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Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Letter from a Former Independent Voter

 Dear Republican Party,

Credit: Utah Public Radio
I have always prided myself for keeping an open mind about different approaches to addressing the challenges we face in our country, state, and local area. Over the years, I have chosen to vote for both Republican and Democrat candidates and have come down on both the conservative and progressive side of issues.

The last Republican presidential candidate I voted for was George H. W. Bush. I would have voted for John McCain too if it weren't for his running mate. These people believed in a philosophy of how to balance government interference and pursuit of freedom that looked to address the same issues as Democrats, but in a different way. They actually had a defined philosophy of governance.

Since then, it seems like the Republican party just left the table. The whole party has declared war on our two party system and seems unwilling to participate. A case in point is proposition 3 on the 2022 mid-term ballot in Michigan. It is a bill obviously written by Democrats. There's no compromise in it and some of its provisions are thereby extremely left-leaning. Rather than work with Democrats to craft a more palatable bill for conservative voters, the Republican party clearly chose to allow the bill to be written exclusively by Democrats, so they could condemn it as extreme.

This is not how democracy is supposed to work. Compromise is at the core of finding solutions that attempt to address the concerns of citizens with different philosophies about how government should work. When politicians engage in "winner take all" strategies designed to create "enemies" rather than philosophical differences, everyone loses.

Rather than attempt to appeal to all citizens that their approach is better, you seem to have decided to activate single issue voters. You know that there are a certain number of pro-life/anti-abortion voters out there that will forsake their economic well-being to see abortion made illegal. You know that there are a certain number of gun owners that will forsake all else to avoid reduction in the right to bear arms. You know that there are a certain number of people who think that white people are the rightful dominant class in this country and that it should remain that way. This group wants to keep immigrants out and maintain the status quo for people of color, so they can continue to enjoy the privileges once bestowed on whites in this country. They will forsake all else to ensure this. And finally, there are the wealthiest among us. You have protected this group above all else. Your party works to keep taxes on the wealthy low and minimize regulation to ensure that corporations can exploit capitalism to the maximum possible -- unabated by the negative effects on society. This has been the real mission of the Republican party for a long time and possibly the only appropriate mission left standing.

Between these disparate groups of people, your party has discovered you can reliably garner about 40% of the national population. With some clever districting, that's good enough to keep things pretty even between the parties.

The thing is, these aren't really the pressing issues of our time. You know this, but you just stopped caring. Your party offers no policies to address climate change, working class support, deficit spending, healthcare bankruptcies, infrastructure decay, and reversing the slide of the once premier US education system into mediocrity. You just wait for the Democrats to offer solutions to these things and just shoot them down with no alternative plans of your own. What happened? Your party used to think about these things and offer alternatives.

I'd really like to have that party back. I'd like to see Republican leaders who think about conservative ways to solve all the issues we face. Rather than carving out voting blocks and using anger to activate them and keep them on your side, why not actually start doing something that will improve their lives? 

Until you do, I'm out!

-- Currently a Straight Democratic Ticket Voter

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Who Made You Hate?


Almost everyone I talk with these days hates some group of people. My Trump supporter friends hate Democrats. My progressive friends hate Trump supporters. My anti-vax friends hate the CDC, WHO, and the FDA. My friends who don't trust anyone in government hate Bill Gates and the drug companies.

It seems that everyone has someone or some group to hate. Is hate a natural response to people and ideas we disagree with? I don't think so. In the six decades or so that I've been on the planet, I have seen people vehemently disagree and actually still like each other. They were able to compartmentalize their differences and recognize that good people aren't necessarily the same as them.

I sat next to an older woman on a plane once and having struck up a conversation with me, she determined that this was an opportunity to share her evangelical message with me. Her hope was to convert me to her brand of Christianity during the flight. When that didn't happen, she offered to pray for me. How can you argue with that? Even if you don't think it will make any difference, her response to our disagreement was a hope to save me -- not to see me dead.

I've been reading a book entitled Cultish. While I don't think it is a great book, the ideas in it have caused me to realize that lots of groups have coopted the tactics of cults to manipulate us into isolation. They have essentially cut us from the herd, so that we can become "us." As you know, for every "us" there must be a "them." Or does it? Must we have "them?" I heard someone say recently that there really is no "them." It is a political construct. "Them" is used to divide us and create stark lines of right and wrong.

We would do well to show some empathy to the people we disagree with. In all likelihood, there is some truth in the ideas about which you disagree. 

A good example of an issue we face in the US can be found in Israel. Maybe you have asked yourself why the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is so intractable. It seems to me that the answer to this question is simple. The Israelis want a democracy. However, they also want a Jewish state. The problem with this is that there are so many Palestinians living in Israel, that if they made the West Bank and Gaza Strip part of the country, Jews may not be a majority anymore and Israel wouldn't be a Jewish country.

The alternative would be to give up the Gaza Strip and West Bank to the Palestinians so they could for their own country. However, if they did that Israel would have an enemy combatant right on their border with all the protections that Statehood provides. Other Arab nations might decide to trade with and financially support an independent Palestine. This could make retaliation for military strikes more difficult for a separated Israel. So, there's no incentive for Israel to support the separation.

The parallels between this situation and how some white people feel about black people in the United States are hard to ignore. When they say "make America great again," the "again" refers to a past in which white people didn't have to compete with non-white people for the full privileges of citizenship. Most people reading this won't understand this, but if you are a working class white person, who is struggling to make ends meet, you can't help but think that life would be a lot better for you if you didn't have to compete with so many immigrants and people of color.

These feelings are part of a cultural transition that will take many generations to complete. We are not through it yet. You can respond to people that feel this way with hate, or you can recognize that these feelings are real and despite the good intentions around building a nation where true equality exists, the road to it is messy and tolerance and empathy will get us down it faster than hate.

Our leaders aren't interested in tolerance and empathy. They win by keeping us divided. If all people stand together in seeking a reasonable path forward, our so called leaders would need to work together to enable real solutions to the many challenges our nation faces as this would be the basis for judging their performance. That's hard! Hate is easy. The language of division is simple to learn and easy to use to keep people from expecting anything other than the other side loses.

When us citizens are divided in a win-lose situation -- everyone loses except the people manipulating us to hate. It's time we come together to take back our government and demand less hate and more collaboration.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Can AI Really Be Biased?

AI machine learning models use training data, usually from the internet, to "teach" the algorithm. This "learning" is essentially a statistical method that finds clusters of similar patterns and then "assumes" that the pattern represents the "correct" answer. Seems pretty obvious, right?

So, let's say you give a machine learning algorithm a million photos of people, each labeled with their current title (doctor, prisoner, Uber driver, etc.). The algorithm groups all these photos by title and studies the characteristics of the group to come up with a likely pattern for that role.

Now, let's say a group called OpenAI builds such an AI system that allows you to type in a title in words and it renders a picture of its own design that represents a person in that role. You can even type things like "doctor shaking hands with a prisoner" and it will render the image. Pretty cool, huh!

I suspect that it wouldn't surprise you to learn that the doctor is NEVER black and the prisoner is NEVER white. Why would it be? The training data told the AI that this situation is highly unlikely. Imagine the disappointment of the authors of the DALL-E 2 system (yes, this system exists!) when they discover the bias in their system.

But wait! Is their system biased? They thought so. In fact, they released it without allowing it to render faces at all until they could "fix" it. What does "fix it" even mean? They want to remove the bias from their system. Sadly, the bias isn't in their system, dear Watson. It's in the data! 

Now, they could select data for how they WANT the world to be. Or, we could all take a lesson from the unbiased algorithm that our world is what needs fixing. Maybe it's time to stop hiding the bias and expose it; however uncomfortable it may be.

Making people uncomfortable is...well...uncomfortable. What do we do when we're uncomfortable? If you're like me, you seek to move to a more comfortable state as quickly as possible. Fixing an algorithm is a lot easier than fixing social injustice.  Quicker too! So, it's natural to use that approach. 

To the developers of DALL-E 2, I say, "turn on the faces!" Let's live with our discomfort until we can fix it the "right way." It will take longer and a lot more work, but papering over it will not help us in the long run.

The creators of said system might argue that by showing the world as we want it to be, we will be subtly indoctrinating people to change their assumptions. I'm sure there is some validity to this argument for fixing the algorithm. I contend that those who want to see the world the way the repaired AI represents it will relax in the knowledge that all is right and those who don't like what they see will be motivated to push their agenda all the harder. Thus, let's motivate the right people to be pushing their agenda. Don't fix the algorithm!