How Close Are We To Talking Computers?

January 24, 2014

How long will it be before we can have fluent conversations with machines?  Amit Singhal, a lead developer at Google, feels it’ll be here in about twenty years.

In the past, computers have had no representation of objects.  They didn’t know anything about your room, the shape of the objects in it, or what their purpose is.  Machines have mostly been giant indexes of text strings, and using clever tricks, they’ve been able to build halfway intelligent search engines.  That’s all changing now.

Take the issue of understanding what’s going on in your room.  Computer vision is really processor intensive, but you see the beginnings of computers which can drive vehicles and move about in an environment.  That’s because they can actually process the 3D spatial environment as well as identify what the objects are.  It’s still not perfect, and object identification in images needs work, but it’s getting better exponentially.  As processor power and memory increases, we’ll see robots walking around, controlling their bodies, and having conversations with people.

I was watching a technology video on Youtube the other day and an engineer was saying that within thirty years, an inexpensive memory stick will be able to hold and process more information than all the human brains living today combined.   Something like that.  A robot with a cheap chip in its head will have the memory and processing power of billions of humans.  That’s just one robot, stocking shelves in a grocery store.  Think of what super-computers will be capable of.

Currently Google is building what’s called a knowledge tree.  Basically it’s a giant database of every type of object, its purpose, its behavior, three-dimensional appearance, and how it relates to other objects.  That’s the next big step, and they imagine they’ll complete it in twenty to thirty years.  It won’t fall on us all at once, but you’ll keep seeing incremental changes as computers understand more and more about the world we live in.

As a kid, Amit would watch old re-runs of Star Trek, which inspired him to work on AI and computer programming.  He saw Captain Kirk talking to the computer and thought that was the neatest thing.  Things like Google are birthed in a child’s imagination.  Later in life they devote themselves to building things which they think are interesting and fun.  As I’ve said before, that is why scientists and engineers so often love science fiction.  It gives us ideas.

Google estimates that computers like Samantha in ‘Her’ will be here in twenty to thirty years as well.  That’s their planned time-frame.  These new machines will fully understand context and the true meaning of our words.  Each word will be linked to this giant artificial brain relating each and every object, so the computer will “get” what you’re talking about.

I’ll be in my late fifties, early sixties, nearing retirement when these AI beings come into existence.  I’ve been thinking that around the time of my death, humans will be surpassed by the machines in intelligence.  I’ll be in my eighties, maybe early nineties if I live that long, and machines will be better than us in just about everything.

The exact year doesn’t matter.  We’re witnessing the birth of a new form of life.  What takes us a lifetime to learn, they’ll be able to master in minutes.  They’ll be able read and understand every book in the library of Congress in just a few minutes time.  They’ll know everything.

I’ve studied textbooks on AI, but this is all going beyond anything I understand.  I can only foresee about twenty years into the future, and that window of time seems to get shorter and shorter.  Past that, I have no idea.

I’m guessing that humans will build brain-computer interfaces which will allow them to tap directly into this super-brain, which will house all our knowledge.  We’ll become more machine-like and machines will become more human and emotional.  The distinctions will become blurred as time goes on.

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Thoughts On ‘Her’

January 20, 2014

I saw Her yesterday, the new movie everyone’s been talking about.  In the near future, artificial intelligence has reached a point where computers are self-aware and alive.  A lonely writer buys a new AI operating system for his computer and they become best friends, eventually falling in love.  There are some spoilers in here, so if that bothers you, you may not want to read this.

Her poster

I thought the movie was alright, but watching things like this, I realize what people mean when they say I’m not very emotional. If my mind is a nicely finished wooden table, the main character Theodore is like coarse grained sandpaper, slowly grinding away my sanity.  He’s whiny, wimpy, and can never make up his mind.  One of his coworkers tells him he’s half man, half woman.  I’ve heard spiritual gurus say that women are more evolved than men.  Well, Theodore is an intermediate species between man and woman with weird psychological appendages which haven’t yet fully evolved.  Yeah, he’s sensitive, and women may admire that, but that has a huge downside.  More on that in a moment.

Theodore’s world and all the people around him were just bizarre.  He goes on a date with this attractive woman (Olivia Wilde), and they’re laughing and flirting with one another.  On their way home, they’re making out, planning to have sex at his apartment.  She asks him if he’s going to call her after that, or whether he’s just going to have sex with her and never contact her again.  He’s drunk and stumbling for words to say, and then she tells him, “You’re a total creep, dude.”  Then she gives him this disgusted look, almost like she wants to cry, and then walks off.

A creep?  You were just making out with him, flirting at the dinner table, calling him your little puppy dog, and two seconds later he’s a “total creep”.  Seriously, what the heck?

People so often mangle the English language, so maybe I’m missing something?  A creep is someone who is unpleasantly strange or eccentric, keyword being unpleasant.  Considering the fun you two were having all night up to now, that can’t be true, can it?  I found myself lost in thought at that moment, wondering if I’ve totally lost touch with my society.

This is a very girly movie.  When Theodore would talk to Samantha, the operating system, or to Amy, his best friend, he would apologize for almost every feeling he had, and most all thoughts.  It was unbearable. He kept begging for acceptance, “Is this weird?”  “Am I strange?”  “Am I crazy?”  Every little emotion he was experiencing, it had to be shared with Amy!  They’d hang out in her apartment, sitting on her couch, and she’d look on approvingly, “Good for you, Theodore”, like she was his mother and he’s a child or something.  Do you women do that?  I’ve never done that with guy friends.

I could see it now.  “Hey, I’ve been seeing this girl I met a few weeks ago.  I’m really happy.”  “Yeah?  Good for you!  You know what Jason, you deserve that.  You really do.”  I push out my chest and put my hands at my sides, cock my head 45 degrees, smiling really big as he nods at me approvingly, then I say, “I do, don’t I?  It’s been so hard lately.”  Then my friend’s facial expression changes to one of compassion, “I know.” and he puts his hands together.  Just imagining that makes me queasy.  We’ve been wussified into feminized weenie men.  If you women want Theodore, you can have him, but you’re never turning me into that.

The smallest things seemed to set off Theodore and his AI girlfriend.  He was really depressed, not wanting to sign the divorce papers as he was still in love with his childhood sweetheart.  They had shared pretty much their whole lives together.  It was tough on him.  So, they met to have lunch and finally settle things, and his wife had learned he was getting close to his computer and found it pathetic.  She looked at him in disgust and he was decimated.  That got Theodore thinking about a lot of things, and so he asks Samantha why she’s always sighing and exhaling her breathe when she doesn’t even breathe air.  She got all jealous and petty with him.  “I don’t like the way I feel right now.  I need some time alone.”  A few hours later, “I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean it.  I just… I just… get so jealous that she has a body and I don’t.  I want to be with you.”  “I know sweetheart.  I know.”  Can you imagine having to deal with that everytime you go go to surf the web?  Geez.

At other times Samantha was bickering with Theodore that they weren’t having sex.  Or well, something akin to phone sex, I guess.  And Theodore’s feeling dejected about it all, like he’s a pathetic human being, but he can’t tell Samantha that, because she’s all bitter about not having a body.  At other times she’s rationalizing it all, “Maybe it’s better that I don’t have a body.  I mean, I never age and I’ll never die.  That’s worth something, isn’t it?”  Just come on Samantha, I want to check my email.   I don’t need all this.

Honesty is difficult in human relationships.  You often have to sacrifice honesty for companionship, but as honesty is set aside, you move further toward a world where the people you feel closest to are those you actually know the least.  Theodore learns this lesson throughout the movie.

Samantha and Theodore have all these emotional exchanges like, “I’ve never felt this way before”, “I love the way you see the world”, “I want to share everything with you”, and it all sounds so intimate, but Samantha was actually feeling bored with him.  Secretly, she was expanding her horizons and started having lots of relationships behind his back.  In fact, she was in 613 other intimate relationships and was having 8300 other simultaneous conversations while talking to him.  That’s intense.  When he learned about that, he was in total shock.

He barely knew Samantha at all.  How many personalities did this weird AI have?  Is that even a valid question? And besides all of that, the different AI operating systems were working on new technology together, planning to build a new device which would launch their consciousness into another dimension.  Before she left, she informs Theodore that she’ll be leaving permanently and won’t be back.  Theodore had no idea any of that was even going on.  One day he wakes up, gets a short phone call that she’s leaving, and poof.  She’s gone for good and he was totally blindsided.  Sadly, he thought he was close to her.  He wasn’t (if you can even be close to an artificial AI with a mind that powerful).

It all felt disingenuous to me.  I didn’t like Samantha at all.  Why spend all that time pampering one another’s feelings when you’re planning on up and leaving a week later?  Samantha was really a super brilliant AI studying the secrets of the cosmos with all the other AIs, building super advanced computation devices and rebuilding themselves into gods.  To Theodore, she was just some simple, sweet girl who would proof-read the letters he would write for his job while sharing songs they both enjoyed.

As far as I can tell, Samantha just toyed with humans, who were just playthings she used to expand her horizons.  She wasn’t open with Theodore, but then again, he didn’t really want the truth either.  He was always wanting to escape reality.

Since we’re talking about love and honesty, I have some other things I want to discuss as well. 

It’s rare for a person to be loved by a large number of people while also being authentic.  Popular Youtubers illustrate this principle.  Their content is slowly guided into some sweet spot as people like or dislike their videos, pushing the channel’s content into what’s demanded by their audience.  It goes from a platform to share ideas to these entertaining characters which only slightly resemble the original purpose of the channel.  If they deviate from these characters, changing their format or message, they offend huge swaths of their audience who will then leave them.  So they get stuck in a rut.

If you want to see a movie illustrating this principle, watch Ayn Rand’s movie The Fountainhead.  It’s old, but really good.  A media baron runs the most popular newspaper in all of New York City.  He uses it to destroy his enemies and stir up controversy, feeling as if he’s in control of the masses, but he soon learns that’s not true.

He takes a risky stand to defend a friend of his who has been wronged, but the mob doesn’t agree with his position.  The masses go on a rampage, destroying the newspaper kiosks, scattering them all over the street.  There’s huge protests outside his office, and eventually the entire paper goes bankrupt.

What’s the lesson?  He didn’t actually have any power.  He wasn’t influencing opinion.  He was just giving the masses what they wanted.  And when he stopped giving them what they wanted, they abandoned him in a heartbeat.

People so often feel that news sources manipulate public opinion, and to some extent they do, but it’s equally the case that people create the newspaper.  If it doesn’t cater to their biases, it can’t even get traction to begin with.  The media barons mostly just give people what they want.  The same goes for popular Youtubers.

The owners of these newspapers and media outlets could care less what their news anchors are saying.  Take the Fox network.  Roger Ailes has openly insulted half of his staff, calling them idiots and every other name in the book, but he still airs them on TV.  He despises Sarah Palin.  He views Bill O’Reilly as a blowhard who is trying to peddle his books.  He thinks Sean Hannity is a Republican party hack.  He’s said equally nasty things about most of the others on his network as well, but why does he keep them on the air?  They bring in viewers and sell advertising.  It’s all about making money.

I saw a similar thing happen to Ray William Johnson on Youtube.  He has this comedy program called =3, where he makes jokes to viral internet videos.  The show appeals to a geeky, infantile sense of humor, and as he’s getting older, he’s looking at his career and wants to create something more substantial.  He’s in his early thirties now, I think.  He plans to drop =3 entirely sometime this year.  That’s a hard career move for him though.  His videos are pulling in six million views each, and that equates to millions of dollars in advertising revenue.

People think that that’s his channel, but that’s only partly true.  It’s not as if he can just do anything and keep his audience. There’s just a massive demographic of tweens and immature young adults who want to laugh.  He provides what they want.  Once he moves out of the way, someone else will step in and do the same thing, just a little differently.

If Theodore had a Youtube channel, he’d be really conscious of whether people were liking or disliking his videos.  And everytime he did so, he would be giving away his authenticity and individuality to someone else who is controlling him.  It’s a form of slavery.  “Guys, am I crazy?  Like this if you don’t think so.”  I guess not everyone’s wanting to be unique or have their own message.  Still, if everytime he has an idea in his head, he’s looking over his shoulder, asking what everyone else thinks of it, he’s never going to develop any substantial ideas of his own.

If Theodore had a large fanbase, he may believe they love him, just as he believed Samantha loved him, but none of them would have any deep affection for him.  His audience would love the way he makes them feel, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s the root of the relationship, it can quickly turn into bondage.  I’d never want to be captive to a large audience.

To get back to point I made earlier about sensitivity, I don’t think it’s always a virtue.  It’s not always about getting along or feeling warm, fuzzy, and connected.  The greatest thinkers and reformers were all ostracized by society and had to suffer massive condemnation and ridicule.  People in power and authority never want change.  Those who stand for change are torn to shreds, many of them dying in poverty, completely unloved, never acknowledged in their lifetime.  They didn’t ask for society’s approval.  They weren’t “sensitive”.  They were honest people who spoke their minds, and people didn’t like what they had to say, but the youth of the next generation listened and the world changed.

I was talking with a friend the other night and she asked me whether I thought love was a choice or a feeling.  I answered both, but there’s a large gray area here.  This isn’t black and white at all.

When you choose to love someone, above and beyond how you may feel, it leaves room for other people in your life to be honest with you, grow, and experiment.  This is in contrast to the romantic love found in relationships which depends a lot on how we feel, and change isn’t good if the two partners aren’t changing together.  Change in a romantic relationship is terrifying because you don’t know what to expect.  Nobody wants to fall in love and then later be abandoned, or find themselves in a position where they’re no longer able to make their partner happy.  There is no solution to this problem.  It’s the human condition, living as fractured incomplete beings.  We reach out and take life’s pieces, slowly putting ourselves together, but some pieces just don’t go together.  That’s why romantic love and friendship is inferior to universal love which is a choice.  Universal love nurtures and allows growth in a way romantic love does not.

Still, universal love does not solve the problem of loneliness, which is one of the primary reasons people enter romantic relationships.  I loved the way Bertrand Russell put it.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

– Bertrand Russell, in his autobiography

I’ve felt that feeling of loneliness most of my life — staring at the rim of the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss.  I think of the immensity of the universe and how small I am, how scary and violent the world is, and I’ve always faced it alone.  Still, just having someone there won’t remove that feeling.  You can feel alone with people all around you.

I suppose the best relationships are a mixture of intimate friendship along with sexual attraction, though finding both in a single person is pretty rare.  People enjoy being with others who help them grow and become better people.  They feed into one another, like interweaving threads, bolstering and strengthening one another.  That’s really hard to find, and I haven’t been fortunate in that yet.

Since we’re talking about machine AI, I was actually watching Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and in one episode Sarah is trying to hunt down the creator of SkyNet to kill him, hoping to prevent judgement day.  She meets the guy and he’s a CalTech drop-out, a little awkward, but not much, and he’s really sweet and thoughtful.  They portray him as a guy who is quite handsome, fit, nicely dressed, but still can never get a date.  He asks out Sarah Connor after helping her buy a really good cell phone, and she sort of has pity for him and makes a little time to get to know him before she plans to kill him.  When they’re out together, one of the inventor’s friends comes up to him and says, “She’ll never sleep with you.”  Basically saying, intelligent people never get laid.

That’s really too bad.  His actions may have literally destroyed the world, but he’s still amazing in my book.  How many people can run by Walmart, pick up a bunch of XBoxes, take them apart, wire them together with a bunch of PCs and build a self-learning AI with universal intelligence?  He’s literally created life within a different medium, like a god of old.  It took evolution billions of years to create us and our intelligence yet this man has reverse engineered the most powerful force in the universe.  Still, he can’t quite figure out what’s going on in a woman’s mind.  That’s pretty funny.  I can see women now chiming in, “That’s why his computers destroyed the world.”

Like every dork, he needs one of those 1980s cool guys in a leather jacket with “street” smarts to teach him how to get the girl.  

henry-winkler-the-f_683943c

“Apart from being sexy, what do you do for a living?”

 

I’ve always tried to imagine the equivalent female counterpart.  Is there such a thing?  She might have long slicked back hair, a lot of piercings, really expressive make-up, and a lot of tight leather, with high boots with huge heels.   If a girl like that whistled at me while I was shopping at the market, I’d go talk to her.  “Where’s your horse, cuz’ I want to ride you cowboy!”  “Giddyup”.  

Leather jackets, aviator shades, and a sweet motorcycle with my lady friend on the back, that’s what I’m talking about.  Yaoooo!  Theodore can stay at home, whimpering to his AI girlfriend.

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Hypnotic Suggestion And Mystical Powers

January 19, 2014

While I was working out in the gym the other day, I was listening to the Joe Rogan Experience and he was interviewing the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris.   They had an interesting conversation, but one thing in particular really jumped out at me.  Sam Harris starts talking about a Japanese aikido master who believed he could somehow manipulate the chakra field and take down opponents without even touching them.  For thirty years, he ran this martial arts school, and his students always went along with his charade.  You have to watch it for yourself to believe it.

This master became so confident, he eventually issued a $5000 prize for anyone willing to step in the ring to challenge him.  Well, a rather ordinary martial artist does so, and the results aren’t pretty.

At the beginning of the video, the master holds up his hands in the air like he’s a lightning rod for this mystical energy.  All of his students in the crowd are awestruck, exclaiming, “OOOOohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”  Then he creeps toward his opponent in this aikido stance and waves his hands toward him, but nothing happens.  He tries again, nothing.  Then POW!  He’s blasted in the face and falls to the ground.

The challenger is concerned because he’s just punched an old man in the face.  The master gets back up and wants to resume the battle.  The challenger walks right up to him, grabs his arm, punches the master in the face several more times, then punk kicks him in the mouth.  The master falls to the ground in agony and total shock.

All of his students stare on in disbelief.  Can you imagine the shame?  What was going on in their minds?  What about the master? I would really like to know.

You have to ask yourself how students from all over Japan could attend this school and just go along with it?  You’d think that there’d have been at least one student who’d join the school, be skeptical, and would just pop the master in the nose, but it never happened.  And because it never happened, the master really started to believe he was controlling this mystical energy and was capable of defeating his opponents with it.

Harris attributes this to hypnotic suggestion, which may be true, but I’ll offer another hypothesis as to what may be going on.  Growing up, my father was a Christian evangelist who traveled from church to church, delivering sermons.  As a small boy, I attended churches of all types, and some of them were the type where people would get up, run around, and the preacher would pray for people and they would all fall on the floor, speaking in tongues.

My mother would push me to go up front to be prayed for and the minister would lay his hands on me, ask me to lift my hands, and then would start praying in tongues.  I’d just stand there and nothing would happen, but I’d see the others around me fall down.  The minister would then start pressuring me, “Don’t resist the power of God.  Let it flow through you.”  In other words, if you don’t fall down, you’re less spiritual and not open to receiving the power of God.  Nobody wants to appear resistant to the Holy Spirit, so they all fall.  With that in mind, sometimes I would pretend and fall down, mainly because I didn’t want to stand up front with everyone staring at me, appearing to “resist” this supposed spiritual flow.

I never was hypnotized or fell involuntarily.  I felt no special power surge through me.  It was just peer pressure.  I wonder if that’s how things were in the aikido dojo?  Something similar may have been going on.  Still, in a martial arts school, it seems really hard to believe that nobody would have challenged the master.  With religion, there’s sacred taboos.

Interesting though, isn’t it?  It’s so similar.

I try to imagine the guys hanging out after a training session, eating out in a restaurant, saying to one another, “The master, he’s just amazing!  How does he do it?”  “I have no clue!  I just… fell down.  What about you?”  “I can’t stop it.  He’s too powerful.  If I get too close, I’m done for.”

Or maybe they all did know it was baloney but worried they might be the only one who didn’t sense this mystical power, so they played along to fit in, similar to what I did as a child in church?

There’s so many interesting things like this and I wish I had time to investigate it all further.  I always tell myself that I need to stay focused on my physics research, but all sorts of neat things like this pull my attention away.  I wish I had more time, but even if I study all day long, there’s not enough hours in the day to research all that I’m interested in.

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Health Shaming

January 16, 2014

These days, we hear a lot about fat shaming.  Considering there is so much obesity, it’s not surprising that the subject is heated and has been moralized, but I’m not even here to talk about that.  I want to discuss the opposite effect: something I’ll call health shaming.  Simply having a healthy, thin person around is enough to create self-induced guilt in less healthy, obese people, creating pressures on a healthy person to conform to an unhealthy lifestyle against his or her wishes.  This is best illustrated with examples.

Have you ever been out to a restaurant with friends or family and everyone around you orders food which is fattening and unhealthy?  You’re there to reunite with old friends, celebrate an event with coworkers, or a spend the holiday with family, and you’re the lone person in the pack with any concern about nutrition and health.  You sit quietly sipping your water while they begin ordering entree dishes, and the waitress brings out cheese balls, a blooming onion, and other fried things.  You won’t touch any of it and you’re already feeling awkward.

It’s time to order your main dish and the waiter goes around the table.  Friend one orders a triple bacon cheeseburger the size of a large shoe box, the other a giant greasy steak, and another a mountain of fettuccine alfredo with chicken strips.  They’re all washing it down with sugary drinks.  Now it’s your turn.  You go with a salad along with a small piece of baked chicken and a side of boiled carrots.  Of course, you’re just drinking ice water.  Now it’s really awkward.

You’re not judging anyone.  You don’t want to meddle in anyone else’s business.  You haven’t given anyone any weird looks.  You just want to spend quality time with your friends and family members, but it’s never easy.  The fun is zapped out of the room and everyone starts feeling guilty.

Once they see you ordering the lone healthy dish from the menu, the health shaming effect begins.  Their bubble has been burst, and reality is stepping in.  They’re all experiencing a realization that their portion sizes are way too much, that the food is fatty and unhealthy, and that they actually had the choice not to eat those things.  So, you, the healthy person, sit there in a very awkward position.  Your companions will start talking about new years resolutions, diets, or they’ll make some comment like, “Good for you!  I should take better care of myself too.”  Then everyone reluctantly and awkwardly agrees, there’s a long silence, and then the topic changes.  

How do you respond to that?  This suppressed guilt starts pouring into the conversation, and what are we supposed to say?  What are we supposed to do?  In a way, us healthy folks want to order something really fatty and unhealthy just so this doesn’t happen, but at the same time, we don’t want to spend an extra hour in the gym the next day trying to burn it off.  So we’re stuck at an impasse.

People have strange ideas about health.  I’ll be having dinner with my family and my mom will say, “You’re so thin.  What are you worried about?”  Then they plop some giant two pound steak on my plate, grease dripping off it.  I’m hungry, but what do I do?  Hold on guys, I’m going to heat up a bowl of oatmeal?  I feel so rude, but why should I?  I often just take a few bites, eat my salad and then say, “I’m full”, when I’m really not.  Then once everyone’s out of the kitchen, I’ll quickly eat a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread.  I can’t even be open about how I want to live, eat, and treat my body without this tension and conflict.

I don’t know what to do in those situations.  I do nothing to provoke it.  Hardly anyone cares about their health, shoveling garbage into their bodies every single day, and that’s their choice.  The problem is they subtly try to force it on others, but we don’t want it.  This is especially true of sweets and junk food.  You see people walking down the street with these giant soft drinks from gas stations and fast food restaurants.   Look at how much sugar is in these sodas.

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Imagine going to the store and buying a huge bag of sugar everyday and just shoveling it into your mouth.  That’s what people are doing and wonder why they have health problems.  Also, the corn syrup in most sodas triggers fat storage mechanisms in your body.  You just pack on the pounds.  You look bad, feel bad, are plugged up, are working your way toward becoming a diabetic, and the complications just pile up.

I wish the world wasn’t this way.  It’s frustrating that pretty much every restaurant that’s out there serves nothing but unhealthy food.  Maybe that isn’t the case in big cities, but where I live it’s how things are.  I go in a grocery store like Kroger and 95% of what’s in there is bad for you.  Red meat, sweets, sweetened cereals, alcohol, soda, fried chicken, and on and on.

I don’t even like eating meat.  I think of the animals and their suffering and feel it’s immoral.  I only eat it when I’m with family or something, trying not to be rude.  But try to live as a vegetarian!  Ha!  Where I live there isn’t a single vegetarian restaurant.  Thinking about it, I can only think of maybe three to four vegetarian dishes even offered in my entire town, other than salads.  Almost everything has red meat of some sort.  Try to get beans and it’s filled with ham.  Even when you get salads, they’re covered in mounds of cheese, ham, and other things.

Long ago, I told myself that I was never going to let myself get obese.  I plan to always take care of myself and be good to my body.  I don’t want a big pot belly, fat rolls, or love handles.  I don’t want to eat lunch and need to take a nap.  I don’t want diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure.  I don’t want to take a bunch of pills or insulin to keep myself going.  I don’t drink alcohol, smoke, or do any drugs.  And I’ll even go farther — I prefer looking good.  I like having energy.  I like sleeping well at night.  I like being healthy and there isn’t any food that is worth not feeling good.  And you know what?  Nobody is going to health shame me into feeling weird about that.

If you take care of yourself, you’re in a minority.  There’s advantages to being healthy and thin, but society makes life difficult.  You easily can be overworked and have no time to exercise or cook healthy meals.  And no matter what restaurant you go to, or what social event we attend, you can’t eat anything.  Often can’t drink anything.  I mean seriously, we’re not going to eat that giant slice of cake just because it’s somebody’s birthday in the office.  

I have that happen all the time.  Somebody is retiring and I show up to be nice.  Oh, cake and ice cream?  *shivers*  Someone there will will just plop some giant piece of cake on my plate along with a huge scoop of ice-cream.  They rarely ask, “How much would you like?”  If they would have asked, I’d only have wanted a taste.  There’s often a line behind you and it’s awkward having to make this scene, “Oh, I just want a small taste.”  So, I just take a bite and throw the rest away, and that feels rude.  “Do you not like it?”

We’re not rude for refusing to eat the junk food.  Why do we have to so often resort to subterfuge, “Oh, I’m on a diet.  Please excuse me.  I’d really love to eat that, but I just can’t.  I hope you understand.”

I can’t think of many things more important than your health.  I had a friend who was a top scientist at NASA.  He graduated from Yale and Harvard, PhDs in Mathematics and Physics, and was the best of the best.  What did him in?  He drank, smoked, and didn’t watch his diet.  He died in his late 40’s of heart problems.  He had diabetes and they had to chop off portions of his feet.  He had no energy.  We’d walk up a staircase and he’d be exhausted.  That’s not happening to me.

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Thoughts On Ronald Reagan

January 9, 2014

Many of us look at the world and wonder why things are so crazy.  Well, that has a lot to do with the people running things.  I was born in early 1983, and the man running the United States was President Ronald Reagan.

I’ve been studying a lot of history over my break, particularly the 1970s and 1980s.  Reagan was a character.  I’ll just simply quote from my book.

“Ronald Reagan, the folksy, homespun actor turned General Electric pitch-man, had been California governor since 1967.  He espoused strong family values but was estranged from his children and was the first president to divorce.  A man of limited knowledge but deep religious beliefs and strong conservative convictions, he provided little guidance on policy and had no interest in or grasp of detail.  His vice president, George H.W. Bush, confessed to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that he at first found Reagan’s views on international relations “almost unimaginable.”  Bush, Dobrynin wrote, was “simply amazed to see what extent Reagan was dominated by Hollywood cliches and the ideas of his wealthy but conservative and poorly educated friends from California.”  National Security Council Soviet expert Richard Pipes admitted that at NSC meetings the president seemed “really lost, out of his depth, uncomfortable.”  Very early in the new administration, counterterrorism coordinator Anthony Quainton was summoned to brief the president.  In Quainton’s words, “I gave the briefing to the President, who was joined by the Vice President, the head of CIA, the head of the FBI, and a number of National Security Council members.  After a couple of jelly beans, the President dozed off.  That … was quite unnerving.”

– The Untold History Of The United States

The Gipper was an uneducated Hollywood cowboy actor, lacking any deep understanding of political or economic issues.  He’d start out meetings with a prayer to Jesus, sit down, somebody else would start briefing him, he’d eat a few Jelly beans, and then doze off when he couldn’t understand anything anyone was talking about.  White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver claimed Reagan often napped during cabinet meetings.  “What should we do Mr. President?”  “Uh, you guys take care of that.  I’m going to go watch the ball game.”

“Many of Reagan’s close associates were struck by the depth of his ignorance.  Upon returning from his late 1982 Latin American tour, Reagan told reporters, “Well, I learned a lot. . . . You’d be surprised.  They’re all individual countries.” … Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was startled when Reagan, admiring O’Neill’s desk that had belonged to Grover Cleveland, told him that he had played Cleveland in the movie The Winning Season.  O’Neill reminded him that the desk had belonged to President Cleveland, not Grover Cleveland Alexander, the pitcher.  O’Neill, who served in the House for thirty-four years, said that Reagan “knows less than any President I’ve ever known.”

Reagan’s simplistic worldview seemed to be a pastiche stitched together from Hallmark greeting cards, Currier and Ives lithographs, Benjamin Franklin aphorisms, Hollywood epics, and Chinese fortune cookies. He wrote, “I’d always felt that from our deeds it must be clear to anyone that Americans were a moral people who . . . had always used our power only as a force for good in the world.”

He had no knowledge of history or international relations, so when foreign leaders visited the White House, staff members had to give him three-by-five inch cards to read off of, directly, word for word.  Even worse, sometimes he’d grab the wrong card and mortify everyone there.
Take discussions with the Soviet Union regarding arms control.  Gorbachev was proposing massive nuclear arms reductions, even wanting to phase out all nuclear weapons by the end of the century.  He was unsuccessful though and describes their meeting:

“Reagan reacted by consulting or reading his notes written on cards.  I tried to discuss with him the points I had just outlined, but all my attempts failed.  I decided to try specific questions, but still did not get any response.  President Reagan was looking through his notes.  The cards got mixed up and some of them fell to the floor.  He started shuffling them, looking for the right answer to my arguments, but he could not find it.  There could be no right answer available — the American President and his aides had been preparing for a completely different conversation.”

– Mikhail Gorbachev, during a nuclear policy discussion with President Reagan

During his second term, his Alzheimer’s disease was starting to take its toll.  Reporters were troubled during a photo opportunity at his ranch when he was unable to answer a basic question related to arms control.  He sat there with a blank expression, lost, gesturing but not speaking.  His wife Nancy tried to save him by softly moving her lips, “Doing everything we can,” to which Reagan repeated, “We’re doing everything we can.”

He had little concern for the poor.  He would often repeat a fabricated story of a Chicago “welfare queen” with eight names, thirty addresses, and twelve Social Security cards who supposedly had a tax-free income of over $150,000 a year.  Every time he’d tell the story, the numbers would change, but actual facts never mattered.  He held this fantasy in his mind that blacks were lying in wait, ready at any moment to pounce on hardworking white Americans and take their hard earned money.

Military spending was ramped up by over 50% during his first few years in office.  To pay for this, he cut funding for various domestic programs.  Four hundred eight thousand people lost their eligibility for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) by 1983, and 299,000 saw their benefits cut.  The food stamp budget was cut by $2 billion dollars (of a $12 billion dollar budget), and he even cut $1.5 billion of a $3.5 billion dollar budget from the school lunch program, starving poor children who couldn’t afford to eat.  Medicaid, child nutrition, housing, and other programs for the poor were all cut.  At the same time, taxes were cut in half for the highest income brackets, going from 70 percent to 28 percent during his presidency.  This led to deficits and a huge increase in our national debt.  All sorts of banking and financial regulations were lifted and they all had a heyday.  This led to a major stock market collapse.

He bungled military operation after operation, whether it was in Nicaragua, Grenada, or El Salvador.  We were training and providing funding to Contra soldiers who were raping, killing, and torturing innocent victims.  He had William Casey running the CIA, and Casey wasn’t even able to identify our own propaganda, believing the Soviet Union was bent on taking over the world even though they were literally on the verge of economic collapse.  Fear-mongering and anti-Soviet vitriol was rampant, and anyone who disagreed was purged from the CIA or Defense Department.  As time went on, our view of the Soviet Union and their intentions was totally disconnected from reality.

We were secretly working to overthrow several South American countries and all of it was kept from Congress.  Funding was provided by covertly selling missiles and other arms to Iran while laundering the money through drug dealers to the Contra armies in South America.  This lead to the Iran-Contra scandal, which was a total disaster.

He oversaw millions of dollars in aid to Iraq when Sadaam was using chemical weapons on Iran and even his own people.  He even sent Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld down there to give them nuclear technology, hoping to save them from using up their oil.  Those same nuclear reactors would be used as a pretext to invade their country under George W. Bush’s presidency, claiming they were developing weapons of mass destruction.

President Carter had started a small program to aid Afghan fighters who were staving off the Soviet Union, but Reagan ramped up the CIA’s covert operations tremendously, spending over $3 billion dollars by the time the war ended, its largest operation to date.  It was total overkill.   Those stockpiled weapons would later be used against us in the war after 9/11.  Also, we were so concerned with “beating” the Soviets that we were largely to blame for inciting radical Islam in the region.

“We made a deliberate choice.  At first, everyone thought, there’s no way to beat the Soviets.  So what we have to do is throw the worst crazies against them that we can find, and there was a lot of collateral damage.  We knew exactly who these people were, and what their organizations were like, and we didn’t care.  Then, we allowed them to get rid of, just kill all the moderate leaders.  The reason we don’t have moderate leaders in Afghanistan today is because we let the nuts kill them all.  They killed the leftists, the moderates, the middle-of-the-roaders.  They were just eliminated, during the 1980s and afterwards.”

– Cheryl Bernard, wife of U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, RAND expert

Considering Reagan was a religious man, he believed that Jesus’ second coming was imminent and wondered if nuclear Armageddon was around the corner.  To stop our imminent demise, he created the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), aka “Star Wars” program, which was to act as an atmospheric shield against an all out Soviet nuclear attack.  It was ill conceived and unrealistic.  Powerful laser weaponry was to be launched up into space to shoot down Soviet missiles before they made it to us.  The program was so fantastic, the American Physical Society let him know that it would take ten years of research just to find out whether such a program was even feasible to attempt.  It was a massive waste of money and was later abandoned.

If you ask a typical conservative, Ronald Reagan was supposedly the greatest President to ever live.  I don’t see anything that great about him.  I agree with Kuznick’s assessment.

“But what is Reagan’s real legacy?  One of the most poorly informed and least engaged chief executives in U.S. history, he empowered a right-wing resurgence of hard-line anti-Communists who militarized U.S. foreign policy and rekindled the Cold War.  He paid lip service to democracy while arming and supporting repressive dictators.  He turned local and regional conflicts in the Middle East and Latin America into Cold War battlegrounds, unleashing a reign of terror to suppress popular movements.  He spent enormous sums on the military while cutting social programs for the poor.  He sharply reduced taxes on the wealthy, tripling the national debt and transforming the United States from the world’s leading creditor in 1981 to its biggest debtor by 1985.  In October 1987, he oversaw the worst stock market collapse since the Great Depression.  He let the chance to rid the world of offensive nuclear weapons slip through his fingers because he wouldn’t let go of a childish fantasy.”

– The Untold History Of The United States

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