People Should Stop Pontificating

My mother has a funny quote: “Opinions are like armpits. Everybody has two, and they usually stink.”

I can’t argue with that. Over the past few years I’ve lived in the DC area and become more involved in public policy debates, philosophical discussions, and politics, I’ve seen this ring true dozens and dozens of time over. Everybody has an opinion. And, with few exceptions, these opinions are generally awful.

I don’t mean they’re awful in that I disagree with them. I don’t mean they’re awful in that they come to the wrong conclusions. I mean that they’re awful because of shoddy reasoning, faulty premises, and often just kneejerk, instinctive responses rather than anything genuinely intelligent. You can be a smart person whom I respect even if we fundamentally disagree on certain points. But I won’t respect you if your logic is rubbish, you resort to fallacies, and you demand others do the research for you.

Why am I saying this? I guess it’s because I’ve been looking at myself in the mirror lately. I have a few posts in my drafts folder about a few high octane topics. One – which I will still likely publish soon - is over the whole “climate march” BS and the “Flood Wall Street” nonsense that went on last week. Let me be clear: I think climate change is happening. I don’t think it is anything to be worried about, and I most certainly do not want the government trying to “fix” it. But do I really have the grounds to be pontificating about climate change, on my personal blog? At most, I think what I can do is point out the absurdities and contradictions in the arguments and actions of the climate protestors, note the evidence we really have, and then just point out the potential consequences of undoing capitalism and trying to embrace some form of eco-socialism (which I personally think would be disastrous.)

But then that raises another question: even if we are not an expert in field X, does that preclude us from giving our opinions on field X? Must we refrain all the time?

I used to look at it as “Well, you can offer your opinion, but it will be weighted less than an expert in field X.” That seemed to make sense. But now, I’m starting to think that people outside a field might, in some circumstances, actually have a more valuable or intelligent viewpoint. But only in some cases. One case was when, for a group political blog, I wrote about an article where a college professor recommended that we get rid of the United States Air Force and roll it’s operations into the Army and Navy. I added on to that with some musing about whether or not we still needed the Marine Corps. Cue tons of angry commentators who said that I had obviously never been in the military and had no idea what I was talking about, but they had been in the Corps for years and knew exactly why the Corps was a necessity in this day and age. Yet, despite this, none of them presented a cogent argument for why it needed to be around. I look at the Corps, and what I see these days is a second Army, albeit one with more aviation assets and supposedly tied to the Navy. It looks redundant, and there is no reason that it’s “unique” features (namely, fast assault) can’t be rolled into the Army and redone there. (Wrong culture was one reason given; okay, then, change the Army culture.) Basically, their arguments were emotional appeals to tradition and patriotism, not logic.

I think that’s a problem when looking from the inside on any issue. You need people who are looking from the outside, who don’t necessarily have “expertise,” both to bring you back down to earth and to bring up things you may not have thought of. How many times have experts been so caught up in the weeds of their profession that they’ve missed the pasture, the river, and the neighboring forest? It happens all the time when I start programming, then I realize that nobody else knows how the heck I’m doing something, so I have to go back and make it easier for them to use. I also see it with scientists, who say “The data is saying X, ergo we must do Y” but they completely ignore A-W and probably Z, then get all pissy when people who aren’t scientists say “No, we shouldn’t.” “But you’re not scientists, you don’t understand!” Well, actually, we do, we just understand a broader context.

But overall, I’m not so confident that people should be voicing their opinions all the time. I’m not calling for restrictions on the First Amendment here; this has nothing to do with laws and regulation. I’m just talking about individual practices. Many look at Twitter and Facebook as “democratizing” the Internet, and think this is a good thing; what I see these days is that a lot of rather stupid, lowbrow people whose ill-thought opinions were restricted to themselves and a few others in their close social circles now have a platform to fling them out there into the world. Worse, a lot of these people have found others who are like them, and have banded together to promote this kind of content. Look at the calls for anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, and populism. Not necessarily good things. The lowest common denominator now drives our discourse. Rather than actually research the topic at hand, be humble about what you’re putting forward (i.e., open to being proven wrong), and then present an argument based on the evidence, it’s all kneejerk opinionating with very little to back it up but more and more decibels. I mean hell if you can’t even be bothered to look up the basic facts of the subject at hand, you shouldn’t really be talking, just as a courtesy to everyone else.

Was there really a point to this blog post? I don’t know. It is awfully rambling. I guess what I’m trying to say is:

  • I don’t publish things immediately because I like to stop, think about them, and come back to them later…which other people usually do not;
  • There are an awful lot of people out there who really have no idea what on Earth they are talking about but pontificate as if they are serious philosophers;
  • Social media has turned me from a somewhat egalitarian “voice of the people” dude into an almost aristocratic conservative who thinks the peasants should really shut up now because they have no idea what they’re doing;
  • I am not above being one of the idiotic peasants.

So, basically, can everyone just shut the hell up for a little while? You’re all idiots. Myself included.

I’m With Elon: Let’s Colonize Mars

So Elon Musk wants to screw Earth and colonize Mars. Excellent, I completely agree. Let’s get started.

The interview Musk gave to Ross Anderson of Aeon Magazine is fantastic. It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a forceful advocacy for space colonization, which is refreshing. It seems like the cause of space has languished over the past couple of decades while people want to focus on more down to Earth matters. I think they’re forgetting that many of our down to Earth matters could probably be solved by going outward and exploring new frontiers – and settling them!

My reasons are different than Musk’s, are, though. Musk seems to be afraid that, since we haven’t discovered any interstellar aliens in our searches of the night sky, something bad must have happened to all of them:

Musk has a more sinister theory [to the Fermi Paradox, basically --Jeremy]. ‘The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’ he told me. ‘Like when you’re playing an adventure game, and you can see the stars in the background, but you can’t ever get there. If it’s not a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilisation that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mould in a petri dish.’ Musk flipped through a few more possibilities, each packing a deeper existential chill than the last, until finally he came around to the import of it all. ‘If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,’ he said. ‘And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilisations.’

Personally, I’m more in favor of the Great Filter being life itself. Wait But Why has a great blog post on the Fermi Paradox and all of its implications, and count me as a guy who thinks that life is much harder to happen than Ross Anderson seems to think (going off what he writes in Aeon; it might be he’s just summarizing what others think and that’s not his own opinion.) I don’t look at this as a bad thing; instead, we now have the entire cosmos open to ourselves. We are the Ancients, the Precursors, the Progenitors of life in a barren and empty universe.

But not if we screw it up before we get out there.

I’m not talking about the existential fears that most people talk about. I’m not worried about nuclear war or plague or global warming killing us. To be sure, we have some problems for this century: we need to stamp out religious and ideological extremism that leads to violence; find new and renewable sources of energy to keep powering our civilization; and maybe not build artificial superintelligences in our basements. But I think these (well, to one extent or another) are all manageable. The problem I fear is one of philosophy, political science, and sociology. We need space colonization to overcome the dimming of the (classical) liberal vision.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long, long time. Well, over a year, to be more exact, but it’s been fluttering in my head for longer. The problem is that I’m finding it very hard to put it into words why we must colonize Mars – and the rest of space – to preserve classical liberalism and by extension civilization, freedom, and all those good things.

I look at the growth of government over the past century and I see it as expansion turning inwards. There is less for us to go out and explore, now. We no longer have a frontier, a Wild West where the government’s arm is distant and individuals rely on themselves. It seems very romantic, because it is very romantic – and of course, there were problems. Colonization uprooted and destroyed indigenous cultures all over the world, caused pain and suffering by bringing diseases, bloodshed, and slavery. The Wild West was not as dangerous as the Western movie genre made it out to be, but there was racism, crime, and an eye for an eye mentality in some parts. My point, being, though, was that as there was a frontier, there was an argument for freedom. Government could not expand inwards on people because there was somewhere to expand outwards.

But then the 20th century came. By now, there was nowhere left to expand to. The only uncolonized parts of our world are the Artic, the Antartic, and the bottom of the oceans – the first two being extremely inhospitable and undesirable, the latter uninhabitable until somebody decides to invent SeaQuest in the real world. (Get on that, Musk.) Now, the expanding mass of government ran up against a solid wall, and as it hit this wall it folded back in on itself and expanded back towards its center. Now it was expanding on top of itself, layering itself upon itself, burying beneath itself the seeds of liberalism and freedom. Where else could it go now but onto its own people?

We lost the frontier. On top of that, we continued to multiply. I hate thinking in this manner, but the law of supply and demand comes back to haunt me. We have all these people now, and we keeping having more, and I wonder, as supply goes up, does demand go down? It used to be you could know everyone in your community. Now, do we just look at others as statistics? Not even fully autonomous human beings? Do we think everyone around us is a p-zombie? It seems very crass on one hand – how can we apply supply and demand to people – and yet very conservative on the other – here I am talking about community and how the modern era has increased the distance between us and yadda yadda yadda. Not being that sort of conservative – or really, any conservative at all – it’s hard for me to put this into words.

Unfortunately, I don’t have to. From China, we have a couple of videos and stories of how low human life is valued:

Then there was the toddler who was run over by two vehicles and ignored by scores of passersby before finally receiving help. Again, this is from China.

These are just the two things that come to the top of my mind. I don’t know if it’s because there are a lot of people in China, if there’s something deeper in Chinese culture, or if these are really bad examples. But that is what I think of when I see rising population. Is this something we can overcome? Is it bound to happen?

Then there is the issue of running out of work for people. I know many scoff at the idea, but there is some concern of “technological unemployment”. My friend Travis Thornton has blogged about this subject before. Now personally I am all in favor of a post-scarcity economy, and I think it’s absolutely delightful that we’re heading towards one…but are we going to need a new thing to give us meaning? Why can’t that thing be a settled, terraformed Mars?

The moon terraformed, covered in blue seas, green forests, and whispy white clouds.

I have to admit, a terraformed Luna would look cool.
TerraformedMoonFromEarth“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I realize these thoughts are not entirely coherent or cogent. Like I said, I’m having difficulty putting what I’m thinking and feeling into words. That’s why I’m doing this blog post, to solicit feedback and comments and see if I’m on the right track. But essentially, what I see is that, to preserve classical liberalism, individual freedom, and a culture of the same, we need to start colonizing planets. We need to go with Musk and start doing this right now. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Mars. We should also colonize the Moon (though terraforming it would be a waste of time I think, since it doesn’t have enough gravity to hold on to an atmosphere, unless you paraterraform), and we should probably also build O’Neill and McKendree Cylinders. Eventually, we might even terraform Venus, build Banks Orbitals and a Ringworld (okay, fine, we can have one Halo off in the corner for all the first person shooter types) and then from there…

The galaxy will be our oyster.

But not if we get stuck here. It’s not the asteroids that will kill us, or the threat of alien invasion, or potential nuclear war or grey goo or artificial superintelligence. If anything does us in, it will be the banal overlayering of bureaucratic, authoritarian government, run by busybodies and people of little vision. Humanity needs a new frontier, and there are many out there: uninhabited, barren, lifeless, ready for us to come. We need that frontier to rekindle our spirit of freedom, and get us moving again. Take the germ of liberalism, and spread it across the stars.

That’s my vision for the future. And that means I’m right there with Elon Musk. Let’s go to Mars.

#ClimateMarch: A Campaign of Hypocrites And Fearmongers

So over a week ago, a large number of people went marching in New York City with the hashtag #climatemarch. The idea was to raise awareness of the dangers of global warming – excuse me, climate change – and get people, specifically politicians, to act on it. How? To be honest I’m not sure of the specifics, but it always seems to come back to higher taxes, more government control over the economy, and doing away with capitalism.

Nevermind that capitalism is why they even had a New York City to have the climate change march in.

I want to lay out a few disclaimers before I continue, to outline my views on climate change. These will take the form of a Q&A.

  1. Is climate change happening?
    Yeah. I mean, everything changes, so it would be silly to say that the climate doesn’t change. Nothing is truly static except death and taxes, and we may be getting close to getting rid of one of those.
  2. Is it anything to be worried about?
    Not really. Sure, there will be things here and there that climate change will affect that we’ll have to adapt to, and it may lead to some minor detrimental affects in some parts of the world, but overall it’s not something to get your panties in a twist over. It isn’t going to lead us to extinction, it’s not going to be the end of the world. Humanity has adapted for several thousand years, and I think it will adapt for several thousand more (unless superintelligent AI get us.)
  3. Are humans the primary cause of climate change?
    I don’t find this plausible. I can accept that we’re a tertiary or even secondary cause of climate change, because we definitely have an affect on the environment. But even if the planet is warming, can we really blame it on us? What other natural processes are out there? Have you ever looked up and saw that giant ball of exploding gas in the sky and wondered, “Hmm, could the sun have anything to do with it?” Earth is far larger, far more resilient, and far more complex than I think most people give it credit for.
  4. Should the government do anything about climate change?
    Absolutely not! This is the government, mind you, that screwed up the Middle East, spent over $600 million on a website, can’t keep track of billions of dollars of its budget, regularly violates civil liberties around the world, and is deeply in bed with large corporations in a cronyist scam that has gone back for decades. The last thing anybody should want is giving this incompetent bloated organization any more power than it already has - especially over such important things as the energy and the environment.

There, now that I have that off my chest…

The Hypocrisy

The first thing that really gets me about the climate march types is just how hypocritical they are. Pray tell, how many carbon dioxide tons did they spew into the air in order to get to New York City? They took planes, trains, and automobiles – diesel, gasoline, and other fuel sources emitting gases into the air. How much cleaner would the world be if all those hundreds of thousands of people, instead of taking this trip, just stayed home? Oh, yes, they care about the environment. They care about it so much they helped pollute it even more.

And then there are the images of the trash they left behind. How many Starbucks cups did they throw out? How much plastic did they use? It’s disgusting. Care about the environment, do they? Yeah right.

There’s also this image of a climate march interview going on above a sleeping homeless woman. Now I can’t actually verify if that body in the background is a sleeping homeless woman, but still, the imagery. That’s powerful. Here are some upper middle class white folks having an interview about how they must do something to save the environment because it’s oh so important, and yet there is a person on the ground right behind them that they’re ignoring who doesn’t even have a proper place to sleep. It sort of encapsulates the entire movement, in a way.

The Absurdity

One of the big reasons I personally can’t take climate change and the #climatemarch seriously is how it’s being blamed as the cause of everything. Open up any newspaper and you will see an article saying that “climate change” is the reason for the political instability in the Middle East. (Subtitle: “Why are deserts hot?”) Hurricane Sandy and local weather patterns have all been blamed on climate change and global warming. The bees are being blamed on it too, even though it strikes me as yet another media panic. Even the European Space Agency is now saying that global warming is affecting Earth’s gravitational field.

I can’t even.

And now the New Scientist magazine is saying that we’re on track for the “worst case” scenario. One Tweeter made the case that we’re headed towards extinction because of this. The problem with the article and the evidence, in my view, is that it isn’t really based on empirical data. It’s based on models:

The bleak image is brought home when emissions over the last few decades are plotted against projections for the future. Models predict how much the world will warm depending on how much we emit in future. Scientists typically look at four different possible futures, ranging from an uber-green society to a worst-case scenario, in which no action is taken to combat global warming. Le Quéré and her colleagues show how today’s emissions are near-perfectly in line with the worst-case scenario. This means that, according to scientists’ best estimates, the world will be as much as 5.4 °C warmer in 2100 than it was before the industrial revolution.

The chart in the article begins in 1980 and ends in 2100. Here’s a massive problem with this:

There’s no way you can predict what the world will be like in 2100!

Look at predictions from 90 years ago. How many were somewhat on track, and how far off were the rest? Could anyone have predicted the rise of the Internet, of Twitter, of the smartphone and now the “smart house,” of Dropbox and Spotify and global air travel and drone cargo ships and the private attempts to colonize Mars? In some places they may have gotten the basic gist of things – although, even in the case of Mars, they screwed up badly – but in the vast majority of cases they hadn’t a clue what the world would be like in a century.

That’s the same thing here. You can point to your models, but they’re just that: models. You can play around with models all day long, change them, tweak them, etc. German reporter and podcaster Fabian Scherschel made this point when he brought up his skepticism of climate change alarmism on his podcastLinux Outlaws (which, as you can imagine, doesn’t usually wade into this subject.) The data we have really only goes back two hundred years or so, not long enough to judge how the climate is being affected, which has been going on here for millions and millions of years.

And yet #climatemarch activists want to parade around and demand we end capitalism and the modern world because some model someone dreamt up said that we’re all going to die. Well, I have a model that we’re all going to die, but I can save us – if you just give me $5,000. Will you march for me then?

Oh, and by the way: sea ice has been increasing lately.

This isn’t activism. This is pure fearmongering.

The Insanity

One picture sums up a lot of insanity surrounding #climatemarch and what this is really all about:

This isn’t really about environmentalism. It’s about attacking the free market and trying to reinstate socialism. They’re watermelons – environmentally green on the outside, socialist red on the inside.

Let’s not forget what capitalism has brought us:

What has socialism given us?

  • Mass starvation
  • Authoritarian regimes
  • Gulags
  • Economic depression
  • Widespread violence
  • 100 million dead
  • Widespread environmental damage
  • Peasant conditions for many, especially in pre-modernized China

Capitalism isan economic order — any economic order — that emerges from voluntary exchanges of property and labor without government intervention (or any other form of systemic coercion).” By that, it means that individual people are allowed to control their lives, make their own decisions, and fulfill their dreams.

Socialism is “a centrally planned economy in which the government controls all means of production”.  And by that, what it really means is that the state becomes a dictator, takes away all the decisions from you, and uses you as a tool whose human worth is little.

What the protestors in that image are saying is that they hate people and want to inflict misery and suffering on them. Being an adult human who can make his or her own decisions, be autonomous, and enjoy one’s life is apparently a disease. That just shows you how nutty these folks are.

The Alternative to #climatemarch

Ronald Bailey of reason has done a much better job than I could ever do knocking these guys off their pedestal. See his story on #climatemarch here and his story on #FloodWallStreet here. He takes aim at their assertions and blows holes in them rather efficiently. They don’t even know the best strategies to address their own problem. The whole thing is just ridiculous.

What’s the alternative? I’m honestly not sure. I think, for starters, we can continue to utilize capitalism to experiment with new technologies in the energy sector, as well as lab-grown meat that would cut emissions by 96%. There are plenty of free market environmental alternatives out there that could be explored, but one thing that is important is having private property rights. Nothing halts environmental degradation better than by avoiding the tragedy of the commons. But I don’t really know what will fix the environment, if it truly needs saving. But you know what? That’s okay. The beauty of being a capitalist is that you don’t have to know everything; you just have to know that you have a system that is designed to discover and find things out, that champions experimentation and innovation.

That’s the alternative. It doesn’t rely on fearmongering. It isn’t based in hypocrisy. It’s not absurd. And it’s not insane. It’s just dealing with human beings as individuals. You don’t need to march for that. You don’t have to do anything special. All you have to do is respect other people as individuals, and live your life.

Featured photo licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC. Photo Credit: John Minchillo, via the Climate Change Network International Flickr page.

Going After Gluten: Tackling Fads & Annoying People

I like to call out bullshit on the Internet. One article of BS, I think, is the increasing trend of people to say they are “sensitive to gluten.” Although there’s been a lot of talk about this, and I have met a ton of people who said they are sensitive to gluten, where the science is concerned (so far), it appears that gluten sensitivity is mostly in your head. The evidence for this? A study by the scientist who originally concluded in a previous study that people were sensitive to gluten, which may have set off this whole thing.

I’ve heard people say that erasing gluten from their diet has led to all sorts of wondrous things, which always sets my sensors off. Whenever something gets blamed for a ton of problems, I get skeptical. Whenever a lot of people suddenly go crazy over something like this (i.e., not pop culture like a band or a TV show) I get skeptical. And in this case, I really do wonder if it might be harmful for everyone else in society. For instance, will people start demanding that government impose a gluten ban? If you had asked me that even a year ago, I would have said “Doubtful,” but seeing the craziness going on in society today, I’m not so sure. In most cases, there doesn’t seem to be a solid reasoning process going on, and that’s not a good thing.

The other thing that also puts me on alert is the defensiveness people get whenever I post something skeptical about gluten sensitivity, or when I bring up in conversation that I think it’s mostly bunk. Whenever I see someone getting defensive about things like this, my mind immediately starts thinking “ooh, cultish behavior.” Even if it’s not entirely fair (and it really isn’t fair in 90% of cases) my mind still does that. But sometimes it can really piss people off.

One article I posted on my Facebook wall was titled “Science Proves Gluten Sensitivity Isn’t Real, People Are Just Whiners“. Yeouch. That’s already taking a hard edge. I got into it with one guy about it (who got pretty defensive and upset about the article, and continued to be when I also posted the above PBS article) and then just let it be. Then someone else commented on it, asking why people had to attack those who claim they are sensitive to gluten (ok, my paraphrasing) as “whiners”, why reading “a few idiot articles online entitles people to look down on others’ health problems”, and “why does it hurt so much that there are some people avoiding gluten”. I wanted to write a response, but instead I thought about it, because I think she brings up good points.

There are some instances where mocking and calling people out forcefully are in demand. When you care about someone personally and they make self-destructive decisions, it might help. (Note I said might.) When someone wants to impose policies to the detriment of individuals using force, say, by replacing capitalism (the economic system of people being left alone to make their own decisions and persue their own self-interest, and which also led to the greatest rise in prosperity in human history) with socialism (the economic system of the central government owning the means of production and imposing its decisions on the people, and which also led to the one of the highest death tolls in human history), I think it’s fair to call such people “tyrants,” “wannabe mass murderers,” and other such names, because let’s face it, that’s the end result of their ideas. On religion, I’ve always held that we shouldn’t necessarily try to embarrass people in public, but in private, if someone says something that is either on its face absurd or deeply offensive, you should call them out on it and basically say “This is why you look like an idiot.” And no, you’re not being rude; they are, for demanding you believe something that is patently absurd and has no evidence. That is rude to any intellectual person.

But what about erasing gluten from your diet? I’ve thought about it…and it just doesn’t rise to anywhere near the same level. When the gluten sensitive start a campaign to ban gluten and use government to meddle more in our diets, call me. I’ll be there to denounce it. But for now, I can’t get that upset. I still find it personally annoying when there’s someone who claims they have this sensitivity and forces us to revolve all lunch plans around them (unless we order separately or it doesn’t affect our decision model much, and most people I know don’t make themselves the center of attention), but how annoyed can I really get? Calling people “whiners” for personal dietary choices is unfair and inappropriate. As long as they’re not harming you, you shouldn’t be using that kind of language. Maybe you think it’s silly – you can definitely say it in that way – but they’re not whiners. That’s just being unnecessarily mean. You don’t have to eat a gluten free diet, you can go off and choose what you want to eat. That’s the point of a free market society: individuals being allowed to make their own decisions. You make yours, they make theirs, you respect each others’ choices, we’re all good.

Usually, when people say they are hurt, I have the Stephen Fry response. Not here, however. In this case, I am being a jerk, somewhat, over a rather unimportant issue that doesn’t directly affect me. That’s just unnecessary and rude. I won’t actually apologize for posting the article, as I think it was actually fairly detailed and really informative. I do wish the authors had chosen a less hostile headline, though. I also hope I didn’t cause too much serious discomfort by posting it, and I will try to be more attentive in the future.

But for pete’s sakes, don’t get me started on those raw vegans. Holy crap…

Artificial Wombs & Virtual Childhood

About a month ago, transhumanist Zoltan Istvan – who created a bit of an unrelated bruhahaha in my Feedly – wrote about artificial wombs, saying they were inevitable and would do a lot of good for society:

Of all the transhumanist technologies coming in the near future, one stands out that both fascinates and perplexes people. It’s called ectogenesis: raising a fetus outside the human body in an artificial womb.

It has the possibility to change one of the most fundamental acts that most humans experience: the way people go about having children. It also has the possibility to change the way we view the female body and the field of reproductive rights.

Naturally, it’s a social and political minefield.

The whole article is a fascinating read. I don’t really have a stance one way or another towards it. I think many women would be happy to have their biological offspring be raised outside their body, if only because of the physical strain that takes place. Others (both women and men) probably would find that very notion offensive and decline to partake. Whatever. But I’m not here to really critique Zoltan’s particular view of transhumanism (other than I think his timetable is way too short.)

It was just, looking at this article, it made me think of another idea of transhumanism that has long bounced around inside of my brain. In a fictional form, it would go somewhat like this:

Ectogenesis was the first step towards radical reproductive liberation. The first two generations of ectogenesis children – derogatorily called the “pod people” by many – suffered social ostracism and persecution, but within fifty years roughly two thirds of all children were born in pods and the stigma disappeared.

But it wasn’t enough.

Ectogenesis was still time consuming, and you still had to raise the child after decanting. Studies in virtual brain emulation had long ago bore fruit, to the point where a identical simulation was possible. Scientists began a brave experiment where they took the genetic samples of two volunteers, combined it to form a zygote in a pod, then simultaneously created a virtual copy in a virtual environment. The virtual brain developed while the physical brain was not allowed to develop consciousness; the virtual brain was then, through nanoprobes, downloaded into the fetus after nine months of development.

That didn’t really change anything, but it did prove that virtual brain development was possible. The next generation of experiments went farther. Incorporating growth acceleration technology that had originally been perfected for orbital agriculture habitats, scientists were able to take the zygote straight to twenty years of age in only nine months. They also sped up the virtual environment, creating an entire society (complete with eidolons of the parents and relatives and real world people) that would be an effective “proving ground” for the growing mind. When all was said and done, the body and mind that emerged from the pod was chronologically only nine months old, but had twenty years of subjective physical and mental experience, and was ready to enjoy real life society immediately.

Of course, there were criticisms. More biological, “natural” humans saw this as too much of an aberration; the virtuals scoffed at the notion anyone would want to live in meatspace. Yet over time this mixed virtual-biological lifestyle took hold. Within six generations, roughly 85% of all humans had spent their first twenty subjective years in a virtual simulation before being downloaded into a specially grown body, derived from the genetic samples of two or more “parents.”

However, now the definition of human had changed dramatically. No longer were the “naturals” considered “natural,” they were merely “full-stack biologics” living mostly in segregated neighborhoods and even in some cases reservations. The virtual born – or “Virtborn” – became natural, but with it was a loss of emotion, a growing collective mindset, and a subsequent decline and fall in the arts and science. The “biologics,” in turn, began to develop increasingly eccentric cultural traits in order to “prove” they were the true humans, including bringing up ancient human practices such as zoot suits, black coffee, and a particularly brutal form of physical competition designed to identify “manly” qualities among males called “hockey.”

Okay, so I kinda let myself go at the end there. But the idea has been in my head for some time. I don’t know if it’s feasible – though it probably is. I’m also certain I didn’t come up with it and read about it elsewhere, though I can’t find anything about the topic at the moment.

I thought about it again when I attended a event on Sam Harris’ book tour. He was asked a question about computers and ethics, and he stated that (and here I must paraphrase for my memory is terrible) that, if we could replace a malfunctioning neuron in our brain with an artificial neuron that completely replicates the replaced neuron’s behavior, why not over time gradually replace all of them? And in that case, would we not have a fully artificial brain? And would not that brain be conscious?

That idea of just gradually replacing all our biology until we’re completely metal fascinates me. I mean, if that’s not “transhumanism,” I don’t know what is. Instead of an apocalyptic war between humanity and the machines, we instead have a gradual evolution from biological to synthetic life. Aside from the fascination, I’m not sure how I should feel about that. Is it a good thing? What will we give up to do that? But, since I’m a libertarian transhumanist, as long as it’s voluntary, it should be okay. I think most aspects of transhumanism are glorious and want to see them come about, to alleviate suffering and create more enjoyment. So long as we don’t have early adopters and retros blowing each other up…

Blog Maintenance

For the first time on this blog, I am now using an SEO plugin. One of the cool things it does is redirect links to media attachments to their parent post/page. I’ve actually noticed people coming to view attachments on some of my older posts, which is kinda weird.

This also means I will be putting some sort of share plugin back in as well. I’ve avoided it for some time because I was convinced that “begging” for shares wasn’t the best thing in the world. Now I realize that was stupid.

I’m also on the lookout for a new theme for this blog. I like “required” (the current setup) but the stuff coming out of the marketplace for the Ghost platform fascinates me. There’s a few themes like that for WordPress I want to at least take a look at.

Another thing I want to try is using Scrivener as a WordPress blogging client. So far, there’s no direct “post to WordPress” function, just a Markdown export which can be translated into HTML. I must admit, I’m not terribly keen on Markdown, even though I have friends who rave about it. I just don’t see the point, especially for longer form works (which, as one of said friends is a novelist, is applicable.) I just do CTRL+I or whatever to get what I want. But I’ll leave that for later. I have managed to figure out how to make Scrivener work “in the cloud” using Dropbox, which is really, really neat.

I must admit, this post is completely non-SEO, and is largely something of filler.

Not Iraq. Not Gaza. Not Ukraine. This is #Ferguson, Missouri.

Featured image from Radley Balko’s Facebook page. I didn’t see any prohibitions on sharing, but I will take it down if requested.

The above scene is not from some third world country. It is from Ferguson, Missouri, where a young black man was gunned down by police.

Here’s another picture, from another friend’s Facebook wall:

Ferguson Police 2

 

These are not Army soldiers. This is a local municipal police department in a city of 21,000 people. Why on Earth would they need cops with full body armor, gas masks, and assault vehicles? Maybe this can be some explanation (taken from Twitter):

Meanwhile, the local government has completely shut reporters out of the city:

Journalists encountered a threatening response from police as they tried to cover the protests in Ferguson, the Missouri town that has been upended by the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.

While there was a spate of looting on Sunday night, Monday’s demonstrations were peaceful. Protestors faced tear gas and rubber bullets from officers trying to break their ranks up. At the same time, police told local media to get out of the area.

This is not America. This is the purview of a third world tinpot dictatorship, not the leader of the free world and the greatest democracy in the world. Period. They do not need to be stomping people just laying on the ground, or engaging in illegal chokehold manuevers to kill a man who was only selling untaxed cigarettes. Or getting a warrant to conduct a horribly invasive anal probe eight times for “drugs” on the flimsiest of evidence. Or firing dozens of rounds through a van full of children. Or any other terrible acts by police.

Slowly, over the past several years, the police have been transformed from a law enforcement agency to a sort of Russian style “Internal Troops” division. Do we really want to import Putinism over here to the United States?

It is past time for Americans to wake up to this and demand action. Demand that police face the full consequences of their actions. Demand that “paid administrative leave” be ended. Demand the mindlessly stupid War on Drugs is declared over, and demand that out of control cops are reigned back in. Demand that cop cameras be used everywhere, and can’t be altered or lost by the cops they cover.

This madness needs to end. We are the nation that leads the free world. Time to act like it.

 

RIP, Robin Williams: Let’s Stop Suicide Being An Avenue to Peace

Like many people around the globe, Monday night I was stunned to hear that Robin Williams had died at 63. Of all the celebrity deaths that have happened in the past five years – and it sure seems like we’re killing them off at a good pace – Williams actually hit me hard. I mean, jeez. This is Robin freaking Williams we’re talking about. He’s been around as a funny man for ages. I admired the man, loved his work, thought he was one of the greatest actors of my age.

And now, he’s gone. Forever.

More than the cold hard fact that he is dead, though, was how he died. The sheriff’s initial report said it was suicide by asphyxiation. Williams didn’t die from disease, or an accident, or natural causes, or – heavens forbid – foul play. No, he died by his own hand, apparently to relieve whatever pain or discomfort he was going through in his life.

Williams is not the first person in my life who has chosen suicide as a way to alleviate pain.

When I was a kid, I had one friend who was my greatest friend of all. Out of respect to his family, I will not go into many details; for this story, let us call him Richard. Richard was kind of an odd duck, but he was funny, lively, and had a great imagination. He was also one of the closest friends in my life, and in many ways shaped who I am today. But in addition to this, Richard had…issues. For some time, doctors were putting him on mental medication, for reasons I could not discern. He always complained about the doctors, had arguments with them, and to be honest to my eyes I didn’t think there was anything wrong. The only issues I could ever see was that he would have low energy, or sometimes walk around and mutter strange things. But to be honest, that could describe anybody over the age of forty, so I didn’t really pay it any mind.

After awhile, he started to get better. During the latter part of my adolescence, we were two guys who weren’t part of the social mainstream in any way, but we functioned and we continued. We had fun, we talked about serious topics, even played D&D (once) and Halo (a lot). I really thought Richard was on the up and up, and soon he would be going off to college and becoming a nuclear engineer in the military.

I was 18 when I heard the news. I was driving home from my summer job as a contract archivist. I pulled in the driveway, up to the garage door, when my mother comes running down the stairs, the phone in her hand, crying hysterically. She told me that Richard had shot himself, that he was dead, and I should probably go see his family.

He lived down the road from me, so I walked. I was just stunned. To this day, one of the things that really stuck out in my memory was that I didn’t shed a single tear. Instead, I just walked down the road with my mouth wide open, my body shaking in a silent scream. I was just so empty. I thought something was wrong with me. But no, I realized afterwards, there was nothing wrong with me. This was just how I was dealing with it.

I didn’t see his body until the service; I just saw it taken out on a gurney, wrapped inside of a bag. He left behind a note, a rather cryptic one, and all that was left was to pick up the pieces. I remember talking with somebody – I can’t remember who – that I was really surprised. “He was doing better,” I said. “Why would he do this?”

“Sometimes,” this other person said, “It’s when they’re coming up from the depths that they decide to do this. Because when they’re really down, they can’t get up the energy to pull the trigger. It’s only when they get enough to do it, that’s when it happens.”

I’m paraphrasing, but the basic point stands. You may think they’re doing better. You may think they’re “all right.” But nobody knows what truly goes on in the hearts and minds of other people. What you get, at best, is an edited simulacrum. So take the time to talk to people. Take an hour of your time and really understand them. Listen to them. Be there for them. If you truly care, then they are more than worth an hour of your life. My friend was certainly worth an hour. Hell, he was worth an entire month. I would have gladly taken that time to talk to him about his issues.

These people are trying to find peace from all their pain and suffering. That’s all. It’s not selfish, cowardly, or anything at all like that. In the state they are in, they are suffering deeply, and they need peace – and when they get to this point, suicide is the only option that occurs to them.

So do that. If someone you know is depressed, or worse perhaps suicidal – or even if they don’t appear to be at all – take a moment. Talk with them. Maybe take an entire hour, or more. Just talk with them, let them know you’re there and you want to help. That’s all. I didn’t do that because I didn’t recognize what was happening. Don’t share the same regret I feel today.

Your Life Is Worth An Hour

Above picture from the Facebook page “Your Life Is Worth An Hour“.

Get Off The Couch: The Participation Income

This month, Cato Unbound is hosting a discussion on the libertarian case for a basic income. As readers of this blo–oh, who am I kidding. Anyone who knows me knows I am a libertarian who supports a basic income as an alternative to the current welfare state morass – both on a pragmatic “it’s better than what we got now” stand and on a principled basis. (But then, I am slowly becoming disaffected with the term libertarian anyhow.)

One point that has come up repeatedly on discussions about the lead essays is that a basic income of any form would create a nation of layabouts. After all, the argument goes, if you collect a check just for being a citizen, who would actually work? I think that’s a problematic argument for many reasons, but I just wanted to toss out there one variant that does require some effort on the part of recipients: the Participation Income.

I think it was first proposed by A.B. Atkinson in 1996 – though I don’t really know, I was just Googling things. One such Google result [PDF] gave me the following:

A ‘Participation Income’ would be paid to any individual ‘participating’ in society. The list of ‘participations’ would include employment or self-employment, retirement, absence from work because of sickness or injury, inability to work because of disability, and approved forms of voluntary activity. Students, trainees, those caring for dependents (the young, the elderly, or disabled dependents), and those unemployed but available for work, would also be counted as ‘participating’.

So basically, you have to do something in order to get the basic income, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be paying work. Studying, taking care of the elderly or children, volunteering – these all count. (Dunno about the last one in the above quote, though.) I don’t know if this would meet critics’ standards, but at the very least it would require that something be put back into society, something productive happening, in order to receive benefits.

Personally, I can see issues with this. How do we determine who is “participating”? Who will determine and how will they determine what counts as eligible participation? It’s yet another battlefield ripe for political combat, with all the terribleness, shrill partisanship, and uncomfortable silences at the dinner table that come with it. It also seems to be pretty invasive, as I am sure people will demand more accountability than simply trusting the applicant that they have participated. But then again, we have W-2 forms, so something along those lines may suffice.

To be honest, though, I’m not terribly worried about a basic income (or my preferred form, a Negative Income Tax) turning America into a nation of layabouts. We sort of have that problem already, for starters (though it isn’t as bad as some conservatives may think), and furthermore, life without work is not at all pleasant. People need work to have meaning in their lives; without it, many grow unhappy and listless. (I know, I’ve been there.) People are constantly trying to do and make new things – sure, not everybody, but look at all the various projects on Kickstarter, or volunteering activities, or new code developments made when somebody was out of work. I think if people knew there was something like a basic income to catch them if they fell, they wouldn’t just stop doing things and collect a check – they might take some risks to develop a new product or company, knowing they have something there if they fail. How many of us want to do something like that, be an entrepreneuer, but are afraid that if we screw up our families will be living on the sidewalk?

In short, I don’t think everyone will stop working. One commentator, Martin Brock (no idea if that’s his real name, as it’s only Disqus), however, does make one comment that I thought was pretty insightful:

I don’t fear a nation of layabouts. I fear a nation of actors, musicians, painters, novelists, astronomers, photographers, videographers, philosophers, talk radio hosts and political opinion bloggers all producing vastly more drama, music, art and the rest than other people actually want to consume while trying to consume the dwindling supply of goods no longer produced by all of these actors, musicians and painters.

Some of these people might be wondrously “productive”, in the sense of laboring conscientiously to produce lots of wonderful stuff, but if this stuff has little market value, because so many people produce so much of it, the people are not so “productive” in the economic sense.

The world is full of starving artists without a UBI, so I can only imagine vastly more artists producing far less than the cost of their maintenance with a UBI.

Yeah, that actually might be a problem. I know I would happily go off into my room and write science fiction all the time if I had a basic income. The question is, how many Americans would do that? Seeing the multitude of posts on social media, I would be willing to bet a lot (though many would be painters, sculptors, audio remixers, etc.) who then wouldn’t be producing other things. This would probably put a lot more strain on the rest of the economy – i.e, on all the other people producing things – and it might even threaten the very same basic income because at some point we wouldn’t be able to fund it.

But not doing anything? Sure, there are some indolent Americans. Hell, there are maybe a lot of indolent Americans. But there aren’t that many who would stop doing anything except collect a check. More likely, they would take that check and go do something with it.

I also just want to say that I’m not ignoring the public choice considerations here. It’s very likely that any variation on a basic income plan to replace welfare and the minimum wage and reform the tax system that goes before Congress will be butchered and mutiliated horribly. It’s in the nature (and interests) of legislators to craft legislation benefitting their benefactors, and I am sure that one interest group or another will try to bust it or just add it on top of the current welfare morass. But just because that’s a possibility doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reform the system by proposing this. If such considerations were to stop policy proposals before they began, then libertarians could never work on public policy — and I find that a very silly position to take.

The Cult of Death Is Building A Temple in Canaan

I wanted to get a few things off my chest about Israel and Palestine, based on some really idiotic conversations I see going around. I want to preface these statements by making it absolutely clear that they are my opinion only, and do not represent nor reflect on anyone else (employer, sports team, country, etc.) Unfortunate we have to put those disclaimers in, but that is the society we live in.

I’ve been seeing a lot of cheering from those on the right towards Israel, which quite frankly disgusts me. It makes me want to vomit. It’s disgusting and abhorrent. No one should cheer the deaths of people, especially women and children. Nobody should applaud when missiles rain down and blow apart houses. A reasonable response to this could be “Good luck Israel,” or simple statements of support, but instead I am seeing “Yeah, go Israel! Fuck yeah!” and “Wipe out those subhuman savages!” No, really, this is typical rhetoric now being tossed about.

Just in case anyone says “Nobody actually says the Palestinians are subhuman savages” I present to you @CSunnyDaay and @secondthenfirst. Yes, these people do exist out there.


I don’t support Hamas, and I don’t support Hamas’ indiscriminate missile flinging into Israel. That’s not the solution to their problem. But here’s the thing: most Americans (and other foreigners) cheering on Israel don’t even bother thinking about the other side of the equation. They just think “Oh, these bad people are firing missiles at Israel! It’s self-defense! That’s it!” But they never bother to ask why the bad people are firing missiles, they just assume they are intrinsically evil creatures from Mordor.

Let’s examine why. Israel, over the course of decades, kicked the Palestinian Arabs out of their homes (though the initial blame lies with Britain, which decided to just mandate things.) They then forced these people into small areas, locked down running water and electricity, forced them to only get supplies from the Israeli government (which in turn could shut down the supply lines at any time), walk in and bulldoze people’s homes without warning, shoot them without warning or due process or anything even remotely like that, and then have the gall to build tons of Israeli settlements within the territory they’ve already set aside for the Palestinians! And then, when all that is said and done, the Israeli government drops bombs on hospitals, homes, shelters, just blows things up from the sky. And they have the gall to wonder why the Palestinians turn to support Hamas and their (largely ineffectual) rocket attacks?

If you corralled a bunch of red-blooded Americans into an area and shut down basic services and lobbed bombs and shells at them, after removing them from the land they used to own, do you think Americans would sit for that? Or do you think Americans would find a way to fire back?

The stupid, it burns.

Israel has been fighting this war essentially since 1948. It has taken on different forms, but the same thread of conflict has run through it all. You would think, by now, they may have wisened up and realized what they’re doing isn’t working. The US tried this before too. It’s called Vietnam. Our attacks there only galvanized the Vietnamese people to support the Viet Cong more, and they did – to the point where the VC forced us to leave and then destroyed the US-backed Republic of South Vietnam. What the heck does the Israeli government think this will accomplish? Do they really think that if they drop just another load of bombs out of the sky, that the Palestinians will finally be convinced that Hamas’ way is the wrong way and will stop?

Of course, I don’t think that’s what the Israeli government thinks at all. Like most governments, it wants votes, and like many people, a lot of Israelis want blood. Not all of them, but a fair amount, and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu represents those who do. And I think Netanyahu wants the conflict as PM because he can blame any problems in his government on the Palestinians. I’m not sure what those other problems are, I am not an expert in Israeli internal politics, but it has been a long lasting and celebrated political tactic to find an “Other” you can demonize and pin all your problems on.

Again, I’m not supporting Hamas. The Palestinians are stupid for supporting Hamas. Do they really think that more rockets raining down will fix their problems of no jobs, crushing poverty, lack of medical care, food, running water, and electricity? Do they really think the Israelis are going to soften and change their policies if their families are blown up? Yet I can understand – though not support – why they support Hamas. Most Palestinians probably feel they have no hope, that there is no alternative. (Sure, there’s Fatah in the West Bank, but Gaza and the West Bank are almost two different entities at this point.) When you have no jobs, no supplies, and there are bombs falling out of the sky, what’s left to do but die for Allah?

The point I’m trying to make here is not that Americans are supporting the “wrong side.” I wouldn’t want them to support Hamas either. The point is that many Americans are completely leaving out half of the equation here. They’re ignoring why the Palestinians in Gaza are doing what they’re doing. If you’re going to jump into a conflict, you need to understand why that conflict is going on, who the players actually are, who the players’ peoples actually are, and then what incentives are going to make each side stop fighting – both the incentives they publicly state and the incentives that we know, deep down, that will cause both sides to knock it off. But, like most foreign policy issues, Americans never bother to actually understand or learn the arguments, they just want some prewritten soundbite to utter that makes them feel all good and patriotic.

That disgusts me.

Addition

After conversing with some folks on social media, it appears to me that some clarification is in order. Two points.

First, some have said that Israel has done all it can, and now the ball is in Hamas’ court. That’s fair. While I can understand the sentiment behind a lot of antipathy towards Israelis, having the Israelis come in and basically kick the Palestinians out, the Palestinians need to accept they’re not getting it back. They are never going to destroy Israel and get their all-Palestinian state. They may be able to secure a federalist solution, at best, but they’re never going to kick Israel out. While Hamas will never come to that conclusion willingly – it would mean they would lose all their support as their raison d’etre would be violated – they need to accept that. So these folks are right, it is time that Hamas recognized Israel’s right to exist (as much as any “state” has rights; only individuals can really have rights), and stop the rocket attacks on Israel. The Israeli strikes still won’t lead to the Palestinian people moving against Hamas, but Israel has its hands effectively tied.

Second, some people have taken this post to mean that I support Hamas, that I don’t think Israel has a right to exist, and that the Israelis shouldn’t be allowed to defend themselves. Nothing can be further from the truth. I don’t support either side in this mess. What I am writing against is the frothing, mindless support from some folks on the right for the violence in Gaza. For the people labeling Palestinians as subhuman savages and calling for more death, more bombs, more killings. That is what I am writing against. That is the point of this piece. For what it’s worth, I’m not even sure I care anymore about the conflict itself. I just want it to end. I just want the violence and death and destruction to stop. Is that so bad? Is it so bad that I criticize people who want this to continue? Of course, I shouldn’t expect any reason or intelligence on this issue. Almost more than anything else, this issue runs high on tribalism, to the point where nobody will bother even understanding the argument being made, they will just arbitrarily label the person good or evil. It is the Cult of Death I am fighting against, and the Temple they are building is the ritual chanting for more ordnance to fall. The Cult of Death is not Israeli. It is not Palestinian. It is, regrettably, American.

That is not supporting Hamas. That is not being anti-Israeli. It is being anti-death and anti-war, nothing more.

Update

The spate of attacks on my piece in social media has led me to read a lot more articles about Gaza than what I normally do. This one in particular has me all kinds of confused. Just what is really going on here?