Monday, July 02, 2012

A Bit on the Health Care Decision; The Weekend; Transcendent Man

Okay, so I'm starting to feel a little lame about the fact that I haven't been doing much posting other than weekend updates (I mean, I like keeping track of what I'm doing and sort of keeping a journal of it, but I just don't want the blog to become only that).
So here's a little bit on the health care decision last week. It's really about the legal reasoning more than the merits of the bill, but if this is going to make you mad, just skip it. I try not to write things just to make people upset...

Supreme Court Stuff

To begin with, I was sort of shocked and amazed that the Affordable Care Act was upheld.  For quite a while now I've been feeling (somewhat cynically) as if the Supreme Court has been nothing but a group of politicians in black robes- that their their tortured logic has been often twisting or overlooking precedent and reshaping facts in order to support whatever conclusion fits the bias of the judges.  I've guess I've just felt as though the courts themselves have grown somewhat more cynical.  For example, Scalia, in particular, has made blatantly partisan political attacks from the bench and taken hunting trips with government leaders who had cases pending before him with the court (while, of course, refusing to recuse himself).
So I guess I saw Chief Justice Roberts' swing vote as a fairly brave and honest move, despite the criticims that he's taken from the conservative leadership.  To be honest, I thought his decision was much more nuanced, well reasoned, and in keeping with precedent (as far as I understand it) than what I had expected. 
To be honest, though, even though I support the health care law, I had questions regarding the legality of the health coverage "mandate" as an extension of the Commerce Clause.  True, the
Commerce Clause has been used to regulate all sorts of things over the years (up to and including anti-discrimination rules for private businesses), but the idea of requiring a person to engage in commerce in the first place (i.e., requiring them to purchase health insurance) seemed, to me, to exceed the goverment's regulatory authority.  In fact, the government seems to be creating commerce by way of mandate under such an act, and I just wasn't sure whether that didn't exceed the limits of the federal government's power.
That being said, I don't see anything wrong with the federal government's consitutional ability to tax people who refuse to get insurance.  I mean, of course there are lots of people who don't like taxes, but there just doesn't seem to be anything illegal about the government's ability to impose a tax if a person refuses to buy health coverage.  If a person doesn't get insurance, then that person stands a high likelihood of eventually having to rely upon government supported healthcare or the financial support of other patients (when people are sufficiently sick but can't pay, hospitals don't turn them away- they get treated and the government picks up the tab through Medicaid or the hospital absorbs the cost and passes it along to other patients through higher costs).  I see nothing wrong with taxing individuals who have no insurance and putting the money back into the system, and I don't see how this sort of tax would be unconstitutional.  If people can be taxed, among other things, for making purchases (sales tax), earning wages (income tax), owning their homes (property tax), and passing their inheritance down to their heirs (estate tax) then I don't see anything wrong with taxing people who plan to transfer their healthcare costs on to the government or their neighbors as their fallback plan for health care emregencies. 
Anyway, I still think of Roberts very much as a conservative, but I think that when he made his decision he was just doing exactly what he said he would do during his confirmation hearings- calling balls and strikes.  He didn't want to strike down a major piece of legislation that had been passed by Congress unless it was clearly unconstitutional by way of legal precedent.  I'm betting there's a strong chance that he doesn't even like the Affordable Care Act, but he let most of it stand because he thought that it was allowed by law. 
The health care decision kind of renewed my faith in our judicial branch and the legal system a little bit, to be honest.  I really hope I can be objective enough to feel the same way when the court rules correctly (but less happily) against something that I really support.  I know it's easy for me to be satisified when this decision supports my particular point of view, but it felt good to see the court seemingly transcend politics.  It's a reminder that the legal system really is supposed to be a place where judges try to apply the law correctly and objectively as opposed to making their rulings with an eye toward whichever outcome they prefer.  As a lawyer, it's nice to see a judge who's willing to actually go against his own personal preferences in order to follow the law as he sees it.

The Weekend

The Weekend was good, but sort of quiet. 
Friday night I took a quick bike ride and we went over to see our friends Jaci and Josh and to meet their new puppy, Clementine.  Celmentine is a golden doodle, and she's particularly cute.  We brought Cassidy with us, and we had a good time watching the two dogs get to know each other and play.  Also, Jaci made pie, and it was really good.
On Saturday Amy drove off to go do her bar review stuff, and I went for a big ol' long bike ride.  I rode to go get breakfast tacos, rode to Ryan and Jamie's house, and then just rode all over some of our South Austin neighborhoods.  Saturday afternoon mostly involved a trip to the store, a few small chores, and some reading while Amy studied.
Saturday night we watched a movie (Trancendent Man- more about that in a sec).  Amy made her chilaquiles, which I love.
On Sunday we went and had breakfast tacos after we got up.  It rained pretty hard by our house, so that was awesome.  I rode my bike.  Amy went to the gym.  I watched the Euro 2012 championship game.  It was fun.  Sort of lopsided because Spain beat Italy with four unanswered goals, but after watching the scoreless England/Italy game, I was just happy to see a team aggressively put the ball in the net.  Amy watched a bit of it with me.
After the game Amy did more homework and I went for another ride.  Bigger hills this time.  I sort of wore myself out, but I think I'm getting a little stronger.
For dinner Amy marinated some salmon and I grilled it.  We ate it with some Mexican rice and some delicious salsa that Amy made.  Yum!
After dinner we took a short night time bike ride (yup- 3 bike rides for me on Sunday).  I had installed bike light onto our bikes earlier in the day, and the weather was surprisingly cool, breezy, and pleasant.  Very nice.
So that was the weekend!
Good food, lots of biking, and some quiet time.

Transcendent Man

So on Saturday night Amy and I watched Transcendent Man
Trancendent Man is a documentary about Raymond Kurzweil, and, by extension, the singularity and his views regarding it.
I've written about the singularity before.  Just the comments to my last singularity post are probably enough to keep me from trying to go very far into the mechanics of it again, but suffice it to say that the singularity is a trippy future event in which Kurzweil and other prognosticators are anticipating things like widespread artficial intelligence, virtual recreations of dead people, and a sort of immortality for humanity via advances in genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and computer technology. 
The weird thing about the singularity is that it combines very concrete mathematical and scientific projections (related to the pace of human technological progress and the exponential acceleration of computer processing speed) with some pretty crazy speculations about where these advances will take us.  It may be very tempting to quickly dismiss some of Kurzweil's far flung ideas about the future, but at the same time it's almost impossible to deny that we've made some amazing technological progress thus far, and, more importantly, that the pace of progress seems to increase faster and faster with each passing year (and as the documentary points out, it doesn't just feel this way- so far the tenets of Moore's law have held true and the number of transistors on integrated circuits has doubled roughly every two years since at least 1965.  Faster and faster computers are being built which help faster and faster computers get built).
The most interesting thing about the movie, at least in my mind, was the variety of different attitudes about the singularity among different computer scientists and other experts who have spent some time studying the projected event.  Their approaches to the singularity cover a gamut of possible responses- from highly hopeful and optimistic to fearful and despairing- and I came away from the film feeling like the singularity serves as a sort of modern Rorscharch test for tech field PhDs.  Most everyone seems to agree that something big is coming, but individual experts seem to bring their own biases and preconceptions to the table when it comes to making predictions about what a post-singularity world will look like.  Kurzweil, fearful of death and horrified by the loss of people close to him, chooses to see the singularity as an almost magical time when humanity, aided by its computer offspring, will achieve a magnificent godlike status.  Others, such as Professor Hugo De Garis, a specialist in aritifical intelligence, see the singularity as an event likely to signal the extinction of the human species as machines ascend to become the dominant "lifeform" on earth.
Something that occurred to me while watching this film was the notion that there are a relatively very small number of tech people involved in industries like artifical intelligence and nanotechnology and genetic engineering, but according to the people interviewed in Transcendent Man, these people have the capacity to radically change the course of human history and, perhaps, to change even what it means to be human.
In some sense, radical change brought on by a slect group on people is nothing new.  The physicists of the Manhattan Project scientists who built the first nuclear bomb undoubtedly had a highly specialized skill set and were few in number (although they, at least, were working in the service and under the direction of the United States government).
When it comes to technology, the work of a relatively small gorup of people undoubtedly has the power to change the lives of everyone around the world.  What this movie made me question, though, was why we have never had a larger public discourse about the development of things like artificial intelligence, robotics, and cybernetics.  Speaking for myself, at least, and especially when confronted with the exponential pace of technological development explained in the film, I just feel like we're moving too fast.  Technology is advancing at a rate that makes it impossible to grasp the implications of what we're doing, let alone weigh the social impact and ethical consequences of our actions.
And for those of us who aren't so sure that it's a great idea to create extremely powerful artificial intelligence or to tamper with the human genetic structure or create giant cloud-based hive minds... well, it doesn't seem to matter what we think.  As things stand, other people are going to continue to make those developments, and we're just going to have to live with the consequences. 
Not sure I love that.
After all, I'm not just talking about the fact that I might want to choose to resist a particular piece of technolgy.  We all know people who have resisted using cell phones, computers, television, etc..  What we're talking about here is (if the futurists are to be believed) a fundamental change to the nature of humanity itself.
Artificial life forms that share the planet with us, nanotech robots in our bloodstreams, cybernetic plugs that let our minds share thoughts with other people and machines?  Mayyyybeeeee we should have some talks before Google Cyberbaby 1.0 hits store shelves...
And maybe we're never all going to agree on whether these changes should take place, but these sorts of things do seem to be the sorts of topics that beg for a little public discussion and consensus.  I'm not sure we need to change what humanity looks like just because a fringe group of tech geeks wants to drag us, unknowingly, unwittingly, and perhaps even unwillingly, into a different phase of human "advancement" simply because they enjoy the engineering challenges.
I told Amy that after the singularity we could just move to a nice, unplugged cabin in the wilds of Utah or Montana.  In truth though, apparently there won't be getting away from its effects (I guess the robot overlords can probably just sort of find you), so it's probably a much better idea to begin the discussion about the singularity in advance, when the ideas contained within it seem far fetched, unlikely, and silly.  If the experts agree on anything, it's that when the singularity begins to arrive, it's going to come so quickly and forcefully that it will be hard to wrap our heads around events as they unfold.  I'd rather be a little silly now than be so caught by surprise that we're unable to react later on.   
And in conclusion, that's why we should all still be using flip phones.  Like Amy.  :-)

That's it.  Hope you guys are starting off a great week!

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