Archives for posts with tag: philosophy

In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, and healthcare providers began to prescribe them at greater rates. This subsequently led to widespread diversion and misuse of these medications before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive.

National Institute on Drug Abuse[1]

 [This is Fred and I’m here with more bad news about heroin and the other opioids now destroying us, plus some cheerful speculation. Note the paragraph quoted above. Apparently in the 1990s we didn’t understand that opium and its relatives are highly addictive, even though it was obvious 200 years earlier. See our recent blog[2] on Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater.[3] So I guess our great planners didn’t expect patients to start abusing opioids once those drugs became plentiful by prescription. And once more people became addicted certainly no one expected the criminal class to fill the increased demand with their own, informal products. Who would ever dream such a thing?

Also, we still don’t know if opioids actually treat pain when they are used in the long term. According to one recent study: “Evidence is insufficient to determine the effectiveness of long-term opioid therapy for improving chronic pain and function. Evidence supports a dose dependent risk for serious harms.”[4] Translation?  The long term benefits are unclear, but the dangers are obvious.

Not to worry, the National Institutes of Health [NIH], and their parent, the Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] have swung into action. Today society has a problem with opioid addiction and they will solve it by:

  1. Improving access to treatment and recovery services;
  2. Promoting use of overdose-reversing drugs;
  3. Strengthening our understanding of the epidemic through better public health surveillance;
  4. Providing support for cutting-edge research on pain and addiction; [and]
  5. Advancing better practices for pain management.[5]

So what could go wrong? Well, think about it. If we’re going to improve access to “treatment and recovery” services [Point 1], what does that mean? Do we have some magic cure that will wipe away addiction? I don’t think so. It’s very difficult to ween an addict from his [or her] opioid of choice. It was that way for Thomas de Quincey, and the situation hasn’t changed.  And if the weening process takes a long time, that sounds expensive. Taxpayers beware!

OK, but surely it would be a good thing to promote “overdose-reversing drugs.” [Point 2] Yes it would, because those drugs prevent death by overdose and it’s always good to do that. But overdose drugs don’t cure addiction, so we still have the problem of treating the survivors.

All right, then what about Point 3? NIH wants to know more about the size of the problem, how many addicts there are, and so forth. Again, who can quarrel with that? “Knowledge is power,” we’re told;[6] and why rent a rowboat for addicts if we really need a passenger liner? So yes, by all means study the problem, but not at the expense of making progress elsewhere. And by the way, the early returns are in. See Crappy News, the next section.

How about “cutting edge research” [Point 4]; is that a good idea? Practically always, say I. If our scientists research pain, perhaps they’ll develop new ways to treat sufferers without dosing them with addictive substances. That’s got to be a “better practice” [Point 5] than what we’ve been doing.

Then what about “cutting edge research” on addiction itself? Should we work on that as well? Yes, and we’ll discuss that later, under Vaccines.]

The Crappy News, or Why One Should Avoid the Drudge Report Early in the Morning

So the other day I was minding my own business, checking the Drudge Report, when I happened on a piece from Reuters that said: “More than third of [all] U.S. adults [were] prescribed opioids in 2015.[7] [Drudge is my substitute for a morning tabloid; feel free to pick a different service if you want; but definitely we all need something to read at breakfast.]

Ugh? Looking further I found the original data, or at least an abstract of it.[8] Officially the study is called the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health [NSDUH]. So let’s sketch the findings. What else can you do with an Abstract?

  • In 2015 72,600 eligible civilian, noninstitutionalized adults were selected to participate in the study, and 51,200 completed the survey interview.
  • Based on these inputs, NSDUH estimated that, in 2015, 91.8 million (37.8%) of U.S. civilian, noninstitutionalized adults used prescription opioids.
  • 11.5 million people (4.7% of all adults) misused opioids; and 1.9 million (0.8%) had an opioid use disorder.
  • Among adults with a prescription, 12.5% reported they misused it; and of these, 16.7% reported a “prescription opioid use disorder.”
  • Most commonly people who misused opioids did so to relieve physical pain (63.4%). Does that sound familiar? Check out Thomas de Quincy’s story, referenced above.
  • Misuse and use disorders were most common with adults who were uninsured, unemployed, had low income, or had behavioral health problems.
  • Among adults who misused opioids, 59.9% reported using them without a prescription, and 40.8% obtained prescription opioids – for their most recent episode – for free from friends or relatives.[9]

So there you have it. Lots of doctors prescribe opioids; more than one-thired of U.S. adults had prescriptions in 2015; and some of those also used opioids without a prescription. Thank you, NSDUH, for that insight.

And some patients get violent if their doctors refuse to write prescriptions.[10] The states are upset; they argue over-prescription and the resulting addictions are impacting state resources;[11] and they’re beginning to sue the drug companies [and others] they think are responsible. Congress is alert, and will hold hearings on the matter.[12] Mexico is producing more and more opium to satisfy the demand growing in the U.S.[13] [Frankly, I didn’t know Mexico produced any opium; I thought most of the world’s supply came from our dependency, Afghanistan.] And, of course, our medical establishment is studying the problem that, one could argue[14], it created.

Vaccines

None of this is good, but is there sunlight behind the clouds? A month or so ago a friend[15] sent us an article about medicines that fight opioids and other addictive substances.[16] Apparently this has been researched since the 1970s, although without much recent success. Right now therapists have only three medications – methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone – to use to help the opioid addicted “get clean” and stay drug free. They work, but “not perfectly.”[17]

Current research is directed toward finding vaccines to directly counter opioid addiction. Most foreign substances are blocked from entering the brain by something called the blood-brain barrier. Opioids are an exception to that. They are very tiny molecules; can penetrate the barrier and enter the brain; and then do their damage unopposed. Opioids may lose their advantage – of small size – if they are attacked by antibodies “that bind to the drug molecules, creating complexes that are too large to cross into the brain.”[18] If the brain isn’t accessed, “there’s no high.”[19] And, one might add, there’s no corresponding brain damage to reinforce later addictive behaviors.

So the research is directed at triggering the human immune system to directly attack opioids. To (i) convert opioids to larger things that will not pass into the brain, or (ii) flush them out of the body before they reach the brain, or (iii) to do both. The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, MD, have promising lines of study, and may have vaccines ready to begin human trials in the not too distant future. There are other candidates out there as well.

Conclusion

The situation with opioids is grim and looks worse every day, but perhaps there really is sunlight behind the clouds. The important thing for Congress to remember is that, when they’re throwing oodles of money at law enforcement to chase bad guys with drugs, they shouldn’t forget the scientists who, with funding and a bit of luck, may solve this problem for everybody.

Until the next one comes along, of course. Humans are weak, and our criminals are very ingenious. Didn’t you know?

 

[1] This is from the website of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an organization within NIH. You can find it at https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-crisis . It was last updated in June of this year.

[2] That’s the blog of 07/16/2017, Opium Portrayed, at  https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/opium-portrayed/

[3] That’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Being an Extract from the Life of a Scholar. It’s currently in print from the Oxford University Press.  It was first published in 1821 in London Magazine, and was picked up in 1886 by George Routledge and Son. You can find the hard copy on Amazon. However, in keeping with blog policy, we found an alternate, free source for the text, this time in an eBook from Project Gutenberg.  Go to http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2040/2040-h/2040-h.htm .

[4] See Annals of Internal Medicine, The Effectiveness and Risks of Long-Term Opioid Therapy for Chronic Pain: A Systematic Review for a National Institutes of Health Pathways to Prevention Workshop (February 17, 2015) at Abstract, available at http://annals.org/aim/article/2089370/effectiveness-risks-long-term-opioid-therapy-chronic-pain-systematic-review .

[5] See n. 1.

[6] See Knowles, Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Ed., 2004) at Proverbs, p. 624, n. 45.

[7] It’s at Reuters Health News, Seaman, More than a third of U.S. adults prescribed opioids in 2015 (July 31, 2017), available at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-opioids-prescriptions-idUSKBN1AG2K6 .

[8] The Abstract appears as Prescription Opioid Use, Misuse, and Use Disorders in U.S. Adults: 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (August 1, 2017). You have to pay for a copy if you want to read the underlying article. I don’t know why that’s the case, since the study apparently was funded by our government. Anyway, the abstract is available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4782928/pdf/nihms753305.pdf .

[9] These findings are paraphrased or directly quoted from the Abstract.

[10] See, e.g., Fox 5, Hundreds mourn doctor slain after denying opioids to patient (August 2, 2017)), available at http://www.fox5ny.com/news/271464646-story .

[11] See Reuters, Raymond, State attorneys general probe opioid drug companies (June 15, 2017) available at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-opioids-idUSKBN1962JJ

[12] See Clair McCaskill speaking to the DNC on July 28, 2016, available at https://www.bing.com/search?q=hthtps%3A%2F%2Fwww.yahoo.com%2Fnews%2Fu-senator-launches-probe-five-top-opioid-drugmakers-165514279 finance.html&form=EDGEAR&qs=PF&cvid=59500fa1e8204d0a8a8906e8292f9679&cc=US&setlang=en-US&elv=AXXfrEiqqD9r3GuelwApuloTP6wVwkOjONBqpuAMtOReD2p9Vv8km70BwEANJJDGrbYQZQruLL%21jduPgTqpAT%212GMOjDF0L2w7LKJr4QVFIa

[13] See RT, US offers to help fund Mexico’s heroin eradication efforts – report (22 April 2017) available at https://www.rt.com/usa/385656-mexico-fund-heroin-reuters/

[14] In fact, there doesn’t really seem to be an argument about this. See n. 1 and the quote that accompanies it.

[15] That’s Dave Feagles. Many thanks, Dave!

[16] See Science News, Gaidos, Vaccines could counter addictive opioids, Vol. 190, No. 1, p. 22 et seq. (July 9, 2016), While we have this article in our library, we don’t have a web  address for it, so we’re citing to the hard copy magazine.

[17] Id. We’re citing to the print version of the article, but don’t have the printed pages before us. We estimate that this information appears around p. 23.

[18] Id. at around p. 24.

[19] Id.

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Oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium! [T]hat to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for “the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,” bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure from blood; and to the proud man a brief oblivion for Wrongs [unaddressed] and insults unavenged ….. Thou only givest these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium!

Thomas de Quincey[1]

 [This is Fred. Phil’s out with exhaustion, heat and otherwise, and asked me to take over today’s lesson. This isn’t an easy thing to do, because he has a list of heavy-duty subjects to cover some day, but most are not in my area of interest, and I don’t know enough to lecture about the rest. It would take too long to research “Philosophical Aspects of Modern Rap,” or “A Linguistic Analysis of Feminist Theory,” or “Will Ancient Spells Work on Mars?” [Although that last one really looks interesting.[2]]

But we’re not blazing new paths today; there’s a deadline; so let’s look for an old subject, one we know something about. How about opioids and our collective addiction to them? Heroin, an opioid, has been around and afflicting people in this country for some time.[3] Opium, the original opioid, has caused problems in the East for centuries and has addicted folks in the West for generations. Most of us kind of know about these things, but ignore them. The current furor about opioids only erupted because there are synthetics now loose in the drug economy. They’re very potent, and deadly, and their users die at a high rate.

So why not frame our current situation with some history? Did you know that opium was a big problem in England in the 18th and 19th Centuries? And what’s the evidence for that? Well, for one thing there’s a very famous book, first published in London Magazine in 1821, that chronicles the opium addiction of an upper class Englishman. My friends in sociology say it’s a classic. The book tells us quite a bit about how the author got addicted, who supplied the stuff, and how many users there were.

It says London had a well-established opium trade in the early 19th Century. The author reported: “Three respectable London druggists, in widely remote quarters of London … assured me that the number of amateur opium-eaters … was at [that] time immense; and that the difficulty of distinguishing those persons to whom habit had rendered opium necessary from such as were purchasing it with a view to suicide, occasioned them [the druggists] daily trouble and disputes.”[4] So why would druggists back then worry about would-be suicides? I don’t know. Perhaps it was a legal requirement. But apparently the prospect of suicide didn’t inhibit sales all that much. The population of users “was immense.”

Also, opium addiction was not just an upper class London phenomenon. Blue-collar types in other parts of England were getting into it, “so much so, that on a Saturday afternoon the counters of the druggists were strewed with pills of one, two, or three grains, in preparation for the known demand of the evening.”[5] The author said this happened because, for a time, opium was less expensive than alcohol, so the working class went with the new thing. But, he said, if the pricing reversed, the new addicts would not follow. “[T]hose eat now who never ate before; [a]nd those who always ate, now [will] eat the more.”[6] That is, opium addicts, once made, would not go back to the old vices simply because the market ordered it.]

The book is Confessions of An English Opium-Eater: Being an Extract from the Life of a Scholar, written by Thomas de Quincey.[7] He lived from 1785 to 1859, and was severely addicted from about 1813 until 1819. If you want to know more, there are some web-based biographies available[8]; but in my view they pretty much track the book; so that’s where we’ll concentrate. As to why De Quincey was a user, look at the quote that opens this piece. Opium held the keys to Paradise.[9]

De Quincey’s Life and Addiction

Or at least it did when he used opium sparingly, and at great intervals, for recreation. But I’m getting ahead of the story. Let’s look at the milestones on his road to and from addiction:

  1. Thomas de Quincey was born on August 5, 1785. His father was a merchant, just starting out, and had good prospects until he died, 7 years later. By my count, that would have been in 1792.
  2. Young Thomas had 4 guardians after that, and was shipped off to various schools for his education, apparently including Eton and an unnamed school at Oxford. “I was sent to various schools, great and small; and was very early distinguished for my classical attainments, especially for my knowledge of Greek. At thirteen I wrote Greek with ease; and at fifteen my command of that language was so great that I not only composed Greek verses in lyric metres [today, “meters”], but could converse in Greek fluently and without embarrassment …”[10]
  3. He tried opium for the first time at age 18, which would have been in 1803. He liked it, and over the next 10 years continued to use it “for the sake of the exquisite pleasure it gave me ….”[11]; but, he said, he spaced out the doses to preserve their effect, and that protected him “from all [the] material bad consequences”[12] of addiction. Or perhaps he just didn’t have the money to buy in quantity. Who knows?
  4. The situation changed in 1813, when he was 28. He had an eruption of a gastro-intestinal problem that first had hit him when he was a teenager. Apparently it was both painful and chronic; so much so that he began to treat himself with daily doses of his favorite drug. “It was not for the purpose of creating pleasure, but of mitigating pain in the severest degree, that I first began to use opium as an article of daily diet.”[13]
  5. He continued until he was thoroughly addicted, and didn’t kick the habit until 1819, six years later. How did he escape? By incrementally reducing his intake until he achieved a zero dose rate; and that wasn’t easy! He tried to do it in the early days, but failed. And he was a mess even after he succeeded. “Think of me as one, even when four months had passed, still agitated, writhing, throbbing, palpitating, shattered, and much perhaps in the situation of him who has been racked …. Meantime, I derived no benefit from any medicine, except one prescribed to me by an Edinburgh surgeon of great eminence, viz., ammoniated tincture of valerian.”[14]
  6. Valerian is an herb you can buy today at the vitamin store, but I’m not saying it will help you conquer opioids. So far as I can tell, there still aren’t any easy cures. Right now a cynic might say our technology isn’t much more effective than what was available to De Quincey 200 years ago. Reports are that there may be a vaccine in our future, but they’re speculative and a subject for a different blog.

Conclusion

His milestones sound pretty contemporary, don’t they? De Quincy, an occasional user of opium, the opioid of his day, liked it so long as he didn’t use a lot. Then one day he used it as a pain killer, began to take daily doses, and went straight down the toilet. And today what are our most popular pain medications? Opioids, for the most part. And where do we get them? Why, from druggists, doctors or street vendors, depending on our budgets. Oh brave new world, you look pretty old to me! I wonder, did 19th Century Londoners have street druggists like ours? If so, did they call them “pushers”? Or was everybody just a druggist?

I’m guessing it’s as hard to kick an opioid addiction today as it was for Thomas de Quincey. He said it was like being born:

[Some conjecture] that it may be as painful to be born as to die.  I think it probable; and during the whole period of diminishing the opium I had the torments of a man passing out of one mode of existence into another.  The issue was not death, but a sort of physical regeneration …. [15]

And once regenerated it was possible for him to be happy again. “[A]nd I may add that ever since, at intervals, I have had a restoration of more than youthful spirits, though under the pressure of difficulties which in a less happy state of mind I should have called misfortunes.”

Opium and its modern relatives can be very attractive until they take control of our lives. Thomas de Quincey discovered that, got out, and was better for it. Myself, I think it’s better not to get in.

See you next week!

 

[1] This quote is from Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Being an Extract from the Life of a Scholar. Believe it or not, this book is currently in print from the Oxford University Press.  It was first published in 1821 in London Magazine, then was picked up in 1886 by George Routledge and Son. You can find the hard copy on Amazon. However, in keeping with blog policy, we have found an alternate, free source for the text, this time in an eBook from Project Gutenberg.  Go to http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2040/2040-h/2040-h.htm “This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever.  You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.net .” Henceforth the eBook will be cited as “Opium Eaters at __.” Page numbers, if given, will be approximations. The eBook version doesn’t appear to have such things. See Opium Eaters at Part II, The Pleasures of Opium, p. 28-29 for our quote. Even our quote is just a small part of what he actually wrote.

[2] I also like his partial draft of “Faces and Other Things on the Planets,” in which he argues that with modern digital technology any collection of pixels can be morphed into anything else, so why believe NASA’s pictures of celestial objects or any pictures at all?

[3] Check out the Wikipedia posting at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heroin for more information on this subject.

[4] See Opium Eaters at To the Reader, p. 3.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. “… I do not readily believe that any man having once tasted the divine luxuries of opium will afterwards descend to the gross and mortal enjoyments of alcohol ….”

[7]  See note 1.

[8] See, e.g., the home page for the most recent printed edition of De Quincey’s book, at http://robertjhmorrison.com/thomas-de-quincey/ ; and the Wikipedia entry for him at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_De_Quincey .

[9] The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has a ridiculously shortened version of the original. See Knowles [editor], Oxford  Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition, 2004) [hereafter, ODQ at __]  at Thomas de Quincy, p. 264, n. 20. “Thou hast the keys of Paradise oh just, subtle and mighty opium.” That reads like someone’s note on a page, next to the real thing, rather than a genuine effort to reflect the original.

[10] See Opium Eaters at Preliminary Confessions, p. 5.

[11] See Opium Eaters at Preliminary Confessions, p. 4.

[12] Id.

[13] See Opium Eater at Preliminary Confessions, p. 4-5

[14] See Opium Eaters at Part II, June 1819, p. 46

[15] See Opium Eaters at Part II, June 1819, p. 46

I am Goya

Of the bare field, by the enemy’s beak gouged

Till the craters of my eyes gape,

I am grief,

I am the tongue

Of war, the embers of cities

On the snows of the year 1941

I am hunger

Andrei Vaznesensky[1]

 [Phil, I was in the DC area last week, and stopped by to see our friend Rosemary Covey.[2] She has a brilliant, and as usual disturbing, new line of work; it’s topical, a “sign of the times,” you might say; and one piece in particular left me gob smacked. So much so, I might add, that I remembered an idea we had a while ago, but later discarded: i.e., to nominate annually some work of art that best exemplifies some of the worst characteristics of the human race.  

I know you think that’s too negative; that we should focus instead on the positive things in life; but I disagree. If you want flowers and ponies, or visions of the afterlife, go to the church of your choice.  Artists who spotlight the evil out there do us a valuable service. I’m thinking of a series of prints called Los desastres de la guerra[3] that Francisco Goya[4] produced in the early 19th Century. I understand they’re well thought of, even today. Certainly the Russian poet Andrei Vaznesensky knew about them. So one shouldn’t kill [or ignore] messengers simply because they bring unpleasant news.

I know we’re supposed to look for consensus before branching out, and art criticism definitely is new to our blog; so please run my idea by the others. If you [and they] agree the project is worth doing, then please do it. With a little research I’m sure the team will find a way to say something sensible. For my part, it’s hot and I’m heading to the beach. Ta, ta! See you in August!

Oh, and I’m emailing you the image that caught my attention. Rosemary says we can use it in the blog. I’m interpreting that as, “for one blog post only.” G. Sallust[5]]

Well, our illustrious founder has struck again. He’s come up with a project, delegated the work, and left town. Normally I don’t agree when he does things like that but he asked nicely this time and the picture he nominated is, well, extraordinary. Perhaps “arresting” is the better term. Anyway, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Just looking at it warps most of my ideas about what art should do; it’s brutal, graphic [of course it’s graphic; it’s a picture], and detailed, but not overly so. Much more detail and it would be pornographic, at least to someone of a certain mindset. This picture says its piece about the human condition, but stays on the right side of mental illness. Thank God for that. Now if our media would just do the same.

What picture am I talking about? We have a very good image of it, provided by the artist, that we’re posting separately, but at the same time as this commentary. The title of that post is The 2017 EZ2 Picture of the Year. As of now the picture itself doesn’t seem to have a name.

Let’s start with an admission. Unlike G. Sallust, I like “pretty” pictures. I’m in good company there; for centuries intelligent people treated art as something that lasts forever, at least in theory. “All passes,” said Henry Dobson. “Art alone [e]nduring stays to us, [t]he best outlasts the Throne …”[6] Or, more simply put: “Art is long and life is short.”[7] Of course that doesn’t apply to art materials. Ask any conservator what she [or he] has to do to keep things looking fresh in the museum.

Pretty pictures can be a refuge for the weary. Gustav Flaubert, a French author most of us read in college, thought art was something “to conjure away the burden and bitterness” of life.[8] Oscar Wilde, the English writer, agreed. He said: “It is through Art … and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.”[9] That man could certainly turn a phrase, couldn’t he? And finally Saul Bellow, a modern novelist I like, put it best. “Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer … in the midst of destruction.”[10]

I like it: To meditate or pray by looking at art. For sure you would need quality pictures for that. But that’s not the only view out there. Marshall McLuhan, for example, said that advertising was the greatest art form of the last century.[11] Fancy you or I meditating over some advert in Rolling Stone! If your significant other caught you staring at something like that, she [or he] might think you were up to nothing good! Then there’s our President, Donald Trump, who back in the 1980s said that deals and deal-making are his art form.[12] I’m not mentioning this simply to be facetious. My point is that there’s a whole range of opinions about art and how or why we make it.

We first met Rosemary Covey back in the early 1980s, when she had a very small studio in the old Torpedo Factory Art Center. By “old” I mean the building that existed before the renovation; the one that was far larger and, I think, full of asbestos. Anyway in those days she specialized in wood engraving, a wood cut technique that involved gouging fine lines in super-hard wood blocks. Those she would ink and print from by hand; and “by hand” I mean by laying paper on the inked block, then rubbing the paper with a wood spoon until the ink transferred. The whole process was laborious and accident-prone.

Eventually she went to a professional to print the larger things, but that was laborious as well, because she’s a perfectionist. So she moved on, bought a hand press, and did most of the print work herself.  Since then she’s worked with a variety of techniques, and today specializes in a kind of collage that utilizes her own images, rather than found objects, and painstakingly assembles, modifies and adapts them into a wholly different thing. The final products can be quite beautiful, or brutal, depending on her intent. But always they involve an enormous amount of effort and each, in my view, is its own thing. These originals are not reproductions although from time to time she has reproductions made from them.

So what did Rosemary Covey make with the Picture of the Year? Not a pretty one, that’s for sure. But there’s a view out there that art is anything you do to create order out of the chaos that surrounds. “Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.”[13] I think that’s close to the truth of her enterprise and this work.  She’s showing us an underlying reality of today’s world, and this time it’s bad.[14] Nobody should kill the helpless. That seems obvious, I guess, but judging from the headlines it’s not so to a lot of people. Hopefully they’re not all psychopaths and some can be made to listen.

But is this really Art?[15] Yes. “Fine art is that in which the hand, the head and the heart of man [or woman] go together.”[16] She’s done that with this work. And by the way, she ought to think about naming it. Francisco Goya has already taken No se paede mirar[17], but something more contemporary along that line might do.

There, that’s enough from me. Award confirmed.

 

[1] See ODQ at Andrei Vaznesensky, p.817, n. 1. He was a Russian poet, quite popular here in the 1960s. For more information check out the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrei_Voznesensky . I don’t believe he was an art critic, but he did seem to know the artist Goya’s work pretty well. Goya’s famous for a lot of things, one of them being a series of prints on war. See note 3.

[2] She has a web site at http://www.rosemaryfeitcovey.com/ . There’s also an out-of-date write up on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosemary_Feit_Covey . Go to the website.

[3]The Disasters of War”.

[4] That’s Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, who is not to be confused with the food company. There’s a pretty good write-up about him in Wikipedia, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Goya .

[5] G. Sallust is our distinguished founder.

[6] See ODQ at Henry Austin Dobson, p.278, n 15. The full quote is: “All passes. Art alone, Enduring stays to us, The Best outlasts the Throne, The Coins, Tiberius.” Actually I don’t really think of Roman coins as works of art but, on the other hand, I don’t collect them. Dobson lived in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. You can read the essentials about him at Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Austin_Dobson .

[7] See ODQ at Proverbs, p. 614, n. 32.

[8] See ODQ at Gustav Flaubert, p. 325, n. 16. The full quote is: “Human life is a sad show, undoubtedly; ugly, heavy and complex. Art has no other end, for people of feeling, than to conjure away the burden and bitterness.” It’s a translation, of course. Everybody knows about Flaubert but if you don’t, check out the Encyclopedia Britannica at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gustave-Flaubert .

[9] See ODQ at Oscar Wilde, p. 835, n. 28, and p. 836.

[10] See ODQ at Saul Bellow, p. 66, n. 2. Most of Saul Bellow’s major works remain in print courtesy of the Library of America.

[11] See ODQ at Marshall McLuhan, p. 503, n. 17. The actual quote is: “Advertising is the greatest art form of the twentieth century.” Everybody in my generation knows about him, but probably no one else. If you’re interested check out his official site at https://www.marshallmcluhan.com/films/ .

[12] That’s from the 1988 book, Art of the Deal. You can also find the relevant quote in the ODQ at Donald Trump, p. 801, n. 16. “Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully or write wonderful poetry, I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.”

[13] That’s from Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher of the early 20th Century. See ODQ at Alfred North Whitehead, p. 892, n. 14. If you want to know more about Whitehead the philosopher, start with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/whitehead/

[14] “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible.” See ODQ at Paul Klee, p. 407, n. 16.He was an artist.

[15] “The Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: It’s clever, but is it Art?” See ODQ at Rudyard Kipling, p. 453, n.19.

[16] See ODQ at John Ruskin, p. 660, n.3.

[17] That’s “one cannot look at this.” See ODQ at Francisco jose’ de Goya y Lucientes, p. 357, n. 15.

 

Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his [defense]. 

Article 11, Universal Declaration of Human Rights[1]

The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law….”

Coffin v. United States[2]

[Phil, I read your last blog on witch hunts and enjoyed it quite a bit. It was colorful and incisive as usual. I think what you said was that in the old days a witch hunt could be started by any person who denounced a neighbor by filing charges with a local court, with supporting evidence. If the evidence made the case, then the accused [witch] was in trouble. If the evidence wasn’t good enough, then the accuser might be in trouble unless he had acted simply to protect the Faith or for the common good. In that case he wouldn’t be penalized “even if he fail[ed] in his proof.”[3] Or, if there were rumors of witchcraft all over the place, but no one was willing to denounce individuals, a local tribunal might simply open an inquiry [an “inquisition”] on its own motion and start dragging people in to question them.

So that brings me to the next question. Presumably even 500 years ago people accused of a crime were thought innocent until proved guilty. So how did the witch hunters prove someone was a witch? How could they do that when, as we know today, it’s simply not possible to affect weather, crops or livestock with a curse, or make people sick with a dirty look, or have sex with a demon? [4]]

That last is another very good question from our leader, G. Sallust. Perhaps one day I’ll ask the questions and he’ll answer them. But not today; the answer to his question – how to prove witchcraft – lies deep in the Malleus Maleficarum[5], a book I’ve read and he hasn’t. Not that I’m glad to have read it. It gives me nightmares, sometimes. But apparently people study it in our Journalism schools and treat it as a good example, if not a paradigm of how to report on politics. So, too bad for us, the Hammer may be as relevant to current events as today’s newspaper. Do any of you read newspapers?

The ancient witch hunters needed three things to try a witch: (i) the accused’s reputation; it had to be bad; (ii) ‘indications’ of sorcerous deeds; and (iii) adverse witness statements.[6] That sounds clear enough, I suppose, but the devil was in the details, especially where sorcery was involved. Also witch hunters wouldn’t have brought someone to trial unless they thought she [or he] was guilty. Anyway, that’s what I’m told.

Reputation as Evidence

If the accused had a bad reputation, the witch hunters assumed it was because she [or he] had committed sorcery at some place and time. “[S]orceresses are immediately branded with a bad reputation because of crimes in some village or city.”[7] A bad reputation was, in fact, evidence of sorcery. Where there’s smoke there’s fire! Or was it, “probably a liar?” I forget.

Indications of the Deed

This was the easy part. The investigators looked for sick children, diseased farm animals, barren fields, and so forth.[8] Such events were plentiful [it was the 15th Century] and easy to verify. The trick was to connect them to the accused. For this investigators needed either a confession or statements from witnesses.

Witnesses

Three witnesses were required.[9] However, they didn’t have to be witnesses to the same event. One could have said, ‘she looked at my child, and he fell sick’’ another that ‘she looked at my farm animals, and they died, and the third that ‘she waved at my fields, and they became barren.’[10] It was enough that they all agreed about the ‘essence of the deed’ – i.e., that there was sorcery.

Of course that was their opinion, unsupported by today’s science. Illness and crop failures are common when people have poor sanitation, over cultivate their land, starve periodically, and basically don’t understand how disease works. But witnesses didn’t know such things in the 15th Century, and it didn’t matter. The only important thing, apparently, was that they believed sorcery was at work and said so. How did they know that? Don’t worry; they just knew it when they saw it.

Guilty or Innocent?

So there you have it. If the witch hunters did their job properly, there was no real need for a trial. All that had to be proved would have been proved.” A trial would only validate the accused’s guilt, preferably with a confession.[11] I’m not a lawyer, but frankly I don’t see a “presumption of innocence” working anywhere in this business.

Guilt was established by the investigation. If the witch confessed as well, she would be turned over to the civil authorities and burned. If she didn’t confess, it would be just for the civil authorities to imprison her until she was ‘worn down by the misery of prison’[12] and confessed. Then she could be executed. In either case, the whole thing would be ‘summary, straightforward, and informal,’ which the hunters thought was a good thing.[13]

And, by the way, it didn’t really matter if she denied all guilt. The witch hunters thought witches successfully resisted confessing only because the devil helped them. That’s why, once a witch was arrested, the authorities were told to: search her house for ‘devices of sorcery’; lock up her ‘maids and companions,’ because undoubtedly they knew secrets; and keep her out of the house, because otherwise she might pick up magical devices that would help her keep silent.[14] Nobody wanted her to find her magical confession-repeller, because that might complicate the investigation!

Witch Hunts Today

So let’s summarize for a bit. In the 15th Century if a woman didn’t get along with the neighbors, normal illnesses, etc. attacked some of the local children, farm animals or fields, and three people blamed the woman, that was enough to prove witchcraft. You know, I used to think that it would be wonderful to live in a small town, but I’m beginning to understand the drawbacks, especially if the locals are superstitious. But that’s not our current issue, is it? What G. Sallust asked was: “Do our peerless media behave exactly the same way when they report on politics?” I’m thinking the answer is “yes,” at least where President Trump is concerned.

 

Have the media relentlessly focused on his private life, and allegations about it? Yes. Do they talk and talk and talk about what they think of him, his business practices and how he may or may not treat others? Yes. Do they routinely portray him as unstable and not to be trusted? Yes. Do they routinely ignore his popularity in troublesome places like the Middle East, and his ability to turn out its leadership when he goes there? Oh, yes! So quite obviously his reputation is a prime target.

Does Mr. Trump have a lot of accusers? Oh yes, and many of them – seemingly the most authoritative – are anonymous. They pretty much act like 15th Century witnesses who are afraid of the person they denounce, and ask the inquisitor for protection; only in this case it’s the media that shields the witness, not some judge. So there are witnesses against Trump out there, timid ones, but quite likely more than three.

But the ancient witch hunters demanded some independent, physical evidence of witchcraft before they would prosecute. You know, the ‘indications’ of the deed – sick children, barren fields, bad weather, that kind of thing. Most of these events are now known to have natural explanations. So do we have a disaster right now; one bordering on the supernatural[15]; that these many secret witnesses might connect to Trump?

So far there doesn’t seem to be anything like that. The stock market is up; employment is rising; there aren’t any new wars or plagues; and ISIS, although still active and deadly, is in retreat. And that, I would say, is the fatal flaw.  The media are hunting witches when times are good, or at least improving.

Conclusion

So, not to put too fine a point on it, if we brought in auditors from the 15th Century to look at the campaign against Trump, most likely they wouldn’t like it. There’s an essential element missing in the proof: i.e., no current disaster of near supernatural proportions to fire up the populace. Also, there’s a fussy legality that might disturb the process. Today an accused person is presumed innocent until proved guilty.

And, as we discussed last time, there are other disturbing factors in play. These days lawyers are available to an accused, for example, and the courts aren’t permitted to torture him [or her]. Given all that no doubt the inquisitors of the 15th Century would withhold their seal of approval. What else could responsible and moral hunters do?

So for now to the media: Good try, and better luck next time!

[1] The text of Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is available as a pdf download directly from the United Nations, at http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html Want to know more about the Universal Declaration? Check out the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Declaration_of_Human_Rights

[2] See Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432, 453 (1895), available from Justia at https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/156/432/case.html. For you non-lawyers, the Justia version of a Supreme Court case is not “official,” and can’t be cited as such in a legal brief, etc. But it works just fine for a blog. Also the Court is talking about a presumption of innocence, not an absolute rule. “This presumption is in the nature of evidence in his favor [i.e. in favor of the accused], and a knowledge of it should be communicated to the jury. Accordingly, it is the duty of the judge in all jurisdictions, when requested, and in some when not requested, to explain it to the jury in his charge. The usual formula in which this doctrine is expressed is that every man is presumed to be innocent until his guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The accused is entitled, if he so requests it … to have this rule of law expounded to the jury in this or in some equivalent form of expression.” See id.at p. 459, citing an article in Criminal Law Magazine from January, 1888.

[3] See Christopher S. Mackay (translator], The Hammer of Witches, A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum (Cambridge 2006, 2009) (hereafter cited as Hammer at p. __). See Hammer at p. 504. As noted last time, the book was written by two [apparently crazed] Dominican friars, Jacobus Sprenger and Henricus Institoris. See Hammer at Introduction, p.2 – 3.

[4] G. Sallust, by phone, June 22, 2017. Again, this was what was on my voicemail, sanitized a bit for language. You’ll have to take my word for it. I still don’t save voicemails.

[5] See n. 3.

[6] See Hammer, Part III at p. 202A, 202B (p. 521 of the text.)

[7] Id.

[8] See Hammer, Part III at p. 202A, 202B (p. 521 of the text.)

[9] See Hammer, Part III at p. 197A (p. 508 of the text.) The authors thought that two ought to be enough, but chose the larger number in the name of ‘legal fairness.’

[10] See generally See Hammer, Part III at p. 202B, 202C (p. 521, 522 of the text.)

[11] Once in jail, an accused might never get out. Some commentators argued that so long as the accused had an impaired reputation, there were indications of witchcraft, and three witnesses against her, she was ‘manifestly caught’ and should go to prison.  (See Hammer, Part III at p. 203A (p. 524 of the text)) The Malleus took a more liberal position. It let the judge decide to imprison or not to imprison based on the strength of the case and ‘on the basis of local procedure and upholding custom.’ But, and this is important, if released the accused witch had to produce sureties to guarantee that she would appear again in court if summoned.” (See Hammer, Part III at p. 203B (p. 524 of the text))

[12] See Hammer, Part III at p. 202C, 202D (p. 522. 523 of the text.)

[13] See Hammer, Part III at p. 202D, (p. 523 of the text.)

[14] See Hammer, Part III at p. 203C (p. 525 of the text.)

[15] Perhaps an economic disaster? Recessions always seem kind of supernatural to me.

[G. Sallust, our reprehensible founder called the other day, and I was the one who answered the phone. So, being startled and at a loss for words, I asked the obvious question. “G,” I said, “you left us a while back to elope with a 19 year old; so how’s your sex life?” First he said nothing, then mumbled something that sounded like “not interested,” and “creepy old man,” then changed the subject. “There may be UFOs in New York,” he said, “and I want to look into it.” It seems that he read our post on printing money, especially the end part about watching the skies, and heartily agrees. The skies shouldn’t be left to NASA and DoD. We all need to be vigilant.

This is Fred, by the way. Normally UFOs are part of my beat here at the Zoo, but G. Sallust is the boss, even though many of us would rather not be seen in public with him, so he gets to go anywhere and discuss anything he wants. But there’s more to it than that. It – the UFO story – starts in Upstate New York, where he’s currently lurking, and he is our expert on what happens up there. That’s because he was raised in the area, and knows a little bit about the deep background of the locality: about the depressed economy, local native tribes, religious communities, witch covens, political movements, criminal enterprises and local oddities, plus the numerous local colleges, public and private; all percolating amongst the dairy farms and hollow cities. So I guess he’s the one best qualified to do our first report on who’s seeing UFOs today.]

You bet I am. But let’s start with today’s theme, which is watching the skies. It dates back to 1951, when Hollywood unleashed The Thing from Another World[1] on the American public. Wikipedia says it is “now considered by many to be one of the best films”[2]of that year and I’ll not dispute them on that. I searched for it on YouTube, and it no longer seems to be available as a free download, which implies that today it’s still worth something to somebody. Nevertheless the mantra of “watch the skies” was pretty common back in the 1950’s, and still resonates today. We were mostly looking for Russian bombers, but space aliens were always a possibility. You can see that if you take a look at a film clip that actually is available on YouTube, i.e., the one at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muFNT069Igw

For a while the Air Force ran a program to investigate UFO sightings and perhaps uncover the truth about them. It was called Project Blue Book.[3] But that was discontinued around 1970 after publication of the so-called Condon Report.[4] Of course the Report didn’t actually disprove all such sightings. That would have involved proving a negative, i.e., that something [space aliens, interdimensional beings, etc.] did not exist. That’s hard to do, unless one can identify – conclusively – something previously unidentified. What the Report said, instead, was

“In our study we gave consideration to every possibility that we could think of for getting objective scientific data about the kind of thing that is the subject of UFO reports. As the preceding summary shows, and as is fully documented in the detailed chapters which follow, all such efforts are beset with great difficulties. We place very little value for scientific purposes on the past accumulation of anecdotal records, most of which have been explained as arising from sightings of ordinary objects. Accordingly in Section I we have recommended against the mounting of a major effort for continuing UFO study for scientific reasons.”[5]

The record was not useful. End of story, at least for the Air Force. Eventually private sources began to collect and report on the more recent sightings, the two most important sources currently being MUFON[6] and NUFORC.[7] These aren’t Government entities, of course; they’re enthusiasts, probably working as volunteers[8]; and mostly they take reports.

Now comes the good news!  Someone is analyzing the current data! I found this out from, of all places, the New York Times.[9] I know a lot of you don’t trust that paper but even today it’s full of reporters and occasionally they do turn up things which, mirabile visu, the Times reports! In this case it was a story about UFOs that’s datelined “Syracuse!” Then I looked a little further and found that Central NY also has a blog[10] that concerns itself with UFOs and their comings and goings. But for the Times, I wouldn’t have known any of that. And finally, there’s a book just out that analyzes UFO sighting data for the last 15 years.[11] Whose data? Why the sighting reports collected by MUFON and NUFORC.

So I ordered the book; it’s called the UFO Sightings Desk Reference[12] and I’ve been paging through it. It’s massive and very interesting. It says, for example, that annual UFO sightings have increased dramatically in the last 15 years, from 3479 in 2001 to 11,868 in 2015.[13] In total MUFON and NUFORC collected over 121,036 sighting reports over the sample period.[14] When you think about it, that’s quite a few, and they’re all eyewitness accounts. Are they all “vetted,” i.e. personally examined by somebody in MUFON or NUFORC? Not likely. The Government used to do that kind of thing back in the 1950s and 1960s, but gave that up when it ended Project Blue Book. MUFON and NUFORC vet reports from time to time, but lack the resources to do it consistently. That would require an “army of volunteers” that currently doesn’t exist.[15]

Nevertheless, the numbers are interesting. They’ve gone way up in the last 15 years. If somebody decided to look at the underlying reports, would that disprove all of them? Probably not. Does that mean some of them are true? No. Most likely it would mean that there’s not enough evidence to decide one way or the other. It’s like the search for extraterrestrial life in general. Absence of proof [that such life exists] is not proof of its absence. It’s not proof that it exists, either. It simply means that we have to look further to decide.

Now let’s get back to the data, unreliable as it may be. In general UFO sightings are trending up, dramatically up; but the trend isn’t uniform; some states lead the pack, like California, which has had a 15 year total of 15,836 sightings;  followed by Florida [7787], Texas [7058], Washington [5226], Pennsylvania [5176], New York [5141], Arizona [4726], Illinois [4191], Michigan [4160] and Ohio [4115].[16] But that’s not nearly as interesting as what’s happened in small parts of individual states. You see, Costa and Costa also break out their data by county, and some of those seem to be virtual beehives of UFO activity.

Take, for example, Onondaga County in Upstate New York, where the authors live. [It’s named after the Onondaga Nation, one of the six tribes of the Iroquois Confederation.] Anyway, the county started in 2001 with 3 sightings, and eventually progressed to 29 in 2015. Sightings for the past 5 years have been 14 in 2011, 18 in 2012, 22 in 2013, 21 in 2014 and, of course, 29 in 2015.[17] That’s a lot for a small area.

It seems to me that, with all the advances in recent decades made in sensor technology, we ought to be able to solve the problems that government investigators had in Project Blue Book. Instead of going in after-the-fact to study events, today our Government ought to select 5 or 10 areas that are known hotbeds of UFO activity, like Onondaga County; blanket them with the latest sensor technology; and wait to see what turns up. Because we’d be setting up in advance, rather than after the fact, we could lay careful plans and use anything that might work: spy satellites; airborne reconnaissance [e.g., loitering drones]; ground sensors and even stuff we haven’t heard about yet. The public doesn’t need to know what’s deployed; just that the Government is back on the job. Details of the effort should be highly classified.

Anyway, that’s my modest proposal to repel UFOs and other night-time intruders. And please don’t thank me, all of you residents of Onondaga County! I’m just trying to keep us safe.

[1] Wikipedia does a good job with this kind of thing, so for more information check out its piece on the movie at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thing_from_Another_World .

[2] Id at Critical and box office reception. See also the Internet Movie Database at for a somewhat unenthusiastic posting about the Thing from Another World. It’s at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044121/

[3] Wikipedia has a good piece on Project Blue Book. It’s at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Blue_Book

[4] If you’re interested, a copy currently is maintained on the internet by NCAS [National Capital Area Skeptics] at http://files.ncas.org/condon/index.html . The official citation for the report would be, I guess, Condon,  Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, Conducted by the University of Colorado under Contract No. 44620-67-C-0035 with the United States Air Force (1968).

[5] Id. at Conclusion, p. 67.

[6] That’s the Mutual UFO Network, at http://www.mufon.com/ .

[7] That’s the National UFO Reporting Center at http://www.nuforc.org/  .

[8] Don’t hold me to that. This is America, after all. No doubt somebody is drawing a salary.

[9] See New York Times, Blumenthal, People Are Seeing U.F.O.s Everywhere, and This Book Proves It (April 24, 2017), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/24/science/ufo-sightings-book.html?_r=0

[10] The blog is called New York Skies, and it’s hosted by the Syracuse New Times at https://www.syracusenewtimes.com/category/blogs/new-york-skies-ufo-blog/

[11] It’s Costa & Costa, UFO Sightings Desk Reference: United States of America 2001-2015 (March 24, 2017). I bought our copy from Amazon, where else? I found it at https://www.amazon.com/UFO-Sightings-Desk-Reference-2001-2015/dp/1544219237

[12] See Costa & Costa, UFO Sightings Desk Reference, United States of America 2001 – 2015 (Dragon Lady Media 2017), hereafter cited as Costa & Costa at __.

[13] See Costa & Costa at p. 5.

[14] See Costa & Costa at p. 1, 121,036 Eyewitness Accounts.

[15] See Costa & Costa at p. 21.

[16] See Costa & Costa at p. 7.

[17] See Costa & Costa at p. 240.

 

By the time the scherm[1] was finished the moon peeped up, and our dinners of giraffe steaks and roasted marrow bones were ready. How we enjoyed those marrow bones, though it was rather a job to crack them! I know of no greater luxury than giraffe marrow, unless it is elephant heart, and we had that on the morrow. We ate our simple meal by the light of the moon …

H. Rider Haggard[2]

That’s disgusting!

G. Sallust[3]

 [Sometimes I just don’t understand this place. Here am I, the blog philosopher; as such I’m supposed to be the conscience of this outfit, empathic and sensitive to everyone’s needs. So when I pick a quote that’s offensive, or possibly even revolting, you can be sure I didn’t do it just for the shock value. There’s a higher purpose, usually to educate, and that was my reason for choosing Mr. Haggard as our guest moralist. People back in the 19th Century didn’t necessarily think about things the way many of us do today. Take hunting, for example. Our ancestors knew it was a bloody business, and often they made a virtue out of that. Rider Haggard’s description of eating giraffe marrow and elephant heart in the African bush is almost poetic.

Today, of course, many think meat comes from the super market, wrapped in plastic, rather than from animals, and are offended when someone points out the obvious. Forget the plastic; we still get our meat from things that move and make noise. Perhaps someday test tubes will substitute,[4] but not yet. The people who work in our slaughter houses and meat packing plants already know this. The children of our middle class and other hyper-civilized folks should learn it too.]

Death & Dying

I got to thinking about this the other day when I stumbled across a bunch of odd news reports. Or perhaps they’re not odd, but common, and I just hadn’t noticed their kind before. Anyway, the stories were about animals and what happens to them. As you may know – we’ve talked about it before – the folks in Venezuela are suffering rather badly right now because their economy is on the rocks. I won’t get into why that’s the case – lots of people have opinions and most of them are better grounded than mine – but the signs are that the people are hungry, don’t have enough money for food, and forage to supplement their diets. Local wildlife, such as pink flamingos and giant anteaters, find their way on to local tables, along with dogs, cats and donkeys.[5] That was the same day I learned monkeys were falling out of the trees near Minas Gerais, Brazil, due to an epidemic of yellow fever. The disease also affects local humans.[6] And finally, there was the woman caught on an aircraft recently with 22 pounds of raw animal brains.[7] She was bringing them in from El Salvador.

Granted these are only anecdotes from one day, but they have three things in common: (i) animals died in greater numbers than normal, but (ii) not in the normal way, i.e., not on farms or in meat packing plants; and (iii) humans were responsible, either as hunters or disease carriers. The sample was too small to really tell anything about trends, so I looked further.

And I found a lot.  There was a mass fish die-off in California in 2011.[8] Fish had died and birds were falling in Arkansas.[9] Pesticides may be killing our honey bee population, or it may be something else.[10] Nevertheless, the bees are dying. A White Nose syndrome is striking bats, leaving a fungus on their noses, wings and bodies, and eventually leading to starvation. The syndrome kills millions.[11] One year a virus killed over 6 million baby pigs, and bacon prices rose.[12]  And so on, and so on, and so on.

A Recent Study

It turns out that it’s not unusual for animals to die in quantity, but it’s happening more often.[13] How do we know this? Well, National Geographic reports it,[14] but, more importantly, there’s a study put out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that says the same thing,[15] but with greater rigor.

  • The report deals only with “Mass Mortality Events” (MMEs). MMEs are “rapidly occurring, catastrophic events that punctuate background mortality levels.”[16] They stand out because of the sheer size and intensity of the dying. “Individual MMEs are staggering in their observed magnitude: removing more than 90% of a population, resulting in the death of more than a billion individuals, or producing more than 700 million tons of dead biomass.”[17]
  • The authors believe their report is the “first … quantitative analysis of MMEs across the animal kingdom and, as such … [explores] novel trends, patterns and features associated with MME’s.”[18]
  • Reports of MME’s increased during the period studied. The question is whether actual MME events increased, or the reporting of them simply improved. The authors conclude that both are the case. Reporting was spotty in the 19th Century, but has been much more consistent since the 1940s. Nevertheless, “more than half the variation … in changes in the occurrence of MME’s through time was not explained by increases in publication output alone.”[19] So MME’s – inherently catastrophic events – increased over time.
  • The report focuses on MME’s in the animal kingdom. If there’s a horserace – my bad metaphor – one might say that currently fishes are the “largest contributor of reported MME’s;[20]” amphibian and reptile MME’s increased sharply beginning in the 1970s, but recently declined; and the same can be said for birds and mammals.[21]
  • These events also vary in size. “[M]agnitude increases for birds, marine invertebrates and fishes; remains invariant for mammals; and decreases for amphibians and reptiles.”

What to Do

Frankly, I don’t know what to do. It can’t be good that so many things around us are dying before their time, and while the picture is mixed, the overall casualty rate seems to be increasing. My personal preference is to learn more about what’s going on and put a stop to it.

My guess is that nobody powerful in today’s world will want to do that. What’s happening is simply creative destruction, the economists would say; it’s natural, so let it continue. It would be sinful to interfere. And, by the way, we’ll all be better off when that superfluous life disappears. Only then does it stop competing with the rest of us for resources.

Just kidding, Mr. Panda.

 


 

[1] “Scherm” is an old word, not much used today. It means “A screen or barrier constructed of brushwood or the like, to serve as a protection for troops, as an ambuscade from which to shoot game, or to prevent cattle from straying.” If you have an old word, we have the old book to define it.  See The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (Oxford 1971), at p. 2664, scherm.

[2] See Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines (1885) (Octopus edition, 1979) at p. 39.

[3] G. Sallust is our disreputable founder, who comments and criticizes even when he’s not here.

[4] See Huffington Post, Gebreyes, How Lab-Grown Meat May Change Our World (11/24/2015), available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/test-tube-meat/

[5] See Fox News, O’Reilly, Venezuelans killing flamingos and anteaters to stave off hunger amid mounting food crisis (February 10, 2017), available at http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/02/10/venezuelans-killing-flamingos-and-anteaters-to-stave-off-hunger-amid-mounting-food-crisis.html

[6] See The Washington Post, Reuters, Yellow Fever kills 600 monkeys in Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest (February 10. 2017), available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/more-than-600-monkeys-have-died-in-yellow-fever-outbreak/2017/02/10/476420e0-ee45-11e6-9973-c5efb7ccfb0d_story.html

[7] See Dallas Morning News, Dallas News, Woman smuggling animal brains in luggage detained at DFW airport (Feb. 10, 2017), available at http://www.dallasnews.com/news/news/2017/02/10/22-pounds-animal-parts-found-smuggled-luggage-dfw-airport

[8] See CBS Live, CBS/AP, Mass fish die-off in Southern California (March 15, 2011), available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mass-fish-die-off-in-southern-california/

[9] See CBS News, CBS/AP, First Falling Birds, Now Dead Fish in Arkansas (January 3, 2011), available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/first-falling-birds-now-dead-fish-in-arkansas/

[10] See CBS News, CBS/AP, What’s killing the honey bees? Mystery may be solved (May 14, 2014), available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/are-pesticides-killing-off-honey-bees/

[11] See CBS News, CBS/AP, Dying bats called No. 1 mammal crisis in U.S. (July 12, 2011) available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/dying-bats-called-no-1-mammal-crisis-in-us/

[12] See CBS News, CBS/AP, U.S. bacon prices rise after virus kills more than 6 million piglets (April 8, 2014), available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-bacon-prices-rise-after-virus-kills-baby-pigs/

[13] See CBS News, Schupak, Mass animal deaths on the rise worldwide ( January 16, 2015), available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mass-animal-deaths-on-the-rise-worldwide/

[14] See National Geographic, Lee, Mass Animal Die-Offs Are on the Rise, Killing Billions and Raising Questions (January 14, 2015), available at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/01/150113-mass-die-off-disease-animals-environment-science/

[15] See PNAS, Fey, Siepielski et al., Recent shifts in the occurrence, cause, and magnitude of animal mass mortality events (January 27, 2015), available at http://www.pnas.org/content/112/4/1083.full.pdf?sid=0dc8be03-b3e3-4540-b9bd-7a6a843e9c04

[16] Id. at p. 1083.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at Significance

[19] Id. at p. 1084, Results and Discussion

[20] Id. At 56% of all reports.

[21] I’m grossly oversimplifying this. Take a look at the bar charts at p. 1084 to get a more accurate picture

Artificial intelligence will reach human levels by around 2029. Follow that out further to, say, 2045, we will have multiplied the intelligence, the human biological machine intelligence of our civilization a billion-fold.

Ray Kurzweil[1]

[This is Phil, blog philosopher and occasional commenter on technology, science fiction and the scientific method. Fred called the other day, much disturbed; he’s been looking at the research programs of our country’s much esteemed Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency [DARPA], and he’s found worrisome things and trends. Of course there’s always reason to worry when the human animal tries something new; that’s evolution, I guess. First we had antibiotics, now we have antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Then we developed nuclear power, and early-on found a way to make it go bang! But despite our valiant efforts – remember the “Atoms for Peace” program?[2] – its peaceful uses are few, expensive and often dangerous. If you don’t believe me, reflect for a moment on Chernobyl,[3] and the more recent experience of the Japanese.[4] Does anyone want to do that again?

Anyway, recently Fred sat me down for several hours and explained his views on robots and their danger to us. I was impressed, and asked him to pen a blog for us, but he’s very busy right now; so I agreed to write it for him. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says but, as usual, he’s interesting.]

Monsters

Antibiotics and nuclear power are old news. Fred’s more concerned about the new stuff, that is, about the startling progress we’ve made in building machines that mimic, or duplicate, human mental processes. Of course, people have always worried that one day mankind might create something that might destroy us. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an example of that. Shelley’s monster was a human-like thing made up of sewn-together body parts robbed from graves. The Terminator movie franchise is a bit more modern but essentially the same, except the monsters aren’t biological; they’re essentially an outgrowth of modern computer technology. If I recall correctly, the terminators are part of a computerized defense system that goes rogue.

So you can see why Fred might be concerned. He’s read quite a bit of sci-fi, as have I, and the rebellious robot is a favorite meme of the genre.[5] And Fred’s not the only one to be concerned. Stephen Hawking, for one, has warned that developing artificial intelligence might be very bad for humanity.[6] And reportedly Bill Gates, of Microsoft fame, has said pretty much the same thing,[7] and so has Elon Musk, the guy behind Tesla cars.[8] These people know a thing or two about intelligence, human or otherwise.

The Three Laws

Fred says, truthfully, that robots in literature are not always hostile. His favorite examples of non-monster robots are the ones portrayed by Isaac Asimov in a series of novels he began in the 1950’s. Asimov posited a future in which the vast majority of humans were trapped on a badly overcrowded planet Earth, while a minority had escaped to 50 nearby star systems. The off-planet settlers had technology superior to that of the home planet, so much so that it allowed them to develop “humaniform” robots, i.e., ones that substantially mimicked human beings

Asimov’s first three “robot” novels[9]dealt with the efforts of an earth detective and an off-planet robot to solve a series of murders. It’s entertaining but, more to the point, it deals at length with the interaction of a human with a robot, and suggests a set of controls humans might impose on their mechanical friends. These are, in order of priority, that (i) a robot shouldn’t harm humans, (ii) should obey the orders of humans, and (iii) should protect its own existence.[10] They’re also known as Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

Asimov’s first robot novels were written 50 or more years ago. Neither Fred nor I know how he proposed to educate a robotic “brain” to accept such limitations, but today Fred sees the “three laws” as software that should be added to the programming of autonomous machines. The problem, he says,  is that DARPA is doing a lot of good work in creating devices, etc., that mimic human functions, but apparently nothing to add a conscience to them.

The DARPA Programs

Some of these projects are astonishing. There’s one, for example, aimed at developing communication devices [aka radios, etc.] that will operate at any time or place, and under any conditions. DARPA calls this Adaptive RF Technology [ART], [11] and pretty much implies that the adjustments will be made automatically when necessary, i.e. without human intervention. That would be useful, I suppose, if one is operating a drone from a distance. The drone is on the spot, knows the local conditions, and would be much more useful if it had a “cognitive” radio that could solve communications problems, rather than rely on a remote human pilot to do the job.

Then there are the machines, etc., that will do the same things humans do, only better and faster.  In the Cyber Grand Challenge, for example, DARPA sponsored [sponsors?] “a major competition to develop advanced autonomous systems that can detect, evaluate, and patch software vulnerabilities before adversaries have a chance to exploit them.” Why should machines do this sort of thing? Well, because humans just aren’t fast enough. [12]  But the humans at this stage are very much involved in designing their own successors. 

Or, on that same theme, consider model-making. That’s the kind of thing that economists and other people do to make sense of voluminous data and, incidentally, also to make a living. The people on talk radio, of course, use very simple models, usually something like, “if supply goes up, then, then prices will go down,” completely ignoring the many other things that might affect price. DARPA says, we humans are awash in data but “what’s missing are empirical models of complex processes that influence the behavior and impact of those data elements.”  At the end of the day, it’s really difficult to create good models that reliably predict things that actually happen. So how do we solve that problem? DARPA has an answer – its Data Driven Discovery of Models program – which will free us from all that drudgery. [13] Using artificial intelligence, it will analyze data and develop models for us.

Then there’s the astonishing work being done in creating artificial limbs for the injured. Versions currently in production are battery powered, of “near natural size and weight,” and allow for “extremely dexterous” arm and hand movement. [14] Also we’re learning how to convey touch and pressure through these things[15] and are experimenting to develop one that can be controlled by the user’s brain. [16]

This information comes directly from DARPA, mostly in the form of news releases. One of the odder ones deals with a separate program to develop self-healing construction materials. DARPA is now studying the use of living materials – ones that can be grown and regenerate – for these purposes. “DARPA is launching the Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program with a goal of creating a new class of materials that combines the structural properties of traditional building materials with attributes of living systems ….”[17] Could this line of research also lead us to materials that might be incorporated into machines, say cars, drones and robots?

Protecting Us from Our Creations

I suppose you can classify that last paragraph as speculation, but the greater point is not. Our scientists experiment with artificial intelligence, and are making great progress to boot.  They’re developing autonomous machines – ones that can operate on their own[18] – and giving them mental capabilities that in some cases exceed those of ordinary humans. Others are working hard to fabricate artificial limbs for the wounded, but the same technology might be adaptable to other platforms, i.e. to mobile robots. Add construction materials to the mix, and it’s not impossible to believe that someday you and I might be dealing with mobile, bi-pedal, autonomous robots. Ask Arnold Schwarzenegger; he’s already been there in the Terminator movies.

If such things are possible, why aren’t scientists also working on ways to protect us from the occasional wayward or hostile robot? Why isn’t somebody experimenting with, for example, a software version of Asimov’s Three Laws? I can think of one reason, of course; a lot of the current development work is being done by the military who, of course, primarily are interested in technologies that will neutralize an enemy. Pacifist robots – ones that won’t harm humans – probably aren’t in any military organization’s R&D[19] budget.

So could private industry do this kind of work? That is, develop a software conscience for intelligent machines, so that they don’t turn on their human creators? Certainly that could be a selling point for some products. Someone who buys an intelligent, self-driven car, for example, probably would like to know that the vehicle won’t go homicidal. Asimov’s Three Laws are tailor-made for that situation.

Nevertheless Fred wouldn’t rely on private industry to do this kind of work unless somebody paid them to do it. Modern companies don’t have a budget for pure research. Their focus is too short-term, on the next quarterly earnings report; not on the long view. He would rather enlist the aid of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or other proven philanthropists to fund and oversee the work that needs to be done. Fred says he would be happy to set up and manage such a program, if somebody wants to support it.

Fred’s ideas often are weird, but he has a winner here. In my humble opinion.

[1] Ray Kurzweil is an inventor, computer scientist, author and general commentator on things cybernetic. Wikipedia has an entry on him at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Kurzweil . The quote is from Brainy Quote at https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/r/raykurzwei591137.html?src=t_artificial_intelligence

[2] Probably not. Check out Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atoms_for_Peace  for a refresher.

[3] Want to know more? Check out the Wikipedia article on the Chernobyl disaster, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster

[4] Wikipedia does a fairly good job on this as well. Its article is at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fukushima_Daiichi_nuclear_disaster

[5] Oh, look: fancy words! A “genre” is a specific category of music, film or writing. Today science fiction is recognized as a “genre.” See, e.g., https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/genre .  A “meme” is basically a story-line.

[6] See Daily Mail, Zolfagharifard , Artificial intelligence ‘could be the worst thing to happen to humanity’: Stephen Hawking warns that rise of robots may be disastrous for mankind ( 2 May 2014), available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2618434/Artificial-intelligence-worst-thing-happen-humanity-Stephen-Hawking-warns-rise-robots-disastrous-mankind.html

[7] See, e.g., Sunday Express, Dassanayake, Bill Gates joins Stephen Hawking in warning Artificial Intelligence IS a threat to mankind (Jan. 29, 2015 ) available at http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/555092/Bill-Gates-Stephen-Hawking-Artificial-Intelligence-AI-threat-mankind

[8] Id.

[9] The first book in the series is called I Robot. Actually it’s a series of short stories, not a novel. The next three are novels. If you want to know more, you can always read the books. Otherwise check out Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot_series_(Asimov) . It’s more or less correct.

[10] Wikipedia also discusses the Three Laws.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Laws_of_Robotics.   The “laws” are: (i) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. (ii) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. (iii) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.”

[11] DARPA, Rondeau, Adaptive RF Technology (ART), available at http://www.darpa.mil/program/adaptive-rf-technologies  “ART-enabled “cognitive” radios would be able to reconfigure themselves to operate in any frequency band with any modulation and for multiple access specifications under a range of environmental and operating conditions.”

[12] DARPA,  “Mayhem” Declared Preliminary Winner of Historic Grand Cyber Challenge (8/4/2016) available at http://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2016-08-04

[13]See DARPA, DARPA Goes “Meta” with Machine Learning for Machine Learning (6/17/2016), available at http://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2016-06-17  .

[14] DARPA, DARPA Provides Mobius Bionics LUKE Arms to Walter Reed (12/22/2016),   available at http://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2016-12-22

[15] DARPA, Neuroscience of Touch Supports Improved Robotic and Prosthetic Interfaces (10/26/2016), available at http://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2016-10-26

[16] DARPA, DARPA Helps Paralyzed Man Feel Again Using a Brain-Controlled Robotic Arm (10/13/2016), available at http://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2016-10-13

[17] DARPA, Living Structural Materials Could Open New Horizons for Engineers and Architects (8/5/016), available at http://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2016-08-05

[18] Actually we did a blog on that a while ago. See the blog of 2016/09/07, Autonomous Weapons, available at https://opsrus.wordpress.com/2016/09/07/1241/ .

[19] That’s Research & Development, sometimes also known as RDT&E {Research, Development, Test and Evaluation].