Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The End of America

I've read loads of hyperbolic headlines over the years, from both the left and right. But I honestly don't know what this country is anymore.

That picture and this headline say it all:

US Withdraws from Human Rights Council

And what would Republicans choose to talk about instead? How imperative it is to screw over the worst off.

More: Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty: Trump Administration’s Policies Designed to Worsen Poverty & Inequality.

Kevin Drum asks the right question: Whose Side Are You On?

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Avoiding GMOs? You'll be dead soon.

If you follow me on Facebook, you'll have seen a number of posts about genetically modified organisms (here's a good one). Or, as they are known in the modern world: basically everything.

What people don't realize is that just about all food produced by modern agriculture has had its genes modified. What would it look like if that wasn't the case?

What people don't seem to realize is that back in the 1950s and 60s, food scientists bombarded our crops with high doses of radiation to create mutations. They then grew the mutated crops to see if any of the expressed mutations were beneficial. Obviously, though, there was no way to know what all the mutations were doing. It was just taking a shotgun to the genome and hoping something good happened.

Now with techniques like CRISPR, we can intentionally turn on or off genes or insert a sequence of base pairs to provide exactly the change we would like (e.g., producing Vitamin A, which would help many millions avoid death and blindness, an outcome some oppose).

Which do you think has a greater impact on the genome: using a shotgun or a scalpel?

And for those who haven't seen this, we've manipulated the genomes of chickens, too.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Self as Illusion

I was listening to an older Sam Harris podcast while cooking this weekend, and he revisited his contention that "the self is an illusion." One of the others on stage pushed back, and Sam countered by stating he had experienced the dissolution of the self. The counter to that was that many people had "experienced god," which I thought was a pretty solid takedown.

But in other contexts, Sam has done what I consider to be a good job of explaining what he means. As I interpret it, there are two parts.

First, there is no free will (which is discussed in his book of the same name). This fact is logically obvious when I think about it - everything is just physical reactions, so where could "free will" actually enter the picture?

Although I understand and accept this fact at a rational level, I haven't fully embraced it. While I think I am relatively Zen about many things in life ("It is what it is"), my default reaction to events is not always, "They could not have done otherwise." For example, I still loathe Paul Ryan. Also, I still wish for vengeance against a certain person who harmed me and my family.

Yes, I know that this is neither rational nor helpful. But I could not feel otherwise!   😉

Following from that is the logical conclusion that there is no thinker of thoughts. Even though we are conscious and self-aware, there is no "self" in control of our mind.

One doesn't have to be a materialist to recognize that this is true. It is possible to observe this fact through meditation. If we can pay close enough attention, we see that thoughts just arise. To slightly modify an exchange between Dan Harris and Sam Harris:

Dan: "But can't I choose to say, 'Now I'm going to think about a Tofurky sandwich'?"

Sam: "Where did 'Tofurky sandwich' come from?"

Dan: "Um, my hunger after two hours talking with you?"

There are obviously some difficult implications that flow from these insights. For example: If we have no free will, how can we change anything about ourselves? But that's like asking how a computer could change, given that it has no free will. Computers just need a new program (or, in a bad case, a virus) to be different. We, too, can also get new programs. We can read new books, listen to thoughtful podcasts, subscribe to a rarely-published but interesting blog. Each of those inputs can change the way our brains function.

Click for larger.
And if we could really, really internalize that everyone around us is just a relatively broken computer, we would have a lot less frustration and upset. We can still want to reduce suffering in the world, but we would reduce our own suffering first. Good luck to each of us!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Our Capacity for Self-Delusion

Anne and I listened to part of Sam Harris' latest "Ask Me Anything." In it, Sam claims that he isn't tribal because he disagrees with left-of-center white guys ("like Robert Wright and Ezra Klein") who would be his "tribe." This claim would be incredible to me, but as Sam would be the first to point out, he has no free will to allow him to get beyond his delusions.

As Ezra Klein mentioned  early in their podcast together, Sam's tribe is actually made up of people Sam thinks have been unfairly attacked by "the Left." This is why Sam will promote a misogynistic demagogue who builds his fame on hatred of transgender people and says things like feminists have “an unconscious wish for brutal male domination.” It is why Sam will say that the KKK's favorite "scientist" is "the most unfairly maligned person in my lifetime."

Another bizarre twist: In their podcast, Sam continually tried to interrupt Ezra, but Ezra wouldn't let him ("Just let me finish this."). In the Ask Me Anything, Sam said this proved that Ezra wasn't open minded!

But I've said all the above before. For something new, please check out Robert Wright's great take.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Regarding Jordan Peterson

"Arguably the most manipulative feature of 12 Rules for Life is the author’s repeated reference to procreation as the driving force of human behavior: time and again this or that proposition is supported by reference to the mating patterns of humans or animals. Given that so many of his readers appear to be young men struggling with masculinity issues, this is fiendishly clever in its appeal to their deepest insecurities: reinvent yourself as a brutal Nietzschean strongman and you’ll get some. (The patriarchal loathing for women implicit in this formulation — which presents them as markers of success or failure, rather than people to be connected with on a human level — hardly needs spelling out.)

"The world is full of snake oil salesmen; why should this one concern us particularly? Because male self-pity is a killer. There’s a white supremacist in the White House, and far-rightist violence — both Islamic and Anglo-Saxon — is a clear and present threat. In the wake of yet another mass shooting in the United States — the high school massacre in Parkland, Florida, where a teenage gunman has taken 17 innocent lives — it’s high time we gave up the complacent pretense that toxic machismo is merely an adolescent affectation or a symptom of some nebulous thing called “mental illness.” Yes, it’s a pathology; but it’s also an ideology, a system of thought in its own right, with its own intellectuals and proselytizers. In the current climate it behooves us to be extra vigilant about the creeping normalization of reactionary chauvinism, and call it out when we see it. What happens in the realm of discourse has consequences in the real world.

"Admittedly it’s not always easy to distinguish between a harmless retro eccentric and a peddler of poisonous and potentially murderous ideas. So let’s take stock: Masculinist persecution myth? Check. Repeated appeals to Darwinism to justify social hierarchies? Check. A left-wing conspiracy to take over the culture? Check. Romanticization of suffering? Check. Neurotic angst about “chaos”? Check. Like many of his sort, Peterson sees himself as a defender of the best traditions of Western civilization and the Enlightenment. But there is an old adage: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, chances are it’s a duck."

See also: Jordan Peterson or Islamist Cleric?

Friday, May 4, 2018

Not all bad...

When you're concerned with non-human animals, it is easy to feel like everything is terrible and getting worse. But Stephen Pinker looks at the numbers in this video (if you don't want to read his last two books).

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Sorry Ethan

Anne and I regularly have burritos made with Lightlife's Gimme Lean (red cabbage, onion, peppers, V8, and seasonings). We also know people who use this with their non-vegetarian families in place of ground cattle, and the family has never known the difference.

It cooks like ground beef, in that you have to actually cook it for a while to brown it, etc.

Last night, though, we tried Beyond Meat's Crumbles in the same recipe.

They are basically ready to eat very quickly, with just a few minutes of heating. However, both Anne and I agree that they would not fool anyone. They're fine, but just not like ground cattle.

Note: we both find Tofurky's Slow Roasted Chick'n to be noticeably better -- more savory -- than Beyond Meat's Chicken.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The New Hotness: Jordan Peterson

So it seems like Jordan Peterson is everywhere now, from Fox News to Bill Maher to multiple events with Sam Harris.

I think it is worth remembering that the thing that made Jordan Peterson famous -- the issue for which he was willing to go to jail -- was his insistence on being disrespectful and rude to trans individuals.

I completely understand why the reactionary right loves Peterson. But I don't understand why anyone who claims to respect human rights would give him a platform. Why would you help advance the career of someone fundamentally dedicated to intolerance?

It is baffling. The only think I can come up with is tribalism -- Maher and Harris have been attacked by members on the left, so they see Peterson (and Charles Murray) as brothers-in-arms.

Tribalism is a very strong force, even among those who claim to be dedicated to reason and equality.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

We all have our blindspots

Excerpts from Ezra Klein's interview with Sam Harris:

Sam: I’m in the, once again, having the bewildering experience of agreeing with virtually everything you said there, and yet it has basically no relevance to what I view as our underlying disagreement.

Ezra: You have that bewildering experience because you don’t realize when you keep saying that everybody else is thinking tribally, but you’re not, that that is our disagreement.

Sam: Well, no, because I know I’m not thinking tribally ... It’s not tribalism. This is an experience of talking about ideas in public. ... That is not identity politics. That is my experience as a public intellectual trying to talk about ideas.

Ezra: That is what folks from the dominant group get to do. They get to say, my thing isn’t identity politics, only yours is. I will tell you, Sam, when people who do not look like you hear you telling them that this is just identity politics, they don’t think, “God he’s right. That is just identity politics.” They think this is my experience and you don’t understand it. You just said it’s your experience and they don’t understand it.

Shorter Sam Harris: The only people who are being honest are me -- a well-off white guy -- and those who agree with me. Everyone else who doesn't agree is lying about "the data" and just playing politically-correct identity politics.

And what is the tragedy here? What is the worst thing that deserves our attention and must be addressed? Hundreds of years of racial oppression and violence? Unarmed people being shot? Study after study showing continued racial discrimination?

No. It is a very rich, very famous, very influential white cross-burning guy being disliked by some people on the left. Again, Sam Harris:

I hadn’t paid attention to Murray. When I did read the book and did some more research on him, I came to think that he was probably the most unfairly maligned person in my lifetime. That doesn’t really run the risk of being much of an exaggeration there.


Sunday, April 1, 2018

Can Your Own Bad Experience Remove Your Ability to Reason?

So Sam Harris has gone all-in defending cross-burning darling-of-the-KKK Charles Murray. And this week he says James Damore’s anti-woman anti-diversity memo at Google was “innocuous” and “scientifically accurate.” WTF? Has Sam ever heard of Gamergate? Has he ever talked with a woman trying to work in tech? Would he want his daughters to have to work with someone like Damore? (1, 2) (At least Sam’s guest noted that Damore has made himself the darling of the neo-nazis and alt-right — not so “innocent.")

Sam’s reasoning seems to be: “I’ve been attacked unfairly by ‘the left,’ and I’m a great guy. Therefore, if someone is attacked by ‘the left,’ they must be a great guy, too.”


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Enemy of My Enemy

My friends know I'm a big Sam Harris fan. I generally find him a thoughtful, open-mined individual who isn't tied to or limited by dogma.

Also, I am appalled at how he and his views have been misrepresented by "the Left" regarding Islamism (e.g., saying he wants to nuke the Islamic world). But in my humble opinion, this dishonest vilification has left Mr. Harris with a soft spot -- even a blind spot -- for others who are vilified by "the Left."

This has led him to hitch his star to the loathsome Fox News commentator Jordan Peterson, who has claimed that feminists have “an unconscious wish for brutal male domination.”

But nowhere has Sam's understandable hatred of the "politically correct" Left blinded him than his otherwise unimaginable determination to promote The Bell Curve author Charles Murray.

Ezra Klein at Vox has a new discussion of this bizarre bromance, which I learned about via an angry email from Sam Harris. Ezra's entire article is worth reading, especially the emphasis on history. But Ezra also gets at my main reaction to Sam Harris' podcast with Charles Murray: Why? Why write a book that, for all intents and purposes, claims blacks are simply dumber than whites? Why write a book for all the neo-Nazis and white supremacists?


Sam asked this of Charles three times in his podcast, and each time the answer was awful. Ezra quotes the transcript twice in the section "When questions about IQ become recommendations about social policy." I challenge anyone to read Murray's answers there and think he is an individual committed to human flourishing. To me, it reads of a white guy who doesn't like being taxed to try to address historical injustices and inequality.

If Murray isn't an actual overt racist, he's just another selfish white man who tries to "scientifically" argue that we should just let him keep all he's "earned" because trying to help disadvantaged groups is "futile."

And Sam: I think we should be careful about embracing and promoting someone so utterly beloved by avowed racists, even if that person happens to be attacked by the same people who attack you.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

One Step for Animals' Latest Campaign

Please check out the first ~45 seconds of the Melinda Gates episode of The Ezra Klein Show.

Thanks to everyone who supports One Step, this will reach a quarter million of the most influential people in America (including everyone around Bill and Melinda Gates).