Author Archives: wlobb

Trump’s New Party


Trump’s Paris Accord idiocy makes everything clear at last. The Know Nothing Party formed in the 1850s to fight immigration of Catholics. The Know Less Than Nothing Party, Trump’s, has formed to fight immigration of Muslims and to fight knowledge and truth on every front. This latter party is on its way to becoming the Nihil Farrago Party, which believes that nothing at all exists other than coal, coal miners, chocolate cake, and the next election.


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Bret Stephens’s NY Times Op-Ed on Climate Change: Wrong, Wrong, Wrong


This April 28 Bret Stephens op-ed debut is way off the mark every inch of the way.

First, what Old Jew Of Galicia? Milocz wrote that epigraph and hundreds or thousands have cited it as if it’s ancient and real wisdom that transcends the folly of whomever you want to lambaste. But what Old Jew of central or western Europe would use precise figures like 55% as opposed to 60% to describe degrees of being sure that one is right? And right about what? Everything? It seems to me that’s the only possibility of the quote, given no other information than the “quote” itself. It seems to be about totalitarian regimes that rewrite truth and history to their liking and allow no dissent. But that’s a whole different world! Climate scientists are not claiming they’re 100% right about everything, only 97% right about something very important that they’ve looked at from dozens or hundreds of different angles and almost always come up with the same conclusion, which is that warming will with high likelihood accelerate and all of humanity with high likelihood will be in a peck of trouble therefrom.

Then he writes, “In the final stretch of last year’s presidential race, Hillary Clinton and her team thought they were, if not 100 percent right, then very close.” Polls and betting sites showed a consistent 70-85% likelihood of Clinton winning, with her likelihood increasing right at the end most likely due to Trump’s bizarre behavior and words in the last debate, together with some of the Comey stuff. I tracked these numbers myself for several months from multiple sources. Who is Stephens to claim that Clinton and company thought they were all but 100%? He cites no source. It’s mere supposition.

Citations of made-up quotes, and suppositions? We are to trust and believe this writer over hundreds or thousands of scientists and their experiments and analyses and peer reviews?

Scientists are 100% right about Bernoulli’s Law, and thank goodness, because if they were not 100% right then some planes would go down inexplicably. Humanity is 100% right that four colors suffice to color a planar map so that no two countries with a shared boundary that’s more than a single point will have the same color. Anything not proved or demonstrated correct through a combination of rigorous analysis and consistent results from thousands of experiments can be no more than an informed opinion. Stephens does not apply information to buttress his opinion. Therefore his opinion is all but worthless. He does not cite even one example of “much else that that passes as accepted fact [but] is really a matter of probabilities.” He does not cite even one example of “history … littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.” He seems not to understand that conviction is only “beyond a reasonable doubt” not “with absolute certainty.” He’s not worth listening to or reading.

And the New York Times has broken a contract with its readers by giving an imprimatur of believability and merit to him by publishing this op-ed.



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“For you always have the poor with you…”


Here’s an essay by Christian blogger, Fred Clark, that discusses one of Jesus’ sayings quoted by a Republican Congressman from Kansas, “the poor you will always have with you.” Politically conservative Christians and politicians often cite this verse to express the idea that we can do nothing to help the poor.

Here’s Jesus’ full sentence from Mark 14: “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.”

Here’s the Congressman’s quotation from this Stat story: “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us,’” he said. “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”

Clark shows us Jesus’ complete sentence, not just the clause before the comma. This shows us that his meaning is opposite from that intended by these conservatives. Jesus is scolding some of his apparently pious followers. Jesus tells them that if they persist in false or misdirected piety, instead of helping those less fortunate than themselves, “the poor you will always have with you.” Clark recognizes that Jesus is citing verses from Deuteronomy, “the Scriptures.” Clark displays the relevant verses from Deuteronomy, instructions from the Lord to Jews to care for the widow, the orphan, the sick, the poor, and the outcast, even the alien in your midst, to prove what Jesus had in mind. It’s worth reading Clark’s essay. There is more to it than I’m mentioning here.

Clark, a seminary educated evangelical Christian, explains and criticizes this reversal of Jesus’ teaching because this kind of all too typical misuse of the Bible and Jesus’ words is embarrassing to informed and decent Christians and makes Christianity appear hard-hearted and mean-spirited and cruel. Clark believes that we should help the orphan, the widow, the poor, the meek, and the outcast, and those who mis-cite this verse believe the opposite.

I sent Clark’s essay to some of my correspondents, and my young, thoughtful and independent thinker friend, an educated Christian responded:

Yes, the abuse of Scripture knows no limits. The ignorant and corrupt will also always be with us.
Deuteronomy’s vision of Israelite society has always intrigued me. Perhaps I will read it again soon.

I replied to him as follows.

You might also enjoy reading Clark’s other posts on this widely-cited Bible verse. The links are in the essay I sent to you.

While Clark wrote this post in response to a statement by a newly elected Kansas Republican, I’ve run across it, and I’m sure you have too, cited by political conservatives as a reason not to bother helping those less well-off than we might be.

As a person educated in Judaism, I recognize that Jesus is quoting or referring to major themes of the Hebrew Bible when he instructs his followers, and demonstrates by example, to help the widow, the orphan, the meek, the poor, the sick, and the outcast. To an outsider to Christianity, as I am, these directions by Jesus are the most admirable parts of his teachings, particularly because he tells his followers that the empathy and actions he encourages are to be directed to all, not just to Jews.

When I’ve had political discussions with some righties, and I state these ideas, along with Jesus’ clear direction to the wealthy to give away their wealth to the poor, the righties often tell me that Jesus also said that “the poor will always be with you” with the meaning that helping the poor is a hopeless task.

I assume that, as a student of language and the Bible, you are familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis. This is the idea, originated by German theologians and scholars 200 years ago, but added to since then, that the Bible texts that have come down to us are the product of many minds who wrote down oral accounts that had been circulating for centuries. By detailed textual analysis of the ancient Hebrew, and careful comparisons of the many stories told twice or three times in the ancient books, those scholars proposed several earlier sources, which they named J, E, P, D, and R. That is the Yahweh stories, the Elohim stories, the Priestly stories and laws, the Deuteronomist, and the Redactor. That J is from the German for the wye sound, as in Jehovah. The R is for redactor, a fancy word for editor. For all the Torah books, the scholars believe that the Redactor or redactors assembled material from several earlier oral and written sources. But Deuteronomy, they believe was written by a single person long after the others.

I forget the details, but one of those Kings, like Josiah or Hezekiah, intended to institute religious practice reforms. As you know, the ancient Hebrew people often to slipped away from the Lord’s way. The prophets and the Lord himself frequently scolded them. Supposedly, the scroll of Deuteronomy was found during Temple renovations, the people assembled, and the newly discovered ‘ancient” text read to them.

I must say that people today have similar troubles to those ancient Jews, although I suppose we aren’t running after the Phoenician women as those old guys did. I hope that our ethical standards are higher than the ancient ones, as for example we now believe that slavery is immoral, but we still have trouble living up to our ideals.



I found this essay by journalist Jonathan Chait in New York magazine.

Jonathan Chait doesn’t know his Bible as well as Fred Clark does, but he tells us more about the Congressman who cited “the poor you will always be with you.” The guy is a physician! Chait analyzes the Congressman’s reasoning about Medicaid as a wonk.

We can say that Marshall is cruel, unfeeling, and un-Christian. He has missed a major theme of Jesus’ teaching, which, to help us understand, he taught by precept, by parable, and by example. Jesus, often quoting the Scriptures, said that his followers should care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sick, the outcast, and the foreigner.



In response to you and to Chait, here’s how I see things.

Some people are born incurably broken physically, some were maimed or broken as children, some never had enough mental capacity to understand what healthcare means, some were racked apart by war, and so forth. Many of these people are permanently disabled, meaning literally not able to take care of themselves. It’s not that they don’t care, or that they make rational decisions to refuse healthcare or refuse aid. Rather, it’s that they never learned how to make considered and informed decisions in their own interest, or they never even could have learned, or they’re not physically or mentally or financially able to carry out such decisions.

We humans are morally obligated to take care of our disabled people, compassionately and proactively. To do anything less as individuals and as societies would take us back hundreds or thousands of years.

Always, some people will dishonestly game a grant system for their own profit. We can only do our best to minimize their impact, and we can do that only through regulation and frequent inspection, i.e. the kinds of non-profit-related work that Trump and gang see, foolishly or ignorantly (or worse), as useless aspects of government to be removed wherever possible and as quickly as possible.



From my young, thoughtful, Christian correspondent in response to Chait:

Marshall is both right and wrong. He’s wrong to hijack Jesus’ teachings and use them to argue for ignoring the needs of the poor. But in a way he’s pointing at the root of the problem. Expanding Medicaid will certainly help meet immediate medical needs, which is good, but it will not address the cultural and behavioral roots that cause a disproportionate amount of poor Americans to be unhealthy. JD Vance addresses these roots in his book Hillbilly Elegy (although it’s not the primary focus of the book). I’d like to see the poor have better access to healthy food and information/coaching on how to get healthy and stay healthy. The article is clearly politicking and wants to paint self-professed Christians like Marshall as hypocrites–fine, ok, they probably deserve it–but articles like this betray the order of their true priorities, which is to villainize and muckrake, rather than discuss roots of problems and constructive solutions.



Here is my response the above from our ytC (young, thoughtful, Christian correspondent) .

I’ve been thinking about your ideas about Kansas Republican Congressman Marshall’s remarks about poor people and health policy, and his incorrect citation of Jesus in support of his views.

I agree with you that Marshall takes that phrase of Jesus, not even a sentence, and turns Jesus’ teaching on its head. I thought that Fred Clark’s essay, written as an informed and careful Christian, was exemplary. For this quotation, which I have often heard cited with just the same upside down sense, Clark gives us the context, a better translation, and then demonstrates what Jesus must have meant, and the meaning that must have been clear to his audience, by showing us the set of verses from Deuteronomy that Jesus was citing.

You agree that Congressman Marshall is misquoting Jesus, but you believe that he is correctly describing poor people and their attitude toward health. You say that our discussion should not be about scoring political points, but about finding the best ways to help troubled and poor people find better health. Medicaid, you say, is a solution to the symptoms, not to the pathology.

But the context of Marshall’s interview is not about expanding Medicaid, but about shrinking it. While Marshall’s Kansas did not expand Medicaid in response to Obamacare, the Republicans’ proposal for a replacement to Obamacare reverses the Medicaid expansion in those states that have accepted it. Indeed, one of the fights going on among Republicans in the House of Representatives is between the leadership, whose bill reverses the Medicaid expansion in 2020, and the 30 member Freedom Caucus that wants to reverse the expansion immediately.

Here is the original news source for Congressman Marshall’s remarks, cited by Chait. This an on-line news source, owned by the guy who owns both the Boston Globe and the Boston Red Sox. Its name comes from the medical term stat, which means right now! As I read their story about Marshall and a group of a couple dozen Republican physician-Congressmen, it is generally friendly and favorable to him and to them, describing their key role in the present debates. You can judge for yourself. The reporter does not present his story in question and answer format, so we don’t know the questions, only paraphrases of them, but the statements by the Congressman we are discussing are in quotation marks.

Marshall is explaining why taking away health insurance from poor people would not harm them. The Congressman cites his experience as a physician and hospital manager. He says that poor people don’t want to be healthy, and they don’t want to be responsible for their own health. You say that expanding Medicaid, a matter not presently up for discussion in Washington, does not address the “cultural and behavioral roots” that cause poor Americans to be unhealthy. Indeed. It does, however, address the problem of paying physicians, nurses, and hospitals to treat people who otherwise could not pay for health care. It seems to me that lack of money is a well-established root cause for ill health. The published research generally shows that people’s health improves when Medicaid allows them to pay physicians.

As a matter of fact, most people don’t like receiving charity. People without health insurance and little money delay going to the doctor, hoping that their ailments will improve on their own. Plenty of well off sensible people do this too. Now this is a “cultural and behavioral” cause for not going to the doctor. Dr. Marshall asserts that the “cultural and behavioral” characteristic of people with little money that prevents them from seeing a doctor is that they don’t care about their health. Jonathan Chait and I believe that a simpler cultural and behavioral characteristic of poor people that prevents them from seeing a doctor is that they don’t have the means to pay.

I conclude from this that Chait is not just scoring political points by criticizing Marshall for mis-quoting Jesus. Chait is engaging Marshall in a discussion of the root causes of the relatively poor health of people without health insurance or money as compared to the rest of society. Marshall says it is because those people don’t want to be healthy, and offers no solution to that. To your credit, you suggest some useful ideas, none of which is part of the Republican plan to replace Obamacare. Chait says that the main reason that people with little money avoid doctors is because they have little money. His article is just what you propose: a discussion of the root causes of this problem of ill health among poor people.


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Why does Medicaid coverage often stink? And related questions and answers.


Here’s a NY Times pick from comments on their article about students rioting at Middlebury College when Charles Murray was there to speak (boldfacing mine):

Michjas Phoenix 15 hours ago
I am a very liberal Democrat. Often I find myself correcting obvious errors among the black and white crowd. Today my mission has been to argue that Medicaid coverage often stinks and that those who champion the ACA need to be critical about those added to the Medicaid rolls. I have always been a critic of Medicaid and I have always been seen as very liberal. But now, expressing the same ideas, I have been taken for a defender of Trump. It is incumbent upon all to distinguish their enemies from their constructive critics. Too many have lost the ability to recognize constructive criticism. The temper of the time is important. But we are all individually responsible for how we think, and those who can’t tell their friends from their enemies have themselves to blame. Ignorance is ignorance, and it doesn’t matter if your intentions are good.

Here are my questions and my answers in response to Michjas’s comment:

Q: Why does Medicaid coverage often stink?
A: Because it pays only fractions on the dollar, thus many doctors refuse to accept Medicaid patients.

Q: Why exactly do doctors refuse to accept such patients?
A: Because they are not willing to incur losses of profits, or even actual financial losses, by taking on such patients.

Q: Why might doctors incur losses?
A: Because of the very high costs of relatively ordinary treatments and procedures in American medicine. For example, the electrocardiogram I got in a Spanish clinic in early 2014 after having struggled on Napoleon’s route over the Pyrenees cost me out-of-pocket something like $190 as a foreigner not covered in any way by Spanish healthcare – the same simple procedure in the US costs 5 to 10 times as much.

Q: Why are American healthcare costs so high compared to most of the rest of the world?
A: In part because so much of healthcare in America is privatized and for-profit in large companies that, with Citizens United, are legally entitled to influence, or even control, politics and law-making by pouring cash on politicians, who then create or modify laws to enable enormous and still-growing profits in medicine and pharmaceuticals. This is a disastrous feedback loop for everyone except the highly wealthy. Contributing to the loop is unlimited liability for medical enterprises, from which lawyers profit greatly. Early evening television has been flooded by ads for drugs, debt consolidation/relief, and legal help related to healthcare (cars and beer have always been there, and cigarettes used to be).

Q: Why do Americans put up with this destructive cycle?
A: Because not enough of us have put our minds and resources together to stop it. Maybe we’re scared and galvanized enough now to get on with it. One place to attack it is in Trump’s planned expansion of privatized prisons. Privatization of fundamental community matters is the true underlying problem. Yes, government can be wasteful. But that’s better than the hellholes of our healthcare system, our prisons and our overall infrastructure, all of which have been looted by large corporate interests.

Another line of questioning – and one should carry out several or many lines to triangulate the whole truth – would inquire into why Medicaid pays only fractions on the dollar. I think the answer comes out the same, though: high costs of ordinary healthcare, which have been exacerbated in recent years by private physician practices getting folded into large private hospital chains that are inexorable on profitability across the board. Most doctors now report to accountants, not to senior medical people (but I’d have to fact check that assertion – it’s certainly true in Concord MA – I’m aware of only one private practice left in town).



Well, we can take Michjas’s self-description as a liberal who hates Medicaid at face value. Of course, Medicaid can be improved, but contrary to what he (I assume) says, Medicaid is much better than the alternative of no health insurance for those poor people. And that is the only alternative presently on the table for consideration. We know this because of all the Republican legislators and governors who refused Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid and because of the provisions of the Republican alternative to Obamacare now under consideration. So, just what does Mr. Phoenix propose? The comment doesn’t say.

As for your questions, I’ll just say, for the moment, that the reasons why medical costs, and, therefore, health insurance costs, are so high in the US are complicated. I look at blogs and essays by experts, such as Princeton economics professor Uwe Reinhardt and Dr. Aaron Carroll, and I see that they find the system and the forces that influence it complex. These are many factors, which researchers see, but research tends to find mixed results when people try to figure out one or even just a few causes for the high costs.

But the costs are high compared to other advanced nations, and the results worse. See the two charts below. I sent a link to these earlier.

You have surely noticed on your bills from your medical providers that there is an amount listed as “the price” for some service. Then there is the amount listed as a negotiated price, negotiated between the provider’s accountants and your insurance. Of that negotiated price, there will then be an amount paid by the insurance, and an amount that you owe. Medicare, Medicaid, and any insurer have negotiated with any provider. Part of the settlement is an agreement by the provider not to come after you for the difference between their “price” and the lower negotiated price. (And to allow them to come after you is one of the key “reforms” that Trump’s new Secretary Price (a politician-physician) intends to implement.) They agree to accept the insurance payment and your “patient responsibility” amount as full payment.

I don’t have the detailed bill at hand, but I see that from my most recent visit to my cardiologist I’m paying the U of South Florida’s medical practice $56 for a “Routine EKG using at least 12 leads w/interp and rpt.” I think that this is my 20% of the Medicare negotiated price for this procedure, which is likely similar to your Spanish EKG [see below]. If this is 20%, then the negotiated price was $280, not 5 or 10 times the Spanish price.



I paid out of pocket $190 for an EKG in Spain in 2014, in a village walk-in government clinic which was not an emergency room. When we came back to the US I looked up walk-in EKG costs around the country and found much higher costs for an EKG, 5 to 10 times as expensive for walk-ins. Here’s a current example of a market-oriented heaalthcare site that says, for an EKG, anywhere from $190 in rural Henderson NC to $2,700 in Las Vegas. Is this site to be believed? Hard to know.  Maybe your EKG cost number didn’t include the whole story, which as I understand is pretty often the case. The hospital chain adds their charge, the company that manages hospital billing adds a charge, and so on and so on.



I’ve received my Medicare statement for activity for December, January, and February. So I see the details of the billing for that EKG I got:

Routine EKG using at least 12 leads including interpretation and report.

Service approved: Yes
Amount Provider Charged: $56.00
Medicare Approved Amount: $17.00
Amount Medicare Paid: $13.33
Maximum You May Be Billed: $3.40 (And I was billed this by the USF practice.)

Established patient office or other outpatient visit, typically 15 minutes.

Service approved: Yes
Amount Provider Charged: $138.00
Medicare Approved Amount: $72.74
Amount Medicare Paid: $57.03
Amount You May Be Billed: $14.55 (And I was billed this.)

The total Charged for this office visit and EKG is $194.00! I put the exclamation point because that is might close to your report for what you were billed for your Spanish examination, which I suppose was in an urgent care clinic or even an emergency room. The Medicare Approved Amount is $89.74, the Amount Medicare Paid was $70.36, and the Amount I Paid was $17.95.


I read, as you do, that charges for medical procedures vary widely in the United States. Also the frequency of various procedures.

Then we have this funny business with a Provider Price, a negotiated lower price, an insurer payment and a patient payment.

I believe that Medicare, and every large health insurer, and Medicaid do this negotiating on our behalf.
Republicans believe that one cause of our high health care costs is that people are demanding and using too much care. According to this line of thinking, we demand more health care than necessary (or available) because we don’t pay out of pocket. We don’t feel the cost because it comes out of our pay checks before we see them, and the medical bills don’t come to us but to our insurer.

Thus, a key part of Republicans’ solutions to the high cost of medical care is for us to purchase high deductible health insurance and for any medical care to have co-pays too. Supposedly, we won’t demand unnecessary care, and we will compare prices among providers, choosing lower cost ones, and we will negotiate with our physicians to lower their prices.

Below are a couple of useful graphs, which I got from Mark Thoma, a blogging economics professor. The first includes comparative data going back 45 years, the second is comparative data for 2014. As he and his sources are economists, you will see that they now how to properly compare costs over time and internationally. See the link for attributions and more information. Click the charts to see larger versions of each.



The much higher prices I showed you from the market-oriented website represent, I believe, the parallel situation here: if you walk in for an EKG and have no known insurer in this country, I believe these are the numbers you’d see, i.e. mostly $500-$800 but some outliers below and above those numbers, one of them as low as $190.



I agree with you that hospital emergency room treatments are the most expensive way to get any particular treatment in the US.

As you describe your treatment, it wasn’t a hospital emergency room, but a medical group practice, government run, and you were cared for as you might have been here at an urgent care clinic. In this country, urgent care clinics are in between emergency care and regular doctors’ offices for costs.

But I’ll add that once when I was in Paris on business, I was traveling with a former friend who was, as the time suffering from Stage IV breast cancer. I don’t remember the details but she had some problem, ran out or forgot to bring it, or the bottle leaked, with one of her various expensive medications. While I was working with my French colleagues, she walked into a French pharmacy, where a sympathetic and knowledgeable pharmacist listened carefully. Then she handed my friend the medications. Free. No French doctor’s prescription required. No problem. Any other issues, come see me, she said.

We are seeing the difference between civilized nations and our present descent into a Hobbesian state of nature and barbarism.

In this regard, I call your attention to Nicholas Kristof’s column: A conversation between Jesus and Paul of Ryan.


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Denying Evolution is Implicitly Denying That Airplanes Fly


Our choices and uses of words get us into endless troubles among ourselves (speaking about all humanity here).

The word “evolve” connotes development from simpler to more complex, or from primitive to something better, whatever “better” might happen to mean in the context. The word “evolution” connotes something gradually changing from simpler and more primitive to something more complex and increasingly better.

Everyone agrees that living things and their artifacts change. We individually grow and decay and die, our human groups form and fracture and disappear, fashions come and go. Nothing – but nothing – is static and unchanging, not even the most rugged mountain, not continents, not the tilt of the earth’s axis. We know these things now. Time and change mean exactly the same thing. There would be no time if there were no change, and vice versa.

We humans don’t agree yet on the fundamental cause or causes for change. But some of us humans now know the key mechanisms of physical change, through logic and science, and only through them. Energy continues to flow from some unknown starting point billions of years ago. Suns eventually beam energy onto earths that have energetic molten cores. Atmospheres form. Sunlight whips up winds and clouds. Rain. Bodies of water. Energy from sunlight and/or geothermal vents churns up more complex molecules in water and mud. Eventually some molecules self-replicate as ever more complex crystals. After a few billion years, primates and humans emerged here along with self-awareness and science and poetry. No master designer needed. True, there’s an enormous amount more to learn and know about exactly how and when. But we can now predict with increasing accuracy, for example the next three days of weather. Darwin and Wallace predicted in the 1860s that a moth with an extraordinary 18-inch tongue must exist on Madagascar; 40 years later biologists found exactly that. Accurate prediction distinguishes logic and science from belief. Humanity knows that vaccinations can bring down certain people a little or even a lot, but we predict accurately that if not enough people get vaccinated for some dread disease, then far more people will suffer terribly or die, for example with smallpox or polio or (hopefully soon) Ebola.

Some humans don’t accept the above. Instead they apply intuition along with inherited texts and myths to explain the world around them and the visible relentless change in everything. As you wrote in a recent blog entry, we humans have the illusion of free will, that things happen because we choose for them to happen. The multiplicity of religions and gods among humans demonstrates that no one such belief or text or myth could be the sole ultimate truth. In contrast, logic and science are the same everywhere around the planet. The art of engineering rests completely upon logic and science. Believers can ride in airplanes miles up in the sky only because logic and science and engineering were applied carefully with highly predictable (but not always perfect) outcomes: flights across continents, around the world, all the way to the moon and Mars and out towards the stars.

What can we say to people like Pence to help them understand the bedrock truths and facts of logic, science, engineering and prediction? I imagine talking about the Mississippi River. Look at the empty oxbows, the enormous delta south of New Orleans. Did some self-aware entity design these patterns? If you, all-knowing Mr. Pence, were tasked with designing the Mississippi, would you make hundreds of thousands of false starts that leave abandoned side oxbows and dead-end bayous? Or would you just make a perfect Mississippi and be done with it? The last is obviously an absurd notion. There’s no being done with it. We ourselves can see and feel the rains and floods and re-channeling. The Mississippi is an enormous changing entity, writhing and evolving under the flow of energy transformed into moving water. Is the Mississippi somehow “better” today than it was yesterday? Meaningless question. Could be worse today. It depends. And the Mississippi will disappear too, someday.

There is no Theory of Evolution, really. We’re stuck with those words right now. The bedrock truth is, everything changes always and everywhere, all things are interdependent, some things happen to persist in their current environment while other unlucky things wither or die. To deny Evolution is to deny logic, science, engineering, prediction, and commercial airline flight. One might accuse the deniers with being freeloaders or parasites or worse, taking the fruits while rejecting the toil and the blood and suffering invested by millions of humans, Galileo and so many others, to bring us, with many fits and starts and backtracks, this far out of the darkness. We cannot, we must not allow ourselves to sink back into that darkness.


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US Contributions to the UN in 2010


The latest available numbers (source) for the US’s annual contributions to the UN, summarized in the pie chart below, come from 2010. Congress passed a law in December 2016 to resume tracking contributions every year. Trump is reportedly seeking to trim up to 40% from US contributions to the UN. The areas most affected would have to be peacekeeping, food, and refugee relief. Cuts in these can only increase global instability. I’ve appended breakdowns for the largest categories, at the end of this post.


In 2010 the US spent $682.7b on its military (source), which is almost 100 times more than the US spent on critical global concerns via the UN. Conceptually, contributions to the UN are like taxes paid to the next higher level of governance. The less tax we pay as the wealthiest nation on the planet, the more likely the planet as a whole will suffer and we will suffer too, sooner or later.


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So-Called Artificial Intelligence: Google Translate Awakens


This weekend’s New York Times has a fine article on AI, The Great A.I. Awakening. I commented briefly on the article on the Times’s site but I want to say a lot more.

The article vividly documents Google Translate’s recent revolution in how it works. Until now, auto-translation engines have modeled languages explicitly via rules, dictionaries, and the like. The new Translate, and its Chinese competitor on Baidu, instead enable a multi-layer neural net – a simulated brain, basically – to learn language translation by being fed thousands or millions of existing examples of translations. Researchers fed Google Translate the complete English and French versions of the Canadian Parliament’s proceedings, for instance, presumably along with many translated classic books, newspapers, and so forth. The new engines learn like human toddlers do, by unconsciously copying behaviors they observe, over and over again, until they evolve to proficiency. And like humans, the new engines will continue learning their entire “lives” by observing and copying new examples with new words and new phrases in all languages. But note: the new engines will not be able to go out in the world themselves to find worthy new examples, not for a very long time yet. They’ll need human care and feeding for the foreseeable future.

From near the end of the article:

A neural network built to translate could work through millions of pages of documents of legal discovery in the tiniest fraction of the time it would take the most expensively credentialed lawyer. The kinds of jobs taken by automatons will no longer be just repetitive tasks that were once — unfairly, it ought to be emphasized — associated with the supposed lower intelligence of the uneducated classes. We’re not only talking about three and a half million truck drivers who may soon lack careers. We’re talking about inventory managers, economists, financial advisers, real estate agents.

All true. But all decades out in the future, maybe several or many decades. Why? I see it like this. A toddler computer learns from a team of humans whose only job today is to feed and raise this child quickly to do one thing well. The toddler computer has no eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands, legs or feet. The toddler computer processes fed-in data 24×7 and learns its one thing quickly in its tiny simulated brain, much faster than a human child would. But a human child processes many orders of magnitude of far, far richer data per time period than the computer child can: visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, the physics of standing and walking and making sounds, the complexities of language, and so forth, all integrated and organized within its real brain. See for example this discussion.

The human child’s brain is the culmination of millions of generations of evolving, increasingly more powerful prototypes equipped with extraordinarily capable sensors of several kinds. The human brain perceives and processes the world around it continuously at a huge data rate. The human body moves freely in space. With respect to attaining human-like intelligence and self awareness, then, the computer toddler has a truly enormous gap yet to cross. The crossing cannot possibly be quick, meaning in just a few years or a decade. It’s been only a few years since the total computing power on the planet exceeded just one human brain’s computing power.

Not to diminish or underplay the Google Translate achievements in any way. They are stunning. But I view them as like Watt’s invention of rotary steam motion in the late 1700s: an enormous enabler of a revolution, but still just the very beginning. And I’m not one bit worried by the article’s conclusion that “once machines can learn from human speech, even the comfortable job of the programmer is threatened.” No, not for a very long time yet to come.

As the article says, “The goal posts for ‘artificial intelligence’ are thus constantly receding.” Each step seems major, and Google Translate’s awakening is indeed major, but it’s still tiny in the big picture of true intelligence and self awareness.



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