September 6, 2015
Crisis: Syrians. Supreme Court * 2, Robot Overlords, GMOs

 "They who can give up essential 
   liberty to obtain a little temporary
   safety, deserve neither liberty
   nor safety."
   -- Benjamin Franklin
   "All governments lie and nothing
   they say should be believed.
   -- I.F. Stone
   "Power tends to corrupt, and   
   absolute power corrupts
   absolutely. Great men are        
   almost always bad men."
   -- Lord Acton

Prev- crisis -Next


The Syrian Refugee Crisis Will Transform Middle East

2. A Labor Day Worry: The Court’s Right-Wingers Are
     Sharpening Their Knives

3. Court Ruling Builds a Barrier Against Challenges to NSA
     Spying on Americans

4. Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don't Fire Us?
5. Growing Doubt: A Scientist's Experience of GMOs

This is a Nederlog of Sunday, September 6, 2015.

This is a crisis blog. There are 5 items with 5 dotted links: Item 1 is about the Syrian refugee crisis, and makes clear that this is a major problem; item 2 is
about a crazy, false and degenerate argument of the (majority of the) Supreme Court; item 3 is about another crazy, false and degenerate
argument of the (majority  of the) Supreme Court; item 4 is about an article that predicts computer are as intelligent (or more) than human beings by 2040, and promises paradise (and I completely disagree); and item 5 is about a very good article that explains that GMOs in fact should have remained in the laboratories (indeed much like most pharmaceutical innovations of the last decades, that were invented and marketed for profit, and not because there was good evidence they work and are free of harm).

1. The Syrian Refugee Crisis Will Transform Middle East Politics

The first article today is by Charles Glass on The Intercept:
  • The Syrian Refugee Crisis Will Transform Middle East Politics

This starts as follows:

By the time the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 ended, Israeli forces had expelled about 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes. Their plight led to the overthrow of Arab regimes as well as civil wars in Jordan in 1970 and in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990. Israel bombed refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Gaza. Radicalized Palestinians staged hijackings, airport massacres and suicide bombings that captured headlines around the world and more than once led to dangerous American-Soviet confrontations.

The legacy of Syria’s refugee disaster awaits. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Gutteres, has just declared that 4 million Syrians are now refugees in neighboring countries. That is almost six times greater than the number who fled Palestine. Another 7.6 million Syrians, he says, have also lost their homes but remain destitute within Syria. Gutteres said, “This is the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation.”

I say. This seems a good report by a former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent. Note these are 12 million people without houses, and
probably with little work or income - and these are merely the Syrians.

There is also this on Lebanon:
The U.N. reports that Lebanon, a country of 4 million, has taken in 1.2 million Syrians. This figure is probably an underestimate, because not all refugees register with the U.N. (...) In Lebanon, displaced Syrians live where they can. Some dwell in unfinished buildings, others in schools or farms. Lebanon does not wish to establish camps for them as it did for the Palestinians after 1948.
And this is on Syria before the war started:
Before the war began in 2011, Syria fed itself and provided almost all of its medicines from flourishing pharmaceutical industries. Now it is dependent on foreign charity that is anything but adequate. The U.N. says that of the $4.53 billion needed for displaced Syrians to survive, it has received only $1.06 billion in the first half of this year. Gutteres lamented that aid falls far short of “the most basic survival needs of millions of people over the coming six months.”
Which means that many will die. How much the West will see of this is - by the way - another question, that depends (i) on the willingness of the media to
show "harrowing pictures" and (ii) on the presence of journalists to make the pictures, and both seem rather doubtful to me.

Finally, here is a bit on Isis:

While millions of Syrians are fleeing, tens of thousands of jihadi volunteers are coming in. They are the shock troops of the self-styled Islamic State, which with Saudi and Turkish backing has taken control of large swathes of Syria and Iraq that it calls its caliphate.
This article - which is good and recommended - may be seen as a background to yesterday's This refugee crisis is too big for Europe to handle - its institutions are broken.

2. A Labor Day Worry: The Court’s Right-Wingers Are Sharpening Their Knives  

The next article is by Bill Blum on Truthdig:

  • A Labor Day Worry: The Court’s Right-Wingers Are Sharpening Their Knives

This has the following second and third paragraph:

If the U.S. Supreme Court’s dominant Republican majority has its way when the panel’s new term commences in October, we might as well dispense with the holiday [Labor Day - MM] altogether, or at least drop the term “labor” from its title. Among the most important cases the court will consider when it reconvenes is Friedrichs v. California Teachers, which poses what some observers have called an “existential threat” to public unions and by extension to the entire labor movement.

At issue in Friedrichs is the right of public sector unions to collect limited “fair-share” fees in lieu of full formal dues from nonunion workers to defray the costs of collective bargaining that benefits all employees. A decision against the teachers association would have the potential to bankrupt government employee unions and turn the nation’s entire public sector into one enormous “right-to-work” jurisdiction. 

Incidentally, this case is directed against a public union, and the article also informs its readers that the public sector has 35.7 percent unionization, while
the US wage and salary workers are at presently unionized at 11.1 percent and the private sector 6.6 percent.

So yes, it seems the case is meant to end in the taking away of an important part of the incomes of the only somewhat effective unions there still are in the USA.

There is a considerable amount more, but I will only consider the argument that the majority of the Supreme Court has used before.

It runs like this (with a little introduction that sketches some backgrounds):

In a landmark 1977 decision dealing with government unions, one handed down during a more labor-friendly era in the court’s history—Abood v. Detroit Board of Education—the justices upheld the constitutionality of fair-share fee systems.

But the Roberts court, operating in a new era of hostile anti-worker judicial activism, has steadily chipped away at the Abood rule. Starting in 2012 with its opinion in Knox v. SEIU and continuing with its 2014 decision in Harris v. Quinn, the court’s five Republican appointees have emphasized that the payment of union dues by public employees is a form of political speech subject to the constraints of the First Amendment because public unions negotiate contracts with governmental entities and such contracts by definition affect public policies and the spending of taxpayer money.

The First Amendment, they reason (and here is where the twist sets in), protects not only the affirmative right to speak but also the passive right not to be compelled to speak or compelled to endorse the offending speech or acts of other people or groups. Requiring dissenting employees to pay fees to a union they don’t want to join, the analysis continues, amounts to such compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment. 

Here is why I completely disagree - and I quote bits from the above quotation:

1. "
the payment of union dues by public employees is a form of political speech":

That is a complete bullshit argument: Paying or not paying money is not "a form of (..) speech" and the persons who insist it is are lying, also in the Supreme Court. You may as well say that crocodiles are stones, or that mathematics is a park as saying that money is free speech. It is total baloney.

2. "subject to the constraints of the First Amendment":

That is complete bullshit - and "public policies" or "the spending of taxpayer money" have nothing to do with the First Amendment, that is as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

3. "The First Amendment, they reason (..), protects not only the affirmative right to speak but also the passive right not to be compelled to speak or compelled to endorse the offending speech or acts of other people or groups.":

Total and complete bullshit: Firstly, the First Amendment only protected free speech, and has nothing on "the (..) right not to be compelled to speak" (which (i) is completely different (ii) is guaranteed by other rights) and secondly "speech" is not "money".

4. "Requiring dissenting employees to pay fees to a union they don’t want to join, the analysis continues, amounts to such compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment.":

Completely insane bullshit: "paying fees" like not "paying fees" are not speech; they are only required to pay some money to further bargaining that will benefit them - and while you may question that legally, to do so by appealing to a First Amendment that guarantees free speech is sick and degenerate utter bullshit.

But OK: That is what the majority of the Supreme Court of the USA wants to do (they are intelligent enough): To bullshit you, with nonsense arguments:

Money is not speech; the right of free speech does not entail the right not to be compelled to speak; the right not to be compelled to speak does not entail the right of free speech; and judges of the Supreme Court that vote for bullshit of this
low level are merely frauds, for they are all easily intelligent enough to see these arguments.

Unfortunately, they remain judges of the Supreme Court, and therefore both the title and the article are quite justified.

3.  Court Ruling Builds a Barrier Against Challenges to NSA Spying on Americans

The next article is by Thor Benson on Truthdig:

  • Court Ruling Builds a Barrier Against Challenges to NSA Spying on Americans

This is mainly about a difficulty I have registered before, that amounts to this in Thor Benson's words:

One of the problems is that a Supreme Court case from 2013, Clapper v. Amnesty International, that focused on another surveillance provision decided that plaintiffs needed to definitively know their data was collected in order to pursue a case. The government would have to admit what the program does and whom it’s targeting before the case could go forward. Vladeck said it could become very difficult to challenge any practices allegedly approved by the USA Freedom Act if you can pursue a case only after you have all of the evidence to show you were spied on.

“I’m not aware of any other situation in law where you have to have the defendant admit what they did before you can even go to court,” Cindy Cohn, executive director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Truthdig. “It would be as if the police couldn’t arrest somebody unless they admitted they committed the crime first.” Cohn and Vladeck both said that the U.S. Supreme Court has previously stated plaintiffs don’t have this kind of burden of proof to establish a court case and that it seems to be a practice reserved for secret spying programs.

“Given what the government has said about the scope of its program, there is certainly circumstantial evidence that exists,” Cohn said. “Many people are rotting in jail right now based on circumstantial evidence, and they never admitted their crime. It’s a double standard [being set up] in these cases.”

This is completely in line with the previous item:

The government secretly and illegally reads your mail and downloads whatever is on your computer, but the government's Supreme Court has decided that no one has a case against the government, and no one is allowed to start a legal case against the goverment, until there is full proof that the government secretly and illegally reads your mail and downloads whatever is in your computer - which it
will not admit because these are "state's secrets".

And thus the Supreme Court actively justifies and protects the secret and illegal plundering of everyone's computer and cell phone.
4. Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don't Fire Us?

The next article is by Kevin Drum on Mother Jones:

  • Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don't Fire Us?

This starts as follows:
This is a story about the future. Not the unhappy future, the one where climate change turns the planet into a cinder or we all die in a global nuclear war. This is the happy version. It's the one where computers keep getting smarter and smarter, and clever engineers keep building better and better robots. By 2040, computers the size of a softball are as smart as human beings. Smarter, in fact. Plus they're computers: They never get tired, they're never ill-tempered, they never make mistakes, and they have instant access to all of human knowledge.

The result is paradise.
I don't think so, but I know (and Kevin Drum knows) this is speculation.

There is a whole lot more in the article, but I will quote just two more bits of it, and explain why I don't agree with Kevin Drum at all - and while I may be wrong, I certainly know more about computers, artificial intelligence, psychology and philosophy than he does. And I am a whole lot more skeptical.

But first there is this quotation:
Computer scientists have been predicting the imminent rise of machine intelligence since at least 1956, when the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence gave the field its name, and there are only so many times you can cry wolf. Today, a full seven decades after the birth of the computer, all we have are iPhones, Microsoft Word, and in-dash navigation. You could be excused for thinking that computers that truly match the human brain are a ridiculous pipe dream.
But they're not.
Well... who says they are not? Kevin Drum says so, and his argument is mainly
Moore's Law, that again is an instance of geometric series: Something that rises
exponentially starts rising quite slowly, but picks up more and more speed as it
grows, as long as it grows exponentially.

The sort of inference Kevin Drum seems to support goes like this: Because computer's reckoning speed have been doubling every 18 months ... they will
be as intelligent as human beings in 15 to 25 years.

That is an argument which was full of holes since 1956, and it still is:

What is human intelligence is unsettled; why we have consciousness is unsettled, as is the question what it is; how we think is largely unsettled; how the brain works is only known for a few percents at most, and that very partially; what is meaning is unsettled; how we acquire language is largely unsettled, as is what we
in fact acquire - and did you ever consider what small animals like spiders can do: weave webs from threads that are by weight stronger than steel; catch insects; and live like spiders, all with very tiny heads and few braincells, but as yet completely unmatched by any supercomputer I know of?
(I am talking of the full repertoire of what spiders may do, and not of a few bits, like walking.)

In brief, my argument is this: As long as no supercomputer comes close to having the powers of a spider, and as long as human intelligence (and thinking, and consciousness) is mostly a riddle, which has been the case for the last 45 years
that I've been concerned with psychology and philosophy, any inference from the number of petaflops a computer can process in a second to "therefore it is close to human intelligence (or a spiders' repertoire)" is simply baloney.

And yes, I agree computers are powerful and will be more powerful soon, and have been processed to do many simple tasks fairly well - but to argue from the number of petaflops to intelligence is simply question-begging.

But yes, I agree Kevin Drum also wrote:

This is, admittedly, pretty speculative. Still, even if it's hard to find concrete examples of computers doing human work today, it's going to get easier before long.
And here is a final argument: I agree human intelligence can program (for I can), but I've never seen an argument that in any way proved that programs are human
intelligence, or indeed that they think in the same or in a similar sense as human beings and other animals do.

There is also this: While it is true a supercomputer beat Gary Kasparov, it also
is true that it did not reason at all like Gary Kasparov. (And I don't say it may not: I say it did not - and no one has much of an idea how to make a computer
that thinks like Kasparov, or any other human: there are far too many as yet
quite unsettled questions.)

5. Growing Doubt: A Scientist's Experience of GMOs

The last item of today is by Jonatham Latham on Truth-out:

  • Growing Doubt: A Scientist's Experience of GMOs

This starts as follows (and I found this a very interesting article):
By training, I am a plant biologist. In the early 1990s I was busy making genetically modified plants (often called GMOs for Genetically Modified Organisms) as part of the research that led to my PhD. Into these plants we were putting DNA from various foreign organisms, such as viruses and bacteria.

I was not, at the outset, concerned about the possible effects of GM plants on human health or the environment. One reason for this lack of concern was that I was still a very young scientist, feeling my way in the complex world of biology and of scientific research. Another reason was that we hardly imagined that GMOs like ours would be grown or eaten. So far as I was concerned, all GMOs were for research purposes only.

This gives Jonathan Latham's background. Then there is this:

Gradually, however, it became clear that certain companies thought differently. Some of my older colleagues shared their skepticism with me that commercial interests were running far ahead of scientific knowledge. I listened carefully and I didn't disagree. Today, over twenty years later, GMO crops, especially soybeans, corn, papaya, canola and cotton, are commercially grown in numerous parts of the world.

Depending on which country you live in, GMOs may be unlabeled and therefore unknowingly abundant in your diet. Processed foods (e.g. chips, breakfast cereals, sodas) are likely to contain ingredients from GMO crops, because they are often made from corn or soy. Most agricultural crops, however, are still non-GMO, including rice, wheat, barley, oats, tomatoes, grapes and beans.

And this:

I now believe, as a much more experienced scientist, that GMO crops still run far ahead of our understanding of their risks. In broad outline, the reasons for this belief are quite simple. I have become much more appreciative of the complexity of biological organisms and their capacity for benefits and harms. As a scientist I have become much more humble about the capacity of science to do more than scratch the surface in its understanding of the deep complexity and diversity of the natural world. To paraphrase a cliché, I more and more appreciate that as scientists we understand less and less.
I completely agree - but then the norms and beliefs of scientists are not what
drive GMO-companies like Monsanto.

In fact, there are several kinds of arguments that Latham uses to back up the last quotation. First, there are his concerns about testing:

Some of my concerns with GMOs are "just" practical ones. I have read numerous GMO risk assessment applications. These are the documents that governments rely on to 'prove' their safety. Though these documents are quite long and quite complex, their length is misleading in that they primarily ask (and answer) trivial questions. Furthermore, the experiments described within them are often very inadequate and sloppily executed. Scientific controls are often missing, procedures and reagents are badly described, and the results are often ambiguous or uninterpretable. I do not believe that this ambiguity and apparent incompetence is accidental. It is common, for example, for multinational corporations, whose labs have the latest equipment, to use outdated methodologies. When the results show what the applicants want, nothing is said. But when the results are inconvenient, and raise red flags, they blame the limitations of the antiquated method. This bulletproof logic, in which applicants claim safety no matter what the data shows, or how badly the experiment was performed, is routine in formal GMO risk assessment.
I completely agree - and I believe Latham about the "science" that profit-oriented
corporations like Monsanto do, in part because they are profit-oriented; in part because I have seen science grow more and more corrupt (when used by profit-
oriented corporations, and also in universities); and in part because this precisely matches the techniques used by the corporations that make and sell psychiatric drugs (about which I know a lot more than about plants).

Second, there are the ends of the corporations that design and market GMOs:

Science is not the only grounds on which GMOs should be judged. The commercial purpose of GMOs is not to feed the world or improve farming. Rather, they exist to gain intellectual property (i.e. patent rights) over seeds and plant breeding and to drive agriculture in directions that benefit agribusiness. This drive is occurring at the expense of farmers, consumers and the natural world. US farmers, for example, have seen seed costs nearly quadruple and seed choices greatly narrow since the introduction of GMOs. The fight over GMOs is not of narrow importance. It affects us all.
Again I quite agree, and also see the parallel with the pharmaceutical corporations that design and sell psychiatric drugs: These are not designed and sold to help the patients (though they are pretended to be, in advertisements), but to enrich the corporations - which immediately introduces considerations and norms that are quite different from scientific norms and from moral norms.

Here is Jonatham Latham's conclusion:

Criticism of science and technology remains very difficult. Even though many academics benefit from tenure and a large salary, the sceptical process in much of science is largely lacking. This is why risk assessment of GMOs has been short-circuited and public concerns about them are growing. Until the damaged scientific ethos is rectified, both scientists and the public are correct to doubt that GMOs should ever have been let out of any lab.
I agree, and the reason I agree is not that I know much about plants (I don't),
but because I know much about science and morality and about their steady declines in the last 45 years, and I know a considerable amount about psychology
and the many billions made by pharmaceutical corporations, that were as
immoral and unscientific as the corporations that make GMOs are claimed to be,
and that also were in the end driven by the same motive: profits, which they did realize.

At the costs of real science, real moral norms, and the rights of ordinary people.

And this is a fine article, that I recommend you read all of.

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