Category Archives: Rant

My Dangerous Ideas

In a series of books, one each year, John Brockman asks the contributors and members of Edge.org a question. The goal is to foster exchange, to provoke thinking, and to stir debate. I thought I’d give my own answers to each question.

In What is Your Dangerous Idea?, John Brockman asked exactly that: “What is your dangerous idea?” Well, I have two.

The American Dream is a Fraud.

I’ve touched on this before. One of the defining tenants of American society is that anyone can make it, can be a success, if only they work hard. I have serious doubts that hard work is the most important criterion for success in American (with inheritance, skill, perseverance, and dumb luck likely all being more important), but let’s set that aside for the moment. Let’s assume that hard work, and hard work alone, will get you to the top. It’s a nice thought, and a nice ideal, but it simply can’t be true. There isn’t enough room at the top for everyone. Someone has to do those jobs near the bottom of the economic ladder, those jobs no one chooses to do, but must be done for society and the economy to function. Jobs that don’t pay well. The bottom rungs of the economic ladder must be occupied by someone, regardless of how hard everyone works. That is, even if everyone worked hard, the vast majority have to fail for the system to work. The top need the bottom to exist. Thus, the system has to be rigged to ensure that the bottom exists.

As a consequence, it simply can’t be true that all one needs is to work hard. Sure, some will work hard and rise above their “humble beginnings,” but we all can’t. Most of us won’t, regardless of how hard we work. If the majority of us are able to move up the ladder, we must bring in new people who are willing to exist at the bottom, for whatever reason.

The only way I can see that the American Dream can be a reality for the vast majority of Americans is for us to develop the technology to automate all of those jobs at the lowest economic rungs. Possibly then, we won’t need people to do them and the system will have the freedom to allow most or maybe even all of us to move up and realize the American Dream. But, until that happens, I fear that most of will have to settle for the hope of the American Dream for their children.

Behavior can be Predicted and Controlled.

It seems that, as we learn more about how the brain functions, we are learning more and more that many behaviors are a consequence of the structure and chemistry of the brain. Much of what defines each of us is based on genetic factors and our predilections are often a function of how our brains are wired, out of our direct control. If true, this has enormous implications for our place in society.

Imagine if each of our brains can be mapped to such a degree that we can place high probabilities of us behaving in certain ways. And imagine if this could be done when we are infants. That is, consider a world in which an infant, not long in this world, can have his or her brain mapped and the propensity for unsocial behavior determined. Behavior, for example, such as tendency to be violent or a psychopath or a sociopath. What should we do with such capabilities and knowledge? Should we use it to determine the likelihood of each and every individual’s probability to be a damaging member of society? And, if we can, what should we do to those people? Should we continuously monitor them in the hope of preventing them from harming anyone? Should we abscond them away to ensure they don’t?

Now imagine we take the scenario a bit further. Imagine we have the ability to change behavior, through chemistry. We do this already to some extent, with ADHD and other behaviors deemed undesirable. What if we could use chemicals, possibly forcibly given, to turn off that part of the brain that drives pedophiles? Or murders? What if we could alter the brain chemistry of individuals determined to be a danger to society to remove that danger? That is, what if we could stop these people from doing any harm, by changing them before they were ever able to do any harm? If we could identify the Jeffery Dahmers and Adolf Hitlers of the world long before they became those monsters, should we? And what should we do about it?

There are many ethical questions that arise from such a scenario, including the right of society to so drastically interfere with the rights of any given individual who has done nothing wrong, but has a brain that strongly indicates they will. Further, there will be those who want to use such power for more nefarious purposes, such as eliminating people with behaviors that aren’t dangerous but are deemed unacceptable (for example, homosexuality) or maybe dangerous to the regime (such as a proclivity to question authority).

I think we will soon have the ability to both determine who might be prone to dangerous behavior and then modify them so they don’t. We will soon have to answer questions about what we do with that ability.

Feeling guilty for needing help?

We all have this image of those that depend on government assistance, stereotyped by the so-called welfare queen, who is trying to milk the system as much as possible; someone who epitomizes laziness and wants someone else to care for them.

However, a recent NY Times piece points out that all of us are depending more and more on government assistance to get by and, ironically, it is in precisely those places where opposition to government aid is greatest where dependence on that aid has grown the most. In particular, the article describes research by a professor at Dartmouth College, Dean Lacy, who has found:

Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates.

Conversely, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democratic candidates.

That is, the places that give more than they get tend to be Democrat, and those that get more than they give tend to be Republican. This isn’t new, it has been discussed before. It always struck me as strange. Those that rail most against taxes and big government are those that receive the most benefit. Whether this is from farm subsidies, food stamps, or whatever, the fact that the objections to government helping people come most from those getting that help strikes me as odd.

The article doesn’t give much insight into why this is the case. It does allude to the fact that maybe some of those receiving benefits are somehow ashamed of that and would rather that it not be so easy to get government assistance. That is, they’d almost rather be forced to take a harder road where they are more self-reliant. That the government helps them is almost a failing on their part, which by extension is a failing of the government.

I guess I don’t quite understand fully. Maybe it is related to the so-called American dream which provides us with the comforting notion that if we just work hard enough, we will have that nice suburban house with the white picket fence and the 2.3 children in an idyllic neighborhood. The reality, in my opinion, is not so clean. There is no way our system can support all of us attaining that ideal; as I’ve written about before, it seems to me that a large number of us have to fail in achieving that dream in order for our system to function. We need people at the bottom of the ladder to perform those jobs that the majority of us don’t want to do.

So, is it a failure to attain that dream, a failure of being self-sufficient and thus needing government help the reason for this contradiction in people taking government resources but at the same time wanting to cut them? Do they feel guilty for having to take them? Do they resent having to, in some sense, rely upon those that are willing to pay more taxes to support them? Do they resent that they even have the option, that government isn’t forcing them to struggle heroically in face of adversity, in the fashion that so much of American mythology is based?

I guess, in the end, I don’t have an explanation and I really don’t understand this dichotomy. If we do end up electing politicians who do cut the safety net, it is those very people who want it cut that will be hurt the most. Ironically, it is those that support having the safety net that can best deal with it being cut. Not much of politics seems rational to me, and this particular issue epitomizes, for me, the irrationality of politics in America.

Energy in the US: generation and use

A few weeks back, I attended a “Summit and Forum” for the Office of Basic Energy Science’s (BES) Energy Frontiers Research Centers (EFRCs), a collection of 46 projects that are aimed at developing the fundamental science that will underpin the energy infrastructure and economy of the future.  I am part of one EFRC, the Center for Materials at Irradiation and Mechanical Extremes (CMIME), that is centered at LANL and has the goal of looking at materials under extreme conditions, including those that occur in a nuclear reactor.

One thing that I found particularly interesting is summarized by the figure included here, which is an Energy Flow diagram.  This particular one, found here and developed at LLNL, is for 2005.  The units of energy for each box is in so-called quads, convenient because the total energy produced and used in the US is about 100 quads.

What is most striking about this figure is that more than half of the energy produced in the US is actually lost.  Not necessarily wasted, as some of it is the inevitable loss due to transmission and other factors.  But, much of it is also due to just inefficiencies in our system, in our old grid, and in our poorly designed buildings.  For example, we lose a lot of waste heat in industry which, if captured, could be used to power homes and other businesses.  Further, our grid is as old as there is in the world (a side-effect of being the first country to develop a grid).  China, on the other hand, is developing high voltage state-of-the-art grids that will reduce transmission costs and allow for more efficient use of renewable energy sources.

The other thing that jumps out to me is that renewables account for such a small fraction of our energy portfolio that even if we pushed heavily on them, investing significantly more resources, it will still be a long time before they can make a significant dent in our energy use.  This is one of the reasons I’m pro-nuclear.  I know nuclear has its risks — Fukushima clearly demonstrates that — but it is the only proven non-CO2-emitting energy source we have, the only thing that will help us tackle climate change in the immediate future.  This is not to say that renewables aren’t important — indeed I think they are and that they will be a huge part of our energy portfolio in the future — but they are not a short or even intermediate time solution.  If we, as a society, want to curb green house gas emitting fossil fuels, nuclear has to be part of the picture.  So it seems to me.

Anyways, this figure gives some food for thought and gives a good overview of how our energy is both generated and used.

Mosquito Doctors and Warriors

There was a story on NPR last week (see this link) about how a scientist at the University of Maryland, Raymond St. Leger, has found a way to essentially infect mosquitos with a fungus that kills the malaria parasite within the mosquitos without killing the mosquito itself (at least not very quickly).  This last point is important, as, since the death is slow, the mosquito won’t adapt to the fungus so quickly, evolving to fight it.  By infecting the mosquitos thus, the malaria parasite is killed and the mosquitos don’t fight back.

It got me thinking (as I’m sure it has people who work for the government) that maybe using this kind of technology, one could do other things with mosquitos.  Two things jump to mind…

First, the good: why not infect the mosquito with a fungus that, instead of or in addition to killing the malaria parasite, also injects it with some kind of medicine, maybe a vaccine to say measles or antibiotics to help against maybe a cholera outbreak that occurs during some natural disaster.  The mosquitos would be released into the population, acting as mini flying syringes, and inoculate or administer drugs to the populace.  Large portions of the populace could be treated easily and quickly, without the need for doctors to visit each individual person.  And the mosquitos could likely access more remote areas that would be hard for doctors to reach. Of course, one could easily imagine abuses, which leads to second point…

If the mosquitos could be infected with a fungus that conveys some benefit, they could also be used in more nefarious ways.  They could transmit a disease itself, something that could be used to knock out a chunk of a population or army during wartime.  In the very least, if they transmitted the flu, it would weaken an army such that opposing forces might be more likely to be victorious in battle.  And, possibly, the disease would be so severe as to just directly kill the opponent.

As with most things, it isn’t the technology itself that is good or bad, but the uses of it.  It seems to me that “mosquito doctors” have a lot of potential beyond just eradicating malaria, but “mosquito warriors” could devastate not only the opposing army, but whole populations.

Consumerism and Capitalism

A few months back, hanging out at a friend’s house with some beers, we engaged in one of those BS sessions that were so common in college but so rare these days.  We wandered all over the proverbial map, but a particular interesting and engaging topic was the relationship between capitalism and consumerism.

Those who know me likely realize that I’m pretty liberal and believe we should have more social programs to benefit society as a whole.  I basically feel that if my neighbor is better off, so will I be.  However, I also think that capitalism is overall a good system that encourages innovation and progress and allows people the best chance to better themselves.  Where I have real issues is with consumerism.

I basically think that consumerism — consuming for consuming sake — is bad.  And it seems that our economy is so dependent on this.  Consumer confidence is a key indicator of the state of the economy and our political leaders are always cajoling us to spend more.  The economy will pick up when people buy more, as that will spur manufacturing, and thus hiring.  It seems a vicious circle, with us buying stuff just so we can have jobs.  If we stop buying, the jobs disappear.

This consumerism also leads to companies producing products solely so we have something to buy.  They aren’t always good products and, even when they are, they are developed not because of any need, but just to have some new iteration for us to buy.  If Apple didn’t have a new gee-whiz gadget every few months, what would we buy?  Would they still be profitable?  Would their business model collapse?  What does the new iPhone do that the old one didn’t?  Do I really need it?

It seems no.  It seems like these products are produced almost exclusively so that they have something to sell and we have something to buy.  And that leads to more stuff that just gets obsolete and tossed into the land fill.  It all seems an engine to generate waste.

And this begs the question, are consumerism and capitalism fundamentally connected?  Can capitalism exist without consumers consuming?  If not, what is the basis of the capitalist market?

As might be expected, we didn’t answer this question.  We did think that maybe the paradigm could be shifted slightly if the full cost of a product, including its disposal, were included in its price.  If the cost of disposing of some object were included in the purchase price, rather than in either utility bills from the city or just ignored completely, maybe products would have to be designed that were meant to be durable, to have some lasting power, and thus the market would have to rely on other components rather than just consuming.  But, what those would be, I don’t know.