Why I Haven’t Been Writing

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I’ve taken a long break from my writing, and that, in one word (or picture) is:

Swift, the Border Collie. She arrived in August – actually, a friend and her dog and I went to Michigan to get her from a breeder. She is 2.5 years old retired breeding dog and arrived underweight and a bit scrawny. Almost three months of twice a day visits to the dog park entailing lots of running and playing with other pups have made her a muscular good looking dog, quite a change from when she arrived.

Anyway, our routine has settled so I should be able to start writing again. For more photos of my energetic pup see Swift on SmugMug.

Syria War Crimes

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The intentional bombing of hospitals and aid workers in Syria by Russia and Assad calls for concerted and swift response from the International community. I don’t see it happening. I Googled both Trump and Clinton to find out if either had commented on this outrage, but neither had, as far as I could find. Secretary of State Kerry made a statement of outrage but without any plans to back that up with action, the situation reminds me of the pre WWII reaction to Hitler as he annexed Czechoslovakia. Russia is making similar noises with their ruthless bombing campaign in Syria, annexation of Crimea and obvious attempts to do the same with the Ukraine. War by its very nature is a crime and evidence of human stupidity, but the lack of concerted effort to confront Russia is particularly disturbing. If you agree, please write your representatives and urge strong action on this matter.

 

How Perspective Distorts What We See

Like many of us, I was horrified to see day after day another young black man being shot by police in what can only described for what it was: murder. What for me, an older white male, would be a routine traffic stop during which I would be treated with courtesy and respect, could be a fatal event if my color was different. Indeed, it seems systemic racism is a part of police culture that must be changed.

But what about all the times a black man is stopped by police and treated well? What about the times when police act skilfully to defuse a dangerous situation? We don’t see those. Never. Instead the terrible images are played on our tv screens over and over and over and over.

The point of this post goes far beyond the problem of racism. The media, using the “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos, causes us to have a very distorted impression of the world we live in. Take the various terrorist shootings that occur. Those incidents are also replayed and replayed and given a large portion of airtime. We see the effect of this in polls that show that many folks vastly overestimate the danger of terrorism to themselves. But the fact remains that at present the risk of dying by terrorist attack is miniscule compared to most other causes of death.

I am going to build on this post and expand it in the coming days, but where I’m going with this is that we are mislead into exaggerating the relatively unimportant while ignoring, indeed being unaware of, much more serious threats to our existence and that of our descendants.

…to be continued…

The “good guys” vs. “bad guys” Fallacy

An argument often used in defense of promoting gun proliferation is that the “good guys” will be armed and will reduce the mayhem done by the “bad guys.” This kind of thinking is so simplistic that I find it remarkable that it requires refuting. Would that the world be so simple that we could just divide humans into good and bad. Maybe we could issue a driver’s license style card to all the “good guys” and then arm them all – problem solved!

Of course I understand that many people believe that there are good and bad people, but I also understand that people can behave well or poorly given different circumstances. Someone who suffers from, let’s say, road rage might use a gun on “that jerk” in a fit of rage with a gun handy. Minutes later, that person would probably be horrified at what he/she had just done. The availability of a gun can, under the “right” circumstances lead to injury or death while otherwise there would just have been cursing and shaking of fists.

Another problem with the concept of good and bad people is that those who commit the greatest atrocities often are completely convinced of their goodness. Witness all the destruction done in the name of religion by people who are convinced that their interpretation of God and faith is the only right one and those who disagree deserve what they get.

There is also the issue of perspective. The same action will appear good to some people and bad to others. I have found that I behave better and have a more integrated ethical stance if I throw out absolutist good vs bad thinking.

On the superiority of humans

To most people, it is an unquestioned assumption that humans are superior to other Earth species and it is also unquestioned that this gives us the  right to “own” the planet and do with it what we please.

As I view the human condition, I see that humans are high in technological ability and very low on wisdom. In many areas of great import, we do not even use the knowledge we have, and continue to make the same mistakes over and over. Real dumb, to use the vernacular. In particular I’m thinking of education, the “justice” system and war.

We know under what conditions people learn best, yet we construct schools that often do the opposite (more in a future post).

Much is known about how to rehabilitate some criminal behavior; most of it is rarely used in our courts and prisons.

War is probably the stupidest behavior that humans routinely indulge in. Lots is known about non-violent conflict resolution, but governments rarely use any of this knowledge and millions suffer as a result. How we can think we’re the greatest when we constantly use war to solve problems is a mystery to me. Perhaps we don’t even notice how stupidly we are behaving.

I feel true sorrow for all the animals that suffer and die as a result of human ignorance and arrogance. (Those two often go together.)

 

Pet Web Peeves

This voicing of annoyances about the web may seem trivial this morning after England opted out of the EU and my investments took an immediate 4% hit, to say nothing of the uncertainty that this ill-thought-out move will do to us all. But sometimes it pays to decompress a bit and think about silly things. And there are a lot of silly things on the web that are fun to grouse about.

#1: Pop ups in general but a special raspberry to those pop-up surveys that jump at you when you first visit a site asking how you find the site experience. Well, how the heck do I know? I just got here. Maybe ask me when I’m done looking around but when I first enter? Give me a break.

#2: This one’s too easy. Sleazy and/or deceptive advertising. I know people expect a lot of free info on sites and someone has to pay the bills. But unfortunately many sites have signed up with ad providers of questionable ethics. (Hope I don’t get into trouble for saying this!) Sometimes they hit you like a sledgehammer, like this one: “New Rule for Cars that Have Their Headlights On All Day,” or something like that. It’s often in the form of a banner right at the top. Turns out that there is no “New Rule.” If you click you get taken to a site that tries to sell you car insurance. This ad appears on several otherwise respectable sites. I don’t know how much they get paid for running this ad but it’s not enough because it sullies their brand, at least in my mind.

#3: I don’t know what caused this survey craze, but it seems now that after every interaction with a site or service, one is asked to fill out a survey. That’s not my pet peeve; what I hate is when I first enter a site and am greeted with a popup survey of how I liked my visit before I even had a chance to look around. Is there no way the designers can figure out whether I’ve had a chance to explore first?

#4: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. This addresses various fads that sweep through the web design community. To take one example, many sites now have content that appears only when you have scrolled down far enough. I guess people think it’s nifty so they do it. My thought is don’t do anything unless it serves a purpose directly related to that of the site. If not, you run the risk of drawing viewers’ attention away from the site’s message.

… more to come. Oh, and feel free to leave a comment about your own pet peeves. This could become cathartic.😋

Are We Alone?

This was the title of Stephen Hawking’s latest Genius episode I watched on Wednesday evening. Very entertaining, and his imagination and humor comes through as he leads three volunteers through a journey of discovery using quite elaborate “visual aids.”

In the hour-long show he leads his subjects to understand that there are hundreds of billions of stars in just our galaxy and that many of these have planets and some of those would contain water and would be the right distance from their start to allow life to evolve.

Then, in his speculations near the end, he makes fundamental error of thought – one shared by many others including Carl Sagan. That error is that our experience can be generalized to all experience. In this case he assumes that “intelligent” life would evolve on these planets in the same way it has here.

Actually there are several errors of thought here. The first is a common example of human egocentricity: intelligent life means us and equates with language and technology. In this way he discounts the other animals here as not qualifying as intelligent life, a most questionable assumption.

The second is that life evolving on other planets would evolve as it has here into technologically advanced “civilizations.” This is the crucial error; there is absolutely no reason to assume life on any planet would evolve the same way it evolved on any other planet. Even on Earth where all life that we have discovered is genetically closely related, life is amazingly persistent and adaptive, growing under conditions we could not survive. There is no reason to assume that life elsewhere would be restricted to the same genetic structure that we see here. We really have no idea what the possibilities are. Life elsewhere might be nothing remotely similar to what it is here.

The nail in the coffin assumption he makes, though, is that we would be able to communicate with these alleged civilizations elsewhere if we could overcome the speed limit of light. So hundreds of years after Galileo proclaimed we are not the center of the cosmos, even brilliant people like Hawking still unconsciously cling to the “humans are the crown of creation” myth. This myth leads to assuming other civilizations, while possibly more technologically advanced than we are, could or would even bother to communicate with us. I think rather that they would be so different from us that they might think of us as interesting specimens to study and run experiments on. If we were really unlucky, they might be like us, in which case if they could come here they would collect us as specimens for experimentation, hunt us for sport or just wipe us out and colonize Earth. I doubt we would sit down to tea and have a pleasant conversation about our respective planets.

In short, it seems all of us, including bright scientists, can fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves as basically the best nature can come up with and that our experince can be extrapolated to other worlds.

Human and Animal Communication

This is based on a post I made in a Linguistics class I’m taking online:

I find the course material fascinating. However, I was put off by the first topic, which was the comparison between human and animal communication. I found that topic to be gratuitous, unnecessary and a display of ignorance. It is gratuitous and unnecessary because we are studying human language and it is unnecessary to attempt to cover animal communication (a very complex topic in itself) in order to study human language. I have read many books about us humans, and many start that way, seemingly finding it necessary to assure us that humans are superior to other animals, an attitude I find unwarranted. This attitude is well exemplified by a quote from the Britannica in our required reading: “[…] all existing human speech is one in the essential characteristics which we have thus far noted or shall hereafter have to consider, even as humanity is one in its distinction from the lower animals; the differences are in nonessentials.” 

Note the use of “lower animals.” Humans are nothing if not self-aggrandizing. Remember that not too long ago Galileo was persecuted for suggesting that the Earth was not the center of the cosmos. Much more recently it was even assumed that animals had no feelings, emotions, or social structure. All that is changing as researchers and observers are discovering a much richer picture of animal life than expected because previously we had just assumed we were infinitely superior to “lower” animals.

Getting back to communication, our instructor is inconsistent in his use of “communication” and “language” in this discussion, sometimes using communication in the broad sense and sometimes using it as a synonym for language. Clearly communication consists of a lot more than language. It is fully accepted that non-verbal communication is terribly important to communication. If not, we could just text each other all the time and never miss the element of face-to-face communication, touch, etc. As mentioned, animal communication is worthy of a life-time of study, but our instructor blows it off by essentially saying his cat has very limited communication abilities because he/she can just say “meow.” Anyone who has carefully observed his/her pet or, as another poster has pointed out, social animals such as wolves, should see that they have a rich repertoire of ways to communicate. With his ears alone, my dog can communicate over a dozen distinct messages.

Why is all this important? Because our species with its unquestioned assumption that humans are the only species that matters (I still find this attitude prevalent in most writing) is leading us to create the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs went extinct and possibly destroying the Earth’s ecosystem through pollution, genetic fiddling around, climate change, etc. Hardly the work of a species that claims to be the “latest and greatest.” I believe that a dramatic change of attitude is absolutely crucial to our and the planet’s survival.

This brings us back to language. Our attitude of superiority and the OK-ness treating non-human animals in any way we please is expressed in language. One weakness of human language is that it can be used to describe things that don’t exist and give them semantic meaning. The notion of human superiority arises from several semantically rich ideas that probably have no existence in the real world. For instance, it rests on the assumption that species can be ranked linearly from highest to lowest. That this is an assumption and not a reality is rarely noted. Likewise, many religious thinkers assume humans have souls and animals do not. This is a notion that is difficult to maintain, given our emerging knowledge about evolution, but another unfortunate ability we have is to believe two inconsistent thoughts at the same time, so we can rationalize away any idea that threatens our sense of greatness and entitlement.

The above is one reason the study of linguistics and semantics is so important. If you got this far, thanks for listening.

The Rapidity of Change

I’m watching WPT and ‘Doc Martin,’ or at least the actor that plays him, is searching for wolves as he explores the ancestry of dogs. It’s thought that wolves became dogs starting around fifteen thousand years ago – a blink of an eye in geological time.

That got me to thinking that the biosphere that we know and love took over two billion years to come about. Yes, that’s more than 2,000,000,000 years. Then I sadly noted that it’s taken a mere few thousand years to do a truly amazing amount of damage to that biosphere. And, apart from that, we are one of the most unimportant species on the planet. If we were to disappear suddenly, life on Earth would do just fine, except for domesticated animals.

Let’s develop these ideas in later posts.

Myopia

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As I grow towards my last decade or two on this earth, I am increasingly drawn to contributing to the survival of the planet in whatever ways I can. This has led me to a lot of related reading, and one theme sticks out like a sore thumb: Most writing talks about the future of humanity resulting from a variety of positive and negative actions we might take.

To me, that says we still don’t get it. We still think that we can focus mostly on ourselves, bringing in other species only if their fate directly affects us. For instance, we are worried about the declining population of bees because we realize that they not only make honey but are largely responsible for pollination of plants that affect our food supply.

When I say “we still don’t get it,” I’m referring to the intricate and pervasiveness of the interconnectedness of all life. The biosphere we inhabit is incredibly interwoven and complex – probably more so that we can even imagine let alone understand at present. Our continued insistence that we can ensure our survival by focussing mostly on ourselves is an attitude that, if we persist, will hasten our demise. I believe we need to shift our thinking and see ourselves as a part of something much bigger than we are: the whole biosphere. The overall health of the biosphere, which we still largely ignore, is the key to our survival.

We are currently living through a mass extinction (like the event that killed off the dinosaurs) largely of our own making – probably the only mass extinction in the history of life on Earth caused by one species! Until we radically change our mindset to thinking of ourselves as a part of nature, we will continue to threaten our own survival and that of a large portion of life on this planet. I truly hope this paradigm shift will occur soon.