On Control



Last week, the group of roving mediator/roving neutral parties (Rangers) was brought forth as elements in a particular community (Burners) that helped keep things together.   One of the key elements that budding and returning Rangers are taught is that sometimes, the best thing to do is absolutely nothing, or close to it.   For a much more “intense kind of nothing,” read how Charley Clarke, a constable in London, interacted with an agitated citizen.

The overall conclusion that you might draw from the points above is that true control of a situation or society can happen… if it isn’t the kind of scientific, mechanistic control that we immediately think of when we think of control.   You can try and get absolute control over many things, but it generally takes a great deal of effort, and when it can’t be controlled, the situation, machine, or process flies apart in sometimes amusing, and sometimes in deadly ways.   Some modern aircraft, like the F-16, are designed to be a bit unstable (for better maneuverability), but without computer control, they do non-standard things, like crash.

Societies, and the many parts that make them up, are complicated and squishy things.   Trying to impose draconian control, rather than trying to control with a softer touch usually leads to a “negative outcome.” Let’s take a look at some of the things we try to over-control, and what their side effects are:

  • cleanliness – It is theorized that maybe too much cleanliness causes allergies to basic things, like peanuts;
  • behavior – Trying to over control the behavior of children can backfire, if you are too strict, children may rebel, causing all sorts of mischief and grief;
  • alcohol – Over control (Prohibition) can lead to worse situations; teen binge drinking in the US is worse than Europe (is this because of over-control of drinking?);
  • drugs – Over control of drugs (again, modern Prohibition) causes violence and lots of money flowing into criminal enterprises;
  • food production – Over control of the genome (GMOs) and monoculture crops have the potential for disaster, since natural resiliency for a crop has been bred out;
  • communications – If the government tries to control or tap communications, it might lead to bigger problems; if everyone encrypts their communications because they feel they are being searched without reason, it may make it harder to catch actual people doing bad things;
  • government – Executive orders by a President on the left seem like a good idea, until a new government is elected, and you don’t the president (and vice-versa!).

Ideally, the best sort of control in societies is brought about by self-control, where people control themselves in one regime by learning about control in another, unrelated one.   In the book Jurassic Park (the full bit is here; http://www.stjohns-chs.org/english/Seventeenth/jur.html), this boils down to the simple comment:

A karate master does not kill people with his bare hands.

Self-control seems to be the best way of control, but it requires discipline, which doesn’t seem to be in great supply these days.


  • In spite of this loosey-goosey approach, some things we need to control; clean air, clean water.  Dmitry Orlov writes about this  (Shrinking The Technosphere), and references the “potential harm/potential benefit” ratio.  If this ratio is infinite, absolute prohibition (control) is needed.   What are other critically controlled elements?
  • How do you limit control, and keep people from wanting even more control, even when it is easy?
  • How is self-discipline learned?





Real Education

From http://www.rangers.org

So, if our regular, government-issue education is teaching us how to just run the machines, but not think critically, where do we go to be really and truly educated?  And what should we learn?

One of the first steps (besides wanting to learn) along the road to a real education is having access to a library.   Ironically, the same government that gives such limited instruction in the realities of the world usually can create some amazing temples to thought and contemplation, in the form of public libraries (and their awesome guardians, librarians!).  Wikipedia, and your smartphone (if you have one) can be great sources of knowledge, but public libraries allow you to digest this knowledge in a quiet and nurturing atmosphere.  A good chunk of learning can happen with a library (and at relatively low cost) as was noted in Good Will Hunting (around 3:20 in that clip).   But this learning is still book learning.  It is one thing to read about something, but another to experience it first hand, and to have a skill or knowledge firmly entrenched in your being.  There are other places to get educated; a multitude of YouTube channels, and many colleges and universities are putting a good deal of their coursework online for free.   Although you may get paid handsomely for knowing a particular computer language or other technical skill, you may still wind up being a Saint George (Carlin)-described obedient worker, albeit a more highly paid one.

What should we be learning, besides book knowledge?   Of course, if you run your own business, been a waiter or waitress, have been a street performer, or even had a paper route, you’ve gotten a heavy dose of business education.  Better yet, if you’ve lost money in any one of these ventures, you’ve gotten a few hard earned credits in the “B-school of life,” that you’ll never forget.   What has been interesting to me, in speaking with many a small businessperson or someone eking out a sole-proprietorship living is generally how much more savvy they are about taxes, expenses, employment law, and a slew of other bureaucratic nightmares that one has to grapple with.  If necessity is the mother of invention, starting and running a small business can be the mother of doing it all, and doing it on a shoestring.  Seeing people from all points of the political spectrum become businesspeople, it’s amazing to see how some liberals become more conservative, and how some conservatives become more liberal.  When you have ‘skin in the game’, regulations, taxes, restrictions, and rules aren’t just abstractions – they are things you have to fight with constantly.

Robert A. Heinlein had a quote that many folks in the science fiction community know well, as to what  human being should know, and be prepared to do:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

A lot of us won’t have to plan an invasion or fight efficiently, but we can take self-defense courses, and at the least learn basic firearm safety.  We may not have to set a bone, but we can learn about CPR and basic first aid.   We may not learn how to pitch manure on a farm, but we could learn some basic mechanical and electronic tasks in a maker space or community college.     Yes, you should still know how to do many things.  Specialization, like monoculture crops, may make you efficient, but it also may make you vulnerable.  Knowing (and doing) more than one thing makes you antifragile.

In Heinlein’s quote, he mentions “giving orders, taking orders, cooperating, and acting alone.” Knowing about humanity, and social structures, and how humans behave and interact may be one of the most important skills to learn.  Knowing all the technical skills in the world is great, but without that core competency, those awesome and needed skills won’t be able to be used or expressed ideally.   It’s somewhat disheartening to watch technically brilliant people get kicked out of a company because they didn’t make friends, learn how to deal with people, or finesse some human interactions.  So much talent and raw intellectual horsepower can be wasted because of these personal blind spots.  Alas, we all have them to varying degrees.   A very wise friend, (a great viewer of the human condition, a businessperson, and an artist) once called this information the “knowing about the ‘monkey mind’ of humans.”   How people react to power, fortune, being excluded or included in a group, how they react under stress – all of these things are critically important for getting things done in this world.   You can get a bit of this training by running your own business, but it can be a bit of a slow and error-prone process.  You can learn a lot by making mistakes, but if you can learn from other people’s mistakes, even better.

If you recognize the logo at the top of the article, you may be familiar with Burning Man and other related local ‘burns.’  Now, Burning Man isn’t for everyone, and my own view of it is a bit nuanced, as noted previously.  One of the most rewarding parts of the event for me, however, wasn’t the art or the crazy parties (although they were fascinating, eye-opening, and fun), but the training that is given for the event’s Rangers. Black Rock City Rangers (for the main event in Nevada), and their related local burn Rangers, are an integral part of the Burner community, and help keep things on track.  They are explicitly not police officers, but when Rangers are around, people generally give them a good deal of respect, and are seen as key members of the community.  How do they do this?   At their core,  they use social capital to keep the sometimes chaotic nature of the event on an “even keel.”   Many times, they essentially, “do nothing,” and just observe situations.  The details of how they do this aren’t too earth shattering; knowing about active vs. passive listening, knowing how to help defuse certain situations and when to call in for help, and being just generally good event citizens.  The training isn’t too onerous; it’s a one day affair with a local orientation on site at the event.

What makes this group amazingly useful is that they are generally self-aware about being human, their own personal limitations, and the limitations of what they can do. The training is very specific on these points.  For example,  when a Ranger can’t handle an event, person, or situation, that there is a standard protocol for handling it.   Being trained as a Ranger won’t save the world, nor will it make a community pull together, nor will it prevent people from being miserable to others.   It will, (if you are paying attention!) give you some tools on how to handle difficult situations and people.


  • Where else do you go to get educated?  Where is your favorite place to learn?
  • After you learn how to read, write, do basic mathematics, and how to construct a cogent argument, what other skills should you learn?
  • How can you teach people about recognizing the ‘monkey mind’?
  • What sort of programs that exist outside of the normal realm of traditional schools, coursework, online programs and the like have you found to be eye-opening?
  • Could we have the equivalent of societal Rangers?   Do priests/rabbis/(insert local religious person) qualify, or are they too doctrinal?
  • Police officers have a uniform, so they can be easily recognized in society.   So do Rangers.  Could those societal Rangers have a signifying symbol or form to indicate they were “on duty” and available for general societal help?


Education, News, and Data



Last week, George Carlin’s rant on education, with references to other folks who see the charade of modern schooling was rolled out.

Given the ongoing small disasters and tragedies of modern life (mass shootings, health care, and the specter of climate change), one has to ask – why is it so hard for people to understand what is going on?  For sure, there are disagreements, and people will argue the details of the Second Amendment, government’s role in medical insurance, and climate change data, but why are things still at a standstill?  Why is there little forward motion on any of these issues?

George Carlin’s take on education is that it is because the powers that be don’t want us to be knowledgeable and thoughtful; just smart enough to run the machinery.    But how do people break out of that worldview?  When do people start listening to the BBC vs Fox News (or NPR, for that matter)?  One the greatest things that appeals to me about the BBC is that when they do interviews, they don’t pull punches, and they tend not roll over when talking to people in power (or, in the least they seem to have some sort of a spine).  There are criticisms of the BBC, of course, but getting news about your own country from outside your own country (whether the UK, Canada, Europe, Russia or Japan) is a great way to get more objective viewpoints, or at least viewpoints that have different starting points. When do people start looking for the data themselves, and looking deeper into the current problems we have, and identifying root causes?

The recent and horrific mass shooting in a church, for example, has people focusing on easy access to guns, and mental health screening.    It still is hard for me to wrap my head around why someone would shoot people in cold blood for a bit of short-lived infamy.  What could possibly make someone think that was a good idea, by any stretch of the imagination?   Every person who does these kinds of things is vilified.  Is this the legacy anyone would want to have, or to have your family name associated with that?   If you’ve ever taken any sort of self-defense course, you should realize the seriousness and gravity of weapons of any kind (from fists to knives to firearms), and know that those things are real, deadly, and not part of any sort of video game.   Even when you learn to do something as innocuous as driving a car, it should be drilled into you that this is a potentially very dangerous thing, and you should act accordingly.

What really is going on here?   Switzerland is a place where every able-bodied man has a firearm in the house, but you don’t hear of people there going off their rocker and shooting up schools or churches.   The ‘fz‘ for Switzerland is a lot lower than that of America.    Many Americans don’t believe in climate change, and of course, America is famously (or infamously) the only major economic power that doesn’t have universal health care.  Something at the core is very different from those societies, and ours.   Passing laws to solve any particular problem can help, but we’ve got to come to grips with our own culture.

This post isn’t about solving a particular problem like gun violence; it is more about asking how we solve tough problems (ed. or predicaments) like it.  The  question of education, and how we get information in this country and data in general, is something that might be considered a root cause of these issues.   If you aren’t taught how to spot a fallacious argument, or are fed “news” which is biased and misleading, then these systemic problems aren’t going to be identified, much less solved.  Money in politics may be another “feature” of the American political system which is driving much of our debate in the wrong direction, and warping any sort of view that needs to be a lot clearer on a smörgåsbord of problems.


  • How do you get educated on any topic?
  • Where do you go for news?  Do you seek out different viewpoints?
  • How do you filter “fake news”?
  • At the core – where do you get your data?  And why?
  • Are other countries just simply better at education and news?  Or is it something about American culture?   If America were to experience real and sustained catastrophe, that affected everyone personally, like Europe and other places, would we wake up?

Schools and our current predicament


George Carlin’s famous rant on the American Dream has this phenomenal bit in it:

There’s a reason education sucks and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, ever be fixed. It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you got. Because the owners of this country don’t want that.

I’m talking about the real owners now. The big, wealthy…The real owners, the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians, they’re an irrelevancy. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the statehouses, the city halls. They’ve got the judges in their back pockets, and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear. They’ve got you by the balls! They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying – lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want; they want more for themselves and less for everybody else.

But I’ll tell you what they don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking.
They’re not interested in that! That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. That’s right! You know something? They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. They don’t want that! You know what they want? They want Obedient Workers – Obedient Workers. People who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it.

It’s pretty epic, this rant, even from Saint George.  But his observations aren’t just those of one man; they’ve been brought up by a few folks.   If you’ve been through a modern public school system, you might even recognize why your education was so miserable, and for many, useless.   Yes, you might have learned to add and subtract, and read passably.  That’s the ‘just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork,’ part of your schooling.

One other person who has seen this up close (and lived to write about it) is John Taylor Gatto, an award winning teacher who has written about this very topic.   In one of his books, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, he even brings up the point that because of [essentially] unlimited and cheap energy, our culture has become what we’ve got now.   His stories are a bit scary; even though many of us have gone through public schools, it is hard to believe that some people who are in charge behave the way he describes.

H.G. Wells put it bluntly:

“Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. For the truth is the greatest weapon we have.”


  • Is our education system a predicament, or a problem that can be solved?  Or would solving it cause more problems (like having an educated populace!)?
  • Who, or what, was your best teacher, and why?
  • How do you pass on important knowledge?  How do you teach others, even though you may not be a “professional teacher”?

Digital Coelacanth



Ah, the coelacanth.  Thought to be extinct for over 60+ million years, it was rediscovered in 1938.  There is a note in the Wikipedia entry that it may have evolved somewhat, but very slowly, because evolutionary pressures have been relatively light.   Still, it is the classic representative of the “living fossil” trope.  After getting a “new” flip (feature) phone (replacing an old one that was going wonky), it was interesting to muse on what other technologies are essentially “living fossils,” in this age of turbocharged, electronic (r)evolutionary change.  Yes, my personal telecommunications needs are still being met by a feature phone.  There are a few reasons this is done, and a quick search turns up a few articles, ranging from the humorous to matter-of-fact to the serious.    A feature phone, in this day and age, is essentially a ‘digital coelacanth’, still evolving, but still retaining the basic layout of its ancestors.   If you were to hand a modern feature phone to someone twenty years ago, they’d probably be able to figure it out (although the ‘browser’ option might confuse a few folks).

From a computer perspective, very little seems to not change; Windows 3.1 is a distant memory, as are a host of other operating systems.  The one computer operating system that has any relation to its ancestors, and that might be consider a living fossil (yet still evolving!) is the wide variety of Unix-like systems that are in use.   The Unix philosophy isn’t for everyone, but it seems to have done well in creating systems that work, and that people don’t have to relearn every N years when a new version comes out.   Many of the commands that have worked in the past still work, and much of the the intellectual framework is still the same.

A few folks still keep a calculator on their desk; a classic Casio FX-260 Solar, for example, has no batteries, and runs on solar power.  Although these features can be found on many smartphones, having computational capability, and only computational capability in a device can be useful.  For example, when on the phone, you don’t have to switch apps when talking to someone, and the calculator itself is cheap enough to be used in situations where an expensive smartphone might be destroyed.   In a laboratory or workshop, using a smart phone is great… until someone puts a soldering iron on it, or accidentally breaks it with a piece of nearby heavy equipment.

As much flack one can get for having these “coelacanthic” devices (a feature phone, a standalone calculator, a GPS for the car, a digital camera, a computer with a flavor of the Unix operating system), having your digital life spread out can also be a benefit.  When someone hacks a smartphone, they hack an entire person’s life.  Yes, these phones do have security measures, but when those measures are bypassed, a great many personal details can be released, as many a celebrity has found out.   By “air gapping” your devices, you can prevent, or at least slow down, some of the disasters that can happen in the modern digital world.   In some ways, this is a Unix philosophy applied to technology in general – everything should do one thing really well, and that’s it.  Now, of course, there may be situations where having a ‘Swiss army knife’ of a smart phone is desirable, but putting too much faith in once piece of technology is always a bit dicey.


  • What other digital “coelecanthinc” things come to mind?
  • Are there times when going forward makes perfect sense?  After all, very few of us use slide rules (although it is a good idea to know how to use one).   Learning these old technologies (from slide rules to sextants) that are hundreds, instead of mere decades old certainly makes your more cognizant of the underlying mathematics.
  • What is the metric or decision point for going with any new digital or other type of technology, instead of staying with the old ones?
  • Although not digital or electronic, many transportation modes are still being used, and still quite old, from sailboats to bicycles.  Both have evolved considerably over the years, with new materials and technologies, but people still do ride “beaters” and wooden sailboats.   When do we consider technologies “coelecanthinc”? When we think they are obsolete, but still used by a small minority?

Thoughtstoppers and Thoughtstarters


(For those of you don’t know – Aretha Franklin sang “Think“)

A rare intra-week post on something important.

JMG just put up an post about “thoughtstoppers” that everyone should definitely read.  Not only was JMG in top form, the comments that followed put a good light on the topic of what can stop people from engaging in good thinking and logical argument.  There were lots of catchphrases that made the list of “thoughtstoppers”.

JMG’s definition of a thoughtstopper is this:

A thoughtstopper is exactly what the term suggests: a word, phrase, or short sentence that keeps people from thinking. A good thoughtstopper is brief, crisp, memorable, and packed with strong emotion. It’s also either absurd, self-contradictory, or irrelevant to the subject to which it’s meant to apply, so that any attempt you might make to reason about it will land you in perplexity. The perplexity won’t do the trick by itself, and neither will the strong emotion; it’s the combination of the two that lets a thoughtstopper throw a monkey wrench in the works of the user’s mind.

This post has been ricocheting in my mind a bit, what about the converse?   Analog Science Fiction and Fact used to have tag lines at the beginning and end of stories; some were pretty good thoughtstarters.   What causes people to actually think?  What are some ‘thoughtstarters’?

Some that I think have worked in the past:

  • Whenever I meet someone with strong views, I like to ask, “Who is your best critic?” or “Who is on the other side of the argument that you respect the most?”   When asking JMG about his best critic, for example, he picked Ugo Bardi, no slouch himself.
  • Cui bono? (Who benefits?) is a good one; who benefits from a line of argument, or an action?
  • Politically, this can translate to my favorite during presidential elections; not “Who do you want to win?”, but “Who would you want to be running, on both sides of the aisle?”
  • “What is the most important thing to you?” or “What is the most important thing in your life?”  Once you have this question answered, you can possibly start to sort where people are starting from in a discussion, or at least start to see if their worldview is somewhat self-consistent.   Nobody is perfect, of course, but I think this question can at least bring some honest questioning of one’s actions.  It’s a tough question, especially when you ask it of yourself.
  • Replacing ‘is’ by ‘it appears’; it lessens the authority of a statement, and lets the listener know that you might have perceptual limitations.  Someone gave me the example of a ball that is green on one side, and red on the other; it appears green to me, red to you, and a mixture to someone else, depending on their location.  And if they are colorblind (or blind to visible light!) it appears even more differently.

Some of this stuff isn’t easy to fight; we tend to say things like “This volume of this box is one cubic foot,” rather than “This box appears to have a volume of one cubic foot,” when we think things are self evident, and that may bleed over into things that have a gray area.

Thinking on this topic may keep you on your toes for a while!

Questions (as always):

  • What are your own “thoughtstarters”?
  • Can you ever keep “thoughtstoppers” out of your speech, writing, and thoughts?
  • How does one keep the “thoughtstoppers” at bay?



On reducing fz in the Cidial Drake Equation


Last week, the Cidial Drake Equation was introduced.   It is analogous to the astronomical Drake Equation, in it tries to figure out how many lives might be lost to terrorism.   The same sort of equation(s) could be used to model how many lives were lost to things like disease.  The equation is postulated like this:

N = R * fn * fz * fu/ fc

N= the number of people killed per time period

R = total population

fn = fraction of people such a weapon could kill

fz = fraction of people crazy or willing enough to use such a weapon per time period

fu = repeatability of the use of such technology (related to cost; a knife versus a gun)

fc = relative cost of a technology (in money, resources, time,  technological base required)

The units of N are in people killed per time period, so dimensionally, fn, fz, fu, and fc will have to be corrected for this.  The essence is still the same – the casualty rate depends on a variety of factors.

The big question is how to reduce N, the number of people killed per time period.  If our technological base declines, fc might increase, and so might R.  But for now, if we assume our current modern world, how would we reduce fz, the only human element in the equation we might be able to change?

A lot depends on how fz behaves, with the rest of the factors in the equation. If fz goes up non-linearly with respect to R, unless R decreases, deaths will increase until a feedback loop kicks in, and reduces R.   The fz term may be dependent on a host of other factors (including technology itself, which might make people more crazy).   So in order to reduce fz, we’d have to ask what makes people go off and become terrorists.

This is a bit out of my wheelhouse, but a quick search does turn up quite a few people who have thought about this very thing.   It is one thing to stop terrorists, but it is another stop terrorism, or the causes of it.

There’s somewhere (a search can’t find the source on short notice…) a program where the solution was to “marry the terrorists off,” and get them settled down (a lot of young men with nothing to live for don’t make for a stable society).   This makes a heck of a lot of sense.   If you know anyone with a small child, they are generally too preoccupied and tired to do  destructive things.   Yes, there are terrorists who have children and wives.  But the upshot seems to be obvious – get people to care about something (family, community) in a constructive manner, rather than in a defensive one.

If fz is due to R, a reduction in population could also help, even if our technological base remains the same.  One crude commenter made the simple suggestion, “Everybody f***s everybody else,” so that through intermarriage and smearing of our very physical characteristics, we wouldn’t want to kill our (literal) brothers and sisters (or at least cousins).

Trying to solve the root cause of a problem, rather than throwing technology, money, and misguided effort is a lot harder, but in the end, it’s a lot better, of course.


  • How would you reduce fz?
  • What other problems have root causes which are easy to see, but difficult to combat?
  • Perhaps fz will never be zero.  Perhaps we should use the word ‘predicament’ instead of ‘problem’, with regard to terrorism?
  • In the end, will this all matter?  Should we even care about fz? In a resource constrained world, fc may go way, way up, so that N is low, no matter what the rest of the terms are.  People may be too busy surviving.