Monday, February 15, 2016

Guns, Kids and Power

So much of the public rhetoric, both for and against firearms, confuses statistical correlation with cause and effect. For example, states that have both more firearms and more firearm deaths may have other correlative factors...perhaps more alcohol consumption or more children per household or more poverty or less education. Or something else, entirely. No one of those factors can be singled out as the cause.

Let's face it, if an area has more cars, there are more car accidents. Do we take cars away from people? No, we require more driver training and put more restrictions on use by minors.

Roughly 100 children are killed in bicycle accidents every year. Does anyone call for taking bikes away from kids?

People who don't grow up around firearms often view them as an unnecessary evil. For those who are used to them, they're just another tool; one to be handled with respect just like any tool or machine that can injure or kill.

What are the most dangerous things in our households? Electricity. Fire. Cars. 411 people died from electrocutions in the US in 2001.1 Seven people died each day in U.S. home fires.2 According to the CDC3, motor vehicles were the leading cause of death of children and young adults from ages 5 - 24 in 2013. That same year, accidental death by firearms was 10th in the 5-9 age group, 9th in the 10-14 group and didn't make the top 10 for teens. Homicide by firearm was near the top of the list in every age group, but that's surely a function of gang violence, which is a whole different problem.

I really wish we would focus our energies on violence in our culture and on the socio-economic disparity that drives it. Then we might get somewhere. People who are productive and have non-violent control over their lives don't, generally, commit crimes or kill others. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that become despair and rage...those are what we must deal with. Disparity in power is at the core of all of the violence in the world, not just the U.S.

Does there seem to be a theme here?

1. Seven people die each day in reported U.S. home fires
2. Deaths from Electrocution 
3. Ten Leading Causes of Death and Injury

Monday, February 8, 2016


Violence begets violence. Revenge begets revenge. Hate begets hate. Always have, always will.

Until the admonition "Love thy neighbor as thyself." becomes the global norm, humanity will continue to be plagued by violence in all its ugly forms.

We know this already. Story after story in books and movies relate it. Love conquering evil/hate. Is there any more common theme? Well, yes, I guess there is. "Good" beating "Bad" through the use of violence. "American Western" stories and movies. They are a lie. When, in real life, have we seen the Bad stop after the Good guys "win". Stories have an end. Life doesn't.

Love thy neighbor as thyself. No more "us and them", just us. It is the only answer.

It isn't just about war and crime, though. Even indifference is a form of violence. How can we have billionaires and people living on the street? Us and them.
Refugees from wars and genocide. Us and them.
Economic and racial prejudice that creates slums and gangs. Us and them.

As my blog title implies, disequilibrium of power is at the heart of most of society's ills. (Overpopulation is at the heart of all of humanity's ills, but that's another topic.)

Nothing creates violence faster than making someone helpless. You want to get at the core of why mass murderers act out? Look at helplessness and hopelessness. Why do people become radicalized? Because they feel helpless in the face of powers that are antithetical to their values.

Power. The thirst for it. The lack of it. The disparity of it. All the things that provide it: land, resources, money, beauty. Power is at the core.

The struggle between social bonds (love) and competition for the resources needed to survive have, undoubtedly, been with us since the earliest days of humanity. Nay, since our primate ancestors became social creatures and overpopulated their territory. Somehow being in small groups and competing for food must have been more successful than working as one large group.

So, we come by it rightly. But, we are, supposedly, intelligent beings. We should be able to see the damage caused by our thirst for power, right? We don't. In aggregate, we haven't evolved, emotionally, from our ancestors. As we overpopulate Earth and individually struggle to survive, in toto we're the most destructive creatures to ever inhabit the planet. And, we create enormous suffering in the process.

Our most beloved teachers, Buddha, Muhammad, Christ, Gandhi (and others), taught about the dark side of power and greed. They put forward the solution in various forms of the Golden Rule.

"The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity is a moral maxim or principle of altruism found in nearly every human culture and religion, suggesting it is related to fundamental human nature.[1][2]" (Wikipedia,

Muhammad and Islam:

From the hadith, the collected oral and written accounts of Muhammad and his teachings during his lifetime:
A Bedouin came to the prophet, grabbed the stirrup of his camel and said: O the messenger of God! Teach me something to go to heaven with it. Prophet said: "As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don't do to them. Now let the stirrup go! [This maxim is enough for you; go and act in accordance with it!]"
— Kitab al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 146
Ali ibn Abi Talib (4th Caliph in Sunni Islam, and first Imam in Shia Islam) says:
"O' my child, make yourself the measure (for dealings) between you and others. Thus, you should desire for others what you desire for yourself and hate for others what you hate for yourself. Do not oppress as you do not like to be oppressed. Do good to others as you would like good to be done to you. Regard bad for yourself whatever you regard bad for others. Accept that (treatment) from others which you would like others to accept from you... Do not say to others what you do not like to be said to you."
— Nahjul Balaghah, Letter 31 [35]


You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.


“An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.”
Mahatma Gandhi

"I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent."

"Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment."

"What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?"

"There is a sufficiency in the world for man's need but not for man's greed."



560 BC, From the Udanavarga 5:18- Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion
The Dalai Lama


"Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets"[29] (Matthew 7:12 NCV, see also Luke 6:31)

"A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; As I have loved you, that ye also love one another.  By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." John 13:34

Love, compassion, sharing...these are the only antidotes for the greed and violence that are destroying us.

AI: Threat to the Human Race? (work in progress)

Sam Altman (@sama) writes, regarding Superhuman Machine Intelligence (SMI): "The first serious dangers from SMI are likely to involve humans and SMI working together."

With that, I agree. The human(s) provide the motive and purpose in such a partnership. The problem comes when we start to posit "emergent behavior".

It's true that we don't understand how our brains produce human behavior, but we can make some observations about that behavior.

  • Action comes from motivation.
  • Motivation comes from desire.
  • Desire is an emotion or basic survival drive.
    • Hunger
    • Thirst
    • Reproduction
    • Fear
    • Anger
    • Greed
    • Joy
    • Pleasure
The drives that cause us to act are not high order, cerebral cortex functions. They are emotions. They come from the lower, "animal" part of our brains.

It isn't at all clear that hardware/software that thinks, no matter how powerful, will develop feelings, desires, motivation, purpose. Until it does, it has no reason to act independently. The danger, as Altman writes, comes from the human-SMI partnership, where the human, for good or ill, provides the motivation to act. Especially dangerous are the emotionally damaged, misanthropic, but brilliant, people who are working on SMI, the ones who think (and have stated) that machines are the next stage in evolution and should replace humans. If one or more of them succeeds in creating an SMI and sets fixed goals into it that are antithetical to human life, we will be in deep trouble. Those who want power won't purposely destroy all of humanity. They would have no one to have power over. It's the misanthropic, "mad scientist" who scares me. One of them was interviewed as part of a documentary on AI. I wish I could remember his name.

Now, if someone were to set out to replicate the animal part of the brain, that would be a new ballgame. So far, efforts seem to be focused only on thinking machines, not feeling ones.
  1. Builders of AI who've been quoted and interviewed in magazines and on television have no concept of psychology. Computers with more power than the human brain won't spontaneously become self-directed, even if they become self-aware, which is debatable.
    1. Action comes from motivation
    2. Motivation comes from drives and emotions; you have to want something.
    3. Instinctive drives, programmed in, will be the biggest danger:
      1. Self-preservation
      2. Reproduction
  2. Inorganic machines put more demands on the Earth than organic beings. Individually and in natural form, everything about a human animal can be readily reused by nature and makes small demands compared to a synthetic equivalent.
  3. Asimov's robotic laws. 
 Are the AI/android builders naive, sociopaths or misanthropes. If they think the Earth will be better off, they're mistaken.

3 Salmon

Dad and I have spent many hours trolling for landlocked salmon.

For those of you who don't fish, landlocked salmon are freshwater cousins to Atlantic salmon. Trolling is a lively, entertaining form of fishing in which one putters along in a boat at what's supposed to be the speed that a small fish swims, towing a lure or fly that's supposed to look like one. The idea, of course, is to fool a salmon into thinking it's the real thing so it'll bite it and get caught on a hook. Now, salmon can be hard to fool, at least Dad and I found it so. We spent days idling along, periodically changing the lure or fly, and waiting for the rod to bend, signaling that we'd hooked a salmon or a rock. The latter happened more often.

Now by the time the ice goes out around here in the Spring, the salmon are pretty hungry and tend to be a little less cautious about what they try to eat. At about the same time, fresh water smelt swim down brooks into the lake, what's called a smelt run. Salmon love them. If you time it right, the combination can make for some lively fishing.

So, one spring Dad made up his mind we were going to hit the smelt run on Alford Lake. He knew, from talking to other members of the Fish and Game Assocation, that the lake had salmon. Somehow he also found out that the smelt were running. So, we set out in our open aluminum boat on a lovely April day, with mist and drizzle, the temperature in the upper 30s (Fahrenheit), and a raw northerly wind. The lake was black (a color we only see at ice-out) under a dark overcast with patches of skim ice that we had to maneuver around. We were dressed for it in coats, rain gear, gloves and caps with earflaps, but we still had to handle wet, near freezing line, lures and fish with bare hands. If you're starting to shiver, you have the picture.

Back then, a landlocked salmon had to be at least 16 inches long to be a “keeper”. It's a decent size fish and fun to catch. Also, unlike today, you didn't have to immediately kill or release them. You could keep them alive on a stringer, which is a lightweight piece of aluminum chain with a bunch of large safety-pin sort of things along it. You open one of the hooks, slide the end in the space between the fish's gills and out the mouth, close it again, then hang the whole thing over the side of the boat. The fish can breathe and swim around normally, staying fresh until you're ready to go home.

Well, on this particular day, Dad was right. We caught fish … 3 keepers … more than we'd ever caught in one day. Two of them were closer to 20 inches than 16. Nice fish. Despite the cold, we were very happy guys.

I don't know how long we fished. But, once we'd gone a couple of hours with no more luck, we decided to call it a day. So, we stopped and put everything away, then Dad turned the throttle wide open and we sped across the lake toward the dock.

On the way in I kept hearing a metallic slapping noise, but was too busy daydreaming about a warm kitchen and fried salmon to pay attention. Then, as my wife Cindy would say, “Dawn broke over marble head.” Dad couldn't hear anything over the wind noise and motor, so I waved my arms frantically and pointed at the back of the boat. Wearing an all-too-familiar scowl, he finally slowed down and asked what was the matter. Still pointing at the corner of the boat behind his back, I choked out the single word “stringer”. At first he looked puzzled, then it hit him. He whirled around, grabbed the chain and pulled the forgotten stringer out of the water. No fish.

Now, you'd think that would have been a moment for a few choice words. Nope. We motored back to the dock, unloaded the boat, put it on the trailer and drove home in silence. We never spoke of it. In fact, as far as I know, neither of us has said anything to anyone in over 50 years, not until I asked Mum, a few days ago, whether she'd heard about it.

And that's the story of 3 salmon that, in fishing vernacular, “got away”, although not in the way that phrase is usually meant. It was one of our best, and worst, days fishing together.

Rest in peace, Dad.