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America’s Best Hope: “Enabling Weirdos”

Question: Should conservatism look back to a specific era, or a “best-of” of American history?

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Reihan Salam: I like the best-of idea. That makes a lot of sense. Although I’d say that I think America’s great advantage is the society… is that it’s a society in which cheap failure and fast failure are possible, a society in which we don’t have really brittle institutions and that actually is a product to some degree of sloppiness. You know like our welfare state is not complete. It was not designed after military conquest and after we were occupied by some other country and then let’s design the perfect constitutional arrangements, let’s design the perfect tax code and the perfect healthcare system, etcetera. Rather we kind of have this kind of messy kludge set of solutions that can be really frustrating in some ways, but also because it’s so messy and because it’s so sloppy it always leaves room for people on the outside of it, on the edges of it to think you know let me do something different, let me come up with something totally different that people in Washington or people in New York aren’t going to notice and I’m going to create it out here in isolation, you know like kind of like a squirrel hiding away nuts, and then suddenly you have this huge flourishing thing that no one designed but then kind of came out of nowhere to take over the world.

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This applies in so many ways. Like if you think about MP3’s. You know what I mean? If you think about the Internet, if you think about all these technologies they weren’t frontal attacks. They were flank attacks and I think that when it comes to solving social problems to me a lot of my friends were on the left. I think that they have this mentality and I kind of share it intellectually in a way is wouldn’t it be great if we could solve the immigration problem this way and solve the agriculture problem this, then we solve the obesity problem, then we solve the public health problem and it all works out brilliantly because we have this amazing plan.

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I think that President Obama is a guy who is a really smart guy. He is surrounded by really smart guys and they think you know we know what we’re talking about. You know, we’ve got people who are, you know, John Bates Clark medalists. We’ve got people who are shortlisted for the Nobel Prize. We can figure out this whole American society thing. Let’s do it. And I mean, it’s so exciting, and I can see why people are so into it, and then you see the right-wingers who are like, “They’re trying to criticize us.” “How dare they?” “Clearly they’re fools or clearly they’re deeply dishonest or corrupt or they don’t want poor people to have healthcare.” And it’s like wow, no, but it’s like you are so smart, but it’s like actually kind of these dopey people, hippies, you know pot smokers. You know these guys on the edges who aren’t super awesome planners they often come up with rad stuff and when you have something that is really tightly planned then they can’t do their thing. You’re banning them. You’re not allowing them to do their kind of neat thing that could make everything cheaper and greater and awesome in a way that we can’t really anticipate, so I think that that’s what I want to preserve about this country because this is this countries great gift to the world. America is not richer, than lots of other you know awesome first world countries where you can get baguettes and you can ride a bicycle everywhere and it’s beautiful, yet folks from those countries come here and more would come here if they could and why is that? I mean again, it’s they’re not coming to like make you know kind of 20% more. Sometimes they are, but not always. They’re coming because you don’t have that stigma and you have that opportunity for business model innovation or cultural innovation and I really, really worry that this conceit that we’ll solve these particular problems that we recognize now because again our view is so blinkard and so narrow that we don’t see the other problems. So let’s do what those guys do. Let’s do what France does. Let’s do what Singapore does, kind of whether you’re from the left or right rather than let’s build on our tremendous strength, which is enabling weirdoes.

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Question: Where does choosing hippies over technocratic liberals leave conservatives?

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Reihan Salam: This is an extremely hard problem, because when you look at the Republican Party and how they’ve conducted themselves during the health reform debate, it makes perfect sense, so you have a lot of these rock-ribbed conservatives who say we’re against big government and these kind of Republicans who are kind of squishes. You know what I mean? They want to compromise. You know we’re against that. These are the same conservatives who are saying Obama is trying to slash your Medicare. You know what I mean? It’s incredible and then it seems are they hypocrites? They’re not hypocrites. They represent districts that have a lot of older white people. They want to get reelected and in their zeal to get reelected they’re forgetting that there are districts in suburban Long Island, suburban Philadelphia, suburban Los Angeles where people have a different mentality. They think about things in different ways. So it’s this kind of crazy dilemma where again you’re focused very narrowly on your own goals rather than on the goals of this broader political movement and so it all makes a lot of sense. It’s hard to be that upset of disappointed by it because it’s the world we live in.

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So I think that for conservative intellectuals, for conservative thinkers what you want to do is keep beating the drum of how our goal is to preserve this economic space, this cultural space for innovation and the Republican Party is going to do its thing and sometimes they’re going to be right, sometimes they’re going to be wrong. When they are opposing Democrats who are trying to kind of impose brittle structures on this tremendously kind of creative and potentially very fruitful, exciting set of institutions then we can be for them. We can be rooting for them.

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And one thing that I’ve always wanted is, if only Republicans could offer the perfect health reform package as an alternative. I’ve always felt that way and now I’m starting to think maybe that’s not the right way to think about it. Maybe that’s not really possible because it’s not a matter of your perfectly planned solution versus my perfectly planned solution, but rather your perfectly planned solution versus my let’s try to do things that can be wound down, let’s try to create institutions that when they stop working can cease to exist and that should basically be our goal.

Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

If there’s one thing conservatism should conserve, it’s the rejection of government tinkering in favor of innovation at the margins.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

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  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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