Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Robots Are Coming...

"In the lab of Hod Lipson, an expert in evolutionary robotics at Cornell, graduate students have created two computers that can speak to each other.  The 'male' computer speaks with a slight British accent, the 'female' with a syncopated Indian voice.  And what do robots say to each other?

"'What is God to you?' the female robot asks.
"'Not everything,' the male responds.
"'Not everything could still be something.'
"'Very true.'
"'I would like to believe it is.'
"'Do you believe in God?'
"'Yes, I do.'
"'Don't you want to have a body?'

The above is taken from an article, "Only Human - The evolution of a flawed species," by Tim Flannery in the December 2014 issue of Harper's Magazine.

"Surely," he writes, "Lipson's two robots could not be called human, but their fabricated 'minds' speak to each other out of learned experience.  The generation of machines envisioned by Lipson may be far more capable that this--they may, he believes, have their own emotions informed by direct contact with the world."

The question Flannery raises in this article and the question which has begged for an answer for so long is:  "What does it mean to be human?"

Maybe the robots can tell us?

Note:  The above photo was taken from an article about teaching robots (10 Hardest Things To Teach a Robot") here.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Secularism and the so-called War on God, Christians and Christmas

If you check out websites of the Christian Right, you will be inundated with articles complaining about the "war" on God, or the "war" on Christians, or how "liberals" and secularism have stymied Christians so they can no longer freely practice their beliefs.  And at this time of year, they whine about the non-existent "war" on Christmas.

The authors of these websites bellyache about how we are rapidly becoming a "secular" society, and that secularism is taking over our government, and that secularism is akin to atheism, and the God will punish America mightily for this terrible perversion.  One wingnut is certain that our secularism has set the apocalypse in motion and the antichrist on his way!

It is true that religion is becoming less popular in the United States as it is in many other countries around the world.  As the years go by, more and more Americans are opting out of religious affiliation and religious belief.

But there is no substance to the notion that secularism has made it impossible for Christians to profess or practice their faith.  Religious Right whackos screech over and over that there is no separation of church and state in our Constitution.  Rick Santorum, the dodo from Pennsylvania, said recently that separation of church and state is a Communist idea!  But the fact remains:  The Constitution does insist that there be a separation of Church and State, no matter what these misfits would like to think.

As to the belief that secularism is guilty of denying Christians the right to live their faith, the reality is something else.   Christians actually have enough power in many areas to violate the Constitution in numerous ways:  providing private/church school with taxpayer dollars; conducting prayers at public meetings; placing religious posters in public squares; establishing a "faith" office in the White House; demanding that their right to practice their religion means they can deny you your right to believe and practice what you wish, as is portrayed perfectly in the Hobby Lobby case.

Secularism is a terrible thing, according to the Christian Right.  But there's some confusion about what the word means, and it is often used wrongly.

Sam Harris recently conducted an interview with Phil Zuckerman, "a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California.  He has written a number of books dealing with the "secular" life, such as "Faith No More," and "Society Without God."  Zukerman has a blog at Psychology Today called "The Secular Life."

During the course of the interview, Zuckerman clarified "three terms that are closely related, but also distinct."  The one on which I'll focus is "secularism."  Central to understanding this term is the last three letters:  "ism."  "It implies ideology.  Social movement.  Political agenda.  How things 'ought' to be."

Generally, the Religious Right identifies secularism wrongly with atheism.  And that sends them up the wall.  But that's not what it means.  And this is most important for our country today:  Zuckerman says,

In this country ...  "we've primarily got good, old-fashioned Jeffersonian secularism, which at root is nothing more than the ideology or political position that church and state ought to be separate and that government ought to be as neutral as possible when it comes to religion in the public square.  This version of secularism is basically anti-theocracy-ism (or what used to be called disestablishmentarianism).  It is an ideology that is often embraced by both religious and secular people.  And it most definitely is not the same thing as 'atheism.'  In this instance, 'secularism' is a political or ideological position concerning the relationship between government and religion (keep them separate!), whereas 'atheism' is a personal absence of belief in gods."

In dialogue (when possible) with the religious right, we need to call them on their attempt to conflate any position different than their own with a "secularism" by which they mean atheism.  At that point, then, anyone who disagrees with them must also be an atheist.

From the onset "secularism" has been the basis of our government.  We are not and should never be, a theocracy!  Religion may play a role in the lives of our citizens, but does not play a role in our government.  And that's precisely what has the Religious Right up in arms.  In their hatred and fear of "secular" and "secularization," they attack "secularism" and insist their religious beliefs be granted a special status, that this country be defined as a "Christian" nation, and that a theocracy of sorts be established in Washington!

It's a con game.  Any time they are forced to bow to the secularism of our country, they cry foul and whine about being persecuted.  The fact is, they don't want to play by the rules.  There is no war on God or Christians or Christmas or any other religion or religious belief.  They make up this crap in order to confuse the issue and thus insinuate their theocratic leanings into the various structures of our political system.

You can read the entire interview here.

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George W. Bush, War Criminal, Tries to Make Amends

The latest issue of Golf Digest includes an article titled, "The Healing Power of Golf," by Jerry Tarde, the Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of Golf Digest.

It's no secret that many professional golfers are rabid Republicans, some being on the ultra-right side of things, as well as claiming to be "born-again," fundamentalistic Christians.  The latter often praise their god when they win a tournament (cf. Zach Johnson at the Masters), hold prayer meetings during the week, and talk about how Jesus helps them during their difficult times.

In light of those facts, it's not surprising that Mr. Tarde saw fit to interview former president George W. Bush.  George, as you may remember, is also a rabid Republican and talked about God a lot.  He's been "born again," and claimed God wanted him to become president!

But Mr. Tarde also wanted to talk to George about the golf.  Golf and the Bushes are friends of long-standing.   Bush showed Mr. Tarde a picture of his most recent painting of three old caddies who had caddied for his grandfather, his father, and himself.  "Golf runs deep in the Bush clan," saith Mr. G.W. Bush.

The interview took place in Dallas where Bush was holding forth at the "Warrior Open golf event for wounded veterans and active servicemen who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It's part of the Bush Institute's Military Service Initiative."  Thus Golf Digest is "honoring him this month as a Golfer Who Gives Back."

This is just plain weird!  It is eerie!  Bush says, "I feel a special kinship for our military, because, unfortunately, I became a wartime president."

Oh, barf!  There's nothing wrong and a lot right with helping our wounded veterans and those in active service, so long as we don't make heroes out of people merely because they wore a uniform or got themselves shot.

But does Golf Digest not see the irony?  Bush didn't somehow, "accidentally," become a "wartime president" as he implies.  Iraq and Afghanistan did not just "happen" when he was president.  He was the chief liar, and the chief warmonger who instigated this country's unnecessary and unprecedented wars of aggression which killed over 4,000 of our soldiers and wounded many thousands more; which killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, leaving Iraq a pile of rubble and destroying whatever political stability that country had!  And it's not over yet.  In fact, in some ways, the horror may be just beginning.

Bush, as we know, lied about WMDs.  He ignored warnings during the summer of 2001 that terrorists were planning to use airlines in an attack on our country.  Then, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Bush not only forbade the FBI from interviewing Saudis in this country, but provided the means for them to flee to Saudi Arabia asap.  Why?  Did he know from the beginning that almost all of the terrorists were Saudi Arabians?  Or was it just because for years the Bush family has been in bed with the Saudis?

And let's not forget Bush's own military record and what a joke that was.  He cried to Daddy who pulled strings so he could avoid going to Vietnam.  Then, instead of completing his commitment to military service, Bush used his connections to play politics and stay out of harm's way.

It seems likely that Bush uses the Bush Institute's Military Service Initiative as a sop to ease his guilty conscience.

What really sinks my boat, though, is how Tarde fawns over this war criminal who authorized the use of torture.  Bush, he says, like the wounded warriors, uses golf as a "restorative power," whatever that means in his case.  George feels badly about sending all these people into harm's way.  But, hey, he's playing the best golf of his life!  Yeah!  He plays with Lee Trevino and David Graham even.

Tarde mentions that Bush's "handlers" refused to let him ask Bush about "President Obama continuing to play golf under withering criticism in contrast with Bush's decision not to play in his second term."   In that mention you get a sense of Golf Digest's political leanings.  And you get a sense of Bush's mindset when he says he "chose not to play because my view was I could find other ways to be myself, like mountain biking.  And I didn't want to send a signal to mothers whose sons were in combat that while they were sacrificing, I was on the golf course.

It wouldn't matter to me what the hell Bush did in his 2nd term.  Not playing golf doesn't bring back all the dead or heal the wounded.  Not playing golf doesn't wash the blood dripping from his hands.  Not playing golf does not somehow absolve him from responsibility.

So far as criticism of Obama's golf:  It's true, he has played more golf than Bush did.  But he's taken only one-third as many vacations as did Bush.  To catch up with George, Obama would have to take 879 days of vacation between now and the end of his 2nd term.  Bush, as you recall, ran off to his Texas ranch at every opportunity!

In the end, George W. Bush is a war criminal and should have been sentenced to prison, along with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.  One of President Obama's big failings in my opinion, was to forgo charging this triad with war crimes and putting them on trial.

No one, including Mr. Tarde of Golf Digest, should be promoting this criminal and his nonsense even if he is, belatedly, trying to "give back" something to those who somehow survived his monstrous decision and need to become a "wartime president."

Let him do it anonymously and penitentially, for no good deeds can ever make up for the misery he unleashed on this country and the Middle East.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Bachmann called a rally and (almost) nobody came

This from Daily Kos:

Michele Bachmann (you do remember her, right?), just after the President notified the world he intended to issue an executive order to halt the deportation of illegal immigrants, went on FAUX News to issue her own "executive order" - a call for a rally to protest the president’s “illegal” action.

“I’m calling on your viewers to come to DC on Wednesday, December 3," she said, "at high noon on the west steps of the Capitol.  We need to have a rally, and we need to go visit our senators and visit our congressman, because nothing frightens a congressman like the whites of his constituents’ eyes … “

Dontcha just love the phrase “whites of his constituents’ eyes”?  So cute.  

And dontcha just love the assumption that all the viewers of FAUX News hate the Kenyan Usurper in Chief so much they’d drop everything and head to D.C.?

And dontca think this is a pretty good example of why “fair and balanced” can never be applied to FAUX Nexs, because FAUX News is nothing more than an organ in service to the ultra right SOBs trying to screw our country.

The story ends this way:  Nobody showed up at Bachmann’s rally.  Well, that’s not quite true.  Two other wingnuts with screws loose - Ted Cruz and Steve King were there, along with about 40 other “protestors.”

So, Bachmann settled for a press conference. 

A quote from Daily Kos, “I guess when you lose a presidential primary and decide to leave Congress, you lose some of that special sparkle.  But Bachmann’s level of celebrity also has to have been hurt by the ever-increasing competition she faces in the flagrantly inane extremism category.”

I think “inane” is not quite the right word.  Batshit crazy is more appropriate.