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The Anthropocene is a conceit of human exceptionalism

Taking the long view …

SelfAwarePatterns

Peter Brannen has an interesting piece in the Atlantic, pointing out that the Anthropocene is more of a geological event rather than an epoch, at least so far.

Humans are now living in a new geological epoch of our own making: the Anthropocene. Or so we’re told. Whereas some epochs in Earth history stretch more than 40 million years, this new chapter started maybe 400 years ago, when carbon dioxide dipped by a few parts per million in the atmosphere. Or perhaps, as a panel of scientists voted earlier this year, the epoch started as recently as 75 years ago, when atomic weapons began to dust the planet with an evanescence of strange radioisotopes.

Brannen’s point is that human civilization so far is a speck in the geological record, 10,000 years (in the most generous definition of “civilization”) compared to 500 millions years of complex life, or about 0.002%…

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The Two O’Clock

Professor Bartholomew Hartfeld sat in a tall leather backed chair behind a dark mahogany desk. He looked irritably at the clock on the wall opposite his desk. His 2:00 pm was late.

He flicked the button on the intercom. “Has my two o’clock called to say he’d be late?” Professor Hartfeld asked.

“No, sir,” Marta answered.

“Please let me know the moment he arrives,” the professor requested, “but have him wait in the waiting room for the time he made me wait.”

“Yes sir,” his secretary said.

Bartholomew’s eyes scanned his consultation office to make sure that nothing was out of place, that everything was in order. The clock showed 2:05. He checked his watch which confirmed that it was indeed 2:05, actually closer to 2:06. His irritation increased.

The professor spied something crawling up the richly upholstered blue chaise lounge chair beside his desk. He squinted one eye to see better what kind of creature it was. After identifying the culprit, the professor slipped off his right Oxford shoe and, standing up with right shoe in hand, he hobbled over to the lounge chair.

The cockroach reached the top cushion and moved toward the center.

Bartholomew raised the heavy shoe above his shoulder, taking careful aim in preparation to strike the disgusting insect. He hoped that his 2:00 o’clock wouldn’t walk through the door exactly at this moment and see him, one shoe on and the other raised to strike a cockroach on his expensive chaise lounge.

Suddenly the cockroach flipped itself over onto its back so that it was facing Bartholomew and hissed, “Stay your hand, kind sir, I implore you! I am your 2:00 o’clock client. I apologize for my tardiness, but it takes a while to crawl under the door and make my way across your carpet and up your chaise lounge. I announced myself to your secretary, but she did not seem to hear me.”

The professor was dumbfounded. Somebody must be playing a trick on him! He looked around the room again, trying to find the camera or recording device. He walked around the office, methodically checking behind every chair and underneath each piece of furniture. He even opened each of the drawers in his desk. Nothing seemed suspicious or untoward.

Bartholomew stumped back over to the chaise lounge and scrutinized the cockroach. The professor smirked jocularly for whoever might be watching him, asking the cockroach, “How do I know that it is you that is talking to me, and not some impish trickster with a hidden microphone nearby?”

“Ask me a question whose answer is six or less and a positive integer, and I will respond by raising my legs as appropriate,” the cockroach hissed.

The professor thought a moment and asked brightly, “how many fingers am I holding up?”

The cockroach extended outward three legs, keeping its remaining three legs folded over its abdomen.

The professor lowered one finger and the cockroach lowered one of its extended legs. Bartholomew thought to himself, well, whatever was going on, he’d play along. “Do you mind if I record our session,” he asked perfunctorily. “It’s something I do with all my clients for later review and analysis. I don’t want to miss anything.”

“I have no issue with that,” the cockroach hissed. “I know how disgusting we are to you, but could you be so kind as to help me turn back over onto my abdomen? It’s quite difficult for me to flip myself back over. I’m not as spry as I used to be.”

The professor felt a little less disgusted by the cockroach than he had before. He didn’t know why. Maybe it was the recognition of another conscious being, no matter what the form was, that stirred the soup of empathy. He slipped a sheet of yellow paper from his notepad carefully underneath the cockroach and held the sheet at a 45-degree angle so that it slipped down the page gently but with enough momentum that it was able to turn itself over.

“Thank you, Professor,” the cockroach hissed.

“Happy to oblige,” the professor said. He pulled one of the narrower chairs over to the chaise lounge, sat down, and turned on the recorder. “For the record,” he began. “It is 2:15 pm, Tuesday, July 22, 1958. I am in session with Gregory Samuels. What seems to be the problem, Mr. Samuels?”

“Please call me Greg,” the cockroach hissed. “I’ve been thinking a lot about suicide.”

The professor made a note of that and paused a moment before saying, “The mind entertains all the thoughts that are possible for it to think, but that doesn’t mean that we have to act on every thought we think or let a particular thought take over control of our mind.”

“I know that I don’t have to act on every thought I have,” Greg answered, “but I’m not so sure that I have the intellectual or emotional resources to prevent this particular thought from eclipsing all my other thoughts.”

“I would imagine you to be somewhat lonely, possibly cut off from the care and support of family and comrades,” the professor ventured.

“Not really,” Greg explained. “Could you close the curtains and dim the lights a bit? I have 350 siblings and thousands of close friends. We get together as often as we can. Most of us are quite gregarious and decision-making is easier and less stressful when we’re all together. The sex is good enough, I suppose …”

The professor wrote down some more notes, looked directly at Greg, and asked, “Could you expand a bit on your last sentence?”

“About the sex?” Greg glanced back at the professor.

“Yes, the sex,” the professor said.

Greg exhaled in a long hissing breath that almost turned into a whistle before answering. “It’s not so bad, really. When we’re ready for it, we give off a potent pungent pheromone so that willing partners may find each other. Then we have our courtship rituals, the usual posturing and stridulation. The copulation is both intense and prolonged. We go back to our friends who expect to hear all the intimate details about our partner, the courtship, and the copulation. The problem is that it seems so mechanical, so predictable, so meaningless. I feel like a damned fool.”

“So, you don’t engage in sex?” the professor asked incredulously.

“I do engage,” Greg admitted, “but I don’t run to my friends for debriefing or enthuse about it. In a word, it’s not my ultimate experience.”

The professor smiled wanly. “I suppose you just haven’t met the ultimate partner.”

Greg answered, “It’s more than that. We’ve been living like this for the last 320 million years: hatching out of our egg casings with 30 to 40 siblings, all of us gulping air in our initial shock of existence, crawling out on our own, feeding on whatever is to be had, morphing into adults, congregating, copulating, impregnating, dropping egg casings, and dying. Da capo al fine. We’ll probably continue living like this for the next 320 million years. There has to be something more than that.”

“Except for hatching out of eggs, it sounds like a good description of the human condition,” the professor said after a while.

“I beg of you,” Greg implored, “don’t make light of my plaints. I’m pouring out my soul to you. You are my last hope. After you, the long night of non-existence.”

“I swear to you, my words were wrung from the depths of empathy for your plight,” the professor chose his words carefully. “Is there nothing to which you look forward, for which you hope, to which you aspire?”

Greg spoke as if from another world. His words hissed out of him, “There is no beauty, no poetry, no aspiration or hope, no break in the boring continuity of existence, no lovely fictions to distract us from our dull repetitious lives.”

The professor countered, “How can that be? You seem to me a poetic soul.”

Greg explained, “Yes, that is my curse. I am the exception that proves the rule. I could be the Shakespeare of my species, another T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, an Yves Bonnefoy, and it would matter not an iota. Poetry’s coin is not legal tender in our society. I recite my poems to crowds of thousands, even millions, but they don’t even listen. They look at me dumbly and continue with their copulation and feeding on dung, or whatever the collective mind has decided this moment. I feel loneliest when I’m in such a crowd. It’s unbearable. If only I could have this poetry somehow removed from my brain.”

The professor scribbled notes as fast as he could. He raised the pencil to his lips and tapped the eraser against his lower teeth. When he became aware of what he was doing, he stopped and thought about what he had just heard. He asked, “I suppose it would be too much to expect that your species has doctors who understand the functions and anatomy of your brains, wouldn’t it?”

“Unfortunately, we do not,” Greg replied. “We don’t have so many different roles. There are no doctors. We don’t live more than a year or so, although I’ve heard of some of our distant cousins living as much as four or five years. If we get sick, we die and that’s that. End of story.”

The professor said, “It’s 1958. We don’t have the capability to do what you wished yet. We don’t even know where poetry is located in our own brains, let alone in a … forgive me … cockroach’s brain. Who knows when we’ll be able to map out our own brains or understand how they work? It will probably be hit or miss a long time until we finally get it right. A miss might render you speechless, unable to walk, or kill you.”

Greg hissed a long whistle of wonderment. “Why make the effort to stay alive as long as possible when life is so fraught with suffering and pain? It took an eternity before I was born. My life will end before I achieve anything worthwhile. Then I will be dead or non-existent for the rest of eternity. We are barely a blip on the vast radar of eternity. Why bother? Why continue after the fallacy has been uncovered?”

Professor Bartholomew Hartfeld glanced up at the clock on the wall. It was 2:50 pm. “I’m afraid our time for today’s session is up,” he said, not insensitively.

Greg flinched as if waking up from a dream, “Huh, what? Oh … yes,” he recovered his initial presence of mind. “I had forgotten about the fifty-minute hour.”

The professor added, “It seems like we’ve barely scratched the surface. There is much ground to cover.” Then he asked kindly, “Would you like for me to have Marta schedule an appointment for next week?”

Greg hissed ever so softly, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Next week’s session will be … shall we say … ‘gratis’?” the professor offered most generously.

The cockroach crawled slowly toward the edge of the chaise lounge and then down one of the legs to the carpet.

“What will you do?” the professor expressed genuine concern over the fate of his small client. “Please, don’t do anything drastic until we’ve had a chance to examine all the alternatives!” he implored.

The cockroach slowly made his way over the carpet until it reached the door and then crawled under it.

Marta’s voice over the intercom broke the ensuing silence as she announced, “Your 3:00 o’clock is here, Professor Hartfeld.”

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For Whom the Siren Wails

It starts off as a low rumbling felt in your intestines, almost like a premonition although you know the precise time it will begin its wailing, and rises in a discordant crescendo calling everyone and everything, people, cars, trees, clouds, and moon to stand still a moment to remember loved ones, friends, and those you don’t know but who touched you with their stories, who fell trying to protect our country or were killed for no other reason than that they loved and walked in our country.

During the minute or two that the siren wails across our land, there is time to think your thoughts or just to be carried along on its waves as on an ocean of sadness. I had two thoughts during the wailing.

The first thought was one that comes back to me every year since I came to this country back in 1978, about the cognitive dissonance that Israelis must feel when their Memorial Day, a day of mourning, licking one’s wounds, transmogrifies, changes key from a minor key to a major key, as immediately following the end of Memorial Day ceremonies, our Independence Day festivites begin and we whip out our plastic boppers, foam spray, and firecrackers. I have a feeling that those who truly mourn, those who have had a loved one amputated from their lives, do not or can’t switch emotions, like masks, so fast, that those who do move on from mourning to joyous festivities, never truly mourned. Maybe I would feel differently about this if the order were swapped: first celebrate our Independence Day and then, immediately following, commemorate our Memorial Day. That might make us better understand the cost of our independence . Maybe the true mourners would feel more consoled seeing their compatriots coming towards them than seeing them move on.

My second thought was about a joint Memorial Day ceremony of Israeli and Palestinan mourners who acknowledge the pain of those living on both sides and brings together Israeli and Palestinian families bereaved by the conflict, that has been going on for the last 14 years, albeit in spite of many obstacles and bitter contention (https://www.israelhayom.com/2019/05/06/supreme-court-rules-palestinians-may-attend-joint-memorial-day-event/). Although we have a saying that one should not judge a person in the moment of his or her grief, some Israelis have attacked those participating in this ceremony rather than allowing them their legitimate expression of grief. I have seen pictures of Israelis consoling Palestinian mourners and vice-versa. I sincerely hope this annual ceremony continues and attracts even more mourners from both sides because, only then can the people on both sides demand peace from their leaders. Don’t get me wrong on this score. I don’t believe the joint Memorial Day ceremony can merge with or replace the State Memorial Day ceremony because the purposes are not the same. The State ceremony is meant to praise acts of heroism against enemies, acts of ultimate sacrifice for the common good and for brothers in arms, and the purity of our cause. The joint Israeli-Palestinian ceremony is meant to find common ground and to empathize, if not with our enemies, then with the parents, spouses, and children of our enemies, to console them and to allow ourselves to be consoled, and to express hope for a time when we will know war between us no longer and forget there ever was.

Both Memorial Day ceremonies are legitimate and serve their purposes, but maybe one day in the not so distant future they will not be necessary.

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Everything You Thought You Knew about Races Is Probably Wrong

Ok, I don’t mean to belittle or denigrate the knowledge or opinions of professional biologists, geneticists, etc. They know that the concept of race may only be useful in identifying a few genetic traits appearing in certain groups of people and not others. We share 96% of our DNA with chimpanzees (see https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/08/chimps-humans-96-percent-the-same-gene-study-finds/) and 99.9% of our DNA is common across all races ( see http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/resources/whats_a_genome/Chp4_1.shtml).

It makes about as much sense to apply racial classifications based on skin color as it does to create racial classifications based on brown-eyed, blue-eyed, red-haired, blonde-haired, or brown-haired people.

Now, if you’ve followed me up to this point, let’s take a look at the physics of colors. The different colors most humans can see are due to the red-, blue-, and green-sensitive color receptors (cones) in our retinas. In combination, those three cone types allow us to see red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, and certain transitional colors between them. These colors are derived from the different wavelengths in ambient light. White is the sum of all color wavelengths and black is the absense of any color wavelengths.

The way colors mix in physical light is different than the way they mix in pigments of paint, so don’t be confused by the two different media.

What we see with our physical eyes are the light waves reflected off the objects around us. Physical properties of those objects (people, animals, plants, things, etc), cause different wavelengths of light to be absorbed by those objects. An object that is actually green would be seen as the sum of the rest of the colors that are not green; in other words, a mixture of blue-red. A red object would be seen as blue-green. A blue object would be seen as red-green. The cones in our retinas pass a color negative up our optic nerves to our brains , just like color-sensitive photo paper that has been immersed in developer fluid.

Some of you are probably beginning to see where I’m going with this.

Not yet?

The people we call blacks, whom we see as black or dark brown are actually white or light tan, or any other color besides black or dark brown. The people we see as white, pink, or light tan are actually black, dark brown, or dark blue-green.

Anybody who has put up a sign saying “whites only” would be advised to take down those signs before there is a misunderstanding as to intent.

I’m jus’ sayin’.

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The Wrong Answer to the Immigration Problem

I’m going out on a pretty shaky limb here. I’m about to say something that is sure to draw fire from both the liberal side of the political spectrum and the conservative side.

Although America has shown itself to be cruelly negligent in its dealing with the immigration problem on its borders, specifically in its treatment of migrant families and their children, the answer to the dilemma is NOT to open wide the floodgates of would-be immigrants into the United States. Just to be crystal clear, I am not saying “the right answer is not to open wide the floodgates”, but “opening the floodgates is the wrong answer.” It might become the right answer in the future, if America were to increase the resources it possesses to deal with the problem and decides to change the way it allocates those resources (but I am getting ahead of myself).

The USA is ranked #120 (out of 183) among the nations with the highest rates of death from malnutrition between Costa Rica (#119) and Egypt (#121). 0.64% out of every 100,000 Americans die from malnutrition every year ( https://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/cause-of-death/malnutrition/by-country/ ). In 2017, the population of the United States was 325.7 million people. 0.64% of 325,700,000 means 2,084,480 men, women, elderly, and/or children die from malnutrition in America every year.

This is America not being able to take care of its own people, even though it is one of the richest nations on Earth. Apparently, Capitalists see these numbers as the cost of doing business in America. How exactly is America to take care of a flood or even a trickle of immigrants?

Singapore, Moldova, or Belarus might be able to take in some immigrants since people there don’t starve to death or die from malnutrition.

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Message in a Bottle

Hello,

I know this message is written in a language that is not native to you. Neither is it native to me. I don’t speak your native language and you probably don’t speak mine. I hope that the language which I’ve selected for this message is common enough for the both of us to understand each other and to express our ideas.

I know nothing about you except that you are the one who has picked up the bottle and managed to coax this message out of it. You know nothing about me except that I am the one who wrote this message and stuffed it in the bottle. You may be asking yourself why I did it. I suppose it’s because I wanted you to pick up the bottle and read the message, and I didn’t know of any other way to get it to you, the message, that is; I don’t care about the bottle, once you’ve retrieved the message.

I try to imagine you. I won’t tell you what all I imagine about you because you’d probably think it’s silly and they’re probably all wrong.

If you’ve managed to get this far, I’ll tell you what I believe about you. There are quite a few things about you that are similar to me. You love your children. So do I. I’d give my life for mine as you’d give your life for yours. You honor your parents and grandparents, even if they’re no longer living. So do I. You’d do anything for your family, make sure they have everything they need, work long and hard for them. So would I. You want the best life possible for them. So do I. You have friends who would give you the shirts off their backs and you’d do the same for them. Some of those friends are like family to you. So do I. So are friends for me.

The truth is, you don’t know everything. Neither do I. Nobody does. There are lots of things you know but there are lots of things you don’t know. It’s the same with me. The things you don’t know, you have to guess at, you have to trust someone or something, you have to believe that it’s true. It’s the same with me.

But let’s face it. We have our differences too.

Your leaders tell you bad things about us, that we are your enemies. Our leaders say the same things about you. The truth is, some of us really are bad. I suspect that some of you are really bad too. Our leaders say we can’t trust you. Do your leaders say the same about us? It’s not just talk. Some of you have killed or injured some of us and some of us have killed or injured some of you. I don’t know who started it. Do you know? We tell different stories. We have different histories. They all go back so far that nobody really knows for sure what is fact and what is fiction. They also go forward into rosy futures that can’t all be true because some of them are mutually exclusive. It’s a zero sum game.

Our differences are real, but so are our similarities. Why is it that our differences seem to blind us to our similarities? I’m not saying we should ignore our differences. I am saying we should be motivated by our similarities to keep on looking for a way through the valley of the shadow of death, relying on understanding and empathy of and for each other, rather than fear and hatred. Don’t wait for our leaders to lead us to peace. They won’t. They can’t. It is far easier for them to lead us to war. Peace won’t come unless there’s trust and trust will only come one by one, two by two, three by three …

*

I wrote this message, put it in a plastic bottle, drove to the border between us, and threw it over the wall. I have no idea whether anyone on the other side picked up the bottle, pulled out the message, and read it. I waited for several hours but nobody threw the bottle back over the wall to our side.

*

The previous paragraph was slightly inaccurate. I was walking next to the wall on the border between us when I saw an object tossed over from the other side. It landed close by and I saw it was a bottle. At first I thought it was a molotov cocktail or something similar. It didn’t have a rag stuffed in the neck of the bottle or anything like that but I did see what looked like a note inside the bottle. My curiosity overcame my caution and I walked over to the bottle and extracted and read this note. It didn’t know quite what to make of it or what to do with it.

*

The previous two paragraphs are untrue. As a matter of fact this whole note business is complete fiction. I wrote it in the firm belief that there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be true sometime, somewhere, that someone might write a note like this and someone else might read it, that they might feel each other’s pain and prayers and loves, that those prayers and successes and victories might no longer be at each other’s expense.

Not that it makes any difference to a God who created the Universe and all things in it, but I am an Israeli Jew and those on the other side of the wall are mostly Palestinian Muslims. The only prayers that reach God’s ear are prayers for peace among all His creations.

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Why Machines Could Be – But Aren’t – Conscious

I couldn’t have stated this anymore elegantly myself. I was just about to write a similar blog post today on why there’s no reason to assume AI systems couldn’t be programmed to be conscious but decided first to google whether some such article had been posted. Basically, consciousness is just the sum of all our thoughts, sensations, emotions, memories, motor controls, etc., each of which are simple, in principle, to emulate with algorithms. There is no need to duplicate analog or biological elements or processes in silicon although that would also be a possible way to go, albeit not very parsimonious (Occam’s Razor).

Daniel Toker

I recently had a brief back-and-forth with Bobby Azarian about his new article on Raw Story. Azarian, a neuroscientist at George Mason University, argued thatartificial intelligence (AI) could never be conscious. I highly recommend reading Azarian’s article: it’s a great distillation of some key concepts in the philosophy of mind, and he makes an argument that is well worth considering. For the most part, I agree with Azarian’s reasoning regarding current A.I., but I don’t think his argument precludes the possibility of future A.I. being conscious.

First, a summary of Azarian’s key points:

  1. Computers are Turing Machines, which means they can perform operations on symbols but can’t recognize what those symbols mean (which requires a mind).
  2. Consciousness is a biological phenomenon, which is produced by processes very different from what happens inside a computer. While brains are in some sense “digital,” since information is carried by a neuron…

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