Category Archives: Inspiration

Frederick Douglass on Globalization

I’m a few days late to the party, but today I found myself rereading Frederick Douglass’s magnificent oration, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? As with all great texts, you come away with something different each time you read it. Last time, its applicability to LGBT rights struck me. This time, I noticed his closing thoughts on the positive ways the world is changing.

Writing 164 years ago, he noticed trends which have happily extended to this day. They are some of the same themes Stephen Pinker sounded in one of my favorite books, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

For your encouragement, and without further comment, I turn this post over to Frederick Douglass:

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Overcoming Blackness and Gravity

The universe is on its way to a slow, cold death.

In the meantime, global warming is causing record levels of wildfires.

Worst of all, Donald Trump is still at the top of the polls.

How can a serious-minded beagle keep his head up?

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Frederick Douglass and LGBT Equality

FDouglass1On July 4, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered a riveting speech to the citizens of Rochester, New York. Douglass’s theme was white America’s hypocrisy in celebrating Independence Day while a seventh of the population was in chains.

I encourage you to read the full text here. It’s lengthy, but I promise that you will consider it time well-spent.

Slavery was the culture-war issue of Douglass’s day. Today, marriage equality and LGBT rights are front and center. I’d like to apply a portion of Douglass’s oration to these modern issues by excerpting a portion of his speech, interspersed with instructions that today’s conservatives give to LGBT people. Not every word of his applies, but most do.

Argue your case and be patient. Don’t offend us.

I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed. But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light?

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Dancing on the Feet of Chance

When my daughters were small, we used to dance with one of them standing on my feet: I would dance and she would go along for the ride. Our course was up to me, but she enjoyed wherever I would take her. Sometimes, there wasn’t even any music — no external justification for the dance, if you will — just a light-hearted communion between father and daughter.

That’s what came to my mind when I read this passage from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The wise man, Zarathustra, is speaking to the pre-dawn sky.

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“You Had Not Yet Sought Yourselves…”

Are you a parent whose children have chosen a path far from yours? Are you a pastor, rabbi or imam who is frustrated at your flock’s seeming lack of interest? Are you a disciple of a particular religion who is having a hard time conforming? Here is a passage from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra that may either encourage or challenge you.

Zarathustra is speaking to his disciples:

Now I go alone, my disciples. You too go now, alone. Thus I want it. Verily, I counsel you: go away from me and resist Zarathustra! And even better: be ashamed of him! Perhaps he deceived you.

The man of knowledge must not only love his enemies, he must also be able to hate his friends.

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When Has a Dragon Ever Died of the Poison of a Snake?

It has been a very public week for victims of horrible crimes. Dzhjokhar Tsarnaev’s victims spoke at his formal death sentencing, and the families of the Charletson Massacre’s victims have been in the national media.

Most noted among the Charleston families was Nadine Collier, who said to killer Dylann Roof, “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you and I forgive you.”

Rebekah Gregory, who lost a leg to Boston Marathon bomber Tsarnaev, struck a very different tone. Looking defiantly at the murderer, she said, “While your intention was to destroy America, what you have really accomplished is actually quite the opposite – you’ve unified us. We are Boston strong, we are America strong, and choosing to mess with us was a terrible idea. So how’s that for your VICTIM impact statement?”

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Are You Afraid of the Singularity?

I was amazed to read this week that Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Tesla inventor Elon Musk are all afraid that artificial intelligence poses an existential threat to the human race. Musk’s warning was the most colorful:

With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out.

Bill Gates chimes in:

I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.

They are worried that artificial intelligence (AI) will advance until AI machines are able to improve their own designs, and build even smarter, more-capable machines, which will be smart enough to build even better ones, and so on. Although biological evolution has taken billions of years to produce humans, the AI stage of evolution will happen very, very quickly.

When AI has transformed our culture so much that present-day people would not recognize it, we will have passed the Singularity.

Pessimists think the Singularity will be as portrayed in the movie I, Robot or even The Matrix, in which humans are nothing more than power sources for their machine overlords. Hollywood, Hawking, Gates and Musk notwithstanding, I am not afraid of the Singularity. I look forward to it.

Ray Kurzweil’s seminal book on the subject, The Singularity Is Near, is subtitled When Humans Transcend Biology. In his analysis, humans will not be replaced by AI so much as merge with it. At first, the non-biological portion of our intelligence might consist of a specialized module or two. Think of what you could do right now if you only had Wikipedia and a few other reference sources wired directly into your brain. At a minimum, you could win Jeopardy! and make a lot of money to fund your next project.

With our augmented intelligence, we will be able to design even more improvements. Progress will be exponential. Before the midpoint of this century, according to Kurzweil, the biological portion of our intelligence will be insignificant compared to our augmentations. What we now call artificial life will not exterminate us. It will become a major part of us.

Now I ask, “Why is that so bad?” Why should we cling to the form of existence that has given us global warming, the science-deniers to make sure it continues, the Islamic State, violence against LGBT people, lynching of African Americans, World Wars II and I, the subjugation of women, a Civil War fought in part to defend the institution of slavery, the burning of heretics in the name of the Prince of Peace, and other instances of insanity stretching as far back as history can see? Even if a super-smart AI were to have no goal beyond its own survival, could it possibly do any worse?

Beyond that, isn’t there something aesthetically satisfying in letting intelligence bloom? We think we are the bloom, but maybe we’re just the seed.

Ray Kurzweil projects that intelligence will ultimately permeate the universe. Which would be smarter: to embrace that destiny, or to obstruct it? Which would bring more beauty to the cosmos?