Sunday, October 02, 2016

Play Theory and GroupThink combine with Misunderstood Statistical Risk

Last night we had dinner with a couple of my wife's friends.  There was a gay German couple our age.  My German friends were the best to debate with, and although my wife's always afraid I will get into politics with her work friends, I just can't resist a really good argument.

We started out talking about Syrian refugees coming to the USA.  Our intellectual friends were all for it, applauded bringing our share into Vermont, and shaking their heads at the fear and rejection of Angelina Maerkel's policy in EU.

I agreed.  The way I expressed my agreement was that people don't understand statistics.  The "shark attack" scares people because it's in a headline.   They all agreed.  There are real statistical risks, and peoples math skill lag behind their impulse to be herded by fears of things that don't actually threaten them.

I'd been doing dishes for 20 minutes and hadn't said much, so the table nodded and I kept the floor.

To make the point I asked them "Do you remember what happened in 2004?

They weren't sure what I meant.

"Do you remember more than 200,000 people being killed? Two hundred thousand.  That's a real risk, that dwarfs all the shark attacks and terrorist attacks and airplane disasters, even most wars."

One of course knew now that I was talking about the Indian Ocean earthquake-tsunami, and the others then said "of course".  All agreed that nothing in the news came remotely near the devastation that occurred that day, and agreed people remember individual (and insignificant) risks.

Of course, one murder or terrorist attack or motorcycle accident is too many, but everyone agreed that most people can't follow trendlines, only headlines.  We all agreed that a large amount of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, "Red State Hate" was from ignorance of statistical risk.

Then I added, "And liberals do it too.  We all have a tendency (Play Theory) to agree with people who we socialize with.  If you divide kids on a playground," I added, "and gave each group it's own colored shirt, and got one group to say 'Elephants are better than zebras', and the other group leader to say "Zebras are better than elephants,' that the kids will invariably take and hold the opinion of their "team"."  

Everyone agreed.  Time to throw a curve ball.

"I think one of the biggest exaggerated risks are guns, and the solutions that gun control represents."

Here I got pushback.  One of the Germans said "I cannot back you there!"  He felt very strongly that gun ownership in America was irrational and represented a crazy level of danger, said Americans were irrational about owning guns.  I could tell all agreed with him.

So I gave the statistical case why the threat of gun ownership had been exaggerated.

First, in the "total gun deaths" figures shared, the number one is suicide.  Suicide is tragic, but isn't a threat to me.  They agreed suicide should be taken off the table.  Then I said that Japan had the lowest level of gun ownership and highest level of suicide.  That got some demurring noises, but I agreed to move back to the risks I feel that other people own guns.

Second group of gun deaths was (particularly in Mexico) gang vs. gang, criminal vs. criminal.

Here a guest said he agreed, but that domestic violence, guns owned by a family used against a family member was significant tragedy.

So are motorcycles and ATVs, I said.  If another family owns one, they are more likely to have a kid die on one.  But that is not a risk to ME.  The risk to ME of being killed by someone who owns a gun, I said, is pretty low, not on the Tsunami scale.  Gun deaths in the USA had actually declined steadily since the 1970s, etc.

A friend at the table asked my opinion of conceal and carry laws, like at the university in Texas.  Would I accept that idea at Middlebury College?

I said right now it was a local community decision, and I didn't see any argument yet for the federal government to reverse the university of Texas policy.  Maybe it would blow up in their face, but I said I understood the rational "don't mess with Texas" argument that a neighborhood where most people likely possessed a gun might not be robbed at the rate of a neighborhood that had banned guns.  I didn't say that I believed that - I reminded everyone that we were just talking about how a group has groupthink, that even educated people can form very strong feelings of risk over something which isn't really demonstrated to be a significant risk... the same as Syrian refugees in Vermont.

I said the largest risk is that people in the liberal Northeast expressing an opinion of Don't Mess With Texans who own guns would result in a more conservative politician being elected.  That the NRA knows that gun sales go up when the topic comes up, and keeps introducing the topic, getting a liberal reaction, and gun sales go up and liberals take the bait every time there's a gun death, the same as conservatives take the bait every time there's a crime by a Muslim.

Neither the Muslim or the Gun belong in the headlines, because headlines can CREATE trendlines.

I talked about the famous "Teen woman suicide epidemic" of several decades ago, when each time a teen girl committed suicide, the headline was "Yet Another!", an editorial "how to stop this alarming trend?" of teen women committing suicide.

Some editors decided to do a test on "copycat" theory.  They stopped putting the suicides on the front page, and both the perception of the risk - and the risk itself - went down.  The epidemic was over.

I kind of look at "Muslim terrorism" and "Gun crime" as pretty low risks whose main danger is that people will over-react to them.

Had interracial marriage been combined with "gun control" laws, conservatives whose opinion of interracial marriage was primarily "elephant v. zebra" groupthink, agreeing with conservative friends and family, might never have died of its own natural trendline.  There are probably more interracial marriages in Arkansas than in Vermont today, and no one gives a shit, because the opinions weren't deep, and the opinions weren't deep because there's really no risk to us of someone else getting married.

The risk to LGBT rights (like marriage) is primarily due to a false association that a "liberal" who supports LGBT rights will ALSO try to take my handgun away.

Everyone excused themselves.  It was late, and they wanted to go home




Friday, June 19, 2015

Value of Species

Does the longing, regret, and appreciation by humans give the Black Rhino its value?

If no humans know, or are aware of, a species, has it less value?

Or does the most value of species derive from the most diversity (number of species)?


Monday, January 05, 2015

Friday, March 21, 2014

Intelligence and Boiling Water

The stove has been hot, the water sits still
In the black pan.  I lean over
Slowly they appear.  Tiny bubble spots
on the bottom of the pan.  They grow.

Slowly one is larger.  Slowly, another.
The tiny bubbles are not yet a boil.
Our definition of water's awareness.
They have the potential, and left alone
they will become a boiling bubble.

Is intelligence the detection of truth
Like a tiny bubble before boiling?
Is the tiny spot with the bigger bubble
smarter about the heat?  The first
to know...

Monday, December 16, 2013

Theory of Time and Prophesy

Start with the premise that A can be more enlightened, or more intelligent, or have more information than B.

I probably know a lot more than a goldfish.   No doubt there are things a goldfish knows instantly that I don't, like water oxygen levels or temperatures.  But between human and beetle, or experienced and educated human A vs. baby human B, I postulate that not every perspective is equally enlightened, and that the basis for dialectic and scientific method.

In the economy of intelligence, Adam Smith's tribal spear makers analysis would still mean that enlightened people who engage in thought with people who are 50% less efficient at thinking will still be ahead of those who are insular in their thinking.   That's a reasoning basis for what seemed common sense to me when I decided NOT to be a monk in India or Nepal.   I loved god enough, but the value added by monkdom seemed to me as limited to one's own "shiny conscience" and did not add to karma.  I instead decided to make a difference about things I learned to care about from Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall, and other nature programs.  That is the subject of my other public blog, Good Point Ideas.

As a thought exercise, I think more than That Thing, therefore...?  I don't know the end of that sentence, but it sounds arrogant and anti-egalitarian.  Except for my imagination.  It is not difficult for me to accept a premise of a higher Thought, a more Enlightened Being.  Something that is as far above me intellectually as I am to the beetle and goldfish.   And I would no more recognize that Entity or Being than a goldfish recognizes me.   If a goldfish decided to "worship" more enlightened beings, it would not even know how to think about them, and so it is with the Higher Power I imagine and construct in my hypothesis.  I am B, what is A the more enlightened, if I remove the limitations of human mind.

The term enlightened I will accept prima facia, and use it to explain how greater enlightenment is measured.  A brighter and brigher light actually has diminishing returns.  What gives the greater light more value, at a certain point, it the distance and time it enlightens.

Imagine a beetle is crawling slowly along the length of 100 meter rope, cable and hose, interconnected.   The rope, to the beetle, is really only "visible" for a fraction of a centimeter.   The concept of the rope changing to wire, then to hose, is beyond the beetle, and the memory of the past rope is unknown.  If I am in a completely dark room, and told to measure every centimeter and describe it, every knot or kink or change in color, and I have but a small candle, it will take a long time.  I need to handle every part of the rope, bit by bit, to examine it with the candlelight.  Faster and more enlightened than the beetle, my knowledge of the 100 meters is bound to be superior at the end of the exercise.  The beetle's senses may know something I don't, and Adam Smith would recommend I exchange information with the beetle if I can.

Now imagine rather than a candle, someone has a powerful torch or flashlight.   Or a brightly lit room.  Or someone has experience, or a greater amount of time to experience the 100 meters of rope/wire/hose.  My B is less than their A of knowledge.

What I then do is imagine a higher intelligence which is as much beyond me as I am to the beetle.

My biggest advantage over the beetle is my speed and the light given my eyesight.   The Higher Power is exponentially speedy at assessing the 100 meter length.  It is as if Higher Power can see the entire length in one instant.

Imagine a novel.  I can read a page a minute.  The Higher Power reads the entire book in a second.

50,000 years, my highest aspiration of conscience, is way too long for me.  What prophets do is find a way to make other people care about what they care about, by making us care about the Future.  A beetle prophet somehow knows something about the future of walking on wire, or walking no rubber hose, which the beetle on the rope does not know but will someday, or some hour, encounter.  I believe ants do this in their long chains on the rope, using social information to achieve a level of digital intelligence which may approximate or even surpass the man with the candle.

My writings and insights are like digits of information passed by ants in a colony.   It isn't the same as God or a higher power, it's a two-dimensional projection in Plato's Cave.   But my biggest limitation is time travel.

To a God, my entire life, which I can only see a few moments at a time, and only through memory and hindsight, is a string or rope, which God can see in its entirety.  Does this mean the future is ordained?  If the end of my rope is at the same time as now, or my life runs so quickly through the projector that I cannot even tell the plotline, does that negate free will?

No.  We cannot change our past anyway.   That does not mean we didn't have a choice in the past.  But what we did, we did, and the quality of that life is the quality it is.   What free will is has been misunderstood.  It is the process of self discovery and self awareness, to be at our highest potential given the rope/wire/hose we are on.  I may find a future rope has a cancerous liver and is much shorter than I had anticipated.   I may find my rope cut short in a plane accident.  At that time, my rope is the quality it is.  It's a shorter rope than another, but maybe it's better quality.  

And freed from reading one page at a time, or one length of rope by a candlelight, God can see the entire length of my life at once, and see it in time at the same time and comparison of a rope from another time, on another shelf.

This vision or philosophy does not make all humans equal.  But it judges us all by the integrity of our lives.  We all may have moments of weakness, of loss of integrity.  But wire, hose and rope are also used for different things, and sometimes integrity means we just need a rubber band and not a chain, and the appropriateness of this person to the job they perform means they have the right strength, flexibility, and length.

My life's rope, my string, can only be seen by a power with perceptions beyond my own.   I cannot judge my life or the lives of the billions of other ropes inside the darkness of night.  But MY inability to judge them all does not make them all matter less.  A prophet tells people what kind of rope to build, what to be, how to measure our lives to meet the needs of a future.

In southwestern (Hopi or Navajo) culture, my great grandfather explained, there is a parable of heaven and hell.  At the end of our lives, we come to a fork in a path, and one way leads to heaven and one to hell.  But there is no St. Peter, each must choose his own way.  My great grandfather said he thought that sounded unfair, that it was left to chance, that there needed to be some sign to tell the righteous which path to take.

No, the wise chief told him.  There is no sign.  But the people who spend their entire lives making the right choice and the best choice will make it then.  And the people who by habit make the worse choices, try as they may to psyche out the test, try as they may to try a contrarian double reverse on their own impulse, somehow, through force of habit, will choose the bad path.  It is a heaven and hell without a last second of divine intervention, but with no one else to blame for lack of mercy. 




Sunday, September 08, 2013

My Thoughts Pass Like Clouds

Walking on a sunny September day
A noisy breeze sweeping the first leaf
Scuttling by my feet.

I look up at the source of brightness
A blue sky white clouds
Blaring silent infinity above.

A whispy cloud passes
I saw its shadow first, descending the hill
Over my head, a little grey, and it's gone.

In brightness again, I think
That the cloud passing
Was like a thought through my mind.

Could a cloud be a thought?
No, I think, it's less.
Chemistry of H2O, temperature, density.

But is it less than a thought?
Who am I to say.
Who am I to weigh my thoughts?

My thought brought no water.
My poem provides no shade.
And like a sunny day, passes forgotten.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Transcendental Understanding

A little before or after 6AM, in Middlebury Vermont, I was preparing my first cup of coffee.   From under the bread box, a small white-ish spider emerged.

For a few seconds I thought about the spider.  He's not bothering me.  Generally, insects and bugs don't, unless they are mosquitos biting me or gnats in my eyes.  I could easily enough have ignored the spider.

But I also know there are billions of insects and spiders.   Compassion for the spider can be mistaken.  If he were a roach, I'd surely have killed him without thought.  For that matter, if it were a black widow, or brown recluse, I would have captured it and put it in an alcohol jar, or otherwise killed it, per my life training.

As a father with kids still living in the house, I made a decision.  I grabbed a nearby napkin.  Between my hand and the spider, the napkin enveloped it, and with a sudden light crush I felt its innards smash into the napkin.  When I picked up the napkin, the spider's body fell out like a little clenched baby fist, its legs contracted inward.   I thought about having wasted the napkin, as I picked it and the spider up and threw it in the trash.   How many spiders lived in the trees we cut down and smashed to make the napkins?  How many animals were poisoned by the bleach in the water we use to turn the napkin a brighter white?  

Possibly, wasting the napkin represented more insect carnage than the decision to waste the white spider.

In these moments, I was balancing compassion, empathy, and ethical decision making.   I'd overcome much of the fear that others I know experience in reaction to a spider.   I felt certain I could check off the box that I wasn't killing an endangered species, or otherwise morally crossing the 50,000 year rule.

Predators like spiders kill too.   We want to believe they kill only out of hunger, only what they need.  But that's really not true in many cases.   It may be true for fish like sharks, I don't really know.   But even a shark will probably kill a larger animal than they need, like a person ordering a super-size drink because it's the same price as a small.   And lions and other cats definitely kill for sport, without the moral debate I describe in executing the decision to napkin-grab the spider.

These moral decisions I rehearse every time I take an action.  It's like there are few things I do by habit.  Yet I know that's not true, because I use napkins and toilet papers, bleached white as snow, without thinking each time of the consumption tax I'm placing on the planet, or its impact on other humans and species.   I wrote about the sinister trap of rich-people guilt, when we set up an "eco-box" of thought which makes us superior to people who cannot afford the choice.  Yes, I can buy tofu at the Co-op and eat less red meat.  But if I tell myself I'm a better person than a little Fulani girl, whose parents raise the cattle, and feed her enough protein for her to grow to the tallest of Africans, I've written my own rules.   When the Fulani girl excretes poop in the woods, she doesn't use forests to wipe herself.  She does have an impact, if she washes her hands in a stream, or if she doesn't, and carries disease to the family.

The mantras are getting tired.  Not tired, really, but routine and familiar.   I think of myself as a thinking person, because I've weighed the decision to kill the spider.   But I'm not better, in any significant way, than someone who killed the spider without thinking about it... at least not in that moment.  Having a conscience gives us the potential to be better, but if our actions are the same, feeling guilty about them has no more measure in the infinite universe than a spider with the Frankenstein's Cat gene which makes it feel human guilt over the poison it spews into the neck of an aphid.

The transcendental moment, or realization, is this.

I can imagine an intelligence as much greater than my own as I have over the spider.

If that intelligence can be imagined, it may exist.  Now, in the future, in this place, or light years away.  I can imagine almost infinite intelligence, derivative by derivative, exponentially increasing insight and knowledge differences between human and arachnid or insect.

When I dwell on a seemingly infinite wisdom, which I could no more comprehend than a spider comprehends a novel on a bookcase, it puts human morality in a different context.   I start to see that our morality is a system maintained between humans, a currency we use, like ants with chemical markers that dictate which hive to bring leaves to.

Transcendental meditation didn't appeal to me so much when I was a teenager, because it made us all equal. No matter how morally sharp we might be, we were ants in a hive imagining a God who cares how big a chunk of leaf we can carry.  Why try if infinity is the denominator?  Or zero?

I guess I truly believe that infinity, and not zero, as the denominator, and that makes a difference to me. It's a difference between wonder and fear.   Division by zero scares me, division by infinity makes me feel super intelligent and full of potential insight.  We are all numerators, who by meditating peer over the division into the yaw of the denominator, an infinite universe.

I imagine this caring to matter.  I imagine the comfort and resolution to bring something.   It's something which, by use of language, I can tell A) myself, B) other humans who understand and take time to read it, and C) an infinite higher power, one Whom I can imagine understands my compassion.

Like a king who falls in love with a peasant girl and must dress himself down to peasants clothing, so that they can experience the same kind of love as equals (thanks to Dr. Sipfle of Carleton)... the difference between a King and a peasant is a pretty small denominator / numerator ratio, but it gets us looking in that infinity direction, away from a zero.  Wonderment at something more intelligent, greater and larger understanding than we can ever conceive of or hold in our minds.   Like staring into the sun, we are blinded by the concept of a source of knowledge, compassion, and understanding, a source of logic which like gravity puts truth and order into a dark chaos of infinite space, gravity on which we build our rules.

Even if that Sun supernovas one day, or sends a scorching solar flare at us like a toxic napkins, crushing us in an instant of time, making Earth extinct of all creatures for all remaining time... it's still good, I think, to know our place.

By meditating, transcendentally, I'd tell my kids they are more likely to relate to other near-species, humans and mammals and birds, and their habitats, in proportion to our importance.   We'll be less likely, I think, to kill and maim with our surgical tools.  The insights into gravity and logic, faith and light, will make us reach our highest potential.    And the highest moral potential is a great power we are blessed with.

Ultimately, understanding is conveyed in a human language, even English, like a painting of the sky.  It's two dimensional, it won't survive the solar flare.  The ultimate higher intelligence may take eternity just to complete an infinite thought.

It has made Arjuna a warrior.  Arjuna has chosen to war against the posers.  The high and mighty church which blesses love like some third party regulator.  The environmental watchdog who poses as a fair arbitrager of trade between rich and poor.  It has made someone willing to push the envelop on popularity, a Huck Finn who accepts his society's judgement of hell.

Thinking transcendentally and ethically prepares us to take moral positions, which help us to engineer our society the way the infinity of math and physics is brought down to earth by engineers designing a bridge.  By knowing math and metrics, I can properly size the cut of tissue for the waste basket coffin of the pale white spider.

And return to my work, and my coffee, and to be dad for a little while longer, and to appreciate my luck and fortune.

The trick is to look at the sun just long enough, and no longer, to give an idea of what infinite light will look like, without blinding or disorienting or obscuring the vision.  The sun gives warmth and direction, whether it cares about our individual souls or not.  If I choose to think it does, it matters if that belief improves my aim, and causes me to fire less in the dark.