Promote Curiosity in Kids

All the talk, standardized tests, various educational initiatives miss the one and crucial prerequisite for effective education: harness the inate, boundless curiosity that all kids are born with, but is too often crushed by our culture and a poorly conceived educational system.

More on this in coming posts. Stay tuned.

Technological Superiority≠Overall Superiority

I continue to ponder what I consider the irrational sense of superiority that most humans seem to feel about their species. From games to concerns about climate change to international problem solving to fiction to religion, most people seem to assume the human species is the only one that matters.

We can do things that other animals on Earth cannot do such as write books, travel to the moon, develop advanced math and physics, and build weapons capable of destroying all multicellular life on Earth. But does that give us overall superiority? I think not. In many ways we are one of the least important life forms on the planet. In fact, if we were to suddenly disappear, life on Earth with the exception of animals we have bred for our convenience like dairy cows would do just fine – better, in fact, than they are doing now. Bacteria and other micro-organisms are far more important to Earth than we are because without them, all animal life would cease to exist.

Many people are finally realizing that other animals have complex emotional and social lives, and many are better at it than we are. Elephants are a good example of highly intelligent animals who make great parents and have strong social bonds. Yet we slaughter them for their tusks or for “fun.” So who is the superior animal in that realm? Not us, I suggest.

If we continue to see ourselves as the only life form that matters, ironically we will continue to destroy the ecosystem that sustains our lives. We may be the first species to engineer its own mass extinction, which to me is a sad prospect.

The Fundamental Problem Humans Refuse to Face

This is based on a post I made on a Nova discussion following the program on robotics:
I think the key problem with us humans is that we don’t stop to investigate our meta-problems. We don’t realize that the “problem” isn’t Russia, or Iran, or Korea or ISIS. The problem is how we humans organize into groups and then engage in war/violence. That behavior is pretty universal and I believe it could be solved if we as humans would recognize it as the problem and work on solving it.

Already much is known about methods of constructive conflict resolution. But when someone suggests applying these methods there are always voices that say  “they” won’t cooperate in this, whoever the current “they” are, so we have to engage in war. But that’s the problem – there’s always a we and a they. In our own country we have Republicans hating Democrats, another we-they situation. We-they thinking can exist at the family level to the neighborhood level all the way up to the national level. It’s the way we currently think and survival requires that we change that way of thinking, but I see no sign of widespread recognition of this. Thus my pessimism.

The Wolf

Wolf wanting to be free

This poster says it all. I love dogs too, and it’s a mystery to me how one can love a wolf-like dog and hate a wolfI. I wonder if our hostility to wolves is because they dare to live free and not bow to our command. We are an arrogant and vengeful race.

Thoughts on Human Self-Aggrandisement

I was following some discussion threads on Amazon regarding books dealing with the potential of human intelligence to understand the nature of things and on the prospects for developing artificial intelligence that may or may not come back to bite us as in the Terminator series of movies. The following is one of the posts I made there:
“Bostrum (the author of a book warning of the dangers of AI)  seems enamored with human intelligence, assuming it to be superior to any other intelligence we know of. I believe that human self-aggrandizement is one of our key weaknesses as a species. We often assume we are the only species that matters; most proposed solutions to problems we face address only their effect on humans, as if that was all that counts.

Our “superior” intelligence has resulted in gross overpopulation of the planet, a mass extinction of magnitude that is projected to be as bad as the one that killed the dinosaurs, endless wars fought with increasingly deadly weapons obtainable by almost every group that wants them, 20 or so percent of the human population living in abject poverty, an extraordinary lack of skill in using peaceful conflict resolution skills that have already been developed, and so on.

Various other species behave more intelligently than we do in certain areas. We are the best at technological development and the arts and sciences, but that’s about it. Many other species are better at handling conflict, at raising their young, fitting into their environment, etc. In short, we are extraordinarily stupid in many areas that affect our survival and the survival of other life on the planet, and one of the most stupid ideas is that of human superiority in all things.

Ok, that being over with, I would be interested in a book that convincingly describes how superintelligence could be created and gives well documented evidence of that. I have been in computers and math for fifty years (well, computers for only forty years) and I well remember the AI craze that consumed the industry in the ’80s. People then thought that the solution to AI was just around the corner. Then reality hit, and the difficulties of producing true AI became apparent. Now we have developed a computer system that can beat a human at chess and apparently can fix a satellite without human intervention in some cases. There is still a huge gap between these feats and producing AI that can function like that shown in The Terminator movies.

Of the problems facing us now (the likelihood of our self-destruction from war, contamination and pollution, disease, including bio-warfare, and other such insane behavior) means I don’t lose much sleep over the dangers of AI, though if we could develop it, I’m sure we would, because we like to act first and think later, like the birds in Bostrum’s allegory.” Here is a link if you want to Look Inside for the Bostrum’s allegory, which I liked, and the preface I refer to.

Why Government Should be the Single Payer Provider of Healthcare

I understand that many people are horrified by the idea of “socialized medicine” where the government pays for our coverage instead of private health insurance companies. But here’s why I think healthcare is one area that should be provided by government and where the private sector solution is inappropriate.

The key reason is the nature of healthcare as an essential service. Let’s compare healthcare to the auto industry as an example. General Motors makes Cadillacs. Let’s say I want one but cannot afford to buy one. GM doesn’t care – they’ll sell the car to someone who can afford it and, while I may be disappointed, I can live with my old used car just fine. In the case of private run healthcare, one element of the car scenario is the same: the health insurance company is not in the least interested in my well being other than how it affects their profits. If I cannot afford their healthcare premiums or have a “pre-existing condition,” too bad for me. The difference, of course, is that while I don’t need a Cadillac, I might very well need healthcare coverage and not having it might bankrupt me, and that is an outcome that is good for nobody.

Essential services such as water, roads, land management, oversight and regulation, defense and so on are provided by government and paid for by taxes. I contend that healthcare is every bit as essential and that treating it as an essential utility makes sense. The government is one way to assure that everyone has access in an affordable way. Taxes would be higher but it would be essentially insurance – shared risk spread over everyone and thus probably much less expensive in total than the current proliferation of private insurance providers.

Our society tolerates vast discrepancies in wealth from the very poor (2007 poverty rate was about 12.5 percent that translates to somewhat over 37 million people) to the very rich. Were that not the case, private health insurance might be tolerable, but the wealth discrepancy means too many people cannot afford health insurance, medical services or medicine. This is something the other Western democracies have figured out and I hope we get the message soon and are not swayed by the barrage of self-serving propaganda that is bound to start coming from the health insurance industry and others who hate the idea of anyone being helped by the government.

Why do we fear universal healthcare?

Sometimes (well, often, actually) this country puzzles me. This time it’s healthcare. The notion of a single-payer healthcare system in which everyone would be covered is meeting a lot of resistance. Now, it’s not surprising that the medical insurance and pharmaceutical industries are hitting hard with the usual scare tactics: the government will control your access to healthcare, there will be long waits, you won’t be able to choose your doctor, it’ll be too expensive, and the killer: it’s socialism! It is surprising that so many people believe this nonsense that comes from the only groups that benefit from the current inefficient and expensive system.

First, a reality check. We already have a government run system called Medicare. Last I checked, Medicare does not restrict which doctor you see (providing they are licensed), nor does the use of Medicare increase wait times. The main problem with Medicare coverage is that there are doctors and clinics that don’t take Medicare patients because the reimbursement rate is pretty low at this time. Regarding restrictions, it’s the HMOs and insurance plans that normally restrict you to a certain clinic and hospital. Medicare coverage does not depend on whether or not you are employed or wealthy enough to buy private health insurance or pay your health costs out of pocket. Under private insurance it’s true that the government is not making healthcare decisions about you. Rather, the private insurance company is and they have absolutely no interest in your well being but rather in their profitability. They don’t get rich by paying claims but by paying as little as they can get by with.

So why are we so easily scared of a government run universal plan but not scared of putting our healthcare in the hands of profit-making companies that have no interest in our well being but rather are interested in their bottom line? Many still tout the benefits of “free market” solutions to all our ills, ignoring a continuous stream of evidence that when greed is the main motivator, bad things happen (Enron, Worldcom, Arthur Anderson, KPMG, AGI, the wall street financial institutions, banks, Haliburton, Blackwater and on and on). When I was in business school the only ethic considered legitimate for corporations was to maximize shareholder wealth. Now even that minimal standard is ignored as top executives seem to be mainly about maximizing their own wealth even at the expense of the company’s health. There is absolutely no reason to feel comfortable putting our trust in health insurance companies and pharmaceuticals.

It’s as if we’re saying, “Universal coverage whether or not I have a job or can afford private insurance? No way! We’d rather live with the excitement of not knowing if I’ll be covered because of layoffs, health crisis, or some other personal downturn. What’s life without anxiety and lost sleep worrying about how we’ll take care of our family’s healthcare needs?” It makes no sense to me at all.

Court finally upholds Constitutional protections

I was taken aback by the vitriolic response to the Supreme Court’s decision that all prisoners detained at Guantánamo Bay are constitutionally entitled to bring habeas corpus in federal court to challenge the legality of their detention. One would think that the majority of the court had committed an act of high treason. I believe the opposite is true. The Court finally took a stand to uphold this key provision of the Constitution that has languished in recent years under George Bush’s presidency.

I found it disheartening that it was so easy for the Administration to frighten us into willingly giving up fundamental protections granted by the Constitution. What we seem to have forgotten is that there is a reason for guaranteeing the right to counsel and habeus corpus: when government police power is unchecked it is often abused. The Supreme Court acted as it was supposed to act – as part of our system of checks and balances to prevent excessive power and consequent abuse by the executive or legislative branch. Apparently some people would prefer the Court to rubber stamp whatever President Bush thinks is best, but that would be an abdication of their responsibility.