Contemplations – Now

An appetizer:

"We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings."
– Ursula K. Le Guin, in her acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

"The struggle for American democracy is one made up of many different battles, from confusing court cases and cell phone records to tweets and the combatting of disinformation, but it is, ultimately, about us and our neighbors, and what we want our journey to be."
– Professor Heather Cox Richardson, Dec 30, 2019, Letters from an American. See also Contemplations: Letters from an American

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2020

COVID-19 – A voice of reason

Dr. John Campbell

Dr. John Campbell, a retired Nurse Teacher and A and E nurse based in England, has been uploading videos once or twice daily about the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, since January 2020. I've been watching them since a friend told me about them in mid-February and find them to be one of the best sources of information about the pandemic. Each day he clearly shares what is happening and the implications. He also patiently explains many related topics, helping decipher complex medical information in a manner that makes it accessible to a layman like me.

Dr. Campbell is a treasure. I'm incredibly grateful for what he is doing.

YouTube: Dr. John Campbell⩘ 

Professor Heather Cox Richardson

Letters from an American

Letters from an American (continued) …

I started reading Professor Cox Richardson's daily letters last year, and wrote about them at that time: Professor Heather Cox Richardson: Letters from an American⩘ . I've continued to read them daily and have find that they help me tremendously to understand the constitutional crisis we are facing, as well as its historical context (Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College⩘ ).

I found today's letter particularly important as it answered very well a key question she has been hearing from readers of her letters.

A lot of folks have been asking me lately if America has ever been in such a crisis before and, if so, what people in the past did to save democracy.

To read her answer, see her letter dated February 22, 2020⩘ .

Letters from an American⩘ 

What Do Machine Learning and Hunter-Gatherer Children Have in Common?

Gül Deniz Salali, British Academy research fellow and lecturer in evolutionary anthropology/medicine at University College London

Interesting article by Gül Deniz Salali, British Academy research fellow and lecturer in evolutionary anthropology/medicine at University College London, based on her field research in the Congo. Ties in with what I learned from reading Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta, who explores how formal learning stifles children's inherent curiosity, contrasting high-context or field-dependent reasoning oral cultures with low-context or field-independent print-based cultures.

I am interested in how we learn and transmit skills in the absence of formal education because understanding these can help us understand how complex cultural practices such as the Go game evolve. We have evolved a great capacity for learning by imitating others. This in turn, allows us to transmit information with great accuracy. Researchers have found that when information is transmitted faithfully, cultural practices remain in the population long enough so that they can be modified to generate more complex practices. This is how human culture progresses. Our cultural traits are built upon the legacies of the past information. But this means they are also restricted by them.
   While new training algorithms in machine learning have parallels with how human children learn, they have a capacity for surpassing human culture. This is because those new algorithms are not restricted by the legacies of our cultural history. In 2017, the DeepMind team introduced AlphaGo Zero, the new version of AlphaGo that became its own teacher by learning from self-play. Now it is considered the best Go player in the world. Human Go players have been building their game strategies on the 3,000 years of accumulated knowledge. AlphaGo Zero became the best Go player by setting itself free from this knowledge.

Article: Gül Deniz Salali. "What Do Machine Learning and Hunter-Gatherer Children Have in Common?⩘ ." Scientific American, Oct 2019.
Website: Gül Deniz Salali⩘ 

The case for cities that aren't dystopian surveillance states

"Imagine your smartphone knew everything about the city—but the city didn't know anything about you. Wouldn't that be truly 'smart'?"

Smart City Illustration from Cory Doctorow's Boing Boing post about his article in The Guardian
Illustration from Cory Doctorow's related Jan 17, 2020 Boing Boing post:
Imagining a "smart city" that treats you as a sensor, not a thing to be sensed⩘ 

An excellent article by Cory Doctorow about his vision of how a smart city could be designed to work on behalf of its residents instead of its corporate and governmental overlords; a vision in sharp contrast to the privacy horror show that is unfolding as Google's Sidewalk Labs designs its Quayside smart city in Toronto.

As is so often the case with technology, the most important consideration isn't what the technology does: it's who the technology does it to, and who it does it for.

If we decide to treat people as sensors, and not as things to be sensed—if we observe Kant's injunction that humans should be "treated as an end in themselves and not as a means to something else"—then we can modify the smart city to gather information about the things and share that information with the people.

Cory Doctorow. "The case for cities that aren't dystopian surveillance states⩘ ." The Guardian, Jan 17, 2020.

The Story of Us, continued

[Note: When I first wrote about this in August 2019, I didn't imagine it might be such a long long read, but it's turning out that way, so here it is brought forward to my 2020 contemplations, in order that I can keep track of the chapters.]

Illustration by Tim Urban from The Story of Us of a pile of cartoon faces, one of which is waving
Illustration by Tim Urban

The Story of Us⩘  is a fascinating long read from Tim Urban—the brilliant and entertaining storyteller and illustrator behind the Wait But Why blog⩘ . As I'm slowly reading through this in-depth exploration, I'm finding that I'm growing to understand our world, which so often seems entirely insane to me, a bit better.

The Story of Us
Chapter 0: Introduction⩘ 
Part 1: The Power Games
Chapter 1: The Great Battle of Fire and Light⩘ 
Chapter 2: A Game of Giants⩘ 
Chapter 3: A Story of Stories⩘ 
Part 2: The Value Games
Chapter 4: The Enlightenment Kids⩘ 
Chapter 5: The Mute Button⩘ 
Chapter 6: The American Brain⩘ 
Part 3: Thinking, In 3D
Chapter 7: The Thinking Ladder⩘ 
Chapter 8: Idea Labs and Echo Chambers⩘ 
Part 4: Politics, in 3D
Chapter 9: Political Disney World⩘ 
— — — 2020 — — —
Part 5: A Dangerous Trend
Chapter 10: A Sick Giant⩘ 
Illustration by Tim Urban from The Story of Us of a sick U.S. giant

A couple excerpts from the article:

We started this post looking at two well-documented trends in the U.S.: increasing polarization amongst citizens and within government. Then we looked at two major environmental changes that seem to be playing a large role in stoking and perpetuating those trends: geographic bubbles, generated by increased mobility, and information bubbles, generated by the shift from broadcast to narrowcast news and internet algorithms. These bubbles have Americans connected in all the wrong ways—no longer personally connected with people who disagree with them politically, and more connected than ever before in an online ecosystem that over-simplifies the world, encourages intellectual conformity, and spreads mistrust and hatred of the outgroup.
   Here are four reasons this scares me:

  1. We're losing our ability to gain knowledge. If our perceptions of reality are increasingly informed by media with other-than-truth motivations, we'll increasingly lose our handle on the truth. This is like the big U.S. giant becoming schizophrenic.
  2. We're losing our ability to think together. Human giants can only think when people talk and when they're free to say what they really think. As Echo Chambers grow larger and more intimidating, people inside them are afraid to defy the sacred narrative. And the more all-encompassing political identities become, the more topics turn from kickable machines to precious infants. Meanwhile, intergroup communication suffers even more, as opposing groups become totally unable to collaborate on ideas. As the downward trend deepens, the voices of high-minded Progressivism and Conservativism—the team that navigates the U.S. up the mountain—are growing more timid and harder to hear. The U.S. giant is losing its ability to learn.
  3. We're losing our ability to cooperate. A polarized country that isn't capable of building broad coalitions can't take forward steps—it can only self-inflict.
  4. We're doing that thing that people do before really, really awful things happen. Disgust should scare you as much as it scares me. If our species were a person, it would have a mix of beautiful and unadmirable qualities—but its darkest quality would be the ability to dehumanize.

Most interesting to me was a fascinating report called The Hidden Tribes of America⩘ —a year-long study that collected the views of over 8,000 Americans—which found that two-thirds of Americans fall into what they call the "Exhausted Majority."
   According to the report, the Exhausted Majority holds a wide variety of attitudes and viewpoints, but its members share four main attributes:

  • They are fed up with the polarization plaguing American government and society
  • They are often forgotten in the public discourse, overlooked because their voices are seldom heard
  • They are flexible in their views, willing to endorse different policies according to the precise situation rather than sticking ideologically to a single set of beliefs
  • They believe we can find common ground

Article: Wait But Why: The Story of Us by Tim Urban⩘ 

Hubble's first gift of 2020

Hubble Space Telescope image of galaxy: Heic2002
Image credit: NASA, ESA, and B. Holwerda (University of Louisville)

"Galaxy UGC 2885 may be the largest known in the local universe. It is 2.5 times wider than our Milky Way and contains 10 times as many stars."

"Researchers are still seeking to understand what led to the galaxy’s monstrous size. 'It’s as big as you can make a disk galaxy without hitting anything else in space.'"

Higher res version of this photo >
Hubble Surveys Gigantic Galaxy⩘ , Jan 6, 2020

The Big One podcast

The Big One podcast banner

This podcast recently caught my attention because I've been involved in emergency preparedness volunteer work ever since we got hit by a flood here in 2013. Earthquakes aren't a big risk in our area, but I thought it might be interesting to hear their approach to talking about preparedness, so figured I'd listen to one or two episodes. Then I found myself totally captivated by the breadth and depth of their reporting as well as by the vivid passion with which they share the story. As the listener, you are there on the scene experiencing the disaster unfold in real time, interwoven with the stories of people who have been involved in actual disasters, as well as scientists, experts, politicians, engineers, and first responders, all sharing their insights and experiences. I ended up listening raptly to the entire series.

While the information they share is focused on The Big One, the earthquake that will hit the San Andreas Fault at any time (it's overdue based on the historical frequency), they talk with survivors of other disasters as well, including hurricanes and fires, so the story applies to just about everyone, and most of the preparedness tips they share at the end of each episode will be valuable to anyone listening.

I also appreciated that they discussed disasters and preparedness with scientists and other experts who understand the risks and what is needed to meet and survive them. Many of us tend to get a bit complacent, so it can be challenging to find the motivation to take even the most rudimentary steps to prepare for disasters. It can help to understand both how valuable being prepared can be and how simple the basic preparedness steps are.

For people working on preparedness, it's also helpful to understand just how motivation works for communicating about a challenge like this. They share a fascinating and heartfelt segment featuring USGS social scientist Dr. Sara McBride talking about the failures of communication before the devastating Christ Church earthquake in New Zealand, and the steps that can be taken to communicate more effectively. It's not about scaring people, it's about honest conversations and telling stories.

Know that if you make it through … which you probably will … this is going to be a hard journey for you, this is going to be tough. But if you work with the people around you—your community, your friends, your family, your neighbors—you're eventually going to come on the other side of this. This is going to be something that will happen for a long time.… If you're more prepared, you're going to suffer less. That's really what it is. If you have food, if you have water, if you have your emergency supplies, you're going to limit the amount of unnecessary suffering that you have to face during those early days of response.

A few months after the series concluded, an earthquake hit southern California centered in Ridgecrest, a remote area near Death Valley. It wasn't The Big One, but it was a big one (or rather, a series of big ones, including three main shocks of magnitudes 6.4, 5.4, and 7.1 that, as remote as they were, were felt by 30 million people). So they made an extra episode to talk to people who experienced it. Really underscored what they had shared during the regular episodes.

Some of their simple tips:

Enthralling music by Andy Claussen. Amazing sound design by Arwen Nicks and Valentino Rivera.

I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to experience this excellent podcast.

The Big One podcast⩘ . From KPCC by host and science reporter Jacob Margolis, lead producer Misha Euceph, executive producer Arwen Champion Nicks, assistant producer Mary Knopf, and Megan Garvey, editor.

Tell Them, I Am podcast

Tell Them, I Am podcast banner

This series of stories, which was presented one each weekday during Ramadan 2019, is such a gift. The stories are incredibly diverse, but one thread runs through all of them: they are full of heart.

Tell Them, I Am is a show about the small moments that define who we are and who we are not. The stories are universal; the voices are all Muslim.

Several of the stories touched me particularly deeply. I had to simply stop and reflect for awhile as Reza Aslan shared the story of when he was a seven-year-old living in Tehran during the chaotic final months before the Shah fled the country. One day, his best friend, with whom he had been joyfully playing chess every day, didn't show up. When he finally found his friend and asked him why he hadn't shown up for their game, his friend said, "I'm not going to play a game in which the purpose is to sacrifice the pawns to save a king." Such wisdom!

Often I find myself feeling somewhat discouraged these days. What a gift to come across these 23 stories, most of which left me feeling encouraged and grateful. The story that touched my heart the most is the final one. Akbar Ahmed, an American-Pakistani academic, author, poet, playwright, filmmaker and former diplomat shares the story of when he was four and his family found themselves fleeing India to the newly created Pakistan on a treacherous train journey. During this traumatic upheaval, more than a million people, on both sides, were killed.

It's only now in hindsight, when I look back and I say, "Oh my God, that is the experience I lived through." The same experience I had, my Hindi colleague had in reverse, which means her family was escaping from Pakistan to India, and the same sort of tension, same sort of problems of logistics—how to do you get out, what do you take with you, who do you trust—all those same issues she faced, and she was also a young girl then.

When I was doing my PhD in London at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies], I met her and at that time I hadn't met very many Indians, and when we became friends, we began to swap stories and joke about each other's cultures, and she said, "You know that we were told that if you ever see a snake and a Muslim, you actually kill the Muslim first because the Muslim is more dangerous, more venomous than the snake." And I smiled, and she said, "Why are you smiling?" Because, I said, I've heard exactly the same story, except in my story it was the Sikh or the Hindu or whatever. And we both smiled and realized our experiences were like a mirror. Now when human relations break down to that level, these stories assume a far greater importance, they're magnified, they're inflated, and they, in a sense, personify the behavior of the other, and that is very dangerous.

The ideas I had, the images I had from the discussion of my class fellows, from the people I met, about Hindus and Sikhs were very negative. So I had to overcome that, in fact, to understand who these people were, why they hated us, why we hated them. And that is when I met my Indian friend, many years later in London, where I really began to understand that these people were very much like us and, in a sense, experienced exactly what we had experienced.

So when I became adult and I understood some of these different permutations and combinations of human relations, I began to get very involved in what's called interfaith understanding, interfaith dialogue. And I began to ask questions and I began to see the people I meet are very friendly, very normal, they're just like us, they're just like me. So what keeps them away from me is my lack of understanding or my own prejudice or my own ignorance.…

Let me quote you the great example of my dear friend Professor Judea Pearl. His only son [Daniel Pearl] was killed in the most brutal way in Karachi. And when I heard about this incident straight after 9/11, I was horrified. And once Judea and I began the series of dialogues, very public dialogues to promote Jewish-Muslim understanding, this question was constantly asked of him; they would say, "How can you be promoting dialogue and friendship and companionship with the people, with the culture that killed your son?" And he would answer this way: "My revenge is to have a better understanding and to reach out and build bridges."

Tell Them, I Am podcast⩘ . From KPCC by host and producer Misha Euceph, executive producer and editor Arwen Champion Nicks, lead producer Mary Knauf, and producer James Kim.

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