Tag Archives: instinctive thinking

Getting the context wrong

Why_We_See_Beauty_2012_03.04.12One of the most common sources of “blind spot thinking” (my term) is not understanding the context — the circumstances — within which an action is taking place.

Here is a comical example: A man is walking from his cell on death row to face a firing squad. He lights up a cigarette. Someone watching says, “Hey! You shouldn’t do that. You’ll get cancer.”

Will he get cancer? No, his circumstance will not permit it. Did the person making the comment think of that? No. That person was engaged in blind spot thinking — he or she was applying their own circumstance to the condemned man’s circumstance.

Here are some other examples:

o US church volunteers travel to a remote area in Africa to build a medical clinic. They spend a month there doing construction work, and assemble a fine looking building. The locals are oh-so grateful and blow kisses to the volunteers as they head home. But… there are no health care people in the area who can man the clinic, so it is abandoned.

o An anti-smoking group supports an anti-smoking campaign because smoking causes cancer. They do this in Angola, a place with an average life expectancy of 40 years.

o A wet-behind-the-ears soldier salutes an officer in a front-line sniper zone, or the converse: doesn’t salute an officer in a rear area. Either way he’s being wrong for his context and he will get called up on it quickly.

A cultural summation of this is a 1970’s folk song. Here is the chorus:

Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

Joe South’s song “Walk a mile in my shoes“, 1970

One concept Joe misses in this song — beyond abusing, criticizing and accusing — is aiding. Offering help needs to be just as context-sensitive as all these other activities. If not, the good intention will produce results as harmful as the ignorant intentions — it will be, in fact, just another ignorant intention.

Circumstance-insenstive blind spot thinking is quite common, and it powers a lot of what I call “goat sacrificing” — spending a lot of money, time and attention on a cause, but getting no good results… other than the giver sleeping better at night.

 

 

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Dealing successfully with originality in stories

fv-bridgeThis was presented at the LTUE 2014 writers conference.

Originality is defined as the ability to think independently and creatively. Another way to put this is: To come up with a new story idea or putting a new twist on a familiar story format.

Originality is praised, but there is a conflict surrounding it that must be recognized: The heart of story telling is to talk about familiar things. If an idea is too original the prospective audience will think, “Huh?”, and move on to something more quickly understandable. So originality that is popular has a lot of familiarity mixed in.

This necessary combination explains a mystery that vexed me for years: When new technology is introduced into something like a business or manufacturing process, the result will be new and surprising ways of doing things. When new technology is introduced into an entertainment process, the result will be the same old stories told with different bells and whistles.

The importance of familiarity is the key to this difference.

That said, let’s talk about how to be original.

The challenge in creating original stories is where to mix in the original.

o The originality in Tolkien’s work is his meticulous building of back story — everything has a history. The familiar is the characters working through this rich world he has developed. The hobbits are nice, polite people who are good observers.

o In 1940’s Golden Age science fiction the original was exploring new worlds and new technologies. The familiar was the characters encountering these situations.

o In 1960’s Star Trek the original was introducing characters with different ethnic backgrounds and new roles for authority figures — Kirk is not a “yessir!” military captain. The familiar was the situations they encountered on their strange new worlds.

o In early Harry Potter books (1990’s) the familiar is the British middle school setting. The original is adding magic. In the later stories the familiar is the main characters and Hogwart’s setting. The original is the quirky new teachers and administrators.

o In the 2010’s Swords and Sorcery genre the familiar is the monsters. The original is the gender roles. Conversely, in the Twilight series the familiar is the lead damsel character and the original is the friendly sparkly vampires.

The key is mixing familiar and original. And keep in mind that what mixes will work and what won’t are still unpredictable. …Sparkly vampires, you say?

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Importance of Internal Consistency in Story Telling

Note: I presented these thoughts at the 2014 LTUE sci-fi con.

Internal consistency in story telling is important, more important than is generally recognized. The evidence for this oversight is movies such as “Prometheus” and “Elysium”. 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 head scratching 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 is readable over and over.

Bad example

I’m going to use Prometheus as a bad example. This movie had a lot going for it: Good actors, good effects, good franchise. Sadly, all that was sacrificed to a truly head-scratching story line. The writer seemed to be channeling Ed Wood and his low-budget sci-fi of the 1950’s.

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 have transporters or send down shuttles. There is a lot of solid engineering behind this reality… well, the shuttle part.

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 Wood!

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!

Some people I have talked with about this reply, “But this is in line with how the original alien movie unfolded. This movie is an homage.” I reply to that, “In the first movie this hastiness was consistent because the crew was in a fish-out-of-water situation. They signed on to haul freight, not explore new worlds. That makes their situation quite different and explains their being clumsy. This crew was there to find something strange and expect trouble. Very different, and their hastiness and clumsiness doesn’t work.”

Why does this happen?

The inconsistency happens because the movie makers don’t think internal consistency is as important as other issues — it is low in the priority list, and low on the movie makers’ awareness lists. What is higher on their radar is issues such as getting in neat special effects, getting the right talent, and making it seem like a “regular” story — one that has already been a proven money maker. This is Important Stuff, yes, but if tossing internal consistency leaves the audience head-scratching, giggling or yawning, much has been lost.

Good examples

Now let’s look at some good examples:

I present three examples of doing consistency well. I’m a sci-fi fan so all are science fiction movies — “Moon” (2009), “Limitless” (2011) and “The Cabin in the Woods” (2011). All have unusual stories and all have executed them well.

Moon tells the story of a lonely man at a mining base on the Moon. It becomes a mystery story when he has an accident, and is replaced in just a few hours by… himself!

In truth, the first time I saw this movie I was getting more and more upset through much of it. I was seeing inconsistencies such as: This guy was out of direct communication contact with Earth and had been for months to years — Earth isn’t that far away and there should be redundancy.

So I was delighted when in the end these inconsistencies turned out to be elements of a well-designed conspiracy. The protagonist is not a human but a clone, and that clone has a life expectancy of just three years. When one clone dies it is replaced with another, and all experience life in a fantasy where they are fully human and on the Moon for a three year contract. It turned out to be neat science fiction, and I was delighted!

Limitless is also about exploring new technology — in this case a pill which allows 100% of the brain to work, not just 10% or 20%. (This is an urban myth, by the way, the brain is a very busy organ all the time. But it is a consistent premise within this story, so that causes me no problem.) The satisfying part is we get to watch the protagonist go through triumphs and tragedies, uses and abuses, of this new invention. There are some inconsistencies in this story, but they didn’t bother me much because the underlying premise of exploring a new technology was so well handled.

One example: The protagonist borrows big bucks from a Russian mafia type and then forgets to pay him back. Given his smarts that made no sense. It was pure plot device so that the mafia guy would get curious about the pills, and start taking them too, and become a serious threat. But I forgave, and I particularly liked the ending where the protagonist shows off additional cleverness, which is what this invention is all about.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011), written in part by Joss Whedon, is another example. This movie confused its first movie goers because it starts as if it is yet another slasher flick. It’s not. Instead, this is an SF movie that speculates about why slasher flick stories happen so regularly, and that is to appease some very real world gods with blood sacrifice. What follows is a movie with a lot of internal consistency, and humor, about the sacrifice being a routine part of human existence, but one that goes wrong in this case.

An inconsistency that matters little

Since the time of Shakespeare and before, story tellers have paid little attention to getting time, distance and military scale right. Inconsistency in these areas seems to bother audiences very little.

People don’t get upset when…

A messenger walks into the King’s throne room and tells the king, “Sir! The Evil Duke as refused your offer.”

The King furrows his brow, then says to General Mayhem standing beside him, “This means war! General, I want your ten thousand men attacking the Evil Duke’s castle by…” checks his hourglass wristwatch, “3PM this afternoon.”

“Yessir!” says General Mayhem with an arm smacking his breastplate in salute, and he then walks out to make it so.

Up until World War One marshaling and moving ten thousand men took years of planning and at least a season of preparation. An example: The battle at Bull Run occurred seven months after the South declared it was seceding, and it was roundly criticized after the Union defeat for being such a hastily assembled campaign.

But people watching movies don’t seem to care when the next scene shows General Mayhem that same afternoon in front of rank upon rank of knights in shining armor at the Evil Duke’s castle. It’s odd, but true, and thus we have the term “Poetic License” to explain inconsistencies that audiences don’t seem to mind.

In general, the more familiar the story format and subject are, the more license can be applied. A contemporary example of a story with a lot of familiarity, a lot of popularity, and little internal consistency is the movie Frozen. Popular, but the new ground is simply to tell a fairy tale with very contemporary character constructions. That said, use your license sparingly.

 

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Guarding the Foundations of our Modern Day Good Fortunes

Glen-canyon-02Introduction

There are three foundations in how we think that are at the root of our modern day prosperity: Good science, good laws, and good education for all. These intertwine, but the better they all are, the better our day-to-day challenges will be met, and the better our communities will function, now and in the future.

This essay was inspired by a disturbing 19 Oct 13 Economist article, Trouble at the lab, which describes at length a surprising way that good science is now under threat. It is under threat because the publishers of science articles are not being vigilant enough about checking the experiments that support the conclusions published in their articles. This is bad because if the science isn’t good, then the decisions that are based on the science won’t be good either.

This may not be as heart-string-tugging as feeding the poor, but it’s just as important, and if it’s not corrected a lot of poor won’t get fed, and the others are just as important for feeding the poor too.

The Three Foundations

Good science, good laws, good education. These are the foundations for progress, for improving everyone’s lot in life.

Good science tells us what the harsh realities are of the physical world we live in. The more science we know the more we know about what is physically possible and impossible. (In this usage “possible” also includes thinking in terms of cost-benefit.) The more we know about what is possible the more we can be efficient and effective in fulfilling our deepest wants and dreams. Conversely, when our science understanding isn’t good we waste time and effort trying to do things that can’t be done, or we waste time and effort by not using tools and techniques that could be discovered, but haven’t. Both kinds of missed opportunities slow progress and waste resources.

Good laws allow the experimenting that must be done to both discover new science and discover how to make the best use of it. These two are different projects and equally important. Both take a lot of effort, and a lot of that effort is going to look like waste until a workable result appears. Think of Thomas Edison’s famous dictum: “Genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” When laws have a special interest agenda, when they aren’t promoting an equal playing field for exploring ideas and letting lots of people partake in the exploring, they are slowing progress as much as bad science does.

Good education is important because the community decides what is progress. The community is making choices on what is important to spend time and attention on, and making choices as to which laws should get passed and enforced. If the community doesn’t have the education to make good choices, good choices won’t be made. What we will get instead are good “from the heart” choices… the kind that work well in the Neolithic Village environment, not in a prosperous, diverse, globalized, modern environment.

This is why we have universal public education. We have it because it was recognized early in the Industrial Age that widespread education brought value to the community. The modern form got its start in Prussia in 1763 and its value was quickly recognized in other industrializing societies, such as colonial America. Again, the important part of this is that everyone gains value when everyone is well educated. These days this doesn’t seem to be as clear to many members of the community as it has been in the past.

Some examples

o Bad science means money badly spent — Science is used to predict the physical future. Where the science is bad, things designed using that science will be bad too.

oo Bad medicine — Biology is one of the big frontiers in science of the 2010’s. One of the big uses for biological research is designing more effective medicines and medical devices. If the experiments being done to demonstrate effectiveness and safety are done in slapdash ways, and little effort is spent on trying to reproduce the results so the slapdashness can be identified, we will have slapdash medicine and devices on our shelves. And that’s just the first round of trouble. The second round of trouble is that people of the community won’t be able to tell the difference between biological real science and biological pseudo-science. Health care is an emotional topic. Even in the best of times it’s hard to keep “from the heart” thinking from being the decision maker on health issues. If the science side has to be taken with a heaping grain of salt because of unreliable experimentation…

oo Mixing religion into science — Religion is based on feel-good thinking. It’s tempting to mix it into science so you can have feel-good science. Sadly, harsh reality and feel-good don’t mix so easily, so the more feel-good that is mixed into science the less useful it becomes as a predictor of harsh reality. Creationism doesn’t help unravel the implications of DNA sequencing. Oh… and mixing politics into science is just as bad for just the same reasons. What should mix with science is cost-benefit thinking — let’s spend first on those projects that look like they will bring big benefits.

o Laws based on emotion — Most laws are based on emotion. They are proposed and passed because there is a disagreement within the community on how to do something — some people feel strongly that [X] is OK, while others feel strongly that it is not. Emotion is OK, but we need to recognize that it is also expensive — sometimes very expensive. I’m thinking War on Drugs as I say this. That said, it is wise to keep in mind that emotion and harsh reality often mix poorly. Again, I’m thinking War on Drugs. What follows are some other ways that emotion, poor universal education, and law making mix poorly.

oo Ignorance favors taking cheap shots — If the community doesn’t know any better, it’s a constant temptation for the leaders to work a personal agenda into their decision making. Democracy works reliably when it is in the context of informed democracy — when the community members understand the issues and have the education to understand the difference between good and bad solutions to the issues.

oo special interest lobbying — Lobbyists gain influence when the community is not paying attention. If the community is paying attention and understands what’s at stake a lobbyist becomes just another guy at the politician’s doorstep. Once again, emotion plus ignorance can powerfully feed silly law making. Here I’m thinking of the crazy-quilt farm subsidies in the US and around the world.

oo Gaming the system — Being able to game a system is a powerful opiate. If I think laws are giving me something for nothing, it’s hard for me to vote against them. Here, more than in any other area, good education for all is vital. If people are well educated they can see the costs of system gaming. Then even when they are a target beneficiary they can be more cool-headed in their choices of supporting a law or not.

oo Scars of panic law making — Hasty law making, laws made while people are deeply angry or scared by something, usually produces seriously expensive law choices, and the expense will go on for many decades. The law is a scar rather than a cure. Putting up some resistance to this is the biggest virtue of the US “checks and balances” governing systems. We need to become even more mindful of this phenomenon and design law making with even more resistance to it, or easier recovery from it.

o Education means better laws and better science — People make laws; people do science; people work with fruits of both science and law making to create our lifestyles. This is why educating everyone well is so important. If you can’t work well with these fruits you’re being wasteful. If you can’t tell the difference between good and bad fruits, you’re wasting yourself and the community’s resources. If most of the community can’t tell the difference, the waste will be big time.

oo Compare South Korea and Haiti — Following the Korean War in the 1950’s South Korea and the Haiti were both impoverished places. In the decades since then South Korea has moved from deeply impoverished to a fully developed nation. Haiti has remained deeply impoverished — it was and still is the cow’s tail in the Western Hemisphere. The difference? One is that the people of South Korea knew how important education was and consistently devoted lots and lots of resource to doing it, and learning to do it better and better. In addition to increasing material prosperity this also let the Korean government peacefully evolve from dictatorship into democracy — their law making got better.

Conclusion

Good science, good law making and good education for all are the roots of modern prosperity. These are intertwined, they support each other… or they fall apart together. For this reason it is important to sustaining our modern culture that we be vigilant and dedicated in supporting all three. We must do them well now, and we must work hard on doing them even better in the future.

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Climate Change: Where Scientists replace Religious Leaders as spouters of doom and gloom

kids-gfish-01Introduction

First off:

Yes, climate change is real. Yes, adapting to the change will be expensive.

What is not real is that it is going to end the world as we know it “real soon now”.

Earth’s climate has been changing constantly since Earth became a planet 4.5 billion years ago. Sometimes the changes have been harsh — harsh enough to cause the mass extinctions that show up in the fossil records. But even in those times life goes on, and the time span between mass extinctions is hundreds of millions of years. The last mass extinction was 60 million years ago.

This is why the current worries are goat sacrificing — doing something only because we will sleep better, not because it’s solving a problem. Those humans who deeply believe we can end the world as we know it with human-caused climate change are being vain — our world isn’t that human-centric. Another interesting twist in this scenario is that this end of the world is being spouted by scientists, not religious leaders. This has happened before, nuclear holocaust in the 2nd half of the 20th century comes to mind, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often as religion-based predictions.

Some Climate Change Basics

First off, climate is complex — it’s weather on steroids. This means that predicting climate change is still filled-to-the-brim with uncertainties. Climate scientists may be certain, doom and gloom climate change enthusiasts may be certain, but the harsh reality is there is still a lot going on we humans can’t predict well.

Second, Earth, the planet, has been continuously habitable for 3.5 billion years. There was never a time in this period when there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff living. The mass extinctions killed off lots of species, and large parts of the Earth became uninhabitable, but large parts remained habitable and lots of stuff still lived. And when the climate mellowed out again, life spread widely again. This means that however strong the forces are that are trying to push Earth into uninhabitable, there are even stronger restoring forces that keep that from happening. The Earth’s climate is not some kind of delicate, exciting high wire act. It’s the grumpy old man taking a nap on the couch.

Third, climate is a deeply emotional issue. Weather has been important to mankind since before mankind was mankind. This means that when we are making choices involving weather, we need to be extra careful that we aren’t goat sacrificing — making choices that don’t solve the problem, but are valuable simply because they let us sleep better.

How did we get into this mess?

Much science research gets funded by committees handing out grants. The scientist looking for money writes up a grant proposal that is either accepted or denied by the appropriate committee that controls handing out funding. These committees are filled with people, which means the choices are influenced by very human thinking.

Historically, weather and climate research funding were powered by the dream of understanding, not by the dream of influencing. The first change to this was cloud seeding which turned out to be a small scale way of starting rain and dispersing fog. It was not much of a breakthrough because it was both small scale and soft science, as in, the results and effectiveness are hard to measure.

Up until the 1990’s the climate doom and gloomers were getting their funding by predicting an oncoming Ice Age and proposing research on that. The response to funding requests was ho-hum because it was still simply an understanding issue, not a change-the-outcome issue.

Then the revolution hit: Researchers discovered that requesting funding about climate change that centered on human-caused changes were hitting much bigger pay dirt — guilt started opening the funding spigot as well as more traditional worry. And the rest, as we say, is history. We are now living with well-financed research aiming to prove that climate change is human’s fault and we should be spending big bucks to turn back the industrializing clock in various fashions.

What to do instead?

The proper solution to this threat is based on a Roger Truism:

What technology takes away it can give back again with greater prosperity. Poverty plays for keeps.

We need to be researching solutions that are both relevant and have high cost benefit. An example:

Threat: Seas are rising due to global warming.

Solution One: For now fix this threat with dikes and migrating away from low-lying areas, not with abandoning fossil fuel. Dikes are a lot cheaper. Over the long run we will fix this with increased productivity. As our technology gets better, we will need less fossil fuel because our productivity — what we get from each pound of fuel — will steadily and constantly grow. If we are prosperous we will need less fuel than if we are poverty-stricken.

Solution Two: Embrace nuclear power. And by this I mean fully embrace it. Use it not just for big things such as big power plants, but for medium and small applications as well such as powering cars and even artificial organs in our bodies. Embracing nuclear will open huge doors in what we can accomplish and how efficiently we can accomplish it.

Wind and solar? Invest in them when they have demonstrated their cost-benefit. Right now they are being invested in because they feel good. This means they are taking time, rescources and attention away from better solutions. Right now, in the early 2010’s, they are goat sacrificing.

Conclusion

Climate change is at this point being treated like many other end-of-the-world scenarios. It’s being hyped as deadly serious by gloom and doom types, and they are being listened to because the topic is deeply emotional. The solutions being offered are romantic and emotionally appealing in the “let’s get back to nature” category. They won’t fix the problem, unless you consider goat sacrificing to be a solution.

The interesting twist is that the doom-and-gloom sayers in this case are scientists, not religious types.

 

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Building Enfranchisement Without Jobs

heather-Aug10-05-400Introduction

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

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.

Military

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 Moving Human Consciousness into Cyber Space

Kim-and-Gson-01-s

Introduction

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.

Conclusion

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

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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.

Introduction

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.

or…

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.

Conclusion

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

adrienneIntroduction

“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.

Conclusion

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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