Category Archives: Uncategorized

Recognition of reality

Original photo: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_House#/media/File:White_House_north_and_south_sides.jpg , ‘matrixed’ via funny.pho.to/matrix-image-generator/

It is a very rare thing, but from time to time, the occupant of the Oval Office will say something that resonates with the outlook of the Long Emergency.    The notion that the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can actually speak without obfuscation and political smoke and mirrors is novel, but it does happen.  Most of the time when presidents speak, they give us grand gestures, promises, and pie-in-the-sky platforms that don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of actually solving the problems that need solving (perhaps because they are unsolvable problems (predicaments), rather than true problems).

In 2006, George W. Bush blew me away when he made the comment “we are addicted to oil.”  A stunning admission, especially coming from an oilman and a Texan.   Other presidents, from Nixon to Obama, have also mentioned oil,  as Jon Stewart (transcript) bravely/hilariously/sadly cataloged (video) years ago.

Donald Trump made a comment about recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and buried in his remarks, he stated, “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.”  Now, if he (or anyone else) could wrap his head around the reality of our energy/financial/environmental situations, and say the same thing, we’d have something.

Eisenhower’s farewell speech is probably the most haunting, and the most prescient.   In a time when America was economically on top (and still exporting oil), he had these words:

As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

Questions:

  • What other realities have politicians been blatantly obvious about?
  • When are politicians more likely to mention reality and unpleasant truths?  The higher up in office they go?  Only at the end of their term in office, as per Eisenhower?
  • Are politicians in other countries any more or less blunt?

If you want to search for bon mots of presidential truth, you can do so at the Miller Center of UVA.  Try searching on the terms “reality”, “hypocrisy”, “existential” versus terms like “hope” and “freedom”.  And, if you want to bring the Matrix effect to your images, go to  funny.pho.to/matrix-image-generator/.

 

 

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Jevon’s Paradox, Ride Sharing, and Self-Driving Cars

1280px-NYC_Taxi_in_motion

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Taxi#/media/File:NYC_Taxi_in_motion.jpg

For the moment, forget about some of the things Uber has been accused/criticized of; its sky-high valuation, data breaches, very variable pricing, and general criticism in the financial press.  All those particular problems could, in theory, be rectified with new management and/or tweaking their business model.  The fact that they have a new CEO might mean they are trying to actually solve those problems.   Sure, on the whole, ride sharing is a nifty idea; why drive or take public transit when someone else can do it for cheaper than a taxi?  The idea of Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing services sounds great; you get what you want, when you want it, for cheaper, and faster.

Not so fast – and that may be literal.

Jevon’s Paradox (which makes people use more of something the cheaper it becomes) seems to be putting in artificial bumps in the road when it comes to these services.   Ride sharing services appear to be making gridlock worse.   Of course, ride sharing services make life easier for you for now (one of the articles below mentions a ride of over an hour on the DC Metro, vs 21 minutes in a ride share), but as these services proliferate (unless they start carpooling intensely), things may start to slow down.  Even worse, they may siphon off ridership from public transport, making a death spiral for buses, subways, and other forms of mass transit.   Here are a few articles on the topic:

http://nyc.streetsblog.org/2017/02/27/its-settled-uber-is-making-nyc-gridlock-worse/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/despise-your-commute-metro-uber-and-lyft-are-conspiring-to-make-it-worse/2017/12/04/cca0cebe-d915-11e7-b1a8-62589434a581_story.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/16/upshot/is-uber-helping-or-hurting-mass-transit.html

https://www.thezebra.com/insurance-news/5339/uber-actually-make-traffic-worse/

Perhaps when people start paying the real amount of a ride-sharing ride, this effect will be reversed.   Subsidizing rides for market share can work for a short while, but unless you actually grab market share and stop subsidies, you’ll go broke.

https://www.fastcompany.com/4026256/investors-are-paying-2-billion-per-year-to-subsidize-your-uber-ride

Questions:

  • So, if (and that’s a big if), they figure out self-driving cars, what do you think will happen then?   Will the roads be clogged with self-driving cars?
  • What restrictions would you put on ride-sharing services, so that these problems are alleviated?
  • Surge pricing can cause a standard ride-share price to inflate significantly.  If local governments could take a bit of that very lucrative income and put it towards public transportation, would this help?
  • Just like BitCoin, the idea of ridesharing is an idea; there are thousands of cryptocurrencies, and a host of ridesharing companies.  Can the idea of a ride-sharing company be stopped?

 

 

 

On self control

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Cruise_control#/media/File:Tempomat.svg

Continuing with the idea of societal control via self-control – what can we say about such a concept?  The general idea is that the more folks that have self control, in general, the  less need there is for societal control.  The self control that most of us have prevents us from doing lots of counterproductive things like exploding in rage, or using technological levers to magnify our base emotions, so yeah, it sounds like a great plan.   If everyone has enough self-control not to blow up their neighbors car or other harebrained things, you don’t need laws (or enforcement) on the books for outlawing such actions.

Self-control is essentially a very local control of a system, and that’s generally been a good strategy as well.  The Soviet economy didn’t do well because of overly centralized planning, for example, and top-down-command planning may not work too well because of imperfect data, long lags between signal and response (“dead time”, the bane of any control system), and imperfect models of how things work in various places.  Local control allows different regions to adapt different strategies in solving problems, all which are more tightly coupled to local conditions.

Alas, self-control (and local control that has net positive benefits to all) means that you have to know a bit about yourself (educate yourself about yourself, have self-knowledge), and that is the tricky bit.   Sun Tzu, in The Art of War noted:

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

As discussed in earlier posts, education is generally horrible, precisely because people up the food chain may not want it.  Education, which leads to self-control/local control/self-knowledge is something that some governments and people who are used to ruling large numbers of people with an iron fist (in a velvet glove or not) may not like either.

Without self-control, and in the absence of external control, things tend to get messy.    Self-control may be a way forward, but it is going to be a tough slog.

Questions:

  • How have you gotten self-control over your own life, situation, or small issues, and how do you instill this in others?
  • Local control is nice, but when does it fail?  Air pollution, for example, can’t be regulated locally, because of its nature, so how to do we handle controlling it?
  • If self-knowledge, and knowledge of your own situation (especially things like your own mortality) is the key, then this may be why self-control is in short supply.  How do we get people to face such things?
  • Self-control and self-knowledge alone doesn’t mean we’ll get a perfect society (although many classic libertarians may want it to be so!).  What balance/level of global and self-control do we need in modern society?

 

On Control

PID_varyingP.jpg

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PID_controller#/media/File:PID_varyingP.jpg

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.

Questions:

  • 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.

Questions:

  • 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

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en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC#/media/File:BBC.svg

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.

Questions:

  • 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

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SOUTH_BRANCH_SCHOOLHOUSE;_SOMERSET,_NJ.jpg

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.”

Questions:

  • 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”?