Archive for Philosophy and Logic

Apr
24

Has America lost its resilience?

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One of Pavlov's dogs, preserved at The Pavlov Museum, Ryazan, Russ

One of Pavlov’s dogs, preserved at The Pavlov Museum, Ryazan, Russia.
By Rklawton via Wikimedia Commons


Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.

That is how people who study psychological resilience see the difference between people who rise above adversity and those who succumb to it. Maria Konnikova wrote about those studies in a February New Yorker article. Coping skills come naturally to some people, but they can also change over time. “The stressors can become so intense that resilience is overwhelmed,” Konnikova writes. “Most people, in short, have a breaking point.”

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Something Gaius wrote on Monday grabbed me:

In the FDR-liberal world, the function of government is to provide services to citizens and protection from predators in the private sector. In the neo-liberal world, the function of government is to manage government services so the private sector is given the most profit opportunities possible.

Going back over some notes from the weekend, I recognized the echo of George Monbiot’s critique of neoliberalism in the Guardian. His How Did We Get into This Mess? was released yesterday. Neoliberalism, like many political enthusiasms, morphed from philosophy to religion with its practitioners hardly noticing. Not so for working people paying for neoliberal hubris. They noticed:

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

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New Yorker tells the sad tale of the latest failed experiment in AI. Apparently (I missed it), Microsoft last week rolled out a twitter bot named Tay:

Tay is an artificial intelligent chat bot developed by Microsoft’s Technology and Research and Bing teams to experiment with and conduct research on conversational understanding. Tay is designed to engage and entertain people where they connect with each other online through casual and playful conversation. The more you chat with Tay the smarter she gets, so the experience can be more personalized for you.

Tay is targeted at 18 to 24 year old in the US.

Uh-oh. You don’t have to be Mary Shelley to see where this is going. After barely a day of “consciousness,” Microsoft pulled Tay’s plug.

Anthony Lydgate explains:

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Mar
05

Strip mining the human landscape

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350px-Chino_copper_mineDylan Ratigan’s August 2011 on-camera meltdown is as close as reality has ever come to Howard Beale’s Network rant remembered in Digby’s sidebar.

What made it a powerful moment was he was right:

Tens of trillions of dollars are being extracted from the United States of America. Democrats aren’t doing it, republicans aren’t doing it, an entire integrated system, banking, trade and taxation, created by both parties over a period of two decades is at work on our entire country right now.

Elias Isquith at Salon this morning interviews Les Leopold, Labor Institute executive director and president, about his new book “Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice.” Ratigan called what is happening “being extracted.” Leopold calls it “financial strip mining,” and a far cry from what free marketeers and neoliberals taught would happen from lower taxes and fewer regulations:
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Mar
01

A certain moral flexibility

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Nick Naylor (lobbyist for the Academy of Tobacco Studies): My job requires a certain… moral flexibility.

Thank You for Smoking (2005)

Martin Blank (contract killer): When I left, I joined the Army, and when I took the service exam, my psych profile fit a certain… “moral flexibility” would be the best way to describe it. I was loaned out to a CIA-sponsored program – it’s called “mechanical operations” – and we sort of found each other.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Perhaps it is a class thing. We already know the rich live by a different set of rules from the hoi polloi. One fascinating thing about moralizing by many conservatives is their flexibility about accepting people (among their tribe) who bend the rules and get away with it. If an opponent does it, that’s wrong. If they do it – say, waterboarding or carpet bombing – well, you can’t make an omelet, etc., etc. Beating the system or rigging the game in one’s favor is a sign of strength. Cleverness and guile are the marks of a leader.

So the latest from BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith should have no impact whatsoever on Donald Trump:

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Feb
28

Entitled to their own country

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entitled-child2a“That’s just not done,” people used to say of behaviors that violated genteel rules of polite society. It is not an expression you hear much anymore. “Polite society” is now as quaint as the notion that the United States abides by the international rule barring torture. Like the rule against Ghostbusters getting involved with possessed people, it’s more of a guideline than a rule.

“It’s okay if you’re a Republican” (IOKIYAR) is musty Internet shorthand for how one major party believes rules and norms apply only to certain people and not others. We are beyond that now. Far beyond it. It is a wonder anyone still uses the expression from the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Nobody believes it anymore, even at the highest levels.

Writing for Salon, Harvard professor Bruce Hay gives his understanding of how the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia approached science. As a former Scalia clerk, Hay speaks from experience:

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Jan
28

Voter id, not voter ID

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Flickr photo by whizchickenonabun via Creative Commons

Flickr photo by whizchickenonabun via Creative Commons

All this time and money Republicans spent trying to game elections in this country seems wasted. They erected hurdles to voting in state after state, from evil-genius gerrymandering to voter IDs to slashing early voting and same-day registration to shorting voting machines in minority precincts. They could have just asked Trump. Voter id, not voter ID may determine this election.

New York magazine surveyed 100 Republican primary voters. They were all over the ideological map. The one phrase that seemed to encapsulate the voters’ mood in choosing a candidate is “testicular fortitude”:

The phrase seemed telling. If there was anything almost all of the respondents sought in a candidate, it was that testicular fortitude — or, in less colorful terms, strength. It’s why Trump has steamrolled his rivals despite his ideological inconsistencies as a Republican. And it’s why Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have failed to connect: Being labeled a nerd in this GOP primary is the kiss of death; being cast as a sissy is even worse. Machismo even seems to be Carly Fiorina’s best selling point.

This attraction to strength seems to be connected to an inchoate sense that the world is falling apart. The voters we spoke to were concerned about a lot of potential threats — terrorist, economic, and cultural — and hoped that a strong president would protect them from dangers within as well as from abroad. Voters said they no longer felt free to be themselves in their own country — policed in their speech, unable to pray publicly or even say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. “Everything’s so p.c.,” said Priscilla Mills, a 33-year-old hospital coordinator from Manchester. “And then the second you do say something, you’re a racist.” Trump, who had 21 percent of the vote in our small sample, has capitalized the most on the political-correctness grievance, which is likely to surface in the general election no matter who becomes the nominee.

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Jan
18

A moral and financial black hole

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Not all drugs have to be injected, ingested or inhaled. Yesterday, I drew parallels between the man-made crisis on Wall Street and the man-made water crisis in Flint Michigan. The reason is that the amoral pursuit of personal gain is an addiction that goes far beyond Wall Street. The Big Short made a big impression, can you tell?

The Guardian’s Tim Adams spoke with “The Big Short” author Michael Lewis about the film’s protagonists:

The idea that the madness was going to get worse did not occur to him. “In fact, it got worse and worse to the point where people were paid unbelievable fortunes just to do stupid things with money. Even the movie can’t really get this across. The movie gets across that there was a bet and these smart guys were on the right side of the bet. And those smart guys made hundreds of millions of dollars. That inevitably leaves you thinking that the people on the other side of the bet lost. Of course, the banks went down. But the real story is the actual people on the other side of the bet also got very rich despite the banks collapsing. If no matter what side of the bet you are on things are still going to work out for you, the world is upside down.”

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Jan
05

Give me that old-time constitution

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Ammon Bundy

Say what you will about the excesses of Rome and the papacy (and not to ignore Constantinople), prior to the Reformation there was some central authority to define Christianity for much of the West, to set standards and protocols, if you will. The Reformation may have decentralized the faith and brought it closer to the people, but it also meant by the late 20th century that any American huckster with a flashy suit, an expensive coif, a sonorous voice, and a black, Morocco-bound, gilt-edged, King James red-letter edition could define Christianity pretty much any damned way he pleased. And did. Who was to say he was wrong?

That do-it-yourself spirit extends as well to Americans’ understanding of their founding documents. Every born-again, T-party convert carries a pocket Constitution and becomes an instant expert and his own defining authority on what is and isn’t the true American faith. It’s the American Dream: every man his own Supreme Court; no priestly judicial caste interposed between a man and his God.

Dana Milbank looks at how, like the stand-oafish Bundy militia in Oregon, they love them some law of the land until they have to live under it. Then it’s “unconstitutional.” Conservative thought leaders (oxymoron?) regularly wink at lawbreaking when it furthers their purposes. Because their leaders condone it, the Bundy bunch believes the atmosphere is right for challenging “unconstitutional land transactions” 108 years after a Republican president set aside public lands for conservation:

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Dec
28

A “small step” towards a better future

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This exchange from Star Trek: First Contact always fascinated me:

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The economics of the future are somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century.
Lily Sloane: No money? You mean, you don’t get paid?
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.

What a concept. A society not organized around money. Thomas Paine floated the idea of a citizen’s stipend in Agrarian Justice (1797). His ideas for reorganizing the economy were a bit ahead of his time. And while the 24th century may be bit far off yet, it seems several European cities are taking Paine’s 18th century idea out for a test drive:

An experiment to give away money as “basic income” is underway in Germany. In 2014, Michael Bohmeyer, a 31-year-old German entrepreneur, launched “My Basic Income” (“Mein Grundeinkommen”), and this month, the project, made possible through crowdfunding, issued $1,100 checks to 26 people to use however they want.

Leftists in Germany tend to support the idea of basic income while others in the country say the idea might take away incentives for people to work.

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