Recent blog entries for StevenRainwater

Trekonomics by Manu Saadia

Star Trek TOS Replicator (AKA food synthesizer)

I’m always interested in the future of economics and, in particular, ways of adapting our world to deal with post scarcity economics. Nearly any book or paper on post scarcity economics, at one point or another, has to reference the most detailed known fictional example: Star Trek. So, when Manu Saadia’s new book, “Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek” was published, it went on my reading list immediately.

If you’re not familiar with post scarcity economics, it’s basically the future we’re headed towards, whether we like it or not. Industrialization, mass-production, 3D printing, nano-technology, automation, robots; all these things continually drive down the cost and scarcity of many goods and services. This is interesting because for the past few hundred years, all our economic models have been based around solving the so-called “economic problem” – that is, finding ways to allocate scarce resources to meet human needs and desires. The two favorite solutions to the economic problem, capitalism and communism/socialism, have developed religious-like ideological followings.

Pure capitalism relies on the collective action of everyone’s individual greed to allocate resources. Communism and socialism rely on central planning to allocate resources (the difference is that Communism is the result of a revolution from capitalism, while socialism is an evolution of capitalism). In the real world neither method has ever worked well in its pure form, though capitalism comes the closest. Attempts to rely solely on central planning have always failed unless some elements of individual freedom of action are incorporated. Likewise, attempts to rely solely on capitalism fail unless certain elements of central planning are incorporated (e.g. minimum wages, banking regulations, etc). But, however you mix the two, the goal is always to solve the economic problem of resource allocation. What would happen if that problem went away?

In the Star Trek universe the problem of resource allocation largely doesn’t exist. For the most part, anyone can obtain anything they want, any time they want, at no cost beyond the energy required to replicate it. Obviously the real world isn’t there yet but we’re headed that way. In economics, an externality is something that doesn’t come into play when calculating supply and demand – the cost of goods and services. For example, GPS is thought to be the first man-made service to be an economic externality. It exists all over the Earth and anyone can use it at no cost. No one has to worry about how to allocate GPS service as a resource because there is never a shortage of it and the very idea of supply vs demand is meaningless with regard to it. When many good and services become as ubiquitous as GPS, what happens?

Obviously, the two primary systems we’ve relied on in the past, capitalism and communism/socialism, would also become meaningless at that point. Supply would tend toward infinity while cost, labor, and employment tend towards zero. Some kind of new economic system is needed to cope with a world like that, but what? Answering that question is what post scarcity economics is all about.

Economists are just beginning to speculate on this sort of thing but science fiction writers have pondered it for decades. Star Trek’s Federation of Planets is the most detailed and well-known example of a fictional post scarcity economy. There is no money. No one is paid to work. Goods have effectively zero cost because they can be replicated at will by anyone. This sounds crazy at first to many people. Why would people work if they’re not paid? How could anything get done with no money? Trying to understand how such an economic system could function is what economists are after. Studying Star Trek’s model has proven to be a good starting point.

Star Trek TNG Replicator

Many people mistakenly think Star Trek portrays a communist or socialist government. But there are many clear examples showing that this is not the case. There is no prohibition against private property. For example, the Picard family owns and operates a vinyard that produces fine wines. Anyone is as free to start any sort of business enterprise as they are under a modern capitalist system. For example, Joseph Sisko operates a restaurant in New Orleans. There is no prohibition against anyone having or using currency if they want to, it’s just unnecessary within the Federation itself. When dealing with alien races outside the Federation, for example, various types of currency have been used.

But who runs the Federation economy? Star Fleet itself relies on central planning in the same way any large organization does but the Federation of Planets appears to do very little Federation-wide economic planning as there is simply no need for it. However, there are a few things that can’t be replicated even in the Star Trek universe, such as dilithium crystals or certain medical compounds. There are upper limits on production such as the number of starships that can be built per year. So the government does have a few things to keep it busy. But, otherwise, little central planning or control seems to be needed.

This brings us to Trekonomics. Unfortunately, you aren’t likely to learn as much as you might wish from this book. Despite the promising title, it’s mostly written from the point of view of someone who doesn’t really “get” the show, or at least is only interested in one particular incarnation known as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The author goes to some lengths in the final chapters to point out that he really thinks Star Trek and all science fiction is ultimately a waste of time. The author believes space travel itself is pointless, and that even leaving the Earth to visit Mars is misguided. He’s really only interested in the economic principles. Sadly, he never really gets around to talking much about the economics.

The majority of the book is a collection of personal anecdotes and lengthy retellings and paraphrasings of various Star Trek episodes that had an impact on his economic thoughts. Other than an introduction in which he describes post scarcity in general and a description of how Star Trek’s replicator effectively reduces the cost of goods to zero, there’s very little useful information. At the end of the book, you’ll know his favorite Star Trek characters, his favorite episodes, what he thinks of Elon Musk, where he got his first Isaac Asimov book, and a dozen other bits of useless trivia. But you won’t know much more about the actual economics of Star Trek than when you started.

However, I didn’t write all this just to tell you the book sucked. Rather, I’d like to point you to an alternative to the book. Rick Webb has written a good sized document titled, “The Economics of Star Trek” that does an excellent job of looking at all the economic clues we can discover from Star Trek. He even speculates a bit on how such things could actually work in a realistic economic system, something Saadia doesn’t event attempt in Trekonomics.

And one last tidbit. You may want to check out one of the earliest predictions that the world is headed towards a post scarcity system. In 1930 economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a paper called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren“. Saadia mentions the paper in Trekonomics but doesn’t really go anywhere with it. Keynes notes in his paper that while scarcity has long been the fundamental assumption of economics, by 2030 we may be facing a world in which wealth and automation have rendered the economic problem solved. He predicts that capitalism will get us there but that it will be forced by technology to evolve into something else afterwards. He predicts that humans will have to adjust to a new lifestyle in which money is not important and the love of money will be viewed as a sickness. And finally he predicts that economics will become a mundane field as a result.

The one flaw in his vision is that he assumed capitalism would continue following the path of classic enlightenment liberalism, as it did in his time. If we allow economic inequality to grow rather than decline, his predictions will fail. It seems to me that capitalism has gone off the rails in that regard and is leading us toward disaster. We may still reach a utopian economic system like that of Star Trek but it may have to be by another route such as democratic socialism. Or, maybe it’s not too late to reform capitalism. It will be interesting to find out.

Syndicated 2017-02-25 04:22:52 from Steevithak of the Internet

The Women’s March on Austin

Like most people, we were disheartened by the horrible results of the 2016 election. The old quote that is variously attributed to Edmund Burke or John Stuart Mill kept rolling around in mind; “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. The awful coalition of the Tea Party, alt-right, neo-Nazis, white nationalists and the religious right that over-powered the Republic Party and spawned the Trump administration is as evil as anything in American history that I can think of. The growing need to do something, even if only a symbolic gesture of resistance, coincided with a chance sighting on Facebook of some event info about a Women’s March in Washington, DC planned for January 21.

There was no way we could attend a march in Washington, DC but there appeared to be ancillary marches in the State capitols as well. Austin seemed possible, so we put it on the calendar. The event info also mentioned the Pussy Hat Project – a good-natured poke at Donald Trump’s hypocritical “Make America Great Again” hats. His hats promoted bringing jobs back to America while ironically being mass-produced by low income workers in China. Pussy Hats, in contrast, would be hand made by individual American makers everywhere. Neither Susan nor I are knitters but I am a member of Dallas Makerspace, the biggest collective of hackers and makers in Texas, so it was pretty easy to find a like-minded knitter there. The talented Devin Burnett knitted us a few hats in exchange for the pink yarn.

Early on the morning of Jan 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration, we set out for Austin. There was a beautiful sunrise but almost immediately a weird, dark haze began to settle over the landscape. There was no rain. It was more like a thick dark fog. We joked that perhaps as in Lord of the Rings, the rise of evil is always accompanied by a physical darkness settling over the land. The dark haze was with us most of the way down but finally began to break up as we approached Austin, revealing a beautiful, warm sunny day. Along the way to Austin we saw numerous buses and I noticed someone on Facebook saying they were taking a bus from Dallas to Austin. Had we known about them, we’d have taken a bus too. Our biggest worry was that it would be impossible to find parking close to the capitol. As it turned out, everything worked out perfectly.

We found the Cap Metro Howard Station Park & Ride on Google maps on the northern outskirts of Austin and decided to take a chance that there would be a way to get downtown on a Metro bus. We parked free and walked straight from the car to a waiting bus with Cap Metro employees waving us aboard. We tried to buy two day passes but it was an “exact change only” situation and the smallest bill we had was a ten that the cash scanner didn’t like. The driver asked if were going to the Women’s March. We said yes and she comp’ed us two day passes. The bus was full of other happy, pussy hat wearing marchers.

The bus arrived downtown and let us out a couple of blocks from the capitol. It was no problem finding the march. There were people from every direction converging on it and within moments we had merged into a stream of marchers. Originally, the plan was for everyone to meet at the capitol and then march a 1.5 mile path around downtown. As it turned out, there were so many people that the entire capitol grounds were filled as well as the entire 1.5 mile marching course. The Austin police estimated 50,000 marchers. So there was a continuous, endless loop of marchers on the 1.5 mile path for nearly four hours as well as the massive crowds on the capitol grounds. It was the largest crowd we’ve ever seen in person.

We marched for a while and then mingled with the crowds at the capitol. I shot lots of photos. I was amazed at the range of ages and the diversity. There were people of every race, old women in wheel chairs, children of all ages, I even saw one blind woman. There were lots of men as well and entire families marching together. There were lots of religious leaders marching too.

I was especially pleased to see the wide range of issues, well beyond just women’s rights being represented. I think this election may have awakened a widespread recognition that we have to stop taking things for granted, that we have to get out and work together or the forces of ignorance and superstition will overtake us all. I saw many signs advocating science and evidence based policy. There were a surprising number of signs bearing inside jokes of geeks, nerds, and science fiction fans. There was a general feeling of good-natured humor and fun among the marchers. Overall it was a great experience and I think it really encouraged everyone that maybe there is some hope after all. Maybe what we’re seeing is not the pendulum swinging back into the ignorance of the past but, rather, the last gasps of an ever shrinking minority who want to hold back the rest of the world and who may well die out in a generation.

We eventually headed back to the bus stop and made the drive back to Dallas. It was a long day but well worth it. Now we just need to get back to the everyday work of trying to make the world a better place.

Syndicated 2017-01-24 04:56:31 from Steevithak of the Internet

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Leaves beneath the ice of Walden Pond. Photo by Flickr user Bemep, CC BY-NC 2.0

Leaves beneath the ice of Walden Pond. Photo by Flickr user Bemep, CC BY-NC 2.0

I usually review pulp science fiction books, science books, even the occasional graphic novel, so a review of a classic like Walden may seem a bit out of place here. But I do try to read a little of everything including the classics and Walden has been on my reading list for a long time. The edition I chose is Walden and Other Writings, 2000, Modern Library Paperback Edition; partly because I also wanted to read Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience, which is in this volume, but also because I like the cover art depicting a winter scene near Walden Pond. I admit, I’ve bought more than one book based solely on the cover art.

I had vaguely thought that Walden was a work of philosophy resulting from Thoreau spending time alone pondering Life, The Universe, and Everything. It’s really nothing like that. It’s much more modern that I expected. Imagine reading a blog by someone who decides to give up television, WiFi, social media, modern technology and civilization in general as an experiment. Imagine this person finds some land by a lake and determines to live a DIY existence. They build their own tiny house from available materials, they eat only what they can find or grow, and make their own clothes. And they write weekly updates on their progress as they do all this. That’s basically what’s going on in Walden. It’s a DIY book mixed with some appreciation of nature.

Thoreau doesn’t completely leave the world behind. He walks to town periodically to give lectures, his writings are published, he has frequent visitors. A lot of the townsfolk think he’s a bit odd and keep their distance but he interacts with a wide range of other eccentric characters: hunters in the woods, fishermen on the pond, rail workers from the railroad that passes near his tiny house, transients who wander through. When he can, he invites these random people into his house and questions them about the nature of the human race and civilization. The bravest strangers even taste some of the weird foods Thoreau subsists on.

Some chapters are strictly DIY stuff like lists of materials used in building his tiny house and their costs. Or what he eats and how he obtains it. Other chapters are observations about nature – what animals he runs into, the sensory experience of the pond and woods in the different seasons. And there actually is a little bit of philosophy hidden away here and there; do humans really need to eat meat or would we be better off if we were all vegetarians? Should we be more self reliant? Why do we waste so much time and energy making money for things like clothes and homes that we could make ourselves much more simply?

The book is laid out chronologically by seasons and takes the reader through the first year at Walden Pond. The first few chapters are the most interesting as they contain the parameters of his experiment and most of the details on how he builds his shelter and gathers his supplies. Later chapters tend to be his observations of nature once things have settled into a routine. Amusingly, the descriptive part of the book ends after the first year with the sentence, “Thus was my first year’s life in the woods completed; and the second year was similar to it.” The book, while interesting and sometimes profound, is not a page-turner and you’re probably be as glad as I was that he decides not to chronicle his second year as well.

Thoreau doesn’t think everyone should give up on civilization and live as he did at Walden, of course. He clearly thinks of his two year adventure there as nothing more than an experiment to see what the minimum lifestyle could consist of. Just like modern writers who give up The Internet or some other modern convenience for a year, Thoreau fully intends to return to civilization when his experiment is done. Despite finding it a slow read and difficult to slog through at times, particularly in the second half, I still recommend it. There are more than enough interesting and enjoyable bits to make up for it.

Syndicated 2016-10-02 23:53:54 from Steevithak of the Internet

Morning After Dallas Sniper Attack

View from my office the morning after the Dallas sniper attack.

Wow, how to summarize the last 12 hours. Last night there was a peaceful protest march in downtown Dallas in response to the recent killings by police in other states. Towards the end of the march, snipers began shooting at police officers. The shooting was audible a half mile away at my office in Deep Ellum where I was working late. I thought at first it was fireworks, then I starting seeing events unfold on social media with posts from friends who were at the march. At least 14 people were shot, 12 of them officers. 5 officers died, 4 DPD and 1 DART officer. There appear to have been four suspects, 3 male and 1 female. One of the suspects holed up in a parking garage and was involved in a standoff with police that lasted for hours. When neogtiations with police broke down and the suspect started shooting again, the police killed the suspect using a bomb delivered by a DPD robot.

A lot of downtown was on lockdown most of the night, including the parking lot where most of the protesters parked. My friends in the march were unable to get back to their cars and had to spend most of the night in Union Station. Uber was providing complimentary rides to get some of them home. I stayed over night at my office in Deep Ellum. Everyone I know at the march and in downtown is safe. From early reports of what the deceased sniper said to police, the shooting was racially motivated but does not appear to be associated with the protest march aside from taking advantage of the police protection that DPD always offers to marches and protests downtown. The route of the march had been announced beforehand, so the shooters could easily have planned the best location for their attack.

It’s morning now and already the political spin is running full bore, try to turn this terrorist attack into rating points for one side or the other. Either we have to support all police, who are universally good and we must believe everyone they shoot to be evil thugs; or we have to assume that all cops are bad and corrupt and that everyone they shoot is innocent. This political effort to force all issues to be black and white is intentionally divisive and needs to be rejected. Reality is never that black and white. We need to support good cops while still calling out bad ones and peacefully protesting against injustices. There’s nothing inconsistent about marching in a protest against unjust police killings while still supporting our local police who are risking their lives to protect our right to free speech.

Syndicated 2016-07-08 14:18:31 from Steevithak of the Internet

Civic Republicanism by Iseult Honohan

The School of Athens by Raphael

The School of Athens by Raphael

In 2013, I wrote a review of the excellent book, Common as Air by Lewis Hyde, about the history of the commons. I became interested in learning more about the history of “Civic Republicanism” while reading that book, which touches on the relationship of republicanism to pursuit of the common good. In later correspondence with Lewis, I asked for a recommendation on a good general book on the concept. He recommended Civic Republicanism by Iseult Honohan. So I picked it up from Amazon and it sat in my reading queue until recently. Now I’ve read it and it’s time to write a review.

To start off, let’s clear up some terms. A “republic” is likely a form of government you remember from high school or college. We’re interested in a particular type of republic known as a “Civic Republic” – that is, a form of government in which citizens rule themselves either directly or through representative leaders. If you live in the United States, you are familiar with the basics of a civic republic because it’s the system on which our country is based. It’s also important to point out that the terms republican and republicanism have absolutely nothing to do with the modern American right-wing Republican political party. When founded in 1854 by anti-slavery activists, the political party took its name from the idea of republicanism and originally advocated principles of republicanism and classic liberalism. Over the years it abandoned those principles, shifting right towards conservatism as the Democratic party shifted left towards modern liberalism. Eventually, the two parties reversed their original positions. More recently, the Republican political party seems to have broken into factions that advocate theocracy, plutocracy, or authoritarian nationalism. Ironically, republicanism is anathema to modern Republicans. The author is not an American and the book doesn’t address this difference between republicans and Republicans, which can lead to some confusion if the reader is unaware of it.

I read Civic Republicanism shortly after reading Steven Pinker’s enjoyable book, The Sense of Style. Unfortunately, this made me more aware than I might otherwise have been that Civic Republicanism is rife with examples of the problems Pinker describes in academic writing including “highfalutin gobbledygook”, overly abstract metaconcepts, and the curse of knowledge. It’s a hard book to read and definitely not an enjoyable way to pass the time. I found myself having to re-read paragraphs and sometime single sentences several times to work out what the author was trying to say. Here are a couple of random sample sentences from an early section of the book describing Aristotle’s views:

Because people are naturally undetermined as wholly good or wholly bad, but develop their character through acting, the social and political relationships in which they live are crucial to their possibility of self-realisation

and another

Moreover, the hierarchical division of human nature means that the obligations of citizens to anyone outside the political community are very limited.

Decoding 300 pages of that sort of writing takes a bit of work! That’s the bad news about the book.

The good news is that it does provide an excellent survey of the major historical thinkers on republicanism including Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Harrington, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, and Madison (who designed our republic). It also covers modern political philosophers’ attempts to bring republicanism into the 21st century to compete with the currently more popular ideas of modern liberalism on the left (what we in the US might call “direct democracy” or “universal democracy”) and nationalism on the right (basically the modern Republican Party in the US – think flag waving, patriotism, belief in exceptionalism). The book is divided into two parts, the historical overview and the modern debates. The book does a good job of laying out the evolution of republicanism and points the way to all the original material if you have the time to pursue it.

The basics of a republic seem pretty simple. You get some people together, form a community, agree on rules for self-government and go to it. Generally, the goals are to maximize individual freedom while collectively pursuing common goods. If you want your republic to survive, it must have the qualities of civic virtue, political participation, personal and political freedom, equal political recognition, and equality of wealth. All the philosophers agree that a republic cannot survive long if there is corruption (a lack of civic virtue), lack of participation, or unequal distribution of wealth. So my earlier comment about the Republican political party having nothing to do with republicanism should be further clarified now. Their policy choices are a recipe for destroying a republic by maximizing wealth inequality and stamping out civic virtues.

Nothing is that simple of course and where our philosophers disagree is over the exact definitions of each of the desired qualities and the relative importance of each. For example, is freedom the complete lack of government coercion? To live in a community is to be interdependent on each other under the rule of law. But even if we make our own law, we must be subject to it. Does that limit our freedom or is the law an expression of our freedom? When Odysseus begs his crew to untie him as he listens to the siren song, does the crews’ lack of compliance indicate that Odysseus is not free? It was his own order that he be tied and that the crew refuse any plea to untie him until they are safely past the sirens. If citizens of a republic agree to jointly fund some common good through the collection of taxes, does being coerced later to fulfill that obligation represent a lack of freedom or an expression of the freedom?

Who should be counted as citizens of a republic? This was another question that evolved over time. Aristotle would have excluded women, slaves, young men, and many others. The circle of citizenship gradually expands with time. Eventually Wollstonecraft includes women, making republics encompass nearly everyone in time for Madison to pick up the idea and run with it.

What is the exact nature of civic virtue and corruption? Corruption as thought of in republicanism may seem non-intuitive to a modern reader. Today we think of corruption as a problem with politicians but in a republic, corruption is the problem of citizens who place their private interests above those of the common good or community interests, so political corruption is merely a subset of a larger problem. The citizen who avoids paying a fair share of taxes, who out of greed tries to influence politicians, citizens who avoid jury duty, voting, or participation in local government – those are the forms of corruption that will eventually destroy even the strongest republic.

What are the common goods that a republic should seek? There’s more agreement on this one. Common goods include building infrastructure such as roads, maintaining military strength for defensive purposes, providing universal education, and any other long term goals that are the will of the citizens and from which all citizens benefit such as protecting the environment, scientific research, universal healthcare.

The problem of wealth distribution is particularly interesting given our modern situation in the United States. Historical republicans from Aristotle to Madison would not be surprised to see the Occupy Wall Street movement given that corruption has resulted in so much of our nation’s wealth becoming concentrated in a tiny percentage of the population, a condition which is fatal to republics. For a good explanation of how wealth inequality became so severe in the US, see the excellent documentary by the economist Robert Reich called Inequality for All.

The sheer size of the Unites States would have presented problems to the earliest republicans, but not Madison. His improvements included the idea of a multi-level government that broke citizen participation into local, state, and federal levels. He added the concept that “representation” could be a partial substitute for participation in government among those who were incompetent to participate or merely apathetic. He dropped an idea held by earlier theorists that a republic needed a common religion or a religious test for participation in government, thus allowing a republic with the added freedom that a citizen could choose any religion or none. With these improvements, Madison hoped the United States could defy the expectations of earlier republicans that all large republics were doomed to fail.

Finally, how about a personal anecdote to take this from theory to practice.

On 23 May, 1745, an ancestor of mine, John Rainwater, went to the Edgecomb County, North Carolina court in order to record a deed. He came home having been appointed by the court to provide room and board to a fellow named John Jones who was overseeing the construction of a road through the county. It’s likely John Rainwater was appointed merely because of his presence in the court that day. Being a citizen of a republic who strove to exhibit civic virtue, he fulfilled his obligation because it promoted a common good from which he and others in his community would benefit. Can you imagine being asked to contribute towards a modern road construction project by hosting a construction foreman? We have little civic virtue left in this country. I have some conservative friends who believe what was once known as civic virtue is “government intrusion” on their freedom. They believe paying taxes is equivalent to the government taking their money (or even “stealing” their money). They not only wouldn’t be willing to contribute their time or money to building a road that benefits the community, they often actively oppose the very concept of the government pursuing any common good (e.g. roads, public schools, protecting our common environment).

Civic virtue remains as an idealistic goal for many but often a goal they hope someone else will achieve for them. Aristotle, Cicero, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Madison agree – all citizens in a republic should participate directly. Paying taxes is essential but not enough. Citizens need to learn how their government works and take part in it. Run for public office; volunteer for military service; take a civil service job; volunteer for a community board; join a CERT team; become a civic hacker. Today there are an endless number of ways to participate on many different levels of government.

I was inspired to join an Advisory Board in my hometown of Irving, TX. Coming from the business world, I had to adjust to the slower pace of government. But having been involved for over a year now, I’m beginning to see that what I’m doing is really making a difference. Ideas I’ve initiated have wound their way through city government and slowly taken effect. Here’s one way to look at it. If you’re like me, you’ve probably wasted hours of your life arguing politics online. No real change ever comes from those arguments. Instead, devote that time to learning about and participating in your local government. It’s a simple reallocation of your time that will result in less stress and real changes for the better.

Syndicated 2016-05-30 16:06:08 from Steevithak of the Internet

Triumph of the Fail Whale

Fail Whale by Matthias Töpfer (CC-BY-NC)

Early social networks had status fields; little boxes where you posted a short status line about your current emotional state (“I’m bored”) and maybe an emoticon. As social networks proliferated, Twitter came along, based on the useful idea that you could enter your status one time and have it automatically sync to anywhere else you wanted. I adopted Twitter relatively early on and it was a great time saver.

It was also easy to generate tweets from programs. When I published a new blog post, like this one, WordPress generated a tweet; the tweet then appeared as my status on Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, on my personal websites (even on Myspace back in the day). Flickr and other sites could generate tweets to reflect current activity and I often wrote programs for websites I developed that generated tweets. For example, I wrote a bot for Camera-Wiki.org that tabulated the number wiki edits each week and posted it as a tweet. Twitter was the universal plumbing of the social media universe.

Gradually, Twitter has stopped talking to most sites. One of the earliest ones I remember this happening with was LinkedIn. One day my tweets stopped appearing on my LinkedIn profile status. LinkedIn claimed Twitter had changed their policy and no longer allowed LinkedIn to display tweets. Twitter claimed LinkedIn changed their policy. Sometime later, Google Plus started blocking Twitter. Then Twitter dropped their RSS feeds and created a new system that allowed them to block usage on personal websites unless you gave them your mobile phone number for tracking and demographics purposes. The final straw for me is that Facebook, while still allowing me to sync my Facebook status from Twitter, considers tweets as second class posts. If I post a status update via Twitter maybe 1% of my Facebook followers will ever see it. If post directly or from other, non-Twitter services such as Instagram, a much larger percentage of my followers see it.

For me, the sole purpose of Twitter is syncing my status with other social networks, so Twitter is now next to useless. I recently turned off my Facebook to Twitter sync. I think it’s not just me. Twitter seems to be largely a wasteland of lost status postings these days; an endless stream of status messages flying into a vacuum with no humans left to read them. I’ll probably keep posting there out of habit for a while longer but I think Twitter’s 15 minutes of fame are winding down.

Syndicated 2015-10-26 21:39:54 from Steevithak of the Internet

Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells might be subtitled “Mr. Barnstaple takes a holiday” as that’s a pretty good summary of the basic plot. This 1922 book is partially intended as a Utopian novel and follows the usual convention of having an average, modern human transported into a Utopian world to represent the reader as he uncovers the workings and nature of Utopia. As might be expected of Wells, he goes the extra step to give the novel a science fiction wrapper and in the process, establishes not one but several new genres of science fiction. Just as all time travel novels trace their heritage back to Well’s book, The Time Machine, all parallel universe, multiverse, para-time, cross-time, and alternate history novels descend from Men Like Gods.

Let’s get the plot out of the way first as that’s the least interesting aspect of the book. Mr. Barnstaple is a down-trodden enlightenment liberal who writes for a leftist newspaper. He’s given up hope of changing the world. He’s depressed, hates his job, is annoyed by his family. He determines a solo holiday is the only thing that will save his sanity and sets out for no where in particular in the Yellow Peril, his little two seater car. Coming around a curve in the countryside, he and two other vehicles are suddenly swept out of this world and find themselves in a strange land near the smoking wreckage of a scientific experiment gone wrong. They soon meet some inhabitants of this new world and find it’s similar to Earth but a thousand years in the future. Needing a name for the place, they decide to refer to it as, wait for it, Utopia!

As Barnstaple learns about the amazing world, he realizes it embodies all the ideals he believes in. The others in his party, being more conservative, particularly a narrow minded priest, see the world as degenerate. They make nothing of the peace, prosperity and happiness all around them. Instead they see people who don’t wear enough clothing, don’t have religion, aren’t capitalists, and offend in numerous other ways. With the exception of Barnstaple, the Earthlings soon hatch an ill-conceived plot to take some Utopians hostage, thinking they can use that as a spring board to world-domination and remake Utopia in the image of Earth. I won’t give away too much but there’s never any doubt Barnstaple will survive the goings-on and soon enough is sent back to Earth all the wiser and now with a renewed sense of hope that Earth can someday become like Utopia if we all work hard at improving things.

What sets the book apart from other Utopian novels and gives it an honored place in the annals of science fiction is the first description of the multiverse, the first hint that multiple universes could be “parallel” to and even duplicates of our own; in this case only time-shifted some thousand years. Utopia is in a universe that is essentially an alternate time line of Earth’s universe. The book also postulates that while some universes are nearly identical, others may be wildly different. It’s also the first description of a technological method of cross-timeline travel between parallel universes. As if that’s not enough, there’s a description towards the end of the Utopian’s plans to leave their planet and explore the stars using space travel technology that allows them to bypass normal spatial distances by taking a shortcut; it’s essentially an early description of hyperspace, subspace, warp drive or something along those lines. And for his last trick, Wells explains away the ability of the Earthlings to communicate with the Utopians (who obviously are unlikely to speak English) by explaining that they evolved telepathic abilities. They speak using their minds and we hear them in whatever language we naturally understand, provided we know a word that fits the concept they’re thinking to us.

Here’s the actual description of the multiverse:

Serpentine proceeded to explain that just as it would be possible for any number of practically two-dimensional universes to lie side by side, like sheets of paper, in three dimensional space, so in the many dimensional space about which the ill equipped human mind is still slowly and painfully acquiring knowledge, it is possible for an enumerable quantity of practically three dimensional universes to lie, as it were, side by side and to undergo a roughly parallel movement through time.

Travel between parallel universes is accomplished using a machine that takes a cube-shaped chunk of the universe you’re in and “rotates” it through a higher dimension, causing it to come into contact with some nearby universe. The first test of the technology works but the machine explodes killing the operators. By the end of the book, the machine is not only rebuilt but improved, made portable and, as an added bonus, can even control which Universe it connects with, conveniently allowing Barnstaple to be sent home. Interestingly, because Barnstaple arrived accidentally in moving car and the Utopians wish to return him the same way, they set up an arrangement reminiscent of Back to the Future in which Barnstaple must drive along a segment of roadway, hitting a trip wire strung across the road, triggering the cross-time machine at precisely the right instant to transport his moving car.

Wells make a variety of political observations about the failings of our own world including his complaints with the capitalism, Marxism, and socialism of his day. He describes an economic system in which each Utopian citizen lives a government-funded life up to the completion of a very elaborate and detailed education, after which they must choose a path in life that contributes to the world’s economy. They can choose to do anything they like, ranging from a required minimum that allows them to spend most of their life goofing off, to pursuing any career or endeavor, even acquiring wealth and using it as they choose. The Utopians lack any formal government or rulers. Much of the world operates on the “do-ocracy” principle common in hackerspaces. If you see something in the world that needs improvement, it’s up to you to do it, organizing the doing of it, or pay someone to do it. At one point Crystal, a Utopian student who befriends Barnstaple, explains that society is based on The Five Principles of Liberty:

  1. Privacy – All individual personal facts are private between the citizen and the public organization to which he entrusts them, and can be used only for his convenience and with his sanction (and anonymously for statistical purposes only)
  2. Free Movement – A citizen, subject to discharge of his public obligations, may go without permission or explanation to any part of the planet.
  3. Unlimited Knowledge – All that is known, except individual personal facts about living people, is on record and easily available to everyone. Nothing may be kept from a citizen nor misrepresented to him.
  4. Lying is the Blackest Crime – Where there are lies there cannot be freedom. Facts may not be suppressed nor stated inexactly
  5. Free Discussion and Criticism – Any citizen is free to criticize and discuss anything in the whole universe provided he tells no lies either directly or indirectly. A citizen may discuss respectfully or disrespectfully, with any intent, however subversive. A citizen may express ideas in any literary or artistic form desired.

Before Barnstaple leaves, he makes one appeal to stay, speaking to a wise, old Utopian who explains that he must go back and that Earth will eventually follow the same course of history to become Utopian in it’s own time. He warns Barnstaple against attempting premature contact between the two universes until Earth has gotten its house in order:

What could Utopians do with the men of Earth? … You would be too numerous for us to teach … Your stupidities would get in our way, your quarrels and jealousies and traditions, your flags and religions, and all your embodied spites and suppressions, would hamper us in everything we should want to do. We should be impatient with you, unjust and overbearing. You are too like us for us to be patient with your failures … We might end by exterminating you.

Given the way their economy works, it’s fairly clear that it would fall apart pretty quickly if flooded with citizens who have the typical nature of modern humans. In the end, Men like Gods presents a Utopia that needs better humans to be workable, but at least it recognizes that, a fact that sets it above much of the Utopian literature that preceded it.

Syndicated 2015-02-28 18:52:57 from Steevithak of the Internet

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes


Jaynes’ book atop books by a few authors who were influenced by his theory.

Julian Jaynes’ book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is one of those books that just about everyone reads sooner or later. Jaynes is an example of the rare author who could write a scientific treatise that was both ground-breaking and readily readable by the general public. His book was published in 1976 and presented what has to be the most controversial theory ever in the fields of consciousness and religion. Despite the theory seeming completely outlandish at first glance, the book presents testable predictions all along the way. Many modern researchers still believe Jaynes theory to be partially or completely wrong but there’s no question is has pushed research toward a better understanding of consciousness and religion. Daniel Dennett, who notes Jaynes was probably wrong at least about some particulars like the importance of hallucinations, still thinks his main thesis could be correct. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins commented that Jaynes theory is “either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former but I’m hedging my bets.” In addition to scientists, Jaynes’ theory also inspired two generations of science fiction authors from Philip K. Dick to Neal Stephenson (who based parts of Snow Crash on Jaynes’ theory). David Bowie acknowledges being influenced by this book during his work with Brian Eno on Low and has included the book on his list of 100 Must Read Books.

Julian Jaynes was an American psychologist interested in the origins of consciousness, which he defined roughly as what a modern cognitive scientist or philosopher would call meta-cognition – the awareness of our own thoughts or the ability to think about our own thoughts. In his early research, he specialized in animal ethology (the study of animal’s behavior, communications, and emotions). He began to focus on understanding how consciousness evolved in early humans and studied historical texts and anthropological evidence for clues. This led to his now famous theory that humans initially developed a bicameral mind and that modern consciousness was the result of a breakdown of the two parts.

Bicameral in this case is a metaphor, the word normally describes a type of government consisting of two independent houses. Jaynes came to believe that, as recently as 10,000 years ago, the human brain lacked both consciousness and the strong lateral connection via the corpus callosum that it has today. The two halves of the brain operated more independently but were able to communicate via verbal hallucinations. Humans at this time would have already evolved basic linguistic capabilities, but without the complex metaphors and self-referential aspects of modern language. People behaved in what we would describe today as a ‘zombie-like” way. They would have lacked the ability to reflect on or guide their own thoughts. In times of extreme stress or facing novel situations, the right side of their brain would communicate advice or commands to the left via auditory hallucinations that the person experienced as “hearing a voice”.

As today, humans tended to build up models in their mind of people who are important in their social interactions, parents, tribal leaders, and the like. Jaynes believed the models existed in the part of the mind generating the hallucinations and that the voices often came to be perceived as originating from these people, even if they were not present; even if they were dead. Without the ability to introspect, people simply accepted the voices at face value and assumed they represented some kind of external reality. This predictably gave rise to the earliest religious beliefs: ancestor worship, divinity of kings, belief in an afterlife. It also served as an important social organizing structure that allowed early community groups to form.

This process worked well until about the 2000 BC, when civilizations were going through a periodic collapse. At this time, the growing population was leading to more frequent interactions between disparate groups of humans, resulting in a failure of the bicameral hallucination mechanism as a method of social coordination. If everyone in your group hears the same voices in their head, things work fine. If three or four groups suddenly start living together and everyone is hearing different voices in their heads telling them conflicting things, civilization doesn’t function smoothly anymore.

The result was a gradual breakdown in the bicameral structure of the brain due to the changed environment which gave a huge advantage to individuals whose brains had more direct communication between the two sides via the corpus callosum. This allowed metaphoric language and consciousness to co-evolve, gradually leading to humans who could think about their own thoughts and had the words to describe it. This would also be the origin of the idea of free will, at least in the modern sense. Prior to this time a person did what their brain directed but without any awareness or insight into the process. So, effectively, modern consciousness is a by-product of cultural and linguistic evolution.

The bicameral breakdown leads to the gradual decline of the right brain area that generated verbal hallucinations. Everyone remembered a time when people could hear the “gods” but only a few remain who can still hear their voices. Those people are sometimes elevated to the positions of priest, shamans, oracles or they are seen as insane, eventually classed as schizophrenics.

The whole thing sounds fantastically crazy at first, right? Jaynes says as much throughout the book. But, like any good scientist, he has worked out a series of testable predictions based on the theory in a variety of fields ranging from history to human physiology. Modern researchers have continued to test his theories and, so far, many of his predictions have been dead on. For example, he predicted the existence of an area in the right hemisphere of the brain capable of generating linguistic, auditory hallucinations that is now vestigial and usually dormant. We now know the right hemisphere contains a vestigial area that corresponds to the Broca/Wernicke area in the left brain. This is the part of the left hemisphere responsible for the production of language. He further predicted this vestigial area would be active in schizophrenics who hear auditory hallucinations. Today, with fMRI scanning and other modern techniques, this has been confirmed too. And the hallucinations these patients experience are often in the form of authority figures (parents, leaders, gods) admonishing or commanding them.

Jaynes did an extensive survey of early literature starting with the earliest known writings and progressing through later more well-known documents like Homer and the early writings of the Bible. He analyzes to what extent the authors or the subjects seem to be self-aware and notes a gradual progression through history of both self-awareness and evolution of language to describe self-awareness. The writers of the biblical Old Testament or the Odyssey, for example, show no evidence at all of being self aware, in contrast to authors of the New Testament or later Greek writings. This is complicated by works that have been re-written and changed by later authors, like some books of the Bible or the Epic of Gilgamesh. In these cases, he tries to tease apart what’s original and what was added later.

He suggests that traces of bicameralism might still be found not just in schizophrenia but in many aspects of modern religion (e.g. those occasional people who still hear voices or experience “possession”) or even in the common childhood experience of having invisible friends (some children experience actual auditory hallucinations of their imaginary friends speaking to them).

Some modern researchers discount the need for the physical changes in the corpus callosum and believe the linguistic evolution of metaphor alone may be enough to bear out the changes Jaynes’ theory describes. There is now a huge body of literature surrounding the Bicameral Mind theory; lengthy articles defending or attacking aspects of it. There are also now several variant theories. Lain McGilchrist has proposed not a breakdown in a bicameral mind but a separation and reversal in the two hemispheres of the brain. Michael Gazzaniga, a pyschobiologist has done extensive experimental work in the area of hemisphere specialization and has proposed a theory similar to Jaynes’.

Jaynes is an engaging and interesting author and, whether his theory eventually proves to be crazy or profound, you’ll find the book a great read. If you have any interest in philosophy, religion, consciousness, cognition, evolution, anthropology, literature, history, or any of a dozen other topics, you’ll love the book. It makes you think about things you would never have imagined otherwise.

Syndicated 2015-02-15 03:30:49 from Steevithak of the Internet

Rainwater Reptile Ranch Chili

It’s hard to believe I’ve been blogging for more than a decade and never posted the recipe for the Rainwater Reptile Ranch chili. The weather has been cold this weekend. We just made a big batch of it last night and the recipe card is sitting here in front of me. This recipe has evolved and changed over the years. It started out when I was dating Susan and wanted her to experience this staple of Texas cuisine. That early attempt was based on reverse engineering the ingredients listed on a package of Wick Fowler’s 2 Alarm Chili that I spotted in a grocery store. I figured if I had the right stuff in approximately the right proportions and threw it all in a pot, I’d get close. Every batch changed for a few years as we consulted other chili recipes and made patches. It eventually began to stabilize into this recipe. The cinnamon is a nod to the Cincinnati variety of chili Susan experienced in her college days.

It will be obvious as you read the ingredients list that we are not chili purists by any means. We add beans, tomatoes, and even use alternative meats in our chili. I blame my parents. They raised me on a chili recipe that would barely fit even the most liberal definition today. It was more like a ground beef stew or soup than actual chili. I’ve had a lot of different bowls of chili in my life and loved most of them. So don’t worry too much about purity and give it a try!

Rainwater Reptile Ranch Texas Chili
Revision level unknown [September 1993]

Ingredients
2.5 lbs ground turkey – we use 2 packages of Jennie-O extra lean. You can substitute ground beef or other types of meat if preferred.
1 or 2 large yellow onions, diced
32 oz salt-free tomato sauce (if you’re using canned, 4 8oz cans)
8 oz red wine
5 large fresh tomatoes without skins (or two 14oz. cans tomatoes)
1 cup dried pinto or pink beans (or two cans of ranch style beans, or no beans at all if you’re a purist)
2 tsp cumin
1.5 tsp paprika
.5 tsp ground mustard
.25 tsp cinnamon
.5 tsp garlic powder
1/2 cup chili powder (that stuff from the grocery store simply will not do, and it’s mostly salt. For great chili you want the good stuff from someplace like Pendery’s – we use a combination of Pecos red and several other varieties – darker flavors with medium heat are our favorite)
dash of cayenne pepper
1 tbsp oregano
1 tsp cilantro
1 tbsp cornmeal

Garnishes
1 diced white onion
your favorite type of cheese

Prepare the beans first. Dump 1 cup of dried beans into a 3 quart or larger pot of water. Bring it to a boil, turn it down to medium low for two hours. Check the water level occasionally and add water if it gets to low. In the last half hour drop in .5 tsp salt.

In a 6 quart pot or dutch oven, put in half of the diced onions, the tomato sauce, wine and tomatoes. Put the pot on low heat. Stir in the dried spices and chili powder. Don’t put the cornmeal in yet.

Prepare the meat. Add a little olive oil to a frying pan. Set heat on medium-high. Put a quarter of the diced onions into the pan and let them sizzle a little bit. Add half the ground meat and brown it. With turkey and some other meats, you’ll need to use the spatula to break the meat into the granularity you want in the final chili while you’re browning it. I prefer fine granularity of meat in my chili but others prefer larger chunks of meat. Once the meat is browned, dump the entire contents of the pan into your your chili pot. With 2 lbs of meat, you’ll need to repeat this process twice. If you’re using a meat other than turkey, you may need to adjust the spicing. You may also want to add a little salt with some meats.

When the beans are ready, drain and dispose of the water they boiled in, rinse them in a colander, then add them to the big chili pot. By the time your meat and beans have been added, your chili should have reached a boil. Let it boil for ten minutes, then turn the heat on the pot down to simmer. If the consistency is too thick, add a little water. Let the pot simmer for several hours, stirring occasionally. The taste will continue to improve the longer it simmers. About 10 minutes before serving, stir in the cornmeal. With meats that tend to be a bit greasy, like ground beef, the cornmeal will greatly improve the consistency of the chili.

Serve in a bowl and garnish with diced white onions and cheese on top. Serve with crackers or fritos. Enjoy with friends on a cold day whenever possible.

Syndicated 2015-01-11 17:41:27 from Steevithak of the Internet

Shadow Show

Shadow Show

Shadow Show

Shadow Show, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle, describes itself as “All-new stories in celebration of Ray Bradbury”. I’ve been a fan of Bradbury’s fiction most of my life. Friends from my high school days may remember me sitting under the bleachers during Pep Rallies reading “R is for Rocket” or wandering the hallways with a copy of “Fahrenheit 451″. I most liked his early work; stories like Frost and Fire or The City. They blended conventional science fiction with Bradbury’s unique style which approached magical realism. I felt his later writing lost a lot by abandoning the science fiction aspect and focusing exclusively on the magical realism. In any case, I heard about this book and imagined it might contain Bradbury-like stories that recaptured the feel of his early work. Alas, this is not the case.

For the most part, the stories in the book aren’t really at all like Bradbury stories. At least, I’d never confuse any of them with the real thing. Most had supernatural or horror themes and lacked the connection to science fiction. They’re simply from authors who were, in one way or another, inspired by Bradbury. They’re not bad stories. Some are enjoyable and may appeal to Bradbury fans, if only to find out how other writers were inspired by him.

There were a few exceptions, however; stories that are intended to provoke memories of Bradbury or his stories in one way or another. The best of these, at least for me, was Children of the Bedtime Machine by Robert McCammon. This story made the book worthwhile for me and was a real celebration of Bradbury in multiple ways. First, it was a story I could imagine Bradbury writing; second, it combined science fiction with a Bradburyesque magical realism, and lastly, Bradbury’s writing actually plays a part in the story’s plot. It’s the story of a woman living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland; the result of climate change and global war. There’s little plant or animal life left, and little hope for the future. The woman’s only joy in life is a trunk full of old book that she reads to herself. During a visit to a trading post in a nearby town, she’s given a useless machine from the dead past. The combination of a Ray Bradbury book and a machine designed for insomniacs leads to a new hope for a dying world.

If you can pick up the book inexpensively, it’s worth it just for that one story. Or perhaps you’ll enjoy the other stories more than I did. Authors include Harlan Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Alice Hoffman, Kelly Link, and others.

Syndicated 2014-07-03 02:14:55 from Steevithak of the Internet

328 older entries...

New Advogato Features

New HTML Parser: The long-awaited libxml2 based HTML parser code is live. It needs further work but already handles most markup better than the original parser.

Keep up with the latest Advogato features by reading the Advogato status blog.

If you're a C programmer with some spare time, take a look at the mod_virgule project page and help us with one of the tasks on the ToDo list!