Uncommon Sense

October 30, 2020

The NRA Spikes the Ball in the End Zone

Filed under: Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 10:18 am

If you ever wondered why a political party would drum up hatred and violence and, most important, fear, the answer is almost always that it is good for business.

According to an article in The Guardian, “Americans have bought nearly 17m guns so far in 2020, more than in any other single year, according to estimates from a firearms analytics company.” “‘By August, we had exceeded last year’s total. By September, we exceeded the highest total ever,’ said Jurgen Brauer, the chief economist of Small Arms Analytics, which produces widely-cited estimates of US gun sales.”

Imagine Wayne LaPierre, in his rumpled three-piece suit,  doing a little end zone dance and then spiking a football. This is how far the NRA has fallen, from a respected sports and safety advocacy organization to a shill for the firearms manufacturers. And, of course, the NRA supports Donald Trump.

What’s In a Name?

Filed under: Culture — Steve Ruis @ 10:15 am

I admit to many foibles, one of which is to be suspicious of anyone referred to commonly referred to by three or more names. While this is more common in Europe, possibly, it is rare here. For example, President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the U.S. Supreme Court, Merrick Garland: first name, last name. Simple. But our most recent addition to the SCOTUS is Amy Coney Barrett. Are people likely to mistake her for the myriad other Amy Barretts, that her middle name is needed to distinguish which one we are talking about?

I didn’t think Ruth Bader Ginsberg was necessary. How many other Ruth Ginsbergs were there on the Court that might confuse us.

I suspect that commonly using ones full name is an American-style putting on of airs. Only important people go by three names. Heck, really famous people only need one (Elvis, Cher, Oprah, Plato, Hitler, etc.) and, I guess, insecure people need three.

Officially, people will use their middle initial, when signing documents. I use my full name when registering to vote and things like that, in which one may need to be distinguished from a large number of other people, or when signing contracts.

A related foible of mine is the use of superfluous titles. I do not think professional titles need be used out of context. So, in a meeting of students and professors, using titles is appropriate and normal. But, in a radio show whose host has a Ph.D. in Physical Education shouldn’t be billed as “Doctor So and So” when they are giving personal advice, or financial advice, or political advice. That degree has nothing to do with the topic and so is largely irrelevant.

When publishing magazine articles, if the author’s degree aligns with the topic, they get the full “So and So, Ph.D.” treatment, otherwise their byline is just “So and So.”

I have a preference for straight-forward people who do not put on airs or insist upon special treatment. And if you want your name to mean something special, do something special. If I use the name, say, Thurgood Marshall, does it need any special appellations? Do I need to say Justice Thurgood Marshall, or civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall?

Heck, if you want to be remembered and want your name to stand for something, aim for single name status (of the Socrates kind, not the Hitler kind).

October 27, 2020

Our Rules Apply to You . . . Whether You Want Them or Not

Filed under: Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 9:23 am

According to an article in yesterday’s The Guardian:

“ISLAMABAD (REUTERS) – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Sunday that French President Emmanuel Macron has “attacked Islam” by encouraging the display of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

“Khan’s comments come days after Macron paid tribute to a French history teacher beheaded by an Islamist radical who wanted to avenge the use of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a class on freedom of expression.”

“‘By attacking Islam, clearly without having any understanding of it, President Macron has attacked & hurt the sentiments of millions of Muslims in Europe & across the world,’ Khan added.”

So, the President of France was supposed to ignore a religion-inspired murder, and salve the feelings of “wounded” Muslims, who were offended by the actions of a schoolroom teacher. Of course, none of those Muslims would have known about this action, had they followed the dictates of their own religion.

The teacher who was beheaded asked any students who might be offended by the display to leave before he displayed the cartoons. The whole purpose of the display was to allow students to discuss the offensiveness or lack thereof and create more understanding of the principle in question.

Clearly the Prime Minister of Pakistan was, in a most Trumpian manner, virtue signaling to his Pakistani audience. Otherwise he was claiming that his religious rules apply to us. If this were at all the case, then we would be free to apply our rules to them, and I do not think they would like that.

There is a reason why there are international treaties and accords that govern how people are to act toward one another internationally. Apparent PM Khan thinks the Qu’ran is such an accord and we all have signed on to it.

October 23, 2020

Yes, I am That Bright!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 1:18 pm

Many people have commented upon how bright I am and I thank them for their perspicacity, for recognizing that. But how brilliant am I? If you will look at the photo below and look at the Earth. Do you notice the very brightest spot down there at the tip of Lake Michigan?

That’s me.

October 19, 2020

Intelligent Design . . . Right . . .

Filed under: Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:31 pm
Tags: , ,

Some claim that all order in nature is due to them being designed by some sort of intelligent designer. Here is an example.

This photo isn’t of an abstract painting. It’s a portrait of the crystals that form after two amino acids — L-glutamine and beta-alanine — were heated in a solution made of ethanol and water. One of the compounds, L-glutamine, is a building block for proteins and ensures that the immune system can function. The other, beta-alanine, helps with muscle endurance.

Look carefully. This phantasmagoric image was created by amino acids forming crystals all on their own.

Nature is self-organizing. This is not an article of faith. It is an observation.

Photo by Justin Zoll of Ithica, New York.

October 16, 2020

They Will Have to Pry the Money Out of My Cold, Dead Hands

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics,Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 1:01 pm
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You may remember when Charlton Heston was president of the National Rifle Association (NRA). He is famous for delivering, quite theatrically, the old saw “They will have to pry my gun out of my cold, dead hands.” Basically he was stating that he would defend, even violently, his right to “bear arms.” But physical violence is on the decline and now it has been replaced by economic violence. The rich have acquired more wealth (as a percentage) than they possessed in the previous greatest episodes of U.S. history. The Robber Barons had less, the Gilded Age tycoons had less.

A major book by Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler, claims that there are but four causes of reversals of this trend: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues. These are the only thing that have reversed the “normal” trend of wealth accumulation by the wealthy, by the simple expedient of repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich and, well, the rich themselves.

The 20th century, with two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the immense communist revolution created the greatest redistribution of wealth (and power) ever seen. Unfortunately, all of the wealth redistribution that occurred after WW2 has been reversed at this point and the “normal” state of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer has been reinstated.

What is at work here is greed, pure and simple.

Before you start to believe that there is some “invisible hand” at work here, there is not. What is at work here is greed, pure and simple. The dynamics at play here are these: the rich are few and the rest of us are many. This gives the rich a large advantage in organization. The power of the rich’s money is leveraged by buying politicians. I am sure that you have seen the studies that show that the rich get the attention of politicians to a very large degree, despite they being few and the poor get zero attention from politicians despite they being many. Apparently votes do not matter and money does. This is because money buys votes and the system is biased toward the elites. The two party, winner take all, system requires that the rich only need to influence, aka bribe, the two leading candidates for any office. Both current candidates for President, for example, are both acceptable to the rich as they have been vetted and supplied with suitable leashes. (Those of you who think that Mr. Trump’s wealth insulates him from their greed need to examine his tax returns. Mr. Trump only appears to be wealthy. There are lots of people, as Chris Rock says, who are rich, but few who are wealthy. Basically, star athletes and star performers, are rich . . . the people who sign their paychecks are wealthy.

The only way to solve this problem is for the many to tax the few: that is tax the rich so that they do not accumulate distorting amounts of wealth. The problem, of course, is this is a political solution, and they are few and we are many. Of the four actual forces that affect the wealthy the only that is even mildly attractive is “transformative revolutions.” Maybe we can learn from South Africa and do this bloodlessly, with a “forgive them they know not what they have done” attitude. But I suspect they know full well what they are doing, certainly the Koch Brothers did, so this will be a hard sell at best. Maybe lynching the uber-wealthy is the way to go, but that isn’t exactly non-violent.

October 14, 2020

Some Misunderstandings About Education

Filed under: Education — Steve Ruis @ 12:46 pm

First, the current understanding of what an education is, here in the U.S., is derived from a factory model. The raw materials/feedstock, our children, are fed into one end of the system and the output is, supposedly, educated citizens coming out the other. In this viewpoint, education is something done to children. And, if we want improvements in our school systems, we look at the buildings, the teachers, the curriculum, that is we look at the factory, because it determines the output.

Instead, I suggest that education should be something we do with children. It is clear that there are children who embrace the process and get a maximal benefit from it. This is often done at first to please parents but usually turns into a self-centered love of the process, including efforts to tailor the process to the needs of the student. At the other end of the spectrum are students who feel that education is a process aimed against them, by people pretending to be their friends. They often reject their teachings and teachers and, if this is prolonged, can result in such students being relegated to an educational wasteland we call “alternative schools.” Often these are people who end up dropping out of the system, whether in attendance or not.

Clearly, the children have enough power to shape this system and should be a significant focus and source of wisdom when considering how to improve the system. But we eschew this approach because, well, they are students, what do they know?

Education is a social system and ignoring most of the participants as non-stakeholders is foolish. Expecting a similar outcome from a process when engaging such a variety of starting points is also foolish.

* * *

Second, education is a social process in which people are taught how to think (not what to think) and how to act and how to work with others. You cannot teach people how to work with one another by replacing the other students and/or teacher with a computer. To only teach kids via computer is to doom them with a vastly inferior education. Those students on Star Trek learning lessons via their tablets have an artificial intelligence at the other end, not a piece of educational software. And that process is only to supplement their face-to-face educations. (Imagine learning to interact with aliens with no aliens to interact with.)

So, the “factory model” thinkers who are looking for more cost effective ways to teach kids are doomed to failure before they even start.

I will tell you what a really expensive education is: one that fails to educate students. It is much cheaper to spend more money on getting kids into high quality educational settings than anything else. Students who find self worth in such a system are less likely to be law-breakers, drug addicts, etc. and much more likely to be productive citizens in a society such as ours. The old line about car mechanics telling you “you can pay me now or pay me (more) later” really applies here.

* * *

Third, private education is not inherently better or even inherently different from public education. There is the perception in this country that “private” is better than “public.” There is nothing to support this attitude. When widely available test scores are compared and corrected for the socioeconomic standing of the students, students in public schools do as well as students in private schools. What the private schools do, though, is to exclude the poor from their pool of students and so raise, on average, their student performances. Their curricula are not superior. Their teachers are not superior. Their facilities are not superior, they just exclude poor students by the simple expedient of charging a lot of money. A private grammar school next door to our first condo when we moved to Chicago, charges $24,000 per year to attend. Poor students had access to this school . . . they just could afford to go. Just like their parent’s have access to health care, they just can’t afford to take advantage of it.

* * *

Fourth, poverty is the enemy of educational improvement. Eliminating poverty is not a job schools can tackle but there are things that can be done to offset it. For one, all public schools should offer free breakfasts and lunches to all students. The cost of this is far less than a recent major fighter jet system that was ordered but will never be used. If we do this, then no kid can use hunger as an excuse as to why they can’t pay attention, because they won’t be hungry.

Similarly there should be common health screenings and treatments for all school kids. This would be far cheaper than the diseases spread by children when they get infected through lack of care and exposure to disease. The current pandemic is teaching us this . . . again.

Schools should work to eliminate the stigma of being poor, something promoted only by the wealthy class.

October 11, 2020

Homo Sapiens Slackers

Filed under: Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 12:15 pm

As most of you know “Homo sapiens” means “wise man.” Our particular species, that of modern humans, is Homo sapiens sapiens (we are “wise, wise men”?). But maybe it should be Homo sapiens slacker.

Most people now argue that the modern human species, aka “us,” dates back at least 200,000 years and maybe 300,000 years. But the “cognitive explosion” didn’t happen until 50-100,000 years ago . . . some say 80,000 years but I don’t know how specific one can be here.

This “event” was a rapid expansion of cognitive skills in human beings.

So, if we were first on earth 300,000 years ago and we started acting like modern humans 80,000 years ago, what were we doing for that first 220,000 years or so? Slacking, that’s what.

It seems probable that there was a mutation that led to our brains being able to share information better between regions of specialized function and this, in turn, led to a great leap in cognition.

Prior to the point we were more animalistic. After that point we really started showing unique mental properties. These properties involved the development of a suite of mental inferences that supported enhanced communication and enhanced societies. In my humble opinion, it also allowed religion.

Prior to this cognitive transformation, people were limited to what was real, what one could point at and touch and taste, that is “sense.” Once we developed more imaginative functions, we could predict farther into the future and also we could live with imagined causes that today make no sense to us: trees and brooks that we sentient, mountains that watched over us. Ancestral spirits that guided us or punished us.

Many of these inference systems, e.g. agency detection, have no fact-checking function built in to them. So religious ideas tapped into these functions and “felt” right to many and so were acceptable, at least memorable. Then if those concepts were reinforced, they became more and more real.

So, “religion (it is not a monolithic block) developed along with these cognitive abilities. Scientific thinking, using different inference systems, with quite different motivations, is not at all as natural as the religious thinking. It is a little easier to see this as the difference between learning a playground game and learning math. The one is easy, the other hard . . . for everybody.

I still wonder about that roughly 220,000 year period in which our ancestors, having a lifespan of 25-30 years at best, were hunting and gathering and . . . slacking evolutionarily. It was like Waiting for Godot but waiting for a mutation instead.

As a long ago commercial meme had it “you don’t mess with Mother Nature,” but Mother Nature does mess with us. It is interesting that one of our major political parties yearns for the good old days, say 80,000 years ago when religion reigned unchallenged.

All Politics is Local . . . All Religion is Local

Filed under: Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 12:05 pm

You are probably aware of the saying “all politics is local.” While people may blah, blah, blah about this or that national policy, all political positions are shaped by the locality of the person who creates it. States rights seems to be localized in the American South, for example.

Similarly, I contend that all religion is local and I am not referring to the fact that one’s religion is determined by where one was born more than any other factor, although that is a consequence of my claim.

Whenever atheists and theists converse, which seems to happen only on the Internet, atheists are constantly bewildered by how the religious can believe such claptrap. (I am far from immune from this disease.) But, in actuality, the religious almost never think about the philosophical or historical fine points of their religion. Most Christians haven’t even read their scriptures carefully, even those who believe that the Bible is the literal word of their god. (This is stunning to me, even though I know why they haven’t done so.)

What the religious do think about are local things. (This is why church politics is so vicious.) They think about praying for sick friends who are in hospital. They think about their stint in the church’s thrift shop or food bank. They think about preparing to lead a session of Sunday School or filling in for an ill song leader or . . . or . . . .

The illogic of their beliefs are rarely brought up and almost never dwelt upon. Things that provide a “feel good” feeling are what draws attention and effort.

I, and I think this is also true for the vast majority of atheists, have no problem with ordinary Christians. Most are good people doing the best they can. (I don’t know enough about ordinary Muslims or Buddhists to claim the same for them.) It is the proselytizers, the apologists, and the Christian nationalists who are pushing their beliefs onto others who I have a bone to pick with. Those who want Biblical Creationism taught in public schools, those who want so-called “Christian morality” in the form of the ten commandments incorporated into our laws, those who want the USA to be declared a Christian nation, these are who I oppose and most strongly.

The locally religious  are usually harmless, except when they support the efforts of the people mentioned above. (Surveys of “ordinary” Muslims show they support Sharia law and the death penalty for blasphemy. Those taking the law into their own hands to perform executions of blasphemers and killing women in “Honor Killings,” receive much support from ordinary Muslims for their actions. Would not things be different if ordinary believers felt differently? The same is true for ordinary Christians.)

Oh, and in addition to the “All . . . is local” rules, there is also the dictum of “Follow the money” which applies both to politics and religion.

The War Between Religion and Science

Filed under: Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:03 pm
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Plenty has been written on this topic, including by me. It is interesting as there really isn’t anything that can be called “religion” or really “science” for that matter. There are not real things.

Science is what scientists do, a set of behaviors and thoughts, maybe. At best it can be considered a culture. Religion is no one thing. The Cargo Cults and the Catholic Church have very little in common.

In his book, Religion Explained, Pascal Boyer makes the point that religions use ordinary mental processes (he actually uses the phrase “hijacks normal inference systems”) that were designed by evolution (for other purposes).

To vastly oversimplify this, consider the scheme of System 1 and System 2 thinking invented by Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow was his landmark book). Type 1 thinking is fast, intuitive, emotional, unconscious thought. The Type 2 system is slow, calculating, analytical, conscious thought (think math problems). The big difference between Type 1 and Type 2 thinking is that Type 1 is fast and easy but very susceptible to bias, whereas Type 2 is slow and requires conscious effort but is much more resistant to cognitive biases.

Religion uses the Type 1 system. Science uses the Type 2 system.

We have evolved both kinds of thinking for very good reasons. For example, if you hear a grizzly bear growl very loud behind you, you do not want to be cogitating over which species of Ursus that growl might belong to, you want to be skeedaddling as fast as possible. Similarly, if you want to master the game of chess, or design a self-propelled vehicle, or a computer, intuition won’t get you very far.

These two systems really can’t war with one another.

If I may quote Boyer: “The religion-versus-science debate took a special turn in the West because of the existence not only of doctrinal religion but of a monopolistic doctrinal religion that made the crucial mistake of meddling in empirical statements of fact, providing us with a long list of particularly precise, official and officially compelling statements about the cosmos and biology, supposedly guaranteed by Revelation, that we now know to be false.” (page 320)

This is the equivalent of the meme “I found your nose . . . it was in my business again.”

But having lost every single disagreement between religious facts and scientific facts has resulted in the religious retreating into their Type 1 thinking zone, saying that religion addresses a special domain of human existence. (The touchy-feely zone? The Twilight Zone?)

Actually there is no war. The religious drifted out of their lane because of ignorance, and got smacked around for it. There is no contest here, so there is no war. The lanes are not race lanes.

Interestingly I see many, many questions on Quora addressing such lane changes, so the “faith” of religion encourages Type 1 thinking in that it “feels right” intuitively but ends up with still many religious practitioners trying to start the car they took the engine out of last year. It is too much trouble to lift up the hood of the car to find out why it wont start, that would involve Type 2 thinking and that is discouraged in all religions. (Curiously Type 2 thinking is allowed in “church fathers” and other intelligentsia (apologists, etc.) as long as they are on a leash, a leash that is held by the church.)

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