Belmont Club


When Tom Brokaw’s denounced the dumbing-down of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he was unintentionally talking about one of the underlying reasons for the FBI’s inability to see the threat of the Tsarnaev brothers, even when it was pointed out to them.  “The dinner has been a tradition since 1920 for journalists who cover the White House and the President … in 1975 … Saturday Night Live stars Chevy Chase and Jim Belushi made appearances. However, Brokaw said that standards of the red-carpet fete have now fallen so low that his ‘daughter’s junior prom has more dignity‘.”

“The breaking point for me was Lindsay Lohan,” Brokaw told POLITICO during a recent interview in his office in the NBC News Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York. “She became a big star at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Give me a break.”

A break was what the FBI gave Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Despite an abundance of suggestive information, the FBI seemed singularly unable to see Tsarnaev as a threat. Part of the reason, according to the Washington Examiner, was that blindness was engineered into the system. The agents were trained not to see it.

It is quite possible, though, the FBI agents who interviewed Tsarnaev on both occasions failed to understand what they saw and heard because that’s what they were trained to do. As The Washington Examiner’s Mark Flatten reported last year, FBI training manuals were systematically purged in 2011 of all references to Islam that were judged offensive by a specially created five-member panel. Three of the panel members were Muslim advocates from outside the FBI, which still refuses to make public their identities. Nearly 900 pages were removed from the manuals as a result of that review. Several congressmen were allowed to review the removed materials in 2012, on condition that they not disclose what they read to their staffs, the media, or the general public.

The process which has dumbed down the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and blinded the FBI is essentially the same: that of removing information from the system in order to make it predictable, manageable, and nonthreatening.  To make it consistent with the internal ideology of the human institution. Institutions do not always seek to find the truth. More often than not they seek to find the approved solution.

But to really learn you have to be prepared to listen to what you don’t want to hear. The future only contains new information if it tells you something you don’t know. But bureaucracies want to make all new knowledge predictable, consistent with the existing narrative. And homogenization destroys information.

The measure of how much information a message can contain is represented by the amount of uncertainty that can be resolved by a new measurement — each character it contains. This is called information entropy. Here’s an example that illustrates the point.

consider the example of a coin toss. When the coin is fair, that is, when the probability of heads is the same as the probability of tails, then the entropy of the coin toss is as high as it could be. This is because there is no way to predict the outcome of the coin toss ahead of time – the best we can do is predict that the coin will come up heads, and our prediction will be correct with probability 1/2. Such a coin toss has one bit of entropy since there are two possible outcomes that occur with equal probability, and learning the actual outcome contains one bit of information. Contrarily, a coin toss with a coin that has two heads and no tails has zero entropy since the coin will always come up heads, and the outcome can be predicted perfectly.

The amount of uncertainty to be resolved is the metric of knowledge. There’s no point to tossing a two-headed coin repeatedly. All subsequent measurements will be exactly the same as the first. The amount of information a message can carry is proportional to the richness of the alphabet in which it is written and the freedom to assume a value which represents the content. When we limit the alphabet or limit the allowable values, we limit the information.

The problem with both the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the FBI Islamic investigation procedures is that the conclusions were foreordained. It’s just like a two-headed coin. Both institutions are constructed to reach predictable outcomes. No wonder Brokaw said he would be better off watching it on C-Span. And no wonder the FBI could do anything but find the Tsarnaevs’ Islamic connections suspicious. They knew they were going to look away even before they looked.

What creates sameness is ideology.  Ideology by definition reduces the range of responses to situations and limits the ways in which we can decode and encode messages to politically correct outcomes. It creates a box you can’t escape. Thus it’s Lindsay Lohan or nothing.

And the effects of “boxing” people are interesting to consider in the light of a new paper by Harvard physicist and computer scientist Dr. Alex Wissner-Gross. He conjectures that intelligence arises from the exercise of freedom, “that intelligent behavior in general spontaneously emerges from an agent’s effort to ensure its freedom of action in the future. According to this theory, intelligent systems move towards those configurations which maximize their ability to respond and adapt to future changes.”

His idea comes from a paper from Raphael Bousso of Cornell who argues that the probability of intelligent life emerging in a universe is proportional to the amount of entropy — information — it contains. Intelligence is more likely to emerge in a universe of choices. It is less likely to emerge where the alphabets and the options are severely limited. A universe of freedom is one where intelligence comes into being.  A restricted society, like North Korea where everyone claps in unison, is a dumb universe.

Thus we arrive at theoretical explanation for why the White House Correspondents’ Dinner gets stupider each year. It’s the Washington, D.C., version of Pyongyang, “a court of Versailles” in Brokaw’s memorable phrase.

Wissner-Gross called this relationship between freedom and intelligence the “Causal Entropic Force — a drive for the system to make as many futures accessible as possible”. The richest future is the one which hasn’t been written yet;  it the one we are creating — if we are allowed to create it — right now. The poorest future is the one in which the Life of Julia must be lived, marked out by almost mechanical signposts, characterized by a drab sameness, political correctness, organized ignorance and total denial of the possibility that any narrative may exist except the official one.

As noted, Wissner-Gross’s work has serious implications for AI. And in fact, he says it turns conventional notions of a world-dominating artificial intelligence on its head.

“It has long been implicitly speculated that at some point in the future we will develop an ultrapowerful computer and that it will pass some critical threshold of intelligence, and then after passing that threshold it will suddenly turn megalomaniacal and try to take over the world,” he said.

He argues the true process is the reverse: only if you try to maximize your freedom can you manifest the attributes of intelligence. He and his MIT collaborator have written software based on those principles and it displays some of the characteristics of intelligence.

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There is an interesting side connection between Wissner-Gross’s work and Dr. Sam Parnia’s investigations into consciousness after death as featured in Wired. It echoes many of the observations of Dr. Eben Alexander’s book Proof of Heaven.  Alexander, who was for years on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, concluded after coming back from an extended near-death experience that “we need a new model of the brain.”

Dr. Parnia’s researches on the other hand springs from resuscitation medicine. “Resuscitation medicine grew out of the mid-twentieth century discovery of CPR, the medical procedure by which hearts that have stopped beating are revived. Originally effective for a few minutes after cardiac arrest, advances in CPR have pushed that time to a half-hour or more. New techniques promise to even further extend the boundary between life and death. At the same time, experiences reported by resuscitated people sometimes defy what’s thought to be possible. They claim to have seen and heard things, though activity in their brains appears to have stopped.”

What is interesting about the “after death experiences” that Parnia documents is that there is no evolutionary reason for it. There is no Darwinian reasons why evolution should take the trouble to create these after-death experiences in organisms that are dying. They won’t survive to spread the gene; there is no survival value to it. And yet as Parnia notices and Alexander knew from his own experience the dying come into contact with something.

Wired: You also study near-death experiences, but you have a different term for it: After-death experience.

Parnia: I decided that we should study what people have experienced when they’ve gone beyond cardiac arrest. I found that 10 percent of patients who survived cardiac arrests report these incredible accounts of seeing things.

When I looked at the cardiac arrest literature, it became clear that it’s after the heart stops and blood flow into the brain ceases. There’s no blood flow into the brain, no activity, about 10 seconds after the heart stops. When doctors start to do CPR, they still can’t get enough blood into the brain. It remains flatlined. That’s the physiology of people who’ve died or are receiving CPR.

Not just my study, but four others, all demonstrated the same thing: People have memories and recollections. Combined with anecdotal reports from all over the world, from people who see things accurately and remember them, it suggests this needs to be studied in more detail.

Wired: One of the first after-death accounts in your book involves Joe Tiralosi, who was resuscitated 40 minutes after his heart stopped. Can you tell me more about him?

Parnia: I wasn’t involved in his care when he arrived at the hospital, but I know his doctors well. We’d been working with the emergency room to make sure they knew the importance of starting to cool people down. When Tiralosi arrived, they cooled him, which helped preserve his brain cells. They found vessels blocked in his heart. That’s now treatable. By doing CPR and cooling him down, the doctors managed to fix him and ensure that he didn’t have brain damage.

When Tiralosi woke up, he told nurses that he had a profound experience and wanted to talk about it. That’s how we met. He told me that he felt incredibly peaceful, and saw this perfect being, full of love and compassion. This is not uncommon.

People tend to interpret what they see based on their background: A Hindu describes a Hindu god, an atheist doesn’t see a Hindu god or a Christian god, but some being. Different cultures see the same thing, but their interpretation depends on what they believe.

The inference is that intelligence and consciousness may not be entirely centered in the human brain. Just as it turns out that the Earth is not the center of the universe so it may turn out that consciousness and freedom may be actual entities existing elsewhere.  They may be “out there” in some sense, perhaps in a physically explainable sense, as a form of information for want of a better word, and we can tap into it, or abstract it in software such that it is indistinguishable from truth, intelligence and love as we know it.

If consciousness is somehow external to us, then imposing an ideological framework on reality — the dream of O’Brien in 1984 — is basically a doomed attempt to shut it out.  If to rule the human mind is not the same as to rule the universe, then all tyrannies are ordained to end as stupidities.

If so, the speech of Barack Obama proclaiming the eternal nature of Planned Parenthood will be remembered for its essential predictability;  preordained unchanging message; as an example of what it means to learn nothing.  It will be remembered as a speech to low information voters, as an exhortation not to be free.

“[N]o matter how great the challenge of opposition,” Obama told the crowd, “Planned Parenthood is not going anywhere.”

“It’s not going anywhere today, it’s not going anywhere tomorrow.” …

“Thank you Planned Parenthood. God bless you. God bless you,” Obama concluded.

We are eternal. We are God. Abortion is forever.


The connection between freedom and truth may be a deep one, as deep as the entanglement of power and falsehood. Freedom works because it allows us to see. It allows us to be surprised, by pain or by joy. Perhaps CS Lewis was more prescient than he knew when he urged us to cast our bread on the waters in order to find its source:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”

Also read: Obama: ‘I’m Not the Strapping Young Muslim Socialist That I Used to Be’

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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