How To Cope In the Best and Worst of Times

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“What most frequently meets our view (and occasions complaint) is our teeming population. Our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly support us . . . . In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race.”

That quotation, while it sounds current, was written by Tertullian, an early Christian writer, in the second century and in a time when the human population was around 190 million—as in total population of the planet!

Today, nearly two millennia later, with a population of 7.7 billion of us anxiety cucumbers, we carry on this tradition of handwringing and worry about overpopulation. Books, written decades ago, predicted there would be mass starvation in the 1970s and yet here we are—each new generation fearful of the impending doom.

How could this be?

How could the experts of a generation ago be so wrong in their gloomy predictions?

We have perpetually overestimated our importance in the grand scheme of things and then simultaneously underestimated our ability to innovate (collectively) and adapt to an ever-changing planet.

Sure, we’ve had our impact, things like extinctions and deforestation are concerning and there’s a strong argument for conservation of resources. However, those preaching about the coming apocalypse are often either the victims of their own pessimistic bias or being exploited for political reasons.

No, the Amazon is *not* the lungs of the planet. It is an ecosystem that also consumes nearly as much oxygen as it produces. The widely reported fires are not unusual and, for the most part, involved land that has already been cleared rather than the old-growth forest. Furthermore, the trends of deforestation are slowing and will likely reverse. The only real change is that a man whom leftists dislike was recently elected in Brazil.

Climate alarmism is also a perennial favorite of secular doomsayers. But, oddly enough, these dire warnings never seem to change the behavior of those making them. For example, the Obamas recently made a purchase of a $14.9 million dollar estate in Martha’s Vineyard. That would be an incredibly stupid move for someone who really believed that the oceans were about to rise. But the truth is that the headlines screaming about the end coming in a decade have been a reoccurring theme for decades and the only thing that has changed over the past couple decades is an *increase* in the polar bear population.

What is missing from the fear-mongering campaigns and politically motivated hype is some perspective. This planet has been around for a long long time and has seen dramatic changes in climate. North America was once covered in glaciers. The Sahara desert was once lush and populated. Species have come and gone. Events like Permian Triassic Catastrophe (the ‘Great Dying’) have nearly made this planet uninhabitable, took eons upon eons to recover from, and occurred long before humans arrived. This or something like it will probably end the world as we know it and no amount of windmills will make the slightest difference.

We are not in control. We do not make the sunrise in the sky nor do we know what lies ahead. Tomorrow could just be another day or it could be the day a civilization ending asteroid hits and wipes out everything we have worked tirelessly to create, accumulate or preserve. My point isn’t to be defeatist or to encourage indifference. No, my point is to free you from fear and give you an opportunity to embrace what we do have—this fleeting moment to live and enjoy the experience.

No Earthly Good…

There is an ironic expression “don’t be so heavenly-minded that you are no earthly good” that is used to describe a person who wrongly uses big things to escape their small responsibilities. For example, when the Pharisees, always concerned about maintaining appearances for their religious peers, would declare “Corban” (set aside for God’s use) resources that should have gone to their mothers or fathers instead and Jesus calls them out for it.

Many use lofty reasons as an escape from faithfully performing their own mundane duties. It is easy to decry abuses a world away, but much harder to sacrifice our own personal advantages to serve local needs. We live in a world full of virtue-signaling social media personalities who either naively believe their 280 characters is making a difference or do so cynically, for selfish gain, and simply know what will help them climb the social ladder. There are many who would gladly make others suffer for sake of their conscience and yet rarely lift a finger themselves.

Those stuck in their worries rarely do much good in the world and especially when the anxieties are about things well out of their control. If anything the environmentalist’s obsession with planet-sized issues leads to indifference. In other words, some excuse their own hypocrisy in the name of saving the planet. Many others, more realistic about their ability to save the planet, are disheartened and give up entirely on the enterprise. Both miss the opportunity to make their own corner of existence better.

I recall many lectures from Evangelical pastors about things like the “10/40 window” and millions of ‘lost’ people in the world. The message, if meant to encourage, backfired for me. Unlike them, evidently, I could “do the math” and, by their reasoning, millions of souls would be damned regardless of my involvement and my time would be wasted. I mean what difference could one man make? Likewise, many are frozen rather than empowered by their global focus, even the activists themselves, and would be far more effective if they significantly reduced their scope.

In the parable of the good Samaritan, the two who passed by the wounded man were too concerned with other things to intervene on behalf of the immediate need. Likewise, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the unnamed rich man overlooked, possibly even stepped right over starving and sick Lazarus, on his way to important business elsewhere. In both cases above you have ‘big picture’ people missing a small, but obvious, local need and being condemned as a result.

To be truly “heavenly-minded” (at least according to the Gospel) is actually to love your neighbor, meaning that person right along the path you are on or literally at your front gate. That is how to be heavenly in a way that makes a real difference in the world. Those who try to ‘play God’ and save the world are “out of their lane” and are bound to be completely delusional or constantly overwhelmed. To be actually lofty means to sacrifice global ambition and to become locally active.

True faith does not require travel over land or sea, does not need outside funding or forced cooperation of the multitude, it only requires seeing the need in front of you and being the solution.

The Real Problem of Our Time…

The times we live in are unusual, but not for lack of a means to feed ourselves. And we’ve definitely left our mark on the planet, we (like all organisms) consume and in our consumption change the environment we live in. The universe is in a state of entropy, this planet is no exception, yet somehow there is life and we are here, extremely advanced, consciously aware of our place in it. We did not create the order we live in nor will we preserve it forever.

The established order of life, death, and birth again is something that should awe-inspiring and never a source of anxieties. From dust we came and to dust we shall return.

However, we are social creatures, we desire to have meaning and purpose in our lives, therefore we should find a role to serve. Which is the big problem in our time, we have our basic needs met with very little effort (at least in the developed countries) and should feel happy and content. But we are also more acutely aware than ever of the world’s problems and as a result, many feel more helpless and stressed than ever. In a time of peace, prosperity, and connectivity many are feeling angry, alienated and desperate for attention.

A History Guy video, “John B Calhoun and the Rats of N.I.M.H.,” about the threat of over-crowding and urbanization, deserves credit for provoking my thoughts. Calhoun had led a series of scientific studies involving rodents placed in a controlled, seemingly ideal, environment where necessities were provided and conditions right for a rapid expansion of population. The results of the experiments were startling, as the crowding increased so did the social dysfunction. Traditional mouse courtship was abandoned. Bizarre behavior from that of non-breeding “beautiful ones” to inexplicable violence (cannibalism, killing young, etc) became increasingly commonplace leading to a total collapse.

This “behavioral sink,” as Calhoun described it, was not a problem of lacking resources, the rats and mice had more than enough to thrive. But it was an issue of socialization, a question of carrying and comfort capacities, and illustrated the need for social structures. There are problems with this experiment, like all experiments, and human behavior is much more complex than that of rats or mice, but there does seem to be information relevant to our own human condition, as social creatures, and the rapidly changing times we live in.

What is really happening in our time is a disruption of beneficial structures and indiscriminate destruction of normalcies. Long gone are the times when most people stayed closely connected to a small group of people in one geographic place, we now drive thirty minutes to be with a friend, search for love across oceans, and many have no church, were raised in daycare by strangers and think “likes” on social media is relevance. The increase in substance abuse, mass shootings, and suicide could all be symptoms of a break down of social structures, like family and community, that give individuals a secure place.

We seem to be accelerating towards a cataclysmic end of our civilization, but that is a bit too pessimistic an outlook. Our species did not rise in numbers solely as a result of prolific breeding or by living in ideal environments. No, in fact, we survived to later thrive as a result of our unique capability to adapt ourselves to any climate and modify the environment to suit our own needs. Still, that does not mean we can continue to go in the direction we are going and our introspection is good so long as it leads us to make the changes needed.

Calhoun spoke of the need for a “compassionate revolution” and that our success often came as a result of honoring deviance over tradition. But he was also a man of his age. In our time it may be revolutionary, even rebellious, to live an ordinary life, to not indulge in travel, to stay local, to be loyal to our own familial commitments and remain faithful to the needs right at our doorstep. We need a restoration of the home and sacred space, a place to belong and also to be separate from the chaotic din of the mass media age.

We are not gods nor are we dumb beasts. We cannot singlehandedly save the planet, we can’t fix every problem either, but we can help to improve our local environment and settle our own internal space in a way that will bring light into the life of those we meet. The world needs fewer things to worry about, more love, hope, hugs, and Matthew 6:34:

“…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Cautionary Tales About Pigeons, Sparrows and Ideological Extremes

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For those who still remember Paul Harvey and miss his “and now you know the rest of the story” delivery style, Lance Geiger will scratch the itch. His episodes, on “The History Guy” YouTube channel, have been my entertainment in the morning before work and enjoy the storytelling adventure before his “forgotten history that deserves to be remembered” wrap-up at the end.

His show is not political. But two of the episodes sparked my thinking about the danger of ideological extremes and the need for checks and balances. One story an example of the central planning gone seriously awry, the other about the unfortunate consequences of technological development combined with market forces, and both stories involve the extinction or near extinction of a species of birds.

Socialized Sparrows and Starvation

The first video, “When China went to war with sparrows” is about the “Four Pests Campaign” that was part of the “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1962. The idea was to eliminate certain types of critters as a way to increase hygiene and reduce disease. The targets, mosquitoes, rodents, flies, and sparrows, were picked by the Socialist regime of Mao Zedong. Claiming that “birds are the public animals of capitalism,” armed with a population bound to statist fervor, they dramatically reduced the numbers of sparrows.

The end result of this sparrow control campaign was an ecological disaster. As it turns out, holding to Marxist ideals does not make a person an expert on economic development or biological science, and this deliberate elimination of sparrows came with some very serious consequences. This misguided policy is believed to be a leading cause of the Great Chinese Famine, a catastrophe that cost between 15 to 45 million human deaths and was abandoned when Chinese authorities, on the advice of an actual ornithologist, finally realized their terrible mistake.

Che Guevara T-shirt wearing, professional far-leftist ‘rabble-rousers’ may celebrate “people power” when it aligns with their personal prejudices. They often sit smugly and sanctimonious, on their intellectual ivory towers, confusing their book acquired knowledge and ideological indoctrination for wisdom. But given real power these people are dangerous. Mao Zedong, the well-educated son of a wealthy farmer, was not an idiot or especially ignorant. But the masses he controlled (with his anti-Capitalist rhetoric) amplified his mistakes, caused great suffering and claimed many innocent lives.

Sparrows, as it turns out, help to control locust populations. These bugs, now unrestrained by the sparrows, quickly proliferated and went on a crop-destroying rampage. This, along with the reckless use of pesticides and poisons by the Chinese government, was all well-intentioned. Likewise, there are many Socialist policies, championed in the past century in this country, that have failed us as miserably and yet continue to be touted as solutions. Unlike Mao, however, our crop of ‘progressives’ more often doubles down on their mistake, hiding behind their ever more convoluted logic, rather than ever reconsider.

Capitalized Pigeons and Profitable Purges

The second video, “How the extinction of a species affected whiskey production,” deals with the plight of the passenger pigeon. This North American species was once so numerous that the flocks would blot out the sun was hunted to extinction, the last of the birds dying September 1, 1915.

Native Americans had hunted passenger pigeons as they were plentiful and a good source of protein. But, because of the limits of their technology and smaller population size, never put a dent in the numbers of pigeons. But this would all change with the newly arrived settlers from Europe. Trains, telegraphs, and gunpowder enabled more people to join the hunt at pigeon nesting grounds. One well-aimed blast from a two barrelled shotgun could kill as many as 61 birds and tens of thousands were slaughtered with great ease.

The real compounding factor was not the hunters, not the tools that they used, but was rather the money and markets that gave them motivation. Unlike in times past where it only made sense to hunt for only enough to sustain your own family or village, the railroads made it possible to ship vast quantities of the fowl meat to city markets back East. The apparent plentifulness of the birds masked the severe drop in their numbers and the cheap source of protein (or profit) they provided ensured the hunts would continue.

That is not to say that nobody was aware of the decline of the species. There were indeed attempts to reign in the slaughter in the mid-1800s. But these conservationist efforts never gained enough traction to make a difference, the legislation introduced too little too late, and extinction followed.

It would be easy to say this plunder of natural resources was a product of greed. But, insomuch as greed is a selfish excess, that is not an accurate diagnosis of the problem. If it were greedy or selfish for one to merely act in their own self-interest then we would all be equally guilty for breathing. The real problem is that no individual accounted for more than their own harvest. There was not nearly enough consideration for the big picture and market forces took care of the rest.

In a Capitalistic system, productive behavior rewarded. That reward is distributed to those who have the ability and motivation to work. But, without anything to hold this motivation in check, a mass of humanity can quickly become like a swarm of locust devouring everything in its path. The beauty of the Capitalistic system is that it allows people to do more to advance their own self-interests and that is also the downfall of Capitalism as well.

What Is the Moral to the Story?

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” (Matthew 10:29 NIV)

Perhaps if God cares about the sparrows we should as well?

In the two stories economic systems that could not be more different and produced nearly the same results. Both cases demonstrate the power of a mass of people and remind me of the demotivational poster in my bedroom (gifted from my awesome little sister) featuring a circle of skydivers and the text: “Idiocy: Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

The poster, a satirical take on motivational posters, is meant as tongue in cheek humor and not to be taken too serious.

Nevertheless, as there is truth to every joke, the useful message is that it is prudent to stand apart from the crowd, to resist conformity and ask questions. Had enough people questioned the party propaganda or the collective actions of their profit-seeking neighbors the death of millions of Chinese and the extinction of passenger pigeons could have been avoided.

These accounts of pigeons and sparrows are also cautionary tales about two opposite ideological extremes. In Socialism the stupid decisions of a small group of people can be vastly magnified by the subjugated masses. In Capitalism the masses, motivated by profit and market forces, can become a source of terrible devastation. The central planning of collectivists and the lack thereof in individualistic and free-market systems both come with their own unique manifestations of the same risk.

It is worthwhile to note that the unchecked power of the central state, in the path century, is responsible for more deaths (due to wars, genocides, famines, etc) than any one person or group of people motivated by profit. Government policies, often favoring big corporations or particular individuals, at very least contribute as much to the problem as individual desire to profit and are, in fact, responsible for some of the worst man-made ecological disasters in modern times.

However, the properly restrained state can provide a good counterbalance to market forces, to keep the masses from acting like a runaway train unaware of the destruction at the end of the tracks and offers some necessary protection for endangered species. It is for our own long-term good that there are limits to our freedoms.

In the end, I’m not for unrestrained Capitalism anymore than I am for unrestrained government power. As much as possible I prefer to let people make their own choices and therefore, for that reason, shade towards free markets—which, when not interfered with by governments through subsidies or social programs, are the most democratic institution known to men. It is better to allow mistakes to be corrected at a lower level through bankruptcy and individual loss. That said, the extinction of the passenger pigeon speaks to the need for a collective consciousness to hold back our self-interested impulses.

Much destruction can be caused by taking a good thing too far or not keeping it properly restrained by other equally valid principles and concerns. Do not repeat the mistakes of these competing ideological extremes and their equal potential for economically or ecologically disastrous results. Remember the sparrows. Remember the pigeons.

Dangerous Complexity: What To Do About the Complex Problem of Complexity?

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Air-travel has become safer than ever and that due, in large part, to the increase in automated systems in the cockpit. However, with this advanced technology there comes a downside and the downside being that an otherwise perfectly functional aircraft (I.e., mechanically sound) with competent operators, can be lost because of a small electronic glitch somewhere in the system.

This issue was discussed, at length in response to the crash of Air France flight 447, an Airbus A330, in 2009, when an issue with an airspeed indicator and automated systems led to pilot confusion—which, in the end, resulted in a plunge into the ocean and the loss of all 228 people on board. The pilots were ultimately responsible for not responding in the correct way (they were in a stall and needed to push the nose down to recover lift) and yet the reason for their failure is as complex as the automated systems that were there to help them manage the cockpit.

It is this problem with advanced electronics that is summarized as a “systemic problem with complexity” in the quote below:

One of the more common questions asked in cockpits today is “What’s it doing now?” Robert’s “We don’t understand anything!” was an extreme version of the same. Sarter said, “We now have this systemic problem with complexity, and it does not involve just one manufacturer. I could easily list 10 or more incidents from either manufacturer where the problem was related to automation and confusion. Complexity means you have a large number of subcomponents and they interact in sometimes unexpected ways. Pilots don’t know, because they haven’t experienced the fringe conditions that are built into the system. I was once in a room with five engineers who had been involved in building a particular airplane, and I started asking, ‘Well, how does this or that work?’ And they could not agree on the answers. So I was thinking, If these five engineers cannot agree, the poor pilot, if he ever encounters that particular situation . . . well, good luck.” (“Should Airplanes Be Flying Themselves?,” The Human Factor)

More recently this problem of complexity has come back into focus after a couple disasters involving Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft. Initial reports have suggested that at an automated system on the aircraft has malfunctioned—pushing the nose down at low altitudes on take-offs as if responding to a stall—and with catastrophic consequences.

It could very well be something as simple as one sensor going haywire. It could very well be that everything else on the aircraft is functioning properly except this one small part. If that is the case, it certainly not something that should bring down an aircraft and would not have in years past when there was an actual direct mechanical linkage between pilot and control surfaces. But, now, since automated systems can override pilot inputs and take away some of the intuitive ‘feel’ of things in a cockpit, the possibility is very real that the pilots simply did not have enough time to sift through the possibilities of what was going wrong enough to diagnose the issue, switch to a manual mode, and prevent disaster.

The FAA, following after the lead of China and the Europeans, has decided to ground the entire fleet of Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft pending the results of the investigations. This move on the part of regulators will probably be a big inconvenience for air travelers. Nevertheless, after two incidents, and hundreds dead, it is better to take the precaution and get to the bottom of the issue.

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President Trump’s off-the-cuff Twitter response, basically stating “the complexity creates danger,” was met with the usual ridicule from those who hate the man and apparently do not understand hyperbole. (It ironic that some, who likely see themselves as sophisticated, have yet to see that through Trump’s putting-it-in-simple-layman’s-terms shtick.) However, technically incorrect is not the same as totally wrong and there is absolutely nothing ridiculous about the general point being made—there are unique (and unforeseeable) problems that come with complex systems.

The “keep it simple, stupid” mantra (aka: KISS principle) is not without merit in an age where our technology is advancing beyond our ability to control it. If a minor glitch in a system can lead to a major disaster, that is dangerous complexity and a real problem that needs to be addressed. Furthermore, if something as simple as flight can be made incomprehensible, even for a trained professional crew, then imagine the risk when a system is too complicated for humans alone to operate—say, for example, a nuclear power plant?

Systems too complex for humans to operate?

On the topic of dangerous complexity, I’m reminded of the meltdown of reactor two at Three Mile Island and the series of small human errors leading up to the big event. A few men, who held the fate of a wide swath of central Pennsylvania in their hands, made a few blunders in diagnosing the issue with serious consequences.

Human operators aren’t even able to comprehend the enormous (and awful) potential of their errors in such circumstances—they cannot fear to the same magnitude or to the proportion of the possible fallout of their actions—let alone have the ability to respond correctly to the cascade of blaring alarms when things did start to go south:

Perrow concluded that the failure at Three Mile Island was a consequence of the system’s immense complexity. Such modern high-risk systems, he realized, were prone to failures however well they were managed. It was inevitable that they would eventually suffer what he termed a ‘normal accident’. Therefore, he suggested, we might do better to contemplate a radical redesign, or if that was not possible, to abandon such technology entirely. (“In retrospect: Normal accidents“. Nature.)

The system accident (also called the “normal” accident by Yale sociologist, Charles Perrow, who wrote a book on the topic) is when a series of minor things go wrong together or combine in an unexpected way and eventually lead to a cataclysmic failure. This “unanticipated interaction of multiple factors” is what happened at Three Mile Island. It is called ‘normal’ because people, put in these immensely complex situations, revert to their normal routines and (like a pilot who has the nose of his aircraft inexplicably pitch down on routine take off) they lose (or just plain lack) the “narrative thread” necessary to properly respond to an emerging crisis situation.

Such was the case at Three Mile Island. It was not gross misconduct on the part of one person nor a terrible flaw in the design of the reactor itself, but rather it was a series of minor issues that led to operator confusion and number of small of mistakes that soon snowballed into something gravely serious. The accident was a result of the complexity of the system, our difficulty predicting how various factors can interact in ways that lead to failure and is something we can expect as systems become more and more complex.

And increased automation does not eliminate this problem. No, quite the opposite, it compounds the problem by adding another layer of management that clouds our ability to understand what is going on before it is too late. In other words, with automation, not only do you have the possibility of mechanical failure and human error, but you also have the potential for the automation itself failing and failing in a way that leaves the human operators too perplexed to sort through the mess of layered systems and unable respond in time. As the list of interactions between various systems grows so does the risk of a complex failure.

[As a footnote, nuclear energy is cleaner, safer and far more reliable than wind and solar farms. And, in the same way, that it is safer to fly than to drive, despite perceptions to the contrary, the dangers of nuclear are simply more obvious to the casual observer than the alternatives. So, again, with the fierce opposition to nuclear power by those who are unwittingly promoting less effective and more dangerous solutions, the human capacity to make good decisions when faced with the ambiguous problems created by the interaction of various complex systems does certainly come into question.]

Has modern life become dangerously complex?

There is no question that technological advancement has greatly benefited this generation in many ways and few would really be willing to give up modern convenience. That said, this change has not come without a cost. I had to think of that reality over the past few weeks while doing a major overhaul of how we manage information at the office and considering how quickly years of work could vanish into thin air. Yes, I suppose that paper files, like the Library of Alexandria burned, are always susceptible to flames or other destructive forces of nature. But, at least fire (unlike the infamous “blue screen of death“) is a somewhat predictable phenomenon.

Does anyone know why the Bluetooth in my car syncs up sometimes and not always?

Or why plugging my Android phone into the charger causes my calls in Facebook Messenger to hiccup (I.e., disconnects and reconnects multiple times) sometimes but not always?

I’m sure there is a reason hidden somewhere in the code, a failed interaction between several components in the system, but it would take an expert to get to the bottom of the issue. That’s quite a bit different from the times when the problem was the rain and the solution was cutting down a few trees to create a shelter. That was also true in the early days of machines as well—a somewhat mechanically inclined person could maintain and repair their own automobiles. However, the complicating factor of modern electronics has put this do-it-yourself option out of reach for all but the most dedicated mechanics.

Life for this generation has also become exponentially more complex than it was for prior generations when travel was as fast as your horse and you were watching your crops grow rather than checking your Facebook feed updates every other minute. It is very easy to be overwhelmed, as individuals, by information overload. The common man is increasingly over his head in dealing with the technological onslaught. We have become increasingly dependent on technology that we cannot understand ourselves and fails spontaneously, without warning, at seemingly the most inopportune times.

Advanced modern technology represents a paradigm shift as much as the invention of the automobile was a revolution for personal transportation. We have gone from analog to digital—a change that has opened a whole new realm of possibilities and also comes with a new set of vulnerabilities as well that go beyond the occasional annoyance of a computer crash. We really have no idea how the complexity of the current system will fare against the next Carrington Event (a solar storm that caused widespread damage and disruptions to the electric grid in 1859—a time of very basic and sturdy technology) nor are we able to foresee the many other potential glitches that could crash the entire system.

It is easy to be lulled into thinking everything will be okay because it has been so far. But that is a false security in a time of complex systems that are extremely sensitive and vulnerable. As when a pilot of a sophisticated airliner fails to comprehend the inputs or like the flustered operators of a nuclear reactor when the alarm bells ring, our civilization may be unable to respond when the complex systems we now rely on fail in an unexpected way that we could not predict. It is not completely unlikely that a relatively small glitch could crash the entire system and lead to a collapse of the current civilization. That is the danger of complexity, having systems that are well beyond our ability to fix should they fail in the right way at the wrong time.

The last human invention will be too complex to control and could be our demise…

Computers far exceed the human capacity to process information. We’ve come a long way from Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov in the 90s and the gap between man and machine continues to grow wider after our best representatives were surpassed. Yet, while vastly faster in their abilities, computers have long only been able to do what they were programmed to do and thus their intelligence is limited by the abilities of their human programmers.

However, we are on the cusp of development of this technology and the implications far beyond the finite capacity of the human mind to grasp. We could very soon couple the processing speed of a computer with a problem-solving ability similar to that of a human. Except, unlike us, limited by our brain size and relatively slow processing speed, this “machine learning” invention (a video on the progress so far) could continue to expand its own intellectual abilities.

Machine learning is a massive paradigm shift from the programmed computers we currently use. It would lead to super-intelligence beyond our ability to fathom (literally) and, any more than a monkey can control us, could not be stopped. Imagine something that is always a hundred steps beyond any scenario we could imagine and has less in common with us (in terms of raw intelligence) than we do with an ant—would it have any reason not to treat us better than bacteria?

There was a time when I would not have believed that artificial intelligence was possible in my lifetime and a time after that when I would’ve thought it is something we could control. That was naive, artificial intelligence would, at very least, be unpredictable and almost totally unstoppable once the ball got rolling. It could see us as a curiosity, solve cancer simply because it could in a few nanoseconds—or it could kill us off for basically the same reason. Hopefully, in the latter case, it would see our extermination as not being worth the effort and be on to far greater things.

It remains to be seen whether artificial intelligence will solve all of our problems or see us as a problem and remove us from the equation. This is why very intelligent men, who love science and technological advancement, like Elon Musk, are fearful. Like the atomic age, it is a Pandora’s box that, once opened, cannot be closed again. But unlike a fission bomb that is dependent on human operators, this is a technology that could shape a destiny for itself—an invention that could quite possibly make us obsolete, hardly even worth a footnote in history, as it expanded across our planet and into the universe.

Whatever the case, we will soon have an answer…

Neural nets, the key component to artificial super-intelligence, are already here…

In fact, it is in your smartphone, it enables facial recognition and language translation. It also helps you pick a movie on Amazon by predicting what might interest you based on your prior choices.

Artificial intelligence technology could be our future. It could be that last invention that can finally manage all of these dangerous complex systems that modern convenience is so dependent upon and allow us to return to our simple pleasures. Or it could be a dangerous complexity in and of itself, something impossible to control, indifferent to our suffering and basically (from a human perspective) the greatest evil we ever face in the moments before it ensures our extinction.

Artificial super-intelligence will be complexity beyond our control, a dangerous complexity, and comes with risks that are humanly unimaginable. It could either solve all of our problems in dealing with disease and the complexity of our current technology—or it could make our woes exponentially greater and erase our civilization from the universe in the same way we apply an antibiotic to a pathogen. It is not ridiculous or absurd to think a little about the consequences before flipping the “on” switch of our last invention.

Should we think about simplifying our lives?

It is important, while we still reign supreme as the most inventive, intelligent and complex creatures on this planet, that we consider where our current trajectory will lead. Technological advancement has offered us unique advantages over previous generations but has also exposed us to unique stresses and incredible risks as well. Through technology, we have gained the ability to go to the moon and also to destroy all life on this planet with the push of a button.

Our technologies have always come as two-edged swords, with a good side and bad side. Discovering how to use fire, for example, provided us with warmth on a winter night and eventually internal combustion engines, but has often escaped our containment, destroyed our properties, cost countless lives, and creates air pollution. Rocks, likewise, became useful tools in our hands, they increased our productivity in dramatic fashion, but then also became a means to bash in the skulls of other humans as a weapon. For every positive development, there seems to be corresponding negative consequences and automation has proved to be no different.

The dramatic changes of the past century will likely seem small by comparison to what is coming next and there really is no way to be adequately prepared. Normal people can barely keep up with the increased complexity of our time as it is, we are already being manipulated by our own devices—scammers use our technology against us (soon spoof callers, using neuron networks, will be able to perfectly mimic your voice or that of a loved one for any nefarious purpose they can imagine) and it is likely big corporations will continue to do the same. Most of us will only fall further behind as our human weakness is easily used against us by the use of computer algorithms and artificial intelligence.

It would be nice to have the option to reconsider our decisions of the past few decades. Alas, this flight has already departed, we have no choice but to continue forward, hope for the best, and prepare for the worse. We really do need to consider, with the benefits, the potential cost of our increased dependence on complex systems and automation. And there is good reason to think (as individuals and also a civilization) about the value of simplifying our lives. It is not regressive or wrong to hold back a little on complexity and go with what is simple, tried and true.

Tesla’s Uphill Battle in the Trucking Industry…

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There is no question that Elon Musk has changed the conversation as far as electric vehicles.  Musk, unlike his predecessors, focused on building an image of luxury and performance.

Electric powered vehicles, until the Tesla Model S arrived as an option, were boring, slow and impractical.  Now, while Musk’s cars still remain impractical for most people (both in terms of range and price) and while it remains to be seen whether or not his company could survive without corporate welfare, Tesla has at least undone some of the negative image of electric vehicles.

Tesla seems to be taking one more step in the direction of practicality with the introduction of commercial vehicle.  Semi, this latest opportunity for Musk to attract media attention, reminds me of something I would’ve drawn up in a middle school daydream: It has a sleek exterior, it is loaded up with LCD screens, it promises to perform at a level one would expect from a sports car, it is priced similar to other Class 8 trucks, and yet also makes me question if any experienced truck drivers were consulted in the design process…

Sure, middle school me would be salivating over this technological wonder.  However now, as one having had years of experience behind the wheel of a big rig, the center seating position, glare of screens, wheel fenders and charging times make it totally unappealing to me.

The ergonomic and design issues, obvious from a driver’s perspective, are covered in another former trucker’s article (click here if you want to know more about them) but there are more serious matters and practical concerns yet to be addressed.  Acceleration numbers and having the fastest truck on the road might increase coolness factor, but it might also leave all of your cargo on the road (or like the unmitigated disaster recalled unfondly from my days unloading trucks at the paint store) and distracts from questions of actual viability in the real world.

To many the promised 300-500 mile range and 30 minute recharging may seem wonderful. But, from a trucking industry standard, it is truly abysmal and completely impractical.  The range of an over-the-road diesel truck, with 250 gallons of fuel, is anywhere from 1000 to 2000 miles and it only takes fifteen minutes every other day to refill the tanks—multiple extra stops per day is intolerable given the current hours of service requirements.  

And, that’s assuming good conditions, what happens in cold weather when battery capacity is reduced by 40-50% like owners of other Telsa products have experienced?

It is no big secret that fossil fuels carry a greater amount of energy per pound than the alternatives currently available. This energy density is especially important in commercial trucking where every ounce of extra weight takes away from payload.  Batteries with the range Telsa has promised will certainly be very heavy and that will be a huge competive disadvantage.  It means you might need an additional Tesla truck to do what one diesel truck does—which wipes out any illusion of energy savings and cost effectiveness.

Then there is the question of longevity and servicing the truck.  It could very well be that the Tesla Semi will be completely reliable and go a million miles like a diesel truck.  But, even assuming that is the case, what sort of maintenance program and roadside assistance will they offer when things do inevitably go wrong?  Service infrastructure is a more significant in commercial trucking than it is in general.  Diesels are relatively easy to work on and the network is already established—those are questions that must be answered.

My own back-of-the-napkin analysis, based in what has already been said and can be reasonably assumed, is that this new Tesla offering will have the same liabilities of other battery electric vehicles except on a far larger scale.  The question of Tesla being the future of trucking (or is simply a niché vehicle for those who can afford the unavoidable range and weight disadvantages, as well as potential maintenance issues) is not answered.

Trucking companies, unlike wealthy luxury car buyers aided by government subsidies, need to be profitable and competive to survive.

What do my trucker friends think?

Rudolf Diesel: Thoughts about Idealism, Despair, Progress, Politics and Hope

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Diesel powers the world economy.  I never considered the extent to which that is true until watching a documentary (click here to view it) about this type of internal combustion engine.  It is named after the inventor, a French-German mechanical engineer, Rudolf Diesel, and is the reason why global trade is possible to the extent it is.

Early Diesel design, circa 1897

In considering the story of Diesel, his brilliant invention and the results, I could not help but see the pattern all too common with innovators.  Diesel’s life turned tragic, he was found floating in the North Sea, dead of an apparent suicide, and likely a result of his despair over the unintended consequences of his own design.

According to biographical accounts, Diesel was a utopian idealist who had hopes that his invention would be a catalyst for social change, free the common man and break corporate monopolies.  Unfortunately, while a revolution for transportation, Diesel power did not achieve the lofty social vision. 

Worse, the Diesel engine found use as a part in an efficient killing machine, the German U-boat, and this no doubt grieved the pacifist inventor.

Here are some observations…

#1) What is intended for good can often be used for evil.

Diesel had never intended his invention be used as a means of terrorizing North Atlantic shipping lanes.  And, likewise, many scientists and inventors had regrets related to their greatest contribution to the world.

German U-boat, the original stealth weapon 

There are lists from K-cups to A-bombs online and many others.  For example, Henry Ford seemed to dislike the vast social changes and consumerist mindset made possible by his manufacturing revolution that helped automobiles become a fixture of American life.  Even this media, the internet, once thought to be the beginnings of an information age, has become a cesspool of pornography and ill-founded claims.

I worry about this as a blogger.  Once my thoughts are out there they cannot be contained again.  Will someone pick up my words and run with them in a direction I never intended?  It is a potential outcome that could scare a sensitive soul into silence and is at least a reason for me to be prayerful in what I post here.

I believe there are many people who do not thoroughly think through the potential unintended consequences of the ideas they promote.  There are many government programs and social movements intended for good that might actually be creating more problems than the one that they were intended to solve.

Which takes me to a second point…

#2) Yesterday’s revolution is today’s loathed source of inequality and evil.

It is ironic that the invention that did actually outcompete coal for market supremacy is now enemy #1 for many.  The internal combustion engine won in the marketplace because it was by far the cheapest most efficient means to power transportation and still remains. 

Given there are no steam powered cars, tractors, trains and ships anymore, it is clear that internal combustion is the best bang for the buck and remains to be rivaled.  Diesel powered locomotives and ocean going container ships are extremely powerful while being very economical.    

109,000-horsepower Wärtsilä-Sulzer RTA96-C

Diesel power still outperforms hybrid technology—A loaded Diesel powered class 8 truck is more efficient pound for pound than a Prius.

Think about it: It takes one gallon of fuel to move an 80,000lb truck five to seven miles.  A 2016 Prius, by comparison, carries a weight of around 4000lbs can go anywhere from 50 to 58 miles on a gallon of fuel.  It may seem the Toyota is greener until you consider that it is moving twenty times less weight.  Twenty Prius cars combined together, after dividing their individual consumption by twenty, would consume 2.5 to 2.9 gallons of fuel.  Now, obviously, combining Diesel and hybrid technology on the scale of class 8 truck would undoubtedly yield even greater results if fuel economy were the only concern, but the point remains that Diesel power is extremely efficient and effective—and only more so the larger the application.

So what’s the problem?

Well, the current popular perception is that the petroleum industry “big oil” is the enemy and conspires to hold back technology that would dramatically increase efficiency.  Worse than that, we are told that petroleum power is a source of global climate change and a threat to the global ecology.  Poor Diesel would be driven even further into despair if half this is true.  We fight over oil.

 #3) Progressive aims of our time are at odds with each other or self-contradictory.

Globalism, higher standard of living for more people and environmentalist ‘green’ movements are at odds with each other.  Pushing one direction will almost invariably come at the cost of the others. 

Progressive politicians may tout an idea of a ‘green economy’ as a jobs creator, but the reality has been that wind and solar energy can only remain competitive through heavy use of government subsidies.  Beyond that, even with the help, domestic ‘green’ manufacturing is unsustainable against foreign competition.  At best we will merely replace jobs lost by the heavy regulations placed on fossil fuels and raise costs of living across the board.

Furthermore, it was the progressive policies of the past century that have created the current conditions.  Government policies like the Rural Electrification Act, the Interstate highway system and trade agreements have actually moved us away from a more sustainable less polluting lifestyle.  Our cheap and easy movement from place to place has harmed community and local markets.

Rural Electrification Act propaganda poster.

It is hard to know how the current landscape would look had the progressives of yesterday had not literally paved the way for suburban sprawl, the trucking industry (that currently employs me) and driven us to embrace a coal powered grid.  But I do suspect more of our food would be locally grown, more of our products locally produced and solar energy far more the norm in places utilities would be to costly to maintain unless mandated by law.

In final analysis things might not be as dismal as they seem.

It is easy to focus on the negative without considering the good.  The means of today are likely as unsustainable as the means of yesterday and therefore the progress of the past century might not be the end of us after all.  The only consistent reality in the past two centuries has been that markets constantly change.

Canal boats an all the infrastructure to support them were soon replaced by steam power and railroads.  In Pennsylvania the lumber industry rose in prominence before a rapid decline after the states wooded mountains were reduced to stubble.  The coal industry once put food on the table for boat loads of immigrants before cheap efficient oil and a multitude other factors conspired against it.

Bay State Mills, Lawrence, built 1845.

Manufacturing, from the once mighty water powered textile mills of the New England states to the formerly unstoppable domestic steel industry, has also migrated following cheaper labor and energy.  Each time promoting deep consternation and fear.  But so far the Luddites have yet to have the last laugh and a new balance is eventually found that usually benefits everyone.

Certainly the overconfidence and optimism about today’s new solution may become the big disappointment of tomorrow.  Yet, do we really wish to go back to a time when a transatlantic voyage was only something a religious zealot or crazy Viking explorer would do?  Would we really rather spend most of our time scrounging for just enough to eat as to avoid the possibility of mechanized warfare?

Nobody knows for certain why Diesel died... 

However, what is certain is that his invention changed the world and provided a means for interstate commerce and global trade that never existed before.  The pacifying effect of global trade, economic benefits of an expanded market place and inexpensive power are largely unappreciated.  But we probably do have Diesel to thank for helping create the long peace and prosperity of our time.

Maersk, Triple-E design, Diesel powered, container ship

In an age of information overload, where we know about beheadings in the Middle East before the people the next town over would have heard a century ago, it is difficult for our finite minds to contextualize and easy to become overwhelmed.  This, with an accompanying loss of faith, could be why middle-aged American white males are committing suicide (supposedly the most privileged in the world) and at an alarmingly increasing rate. 

Diesel’s pessimism about the future in retrospect seems to have been premature and his nightmarish perception of reality overstated.  In like manner many of our modern fears and despair inducing thoughts about the future could be negativity bias and nothing more.  Every generation seems to believe that the world is falling apart and still here we are.

Whatever the case, ignore the fear-mongering propaganda of the punditry and politicians.  Embrace temperance, a spiritual quality developed through faith, over mindless reaction and fearful impulse.  Trust God to secure the future, we can only live one day at a time and never ever lose hope!  If you are depressed about events in the world today, I invite you to see the higher perspective:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Perhaps the greater of two evils will be elected come November and drive the nation to complete ruin.  

Who knows besides God?

We may all die tomorrow, we will all die eventually, our work blown away in the wind of time and forgotten.  Everything comes to pass, nothing will remain as we know it today, but there is hope beyond all hope found in an eternal perspective.  So look up, because the sun is still shining and the future remains bright!

Do you see the light and feel the warmth of hope eternal?

If not, my prayer is for the blind to see…

Will the Luddites have the last laugh?

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Technological advancement has always come at the expense of jobs.  

Today one farmer (with machinery and modern practices) is able to do the work that would have taken a hundred people to do a century ago. 

Did this mean ninety-nine people are now out of work?

No.

For every person who lost a job in farming there was opportunity gained to do something else.  Because of technology one farmer can feed 155 people and these 155 are now free to produce other things.

The progress of the past century would never have been possible without the layers upon layers of technological innovations that cost jobs and created opportunities for people to employ themselves elsewhere.

At each step of the way there were Luddites (those who resist labor saving technologies and innovation that might cost them their current job) and thankfully they could not hold back the march of progress or we might all still be subsidence farmers barely able to feed ourselves.

Those who lost employment due to technological advancement found other profitable work.  Not only did we gain the added production of the machines that replaced human labor, we also gained through freeing people (who once did the work the machines took) to do other profitable things.  

The result has been exponential economic growth and an era of prosperity unprecedented in recorded human history.  Automation may temporarily cost jobs, but the long-term result is greater productivity and with that greater wealth overall.  We have tremendous opportunity over our ancestors because of technological advancements.

Despite this, like the meme above, modern Luddites still resist technology trying to protect jobs.  They do not understand how jobs lost to machines leads to new opportunities and greater productivity that benefits them.  

They would rather do like New Jersey did to protect jobs by making self-serving gas stations illegal.  It is quite literally a counterproductive economic policy because it keeps people tied down to jobs that can easily eliminated without much loss.

Innovations like vending machines, ATM’s and Redbox dispensers have added convenience.  No longer do we need to bank during banking hours or wait until Blockbuster opens to rent and return a movie.  

Sure, in each case there was a potential job opportunity lost, but with each lost opportunity is an opportunity gained to do something else and a chance to add more value to the economy than would otherwise be possible.

The result is quite obviously good in overall terms…

This is not to say there hasn’t been pain for some along the way.  Technological advancements (like globalization and trade) benefits the whole economy, but it also can cause suffering for those who are unemployable because they are unable to adapt and take advantage of the created opportunity.

Not every factory worker who had their job replaced with a machine (or outsourced) is intelligent or skilled enough to take advantage of the opportunity to do something else.  Sure, they do benefit from the lower prices, but also might not earn the wages they once did and can come out on the losing end. 

However, most people, and certainly the economy as a whole, benefit from the greater production, the lower cost for goods and the opportunities created.  Few would actually wish to return to a time before the Industrial Revolution and our age of technological advancement.

For every job eliminated there has always been new opportunities created for more skilled labor and professional work.  That is how things have gone until this point and one might assume this is how it would continue ad infinitum.

But do all good things come to an end?

Up until now machines have been useful for eliminating back breaking and repetitive physical tasks.  As a result more people have been freed to do mental or creative work rather than manual labor.

Technology has now advanced to where we might soon reach a tipping point where all human work can be replaced.

According to the analysis of some (please watch this: Humans Need Not Apply) we are nearing a point when even the most skilled professionals and best of creative minds will be outclassed by technology…

What then?

What happens when there is zero opportunity to do something that can’t be done cheaper, more efficiently and better in every way by machines?

What happens when all human labor is worth next to nothing and only capital like land, mineral resources or machines have value?

Our future seems a paradoxical combination of utopia and hell…

On one hand, in this future we will have the capability to produce more than ever with great ease, innovation and efficiency will reach levels humanly unachievable.  This will mean more wealth than ever before and theoretically we could all eventually go on a permanent vacation.

On the other hand, most people (unless they already own land and machines with productive value) will have little to offer in economic terms and no way to advance.  The price of goods would drop, but wages would drop faster and followed to conclusion we would all be unemployed, unemployable and most of us would have nothing at all.

But it would likely never get to that point.  The real tipping point would be when a critical mass of people become unemployed, know they are unable to compete with those (who by good fortune or superior intelligence) who already are established. 

There would be a revolt against the establishment.  Capital of production (machines and land) would almost need to become the property of all people.  Goods and services created would need to be distributed evenly amongst the people.

At this point, once the revolution is over, assuming the machines don’t rise up against us, all we would have left to do is contemplate our existence in a world where all other work is done.  We would spend our time exploring, being entertained by our machines, building relationships and reproducing—there would nothing else left for us to do.

That will not happen overnight.  But, with self-driving vehicles right around the corner, my current occupation (transportation) will be the first in line to go the way of the horse.  So, at very least, I need to think of what my next move will be…

Your thoughts?