Fish in Space

A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Flying On Autopilot

What I'm about to discuss here is not ground-breaking. Many people will already be aware of the topic but I feel it worth exploring.

Working in IT I have necessarily learned a little bit about automation. Learning to write computer scripts to automate common tasks has been a significant boon to my life in computer support like when someone is constantly losing their network mappings or there's a folder that constantly fills up with old, unused temp files but never gets cleaned up and ultimately slows down the operating system. Yes, I'm looking at you Microsoft. not exactly hands freeThe point being is that scripts are labor-saving devices, tools we can launch to automate a process that would take more time and energy to do by hand. What's interesting is how we do this in our daily lives in ways that have nothing to do with computers. Did you ever drive somewhere familiar to you but with the mental note that you need to make an extra stop, then miss it? You were driving on autopilot. Did you find yourself talking about something with someone only to discover that neither of you were talking about the same thing?

We all develop strategies for dealing with everyday life, like taking one route over another on our way to work or navigating potentially hazardous social settings. We come by these strategies through observation, imitation and experimentation. I'm a little teapotAt some point in our lives we were taught strategies on various topics and tried them out, learning for ourselves what works or doesn't work. We then took those strategies and created mental scripts for ourselves to use them without wasting much time thinking about it. Once a situation matches a pattern in our scripts we automatically launch into the behavior we think is most appropriate to the situation we think we're in. But we don't always get it right; we sometimes fall back on our behavioral scripts when we ought to be paying closer attention to what's going on. It's something everyone does to some degree.

Why am I talking about this? For a couple of reasons really. One is because most of us aren't aware that we're doing this or really think about what it implies. Another is because we can get lazy and avoid change because that would require more energy than we're willing to commit. We often call this "getting stuck in a rut." Sometimes we get frustrated because we recognize we're in a rut but we're not willing to spend the energy necessary to climb out of it.

One of the most egregious examples of this behavior involves religion. There are a number of reasons why so many religions focus on ritual and repetition and one of them exploits the human tendency toward scripted behavior. They LiveThe more you do it the less you think about it, and we find that comforting. It relaxes us and allows us to fly on autopilot. It becomes habit-forming and we get locked into following the script we're taught to follow. Religion encourages this, particularly on religious matters. Don't think about it, just do as you're expected. Which means when religion gets things wrong its followers don't notice or don't want to think about it. They can get angry when confronted with it.

I've spoken before about the need to shock believers out of their complacency but I never really explored what I mean by it before. This is it. This is the nature of religious complacency: the human tendency to develop scripts for ourselves so we don't have to spend much energy thinking about what we're doing. Faith, in the religious context, means you're not supposed to take yourself off autopilot when it comes to religious matters. Anything that deviates from the script is a bad thing and might be punished severely. This is how loving, compassionate parents can turn into monsters who beat their children or harass them, even kick them out of their homes when it turns out the child doesn't share their beliefs. This is how good people do bad things: because they're following the script that's been ingrained into their behavior since infancy.

Something's gotta stop the flowHow do you break the script? It depends on the person. Some people cling to their scripts, too insecure to ever deviate from them. Some people are just too complacent, uninterested in putting forth the effort necessary to examine or modify their scripts. Some people just aren't aware that they're following a script and, once it's pointed out to them, will make them willing to take a closer look. Some people are frustrated because they recognize they're stuck in a rut and are open to change. You never know until you talk to them and find out.

I've spent the last three decades examining my scripts and adjusting them to the best of my ability. I still make mistakes and I still fly on autopilot far too often than is good for me. But I know I'm prone to it and I'm willing to change. Sometimes I just need help figuring out how.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

What is America?

First, because so many of us seem to have forgotten it, a reminder of what America used to be.

For those who have forgotten or never knew, this is what's inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, the gift we put on display to represent what America is supposed to stand for. We were never a nation of nobility ruling over serfs. We were never a nation of priests passing judgment over the laity. This was never supposed to be a club where you had to pay to get in. It was supposed to be a land of refuge where no one could tell you which god to worship or which master to serve. Whether you were poor or rich, brown or white, godly or heathen this was supposed to be a place where you could come to find your own way and not have to conform to anyone else's demands about who you are.

Now we've entered an era where all of that has changed. Now we're afraid of newcomers, suspicious of strangers if their skin is brown or they pray to strange gods. If they eat the wrong foods or say the wrong prayers then we feel the need to dehumanize them, to describe them as rapists and murderers and thieves. We no longer want the tired and poor, the huddled masses of the world seeking respite on our shores. If you don't already have money to add to our coffers then we consider you a drain on our resources, a parasite seeking a free handout that you haven't earned. Nevermind that our own ancestors were unlikely to be rich when they first arrived. We've forgotten what it means to have empathy and compassion and in their place we're promoting distrust.

This last election cycle has torn up the country and left us bleeding. It brought forward all of our darkest impulses and we decided that they would somehow keep us safe. All we have to do is hurt others before they can hurt us and we'll be okay. We have to keep out strangers unless we like the color of their money and that will make everything okay.

Why not build a wall?

Why don't we ask the East Germans how well they think walls protect borders. Of course, their wall only covered 66 miles in total. Our wall would need to cover thousands of miles with constant surveillance. And according to the people in a position to know best it won't actually work. "Rather than depending on a wall, Mr. Kelly said the key to stopping drug smugglers was to attack the problem at its source." That means better enforcement, yes, but also charitable aid. Empathy and compassion, the very things we've repudiated, so that's not going to happen.

Don't you care about illegal immigration?

In as much as I care about the law, yes. But illegal immigrants aren't cartoon monsters with claws and fangs. They're not evil masterminds bent on destroying our way of life. They're not here to take away our jobs or replace our good, white stock with their dirty brown mongrels. They're people who are desperate enough to take a chance at living illegally in the US on the promise of better pay and a better standard of living. Most of them didn't even cross illegally, they just overstayed their visit. No wall will prevent that. But their very desperation is what brings them there and they know they're likely to find someone willing to exploit it. So do we punish people for their desperation or do we crack down on the ones who exploit it? For years I've been pointing that out but for some strange reason no one ever wants to punish the exploiters.

We've become the United States of Bigotry. Muslims aren't like us so we're laying the groundwork to ban them. Whites are quickly becoming a minority so we're cracking down on minorities. If you don't look like us, sound like us or smell like us then we don't want you to vote, speak or be seen. If you're willing to put up with a certain amount of abuse and stay quiet then we'll let you do ugly jobs for illegally low wages but we're working to make everyone desperate enough to work for those wages so that incentive won't be around for long. And we justify it because it's not happening to us, we're just trying to protect ourselves. We're trying to restore some lost glory that went away not because of trade, not because of illegal immigrants but because the world has changed and we won't listen to anyone willing to explain why we're not going to get it back the way it was.

We're in a lot of trouble, and it's going to get a lot worse. I can only hope that we remember who we truly were before we lose it all.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Revisiting the Existential Threat to Western Society

I've argued this before but the topic is still hot so I'm going to approach it from a different perspective.

Believe it or not, Muslims are not inherently bad or evil. It's one thing to challenge their claims and criticize their actions when they behave badly, but that's not what a lot of the criticism is doing. I don't like vilifying Muslims as a group for a number of reasons. One is because they're not a majority in my society the way Christians are, so it's not as easy to punch up. Were I living in Iran or Saudi Arabia that would be a different story, but that would carry its own set of problems worthy of criticism in their own right. Vilifying Muslims in a Christian-dominated society doesn't promote secularism or anti-theism so much as give shade to Christian agendas. Even if you're not intending to promote Christian supremacy, unintended consequences are still a thing. If we want a post-religious society then I strongly believe that secularism needs to be our goal, not anti-theism. When enforced correctly secularism can't be so easily subverted to promote a sectarian agenda. Anti-theists can get so caught up in focusing on a particular threat that we ignore all others.

Another reason I don't support vilifying Muslims or other minority groups is because in spite of our recent gains atheists are still a minority. If there's anything that Christians and Muslims agree on is that atheists are a threat to religion. If you think that Christian society is a valid defense against Islamic aggression what you're doing is empowering Christians to fight against ideological threats. That necessarily includes us. Speaking as an atheist, if you think that Christians won't use the power we give them to shut us down with the same zealotry they'll use against Muslims you're sorely mistaken. We are the original Other, the true existential threat to all religious agendas. We may not use violence to achieve our ends the way Christians and Muslims do, but we are no less dangerous to their goals.

Christian extremists have been looking for ways to roll back the clock on the Enlightenment, to overturn secularism and restore their religious power in Western society. We should not help them achieve their goals by undermining secularism in our zeal to oppose Muslim terrorism. It will not stop with Muslims.

So think again before you share a post from Breitbart, World Net Daily and other right-wing sources. Look to see what else they have to say about religion in general; are they just anti-Islamic in particular or do they promote secularism in general? If the latter then go ahead and share it and I'll support it when I see it. But if it's just the former then most likely they're promoting a Christian agenda and no matter how much you may hate Islam or Muslims, that's not going to help anyone who isn't a Christian. Like me.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Help We Can Do Without

I voted today, and I'm glad I did. I couldn't find the ballot they sent to me until my wife kindly informed me it was probably buried in the pile of mail I hadn't noticed. But I dropped it off the completed form this morning on my way to work and all is well with the world. I hope.

Something in particular caught my attention, though. Now that the election is finally almost over and we're just about done with the Wikileaks' dump of hacked emails attacking Hillary Clinton they've gone and made a curious claim that they weren't trying to harm anyone in particular, they just wanted to provide a service by informing the general public. Nobody's buying it, and no one should. Here's why:

  • They had this information back in March, long before the nomination was decided, before but carefully timed the releases in such a way to do maximum damage not to a specific candidate but to a specific party.
  • They did not visibly work toward exposing corruption in both major parties. They just shrugged and said because no one had tried hacking the RNC it wasn't their problem.
  • What they did release was overhyped but ultimately very weak tea. The most common comparison was with sausage: you don't want to watch it being made, but that doesn't make it bad. What we learned from those emails is that Hillary Clinton and her campaign staff are seasoned politicians, not that they'd actually done anything illegal or unethical.
  • Even though they also claimed they didn't have any information damaging to the RNC, Assange admitted to having information on Trump. He claims he didn't release it because what Trump was saying to the media was far worse than anything he could release. He hasn't given us the opportunity to decide that for ourselves.

So I call bullshit on any claims of objectivity or being nonpartisan. This was very clearly a hit job on a candidate and a party that they didn't want to win the election today. Between Wikileaks and James Comey it's clear that if any rigging is going on it isn't in favor of the Democratic Party.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Criteria For Public Ownership Of Industry

The public option for health care keeps coming back to haunt us and we have private health insurance to thank for it. Back in 2009 when the Affordable Care Act was passed without a public option it was assumed that the issue was dead for another generation, but naturally we underestimated the obstinence of Republican opposition to any government program that might stand a chance to help people. "Obamacare" works...but only where it's allowed to work. So here we are seven years later right back where we started.

Oh noes!Naturally, the right-wing media is freaking out. They're trotting out all the old favorites, accusations of "government overreach" and "socialism" and the like which prompts a discussion about capitalism and government ownership of industry. Sadly, the Soviet Union demonstrated that it is possible to have too much control, but we've seen over and over again here in the US what happens when you don't have enough. Clearly we need to strike a balance which means we're going to need to come up with some criteria on which industries ought to be public domain and which ones should be run by private interests. To get the ball rolling I came up with three:

1. Is it an obvious need?

This ought to be a no-brainer, but we're Americans and by the gods we'll defend the right to be stupid no matter the cost! But I digress. Charging people for things they can't do without creates a captive market, ripe for abuse. I have no problem with recouping costs, but such industries shouldn't be treated as profit ventures the way health care is today. We have an entire industry that bases its profit model off the suffering of our fellow human beings. How is this moral, especially when we have proven alternatives that work better? Elaborate disinformation campaigns insist that capitalism is the only way to be efficient and government-run health care creates "death panels" but when put under scrutiny we find it's the other way around.

2. Is there an obvious reason why the government shouldn't be allowed to participate?

It doesn't make sense for the federal government to take over production of bath toys. There's no compelling need for it unlike, for example, power and communications. While the government has a vested interest in regulating the production of bath toys to make sure they're safe for the public, toys aren't a necessary commodity so it can benefit from competition without too much concern about oligarchic collusion. If bath toy manufacturers get together and decide to artificially inflate prices to increase their profit margins, consumers can opt not to buy them without significant risk. The same cannot be said for critical pharmaceutical products.

3. Is research or delivery hampered by profit margins?

Pony ExpressTelecommunications haven't been making very big strides in the last decade. The core technology is decades old and at this point we're seeing diminishing returns. If anything, current business models are looking to eke the most money out of the least service, and delivery has been stymied in areas where there's simply no profit to be found to establish infrastructure. However, that doesn't mean the need isn't there. This is why we have public as well as private mail service, because private delivery companies don't like going out to remote locations. Clearly, there's room for both to co-exist.

I'm sure there's more but that's all I can think of off the top of my head. Can you think of more?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Cat and the Cave: Plato's Cave versus Schroedinger's Cat.

The Cave of...Link?

Plato's Cave is a famous philosophical construct wherein hypothetical prisoners are tied down facing one wall of a cave so they can't move their heads and look around. Behind them is a fire providing light for the cave, and between the fire and the prisoners are puppeteers moving back and forth holding various objects that cast shadows on the wall for the prisoners to observe. It's a hideously contrived scenario, but Plato used it to demonstrate the difficulty of expressing concepts through language when we don't have a concrete experience with those concepts. A prisoner might say "I see a book" based on a projection, but there's no book on the wall only shadow. It's only when they're released and can look around that they can see the real objects casting shadows. True understanding, Plato argues, isn't possible until then.

What I find curious is how many Christians love to inject Jesus into Plato's Cave. Plato wrote passionately about mistaking an image for the real thing, then Christians try to tie their invisible, intangible god as the fire lighting the wall. The mind boggles.

There are lots of ways to examine this religious hubris, but I found my thoughts moving in the direction of Schrödinger's cat. Like Plato's Cave it's a thought experiment, not meant to be taken literally. He made it to argue against the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum superposition, but like the Christian version of Plato's Cave I would like to borrow it to make a point.

You wanna do WHAT?Schrödinger supposed that if you took a solid metal box, a cat, poison, a geiger counter, a hammer and a tiny amount of radioactive material you could construct a situation where the geiger counter is set to possibly detect the radioactive material, but it's not reliable because there's so little radioactivity. If it does, the geiger goes off which releases the hammer to smash the vial of poison. The poison kills the cat, whose only crime was to be imprisoned in the stupid box by silly humans. Does the geiger counter go off and doom the cat, or does the geiger counter miss the radiation and let the cat live? Under the Copenhagen Interpretation, Schrödinger argued, the cat is both alive and dead until the box is opened and the quantum superposition is observed.

Where am I going with this? Both Plato's Cave and Schrödinger's Cat address knowledge. We can't know things until we observe them, we can only speculate. Speculation is not knowledge. The best guess in the world is still just a guess until the answer is revealed. It's important to remember not to declare victory until we actually achieve victory conditions.

Remember Jesus in Plato's Cave? Nothing to see here.The Christians who borrow this allegory are doing violence to Plato's philosophy. In their cave all shadows are imperfect reflections of their god, which is why everybody has a different idea of what they're looking at. Plato himself asked why the prisoners wouldn't discuss the images between themselves and work out agreement on what they were supposed to be looking at, which is something we've been doing about gods for thousands of years. Of course, we're no closer to an answer today than we were ten thousand years ago. Christians agree that we're all prisoners in the cave, but they're the ones who actually know what those shadows represent! How? Because they feel it. Because they fake it until they believe. Because the Bible says so. Because...they just know, okay? Because shut up, that's why!

I'm constantly confronted with claims of knowledge in my daily life. Living in the age of information makes it a challenge to parse all those claims to separate the ones that are true from the ones that are false. Until I do, each one remains in a quantum superposition of being both true and false until it can be unpacked and examined. The shadows on the wall don't represent knowledge, they represent what we think is knowledge until our assumptions can be tested against the real thing. Always remains skeptical of people who are confident of the truth without being able to demonstrate how they know it. In the end, if you know you're right but can't explain it you should reconsider the possibility that you're actually wrong.