“Implicit content” may become the next big Internet law controversy; more on Backpage and Section 230

It is important to pause for a moment and take stock of another possible idea that can threaten freedom of speech and self-publication on the Internet without gatekeepers as we know it now, and that would be “implicit content”.

This concept refers to a situation where an online speaker publishes content that he can reasonably anticipate that some other party whom the speaker knows to be combative, un-intact, or immature (especially a legal minor) will in turn act harmfully toward others, possibly toward specific targets, or toward the self. The concept views the identity of the speaker and presumed motive for the speech as part of the content, almost as if borrowed from object-oriented programming.

The most common example that would be relatively well known so far occurs when one person deliberately encourages others using social media (especially Facebook, Twitter or Instagram) to target and harass some particular user of that platform.  Twitter especially has sometimes suspended or permanently  closed accounts for this behavior, and specifically spells this out as a TOS violation. Another variation might come from a recent example where a female encouraged a depressed boyfriend to commit suicide using her smartphone with texts and was convicted of manslaughter, so this can be criminal.  The concept complicates the normal interpretation of free speech limitation as stopping where there is direct incitement of unlawful activity (like rioting).

I would be concerned however that even some speech that is normally seen as policy debate could fall under this category when conducted by “amateurs” because of the asymmetry of the Internet with the way search engines can magnify anyone’s content and make it viral or famous.  This can happen with certain content that offends others of certain groups, especially religious (radical Islam), racial, or sometimes ideological (as possibly with extreme forms of Communism).  In extreme cases, this sort of situation could cause a major (asymmetric) national security risk.

A variation of this problem occurred with me when I worked as a substitute teacher in 2005 (see pingback hyperlink here on July 19, 2016).  There are a couple of important features of this problem.  One is that it is really more likely to occur with conventional websites with ample text content and indexed by search engines in a normal way (even allowing for all the algorithms) than with social media accounts, whose internal content is usually not indexed much and which can be partially hidden by privacy settings or “whitelisting”.  That would have been true pre-social media with, for example, discussion forums (like those on AOL in the late 1990s). Another feature is that it may be more likely with a site that is viewed free, without login or subscription. One problem is that such content might be viewed as legally problematic if it wasn’t paid for (ironically) but had been posted only for “provocateur” purposes, invoking possible “mens rea”.

I could suggest another example, of what might seem to others as “gratuitous publication”.  I have often posted video and photos of demonstrations, from BLM marches to Trump protests, as “news”.  Suppose I posted a segment from an “alt-right” march, from a specific group that I won’t name.  Such a march may happen in Washington DC next weekend (following up Charlottesville).  I could say that it is simply citizen journalism, reporting what I see.  Others would say I’m giving specific hate groups a platform, which is where TOS problems could arise. Of course I could show counterdemonstrations from the other “side”. I don’t recognize the idea that, among any groups that use coercion or force, that one is somehow more acceptable to present than another (Trump’s problem, again.)  But you can see the slippery slope.

When harm comes to others after “provocative” content is posted, the hosting sites or services would normally be protected by Section 230 in the US (I presume).  However, it sounds like there have been some cases where litigation has been attempted.  Furthermore, we know that very recently, large Internet service platforms have cut off at least one (maybe more) website associated with extreme hate speech or neo-Nazism. Service platforms, despite their understandable insistence that they need the downstream liability protections of Section 230, have become more pro-active in trying to eliminate users publishing what they consider (often illegal) objectionable material.  This includes, of course, child pornography and probably sex trafficking, and terrorist group recruiting, but it also could include causing other parties to be harassed, and could gradually expand to subsumed novel national security threats. But it now seems to include “hate speech”, which I personally think ought to be construed as “combativeness” or lawlessness.  But that brings us to another point:  some extreme groups would consider amateur policy discussions that take a neutral tone and try to avoid taking sides (that is, avoiding naming some groups as enemies instead of others, as with Trump’s problems after Charlottesville), as implicitly “hateful” by default when the speaker doesn’t put his own skin in the game.   This (as Cloudflare’s CEO pointed out) could put Internet companies in a serious ethical bind.

Timothy B. Lee recently published in Ars-Technica, an update on the “Backpage” bills in Congress, which would weaken Section 230 protections. Lee does seem to imply that the providers most at risk remain isolated to those whose main content is advertisements, rather than discussions; and so far he hasn’t addressed with shared hosting providers could be put at risk.  (I asked him that on Twitter.)  But some observer believe that the bills could lead states to require that sites with user-logon provide adult-id verification.  We all know that this was litigated before with the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which was ruled unconstitutional finally in early 2007.  I was a party to that litigation under Electronic Frontier Foundation sponsorship. Ironically, the judge mentioned “implicit content” the day that I sat in on the arguments (in Philadelphia).

I wanted to add a comment here that probably could belong on either of my two previous posts.  That is, yes, our whole civilization has become very dependent on technology, and, yes, a determined enemy could give us a very rude shock.  Born in 1943, I have lived through years that have generally been stable, surviving the two most serious crises (the Vietnam military draft in the 1960s and then HIV in the 1980s) that came from the outside world.  A sudden shock like that in NBC’s “Revolution” is possible.  But I could imagine being born around 1765, living as a white landowner in the South, having experienced the American Revolution and then the Constitution as a teen, and only gradually coming to grips with the idea that my world would be expropriated from me because an underlying common moral evil, before I died (if I was genetically lucky enough to live to 100 without modern medicine). Yet I would have had no grasp of the idea of a technological future, that itself could be put it risk because, for all its benefits in raising living standards, still seemed to leave a lot of people behind.

(Posted: Saturday, September 9, 2017 at 9 PM EDT)

Does distributed consciousness really exist with humans? If so, that matters

We often hear loose allegations in the literature about “distributed consciousness” among some animals. In different contexts, we may hear the term used about social insects (bee and ant colonies), siphonophores (like the Portuguese Man-o-War), all the way to mammals who live in social groups.  Orcas (the film “Blackfish“) are said to experience a “distributed sense of self”.

I wonder about the same idea for human society.  Is an extended family, a tribe, a clan, or small nation in some sense conscious?  Authoritarian leaders (whether religious, as in the Islamic world, or secular, as with Vladimir Putin) sometimes talk this way.

One paper that caught my attention recently was a British paper by Johnathan CW Edwards from University College, London.  The paper proposes that every cell in your body has a “copy” or image of your consciousness (rather like every computer in a network having a copy of everything in a network cloud, and constantly refreshing it, rather like the inverse of a product like Carbonite or iCloud).  But the sentience that you experience as “you” has something to do with the “binding” of all of these copies back.  As individual cells dies, other new cells can download the copies.  He then goes on to a long discussion of “the binding problem”.   (Along these lines, the “consciousness” of cephalopods like the octopus (Atlantic; NY Times) becomes interesting to compare with that of a mammal like me;  there is also research that animals like crows don’t need a cerebral cortex like ours to be very smart and sentient.)  Even plants are said to have cellular consciousness (I once saw how a wild grape vine can attach itself to my own cable line, and PBS Nature has a series “Plants Behaving Badly“.)

Parts of the human body sometimes seem to have their own identities — involuntary muscles, twitches, reflexes, and “muscle memory” of events. That would really be strong in a decentralized animal like the octopus.

There seems to exist a loose idea, that if individuals having consciousness (uploading to sentience) bond together with enough solidarity, the larger group will take on sentience of its own.  This idea has certainly been explored in science fiction, like Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End”, a big miniseries at the end of 2015.  It isn’t hard to see that this idea can appeal to collectivistic or authoritarian politicians and theologians.

What could go into such “binding” of a group consciousness?  The most obvious element would be the common DNA (nuclear and even mitochondrial) of extended families.  Do some wild animals sense this?  In a pride, the alpha-male lion sometimes kills the cubs of rival males so his own genes propagate, as if he were competing for his own group-uploaded vicarious immortality.  With a little thought, you can see how this could feed homophobia.  I am an only child.  You can imagine what my parents could have though in the fall of 1961 when they learned from a college dean that I had said I am gay.  The idea of “loyalty to blood” came out in an unusual way in an episode of the 2003 series “Jake 2.0”, about a young man accidentally “infected” with nanobots and getting superpowers.

But people in religious, spiritual or meditation practices often deny that blood lineage matters all that much, saying there are many other ways to develop connections to people, that survive mortality. Much of this practice seems to have to do with the willingness to disband old limitations on the ability to love and perceive people in terms of pre-learned physical standards of appearance.  I do see, sometimes in social media, calls to openness to connections to people in need (or who have had permanent losses, sometimes caused by the violence of others), that would not have been contemplated in the more restrictive and socially conservative culture in which I grew up in the 50s and early 60s.  In my day, there was more an attitude of “it is what it is”, and “what you see is what you get”.

In conjunction with a view of afterlife that I discussed  June 6, it seems that strong connections with others in groups while living may be the only way you own “microverse” can keep up after you’re “gone”.  So there may be something at stake when whole groups or families are destroyed.  The “souls” of those who have gone will no longer have others to keep up with.  Maybe this idea does feed some religious fundamentalism, and the idea that what others do really does matter for your own collective “eternity”.

How do you become “connected” to a group?  I can think of perhaps silly examples.  One is rooting for a professional sports team and feeling let down when the team blows a won game (because of a weak bullpen in baseball – the Washington Nationals).  The only thing I can do about it is to start playing chess more again and hold on to my own endgames.

But more challenging are the calls to give up one’s own internal crutches in personal fantasy(as a legacy of my days at NIH in 1962).  The “Tribunals” that I skipped out on that lost fall semester at William and Mary in the fall of 1961 provides one example.  Sitting in the barber’s chair for “Be Brave and Shave” sessions for cancer patients, rather than just filming other people stepping up to it, could provide another example.  I remember that buzz cut the first morning of Basic Training at Fort Jackson in 1968, and the idea of “unit cohesion” as explored in the film “The Strange History of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’”. It does sound like sometimes one is called upon to suspend the old sense of individual self, with all its external trappings, because not of these are permanent anyway.

Indeed, I do appreciate different senses of myself at different times, in dreams, before getting up in the morning, and once involved with the activities of the day, where the momentum of my established drives and initiatives take over.  Yet, maybe we all have the feeling sometimes, “Why am I still doing this?”  The next little brain fix, whether eusocial (a Nationals win without blowing a lead in the ninth), or individual (a chess win, after your opponent blunders and give you the opposition in a king-and-pawn ending), or fantasy-based (the hidden arousal when an icon from my life shows up in shorts at church on Sunday morning, as if to show off a standard of physical perfection for everyone else to follow – “I’m the ocelot without clay feet”) – all of these invoke variations of the former self that can become blurred or lost by absorption into the consciousness of the group.

I’m left with the question, can I become someone other than who I am?  Stay tuned.

(Posted: Thursday, June 15, 2017, at 12 noon EDT)

Is the pineal gland the key to the afterlife?

I’ve been put under general anesthesia only twice in my life.  One time was in Minneapolis in January 1998 after I had fallen in a convenience store and cracked my acetabulum (hip). That led to a six-hour operation two days later at the University of Minnesota, and I did have first rate insurance and short term disability from my employer, ReliaStar (now ING/Voya), an insurance company itself.  I recovered quickly and completely.  The other time was in January 2010, back in Arlington, for a double hernia repair, where I was under for 67 minutes.

Each time, my last memory was being on a stretcher and being wheeled to the OR.  There would be a sense of discontinuity (unlike sleep), and arousal, in the hospital room or recovery room, with a nurse’s voice.  But I had no memory of the actual surgery.  I was told I was given memory suppression drug, so the operations themselves are not part of my own life experience.

Twice, for putting in implants, in 2013, I had sedation dentistry, with light (3 pads) electrocardiographic monitoring, starting with valium.  In each session, time seemed to speed up.  When I was fully aware again, about five hours had passed and we were ready to finish up, after the multiple extractions, which seemed to go very quickly without effort.

Yet, when you read about near-death experiences, you learn about people in comas going somewhere and reporting what they saw beyond, as well as watching the details of medical procedures done on their bodies with a third eye.

There is a body of only slightly off-mainstream literature about the purpose of the pineal gland, a tiny check-pea-sized organ seated deep within the brain of most vertebrates, for example.  While its recognized purpose may be to secrete melatonin, it seems that it also secretes a controlled substance and hallucinogen, dimethyltryptamine (DMT).  Some literature suggests that the DMT enters the dying brain and sets off the “trips”.  The DMT also apparently has the ability to cause the perception of the passage of time to slow down.  There are a few very celebrated cases of visions from a brain that had no function of all, such as Eben Alexander’s “Proof of Heaven”. The author, himself a physician, reported residing in a “Core” or complete darkness for a long while, before encountering his own vision of a kind of alternative space-time we call Heaven. No wonder the organ is called the “Third Eye”.

The reference I gave indicate that “without the pineal gland, you can’t go to heaven.”  The pineal does need a conventional blood supply to function, so it would have to flood the brain with DMT in the last moments after circulation stopped.  The brain might function with this kind of stimulation for a while longer, even though the brain as normally conscious stops working about 30 seconds after the heartbeat stops.  This scenario would not be possible in the case of abrupt extreme trauma (like thermonuclear weapon on even conflagration like on 9/11), but might survive ordinary trauma (even decapitation) for a while, long enough for this to “happen”.  It might allow the DE to proceed with execution by lethal injection.

One could imagine that the time dilates in a mathematically converging infinite series, so that the individual experiences the illusion of permanent “awareness”.  His or her life exists forever in the space-time sense, bounded by the time of death in the usual sense of the physical world.

One wonders what the person could see.  Maybe a “life review”, as I think the Monroe Institute has proposed.  (Call it “content evaluation.”)  It would be fascinating to review a 1% sample of the days of one’s life in detail and see how one lived and worked decades before, even what one’s body looked like before starting to age.  It would be possible to envision one’s life as a permanent micro-universe, embedded in the Universe of our Creator, where one had been a god of one’s own little world, with consciousness and choice, and the chance to oppose the entropy of the laws of physics with chosen actions.

It would seem that most people (outside of extreme trauma, which a terrorist or society could impose) would have a moment when the person knows that a life of activity is over, and that he/she cannot go back or take anything along, even if there is “read-only access” to one’s completed life for what may be perceived as indefinite time.  Sometimes the end may seem to be announced by a dream in a threatening, illogical situation (like power won’t come on in some rooms) that one cannot arouse oneself from.

Then, Heaven might have something to do with being connected (through “wormholes”) with all the other microuniverses of other people to whom you had been connected.  It is only through connections from future people (descendants) that one knows what is going on after one is gone.

The microuniverses could be viewed as eternal from the view of string theory, where time is just another dimension, once intervention and causality is no longer possible.

But how would the connections be selected?  Would they be based on blood ancestry?  (It’s like the LDS Church believing in eternal marriage.) Would they be based on other levels of group or emotional commitment?  Do groups (like nations) have their own level of consciousness?  If you look at other social animals (like social insects, siphonophores or modular colonies, or even higher social animals like orca schools) you can certainly wonder.  The idea that most societies find that they must demand self-sacrifice sometimes by individual members (like in military service in human societies) suggest that there could be some point to the idea of a higher collective soul facilitating these connections, but right now it’s just speculative. But Arthur C. Clarke may have been on to something with “Childhood’s End”.

But the whole idea of sentience and identity, and whether you can ever return (“reincarnation”) seems as mysterious as ever.  Some coma situations, such as when a person is awake but unaware, as after brain injury, complicate the picture.

It’s hard for me to believe in the idea of a hollow heaven where you have a condo in some other universe with your extended family for all time. But physics suggests that some sort of conscious remnant or “leftover” exists for all time.  And your loved one, at the very end of life, may be aware of your presence (or absence) even if she looks unconscious.  So, watch your karma.

(Posted: Tuesday, June 6, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT)

Duty, risk-taking, helping others, and self-promotion

It’s a vague and general principle in the insurance business that some activities are more readily underwritten when there is outside, third-party supervision of the endeavors.

That gets to be testy when the aim is to help others.

I wrote my three books and developed my websites and blogs without supervision. The lack of peer supervision was actually an issue back in the Summer of 2001 when I was turned down for a renewal of a “media perils” individual policy that National Writers Union was selling as an intermediary.

Yes, I took some risks, and I probably knew what I was doing better than a lot of amateur writers, with regard to areas like copyright and defamation. I did become infatuated with the implications of my own narrative, which are considerable.  I did look forward to the fame, or at least notoriety. But was I helping anyone?

Well, the central topic of the first book was “gays in the military,” and in fact I knew a number of the servicemembers fighting the ban (and the old “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy) well, at least by correspondence.  I would not have desired a romantic relationship with any or many of them, but I did feel legitimately connected in some personal way. I think I helped, although indirectly.  My staying in the debate for so many years in the search engines did help make the final repeal in 2010-2011 more likely.

But I also had made some unusual arguments.  They were based in part on accepting the idea of duty, of the necessity for shared sacrifice and resilience.  Specifically, I talked about the Vietnam era military draft and my own experience with it, and about the idea that it was still possible to reinstate it.  I recalled all too well the controversy over student deferments, implied cowardice, and the connection between risk and vulnerability.

I’ve thought about the “duty” concept in connection to the need for refugees and asylum seekers for assistance, sometimes very personalized.  One idea that comes through in discussions, especially with lawyers, that anyone offering hosting or major support should have some third-party supervision.  That usually would come from a social services agency, or possibly a faith-based group, as well sometimes local or state agencies.  Of course, the capacity of individuals to offer this has become muddled by Donald Trump and all his flailing and failing travel bans.  The desirable supervision is much better established in Canada (and some European countries) where sponsorship comes with some legally-driven responsibilities comparable, say, to foster care.  In the United States, given the political climate, the volume of people assisted is lower, and the risk or cost, whatever that is, gets spread out among more people.  The situation is even murkier for asylum seekers than for refugees, since their access to benefits and work permission is less, as has been explained here before.

I don’t yet know how this will turn out for me, but I agree that any adherence to “duty” would require some supervision.  So, I am fussier with this than I was with the risk management for my own writing.  But what about the people?  True, I don’t feel personally as connected to the people in this situation as I was with the military issue.  I have to admit that I have led a somewhat sheltered life.  For most of my adult life, the “system” has actually worked for me, and I have been associated with others who more or less play by the rules and benefit from doing so.  Since retiring, I’ve seen that the interpersonal aspects of need do bring on a certain culture shock. The system simply does not work for a lot of poorer people, who sometimes find that they have no reason to play by the same rules, but who do tie into social capital.  The system also fails “different” people, some not as well off as “Smallville‘s” teen Clark Kent. I can understand duty (accompanying “privilege”), but the meaning expected to be attached to helping others in a much more personal way is rather alien to me.

The whole question of housing refugees and asylum seekers (and I’ll even limit the scope of this remark to assuming “legal” presence in the U.S.) fits into a bigger idea about social resilience and radical hospitality, most of all for those (like me) with “accidentally” inherited property.  I do recall that after Hurricane Katrina there was a call for helping to house people in other states (sometimes in homes, sometimes with relatives).  Even though most people want to be near their homes to rebuild after disaster, this sort of need (a kind of “emergency bnb” lower-case) could come back again after earthquakes or major terror strikes or even a hostile attack (North Korea is starting to look really dangerous).  In the worst cases, the nation’s survival could depend on it.

(Published: Tuesday, April 25, 2017 at 10 AM EDT)

“Moral Hazard”: some of us ask others to pay for our risks

“Moral hazard”, as an economic concept, really has little to do with everyday notions of “moral compass” or “deservedness”.  Rather, it refers to a situation where one party (often an individual person) uses more of a particular resource than he/she/it normally would because another party will pay for part of the cost, without that paying party’s direct knowledge or consent.

At the outset, however, the term seems related to our ideas about personal morality in the context of wealth and/or income inequality, because people often benefit from the unseen sacrifices (unelected costs) born by others.  Politically, the issue does get mixed into Marxist-related ideas about “to each according to his needs”, but also “from each according to his ability” must somehow be compelled.  It gets to be anti-libertarian.

The most obvious area where moral hazard will come up is in health insurance.  Some people will use more health care resources than others because they are inclined to be sicker.  Over a lifetime, age is less of an issue because we will all eventually die and all face increased risk of illness as we get older, so a “morally” appropriate strategy to deal with this problem can be imagined (whether Medicare achieves this is another debate).

Employer-based health insurance, as became common after WWII, tended to use moral hazard because some people in a company used it more than others.  The same is true when you try to regulate the individual market, and especially when you try to compel purchase of insurance, as with the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”).

As an economic principle, when someone with a pre-existing condition uses medical services covered by insurance (without any surcharges) then that person is leveraging moral hazard, whether or not the condition is strictly inherited (genetic), or whether it involves the person’s behavioral “choices”.  As a “moral” (in the other sense) matter, probably most Americans think that genetic pre-existing conditions (like Type 1 diabetes or many childhood cancers) should be covered by the public in some way.  I have suggested that any health care rewrite under a Trump presidency would envision setting un a reinsurance company (public and private) to pay the additional health care expenses attributable to pre-existing conditions, so this issue doesn’t affect ordinary peoples’ premiums (and help lead to the escalation reported in the news shortly before the 2016 presidential election, which may be a bigger reason for Hillary Clinton’s electoral college loss than “the Russians”, fake news, or Comey and email-gate).  But it most be noted that right now, that even with the premium increases, it seems that insurance companies are getting stiffed by the federal government on the pre-existing condition issue (story).

But it is likely that there would be political (and culture-based) disputes on how to cover illness or injury related to behaviors.  The list is long:  cigarette smoking, drug-use, obesity (to the extent that it is perceived as overeating), for openers.  The last two of these behaviors (at least) probably have genetic influences as well as personal choices (the “thrifty gene” in native peoples and obesity and Type II diabetes).  You could add sexual behaviors, such as the “chain-letter” problem in the male homosexual community and HIV.  That aspect is today Themuch less than it was in the 1980s and early 90s, but still, modern successful clinical management of HIV can with protease inhibitors can cost about $60000 a year, or maybe $3 million in the lifetime of a young adult male.  You can also add sporting behaviors that have general social approval, like playing football and concussion risks.

Then, there is gender.  In purely economic terms, gender is the ultimate pre-existing condition.  Women have childbirth expenses and men, literally do not.  Women live longer than men, and their eldercare is likely to cost more (although today custodial care in old age is not normally covered by Medicare but may be covered by long term care insurance, which women are more likely to “use” than men).  Within families, generally husband and wife regard pregnancy as a joint experience and cost.  But in a total insurance pool, childless people would contribute premiums to pay for “other people’s children” (“OPC”).

The next place where “moral hazard” comes into play is workplace benefits, especially the push for paid family leave.  I’ve noted before that it is more “egalitarian” to offer parental leave to both parents than only maternity leave (which is all Trump wants to offer).  Most tech companies offer parental.  It is even more “egalitarian” to include adoption leave, and eldercare leave for caring for parents.  All of this costs a lot (I like charging another insurance premium deduction and making it at least contributory, so workers have to understand what it going on – rather than making employers (or “shareholders”) foot the entire bill out of anti-capitalist sentiment).  A benefit that most workers would eventually use becomes less a “moral hazard” situation.  But part of the paid leave problem is that when someone is out, other workers often do their jobs (even being on call for production problems in the I.T. world) without any more pay, often incurring personal sacrifices and expenses themselves.  Obama has been trying to fix this with new rules about overtime pay for salaried workers, but Trump is likely to roll that back.  But in the worst situation, a single or childless person bears personally some of the cost for a married co-worker’s sexual passion (as in “the Song of Solomon”).

There are other examples of moral hazard, as in finance, with the “securitization” of so many financial instruments (like mortgages), leading to the hiding of downstream risks and unsustainabilities, contributing to the subprime mortgage meltdown and then the financial crisis in 2008.  The bailouts amounted to the processing of moral hazard.

Although not usually viewed in an economic sense, we can relate other issues, like past military conscription (and the deferment history) as “real” moral hazard.  Like it or not, one’s own life (and assets) become behind-the-back bargaining chips for politicians to play.  Likewise, calls for volunteer work often involve a spontaneity that resists examination of the serious risks one is called upon to take to benefit others, and this brings us around from traditional economics to social capital.

When facing change due to coercion from others, one needs to have a certain conversation with the self

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First, let me recount a nice incident, that invokes some wonder.  One early evening in September 2012 I was driving (to the movies) along a major Arlington VA street when I spotted some kids on the sidewalk, walking against traffic, with a popular, well-liked teen, whom I recognized immediately from a local church, walking on the outside toward the street. He stumbled momentarily into the street.  My foot came off the pedal instantly, but curiously the engine died (and this car had an automatic trans).  Nothing happened, no accident happened.  Miracle maybe?  The car restarted normally and I got to the movie.   Never has happened again,

One three occasions, people have asked me for roadside assistance starting cars in parking lots or at service plazas.  I did help one time on a New Years Eve and nothing happened.  The other two times I did not. One of the situations (in Ohio in 2010) sounded like a real carjacking threat (I got away and called state police);  the other situation was a woman (in West Virginia) who probably was legitimately in trouble.  Mark Zuckerberg reportedly “escaped” a possible carjacking or robbery at a gas station right after moving to California at age 20 (Ben Mezrich’s “The Accidental Billionaires”).

Recently, I’ve considered the possibility of offering to host an asylum seeker(s).  I can’t go into any detail now, but I find that people become nervous when any prospective volunteer starts asking questions about potential risks and liabilities, and seems “outside” a supportive socially cohesive group.

I think that anytime someone offers to take a significant and not entirely predictable risk to help others, that someone needs to have a conversation with the self about living with the consequences of “near worst case scenarios”, where the person’s own life could be forced to change course in a significant way.

But many “good Samaritan” situations occur with no warning.  So one must have thought through one’s values, and the idea that external circumstances could suddenly test these values and force them to change.

I’ve become much more aware of this since “retiring”, so to speak, at the end of 2001.  Yes, I “inherited” some wealth at the end of 2010 with the passing of Mother.  I used to perceive most risks as under my control, particularly with matters that concern performance in the workplace, or mishaps with work.  In more recent years, I’ve had to contemplate how external events can force change on me.

I don’t consider ordinary health decline with age as controversial, and death from some cause will happen to (“almost”) everyone. (I’m not sure I would subscribe to Peter Thiel’s ideas about longevity.) So “ordinary” illness or medical challenge is not itself at issue.  But I do consider coercion from others as more challenging now than it had been when I was working – more challenging than any time in my life since I was in the Army (draft) 1968-1970.  Standing alone, I can quickly be erased or made into nothing as an unintended or expandable consequence of someone else’s priorities. I would be a casualty, but not a victim, given prior privileges. Yet the next person I conveniently overlook could have been brought low by someone else’s greed.  Karma is a brutal idea.

It can make sense to “act” (as a Good Samaritan) sometimes, even out of self-interest, because “bad things can happen to previously good people anyway.”  Challenges can come from random events (crime), and changing some behavior can reduce this risk.  It can come from being targeted (legally or physically) for online behavior (I would describe this as a marginal risk in terms of “storm prediction center” terminology).  It can came from authoritarian policy changes, especially in the free speech areas.  But some of the danger to me comes from “expropriation” (or what one friend once called “purification”).  If you didn’t earn all you “have” and somebody yanks it away from you, then you don’t get it back.  Values can change, toward more authoritarian or tribal systems, which to some people still seem self-contained and “logical”.

There’s a disturbing sequence of logic that must follow.  As my father once said, I don’t “see people as people”.  I care about my own perceptual world and people that I “choose” to idealize.  But I don’t “care” about someone (in the emotional-body sense) who would depend on me.  I do tend to see people as intrinsic “winners” or “losers” (as does Trump) and don’t “Care” personally about the “losers” whatever the reason for the loss.  “You are what you are”, or “it is what it is” or “it is what you see.” Call it “karma” or even your eventual “right-size”.  But, unlike Trump, I don’t particularly value having some social position in relation to others in some hierarchy of command or authority.  Power, in his sense, is of no importance to me.  The ability to influence thought of others (through art and writing) does matter. That could be lost.  There’s a certain logical disconnect (on my part) in wanting to perturb the “values” of my culture (by being found online, mainly  — and this really works, right now) and not having more emotion (love) concerning real people who would “consume” my insights.

In the WB series “Everwood“, piano prodigy Ephram Brown (Gregory Smith) once said that his fatal flaw as his “inability to change”.  For the 1983 hit movie “Staying Alive” (directed by Sylvester Stallone), John Travolta (“Saturday Night Fever“) created an existential metaphor of change by waxing his bod for the role of a fighter-turned-dancer.  One can be forced to “change” by the “priorities” of others, sometimes, particularly by people who see meaning in enforcing the connections of social hierarchies (who will be particularly aggressive against those whom they perceive as having unearned wealth or influence — Jeffrey Toobin’s book, “American Heiress” about Patty Hearst-Tania in the 1970s [which I am reading] is indeed a “worst-case” example).  My own religious values say that ending one’s life if forced to change, even at a gunpoint, would be cowardice, and would condemn one in the next life (although I don’t think a “hollow heaven” offers much).  Yet there exist some limits, some lines I would never cross.  I have a general idea of where those are.  I don’t guarantee that I would be around after just anything.  I don’t watch other people’s backs and nobody watches mine.  Of course, I had that same self-reflection during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and when  entering the Army.  It could happen again.

There is warning in all of this.  If there were too many “people like me” who became visible and effective (without covering our own subsumed risks and without becoming more personally responsive to others “in need” or to potential non-biological dependents, even within a largely familial or tribal context) aggressive politicians could find it easier to rationalize authoritarianism and even fascism, ultimately threatening “my” own freedom and personhood. Donald Trump provides a potentially chilling example.

(Posted: Sunday, November 6, 2016, at 6:45 PM EST)

Do moral debates wind down to personal risk-taking?

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Can we reduce some of our debate on “moral” issues, to the equitable sharing of personal risks?

The most obvious example of that question in my own life was probably the way the male-only military draft played out in the 1960s, during the Vietnam war, especially with the student deferment system, eventually replaced by the lottery.

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Today, we see some of the same idea expressed in Mark Rowe’s series “Somebody’s Gotta Do It”.  Yup, us city slickers seem to have a false sense of individualism, when we contemplate the fact that people serve in volunteer fire departments out of a sense of belonging, not to be recognized for accomplishments.

As for emergency services, I wonder if we will have police departments able to protect us from the indignation or nihilism of others, if we keep prosecuting police for “mistakes” when having to assess risks the see on the streets with people.  I’m a little bit with Donald Trump on this.  Blue Lives Matter.  Remember, feudalism — the ultimate “doomsday prepper society” — developed during the Middle Ages because there was no law and order in the countryside.

There’s another part to the risk.  If you get hurt and really maimed and disfigured, your partner will still love you and remain intimate with you.  Or, if something happened when you were too young, you’ll sill be able to find someone who will.  That’s a herd matter which demands a certain amount of “aesthetic realism” in personal affairs from everyone.

Having children means taking risks.  Parents never know if they will be unlucky with genetics or mishaps.  They can have more kids.  Adopting children with needs really means taking risks.  Long term intimacy — a commitment to it — involves “real life risks”.  Sometimes, community events are set up involving the appearance of a personal sacrifice of one’s own surface values to make intimacy easier for others.  The “Be Brave and Shave” marathons at the Westover Market outdoor veranda a couple years ago, to benefit cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or even bone marrow transplants, comes to mind.  (This might be a “no spectators” type of event.) But so hazing “tribunals” at colleges and fraternities of the more distant past.  So does the end of a short film “Bruckner’s Ultimate Finale” by Nicholas Alispahic, enacting a sacrifice before a “Second Coming.”

So, indeed “all lives matter”. But assisting those who have been at real disadvantage – such as refugees or asylees – also means personal risk-taking.  While one may want to get everything right legally before jumping in, in practice people able to help others are used to having others’ backs and accepting the idea the need others to have theirs.  You could obviously say that about housing, employing, or helping the homeless, or those with past criminal convictions.  Helping others sounds identity-transforming, where the group around provides all the relevance for the self.

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“Real people” supporting “real families” have to play ball and take some risks. If you really need to make your Internet website support your family, you need customers, so you need some aggressive sales tactics, and you need to get around finicky attitudes about popups, ads, and email lists.  You need to remember the Golden Rule.  You need to be open to letting people approach you and sell to you, sometimes.  You might need to be able to answer the front door for a door-to-door salesman, and have family or support watch your back in the rare incidence of home invasion.

So if you want to “matter”, you need skin in the game.

But somehow the “middle section” of the 1978 film by Michael Cimino, “The Deer Hunter“, with the Russian roulette scene in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, comes to mind.

(Posted: Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016 at 11:45 PM EDT)

Why did “old time religion” try to restrict sexuality to proceative marriage for everyone, without exception?

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Maybe 80% or a little more of American young men (from mid or late teens on) feel enough “innate” attraction to women that they “want” intercourse – to complete an act normally capable of procreation. I feel pretty sure of that from everything my father said, and from what roommates (especially my first one at William and Mary) said in dorms during my own college dorm years in the 1960ss, and yes, from what I remember of Army Basic and later.

Whatever the moralizing that will follow, this seems pretty hard-wired, by genetics, epigenetics and biochemistry.

So, when young men used to hear the “no sex outside of marriage” dictum, it indeed seemed like wise, self-interested behavior, to prevent unwanted pregnancies, before teens or young adults were far enough along in education and careers to raise a family comfortably.  The dictum certainly seems intended to protect women from unwanted advances. Back around 1965, when there was a line in the Elmer Bernstein musical of James Michener’s “Hawaii” (properly screen-written by Dalton Trumbo) about the importance of getting married, that was what everyone thought.

Indeed, heterosexual couples learn that waiting until after marriage to “go all the way” increases pleasurable tension, even suspense.  And then there is the observation (by George Will and others), that “women tame men”, maybe 80% of the time.

But less “conventionally” competitive men –  including gay men, and sometimes transgender, find something sinister in all this. They are no threat to become rivals for girlfriends or to cause unwanted pregnancies.  Still, this old idea (and it has, at least until Pope Francis, laid at the center of Vatican ideas of sexual morality), when implemented aggressively, as in many religious anti-gay cultures (and in most of US society until at least Stonewall in the late 1960s) seems designed for force all men to find wives, form families, and have children within them.

In fact, that seems to be what is behind, rather specifically, the “anti-gay propaganda law” in Russia passed in 2003. The whole idea seems to be that talking about homosexuality in public would allow “marginal” men (“waverers”) to nurture the idea that having families as kids isn’t important – in a country with a severe  problem with low birth rate.

As one of these unconventional, “wavering” men, I grew up in a culture (largely in the 1950s) that was determined to maintain the expectation that all men born as biologically male accept their fair share of the community risk in protecting women and children (as by being subject to the military draft, and as by being pressured to play contact team sports), and, when the time came (hopefully by the mid 20s at the latest) start giving the extended family or tribe its next generation.  In this world, you took care of your own – but that was easier if everyone else had to do the same thing.

So one way to implement this idea on less secure men was a universal application of the Catholic idea – no sexuality outside of marriage.  No fantasy, no masturbation.  It put a lot of pressure on men for consummation their wedding nights.    The Catholic Church also came up with an idea for men it knew weren’t up to the usual challenges of lineage: a celibate priesthood, a curious institution of lookers and judges who pretend to surrender a function that makes them human.  We know it doesn’t always work out.

There’s somewhat of a moral paradox in a society that calls itself free and wants to maintain the idea that every human life has value – and this goes way beyond the usual debates about abortion or even euthanasia.  Collectively, it’s not OK for people just to remain in their comfort zones  of upward affiliation (playing on championship teams, so to speak) when engaging others in situations that pose interpersonal challenges.  To allow everyone the psychic luxury of unlimited upward affiliation is to invite elitism, exclusionism, and eventually authoritarianism – maybe of the Trump (or Putin) kind, but sometimes much worse, as history teaches us. So, in many “insecure” cultures, it seems critical to get everyone to be willing to tie their own sexuality and intimacy to actually accepting dependence of others within one’s own group or family, and only then branching out.

In a society of increasing freedom and selfie-driven individualism, there is increasing social pressure to join very public efforts to help others – and render everyone “OK”.  This “gofundme” attitude is something I resist. As a paradox, I find I want to hold on to my standards that enable me to idealize certain people.  I don’t want just anything, even if caused by unavoidable natural disability, to be OK.

Indeed, I look back and see a paradox in Christianity itself.  We are to honor a historical young man whom the modern gay world probably would have scored as a “perfect 10”, someone ageless, still perfect when He ascended into Heaven (“where everything is fine”).  Yet, we are to love others without expecting a mirror of ourselves, but pro-actively, from something within, something that can sometimes produce new life, even if we’ve been tested and purged by rituals designed us to look and feel all the same, all one.

Those of us who kept our use of sexuality personal, for purposes other than future generations, sometimes find ourselves challenged by circumstances not of our volition.  These might include eldercare, having for some reason to interact parentally with other people’s kids, or even raise them.  This is a lot easier for someone who had and raised his own kids (and for someone with the strong inborn drive to procreate).  It seems as though exposure to the interpersonal “risks” of parenthood is a factor in the equality debate, at least within any cohort. That goes against a culture that, since the 70s perhaps, has emphasized individual visibility and treated marriage and child-rearing as a personal afterthought — maybe with dangerous demographic consequences over time.

It all sounds like mandatory socialization, something that ignores inherited dispositions (like introversion), or sexuality and identity issues, and demands certain facilities from everyone, so those of us who are somehow “special” don’t take undo advantage of the risk-taking of others in the group.  That’s how it was when I grew up.  I’ve never been able to simply go along with the idea that being “different” automatically means that all of your needs go to the front of the line when compared to others. That sounds like “identity politics”.

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A recent example of this kind of thinking is shown by a Washington Post story (by Julie Zauzmer) about Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, which leads campus religious organizations at over 600 institutions around the country, will involuntarily terminate any employee who publicly disagrees with their position that sex (or sexuality) should occur only within heterosexual marriage.  I think I ran into someone who had been fired by the group when I was living in Minneapolis.  As a “libertarian”, I support the “right” of a religious employer to control its employees as it sees fit, but I would ask the employer why “what others do” is so important to them.  I think it’s another example of herd morality:  it’s a value set that is supposed to give less advantaged people a chance and incentive to have children. But it puts the employer or other authority figure in a position of being concerned not only that an adult take responsibility for the choices he/she has already made (to engage in acts that can produce children) but also that “outlier” people compete in their game and share the contingent responsibility for raising future generations.

Here’s an essay on old fashioned “Vatican” morality on my legacy site, dated 2006.

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Oh, how I remember that “old time religion” scene in the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind” (about the Scopes trial).  Bipartisan Report has an article saying “Before European Christians forced gender roles, native Americans acknowledged five genders.”

(Posted: Sunday, October 2, 2016, 11:15 PM EDT).

 

Do “herd effects” undermine libertarian concepts of morality?

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We’re used to the libertarian idea of “harmlessness”:  as long as our choices don’t harm others more or less directly, and as long as we pay our bills, we’re morally OK. Right?

For some things in life, there is indeed a herd effect.  (I’m reminded of the Nerd Herd in the NBC series “Chuck” and the “Buy More” box stores.)

The clearest example right now is probably the vaccine denial debate.  I accept the idea that overwhelming evidence suggests that all the major childhood vaccines are safe.  But, as a philosophical matter, I can’t rule out the idea that a particular vaccine in rare cases may increase the chances of some other problem, including autism.

So parents who don’t allow their kids to be vaccinated are benefiting (as are their kids) from the herd immunity of kids who are vaccinated.

That’s true somewhat for adults with flu shots.  But I think, if anything, there are good reasons for parents of college-age students to insist on both meningitis vaccines, especially the newer Type B (which is what is responsible for some of the horror stories of amputations).  In a dorm, herd immunity is even a more important concept.

In the posting Sept. 16, I noted the herd effect with HIV, and the way the right wing had tried to blow it up in the 1980s (especially in Texas) to mount a political attack on gay men.

With health insurance, there is a herd effect.  If presently healthy people have to purchase insurance, it is easier to cover the illnesses of the unluckly, and accidents (sometimes tragic, as baseball recently learned) do happen.  In the insurance business, the applicable concept is called “anti-selection”.

With gun possession, there is also a herd effect, and it works both ways.  With so many guns in circulation, it is very difficult in practice to keep weapons away from criminals (gangs, drug cartels, terrorists, and so on).  On the other hand, there is a reverse herd effect. If potential criminals believe that most of the homeowners in a neighborhood have legally licensed weapons, then the non-gun owners are safer, too.

(Posted on Tuesday, September 27, 2016 at 11 PM EDT)

ABC covers painful controversy over paying ransom to terrorists, or letting families do it privately

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Tonight, both ABC 20-20 and ABC Nightline approached the incredibly existential and sensitive topic of paying ransom to terrorists, especially whether families should be allowed to raise funds privately to do so. The broadcast was called “The Girl Left Behind” (detailed review on Blogger) and concerned the story of Kayla Mueller, kidnapped in Aleppo while working with Doctor’s Without Borders, and finally murdered by ISIS after an excruciating series of events.

Maybe the New York Times has the best answer for this dilemma, which only governments or states could implement, here, in an op-ed by David McAdams, Feb. 3, 2013.

The US government, of course, maintains that paying ransom can encourage more kidnapping overseas, as indeed it would. The State Department maintains that Americans should follow travel advisories closely, as it claims that one of the purposes of these warnings is to point out that the US government might not be able to protect “you” in certain hostile or less developed countries, especially those with dictatorship, war or conflict or religious intolerance (or sometimes abuse of specific populations, like LGBT).  Good questions come up, for example, with helping journalists covering conflicts and possibly living with or traveling with troops (which would presumably protect them).   Questions come up about the intrinsic value of normal diplomatic relations.  The government says that, short of an unlikely Special Forces rescue, there may be nothing it can do without endangering other Americans abroad. More recently, the Obama administrations seems to have intimated it will “look the other way” on privately funded ransom payments, which have been regarded as illegal. If they are allowed, in some circles private citizens could be pressured to participate against their own belief systems.

One other question would be, what happens if foreign enemies were to abduct people inside western countries (even inside the US).  Could ransom be offered then?  (Recently the government has said that it might be open to this in “sting” operations.)  This could become a dangerous development in the future.  It wouldn’t necessarily be confined to “radical Islamic terrorism”, to quote Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.  China has been known to abduct its own journalists in other countries, like Thailand.  Could this happen to Americans? Trump has indeed said, “China is not your friend.”

Still an opposite-leaning question is that major humanitarian organizations (like Doctors with0ut Borders) and sometimes faith-based groups send professionals or other young adults as volunteers into conflict-torn or unstable areas.  They could not send volunteers there if at least their own private supporters were not allowed to get them out.

(Published: Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016 at 1:30 AM EDT)