Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Christopher Hitchens

I miss Christopher Hitchens, I do. He was a pit bull who would give no quarter. He'd get an idea by the throat and shake it to death. He was fun to watch. He was erudite to a fault and wasted no time letting his opponents know precisely that. Barrel-chested with thinning hair often bunched up on top of his head like an afterthought, he could go through nearly a pack of cigarettes during a debate or lecture, “no smoking” signs be damned. It was that smoking that killed him.

During a debate he would lean back in his chair and turn his body away from his opposition as if even being in the same room with a believer was slightly discomforting. Rarely would he look them in the eye as his rapier wit and condescending tone delivered death by a thousand cuts. He was obsessed.

Sometimes, that obsession would blind him to the bigger picture. His concentrated antipathy to religion blocked him from seeing that often religion is the instrument of oppression, not the origin of it. He failed to see religion as a tool for the more prosaic cause of greed. He never once mentioned the herd instinct—more delicately referred to as “peer pressure”—which underlies the binding power of religion.

The power of the herd instinct, for that matter, is overlooked by all the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism. Each one of them makes the mistake of attacking religion from the point of logic, which is all well and good and terribly easy but of limited effectiveness. The value in the Four Horsemen is not that they spread enlightenment though the land—it's not enlightenment which wins the day—it's that they spread the impression of the popularity and hipness of atheism. It's not important to deliver stunning arguments and inevitable conclusions; it's important to give the impression that the opposition are anachronistic buffoons and hopelessly out-of-date. That they're intellectually bankrupt is a bonus and a not terribly convincing argument to the hoi-polloi, it's fashion that counts.

This was apparent when Hitchens debated the Oxford don, Alister McGrath. He (Hitchens) consistently characterized violence, such as suicide bombers, as religious conflict, when, in truth, it's territorial contests using religion as a motivator. The problem with religion is not that it's wrong; it's that it's a glue used to bind people to corrupt causes. Hitchens made reference to that but failed to see its centrality. The problem is not religion, it's the herd instinct. We needn't teach people about the dangers of religion; we need to teach the dangers of blind obedience. One can readily see why the state doesn't want to get into that business; it would just as soon teach blind obedience.

The great power of Christianity is not in its stories or explanation of the world around us; it's in its fanatical obsession with power structure, as evidenced in the first five Commandments. That, plus its promise of salvation after one's death, made it the ideal religion for governments and capitalism. Despite the myth of Christ and the money-changers, the operating sentiment here is “render unto Caesar what is Caesar's; render unto God what is God's”; “Caesar,” being interpreted to mean, “anyone above you in authority.” Constantine was no fool; there were scores of religions competing to replace Roman paganism when he selected Christianity (although, only half-heartedly, it must be admitted) to be the new state religion; not to mention that he moved the seat of power to Byzantium.

I wish Hitchens would have pressed this point more, the utility of religion, rather than narrowly focusing on its falsehood.

And I wish he'd understood better the nature of morality being a natural animal trait that evolved along with the rest of what we are, such as love, loyalty, wariness, fear, anger, etc. Those emotions are not restrained to us; they didn't first appear with the advent of modern humans. Hitchens badgered McGrath over what sort of morality did humans have before Moses brought the Commandments down from Mt. Sinai; and McGrath responded with the notion of “natural morality,” which he ascribed to pre-Christians, as well as those who don't know of Christianity (this during the debate, when McGrath argued for the necessity of god-given laws); but Hitchens failed to clinch the argument by pointing out that “natural morality” was the source of the Commandments, not god. He was so caught up in proving the evil nature of religion that he skipped over its organic nature, how it grew, not just as explanation for the world around us, but because of its cohesive properties in holding communities together. Hitchens failed to see that attacking the intellectual framework of religion was tilting at windmills; he needed to replace the very ground they stood on.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Manual Dexterity and Other Mexicans

From, 10/9/13

"Scientists claim that big toes and thumbs evolved in parallel"

“New research from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute indicates that, contrary to current belief, early hominids developed finger dexterity before they became bipedal. The long-standing theory that bipedalism “freed up” the proto-human hand for using tools has been overturned by brain imaging and fossil evidence that indicates that the quadruped brains possess the same potential for manual dexterity as human.”

“‘In early quadruped hominids, finger control and tool use were feasible, while an independent adaptation involving the use of the big toe for functions like balance and walking occurred with bipedality,’ the authors wrote.”


If you’ve read this blog with any regularity, you’re aware of my theory that humans descended from the trees to go hunting. The study mentioned above supports that contention. Mainly, it supports the observation that our ape and simian cousins also have finger dexterity; but it’s fairly obvious that one has to have said dexterity in order to wield weapons, which both us and chimps do. My ignorance was that I wasn’t aware that the field thought finger dexterity came after bipedalism; I’d never heard that. My question would be, having observed other primates, from where did that idea arise? It’s not self-evident.

Ah, the mysteries of science.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Not So Fast, Buddy

He began by complaining about the potential of an increased national minimum wage; said that it would cost a lot of jobs. When pointed out that experience has shown otherwise, it didn't faze him. He said that a high minimum wage prevented him from hiring a couple/three college kids over the summer. When I argued that raising the minimum only feeds inflation and that what we needed was, not an increase in the minimum, but a severe decrease of the maximum, he wasn't so sure that would work. “I'd just stop creating jobs,” he said.

It's a common mantra: if there wasn't the incentive of wealth, most people would sit around doing nothing; at least that's what they tell me. If they couldn't make a bunch of money, they wouldn't do it. Furthermore, they argue, that if it weren't for the incentive of money, most of the comforts of today wouldn't be here; people would stop creating. Our modern society is here thanks to capitalism. The alternative, they suggest, is Stalinist communism; which, they further suggest, is pretty much what's happening in Europe, and look at Greece. Quite how that all gets put together is somewhat mysterious.

It raising many interesting questions, not the least of which being, is it only a disparity in income which makes people creative? Isn't that what's being argued, that the opportunity to make a bunch of money is the spur to creativity? It's not just be able to lead the good life and being happy with everyone else leading the good life, too. “Leading the good life” implies someone is leading the bad life, or, at the very least, the average, everyday life. “Leading the good life” knows that there's not a Mercedes and a home in the Hamptons for everyone.

Just imagine for a moment if everyone had the same access to everything, the same trips to the Alps, the same enrollment in Harvard, the same sailboat. Would there be anything wrong with that? No room for all those sailboats and everyone at Harvard, huh? But if in a perfect world everyone had the same access to all resources, would that bother the rich who now have access to limited resources? Is it important for the rich to have something that everyone else doesn't have? Is it important to have higher status and privilege than others? I would guess so.

Then the question becomes, are all—or, at least, most—advances in modern civilizations—ours, say—created by people wanting to have higher than average status; and, if having higher than average status wasn't possible, would people stop being creative? A lot of people think so.

I think back to Ugak. You remember Ugak; he's the guy who around two-and-a-half million years ago, give or take a million, discovered that, not only did this particular kind of rock make a sharp edge when it broke, you could control how the rock broke; which started a whole industry of people whacking on rocks to make cutting edges. Wasn't that handy? But, you know? I don't remember Ugak getting anything special for that discovery other than the fine robe his wife made him. Thank God, she had good teeth.

And when Mugapup figured out how to make needles out of cactus spines, no one had a special dinner in her honor, that I recall. We really should have done something.

So, I'm wondering, when did it start that people had to get special status or they wouldn't share their discoveries? I know, I know, everyone wants the best cut of meat; but when did we decide that some people would only get leftovers and some people wouldn't get any meat at all? When we start that?

And remember when everyone simply lived in their own house, their own wigwam, their own yurt? When did it start that, once you got your house together, someone else owned it and you had to give them stuff all the time in order to live in your house? When did we think that was a good idea?

Not to mention, remember that rock pile from which we get all those groovy rocks that break so nicely? When did we say someone could “own” every rock that came out of that pile and we'd have to give them some of our stuff if we wanted one of those rocks? Was that such a good idea? How come they get to decide who gets a rock or not? Or how come they horde all the good rocks and give us the tailings? Who thought this was a good way to do things?

When did we decided we were no longer one big family and we'd better stick together? When did we decide that it was all right if some people were less family than others?

I will grant that rampant capitalism feeding an unbridled consumerism has shaped the world we live in. I'm not sure we're leading the best possible life we could be leading as a species, thanks to that consumerism/capitalism, but there is a lot of luxury out there. The fact that massive amounts of our resources have been given away for the creation of those luxury items to such an extent that much of our species lives in dire poverty doesn't seem to get accounted for when enumerating the benefits of capitalism. The fact that the next iteration of the iPhone is more important to us than ending slavery speaks volumes about our culture. Would it hurt us if those people who make continually altered products that we simply have to have, weren't inspired to keep on doing it? Do we think that science and advancement of the species has only happened under capitalism and would cease if capitalism ceased? Are we that naïve?

Poor us.

Yet, as the wife of my conversation partner chimed in, equitable resource distribution “will never happen.” The implication being, I suppose, that, if will never happen, why bother? Ah, yes, I think, and universal cessation of violence will never happen, either, so let's forget about that, too. And, yes, we may never end slavery, so we might as well buy a few. One, at least, would be handy.

Waiting For a Human

There is no crisis in education in America. American schools do precisely what they're designed to do and for the most part they do it well. After all, they've given us everything we have. You may not like everything it gives us, but it gives us what it's designed to give us: our country, our cities, our people. Who could ask for anything more?

Apparently lots of people. I just saw an entire documentary, Waiting For Superman (2010), that pressed that very point: we could do a lot better, they thought. The question is better for what?

The gist of the documentary was twofold: how to pull children out of poverty and how to supply America with scientists. They focused on a half-dozen or so inner city kids all trying to get out of their holes by trying to get into charter schools designed to do just that, extract kids from poverty. At the same time, they stressed how we are “falling behind” other countries in the production of scientists; they pointed out how poorly Americans do at math, which they considered a significant indicator. They pointed out how America isn't able to fill all of its scientific needs and has to import talent from abroad. The hope is to create schools that will pull children out of poverty by qualifying them as scientists in particular. Noble goals, if left unexamined.

This is somewhat in contrast to recently viewed Dan Rather report which showed convincingly that in most fields we're overstuffed with scientists who are unable to find jobs. They find themselves competing with hundreds of people for single positions and end up working at McDonald’s where the ticket out is a higher education. Tell that to the PhD. It turns out the scientific “needs” are concentrated in specific fields, such as petroleum engineering or computer development. Turns out we need lots of those, just not so many microbiologists.

Waiting For Superman never asked why we need those scientists other than competitively; we need more scientists (read: certain engineers) to sell toothbrushes to China (their example). We need those engineers for America to be competitive globally.

If we're to believe the movie, the theory is to extract gifted students out of inner city schools and find them good paying jobs in the marketplace. Sounds great.

But forget about the inner cities; they'll have to fend for themselves. Because right now the schools are doing an excellent job of preparing kids for life in the inner city. The documentary talked at length about inner city high schools being “dropout factories,” as if that were a bad thing. One principal told of how two-thirds of his students never graduated. He thought that was terrible. He never made the connection that two-thirds of the adults in his community didn't have jobs, that the school was educating students for the reality of their communities. To be sure, the schools aren't producing employees for Microsoft (Bill Gates is featured prominently in the film), but they're producing perfect candidates for life on the streets. The schools are teaching them that the larger society doesn't care about them. The school are teaching them that there's no point in learning, that there's no place to go. They do an excellent job of that.

The movie never saw the irony of how the parents of the kids they focused on were themselves un- or underemployed, how the schools are training their children to be just like them. And why not, that's the real world, that's the world those kids will inhabit: the world where no one cares, the underworld. Why should we expect the world inside their classroom to be different from the one outside their classroom?

And those jobs that are supposed to lift a select few from the cesspool and send them to the suburbs and nice lawns? Who needs all those engineers? Microsoft, yes! Because the communities sure don't. Your average neighborhood doesn't need a lot of software scribblers, God only knows there are enough of them in the world. Your average inner city dropout doesn't need a new app to tell him where to buy sneakers. Your average inner city dropout doesn't need a three-hundred dollar pair of sneakers.

We have enough toys. I realize toys sell well, but they only cover so much. As it is, we have enormous companies sucking up millions of engineers designing toys that gobble up almost all our resources; if it's not toys, it's weapons. We have very skewed priorities; but those priorities were on full display in Waiting For Superman: sell more toothbrushes.

Not one single person, not one single educator, not one single principal, not one single teacher, not one single politician, not one single professor, said, “We have to educate our students to transform their communities.” No one. Nobody suggested that the job of schools might be to educate people to take control of their lives, their neighborhoods, their communities. The entire movie was based on the premise of extracting people from their conditions, not changing the fundamental conditions which create the poverty in the first place. The only solution offered was how to make better employees for American companies, nobody gave one thought to the fate of the communities. And then they wonder why the schools don't produce so many engineers. Engineers for what? You don't need to be an engineer to sell dope or your body.

Schools reflect their communities. The dropout factories the movie highlighted weren’t randomly distributed throughout the country. Every single one was located in a high poverty district, they were the worst of the worst. Yet, the discussion with everyone revolved around improving the schools’ education packages and graduating higher rates of kids. For jobs that don’t exist. Or jobs in a few select fields dealing largely with consumer goods. But not in their neighborhoods, to be sure. There was a fantasy expressed that schools could become beacons of hope delivering kids from poverty, that they could be magic carpets that would whisk students away to new lives. Leaving, of course, the old war-torn neighborhoods behind to fester as they always had; never understanding that the pocket schools they focused on could never be anything but a band-aid for a lucky few, while the regular old dropout factories were going to continue as they always had, too. The schools will always reflect their communities; they have no choice. If you want the schools to be better, you have to improve the communities, the entire communities.

We could teach our children how to take control, we could. We don't want to. We could transform those neighborhoods. We don't want to. We want things just the way they are. We like it this way. Why, did you know that anyone in America can grow up to be President? It's true, look at Barack Obama. Anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make billions of dollars, look at Bill Gates. Okay, bad example, but others have risen from poverty to be captains of industry, surely there have been. That's what we train for, that's what we tell our children everyday: it's all about me. I can be king. We teach that over and over again; and many, if not most, of us believe it. We believe it so much that we take our failures personally, never realizing that only one person can be king at a time. “Oh, that's okay, just take some more antidepressants and go to work.”

Teaching people to take control of their lives? It's dangerous. People may decide they don't like rampant capitalism. People might decide they want to divide things up differently. People might decide that it's not good policy to allot resources by luck. You can just never tell what people will do given the wherewithal. Better to not give them the wherewithal.

It's not the teachers; it's not the facilities. Making them better won't address the fundamental problem: inequality. Not inequality in education, inequality in life. “Maybe you should just take some more antidepressants.”

The movie was very earnest. Bill Gates was very earnest. I'm sure he has every good intention of making better engineers and helping as many people get out of poverty as possible. I'm sure he'd like to see schools produce students closer to the Finnish model. I'm also pretty sure he doesn't realize that it's not the structure of Finnish schools which make them a success, it's the structure of Finnish society which designs the schools to be a success. The basic message of Finnish schools is, if you take control of your life, we'll provide the resources you'll need. After that, they let you decide. Contrary to our volumes of directives, their school policy is contained on a single sheet of paper. Taciturn bunch. Their system is based on trust; ours is based on “no child left behind.” Talk about different approaches.

In the end, watching the movie I was just sad. Sad, of course, for the people caught up in the grind of poverty and the lives of hopeless desperation; but sad, as well, that, despite the earnestness of the participants, they had no clue. Bill Gates has no idea he is being nothing but a shill for the digital world. He is looking for recruits; he’s not looking to transform neighborhoods. The Black Panthers were looking to transform neighborhoods; look what happened to them.

Sad because of all the wasted effort and resources. Sad because there’s no will to end it. Sad because the only mantra we hear is “jobs”; and every high school student in America—forget about the inner city kids—knows that jobs are no sure thing anymore. Jobs will only be a solution for some; the rest will have to be on the dole or go into a life of crime. Hey, that’s what they do now, right? If we’re to follow the recommendations of Waiting For Superman, everything is hunky-dory. All we need are a few more mathematicians.

But those neighborhoods? Don’t go into them at night or the dropouts will get you. Boo!

P.S. I’ve avoided talking about another aspect of the movie: it drubs the unions and they spend a lot of time arguing about tenure and performance-based pay, etc. Those are side issues unrelated to the task of running community schools. The problem here isn’t that the kids aren’t doing well enough on standardized tests, the problem is that what they’re learning is of marginal value to them. The debate about teachers is a red herring diverting attention from the real problem: the neighborhoods.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Old Guys

Today's news brings research reports that A) warfare helped propelled the creation of large, complex societies; and B) that the human population explosion began before the advent of farming. That got me thinking about Göbekli Tepe, that pre-agricultural temple complex in Turkey. It alone necessitates the organization of large groups of hunter-gatherers for its construction. The archeologist in charge of the project put it this way: "First, temples; then, cites."

The warfare theory proponents didn't address religious issues, but, obviously, religion played a big part in uniting early peoples. It suggests, perhaps, an early marriage between warfare and religion; one which continues to this day.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Drivin' That Train, High on Mary Jane

The states are in a tizzy these days trying to determine the proper amount of TCH one can have in one's system before one is considered impaired.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion is that no one is questioning the basic assumption: does THC impair one’s driving abilities? The levels allowed are being determined without any evidence that there is a causal relationship between unsafe driving and marijuana consumption.

Actuarial tables and state driving statistics indicate that marijuana smokers are safer than average drivers. This could be the result of one of two alternatives: either people who tend to be safer drivers are more likely to smoke marijuana than those people who tend not so safely; or smoking marijuana tends to make one a safer driver. The most relevant existing piece of data informing that question is that states that have adopted a medical marijuana program have seen an average reduction of traffic fatalities of 11%. The implication being that an increased percentage of marijuana smokers on the road creates safer conditions.

Why, then, are the states rushing to find acceptable TCH levels above which one is considered impaired? And how do they determine that level?

The “why” is more complicated; the “how” is easier: they don’t. There has been no causal relationship demonstrated between marijuana consumption and impaired driving. The assumption of impairment is based on a number of factors: people with a limited experience with cannabis tend to equate a cannabis high with alcoholic inebriation, which, conversely, most of them have experienced, and they have a hard time understanding the differences; a large anti-marijuana prejudice still exists which inclines people to believe the worst about the effects of marijuana without having actual data to back those beliefs up (the drug war under a new guise); and most commonly, people conflate laboratory results with actual driving conditions, making the assumption that lab results directly translate to driving performance.

In other words, the laws against driving while stoned are all based on unproved assumptions that are, most likely, wrong. The basic assumption is that decreased reaction time leads to unsafe drivers; and that is the basic, untested assumption. As mentioned, the only real-time test we have of that situation is in states which have legalized medical marijuana, and in those state fatalities, at least, have been reduced.

There is, though, a parallel situation with age. Laboratory tests—not to mention experience—conclusively demonstrate that one’s reaction times slow considerably as one ages; yet, paradoxically, people become safer drivers as they age. Experience helps, yes, especially the experience to compensate for diminishing skills, something marijuana smokers seem to understand inherently. Perhaps the experience comes quickly for them.

I suppose it was too much to hope for that the entire drug war should be over with in one fell swoop.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Equal Rights, Yeah!

The other day I was behind a bumper-sticker which read: Equal rights for all species.

My first thought was, had I run across a hitherto undetected sect of Jains, or was it some New Ager from Eugene?

My second thought was, really? E. coli? Mosquitoes? Malaria virus? Equal rights? Is that code for “no rights”? Or do the creatures have to be a certain size to qualify?

Did they think this one through?