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Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Rail Guns: Not Just for Quake Anymore

This week, the U.S. Navy puts their very first railgun into the field. That's right folks! Particle weapons are coming to a battlefield near you. No more gun powder for us. Back in the 1960's, when Star Trek first aired, the time frame represented was 300 years in the future. Here we are not even 100 years into the future and most, if not all of the technology in the show is available, under development, or being actively researched.

The XPrize contest to produce the world's first tricorder is over and there were not one, but two winners. Check that one off the list. Now, all we need is the other little thingy that didn't even have a name that Bones waved over someone to fix their broken bones and damaged flesh. At this rate, we may have to wait another 30-40 years for that.

Transporters are a bit  trickier. We have them, but the current models can only transmit a subatomic particle or two. You've got to start somewhere. There are claims of transporting larger chunks of matter shorter distances. The point here is that it is happening. Ultimately, the thing stopping us from transporting larger items is the scanning and computing power required. Of course, we continue to chip away at that too.

Replicators are now available to consumers. Granted, they can't make a hot cup of tea yet, but they can make just about any little plastic thingy you can think of. Specialized 3D printers can now print metal, electronic circuits, skin, and even organs. It is simply a matter of time before these devices are able to build more complex items. As we continue to miniaturize our devices, it is not unreasonable to expect that within the next 50 years, we will have printers that start with base material and rearrange its atomic structure to make anything. The trick to doing this is mostly in the necessary computing power and new graphene based chips will give us that (again - already developed technology).

The impulse (or ion) drive is well developed technology at this point. NASA is considering it for future deep space missions. They need to consider it because warp drive is a bit farther into the future. The more amazing thing is that warp drive is now theoretically possible. There are a number of theoretical models out there. My personal favorite is the Alcubierre drive, proposed by a Mexican physicist of that name (sorry Zephram Cochran - not in this reality).

Some of the stuff they had seems almost antiquated by modern standards. Take those crappy tablets they used. Why did they have to pass them around? Did they not even have WiFi? The original Enterprise didn't even have a holodeck, but we're closing in on that one pretty quickly. We certainly have holo-video systems and new research is ongoing. Of course  the most ridiculous piece of technology was the stupid flip phone. They are so last millennium!

Maybe the greatest invention of Star Trek was the economy-less society. What if people could live a comfortable life with all the basics and pursue their dreams unimpeded by the need for personal assets? Think of all the inventions that could be brought to fruition if anyone with an idea had the resources to fully produce it. Without an economy, there would be no need for greed. If that were the case, most of the people that would have been working to improve their own lives might start focusing on improving everyone else's along with the rest of the planet. Just a  thought.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Speed & Complexity is Killing Democracy

There can be no doubt that the demands on the average human mind have increased manifold in recent decades. Globalization and the Internet have combined to create a tsunami of information which is available to anyone with a smartphone and a data plan. Increasingly, that's everyone in the United States. Here in Ann Arbor, even the homeless are given smartphones with a basic data plan.

Technology has been steadily increasing productivity since the beginning of the industrial age. As productivity increases, what happens in a single day looks more like what would happen in the course of a year of an agrarian society. Consequently, it takes one with an extraordinary mind and the motivation required to keep up with the underlying facts surrounding the big decisions our country faces.

It's no wonder then that most of us are always looking for someone who we trust to distill down to bite-sized, understandable, consumable chunks, the issues we face. Our current president, Donald Trump, is a master at this. "It's gonna be a great healthcare plan" is just the sort of information anyone can process. "Our current trade deals are terrible. We're going to throw them out and have much better ones" is much easier to digest than the complex web of interrelated issues around global trade.

Here's the fundamental problem with the complexity of our issues and the speed with which they evolve: most people can't keep up. Democracy depends on a well informed public to work effectively. This is no longer a reasonable expectation.

This leaves our democracy at the mercy of spin doctors, pundits, and power brokers. Most of us have no choice but to get our viewpoint from people with an agenda that we can't fully comprehend. So, we decide who we trust and we trust them. But, what have the people we trust to tell us what to believe about how to solve our country's and the world's (considerable) issues done to earn that trust?

What can they do? Issues are often so complex and nuanced that verifying what is a fact and what is an opinion or completely made-up bullshit is almost impossible. Unfortunately, some of the people we trust to inform us take advantage of this fact in the worst way imaginable. Is this a fact? If you blindly accept that everything you are told by your trusted sources, you might argue that I'm the one who's full of shit. Unfortunately, unless you take the time to deeply research some of the "facts" you're being given by your new source, you'll never know.

Therein lies the problem. In our country, we have two parties. Each party has a point of view. We are given the option to choose between these two points of view. Do you really believe that there are only two points of view? As complex as the world has become, what is the likelihood that our options can be boiled down to only two that make any sense? THAT doesn't make any sense.

The great thing about democracy is that everyone has a choice. When the system becomes so corrupt that only two points of view are represented, that's not really democracy. It is a mere shadow of a democracy. If we are to get back to a real democracy, we need more voices. We need more points of view. We need people to who we can trust to fact check our leaders and call them out for lying. Realistically, it's unlikely we'll get any of it.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Conservative Perspective of a Revisionist

Most of us tend to take up the politics of our parents. It's hard to grow up in a house listening to people taking one position and then change that position later (Andrew Breitbart tried, but couldn't). It happens, but not often. I grew up in a house with two very liberal parents.

I like to think of myself as an independent thinker. Unlike most people, I actively seek out the viewpoint of all sides of any issue. The challenge with this is that the underlying philosophies that inform any particular issue are different. Without the right context, it's always easy to see the opposing viewpoint as tainted.

Realizing this, I've been doing some reading lately to gain a better understanding of the underpinnings of the conservative viewpoint. I've come to realize that there are some stark choices one must make before taking one side or the other. I've tried to sum these differences up in simple terms. Here's what I've got:

Conservatives: believe in freedom first. To have freedom, individuals must own the responsibility for their lives. If more successful people are able to shape the playing field because of their power to do so, those who do not have power must figure out how to play on their playing field.

Liberals (I prefer this to Progressives): believe in fairness first. Those with power stack the system in their favor and make it harder for those without power to gain it. Therefore, the system must have safeguards to even the playing field.

My suspicion is that few conservatives or liberals would argue with these definitions. If you are a liberal, you will see the conservative premise as flawed and vice versa. If I'm right, this is a great start to understanding.

Conservative Roots

So, here's where I think the conservatives have the high ground. When this country was founded, the men who conceived it had lived under the tyranny of a government that imposed themselves on their lives. Our founders sought to create a system in which the people would have ultimate control over anything the government did. They set up a system that would be prone to gridlock right from the start, knowing that these counterbalancing structures would ensure that the government couldn't run away with their power.

Since the states began life un-united, leaders of each wanted to make sure that the Federal government could not wrest too much control from their lives, so they kept as much power in the hands of states as they could. This would ensure that each state could shape the lives of their citizens according to their local desires.

All of this made perfect sense in a new land full of untapped resources and virtually unlimited opportunity. It is in this context that we must understand the mindset of the conservative viewpoint. Every conservative scholar that I've read refers to these roots as the driver of all philosophical positions.

Liberal Revisionism

The liberal view of the world did not even exist in the beginning. While there were differences between parties back in the early days of the union, I suspect that there was little argument about the principles discussed above. So, what happened?

I can only speculate about the origins of modern liberalism. There are undoubtedly too many variables to classify. I believe there are two biggies that ought to be near the  top of the list:
  • Globalization
  • The Federal Reserve
Both of these are game-changers that bring into question the logic of the conservative viewpoint. Let's just take these two apart to see if we can find some justification for the liberal viewpoint.

Globalization

Large ships, then large airplanes and now the Internet have connected people around the globe in ways that our forefathers could never have imagined. It would be unfair to have expected them to understand what the world would become when the economies of different nations developed the level of interdependence that we see today. If they had, what would they have done differently?

For starters, they may have given the Federal government even more power over commerce and regulating the economy. If they had allowed states to have most of the control over commerce, the "United" States would have not been very united in the eyes of foreign governments. At best, this would make our country a very difficult trading partner.

Most importantly, money flows almost seamlessly from one country to another. This means that government policy plays a very complex role in the health of our economy because capital seeks the best ground and that may not be ours. Key decision-makers in large corporations now control, with there choices about money flow, whether our economy does well or not.

The Federal Reserve

As the Industrial Revolution began gaining steam, the most successful entrepreneurs of the day (also known as robber barons) saw trouble on the horizon. By the way, that nickname is interesting because barons were European royalty and one could argue that they were U.S. royalty. Visit some of their ancestral homes and you will discover that they are castles. The parallels are considerable.

They realized that if the government was allowed to control money, they could disrupt the empires that they had built. With all their power, they created the Federal Reserve, which is a quasi-governmental organization run by bankers. The president is allowed to hire/fire the head banker, but he/she must select from leaders in the banking industry if they make a replacement. Essentially, the bankers are in control of the money in this country. Period. Full stop. No argument.

The Federal Reserve controls how much money we have and the interest rates at which it is distributed. These are the only two levers by which money is controlled. Thus, the government holds no levers to control the medium by which our economy functions.

Why is this a game-changer that motivates liberals? Because, without governmental controls on money, modern-day robber barons can endlessly stack the deck in their favor, thereby leaving everyone else further and further behind and more and more under their control.

The Decision

Each of us needs to decide between idealism and practicality. The ideal of this country lives in the hearts and minds of many of us. We long for the life that the framers promised and we believe that by rolling back the insidious changes made by the revisionists, we can get back to that ideal.

Others look at the reality of today's world and believe that it can't be undone. There are too many factors, which cannot be controlled which make it impossible to recreate what we once had. Further, half measures only seem to make matters worse. Thus, trying to roll back and failing puts us further and further away from the goal.

If you believe we can successfully roll back, you will continue to fight for the conservative attempts to make the government smaller, reduce regulatory control over our lives, and put more money back in the hands of the people who earned it. If you don't think that is possible, then you will want to take steps to level the playing field so that those who have benefited excessively from the changes of the industrial and information ages do not wrest complete control away from the rest of us.

My View

As much as I, too, long for the good old days, I don't think we can go back. Most of the really rich in the world are no longer contained by a single country. Multinational corporations can shift their economic interests to the highest bidder in a global competition for economic resources. If we were to roll back the Federal rules that contain them, they would strip our country of resources and send the money offshore to avoid whatever taxes we decided to charge. As our infrastructure crumbled, our overpopulated workforce may once again become attractive because they would have to work for third-world rates. 

What made us great the first time around was that we led the world in industrial and technological advancement. That is no longer the case and no matter what we do, it will never be the case again. It's too hard to keep secrets anymore and it's too easy to copy what someone else is doing.

Just look around. The countries that have the most growth are the ones with big labor pools willing to work cheap. Do we want that for ourselves? I think not. Our problems are extremely complex and we will need complex solutions or we will need to re-imagine our whole system. Nobody's even talking about the latter option. At least not in Washington.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

AI & Capitalism: On a Collision Course

First we had self-scan checkout lanes, now we're facing down self-driving vehicles. IBM's Watson AI can predict cancer better than the best oncologist. Ultimately, few jobs are safe from automation. Should this scare us? Maybe.

We face a social conundrum. Capitalism, by its very nature, seeks the most efficient use of capital to produce an optimal economic outcome for shareholders. Technology doesn't require benefits. It doesn't get sick. It doesn't spend 30% of its work day socializing. Technology is efficient. Thus, it is always a natural choice for executives to invest in technology which will eliminate people -- that is, if their objective is to optimize the use of capital.

While there are certainly social-minded organizations that consider it part of their mission to employ people, most for-profit companies seek more profits. Technology is the best way to do that. Heretofore, white collar jobs that required people to "think" for a living were safe. We could retrain people who had used their hands to use their minds. Now, artificial intelligence (AI) threatens those jobs too.

Nobody really knows where the tipping point is, but we do know that there are certain types of phenomena that have tipping points. A tipping point is a specific condition that causes an abrupt and often dramatic change. A good example would be the housing bubble that manifested in 2006. In 2007, in a very short time, we reached a point that caused housing prices to drop sharply and quickly.

It is reasonable to suspect that at some point, AI and other related automation will eliminate enough jobs that the economy will become dysfunctional. Companies want to reduce cost and improve output, but they need customers to take advantage of those efficiencies. Customers are people with disposable income. Income is money earned from work. Do you see the conundrum?

Prospects for Change

There are alternatives. Unfortunately, they will all require strong political leadership. If we've learned nothing, we now know that any self-promoting gasbag with enough social and economic resources can claim the mantle of leadership, even having never demonstrated any evidence of real leadership.

What is a leader? There are many books on this topic and I have read some of them. My takeaway is that leaders are those who can create a clear vision of the future and empower people to execute plans to achieve that vision. We don't have many of those in Washington these days.

National politicians are convinced that they need huge amounts of money to win elections. As we all know, huge amounts of money come from places that have huge amounts of money. Common sense would tell you that these are not the people who are worried about losing their jobs to technology. They're the ones BUYING IT! In other words, the people who are taking away jobs are those who have the most influence on our "leaders."

There are three ways in which the major changes necessary can come about:

  1. Total collapse of the system
  2. Revolution
  3. Courageous leadership that can sell tough love

I numbered these because I believe this is the order of likelihood that the necessary changes will come about. People are basically problem-solvers. It ought to be clear to anyone with a brain that the folks who have influence in Washington don't have any major problems with the current system right now. Thus, they will not be inclined to take steps to avert the onset of the tipping point discussed earlier.

Choices

So, let's assume that we eventually arrive at #1 - total collapse. The big problem here is we end up with the same crappy [lack of] leadership we have now. The first and most important thing will be to prop up the people who own Washington -- rich people (remember corporations are people too). In the past, this has meant printing money and giving it to them, so that their wealth wouldn't be diluted. This worked okay when they used the money to buy things that created demand for products and services that required more employees to deliver them. What happens when more people aren't needed to do this? We've already noticed a trend in the last few business cycles that the recovery is much slower. There has even been mention of a "jobless recovery." This sounds as strange as a "money-less economy." What is THAT!

Therefore, even if they try to prop up rich people first, that won't be the end of it because that won't do anything. Next, they will try traditional means of putting money back in the hands of consumers. This has typically been done with tax credits. Tax credits work great for people paying taxes. However, people with no income don't pay taxes...and there's going to be a lot of those.

Finally, we get to the only real solution: handing out free money. There's one big problem with free money. Since our capitalist system puts economic value on money by evaluating its productive power in the marketplace, free money is ultimately worth nothing. On a small scale, free money can be covered by other economic activity, but on a massive scale, the economic value would be gone.

This is right where our current government taps out. I can't imagine them overthrowing the very system that they control. It would take an incredibly strong and visionary leader who could reach the people, thereby bypassing the power elite to sell and idea on a massive scale. I can't imagine anyone like that coming to power now, but maybe in a crisis we could garner such a leader.

Assuming we could, what's the answer? I believe it is socialism. Socialism has gotten a bad name for two main reasons:

  1. People don't like to work to support other people who are just sitting around
  2. Socialism generally requires centralized control and this means central power, which becomes corrupt every time
In the past, #1 has been a problem, but in the future it is likely that people who don't want to work won't have to. Thus, nobody should be complaining about working to support the masses. If you don't like your work, turn it over to a computer or machine (or both); or the 100,000 people lined up to take it off you (some people actually like to work - even if they don't get paid).

The second problem is trickier, but not insurmountable. How can we decentralize socialism? The answer is to use open source algorithms that are democratically modified to alter decision parameters. If decisions are not "black box," the logic behind them can be examined and justified. I wrote a post about the distributed system problem that you can read here. The point being, the very technology that put us in this situation can be used to fix the traditional problems of socialism.

The Future

Nobody knows how the future will unfold. What we do know is that it will unfold. Sometimes it is relatively easy to extrapolate certain changes. They may not be inevitable, but it will take an intervening disruption for the course of major events to be altered. Assuming that doesn't happen, eventually we won't need near as many people to work as we have. We can't keep warehousing a growing population that is just not needed in the workforce. When the tipping point comes, it may likely come in the form of a seemingly normal business cycle. However, none of the old tools will fix it and as it deepens, it will drag more of us down with it. If we are ready with new options and strong leadership, maybe we can avoid much pain and suffering. I sure would like that. How about you?


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Who is the Republican Base?

Compliments of the Huffington Post
If the 1% got half the votes in this country, they would overwhelmingly put the Republicans in office. They don't. That means that lots of people who don't earn over $250k/yr. are voting for them. Why? Is it because the Republicans have co-opted traditional family values? What have they done for traditional family values lately?

Republicans talk a lot on the campaign trail about rolling back abortion and discouraging unchristian behavior. In fact, as a group, they are just as philandering as the Democrats. So, let's talk about the things that really matter to them -- economics!

In a move of ultimate hypocrisy,  congressional Republicans and Trump squashed a plan hatched by mayors of three major cities to help their citizens plan for retirement by setting up a local funding mechanism. Why would they do this? It is local, which they supposedly support. It encourages personal responsibility, which they supposedly encourage. It reduces federal bureaucracy, which is also a good thing.

It also takes money away from Wall Street. If you're as old as I am, you might have had your savings wiped out by Wall Street once or twice along the way. We had enough money saved to pay for our children's college education before Black Tuesday. After, we had enough for one year. Our then retirement savings went to pay for their education.

The stock market is a giant casino in which those big investment bankers who work with each other every day are allowed to keep a few extra cards up their sleeves. If you are just a regular working stiff, you don't have those cards and they are thus siphoning off your savings. What those three cities were trying to do is take some of your money out of the hands of the New York robber barons. If you're a Republican, your party stopped it.

Your hatred of Democrats is bankrupting you and destroying the prospects for your children's economic prosperity. You can say that they're no better, but all three mayors that were trying to help their citizens save for their retirement were Democrats. One of them lives in the belly of the beast as New York City is one of the three cities.

The fact that our country is so equally divided is a testament to modern subliminal marketing techniques. Most of us don't have the time to do effective research to fully understand the impact of the decisions our leaders make on our behalf. This one is pretty simple and it exposes the Republican party for what they are -- supporters of the rich. The Democratic party is much more likely to go up against the rich -- no small task even for them, but unless "we, the people" give them a mandate, it will be more of the same -- rich getting richer and everyone else losing their money to them. You thought Donald Trump would be different, but he's turning out to be the biggest scammer of them all -- taking care of his rich friends.

I know Republicans don't like the idea of redistribution of wealth. You're convinced that when that happens, they will come for your money. If you make over $250k per year, you're probably right. If you make less, you are one of the suckers they've been playing. Keep it up and we'll all be broke.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Jam Band Lament

My fellow bandmates and I recently saw Spafford opening for Umphrey's McGee. We were giddy as a bunch of school girls with excitement to learn from the masters. Spafford has big time competency and Umphrey's...well...they make it look easy. In fact, too easy! The energy from both bands was very different.

From Spafford I got the sense that they had worked very hard to put together a seriously tight and solid show. Mission accomplished, but the fear of a mistake was almost palpable.

Umphrey's, on the other hand, played like a mistake was highly improbable. They now have the skills and experience to put on an improvisational pyrotechnical show of massive proportions without busting a sweat.

Unfortunately, to really bare your soul to an audience, you need to be willing to cut the tethers of what has worked before, and neither band did that. How do I know this, you ask? Answer: Mistakes. Mistakes are the only signal. A wise person knows that "you never know how far you can go until you've gone too far.'

I am encouraging my band to continue making "mistakes." As a continuous improvement professional by day, I know that people who embrace their mistakes as learning opportunities end up making ever-smaller mistakes.

Further, I would encourage all of our jam band brethren out there to keep making them too. Give jam band audiences some credit for knowing what it means when you really hang yourself out there without a net. They love it just as much as the band members who are pushing their individual envelopes. That's the juice, baby!

Friday, November 04, 2016

Humans: Out of Our Depth

Anyone who has hopes for humans to evolve past our primate proclivities could only be disappointed by recent events. It's not really all bad news because people are far less deadly than they were only a short 1000 years ago. Even looking back as little as 100 years ago, times have improved. Maybe it is because of our strides that there are so many more of us who have lived a life almost devoid of daily violence and death around them.

The relative lack of violence in our personal lives makes the daily violence in others' lives all the more distressing. At the same time, our distance and lack of connection to the suffering people we observe, makes us less sensitive to their plight. Chimps don't care what happens to other groups of chimps.

Someday, just maybe, the world will get small enough that we will value all beings on the planet equally. Until that time, maybe we could find a way to help spread some peace. In the last century, the Europeans pulled the middle east apart. They knew what they were doing when they drew national boundaries that split tribes, while pushing separate tribes together. It was the perfect way to ensure that the once great Persian and Arabic nations didn't become great again.

Isn't it time to undo this tragic manipulation of so many people? What is needed is an area summit to redraw national boundaries that reunite the tribes and provide them with the autonomy so many have died for. If we really cared, we would be trying to fix the mistakes of the past. The fact that we are indeed doing things that have caused further destabilization in the region suggests that we (the United States Government) still likes it that way. Maybe we, the people, still do, too.

Meanwhile, our own country is getting hollowed out. The generational poor in our country are cared for at a level that is superior to those in most of the rest of the planet. However, there is a growing population of people who have worked most of their lives and have a sense of identity that includes providing for their family.

One job at a time, capital has sought the most efficient way to profit (just like economists say it should). The most efficient way is capital expenditure for equipment that replaces humans. So far, most of the machines we've built have taken jobs from people who work with their hands. The net effect is the decimation of manufacturing and construction jobs. Politicians blame bad trade deals and cheap foreign labor. Wake up and look around! The number of people it takes to make a car or build a road is a tiny fraction of what it took only 30 years ago.

For every job that equipment replaces, a rich person gets richer. In the next few years, we will see the jobs that require a human mind get replaced, too. We already have very sophisticated automated phone systems that listen to and understand questions and actually provide verbal answers. These systems have replaced rooms full of people who once used their brains all day. IBM's Watson has started providing medical diagnosis and medical robots can already collect vital statistics from a patient. Lookout! They may be coming for your job next.

Basically, the technology available to us today has outstripped out social evolution. Our primate drives cause us to abuse the very capabilities that could make a better world for everyone. If we were evolved enough, each of us could focus on making everyone else's life better, but we still basically care only about our own and those close to us. Fix this and all our other problems simply melt away.

Some say that the profit motive is the only thing that drives progress. I call bullshit. If that's true, we have enough technology to put it in charge of making better decisions than that. Here's a formula for you: people are suffering, therefore do something to end it. Wow! That's complicated. How so, you ask? By a bunch of rules we made up to make it that way. See. Bullshit.