Foibles in Finding Fault

ABC-15, Phoenix, via Associated Press

A driverless car hit a woman who was walking her bicycle across a street at night. Numerous articles, some less useful than others, but also some more helpful to a better understanding, describe this incident. For example, in order of increasing technical detail,

Police In Arizona Release Dashcam Video Of Fatal Crash Involving Self-Driving Car

Self-Driving Uber Car Kills Pedestrian in Arizona, Where Robots Roam

How a Self-Driving Uber Killed a Pedestrian in Arizona

Uber Self-Driving Car Fatality Reveals the Technology’s Blind Spots

I have tried to find articles that do not center on or advance irresponsible histrionics, egregious ideological bias, or insulting, simplistic thinking. Critical thinking matters, especially when people’s lives are at stake.

Given the infancy of driverless vehicle technology, how significant is this incident? All knowledgeable observers have been expecting, and dreading, that something like this would happen. Now that it has, how do we put this in a context that makes sense? That is helpful? That is at least somewhat productive for society? Certainly, snap judgments and scapegoating are the opposite. So let’s first consider a few facts.

According to the CDC, in 2015 (latest official U.S. mortality data) the lower bound on the number of pedestrians killed by people-driven cars was 5,719. Another 17,008 were killed by ‘unspecified’ means involving motor vehicles, so the real number is probably higher than 5,719. Another 8313 vehicle occupants died in accidents, cars killed 4,431 motorcyclists, 675 bicyclists, and 15 ‘other’. Of necessity, those are all lower bounds as well. The total number of motor vehicle deaths in the U.S. in 2015 was therefore 36,161. Further, 94% of traffic accidents are due to human error (i.e., insufficiently sound judgment).

However, the number of driverless cars on the road is as yet statistically minuscule, and the miles driven under realistic circumstances even more statistically minuscule. So any direct comparison is invalid in the absence of substantially further data and more discriminating data measures (such as number of fatal accidents per mile driven) with which to compare. The significance of this incident, for now, lies elsewhere.

In the immediate aftermath of this unfortunate and terrible accident, many of us have several questions in common: what might have gone wrong? Where should we look for correctable fault? With whom should we lay blame? Is attempting to lay blame on someone even useful, to anybody? I would argue that the answer to that last question, at least, is easy and should be obvious: no. The situation is complicated in several arenas (technical, political, psychological, among probably others), with many confounding factors. So, based on experience if nothing else, we know it is likely there are no easy or quick answers. Certainly, simplistic thinking is neither productive nor beneficial.

With regard to the political context…. As so often has happened in the past couple of decades, we could again be looking at the sad, unnecessary consequences of conservative values enacted as irresponsible and reckless public policy: private profits tend to matter more than people’s lives. But that is an entirely separate, infuriating, and thoroughly expletive-laden subject. Here, let us choose not to go there.

With regard to sensors, the Wikipedia article on driverless cars sheds some light but, surprisingly, not much:

Typical sensors include lidar, stereo vision, GPS and IMU.[42] Visual object recognition uses machine vision including neural networks.

The last two journalistic articles linked above are more helpful. In this context, “vision” can mean optical or infrared or both (and/or even some other wavelength range, such as radar). I would have been utterly shocked if these systems did not use both IR and optical sensors. It’d surely be the height of both stupidity and irresponsibility if they did not. It is worth pointing out that engineers are not stupid, and rarely irresponsible, while corporate upper management sometimes is — and politicians almost certainly can be counted on being — both stupid and the epitome of irresponsibility. Given the current apparently poor regulation in this area, I suppose stupidity and irresponsibility are therefore potentially viable likelihoods, despite the no doubt multiple layers of safety protocols that smart people, down at the technical levels inside the companies, have nevertheless managed to put in place despite upper-level idiots (if any).

If this particular car was outfitted with both visible and IR sensors (lidar would necessarily be IR in this context), then the fault must be either 1) with the chosen sensor sensitivities, the chosen sensor ranges, or the chosen sensor fields of view, or some combination thereof; or 2) within the AI decision assessment of the filtered and cleaned input signals; or 3) some combination of both. That’s it; those are the options. Yes, it’s complicated.

(I’m assuming there was not a sensor failure, which would be both a manufacturing testing and reliability fault as well as a redundancy failure in the design. This is a different topic I won’t address here, but at this point it’s also a possibility.)

Indeed, as we learn from the articles above, this vehicle used optical, IR, and radar sensors, as one would reasonably and correctly think should be the case. Whether or not the production design had been recklessly limited to just optical wavelengths — I find it unthinkably unlikely that any significant U.S. company would be that self-destructively reckless, but suppose so anyway — then you must arguably add, and otherwise could reasonably add, a fourth potential likelihood: the fault lies foremost with a cost/safety trade-off decision or series of decisions that some fucking idiot in a position of overriding power might have made — undoubtedly (if this even happened) over the vehement objections of the design engineers and other technical experts. Trade off decisions are ultimately subjective assessments, whether wisely made or not, therefore a thick morass of difficulties and ambiguities. (As an aside, optical-only would be, and many other potential technical shortcomings could be, a direct consequence of allowing privatization in the absence of regulation of technological advances, in spite of all the obvious public risks. Ayn Rand was a fucktard and an awful human.)

But here’s the point I wish to make: either way, the woman who was struck and killed was NOT at fault, no matter how careless or distracted she may or may not have been in that terrible moment. Keep in mind that we can never really know her state of mind or level of distractedness anyway. The available data are insufficient for attempting any such assessment, even if it could have been useful (it is not). But even so that judgment, however tempting for some people when emotions run high, is not relevant. In addition, it is not relevant that she was not at a cross walk; those exist to primarily to counter (or, rather, partly contain) human driver error. Nor is it relevant that it was dark instead of broad daylight: a paucity of optical photons does not affect two of the three sensor wavelength ranges, while optical sensors that are extremely sensitive at low light levels are a well-established and inexpensive technology. It even is not relevant that the safety driver was provably distracted and then failed to react and take control. None of these are relevant if a fatal fault lies further up the precedence hierarchy.

I watched the video clip of the incident, compiled from on-board optical cameras, several times. It is crystal clear to me that this accident should never have happened, because first and foremost something either is or went wrong (or is at least insufficiently comprehensive, therefore still wrong) with the sensor design, or the sensor data analysis software (this is where noise filtering takes place), or the software decision module (the machine learning and AI part), or — and this I think is most likely — some combination of those. Even if every reasonable precaution had been allowed — and we all know that every precaution engineers deemed necessary and reasonable very likely was not allowed, for a variety of reasons (some good, some bad) — this still is where the fault lies that we should all care most about right now. It is a complex system operating in a complex, time-variable setting, and somewhere therein lies a problem, a bug, or an oversight that unambiguously takes precedence over whatever may or may not have been happening with that poor, tragically unlucky woman.

We don’t know yet what, exactly, happened. But we know where we should be looking. It behooves all of us — society — to allow unhindered gathering of all possibly relevant data around the event and give the experts the access, resources, and time that, according to them, they need to hunt down the real cause and find ways to fix it. The technical problem, wherever it lies, is the only valid first priority. Setting up red herrings (“it’s her fault!”, “no, it’s Uber’s fault!”, “no, it’s capitalism’s fault!”, “no, it’s the idiot Arizona legislators’ faults for once again valuing corporate profit over human lives!”, etc.) only uselessly distracts from — and maybe even will prevent — tracking down the technical problem.

Complex systems can behave in unexpected ways. Probably several things — perhaps even each one innocuous in isolation — had to combine for this accident to have happened. It is likely every single-fault failure mode was identified and mitigated by the design and test engineers. Those failure points are relatively straightforward to deal with, and, again, engineers are far from stupid. However, multiple chained events leading to unexpected, even unpredictable, behavior in a complex system can be extremely difficult and time-consuming to debug, both before and after the fact — especially in the presence of insufficient testing or design resources. This is every engineer’s absolute, hands down, most disturbing nightmare. It is THE thing that keeps engineers up at night.

Yet even if every conceivable precaution had been (allowed to be) taken, dependent multimode failures can and do still happen anyway. It is inherent in the very natures of technological advance and sophisticated systems.

Sometimes, nobody is to blame.

The best anybody can ever do — and therefore the most anybody can ever ask — is to implement every reasonably knowable precaution and perform every reasonably knowable relevant test, and iterate sufficiently many of these design-test-correct cycles to satisfy everyone’s most important misgivings, in order to ferret out all (you hope) of the important gotchas you undoubtedly didn’t or couldn’t, for whatever reasons, think of beforehand. Even then, surprising shit will happen. To further compound things, in the real world you very rarely (as in: never) can afford to fully implement these to everybody’s satisfaction, which just makes bad unexpected events all the more unavoidably likely.

Nobody wants it to happen, or even to be a possibility, but bad shit is very likely going to happen no matter what. You do your best — and, even in the real world, almost everybody in this line of work does — given the current context, available knowledge, and available resources, and you hope that you’ve managed to mitigate the severity of the consequences of the inevitable but unpredictable bad things to a sufficient extent that in the end you have navigated this unavoidable minefield without anybody getting hurt or killed.

That didn’t happen, this time. But nobody should be surprised. Nor should anybody be at all quick in pronouncing — nor is anybody entitled to pronounce — ill-informed judgments.

This is the way it is. You learn from the problems that, despite all your efforts, hit you, you fix them, you become wiser (if more saddened), and you move on. My dad was an aircraft flight test instrumentation engineer, so I grew up seeing him and his friends live this process, several times. Please believe me when I say nothing is more inexpressibly horrible, nor more dreaded, nor more devastating, for any engineer to have to live through — and continue to live with — than somebody getting killed. But it happens. Sometimes, nobody is to blame.

Facts Matter: We Know Why Only the U.S. Suffers Frequent Mass Shootings

An abandoned AR-15 assault weapon, congealed victim blood, and empty sandals. July 20, 2012, mass shooting, Aurora, Colorado. (photo credit: AP)

For the umpteen-gazillionth time, here is a known fact: America has more mass shootings — more gun murders — than any other country on Earth, because America has more guns per person than any other country on Earth[3,6,8,11,10,12,13,15]. Our mass shootings problem is not due to any other factor.

It really is this straightforward: more guns, more gun murders; fewer guns, fewer gun murders.

This uniquely American obscenity — frequent mass shootings — is not related to mental illness. The rates of mental illness in the U.S. do not differ from those of other nations[2,11]. It is not related to crime rate. The U.S. is not more prone to crime than other developed countries[6,11,13,17]. It is not related to racial diversity issues. Pointedly, in this era of blatant self-serving liars infesting our nation’s statehouses, Congress, and the White House, America’s gun problem is not related to immigration[4,7,14]. Every study that examines this has found that recent immigrants — documented or not — are less prone to violent crime. Our gun problem is also not related to video games[5]. It is none of these things, nor is it primarily due to anything else. America is suffering a disastrous public health problem[16], and we have long known how to substantially reduce it[1,11]. The largest causative factor for mass killings is simply this: the number of guns. More guns, more gun murders.

A corollary of this fact is inescapable: reducing the rate of gun ownership reduces the rate of gun murders. The relation is clean, and its interpretation is unambiguous[11].

Every other developed nation on Earth has already not just discovered this but has acted upon it to protect and to better their own societies — and it has, with no exceptions, worked. Further, every evidence-based, peer-reviewed study of this relation has verified that the relation is causal — that it is factually true.

More guns, more gun murders.

What about mass killing lethality — the body count per mass shooting? This is not directly related to the question we’re examining here of why we, alone among all nations, have so many mass killings. But any discussion of mass killings in America would be remiss if it did not point out that the death toll from our daily rate of mass shootings — 347 in calendar 2017, for example[9] — is as high as it is not just because of the frequency of mass shootings but also because of the nearly unrestricted lethality of our readily available weaponry:

In my large file of mass murders, if you look decade by decade, the numbers of victims are fairly small up until the 1960s. That’s when the deaths start going way up. When the AK-47s and the Kalashnikovs and the Uzis — all these semiautomatic weapons, when they became so easily accessible.
— Dr. Michael Stone, forensic psychiatrist, Columbia University[2]

(Emphasis mine.) Ready availability of guns is the American Problem. The unjustifiable, immoral lethality of automatic and semi-automatic weaponry that is so easily available to Americans greatly compounds this American Problem of mass shootings.

Another notable difference about the U.S. and guns is this: America, along with only two other countries in the world (Guatemala and Mexico), adopts a most peculiar stance — an attitude that has proven to have been horrifically corrosive to American society. Alone from all others, we think that gun ownership — a priori, with no justification — is an inalienable right that stands alongside such real inalienable rights as life, liberty, equality, freedom of thought, and the freedom to pursue one’s own happiness.

This “right” to unrestricted ownership and use of firearms, this uniquely American intellectual and cultural obscenity, is the polar opposite of the rest of the world’s view, which concludes that gun ownership is a privilege we must first earn by tested demonstration of knowledge and responsibly competent behavior. To compound our error, American gun advocates erroneously — dishonestly — base our “right” on the willful truncation and misinterpretation of an antiquated second amendment that is merely an anachronism, irrelevant to any modern society. Perhaps the worst error of all is that we as a society reliably fail to call out this immoral stance on its (absence of) merits, this corrosive posturing of willing simpletons.

The resulting difference and its consequence — an unfortunate but inescapable conclusion — between us and nearly everybody else in the world? Between our culture on guns and almost everybody else’s culture on guns? The result is this: America deems senseless slaughter and mass murder, even of children in their classrooms, acceptable — a worthwhile price, dead bodies as tokens of our “freedom”. The slaughter of innocents is of less consequence than being able to own a lethal firearm with few to no constraints and with no more legal, ethical, or moral justification than merest whim.

This is worth repeating, to give the horror of it more time to sink in: In America, we view as acceptable the routine, senseless slaughter and mass murder of innocentsIn America, mass-murder rampages, enormous numbers of shattered, blood-soaked bodies, are of less concern to us than being able to own lethal firearms under few to no constraints, and with no more justification for ownership than thoughtless fancy. Does this conclusion shock you? Does it strike you as shrieking hyperbole? Yet it is an inescapable logical result that directly follows from valid, evidence-based premises. Mass murder is an okay trade for idle gun ownership.

More guns, more gun murders; fewer guns, fewer gun murders. This relation is not just common sense, nor does its validity stop at correlation. It is established fact[10]. But many, especially among the ideological right, actively deny this fact, or they willfully ignore it (which is the same as denial), and they frequently throw an infantile fit whenever their proven wrong stance is called out on the facts (this is a particularly immature form of denial). Besides being fallacious logic, this behavior — denial — no matter how vociferous or “sincerely felt”, does not alter the facts, does not change the truth. Nor does denial alter what these facts tell us about the hideous visage that is modern American gun culture. Nor — tellingly — does it change what the facts imply about the moral character of those who willingly choose to bury their heads in the dirt of denial.

To deny verified truth is to be in the wrong — in both senses of that word. It is wrong not only on the facts themselves, but, according to traditional American values — above all, honesty — it is morally wrong. If you deny established truth, your values are incompatible with foundational American values that real Americans all hold dear — those very same values that once had made America the envy of the world, that once had made America a great nation. Due to our enduring, stubborn denial of evidence and truth, we have made of ourselves and our nation a fallen, sad laughing-stock.

It is often said that the root of all evil is the love of money[19]. But one of the hallmarks of the greedy and the avaricious is dishonesty; greedy people always utilize dishonesty to get more wealth. Another hallmark of greed is denial of reality. To be a greedy bastard is to dishonestly deny that societal needs, that the suffering of other people, matter if one is to count oneself a moral and ethical being. Greed and denial both are incompatible with morality and with ethics. Further, to exist, greed and denial both need dishonesty.

Since dishonesty is a prerequisite for greed, dishonesty is the more fundamental characteristic. More broadly, one cannot help but notice that a core requirement for every kind of evil — not just greed — is dishonesty. Dishonesty is the universal common element of evil — the seed from which all evil grows. It is little wonder that dishonesty plays so central a role in the mythologies of every culture. In the third chapter of Genesis, for example, the serpent’s lie — dishonesty — instigates the Fall of Man[18].

So I would point out that the root of all evil is not love of money, not greed and avarice, but dishonesty. As an aside, this is precisely why the very most abhorrent, most reviled character trait in all of science — ask any scientist — is dishonesty. We can conclude, then, that one of the most loathsome human characteristics to find within oneself is dishonesty.

Now that this horse has been sufficiently flogged, we can better appreciate the weight of the moral implication of this statement: if, upon learning that you are factually wrong, you still choose, for whatever reason, to continue to ignore and/or deny the established facts, then you are dishonest. This is a disconcerting result.

More guns, more gun murders.

If you know someone among the reality deniers — the dishonorable and unprincipled — regarding this uniquely American of problems, then you know that something is wrong with where their head is at. Assuming they are a normal human being capable of introspection, this wrongness, you would think, should cause them to fundamentally question why they feel such a need to deny reality. But it is a defining and quite stubborn characteristic of a person in denial to not question the sources of their denial. Therein lies the rub.

We should be clear that in this case complicating factors are not a valid excuse. Studies have repeatedly shown that one of the most consequential facts of the American Problem is a simple and robust relation, one that is also perfectly in line with the most basic of “common” sense. Nothing about it is unintuitive. As with anything in the real world, there are complications, confounding factors. But all known confounding factors have been proven minor with respect to this simple relation. More guns, more gun murders; fewer guns, fewer gun murders. No complicating factor changes this relation; the evidence shows that it is solid — what scientists call robust. So one does not get to hide behind diversions, red herrings — dishonest changes of subject. And we should not allow them to.

For the good of the country we all care about, and for the good of those close to us, as well as for ourselves — we all have to face this at some point, to ask ourselves this question: where does our denial come from? What is it based on? Somebody else’s dishonest information, perhaps? Ideological bias? What are we actually basing our stance on? Only we, within the quiet of our own selves, can answer this. And once we have discovered it, we must ask ourselves this: does our answer — our truth — sit well with our conscience?

[1] Beauchamp, Z. (2016), “A huge international study of gun control finds strong evidence that it actually works” , Vox, February 29, 2016.

[2] Carey, B. (2017), “Are Mass Murderers Insane? Usually Not, Researchers Say” , The New York Times, November 8, 2017.

[3] Chalabi, M. (2012), “Gun homicides and gun ownership listed by country” , The Guardian, July 22, 2012.

[4] Chattanooga, W.W. (2015), “Not here to cause trouble” , The Economist, July 10, 2015.

[5] Fisher, M. (2012), “Ten-country comparison suggests there’s little or no link between video games and gun murders” , The Washington Post, December 17, 2012.

[6] Fisher, M., and Keller, J. (2017), “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings?” , The New York Times, November 7, 2017.

[7] Florida, R. (2011), “The Geography of Gun Deaths” , The Atlantic, January 13, 2011.

[8] Gilson, D. (2013), “10 Pro-Gun Myths, Shot Down” , Mother Jones, January 31, 2013.

[9] Gun Violence Archive.

[10] Lankford, A. (2015), “Are America’s public mass shooters unique? A comparative analysis of offenders in the United States and other countries” , International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 40, 171-183. PDF available here:

[11] Lopez, G. (2018), “I’ve covered gun violence for years. The solutions aren’t a big mystery.” , Vox, February 21, 2018.

[12] Lopez, G. (2017), “America’s unique gun violence problem, explained in 17 maps and charts” , Vox, October 2, 2017.

[13] Lopez, G. (2015), “America’s gun problem, explained” , Vox, October 3, 2015.

[14] Nowrasteh, A. (2015), “Immigration and Crime – What the Research Says” , Cato Institute, July 14, 2015.

[15] Willingham, A.J., and Ahmed, S. (2016), “Mass shootings in America are a serious problem” , CNN, June 13, 2016.

[16] Zhang, S. (2018), “Why Can’t the U.S. Treat Gun Violence as a Public-Health Problem?” , The Atlantic, February 15, 2018.

[17] Zimring, F.E., and Hawkins, G. (1997), Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America, Oxford University Press.

[18] Genesis 3:1-5 (KJV):

Now the serpent was more subtil [sic] than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

[19] 1 Timothy 6:10 (KJV):

For the love of money is the root of all evil…

Navigating the Teratism, Or How I Came to Vote for Hillary Clinton

Given the widespread unreason in this mind-numbing political season, how can one cut through the din to make a good decision on who should be our Democratic presidential candidate? It is still not that hard to go about it at least somewhat rationally. Google is your friend—or can be, if you use it in the right ways. Here is a brief tale of the strategy I adopted in my quest to decide my Arizona primary—er, “presidential preference”—vote rationally.

From the start, I pointedly refused, both in public and, importantly, to myself, to take a position until just before election day here in Arizona. I’ve learned from past elections that the intense pressure of primary season can reveal facets of a candidate’s personality and experience that are important not to miss. So, I figured, the longer I stake out uncommitted territory, the more useful things I will learn, and the better my chances of making a sound decision. Furthermore—I did not realize this until later—being firmly uncommitted meant that I had no emotional investment in any candidate. Given our well-proven human tendency to defend our own tribe no matter the context, evidence, or consequences, this was a brilliant strategy for maintaining a certain amount of level-headedness and a boon to intellectual freedom. Alas, if only I could claim this brilliance was anything but an accident! Nevertheless, this lesson turned out to be the most valuable one for me in this experience.

I am now glad I did choose this course and hold off. It both allowed and forced me to check the substance behind the things people parrot, and the things people uncritically pass around as “memes”. I found that, primarily, these things are bunk—either untrue, or twisted to say or imply something untrue, or cherry-picked out of context to represent something untrue. It is little other than collective mental garbage going in and out, in and out of flaccid brains. Motivated reasoning and confirmation bias metastasized and run amok. This cannot be healthy.

The completeness of the logic FAIL (especially of very nearly every “meme” I’ve seen) coming from a certain segment of liberaldom astonishes, when you look into it. I did not expect this degree of unreason coming from liberals. But I suppose I should have: the psychologists tell us (and have rigorously shown) that people are people, whatever their ideological leanings. We all are surprisingly susceptible to the same biases, the same cognitive foibles—left, right, maybe not so much the mythical middle. Still, it has been disappointing to learn that critical thinking is not relevant to the very people who, at least occasionally, proudly pay it lip service: the educated liberal.


After a couple of months of observing the back-and-forth on Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and of chasing down the origins of some of the various topics that I care about, and of pushing back as gently but firmly as I know how against the tide of blatant unreason issuing from some of my friends, I arrived at the following conclusions (observations, really):

  1. Bumper-sticker thinking is not helpful. But it is oh, so seductive. This is a serious problem.
    1. Political “memes” mostly are dishonest, even false, and only encourage both lazy thinking and unproductive discord. They are like that cough that you just cannot shake, the one that at 2am you fear could be tuberculosis. Or cancer. It is easy to prove the dishonesty of most of them, but people almost never bother. Political memes are just too delicious, yet they are uniformly counterproductive.
    2. There is no breaking through the ideological barriers of many liberals. That is, the cognitively barricaded have little interest in facts, the truth, or, especially, complex contexts and shades of meaning, if it threatens the warped world view they’ve adopted nearly wholesale from two and a half decades of incessant drum beating from the right. Rational discussion is as hopeless among them as among rabid conservatives. Neither even notices the pounding drums.
    3. The right has largely succeeded in its long, sustained campaign of propaganda and negativity, even among liberals. Liberals, too, now unthinkingly assume the GOP’s disingenuous message framing as a matter of course, without ever questioning those false assumptions. Frank Luntz is unquestionably evil, but he is just as unquestionably brilliant.
  2. Sanders’s consistent message is THE progressive, liberal message…and has been, since approximately forever. This is good. This is excellent. Ours is a wondrously wholesome and healthy message. We care about people, and society, and the planet we live on. Further, Sanders does not do a bad job of framing our message effectively. This is unusual for a liberal. If only we had more who can do this.
  3. However, that’s pretty much it. To borrow a phrase, there’s little “there” there. Tastes great, less filling. Hardly a thought (although a larger amount of afterthought) is given to how we might usefully set about accomplishing any of the things Sanders drones on about—how to take plausible, substantive steps towards our shared liberal goals—given our current reality.
    1. This reality consists of past, present, and promised intransigence, nastiness, belligerent ignorance, blatant lies and cheating, unrelenting callousness, narcissism, and frequent infantilism among conservatives, as well as the sad fact that conservatives continue to control most of our country—Senate, House, Supreme Court, state legislatures, and state governorships. And it is unlikely any of this context is going to change much.
    2. So, bzzzt. This glaring yet persistent absence of substance, of a realistic plan moving forward, has been a deal-breaker for me.
    3. Clinton, however, plausibly claims to be about realistic (well, in large part based on realistic) solutions for making substantive progress toward the same goals, but taking into account our current reality (ding ding ding ding ding!), as I think any thinking person must. Short on pizazz, but pragmatic. This matters.
  4. Hillary Rodham Clinton has baggage. Big baggage. But the overwhelming majority of it ranges from mostly to completely bogus—nonsense, lies, and disingenuous exaggeration. That’s what over two decades of asinine, rapid-fire Republican attacks, ignorance, and dishonest agendas will pile on a person, especially if that person is competent (not to mention a woman), and especially when the media doesn’t do its journalism job (which abilities it willingly allowed to atrophy several decades ago). Follow up on any so-called “criticism” of HRC (as proclaimed by either Republicans or Sanders supporters), and you discover that—surprise!—95% of it is bullshit.
  5. HRC is likely more conservative than I am comfortable with on several important matters: many areas of foreign policy, a few areas of economic policy. (But no problems in her domestic policies that strike me as worrisome.)
  6. However, HRC also:
    1. has a buttload of experience in combat politics (Sanders has none); she is thoroughly battle tested,
    2. has an extra crap-ton of experience in dealing with and circumventing Republican assholery (Sanders has none),
    3. knows, and can adroitly handle, most if not all of the main players in the DC machinery (sorry, Bernie fans, but this matters),
    4. recognizes, readily acknowledges, and thinks strategically about the complex real world in which every policy decision resides (Sanders does not seem to understand—or at least acknowledge—that the real world is hugely complex),
    5. has a well-proven titanium spine (Sanders: indeterminate, as he’s never been tested), and
    6. appears to be, mostly out of public view, a genuinely warm human, despite all she’s been through.
  7. Hillary Clinton cannot frame a message effectively to save her life. This is unfortunate, for us all, and it unfairly hurts her in the polls. But to my mind this is not a valid deal-breaker since it does not affect the indomitable substance of what she brings to the table. It does, however, make it more difficult to uncover that substance from among all the bogus dreck. That’s on us: our failure has been and continues to be intellectual laziness.
  8. Sanders appears to be inflexible, unable to adapt much to a shifting, changing context. I suspect HRC is no yoga master, but Sanders is mineralized through and through. Has he substantively changed, in any way, in forty years? Perhaps he’s never been forced by circumstances to look at things differently to achieve a longer goal. This is a problem for me.

    I recently tried to explain this to a good psychologist friend (we went to their wedding in Thailand, even). He stopped me midstream and said that in psychology research circles this is a quantitatively well-studied thing and has a label: cognitive rigidity. He was pretty pleased to teach me something new. He also agreed that he, too, sees Sanders as notably rigid (his words: Sanders would likely score high on the scale of cognitive rigidity). That dawning in my head the week before our voting day I think is what clinched my evolving decision. If you can’t adapt, you won’t be effective.


So I voted for Clinton.


Idolatry is not my thing. I must admit that I am sick and tired of pervasive Bernie Sanders cult worship. Few if any in the Sanders crowd (at least any more) seem to actually think, and do research, with a serious eye toward considering the evidence as a dispassionate, unbiased observer. It seems to be mostly about seeking and sharing only those superficial fragments and tidbits that agree with predetermined opinions. This is not thinking.

political ideology circle (from reddit)
The left-right divide disappears not only in the moderate middle but also in the mental rigidity of fascism (from reddit, click to enlarge).

Further, you can trace the origins of most of the negativity and slime thrown at Hillary Clinton—regardless of who is flinging it today—directly back to Republicans (they play dirty, remember?). But, still…liberals? Misinformation and willful ignorance have been running rampant, even among us, and especially among Sanders zealots, who, in terms of blind ideology, are little different from conservatives (see graphic). The content is opposite, but the cognitive rigidity on display is the same. Further, voting primarily with your gonads (many conservatives do this) or your adrenal glands (Berniebots, that’s you) is not just unwise, irrational, counterproductive, intellectually dishonest—all true—but also unethical, in that abandoning your responsibility as a citizen to your fellow citizens, and to our shared society, is unethical.

This continues to surprise me, our abandonment of critical thinking; I just can’t seem to wrap my head around it yet. A sustained, twenty-five year barrage of shameless negative falsehoods and bullshit from the Republican machine, faithfully parroted by the mainstream media, must inevitably bias all of our perceptions and assumptions. Maybe that is the explanation. GIGO. But shouldn’t at least we, the educated liberal, be well aware of this bias?

It has been a disheartening several months.

excessive or blind adoration, reverence, devotion.


Here are a few resources I found helpful while pondering (mostly alphabetical by title). I will update this list sporadically, as I come across useful new articles. Latest update: 21 April 2016.


Sense and Sensibility and the American Gun Culture

Sense and Sensibility.

Jane Austen put these two words together for a specific reason.

Sense: meaning, understanding, prudence, sound judgement.

Sensibility: sensitivity, awareness, empathy.

She didn’t have to worry about guns the way we do, the way America does today. But if she had I think she likely might have said something worth our while to contemplate. Sense. Sensibility.

We have yet another senseless shooting, this time too close to my home in Flagstaff. At Northern Arizona University, where a close family member teaches, a student retrieved a gun from his car and shot four students, murdering one. (One is still in the ICU.) Over a simple fist fight, hurt feelings, wounded pride — a child lies dead and many lives destroyed.

A spat quickly broke out online over whether or not to call this one (there are so very many) a “mass murder.” The NAU police reassured the public, saying that this was not like another mass shooting that had just happened at a college in Oregon. Others were not buying it. Perhaps because of the shock and cognitive dissonance that comes with a shooting that is too close, too personal, they are missing the point.

A common (sadly — shamefully — this is all too common) behavior can stem from a myriad of complex generators, complicated motivations, because human psychology is, in the now, a complex miasma of innate character, upbringing, experience, and happenstance — nature and nurture and randomness. Yet, dead people on the ground are dead people on the ground: mass shooting, mass murder.

What is the point?

Ask yourself: what is the most common denominator in each one of these mass shootings, this endless succession of mass murders, this underbelly of America’s prolonged spiral to suicide? The answer is readily apparent to anyone not blinkered by stubborn ignorance or mindless fear: the uniquely sick American obsession with weaponry, in concert with the rigidly immoral, ignorant, selfish, counterfactual, antifactual, infantile, long-bankrupt ideology of the right wing, one consequence of which — just one of innumerable repercussions from a depraved world view — is a near-complete absence of meaningful gun regulation.

To choose slaughter (intended or not) over minor inconvenience to the sensible — which is really what we are talking about with effective regulation of firearms — is not an act that comes from moral or ethical values; it is sick and depraved.

You may be thinking, “but this does not apply to me.” Do you choose to stand by and do nothing? Are you silent? Then you, too, have opted for preserving our awful status quo, for senseless bloodshed, shattered bodies, ruined lives, devastated families. Inaction is a choice.

Silence is a choice.

To choose instead reason, and sense, in light of overwhelming evidence; to proactively choose responsibility to the people around you, and empathy for those not in your shoes, and good governance in public policy — these come from ethical, moral values. Reasonable values. Wouldn’t this be better than continuing to tacitly approve senseless carnage?

That is the point.

It is time we start acting like adults, you and I — own up to our responsibility. It is up to you, and me, and you and you and you. The nature of this monster, this beast that we have allowed other monsters to create and nurture while you and I were distracted, is that none of us gets to opt out; you cannot not play.

So which do you choose? Continuance of our national blood bath? Or sense and sensibility?

Nutballs and the Mode

Atheist Republic's Kaaba: Love Wins
A stylized Kaaba (click to embiggen).

Recently, Atheist Republic (AR) posted this image (⇒) in response to the Supreme Court’s decision (pdf) that legalizes marriage in the U.S. It is a Photoshopped image of the Kaaba in Mecca. The reaction from noisome elements of the Muslim community has been, predictably, swift, violent, and largely incoherent (cf. the Facebook post or AR’s original Twitter post for a sampling). AR’s post is fine; I think it is timely, in good taste, and makes a good point. However, I think AR made a mistake.

AR responded to the growing shit storm in a subsequent post on their web site (WARNING: one image, about ¾ of the way into the post, is deeply disturbing), electing to show a number of select examples of the insults and threats they’ve received to make a point:

Please keep in mind that these aren’t members of ISIS or Al-Qaeda making these statements, but rather are your everyday average Muslim.


…these aren’t extremists or jihadists, they’re just average Muslims. These are the ones who call themselves “moderate”.

And, if you are feeling particularly thick-headed:

To make it clear that these are supposed “moderate” Muslims, I’d like to point out that we know for a fact that one of these men is a US citizen. This particular commenter has specifically asked for information from one of our admins that he suspects lives in his area, and threatened said admin with physical violence against this admin and their family.

A skewed distribution (click to embiggen). Where do you think IPLs reside?

One thought kept nagging me as I read AR’s response: AR furnishes no valid evidence or argument to support the all-too-common claim that these select nutballs are “your everyday average Muslim” (as opposed to the crazies that carry out terrorist attacks in the name of their religion or, more accurately, their ignorant, deranged ideology). It seems likely to me that the cretinous whackjobs sprinkling AR’s posts with turds are neither average nor representative of Muslims in general. These whackjobs are—like our own noisome right-wing nutballs—an abnormally incoherent, ignorant, and vocal minority. I’ve no doubt average Muslims are as willingly delusion-controlled as our average Christians here in the U.S., but I have to question that the infantile profane loudmouths of either organized delusion system lie anywhere near the peaks (i.e., the modes) of their respective population distributions.

The excerpts above—and, indeed, AR’s entire argument—illustrate several common logical fallacies. In the first two excerpts, the author is arguing by assertion. This is a counterproductive rhetorical tactic. It raises people’s hackles, to your disadvantage.

The third excerpt is somewhat more interesting. First, it cherry-picks an anecdotal example. (The example itself also seems hardly relevant—a red herring.) This is a surprising mistake, since cherry-picking is perhaps the most common logical fallacy for which rationalists such as AR criticize religionists and the right-wing.

In this excerpt the author also equates being a U.S. citizen with being “moderate”, with no supporting argument or evidence. As recent events in the U.S. have shown repeatedly, there is nothing moderate about the beliefs of U.S. terrorists, Muslim or not. This is  a false equivalence, perhaps the second most common logical fallacy employed by the right (or maybe the third, behind strawman argument).

This is not an apology for “average” adherents to horrifically damaging organized delusion systems. From all that I’ve seen, Western religions are among the most senseless and destructive invented concepts in the history of humankind. But accuracy, precision, and validity in our claims and arguments, whatever the context, matter.

We rationalists are—or should be—better than this.


Seriously, you do not need to see this image—it cannot be unseen.

 Speaking of crazies, is there much, if any, difference between a Muslim terrorist who slaughters innocents in a medical treatment building and, say, a Christian terrorist who slaughters innocents in an African American church? Or between that (or any other) Muslim terrorist and a Christian terrorist who shoots dead a medical doctor during church services?