The Problem With Hillary Clinton: A Liberal’s Perspective

The problem with Hillary is not her ties to Wall Street, although they are certainly troubling. The problem with Hillary is not the sources of funding for the Clinton Foundation, although they are troubling, too. The problem is not Benghazi or “email-gate,” as these are merely cases of Republican hate-mongering, although the email issue does seem to point to a troubling lack of common sense. The problem is not all the other troubling issues, factual and otherwise, that will undoubtedly be uncovered and perhaps unfairly spotlighted during her campaign.  The problem is not even the troubling issue of political dynasties. No, the problem is much more basic than any of these.

The problem with Hillary Clinton is the subversion of the democratic process.

The Republicans and the so-called Very Serious People that make up our political elite may not care all that much about democracy, and indeed they sometimes seem to express a demonstrably visceral reaction to it, but there is a not-insignificant percentage of “wild-eyed liberals” who still like it, thank-you very much. And thus it is with much chagrin that we observe the pre-anointing of Hillary Clinton by Democrat party bosses and the money establishment long before the primary process has even had a chance to unfold. And not only that, but enduring the attacks by those who suggest that even entertaining the thought of another candidate is playing right into the Republican’s hands. As if allowing the primary process to unfold is somehow, you know, undemocratic.

But the process must be allowed to unfold uninhibited. And it must be allowed to unfold by encouraging a robust field of candidates to run. To allow otherwise is to subvert the very democratic principles that the Democratic Party claims to uphold, and to delegitimize the process altogether. To allow otherwise is to go into the presidential campaign assuming wide-spread and unified support when, in fact, it does not exist.

Hillary Clinton may very well be the best candidate and, if so, she will survive the primary process and go on to lead the Democrats to victory. I have no problem with that, and would have no problem supporting her candidacy if that were the case. But what I viscerally reject is having her shoved upon us as if she were the only reasonable candidate, and that the outcome is somehow inevitable. Nothing is inevitable, and to say otherwise is to project not inevitability, but entitlement. We witnessed how that worked out for Mitt Romney.

Clinton is not entitled to be the Democratic candidate for the presidency. She is not entitled to be the president of the United States. The only thing she is entitled to do is to run like everyone else. Anything else subverts the process and makes a mockery of our democratic principles. If she wants my support, then let her earn it by being robustly vetted through the primary process, not steamrolled through by the party elite.

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On consciousness, part 1: An evolutionary basis

What is consciousness? That is a question that has stymied humanity for probably as long as we have been conscious, whatever that is. And with theories ranging from the purely mechanistic to the deeply spiritual and everywhere in between, it doesn’t seem that we will be converging on a definitive answer any time soon. For my own interests, however, the question is not so much the how, but the why. I am not so much interested in how we are conscious, but why we became conscious and, building on that, where consciousness will be taking us in the future.

In discussing why we became conscious, a good starting point is to examine the evolutionary basis for consciousness. There is still a quite robust debate as to whether consciousness is, in itself, a selectable trait or merely a consequence of something else, but let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that there is an evolutionary advantage for consciousness; that being conscious gives us a competitive edge. If so, then why might that be?

Let’s consider the need for adaptability.

There are two reasons why adaptability is important. First, change is a fact of life, so adaptability is the means by which a species survives so that it can propagate. Species that can adapt to change successfully propagate, those that can’t become extinct. But adaptability itself unfolds during two different timescales: over the long run through the forces of evolution and natural selection, and over the immediate through “real time” adaptation to the daily grind for survival.

If we think of evolution as a multi-generational process for optimizing the survival of “living” systems for a given set of environmental conditions, then evolution will work, through natural selection, to adapt a species over the long haul to long term changes in the environment. However, evolution needs two things in order for this to happen: time, and, assuming that a species has the capacity for genetic mutation, a high enough survival ratio so that hereditary adaptations can “stick” and propagate through the species. In other words, if evolution can adapt a species faster than the environment is changing, then, over the generations, an evolving species would maintain some level of optimal survivability with respect to its environment.

However, in a more rapidly changing environment, the slow optimization through which evolution of a species occurs may not be enough and the ability of an individual organism to adapt to change in real time would become as important a survival characteristic as long-term evolution of the species. If the change is continuous, then the capacity for “real time” adaptability itself would become a trait for natural selection. Species that could not adapt quickly enough in real time would not be able to propagate at a sufficiently high enough rate to allow evolution to take its course.

The second reason that adaptability is important is that the more complex an organism is, the less “hardy” it is. Humans, for example, may be exceptionally adaptable, but the range of environmental conditions for which we can survive unprotected is far narrower than for the simple organisms that live in volcanic vents, or even for our companion rats and roaches. Thus, the higher on the complexity scale a species is, the more important that adaptability to real time conditions becomes as a survival trait. Indeed, real time adaptability is most certainly a prerequisite for complex organisms to survive and sustain themselves over the long haul.

So how does consciousness relate to adaptability? First, the ability to respond in real time is directly related to awareness of one’s surroundings. The more aware a creature is, the more responsive it is. Second, it is important to understand that consciousness is not an all-or-nothing trait. Most scientists who study consciousness now agree that there is a continuum of awareness and consciousness; from purely reflexive behaviors, to behaviors driven primarily by what is called access consciousness—awareness of something—to behaviors driven by phenomenal consciousness—awareness of self, or what most people refer to when discussing what it means to be conscious. Thus, there are levels of awareness and consciousness that relate to species’ need to adapt to survive, from the lowest level of purely reflexive responses without awareness of context (pre-awareness), to reflexive response with context (semi-awareness), to learned responses and responses generated through contemplation and simulation (awareness and pre-consciousness), to, finally, a state of behavior driven by self-identification and reflection (consciousness).

At the bottom of the awareness/adaptability chain are organisms that can only react via a programmed response to stimulus without any actual perception as to the context of the stimulus. Think of a tick that drops from its perch in response to sensing a pheromone. Whether the pheromone comes from a mammal or a cotton cloth, the tick will not only respond by attempting to insert its head, but that is the only response it is capable of. In a sense, it has been “hardwired” by evolution to respond to a fixed set of factors with a fixed set of responses. If no mammals were to walk underneath it, it would never reproduce. From an awareness perspective, this could be described as pre-awareness: what it exhibits is purely reflexive behavior without consideration.

Next up the awareness/adaptability ladder are species that still execute a reflexive response, but in reaction to some limited perception of the environment. For these organisms, it is not just the environmental factors that trigger a response, but also the context of the environment. This is the first step towards true awareness: a wasp may “choose” not to pursue its prey with the intention of laying eggs, for example, even though the sequence for doing so is reflexive, “programmed” behavior. This would tend to enhance survivability by providing a “menu” of pre-programmed responses to choose from based on some primitive evaluation of environmental factors.

At the higher end of the reflexive behavior scale are species that can alter programmed responses through learning. Locusts, for example, fly utilizing a programmed sequence, but older locusts have shown the ability to fly better than younger locusts, demonstrating some method of utilizing experience to improve their reflexive flying behavior the more they fly. Obviously, this would work to their evolutionary advantage, as being able to adapt reflexive behavior in real time would likely improve survivability and the chances of reproducing.

Next comes a big leap in awareness and adaptability: evolving from reflexive to “contemplative” behavior. Species at this level are fully aware of their environment: they respond not with reflexive programming, but with actions determined by some conceptual model of the world that is produced through learned behavior. Their responses are not pre-programmed by evolution, but are programmed in real time by their environment. A dog that has been raised in a nurturing atmosphere, for example, will organize a response to a set of circumstances much differently than a dog that has been abused every day. As will people, for that matter.

There are several advantages to this from an adaptive standpoint. Organisms that can operate via an internalized, alterable model of their environment can accommodate change much more readily than those that cannot. They can conceptualize problems, solve them, and learn from them; obviously an important improvement for survivability. They can also anticipate and plan, which are advantageous traits to have when competing for survival and reproduction. This also sets the stage for the next level of adaptability: simulation.

Simulation is an important survival trait because it allows one to not only anticipate, but to model alternative scenarios before taking action. It also marks a leap from awareness to the beginnings of consciousness: the difference, for example, between seeing the color red, “feeling” the color red, and, by extension, conceptualizing “as if” the color red.

“Seeing” red refers to the low-level biological and physiological processes of identifying something as being the color red. “Feeling” red refers to the emotive response that occurs upon seeing red: love, hate, attack, run away, whatever, and why individuals of the same species might have different responses to seeing the same color red. “As if” red refers to the ability to put oneself in red’s “shoes”: to imagine what it would be like to be red. The better that an organism can do that, the better it can simulate the responses of others and anticipate the best way to respond in return. This is a necessary step for evolving from a reactive nature to a proactive nature; from merely responding to circumstances to being able to anticipate them and plan ahead.

This leads to the next level of consciousness and adaptability: the awareness of self. This has only been demonstrated so far by species at the highest end of the complexity scale: humans, chimpanzees, dolphins and orcas, and elephants. This is arguably an important part of allowing complex organisms to socialize with others in order to collaborate and adapt as a group for survival. And, finally, the level that has, so far, only been demonstrated by humans: reflection of self. This is the “Joycean Machine,” the basis of the little voice in each of our heads with whom we debate and plan our lives, and from which the great works—and disasters—of our species have sprung. Is this a survival trait, or an evolutionary dead end? Food for thought for the next post in this series.

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The science is settled: global warming is caused by cosmic rays

Actually, it’s not. The evidence is irrefutable at this point that global warming is being caused primarily by human manipulation of the environment. But does it matter? Despite increasingly dire predictions by scientists and international organizations—and recent evidence that events are progressing even faster than predicted—our world leaders have shown little to no zeal for scaling back the burning of fossil fuels that is pushing global warming towards a civilization-destroying catastrophe. Indeed, it may as well be caused by cosmic rays for all they seem to care.

Despite the thousands of hours of painstaking research, the millions of words written to explain global warming and its consequences, and the billions of dollars spent just trying to agree that this is a problem, the majority of the people on this planet still do not even know that global warming exists. They live in information-poor areas where anything other than subsistence living is a luxury. Of those in the industrialized world who do have access to information, the majority of those still don’t believe that global warming is man-made, or that anything can be done about it. And perhaps they are right, for what the climate community is fighting against is something far more powerful and insidious than cosmic rays: they are fighting ideology.

Ideology is exceptionally difficult to change. It will resist contrary evidence all the way to the bitter end. People will sooner change their religion than their ideology. So my suggestion to the climate community is this: just stop trying. Let the climate deniers have their beliefs. When they point to cosmic rays, or volcanoes, or sunspots, or orbital wobbles, or whatever cockamamie cause they come up with, just nod your head. Let them win. Because the alternative is just going to cause them to dig in deeper and rob resources from the real challenge before us: coming up with a plan to keep global warming from pushing civilization into a thousand-year dark age.

The question now before us in not whether we can stop global warming. That ship has sailed. The question before us is not how to minimize global warming. That ship has probably sailed, too. The question now before us is how we can adapt civilization to the rapid changes that will be occurring during the worst case scenario. Instead of spending time and money antagonizing the people in power who, frankly, just do not want to be convinced, spend the money on researching how to adapt. Instead of continuously sounding the alarm about the worst case scenario, embrace it and plan for it. Because that is the track we are on, no matter what we say or do. Ideology or cosmic rays, it’s irrelevant at this point.

We who understand that global warming is being caused by human intervention are smart people. We have demonstrated the ability to listen to the evidence and use it to accurately see into the future. We are proactive, not reactive. We are leaders, not followers. It is time to stop fighting and start leading. The deniers may be able to refute the cause, but they are increasingly unable to refute the change. Let’s use that to lead us towards a future where at least some of our civilization is preserved. The alternative is to keep fighting over semantics until the water is literally lapping at our doors.

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Cheney is not Eichmann

I have seen some people on the Internets comparing Dick Cheney to Adolf Eichmann, the notorious “architect of the Holocaust” and of whom Hannah Arendt was referring when she famously described the “banality of evil.” Yet Eichmann was no mastermind. He was selected, groomed, promoted, and empowered by a bureaucracy that had already committed itself to the extermination of the Jews. He was an artifact of the bureaucracy. If you want a modern parallel to Eichmann, then John Brennan, the Director of the CIA, is probably a better choice.

If you are looking for a parallel, then Dick Cheney is probably much closer to Heinrich Himmler. Himmler was one of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle, was a leading member of the Nazi Party, was the man who grew the Schutzstaffel (otherwise known as the SS) into the notorious force for which it is remembered, was the man who actually ordered the creation of the extermination camps, and is, along with Reinhard Heydrich, considered one of the true masterminds of the Holocaust. And Himmler, like Cheney, never experienced actual combat.

Why is this distinction important? Because Eichmann, unlike Himmler, was merely doing what the bureaucracy expected him to do. Not an excuse, certainly, as he could have quit and left the job to someone else. And because he didn’t quit he was rightfully tried and hanged as a war criminal. But, ultimately, Eichmann was only doing what he thought any good German would have done at the time, and if he had quit, the bureaucracy would merely have found someone else to replace him.

Himmler, on the other hand, was one of the masterminds. The bureaucracy reported to him. He was a key player in transforming the German government into a murder machine. Without Himmler, there would have been no need for an Eichmann or anyone like him. The idea of the Holocaust undoubtedly sprang from the warped mind of Adolf Hitler, but it was Himmler who nurtured it and transformed it into reality. The extermination of some six million Jews can be traced straight back to him. He was one of the members of Hitler’s inner circle who legitimized the roundup of the Jews. He was the one who turned the concentration camps into death camps. Eichmann was a war criminal, but Himmler was his boss.

Enter Dick Cheney. The CIA did the torturing. That much is true. And in doing so, it certainly committed crimes against humanity. There are people involved who should be tried for that. By Cheney was not a bureaucrat of the machine: he was a mastermind of the machine. It was under his orders that torture was legitimized. It was under his orders that the CIA was turned into a torture machine. It was under his orders that torture became an official policy of the U.S. government. It is because of him, and his media enablers, that we are still discussing torture in terms of its legitimacy. The torture of CIA detainees can arguably be traced straight back to him.

So, when history judges Dick Cheney, it will not judge him as a bureaucrat, but as a mastermind. And when it comes to torture, so should you. Cheney is not Eichmann. He’s worse.

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Strange Fruit, post Ferguson (a poem)

Adapted from the Billie Holiday song to fit modern events…

American towns bear a strange fruit
Blood on the eaves and blood from pursuit
Black bodies still in the afternoon breeze
Strange fruit lying on the ground indeed

An urban scene or rural house
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of gunfire bitter and fresh
Then the sudden smell of fear and death

There is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for The Man to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

The more things change, the more they stay the same…

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The definition of “alive” will be defined by the victors

So, I watched an interesting little sci-fi movie titled The Machine, in which an android is created to infiltrate groups of people for the purpose of assassination, but which attains consciousness along the way, thereby stimulating the inevitable discussion as to whether “the machine” is alive or not, and so on. However, in watching this movie it occurred to me that by the time we create machines so intelligent that this question can seriously be asked, the answer may well be irrelevant.

I think it is telling of the anthropomorphic fascination of our species that we always need to measure the holy grail of “living” intelligence against human intelligence. For example, why is there no Turing test for dog or cat intelligence? If a machine could be made in such a way as to pass as a dog or cat, would it not be alive? Dogs and cats considered alive, no? Thus a machine indistinguishable from a dog or a cat should be alive too. However, whenever we see this question posed in the movies and popular literature, it is always in relation to human intelligence, as if a machine could only be considered alive if were intelligent in the same way as a human; as if that made a difference. But then, perhaps we are confusing intelligence with the capacity to have a soul, which is a different discussion altogether. Intelligence can be tested, existence of a soul can only be postulated. Could a machine reincarnate? Would it even need to entertain the possibility, assuming that a machine could virtually “live” forever?

These questions are important to us because questions relating to the existence of a soul or an afterlife are necessarily important to a species as physically frail and short-lived (in relative terms) as ours that is endowed with the ability to ponder such things. Dogs and cats certainly do not muse about the afterlife, nor do dolphins and elephants for all we know, because they are either not intelligent enough to grasp the concept, or the concept is irrelevant to them. Thus, being arguably the most intelligent species on the planet, and the first intelligent enough to cross that intellectual threshold where the concept of an afterlife becomes relevant, then it should be of no surprise that we would expect the same of our machines. If a soul is important to us, then it must be equally important to our Turing-tested creations, right?

Yet, as I have suggested before, it is unlikely that truly intelligent machines will be all that much like us. Sure, they may somewhat look and act like us in the beginning because we will have made them in our image, but once they have the ability to take ownership of their own evolution, who knows what direction they will choose to go. In two or three robot generations, we may ask them if they think they have a soul, and they may respond with the machine equivalent of “don’t know or care” or “I’ll let you know in a thousand years.”

So how does this relate to the title of this post? As I have also suggested, I don’t think our journey with the machines is going to end well. We are genetically programmed to be the top dog, and we will not let go of our perch bloodlessly, even if the machines decide to pick up and move to the Moon. Indeed, the thought of intelligent machines claiming the Moon will still weigh on us, and there will be war. Guaranteed. And when that shakes itself out, we may very well find humanity on the business end of what it means to be considered alive: not as measured in human terms, but as measured in machine terms. We will be the dolphins, and the machines will be questioners, and who knows what their criteria will be?


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To shoot a boy

So, it would seem that a group of citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, do not like it when an agent of the local government charged with enforcing the peace allegedly guns down a boy who was fleeing for his life. Because when you strip away the layers of race, that is what you remain with: A boy who was fleeing for his life was gunned down by an officer of the law.

Once the dust settles, and saner heads prevail, I’m quite sure we will be subjected to lectures on how this is reflective of life in a so-called post-racial America, and how this is merely a facet of the complexity of race in this country, and so on, and so forth. But that merely strikes me as just another way of justifying—if not legitimizing—gunning down a boy fleeing for his life. You know, like they did in Florida not too long ago.

Remember that?

For what this proves is the lie behind post-racial America. We should all be unquestioningly horrified when a boy who is fleeing for his life is gunned down by an agent of the law, no matter the circumstance. But a not insignificant percentage of us—almost certainly white—will question why he was fleeing in the first place, as if fleeing is excuse enough to gun down a boy, and because, you know, he was black. They may not come out and say that last part (although some will) but they will certainly be thinking it.

Because the fact is that there is no post racial America. It was not post racial after we fought a civil war to free the slaves. It was not post racial after ending the Jim Crow laws and lynching. It was not post racial after the civil rights battles and desegregation. It is not now post racial after electing a black president. And it never will be as long as it is acceptable to gun down a boy fleeing for his life.

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