Is consciousness a simulation engine, a prediction machine?

Back in September (which now seems like a million years ago), I did a series of posts on consciousness inspired by Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallatt’s recent book, ‘The Ancient Origins of Consciousness: How the Brain Created Experience‘.  In that series, I explored consciousness as a system modeling its environment and itself as a guide to action.  My enthusiastic run of five posts reflected how much F&M’s excellent book had shaken me out of my anthropocentric views.

But that series had a glaring omission, and some of the people I’ve referred to it have called me on it.  F&M’s book was focused on animal consciousness and its evolution.  As I noted in the first post, while that broad approach had a lot of benefits, it had one big drawback.  Animals can’t describe their conscious experience, most notably what behavior they do consciously versus unconsciously.  As a result, this particular boundary wasn’t addressed in F&M’s book, and I only briefly alluded to it in the series.

This post on that boundary is admittedly my own speculation, informed by F&M’s book, but also by an outstanding article at Aeon by Anil K. Seth.  My long time readers will know that I’ve historically put a good deal of stock in metacognitive theories such as Michael Graziano’s attention schema or Michael Gazzaniga’s interpreter, where consciousness is a model of some aspects of the internal processing of the brain.  I still think these metacognitive models exist (it seems we use them anytime we have these discussions) but I’m less sure that they’re the sole crucial ingredient, although they could still be one of those ingredients.

Okay, so consider an early pre-Cambian animal.  This animal doesn’t have a brain or even a spinal cord, but it does have a nerve net, with sensory neurons connecting directly to motor neurons.  If the animal receives a sensory stimulus (such as touch or maybe a chemical gradient), it triggers a signal to the motor neurons resulting in movement.  In this nervous system, stimulus A results in action A, stimulus B results in action B, etc.  While some conditioning can modify the processing, there’s no consciousness here, just reflex actions.

Later species such as chordates developed a spinal cord.  This centralized cord allowed for a combination of sensory inputs to lead to combinations of actions.  So events A and B resulted in actions A and B.  Again, these actions, while modifiable by conditioning (a primitive form of learning), were still basically reflex actions.  Very few people (aside from panpsychists) think we’re at consciousness yet.

As animals began to develop distance senses (eyesight, hearing, smell), the amount of information available to the reflexes began to increase dramatically.  This led to the spinal cord enlarging near those distance senses so the information from them could be quickly processed.  The distance senses led to the creation of image maps, exteroceptive models of the environment.  The mental reflexes described above now reacted to information in the models rather than directly to sensory inputs.

These exteroceptive models of the environment, along with the interoceptive models of the animal’s body state, formed an inner world.  They provided the foundation of conscious experience.  But I’m not sure they are what we would call consciousness.  Another ingredient was necessary.

The large amount of information caused a problem.  The models resulted in situations where the quantity of action reflexes triggered by a particular set of circumstances could be large, with some of those triggered actions perhaps being incompatible with other triggered actions.  For example, an early Cambrian fish might see food off in the distance, which triggers a desire to approach and eat it, but not much further beyond the food is a predator, which triggers a desire to flee.

Our fish can’t do both actions.  It could follow the stronger impulse.  If it’s eaten recently, perhaps the urge to flee is stronger and that’s what it does.  But maybe it’s desperately hungry, so it does attempt to get the food and risk getting close to the predator.

But given the life and death circumstances, our fish needs a new ability.  It needs to be able to simulate what might happen if it takes certain actions.  Having the ability to be aware of its own primal reflexive desires, in other words to do affect modeling, and then do trade-off decision processing on which desire to listen to, would have provided a survival advantage.  This trade-off processing would involve running simulations: if action A is taken, it will result in consequence A, if action B, consequence B, etc.

In other words, the fish needs the ability to do predictive modeling on various possible courses of action, courses of action that would result from following each of its triggered action impulses.   The consequences revealed by each simulation are evaluated in turn by the limbic system (or fish equivalent), each resulting in its own negative or positive affect, in other words, an evaluation of whether the consequence is desirable or undesirable, “good” or “bad” for the organism.

It’s this trade-off processing, this ability to simulate different courses of action, to do predictive modeling, that I’m suspecting is at the heart of what consciousness is.  This modeling would have been very simple in the earliest conscious creatures, but increased steadily over hundreds of millions of years in sophistication and capacity.  But at all times, it would have been the same basic functionality, simulations of possible courses of action as a guide to movement decisions.

Some of the predictive modeling would have involved simulating past sensory experiences, in other words, episodic memory.  It’s important to understand that episodic memory isn’t a recording, but a reconstruction of past sensory events, a simulation.  That’s why memory is so unreliable.  But it’s effective as an aid to the trade off processing I’m talking about.

Consider what requires our own conscious awareness and what doesn’t.  I can often drive to work without being conscious of what I’m doing.  I’ve driven to work a great many times so that I can now do it in a habitual slumber.  More precisely, the non-conscious aspects of my mind have been conditioned so that they will supply the right movement decisions when presented with each specific stimuli of the driving to work experience.  Most of the time, this frees my mind to think about other things, to do simulations on other situations, like maybe what I’m going to do when I get to work, or maybe to mull that show I watched last night.

But then I suddenly run into severe traffic.  Now I “wake up” and have to think about what I’m going to do.  Can I get off the main highway and find an alternate route to get around the traffic?  I now need to simulate various courses of action.  I am “aware” and “thinking” about the drive now.  I am conscious of it now.

Or perhaps the drive is going normally, but I’m doing it in a borrowed car, perhaps a type and model I’ve never driven before that handles differently than what I’m used to.  Now my simulation engine is engaged in the minutia of the driving mechanics, and will be until handling the new vehicle becomes “natural”, that is, until it can be done without the need for constant simulations, without the need for conscious control.

On the other hand, I might be driving to work in my habitual slumber, and suddenly there is wreck happening and split second decisions are necessary.  There is no time for conscious deliberation, no time for simulations, I have to just use whichever unconscious impulses are strongest.  Although later simulations of the event will almost certainly be done.

The Limbic System Image credit: OpenStax College via Wikipedia

The Limbic System Image credit: OpenStax College via Wikipedia

If this view is right, then consciousness is a simulation engine, a prediction mechanism designed to serve as a guide to action, allowing an animal to subjectively travel backward or forward in time as it ponders movement decisions.  In humans, the simulations would likely be initiated by the prefrontal cortex but heavily involve the modeling aspects of the sensory processing regions, with the limbic system providing the evaluative aspects.

I stated at the beginning of this post that it was speculative, and it is.  But the predictive modeling, the simulations, certainly take place in some form or fashion.  The speculative aspect is that the simulations are consciousness, that what is outside of them is in what we call the sub-conscious or unconscious, and what is in them are the contents of consciousness.

Given this speculation. I’d be very interested in any critiques, in particular in any examples that demonstrably violate this proposition.  In other words, what have I overlooked?

Posted in Mind and AI | Tagged , , , , , , , | 33 Comments

Lessons from the election of 1824 and Silvio Berlusconi

Understandably, a lot of people continue to be upset about the results of this election.  One thing that keeps coming up in my feeds are people advocating for the electoral college to change that result.  The idea is that if 37 Republican electors can be convinced to change their vote, Trump can be prevented from getting into the Oval Office.  While I can understand the sentiment, I think focusing on this is a mistake.

First, the chance of success is vanishingly small.  Convincing 37 hyper-partisan Republican electors not to vote for the official Republican candidate is the longest of long shots.  You might succeed in pulling a few, maybe, but 37 is pretty hard to imagine.  And even if you did, it’s highly unlikely they’d vote for Clinton.  At best, they’d go for other Republicans, which would just throw the election into the Republican dominated House of Representatives.

A lot of people advocating for this seem to hope that the Republicans in the House would vote for whichever Republican alternate came in third in the electoral vote, but how likely is that really?  Republican leaders know that any person elected that way would be extremely damaged goods.  And I suspect any such candidate with any sense would quickly withdraw themselves from consideration.  The House would almost certainly confirm Trump.  (It might be worth it if the Republicans realized how undemocratic the electoral college is and this scenario motivated them to help abolish it, but that seems like a big ‘if’.)

495px-andrew_jacksonBut let’s say it did work and someone other than Trump was elected.  The thing to think about is, what happens next?  For an idea, I invite you to read about the election of 1824.  In that election, there was a combative populist candidate that many educated people feared, Andrew Jackson, and a more establishment candidate, John Quincy Adams.  Jackson got a plurality of the electoral college but not a majority, so the election went to the House, which elected Adams.

It’s not really possible to know exactly how much support Jackson had in 1824 since there weren’t opinion polls in those days, and only a fraction of the population was able to actually vote in the 1824 presidential election.  What we can say though, is that people were outraged, and  Jackson immediately started running for the 1828 election.

That next election would be one where the number of people who could vote for the president (or more precisely, the electors) would increase dramatically.  And after four years of relentlessly attacking the Adams administration, particularly pushing a narrative of aristocrats having stolen the election in 1824 in a “corrupt bargain”, Jackson won the 1828 election in a landslide, this time with a definite mandate, and went on to serve two terms.

Jackson is a sobering historical comparison to Trump, because backed by the working class of his day, he did some pretty awful stuff.  He got the Indian Removal Act passed, which led to the infamous Trail of Tears.  When the Supreme Court made a ruling against the way native Americans were being treated, Jackson brazenly ignored it.  Trump’s attitudes toward immigrants resonates a little too close for comfort with Jackson’s attitudes toward native Americans.

Jackson instituted the spoils system of federal job patronage.  Today we’re used to top administrative jobs being political appointees, but Jackson made pretty much every civilian federal employee a political appointee.  The result was a federal workforce brimming with people who weren’t competent in whatever job they had received.   This state of affairs wouldn’t get corrected until the creation of the federal civil service several decades later.

Jackson also got into a feud with the head of the Second Bank of the United States (who was admittedly, if I recall correctly, something of a jerk) and ended up vetoing the renewal of that bank, leaving the United States without any central banking authority until 1912, and even then that authority wasn’t effective until the 1930s.  In other words, Jackson arguably damaged the economy of the country for a century.  To be fair, Americans’ inherent distrust of banks stopped that mistake from being rectified for generations, but Jackson’s treatment of central banking probably added a weight to that fear it might not have otherwise had.

In his ongoing feud with the then dying Second Bank, Jackson withdrew all federal deposits from it, and then issued the Species Circular, an executive order requiring that all payment from the government to be in gold or silver.  The resulting monetary shock led to the Panic of 1837 and an economic depression that his chosen successor, Martin Van Buren, had to contend with.

Jackson’s policies led to the creation of the Democratic Party to support him, and in reaction, the creation of an opposition party, the Whigs.  One of those in opposition was a young Whig named Abraham Lincoln.

Anyway, the point is that denying Jackson the Presidency in 1824 turned him into a victim of the establishment and arguably made him much stronger.  Would the same thing happen if Trump were denied the Presidency by similar machinations?  It’s hard to say, but right now Trump can’t claim too much of a mandate since he lost the popular vote.  Making him a victim might metastasize his support for 2020 into something far more powerful.

In other words, be careful what you ask for.

Another tactic being advocated for Democratic electors is for them to vote for someone other than Clinton.  The idea is that this might outrage people enough to generate a will to do something about the electoral college.  This strikes me as the loser of the game punching themselves in the face in a bid to change the rules.  It doesn’t seem like something the winner, the Republicans, will care about.  Being twice now the beneficiary of an electoral college / popular vote mismatch in the last twenty years, the Republicans have little incentive to change things.

I think people on the left have to deal with the reality of a President Trump and Republican domination of the federal government for at least the next two years.  But as Ezra Klein pointed out, Democrats should remember that they’re not in the minority in this country.  As of this post, Clinton is ahead in the popular vote by over two million votes, and more people voted for Democratic Senators than Republican ones.  (Although admittedly the Republicans did get more votes in the House races.)

And Trump remains a deeply unpopular figure.  Democratic opposition to his more loathsome policies needs to conducted with that in mind.  As Luigi Zingales points out in his New York Times piece, using lessons from the long running but inept opposition to Italian populist Silvio Berlusconi, opposing Trump by focusing on his personality is a losing strategy.  The opposition to Trump should be based on where he’s weakest, on his policies and how they affect people.

Trump really doesn’t have a mandate.  The opposition should be careful not to deliver one to him.

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Why Trump won, and a calmer assessment of the situation

The filmmaker Michael Moore, who had predicted a Trump win several months ago, went on Morning Joe on Friday and discussed why Trump won.  It was painful to watch, but the main point that struck home was when Moore pointed out that many Trump voters were previously Obama voters.  What this tells me is that we on the left need to stop calling all of Trump’s voters racists or otherwise attempting to shame them.  Some definitely are racists and bigots, but many aren’t.

So why did many who don’t share Trump’s values vote for him?  Because they perceived that their economic situation was getting worse.  This is borne out by the exit poll data, which show that, of the 27% of the country who feel they are financially worse off than they were four year ago, 78% voted for Trump.

As I said a few posts back, universal democratic suffrage works because people know when their own situation is getting better or worse.  When your situation is getting worse, you often vote for change any way you can get it, all other details be damned.

It’s easy for those of us who are relatively comfortable economically to bemoan Trump’s values, but if my personal financial situation had been in decline, I have to admit that I would have been sorely tempted to vote for change, any change.  And if I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the change candidate, I might have stayed home, which is what a lot of Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters did this election.

It’s incredibly painful that this led to someone like Trump winning, with all the damage he’s liable to do, particularly given that the economic problems of this group were largely a result of Republican caused gridlock.  But painting all of Trump’s voters with the same brush is a mistake.  Many of those voters will be the ones who might be convinced to vote for someone else in the future.  Attacking them now will only harden their attitudes.

So that’s how we got here, but what now?  Anyone who thinks they know what’s going to happen in a Trump administration is delusional.  At this point, I suspect Trump himself is still figuring that out.  But based on his campaign positions (such as they were) and his moves this week, I think we can take a shot at a tentative assessment of what will happen.

First, I’m not as sure today as I was on the morning after the election that the economy is doomed to suffer.  I’m sure Trump and the Republicans will pass a huge tax cut.  This will blow a hole in the deficit, but it will also stimulate the economy.  I’ve been saying for years that our economy needed more deficit spending to spur activity, and we’re about to get the Republican version of that.  I’d have preferred the Democratic version, but an economic stimulus is still an economic stimulus.

Of course, if Trump starts trade wars, any benefit from the stimulus might be more than offset by economic contractions from reduced exports and higher prices on consumer goods.  Still, a large enough stimulus, while it won’t bring back legacy manufacturing jobs, might still provide more opportunities for those who were effected by the decline of those jobs.

I’m also a bit less pessimistic about the social safety net.  Trump, in his populace positions, actually rejected orthodox Republican ideas of cutting social security.  The big exception was his position on Obamacare, but he now appears to be walking back that stance somewhat.  In truth, I always thought the Republican promise to repeal and replace Obamacare was rhetoric.  Given how conservative Obamacare actually is, I’m more expecting them to pass a “repeal” bill that mostly shuffles its components around and renames it, with probably some additional conservative tweaks.  Not that some of the changes won’t be painful.

I still can’t see any reason to be optimistic about climate change.  Trump naming a climate change denialist to head the environmental transition team is a bad sign.  So, I don’t expect any progress on this in the coming years.  Many are acting as though this will doom the Earth.  In truth, the Earth was going to get warmer with or without the US participation in international climate change initiatives, but now it’s going to get warmer than it otherwise would have.

I also still fear that science overall is going to take a hit in this administration.  The more natural sciences might not be compromised too much, but look for anything related to climate science, or to the social sciences, to see declines in funding.  I hope I’m wrong about this.

We probably will see some form of that idiotic wall get built on the Mexican border.  But I seriously doubt we’ll see mass deportations.  In truth, despite surrounding it with a lot of angry rhetoric, Trump walked back the mass deportation threats once the primaries were over.  Not that the situation isn’t likely to be more dangerous for many undocumented immigrants.

Trump was also not hostile to the LGBT community, and took some flack from other Republican candidates for it.  So while I doubt we’ll see any progress on LGBT issues in his administration, Republicans who want to reverse the recent gains may find themselves frustrated.

Race relations, unfortunately, may be a different matter.  Trump’s attitudes in the campaign and overall history are worrying here, and they are largely in sync with overall Republican attitudes.  I fear that people of color may see their position erode in the next few years.  Again, I hope I’m wrong.

On international relations, I really have no idea what’s going to happen.  Trump’s comments about NATO, his advocating for war crimes, and a lot of other bombastic nonsense he sprouted in the campaign, is pretty scary. We can only hope actually being in power and being responsible for the consequences makes him more cautious in his approach.

On the supreme court, again I’m not sure what’s going to happen.  Trump promised to appoint conservatives, but many of his own positions aren’t really conservative, particularly not on social matters.  Still, he’ll need his nominees approved by a Republican Senate, so it’s probably safe to assume they will be at least conservative leaning.  This may be the most lamentable result of this election, a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives for another generation.

All of this, of course, assumes that Trump is able to maintain a somewhat rational and coherent path in his administration.  Given how erratic he often was during the campaign, this seems like a big if.  It’s still quite conceivable that he ends up doing something wantonly illegal and gets impeached.

It’s painful to note this, but if he does manage some form of minimal administrative competence and manages to accelerate the economy, I see him getting re-elected in 2020.  The only way Democrats have a chance in 2020 is if he tanks the economy, which he may do if he’s not careful with his trade changes.

But regardless, Democrats have a reasonable chance of making gains in 2018, both in the House of Representatives and in state houses across the country, and again in 2020, which may put them in a crucial position to reverse some of the gerrymandering that has given Republicans such a lock on the House.  Given where the party is right now, in minority status across all levels of government, it’s a rebuilding they desperately need to do.  It will be a long slog.  Those of us on the left should prepare ourselves for a marathon, not a sprint.

So that’s where I see us being right now.  I may have very different views depending on what happens in the coming weeks and months.  What do  you think?

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , | 42 Comments

Well, we went and did it

Obviously I see the results of this election as a tragic mistake, one that we’ll be feeling for a long time.  It’s hard not to see this as a victory for fear, hatred, and bigotry.  The man who came to political prominence by calling into question the citizenship and legitimacy of the first black president will be the one to succeed that president.  (That he may do so while actually losing the popular vote will be salt in the wound.)

There’s obviously going to be a lot of soul searching on the left, but one thing I’m pretty sure of is that the inevitable articles touting Trump as some kind of political genius and Clinton as an incompetent campaigner will be utter and contemptible bullshit.  Whatever happened here was seismic and far larger than either of them.

Many people this morning are talking about the economic anxieties of the working class whites who voted for Trump.  I do think there’s something to that, but I think it would be a mistake to think that those economic anxieties were the only factor.

The much more difficult issue is the strong streak of nativism and racism that exists in this group, and the overall angst about the cultural and demographic changes that are happening in the country.  I’m not sure what anyone can necessarily do about that.  (Not that I think anything should be done about it.)  As this graph from a Pew Research article shows, the changes are happening and aren’t something amenable to being addressed by government policy, at least other than (hopefully) unthinkably draconian ones.

One thing that is glaringly obvious is that the polling industry has some serious issues.  That their methodologies didn’t see any significant whiff of this coming means they’ll have to thoroughly reassess those methodologies.  It’s one thing to talk about results within the margin of error, but when every poll was wrong in the same direction, something’s definitely broken.

For better or worse, the Republicans now hold all the keys to government.  Whatever happens in the next couple of years, they own it.  We can only hope they can find the wisdom not to run the country into the ground.  I wish I could say I was optimistic, but I desperately fear that the coming years will not be good ones for the economy, science, climate change, or for anyone who isn’t white, Christian, and male (and it’s not even at all clear to me it will be good for that group).

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , | 21 Comments

Early access to exit poll data, universal suffrage, and other election ruminations

So, tomorrow is election day here in the US.  If you’re a US citizen and you haven’t voted yet, now’s the time to make plans.  As I noted in the last post, this is not the year to sit the election out.  The most recent projections still show Clinton with a slight to modest lead, but the outcome of this election is not foregone by any measure.  Particularly if you live in a swing state, your vote will matter.

Personally I also don’t think it’s the year for a protest vote.  However, if you’re bound and determined to make such a vote and you live in a swing state, but would prefer to find a way to avoid aiding and abetting Trump, you might consider doing a vote swap with someone who isn’t in a swing state.  As I mentioned in the last post, a ranked voting system, as opposed to our current first past the post system, would make this unnecessary.

If you’re like me, and always been a bit irritated that the journalists and politicians seem to have access to exit poll data long before we the public do, you’ll like this.  Starting at 11am eastern time tomorrow, Slate and a site called VoteCastr will begin making projections based on the polling data available at that point, updating it throughout the day.  Of course, in close states like Florida, the data may be off enough to project the wrong victor, so if you watch this, do it with that in mind.

With all the talk about voter intimidation and long lines at the polls, I’m reminded of the fact that, while all states have absentee voting by mail, most only allow it if you have an approved excuse.  However, three states have voting by mail as their primary method without any reported issues.  It seems like voter participation in this country would be a lot higher if this was the rule across the country.  I know my future questions for any politicians running at the state level will be if they support this, and if not, why not?

Finally, there’s been some talk recently wondering if universal suffrage is the best form of democracy we could have, with some people wondering if we shouldn’t restrict the vote to people with a minimal amount of knowledge, most eloquently described by Jason Brennan in this Aeon article.  I’m all for voters being more informed, but I think using knowledge as a prerequisite for voting is a terrible idea.

As Brennan himself observes, figuring what knowledge would be crucial would itself be an intractable political problem.  It’s worth remembering that the US southern states once used literacy and arbitrary knowledge tests as a mechanism to disenfranchise blacks and other minorities.  The idea that they could be brought back but this time keep it fair and objective is one we should be deeply skeptical of.

And my reading of history is that political leaders take care of their power base.  They may or may not take care of people outside of that power base, but any time there is a conflict of interests, those in the power base win.  Brennan cites research that people don’t vote selfishly in elections.  While I’m not familiar with that research, I am familiar with history, and it shows that voters have not historically had that altruism.

Suffrage, the right to vote, didn’t expand by those with the vote altruistically expanding it.  In almost all cases, those without suffrage who wanted it had to fight and put pressure on them.  Women only got the right to vote after decades of women’s suffrage movements.  And blacks only got their right to vote secured after they began marching in the streets in the civil rights era.

It’s also worth noting that the people who opposed these groups getting voting rights were often among the most educated and knowledgeable people in the country.  The KKK’s ranks once included doctors, lawyers, politicians, and even at least one US President.  Knowledge didn’t make any of these people more altruistic in considering the needs of others without power.

I can understand the sentiment in the year of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump.  Democracy doesn’t guarantee that the populace will make good decisions.  Although people generally know when their lives are getting materially worse, so I do think democracy dramatically increases the probability that terrible rulers will lose power and bad directions will be reversed.  Anytime we in the west start to bemoan the quality of our leadership, a quick glance to places like North Korea, where large swaths of the population reportedly live in starvation, shows that democracies with pervasive suffrage, while far from perfect, are also far from the worst possible forms of government.

None of this means that I’d be sanguine if the racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, pathologically lying bully that is the current Republican nominee won.  I think it would be a disaster and a dangerous threat to our democracy.  But so would be taking the vote away from people who didn’t have the “right knowledge”.  Ultimately, the best solution for threats like Trump is to educate people as much as possible, and hope that enough of them sensibly don’t choose destructive paths.

Anyway, remember to vote.  Your future may well depend on it.

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Voting in the general election, 2016 edition

Today early voting started in my state, and because voting on November 8 would be a hassle, I made use of it.  It probably won’t surprise any of my regular online friends that my vote went to Hillary Clinton.

To be upfront, the Republican candidate would not have gotten my vote, even if they had been calm, sober, competent, and upstanding, as were John McCain and Mitt Romney.  I generally vote Democratic, mainly because I agree more with their vision of what our society should look like, and find the vision of many hardcore Republicans repugnant and, in the case of the Tea Party and “Freedom” Caucus people, outright dangerous.

I personally prefer a society where people can’t be discriminated against because they belong to the wrong religion, hold the wrong philosophy, have the wrong skin color or other ethnic marker, like the wrong kinds of sex, are the wrong gender or desire to be the wrong gender, or any other similar type of reason.  I know libertarians often share the same outlook on these social matters, but I find them far too focused only on discrimination from the government, and too unconcerned with discrimination from other social institutions such as churches, civic organizations, businesses, or society overall.

And given that scientific data and history show that none of us are as self sufficient as we might like to think, I also prefer a society with a robust cradle to grave social safety net, including universal healthcare, free (or low cost) education, more generous unemployment benefits, better care for those in poverty, and a wide variety of other measures, all of which I perceive are more likely to happen with Democrats in power.  At a minimum I perceive that the existing safety net, as incomplete as it is, won’t be further eroded if they hold at least one of branches of government.

I know conservatives often fear that providing this kind of safety net will somehow ruin our moral fiber or economic vitality, but that concern doesn’t hold up when you look at other developed democracies, most of which have stronger safety nets than we do, and none of which have descended into the kind of dystopian nightmare that we’re always assured will come about if we strengthen our own programs.

And I actually think we give up a lot of economic vitality by forgoing that robust safety net.  How many more entrepreneurs would we have if potential risk takers didn’t have to worry about losing health insurance for their children?  How many more people might follow their passion if doing so wasn’t so much more risky than simply working a job that, while safe, doesn’t maximize their contribution to society?

So that’s why I voted Democrat.  Now, it’s become very chic among progressives to bemoan that Hillary Clinton is our only viable option.  Many seem grudgingly willing to vote for her to avoid a President Trump, but are unhappy with Clinton herself.  That’s not my outlook.  My vote for her was moderately enthusiastic.

To be sure, Clinton is not perfect.  But from everything I can see, she’s spent a lifetime fighting for something like the vision I outlined above.  Yes she’s had to make compromises along the way, but if you’re not willing to get your hands dirty, you’re not going to make progress.  My perception is that Clinton is extremely intelligent, a ferociously hard worker, cares deeply about public policy, and is more prepared for the Presidency than just about anyone who has ever run for the office.  We can always imagine a more perfect candidate, but I think she’s in the upper tier of the people actually qualified to do the job.

But what about all the controversies?  What about her emails, paid speeches, the Clinton foundation, Benghazi, and all the rest?  I’ve followed all of these reasonably closely, and I can’t find anything actually nefarious in any of it (with the exception of Bill’s marriage infidelities, but holding that against his wife, the primary victim, is vicious stupidity).  Yes there are mistakes, but again we’re talking about someone who is human, not a public policy machine.  I certainly find nothing in any of it to justify all the hyperbolic outrage.

I can understand the amplified outrage from Republicans since it’s to their advantage to make as much political hay out any mistake that they can, but I’ve frequently been puzzled by the outrage from the left.  When I talk with progressives about Clinton, as we cross off each “scandal” that turned out to be nothing but a partisan witch-hunt, I’m struck by how often their attitude boils down to some version of “I just don’t like her” or “I just don’t trust her”.

Ultimately, I think Clinton’s problem, from a political perspective, is her gender.  I’m not talking about the knuckle dragging conservatives who might argue against the desirability of a woman President, but the unconscious bias many of us have against the idea of a woman commander in chief, even on the left, even among many women.

Clinton faces a trade-off that women vying for leadership positions today often face.  If they act in the traditional manner that society expects of women, they’ll be considered too timid for leadership.  If they’re strong and assertive, they’ll be perceived as annoying, grating, and bitchy.  I think we as a society need to outgrow this double standard, and stop holding women like Clinton to standards we’d never hold a male candidate to.

As I said above, Clinton has my enthusiastic vote, but even if I weren’t enthusiastic, she’s become the choice of sanity.  I’m not going to go on a rant about Donald Trump.  If you still see him as an acceptable option at this point, there’s nothing I can say that would change your mind.  For anyone else, including those holding their nose while voting for him, I’ll just note that a ranked voting system, particularly in the party primaries, might serve our country far better than the traditional first past the post system we now use.

I never seriously considered the third party candidates, Johnson for the reasons I laid out above on libertarians, and Stein because she has scant public leadership experience, and neither of them strike me as economically literate or particularly knowledgeable on public policy.  But also because only one of two people will be elected President on November 8, Clinton or Trump, and doing anything other than voting for Clinton increases Trump’s chance of victory.

Every election people say that the stakes are enormous in a bid to convince you to vote.  It’s often hyperbole.  But this time I don’t think it is.  Hopefully you’re registered, but if not, check your state’s deadlines, because many still allow you to register, and some allow same day registration.  This is not the year to sit out the election.  Consider doing early voting if there’s any chance you might not be able to make it on election day.

Your vote will matter.  Even if you’re in a non-swing state, contributing to the popular vote gives information about the country’s overall attitude toward the candidates, which might become important if election results end up being contested.  Don’t look at the polls and assume that the result is a foregone conclusion.  Polls can be wrong, particularly in catching late breaking changes.  Don’t take any chances with this election.  Do your part.  Get out and vote.  If you don’t, your opinion literally won’t count.

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The necessity of dexterity for civilization

Today’s SMBC highlights something about humanity that is often overlooked, something that any extraterrestrial intelligence that builds a civilization would have to have.

Click through for hover-text and red button caption.
Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal – The Mammal Conspiracy

We often talk about the intelligence of dolphins, whales, cephalopods, elephants, and other species.  But something all of these species lack is an ability to alter and control their environment, at least in any detailed fashion, a capability that is at the heart of building a civilization.  When you think about the evolutionary steps that were necessary for humans to have the dexterity that we do, it starts to look like we were the benefactors of a very lucky sequence of events.

First, there needed to be a three dimensional environment like the interlocking tree branches that made the primate body plan adaptive.  Second, the primate line needed to evolve an intelligent line (the great apes).  Third, there needed to be a change in environment that led to some of those apes coming down from the trees to tall grasslands where walking upright was adaptive, freeing their hands for work other than locomotion or hanging.

Only then do we have the stage set for human intelligence to evolve.  Of course, it’s completely conceivable for alternate factors to lead to the evolution of those capabilities.  But the fact that, despite a number of relatively intelligent species in the animal kingdom, it’s only happened once on Earth should give us pause before concluding that it’s at all common for a civilization building species to evolve.

Intelligence and dexterity aren’t the only factors by the way.  Mastery of fire as a tool also seems crucial, something that seems to rule out water dwelling species like cephalopods, who if they lived longer, might have a decent chance at manipulating their environment.

Fermi’s paradox is the question which asks, if extraterrestrial civilizations are common, why weren’t we colonized long ago?  The rarity of the combination of intelligence and dexterity might give a pretty grounded answer to that question, and that’s before we even consider the likelihood of other evolutionary milestones, such as sexual reproduction or multi-cellular life.

So, when thinking about the evolution of human intelligence, be grateful for the existence of jungles and grasslands.  Without them, we might not be here, at least not with enough intelligence to discuss our evolution.

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