Dysfunction in America

The outsize power wielded by the court in 2022 derives from a political system that struggles to strike compromises. Lining up a majority in the House, 60 votes in the Senate (to override a filibuster) and a presidential signature is too hard. It is easier for politicians to fundraise off controversy rather than solve problems. Time and again on the thorniest questions—carbon-dioxide emissions, gay marriage, guns, abortion—Congress has failed to reflect public opinion.

From How to save the Supreme Court [] published by The Economist, May 7th 2022

How could congress reflect public option? No one who is willing to compromise can get elected, anyone in congress who does compromise is likely to get voted out by rabid extremist voters or big-money donors; no one serves because it’s a duty, politics is a career these days, re-election, not conviction, is the point of every vote. So congress is impotent on any topic that might stir controversy. Delivering to you rabid extremists base that votes in primaries means all or nothing, usually nothing because the 50/50 national split means no one can overcome the filibuster so you can only deliver by subterfuge: stacking the court or governing via presidential decree.

Rather than actually debating, discussing and designing solutions to the problems that plague the US congress is busy with twiddle their thumb no action, all talk softball games like investigating UFOs [].

The system is broken. It’s supposed to be self healing but we seem to have broken that too. We found a way to incentivize our leaders to spend their time demonizing these that disagree with them and running for the extremes. We’ve made democracy in to a zero-sum game; all or nothing, I win you lose, my way or the highway. No more let’s find a solution we can all agree on, rising tides float all boats, compromise for progress.

I’d say it was time to have a top-to-bottom review of the system, some sort of new constitutional convention, or citizens committee, to review and clean up all the cruft that has built up in almost 250 years, to rebalance the system and find a way to make it work better… in fact this would be a great initiative for that upcoming anniversary. But we would just elect the same self-serving, all-or-nothing extremists blow hards and without a shared sense of purpose and people willing to discuss and compromise for the greater good the in-power party would just use the opportunity to fuck the world and get it’s pet desires all-or-nothing style.

Maybe a simple change like ranked choice voting would allow people to be elected who actually reflected the views of the majority or felt they could compromise. But it’s hard to imagine elected officials who know how to game the current system change the rules in any way that might disfavor them.

In short; I don’t see how the people and their elected representatives can fix the problem that plague the US government today, because the people and their elected representatives, are the problem.

quotes ranting

The Why

I’m an atheist … [t]his means I follow a well-thought moral code religiously, because it is very personal and meaningful to me—having deeply understood why I follow it; not because someone wearing a robe told me I should.

Tom Murphy, in Human Exceptionalism [], posted on Do the Math

I too am and atheist, and I too follow a moral code that, I think, is well through out. I think most people don’t take the time to think about, to examine what they think is fundamentally important, what is right and wrong and why they make decisions the way they do. What are the axioms of their beliefs? Where did those axioms come from and do they think those axioms are the right ones? Most importantly, are they actually following them in their personal and political life?

At it’s core it’s an old idea, going back to Socrates; the unexamined life is not worth living []. There is a lot of Kant [] and Singer [] in my answers to those questions (it’s telling that I have posted about two books by Singer here on Confusion; Practical Ethics [] and Animal Liberation []) and a bit of the Dalai Lama [].

I don’t think people necessarily need to read famous philosophers to examine their moral code, but I do think that exposure to different thoughts is a good way to understand your own moral compass and to help you think about it. I think studying and reading western ethics was important for me, but it was equally important studying eastern religions and philosophy. If you only know one line of moral thinking then how can you evaluate it what can you compare it to? The most important bit is the Socratic method, having someone to challenge you and just ask the right questions to help guide you.

I grow up in “middle America”, meaning a predominantly white, Anglo Saxon, Protestant America where the common moral framework was a Christian one informed by a Protestant work ethic and ideals of independence and self-reliance. Despite growing up in that environment I’ve always been an atheist, I never attended church or any other religious institution. Neither of my parents were church going having stopped attending church when they were young; my grandparents on both sides had fallen out with their churches over something and they stopped attending church.

My first introductions, at least that I can remember, to anything specifically religious were both in school; in the 4th grade Ms. Ackerman taught us about Chanukah, I learned what a dreidel was, though there was no moral or ethical teaching, only a high level “its a holiday of the Jewish faith” and some basic info on the menorah, traditional foods and games. My first insight into a larger world of religion.

Then, in the 5th grade, Ms. Venning started the day (actually I can’t remember if it was daily or weekly) with reading from The Bible Story [] books. I think she was reading stories from Genesis, I vaguely remember she read about Noah and the flood. But very quickly some parent must have complained and she had to stop. I remember her siting in front of the the class and explaining why she had to stop. That people had different religions and that since the Bible was part of a specific religion it was not supposed to be taught in school, that was for church. My first introduction to separation of church and state. I can’t imagine how this whole thing would go down today…

So no strong religious background, no preachers telling me what morals were. I guess I learned from imitating my parents and TV. I never though about it. Of course you don’t have to make many moral judgements as a kid. There was no discussion about the morals or ethics of things. The one thing that might have been a place for a discussion was during the first Iraq war – Desert Shield and Desert Storm. War should be a place to discuss morals and ethics, but I don’t think it came up. Too busy dealing with the fact of my mother being recalled to active Naval duty and therefore being away from home for almost a year. And also getting caught up in the patriotism to some degree, you could not escape Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and yellow ribbons on cars and lapels.

My real journey of self-examination started, like I think many people’s does, in college. I started to learn about ethics and morals in two classes in my freshman year; introduction to philosophy an a survey of eastern religions. Those classes gave me some background and information but self-examination and an understanding of morals started specifically in another class and because of one teacher.

The teacher was Marietta McCarty [] at the local community collage. I took her class because it was highly recommended by two of my best friends at the time who were older, J███ and D██ of fish store fame. I was working at the fish store with J███ and D██ was a frequent visitor/customer. Even beyond class Marietta became a key presence in our circle of friends; dinners and scrabble at her house were a thing. We named the corner of the store where an old coffee table, chair and sofa were set up the “philosophy corner” and we had many a discussion with and without Marietta about ethics and morals and other philosophical topics, along side a lot of nonsense that a bunch of young guys talk about too.

It was because of Marietta’s class that I read Practical Ethics, [] for the first time and then Animal liberation []. In class but more often over hearty dinners, or a game of scrabble, and in the philosophy corner on slow days we discussed moral and ethical dilemmas; racism, and speciesism; the death penalty and inequality; euthanasia, abortion and gun control.

Hard questions were asked and debated; do you believe in the sanctity of human life? What about life in general? Why should human life be precious? Is it because God said so? How do you assign a value to a life? Is your family more important than strangers? Does age make a difference —is a child’s life more important than an old person? Why?

Is war every justifiable? When? Is patriotism any batter than racism?

Is being rich moral? How much better off than others do you have to be for it to be a moral sin to not donate money and time to helping others? Is capitalism and spending morally defensible while hunger and poverty persists in the world?

How can you be pro-life and pro-death penalty? If you have enough money to meet your needs and those of your family do you have a moral duty to volunteer your time or donate your excess wealth to charities helping those less fortunate than you?

I spent a lot of time thinking about these and debating different answers with my friends. Later when I was full time in George Mason I continued the discussions with new friends. And again while in London.

After college it was harder. People were less interested in hard discussions about morals or ethics; I didn’t work with people who wanted to ‘change the world’. Sure there were some people who could and would talk about such deep thoughts but most people out of college barely wanted to discuss the news in depth much less their reasons for why they reacted to stories in the way they did.

It’s been incredibly hard to keep myself surrounded by people who want to have these type of discussions. I am glad that I had the chance, the opportunity to spend so much time on it and develop a firm view. I think it has faded over time and maybe it’s time to revisit my core beliefs again, what you believe changes as you experience life so reexamination is as important as that first examination.

I suspect that many people out there, railing against things they don’t understand or disagree with on social media don’t understand their own belief systems. It’s not inherently wrong to have a view of the world based on your religion or the ideals of your home country, but to blindly try and apply those rules to everyone and everything when you don’t understand why these rules are your rules, is as wrong as “just following orders”. Blindly following some vaguely understood set of moral or ethical rules that often conflict themselves is no better than anyone who was “just following orders”. The culture wars are driven by people with agendas not ideals who are giving orders, but they are fought by everyday people trying to impose moral and ethical views because someone has told them that others views are incompatible with theirs, not because they themselves have though for themselves. Without understanding ourselves, how can we ever understand others? Without understanding others, how can we live together in any kind of peace?

Featured image uses The Death of Socrates [] by Jacques-Louis David, photo from Wikimedia Commons. Book covers from Goodreads [].

quotes ranting

Trust no one?

That’s the problem with technology, isn’t it? For every potential good use, there are at least several pain-inducing, criminal-pleasing, world-ending uses. Too often, the bad outweighs the good, especially in the public eyes and ears…. You can completely understand why [she] used the AirTag in the way she did. This whole tale makes me wonder, though, what we’ve come to and where we’re going…. If our default is that we can trust no one and fear everyone, how can we ever really get along?

Chris Matyszcyk, in She didn’t trust her movers. A single AirTag proved she was right [], published on ZDNet

I disagree that “too often, the bad outweighs the good, especially in the public eyes and ears”. Too often the public buys the benefits without much thought as to the bad until it’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle. We have given up our privacy and anonymity bit by bit to enjoy little pleasures without understanding where we are going. Maybe we don’t trust each other, but we trust big companies and government more than we should.

I don’t agree with the conspiracy theory nut jobs and anti-government types. They are too delusional and fighting the government over privacy while they are in bed with private companies that track their every movement and record their every word. They don’t want to protect everyone’s privacy, they just want the government to leave them to do as they please; that’s not how a society works. All social contracts involve giving up something to have a functioning society. Anarchy is not a social contract.

But, there is something to their concerns, a kernel of truth, —more than a kernel— to their paranoia about their privacy. The cameras on the street see you; you carry a tracker in your pocket all day; at home your smart speakers are listening. Anonymous AI algorithms match your face against shadowy databases gathered from social media or state agencies. Anonymity, from actors both public and private, evaporated long ago. We give up our anonymity online and in the real world to get free content and services, and paid for it with out anonymity and, possibly, our security.

The convenience and efficiency gained by letting the government link you across it’s vast bureaucracy is addictive or, at least, easy to fall for, things just work. It’s easy to see how you benefit. Free services that cost only your identity, your location or your contacts to be hovered up by big corporations to be mined for their profit and benefit. It seems like a good deal when you don’t see what you are giving up for a few cents off that purchase. Until it’s not. No human institution is every far enough to from repression and despotism. We should be mindful of what we are giving up or the value of our data and how it can be used and abused.

Orwell, Dick, Gibson, Stephenson and so many others warned us. It’s a good thing there are people out there who care enough everyone’s privacy to do more then just write a blog post…


That’s not how religion works

[W]e have religions centered around this thing, and we have no idea how it works

Brian Hare, quoted in Detailed Footage Finally Reveals What Triggers Lightning [], published by Quanta Magazine.

Isn’t that what religion is for? Who are these lightening worshippers? And will an detailed, scientific explanation put an end to their lightning religion? Even if we were not in the midst of a neo-dark age filled with people who mistrust science, but I doubt it. That’s not how religion works.

Featured image uses screen grab from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, © Lucasfilm Ltd., and this image [] from msim1238, CC BY 2.0

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Thank You for Scrolling

Engagement is not a synonym for good mental health.

James Mickens, quoted in Facebook’s success was built on algorithms. Can they also fix it? [] on

It’s true, I checked my thesaurus (though engagement is a synonym for battle, conflict or confrontation which is maybe more relevant). Should it be? Who is responsible for ensuring good mental health? Is it the responsibility of Facebook, or other social media, to promote things that will improve, or at the least not damage, their users mental health? I don’t think so, in fact this is potentially at odds with their responsibilities.

Facebook and other social media companies do have a clear responsibility, as public companies, to make as much profit as they can which they do by selling ads. Remember, you are the product []. To sell ads they need people engaged with the platform(s) to show ads to. The higher the “engagement” i.e. how long you spend scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, the more ads a user sees. So, if doomscrolling [] is the best way to get more eyeballs on ads, Facebook (and Twitter, and other social media companies) will inevitably start to optimize for doomscrolling. Using negative or shocking content to sell is nothing new; “if it bleeds, it leads”. Like everything the scale and speed has grown exponentially thanks to tech.

And they know it is causing harm:

[Frances] Haugen revealed internal documents from Facebook that show the social network is aware that its “core product mechanics, such as virality, recommendations and optimizing for engagement, are a significant part” of why hate speech and misinformation “flourish” on its platform.

Rachel Metz, writing in Facebook’s success was built on algorithms. Can they also fix it? [] on

Facebook’s internal research agrees; in it’s current form Facebook (and by extension social media) is bad for us. Bad for us like smoking is bad for us. Bad for individuals and for society. Smoking is an informative analogy here. The tobacco industry hid their internal research that showed they were causing harm for decades. It was not in their interest to tell people “we are, literally, killing you.” So they buried their own science, and spent decades pushing back on anyone who claimed smoking was bad. Advertising the “health benefits” of smoking even when their own research that showed smoking was deadly.

The tobacco companies didn’t make any efforts to improve; they spent money to lobby the government to ensure it didn’t try to force them to improve and reduce their ability to mint money. It took decades for the government and the public to catch up with tobacco. And people still smoke, but we’ve taken (some) steps to try and reduce the impact on society as a whole and regulated who can smoke and where you can smoke.

A key difference between the tobacco industry and social media is we are seeing the internal damning research much earlier.

So, how can it be fixed? If society wants to change social media then i doubt relying on the “good intentions” of companies is going to result in any change. Apologies to activist shareholders but no mater what companies say about corporate social responsibility it’s a nice to have. They can drop, or ignore, or lie and cheat about these things the moment it affects their bottom line. What they can’t ignore is laws and regulations (at least not without en curing real penalties that they care about).

[Change] would require pressure from advertisers whose dollars support these platforms. But in her testimony, Haugen seemed to bet on a different answer: pressure from Congress.

Rachel Metz, writing in Facebook’s success was built on algorithms. Can they also fix it? [] on

By “pressure from Congress” I assume the author means laws and regulation. Regulation is a bad word for many people, especially on the right and a bit of a wonder drug for many on the left. So expect a long fight over it, even if both sides agree that “Facebook needs to be regulated” they disagree over what aspect needs to be regulated. The republicans think Facebook is censoring them, the democrats say Facebook is radicalizing the republicans.

Wikipedia’s article on Regulatory Economy [] says The ideal goal of economic regulation is to ensure the delivery of a safe and appropriate service, while not discouraging the effective functioning and development of businesses. This is why we have regulations on things like food and drugs, or more specific classes like alcohol and tobacco.

What would regulations on social media look like? Facebook and Twitter already have warning labels on some things, elections and COVID19 vaccines:

Which, back to our Tobacco analogy, is familiar. Way back in 1965 the Congress in the US passed a law requiring cigarettes to have a warning: “CAUTION: CIGARETTE SMOKING MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH.”

Didn’t stop people from smoking.

There are minimum age restrictions on who can smoke. And Facebook also has a minimum age for who can signup, set at 13. But 13 would seem to be too low if teenagers are developing mental health issues due to Instagram content and it’s easy to get around. Maybe they should require a real world ID to register…

There are also restrictions on advertising tobacco… which, I think, amounts to preventing tobacco companies from sponsoring events and from advertisements directed towards under-aged people. Not sure it’s so relevant here; when was the last time you saw an ad for Facebook?

Maybe better enforcement of the age restrictions is something that can be done. But I think the tobacco regulations can only help so much since the industries are just to different. Tobacco companies sell a standard product to people while social media sells people to advertisers and the content that brings people to the platform is user generated. Facebook and Twitter can slap warning labels on things as fast as their AIs can detect the content but it’s hard to imagine a world were it’s as accurate or efficient as labels on cigarette packages. There are too many topics and too many ways for people to work around the AI. It’s an arms race and unless we want to put all social media behind a new version of the Great Firewall [] it’s an unwinnable race.

In the end I have not seen any proposals for regulating Facebook that seems like they actual address the issue. It will be interesting to see the coming fights between the industry and congress and the public. If it gets too depressing, go watch Thank You for Smoking [], it’s hilarious and it’s relevant.