Are Humans Smart Enough?

We humans are quite proud that we’re the smartest species on the planet, but are we smart enough to survive?  Evolution has been characterized as survival of the fittest, but what happens if one species succeeds so well that it kills off all other species and self-destructs?  That’s not very smart, that’s just being cancerous.  The trouble is we don’t think as a species, but as a collection of individuals, and our self-interests are now in conflict with our species best interests.  The Republican party, and many Americans have chosen to just ignore global warming in favor of self-interests.  Is that a realism that we must just accept?  This morning at Vox.com they presented “7 reasons America will fail  on climate change.”

Ezra Klein is totally pessimistic that Americans will change, and he makes quite a good case with his seven reasons why we will fail to do anything significant about climate change.  The trouble is as individuals we don’t change until we’re force to, and it looks like we won’t be force to until after we’ve reached a point of no return.

climate_change_inequality_map

One point that Klein didn’t make is  people who want to be politicians do it for reasons of self-interest and not altruism for the species.  Even if young people start out idealistic about saving the world, the political system corrupts them by forcing them into a game of political self-preservation which corrupts them into selling out.  But we don’t see many save-the-world young people going into politics anyway.  Instead, the newest politicians with the most passion are Tea Party types who want to do just the opposite.

The only counter trend to this pessimistic black hole is technology.  Cars were invented just as cities were about to drown in horseshit.  If clean energy alternatives become way cheaper than carbon producing non-renewable resources then things might change.  But what if there are other technological changes that might help?  What if technology changes politics?  Hasn’t the Internet already changed the political climate?

This will sound silly now, but what if we replaced our political representatives with AI machines?  This will sound facetious, but obviously we’re not smart enough to solve our own problems, so what if it was obvious to all that someone smarter was, a brilliant machine?  Would our individual self-interests vote for it?  Right now politics is more of a personality contest than electing the best person for the job.  What if a robot was an option, one that knew a thousand times more about the issues of your district than any human?

We will always be surprised by unexpected game changers.  Klein might be right, and we’re already defeated, but we never know when a black swan might show up.

JWH – 6/7/14

Why Were The Two Most Famous Science Fiction Novels of the 20th Century Not Written By Science Fiction Authors?

The two most famous science fiction novels of last century were Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.  Now I didn’t write that to generate a flame war among science fiction fans, or as a slight to genre writers, but because I believe it’s true, especially if you ask people who don’t normally read science fiction.  I’m actually wondering why the two biggest successes using science fiction as a writing technique weren’t penned by writers who specialized in writing science fiction?  Huxley and Orwell were straight ahead literary guys – total amateurs at speculative fiction.  They probably never heard of Hugo Gernsback or John W. Campbell.

And, the two most famous science fiction novels of the 19th century, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, were not written by a genre writer either.  H. G. Wells existed before the science fiction genre was established.  Nor were his books written for the genre reader of his day, which did have a lot of science fiction, even though it lacked the label.  In the 21st century, when science fiction is a well established, and a well loved genre, it bizarrely seems that the people who aren’t science fiction writers have the biggest successes with the technique.  Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood are two good recent examples.

What are these non-SF writers doing that SF genre writers aren’t?  I just got through rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four and I thought about this the whole time I was thoroughly enjoying the book.  Nineteen Eighty-Four is so different from the genre science fiction books I normally read that I’m tempted to say it’s not science fiction.  Many literary writers and English profs claim just that, but they would be wrong.  Insanely wrong.  George Orwell might not have written for Campbell’s Astounding, and probably never even read the famous pulp, but Nineteen Eighty-Four would have fit comfortably in that magazine as a serial.  No Astounding reader would have made one objection as to it not being science fiction.  And I’m quite sure readers would have voted it the best story of the issue, even if Heinlein had had a story in that issue too. 

Not long ago I reread Beyond This Horizon by Heinlein and I felt pretty sure that Heinlein wrote it hoping it would be another Brave New World.  Heinlein was savvy enough to know that Huxley’s book sold far more than pulp fiction, and at the time, very little science fiction was even being published in hardback, or that new format, the paperback.  Here’s an early paperback cover for Nineteen Eighty-Four – looks just like a science fiction novel, doesn’t it?

1984_pulp3

While reading Nineteen Eighty-Four this time I was blown-away by Orwell’s world building genius.  World building is an essential feature of SF/F, which books like Dune and The Lord of the Ring illustrate.  J. K. Rowling is a billionaire for her world building, and deservedly so.  Does that mean Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world is just better painted than all the other genre stories working with the same idea?  Does The Handmaid’s Tale just out dystopian run of the mill SF writers?  Maybe so, but why?

It’s pretty obvious that more people on Earth can understand what the implications of Big Brother are over philosophical implications of Arrakis.  Too many hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century encountered a totalitarian state first hand, or fought against them in wars, or spent years hearing about them in the news, not to understand the brilliant portrayal of Big Brother and the savage criticism of them with the creation of Newspeak.

The reason why Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World are so well known in the 20th century is they describe so clearly the quintessential fears of the 20th century.  All stories set in the future are about the present, and I guess the better they are about exploring the present, the more copies they will sell, and the better chance they will be part of the curricula in high schools and colleges.

The entire time I spent reading Nineteen Eighty-Four off my Kindle I was amazed by how relevant this book written in 1948 was to 2013.  To write that Orwell was brilliant is an undeserving understatement.  We live in a society that worships freedom, yet we live with constant NSA surveillance, continuous war, Homeland Security, and the sun never sets on our drone airspace.  Our paranoia knows knows no bounds.  In terms of political psychology and insight into the human heart, Orwell runs away with the prize for applying science fiction techniques for writing about the future to say so much about now.  Nor has any science fiction writer ever attempted to explore the linguistic territory of Newspeak, which is the real science that makes Nineteen Eighty-Four great science fiction.

brave-new-world1

I haven’t reread Brave New World recently, but I plan to.  Brave New World was written in 1931 and I just finished a book,  One Summer: American 1927 by Bill Bryson that is the perfect companion to the Huxley book, because it explained the world Huxley was living in when he wrote his classic.  It’s a time when many U.S. governors and mayors belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, where many prominent Americans publically espoused beliefs in eugenics and extreme racism, where many states had passed eugenic laws, and racism was the law of the land.  The twenties was the decade that mass production and mass communication really got massive.  It was a decade where America began the Americanization of the world.  That scared Huxley.  Huxley was afraid of America in 1930, and Orwell was afraid of Russia in 1948.

Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four are true dystopian novels – they are anti utopian, written in response to intellectuals promoting utopian solutions to world problems.  Huxley and Orwell understood the world in which they lived, and wrote books that showed off that knowledge in deeply insightful ways.  They both used science fiction as a literary device to philosophize about ideas if written as nonfiction would have been entertaining to few, and boring to many, but because of those techniques, wowed millions.  Readers still study and reference their work.  And those novels would not have had the impact they did without the science fiction. 

Huxley and Orwell, and other literary writers, use science fiction to bring political, ethical and scientific ideas to the masses.  Why don’t more genre writers attempt this?  Heinlein tried, especially with Stranger in a Strange Land, his most ambitious novel.  So, why did he fail?  I think for two reasons.  First, it included ESP, or PSI powers, that aren’t scientific or believable, and second, it promoted his personal ideas about freedom, especially sexual freedom, nudity, and group sex, which few people beside the hippies of the 1960s shared.

Ray Bradbury hit one out of the park with Fahrenheit 451, but it’s never achieved the popular acclaim that Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four has.  Maybe because it wasn’t nearly as ambitious as those two.  And dare I say it, maybe the target, those people who would give up reading for mindless television, were insulted rather than inspired to canonize literacy?

John Brunner also tried several novels of this type, using science fiction to make political statements, especially Stand on Zanzibar.  Zanzibar was an experimental tour de force that was hard to comprehend or read by the general reader, but dazzled the exceptional reader.  It should have been a contender.  It should be better remembered.  Both Fahrenheit 451  and Stand on Zanzibar are shining examples of what pulp writers can do when they aim high.

I think the genre writer that comes closest in writing ambitious science fiction for the non science fiction reading masses was Orson Scott Card and his book Ender’s Game.  It was obvious targeted at genre readers, but it was widely read outside of the genre.  It was never as sophisticated as Huxley and Orwell’s books, and didn’t deal with broad contemporary issues, but it dealt with xenocide in a way that made it relevant to the average reader who could translate it into commentary on genocide, or commentary on science fiction.  Unfortunately, the recent movie version of the story targets Ender’s Game at the lowest common denominator video game player, whose kill anything that moves instinct means they have deaf ears for the ethical insights.

The 2014 Earth is just as fucked up as the 1948 Earth, even more so, so why aren’t we reading novels that targets our political, social and ethical failures like modern science fictional smart bombs that are literary descendants of Huxley and Orwell?  Is it because serious thinkers no longer believe that science fiction is the proper tool?  Has decades of fun science fiction dulled the edge of sharp science fiction?  Or maybe we don’t have political and social thinkers like Orwell or Huxley anymore, because those writers work for the New York Times or Fox News.  Let’s hope it’s not that times aren’t bad enough yet to be muses for such writers.

JWH – 12/31/13

Why Don’t Politicians Have PhDs in Economics?

It seems like every politician in Washington KNOWS the absolute solution to our economic problems.  But how do they know?  The Tea Party has Washington gridlocked because they claim to know, but is their knowledge based on anything substantial?  Are their opinions backed by something other than wanting to promote Christianity and pay less taxes?  How many politicians have advanced degrees in economics, government and political science?

I’m sorry, but it seems to me that all politicians are out for themselves, and their positions are based on personal desires and the special interests of the people that support them.  I’d be far more impressed with the Democrats and Republicans if they each based their policies on giant economic models backed by an army of PhD researchers.  Politicians have no intellectual authority behind their opinions even though they hold them so strongly.  In fact, after recent events I’d be happy to replace all our political leaders in Congress with robots and referendums.

gort

Every major university and think tank in the United States should be developing an economic model.  All their economic and political PhD students, postdocs, and faculty should be researching and writing to support these models.  All the models should compete, like weather models and global warming models, to see which ones best reflect actual reality.  We need to get away from opinions, away from us versus them.  It’s obvious that many of our leaders don’t know shit about economics.

The makers of Sim City should create Sim Economy so we can all play and study how our economy works.

simcity4_ss1

We all need a better economic and political education.  Maybe we have saps for leaders because we’re not smart enough to elect anything better.  If we learn anything from this current political/economic crisis, it’s that we need to elect smarter politicians.  Or replace them with AI robots.

JWH – 10/15/13

An Alternative to Obamacare

In physics scientists seek to solve the mysteries of reality through mathematics, but if a solution involves a complicated convoluted mathematical equation, it’s generally assumed to be wrong.  Often the right solution involves a simple elegant equation.

Healthcare in America is complicated, bureaucratic and expensive.  I’m wondering if there’s a simpler solution to Obamacare.  To be upfront, I’m a liberal and believe all people have a right to quality healthcare.

To simplify the problem to its most elegant equation I’ve wondered if we shouldn’t take a totally different approach to subsidized healthcare.  I think the federal government should just build and run free hospitals and clinics.  Instead of creating a complex reimbursement system, they should just hire doctors and nurses and provide absolutely free healthcare to those who don’t have insurance.

Today, most hospitals ask if you have insurance, and if you don’t, they send you away.  These free hospitals would ask, and if you do, they’ll send you away.

The federal government should build a free HMO type system that works to bring down the cost of healthcare.  It should use every trick in the book to save on costs, while maximizing preventive heath measures.  Employ no remedies that aren’t effective.  Tell all patients that their information will be used for statistical and scientific studies.  This system size should give it clout to get cheaper drugs and equipment.

Much of the cost of healthcare is the bureaucracy to maintain it.  If the government learned to build efficient hospitals and clinics, that hired medical professionals at salaries scaled to reward cost effective productivity, this system could compete with the commercial healthcare systems and help bring down the overall costs of healthcare.

We could keep all existing healthcare systems and just phase in this idea as an experiment.  The new system should not contract with private contractors to do the job.  The new system should aim to be minimalistic as an experiment in efficiency.  The idea could be started by finding locations in the country with extremely high uninsured population and opening a hospital to test its impact.  Be scientific.  Don’t build the second hospital until the lessons are learned from the first.

Innovate with technology.  Instead of having people wait in waiting rooms, use texting or phone messages.  Develop online prescreening questioning.  Push the concept of home medical monitoring.  Create convenience shops for collecting blood, doing x-rays and other simply diagnostic procedures.  Use computers like IBM’s Watson to analyze medical charts and test results, or even prescreen patients.  Develop a universal healthcare record system that allows patients to record health diaries and drug use, along with any daily home monitoring, and their diet and exercise habits.  Test the theory that diet can improve many medical conditions.

This concept should be an experiment in lowering healthcare costs.  Do everything possible so that all money spent goes directly to actual healthcare and as little as possible to administrative costs.  Start small and build on success.

JWH – 9/8/13

The Unwinding by George Packer

yin-yang

George Packer has written a book about America coming unwound.  He theorizes that America has come undone many times before, and we rewind ourselves in cycles over our long history.  I’m not sure if America isn’t always unwinding and rewinding at the same time – like the famous yin-yang symbol.  That if you’re young, the chaos that is America becomes new possibilities bursting forth, while if you’re old, the same chaos becomes cherished traditions breaking apart.

the-unwinding

Packer tells his story not by philosophizing or political rhetoric, but by reporting on the lives of a diverse group of people surviving The Great Recession.  This has far greater emotional impact than abstract commentary on demographics.  We see Youngstown, Ohio through the eyes of Tammy Thomas, and Tampa, Florida through a family of four who becomes homeless.  We see Washington politics through Jeff Connaughton, as he spends decades campaigning for Joe Biden.  We see Silicon Valley via billionaire Peter Thiel, and North Carolina through Dean Price, and up and down businessman.  Packer also profiles some famous people too, like Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Robert Rubin, Jay-Z, Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Warren and Alice Waters.

But it’s the less famous people that tell his story best, like the immigrant woman who owns a motel but hates to hire Americans because they are such poor workers.  Packer talks about the fall of unions and good wages, and even how the mob held some towns together, because after they left all the towns had were street gangs fighting.  Our lives depend on complex social  and economic organizations, and when they unwind, it’s changes what we think of normal living, even if it’s corrupt to begin with.

Parker showing the rust belt neighborhoods eroding through Tammy Thomas lifetime is heart breaking.  Ditto for the Hartzell family showing Tampa coming apart at the seams because of the housing crisis.

These stories are riveting.  The sum of their impact is very emotional, and I’m afraid depressing.  I read this book with my friend Linda, and we constantly emailed back and forth about how we felt The Unwinding made us yearn for solutions to start the rewinding of America.  Through the biographical sketches Packer shows America breaking down in many key areas of life – work, democracy, health, food, energy, housing, schools, etc.  – all the stuff you see on the news every night, but told through moving personal stories.

I have lived through the Great Recession without seeing all of this directly.  My wife and I kept our jobs and house.  Most people are like us.  But for ten to twenty percent of the country, times were very bad.  It’s like news reports of a tornado.  Seen focused in on the damage, a whole city can appear destroyed, but if you back away some, you’ll see the devastation is limited.  If your house is in the devastation your world is destroyed.  If you live far enough away from where the twister hit, you might not even think anything is wrong.  The Unwinding lets us experience a tiny bit of the misery of being at ground zero of The Great Recession.

The trouble is The Great Recession wasn’t an act of nature, but a man-made tragedy.  And it didn’t have one cause but many.  We all brought about the unwinding.  Whether Packer’s book is an early report of the collapse of the American Empire, or just a narrative about catching an economic cold, is yet to be seen.  I do believe things have permanently changed, a lot of things.  The American middle class used to be the large bell in the bell curve of American economics.  That bulk of that bell is collapsing.  It’s not the 99% versus the 1%, but bulk of the bell has shifted backwards toward the lower class.  Average incomes are declining.  But then average wages around the world are rising.  We’re all homogenizing around a much lower standard of living worldwide.  This is just change, but does it have to be negative?  Do we have to suffer man-made economic storms?  Do we have to accept lower wages as everything becomes cheaper?

What’s unfair is a lot of people got very wealthy without creating very much, and in some cases by destroying a lot of what used to exist.  That’s a very vague way of stating the problem.  Read The Unwinding for a detailed view.

JWH – 8/13/13

Where are the Economists in the 2012 Election?

I have memories of past presidential elections going all the way back to 1960, and it seems to me that past elections spent more time with actual economists in the spotlight?   Have you seen any economist this election year?  In the past, CBS, NBC and ABC would routinely interview economists about politics, but I haven’t seen hide nor hair of them this year.  Has politicians and the public given up on the Ph.D.s of the dismal science?

We have numerous computer climate models to predict the weather, and we have gigantic cosmological models of the universe, telling us how our universe was formed 13.7 billion years ago, so why don’t we hear about super computers contemplating the economy?  You’d think both the Republicans and Democrats would offer some kind of scientific proof to back their economy philosophies.  Are we supposed to just believe what the candidates tell us without reference to academic authority?

economic-model

From what I’ve read, economists work with computer models all the time.  They have been refining their equations for decades.  So why don’t we see economic superstars interviewed on television?  Why aren’t their computer models shown on the nightly news?

First off, it’s impossible to predict the future, but we can model rough trends.  Modeling complex systems is hard.  Modeling the Big Bang and the formation of the universe is easier than modeling the weather, which is more successful than modeling the economy, but modeling the world economy should not be impossible.  Most Americans would want a model of the U.S. economy, but I would imagine it wouldn’t be very accurate without it being part of the model of the world economy.  No matter what Romney or Obama get to do for Americans, it will affect the rest of the world, and then they will affect us right back.

I know very little about economics, but I wonder why economists can’t build an economic model that allows the average citizen to understand  how various tax plans would affect the economy.  What would happen if Romney did get to kill off PBS and Big Bird?  What would happen if we added three trillion to the national debt while the economy recovers?  What would balancing the budget do to the economy?

Here’s the thing about computer models, the more data points the more accurate the model.  A data point would be like a weather station collecting all kinds of measurements.  The best economy model would contain 311,591.917+ data points, one for each citizen of the United States, and to be really accurate, have 7,043,958,151+ points for every person in the world.  We also need one data point for every business in the world.  Another for each aspect of government.  And each data point would measure many factors, such as various tax rates, incomes, assets, debts, etc.  And we’d need equations for every interaction.  So if we lower the corporate tax, how would it affect all other data points?

For example, Romney claimed his criteria for deciding on government spending was:  Does the cost of a program justify borrowing the money from China?

Okay, I can accept that.  But how do we decide for each program?  It can’t be just whim.  Let’s take PBS.  I heard that $450 million of the Federal budget goes to PBS, and that’s just 15% of it’s funding.  What do we get for borrowing $450 million dollars from China by giving it to PBS?  If we had an economic model, could we calculate the early childhood educational benefit of Sesame Street?  PBS teaches me a tremendous lot about American History.  How valuable is American History to American citizens?  Can you put a dollar amount on it?  PBS teaches me a lot about science and nature.  Does that have value?  Can that kind of educational TV be quantified as expanding the economy in some way?

PBS might be an economic powerhouse of early childhood and adult education that generates many times it’s $450 investment.  Just because conservatives want to save a few bucks on their tax returns are we being penny wise and pound foolish to get rid of PBS?  Can we really know without numbers?

I hate it that politicians expect us to take their opinions as facts.  I also hate that so many of my fellow citizens think opinions are facts.

Romney tells people we should say no to PBS, but other than his opinion, what’s backing that idea?  Is his opinion about PBS right?  I’d like to see an economic study done on the impact of PBS before I’d accept cutting  PBS from the budget.  Even as a jobs incentive program, how many jobs are created with that $450 million dollar investment?

Economics might be the dismal science, but I’d rather hear facts and figures about the economy from an economist than a politician.  I just can’t accept opinions from the left and right, I want some hard cold facts to chew on.

JWH – 10/6/12

The Country & The Country–America in 2012

In 2009 China Miéville came out with The City & The City, a fantasy novel about two cultures, living in one physical location, that were so alienated from each other that they believed they lived in two separate cities, even though both cities were located in the same geographical location.  Citizens of each city spoke a different language, had different laws and culture, and they had been trained since birth to ignore each other so well that they were invisible to each other.

When I read The City & The City I thought the idea too far out to believe, but the 2012 Presidential election is making me change my mind.  This afternoon was I was reading news feeds on my iPad with the app Zite about climate change.  There were two kinds of stories.  90% of the stories were science articles about the effects of global warming around the world.  Not stories theorizing the coming of global warming, but reports of its effect right now.  The rest of the stories were from climate change deniers.  They no longer try to attack the science of global warming, they laugh at the the absurdity that anyone should even consider the possibility of climate change.  They sneer at liberals who believe these science fictional fantasies.  They applaud Romney, Ryan and the Republicans for giving zero thought and time to such Chicken Little fears.

We’re now living in The County & The Country!

What I’m writing now is completely invisible to conservatives.  If they read this essay they would only see some silly story that sounds like nonsense.  It’s doubtful any would even try to read it.  And I’m not writing this to appeal to their reason.  I know I’m invisible to them.  They can’t hear me.

We have become so polarized in the United States that we can no longer see members of the opposite political party.

I could take the time to list many pro and con articles I read today, but what’s the point, those that see, do – those that don’t, can’t.  Anyone can go to Google Alerts and set up a news watch on any topic.  Just set up a “climate change” News Alert.  You’ll be sent an email once a day with all news of any kind about the topic.

Global warming has been happening for decades.  The effects have been felt for decades.  Humans change the planet all the time in endless ways.  We affect the weather all the time.  And it’s all invisible to you if you choose to ignore it.  I think even people who understand that climate change is happening refuse to pay attention.  People do not want to change their lives.  People do not want to make sacrifices.  People do not want to believe that bad things are going to happen.

New Scientist has an interesting article that asks:  “If 2013 breaks heat record, how will deniers respond?”  I often wonder about that.  At what point do the people who can’t see climate change suddenly start feeling the heat?  Will they ever?  How powerful is mind over reality?

The Republican party claims President Obama has been a failure as a leader and now it’s time for Republicans to lead the country.  Only they can lead us out of our economic mess.  I’ll admit that Obama hasn’t been a great leader.  I’ll also admit that Republicans can be great at leading the country.  But they are a one trick pony when it comes to leadership.  All they know how to do is lower taxes, regardless of the economic impact.  Voting Republican means voting to lower taxes on the wealthy.  You can be absolutely sure they can lead the country into lower taxes.  Whether they can lead us anywhere else is doubtful.  But it’s also a 100% guarantee, that they won’t do anything about the environment, other than run away, or stick their heads in the sand.

Voting Republican means:  “We want NO leadership on environmental issues.  Zip.  Nada.  Nothing.  Nix. Zero. Zilch.”

America is now two countries coexisting in the same spatial plane.  There are two cultures, liberals and conservatives.  They do not speak the same language.  They can not communicate.  Conservatives see reality on the North American continent different from liberals.  It’s cool and refreshing where Republicans live.  All they see is high taxes, wasteful governmental programs, welfare squatters, sin and a black man as President.

They want to grow the defense budget to protect America from any harm when our only real enemy is ourselves and climate change.  Is that leadership?

[One reason I don't give Obama high marks for leadership is he hasn't lead on climate change.  He does accept the problem, he just hasn't made it a political issue.  Read "Obama and Romeny on Climate Change Science" at the Washington Post.]

 

JWH – 9/3/12.

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