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.”

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.

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.