To Drive – Ep. 201

TRANSCRIPT (by speechpad)

Hi. This is Jaime Escuder and welcome to another episode of None Sense.

I like to drive. I’ve always been kind of fascinated with mechanical things, and engines in particular are really fascinating. I just love the idea of having sort of a powerful thing like an engine under my control. And just the whole sensation of kind of moving through space quickly like that and, again, having that sort of power at one’s command is just a lot of fun. I remember (my mother doesn’t know this), I once went drag racing on the Courtney Campbell Causeway in Tampa just the one time (and I’m a lawyer now, so I think I feel safe talking about this because I know the statute of limitations has passed on this), but I just did it the one time but it was exhilarating and I’m not at all advocating that anyone do this, but the fact of the matter is in my final moments when my life flashes before my eyes I’m just gonna remember the sensation of that. But it’s more than that.

There’s a great deal in the U.S. actually that’s just off limits, if you think about it. All these places we can’t go. For example, where I live in Texas it’s a very beautiful place and it’s wide open with huge expanses, but it’s all walled off and it’s inaccessible to me unless I were willing to, you know, climb a fence or trespass or whatever. And, of course, other countries have different rules about this. Other countries have a lot more leniency with regard to people exploring. In fact, I think Finland is famous for having these rules of like this idea that wandering is allowed. And it’s understood that you can kind of walk the country. It’s your county and you can kind of walk it, and so long as you don’t do damage or even allowed to sort of camp out on private property and stuff.

Well, you know, not here in the United States. We’re not really allowed a lot of places. But the roads are public. You know, the roads are a place where you’re allowed to be. And so I always kind of…even looking at a map, and I’m kind of obsessed with maps, looking at the roads, to me those lines indicate the zones of freedom that I’m allowed to explore in my car. And, you know, it’s a big country, of course, that we live in, but really, if…and I’ve actually met people who’ve done this, if you wanted to, you could explore the whole country. You could explore, you know, Acadia National Park and the great, you know, coasts and shorelines of both coasts, and then the Rocky Mountains and the deserts. And an engine allows you to do that. And so the point is I like driving. And why am I talking about this? It’s because I’ve talked before about artificial intelligence and all this stuff, but it seems to me that one of the things that we’re really desperate or eager or just so focused on developing is this thing called the self-driving car.

In fact, just the other day I read an article about how Google has in fact developed a special kind of computer chip specifically developed to AI called a “tensor processing unit,” which I don’t know anything about other than I’m gathering that it’s a very powerful computer chip. And the express purpose, one of the express purposes of developing these hyper-intelligent computer chips is to allow for driverless cars. So I just want to take a moment to pause and think about…and I think maybe the driverless car thing is a good kind of prism through which to look at this, but to think about what we give up for what we gained. Because I’ve noticed there’s really a balance to everything in this universe and nothing is gained without something else being lost. And sometimes the things that are lost are worth it and maybe the tradeoff is worth it, but I always think it’s a good idea to maybe think about that before we just rush headlong into one thing.

So driverless cars, I think the benefits are great. Right? We know that it’ll reduce accidents, maybe even eliminate accidents. And you can read. Right? You could take a nap. You get in the car and you plug in your sister’s address, you know, who live six hours away or something and then you just kind of chill out and watch the scenery, and that’s fine. Except, what do you give up? First of all, you know, you give up information. So nothing happens in computers that someone else doesn’t know about. And I think that’s something that we don’t…we like to pretend isn’t necessarily the case, we just kind of turn that off. But like, for example, Netflix tracks you. Right? Because they want to know what to market to you and stuff like that. So if you watch a show, Netflix knows. And they even track, I read that…or I heard that they even track sort of when you watch and what you watch.

So for example, you know, I guess that’s okay. It’s not so bad that…you know, I’m a huge fan of nature shows. So I’ve been watching “Planet Earth II” which is incredible. And I guess it’s okay that people know that I’ve been watching “Planet Earth II”. But, you know, maybe I don’t necessarily want people at Netflix HQ to know that I’ve kind of rewound a few times over the naked sword fight in “Altered Carbon”. Right? If I want to watch it, you know, they’re gonna know. Okay. But what about the information that my car travels carry? Maybe I don’t want anyone to know where I go all the time, and maybe I do. I’m not going anywhere inappropriate but it’s just nice to know that when I get into my car, again, and this ties to the roads, you know? There’s a sense of kind of freedom, there’s a sense of possibility.

If I wanted to on a whim, let’s say I’ve got court somewhere. Let’s say I’ve got court in Pecos, Texas and let’s say out of whim I decided I wanted to keep going because I’ve never been to the northern part of the state or something, or I wanted to go see what it’s like in New Mexico. I could just go. And I guess what I’m saying is just thinking all about the information that we’d giving up, where we go, when. There’s this really interesting moment that I’ve never forgotten in the movie, “Minority Report” which is not a great movie, but where the person…they have self-driving cars and the police issue a warrant for the person’s arrest. And so the car just locks itself, the windows go up, the doors lock and it starts driving itself to the police station. Do you really want to live in a world like that?

And then there’s just kind of the freedom, the freedom of just being alone in a car and doing things that are not monitored. It’s an unmonitored space. And I want to talk about that kind of in two ways. First of all, there is a joy to driving. There is. Cars are amazing and they’ve gotten less amazing as sort of we’ve gotten more regulated, and as I say they’ve gotten less amazing, it’s also probably true that they’ve gotten more safe. But it’s also true that the safer you make something the more boring it becomes.

I remember I kind of fell in love, I was watching the show called, “Victory by Design” which was a series where this guy takes you kind of through the history of different famous automakers like Ferrari and Alfa Romeo and Jaguar. And I just became obsessed and fell in love with Maseratis. And these old Maseratis were just so unsafe. I mean, the early ones didn’t even have like a windshield, they were the old cars that someone had to go in front and crank the engine and the driver had these goggles and it just looked awesome. It just looked awesome. I mean it’s like I would just want to drive one of these cars. And it got me thinking about how much fun it really is to kind of rocket through with the wind and sort of just, you know, it just made me think how driving, it became something that was just really exhilarating and exciting and you have like the 24 Hours of Le Mans and these great races. And, of course, you can go too far, I mean, you know, ask T.E. Lawrence how his addiction to speed panned out.

But, you know, there’s a big difference between that and then just making it sort of like the thing that you throw, you know, these big sort of boxed things that we all have now where you just kind go throw in your kids and, you know, the equipment for the beach and it’s just kind of a way to get from A to B. And the actual travel isn’t something to look forward to. Well, I mean that really becomes the case if you have driverless cars where you just don’t get to enjoy the thrill or sensation of driving anymore. And there’s this other thing, we have to be careful about automating things because things that are automated don’t have…there’s no freedom or liberty for you, the person, to explore, I guess to explore, to deviate.

I recently read something by a guy named Alan Westin who was a law professor at Columbia and who wrote a book in 1967 called, “Privacy and Freedom” and it has some interesting ideas. One of the reasons to read these people and to read kind of books about something that you think you understand, for example, like privacy. When I say privacy I think we all have kind of a general sense of what that means. But one of the reasons to read other people’s thoughts on something that we already considered to be kind of a fully understood thing is it might help us understand things even more in a more substantive, more nuanced way. And I’m gonna get back to the original idea I was talking about Westin. But for example, I thought I kind of had a good sense of privacy but I had never thought about what the states of privacy are or that there’s different sort of gradations of privacy. And one of the things that he does in this book is he breaks it down, the states of privacy into four different ways of being.

So the first is solitude. The second is intimacy. The third is anonymity, which is something I never really thought about, but, you know, if you go out into the world, if you’re on the L, if you’re in a crowded place, at a concert or, you know, something like that, even though you’re in public you still kind of expect to be private in the sense that you’re anonymous in the sense that you don’t expect to be, for example, under surveillance or something. Or if there’s some sort of tracker on your car. So if you go out on the highway, you’re in public, there’s hundreds of cars, thousands of cars on the highway, but you still kind of feel like you’re private because you assume that you’re not being watched.

And then the fourth state of privacy, and I’ve gotten off on a bit of a digression, I’m gonna come back to my idea about why I don’t like driverless cars in a moment, but this is something I had never thought about. But as an introvert, it really spoke to me. The fourth kind of privacy is what he calls reserve, which is kind of the right to sort of not reveal everything about yourself even when you’re in public and not anonymous. So for example, I’ve been accused of being a little bit aloof in life. I don’t like going to parties or big groups and stuff, and I just hate it when people come up to me and start interrogating me about, you know, the details of my life. I just don’t…I don’t want to share. All right? I’m a private person. I only share that stuff with very limited number of people and I hold a great deal in reserve. And so that is an important form of privacy and a state of privacy that I actually live in for much of my time because I mean I have a public job and I go to court and, you know, it’s all public and stuff like that. But so much of who I really am never gets seen because I hold a state of holding things in reserve to be incredibly important to me and for my personal happiness and feeling safe in the world. So just even thinking reading this book it kind of made me realize that it made me understand things about privacy and frankly things central to my own personal identity and the way I chose to be in the world. That helped me appreciate myself more, appreciate how I function.

And here’s another thing that I do and that I think we all do, and this relates to driving. And here’s his idea. He calls it “permissible deviations.” And this is what he says. He says, “A form of emotional release is provided by the protection privacy gives to minor noncompliance with social norms. Some norms are formally adopted which society really expects many persons to break. This ambivalence produces a situation in which almost everyone does break some social or institutional norms, for example, violating traffic laws, breaking sexual mores, or smoking in restrooms when this is prohibited. Although society will usually punish the most flagrant abuses, it tolerates the great bulk of the violations as permissible deviations. If there were no privacy to permit society to ignore these deviations, most persons in the society would be under organizational discipline or in jail or could be manipulated by threats of such action. The firm expectation of having privacy for permissible deviations is a distinguishing character of life in a free society.”

In other words, we have to know in order to feel fulfilled, in order to be happy, that there are times in our life or things that we can do or moments where we may “deviate” from what is expected of us and not get caught. There’s a road called 1776 in Texas. And, of course, I see that number and because despite everything I still somewhat like the idea of America. It makes me happy to think about the courage of the people who declared independence in 1776 and I try to overlook their racism and misogyny and just horribleness. I see that and I think freedom. And maybe, maybe I like to hear the sound of my V6 a little bit.

And when we automate these things, you know, when our lights come on and stuff like that, I mean just every little thing, we deny ourselves the emotional release of permissible deviations. And it really is important. I know we like to pretend that, you know, we’re all law-abiding and just we just do everything exactly right and we…no, no. Our humanity trumps the constraints that we feel are necessary to preserve our lives. For example, here’s a little thought experiment. And I want to leave you with this because it’s a little bit scary, but honestly, I want you to think about this when you think about all the wonderful conveniences and if only I could just have someone else do this for me or something else do this for me.

Imagine that it were possible to sort of input the criminal code into every person’s DNA as they’re born. So every state, you know, every state has a different…they call it something different but there’s a set of laws, right, that you’re all expected to follow all the time. So imagine that we could, and they’re often called “criminal codes.” So let’s say that when a person is born you could implant that into their DNA such that it becomes physically impossible to violate a criminal law. Now, on the one hand, wonderful, right, no more murder, no more sexual assaults, no more theft. But imagine if it was physically impossible to speed, to roll a stop sign, to jaywalk. Honestly, imagine what it would be like if it was impossible to permissibly deviate.

Those deviations, those things that we do in our private moments when no one is watching, and I’m assuming that we’re not like, you know, killing people and eating them in those moments, but just sort of living our lives the particular things that we like to do, whatever they are, you know, like eat a whole pint of Chunky Monkey in one sitting. And these deviations they don’t necessarily have to be just legal deviations but just sort of things that we might think as certain people in society might not approve of. Those things, if you think about it, that’s so much of where the enjoyment of life comes from.

So that’s my thought on self-driving cars. Also I know it’s been…as I wrap up here, I know it’s been a bit if a while since you’ve heard from me. I don’t like to talk unless I feel like I have something to say. And so I think that’s kind of the promise I’m gonna make myself and to you. I had wanted to and, you know, I meant it at the time when I said it, kind of have a regular schedule with regard to these podcasts, but I’m gonna give up on that. And you’re only gonna hear from me when, you know, the spirit moves me.

Having said that, I hope your 2018 is going pretty well so far. And just so you know, even though I am gonna be somewhat sporadic here, I am trying to also be somewhat semi-professional about it. So you can find more information about the podcasts and some also written essays of mine, etc. on my website, jaimeescuder.com, and if you feel inclined to leave a review on iTunes or wherever your favorite podcasting source is, I certainly would appreciate it. As always, thanks for listening and drive safely.

V for Vulnerable – Ep. 107

“Novotna produced one of the defining sporting moments of the 1990s when she stumbled in sight of victory against Steffi Graf, and then dampened the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder with her tears.”

Related:

“I told her we were both just very ill and needed to let other people help us sometimes.”

Enough – Ep. 1.5

This episode was inspired by an article I read about the race to develop artificial intelligence. It reminded me of a story that I heard about Jospeh Heller, which got me thinking about the concept of enough.

References

Tech Giants Are Paying Huge Salaries for Scarce A.I. Talent

Vonnegut on Heller on Enough

6,200 Pairs of Shoes

A $248,000 Tree House

30,000,000 to 8,000

as peanuts are served today

4,000,000 to 0

by accident

0 to 4,000

600 times more powerful than

paper clips to end the world

cowboys v. spacemen (Boulding’s original paper here)

freedom, books, flowers, and the moon

incredibly lucky

the great filter

Men standing with pile of buffalo skulls, Michigan Carbon Works

Transcript

Hi, this is Jaime Escuder. And welcome to another episode of None Sense.

I read a headline this morning and it reminded me of something, a story that I once heard about Kurt Vonnegut. And so, I’m gonna talk to you about all of that.

Here’s the headline, “Tech Giants Are Paying Huge Salaries for Scarce A.I. Talent: Nearly all big tech companies have an artificial intelligence project. And they are willing to pay experts millions of dollars to help get it done.”

Okay. And here is the Vonnegut story. This is Vonnegut speaking.

“True story, Word of Honor: Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer, now dead, and I were at a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island. I said, ‘Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel Catch 22 has earned in its entire history?’ And Joe said, ‘I’ve got something he can never have.’ And I said, ‘What on earth could that be, Joe?’ And Joe said, ‘The knowledge that I’ve got enough.'”

This podcast today is going to be about the idea of enough.

Enough is something that people really don’t do. We are avaricious and greedy. Most of us are demented, as Walt Whitman said, “with the mania of owning things.” This is why Imelda Marcos had over 1,200 pairs of shoes. This is why a guy named Dan Burnham spent $248,000 on a tree house for his grandkids. “Adorable and worth every penny,” said Mr. Burnham.

And we are rapacious.

This is a thing that we do: we develop technologies, and then we abuse them. There used to be, think about this, 30 million buffalo in North America. Do you know how many un-hybridized buffalo there are in America right now? There’s a general population of 500,000. So, down from 30 million to 500,000. That’s an astonishing decline. [98.4%] But of those, you know how many are un-hybridized, meaning the actual buffalo that were here originally? 8,000. [0.026%]

Here’s another example. Did you know that the United States used to be the largest producing caviar exporter in the world? And that the caviar was of exceptionally high quality? This is from a website I found on the history of caviar. This is the quote, “There was so much American caviar being produced in North America at the time (so around the turn of the 20th century) that bars would serve the salty delicacy to encourage more beer drinking, as peanuts are served today.” At the turn of the 19th century, there was more caviar going to Europe from North America than from Russia. At that time, there were roughly 4 million pounds of sturgeon being harvested from the Great Lakes per year and now, virtually gone.

I’m mentioning this because it’s the concept…it’s the idea that we don’t accept the concept of enough, as Joseph Heller did, that causes us to do things like fracking. And it’s also the idea that we don’t accept the fact that we have limitations, that we cannot be trusted with these technologies as we develop them that causes us to create things like nuclear weapons, which we then do things like leave them unguarded. They’ve been flown across the country by accident. [Same incident.] They’ve been overbuilt. We have…there’s something like 4,000 nuclear weapons in the American arsenal.


[For the record, that tweet above is sheer madness. It’s also missing a period; can you believe it?]

And more than that, not only have we built too many of them, we built far too powerful of them. The bomb that was dropped in Hiroshima killed 80,000 people instantly. And yet there was a bomb in Arkansas, and there’s a show about this, an American experience called “Command and Control” where this nuclear weapon almost detonated in Arkansas. And it was 600 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Just think about the folly of even developing one such weapon, let alone thousands of those weapons, and that’s what we’ve done.

And why am I thinking about this in relation to this article I read about tech companies just in a race to develop artificial intelligence? And the reason is, this is another technology, even more so possibly, some people think that nuclear weapons that is completely capable of destroying us. And rather than acting with circumspection and hesitation and restraint, you have one company. Google’s Deep Mind, which is their A.I. arm, paying on average $375,000 per employee to develop this stuff.

Now, I know that there are potentially lots of wonderful benefits to A.I. There are medical benefits. There’s the whole self-driving cars thing. And most importantly, and let’s not forget this, there is the fact that it’s going to make some people incredibly rich. But there are also risks. For example, there’s a famous example given by a guy named Nick Bostrom who’s done a lot of thinking about the risks of A.I. It’s called the paperclip maximizer example.

And he wrote a paperback in 2003, in which he said this, “It seems perfectly possible to have a superintelligence,” and that’s what we’re talking about with the development of A.I. because we have A.I. now. It’s in our phones. For example, when you take a picture of someone on your phone and there’s that little box that identifies the person’s face, well that’s A.I. at work. We already have A.I. that you can literally hold in the palm of your hand.

But what these companies and that’s not enough. I get that’s the point of what I’m saying. We already have A.I. but they have decided that that’s not enough. They want super intelligent A.I. And Bostrom says, “It seems perfectly possible to have a superintelligence whose sole goal is something completely arbitrary, such as to manufacture as many paperclips as possible. And who would resist with all its might any attempt to alter this goal with the consequence that it starts transforming first all of earth, and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities.”

In this example, let’s say we think we’re doing something innocuous. We just wanna test the A.I., and we decide to give it the task of manufacturing paperclips. And it determines, “Great, I’m gonna make as many as possible.” And I’m not a scientist and I’m not a biologist. I don’t know. I’m just making stuff up here because I’m not super intelligent. But it could easily decide, “You know, the best atmosphere for paperclip manufacture is a carbon-rich atmosphere. There’s too much oxygen in this atmosphere.” So, it acts to cut down all the trees. Destroy all the trees, or it decides, “People are actually in the way of my paperclip production. I need to get rid of them,” or it decides, “We need lots of water to make paperclips.” And so it starts polluting the water. We can’t even predict what it might do.

When do we ever stop and acknowledge the fact that we actually cannot be trusted with technology? Because if we could, then maybe, there would still be, some buffalo around. When do we stop and say the average lifespan right now is 80 years and that’s enough? When do we stop and say, “It’s okay for me to drive myself? That’s enough.” Is it not reasonable to say that any technology that has the potential of destroying all civilization? That’s too much.

There’s a guy named Kenneth Boulding. He was an economist. He was a lot of things. He was a real polymath. He was an economist, and a poet, and everything. In 1966, he wrote a paper called “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth.” He said, “We need to start rethinking about our planet, and we need to re-imagine it from an open system to a closed system.” And he called these the differences between a cowboy economy and a spaceman economy. He said, “The cowboy economy was symbolic of the illimitable plains, and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behavior. But the closed economy of the future, which we can call the spaceman economy, we have to think about the earth as becoming a single spaceship without unlimited reservoirs of anything. Either for extraction or for pollution and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical, ecological system.”

Before we develop certain technologies, let’s say, for example, fracking. It was okay to dig around in the earth and take out as much as we could, because we couldn’t possibly take everything or, for example, before we developed the rifle. It was okay to hunt as many buffalo as possible because it was just not possible to kill 30 million individual buffalo. But when the railroads came, and the rifle came, and all of these things came, it was possible and we did it.

As we stand now on the cusp of another thing that we’re frantically developing, A.I., and we’re not even pausing at all to look at how it potentially really could destroy us all. I wish there was more discussion of what enough is. Oscar Wilde said, “With freedom, books, flowers and the moon, who could not be happy?”

Unfortunately, it seems like, there’s a lot of people. And I think the reason is they’re not looking at the things that they have already. Because if they did, they would see that really, it is enough. And the other thing is they only look at the possible benefits of the thing, never considering that the negatives are real and also likely.

I wanna go back to Nick Bostrom for a minute. He has this other interesting idea called the great filter. He was thinking about why we have not found any signs of extraterrestrial life. And he has a simple idea. And the idea is the reason we haven’t found any is because none of it exists. And the reason it doesn’t exist is because at some point in the development of all intelligent life, it’s possible that they must invent something that leads to their destruction. “It’s not far-fetched,” he says, “to suppose that there might be some possible technology which is such that A, virtually all sufficiently advanced civilizations eventually discover it and B, its discovery leads almost universally to existential disaster.”

Now, it’s my belief that most likely the discovery of nuclear weapons is that thing for mankind. I think it’s just incredibly lucky that in the decades since we discovered nuclear weapons, there has not been some catastrophic, cataclysmic thing that’s happened, that’s led to just the destruction of all life. If it’s not nuclear weapons, there is at least the possibility that it is artificial intelligence, a thing that we are rushing headlong into the development of. And maybe, just maybe, the mere possibility that it is that ought to be enough for us to say enough.

Thank you as always for listening.

Hamilton’s Warning – Ep. 1.4

In this episode, I explain why I believe that packing the courts with conservative jurists, as Trump and McConnell plan to do, will cause us to lose our rights.

I also talk about John Rawls and Alexander Hamilton. What do they have in common?  They both think that you shouldn’t make rules for other people without expecting them to apply to yourself. Also, they both liked rap.

(Actually, I’m not so sure about that rap thing.)

References

Suicide by Elevator

Dirty Mexicans Are Suspicious

The Right to Remain Silent Does Not Include Remaining Silent

An Eye For Not An Eye

Expert: Black People Are More Violent Than White People

The Veil of Ignorance

Federalist 78

Happiness Is a Mailed Letter – Ep. 1.3

My solution to the gun violence problem. (It’s not what you think.)

CORRECTION: In this episode, I claim that the population density of Cook County, Illinois is 9,000 people per square mile. This is incorrect. It’s about 5,500 per square mile. My claim that Brewster County’s population density is 1.3 people per square mile was closer. It’s actually 1.5.

Transcript (by speechpad.com):

Hi. This is Jaime Escuder. Welcome to another episode of None Sense.

Let’s talk about guns.

You know, I don’t really wanna talk about guns, but guns seems to be a particular problem in my country in that we have these endless horrible mass shootings that keep happening over and over again. And I think maybe we ought to talk about why. (I know that the gun debate is not something that’s at all new but I think it’s important. And I haven’t really waited on it and so I’m gonna do that.)

I’m gonna do that by starting off with a surprise. And this is the surprise, I’m a very liberal … well, this is not the surprise … I’m a very liberal person. Super liberal. I think that … I mean, if I could wave my magic wand, I would legalize virtually every victimless crime, so prostitution, drug use, whatever. I think we live in a far too criminalized society. America is an over-criminalized, “overruled,” I like to say, country. And I’m very liberal in that way and I think that people should just be allowed to do stuff so long as there’s not a victim.

And when I talk like that, people naturally assume that I’m a Democrat, which is true. And, of course, every Democrat is a big proponent of gun control, right? Well, not me. I’m actually not a big gun control guy and this is very surprising to people who, after they get to know me a while when they learn this about me, it’s a shock to them and it’s somewhat disappointing to them. So I wanna explain why, and then maybe because, yes, I’m a Democrat but I’m not a big gun control Democrat, those of you who are skeptical of what I’m about to say might be a little bit more willing to listen.

So, I’m not a gun control guy, number one, because I like freedom. I think people should be allowed to do stuff. And I think one of those things is if you wanna be a gun collector or own guns, I can understand why you would wanna do that. Guns are actually pretty amazing machines if you think about it. They don’t require batteries or electricity, they just kind of harness the laws of physics and chemistry to function and that’s a rare thing.

And I’m not a gun owner, I’m not a gun nut, but I can see, you know, it’s a rare thing, it’s a rare instrument that sort of functions merely out of alignment with the laws of nature. And a gun does and that’s kind of amazing and so I could see how, for historical reasons and just kind of neat mechanical reasons, why people might wanna own guns. And more importantly, even if couldn’t see that, I just think people should be allowed to be free in a free country and so one of the things you should be allowed to do is have guns.

The other thing is I’m not at all blind to the fact that guns have their uses. The police in these types of situations … there was just a mass shooting, like, I think I may have mentioned, in Las Vegas. I think the last count was 58 people dead … in these kinds of situations, so Sandy Hook or Virginia Tech etc., the police always get there too late. Now, that’s not to blame the police, there’s no way they could know it ahead of time but it’s gonna take them some minutes to get there. And if, in that time, the only person with a gun in a room full of people is the guy who’s killing people, that’s how you get to numbers like 58 people or whatever the number was at the Pulse Nightclub, dozens of people killed. So there’s a value I recognize to having guns in places where this is gonna happen.

And then the 3rd thing is, gun control is … even the very concept of gun control is completely ignorant of the fact that it absolutely will not work just in terms of the reality of the existence of guns in this country. I think there was an estimate I saw, there’s 300 million guns in this country. That’s actually more guns, there are actually more guns in the United States of America than there are people. Another article that I read was that the killer in Las Vegas used this thing called a “bump stock” which is something I never heard of before, but I guess it’s some sort of attachment or mechanism that you can attach to a gun. And that turns it essentially into a machine gun or a rapid-fire gun.

And so, now, there’s all sorts of talk about banning these things. And the article I read was essentially how they’re already selling out in anticipation of them being banned. Would-be owners are already buying them and they are already selling out. So who knows how many thousands or tens of thousands or millions of bump stocks are already out there even if you were to ban them? And so that’s one of the things, one of the mistakes that I think people in general make and that legislators like to pretend: that somehow legislating a fact changes the reality of that fact.

And they don’t.

Murder is illegal. It’s been illegal in this country ever since the beginning. I think it’s probably been illegal in every country all over earth. Guess what? At this very moment, there’s a murder happening somewhere. The mere outlawing of a thing doesn’t prevent it.

The mere banning of a gun isn’t gonna prevent guns from the flow of commerce any more than it prevents the flow of marijuana or any of the other drugs from commerce. So, there’s a dose of reality that has to be attached to the gun debate that I think is often missing in this whole legalize or ban guns debate that we’re having.

Having said that, I’m not ignorant at the fact that maybe there are some guns out there, in fact, there are some guns out there that maybe people really shouldn’t have, like these assault weapon type of guns. You know, I don’t want my neighbor, my neighbor shouldn’t be allowed to have a pet hippopotamus. I don’t think they should be allowed to be secretly building and even not so secretly building a nuclear bomb in their garage. Some things are just simply too dangerous. And I think certain types of guns certainly wouldn’t fit that description so I think the idea of having some sort of meaningful debate about what kinds of guns should be normally allowed in society is a good one to have.

And I also recognize that that’s not an easy debate or conversation to have and that we could have a whole, I could devote a whole show to that and not have any answers. And so I’m not gonna do that now, I’m gonna save that maybe for later, probably for never, but for today, I’m just gonna say that I’m not an outright ban all guns guy even though I’m probably the most liberal person that you’ve either met or never met.

A more important harder thing to do is to ask: why do these things keep happening? And if we accept that it’s not because, and I’m gonna talk more about this in a moment, it’s not just because there are guns in the world because as you know, there’s guns in other countries like Canada and yet they don’t have this problem.

Why does the United States have this problem? Let’s start first by analyzing the fact that these things are done by people who not only value the lives of others so little enough to kill them, but they also hate their own lives.

Because one thing that always happens to these cases is the person gets killed. This is going happen.

Actually, my understanding is that this guy in Las Vegas may have had some sort of escape plan or some sort of delusion that he was gonna escape. He didn’t, he was killed. And clearly, he must have known that that was a possibility.

So what is it in these people’s lives or what is it that’s lacking in these people’s lives that makes them decide, “I wanna die. I wanna kill people and then I wanna die.”

There’s a guy named Charlie Hoehn, who did a blog post, who suggested some possible reasons why this Las Vegas thing happened. And one is simply that maybe he was lonely. And I think that’s maybe a conversation, an important conversation that we need to have in this country. Former Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, actually said that loneliness is reaching an epidemic proportion in this country. And he wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review in which he said that 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely.

Now, actually, especially I think for men and I think I can say this because I am a guy, it’s not okay or acceptable or something that it feels safe to be able to go to anyone and say, “I’m lonely.” And yet we know that it exists and we know that many people have it and there’s many causes of it. And I think one of the causes of it is we take each other for granted. Even people that we have in our lives that we maybe see every day or are close to, we kind of don’t inquire into their feelings as people.

I have a little story about this. I live right now in far West Texas in a very sparsely populated part of the country. But I moved here from a place called Oak Park, Illinois, which is in Cook County, Illinois, which is where Chicago is. And it has a population density, Cook County does, of about 9,000 [correction: the actual number is abut 5,000] people per square mile. That’s a lot of people per square mile. And I lived in a building with other people. And I’m not, I’m just as guilty of this as anyone and I’m as much at fault as this is my neighbors, but the truth is, I really had no community there.

I didn’t know my neighbors. I literally did not know the name of the guy who lived upstairs from me, who I could hear walking around at night. I didn’t know the name of the guy who I shared a kitchen wall with. I don’t know what these people did for a living. I didn’t know if they were sick. I didn’t know if they were sad. And they didn’t know any of that about me. And I felt very isolated and alone in a building full of people. And part of it, as I said, is my fault because I didn’t reach out or, you know, extend the hand of welcome or whatever and I recognize that.

But the fact of the matter is, it was loneliness. I think you could say that it was loneliness. And it was loneliness even though I had a family and I had a job and all of that stuff. There was still a sense of that there.

We moved to Texas a very, like I say, a very sparsely populated part of Texas. I think the population density of Brewster County where I live now as opposed to Oak Park of Cook County was 9,000 people per square mile, I think the population density of Brewster is like, 1.3 or 3 people per square mile.

And yet, when we got here, my wife went to the bakery. She bought a loaf of bread and she had some other things. And I think she probably had the children with her, and so she forgot the loaf of bread at the store. Later that night, there’s a knock on the door and the baker is actually there. And she hands the bread to my wife, and she says, “You know, I think you forgot this. Here.” Now, I have no idea how she even knew where we lived, but she did. And she brought the bread over. And that is community.

And I wonder how many people in the United States…and I’m not…listen, I’m not making excuses for what this guy did, I mean, I’m not at all doing that. I’m just saying, we owe it to ourselves that we don’t, you know, go out to a concert or on the eL or something like that and get shot to death by someone who’s over-lonely. We owe it to ourselves to think about what are some of the possible causes. And I recognize, of course, mental illness is probably something significant. But maybe loneliness is a part of that, one of the possible causes of this, and I think we owe it to ourselves to ask, “Are we lonely?” Who around us might be lonely? What are we doing about that? And do we have the courage to admit that it’s a problem or a thing, if not in our own lives, in our country and very likely with someone that we know?

Here’s another reason, and this is related to loneliness, but I think it’s also distinct and this is where my, maybe some of my politics is gonna come out a little bit. But maybe he was depressed or maybe the people who do these things are depressed.

What are some of the reasons, in the United States, someone might be depressed? What about the fact that maybe we don’t wanna talk about it or openly acknowledge it or it’s too scary to admit, but the simple fact that we no longer live in a true democracy, that we, the people living in the United States right now, live in an oligarchy?

There’s something called the happiness, I think it’s called “The Happiness Report” and it’s put out every year. It’s a rating of happiness from different countries, and the United States has been consistently dropping in these happiness ratings every year. And there’s a chapter in the latest report and you’ll find the link to the report in my show notes. And I think I’ve said this in other episodes, but my show notes are always very comprehensive and everything that I reference in my actual Podcast, you can find the link in the show notes. But there’s a chapter devoted to American happiness or American depression in there.

And this is something that comes right from there. And I’m quoting now. It says, “There is a strong and correct feeling among Americans that the government does not serve their interest, but rather the interest of powerful lobbies, wealthy Americans, and, of course, the politicians themselves.” And then they further note that Political Scientists such as Martin Gilens have shown that “only rich Americans have real input into political decision making.”

I looked into that a little bit more and I looked into who Martin Gilens is, and it turns out there is a New Yorker article discussing his work. And one of the quotes from his papers, this comes from Mr. Gilens himself, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose.” In other words, numbers don’t really matter in this country, what matters is money. And that’s depressing.

Now, interestingly, or maybe not so interestingly, or dastardly, or, you know, depressingly itself because it seems maybe this isn’t even an explanation. Apparently, the guy in Las Vegas was very wealthy. But still, I don’t think we can ignore the fact that living in an oligarchy sucks unless you’re a member of the oligarchy. And even then, it sucks if you have any sort of conscience.

And it’s horribly depressing especially when you’re of a certain generation like I am, Gen X, etc., when you actually are watching the people’s grip over their leadership slip away and you feel powerless to do it, it’s depressing. I know this sounds maybe a strange thing to talk about in a gun control or how do we stop mass shootings kind of podcast. But I really do think that this is a majorly depressing thing that can get people upset and make people hate other people.

And I think we should look at maybe solutions and campaign finance reform, overruling Citizens United, ending the just disgraceful gerrymandering that is essentially completely undermining our democracy. I mean, I’m willing to say this, that doing those things, meaningful campaign finance reform, fair elections that you actually don’t feel disenfranchised from, that you actually feel like you have a say in, that would do more to prevent gun violence than banning guns. Because it will have an actual impact, an actual impact to the people who are living here and maybe won’t wanna kill themselves or others quite so much because they’re actually enjoying their lives a little bit more.

And I wanna talk about another reason, and perhaps the most important reason. And it is this, this is the 3rd reason.

We have lost our identity as a national community, as Americans. I don’t think that we really see each other as one country anymore, we see each other as whites and blacks, religious and non-religious, younger generation, older generation, wealthy, not wealthy, southern, northern, etc. And the fact of the matter is we’re not there for each other anymore. We don’t look out for each other. We don’t care about each other and we don’t take care of each other.

And it’s a fabric that’s being rent apart by our own carelessness towards our fellow Americans. And this has actually been proven through research. There’s a guy named Keith Hampton, Professor at Michigan State University who actually studies this. He studies something called “Helping Behavior” and he did two of these studies. One in 2001 and one in 2011. And he did them in the United States and in Canada.

And again, I will have  a link to his actual paper in my show notes, but in short, in a nutshell, this was the experiment that he did. He left about 7,600 addressed and stamped letters in public places, both in Canada and the United States. And he measured the return of those letters.

In other words, someone is walking along and they see a letter on the ground or on a bench or in a phone booth and it’s clearly like someone lost it. And he checked to see how many people actually went to the minor hassle of placing it in a mailbox so that whoever it was intended for would actually receive it. In 2001, he found that 63% of the letters were returned and that’s both in Canada and in the United States. In 2011, when he did the test again, the number remained at 63% in Canada. However, the number fell to 53.4%, a 10% drop in the United States.

Since 9/11, we have gotten more distant from each other to the point where nearly half of us, think about this, nearly half of the people that you see on the street, if they see a letter that is clearly lost and has the stamp and the address on it, won’t even bother to pick it up and put it in the mailbox. They’ll just ignore it. We can do better. We must do better because I don’t know that any country, any national union can long last with that kind of apathy. And I really think that we’re wasting time and doing a poor service to each other and to the root of the problem and not doing the hard work when we just insist that banning guns is going to fix everything.

Here’s one more story. I live in a place right now that is swimming in guns, that is flooded with guns. When I first moved here, it was like an Oak Parker’s nightmare. I went to a…I think it was a fundraiser for a volunteer for the local fire department and there was an auction. And literally, every auction items was guns or whiskey. I never felt unsafe, nobody got shot. The place…I mean, they couldn’t… There was probably, again, more guns in that building than were people.

Now, we did have a shooting here in Alpine, Texas about a year ago at the high school. A girl brought a gun to school and according to the police, she was, I guess, she must have been depressed. That’s not according to the police, but I’m assuming based upon what happened. But she wanted to shoot her stepbrother. And when things didn’t go the way they were supposed to, someone walked in on her while she was loading the gun or something, she shot and killed herself. In other words, she was sad.

Now, let me ask you seriously, is that a shooting that happened because that girl had too many guns in her life? Or is it one that happened because she had too few friends?

Now, I don’t merely mean to point my finger at Liberals on this issue whom I disagree with saying, “Stop focusing on something that’s not actually the problem.” Conservatives, if anything, I’m more upset with them because they seem to understand that it’s not the problem but yet, they also keep to seem to pretend that it’s not gonna happen again and they don’t have any meaningful discussion as to what the problem actually is.

For example, overturning the oligarchy or passing campaign finance reforms that might make it harder for them and their rich friends to get elected. That’s hard work. But necessary work is often hard work.

I wanna leave you with this idea. There’s a great radio documentary that was actually put together by Glenn Gould who liked to study solitude and solitary people and see why they chose a solitary life. And the very first one of them is something called The Idea of North where he interviews a few, I think five Canadians who lived for a time in the extreme north of Northern Canada.

And there were a couple of interesting observations. One is that a lot of people go north to these remote places because they hope to get away from community, they wanna get away from people. And then they find themselves actually far closer to community than they ever imagined. I think I personally lived that when I left a county of, I don’t know, 3 million people for a county of 10,000 and then all of a sudden felt very much closer. And that’s because when there’s fewer, I guess, resources or people around, you realize that you really do need each other to get by.

And one of the other people that he interviewed commented on that by saying, You could tell when someone was depressed in the town because you saw them every day. And you would maybe make note of it and unannounced one day, knock on their door, say hello, maybe play a game of chess. “And right away, there was a sense of sharing this life.” And that really stuck with me because you know what? Whether you knock on their door or not, you are sharing this life with them. You are sharing this place, this planet, this moment. And by pretending that that’s not true or by pretending that that person isn’t there, you’re not doing anything other than maybe, making the situation worse. And you’re certainly not honoring the fact that people don’t simply cease to exist just because we ignore them.

So, participate in your community. Look around you and view this as a national community, which it is, and maybe if we can’t stop this gun violence outright, at least, maybe we can finally have a real conversation and get started. Because I don’t feel like we’ve made any progress on this issue and I think the only thing that’s separating us between this moment and the next mass shooting is time and luck. And guess what? Those both run out.

It’s time for us to take responsibility for what’s happening in our own country and think, and see the people around us. And when we see that they’ve dropped a letter, pick it up and mail it.

Thanks for listening.