bath, or to eat properly, or to go to bed. At some point you will have to override the child's consent and put your foot down. And the lesson thereby given is that ultimately his consent is meaningless.

Context is necessary, and this means that things must be taught at the proper time, just as you wouldn't start math instruction with long division. You need the basics first. What are the relative values of numbers? What are addition and subtraction?

Requiring the child's consent undermines the authority of the parent and undermines the teaching of all other good things. It immediately puts authority in the hands of a child who has no idea how to exercise it. What a child needs is to respect authority and play well with others. Respect for authority is basic. It is required every time you deal with your boss, or a shop owner, or the police, or the TSA, or a judge. In the adult world, you spend far more time exercising respect for authority than you ever do fending off sexual advances, and you need to know how to respect authority.

Part of that is knowing the limits of authority. Sex is always outside of those limits.

With respect to sexuality, a child needs security. Consent must never be required between those who are not peers because a situation that would require consent must never, ever happen. If it does happen, then it is always the person in a position of authority or power that is at fault. It's why you aren't allowed to have sex with subordinates at work. It's why you can't have sex with someone you got drunk, or drugged, or tied up, or held at the point of a weapon. It's why you can't have sex with children. Not even if you want to. Not even if you're attracted. You're an adult, and you should know better.

When a child reaches puberty, before he or she becomes an adult, that must be part of "the talk". You cannot use your authority and power to sexual advantage. No yammering about "consent" is ever an excuse. And those who try to apply it thusly are suspicious as shit. This nonsense about the "consent" of children is how you identify sexual predators. "Consent" implies that there can be a "yes" answer. With regard to sex with minors, that's just wrong. It is inappropriate as an adult to ask for something that cannot be given. Because of your authority, it's easily taken as a demand, and that's abuse.

Change your child's diaper. And when the child is potty trained, that's time for Talk #1. "Never let anyone touch you there."  That's the talk about the limits of authority. It goes along with "Stranger danger" and a bunch of other age-appropriate talks.

Around puberty is the time to learn about being an authority. Talk #2: Self-control. "You may have grown some hair, and maybe a few other things, but no, you can't have sex. Not even if you want to. Not even if you're attracted. Yes, it sucks. Get used to it, you're going to have that feeling for a lifetime. Even when you're old enough, and even when you've found your soulmate, you're going to have that feeling from time to time about other people. So exercise restraint now, so you will be adept at exercising it when you're an adult and you are the one with the power."

When the child is approaching the age of consent, it is time for Talk #3, which includes, "You're about to be an adult. But the one you're dating has six months to go. Until then, keep it zipped. Controlling yourself is a sign of respect for both you and your partner. If you violate that, you can be arrested. You can go to jail. I have examples. And if that happens, I won't be on your side, because we've had this talk.

"And when you have children, don't ask if you can change their diapers. That's just stupid."

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Spirituality in Science

The chances are, if you're a human being, when you say the word spirituality you mean something completely different from what I mean when I say it... even after we've consulted a dictionary.

Though I consider myself to be religious, when I use words like spirit or soul or consciousness in a metaphysical sense (collectively, mind-body duality), I do so with full acknowledgement that I have no idea whatsoever what those words really mean. And the more I talk with people who think they know what these words mean, the more I'm convinced that they have no idea either. And yet they're all over the place.

When the words are used, they typically describe some incorporeal, non-physical beingness. We suppose that this beingness exists apart from the body, and is yet tied to the body. And though we have perfectly good meat-computers in our heads, it is this beingness that we imagine controls our actions and thoughts, through some undefined manipulation of these meat-computers (brains).

None of this explains what a soul is, or how it interacts with a brain, or why we suppose it to be indestructible. It doesn't explain why we imagine it to be something we can give away -- or that some devil can collect -- while continuing to go about our lives. And given the fact that our thoughts and memories can be affected by chemicals, or physical trauma, or surgery, or genetics or disease; it doesn't explain why we suppose it to live on after our deaths to face punishment or reward or recycling or merging with some grander consciousness, depending on your religion. It doesn't explain why the concept of mind-body duality is accepted without question by people who believe themselves to be atheists, yet write fiction involving body-swapping and possession and mind-reading at a distance and astral projection and transcendental evolution. I don't think even the Pope could adequately explain it without saying it's a matter of faith. And honestly, I think that's a pretty good answer.

It's generally agreed that this is not a scientific concept. That doesn't mean it can't be true; but it means that we've agreed (most of us, anyway) that there's no way of testing it scientifically. And for the following discussion, I'm going to put my scientist hat on.

Basically, if you took all of the verified scientific evidence of the existence of mind-body duality, wrote it all out on 20# paper stock, and put it on a scale, it would weigh nothing whatsoever. Empty scale. On the other hand, you could fill a library with the "factual" statements of conviction that have been written on the subject. (Don't get excited. The same thing's true of much of theoretical physics.)

Here's an example: Supernatural Magazine. I've linked you to an article on consciousness and parallel universes. Notice all of the declarative statements. Nary a doubt. Notice all the scientific jargon, like "vibrational rates", which mean absolutely nothing outside of this word salad. Notice phrases like "Science says," when Science does no such thing. Some scientists may say something to the effect, but you have to be very careful to understand the context of any theoretical discussion among scientists. That is, the scientists all know and understand the discussion to be theoretical. In other words, every word of every discussion is understood to be descriptive of models built from hypotheses and suppositions accepted for the purpose of discourse to then ask the question, "What if? If all of these things we're talking about were true, then what would we expect to see?" And then they go off to experiment and measure and observe and tell you whether they see those expected things. And if they don't, then they dream up something new. And though for the sake of their human egos and funding and pride, most theoreticians like us to assign a little more gravitas to their gravity; at it's core, that's what science is. The folks at Supernatural Magazine don't seem to understand that. Instead, they take these models as solid fact and present them as such. The end result is a meaningless, garbled mess. They confuse parallel universes with multiple dimensions and get basically everything wrong.

Sometimes scientists themselves get tied up in knots in a similar fashion over this subject as well as similar nebulous terms such as free will. I don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that we really have no idea what free will is, or how we would recognize it if we saw it. I think it's fair to say that as far as we know, the Universe is deterministic, even if it is unpredictable at the scales of the very small. (I think probability more accurately describes the state of our knowledge than the state of the event. Thought experiment: flip a coin and call it in the air. What is the chance that it lands heads-up? 50%? Now flip the same coin, catch it in the air and cover it. What is the chance now? Now flip it, catch it, cover it, and peek. Then ask someone else to tell you the odds. Do the two of you agree?) How is it possible to have free will in a deterministic universe? For that we need to know what free will is, and that's tied in with consciousness, and we don't even know what consciousness is. That's just being honest.

I think it's highly unlikely that we could ever actually solve problems like this about the physical universe. We cannot prove the self-consistency of a system from within the system itself (Gödel's incompleteness theorems). And sadly, we are intrinsically part of the Universe we're trying to explain, and we're using the brains that we're trying to explain. So I think that "we don't know" is a very rational response to our questions about the most fundamental nature of reality and of ourselves.



--==//oOo\\==--

That doesn't stop people from trying, of course. I recently came across a 2014 article in ScienceDirect by Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose entitled, "Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR’ theory". "Orch OR" stands for "orchestrated objective reduction". I'm not going into a detailed summary, as the article is exactly that, and you can read the article and commentary yourself. And as you do, note the inherent differences between this article and the previously-linked one from Supernatural Magazine. In ScienceDirect, phrases like "we may speculate" and "we believe" abound. In criticizing the article, I make no comment on the discussion of neurochemistry. I'll take their word for it as I don't study that. But I do have some issues with their logic.

Of course, Orch OR invokes quantum events as an outside causal agency for the action of free will. Hameroff and Penrose conclude that "consciousness plays an intrinsic role in the universe." The problem I have with it is that with all of the mental gymnastics employed in the article, there's no way that the premises or the arguments definitively support the conclusion.

Let's strip it down. At the start of the article they declare: "what consciousness actually is remains unknown". Well, that much is true. And in their conclusion they state, "Such OR events would have to be ‘orchestrated’ in an appropriate way (Orch OR), for genuine consciousness to arise." See the problem? They don't know what "genuine consciousness" is. They therefore have no basis for stating its required conditions.

Yes, they do lay out some conditions that they may believe are descriptive of consciousness. But these are self-admittedly subjective. That we feel as if we have free will does not mean that free will is a property of "genuine consciousness". Should we encounter a provably deterministic consciousness that reports that it feels as if it has free will, it would meet the conditions at least as well as we do. Typically, some form of randomization is usually invoked in discussions of free will, but it doesn't follow that a randomized system is non-deterministic; merely that the trigger for the action is unknown. And once triggered, the system itself is still deterministic. "Free will" of itself does not even imply randomization... quite the opposite. "Free will" implies deliberation and volition, not random action. And if a wave-function requires consciousness to collapse, and consciousness has free will, why can't Schrödinger simply will his cat to live?

Such difficulties are why I now like to avoid the term "free will" entirely, and instead focus on "self-determination". It doesn't matter whether I have free will or not. As your brain is equipped no differently, you have no inherent authority regarding my decisions. It works for me on every level, including the religious, the philosophical and the political.

To be fair, Penrose is quite explicit that when he's talking about non-computability, he doesn't mean randomness. But I'm not sure he makes his case. Randomness is pretty much how the transition from quantum to classical physics expresses itself in our present understanding. Penrose proposes that some new model of physics is required. Unfortunately, this would appear to require processes that take place below the threshold of possible experimentation.

But this does nothing to define or explain what is meant (if anything) by employed terms such as proto-consciousness. Really... what the hell is that? I intuitively think that OR -- objective reduction -- as a "real thing" must exist in some form, otherwise we have a very hard time explaining the reality of events, the effects of which we observe long after their occurrence in the far reaches of the Universe. I think it's pretty nonsensical to seriously posit whether things exist that we haven't experienced. But is it necessary to invoke consciousness to explain the reduction of those events? Is it not enough to allow that interactions count as observations? Is it not enough to allow that quantum events, although they may provide random input, thus influencing our computation, do not necessarily imply a consciousness separate from ourselves? Is it necessary to discard the notion that our brains are sufficiently complex to perceive themselves as "conscious" without first disproving it?

Now, all of that is said with my scientist hat on. When I take that hat off, there's something extremely familiar about the notion of some pervasive objective consciousness collapsing the wave-functions of the Universe, resulting in a deterministic world which we inhabit while exhibiting free will made possible by partaking of the essence of that proto-consciousness. It certainly seems to be a restatement of things I accept on faith, dressed up with a bit of math. It's called Religion. And yet, Penrose describes himself as an atheist. Maybe that's a wave-function he should concentrate on reducing.

--==//oOo\\==--

UPDATE: One other thing that I'd like to address is that the article mentions the following:
Measurable brain activity correlated with a conscious perception of a stimulus generally occurs several hundred milliseconds after that stimulus. Yet in activities ranging from rapid conversation to competitive athletics, we respond to a stimulus (seemingly consciously) before the above activity that would be correlated with that stimulus occurs in the brain. This is interpreted in conventional neuroscience and philosophy [1–3] to imply that in such cases we respond non-consciously, on auto-pilot, and subsequently have only an illusion of conscious response. The mainstream view is that consciousness is epiphenomenal illusion, occurring after-the-fact as a false impression of conscious control of behavior. Accordingly, we are merely ‘helpless spectators’
Hameroff and Penrose offer quantum processes in the brain as "loopholes" for such implementations. I wonder if that's even necessary, as I have doubts as to whether the mainstream view is even correct.

Here's an analogy from my own field of computer programming. Granted, programs are automata (even as we might be) so I'm going to anthropomorphize a bit and use a simple example, but it's for the purpose of illustration.

Let's take a program like Chess. There are basically three things going on here: You have a user interface (UI). That's what communicates with the outside world in some meaningful way, by taking input from the keyboard and mouse and drawing graphics. The UI may have other functions, such as being 'aware' of the rules of the game and checking the legality of the player's moves. It may remember previous positions. Then there's the chess engine, which has very limited UI, mainly intended to communicate with the UI. And then there's a library of set responses to known chess positions. Together, they comprise the chess program.

Now, you might think of the library as 'instinct' or 'reflex' or 'muscle memory'. It's not very interesting here, in that no 'thought' is involved in the responses. So long as it receives input that's 'in the book', it responds automatically.

Positions that are not 'in the book' are evaluated by the chess engine. Once that's done it distills all of that analysis into a single response (the move) and sends it back to the UI.

The library is much faster than the computations performed by the engine. And to improve performance, we need not wait for the library to report failure before working on the problem. The engine 'thinks' about the problem even as the library is being searched. But the library responds first, even though we know we 'consciously' set to work evaluating the position. And if the library responds negatively, then we've constructively used the time. In any event, it takes some finite amount of time to integrate the results and report them to the UI.

Keep in mind that the UI is fairly superficial. And if we look at what's going on in the internals of the machine, the program has generated a response and taken action to update its internal 'board' before the UI is 'aware' of the decision and can communicate it to the user. Other programs do similar things with procedural calls to back-end processes that perform actions before they can be reported. For instance, I've designed a system for mortgage insurance that submits applications to multiple decision engines and returns "first response" underwriting decisions.

If our understanding of the 'program' were limited to the superficial layers that communicate with us, then we might conclude that the program were acting 'unconsciously'.

I think the same is likely to be true of biological consciousness. It's not that any part of this happens 'unconsciously'. Rather, it's that consciousness is more complicated than is thought of in the mainstream view. I think it doesn't all happen at once, monolithically, and it's not a step-by-step linear process as it might be in a very simple program. Rather, I surmise that we frame a choice and set the various parts of our mind to work on it, integrating the results and reporting them. To say that something is 'unconscious' when it is part of the conscious process is to mis-label it. And this goes back to the earlier assertion that we don't really know what consciousness is... so we run the risk of excluding necessary functions from that definition and erroneously saying that it's not conscious at all...  we are merely ‘helpless spectators’ experiencing an 'illusion'. We look at functional design and conclude that it's a paradox. Such an interpretation is not necessarily warranted.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Can You Tango with a Frango?

Even when languages are very similar, we can be tripped up by unexpected minor differences.

For instance, shortly after I first moved to England, I was asked by a young lady, "Would you like to pop 'round my flat this Saturday and knock me up?" (I've met a few other people with similar experiences)

"What a lovely invitation!" I thought, until I realized that she meant I should strike her door repeatedly with my clenched fist. As I was married at the time, my disappointment was mixed with relief.

I experienced some similar scenarios this past week on a business trip to Brazil. I met with salespeople from all over South America, about half of which spoke Portuguese and the rest, Spanish. And on some occasions, I smoke a pipe. On this trip I used my pipe as an excuse to go outside as often as possible to take in the mountain vistas and examine the botanical diversity. When I did, I was often accompanied by some of the salesmen, mostly the Spanish-speaking ones. They'd generally tell me, "You remind me of my uncle," in smooth, measured voices borrowed from Antonio Banderas. And they'd point to my pipe and tell me it was my pipa (pronounced "peep-ah").

So late in the week, when I'd run out of my own tobacco, I went to find a tabacaria to buy more. After a few false starts, I found what I was looking for in Barra... a little hole-in-the-wall cigar shop. I walked in fairly confidently (it was my seventh day in Brazil) and asked, "Você vende tabaco para pipa?"

The vendor looked at me with a very puzzled expression and finally said, "Marijuana?" "No, no no!" I exclaimed, pulling the pipe from my pocket and showing it to her. "Ah! Cachimbo!" was her reply.

As it turns out, while "pipa" is Spanish for "pipe", in Portuguese it means "kite". I suppose she thought I wanted to get high. So I tried again: "Você vende tabaco para cachimbo?"

"Sim."



--==//oOo\\==--

Another word left me more puzzled than confused. It's the Portuguese word for "chicken".

In all other Latin-derived languages, the word for chicken is derived from the Latin "pullus". In Italian and Spanish, it's "pollo". In French, it's "poulet". Even in English we say "poultry" and "pullet" when we're not using the German-derived word.

In Portuguese, it's "frango" (rhymes with "tango").

I have no idea where this word comes from. Neither did any of my Brazilian guides. It just seems to have popped into the lexicon out of nowhere. Looking around the Web, I've seen suggestions that perhaps during the time of Portuguese colonization it was assimilated from some other language that has since gone extinct.

I suppose it's not important, but to me, not knowing the origin of this word is the intellectual equivalent of having a bit of sand in an inconvenient place. So if you have a good theory, please tell me in the comments.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Tale of Two Rios

I just spent a week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Although that seems straightforward, it does bear some exposition. Like "New York", "Rio" is both a city and a state. And like New York, the two things are in no way identical.

Here is one Rio... the one everyone knows about:

Here is the other...

I was there on business, and for the majority of the trip, I stuck with my group. But for two days I broke away and did my own thing.

One of the things that I wanted to do when I was there was to see the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. I took a pair of high-powered binoculars for the purpose. So when my friends went out drinking, I went to Macumba Beach, which was practically deserted compared to the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana:

My friend Mayank took this pic the night
before I went stargazing.
I was the last of my group to leave. On Saturday I was by myself in Rio for the entire day. So I hired an Uber. Now, Uber is something I've never used before this trip, and there are both very good and very bad things about it. Because everything is done on-line... setting your destination, making your payment, rating the driver... there is absolutely no need whatsoever to talk to the driver. That can be a great thing when there are language problems. None of us spoke any Portuguese of any consequence, and it meant we could get around. And when I was with the group, none of us spoke to the driver very much. But it also means that an Uber ride can be a very lonely experience if you're by yourself, and that's very, very bad.

But... Google Translate is quite possibly the greatest invention in the history of Mankind. What I found when I was by myself was that if you put Google Translate in the conversation mode, that Uber driver transformed from a driver to an animated tour guide. In every case -- and I took a lot of rides -- the driver laughed with delight at the first translation, and then became animated and talkative. The translation's not perfect, but you can tell when it "hears" things wrong, and we all laughed at the mistakes. The main thing I had to do was tell the driver not to talk to the phone, but to talk to me, and let the phone do the work. Each driver loved the experience so much he installed Google Translate on the spot.

On Saturday, I had one driver for almost the entire day, and several for the remainder. I was the first U.S. citizen that two of my drivers had ever met, and the first that any of them had talked to at length.

My first intention was to visit the statue of "Christ the Redeemer", but by the time we got there (the drive took nearly an hour) the queue for the tram was a two-hour wait. Although my driver (Fernando) was willing to park and wait for me, I wasn't going to make him wait for at least three hours while I went up there, snapped a few photos, and came back down. Besides, clouds covered the statue itself. So I told him I'd rather drive around with him and talk some more. Through Translate, Fernando told me that that it was an incredible sight, and he would feel bad if I didn't see it. I responded that there are thousands of amazing sights in this world that I would never see. Missing this one wouldn't hurt me... and besides, I would rather just spend the time with him, hearing what he had to tell me about Brazil.

As we drove around, we visited the "hot" spots, but also drove past the favelas. But what was more important to me was to see places that tourists don't see, so we drove through the country as well. And as we drove, we saw some of the economic disparities like those that you can see for yourself in the pictures above. A great many houses are built by the inhabitants themselves using cast-off construction material like re-used cinder blocks and sheet metal for roofs. And if you ask how anyone can live like that, the answer is that any house is better than no house.

The answer confirms something that I suspected before I went on this trip; and now I believe it firmly: there are a great many people in the United States who think they are poor only because they have never personally experienced poverty.

When you stop at almost any traffic light outside the city centers, Brazilian children will jump in front of cars to juggle or dance (poorly for the most part) or try to sell useless items. While it all seems very exotic and entertaining when you're with a group of tourists, it takes on a completely different flavor when you're alone with a Brazilian who's explaining that while such antics don't really work to earn money, they do it because they have no other means, and no hope for improvement.

My drivers were completely consistent in blaming these problems on corruption in their government. Fernando, in particular, responded to my query about the juxtaposition of poverty and wealth in a way that almost made my heart break. He said that yes, Brazil has much beauty and much ugliness. Only he wasn't talking about the favelas; he was talking about the people. So I told him, "Fernando, I have never seen or met an ugly Brazilian. You're all beautiful. I want you to put this in your heart: just because you have less than someone else, never believe you are worth less." He told me that he wanted to come to the United States where something like that could be true. "Os Estados Unidos são ótimos e bonitos."

People like those I met are not looking for aid: they're looking for opportunity. We in the US have so much that we take for granted. I'm not talking about things. I'm talking about the hope that Americans can rise to any station from any beginning. Because it is true that here you can be whatever you want if you're not hampered by your own disbelief. With very few exceptions, it's true that our poor are not destitute. It's true that we have individual dignity that can be relinquished, but never taken. Even as elitists smugly deride the thought, the common people of the world look to us. We are the hope of the world.