A Path to Racial Reconciliation?

Several local churches are sponsoring the following online discussions about race relations this summer:

Summer Forum Series: Is There a Path to Racial Reconciliation?

The first event was today and the two guest speakers were Vermont Senator Randy Brock and Representative Kevin “Coach” Christie.

It was a most interesting discussion.

I had to smile when Sen. Brock talked about the word “reconciliation” and explained that from the perspective of his finance background the word implies something out of balance. I also have a finance background, and I get that.

Rep. Christie and Sen. Brock are from different political parties, but there was much they agreed on. They both agreed that race relations have generally improved during their lifetimes. They both agreed that issues remain, especially regarding policing. They both agreed that discussions like the one today are an important part of making further improvements in race relations. They both agreed that language is important – that it matters how we talk about these issues, and what words we use. Both legislators are African Americans.

Most of the discussion in the Q&A was about policing, including how important it is to hire the right people to be police officers and how important it is to train them correctly. I would add that it is also important, when it is learned that a particular officer is not doing their job appropriately, to be able to fire them.

Sen. Brock and Rep. Christie each have a valuable perspective on policing matters. Early in his career, Sen. Brock, a Vietnam veteran, was a captain in the Military Police Corps of the U.S. Army. Rep. Christie serves on the Judiciary Committee in the Vermont House of Representatives.

The church pictured above is the Second Congregational Church in the village of Jeffersonville (town of Cambridge), led by Pastor Devon Thomas. Pastor Devon also leads the Waterville Union Church and the United Church of Bakersfield and Fairfield. These three churches together with the Good Shepard Lutheran Church of Jericho, led by Pastor Arnold Thomas, are the sponsors of this Summer Forum Series. Thank you to both pastors for organizing this interesting series.

Three more events are planned in this series, details here:

Summer Forum Series: Is There a Path to Racial Reconciliation?

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Hamilton: An American Musical

The tragic death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer has shocked our country. It has led to nationwide protests, riots, and calls for change.

Where do we go from here?

I believe there are lessons for us in Hamilton: An American Musical.

George Floyd was but one of many black men who have died at the hands of police, and occasionally black women, too, such as Breonna Taylor. I will have thoughts about policing in future posts, but in this post I want to consider a broader question: what kind of a country are we?

Two aspects of our country must be considered:

  • First, as the New York Times has reminded us with its 1619 Project, some of the Europeans who immigrated to the Americas forcibly brought Africans as slaves.
  • Second, when those European immigrants declared a revolution in 1776, they deliberately created a new nation unparalleled in human history. That is the story told by Hamilton: An American Musical.

What kind of nation did Alexander Hamilton and his peers create? The United States of America became the most powerful nation the world has ever seen, but that is not the focus of my question. My question is about the character of this new nation, our country.

Hamilton and his peers were well aware that they were making history. “Rise Up! Time to take a shot!” is a refrain from the song “My Shot” in Hamilton.  The Founding Fathers put much thought into writing two documents that changed the world:

  • First, they wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This document explained why the colonists were revolting against Great Britain and also proclaimed what the revolutionaries avowed to be “self-evident truths” about people and their governments.
  • Second, after the American Revolution was won, they wrote the Constitution of the United States of America which specified the framework for a new government, unlike anything that had ever existed before. The Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788.

Both documents are addressed in Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indies in 1755 or 1757. Ron Chernow, whose biography inspired the musical, uses 1755. Hamilton sailed to what is now the United States in 1772 or 1773, but he played no role in creating the Declaration of Independence. At the time that document was drafted in Philadelphia in 1776, he was a young man of 21 at most and he was in New York pursuing an education at King’s College (now Columbia University).

Hamilton was certainly aware of the Declaration of Independence, and he was a vigorous supporter of the revolution from the early 1770s on. He became an indispensable aide to General George Washington during the American Revolution, and he played a significant role in the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the last major battle of the war.

Hamilton was among the 55 delegates who met in Philadelphia in 1787 and drafted the Constitution. James Madison is considered the primary author, but many others including Gouverneur Morris, Benjamin Franklin, and Hamilton were also significant contributors. (Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, but he was abroad as minister to France when the Constitution was drafted.)

Once the Constitution was drafted, it was presented to the 13 states for ratification. The Federalist Papers were written to promote ratification. Between October 1787 and August 1788 a total of 85 Federalist Papers were written by three men: James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton. These documents are almost as important as the Constitution itself. Hamilton wrote 51 of the Federalist Papers.

So what do the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution say that can be helpful to us today in thinking about the George Floyd protests and riots?

The Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal” which we now interpret to mean all people not just men. Clearly we remain far from this ideal, even 244 years later, in spite of the Civil War in the 1860s which brought an end to slavery and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s which sought to bring equality to black people. The George Floyd protests and riots are stark reminders that we have much work yet to do, but the goal remains equality. As President Calvin Coolidge noted in his 1926 speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, there is a finality about the goal of equality. While we remain short of reaching the goal, the goal itself is unchanged. Indeed it is a self-evident truth that any goal other than equality would be a goal of inequality.

As a side note, Thomas Jefferson included anti-slavery language in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, but it was stricken by others. See this for more information. See also Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents at the Library of Congress. I learned about this little known fact last year while visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, part of the Smithsonian Institution. There was an exhibit about early drafts of the Declaration of Independence on Level C3 in the History Galleries.

How do we get closer to the goal of equality? Clearly there are systemic changes that are needed. In future posts I’ll propose specific systemic changes in our policing policies, but in this post I want to talk about how we propose and make changes. That is, the process for making changes.

The Constitution answers that question. The “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” is enshrined in the First Amendment. In short, peaceful protests are OK but riots are not.

Some protestors today call for a “revolution” but this word need not mean riots. Yes, sometimes the word does mean a violent uprising as in, say, the American Revolution.
But a few years after that revolution there was another profound revolution, sometimes called the “Revolution of 1800,” when Thomas Jefferson was elected president. That revolution was neither a war nor a riot, but a peaceful revolution which occurred within the parameters of the Constitution of 1787.

Riots are not OK. The riots must stop. If a “revolution” is needed today, it must occur within the parameters of the Constitution.

As a side note, the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800 was contentious. Unlike any presidential election before or since, the vote of the electoral college was a tie, and under the Constitution the election moved to the U.S. House of Representatives. There the vote was again tied until the 36th vote! The person who engineered the way out of that impasse was, yes, Alexander Hamilton. That story is told in the musical.

The image at the top of this post is the book Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. It documents the genesis, development, and production of Hamilton: An American Musical beginning with the performance by Mr. Miranda of a single song at the White House in May 2009 during President Obama’s first year in office. It took several years for this to blossom into a full-fledged musical, which opened in New York in February 2015 and has been hugely popular ever since. The book Hamilton: The Revolution was published in April 2016 during President Obama’s final year in office.

Hamilton: An American Musical is indeed a revolution in many ways, but of the peaceful kind, entirely within the parameters of the Constitution.

The reason why I am writing about Hamilton now is that earlier this month Disney Plus released the movie version of Hamilton (see trailer) in time for the public to enjoy this masterpiece during the Fourth of July holiday – which this year the nation celebrated in the midst of a lockdown due to the novel coronavirus. My wife and I have not seen the stage production, but we watched the movie version on July 4th, the 244th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Hamilton is sensationally good. We heartily recommend it.

The final song in the musical is titled:

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

Hamilton: An American Musical tells the story of the founding of our great country. It is a story to be proud of, mostly. By reminding ourselves of this exceptional story, both the good as well as the bad extending back to 1619, we can find our way through the current protests and riots to a better future closer to the goal of equality.

May the story of our time be worthy of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Alexander Hamilton.

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Lockdown in Vermont

We are nearly three months into the COVID-19 pandemic. How are we doing?

Over on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, I published statistics about the prevalence of the disease:

On this blog I want to think about the question in the header: What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government – in a pandemic? As a first step, this post documents the actions that Vermont Governor Phil Scott has taken to date.

A state of emergency is in effect in Vermont pursuant to Executive Order 01-20:

The original emergency declaration on Friday, March 13, ordered a number of actions including: closure of assisted living facilities to visitors; and prohibition of gatherings of more than 250 people. In addition, the governor issued a directive on Sunday, March 15, ordering all schools to close by the end of the school day on Tuesday, March 17.

Additional lockdown measures were imposed in quick succession via six addendums to Executive Order 01-20:

  1. March 16: Prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people.
  2. March 16: Closed bars and restaurants except for take-out.
  3. March 20: Suspended elective medical procedures.
  4. March 21: Closed fitness centers, hair salons, etc. Prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people.
  5. March 23: Working from home ordered “to the maximum extent possible.”
  6. March 24: “Stay Home/Stay Safe.” (Addendum 6)

Addendum 6 directed Vermonters to “stay at home” except for “essential reasons” which, for most people, did not include going to work. With limited exceptions, the order said: “all businesses and not-for-profit entities in the state shall suspend in-person business operations.” People were prohibited from working unless they were “critical” or could work without meeting other people, such as working from home.

Nearly a month passed before there was any easing of the lockdown. “Restart VT” has been as follows:

  • April 17: Phase I. “Work Smart & Stay Safe.” 2-person outdoor crews permitted, and other actions, effective April 20.
  • April 24: Phase II. 5-person outdoor crews permitted, etc., effective April 27.
  • May 1: Phase III. 10-person outdoor crews permitted, etc., effective May 4.
  • May 4: Authorized the Vermont Department of Health (VDH) to develop guidelines for elective medical procedures to resume. (Phase IV? Not identified as such.)
  • May 6: Phase V. “Play Smart and Play Safe.” Allowed “limited social interactions and gatherings of 10 or fewer, preferably in outdoor settings.” Outdoor recreation activities permitted effective May 7.
  • May 13: Phase VI. Authorized the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) to develop guidelines for non-essential operations to reopen, beginning with non-essential retail, effective May 18. Click here for ACCD guidance.
  • May 22: Limited outdoor dining and bar service permitted, subject to ACCD guidelines, effective May 22. Fairs and festivals cancelled until further notice.
  • May 29: Limited reopening of fitness centers, hair salons, etc., and gatherings of up to 25 people permitted, subject to ACCD guidelines, effective June 1.

The following graphs are from the post COVID-19 in Vermont on my other blog, with key events noted on the timeline:At the time of the “Stay Home/Stay Safe” order on March 24 (Addendum 6), we were still on the upward slope of the curves, and we did not know how bad things would become. As it turned out, the 7-day average of new cases peaked on April 9 (at 41.4) and the 7-day average of deaths peaked on April 23 (at 1.7).

The image at the top of this post is the Vermont state seal from Executive Order 01-20. The Vermont state motto is “Freedom and Unity.”

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To wipe or not to wipe?

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, should people wipe down their grocery purchases before putting them away at home?

This post explores the expert advice on this question, how it has evolved, and how it has been reported. This is in keeping with an occasional theme of this blog: How do we find news we can trust? (See this and this, for example.)

Three months ago there was a YouTube video on this topic that went viral: “COVID-19 Food Safety Tips.” This video, which has been viewed 26 million times, recommends wiping down your groceries and shows how to do it. Over on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, I twice recommended this video. See Hunkering Down (March 28) and We are in a war (April 4).

This week there was news about updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC made minor changes to this webpage: How COVID-19 Spreads. The CDC now believes that it is even less likely than previously thought that COVID-19 can be transmitted by touching contaminated surfaces. (It was never thought that this was a major method of transmission.)

The CDC guidance does not mention groceries, but this sparked my interest, and in poking around further I found this guidance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that speaks directly to my question: Shopping for Food During the COVID-19 Pandemic – Information for Consumers. Some quotes:

As grocery shopping remains a necessity during this pandemic, many people have questions about how to shop safely. We want to reassure consumers that there is currently no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

And:

6. Again, there is no evidence of food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. However, if you wish, you can wipe down product packaging and allow it to air dry, as an extra precaution.

Whoa! I had not heard that before. That is considerably different advice from the food safety video mentioned above, which was produced by a medical doctor (MD) not associated with either the CDC or the FDA. The FDA published that guidance on April 16. That was 2-3 weeks after the food safety video came out, and more than five weeks ago now.

As we gain more experience with COVID-19, it is natural that our views about the precautions we should take may change. That does not surprise me. What does surprise me is that I hadn’t heard of the April 16 FDA guidance before.

Well, how did I hear of the FDA guidance now? Two news articles came to my attention this week about the CDC guidance:

The Fox News article mentioned the FDA guidance from last month, which they also reported on at the time. I cannot find that the Washington Post has ever mentioned the April 16 FDA guidance. I don’t read Fox News much. Perhaps I should read it more?

There was an aspect of the Washington Post article that amused me. They seemed annoyed that they learned about the updated CDC guidance from Fox News instead of the CDC itself. (The Fox News article was dated May 20 and the Washington Post article was dated May 21.) Quotes from the Washington Post article:

Right-wing social media exploited the [CDC’s] website tweaks this week. Fox News commentator Sean Hannity promoted a “breaking” report about the change.

And:

The change to the CDC website, without formal announcement or explanation, concerns Angela L. Rasmussen, a virologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

My view: Fox News made a mountain out of a molehill in reporting on the updated CDC guidance, and the Washington Post made a mountain out of a molehill in reporting on Fox News. But Fox News wins on reporting the FDA guidance.

The photo above is from our most recent grocery shopping trip (Costco). We did not wipe down our groceries before putting them away at home.

UPDATE 5/28/2020: The CDC guidance (here) has been changed again! The Fox News article on May 20 was about the fact that the CDC had added a section to its guidance titled “The virus does not spread easily in other ways” which included “from touching surfaces or objects.” Yes, the CDC had added this section, but they later removed it. Here are three versions of the CDC guidance from the Wayback Machine:

  • May 1 – does not include the “does not spread easily” section
  • May 11 – includes the “does not spread easily” section
  • May 25 – does not include the “does not spread easily” section

The CDC explained its latest change here. Fox News covered the latest change here. I cannot find that the Washington Post covered the latest change. I’m still not reading Fox News; I learned about the latest change from the New York Times, which wrote about the matter here and here.

The FDA guidance (here) has not changed.

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Podcast Recommendation

Want to learn more about diseases such as COVID-19? I recommend This Podcast Will Kill You by Erin Welsh, PhD and Erin Allmann Updyke, PhD. Drs. Erin and Erin are disease ecologists and epidemiologists. They discuss the biology, history, and current status of a wide variety of diseases.

The Erins, as they call themselves, began their podcast in the fall of 2017 and their very first episode is relevant to today’s interest in pandemics:

That episode is about “the flu” in general and specifically about the influenza pandemic of 1918. Two other episodes in the first season are about the Black Death (plague) of the 14th century. (See Past Pandemics on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, for a discussion of historical pandemics.)

The Erins posted their first episode about COVID-19 on February 4, 2020:

As of this writing, they have posted 11 additional episodes about COVID-19. All of their podcasts about COVID-19 can be found here. Transcripts of several of their COVID-19 podcasts are available here.

Drs. Erin and Erin cover a wide variety of diseases. In the first season alone, in addition to influenza and plague, they discuss smallpox, cholera, polio, malaria, tuberculosis, ebola, HIV/AIDS, and several other diseases. I found the following episode in the second season to be of particular interest, because this disease is becoming more prevalent in Vermont as well as many other parts of the world:

This week we’re tackling the doozy of a disease called Lyme, the most prevalent tick-borne infection in the northern hemisphere. Tune in to hear us navigate the complicated biology of Borrelia burgdoferi, delve into the ancient history of the disease (ice mummy? yes, please!), and trace the tangled ecological web woven by the spirochete, its vector, and its hosts. And to round out this delicious blood-meal of an episode, we are joined by the one-and-only hunter of ticks, ecologist of disease, and PhD advisor of Erins, Dr. Brian Allan! Not only does Brian shine some light on the current innovative research on Lyme disease ecology, but he also details his own experience with the disease. This episode is as full as a tick with information about Lyme disease, making it one you’re not going to want to miss.

An occasional theme here on “The Switchel Philosopher” blog is: How do we learn about the world around us? How do we find information we can trust? (See posts in the Knowledge category especially this and this.) So far as I can tell, the information in “This Podcast Will Kill You” is trustworthy. Each episode on the website includes references if you are interested in their sources, or in further research. I also found the presentations to be engaging and accessible for a non-scientist.

The homepage for “This Podcast Will Kill You” (image above) says:

Well Hello There
Have you washed your hands lately?
If not listen up

The Erins end each episode:

And wash your hands…
You filthy animals!

A good sense of humor! Recommended. Here is the link again: This Podcast Will Kill You.

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You Can’t Cheat A Pandemic

In the previous post (Where do you get news?) I discussed mainstream media such as the New York Times. But of course many of us get a portion of our news these days from social media.

There is an essay about the COVID-19 pandemic that went viral on social media. It starts out like this:

As an infectious disease epidemiologist, I feel morally obligated to provide information on what we are seeing from a transmission dynamic perspective and how it applies to the social distancing measures.

I first saw this essay on March 24 on the Front Porch Forum social media platform commonly used in Vermont. My family noticed this essay and discussed it.

It’s a thought-provoking essay, but who wrote it? The posting on our local Front Porch Forum did not identify the author. That posting began as follows:

We received this from a friend in Mad River: Front Porch Forum Post in the Mad River Valley on Covid-19 Precautions and Information: “MRV Community: A friend who is a doctor at DHMC shared this from a colleague. I thought it was worth passing along.”

I am pleased to report that the mystery epidemiologist has surfaced! Among other places, this viral essay authored by Jonathan Smith was published by WBUR, a public radio station in Boston, on April 3:

‘I Promise. I Promise.’ You Can’t Cheat A Pandemic

WBUR explains:

Jonathan Smith originally wrote the piece below as a letter to his local neighborhood of about 50 families. It struck a chord, and his neighbors began sharing it widely within their own networks. Shortly after, and many tens of thousands of email forwards later, it went viral. Smith, a lecturer in epidemiology at Yale University who is currently completing his PhD in epidemiology at Emory University, graciously granted Cog permission to repost the piece. Though it was written a couple of weeks ago, the message remains the same. (And in my own personal experience, it can be a useful tool in reinforcing the importance of social distancing to loved ones who have grown weary of the strict guidelines.) I hope you’ll find it as resonant as we — and millions of others — did. – Frannie

[“Cog” is Cognoscenti, one of WBUR’s programs. “Frannie” is Frannie Carr Toth, the editor/producer of Cognoscenti, as noted at the link.]

I encourage you to read the whole thing. Here’s the link again:

‘I Promise. I Promise.’ You Can’t Cheat A Pandemic

An epidemiologist is a scientist who studies epidemics and pandemics (among other things). Professor Smith explains why social distancing is so important to slow the spread of this disease and limit its toll on our society.

From the essay:

You should perceive your entire family to function as a single individual unit: If one person puts themselves at risk, everyone in the unit is at risk. Seemingly small social chains get large and complex with alarming speed. If your son visits his girlfriend, and you later sneak over for coffee with a neighbor, your neighbor is now connected to the infected office worker that your son’s girlfriend’s mother shook hands with. This sounds silly, it’s not.
[…]
It is hard (even for me) to conceptualize how on a population level “one quick little get together” can undermine the entire framework of a public health intervention, but it can. I promise you it can. I promise. I promise. I promise. You can’t cheat it. People are already itching to cheat on the social distancing precautions just a “little” — a short playdate, a quick haircut, or picking up a needless item from the store.

Professor Smith says: don’t do it. Don’t cheat on the social distancing guidelines. You can’t cheat a pandemic.

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Where do you get news?

Over on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, I have been posting about the COVID-19 pandemic currently raging in the world. (Click here for all posts on that blog about that topic.)

My question for this post: Where do you get news about the pandemic? Please share your thoughts in the comments if you are comfortable doing so.

I have asked this question before on this blog (in general, not about any specific topic). See this 2017 post and the comments. In that post I wrote:

Much of the news these days – even from some of the sources listed above – seems to be unnecessarily negative.

How true that is now! Much of the news about the COVID-19 pandemic is relentlessly negative. Yes, the pandemic is deadly serious. I have noted on my other blog that “these are unprecedented times,” that in our household we are “hunkering down,” and that collectively we need to “slow the spread.” But I do wonder if the news is giving us a balanced perspective on all aspects of the pandemic.

Let’s collectively think about how we inform ourselves about reality, an appropriately ironic topic on April Fools Day.

Personally I consume almost no radio or TV news. I am a reader. I have long subscribed to three newspapers – Burlington Free Press, New York Times, Wall Street Journal – and I also read VTDigger. I admit that I no longer read the Burlington Free Press regularly because over time it has included less and less of interest to me. My family continues to read it and they let me know if there is anything in it that I should read.

All of that is online. We no longer receive any paper newspapers except the News & Citizen, a wonderful local newspaper that is mailed free of charge to everyone in a handful of towns in our area, and which I read faithfully. See the photo above. This newspaper is generally apolitical, and I love it.

Recently, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I subscribed to a new online newspaper: The Epoch Times. I don’t know much about this newspaper. It was founded in 2000 by a group of Chinese-Americans associated with the Falun Gong spiritual movement. That’s unusual, but I have not noticed any spiritual preachiness in their reporting. I am intrigued by the Chinese-American connection, since China is part of the COVID-19 story.

I have noticed that the folks at The Epoch Times are not fans of the current Chinese government. They seem to like the style of government envisioned by the founders of the United States of America. I like that style of government, too.

The Epoch Times is more supportive of President Trump than my other newspapers, so I will read their reporting skeptically. Coincidentally, like the NYT and the WSJ, The Epoch Times is headquartered in New York City, the current center of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and the home of President Trump. (It was his original home, until his recent move to Florida.) Perhaps these three newspapers together – NYT and WSJ and TET – will provide a balanced perspective on the pandemic.

It’s OK to take a break from the news, too. Is the news getting you down? Consider taking a walk outside. If you do, be sure to follow the advice on the marquee below: keep 2 meters apart from other people and wash your hands when you return home.

(“On the Bijou Theater marquee in Morrisville, the spaces where films are normally advertised have a different message this week: Do what you’re supposed to in the coronavirus crisis.” Photo by Tommy Gardner. From the News & Citizen, March 26, 2020, page 7. Online here. Used with permission.)

A walk helps us connect with reality in our neighborhood. The news helps us connect with reality in the rest of the world. It’s a big world outside of our heads. How do you inform yourself about reality?

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Democracy in the Mountains

The Varnum Memorial Library in my village of Jeffersonville, Vermont, recently hosted a talk titled “Democracy in the Mountains: The Vermont-Switzerland Connection” by Susan Clark.

Several posts on this blog have discussed town meetings in New England generally, and specifically in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. Susan is the town meeting moderator in Middlesex, Vermont. Her talk was about Switzerland, which she visited for several months a few years ago to study their town meetings. From the description of her talk:

Gorgeous mountains, vibrant farms, flocking tourists, even chocolate–Vermont has a lot in common with Switzerland. But few New Englanders know that Switzerland is the only other place in the world with whom we share one other proud tradition: town meetings.

In New England, some towns have held town meetings for more than 300 years. Some Swiss towns have held town meetings for more than 800 years. What can we in Vermont learn from Switzerland? Following are some takeaways for me from Susan’s talk.

Lasting democracy requires effort. Effort as in attending meetings and engaging in discussions with your neighbors, face-to-face as much as possible. Merely voting at the ballot box is not enough.

Lasting democracy comes from the bottom up, not the top down. In both Switzerland and New England, towns existed first and other political entities (counties, cantons, states, the nation) came later. Democracy started in the towns. That is an important lesson that in today’s modern world we are in danger of forgetting.

Democracy can be messy. Not everyone is happy with their government and with their neighbors all the time. But if we remember to treat each other as human beings, we can figure out a way to get along. Sharing food helps. The Swiss include wine or beer with their shared meals at town meeting.

Consider representative town meetings for larger towns and cities. Every municipality in Switzerland, even cities, has some form of town meeting. In the larger towns and cities this takes the form of a representative town meeting. In Vermont, Brattleboro has a representative town meeting.

The first lesson is the hardest one for me. Why isn’t voting at the ballot box enough? Why do I have to spend so much time on this self-government thing? Time is precious.

But this lesson is critical. Democracy does not thrive unless citizens invest their time to make self-government work. The alternative is to be ruled by others.

I first met Susan Clark in 2013 because of a book that she co-authored in 2012 with Woden Teachout: Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home. One of the themes of this book is the importance of citizen engagement and how this takes time. Hence the theme “slow.”

Susan came to Cambridge in 2017 to help with the work of the Community Engagement Team which was tasked with making improvements in our town meeting. Many of us in Cambridge read and appreciated the book that she co-authored in 2005 (updated in 2015) with UVM professor Frank Bryan: All Those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community. One of the themes of this book is the importance of town meeting and discussion, not merely voting at the ballot box.

Susan’s recent talk about Switzerland reinforced these themes for me. She quoted Swiss people as saying that voting is the last thing to do, only after much discussion aimed at trying to find common ground. Susan also said the Swiss were surprised that we have town meeting only once a year. Every Swiss town holds town meeting at least twice a year, and in many towns several times a year.

Susan’s talk at the Varnum Memorial Library was on Wednesday, October 23. The discussion after her presentation was also stimulating. Several people in the audience had Swiss relatives or had traveled in Switzerland. There are many interesting people in Cambridge, Vermont!

The photo above is Swiss citizens voting at the Appenzell Landsgemeinde (a canton-wide outdoor meeting). Photo courtesy of Mark Bushnell.

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Simulacron-3

My previous post (Are we living in a simulation?) reminded me of a book that I read as a youth: the science fiction novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye.

So, subsequent to writing that post, I pulled out my copy of the book and re-read it. My worn copy – see image at left – is a Bantam Books paperback edition, original price 40 cents, published in July 1964.

Sure enough, the book and the New York Times column that was the subject of my previous post share similar themes. In fact I’m not the only person to notice this. Several online NYT commenters mentioned Simulacron-3.

I’ll discuss the common themes below, but first I want to make an observation about the publishing history of Simulacron-3.

Some years ago I wanted to re-read this book. (Perhaps because of the movie The Matrix which came out in 1999 and may have been influenced by Simulacron-3.) The copy that I read when growing up on the farm in the 1960s was long gone, and the book was out of print, but I found and purchased a used copy. That is the book pictured above.

Simulacron-3 has long been out of print, but it was reprinted on August 9, 2019. See the listing for Simulacron-3 on Amazon. The New York Times column that was the subject of my previous post was published on August 10, 2019. See Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? Let’s Not Find Out. Coincidence? It would not surprise me if Prof. Preston Greene, the author of that NYT column, was influenced by Simulacron-3.

In any event, what was Simulacron-3 about?

Continue reading

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Are we living in a simulation?

Are we living in a computer simulation?

This post is prompted by a column in the New York Times: Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? Let’s Not Find Out.

The column is by Preston Greene: Ph.D., Philosophy, Rutgers University; assistant professor of philosophy at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I had not previously heard of Prof. Greene, but the idea that we might be living in a computer simulation has been around for a while.

Prof. Greene notes that Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at the University of Oxford, advanced the concept in 2003, and that technology entrepreneur Elon Musk is a fan. In fact, this is not the first time the New York Times has published on this topic. Science columnist John Tierney wrote about Nick Bostrom’s ideas in 2007: here, here, and here.

What is new in Prof. Greene’s column is that scientists are proposing experiments to test whether or not we live in a simulation, and Prof. Greene is urging them not to proceed:

I am writing to warn that conducting these experiments could be a catastrophically bad idea — one that could cause the annihilation of our universe.

He is worried that if we are indeed living in a simulation, and if we discover scientific evidence to that effect, then the creator(s) of the simulation might shut it down, thus ending our entire universe.

Oh, dear. Where to begin.

If you have access to the New York Times, please do read the column by Prof. Greene and the reader comments. Many comments are informative or amusing, but I did not find comments that lend much support to Prof. Greene’s concerns.

My reaction to Prof. Greene’s column is: So what? We still have to figure out how to live our lives, and the concepts he puts forth make no difference in that regard. As one commenter put it:

Then gosh darn-it, I am going to be the best simulated human I can be!

Nor am I worried about the science experiments that Prof. Greene describes. I don’t think these are questions that science can answer, but we might learn something interesting in trying. Not with taxpayer money, though. These are interesting ideas for people to explore on non-government time with non-government money as long as they don’t bother others.

Prof. Greene is concerned with risk. He ends his column with a question:

Is it really worth the risk?

There is a risk here, but it is not the one he sees.

I found an insightful discussion of Prof. Greene’s column on the blog by Ann Althouse, who is retired from a career as a law professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison. You don’t need a subscription to read her post and reader comments.

Prof. Althouse puts it this way:

I see the danger. In fact, I see more danger than he does. Whether the higher civilization would destroy us if we caught on to their game or not, knowing that we are only somebody else’s simulation would change the meaning of life for us. It would disrupt how we care about ourselves and other people.

I would describe the risk as follows.

Many commenters at both the New York Times and the Althouse blog point out that the idea that we are living in a computer simulation is compatible with the creation stories of the world’s great religions. Most people throughout most of history have thought that we are the creation of a God or gods, so we have sort of gotten used to that idea. In the view of these commenters, talking about a computer simulation changes nothing except the terminology.

In fact this change in terminology, though subtle, is significant. When we speak of God, or when the ancient Greeks and Romans spoke of “the gods,” we mean something that is immortal and infinite. We admit that we are speaking of something that we finite mortals fundamentally cannot understand. The Abrahamic religions capture this concept in the Book of Job in the Bible.

In contrast, when we speak of a computer simulation we speak of something that we think we understand – because we are now creating computer simulations ourselves. The risk is our hubris. The risk is in thinking that we understand more than we do in fact understand, or can ever understand.

Where can such hubris lead? As one Althouse commenter put it:

If you begin thinking of other people as simulations, it will be awfully easy to kill them.

That’s a road we don’t want to go down, so let’s be careful where this conversation leads.

The idea that we might be living in a computer simulation is fascinating (if we don’t go down the dark road that I warned about above). For more discussion, see the comments at both the New York Times and the Althouse blog at the links above. Many commenters in both places offer helpful references to concepts in philosophy, religion, and science, plus references to science fiction where these ideas have been considered. Recommended reading. I learned a lot.

UPDATE 9/05/19: See my next post Simulacron-3 about a 1964 science fiction novel with striking similarities to the NYT column discussed above. Long out of print, it was reprinted on 8/09/19. The NYT column discussed above was published on 8/10/19. Coincidence?

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