Humans, Swallows Equally Delusional

SwallowI gotta get this off my desk. For a month, I’ve wanted to talk about this amazing video, Swallows Suss Out Motion Detectors, Learn to Open Doors. Some college campus added motion detector doors to their “Campus Bike Centre.” There were swallows who nested in there, but they still needed to get in and out. Almost immediately, they learned how to activate the doors. In the video below, you will see them. They fly past the detector and then do small circles until the doors (which are slow) open.

What bugs me about this is that a lot of scientists say, “Oh, this is just stimulus and response. They aren’t necessarily learning the way humans do.” I used to accept this kind of thinking. You hear the same thing about Koko, the sign language using gorilla. It sounds Very Serious to make such pronouncements, “We can’t know that they are really doing what we are!” But then two things occurred to me.

First, this is an anti-evolutionary idea. It is the idea that somehow humans aren’t just yet another great ape that has a large brain and an over-sized frontal lobe. This is just a dressed up version of what you read in the Bronze Age Bible. Yes, we are so different from other animals. But if you accept evolution, you can’t think there is some kind of quantum leap between us and swallows, much less us and gorillas.

The ThinkerSecond, this is a weird form of solipsism. The normal kind is where we can’t know if anything outside of yourself exists. But this form is that we can’t know what’s going on in a bird’s brain. Well, that’s true. But I also can’t know what is going on in other humans’ brains. Maybe they actually think like I do, or maybe it’s just stimulus-response. Maybe other humans seem to think like I do, but they are really more like alligators without as many teeth. Who can say?

The truth is, we can’t say for certain. And as Bertrand Russell noted, we can’t say for sure that there isn’t a teapot orbiting the sun between the earth and Mars. We have to take some things on faith, like the idea that there is an external reality. But I tend to think things are actually the opposite of what I’ve been arguing. Swallows opening doors is just stimulus-response. And so was Rodin’s actions when he was carving the first version of The Thinker. I’m more than willing to believe that. But there is something in the wiring of brains that tricks us into thinking that we are actually, you know, thinking. And I don’t see any reason to “think” that swallows don’t suffer from the very same delusions.


See also: Monkeys Do Math as Expected.

Steve Israel Should Become a Republican

Steve IsraelJonathan Chait wrote a very thorough and important article today, Why Democrats Can’t Be the Party of Business. It is about how Democrats, like “little brain” Steve Israel, are reaching out to the business community because the fact of the matter is that the Republicans are doing everything they can to destroy the economy. According to such Democrats, the business community ought to embrace the party. Chait’s response is basically: grow up!

He makes it more complicated than it really is, however. It is as simple as this: it isn’t about the business community. This is about rich people who own one or more businesses. The United States Chamber of Commerce is a ridiculously conservative group. But local chapters of the Chamber of Commerce are generally pretty middle of the road. That’s because most businesses are small and their owners aren’t rich. So the US Chamber of Commerce will always be for the Republican Party alone for one simple reason: it will cut their taxes.

So Democrats mope around complaining that they are pro-business and yet they don’t get nearly as much of what Gil Fulbright calls, “Those sweet, sweet campaign donations.” And that’s what was so crazy about the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and it’s creation of the New Democratic movement. Being more anti-poor and more pro-business didn’t gain the Democrats anything. I’m working on a longer piece regarding this, but what I am able to show is that Clinton didn’t win because he was a “new kind of Democrat.” Given the economy, Dennis Kucinich would have beat Bush the Elder in 1992. The same is true of Obama in 2008. It is just a myth that Democratic elites have convinced themselves that “moderating” the party is what got them into the White House.

But just look at how much smarter the Republicans have been. Bush the Younger didn’t “moderate” his policies; he just claimed that he was a “compassionate conservative.” As far as I could tell, that just meant someone who claimed to feel bad about all the ways that he was hurting the poorer classes. But it was Clinton and not Reagan or either of the Bushes who did the most harm to welfare in this country. What?! Did Clinton think we would always have as good an economy as we had in the late 1990s? The Republicans have learned who their allies are and that eventually, they get into power by hook (a bad economy) or crook (the Supreme Court).

But even after all of this? After 25 years of DLC lunacy, Democrats like Steve Israel think that, surely now the US Chamber of Commerce will start giving the Democrats those sweet, sweet campaign donations?! I have made peace with supporting a tactically stupid and ideologically spineless Democratic Party. But don’t push it! If the Democratic Party continues its march to the right, I’m not the only one who will abandon it.

The only way that the rich are going to start supporting the Democratic Party is if the Democrats start a bidding war. Here’s an idea I haven’t heard that I’m sure they’d like: a reverse estate tax. Instead of paying a tax when you pass on your money to your kids, the government pays you. Let’s make it 25%! So if your estate is $100 million, the government gives your kids an extra $25 million. How about that? The only problem is, I assure you, the Republicans would offer 50%.

So can we please cut the crap? Can we please stop pretending that our enemies—the people who think that no level of inequality is bad—are going to support us? Because when you have a single party that is supported by both the Koch brothers and me, what you really have is a country with only one political party. If Steve Israel wants to reach out to those people, then get the hell out of my party!

Gil Fulbright Ads Are Very Funny But Probably Counterproductive

Gil Fulbright - Represent.USThe anti-corruption group Represent.US has decided to run a fake political campaign in Kentucky. It is hilarious, as I will show you in a moment. But it does bother me to some extent. The reason is that focusing attention on corruption during a campaign doesn’t cause people to get involved as much as to not even bother to vote. And when that happens, it hurts the liberal cause—at least in the short term. In the long term, who knows? But I’m rather cynical about getting money out of politics. Campaigns like Represent.US strike me as going for a knock out blow when the best bet is always to push back—work for marginal reform.

Our most recent problem with political corruption is that Republican Presidents have appointed Supreme Court justices who have defined corruption so narrowly that it basically doesn’t exist. According to John Roberts, handing a pile of cash to a politician while winking at him is not corruption. According to him, what you need is to have the CEO of an arms contractor hand a politician a pile of cash; the CEO must say, “I’m giving you this pile of cash so that you will give me the contract for blah blah blah; the politician must then say, “Because I am getting this pile of cash, I am going to give you the contract for blah blah blah”; and this must all be done during halftime at the Super Bowl when at least 15 cameras and microphones record it. Then you have corruption. Otherwise, “What corruption? Sure I took plenty of money from that CEO but his company just happened to be the best one for blah blah blah.”

The truth is that in the Kentucky race, if the Democrat Grimes wins, it will only be barely. And ads and other political events that will tend to equate them might be all the difference in the world. And if the Senate goes Republican next year and one of the Supreme Court justices dies, it is almost certain that the Senate will not approve any replacement that Obama proposes. And if a Republican wins the White House in 2016, you can kiss the Supreme Court goodbye for next two decades at least.

On the other hand, Alison Lundergan Grimes seems to have a good campaign, and might be able to leverage this Represent.US campaign. It is very clear that McConnell will certainly have more money over all and more money from outside the state. And, as I show further below, there is some false equivalence going on from Represent.US. But maybe I see things this way just because I’m old and fearful and I’ve only seen this country become more and more of an oligarchy. But given the current state of things, our only hope is a Constitutional Amendment. And I’m not sure this ad campaign leads us in that direction so much as it leads us to, “Both sides suck, let’s not vote!” Because I assure you, the rich know who will cut their taxes, and they will vote.

Having said all that, this videos are great. Here is Gil Fulbright for Senate:

I do actually have a policy problem with this video. Of the three things that Represent.US thinks are beyond question worth doing, I disagree with two. A “Balanced Budget” is not necessarily a good idea ever and it certainly isn’t now. And “Education Reform” has become nothing but a dog whistle for “test more and destroy teachers’ unions.” As for the one I don’t disagree with—”Healthcare Reform”—I’m not even sure what that’s supposed to be, given we just got it and we are watching it work while conservatives continue to claim it isn’t. But otherwise, I agree with it all and it is really funny.

The next is Net Neutrality:

That one is just pure genius. The fake download delay indicator is brilliant as is the tag line, “I’m Gil Fulbright; for the right price, I’ll approve any message!”

And the last of the fake campaign ads is, Healthcare Costs:

Whoever the actor is, he’s great. But I have a bit of a policy complaint about this one too. Obamacare is a great thing for the healthcare industry. It is, after all, the conservative healthcare reform law. So the Republicans being against it really isn’t about what their funders are saying. And the bill also puts stimulus into the economy, so it’s good for all businesses, just as the SNAP program is. So it isn’t just about money in politics. The Republican Party really has gone off the ideological north pole where a compass is useless. They don’t know why they believe some things. And that’s definitely the case when it comes to healthcare.

That’s it for the ads. This last one is kind of an infomercial for Represent.US. And it’s kind of pathetic, even dangerous. They say they want people to rise up and pass tough new anti-corruption laws. Well, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court recently overturned just such a law in Montana. It might have been nice if there had been one less Republican appointed justice and one more Democrat appointed justice—regardless of my many problems with the Democratic Party.

But we are told in the video that McConnell and Grimes are just the same. The narrator says, “Three-quarters of both candidates money is coming from outside of Kentucky.” But it actually shows that while Grimes is getting 3/4 of her money from outside Kentucky, McConnell is getting 7/8 of his money from outside Kentucky. I don’t mean to nitpick, but this is the kind of thing that makes matters worse. We’ve seen this time and again: if you claim there is no difference when there is still a notable difference, you benefit the worse person. And note: thus far in the election, McConnell has raised more than double what Grimes has. But there is no indication of that in their little infographic. In fact, their infographic implies that they have as much money.

So the ads are funny and I’m all for satire. But I’m not too keen on Represent.US and I don’t think they are too clear on what they are doing. You are better off giving your money to Wolf Pac, which may not be as entertaining, but has a better plan.

Amazing Predictability of PolitiFact

Amazing Diversity of Fox News AnchorsPolitiFact seems determined to demonstrate that they are completely stupid and useless. Consider the history of the whole “fact checking” industry. People looked around and noticed that there was a problem with reporting, which tended to just provide what both “sides” were saying in a conflict. So the fact checkers were going to get out there and make actual judgments. But they ran into the same problem that reporters suffered from: how could they be seen as objective, if they didn’t find both “sides” equally to blame for everything. So PolitiFact, along with every other major fact checking source, has bent over backwards to find false equivalence. This isn’t just done with nitpicking liberal claims, it also involves picking really minor liberal claims. Even still, conservatives hate the fact checkers, because even with all the false equivalence, they come off looking worse.

A good example of both fact checking problems was found at PolitiFact last week, Image of 9 White, Blond Women Shows “Amazing Diversity of Fox News Anchors.” Jamal Dajani put up the photo above on his Facebook page with the title, “The amazing diversity of FOX News anchors.” This goes along with the idea that Fox News really like blond women. Everyone knows this is true: Fox News is not terribly diverse, especially when it comes to women.

Now a good counterargument to this is that this is largely true for the entertainment industry generally. But what people are noting when they complain about Fox News is that the only women on the network who any normal person can name—Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly, and Greta Van Susteren—all have blond hair. There is no question of that. And the title that Dajani provided for the photo collage was not, “Fox News only has blond haired anchors.” Also, it’s a joke, guys. So that is the second part of what PolitiFact does to be stupid and useless: pick an obscure statement from an obscure person and “study” it.

They also did the first thing: they nitpicked the claim. They also sort of proved that it was true. They listed all the anchors on Fox News and found that of the 26 women, 14 had blond hair and 12 did not. They made no mention of the fact that only about 25% of Americans have blond hair. And over half of the Fox News anchors have blond hair. But it gets worse, because that seems to be a requirement of PolitiFact articles.

The article goes on to point that while most of the anchors are white, they aren’t all. There’s Arthel Neville, daughter of Art Neville, who is African America. Well, yeah, I guess, she is. And Uma Pemmaraju is an Indian-American. But both women are no darker than a well tanned English woman—for example, Julie Banderas (half English, I think). Even by local news standards, Fox News‘ lineup is incredibly white and blond haired. They are, regardless, much more white and blond haired than the nation is.

In the end, PolitiFact found the claim “mostly false.” It said, “The Facebook image gives the strong impression that all female Fox News anchors and hosts look alike.” Well, as I said, it was a joke—an exaggeration that made a deeper point, that PolitiFact’s own reporting confirmed. But it does allow the company to put another one in the conservative column, “See: we go after liberals too!”

I am aware of times when PolitiFact has gone after silly conservative points too. But I’ve never seen one this silly. And crazy conservative conspiracy theories are often widely believed on the right. No one looking at that picture thought that all female Fox News hosts have blond hair. And even if they did think that, what does that have to do with politics? Was Jamal Dajani calling for the Labor Department to investigate Fox News for unfair hiring practices? No. I suspect this was just PolitiFact trying to make nice with Fox News that has been at war with it for years.

Afterword

I can’t seem to find any time when I said anything nice about PolitiFact. I hate it when liberals use PolitiFact when it happens to get something right—which in fairness, they often do. But they get things wrong enough that it is best to never grant them legitimacy. If you want to use some of their research or argumentation: fine. But just because PolitiFact says something is true or false means absolutely nothing.

See Also

PolitiFact Has Sucked for a Good Long Time
PolitiFact’s Tweet Patrol
“Fact” Checking Moves to Australia
Art Laffer’s Toxic Prescription

Barbara Lee and Blood Lust

Barbara LeeIn general, I don’t do politicians for the birthday post, but Barbara Lee is 68 today. I lived in Richmond, California for a long time, so although she was never my representative, I was right on the border of her district, and just across the bay for other times. So I’ve been familiar with her from the start. But then this is mostly true for the rest of America. Just in her second term as a Representative, she was the only person to vote against the ridiculously broad Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF).

I remember 9/11 really well. I remember how blood thirsty people were. There is, of course, a direct line not just between 9/11 and the AUMF and Afghanistan, but also Iraq. It took most people years to get over the need to attack anyone who was convenient, because we had been attacked. And that included Barbara Lee, who actually received death threats. That was in addition to causing her Capital Hill phone line to be overloaded with hateful calls. It didn’t matter that her vote had nothing to do with Afghanistan, but was a principled stand about a ridiculously broad law. It was unacceptable not to vote for any bill that was belligerent; to do so was un-American!

On the day of 9/11, when I considered myself a libertarian, I still managed to write:

This is a tragedy on a large scale. What bothers me is that this is only the tip of the iceberg—the real tragedy has yet to come and I am not talking about the death count from New York.

The real tragedy will come with the response by the United States.

Earlier today, the Golden Gate Bridge was closed. For those of you who don’t know, that is a bridge in San Francisco. San Francisco is not an island. What good is closing the bridge? Are we thinking, “We may not be able to stop terrorists, but by God! We can inconvenience them!”

We in the US have a strong tendency to respond inappropriately to any tragedy. Because of the uni-bomber, all packages over one pound in weight must be taken to a post office. Does this make anyone safer? No. We respond inappropriately to tragedy.

What I am expecting from this is a wave of new laws that demolish the civil rights of Americans at the same time that [they] don’t make Americans any safer. Ben Franklin said something to the effect, “Those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither.”[1] Now we trade liberty for nothing at all.

Of course, I don’t always agree with Lee. But she is a good solid liberal. And she represents her district better than say, Nancy Pelosi (who I have nothing against) just across the bay.

Happy birthday Barbara Lee!


[1] The actual quote is, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”