Some Risk, Some Reward

Anyone who reads this blog must surely know that I consider myself an amateur historian. With that in mind, then, I can’t imagine anyone being surprised that I was intrigued by an article in today’s Washington Post about modern technology and what it’s doing to the past.

In the article, they speak of colorizations of famous black and white photographs, and artificial intelligence either creating famous speeches (e.g., John Donne or Henry V) that were given before we could record them, or — somewhat ominously — speeches that were never delivered, such as Richard Nixon’s speech he was prepared to give in the event of the failure of Apollo 11 or JFK’s planned speech in Dallas.

There’s a good debate worth having here. A few years ago, I saw a fact that was simultaneously new informatio but completely unsurprising: that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 were the single most documented event in world history. This is not surprising because of where it took place and the proliferation of then-available technology. (And changes in technology since then have made other events that haven’t happened yet, even more documentable…)

So it’s an interesting thought experiment: if we could somehow go back in time and instill modern technology into past events, what would we learn about those events that we currently don’t know? Pick any major battle of any major war, for example, and you can get a true, honest picture of things like the number of people on each side, who they were, the injuries they sustained, and so on… We’re always talking about how soldiers return home from a war completely changed because of what they saw on the battlefield and how, after the peace treaties are signed, we say “never again” until the next war comes around. Could technology help make that “never again” a reality without resorting to dishonest portrayals of the event?

So I think that anything that can put a human face on the limitations of then-available technology (like careful colorization of black and white photos) can be a good thing.

Creating the audio of a speech that was never actually delivered is a bit murkier and it definitely tiptoes between the question of what we can do and what we should do.

One thing we certainly don’t want to do is create the audio of one person giving someone else’s speech. I don’t think anyone wants to hear Donald Trump trying to deliver Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. (And I’m not just saying that as a criticism of Trump; I should think that even his most ardent of supporters would recognize that he and King have/had two completely different speaking styles…)

But when it comes to text of speeches that someone could have delivered under different circumstances, when the text is already known and available? Isn’t it safe to assume that the speaker practiced the speech at least once? Knowing Richard Nixon’s penchant for recording things, the only reason why there is no extant recording of him practicing the delivery of a “doomed Apollo 11 speech” was because he didn’t start recording himself until two years after the fact. If he’d thought of it earlier, there probably would be a recording of him giving it, albeit not to a public audience. And by now it would be available to the public. So what’s the difference between that and a computer simulation of the same speech, given by the same person?

At the very least, a good test of the AI that pieces together a speech like that would be to compare the piecemeal part of the speech, against a recording of a speech that was actually given. Surely someone could get a computer to simulate JFK’s inaugural address based upon the text of it and clips of him speaking, to see how it sounds in comparison to the real thing?

As long as everyone involved is honest about it and what they’re doing, I don’t really see any major problems with this. There will be risks, and growing pains, and people who are less than honest, to be sure, but when all is said and done, I should think and hope that it could create more engagement, especially with amateur historians like me.

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I saw this a while ago

Sometimes you see and hear something that takes a long time to process. Maybe you don’t immediately appreciate the gravity of the situation. Maybe it’s a bigger shock than you were prepared for. And sometimes other factors come into play that divert you from the necessary focus you know you should apply.

In the case of a posting on Rapture Ready that was made, as I write this, 46 days ago, all three are true.

When I look at the subset of the evangelical Christian movement that seems obsessed with eschatology — that is, the study of end-times matters — I seriously question their priorities.

(Note that I realize the words are similar, but it has very little in common with scatology, which is the study of matter coming out of your end…)

If everywhere you look, you see signs (as described in the Book of Revelation) that the world is about to end, it can be a powerful disincentive from trying to make things better (either for you or for anyone else). I’ve written before about all of the failed predictions about the end of the world and openly wondered why people keep insisting that it’s about to happen even when they keep getting it wrong. (Their math was off, of course…)

So it raises questions to me: when things out there are bad — however you choose to define the term “bad” — we essentially have three choices:

  1. Work to make things better
  2. Leave things alone and hope they get better
  3. Make things worse

Choice 1 above is, generally speaking, the preferable option although we do have to acknowledge that sometimes things do have to get worse before they get better. Think of a structurally unsound building. If the solution is to tear down the building before constructing a new, more sound, one in its place, then you might need to make things worse before they can get better.

Depending upon the situation, option 2 might be a reasonable solution. Take the common cold. It’s a bad thing — at its most benign, it’s a nuisance but it certainly can be worse than that — but one that runs its course and things improve after a short wait. Inaction while you’re trying to figure out how to solve a problem isn’t inherently a bad idea either, assuming inaction (at least for a short while) won’t make things worse.

And then there’s item 3. If it’s a step that you have to take before making things better, I approve. Otherwise, it’s a horrible idea. Everyone wants a better life for their children.

Which brings me to the Rapture Ready thread that started on March 11 of this year, by a user named “Yrrek”. Yrrek joined the board in August, 2017 and has only made 45 postings since then. Yrrek made a statement in this thread that is painful to read: “When it comes to me personally, I long to be with the Lord and be released from my loneliness and depression.”

Ouch!

Your heart just breaks for this person. The entire posting is a cry for help. His/her religious faith very possibly might be the only thing preventing him/her from committing suicide.

There’s a second line in this posting that bothers me, and it really does underscore how poisonous some religious teachings can be, both at an individual level and at a community level. Here’s someone who could use a simple friend to talk to, and then they have to throw this out: “Most of my friends are either living sinful lives and are repelled by me or they are too busy to even say hello.”

Ya know something, Yrrek? Maybe if you weren’t so judgmental towards whatever they’re doing, they wouldn’t be repelled by you… Yes, we can have busy lives but I imagine that your excessive passion for your religious beliefs can be, at its most benign, off-putting. You need help but if you’re going to distance yourself from the people who are best positioned to offer you a caring smile and a shoulder to cry on, you might just be beyond help.

I get it. Yrrek is so depressed, that the end of the world must appear to be a good thing. And a teaching about a mythical better life must be appealing.

I know that depression is not easily treated. But it can be treated. Yrrek doesn’t need Jesus. He or she needs a qualified psychiatrist and the full force of the science that is the study of mental health and neurochemistry.

Preferably before he or she does something dangerous either to him/herself or others.

Transience and Intransigence

I remember a conversation I had with a friend of mine when we were in high school, about the Beatles’ song, The Inner Light.

Now I can forgive anyone who doesn’t know this particular song. It’s not exactly the Fab Four’s best known song. Indeed, I was probably the exception and not the rule of people who were teenagers in the mid-to-late ’80s — upwards of two decades removed from the height of Beatlemania — with regard to this particular song.

In that conversation, I remember citing the refrain: “The farther one travels, the less one knows, the less one really knows.” Dave didn’t appreciate that line very much, and I don’t think I defended it very well.

When he wrote the song, I believe George Harrison tried to instill the message of how the less of the world you see, the easier it is to think you know everything. It takes an active attempt to break out of your small, private bubble, to even realize how much is out there that we don’t know.

If you’ve seen the movie The Matrix, you need to take the red pill to realize the scope of what’s out there, not the blue pill.

But there are ways to take the red pill without traveling great distances. On one hand, you can go to the other places both within and outside of your own country. On the other hand, they can come to you.

It takes a liberal immigration policy to allow other countries to come to you. I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Depending on how I choose to go and my specific destination within the city, I can be there in, at most, an hour. But even without leaving the suburbs, I look at the huge variety of restaurants selling international cuisine and am in awe: the usual suspects of Chinese, Italian, and Mexican, but also Thai, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian, Indian, Moroccan, and probably a few others I’m forgetting.

While there certainly is a reality that, depending on where I choose to go, it may or may not be authentic cuisine from those different places, it also bears mentioning that, were it not for immigrants from all of those countries, we wouldn’t be exposed to these foodstuffs. And there are many more in the city proper.

Now I’ve never been the world’s most adventurous eater. Indeed, years ago I wrote about how much of a fussy eater I am. But I am occasionally willing to step outside of my own bubble and try some things from around the world. And anyone could or should be.

All it takes is the ability and desire to put in the effort.

This is why it strikes me as, at best, an act of laziness to restrict immigration. Stay in your house, in your little bubble, and it’s true, you won’t be exposed to different people, different foods, different ideas. You won’t be challenged or made to think or rethink anything you might have previously believed.

A country as rich and diverse as America deserves better. I’m not sure how I got on Donald Trump’s mailing list but in the past couple of weeks, I’ve gotten near daily emails ostensibly from him or from some member of his family. And they often hammer home the same point about how we need to restrict immigration and/or build a completely useless wall on the US-Mexico border, often painting all foreigners as being a danger or a menace to the American way of life.

I wish I could tell him that he’s a greater danger and menace to the American way of life than just about anyone who wants to come here and build a better life for themselves.

Who knows what country’s cuisine — to which I haven’t yet been exposed — might be my next favorite food? If we don’t let people from that country into the US, I might not know…

Now it is a scary prospect, I admit, to take that red pill. Uncertainty can be and often is a frightening thing, a challenge to the things that make you comfortable. But being willing to get a little uncomfortable can lead to great changes.

There are things about our overall lives and personalities that we can’t change, and that can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing. Think about any time you said the wrong thing at the wrong time. However much you might not appreciate the consequences, it was still something in the core of who you are that led you to say it in the first place.

That’s why it’s so important to change what you can. And expanding your horizons is an easy one. For however far you travel, you’ll still be you.

If we switch to a different song, I think that’s what Harry Chapin meant in the song W*O*L*D, when he said “But you can travel on ten thousand miles and still stay where you are.”

I believe “sociopath” is the correct term…

I’ve written before about the people who post to the Rapture Ready bulletin board, most recently after Billy Graham died.

But there’s a new thread over at Rapture Ready, talking about the recent death of Stephen Hawking, that can’t go without my commenting.

One of the most annoying things about evangelicals — and it does seem quite pervasive if not universal — is an arrogance masquerading as humility. It is humble to express doubt and uncertainty about things we might not fully understand. It is not humility to claim to know better than experts in a given field. And yet, we see in this thread things like this:

This feels a lot like the death of Chris Hitchens. Another guy who spent his entire life saying God was dead…and then God said Hawking was dead and that’s it. We always live with that little hope of “the 11th-hour conversion”, but I don’t see it here. Stephen Hawking spent his entire life studying the very Heavens that declare the glory of the God who made them, and he denied it all the way through.

EDIT: And to think he spent most of his life struggling through a terribly crippling disease, only to come to the end of his life and receive a body fitted for immortality…in Hell.

(User: jjmundt)

Or this:

I don’t think it was the truth he was searching for…his life’s work was to disprove the truth

(User: Momma D)

Or, similarly, this:

The unsaved world certainly has a radically different view than we believers, of the words “smart, genius, successful,” etc.

Then, one day, each one of their hearts stop beating and they are introduced to The Truth immediately.

And, by then, it is too late for them to accept it. They all had their chances during their lifetimes to recognize the existence of the true God and His Son………many times over……… but, they would not see nor bend their knee. It’s very sad, indeed.

It must be hard to be perceived in such a positive light over one’s lifetime, to then face the truth that they blew it big time for all eternity, and they have to admit they had it all wrong. And, they led so many astray of the Truth…………

(User: kathymendel)

One last comment:

I know what you mean. I wish I could say I have respect for him but I do not. I don’t care how smart you are, if you deny God exists, or act the way he did, you are making a mockery of Him. I feel bad that he’s suffering more than ever, but he brought this on himself.

(User: sing4theLord)

So the general consensus of opinion on this board is that Hawking spent his life looking for a lie while denying the obvious “truths” about god, so now he’s in hell. Given his disability, we can all stand in awe at how long he was able to stay alive. I can forgive anyone who might call the fact that he survived as long as he did, a “miracle” but we must acknowledge that this miracle was entirely due to medicine and technology. Had he lived a mere twenty years earlier, he almost definitely would not have made it to 76. It wasn’t a god that sustained him.

There is a trope about how astronomers quickly learn humility in the face of the vastness and wonder of the universe and all of our most famous astronomers — from Galileo, Newton, and Kepler to the more recent examples of Sagan, Tyson, and, yes, Hawking. Our species and our planet are ridiculously insignificant in the face not of god but of the cosmos.

Hawking sought the truth. He found small pieces of it and left more for his successors to find. There was no quote-unquote truth (as Momma D put it) for him to disprove.

I do think these are people who want to do good and to do right by others. But they’ve been so thoroughly entrenched in their theology, that they do far more harm than good. User and moderator Tall Timbers doesn’t “think he’ll be meeting Billy Graham”. The other comments in this thread make Tall Timbers seem downright quaint.

They’re sociopaths. And many of them own guns, too. One wonders when they’ll truly break.

Freakonomics is losing its lusterĀ 

I remember reading the book Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner when I had to fly to Nebraska for work.   I thought it was an interesting, occasionally fascinating read.  The most controversial aspect of the book is that it postulates that perhaps the reason why violent crime plummeted in the early 1990s, was because of legal abortion starting in the 1970s.   

While I can think of easily a hundred reasons why a woman’s right to choose abortion should be kept legal, I like this argument only because it gives conniptions to those who oppose abortion.   But regardless of that point, I thought it was a fascinating study in looking for real connections that might not be immediately obvious.  

Dubner has been the host of a weekly podcast based upon the book (and its less compelling follow-up, Super Freakonomics) for nearly seven years.  I’ve been listening to the podcast almost since its inception.   And it has had some fun moments in these past seven years: the story of a fake restaurant that exposed the fact that wine “experts” probably don’t know what they’re talking about, extreme foodies who make bizarre meals like turning a whole T-bone steak dinner into something the size of a bean, even getting ahead of some trends, like the service oriented economy and streaming music services.   

A couple of weeks ago, I had a blog entry inspired by an episode of the podcast.  But that episode is a part of a disturbing trend right now.   Four of the last five episodes were not really up to the standards I’ve come to expect of the show.  

It started with the kid gloves with which Dubner interviewed former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.   Whatever else Ballmer is or is not, he’s not a great steward of the companies he has run.   The culture he created at the software behemoth almost ruined the company, and it’s still struggling to get out of that.  The interview completely glossed over his tenure at Microsoft other than to needle Ballmer over his prediction that Apple’s iPhone wouldn’t sell.   

Then came the interview with Steve Hilton.  (Maybe Steve Dubner just likes people who shares his first name…)  I don’t need to rehash my comments from my earlier blog entry but the kid gloves were on again, not just for not calling Hilton on his myopia, but also for not criticizing him for leaving his country in the aftermath of the vote he orchestrated to the results he sought.

I’ll give a pass to the next episode, which was dedicated to the CRISPR gene editing tool.  Insightful and neither overly optimistic nor filled with scare tactics.  We need more science communication like this.  

The next two episodes were both released this past week, and by the end of the second part, I was ready to throw something at Dubner, when he interviewed Charles Koch.  While this interview did grant some insight into why I agree with him and his brother on some issues (most notably immigration) and even why he occasionally pursues tax policies that would cost him more money than he pays now, I can’t accept some of the places where Koch should be held more accountable, despite Dubner’s mysterious silence.  

The first and most glaring part of Koch’s position is how often progress is stymied by “special interests”, both from the left and from the right.   Given the lack of detail he provided in terms of what qualifies as a special interest, I have to assume he meant anyone who doesn’t want what he wants.  We all have interests and we all think we’re special.   I’d like to think my interests (fortification of the wall between church and state, being good stewards of the environment, not allowing the free market to run roughshod over those most in need) aren’t really all that special and, to be blunt, in the best interests not only of me and my family, but also in the best interests of the country.   

The second part is his pride in being opposed to legislation like Sarbanes-Oxley.   This law was passed after the accounting scandals in companies like Enron and WorldCom.   Indeed, all financial regulations that are codified in the law — be they the laws passed in the 1930s under the New Deal, or the regulations on Wall Street in the 1980s, or more recent laws like Sarbanes-Oxley — are there because the people we trusted with our money, were doing things that were, at best, untoward with that money.  

You can argue that that’s true of all laws: they’re generally passed because someone did something they shouldn’t have done even though it was technically (up to that point) legal.    In the state of Delaware, it’s illegal to go fishing on horseback.   You can almost see how that law came about: someone (probably a male-type person) did just that, but the horse got spooked when he caught a fish.   He got injured, possibly losing his fishing pole in the process, and sued for damages and/or a new fishing pole.   The law almost writes itself after that.  

Koch also pointed to HillaryCare as a reason why he first became politically active in the 1990s. While I’m not trying to argue that Hillary’s proposals back then were perfect, I don’t quite understand why health care should be treated as a commodity to the extent that it is.  But that’s the stuff of another blog entry, especially given the current debates on capitol hill.  

Next week’s Freakonomics episode will be a repeat of an episode first aired a couple of years ago.  I hope Dubner turns the ship around on this podcast, since the quality of the shows has not been good of late.  I don’t mind listening to people I disagree with.  I do mind when they’re not challenged on such obvious topics as what we’ve seen with Ballmer, Hilton, and Koch in the past month.   

Can we please do away with referenda?

Last week on the Freakonomics podcast, host Stephen Dubner interviewed Steve Hilton, one of the architects of last year’s Brexit vote.  One of the tidbits of that interview was Hilton’s disillusionment not at the result of the vote (which is what he wanted: for Britain to leave the EU) but instead at the reasons why people voted to leave the EU (anti-immigrant sentiment and a misplaced nationalism, which he didn’t want).

I’m willing to look away from his myopia for the purposes of this blog entry.   (If this essay were more focused on the Brexit vote itself, he wouldn’t be so lucky.)

But he made an interesting and important point that I’m not completely unsympathetic to: his quarrel with the EU was a direct result of the fact that the centralized government was appointed and not elected.  He used the analogy of the United States: each individual state is autonomous, but we still vote for the president and the congress.  That doesn’t happen with the EU.  

I suspect that particular bit of resentment isn’t unique to Britain.  But is the solution to that problem a complete withdrawal from the union?  Why couldn’t he lobby to change the way the EU’s leadership is chosen?   If he is being intellectually honest, then, I have to assume he feels the same way about the UN and NATO.   He didn’t say.  

But Brexit is emblematic of a greater problem that democracies have to face: the fact that allowing the voting public to make serious policy decisions via referenda is, more often than not, counterproductive.  (If I’m being my most polite.)

At its surface, it feels like it should be the opposite.   After all, if you put questions of the future of the community directly into the hands of the people, that seems like the ideal future state of a democracy.   (Even the word “democracy” comes from the Greek, meaning leadership or government by the people…)

But that’s the real failing of a referendum: a democracy depends upon an informed electorate and even the most informed of us, we can’t possibly know everything we need to know before we step into the voting booth.  And a referendum has two pain points to it: the wording of the question and the limitations of it being a yes/no question.   

Think of the hypothetical referendum that asks the question “would you support a tax increase in order to turn the community into a Paradise by every sense of the word?”  There are three kinds of people who would vote “no” on this question: the curmudgeons who want everything to get worse, the people who already think it’s perfect, and the people who stopped reading after the word “increase”.

Think of all of the votes around the US prior to the Obergefell v Hodges ruling in 2015 that legalized same sex marriage.   Almost all of the referenda in the various states, went against allowing same sex couples to get married.   Why?  If you aren’t gay, allowing gay couples to marry is something that you should be, at worst, ambivalent to.   I’m sure there are some gay people who don’t want to be allowed to marry, but there’s no way they could be enough to swing the results of the referendum away from that privilege when you look at the size of the greater electorate.  

Now magnify that to something at a much larger scale, like Brexit or a vote to secede from a greater union/nation-state (I’m looking at you, Scotland, Quebec, and even Basque).   With all of the moving pieces that need to go into the implications of such a dramatic change, is it ever truly fair to expect such a dramatic policy initiative to be driven by asking literally everyone a yes/no question?   Especially when there could be other options that haven’t been put to a vote at all.   A hundred people voting “yes” could offer a hundred different reasons for their vote.  

The very fact that so many aspects of the US Constitution are still being litigated and in need of interpretation — nearly 230 years after it was first ratified — is proof that no one can truly know all of the implications of a vote.  (Although the Third Amendment isn’t litigated very much.   I guess we got that one right…)

I have no problem with any time the leaders of a democracy want to know if they are steering the country in the right direction and opening questions up to a general vote.   But the voters are under no duty or obligation to uphold the foundational documents and intents of the community or nation, the way the leaders are.  For that reason alone, referenda should never be binding.  

And if you’re just polling the people to know how they’re feeling, why not use the professional pollsters rather than going through the timing and expense of an election?

Marching again

It’s weird what and who you think about when certain conditions are right.  I’ve been thinking about Mr. Hanlon, who was my physics teacher my junior year of high school.  

I cannot understate the damage he did to my overall intellectual growth and natural curiosity.  He was the reason why I didn’t take a science senior year of high school.  

On the first day of class, he walked in and asked us why we were all taking physics.  The simple answer to this question was that it was next in line after biology (freshman year) and chemistry (sophomore year).  His response to being told this?  “Wrong!  Physics is everything!”

In fairness to Mr. Hanlon, there’s nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about science (or whichever field a teacher teaches).  What he didn’t seem to understand is that the students who don’t share his enthusiasm need to appreciate the topic on their own terms in their own time.  

That’s not what he did, though.  He had a way of talking down to students like me who had the aptitude but not the interest.  He had the misfortune of timing being a teacher of mine after I had just come home from Penn State’s Summer Intensive Language Institute where I learned German and realized that I wanted to study languages.  

I acknowledge having the aptitude.  There was one lab report, for example, where he came out and shook my hand in front of the whole class because what I’d written was more or less what he wanted to see.  I had let other people copy my report and I guess they went a little too far in paraphrasing what I had written.  

But as the year went on, he made his opinion clear: I’d be wasting my life if I didn’t declare that I wanted to be either a physicist or engineer.  At one point, I got so pissed off at his attitude that I wrote a lab report up in French.  (For reference, I learned then that the French word for “wave” is “vague”.  He made a lame joke about the repeated use of this word in my report before he gave me an A on it.)

In college, I took my mandatory “hard” sciences, and studied the science of linguistics, which started to rekindle things but it wasn’t until my kids were born, that I started to read scientific books again.  Thanks to George Hrab’s podcast, I discovered the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. And now I am a booster for science.  

Keep in mind that I don’t like most science fiction because they still skimp too much on character development, and I can’t imagine starting to watch TV shows like Star Trek, Dr. Who, or CSI    

I don’t know what happened to Mr. Hanlon.  If he’s still alive, though, I imagine that he might have been marching this past weekend at one of the many rallies in the March for Science.   

I did just that this past weekend in Washington, DC.  It’s unfortunate that it was needed, but the anti-science attitude of much of the federal government, needs to be called out and put right.  There are stories that allege that Donald Trump was shaken by it.   I hope they’re true and that he might change things for the better.  Stopping climate change is the most important issue we’re facing.  That’s only one thing, though.  

We need to follow the evidence in public policy, pure and simple.  And if the current administration and the current congress refuse to do so, they need to be voted out and replaced by people who will.