Building Enfranchisement Without Jobs


This essay was inspired by a 30 Aug 13 WSJ editorial, Work and the American Character by Peggy Noonan, in which she discusses how important having a job is to being American. From the article, “A job isn’t only a means to a paycheck, it’s more. ‘To work is to pray,’ the old priests used to say. God made us as many things, including as workers. When you work you serve and take part.” Peggy is talking here about feeling enfranchised. In the early 2010’s if you have a job you feel like you’re an important part of the community, and the community respects you for your effort.

I was further inspired by an interesting 31 Aug 13 Open Culture article, Isaac Asimov’s 1964 Predictions About What the World Will Look 50 Years Later — in 2014, in which Asimov talks about the changing role of work from a 1964 perspective. From his article, “Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014.

The most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become ‘work!’ in our society of enforced leisure.

Both articles point out that as the workplace becomes more automated, the ability for humans to have a meaningful job as makers of stuff diminishes — the machines are doing more and more. I will add to this that in the 2010’s service jobs are facing this same trend. An example of losing service jobs is robots answering phones and making routine calls. A fast approaching example is driverless cars.

In sum, the challenge we civilized folk are going to face over the next thirty years is finding enfranchising alternatives to “Get a job!”


Enfranchisement is a feeling. It consists of two parts: feeling like what you do is important to the community, and feeling like the community respects your interests.

This is an important feeling. It is the bedrock of a community that is low in crime and takes an active interest in events that affect it.

The converse is disenfranchisement: the feeling that the community doesn’t care about my interests, and I don’t care how my actions affect the community. It is active or passive apathy. An extreme example of disenfranchisement is the Gaza Strip community — “Mortar Israel from my back yard… meh.” (I write more on enfranchisement here)

Having a satisfying job is deeply enfranchising. This is why it’s important. The challenge of the 2010’s and beyond is finding other activities for people to do that are also enfranchising — activities that can substitute for those jobs that are being taken away by automation.

Work, Harsh Reality and Satisfaction

The satisfaction that comes from doing work has a lot of instinct helping it along. In hunter-gatherer times everyone worked; everyone contributed to the well-being of the Neolithic village. And this is the condition our instinctive thinking is built to work well in.

But conditions in civilized living are different, and this means that instinctive thinking doesn’t match harsh reality as well as it did in more primitive times. Our harsh reality has changed, and our relation with harsh reality has changed. Example: We no longer personally kill, prepare and cook what we eat. We let numerous specialists and specialized machines transform plants and animals into consumable products. This means our current harsh reality is ordering a Big Mac at a drive-thru speaker and getting it in a paper bag, not catching and slaughtering a cow, and foraging to find and root out potatoes.

Harsh reality and Delusion

One of the virtues of human thinking is its adaptability. We can grow up in the arctic or grow up on a tropical island and be equally comfortable with our lifestyle. Growing up in the civilized environment is dramatically different than growing up in a primitive Neolithic Village environment, but we manage quite well at it.

We manage, but there are dramatic differences in what is “OK” between these many environments. Because we are so good at adapting we take many of these differences for granted.

One of the differences these changes in harsh reality allow is what is “OK” for our emotions to tell us. In the above example the civilized environment allows animal rights activists to gain serious community attention rather than be laughed at as strange, hopeless romantics. This 15 Sep 13 Telegraph article, Who you gonna call? Belief in ghosts is rising by Jasper Copping, is another example. This is about belief in ghosts rising in England.

As mankind’s lifestyle has evolved from primitive to civilized the issue of what is satisfying work has constantly evolved as well. We have moved from tilling the land, to driving a tractor that tills the land, to designing software that makes a tractor that tills the land. Because industrialization dramatically increases the pace of change, this question of what people can do that is satisfying and enfranchising has loomed larger and larger for over a century now… and the looming is not stopping!

Historical example

During the 1920’s America and Western Europe experienced the Roaring Twenties — a time of booming economy, booming technology, optimism, and social liberation. It wasn’t all pleasant. There were a lot of scary exciting things happening as well as pleasantly exciting things happening. The book The Great Gatsby is in part a description of that amazement. (the book… the amazement element gets left out of the movie interpretations.) In the 1930’s the whole world experienced the Great Depression — a time when the economic systems that were supporting that 20’s optimism seemed to get mucked up and dysfunctional.

During both these periods people who thought about social institutions were marveling at the changes the current wave of industrialization were bringing to how people lived. Asimov’s article mentioned above is a classic example. (although written 30 years later)

And now it’s my turn to take a 2010’s swing at it.

Building Enfranchisement without building stuff

Now, in the 2010’s, the heart of the issue is discovering what people can do that is enfranchising, but not “work” in the manufacturing or service sense — the kind of work that automated systems will be handling more and more.

Here are some possibilities I have come up with:

o Creating human-crafted wares: “hipster manufacturing”

Many people buy stuff because it has mystical properties. This market will remain vibrant. Many people will be able to make a living by crafting stuff with mystical properties. This may seem like work, it may feel like work, but it’s not because it really isn’t supporting civilization. These processes will be hugely inefficient when compared with automated ways of making stuff, so this style of making things is icing on the cake. But it will be sustainable because the hand-crafting aspect will add a mystical nature to the product and in a prosperous community many people will be willing to pay extra for that.

Adding to the demand will be a transforming of harsh reality that will also be going on at the same time: As processes become more automated people are less aware of how stuff is really made — the physics, chemistry and economics of production. The effect of this is that people will be thinking “Why not believe in mystical powers? My harsh reality can support it.”

o Selling urban legends

Face-to-face selling will remain a powerful way to convince people to buy stuff. One variant of it that will gain in strength is selling stuff based on urban legend. This is because urban legend gets its power from stroking instinctive/emotional thinking, and that feature of human thinking will be strengthening. Emotional thinking and the urban legends it supports will become progressively more influential as people will become more and more divorced from the harsh realities that would prove the urban legends wrong. One example: the anti-science movements that support creationism. These beliefs work just fine as long as you’re not seriously trying to solve a complex science problem. Another example: selling wondrous foods and medical cures based on mystical power. These are supported by the deep instinct to worry about food and health. Another example: the animal rights movements. Animal rights can feel quite warm and fuzzy… if you’re not a person who routinely slaughters many kinds of animals, such as a poor rural farmer or a hunter-gatherer.

o Supporting mythical rituals

I attended 2013 Salt Lake Comic Con. It was a deeply surprising success — it was the biggest convention ever in Utah, and the third biggest Comic Con in the nation — only San Diego and New York City surpassed it. The attendees were both numerous and deeply into “cosplay” — designing and wearing elaborate costumes for other people to admire and shoot pictures of.

This Comic Con experience may be a vision of the future. This was an updated county fair and the attendees were getting a lot of emotional reward for their effort. Supporting mythical rituals will occupy more and more human attention as the time and attention spent on work decreases. And as Salt Lake Comic Con this year demonstrated, these efforts can bring a lot of emotional satisfaction.

That brings up the question of what are mythical rituals? My definition is a broad one: It is things we do because they make us feel better on the emotional level — to be a mythical ritual, enthusiastic emotion matters, not correlation with harsh reality. This means it includes things such as cosplay and backing sports teams.

Disaster response

Disasters are always surprises. This means they are a time when responses have to be novel, and dealing with novelty is an area where humans will outperform automation for a long time. Humans will be at the forefront in two areas: First, they direct the automated responses to disasters. Second, they will provide a lot of emotional comforting. So preparing for and responding to disasters will remain a highly enfranchised human activity. This is similar to the activity of firefighters and other first responders we experience in the 2010’s.


Humans won’t need military, but that doesn’t mean it will go away. There is deep emotion supporting a warrior class and being prepared to defend the homeland. What exactly soldiers will do thirty years from now, I don’t know. But it’s likely they will be around in some form, and being a soldier will be an enfranchising activity.

–The End–


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Thoughts on Learning History From Primary Source Documents


This essay has been inspired by two patterns I have encountered. The first is noticing how many books in the History section at the book store are based on newly uncovered diaries by first-hand witnesses to an event, such as soldiers’ diaries discussing a war. The second is that the history course I’m taking at Salt Lake Community College also emphasizes these primary source documents.

This is different than the history learning I grew up with. The books and courses I encountered in the 1960’s emphasized “big picture” history. In the case of war stories they were books written by historians, generals and statesmen who explained the circumstances, the goals of both sides, their limitations, and how events unfolded in ways that surprised the participants, and how they reacted to the surprises.

What are the ramifications of this change in historical perspective?

In my opinion they aren’t good, and this essay is about why.

Why learn history?

The most compelling reason to learn history has been said in many ways similar to “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.” This particular version is often attributed to George Santayana, a Harvard Professor at the beginning of the 20th century, but many people with a love of history have said something similar. But this is not the only goal. Another is fun story telling, as in telling stories of triumphs and tragedies. Another is to teach morality lessons and propaganda. The first of these, patterns useful in predicting, is of most interest to me these days. So for me identifying new patterns that help my crystal ball gazing is the really fun part.

And for that reason this shift from “big picture history” to “primary document history” is a mystery.

The limitations of Primary Document History

I was a soldier in the Vietnam War. I arrived during the “Counter Tet” campaign. This campaign was undoing the damage done by the numerous surprise attacks of the Tet Offensive launched by the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnam Army (NVA) during Vietnam’s Tet (New Year) holiday of January 1968.

I was there… but in truth I know little about what happened. Why? Because Counter Tet happened all over Vietnam, and I was stationed in just one place, and I was very busy learning the ropes. I can tell you first hand about what happened at Hotel 3 heliport, nestled between two runways of the big Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, but that’s it.

The point is: If I want to tell you about Counter Tet, or the Vietnam War, I have to read about it, just like everyone else. (That said, if you are interested in learning more about my experience there — reading the primary source document I created and seeing some on-the-spot photos I took — check here: My Little Chunk of Vietnam (68-69)).

This limited viewpoint is an intrinsic weakness of getting history from primary source documents: They are presenting the small picture. The picture can be intense and highly emotional, but it can also be seriously flawed. Let’s look at diaries as an example:

o As mentioned above, if the writer is a cog in the machine, you’re going to get the cog’s point of view.

o If the diary is written years or decades later, memory is going to tidy up events to better match the writer’s personal agenda.

o The diary can be a complete fabrication — written by an imposter to promote an agenda. If a diary is “discovered” decades later in an attic or at a yard sale or some such. Watch out!

An example from my history class: The teacher pointed us to to view a primary source document about the Indian Removals of the 1830’s. One of their showcase documents is an account written by John G. Burnett an army man who was part of the program. So far, so good. But…

o This was written by him when he was 79 to entertain his family on his 80th birthday. This is sixty years later and written to wow the grand kids.

o He was a private at the time of the removal, and a mountain man before that.

This writer’s circumstance sets the mood for the result: It’s describing melodrama. But the site loves it as a primary source!

So learning history from diaries always has a big weaknesses in scope, and can easily have a lot of weakness in veracity. Letters, editorials and proclamations from the time of the event have the weakness of being written with an agenda in mind, and once again, only the small picture available. Conclusion: all primary source documentation must be read with skepticism. And, they aren’t going to be about the big picture.

Why is the big picture important?

The big picture is where the useful patterns show up. Human events happen to people, but the tide of history happens to communities. An example of getting this wrong is paying attention to what I call “gossip history”. Another example from my history class: Robert Penn Warren in one of his books speculates on what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln’s family had moved south from Kentucky and Jefferson Davis’ family had moved north? Would they have switched roles? Become opposite presidents? Would The South have won the war?

My answer: No, there would be little difference because the fates of Lincoln and Davis are pebble-size splashes in the big river of destiny. The names in our history books would change, but little else. And I think it’s almost certain that neither Lincoln or Davis would have made it into these alternate history books because both had a whole lot of ambitious and equally capable competitors. Both became legends of our history because of historic accident: They were in the right places at the right times. Gossip history presumes that historic figures are somehow blessed and destined for greatness no matter what their choices — that these leaders are chosen people. My presumption, based on the big picture, is that someone is destined to be picked for greatness, but you can’t pick out who beforehand. The person who becomes great in history books becomes great because they become an icon for an important concept.

The big picture in the case of the Ante Bellum/Jacksonian America that leads up to the Civil War is about changing technologies, changing social structures, and changing demographics. People were using new inventions. Wealth was coming into the hands of new people because those inventions were working out so well. This success liberated both thinking and feet — people were coming up with thousands of new ideas and people were moving around all over America to experiment with them. It wasn’t your granddaddy’s America at all! These technological and social changes were both wonderful and deeply scary. It was the scary part that brought about the Civil War, not the impassioned speeches of leaders, or the historic accidents of who became the leaders.

An example of the benefit of getting the big picture

I was teaching in Korea when the 9-11 Disaster happened. It was a jaw-dropper for sure! But I quickly began writing about what would happen. Based on the patterns that I had started identifying in the history I’d read to that date, I had developed a model that I call Panic Thinking and Blunder Reaction. Here is what I forecast at that time: Post September 11th: The American Panic of the 2000’s and for more essays following this one over the years, here’s the Cyreenik Says editorial index.

This collection of insights is the benefit of learning big picture history.


It is interesting and surprising that the good intention of emphasizing primary source documents has produced the surprising result of turning history into first person story telling — surprising to me, anyway. The history being taught today centers on stroking the “being there” emotion. As a result much of primary source document-oriented history ends up being melodrama and propaganda. It’s not about gaining the big picture, a picture that can be useful as a powerful predictor for what will be happening in our near future. When our predictions are good, we can respond well.

The goal of all our learning is to give us the tools to make our world a better place. For this reason we should be emphasizing big picture history.



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Thoughts on Moving Human Consciousness into Cyber Space



One of the powerful dreams that fires progress in the artificial intelligence realms is of transferring human minds into cyber space and then back again into the same or a different human body. This dream has imagination firing power fully equal to that of people wanting to fly like birds — a dream that powered the development of aircraft of all kinds.

Like the flying dream, the mind transferring dream is going to be subject to what I call the Birds and Boeings Effect: The reality that comes out of the dream’s inspiration will be very different from the dream itself. Airplanes and birds fly, but that is about all they have in common.

One of the reasons this mind transferring will be tough is that the “thinking stack” in cyber (in its many forms) is going to be completely different from the thinking stack in the human body. (I cover the Thinking Stack concept here.)

What follows will be speculation on how cyber thinking stacks (and closely related instinctive thinking) will be different from the human equivalents.

The Roots of Human Thinking

Human thinking is a hugely complex and high performance process. If you define thinking as an organism responding to its changing environment, then human thinking includes things such as digestion and hormonal changes as well as what nerves engage in. And even the nervous part is hugely complex and high performance. Think of what the nerves of the vision system accomplish.

Human consciousness and memories are deeply meshed into this system. They are so intricately meshed that scientists have yet to pry out what the consciousness processes are and where they are occurring. (Memories are better defined and located.)

This means that locating and transferring memories and consciousness, and isolating them so that they can be transferred, is still a daunting task. There’s still a whole lot to be learned… and this is only half the task!

The other half is finding a computing system in the cyber environment that can host these computational processes. This is where cyber instinctive thinking becomes an issue.

The Roots of Cyber Thinking

Cyber thinking is starting from entirely different roots than human thinking. Cyber thinking never had to eat or fend off predators. Cybers’ evolutionary roots are processes of the sort that run robot car painters in factories and Windows on personal computers. Because of this difference “instinctive thinking” in the cyber world will be totally different from instinctive thinking in the human organism world. This is apples-and-oranges on steroids.

This means that a simple “mapping” of human memories and consciousness into some kind of cyber memory bank is going to produce nonsense in that cyber environment. It won’t be able to function in any living fashion.

To have human thinking function in the cyber environment a huge effort will have to be made to build an “alien platform” (from cyber perspective) that the human memories and consciousness can be planted in. And I guarantee the result will be spectacularly clunky.

Getting back again

Moving a human consciousness back into a human body isn’t going to be much easier. A basic tenet of evolution on earth is that there’s lots of variation from one body to the next. This means that the fitting back is more like hand-reproducing a painting than swapping an engine between two cars of the same make and model. Adding to the complexity, the body that is being targeted has to grow up. Its numerous thinking processes have to learn the skills of day-to-day living, so it’s far from a “tabla rasa” (blank slate) when the cyber memories are transferred into it. This is as much a custom process as getting the package into cyber in the first place. And those transferred memories and consciousness are going to have to do a lot of learning to control this new body. This is going to be a rigorous process in both directions.


The process of trying to make this dream of moving consciousness and memories between cyberspace and human existence is going to power a lot of interesting research. And a lot of valuable surprise uses will come from this effort. These surprises will rock our world just as robots and airplanes have.

But the dream that powers these surprises, actually getting consciousness moved, is not likely to happen in the way we envision it. Just as we don’t have robot personal assistants of the Robby the Robot sort, or devices which let humans actually fly like birds, moving of consciousness will not happen as we dream of it happening.

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Science versus Holy Texts

Thoughts on the difference between using the Bible as authority for describing how the world works and using direct observation as authority for describing how the real world works


by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright April 2013

Note: this is a rework of a small part of a blog I wrote in 2008: Thoughts on Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.


Some people like to use science as their top-level guide to explaining what’s happening in the real world around them, other people prefer using holy texts, such as The Bible. This is a discussion of the ramifications of that choice.

How to explain the world around us?

Look up into the night sky: Marvel at the moon, the stars, the Milky Way… if you’re doing so from a dark countryside location. Or, marvel at the moon, a sprinkling of stars, and a sky brightened by thousands of street lights, if you’re gazing from an urban city park. Either way you can ask yourself, “Why is this the way things are?”

If you are a True Believer in Jesus and The Bible, the answer is, “Because God made it that way.” If you are a True Believer in science, the answer is, “Well, our best explanation today is…”

This is the core difference in modern times between having deep faith in religion and deep faith in science — one is unchanging and the other is updated constantly. One group turns to an ancient religious text for explaining mysteries, the other observes the real world with steadily better tools for making careful observations and adapts the explanations to match what is observed.

Here is an example of that difference in action.

An example of the build-upon nature of science and the benefit:

The reason the science method is important is that it points the way for future science. Religious explanations of the real world don’t do that.

Here is an example:

Galileo carefully tracks the orbits of the planets. When he becomes a recognized authority on the motion of the planets, he is given financial assistance to do more research by The Pope because The Pope wants a new and better calendar system. The calendar system of that day was drifting and the New Year was going to become a springtime event if the drift wasn’t fixed.

Galileo uses a telescope on the planets (this was an innovation, before Galileo telescopes were used to look at faraway ships), and in the case of Jupiter he discovers three “spots” that move around Jupiter with clock-like precision. (later known as the Galilean Moons)

Based on his observations of the real world, and those of his predecessors, Galileo comes up with a better calendar for The Pope: mission accomplished. In the process of doing so, he proposes a better way to explain the motion of the planets he has observed. He proposes that a model of the planets that puts the Sun at the center rather than the Earth will be simpler and predict better.

The Deep Belief Religionists of his day see this as attack on the concept that man is the center of the universe — the chosen people — and attack his ideas… and him. Given a choice between standing by his beliefs and living… Galileo chooses… to live! and he recants his work. Thankfully for us, his ideas had already spread by then, and others chose not to give them up.

Now here is the important difference between the Galileo hypothesis and the Deep Belief Religion hypothesis:

The question is: “How do you explain the motion of the planets?”

The Deep Belief Religion answer is: “God made them that way.”

The Galileo answer is: “Based on what I see happening in the real world, we can predict what’s happening in the sky better by presuming the planets circle the sun, not the Earth.”

Fast forward two hundred years.

Newton looks at the same planets that Galileo did, but using the better tools available in his day. He observes them even more closely. He notices that some of the planets, Mars in particular, don’t move through the sky like they are going around the sun in perfect circles. They seem to be moving in ellipses with variable speeds rather than perfect circles with constant speeds.

Here is the important part: he builds upon Galileo’s work to come up with a new theory, the theory of gravitation, to better explain the motions he observes. The key term here is better explain. It’s still not perfect, but it is better, much better.

Now, lets look at that same old question: “How do you explain the motion of the planets?”

In two hundred years, the Deep Belief Religion answer hasn’t changed one wit!!! “God made them that way.”

The updated science answer, the Newton answer, is: “There is a force drawing the planets towards the sun, and it seems to be directly proportional to the mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance.”

In the same way, Einstein builds upon Newton’s work. Using the even better tools of his day, he measures even more closely than Newton did, and finds that Newton’s theory is close, but not perfect. In Einstein’s case, the major culprit is Mercury’s orbit, not Mars’. So, Einstein proposes an additional twist — a theory that acts like Newton’s theory when dealing with “normal” objects, but predicts different motions for objects that move really fast or are subject to lots of gravity, such as Mercury is because it orbits so closely to the sun. He proposes… the theory of Special Relativity.

Meanwhile… the Deep Belief answer remains the same, “God made them that way.”

The moral: Science keeps coming up with better ways to explain what’s happening in the real world, the one we live in. Deep Belief Religion keeps coming up with the same way to explain what’s happening in the real world: “God made it that way.” The biggest problem with the Deep Belief Religious answer is that is has no predictive value, so it can’t lead us to any better understanding of the world we live in.

AND HERE’S THE REALLY IMPORTANT PART: Without better understanding, our life can’t get better.

This brings us to the second issue: What authority should we use to explain the real world we live in? Deep Belief Religious people of one persuasion say that authority should be The Bible, while scientists say it should be the world we live in.

Hmm… we have a choice in basing how we describe the real world. We can describe what’s happening in the real world based on…

o a two thousand year old book, written by people who knew they were just guessing, but thought stars were painted on a celestial ceiling.


o the real world as we see it today, using the best observing equipment we can design after more than ten thousand years of inventing better and better observing equipment.

Deep religious believers say the first one is the not just the better choice, it is the only right choice. Think about it: this is what “believing in The Bible” means. …unless you want to weasel that it’s allegory or an inspirational text of some sort.

… How strange! In two thousand years of study, we haven’t learned a single new thing about our world?

… But, then again, maybe not so strange. After all, “God made it that way.”

When I think about Deep Believer logic, I can’t help but think of a song I heard and enjoyed back in the sixties:

“It’s a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack.”

(from a 1968 folk song, “Master Jack” by 4 Jacks and a Jill)

The benefit of “warm and fuzzy”

What is the benefit of Deep Believer in religion thinking?

Deep Believer thinking resonates with the “Chosen People” form of instinctive thinking. Chosen People serves mankind very well when he’s living the Neolithic Village or Agricultural Age lifestyles — Chosen People is an updated variant of the “Us versus Them” thinking of the much older Neolithic Village environment.

Instinctive thinking is warm, fuzzy thinking — it is thinking styles that have worked well for hundreds to thousands of generations so the brain is partly hardwired for them. They are good… until the world around the user changes enough that particular styles are no longer solving problems well. The Industrial Age and the Information Age are not as well served by pervasive Chosen People thinking. There is so much more widespread trading and cooperation in these modern environments that Chosen People thinking can often be a liability. It still works well in many circumstances: Ancient pyramids and modern sports industries are both examples of places where Chosen People thinking has produced great works.

But explaining our world is not one of those circumstances.


As science emerged from religion as a new way of explaining how the world works, it upset a lot of people who were warm and comfortable with the good old ways. Galileo’s findings became famous for raising hackles in his day. Darwin has also become famous for this, and his hackle raising continues to be powerfully emotional right into current times.

But if, today, you’re going to explain the night sky with, “God made it that way.” you’re ignoring five hundred years of human progress in observing the real world better and better. That’s not good.

–The End–

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Blind Spot Thinking: Visible Personal Sacrifice Saves the World


“The world is in deep trouble. I’m going to do my small part to save it by [fill in the blank]. I’m doing my part. You should too. Then we will all be doing our small part, and the world will be a better place.”

This is Visible Personal Sacrifice thinking (VPS). For many people VPS thinking is the emotional core of solving various knotty problems ranging from resource exhaustion through animal rights to global warming. The heart of the thinking supporting VPS is, “Yes, this problem is big and scary, but part of solving it is for each of us to do our small part by making a sacrifice in a personal and visible way. So here, I’m doing my part. See!”

This is noble and good intentioned thinking. But it’s also instinctive, which means what it recommends as feeling like a good solution should be examined carefully using analytic thinking, or it will create waste not good results. When this careful examination is not conducted, we have blind spot thinking rather than a good solution to a serious problem.

Why is this important? It’s important because thinking blind spots lead to long-term wasteful activities. People undertake the sacrifices and then think, “See! I’m doing my part to save the world… and you should, too!” But the reality is that the sacrifices are not solving the root problem at all, and there can be huge waste caused by the misdirected attention that comes with solving problems using blind spot thinking.

So we have a new Roger Truism:

Blind spot solutions: They feel good, but they aren’t solving.

And there is a surprise connection: It is between VPS and fashion. What I see being promoted in fashion magazines as ways to look beautiful are ways of showing off VPS — sacrificing for beauty. Striving for beauty is as old as mankind, so this connection may explain why VPS resonates strongly with many people’s thinking.

Discovering this blind spot

The first inkling of this blind spot came to me years ago when then-VP Al Gore complained that companies advertising “X percent recycled” were often “cheating” because they included recycling that went on within the manufacturing plant. He wanted only what made it into consumers hands and then back again to be counted.

“Seems a bit strange,” was my thinking at the time, “Either way, it’s getting recycled,” then give it little further thought.

But over the past few weeks I have detected a new pattern, and that new pattern is the comfortable thinking VPS can bring to people who are supporting causes. When VPS is supporting a cause, supporting the VPS can become the center of attention, displacing really solving the problem. I notice this happening when VPS is connected with liberal causes fired by good intentions.

(Keep in mind that VPS is far from the only way to support blind spot thinking. Another common way is Pillar of Faith thinking, a style which more commonly supports conservative causes. Yet another common way is fear, such as “Save the Children” which supports moral panic thinking.)

The waste supported by VPS

As pointed out in the Al Gore example, VPS can support seeing-trees-versus-the-forest thinking. The ecology->environment->global warming movement of the past four decades is filled with examples of good intentions supporting wasteful solutions, so I’m going to use it as a backdrop.

Back in the seventies recycling to save our environment became a popular issue. This started the putting trash in appropriate receptacles movement and the “plastic or paper?” question at the groceries.

The inefficiencies that these VPS choices supported are:

o The first is inflexibility: What to recycle and who wants to buy it are constantly changing markets. Because of this constant change, recycling can best be conducted at a collection point: the landfill and the junkyard. The sorters at these locations can know on a day-by-day basis what is valuable to collect, and the consumers of recycled materials have a one-stop shopping spot.

o The second is poor analysis: Plastic and paper covered up and sitting in anaerobic conditions (as they are when buried in a landfill) both last centuries. An example: Read the articles about the delight archeologists have when they unearth centuries-old leather and cloth objects from middens and tannin-filled swamps. What this means is that for landfill-destined stuff weight is more important than degradability — which means that plastic bags, which weigh a tenth of what paper bags do, are better for the environment.

Following that campaign, the VPS environmentalist types decided that putting more renewable resource into gasoline would help save the world. Supporting farmers and resource conservation combined! Whew! An emotionally powerful combination! The Ethanol in Gas movement sprang into being. Nice… Noble… But over the last few decades this has become a textbook example of good intentions being highjacked by special interests.

It turns about that formulating gasoline from crude oil is an art even more flexible than gourmet cooking — how to do it well changes from refinery-to-refinery and from day-to-day as the mix of different kinds of crudes and refining technologies available changes. The good intentions of the VPS thinkers had the federal and California governments slap arbitrary, slowly-flexing limits on top of this fine, fast-moving art. And with time those limits became of much more interest to agribusiness special interests than to VPS types — the VPS types moved on to the next cause. The result: In the 2010’s we have news articles describing how US government-mandated ethanol corn production is raising global food prices — this is waste writ large.

And the 2010’s are introducing their own styles of environment-related VPS thinking. As the Great Recession of the late 2000’s unfolded, resource conservation became a big emotional concern again. (The Great Depression of the 1930’s was also a time of deep concern about resource exhaustion.) This time the concern was named the Green Movement and supported using sustainable resources in place of “Peak” resources that were more polluting and could be exhausted.

The question became whether to support fracking, nuclear, solar panels or windmills. The VPS types supported solar and wind mills, even though doing so cost jobs.

“But… But… Supporting these created jobs!” enthusiasts will argue. Yes, the subsidies created some green jobs, but many, many more jobs of all sorts were not created because the economy didn’t grow quickly. Once again, good intentions outweighed good results, and VPS became the important criterion rather than good analysis.

In sum, the wasteful result of the mistaken analysis is that job and wealth growth have been sacrificed to green in the US and Europe. This is a for-real sacrifice for all because it takes wealth to support green — lack of wealth is making all of us poorer and the world more degraded.

A Roger Truism from twenty years ago:

Technology can give back what it takes away [in ecological and cultural damage], but poverty plays for keeps.

Contemporary China is a good example. It has terrible pollution problems right now because it has chosen to industrialize. But the pollution will be reduced steadily and dramatically over the next decades because it now has more wealth and that wealth is steadily and dramatically rising. Because it has more wealth much more can now be spent on reducing pollution, and will be.

VPS and fashion

Once every few years I find myself sitting in a waiting room and I pick up a fashion magazine. The last time this happened I was surprised at the patterns I saw — the way these women were portrayed was thick with ritual. The one I remember most vividly was that every woman was wearing high heels… except those being posed on a beach… and every one of those was portrayed jumping so their feet could still be flexed into the high heel position! Whew!

I now realize that what I was looking at was VPS being used to portray beauty. Young women sacrificing for beauty dates back into pre-history — the details of the sacrifice change with each generation and culture, but the sacrificing does not. So the VPS thinking supporting various causes has a cousin in the VPS thinking that supports beauty. (I write a lot more about this in my books Evolution and Thought and How Evolution Explains the Human Condition.)

While many liberals are happy to point out that VPS in the fashion industry is a bad influence on impressionable young girls, they are equally happy to remain oblivious to the fact that steadily increasing manufacturing productivity inside factories is doing a lot more to save the world than bike paths and recycling bins. And that electric cars are not solving resource exhaustion and global warming problems until the power plants that charge their batteries are putting out less carbon than the internal combustion engines they are replacing.


These are the kinds of blind spots producing huge waste that VPS allows. This is why we need to be aware of it, and we need to be prepared to do a lot of analytic thinking as well as VPS if we really want to save the world.

VPS is noble, but if it is going to save the world it must be accompanied by hard-nosed analytic thinking which looks at the costs and benefits of choices being made.

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The Importance of a Community Dreaming Big, and Learning to Save

Beach-Fun-01Dreaming Big

The pyramids, the early Mormon temples in Utah, the Grand Canal in China. These are a few examples of a community dreaming big. Even while most of the community was living in mud huts, the people of these communities came together to produce a marvelous work and a wonder. These community members, rich and poor alike, felt that spending resource on their marvelous work was producing more value than spending that same resource on uplifting the average infrastructure of the community — things such as better roads, housing and food.


In these cases the importance of unifying the community was recognized. Each of these projects gave community members the opportunity to learn about cooperating with lots of other people, especially strangers. They learned cooperation and tolerance instead of learning “just standing around watching others”, or even worse, taking cheap shots at others’ projects with activities such as mocking, stealing and vandalism.

This lesson in cooperating with a larger group than family and friends is one each generation must learn. It isn’t instinctive, which means it isn’t easy to learn. It’s not easy, but it’s a vital lesson for civilized living.

As vital as it is, its importance is under appreciated more often than not. The community chattering classes, who follow their instincts, pay attention to divisive issues, not those which unify the community behind a big vision. The famous media truism, “If it bleeds it leads.” is an example of following instinct, and the result of following this instinct is more divisive thinking in the community. When people of the community aren’t picking up the cooperator lesson, the community learns acrimony instead of cooperation, and this is death on trust, which is death on progress.

For this reason having periodic big dreams for a community to pursue is vital to the community bettering itself. If these are not developed and pursued vigorously, the community will decline… sinking into a sea of acrimony, and a status quo which accepts steady decline as part of the local living package. A personal example of seeing this happening was the Midwest Disease that sank Cleveland and Detroit starting in the 1960’s. I grew up in Cleveland.

Picking the vision isn’t easy

Picking a big vision to follow is vital, but it isn’t easy. Kennedy got it right with the Space Race to the moon, Bush Jr. got it wrong with the War on Terror. One surprise turnabout was FDR as World War Two loomed. Through most of the 1930’s neither he nor anyone else in America could come up with a good big vision. We had the Great Depression. But when he decided that fighting Fascism in Europe was more important than fighting class warfare in the US, he did an impressive about-face and came up with a hugely successful series of big visions, starting with building the Arsenal of Democracy. After a decade of learning acrimony in the 1930’s, Americans learned to cooperate again during the harsh times of World War II in the early 1940’s, and were rewarded with fifty years of booming prosperity following it.

For a more recent example of picking first wrong, then right dreams, check out my book Surfing the High Tech Wave. It’s about Novell Inc. in the 1980’s, first when it got the dream wrong, then got it spectacularly right and became a billion dollar company at the heart of a brand new multi-billion dollar industry.

It isn’t easy, but if you get the dream right, and promote it right, some in the community will grumble, but everyone will get on board and love the result. If you get it wrong, a lot of people choose to watch from the sidelines and there’s a whole lot more grumbling. And it will be followed with a lot of harsh “I told you so!” when the dream founders.

In sum, communities need a periodic big vision. It teaches people how to cooperate. If people don’t learn to cooperate, they learn to be acrimonious. If they learn to be acrimonious the community will support status quo instead of innovation, and slow, steady decline instead of rapid, exciting and disruptive, growth.

Learning to Save: Yes, we need to learn it

This thought was inspired by a video, Wealth Inequality in America, that’s been popular on Facebook. It’s about the inequality of wealth distribution in the US. The implication of this video, and the various 1%/99% movements that have been popular since the Great Recession started, is that this inequality should be fixed by fixing the 1% in some fashion: They should make less and hand out more.

I thought about this: This solution is easy instinctive thinking. And it’s a good intention. …Wait! Good intention: That’s a waving yellow flag for me! It means I need to think more carefully about this…

With some more thinking, I realized there’s some fixing of the 99% that needs to happen, too. From the personal experience of watching how people around me live, it’s clear that living hand-to-mouth is a learned lifestyle. The implication of this is that no matter how much is taken from the 1% and showered down upon the 99%, there will still be about the same amount of hand-to-mouth living going on as there is now. This will be so… until many people are educated to think differently about savings.

People need to be educated to save. This is a lifestyle lesson that needs to be learned. Saving lots of money is not instinctive thinking for most people. Preaching this lesson harks back to the images of grandmas who grew up in Great Depression era settings haranguing their kids to save more for rainy days.

It should: Again, saving is a lesson that must be taught and learned. It’s not instinctive thinking for many people.

But it can be learned, and it’s not too hard to do so. From what I learned while living in Korea, the East Asian cultures have a tradition of putting about 30% of their income into savings.

So, if we want to fix wealth inequality in America, we need to be fixing the 99% as much as we need to be fixing the 1%. The 99% need to be learning lifestyles with more savings built into them, a lot more.

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Thoughts on how important social mobility is to America’s Lifestyle


As I was growing up in Cleveland in the 1960’s, high social mobility in America was a given. “Anyone can be president, even you,” our teachers told us as an indicator that we all had equal opportunities to succeed. This was part of the American way.

Recent essays I’ve been reading indicate that this is no longer so true. The wealth disparity has widened, which doesn’t bother me much, but the opportunity to move from poor to rich seems to be shrinking. This bothers me a lot. It means that the prosperity tide is not rising as fast as it should, which means all us Americans are suffering.

With this revelation, the issue of social mobility moves up to “important” on my list of things to pay attention to. It is also looks like one that can be corrected if we pay more community attention to it.

It can be corrected, but the solution will be a dramatic change in the social boundary of who gets involved in child raising and education. The new boundary will include a lot more time being spent by both children and parents in neighborhood-level educating activities — a neighborhood-oriented institution of some sort is going to become the new extended family for children and their raisers.


This essay was inspired by a 9 Feb 13 Economist article, Social mobility in America: Repairing the rungs on the ladder, and a related Economist Free Exchange article, Nomencracy. Both of these talk about measuring social mobility (a difficult task) and how it seems to have declined in America over the last two decades.

From the social mobility article:

“America is particularly exposed to the virtuous-meritocracy paradox because its poor are getting married in ever smaller numbers, leaving more children with single mothers short of time and money. One study suggests that the gap in test scores between the children of America’s richest 10% and its poorest has risen by 30-40% over the past 25 years.
American conservatives say the answer lies in boosting marriage; the left focuses on redistribution. This newspaper would sweep away tax breaks such as mortgage-interest deduction that help richer people, and target more state spending on the poor. But the main focus should be education policy.”

Surprise from the Seventies

As the Sexual Revolution of the 1970’s unfolded one of the warnings by conservative groups was that children would suffer. It would seem that this warning has come true, and along with children the community has suffered in a surprising way: less social mobility.

The contemporary conservative reaction has been, “I told you so. Now let’s go back to the good old ways. All you single moms: Get married!” This isn’t likely to happen. It’s also not likely that prosperous married families are going to strive for anything less than the best for their kids, so schemes to distribute wealth through taxing the rich and entitling the poor aren’t going to help this problem, either.

This means that if we want to be:
o improving social mobility
o making things more socially equal
o making America a better place for all

We need to be looking for new ways of handling child raising and educating — particularly for single parents because they are a large and growing class of child raisers.

Social Mobility, Education and Prosperity

This is an important issue because the whole community prospers as new and better ways of doing things are discovered and implemented. It’s not obvious and not talked about much, but prosperity at the top is limited by prosperity at the bottom. An example of this is that the pharaohs families in Ancient Egypt were at the top of their prosperity chain, but they still had to eat food in season and they still suffered from deadly infectious diseases. In many ways they did not have life as good as even a poor American of today.

This is an example of how important discovering new ways of doing things is to the prosperity of the whole community — top and bottom. This means, as the universal education enthusiasts of the 1800’s espoused, that good education for everyone in the community brings prosperity to everyone in the community.

In America in the 2010’s we are dropping the ball on this pillar. We need to recognize this and we need to be doing things differently. A vivid example of how much the ball has been dropped was the huge quantity of jaw-dropping dumbness spouted during the 2012 election campaign, on all sides and in the media. In 2012 Governor Bobby Jindal complained about Republicans becoming the party of stupid, but I see the bigger concern being America becoming the nation of stupid.

This is important, and in this day and age of lots of single parenting, child raising must be examined as much as child educating. We as a community need to be paying as much attention to child raising systems as we do to formal education systems… and both need a lot of attention.

What follows are some speculations I have on new child raising and educating systems. The goal of these is to have all the community better educated so we can all make better choices about how to run our communities and all have even more prosperity than we do today.

Child Raising Possibilities

The Matriarchy Neighborhood Approach

One possibility for a new child raising style is to deliberately encourage neighborly matriarchy — encourage a group of women in a neighborhood to share child raising activities with all the other women and children of the neighborhood. The neighborhood becomes a sea of children mixed with a sea of child raisers, all pretty much equally accessible. This has the advantage of harmonizing with the old Neolithic Village way of doing things, so it is harmonizing with instinctive thinking.

One big obstacle to this style is the contemporary deep fear of child abusers, kidnappers and predators. Another is Us versus Them thinking about neighbors. But there’s a lot of instinct supporting this matriarchy style, so this contemporary moral panic may be overcomeable.

Overcoming the fears will happen when there is a reliable program that child raisers can become part of, and becoming part of the program becomes expected.

The State-provided Child Care Approach

Getting children raised better is a community issue: Better raised children create a better community in the next decade. Just as the community currently provides schools, the community can provide day care and other child care options. I envision neighborhood playgrounds with standard supervision of some nature so latchkey kids can… no… are expected to go to the playground instead of sitting on a couch with a TV or video game. And more, there can be neighborhood field trips organized so that all the kids get to experience each other and the diverse world around them. The best way to handle this may be declaring some minimum child raising standards and a voucher system to pay for what is required.

And not just the kids, the parents should be expected to attend some of these activities on a regular basis. This is how they will get to know each other and how they will get to know what their kids are learning. Participating in these activities will come to be considered part of good parenting.

Developing new good advice

The heart of this improving battle is changing thinking and habits, so part of what will be needed is new good advice to be passed around the community. An example would be something like this for a truism: “For every hour you spend on self-indulgence spend an hour on improving you or your children.” This meaning that if you spend time at the beauty parlor or spa, plan on spending equal time on at the playground, on homework, or on a field trip — things that will improve the minds of you and your children.

Educating Possibilities

As the Industrial Revolution kicked in during the 1800’s, it became clear that educating everyone in the community was a big advantage. This understanding was the foundation for universal education concept we live with today. This is why we have public schools and laws saying everyone must be educated.

This benefit hasn’t changed. It has gotten more so. (Note: It will get less so when The Singularity happens and computers take over most of the manufacturing and service jobs, but we aren’t there yet.)

For this reason it is important that our education system reflect the harsh reality that a lot of children working through the system come from poor, single parent environments. Since this is new, it means doing a lot of experimenting to figure out what will work well in this new harsh reality. Sadly, the current American public education system is heavily “encrusted” with traditions and work rules that worked well when the nuclear family predominated. This encrusted environment must be scrapped and replaced with one open to experimenting and innovating. This is the way we will see big progress in better educating all our children.

The goal of these new systems should be to widen the number of people involved in raising a child. Over time in the US we have gone from the extended family to the nuclear family to the single parent. This shaving off of people involved in raising a child should be reversed. There should be lots of people involved again.

And, again, this new school environment and this new child care environment need to feed back on each other. They should pay attention to each other.

How Much State Involvement? How much Busybody Involvement?

Who should decide when a parent is doing it right or doing it wrong?

With local school boards and state Child Protective Services agencies (CPS) we have a lot of government involvement in these processes already. We also have lots of locally-given advice and lots of media bandwidth. In sum, there are dozens of places a child rearer can turn to for advice, and many of those will provide forceful advice that must be followed whether the parent wants to, or not.

This is not surprising. In the Neolithic Village environment most first time mothers were in their teens and Bride Thinkers (my term). They were young and inexperienced, so advice and support helped not only the young mother but the community as well. This means giving advice to first time mothers is supported by powerful instinct. What has changed dramatically since Neolithic times is the family relations surrounding that mother — in those days the advice was accompanied by a lot of family support as well as advice.

What we now need to do is recognize that any forceful advice being given must be matched with forceful resource being provided. The community must put up money and warm bodies as well as mouth in dealing with this issue. We need to update the advice and support given single mothers. Again, we need to recognize that the better these children are raised, the better the whole community will function when these kids grow up. Our communities will support less “crazy” if the members are well educated.

This universal education pillar must be recognized as important again, and sincere attention paid to it, and it must be extended to include child raising as well as child educating.

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2013 LTUE panel notes


In February 2013 I had the opportunity to talk on several panels at the Life, The Universe, and Everything Writers Symposium (LTUE) held in Provo, Utah. What follows are notes on what I talked about in those various panels.

The panels were:

o The Importance of Internal Consistency to Story Telling
o Xenobiology
o What Can You Do With Robots?
o Screenwriting and Scriptwriting
o Using History and Folklore to Enrich Your World
o The Engines of Exploration
o Space Travel without Warp Drive

Importance of Internal Consistency in Story Telling

Internal consistency in story telling is important, more important than is generally recognized. The evidence for this oversight is movies such as “Immortals” and “Prometheus” and “Skyfall”. All these movies were badly damaged by inconsistency.

There are three big advantages to paying attention to internal consistency. The first is that your readers/audience won’t be facepalming, giggling or headscratching as they get halfway through your story. They won’t be saying, “Eh? You’re saying what happened?”

The second is that internal consistency will lead your story into new and interesting twists. The ending will be “Neat!”, rather than “Been there, seen that.”

And finally, readers/viewers will like going back. If the story is consistent it’s readable over and over.

I’m going to use Prometheus as a bad example, and one of my own stories with a similar theme as a good example: “Where does the 500LB alien sleep?” (found here and in my book Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol.1) Both have the theme of encountering a planet with alien civilization on it that can potentially be hostile or harmful.

Here are just three inconsistency highlights from Prometheus:

o starship lands on the planet

o no satellite surveillance before or during landing

o “The air is breathable,” everyone takes off their helmets

These are straight out of cheesy 1950’s SF movies. We know better now. Ever since the Enterprise we have known that starships don’t land on planets, they send down shuttles. There is a lot of solid engineering behind this reality.

The crew gets surprised by a wind storm. Neat visual effects but… why did they get surprised? What bozos!

And speaking more of bozoism, I guess none of this crew ever read War of the Worlds. Taking off helmets! The other-than-dying-from-disease-problem with this is that nowadays environment suits such as these are the “outer me” — they have a lot of monitoring and communication built in. Pulling off the helmet disables about 80% of the suit capability. Whew! Once again, how Ed Woods!

And the cumulative effect of all this inconsistency is to destroy story credibility: It can’t be a good story because it’s so silly!

Now let’s look at a good example:

My goal in “500LB Alien” was to put a creature on the surface that was truly scary — something that could do serious damage to the crew, and humanity, if mistakes were made. I chose a “Thing”-style creature, one that could imitate. Brr! That style give me serious creeps!

That choice made, now the consistency elements come in, and the first big questions is:

o How did that creature get there?

OK… it evolved there. It’s native.

o Why did it evolve?

… In response to evolutionary pressure. Something was promoting it, and killing off more normal competitors.

o What?

… Hmm… Robots! Killer robots! These robots were killer robots gone wild. There had been a war, they had been set loose, they had gotten off program. They had killed off all the animal life on the surface, and been doing so for millions of years, long enough for the “critters” to evolve in response to them. The critters imitated robot technology, then infiltrated the robot infrastructure and screwed it up.

OK, now I had a consistent world for humans to approach. It was populated with robots and critters who were engaged in a now-neverending battle for survival.

Next, how are the humans going to approach this world?

This is where consistency leads to creativity. In this story the humans never do land on this planet. They research from space. In the story we see what the human probes see, and that becomes a mystery as the critters start taking over the human probes.

And to add drama when the humans decide to cut bait — this place is too dangerous — the robots give chase! Whoops!

o Why chase the humans?

…Um…Um… Because the robots are smart and they want human help! They know they are on the rocks and the humans, being star travelers, should have some advanced tech that can help them solve this mess!

And so, by being consistent, this story has taken some really neat turns and twists. This is an example of the benefit of being consistent.

Being consistent is especially important in mysteries because inconsistencies are clues.

Being consistent is like good journalism. Ask the “5 W’s and H” questions and come up with good answers.

Again, the benefit is a strong story and one that readers and viewers can come back to and enjoy over and over. Lord of the Rings is a wonderful example of enjoyable consistent writing, the movies after the first one, less so.



First, a definition: Wiki link:

The search for alien life, xenobiology, has changed a lot over the last century. In science fiction it has changed from John Carter adventuring among the various colors of “men” on Mars to Curiosity and Opportunity exploring a currently dry, barren planet surface that may have had water billions of years ago and some kind of life.

The search for life on other worlds can be broken into two broad categories: searching for where can humans thrive (terraforming) and searching for what other life systems are out there (xenobiology).

At this stage it seems that carbon-based life occupies a distinct niche in the universe of life-making possibilities. It’s hugely prolific in terms of both amount and variety of materials involved and the complexity of what can be created with it. There don’t seem to be any systems that are “sort of like it, but not the same”, such as silicon-based life or life with chlorine gas as the oxidizer rather than oxygen.

There may be other, way more different, styles of making life such as some kind of life living in solar plasma, but if they exist these are so different they are hard to identify and would be even harder to communicate with. Solar plasma life, for instance, would likely have a lifespan of milliseconds rather than years because things move around so fast and energetically in plasma.

Given all of the above big issues, where are we likely to find life we can identify?

Searching for life means searching for anomalous relations in energy flow. Example: Oxygen gas is highly reactive. It’s not going to exist for long in any environment that has large quantifies of reducing agents available, such as carbon, hydrogen or metals. The fact that Earth’s atmosphere has a lot of native oxygen in it is a sign that something is “pushing” the atmosphere and surface chemistry of Earth into an odd state, and has been doing that pushing a long time. That pushing is life. If we see other environments where the flow of entropy is being locally reversed in a dynamic way, as Earth’s atmosphere is, that’s a place to be looking for life. However, entropy and free energy flows are not quick and easy to measure, so this kind of research takes time.

And most life is not likely to be a prolific as Earth’s life is. The more likely version will resemble life around thermal vents deep in the oceans. It will be sparse and simple, which will make it hard to locate.

In sum, the search for xenobiology is not going to be an easy one.

For more information check out my two essays Special life-creating things about the Earth and Another Miracle of Life on Earth: Its Magnitude. Both of these are also in my Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing book.


What Can You Do With Robots?

Robots are a wonderful example of what I call “The Birds and Boeings” phenomenon: There is a vision which inspires inventors, but what they produce comes out very differently from the inspiring vision. In the case of flying the inspiration was birds, and jet planes are the product of that vision. Jet planes and birds fly, but that’s about all they have in common. We still haven’t seen airplanes for humans that will let us routinely land in trees or even on front lawns.

Robots are having a similar trajectory in their development. The inspiring vision for robots was the robot butler — robot personal assistant. An early famous example of this was Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet who later became “robot” in “Lost in Space” famous for saying, “Danger! Will Robinson”. The first widespread implementation of real-world robots was as painting machines in auto assembly plants. They and Robbie both had computer brains, but little else in common. As with human-carrying planes that can land on front lawns, the robot butler is still a long way from reality.

So the question of what robots can do must be amended to what can robots do effectively? That’s a lot, but far from everything. They can explore Mars, they can answer phones, they can clean floors. In the near future they will drive cars.

In the near future they are likely to shoulder most of the burden in manufacturing and service jobs. When that happens the question then becomes “What can humans do?” The answer to that is, “Things that depend on human instinctive thinking, and top of that list is entertainment.” This question of human-robot relations in fifty years is a question I’m devoting a lot of thinking to these days. Here are some speculations.


Screenwriting and Scriptwriting

Movie script writing is a form of story telling, but it is different from prose story telling. It is different in many ways. The first is that the layout on the page is both standardized and distinctly different from prose. Another is that what is talked about and how it is talked about are different: movies have hard limits on their length, and they are much more “show me, don’t tell me” than prose is.

The best way to deal with the first issue — proper formatting — is to get a script writing software package and master it. There are several available, some costly, some free.

And here’s a related tip from this grizzled computer veteran: whichever ones you work with, save your final results in both the native format and some widely read second format such as Word or Adobe PDF. Do this because companies change and with them their support for proprietary formats — if your Scriptwriting company closes its doors, or even just moves on, your native format files could become unreadable.

Beyond that, read scripts. Pay attention to how things are described. Oh, and expect that your prose writing will change as you become more sensitive to the issues of screenwriting. If you look at the Harry Potter series you’ll see that about book five J. K. Rowling changes her style to get more visually oriented — she’s been reading the scripts of her books and it’s spilling over.


Using History and Folklore to Enrich Your World

History and folklore are invaluable in story building because human thinking is relatively unchanging — a good story can be a good story for generations and the history of exciting events is told for thousands of years. This means that incorporating parts of a good story or well-known history into your work will be comfortable for readers. It helps build familiarity.

You can use elements of an existing good story, or come up with your own. An example of using an existing good story shows up in a couple of my stories: I have the protagonist meet Aladdin and his genie. (here’s one) The reader is familiar with the Aladdin story, so I don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining him. I introduce him, then get the story moving along. (I spend a little time explaining him because I modify him for my stories. I give him different motivations.)

A wonderful example of creating background pretty much from whole-cloth is the Lord of the Rings series. Tolkien does a wonderful job of building back story — so wonderful that I love the appendices of Book Three as much as I love all the other parts. The big benefit of his background story building is that it builds the internal consistency of the main story, and internal consistency is one of the big reasons I read it again and again. It makes it great.

So, yes, use folklore in your stories. Don’t plagiarize, but do incorporate. Doing so will help make your story familiar and comfortable to readers and you can get it moving along faster. (An example of lots of incorporation is my Technofantasy book Rostov Rising.)


The Engines of Exploration

People explore strange new worlds for two reasons: for the fun of it and to make money. It is the latter people who fuel lots of exploration. If your world is going to have commerce — lots of people moving in lots of craft — there has to be lots of money being made.

After some people have become rich beyond imagination, then the people with causes can join in on the parade because the parade will be a big one.

An example of this difference is the difference in what happened after Eric the Red found North America and Columbus found it. Eric came back and his people said, “That’s nice…” and did little. History nearly forgot him. When Columbus came back, millions of people and dollars started moving across the Atlantic — that’s why we celebrate Columbus Day, not Eric the Red Day.

In contemporary times Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren are facing this same fading issue. With no humming-and-buzzing Lunar or Martian colonies following them, they are becoming, “That’s nice…”

Over time, commerce gets more mundane. These days, there is solid profit in moving stuff around the world, but not amazing profit. In your world building you need to decide which era your commerce is in: just being developed, or now taken for granted.

I’ve written a lot more on this topic here and in my book Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing. Take a look at the book.


Space Travel without Warp Drive

Writing stories with only slower-than-lightspeed travel (STL) presents a big challenge, but it can be done and the results are very rewarding because they will take you out of the standard Space Opera story-making format. You will get interesting and surprising results.

Rocketry revolutionized space travel. Before its feasibility was recognized SF writers were launching people into space with cannon, and saying nothing about how they would stop when they arrived — H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is an example.

Rocketry was the game changer that opened up Golden Age science fiction of the 1940’s. Ahh… but then came the harsh reality of the 1960’s. Because chemical-based fuel is so heavy and nuclear proscribed as too dangerous to mess with, real rocketry became the boost-and-coast variety — which is soooo slow! It’s good for getting probes around the solar system and people to the Moon, and that’s about it.

In response to this harsh reality writers either abandoned space stories or turned to warp drive in its many incarnations to get around that long journey problem. Nice, but not a hope of being real. And it introduces a story-telling consistency problem: If everywhere can be gotten to quickly, everywhere becomes a suburb of LA. Over time, why should there be any differences between LA and Zeeopolis on Planet X orbiting Alpha Centauri? “Want a DVD of Avatar on Zeeopolis? No problem, I’ll warp drive it.”

An alternative I researched that has a possibility of becoming real is constant acceleration propulsion — the engine keeps pushing throughout the journey. This makes the journey a lot faster than boost-and-coast — traveling around the solar system drops from years to days or weeks, and nearby stars can be reached in years, not millennia. We don’t have it yet because fuel is such a big problem, but it’s physically possible…

I then took up the challenge of writing an interesting space exploration story with constant acceleration propulsion at its heart. I drew a lot from the history of the sailing ship breakthrough that let Europeans sail to the Far East — a years-long but hugely profitable journey. The result is The Honeycomb Comet, and it’s an interesting result. It’s not your daddy’s space opera story! I have also written at length about constant acceleration space travel in my Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing book. If you’re interested in exploring constant acceleration stories, start with these two.


The LTUE panels covered a rich trove of writing topics. I was delighted to have the opportunity to participate. I hope these notes prove equally inspirational to you. And, if you like what you are reading here, look into my Tales of Technofiction books.

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Thoughts on Immigration

C-Expo-04These thoughts are inspired by reading a 2 Feb 13 Economist article, The Ins and the Outs, about immigration in the Nordic countries. This article talks about the fact that most immigrants that have come to the Nordic states have come because of economic hardship and violence in their homelands. The insight to me was this is not the same as coming to a new land for better employment.

Giving this more thought, I now break immigration into three general categories. (with the caveat that immigration, like most other human activities, is actually more diverse than what I’m describing.)

o immigrating to get a better paying job
o immigrating to get away from poverty and violence
o immigrating as part of a nomad cycle

These three motivations lead to very different thinking on the part of the immigrants when they set up shop in their new community.

The immigrant who moves to get a new job is mentally prepared for a lot of change and ready to accept “when in Rome”-style changes to his or her lifestyle. This person’s attention is focused on doing something valuable for the community they have moved into and getting paid very tangibly for their efforts. Because they have made a lot of personal sacrifice in terms of culture shock, they are usually doing something responsible with their hard-earned wages, such as saving it to improve their lifestyle in the future, or sending it back to needy family members in the home country. If these people can come and go — immigration policies don’t require them to do a lot of hoop-jumping — they will.

The immigrant who moves because someone in a remote place thinks they are living a terrible life comes to the new land with a different mindset. (This is the kind of immigrant the article describes as common in the Nordic countries.) They are not thinking much about working, and they haven’t really given up on their homeland lifestyle, so they are not as accommodating of “When in Rome”-style changes to how they must do things. The result is these style of immigrants are much more likely to sustain “ghetto”-style living conditions in their new land, and stay outside the new land cultural mainstream.

The nomadic immigrant is even more likely to stay outside the cultural mainstream of the new land. The current typical example of this style is the Roma wandering around Europe. Neither they nor their ancestors had any great desire to settle down and get with the local program. What these people are interested in is learning how to deal with locals without becoming locals. This leads to goals and lifestyles that are quite different from either the working immigrants or the hardship immigrants.

In sum, dealing with immigration and trying to develop immigration policies needs to recognize that immigration comes in a lot of flavors, and the goals and tolerance levels for picking up local’s ways of doing things is different for each flavor.

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Technofiction review of Zero Dark Thirty


The story of how Osama Bin Laden (OBL) died is well-suited for legendary story telling. The big questions surrounding it are “when they will start” and “how many will there be”.

Zero Dark Thirty does a good job for a first try. It dodges the neo-circus action sequences that are so common in spy movies these days, there is no love-interest sub-plot. It does a good job of living up to its “based on a true story” aspirations.

It is well filmed and kept my attention throughout.

That said, it did have some Technofiction flaws.


Disclaimer here: This topic of how to handle OBL is one I have written a lot about and have strong feelings about. This story does not match my feelings.

These movie makers faced a big problem: This story is, in reality, a complex tale. There was a whole lot of diplomacy among four nations involved — Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US. None of this shows up in the movie. The first half is about interrogating people in secret places and the second about showing the mission itself.

So, in the interests of keeping the story simple, and centering it on the total dedication of Maya, a CIA caseworker, the movie spends most of the first half on how to interrogate vicious terrorists. Ouch! This implies that doing this was the heart of finding OBL. The rest of the wide web cast by the CIA and other allied intelligence agencies was irrelevant.

An example of the internal consistency errors this leads into was questioning one of the terrorists about the specifics of an upcoming terrorist act months after he was caught. “Give me a date!” says the interrogator with meaningful menace.

…Eh? Plans don’t change? Dates don’t change? People don’t change? Especially when one of your inner circle gets caught? The point is that interrogation information gets stale, this was not at all brought up in the movie.

In the middle of the movie Maya feels dead-sure she has located OBL and gets impatient for action. She is writing days on her superior’s window.

What the movie doesn’t bring out is the huge diplomatic implications of going in and snatching OBL. The Paki’s were our allies! …at least some of them.

To give you a similar scenario based on the US environment:

o Suppose Bernard Madoff got outed, but slipped off to become a fugitive. Years are spent looking for him. The most common rumor is he’s hiding in Honduras somewhere.

o Suppose a dedicated Canadian caseworker reviews interrogations done on other people working in Madoff’s company. This case worker determines that Madoff is actually holed up in a gated community near Baltimore, and only a thirty minute drive from Annapolis!

o OK… Do the Canadians:

a) Launch their SEALS in choppers to land in Baltimore and “off” Madoff, then carry the body back to Canada?

b) Launch a big enough missile to crater the gated community? Then look for DNA afterwards?

c) Do a wee bit more research on the network of people owning the properties and coming and going, then discretely inform trusted elements in the US government that a rogue CIA group has been harboring Madoff… and how soon will they clean up their own dirty laundry?

This diplomatic element is completely missing from the movie, and, sadly, most thinking about this spectacular and emotionally-pleasing end to the Great Osama Bin Laden Hunt. Pleasing in the US, but this ending was a loud, very public, face-slap to our friends in the Pakistan government and communities.

So while the movie is well composed and interesting to watch. It sadly goes for intimate story telling rather than showing a big picture. In this, it shares a lot with Argo (2012).

A couple of smaller issues:

Even quietized choppers are noisy and windy. Yet after they disembark, and one chopper crashes, the SEALS go slow and quiet. This seems incongruous, but I make no claim to expertise in this issue.

The choppers while they are flying in to the target are flying real, real close to each other, especially considering this is nape-of-earth flying and at night.

Other than these issues, I found the house assault scenes quite interesting and believable.

In sum, the movie had a lot going for it, but it did a poor job at revealing the big picture these events unfolded in.

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