Tag Archives: Science

Monday’s final reading suggestion

How could I forget the genesis for this topic? It was this article, free of the usual paywall, from the August, 2020, Atlantic Monthly.

How the Pandemic Defeated America.

More suggested readings, if you have the time, are in the next post below.

Monday’s Mtg: Has the pandemic exposed large failings in U.S. politics and/or society?

It’s now pretty much settled wisdom that the novel coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep failures in the United States.  Catastrophic political failures, obviously, especially at the very top.  But, also failures on the part of regular people, like an unwillingness to imagine a catastrophe of this magnitude could “happen here,” to accept the results of science, and even to give a damn about millions of other Americans.

Which of these charges are really true, and which are not so clear cut?  More importantly, why do we have these political/economic/cultural weaknesses and how did they go unnoticed by so many people for so long?  Or, was just no one listening? 

Allocating blame for this massive, partially preventable disaster is not a gotcha game, dammit.  Assigning responsibility is the linchpin of democracy.  As I have quote a million other people saying the last few months, major catastrophes lay bare a society’s worst flaws and vulnerabilities.  Like Pearl Harbor did for military unreadiness, or 1960s urban riots exposed the pathology of concentrated urban poverty and racism, or 9/11 revealed counterintelligence failures. 

Losing 250,000+ Americans to find out that the United States is not ready for some of the major challenges of the 21st century is a hard lesson. The only upside is if we are willing to be honest about our country’s flaws and its festering problems and why they have not been addressed. Ideology and archaic cultural attitudes must not blind us to what must change.  (Nor, of course, should short-term panic force us to abandon what is best about our country.)

So, let’s discuss this delicate topic using evidence and reason.  Some liberal accusations about root causes are true; some may not be, and the same may hold for conservative POVs.  But, getting a vaccine is not the only thing that has to start soon if we are to prepare for a better America.  So does doing some deep and profound thinking about why were so vulnerable to this pandemic – much more so than most other nations.  Call this topic, if you will, American Exceptionalism: The Reckoning.

I will open on Monday as I typically do, by outlining the major criticisms of what led us to the problem to be discussed.  The background readings sum them up and give more details and competing POVs.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –  

NEXT WEEK (Dec. 7th):  Will Trump and his enablers succeed in sabotaging his successor and destroying faith in U.S. democracy? 

Monday’s Mtg: Understanding the CA ballot propositions

See the next post down for brief descriptions of each of the 12 propositions and, in RED, who has volunteered to give us a five minute or so intro on each.  If no one is listed I guess I’ll do it. 

**Or:  f you want to get off of the wait list just volunteer to do an available one and you’re in.  ** 

For format, let’s just go over the props in numerical order. In the past we have grouped them by subject area, but that was mainly because some of them were dueling props, one hoping to do the opposite of another one.  With no mirror-image pairs this year and because people might get confused jumping around from prop to prop in a Zoom format, let’s just start with prop. 14 and end with prop. 25. 

Below are some general links on the propositions consisting of (1) Basic info and (2) endorsements by the two major partis and a few other sources.  Also, I added a few articles on some of the more controversial or important props.  Do your own research, but here are the questions I will try to answer when I do my 2-3.

If you care, to me it seems the most important ones are props 15, 19, 20, 21, 22, and 25.  

QUESTIONS FOR EACH PROPOSITION:

  1. Who is behind it and opposing it?
  2. Why did they put it on the ballot? Did they try and fail previously, or fail in the legislature? Who/what big powers are they trying to bypass?
  3. What would the proposition do? Is that in dispute? How is it intended to fix/repeal/change current law/policy?
  4. Major substantive pros and cons.
  5. Major stupid/deceptive pros and cons being used to sell/defeat it.

INFO SOURCES FOR THE 12 PROPS + ENDORSEMENTS –  

More on most important (IMO) ones –

NEXT WEEK (Oct. 12):  Will fearmongering win in November?  What are the substantive agendas? 

Monday’s mtg: Self-driving vehicles – fears and realities.

This one was Hobson’s idea.  It’s a good one because, while COVID may delay some of the revolutionary technological changes that are coming and their impacts may play out in a less democratic and less powerful United States than anyone could have imagined five years ago, the changes will still get here.  As with the steam engine, the cotton gin, internal combustion engines, and telephones, the transformation that will be set in motion by widespread adoption of fully autonomous vehicles could be profound.

These outcomes won’t just play out in the economy and jobs.  Economic effects could be revolutionary, albeit at this point that’s a bit speculative.  Autonomous vehicles have the potential to transform the our cities and where we live, our social relations, the environment for better or worse, the educational system, and more.  We could end up with more social and economic equality.  Or, as with earlier technological revolutions that occurred in a time of corporate concentration and low government involvement, the benefits could be captured by the few and the costs born by the many.

Hobson asks: How do we separate facts from fears?  The basic timetable of when self-driving cars will become common and in which transportation industries is hard to gauge from reading general interest journalistic accounts.  Luckily, we may have several people in attendance on Monday that know quite a bit about the industry and/or about artificial intelligence issues in general.  Maybe they, and some of the articles below can help us to

  1. Clarify what the major obstacles are to widespread adoption of self-driving vehicles and how close they are to being solved;
  2. Intelligently speculate about which economic and social disruptions are most likely to occur, and roughly in what sequence; and
  3. Understand how to think about the broader benefits and costs of AI, robotics, other revolutionary emerging forms of labor saving devices.

There is an old aphorism about technological innovation.  It says that early on people tend to overestimate how fast it’s coming but underestimate (often by a lot!) how disruptive and transformative it ultimately will be.  Maybe we can debate this, too.

For this week I will skip any introduction and just ask Hobson or any other attendee with knowledge to help us frame the answers to these questions or other relevant ones.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –  

NEXT WEEK (August 24):  New models for 21st century journalism.

Monday’s Mtg: Social distancing – Controversies and long term effects.

One of our better-timed topics.  Thank you, Wendy.  The need to maintain extensive social distancing to slow the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread is widely acknowledged to be necessary.  Yet it is being widely flouted, for several reasons.  A major one is that some very cynical people have turned resistance to mask wearing and social distancing into a symbol of partisan political allegiance and culture war loyalty.  May they burn in Hell.

But that is not the only reason.  Freezing our economy to allow social distancing has caused great suffering, too, via mass unemployment, business failings, etc.  We may end up losing entire industry sectors.  Practicing personal social distancing is not just a mild inconvenience.  Over time and especially for some vulnerable populations (like the elderly and young children) it is harmful, as the articles below describe.  Social distancing can lead to mental and physical health problems, some of which may endure long after the crisis is under control.

We have to figure out how to keep social distancing going, say the experts.  Maybe as far as 2022 or even beyond.

So, condemning people that refuse to wear masks because Trump or Tucker say so is well-deserved and emotionally satisfying.  But, we as a society also will have to bring attention and resources to bear to combat the ill effects of social distancing itself, like its effects on individuals’ mental health, social relationships, and livelihoods – no to mention the entire economy.  If we don’t, and given that the propagandists will never stop, this whole thing could fall apart even more than it already has.

On Monday I don’t think we will need to rehash all our country’s recent social distancing failures.  Maybe we could focus on a few of these discussion questions.  If you have any time to read, maybe focus on recommended links.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

Controversies – 

  1. Who is refusing to wear masks and properly social distance?
  2. Why? Selfish, ignorant, victims of propaganda, young and invulnerable/dumb, believe BLM/anti-racist protests have to come first, etc.?
  3. Are any other countries seeing this level of refusal, or is it just the USA? What would that tell us?
  4. How can people be persuaded/forced to do the right thing?
    What arguments should we use with non-compliant people?

Long-run effects –

  1. On individuals’ mental health.
  2. On social relationships: Friendships, love lives, family dynamics, etc.?
  3. On vulnerable people: Elderly, disabled, children losing education,
  4. The economy and jobs.
    1. Business sectors hit hardest by virus and social distancing.
    2. Workers same.
  5. U.S. politics: Are Trump/GOP doomed in Nov.?  Longer term effects, like political realignment, more support for govt activism – or less because of huge budget deficits?
  6. Rest of the world, esp. its already-festering problems/places. On U.S. credibility.  On spurring global cooperation – with or without USA?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –  

NEXT WEEK (July 6):  Cede more power to multilateral organizations to solve global problems?  Realistic?  Would they do a better job?

Monday’s Mtg: Groupthink versus the Wisdom of Crowds.

The term groupthink is a psychological theory that was popularized in the 1960s as a way to explain a seeming paradox that arises in politics, business, and other endeavors.  Sometimes groups of people, with all of their members’ knowledge and wisdom accessible, make worse decisions than its members could have made individually.  Sometimes, there is stupidity in numbers.

You can familiarize yourself with the actual theories of groupthink (they are subtle) in the readings, below.  But basically, under some conditions group deliberation can limit choices, stifle honest debate, unwisely defer to authority, and magnify strong group members’ individual cognitive biases.  (We discussed cognitive bias in general terms a year ago.)  Groupthink has been blamed for many historically disastrous decisions, like JFK’s acquiescence to the Bay of Pigs invasion, Bush 43’s invasion of Iraq, and most of the worst global financial crises of the last 30 years.  Groupthink is probably of limited validity as an explanation for many group failures, as the readings explain.  Still, major American institutions have made so many boneheaded decisions lately that groupthink probably has been at work in some of them.

This is curious, in a way, because we also are also familiar with the “wisdom of crowds.”  Sometimes the aggregated choices made by large numbers of people have proven to be better for informing decisions and predicting the future than even the best-qualified experts.  The wisdom of crows is often said to be at work in private markets, especially in financial markets, consumer markets, and betting markets of all kinds.

But, the wisdom of crowds isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either.  Financial markets can exhibit herd behaviors that any school of fish would envy.  As we discussed in our “abuses of pop economics” meeting, people (individuals and in the aggregate) often don’t behave like the simple models of consumer and producer behavior predict.  Large political groups often get captured by their most extreme elements and not by the “wisdom” of its majority or medium opinion, or by its best-informed or most-thoughtful members.

As Hobson has pointed out, just knowing that bad decision happen is not useful without going deeper.  Maybe we need to ask questions like:

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What do the theories of groupthink and collective wisdom really say, as opposed to their pop psychology versions?
  2. What are the major criticisms of these theories?
  3. Under what conditions does groupthink arise and the wisdom of crowds not apply? How can we see those conditions coming – and prevent them?
  4. Societal implications, like how could we get less groupthink and wiser crowds by, say, changing the
    1. structure of markets, consumer protections, anti-trust law, or other business law?
    2. Rules of corporate governance?
    3. Rules of politics or elections or political campaigns?
    4. Power of social media monopolies?
    5. Many other ideas.
  5. With so much more interconnectivity coming, how can we improve collective decision-making and when should we limit its reach?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –  

NEXT WEEK (June 22):  Supreme Court term ending 6/30 – Blockbusters and long-term impact?

Monday’s Mtg (4/27/20): Loneliness and isolation in a wired world

I can’t find the source, but I recently read that we touch our smart phones on average over 2,000 times per day! This study counted a 40-character tweet as 40 touches, but still – damn! In these ancient times – i.e., before the COVID-19 pandemic – there was a furious debate over whether such constant smart phone and social media use was damaging us.

Young people especially, it was said, were becoming cut off from real life and failing to learn the normal in-person social skills that previous generations had to learn to thrive as adults in the workplace, in romantic relationships, etc. The kids were not all right. And this did not even account for the possible ill effects of having their entire lives dominated by the handful of companies that control the ubiquitous little devices in their pockets. Reference our meetings on the problems of corporate monopolization of social media and the news businesses.

Now that social media and internet connectivity are keeping us all sane during the pandemic lockdown, have all these concerns about rising loneliness and isolation gone away for good? Or, like our economy (hopefully), are they just on hiatus temporarily? What if we respond to the shut down by growing even more dependent on remote working, learning, and social interaction?

Here are some optional readings, both pro and con. Per usual, you all will receive the mtg password on Sunday night. Please don’t mislay it between Sunday night and the mtg.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

During the pandemic –

Longer term issues of loneliness in a wired world –

NEXT WEEK May 4: How will History judge us in these times?

Monday’s Mtg: How are we doing + what might the pandemic’s long term effects be?

We’re back!  I hope you are all doing well. To attend our first virtual CivCon meeting, you will need two things: The link to the specific Zoom mtg.  That URL will be the same for every Zoom mtg CivCon will have (courtesy and thanks to Z and her Zoom Pro account!).  Second, you will need a unique password to get you in to this specific mtg. If you are signed up as attending Monday’s mtg  go to that 4/6 meeting on Meetup and the Zoom URL can be seen on the right hand side of the page.

The password unique to each mtg is NOT on our meetup page, for security reasons. It will be emailed to all 15-16 of you (along with the meeting ID URL so you can have both in one place) on Sunday night. On Monday at 7pm you can open the email or go to the Meetup event page, click on the Zoom URL, and then enter the password. At that exact moment you will join the mtg via video or just audio and everybody else will be in little rectangles. To turn on your video so people can see you too just click on the Start Video icon on the lower left-hand corner of the zoom page. There’s more to learn; a curve steeper for some of us than others. Consider this first one as much practice as substance.

(I will manage the mtg like always except technically I am not the host; Z is and has graciously set this up for us to bypass the 10-person, 40-minute maximum of a free Zoom account. She may log on for a few seconds and make me a host or co-host and then leave.)

It’s a good mtg to practice on because we all are presumably following this crisis closely so there is no need for an opening lecture by me and I found only a few readings I thought might be useful. They are below, along with some discussion questions. All the links relate to the long-term consequences this pandemic may have on our society, economy, politics, etc.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. How are you holding up? Any tips you think others probably don’t already know?
  2. Why were we and the world caught so flat footed? Who is to blame and – more importantly – what lessons should we already have learned for the future?
  3. How and when will this thing end?
  4. Economy/Society: Will/how will U.S. society change as a result? Anything lasting? Anything brand new? Anything accelerating trends already occurring?
    — Economy broadly: Growth and full employment returning, monopolies get even more powerful, accelerated use of automation and loss of permanent employment, etc.
    — Changes to specific industries: Education, health care, retail industry, restaurant/hospitality, travel, others?
    — Family/daily living: More telecommuting, more family time, push for more govt support for working families, etc.)
  5. U.S. Politics: How might U.S. politics change when this is over – or before it’s over? (e.g., 2020 election is Trump doomed or saved; will xenophobia/anti-immigrant sentiment rise, push for universal health care and more appreciation of govt’s role or the opposite – even LESS trust in govt; etc.?)
  6. World Affairs: How ghastly will outcomes be in developing countries?  Is USA’s global leadership role over for good? Will climate efforts be abandoned to shore up public health instead, etc.?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

NEXT WEEK, Date: April 13: U.S. Military-Industrial Complex – Worse than ever or exaggerated like usual?  Nile’s topic that got cancelled.

Monday’s Mtg 4/6 is ON, virtually

The topic, which I made up since we’re beyond our old list, will be:

  •   COVID-19 pandemic: How’s it going and what will be the long term effects?

For more details on how to access the Zoom mtg, see our Meetup site OR wait for the weekly email, which will contain a link to zoom to click on.

I may add a few readings later this week.  But we all have been following events closely, so maybe there is no need.

NEXT WEEK, 4/13:  Nile’s topic on the military industrial complex, since it got cancelled.

Monday’s Mtg: The ethics of human brain augmentation

An exciting science topic! And, thanks to Wendy, here are some excellent background readings on why and whether to rebuild the human brain using technology.

Wendy will also moderate the meeting and some of our members with some science experience will be there.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

Brain Implants & other technologies –

Ethical and philosophical topics –

Art & Entertainment

  • Stelarc – performance artist who has visually probed and acoustically amplified his body.  Plus look at his art.

NEXT WEEK: Has public shaming for youthful indiscretions gotten out of hand?