Where There’s Smoke

They always seem to go together.It’s no coincidence that if you see smoke, there’s fire somewhere inside.

If you live inside a house, you’re taught from an early age to save your life by GETTING OUT.

Drop.  Roll.  Know your escape route to safety.

That’s the easy way to save your life.

What if the smoke you are seeing isn’t from inside your home?

What if the smoke is coming from your society?  What if the news is full of tragic stories?  What if your family and friends are touched by random violence?

What if your planet is being harassed by unthinking newly arrived inhabitants, who litter, obliterate, and violate huge portions of its landscape?  What if the Amazon is cut down?  What if we fill the atmosphere with CO2 and methane?  Why does it matter if we drive so many species to extinction?

These are all variations of seeing the smoke inside your home.  Many people see the smoke, and are crying out as loud as they can: FIRE!

My question is this.  Why can’t more people see the smoke?  How many more cries will it take to move the majority of people?  What will it take to get governments to act?  Even more critically, what will it take to make all governments act in unison?

If you are studying any social discipline, including philosophy, these questions should be at the top of your syllabus.  Your “discipline” should have a methodology, a basis of axioms and reference in which you can answer this question.  Better yet, if your discipline is mature enough, it may even suggest an optimal route of making our world a better place.

If not, then, all I can say is…

Drop.

Roll.

And …

 

 

Happy Birthday Dr. Frankenstein

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The novel Frankenstein was published 200 years ago this year, on January First.  I don’t think google did a doodle on it, but they should have.  Today (30 August) is the anniversary of the birth of the author, Mary Shelley.

Science magazine devoted a whole special section on the impact Frankenstein has had upon popular culture. [1] There’s more Franken-things than you can shake a stick at!  Each of which denotes something scary that has been created by humankind.

Try it out.  Pick any noun, say, tomato.  Stick a “franken” on it – and voila – you have a:

Franken-tomato.  Sounds like something that was genetically modified.  Could be tasty.  But our first reaction is, ugh.  Get it away from me.

That’s the whole point of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein.

It’s not the monster that is the bad guy.  It’s us.

We create things with our knowledge, our technology, our science.  And then we abuse it, we deny it, we argue that it doesn’t exist.  Yet it does exist.

And in our active ignorance, it ends up causing harm.  In the end we may think we have won because we defeat it, but perhaps we are no better off than we were before.

This theme has been used so many times since she rediscovered it that it’s hard to pick the best examples.  Try Colossus, the Forbin Project.  Or Skynet of Terminator, or Adromeda Strain, or; do I need to continue?

The Ancient Greeks created the first rendition of this story.  They talked of Prometheus, who brought forbidden fires to humans.  Without fire we would still be running from the lions, instead of looking at them in the zoo.

What does this have to do with behavior?  Are you kidding?  What doesn’t it have to do with behavior?  This is exactly the kind of stuff we should be talking about, for every new technology: Nuclear power, DNA editing, CO2 sequestration, and more.

Even more importantly, as students of behavior, we should have a framework that allows us to understand and discuss ANY new technology regardless of what that technology may be or how it impacts us.  How’s THAT for a challenge?

Enough for today.  I wanted to make sure SOMEONE said Happy Birthday to Mary.  After all, she did something many activists have been dreaming of doing for years.  I only wish people would read her book and discuss it, intelligently.

Instead of just going, UGH.

 

[1] Science magazine, 12 January 2018, Volume 359, Issue 6372.

 

Tuning the Turing Test

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Let’s begin with the world’s greatest sci-fi movie: 2001.  This is from Piers Bizony‘s book on the making of 2001 A Space OdysseyIt's Eye-Conic.  Sorry.

Marvin Minsky had no problem understanding that the emptiness of 2001’s dialogue was intentional:

” … And after the momentous statement that the monolith must have been deliberately buried, one of the astronauts says, “Well, how about a little coffee?”  Kubrick’s idea is that the universe is too majestic for short sighted people.”

Trying to understand an “intelligence” that is much greater than our own is going to be a tough job.  Drinking a cup of java while pondering that gulf might be appropriate.

Which brings us to Alan Turing, the godfather of the modern computer.  He suggested a simple test to determine “intelligence.”  He didn’t define the term either, by the way.  What he said was put a person in a room and let them interact with a human, or machine, in a limited way (like through text only) and let them ask questions.

Today, this remains the best test we have of machine intelligence.

Here’s the problem.  What kind of person are you going to put in that room.  For instance, if you put my mother in law, she’s likely to think that the navigator voice in the GPS is already intelligent.  You should see the conversations they have while we drive along.

If you put some genius, like Doug Hofstadter or Doug Lenat in that room, chances are they can ask one question and game over.

So, next time you think of the Turing Test, also consider who you are going to put in that room.  If you’re scientifically oriented, then you want a “standard” human.  Good luck!

In the meantime, I’m going to get some coffee.

Man Tongue

Sorry, this isn’t what you may think.  Tongue has to do with language.  Not sure why we call languages, tongues, but maybe it’s because the tongue has a lot to do with it.

I’m working to learn French.  It’s not easy.  They really make your lips and ears work hard.  The tongue?  Not so much.

One big thing that was hard for me to understand was this: Groups are either girls or guys.  In French it’s << elles >> or << ils >>.  (Sorry, the whole double carat is French as well.)

Anyway, say there’s a group of five women walking down the street.  You’d say, “women walking down the street.”

What about five men doing the same thing?  You’d say, “men walking down the street.”

Here’s the fun part.

What if the group is four women and one man?  You’d say, “men walking down the street.”

Yup.  I know, it seems crazy.  Wait.

What if it’s an entire stadium of women watching a football match?  “Women watch football.”

Now, put a single man (he might be married, I meant one person) into the crowd, and guess what you have to say?  That’s right.  “Men watch football.”  Yes, even if the ENTIRE crowd but one has freudian-based penis-envy, you have to say, “men.”

For the longest time this drove me nuts.  It still drives people nuts, because it purposely marginalizes women.  I don’t like marginalizing women.  I like women.

But why does the language do this?

Remember, languages have been around a long time.  Even French.  And there’s a good chance that the French didn’t invent the whole gender bias thingy.  So we have to go back thousands of years to the source.

What was going on thousands of years ago?

Murder.  Mayhem.  Massacres.  Maybe.

In short, it was quite the heyday of times.  Possibly like game of thrones.

If you were a guy, and very sensitive to not dying, and someone was describing a crowd of people to you, what might be of great interest to you?

If it was me, I’d want to know if there were any men in that group.  Specifically, men who might want to hurt me.  If the group is all women, I’d feel better.  Not really.  I know what women are capable of, because I’ve been happily married for a long time.

But if sword thrusting and mace wielding are your concern, then you want to know if men are around.

Result?  You use your language as an early warning system.

It’s only an idea, don’t go ballistic.  But for a real answer, I’d look to this guy.  I enjoy his videos.  In the meantime,

Bonne journée!

 

Whom Do You Serve?

There’s was a fun sci-fi series on the flat screen a few years ago called Stargate SG1.  It started as a movie, and I recommend seeing the movie before watching the series.

One of the characteristics of the evil antagonists was a response to a simple question:

WHOM do you serve?

The idea was that the evil parasite living within a human body would reveal the master they served.  It was one thing they couldn’t refuse.

It’s also a great idea.

Whom do you serve?

Is it yourself?  Is it your family?  Your wife, your children?

What about your community, or nation?

There’s a good chance it’s a little bit of all of those, if you’re a well-rounded human.

Today’s problem is that most people aren’t well-rounded anymore.

They serve their retirement.

Or they serve their bank account.

Whom do YOU serve?

Can you answer this?

You want to know my response?

I serve your grandchildren.  I want them to have a better life than we enjoy today.  I’m willing to sacrifice my own well-being in order to achieve this.  I’ve already sacrificed income streams and lucrative positions.

Am I any closer to making this a better world for them?  I’m not an optimist on this one.

At least I know who I serve.

How about you?

 

Riots and Revolutions

Our art museum is putting on this excellent display of pre-romantic paintings that were used to record historical events.  Journalism in painting.

Painting is a story told visually, and because the artist is mostly in control, a lot of what they are thinking can come through.

When it’s historical in nature, we also get a glimpse into the big behavioral picture.

There’s this one painting showing a citadel in the background, and a riot going on in front of the locked gates.  (I can’t find it! When I do, I’ll include a link here.)

The caption beside the painting notes that during the years of 1634-35 there was a great famine, and the ruler allowed bread to be sold outside the citadel gates at fixed prices.  The hungry population was so angry that a riot ensued.  Because of the famine, almost 5% of the population perished.  That’s one person out of every twenty.

That was enough to cause the ruler to change the laws regarding land ownership, basically giving more power to the people.

Here’s what we can learn.

It took a great toll among the people before the ruling class decided they needed to shift the distribution of wealth.  Lots of people had to die miserable deaths before those in power would change the system.

Today, we also have increasing wealth inequalities.  How far will the current levels of pain go before our governments address the pain of the people?  History, at least this little oil-painted piece, suggests that about 5% of the population will have to perish first.

Is this the best way to figure this out?  Absolutely not.  But it’s a start.

And as far as wealth distribution is concerned, isn’t it better we start now?

Aren’t art museums fun?

Thanks for reading.

 

First Gift, Final Gift

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I’ve had a glimpse of how our society deals with death.  I spent ten days with Dad in a wonderful hospice house.  We spent the first half getting the pain meds out of his system, and the other half getting him strong enough so he could leave the place.

I spent many hours with him as cheerleader, advocate, and caregiver trainee.  However, there were many hours where he slept, so I got to know everyone.

What impressed me most was how many workers and volunteers truly care about their mission.  They are unsung, so I’m singing about them now.

However, there are also so many patients, mostly alone.  They were waiting.  Waiting to die.

Here’s the surprise.  Some of them are done.  As a gift to their children, they are content to hasten the process.

If you’re shocked, or sad, you should know that is how I felt.  At first.  When I listened to their stories it becomes obvious that many people are giving themselves up so that they are no longer a burden to their children.

It’s a wonderful gift.  It’s their decision.  And my only regret is that I’m not sure how many of those children appreciate that decision, that final gesture.

Creating a baby is only the first step to what will be a lifetime of joy.  But there are so many hard hours ahead.  Children who grow up tend to appreciate the gift of life given by their parents.

But the second greatest gift can be found at the end.  It is the parent letting go, and letting their child be free of their burden.  It’s sad to see them go, but it’s also a chance to celebrate their life and begin looking forward again.

To all those unsung parents who have sacrificed much during their lives, and then at the very end, life itself, for the benefit of their children, I thank you.

We should all thank them.

The best way to do that is to never forget them.

Mom and Dad.

 

Dream a Little Dream

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Dreams.  I can’t get them out of my head.

Dad’s dying.  Did I mention that?  Sure, everyone dies, but he’s taking his time.  He’s smart, tough, tenacious, and still has the capacity to dream.

His dreams are a bit modest nowadays.  Going to the potty.  Getting back to his old apartment.

The size of the dreams aren’t important.  It’s the fact that he has them.

He fights to make them real.  If I’ve learned nothing from Dad during the last few months, it’s how to keep fighting.  And hanging onto those dreams is critical.

I used to dream, back in my day.  All us kids dreamt of superfast trains and living on the moon.  There would be hotels under the ocean and everyone would live to be 150.

So much for those dreams.

Here’s the problem today.  I had those dreams way back when.  I wasn’t the only one.

Today, I don’t hear anyone’s dreams of the future.  The term I hear most often is “dystopia.”  People are depressed about the future.  They don’t have dreams.

They have nightmares.

If someone does dream, it’s for something next month, or next year.  A new phone.  A better snowboard.

Have you tried dreaming?  Really dreaming, long term?

I have this super smart cousin, and I asked him what he thought humanity will look like in 100 years.  His first reaction?

He’ll be dead.

Yes, but your daughters might be around.  It’s more likely that their daughters will be alive then.  What kind of world will they live in?

He didn’t like my question.  He’s been having nightmares about humanity.

I encouraged him to dream.

By the way, dreaming does not mean wishing for free money from the government.  That’s another story.

The best dreams are big dreams that you have to work for.

Don’t believe me?  You don’t have to.

Ask my Dad.

 

Harriet the Monster

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The daughter recommended it, the wife read it first, and now I’ve finished it.

Monsters.  Specifically, My Favorite Thing is Monsters.  By Emil Ferris.

It’s dark and it’s beautiful.  She draws (literally) upon many iconic images from Chicago during the 1960s, and she draws upon many of the works of art in the Chicago Art Institute.

Since I’m devoted to studying behavior, what does this monster-based thriller teach us?

Here’s where another book comes in, Harriet the Spy.

It's a classic.  Please read it if you haven't!Harriet is also out to solve a mystery.  She’s also learning about the world of adults.  And she’s also wrestling with who she is as a young woman.

The similarities end there.  For Harriet is a tame post card of last century compared to Monsters.

And that’s where our learning comes in.  The differences in the way such a similar subject is treated tells us more about what underlies society than reams of studies and surveys.  Art, done correctly, becomes one of the best ways to look into the deepest psyche of our collective soul.

And that, my dear friends, is where you can find the real Monsters.

Happy Hunting.

 

 

Facebook as our Secret Weapon

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Consider all the evil ways the Russians and Chinese have wreaked havoc on our American way of living.  I am, and I’m getting peeved.

The Russian mafia have all sorts of ties to Don John, the Great Orange in the White House.  Putin is probably the richest man on Earth, at least twice as much wealth as Mr. Amazon.  The Chinese not only have the Great Firewall, but entire military units whose only purpose is to hack into American security systems and steal secrets.

Where will it all end?

If we don’t do anything, it won’t end well.  So it’s time we started fighting back.

The Russians and Chinese have created electronic walls, keeping their people insulated from the rest of the world.  They do this because they can feed their people propaganda about how good they have it, and so their people don’t make trouble.

Our secret weapon?  Facebook.

Mark and his minions should work on ways to crack the Iron Firewall and the Great Firewall at the same time.  Perhaps by setting up invisible proxy routers that ordinary Russian and Chinese people can reach.  And then?

Just let people be people.  Let them join in the fun of seeing cat pictures, silly vids, fake news, and everything else.  More importantly, they can see what’s really going on in the world and start putting pressure on their own governments to change.

Better yet, if the time comes for a new world government, maybe we can all be friends for once.  Right now, that’s not happening.  Facebook may be the weapon we’ve been looking for.

Ready…

Aim…

Facebook!