Monday, December 21, 2009

Just some thoughts about life.

[from John] Ira’s latest posting regarding statistics brings to mind my current gripe – frustration? – with the information age. Can anyone be reasonably certain that the information they possess, the information they rely on when they go to the polls is valid and current? I don’t think so. I would like to use an analogy; my grandfather lived in a small town in Minnesota that had a single weekly newspaper. When voting for those seeking national office he only had the information that paper provided. He flew by the seat of his pants – his intuition. My father, living in the same town, at a later time, had a daily paper, a daily (weekly?) Minneapolis paper and primitive radio for information so he still flew by the seat of his pants because his sources were limited. Today I fly by the seat of my pants because I am inundated with information I cannot trust.
I have come to the conclusion that the best way to handle information in the information age is to form an original hypothesis upon which to measure new information discarding some yet be willing to modify the hypothesis if new information seems valid. Keep an open mind but don’t be fooled by charlatans.
The following are my current positions on some items of national issues.

Climate Change. The earth is a very stable planet. Its outer surface and atmosphere have gone through violent, usually gradual, changes over the eons and will probably do so in the future with or without our help. It can be argued that man has or will make some impact on the climate; however, neither the severity nor extent of his impact can be shown. Climatologists design climate models based on limited long-term climatic history and recent more extensive but still incomplete information yet they purport these models explain how our climate functions today and into the future; these same climatologists cannot accurately predict next year’s hurricane season. I have little confidence in their predictions of climate warming or cooling.
Man is a very resilient creature. He lives in the tropical rain forests, in the Deserts in the cold of the Arctic. He lives and thrives everywhere. Today’s technology assuredly allows man great ability to adjust for whatever climate changes will occur when and as they occur.

Ecology. There is no question that man over the ages has had a negative impact on the ecology of our planet. However, the developed nations which have the leisure and resources are acting to rectify previous neglects and will continue to do so. There are many valid arguments for clean power and other conservational efforts. We should be directing our efforts here. We should not mix our need for protecting the ecology with climate change; it is only distracting our efforts.

Sarah Palin. I don’t know whether she would make a capable president; at the same time, I don’t know anyone else who would. Right now, she is getting exposure, which is necessary, if she were to run. From all I have heard she did a good job as she rose through the ranks. In addition, she is not a Washington insider. I reserve judgment until she actually runs.

Government. Will we survive as a democratic nation? Certainly, but the next several decades will be difficult and we will never be able to return to days of yore; nor should we. Since our founding, as we grew as an economic force, the laissez faire capitalism, which successfully made our nation great, can no longer be accepted. It has slowly been amended as our nation grew and the needs of the people forced adjustments. The momentum has picked up over the last four or five decades and in the main the changes have been beneficial. At this particular moment, we seem to be moving too fast, movement that will carry us too far toward socialism. It won’t succeed but reversing the trend and returning to a more balanced government will be painful. I suspect that a capitalistic democratic nation such as ours must always cycle - striving to reach a balance as situations change and time passes.

The following two subjects relate to the conduct of our citizens as well as our national representatives. It is important to have a position on these issues because our national leaders are often accused of immoral or unethical conduct; and, because in America personal ethical and moral standards seem to be wavering. Many feel there is no true right or wrong thus we as a people cannot judge others for their actions nor, if we carry the logic through, can we be judged for our actions evil or not. I disagree see my comment under morality.

Ethics. Ethics are the standards of conduct that permits a society to function smoothly. Ethical conduct transcends the law of the land although it must not supplant the law of the land. The principle element of ethics is trust. Can I trust my national representative; can I trust my fellow man. Once this trust breaks down the strength of our nation goes with it. Today, it seems, ethical standards in Washington are flexible. Standards are allowed to bend to justify a current issue or circumstance. I don’t trust Washington, few of us do. I still trust my fellow man.

Morality. I have always considered morality as a religious attribute; religious heritage defines moral conduct, thus a member of one religion may have different moral standards than one of another religion. Morality is a personal religious issue however; it does not exempt one from the laws. Recently I stumbled on a definition which throws me. “Morality is based on what somebody's conscience suggests is right or wrong, rather than on what rules or the law says should be done.” Can this be valid? Isn’t this a road to anarchy? I reject this definition.


Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks John for a new Topic! I hope other Authors will also initiate diverse directions for our Blog.

Yes, our Information Age can be daunting with a cacophony of divergent views coming at us from hundreds of broadcast, cable and satellite radio and TV stations and the Internet, plus the print media. However I prefer it to the alternative as you described well in the cases of your dad and granddad, who had only a few sources.

I guess I was fortunate to grow up in New York City where we had seven daily newspapers plus many radio stations, and, when TV came along, four TV stations. As I wrote here several months ago, "Don't believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.":^)

You have it right on climate change (aka Global Warming/Cooling). It is well recorded in records from 800 to 1200 years ago that it was over 1ºC (2ºF) warmer than it is now. Greenland was an agricultural haven and grapes grew in northern England and Newfoundland. Just 300-400 years ago is was over 1ºC cooler than now. Our recent ancestors adapted and most survived. We and our decendants will as well.

I do not agree with you that "... man over the ages has had a negative impact on the ecology of our planet." Be more specific! Would it have been better had the "natural" conditions of the past billions of years played out without humans? For whom? The polar bears and other life forms survived many ice ages and warm periods that put anything seen since the advent of man to shame! Species come, species go, and Evolution and Natural Selection goes on.

You bring up questions about Sarah Palin, government, ethics and morality. Will our democratic nation survive?

Palin certainly has a great future as a king-maker and possibly as President. In her autobiography that I recently read she says "As every Iditarod musher knows, if you're not the lead dog, the view never changes."

Although I think you and I share almost identical views on the ethical and moral way to live in our society, it seems we have different ideas about their interpretation. I agree with you that ethics are "standards of conduct that permit a society to function smoothly", but I would add that the best combination of ethics (and morals and myths) are memes that propel a given society to victory in competition with other contemporary societies. Thus, they change as civilizations develop.

Ira Glickstein

JohnS said...

Ira, regarding my comment on ecology, I will try to give some examples, we might start with the damage to the Mississippi river and the northern coastline of the gulf of Mexico by fertilizer run off , acid rain, the wanton killing of buffalo from moving trains, the fouling of the Ganges river and ports of the east, steel mill dumping into Lake Michigan, the destruction of the rain forests are some examples. I am not an eco-nut, in the early days of civilization through the 19th century the planet’s abundance seemed without limit. Man did not recognize his impact on the ecology of the earth. I tried to make the point that the developed nations today are aware of these mistakes of the past and are acting, effectively, to correct, to counter, these previous failures, however, there is still much to be done and I suggest we devote our efforts there than wasting time and money on global warming.

I enjoyed your comment on Palin. Can you imagine that remark coming from anyone in Washington?

You said, “but I would add that the best combination of ethics (and morals and myths) are memes that propel a given society to victory in competition with other contemporary societies. Thus, they change as civilizations develop.” And I agree it is why I separated ethics from morality. In the religious sense, morality should change slowly and only as religious leaders better understand their God’s teachings. Abortion might be a good example, as the various Christian religions are confronted by the complexity of the issue they are slowly adjusting their position not on impulse or the whim of the moment but a realization that an issue this complex cannot be solved by arbitrary rules.

Ethics, on the other hand, as the standards of conduct that permit a society to function smoothly are not cast in stone. Yet, I cannot agree that they “are memes that propel a given society to victory in competition with other contemporary societies.” I have two problems with that definition. First, I don’t think ethics should be justification for victory over other nations or societies. It sounds too much like Nazi Germany to me. In a larger ethic, societies should cooperate, not compete. With that said, I must now modify it, competition is appropriate if it is for the betterment of the society for example competing in math and science education is appropriate because it is to the benefit to our society without harming another.

Secondly, ethics have several levels, national and state, euthanasia in Oregon, for example. Possibly, there is a greater ethic, do no intentional harm. A society is not exempt from its impact on other societies. The United Nations, as flawed as it is, is recognition of this point.

Howard Pattee said...

In general I agree with both JohnS and Ira. I agree Palin’s rogue status is stimulating for both sides, but even conservatives doubt she would be a good president.

Ethics as I see it has to do with the kind of civilization people desire. Humans are unique because they can use their reason to overcome evolutionary instincts that they don’t desire to live with. The survival of the fittest in nature often means the survival of the most powerful or prolific. Unfortunately the history of civilizations shows that survival often has depended on the most successful in war and even the most brutal. Most people don’t desire this, but we haven’t figured out an alternative.

Most people will abide by the Golden Rule if they are living well enough, but it fails in a zero sum game when there are not enough resources to support the population. Consequently the essential condition for an ethical society, the society we desire, is to limit the population to what the Earth and technology can support.

I am not as optimistic as JohnS on what technology can do. It has no intrinsic ethics and many unintended consequences. It produces weaponry as sophisticated as its medical miracles.

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks John and Howard for your Comments. While Howard is closer, it appears neither of you accept my idea that ethics/morals/myths (the mores of society) are inherently interrelated memes that have no other role than to perpetuate themselves, and, in concert, their host society. They are analogous to genes that interact within and between individuals, clades, and species, competing and cooperating to reproduce themselves and their hosts. (A chicken is the way an egg reproduces itself.)

Yes, we individuals ascribe purpose to genes and fulfilling our desires to memes and we utilize human reason (an oxymoron :^) to modify memes and now genes in an attempt to improve our lives and the quality of our societies. Howard is right: "[Technology] has no intrinsic ethics and many unintended consequences. It produces weaponry as sophisticated as its medical miracles." I think weaponry may do less harm than medical miracles, and more good in the long run. The Colt revolver was the "great equalizer" that gave weak but civilized people the means to take on the savage brutes.

OK, John, we humans have changed the Mississippi and the Gulf and fouled rivers with fertilizer and killed off wild bison and all that. Yet, today, more humans live longer and healthier lives than ever. And, the algae love the fertilizer and they may soon become carbon-neutral fuel. All technology and civilization is not bad, and much is good.

You seem to ascribe morals to a Higher Source than ethics. I count them as the same thing. According to Wikipedia, "Mores ... is the Latin term for societal norms, customs, virtues or values... The English word morality comes from the same root ... The Greek term equivalent to Latin mores is ethos (εθος, ηθος). As with the relation of mores to morality, ethos is the basis of the term ethics,...".

You say "... competition is appropriate if it is for the betterment of the society for example competing in math and science education is appropriate because it is to the benefit to our society without harming another."

Any type of competition will inevitably harm someone. I got a "C" in Calculus and a "D" in Vector Analysis and almost had to drop out of engineering because my fellow undergrads were much better at those subjects than me. Later, in my professional life, my creative and writing skills pushed me ahead of my fellow engineers and cost at least one of them a promotion.

Ford's mass-production of low-cost autos put buggy-whip manufacturers out of work and Edison's electric light did the same for the candlemakers.

Competition between the US and our allies in our war against Nazi Germany and its allies harmed many Germans and Japanese and many other innocent victims caught in the struggle.

Wal-Mart and other "big-box" stores harmed many small "mom and pop" stores that were forced out of business, yet they save working-class consumers billions of dollars on food and merchandise.

In each of these cases, the initial harm has given way to much greater average prosperity and freedom and health and life-expectancy.

"Do no harm" is synonymous with "Do nothing" - but even doing nothing will often cause harm! "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." (Edmund Burke).

Ira Glickstein

JohnS said...

Howard said, ” Most people will abide by the Golden Rule if they are living well enough, but it fails in a zero sum game when there are not enough resources to support the population. Consequently the essential condition for an ethical society, the society we desire, is to limit the population to what the Earth and technology can support.” I agree with the first sentence. The second is more complex although, in principle, I agree I must also state that the human population of the earth has not reached the stage where population control is necessary. The principle problem today is getting food, shelter and health care to those most in need, mainly in Africa and East Asia although they are not exclusive. There are three examples of third world countries that have or are in the process of moving themselves out of poverty and into modern day societies. They are South Korea, India and China. I have little hope for the remaining third world countries. If there was a practical way of moving the third world counties into the modern age many of the problems would disappear, unfortunately there is no way. Setting this quibble aside, I agree with your point, an essential condition for an ethical society is an awareness of the needs of all societies and a desire to alleviate suffering wherever it might be. I might add that societies tend to naturally control their population as economic and other factors require. In the US, the number of children born to families during the depression dropped while after WWII, because so many men died there was a baby boom.

JohnS said...

Ira, it is going to be difficult to answer all of your points but I will try. In my dictionary, memes are defined as any characteristic of a culture, e.g. its language, that can be transmitted from one generation to the next in a way analogous to the transmission of genetic information. I was arguing that societies correct themselves as necessary and do not of necessity carry ineffective ethical standards forward instead ethics are modified, adjusted as necessary under new condition.

You said, “You seem to ascribe morals to a Higher Source than ethics.” It is true; I know that dictionaries and similar sources consider ethics and morals as meaning the same. I do not and I am surprised that Joel did not enter into this fray – guess he is not available. I believe that my religion places a greater moral obligation on me as an individual that the ethics of my society may require and thus I am obligated to comply with that burden. Using abortion as an example, abortion is ethically appropriate in my society, America, yet my religion may state that it is morally wrong therefore, abortion is not a choice for me.

When discussing competitiveness, I was solely addressing competitiveness between societies, not competitiveness in general. A principle may still apply, if you get an A in math and I get a B I have not been harmed by you besting me, however if you got the A by cheating then I might be harmed if you’re A kept me from getting graduate work. Capitalism, by its very nature is a competitive and necessary to our successful society. Please I am not eschewing competitiveness under any form, in sports in bridge, etc. Using Henry Ford, a better example his inventiveness caused the fall of many competitive auto business, however, I would argue he did not harm them; they themselves failed to see the future as Henry did and did themselves in.

America’s spending billions of dollars aiding other country and support of the U.N. is the antithesis of competitiveness yet we all agree that it is necessary. A society cannot operate in a vacuum nor disregard other societies needs. My point was there is a higher ethic which obligates a society to, within its means, be concerned with mankind as a whole.

Howard Pattee said...

I’ve used the fact before that evolution is a continual balancing of competition and cooperation, repeating at higher and higher levels of organization. Ethics is a social concept. It would have little meaning for an isolated individual. Therefore your ethics will depend on which hierarchical level of social organization you are framing your ethics. It is obvious that the ethics between cooperating individuals is different from the ethics between competing populations (i.e., governments).

This competition-cooperation shift is the fundamental characteristic of evolving systems, and the basis of hierarchy theory as first stated by the economics Nobelist Herbert Simon in his famous paper The Architecture of Complexity.

For example, you begin with the simplest autonomous units (prokaryotes) that compete for resources. They discover that by joining with other types of simple cells they can do better (eukaryotes). Then cooperation with other eukaryotes leads to social cells (slime molds) and colonies (Volvox, lichens). Eventually, all multicellular organisms are formed as cooperating populations of specialized individuals. The competition simply moves up to a higher level of organization.

Cooperation is initially maintained by distributed genetic control present in all the cooperating individuals, but with nervous systems that can learn and communicate, control tends to become more localized at higher levels. This is the master-subject, boss-worker, commander-troops hierarchy typical of humans as well animal societies. The number of levels depends on the size of the cooperating population (a relation that Ira studied and outlined earlier).

Evolutionary psychologists claim there is a lot of genetic (tribal) instinct left in humans that allows leaders to attract followers and disciples. Demagogic leaders also take advantage of more primitive flocking or mob instincts. These types of enforced cooperation are fragile and subject to revolts, coups, and revolutions.

Democracy is unique in its ability to remove leaders peacefully. This is possible only if there is cooperation in following the rules of competition (e.g., campaign and voting laws). The same is the case for economic systems like capitalism.

Ira’s statement, “Any type of competition will inevitably harm someone.” is a fallacy often used to justify hard-line conservatism. But it holds only for zero-sum competition. Many types of cooperation can be beneficial to both sides (which is why diplomacy and foreign aid is often a useful strategy).

Ira Glickstein said...

Howard has sumarized the cooperation/competition dichotomy well and, as his student, I agree - up to his last paragraph.

He wrote: "Ira’s statement, 'Any type of competition will inevitably harm someone.' is a fallacy often used to justify hard-line conservatism. But it holds only for zero-sum competition. Many types of cooperation can be beneficial to both sides (which is why diplomacy and foreign aid is often a useful strategy)."

Consider a positive-sum case, such as multiple corporations producing products that are partially or completely fungible. For example, a bunch of profitable auto, steel or oil companies with international operations. It is a positive-sum game if we assume they are all making a profit.

Corporations in the same industry have many similar interests when it comes to environmental, taxation, and labor-relations laws. So, each industry forms an organization to lobby nationally and internationally for favorable treatment for their industry. In many cases, different industries may benefit by similar national and international laws and regulations, such as low taxes, lax enforcement of environmental regulations, etc. All industries may benefit from good economic times. A rising tide raises all boats. Great cooperation!

However, there may be a conflict between what is good for the steel industry (optimum production quantities for maximum profit [see my Google Knol on Nash Bargain]and lax enforcement of monopoly laws that result in high prices for steel) and what is good for the auto companies (modest oversupply of steel that results in lower costs).

Even within an industry conflicts will arise. Every car sold by Ford is one less sold by some competitor. If the UAW gives concessions to keep some GM plant open, that helps those workers keep their jobs albeit at lower salaries, but it will result in some other GM or Chrysler plant closing, as well as demands by Ford for similar labor concessions which may result in lower salaries for other auto workers.

Howard and I are very familiar with the "logistics equation" and the "foxes and rabbits" thought experiment. It is simple to understand. Imagine an island that has vegetation, rabbits, and foxes. The rabbits eat the vegetation and the foxes eat the rabbits.

The faster and more clever foxes will eat (harm) more rabbits and have more offspring who, on average will be faster and more clever. Similarly, the faster and more clever rabbits will elude the foxes and cause the slower and dumber foxes to starve to death (harm). The rabbits who elude the foxes will have more offspring who, an overage, will be faster and more clever.

In this manner, both populations will evolve to a higher level of genetic "fitness". Another benefit to the rabbit population is control of their numbers. Absent the foxes, the rabbits would multiply to the point they would eat up all the vegetation and might starve to death. Absent the rabbits, the foxes would have nothing to eat.

So, at the species level, this simplified example of evolution and Natural Selection benefits both the rabbits and the foxes, over the long run.

However, tell that to the poor slow fox who has to starve to make this great system work, or to the rabbit who gets eaten!

Would you deny that the individual losers who are killed or die early to make Natural Selection work are harmed?

Ira Glickstein

PS: The only valid reason for foreign aid is to help secure markets for products, secure sources for reasonably priced products and raw materials, buck up allies for economic cooperation to better compete against others, and for future wars. Diplomacy is war by other means. Carl von Clausewitz put it the other way: War is a "continuation of politics (Politik) by other means".

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

Ira, the examples you give where harm occurs because of competition are all the result of some zero-sum commodity. If every Ford sold means one less Toyota sold, that implies there are zero-sum customers. For natural selection to actual work there must be some zero-sum resource.

The whole point of good diplomacy or conflict resolution as in Simon’s decision theory is to satisfice the competing stakeholders so they all benefit from cooperation.

Ira Glickstein said...

OK, Howard, you make two points: (1) my examples are "zero-sum" and (2) "Simon’s decision theory is to satisfice the competing stakeholders so they all benefit from cooperation."

"Zero-sum" is a game where a gain by player A implies an equal or greater loss by player "B". "Positive-sum" is where the overall gains are greater than the overall losses. "Satifice" implies something less than complete satisfaction, but rather a compromise level of satisfaction that is judged by the competing stakeholders to be better than the alterative, such as continued strife.

In any real-world competition, there are always major or active stakeholders (e.g., A and B) who have the power to come to a compromise or continue in a quest for complete victory. There are also minor, powerless stakeholders (C, D ... Z) who usually lose as "collateral damage" whether the conflict continues or ends in compromise.

I guess you could count it as a positive-sum game if the compromise between the major stakeholders also benefits the minors.

For example, when a war ends in compromise, the majors generally divide the countries where the minors live into areas of influence between them. Civilians in that zone may prefer the resulting physical or economic domination to being bombed every day. To that extent, they benefit by the compromise.

Yet, I cannot help thinking that the minors are being harmed by the domination. Thus, even if a compromise satifices all the stakeholders, major and minor, and is, it that way, positive-sum, it still seems to harm some of them.

In any case, except for technological competition that may, over time, benefit all (if you consider modern technology a boon), all other competition seems to me to be for a limited set of resources (environment, space, water, energy, ...) and thus zero-sum.

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

I agree that in the very long run, globally speaking, resources are zero sum. (There is only one finite Solar system as far as we are concerned.) However, I think the conservative’s view that as a consequence all behavior is basically competitive is not a good attitude. This is demonstrated by organisms (including humans) use of cooperation as a primary evolutionary and problem-solving strategy.

If Haidt’s model of instinctive differences is valid, then perhaps conservative minds can’t help themselves. If they put loyalty, authority, and sanctity above altruism, fairness, and reciprocity it is understandable why compromise and cooperation is difficult.

Perhaps that explains the inability of even one conservative to compromise about health care.

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Howard for your agreement that global resources are finite and therefore zero-sum.

Cooperation is certainly a necessary and valuable tactic in a zero-sum game, but the global strategy is competition.

You add "I think the conservative’s view that as a consequence all behavior is basically competitive is not a good attitude." Well, you (and I) may not like the fact the Universe placed us in a zero-sum game, but play it we must.

I think C-Minds understand the difference between tactics and strategy and cooperate with groups and society far more than L-Minds who always seem to be going off in different idealistic directions.

Thanks for your reference to Haidt's Five Channels of Morality. As his graph shows, C-Minds give nearly equal weight to all five channels of morality: Harm, Fairness, Authority, Ingroup, and Purity. L-Minds overachieve in the first two and give short-shrift to the last three.

It seems to me that Ingroup and Authority are both necessary for cooperation, are they not?

L-Minds cooperate indiscriminately on a one-to-one basis, not harming or being unfair to any individual. C-Minds cooperate on a one to many basis, not harming or being unfair, but also following their leader, supporting other group members, and respecting the sanctity of group beliefs. The latter type of cooperation seems to me to fit better in the context of a zero-sum game.

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

Sorry Howard that I did not comment on your point about the Health Care bill. I think it nicely illustrates how L-Minds go off in different idealistic directions. The Democrats have a super-majority in both houses of Congress and a like-minded President, yet they cannot seem to cooperate with each other, much less Republicans, about an issue they all declare to be of primary importance.

Had they proposed a bill along the lines I suggested (and based on ideas by a Democrat writing in The Atlantic and that you generally supported), they would have lost the far-left and far-right but could have held the center in bi-partisan cooperation.

The five items are:

1) Universal digititized patient data, securely accessible by any doctor chosen by the patient.

2) Tort reform to eliminate high malpractice premiums and defensive medicine with unnecessary tests that add up to 10% to costs.

3) Outcome-based reimbursement to eliminate costly surgery and medications that do not yield comparative effectiveness based on quality-adjusted life years.

4) Mandatory Catastrophic Insurance coverage for all that would cover only medical costs incurred in any one year of over $50,000 or a chronic condition that incurs costs of over $5,000 per year for ten years.

5) Mandatory Health Savings Accounts for all.

(See the linked posting for detail on these items.)

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

Your last posts are very well stated, and I agree with them, except your ideal of a conservative mind (presumably just like your own) is very hard to find in congress or positions of Republican influence. The same, of course, for my ideal liberal.