Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Alcoholism: There’s no cure, but there is a test

Addiction and Recovery

By Bob Gaydos
Living in a world in which seemingly anything one might want is just a click away, it’s easy, maybe even natural, to assume there are quick fixes for everything. A robot for every chore. A cloud for every data storage problem. A pill for every illness.
Not yet. Sorry, alcoholics, there is still no pill that cures alcoholism.
It’s not for a lack of trying, to be sure. While research continues to find the magic pill, thus far the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved three medications to treat what is referred to clinically as alcohol use disorder or alcohol dependence. The FDA says the medications are non-addictive. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, they are:
  • Naltrexone, which is used to treat opioid addiction, but some researchers say can also help people reduce heavy drinking. It is available in pill and long-acting injectable form. Researchers say it acts in the brain to reduce the craving for alcohol in those who have already stopped drinking. However, treatment with naltrexone is not enough on its own. NIAAA says the medication was reported to be effective when combined with counseling, psychotherapy, and alcoholism support groups.
  • Acamprosate, which the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) says makes it easier for some who have already stopped drinking to stay stopped by reducing withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia and restlessness, that may follow lengthy abstinence. Of course, counseling, psychotherapy, and alcoholism support groups might help in these cases also.
  • Disulfiram (Antabuse), which blocks the metabolism of alcohol by the body, causing unpleasant symptoms such as nausea, headache, sweating and flushing of the skin. The idea is you will get so sick if you drink alcohol while taking Antabuse you won’t want to drink alcohol. Or, as some alcoholics decide, you won’t want to take Antabuse. It’s the nature of the disease.
There are complications, starting with the fact that each individual is different, meaning some medications might work for some and not others. For example, according to SAMSHA: “Patients with liver damage usually cannot use either naltrexone or disulfiram. However, because acamprosate is not metabolized in the liver, patients with liver damage can safely take the medication.” All the medications have a variety of possible side effects.
Also -- and here’s the major stumbling block for many with a serious alcohol problem -- for each of the treatments the optimal recommended situation is that the person is abstinent at the beginning and is committed to recovery. That may mean detox and, for many, in-patient or out-patient treatment. It also means being honest with your doctor and rehab counselors about your goals, actually being willing to stop drinking and not looking for a quick fix for your problems.
Having a primary care doctor who has more than a cursory understanding of alcohol and drug abuse is an excellent starting point, especially if medication-assisted treatment is to be involved. This doctor must screen patients to determine the level of alcohol use, assess the need for or appropriateness of medication-assisted treatment, develop a treatment plan, choose an appropriate medication and monitor patient progress. If your doctor is unable or unwilling to do all this and you want to try medication-assisted treatment, he or she should refer you to one who is.
But remember, none of these drugs cures alcoholism. They are designed to help manage a chronic disease by discouraging or reducing alcohol intake. That’s obviously crucial, but on its own is not necessarily recovery, which is generally defined as avoiding the trouble associated with drinking as well as avoiding the alcohol itself.
This being a disease of the brain, it is recommended that some kind of counseling or support group accompany the use of these medicines.
It’s also important to know that, while there may not be a magic pill to cure alcoholism, there is a way to help determine a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder. The NIAAA offers a test that you can take:
***
In the past year, have you:
  • Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended?
  • More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  • Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects?
  • Experienced craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink?
  • Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
  • More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
  • Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
  • Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there?
Your score: Mild: The presence of two to three symptoms. Moderate: The presence of four to five symptoms. Severe: The presence of six or more symptoms.
Be honest with yourself and -- as the test suggests -- acknowledge your drinking’s effect on others. That’s key, whether you call it alcoholism or alcohol use disorder and whether you use some pill to treat it or not.
bobgaydos.blogspot.com

Facebook has an algorithm problem

By Bob Gaydos

Algorithms are cool. I get it. I mean, I get that they’re cool, not how they work. I like to think that, if I had to, I could probably work really hard to understand them, but I dropped out of engineering school to do this. No regrets.

In fact, writing about life in all its complexities has given me an appreciation for what people -- real people, not some numbers-crunched algorithm people -- have to deal with on a daily basis. It has exposed me to the value of compassion, compromise and common sense.

Our universal dictionary, Wikipedia, defines an algorithm as “an unambiguous specification of how to solve a class of problems. Algorithms can perform calculation, data processing and automated reasoning tasks.”

But they can’t, obviously, do ambiguous.

I’m thinking about algorithms because Facebook, an Internet empire built on them, recently said it was going to hire 1,000 people to review ads in response to the embarrassing revelation that users’ news feeds during the 2016 U.S. presidential election were awash in political ads run by Russians, undoubtedly using their own algorithms to target various groups in an effort to influence the outcome. Facebook said Russians bought about $100,000 in ads -- with rubles -- but apparently the social media giant’s algorithms detected no ambiguity afoot with Russians arguing to protect Americans’ Second Amendment rights or stirring up anti-gay feelings, not in Moscow, but in the American heartland.

Congress is investigating. That’s good. It should do something this year. But Facebook has more than a Russia problem. It has become the major source of news for millions of Americans, yet its news feeds have been shown to be awash in fake news. Lots of really fake news, not Trump “fake news,” which is real news.

Facebook -- actually Mark Zuckerberg -- is talking about becoming a more responsible source of reliable news information and hiring “content moderators” to review, well, content, and a lot of additional people to look out for violent content on the site. Swell. 

If you will permit me a self-serving observation, he’s talking about hiring people to exercise judgment over what appears publicly on Facebook because: (1) algorithms can’t think or feel like people and (2) this is how responsible newspapers have operated forever. Just saying.

In the interests of full disclosure, I also will say I have had my own personal experiences with Facebook algorithms. Recently, I received an e-mail telling me that an ad I wanted to run boosting a column on a Facebook page I administer was rejected because it had too much copy. It didn’t say the copy was boring or poorly written or even offensive. Just too much of it.

OK, I’ve had editors tell me the same thing, but I was also never prepared to give an editor ten bucks just to run the column. Oh yeah, the ad in question was proposed in July. I got the rejection e-mail on Halloween.

Then there’s the friendly way Facebook greets me every day with news of the weather in Phillipsport. “Rain is in the forecast today, Robert.” Thank you. If I Iived in Phillipsport it would matter a lot more, but it’s a half hour drive and there’s a big mountain range between us and my page unambiguously says where I live. Can’t the algorithm read?

But the incident that really convinced me that Facebook had an algorithm problem was its response to a complaint I filed regarding a post that was being sarcastic about the dotard-in-chief. I am guilty as charged of leveling (much-deserved) sarcasm at the Trump, but this cartoon had him in a coffin with a bystander saying to Melania, “‘Sorry about the assassination, Mrs.Trump, but he knew what he signed up for.”

As a “content moderator” for newspapers for several decades, I would never let such a tasteless, provocative, potentially dangerous item to be published. I told Facebook the same thing. I said they should delete it. It encouraged violence at a violent time in our history.

The algorithm replied that the post did not violate Facebook’s standard of, I don’t know: Acceptability? Appropriateness? Decency? Who sets this pathetic standard?

I use Facebook a lot. It has many wonderful benefits. But “automated reasoning” is not a substitute for good old, gut-instinct common sense. It’s the best way to connect people with people. Maybe people cost a little more than algorithms, but I think Zuck can afford it and there are a lot of laid off editors looking for work. If it’s not fake news that he’s serious about running for president some day, he’ll be glad he did it.

I’m also curious to know what Facebook says if I decide I want to pay to boost this post. I wonder if they’ll let me run a picture of Zuck. Can I even call him Zuck?

Stay tuned.

bobgaydos.blogspot.com

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Fly me to the moon ... please!

By Bob Gaydos
"Planet X"
Trump thinks he’s an emperor.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and about 70 percent of the country think the president is a moron.

Of that remaining 30 percent, a sizable portion believe Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and the earthquakes that rocked Mexico were god’s vengeance on humankind for (a) the mere existence of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons and (b) the idea that such persons should be allowed the same rights as “normal” people. Others in this group take it as fact that there were a pair of dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark.

This is by way of reporting, in case you missed it, that Nibiru once again failed to live up to its hype. This is not disappointing, but it is getting old.

If you somehow missed it, Nibiru is a “giant planet,” supposedly discovered by the Sumerians, which, according to one translation of ancient Babylonian texts, passes by Earth every 3,600 years to allows its inhabitants to interact with earthlings. NASA says it's a hoax, but the prediction has evolved (or mutated) into Nibiru (also called Planet X), flying into or close by Earth, causing cataclysmic problems. That was supposed to happen in May 2003 and again in December of 2012. 

Also, Sept. 23 just passed. Missed again, although the “end of times” had been predicted by David Meade, a conspiracy theorist and self-proclaimed "Christian numerologist" who must have miscalculated, as did all those web sites dedicated to Nibiru.

It’s the interactive fly-by of Nibiru that caught my attention, though, not the hellfire and brimstone and rising tides theory. One would have to think that any celestial visitors these days would only have to slow down enough to take a peek at the headlines and decide to come back in another 3600 years when maybe we had our stuff a little better together.

Some people, however, are not willing to wait that long for contact with beings from elsewhere in the universe. Doug Vakoch is one of those. The president of METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is moving along with announced plans to send messages to stars with planets thought to be capable of sustaining life. First transmissions are scheduled for next year, despite warnings from some noted scientists that in sending messages rather than just listening for them he may be inviting trouble in the form of nasty aliens, as portrayed in many science-fiction movies.

Vakoch and his crew of serious scientists dismiss those portrayals as the result of active imaginations and a situation for which we have no actual data. “One of the reasons people are so afraid of METI is that it seems riskier to do something than to do nothing,” he says.

Ironically, one of those who have voiced warnings about METI is Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX. Musk is not the sit-around-and-wait -for-things-to-happen type.

Last month, as earthlings were breathing a sigh of relief at having been spared the wrath of Nibiru once more, Musk was in Australia at the annual meeting of the International Astronautical Congress moving up the deadline on his intent (some say pipe dream) to launch a manned mission to Mars. He’s talking 2024. Yes, seven years. Employing a really big rocket with lots of powerful engines, his plan is to launch two cargo missions to Mars in 2022 and four missions in 2024, two cargo and two with crews. Eventually, the goal is to create a colony, with the rockets transporting 100 people per trip.

Paying for his grand plans is always a question with Musk. He says he figures on building lots of rockets (smaller than his original plan) which can also be used to fly people to Paris or London or Tokyo instead of just Mars. He says his system could move people between any two cities on this planet in less than an hour, for an appropriate fee of course. People would be the payload on the Mars rockets, also. Investors welcome.

Closer to home, Musk says the really big rocket could be used to take people to the Moon. “It's 2017, we should have a lunar base by now,” he said in Australia. “What the hell is going on?”

Well, sir, as stated above, the president (whose business advisory councils you quit and who named a climate-denier to head NASA) thinks he’s an emperor, the secretary of state thinks he’s a moron and 30 percent of Americans -- some of whom think dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark -- are apparently still OK with all that.

So, Messrs. Musk and Vakoch, if you don't mind, let’s get those rockets and inter-planetary messages going quickly, before the emperor declares war on Nibiru.

bobgaydos.blogspot.com

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

It's a burger ... and so much more

By Bob Gaydos

America's burger
“Write about something other than him,” my inner voice said.

“Write about something other than him,” she pleaded.

“I’ll try,” I said. “I’ll really try.”

                                      ***

… So I was scrolling through my Facebook feed the other night when a photo grabbed my attention and made me stop and look at it more closely. It was a promotion for an eatery in my vicinity and the obvious attempt was to be as mouth-wateringly appetizing as possible. Good idea if you’re selling food.

For me, however, the effect was heart-stoppingly different. The photo was of a burger, but not just any burger. In today’s highly competitive world of restaurants, even a burger has got to be somehow special. Bigger. Untraditional. Jam-packed. For me, this one definitely qualified. In addition to the hefty bun and lots of char-broiled ground beef, it included a slice of cheddar cheese, two slices of bacon, tons of fried onions and -- this is what got my attention -- a fried egg to top it all off.

Be still my heart, is obviously the response the creators were hoping for. Heart-attack special, I thought. Do people actually eat those things? I wondered. Is the egg really necessary? I asked Google.

Apparently, yes, such burgers are not only eaten. but there is a competition to see who can pile as many calories and as much fat and cholesterol into cheeseburgers and market them as great sources of protein.

I get it. People love it. They eat it up.

Well, some people. People who are concerned that they are overweight, or have high blood pressure, or diabetes, or high cholesterol, or heart disease -- which is millions of Americans by the way -- are not necessarily enamored of the super burger. Nor are people who are simply interested in living a longer, healthier life. Certainly they don’t make these burgers a regular part of their diet.

Again, what struck me was the fact that this burger was apparently not so special in that lots of food establishments -- fast and not-so-fast food -- offer some variation of the heart-stopper. A lot of Americans do eat this way fairly regularly. Even as the fast-food giants scramble to put more healthful-sounding (if not actually healthful) items on their menus, the kitchen-sink burger reigns supreme and lean (as in meat) is mean. Fat’s still where it’s at.

Listen, what you eat is your business and nobody likes a know-it-all or scold, especially when it comes to food. I don’t expect to change anybody’s diet by pointing out that the federal government’s 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend keeping your body’s cholesterol levels low by eating as little dietary cholesterol as possible. There are no limits, true, but the body makes its own cholesterol and doesn’t need help from such foods as red meat, egg yolks, dairy products, butter. Overdone, they tend to clog things (arteries) up. The guidelines also suggest you really want to limit your sodium intake, eat very little in the way of added sugars and saturated fats (regular ground beef, baked goods, cheese, pizza, French fries, ice cream) and no trans fats (baked goods, fried foods, packaged foods).

That’s pretty much your whole diet, right? It used to be mine. But, as I said, it’s your choice. I chose a few years ago -- after a warning about being overweight and having high cholesterol and blood sugar counts -- to pretty much eliminate red meat from my diet and to significantly reduce sugar (which figures in cholesterol and heart disease problems as well as diabetes), salt and unhealthy fats from my diet. I had help making that decision.

I cheat only rarely, have lost significant weight and -- other than some bones broken in a recent auto accident -- am in pretty good health for a 76-year-old. I do not deprive myself of foods I love that aren’t going to wreak havoc on my body. I also don’t drink alcohol or smoke.

So what’s the point of living, you ask, if you can’t have a few beers and polish off a half-pound of beef dripping with bacon grease and cheese, topped with salt and ketchup (sugar) and a fried egg?

For me, I guess living is the point. If I knew that all of that stuff would not do any noticeable harm to my health, I’d probably indulge more. But they will, so I don’t. As a result, I get to keep doing what I enjoy -- writing --  hopefully without becoming a burden on others. I believe if the body stays healthy so does the mind. It’s a package deal.

The healthy mind part, to me, includes not dismissing out of hand any scientific information just because it doesn’t fit with my preferred view of the world. In addition to the epidemic of obesity in America, there is also a rising addiction, I believe, to willful ignorance: Science is wrong, the willfully ignorant say. Doctors are wrong. Historians are wrong. Nutritionists are wrong. Teachers are wrong. Journalists are wrong. Everyone who upsets my apple cart is wrong and I have a right to my opinion.

So, my opinion: The Earth is round, human behavior has caused significant warming of the planet’s temperature and indulging in an unhealthy diet out of some perverse notion that eating healthfully is some elitist plot is not just your personal opinion if it affects me. The cost of medical care and health insurance rise as our national health profile falls. As we neglect our bodies by rejecting science, so do we neglect our minds. As a nation, we become lazy, mentally as well as physically. 

That’s why it’s important to us as a nation to pass along sound, scientifically proven advice to our children on living a healthful -- perhaps happy and productive -- life. Even such a small example as former First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative for more healthful school lunches is helpful. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act took effect in 2010 and has been the source of controversy from the beginning. Among other things, it calls for more fruits and vegetables and less salt in school lunches.

It’s a simple way of teaching young people how to enjoy eating a more healthful diet. Since adults’ choices generally become their children’s choices, the national obesity issue does not involve just adults. So I was disappointed, on checking, to note that this year the rules for healthful school lunches have essentially been abandoned.

Still, I said to myself, there is always the exercise and fitness part of the equation. That’s important to pass on to kids and we have long had JFK’s-inspired President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition to set a good example in that regard. The council has typically recommended 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity every week. Keep those bodies moving, kids.

I visited that government site, which contains plenty of good information on living a healthy lifestyle. I was pleased to note that it encourages Americans to “follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan” and to support such patterns for everyone.

Great, I said. What else might the council have on its agenda? I wondered. And who’s on the council, anyway, I also wondered, remembering that Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Mr. Universe, California governor and Terminator is a former chairman.

Here’s what I found under the “Meet The Council” heading on the web site: “The President’s Council engages, educates, and empowers all Americans to adopt a healthy lifestyle that includes regular physical activity and good nutrition. The President’s Council is made up of athletes, chefs, physicians, fitness professionals, and educators who are appointed by the President and serve in an advisory capacity through the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

“Council Co-Chairs -- To Be Announced …

“Council Members -- To Be Announced …’’

There is no council.

Like I said, folks, it’s your choice. You’re on your own.

But at least I didn’t write about him.

bobgaydos.blogspot.com


Monday, September 25, 2017

Addiction and recovery

30+ years of meetings and sobriety

By Bob Gaydos
Among the things many people don’t understand about alcoholism/addiction is the concept of recovery, starting with the fact that it is possible. The news media, TV, movies -- even local gossip -- are full of stories about people doing foolish, harmful, criminal things while under the influence of alcohol or some other drug. There is not nearly as much time or space devoted to people living in recovery. Maybe it’s because we don’t find those stories as compelling. Or maybe it’s because we don’t know what recovery -- long-term recovery -- looks like.
Yes,”rehab” is now part of our vocabulary. Also, “in-patient,” “out-patient,” “day at a time,” “clean and sober.” But they usually refer to the early -- difficult, often dramatic -- days of recovery. Also today, there is a growing movement within the recovery community for people with long-term sobriety to go public with their stories in an effort to remove the stigma associated with addiction.
Still, there are thousands of other stories walking around mostly untold because that’s the way the people who live them want it. I talked with three members of Alcoholics Anonymous, each of whom respects the organization’s tradition of anonymity, has more than 30 years of recovery (no alcohol or other mood-altering substances) and still attends meetings regularly. Their stories are different, yet remarkably similar. They all live in upstate New York. Their identities are slightly changed.
* * *
“It’s not that you take it for granted (not drinking),” says Joe, a semi-retired septuagenarian from Orange County, who’s been sober 39 years, more than half his life. “You just don’t think about it because you’re living sober.”
“Every once in awhile I might feel like a drink to escape, but I know I can’t. When I feel like it, I talk to another alcoholic. At first, I hated it (AA). I didn’t want to be an alcoholic, I was going to show them.”
Another septuagenarian, Paul, from Sullivan County, has a similar tale. “For six years, I was in and out of AA. I lost hope.” Today, also semi-retired, he has 38 years of sobriety and says, when he has the occasional thought of a drink -- maybe while watching a TV commercial for a new brand of beer -- “I call my sponsor and he laughs.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” he says. “I don’t obsess. After a few years of sobriety, I was so involved in AA I would allow myself to think about it.”
Maryann, 55, from Ulster County, has been sober 34 years. She says she “never” feels like drinking. “I hated it. Every time I drank, I got sick.Yet from the age of 13 to 21 I continued to drink the poison. I may have the occasional thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to have a cool glass of wine or one of those new drinks?’ I have had drunk dreams (dreams of drinking).’”
A programmer, Maryann says, “It was important to stay connected in AA” to realize long-term recovery. “My family was in recovery. I had a sober parent and a parent who kept slipping. I decided I wanted to follow the sober parent. He introduced me to sober people. I knew I wasn’t going to do it by myself. How do you do it for 30 years? That’s a book’s worth question.”
She goes to four meetings a week “because I know what will happen if I stop. My attitude will get crappy. I’ll start to get scared or miserable and, I may not pick up a drink, but I won’t be fun to be around. I’ll be alone and miserable. Meetings give me an opportunity to talk to newcomers. It reminds me of what I could be like.”
“That’s why I go to meetings,” says Joe, “to deal with the human condition. It’s not just about not drinking, but living sober. Meetings help keep me balanced. Hearing other alcoholics is a constant reminder of who I am. I live by the the slogan, ‘Progress, not perfection.’ The longer I’m in recovery, the more I realize how selfish I was when I drank.”
Paul, who worked in law enforcement, also attends meetings regularly, yet says, “I don’t believe everybody who comes to AA gets sober. It’s not for everybody.
“You have to enjoy the fellowship you join. There’s a lot of fun to be had. Also, I’m 75. I have a purpose in my life, a responsibility. When you get to my age, a lot of people don’t know what to do with themselves. They’re bored. Going to meetings, I can give back. I’m glad I can do it.
‘I actually enjoy the meetings. I used to go to the bar every night. Read a newspaper, talk to the guys. AA is the same without the newspaper. I go at least once a week, maybe more.’
As for the anonymity, Maryann says, “I agree with the tradition, but I share with people who need to know. Most people don’t need to know. I’ve shared with complete strangers. I don’t need my ego stroked.”
Joe says, “At first, I didn’t want anyone to know. So many  people don’t understand -- if I’m an alcoholic, I’m dirty. I can only say I’m an alcoholic because I’m sober. When I was drinking, I denied it.
“After five or six years, I didn’t care. I wonder if some of us with a lot of years could share it … it would be good. I’m a teacher. I’ve shared it four or five times with a class. But I believe in the wisdom of the founders. I’m happy sober. I also accept my sobriety as a gift from my Higher Power. Today, I handle my problems, some well, some not so well, but I handle them.”
Paul echoes Joe and Maryann: “It’s easy to be prideful and bragging after 38 years, but it’s a gift from my Higher Power.” Also, “If I go out in public, get drunk, do something stupid, kill somebody, all of that reflects on AA.”
And it is the opposite of recovery. As Joe put it, in recovery, “I can be the person I want to be.”


bobgaydos.blogspot.com

Monday, September 18, 2017

Musk, killer robots, Trump, the Eclipse


By Bob Gaydos

Melania uses the recommended glasses to view
 the eclipse while her husband goes with the naked eye. 
Elon Musk and Donald Trump made significant scientific statements on the same day in August. Digest that sentence for a second. …

OK, it’s not as strange as it sounds because each man was true to himself. That is, neither message was surprising, considering the source, but each was important, also considering the source.

Musk and 115 other prominent scientists in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence attending a conference in Melbourne, Australia, delivered a letter to the United Nations urging a ban on development and use of killer robots. This is not science fiction.

Responding to previous urging by members of the group of AI and robotics specialists, the UN had recently voted to hold formal discussions on so-called autonomous weapons. With their open letter, Musk and the others, coming from 26 countries, wanted the UN to be clear about their position -- these are uniquely dangerous weapons and not so far off in the future.

Also on the same Monday, on the other side of the planet, as millions of Americans, equipped with special glasses or cardboard box viewers,  marveled at the rare site of a solar eclipse, Trump, accompanied by his wife, Melania, and their son, Barron, walked out onto a balcony at the White House and stared directly at the sun. No glasses. No cardboard box. No problem. I’m Trump. Watch me give the middle finger to science.

Of course, the only reason Trump shows up in the same sentence as Musk in a scientific discussion is that the man with the orange hair holds the title of president of the United States and, as such, has the power to decide what kind of weapons this nation employs and when to use them. Also, the president -- any president -- has the power, through words and actions, to exert profound influence on the beliefs, attitudes and opinions of people used to looking to the holder of the office to set an example. Hey, if it’s good enough for the president, it’s good enough for me. This is science fiction.

Please, fellow Americans, don’t stare at the sun during the next eclipse.

Trump’s disdain for science (for knowledge of any kind, really) and his apparently pathological need to do the opposite of what more knowledgeable people recommend, regardless of the topic, are a dangerous combination. When you’re talking about killer robots, it's a potentially deadly one.

How deadly? Here’s a quote from the letter the AI specialists wrote: “Once developed, lethal autonomous weapons will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways.

“We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.”

In fact, it’s already opened. On the Korean peninsula -- brimming with diplomatic tension, the rattling of nuclear weapons by the North Koreans and the corresponding threats of “fire and fury” from Trump -- a fixed-place sentry gun, reportedly capable of firing autonomously, is in place along the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone.

Developed by Samsung for South Korea, the gun reportedly has an autonomous system capable of surveillance up to two miles, voice-recognition, tracking and firing with mounted machine gun or grenade launcher. There is disagreement over whether the weapon is actually deployed to operate on its own, but it can. Currently, the gun and other autonomous weapons being developed by the U.S., Russia, Germany, China, the United Kingdom and others require a human to approve their actions, but usually in a split-second decision. There is little time to weigh the consequences and the human will likely assume the robot is correct rather than risk the consequences of an incorrect second-guess.

But it is precisely the removal of the human element from warfare that Musk and the other AI developers are worried about. Removing the calculation of deaths on “our side” makes deciding to use a killer robot against humans on the other side much easier. Too easy perhaps. And robots that can actually make that decision remove the human factor entirely. A machine will not agonize over causing the deaths of thousands of “enemies.”

And make no mistake, the robots will be used to kill humans as well as destroy enemy machines. Imagine a commander-in-chief who talks cavalierly about using nuclear weapons against a nation also being able to deploy robots that will think for themselves about who and what to attack. No second-guessing generals.

Musk, a pioneer in the AI field, has also been consistent with regard to his respect for the potential danger posed to humans by machines that think for themselves or by intelligences -- artificial or otherwise -- that are infinitely superior to ours. The Tesla CEO has regularly spoken out, for example, against earthlings sending messages into space to try to contact other societies, lest they deploy their technology to destroy us. One may take issue with him on solar energy, space exploration, driverless cars, but one dismisses his warnings on killer robots at one’s own risk. He knows whereof he speaks.

Trump is another matter. His showboating stunt of a brief look at the sun, sans glasses, will probably not harm his eyes. But the image lingers and the warnings, including one from his own daughter, Ivanka, were explicit: Staring directly at the sun during the eclipse can damage your retina and damage your vision. Considering the blind faith some of his followers display in his words and actions, it was yet another incredibly irresponsible display of ego and another insult to science.

Artificial intelligence is not going away. It has the potential for enormous benefit. If you want an example of its effect on daily life just look at the impact autonomous computer programs have on the financial markets. Having weapons that can think for themselves may also sound like a good idea, especially when a commander-in-chief displays erratic judgment, but their own creators -- and several human rights groups -- urge the U.N. to ban their use as weapons, in the same way chemical weapons and land mines are banned.

It may be one of the few remaining autonomous decisions humans can make in this area, and the most important one. We dare not wait until the next eclipse to make it.

bobgaydos.blogspot.com

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A one-sided story: Trump must go

By Bob Gaydos

A white supremacist carries a Nazi flag into the entrance to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va. on Saturday, Aug. 12. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Apparently a lot of people in this country are under the impression that the news media are obliged to present both -- indeed, all -- sides of a story equally, which is to suggest, fairly, and which is to imply, inevitably, that both (or all) sides have equal legitimacy.

This is nonsense. In the first place, a free and unfettered press as protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution is under no obligation to be fair, unbiased or even factual. 

You just can’t make stuff up with the intent to hurt someone. That’s why there are so many unreliable sources of information in this country making money while posing as responsible journalism. Take Fox News, as Henny Youngman said, please.

The idea of the press being responsible and reliable as a source of useful information has evolved over time with the most responsible sources establishing themselves with readers and listeners through dedication to one thing overall -- truth. Not truth as a publisher sees it. Not truth as a big advertiser sees it. Not truth as a politician, even a president, sees it. And not necessarily truth as everyone on all sides of an issue would like it to be seen.

Just the plain and simple facts of the matter. Here’s what happened. Here’s what people did. Here’s what people said. And yes, here’s what we think based on all those facts.

The United States and its Allies fought a worldwide war to defeat Naziism, anti-semitism and the belief that certain fair-haired, light-skinned people were born superior to others and that millions of those “others” had to be murdered to protect the so-called super race. The U.S. and it Allies won that war, at great cost. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died to defeat Nazis, white supremacists, fascists, anti-Semites. Fact.

There is no “other” side. Those who sought to subjugate and slaughter others because of their religion, nationality, or race were rejected. Nazis and fascists were rejected. Those who defended or sought to appease them were rejected. Some were sent to prison.

The United States also fought a bloody Civil War to defeat white supremacists who believed they were born superior to people with dark skin and, thus, could use and treat those “other” people as property, as slaves. Many Americans, including President Abraham Lincoln, disagreed. Some people in the South tried to argue -- still do -- that the “other,” legitimate, side of the story was that the war was over states’ rights. That’s only if you consider that the “right” the Southern states sought to protect in seceding from the Union and starting a war (treason) was to own and treat people of color as slaves. The South lost. Fact.

Hate was rejected. White supremacy was rejected. Slavery was rejected. Nazis and fascists were rejected. Anti-semites were rejected.  Case closed. We did not agree to disagree. In words the current president of the United States might understand, Americans agreed that bigotry and racism were “bad.” That the KKK, neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups were “evil.” That there were no “fine people” who support such groups and their hateful messages. That America stands for inclusiveness. That our differences make us stronger. That it is the primary job of the president to spread that message and to make sure it is enforced.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating -- “alt-right” is a bogus word created to give a veneer of legitimacy to white supremacists, Nazi sympathizers and wannabe fascist bullies. These are hate groups parading under the absurd banner that white men have been somehow denied their due because of the color of their skin. To deny this absurdity or to remain silent about it is to give these groups a false standing. It suggests a moral legitimacy that hundreds of thousands of Americans gave their lives to deny.

This is a time of serious unrest in America, stoked by the divisive language and actions of Donald Trump and those who advise and enable him. There is no other side to that story either. He was elected on a campaign built on lies, bigotry and bullying. The Republican Party allowed it. They continue to allow him to shred the fabric of this nation. They own him even though he is not and never has been one of them. That is the price of silence in the face of fascism.

There was never any chance that Trump was going to “grow into the job” of president. He has not grown emotionally in his 71 years. Regressed, more likely. He must be removed from office, by Republicans or Robert Mueller, the special counsel. More likely the latter.

But ultimately every American has a stake in this fight against authoritarianism. Trump has disgraced the Office of the President. He has failed at every opportunity to display moral leadership. Congress, world leaders, his own staff do not respect him. At most, the white supremacists in his circle use him for their own agenda.

This is not a theoretical exercise. It is personal. The question for every American is: Do you support the statements from the president that “both sides” bear responsibility for what happened in Charlottesville, Va.? In sum, do you grant neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Klansmen moral standing to the point that you create words like “anti-Nazi” and “antifa” (anti-fascist) when all that used to be necessary was “them” and the rest of us. Evil. Good.

I have spent more than half a century in journalism, three decades writing editorials about every possible topic. This is simply by way of saying that I am programmed to look for both sides of any story and then write about it. For this, because he is uncomfortable with any straight reporting of the things he says and does -- including pointing out inconsistencies and lies as well as insults -- the wholly unqualified president has declared me and my colleagues to be an “enemy of the people.” That’s a line used by every fascist in history about the press.

Trump should not be president. Those who voted for him were wrong. Many have had the honesty to admit it. Some, for their own reasons, never will. History will remember those who allowed him to disgrace this nation. It will not be a pretty tale. There’s only one side to this story.

bobgaydos.blogspot.com