Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Webb Phillips Talks To Animals

I was just listening to “Dreams Never End” by New Order on the balcony, and I noticed a bird chirping away in the background. Suddenly, I realized that he was singing along in harmony, copying the rhythmic and melodic structure of the oft-repeated guitar line that forms the heart of the song. He did this just for one measure before returning to his species-typical calls. Admittedly, it was a one-sided conversation, since the prerecorded music never changed in response to the bird.

I immediately searched youtube for “birdsong” in order to attempt to communicate. He made a call. I played the video. He trailed off. Then I heard him start up again, more excited than before, so I paused the video to listen. Eventually he trailed off again, so I hit spacebar again to resume playback. After a few minutes, I became more able to sense when he was about to end a turn, and pause playback at the exact moment that he began his response. Instantaneous turn-taking often occurs in human communication.

Next I played the youtube video “R2D2 noises” for the songbird. He went wild and began to call back with increasing loudness and complexity until he became distracted or fatigued or offended by me not giving him his turn, and then he flew away. Belle & Sebastian’s “(My Girl’s Got) Miraculous Technique” seems to interest and excite him as well.

I contend that these methods will better lead to human understanding of avian communication than raising a bird in isolation and captivity and then training him to say, in English you stupid fucking bird!!, how many green squares there are on a tray, after which is receives a cracker. Birds love to communicate, and don't need human training or the saltine incentive if we just approach the problem with a little respect and humility for our fellow creatures. Having studied monkey behavior for seven years, it seems to me that the current scientific approach to animal communication is closer to this:

Kitten Paws at Frostie The Cockatoo Dancing Onscreen

Than to this:

Frostie Dances With Owner

Ok, so he rushes during the crescendos, but then again, who doesn't?


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Compromise on Abortion, Gay Marriage, Punishment, Inequality, Mideast Peace, and War

Modern societies are founded on the Enlightenment ideal of reason, and yet these societies are at least equal parts the product of tradition and instinct. We love our brother more than a stranger. We desire revenge against those who have wronged us. We wage war. There is nothing unnatural about any of this. Our close relatives the chimpanzees share all three of these characteristics with us, and according to the principle of evolutionary parsimony, our own proto-human ancestors likely did as well. It is important to remember, though, that just because something is, doesn’t mean it ought to be. Nature is amoral, survival of the fittest, hunters and hunted. Drawing moral lessons from what occurs in nature is a colossal mistake.

Of course, we too are a product of nature, and thus, by extension, so is everything we have ever thought or produced, from American Idol to the Ten Commandments. Which is not to say that there is no God, but if he really cared about human suffering, he surely would have flicked off Hitler’s head with His little finger and saved us all a lot of time and trouble. If God and nature are both off-limits, though, then we must look elsewhere for morality. We must (and regularly do) invent it ourselves.

Looking to the exquisite invention of human culture for moral lessons though can be even more misleading than looking to nature. Firstly, there is the problem of which culture to choose. There are many cultures in the world, each with different values, and the odds of being born into the one culture that happens to have achieved earthly perfection are therefore quite low. Add to this the fact that no human society we know about is without its flaws. Traditional cultures often brutalize women, children, and outsiders without reason. It is more difficult to see the flaws in one’s own culture, as self-knowledge in general is harder to face. Modern societies, though, for all their advantages, are still heavily influenced by cultural traditions. If actions are the product of beliefs, then it would appear for example that we believe it is just for one person to have several mansions and cars and boats and perhaps even a helicopter, while another has no food to eat, that it is just to expel outsiders for the crime of being born in the wrong place, and that it is just to invade other countries and kill people there on a mass scale.

Politics in the United States is highly polarized into Republican and Democratic voters. Neither party when it is in power has particularly appealing policies, and both are heavily influenced by special interests (e.g., J.P. Morgan; Haliburton; AIPAC). Democrats pay lip-service to the poor and middle-class, but do little to help their plight. Republicans are in some sense more honest: they pander to Christian fundamentalist voters, and once elected, actually do pass laws in accordance with these voters’ desire to return to that golden age when adulterous women were stoned to death and Quakers were burned at the stake for heresy. Defenders of well-reasoned positions, such as progressives (e.g., Sen. Bernie Sanders) and libertarians (e.g. Rep. Ron Paul), are highly marginalized. By the manufactured polarization of voters, elections are won and lost on relatively minor but sensitive issues, leaving leaders from both parties a free hand to wage wars of adventure and kill tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

Abortion is one such polarizing issue. According to many Christians, killing a fetus is taking a life, and it is not entirely obvious even from a non-religious perspective that they are incorrect about this. Regardless of the merits of their position, important elections are won and lost over this issue, while more important issues such as war receive less attention. Strange, considering that in the case of war, as opposed to abortion, there is universal consensus that taking life is necessarily involved. Abortion, though, is just one possible solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancies. I would like to propose another: give everyone free condoms and birth control, and encourage their use through public education. Many Christians would hate this idea. True, fundamentalists do view non-procreative sex as a sin, but I suspect a lesser sin than aborting a fetus. If free contraception for all comes at the price of banning abortion, they might consider it.

Gay marriage is another important issue where a compromise could enable voters to focus their attention on more life-and-death matters. It differs in some ways from the abortion issue, as being gay and married is hardly killing anyone. Still, there is value in compromise. Ban gay marriage to satisfy fundamentalists, but legalize gay domestic partnerships nationwide. This is a win-win solution, as Christians will feel that the sanctity of marriage is being protected, and gays will be accorded the same rights that straights currently enjoy, albeit under a different name.

Punishment, as it turns out, is a more difficult issue to address than either abortion or gay marriage. According to a recent Gallup poll, 53% of Americans support gay marriage, with 45% opposed. Similarly, 49% are pro-choice, and 45% pro-life. In contrast, a whopping 64% of Americans favor the death penalty (up from a low of 42% in 1966). Retribution runs deep in our culture, and is likely a part of human nature as well. The revenge instinct, if there is one, may have evolved as a way to scare others away from wronging us (e.g., Daly & Wilson, 1988; Cosmides & Tooby, 2000). Rehabilitation, on the other hand, does not offer the emotional satisfaction of revenge, but is clearly the more rational choice. Here is a compromise: allow victims to torture their assailants for a little while. Then, having satisfied the human desire for revenge, focus entirely on rehabilitating the offender. Imprisonment itself may be unnecessary: replace the jail cell with an electrified collar which tracks the wearer’s position at all times. Give all citizens the option of an electronic “criminal repellent” device which communicates with the collar to cause temporary immobility should the offender approach a free citizen too closely. Meanwhile, every effort should be taken to address the underlying causes of the offender’s bad behavior. When he is deemed ready, his collar can be removed (or not, depending on the level of risk to others).

Inequality is perhaps the major issue in human society, as other major issues, such as war, may arise from it. Rich people have a lot of wealth, and they want to keep it, too. This issue goes beyond poverty. A well-established phenomenon in psychology is relative deprivation (Runciman, 1972). Seeing someone else with more makes those with less unhappy. Relative deprivation may be the major cause of both unhappiness and criminal behavior. It is unquestionably very bad for society. Radical redistribution of wealth, or even the abolishment of the monetary system are two possible solutions, but neither is likely to come to pass any time soon. At present, Democrats and Republicans are embroiled in a debate over the budget. Republicans want to cut taxes and trim waste, whereas Democrats want to protect Medicare. Perhaps we can do both. Republican Congressman Ron Paul has proposed replacing the income tax with a national sales tax. This would eliminate loopholes as well as a massive amount of paperwork and bureaucracy; the 2012 IRS budget alone is nearly $13.3 billion. Progressives complain that such a policy does little to address inequality. Ron Paul has proposed a voucher system to address this issue, but this solution necessitates creating a new giant bureaucracy to distribute the vouchers. A better option would be to tax expensive items at a higher rate, and cheaper items at a lower rate. Essential items such as bread and eggs could even be “taxed” at a negative rate, that is, subsidized to the point of being nearly free. Free or nearly free food might also eliminate the need for food stamps. The cost of a Ferrari or a Yacht, on the other hand, might double. Harmful goods such as alcohol, tobacco, firearms, currently illegal drugs, and inefficient automobiles could be taxed at a higher rate to increase revenue and decrease consumption. Given all the loopholes in the current system, the super-rich will likely end up contributing more than they do now, not to mention the added benefit of removing the lure of income tax evasion, which may be training wheels for more serious forms of corruption and fraud.

Speaking of corruption and fraud, we need a solution to AIPAC’s (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) excessive influence on American foreign policy. This organization and others like it successfully lobby politicians and media outlets to generate an almost unimaginably pro-Israel bias in the U.S., both in terms of public perception and government policy. To cite just one example, the U.S. media almost never uses the word “occupation,” and many news sources have begun describing Israel’s thus far successful attempts to permanently colonize Palestinian territory in terms not of “settlements,” but “neighborhoods.” The U.S. government supports Israel both financially and in the U.N., and makes no serious effort to force Israel to make peace. It’s understandable why Israel would oppose peace. Israel is in the more powerful position, and so it is against its colonial interests to make peace with the Palestinians. The Palestinians, for their part, hate the Israelis and would have a hard time making peace as well. Clearly these are two groups of people who would both benefit from learning to live together as neighbors in peace. I suggest that Israel should be allowed to annex all Palestinian territories permanently, but at the same time, send in U.N. monitors to guarantee equal rights for Palestinians in the new Israel/Palestine, including the right to vote.

War is perhaps the greatest horror ever inflicted on humanity by itself. Although it’s history likely predates our own species (e.g., Wrangham & Peterson, 1997), we have perfected it, and on a mass scale. President Bush launched one war of revenge and another of adventure, and under President Obama, both wars have continued without abatement, not to mention the unofficial bombing wars in Pakistan and Libya. Rulers throughout history have used war to cling to power. Wartime presidents are perceived as more strong and capable, and then there is the fear that not reelecting them would reveal a lack of resolve to our enemies. But who are our enemies really? In the case of the destruction of the World Trade Center, evidence has accumulated suggesting that the true perpetrators of this mass-murder may not have been Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but rather, the Bush administration itself, committed in order to justify the premeditated invasion of Iraq. The organization Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth have pointed out that the towers collapsed in free-fall, which is indicative of controlled demolition, not airplane collision or fire. This includes Tower 7, which was never even struck by a plane, yet also mysteriously collapsed in free-fall. Firemen and police who were at the scene heard a rapid series of explosions just before each collapse, and in eyewitness video footage, windows exploding outwards are visible many floors below the burning planes. Finally, thermite and nano-thermite residue were found in the rubble and ash, two substances used in controlled demolitions.

Such an act is called a false flag operation, and has been used many times throughout history, including the burning of the Reichstag, which the Nazis blamed on their Communist rivals, enabling them to seize total control of Germany. The Nazis and the Bush administration are not the only entities to employ false flag operations, though. To cite just one example, the Johnson administration fabricated an attack on the USS Maddox by the North Vietnamese in the second Gulf of Tonkin Incident. This enabled President Johnson to secure permission from Congress to send troops to Vietnam. Unfortunately, the problem of false flag operations and the wars they lead to is the most difficult yet mentioned, as most people are unaware that governments, and more specifically, their own governments, perpetrate these acts. One unappealing compromise would be to make it much easier for presidents to go to war, while imposing strict limits on the scale of these wars. This would remove some of the incentive to use a false flag operation to garner support from Congress to go to war. A better solution would be to educate and inform Americans well enough that they can see through such antics. A third would be to radically increase government transparency. Make every conversation any public official ever has available to all via the internet. A security risk, to be sure, but then again, isn’t attacking your own people and invading other countries a greater risk?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Dutch-American Relations

It feels good to have showered. At this past weekends' festival a drunk man upended danced into my full glass of beer, which spilled all over me. Luckily, Jan had predicted that this would happen, and thus had equipped me with an old corduroy coat to wear. Mm. I'm going to have to wash these jeans though. Yes, I am wearing pants. I never expected life to be so hard.

Or easy, sometimes. I had to stay home from work today to wait for a very important package to arrive. It is a delicate electronic device known as an electroencephalograph. With it, I will be able to detect the patterns in brain waves that correspond to entertaining different mental states. Muhuhahaha! I think this might be the musical instrument of the future. Or at least the harmonica for the hand-brain coordination emphysemic (I'm speaking of course of those unfortunate aspiring musicians who have flippers for hands, metaphorically speaking). Brain oscillations can be translated by computer from electromagnetic waves into sound waves, and thus the deliberate manipulation of ones own brain waves by conscious will could be used to create a theremin-like device. I estimate it will take me only 10 hours of training, spread over two weeks, to train my brain to be able to modulate pitch and volume. Changing the timbre of the instrument would also be another useful control. Multiple simultaneous notes might be beyond the range of this technology. The real question is, once we take the stage, what do we do with our hands? Tambourine? I can see the newspaper advertisements now for the Phillips Theremin. The Encephalotron! The Brainophone! I seem to be full of get rich quick schemes these days.

So just before I got doused, I was having this conversation with a random Dutch guy, and it went like this: Him: "Statements that are generally applicable are more useful to think because they apply to more situations." Me: "Circularity is circular." I've been living in The Netherlands for five months now, and I have yet to feel fully culturally acclimated. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that almost every Dutch person speaks almost perfect English. But when I'm a crowd of people and everyone in it is speaking a language I don't yet understand I feel somewhat out of place. Many expat conversations involve complaining about Dutch culture, which I think is just poor assimilation + sour grapes. It would be interesting to do a study of the implicit attitudes of foreigners here who learn or do not learn Dutch. Uh oh, I fear I've bullshitted my way into a corner.