24 August 2023

Future DeTrumpification? A role for government?

I've been studying a bit on the decline of the Nazi regime in 1944-45 and I'm struck both by the horrifying similarities to the Cult of Trumpism today and, in all honesty, by the fundamental differences. (I use Cult of Trumpism to refer to the core fanatical followers, whose loyalty to the person of Donald Trump exceeds their patriotism or concern for the USA per se, and in some cases even their religion; there acutally are "Trump Messianics" among the QAnon conspiracists, whose fanaticism invades even their religious beliefs). The Nazi leaders were, unquestionably, gangsters, as are Trump and his minions. Göring, in particular, was especially venial and self-dealing, in a way that puts one in mind of Trump, and the mass deception and use of propaganda techniques with complete disregard for truth or evidence are shockingly similar. But the murderous racial hatred that motivated the Nazis, while not entirely absent in Trumpism, does not in any way rise to the level of sheer depravity and atrocity that was typical of Nazi leaders like Klaus Barbie, Heydrich, Göbbels, Himmler, Bormann and, of course, Hitler himself, to name just a few key figures. Yes, Trumpism is malignant, duplicitous, and mafia-like, but it is not, at least not yet, genocidal. So, when we look at the somewhat checkered history of post-victory denazification of the German populace, we should take some comfort and hope that a carefully crafted information (as opposed to disinformation) campaign on what the key provisions of our Constitution and system of government really mean, and how facts matter, could ultimately be successful in healing the terrible rift that separates our people. Such an official program will have to be carefully crafted to be nonpartisan, non-political even, but, like the best of Cold War propaganda (and not like the worst of it), I believe there is a public information role in a post-Trump-defeat government to bring about renewed understanding and appreciation of basic civics, and how our system is crafted with checks and balances to preserve democratic republicanism and prevent the rise of autocracy and extremist ideology. 

23 August 2023

Disqualifying Trump under the 14th Amendment

Although I am not particularly optimistic for success, I don't see any alternative but for pro-democracy Secretaries of State in every state where they exist to conduct some kind of formal inquiry, and render an opinion that under Sec. 3 of Amndt. 14 of the US Constitution, that Donald Trump is disqualified from running for office, and therefore cannot be place on their states' ballots. This will almost certainly end up before the Supreme Court. But for it not to be a foregone conclusion that the multi-state disqualification will be unsuccessful, a concerted effort to make sure the process is initiated and performed professionally and competently wherever possible must be made. 

Even in states like Alabama and Mississippi there should be at least an attempt made, probably by the filing of a constitutional lawsuit if and when Trump's name is accepted for candidacy by the State. Every effort to enforce this Constitutional provision, which in my opinion unquestionably applies, will have an effect in the Zeitgeist surrounding this issue, even in states where litigation is unsuccessful. 

Believing he can cancel the constitution should be DISQUALIFYING

Just sayin'.   Remember when Donald Trump said in a tweet that the totally imaginary problem with the 2020 election "allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution."

As Liz Cheney said in late 2022, "Donald Trump believes we should terminate "all rules, regulations and articles, even those found in the Constitution" to overturn the 2020 election. That was his view on 1/6 and remains his view today. No honest person can now deny that Trump is an enemy of the Constitution."

These quotes should be featured in pro-Biden advertising hot and heavy from now until Trump is either out of the race or soundly defeated in November 2024. This statement, all by itself, is disqualifying and totally contrary to the oath anyone elected president must take in order to take office. (Including Donald Trump, who took that oath in 2017). 

Russia vs. India

There is a certain rather blatant symbolism in the fact that within the week the Russians utterly failed to land a probe on the Moon (something the Soviet Union accomplished 50+ years ago), whereas India succeeded in doing the same thing, with an actually useful scientific project at the South Pole of the Moon. 

21 August 2023

Lowest electricity production price ever: SOLAR

 Still think renewable energy is unable to compete with fossil fuels for energy production? Think again. Recent solar installations are now producing energy for the lowest inflation adjusted price for energy ever. 

The reality is that the Climate Holocaust can be avoided. The impediments are nearly all political, not technical and not even fundamentally economic. 

13 August 2023

Really compelling: Lex Fridman interviews Bioscientist Michael Levin

I already recommended Lex Fridman's longform podcast interview (with video) of Nick Lane, but this guy, Michael Levin,* has got to be one of the smartest people on Earth, and this interview is extremely compelling and idea-changing. (Absolutely not to be confused with the xenophobic racist neanderthal asshole of the same name). The interview is 3 hours. Break it up. Watch parts over. But, seriously, it's worth your time. I don't philosophically agree with everything especially Fridman says in this interview, but it's all very much worth the time to think about. 

(Fridman's interview of Cool Worlds Lab astronomer David Kipping is very interesting too, but this one is on another level altogether). 

12 August 2023

Description of the Republican Party as it exists now

 I was struck by Heather Cox Richardson's description of the contemporary Republican Party. 

"I am struck by how completely the Republican Party, which began in the 1850s as a noble endeavor to keep the United States government intact and to rebuild it to work for ordinary people, has devolved into a group of chaos agents feeding voters a fantasy world."

Lex Fridman interview with Nick Lane

Lex Fridman interview with Nick Lane. Origin of Life, Consciousness. A very long interview, not for everyone (try 1.5x), but just plain ab fab. 

11 August 2023

Climate change video

I was listening to Laurie Garrett (aka Cassandra) about the collapse of the AMOC (see video), and the fact that for the first time in human history sea ice off Antarctica is not increasing at all this winter, and I felt like climbing up on the roof and jumping off to the concrete driveway 30 ft. below. But then I watched this helpful video. Here. Yes, climate change is happening faster and more gravely than what was thought most likely even a decade ago, but concluding that there's nothing we can do and we're all just screwed isn't helpful either. 

We can overcome the anthropogenic climate crisis. But determination and activism is how to do it, not despair. 

(To be fair, Garrett hasn't actually said otherwise, but she does seem to focus on the scariest, most negative view. Taking the threat seriously is important, but scaring the bejeezus out of people to the point they think it's over and there's no hope doesn't help either).  

09 August 2023

Why I believe AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) is impossible

There is a lot of discussion these days about "Artificial General Intelligence" (AGI), by which term a purely hypothetical phenomenon better described as "Technology-based Consciousness" is usually meant. I refer to it as "hypothetical," because, like "extraterrestrial intelligent beings," it is a category the existence, or even the possibility, of which remains to be demonstrated. In the case of  ETs, my gut instinct is that they exist but are rare. In the case of AGI, or better, my term, TBC, I believe, in the absence of evidence one way or the other, that there is no such thing, never has been anywhere in the universe, and likely never will be. 

My reasons, which are purely philosophical as opposed to scientific, center around what I think of as the "Star Trek transporter paradox." If such a transporter actually existed, there is no real reason why the person entering the "Send" station wouldn't simply remain in existence after the signal to recreate his scanned "image" was sent, to emerge as another version of him. Or, if the scanning were destructive, I have to ask, in what sense have you not just killed him? How do you actually know that the replica that emerges from the "Receive" end isn't an entirely different person, who just happens to have a mental image of the prior life of the "sent" version of "himself?" But what is the actual continuity from the point of view of the person that got in the transporter in the first place? I would argue that there is no way to know. The qualia of seeming continuity between one moment to the next could well be terminated for the person getting in; and the person emerging only has the illusion of continuity. There is simply no way to know. Very sophisticated philosophical treatments of the nature of consciousness and the perception of time, including some ancient but highly complex and subtle ruminations by Buddhist sages, have dealt with this issue, but I would argue that no one really knows what the real essence of the perception of continuous consciousness is. We only know that it seemingly emerges in minds, but, so far anyway, insofar as anyone can determine, only in minds of biological origin.

People will express the opposite view quite easily, but I am unconvinced. I have never perceived any reason to believe that a computer (such as ChatGPT, which I have interacted with a fair amount), which can be turned off so that it is an inert object like a brick, then turned back on, is in any way conscious. Even "a little." A system can mimic the externalities of an intelligent mind, which could lead you to infer the existence of consciousness, but the externalities are not actually evidence for any kind of subjective experience at all. I would argue, in fact, that there are indications to suggest that there is no subjective awareness whatsoever. As I said, my gut instinct is that there is simply no there there. The "smartest" computer is only a universal computing machine running an elaborate algorithm. The same may be true of our own minds; that can be argued forever too. But I remain unconvinced that a machine can be built that suddenly, and for no apparent reason, experiences emergent subjective consciousness. I just don't buy it. 

I suppose on some level it doesn't matter. If some biosphere-derived natural conscious being evolved somewhere and built a "machine civilization" entirely out of computer operated effectuators (spacecraft?) --that proceeded to self-replicate entirely without subjective experience, our experience of that "civilization," were we to encounter it, might be indistinguishable from an encounter with conscious minds. For that matter, solipsism aside, we wouldn't really know if an actual alien life form was conscious or merely a sophisticated algorithm, even if it were unquestionably biological. Our "theory of mind" gives us pretty good confidence that our fellow humans, and even animals more or less closely related to us, have some form of subjective consciousness, but beyond that, there is a vast forest of the unknown. And even that, I think, is an ever so slight-seeming leap of faith, because we can only assume that other instances of what appear to be minds actually have their own inner experience, entirely inaccessible to us, as individuals.

Regardless, these considerations have led me to the working assumption that artificial, technology-based consciousness is an intriguing, comprehensible idea, but one which does not correspond to any reality, existing at any time, anywhere.

Some further thoughts on the Fermi Paradox

Apropos Prof. David Kipping's take on the so called Fermi Paradox, see this ("Cool Worlds"): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbUgb2OPpdM. (FWIW, I'm not critiquing fantasy or speculation about "how it might've been," which is fun and the basis of most science fiction. I'm just trying to take the serious facts and questions and posit what might actually be the reality of the matter). 

Dr. Kipping asserts that it isn't reasonable to dismiss AGI (Artificial General (read human-level) Intelligence), and that if it exists in the universe at large then the problem of interstellar distances becomes less of a problem.* "Sentience" should be, well, everywhere by now, in a 13+ billion year old universe. I question that. I think it's likely that there is some really fundamental reason that self-aware artificial intelligence is either very unlikely or impossible. We are nowhere near achieving it here, despite all the hype. But I can't pin down all the reasons why that might be so, so let's just take it as a given that he's right, and AGI is potentially relatively common in the universe, with all that implies. 

The problem with Kipping's I'll call it Weak Anthropic Galaxy/nonrare roaming AGI theory is that on the scale of a galaxy like ours, other galaxies aren't all that far away. If the Milky Way is one in a million, in not being colonized by indigenous AGI, then the Andromedan AGIs, who colonized THEIR galaxy say 2 billion years ago, would have already colonized OUR galaxy too, since it's only a few tens of galactic diameters distant... so it doesn't really work. (More typical spiral galaxies like ours are in large clusters and even closer to each other, which just compounds the problem). Somewhat like the panspermia hypothesis which just shifts the origin of life to a larger stage and possibly earlier time but doesn't really explain it, this theory can't work unless there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea that sentience and the capability of galactic scale colonization is common, and we are an "anthropic" exception.

That leaves the origin of complex biospheres, like Earth's, which would, it seems to me, be absolutely necessary for AGI to arise in the first place. It's not going to pop into existence of its own accord; it has to be created by biologically originated beings with natural general intelligence, and these have to have evolved abiotically in planetary environments. No one has come up with plausible alternative scenarios to the best of my knowledge, and, after all, we're trying to explain why they're not here, not how they might somehow exist. The currently fashionable "metabolism first" theory wants to make the abiotic origin of life common, but the truth is that even its proponents admit there are several steps that seem to be "really hard," such that life is possible but not necessarily likely. And some of them, like oxygen generating photosynthesis (necessary for any reasonable degree of biosphere efficiency), and a number of other "great leaps," may actually be quite unlikely to arise in the available time and actually prevailing planetary conditions, generally. Unlikely x unlikely x unlikely x easy x easy still comes out to exceedingly unlikely.  I think it's a safe bet that when all is said and done the Fermi Paradox and the Origin of Life Paradox will be seen as one and the same, and the answer, kind of unfortunately from a certain perspective, is that life, and in particular sentience, is possible, but not at all likely, and in the wider universe intelligences like ourselves, or hypothetical AGI "successors" are very, very rare. At least for now. In the distant future, it's not too hard to imagine that from very widely scattered origins, sentient life may slowly but surely fill the cosmos. Which is an exciting prospect even to the most staid of imaginations. 
*If this isn't obvious, the point is that artificial minds can probably just turn themselves off for the 10,000 or even 100,000 years it might take to travel across the Galaxy from Pt. A to Pt. B, assuming, as Kipping does, and I do as well, that faster than light travel is, even in principle, forever impossible. These long time periods are obviously highly problematic for organic living beings; less so for (hypothetical) artificial minds powered by technology.

08 August 2023

New Grand Canyon area National Monument

I celebrate especially Clinton's, but also Obama's setting aside additional lands as national parks/monuments (partially reversed by Trump). This is something pretty much only Democrats do and it's an area where there are limited presidential powers without the need for legislation. Just facts. Biden is going to make some of the lands adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park a new National Monument. Yay! Here

03 August 2023

American Nazis, for real

There are some annoying commercials to skip in this video, but the content is important. We really do have actual Nazis in our country who are prepared to unite with the lunatic right politically to stir up serious race-based violence. Our country is in crisis and the only way out is an informed and determined electorate that simply will not tolerate this crap.