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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.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

A Plea to Trump Supporters

I just read a troubling Facebook post about two open-minded teenagers who attended a Trump rally even though they were Bernie supporters. Granted, wearing Bernie garb was provocative, but they were otherwise quiet and respectful. They were also escorted out by the secret service and police. That's scary, but not why I'm compelled to write this post.

What is more scary to me is the reaction they got from the Trump supporters (not all of them to be sure). Look, I get it! Lot's of people are fed up with our crappy government and Trump does a great job of representing the "not our crappy government" camp.

I'm sure Hitler could tap into a similar sentiment right now. He came to power during a time when the economy was in shambles. Regular folks were getting squeezed harder and harder. Hitler blamed immigrants and outside forces for this. He argued that Germany was for Germans and that alone they could rebuild their country. For everyone who had lost a job to a Jew or a Pole or an Armenian, this really hit home. Throw them out! Build a wall!

At issue here isn't the problems we face. They are real. The issue is anger and those that would amplify it for their own ends. If you are angry, you are an easy pawn for power brokers with their own agendas. There is strong scientific evidence to  suggest that anger can impair cognitive functioning. It is in the best interest of leaders who want to control people to tap into and even inflate your anger. You are much more easily manipulated that way.

So, here's my plea. Stop being angry. Take some long slow breaths and just relax. There. Now, you can think clearly. If you hate our government, ask yourself what a good government would look like. Is there a way to get there from here? Will it be easier to get there with everyone's help or just whities against the world? Is the thing that make the U.S. stand out against all other countries that we are a melting pot of so many different cultures and treat them all equally? I think so.

I believe in the middle way. We use the word "extremist" to describe someone that usually ends up dead, in jail or at large. Extremists live at both ends of the political spectrum. It is a nasty place with little tolerance for divergent viewpoints. It is those very divergent viewpoints that make this country great.

One Trump supporter told those teenage girls at the rally to move to China. That's ironic, because they were doing something very American. They were exploring divergent viewpoints. Maybe the person who shouted that should move to China. I'm sure they'd fit right in.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Why Hillary Will Win the Presidency

I'd like to start this post by saying that I'm not a huge Hillary fan. She's a horrible orator, but maybe not such a bad politician. Her positions are calculated based on what her team thinks she needs to do to win. In other words, she's not particularly idealistic.

Let me also say that I like Bernie Sanders. He's affable and idealistic. He has a good grasp of the problems this country faces and I believe he truly desires to fix said problems. The reality is, he can't. The system is completely stacked against him. Washington has basically shut down Obama, who is far more pragmatic than Sanders. Congress won't let Sanders order paperclips.

It's starting to look likely that Trump will win the the Republican nomination. Anyone with half a brain who is willing to actually put it to work ought to be able to see that a Trump presidency would be a disaster. You just can't run a country -- especially the most powerful one on the planet -- like a game show. Maybe Trump would hire some proper diplomats to curtail his belligerence, but with an ego that far out of control, I wouldn't bet on it. With him as president, I could see us fighting a world war in which Europe and Latin America are part of the opposition. Simply put, the man is dangerous and there are many rich and powerful people who are smart enough to do anything to stop him -- up to and including voting for a Democrat!

This brings us back to Hillary. Her flexibility and pragmatic views make her far more palatable to more centrist Republicans. In a general election between Sanders and Trump, a third party candidate is more likely to win. In a two candidate race, lots of smart Republicans will begrudgingly vote for a sane, but ideologically divergent Sanders rather than a crazy man. Hillary is a no-brainer. That's why Hillary's war chest will grow rapidly if she doesn't win big tomorrow night. Republicans who want to hedge their bets will help her out as a backup. As is not uncommon, Republicans may even start voting for Hillary in the primaries, writing their own party's choice off as a lost cause.

What is this Trump phenomenon? I get it. People are sick and tired of Washington insiders casting them aside. Making choices that provide economic cover for the rich and powerful while stripping the middle class. Trump, unencumbered by reality, promises to reverse all that. Whoopee! Tell them what they've won, Bob? A crackpot president who won't be able to get anything done! Sweet!

I think Eddie Murphy said it best in Trading Places. "The best way to hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people." It may be the only way. The Great Depression turned a lot of rich people into poor people. After the recovery, the years that followed (50's and 60's) were the most prosperous in our history. This time around, we printed up $3.5 TRILLION in order to prop up the rich people. Depressions suck, but they do serve a purpose. They unclog the pipes of capitalism. Neither Trump nor Sanders is going to turn rich people into poor people. Thus, the pipes will remain clogged.

At least Hilary will keep things moving along until the next crisis. Maybe it will be a real depression next time. If it happens on her watch, I think we will be better off than if Sanders or Trump were in charge. I'll take a pragmatist over an idealist or a game show host any day!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Voluntary Redistribution

I read an article yesterday in The Economist about how global fiscal policymakers are running out of tools to fix the next economic downturn. Interest rates are near zero and even negative rates have limited potential. All the levers of control have been pulled and yet, here we are -- facing sluggish growth that threatens to stall. Government spending means more debt and nobody seems to have the stomach for that either.

I’m a self-confessed Trekie. In Gene Roddenberry’s series, capitalism has been abandoned. Capitalism is a dear old friend that has been the best way for humans to exchange the things they need with one another. It is the best system we know for managing scarcity.


We assume that scarcity is an underlying fact of life on Earth. Is it? Are there any problems of extraction, reclamation, production and distribution that couldn’t be collectively solved with a combination of innovation, initiative and resources? Is it possible that unnatural divisions between us are the ultimate cause of scarcity?

If we all worked together for the common good, what could we accomplish? It seems to me that this initiative would need to start with the rich and powerful (who are usually one and the same). In 2013, the Forex currency exchange was trading $5.3 TRILLION per day. At that time, the daily global trading of goods and services was estimated to be 25 times less. That’s just currency folks! This does not take into account money sitting in banks or in other trading accounts. None of this money helps real people with real problems. I suspect it causes them.

It seems like it is the nature of the rich and powerful to hold onto what they have for as long as they can. When the system finally collapses (which it always has eventually), they are left with nothing. Frankly, in times past, they often ended up with their head in a basket, swinging from a rope or some other sudden and violent death. We like to think we’re more civilized now, but one only needs to follow the news of the day to know that’s just wrong.

What could rich and powerful people do if they took their money off the sidelines and put it to work? For starters, they could build infrastructure. Ideas already exist to build a global “enernet” that would provide cheap power wherever it is needed. We could build new transportation infrastructure on top of the old such as that proposed by SkyTran. Most importantly, we could fully fund (and thereby accelerate) research to address every unsolved problem facing humankind.

Just try to imagine what would happen if the global economy was 50 or 100 times more effective than it is now. What could we do? It seems we’d have virtually unlimited ability to create the golden age of humankind that we all know in our hearts is possible.

Behind it all are a few extremely powerful people who have convinced themselves that changing the system would be disruptive and destructive. They believe that from their vantage point, they see things more clearly than the rest of us. They understand about forces we know nothing about that would derail any attempt to create a better world. They are wrong. They are part of the same cycle that humankind has repeated over and over since the dawn of civilization. If they put all their power and resources behind a transformation. They could make it happen. They could own the creation of a future that unbinds us from the shackles of the past. It would take courage. It might even get messy at first. But, what better legacy to leave behind?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Lip Balm is For the Bees

When we got into the soap business, we thought we should have a few other products as well. Having started the business in late fall in Michigan, moisturizing was already on our minds. The air gets pretty dry in the winter months around here. So, we opted to make some body lotion and lip balm.

Our goal was to make better products that don't have a ton of chemicals in them. I will confess here and now that I am a longstanding Burt's Bees lip balm user. Back when lip balm was called Chapstick®, that's what I called it and that was the brand I used. When I discovered Burt's Bees, I came to realize that Chapstick® is made from petroleum. That's what some of us call a fossil fuel when its other derivatives find their way into the tank of our car.

Burt's is made with real bee's wax. It smells better, it feels better. And, it's ingredient list is a bit shorter. Frankly, when we set out to make lip balm, we didn't think we could beat it. There was one thing I did like about that petroleum product: it wasn't so hard. The hardness thing is particularly a drag in the winter when I most need it because it gets so hard that I practically risk chipping a tooth putting it on.

Enter Ti LeBlanc lip balm. The secret? Just the right amount of coconut oil. It makes the lip balm softer and creamier. I can pull an ice cold tube out of my jacket pocket and it goes on just like butter! Sometimes less is better. We only have three ingredients.

I know what you're thinking. "This dude is just going on about his damn lip balm because he's trying to sell it." Well...yeah, I'd like to sell some lip balm. Can you blame me? That doesn't mean it's not as good as I say it is.

Don't worry, I'm not going to keep going on about lip balm. Here's what I'm going to say. Go to the Ti LeBlanc Website and spend $24 on other products and we'll throw in the lip balm. It'll have to be peppermint because I can't figure out how to make our discount system allow you to pick your flavor, but if you really hate peppermint, put a note in the order and we'll hook you up with another flavor.

By the way, we've got a Grand Opening BOGO deal going on right now, so you can get two bars of soap and a lip balm for free! It's a good time to be dirty, dry and chapped.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Almost Biological

By Jawahar Swaminathan and MSD staff
at the European Bioinformatics Institute
We are a young species when it comes to intelligence. As we learn more about the brain, we find fewer differences between our own and those of other mammals. From a sociological standpoint, our differences may be mostly superficial. I often wonder what a race of intelligent beings far in advance of our own would think of us. Would they see the fine-grained difference between us and other mammals? They would obviously see that we are far more sophisticated at building tools. That’s a big deal -- but not the only deal.

When I look at other mammals, I see creatures that fight with each other to garner scarce resources. They are willing to do anything, up to and including killing their own kind, to improve what they perceive as a desperate situation. When I look at humans, I see the same thing. This self-destructive behavior is not in the long term interest of any truly intelligent species. I think most of us know this.

I read a lot of science fiction. I love speculation about possible futures. It makes me think about who we are now. As a result, I have come to believe that no advanced species is truly biological. We have already begun our march towards becoming a technological species. The lines are blurring.

Scientists are designing robots made from DNA. They are using a new approach called CRSPR to insert custom sequences of DNA to engineer certain traits. Is this biological or technological? Is biology defined by the materials used to produce something? Or, does “biological” refer a natural process of evolution through random mutation?

We can debate these questions, but over time they will matter less. If you could get a $500 transfusion that would replace your own blood with artificial blood that would prevent you from ever getting sick again, would you do it? If you could replace your lungs with a device that would let you run at full speed without ever getting winded and swim underwater for four hours without taking a breath, would you do it? Maybe you wouldn’t take advantage of these things, but there are plenty of people who would.

Technological breakthroughs like these are inevitable. People are already working on them. Incremental breakthroughs are occurring daily. Assuming we don’t destroy ourselves first, we will eventually start to colonize space. When we do, our current physical limitations will create a huge burden on our systems. Creating spaceborn environments that allow us to remain in our biological “Goldilocks zone” requires temperature, atmospheric and gravity controls that would not be required for technological beings. All of these things are easily overcome for a spacefaring species.

The debate about what makes us human will change with time. Any technological intelligence that is born of our creativity is ipso facto an evolution of us. We have not had to grapple with technological evolution for very long. The concept is new and it is only natural that we would resist relinquishing our biological roots. Currently, most artificial replacement parts are substandard compared with the our biologically evolved parts. That won’t be the case for too much longer. We’re already building exoskeletons that are stronger and harder than our own bones. Our cameras are far higher resolution than our eyes -- we just don’t know how to hook them to our optic nerve yet. Soon, we will start chipping away at our biology one system at a time. When we figure out how to make a better brain, we will load it with our humanity and see what happens.

When we finally accept that the things that give us the greatest pleasure are also the things that cause us to destroy ourselves, will we let go of them? If we do, what else will we be free to lose? I have no crystal ball, but I can’t help but feel that we will ultimately become purely technological beings. That is not to say that there won’t be any organic elements to our physiology, but they will be highly engineered technology -- not naturally evolved. I’d be happy to be almost biological if it allowed me to live forever and explore the universe. How about you?