There’s a Pill for That!

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In the first grade at David Hill Elementary School in Akron, Ohio, a classmate of mine literally broke out in measles right in front of me. Sure enough, a few days later, I got the measles. I don’t recall its being too bad except that I had a high fever and I began seeing “floaters” which I had never noticed before. Unfortunately, right after getting “over” the measles, I came down with pneumonia and had another high fever. Whatever the reasoning, I found myself in a hospital ward with probably 15-20 other kids. Initially, the worst part of the experience was that I had to lie there in what was essentially a crib. I had outgrown a crib years before and it was humiliating to be caged up in a crib.

At that point in time, the medical community had decided that the best thing for everyone concerned was to limit parental visiting hours to a half hour in the middle of the day and an hour in the evening. Although I certainly enjoyed playing with my friends at school, being deprived of friends or relatives for all but an hour and a half a day was disheartening. None of the kids could touch each other in the hospital but we could talk a little, and sometimes scream. One of the kids in the ward had been badly burned and they periodically came to change his bandages. Before this, I had mainly heard kids scream as a kind of protest or to get attention from their parents or teachers. This guy’s screams arose from a different place in his throat and reached an altogether different acoustic plane.

Occasionally, a kid would get better and be released from the prison-like hospital ward. Or, perhaps they let them out early for good behavior. I wasn’t sure, but I reckoned that good behavior couldn’t hurt. I tried, therefore, to lie still for my penicillin shots twice daily. I pretty much failed at that endeavor. It wasn’t so much that the shots were painful as that they were invasive. I still hate the idea of a needle with chemicals being plunged into my body. There is a reason, after all, that human bodies come with skin!

I soon discovered, however, that there are even worse things than shots. In the morning, a nurse came by and placed a capsule into an empty drinking glass beside my bed. Because I was so “sick” I was only allowed a very soft and bland diet. I did feel sick. But I also felt very much that I would have been capable of eating a hamburger, hot dog, or slice or turkey. But no. I was stuck with jello, gelatin, bouillon and juice. But my first course for the day was to be my little pill. About a half hour after the first nurse had deposited a capsule in my empty water tumbler, another nurse would come by to “give me my meds.” Her first act was to lift up the pill so carefully laid in the water tumbler. However, when she went to pick it up, the capsule stuck and then disintegrated.  “No problem,” said the nurse cheerily. “We’ll give it to you with orange juice.” Indeed, she then mixed the contents of the capsule with orange juice. I had to drink it all. And so I did. And it stayed down. For about 30 seconds. Then I threw up. There was something about this particular mixture taken on an empty stomach which I could not stomach.

The next day, before breakfast, a nurse came in and placed a capsule into my empty water glass. I explained to her that this was not a good idea because the second nurse would break it when she tried to lift it up. She pooh-poohed that as nonsense and went on her way. About an hour later, the second nurse came by to give me my meds. I explained to her to be very careful or the capsule would break. “Nonsense,” she said, “the capsule won’t break.” So, she lifted it up and the capsule broke. “No problem,” said the nurse cheerily. “We’ll give it to you with orange juice.” Indeed, she then mixed the contents of the capsule with orange juice. I had to drink it all. And so I did. And it stayed down. For about 30 seconds. Then I threw up. There was something about this particular mixture taken on an empty stomach which I could not stomach.

And, so it went. Every day for ten days the same exact thing happened. Looking back, it is rather amazing I even survived. Eventually, either the doctor gave up on me or my parents missed me or the hospital needed the bed for a patient that provided a higher revenue source. Whatever the reason, I was eventually paroled. It certainly cannot have been for good behavior. My release, whatever the reason, was right before Easter and I weighed 48 pounds nearly seven years old. We had ham and yams and mashed potatoes and gravy for Easter dinner. I ate and ate. No doubt, the penicillin helped kill the pneumonia germs. But I really think the Easter dinner is what cured me — that, and being home in a warm house rather than caged on a ward with the screams of a burn victim and worse, the friendly banter of nurses who would never listen to a mere kid. There can be no doubt that pills are often a cure for disease. But sometimes, whatever the scale of the disease, it isn’t so much a little pill as a nourishing environment that restores the balance of health.

On today’s TV one can find advertisements for pills that promise to cure every ailment that humanity ever had as well as hundreds of other ailments no-one ever realized were ailments. “Do you suffer from wrinkly elbow skin when you straighten your arm? There’s a pill for that!” “Are there calluses on your feet? There’s a cream for that!” “You are eighty years old and you look eighty years old? No problem! We can fix that with operations and injections!” And, then, whilst someone tip-toes through a sunlit host of golden daffodils with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy playing in the background, there is a rapid recital of side-effects. “Some patients may experience slight exploding of the liver. Tell your doctor if you have ever had a beer. Cure-it-all isn’t for all patients. If you experience sudden blindness, deafness, or death, stop taking Cure-it-all and seek medical help immediately.”

I have no doubt that there have been real advances in medicines for a number of real diseases both deadly and more minor. But how much of our health care costs are really vanity costs? You have a body that adapts to the situation. If there are calluses on your feet, there’s a reason!  Many millions of dollars are spent on advertising to get small children into the habit of eating lots of refined sugar even though we know this is bad for kids and helps insure that they will overeat and likely be sick in adulthood. Many millions of dollars are spent on advertising to get adults to eat unhealthy foods. Then, millions more are spent to make you think you are a weak-willed blob if you are overweight. Then, millions more are spent to make you think that a pill will make you skinny despite a bad diet that you initially got into largely because of the advertising dollars.

What if people instead spent money and time making really nutritious meals? What if, instead of watching pro football, people went for a hike with their kids? Maybe we wouldn’t need quite so many pills, capsules, shots, and operations. Here’s the dilemma. Some pills are really useful under certain circumstances for some people. But profits will be greater if the pills are used by every person in every circumstance. The CEOs of drug companies are paid on the basis of their company’s profits. They are not paid on the basis of their company’s products effectiveness or of the cost/benefit ratio of their products. Nope. Profit. That’s it. If you were the CEO of a drug company and suppressed results about the negative or even deadly side-effects of one of your profitable drugs, that would be seen as “good business.” If, as CEO, you cornered the market on a class of drugs and then jacked the price up so that people could no longer afford a life-saving medicine and nutritious food and a warm house, tough! On the other hand, if you were an employee in a drug company and stole a couple pens, you might be fired. Most large companies these days require their employees to take ethics training which explains, for example, that you shouldn’t lie or steal. Typically, such training is “introduced” by a signed letter from the CEO explaining how they take ethics very seriously and that you should too.

If a system is broken, it should probably be fixed or replaced. Unfortunately, doing so is a little more complicated than just taking a pill. Often, the people taking actions and making decisions are far removed from those suffering the consequences. Nurse One puts a capsule in the bottom of a water glass and rushes off. Nurse Two comes in later and tries to pull up the capsule spilling the contents and concocts a nightmare-flavored orange juice. Orderly One cleans up the mess. Neither Nurse Two nor Orderly One ever tells Nurse One about the mistake. Of course, Kid One might mention it day after day, but who cares what a mere kid says?

Imagine a pill called a “Step-Back” pill. If you took this pill, you might actually listen to what a mere kid says. If you took this pill, you might take a look at the whole system of which you were a part. If you took the “Step-Back” pill, you might find yourself questioning why things are done the way they are and how they might be improved. If you took the “Step-Back” pill, you might even find yourself wonder why it is, exactly, that when very very rich people who head up drug companies and banks cheat millions of people there is no penalty but if someone robs a drug store, they will likely spend a good portion of their life in prison. Rumor has it that the “Step-Back” pill was actually invented many years ago but the drug companies were too worried about side-effects to attempt bringing it to market.

The most severe side-effect of the “Step-Back” pill is that you may well stop playing the game of behaving so as to limit your own health. But if you did that, you would not have to buy various potions, pills, and capsules to regain your health. Why rock the boat? Unfair-Status-Quo is a bitter capsule to swallow, but luckily it’s sugar coated. I’ll just rest it here at the bottom of your water glass. Someone will be along in an hour or so. They will lift up the capsule and spill the bitter insides into the glass. But you know what is really an excellent emetic on an empty stomach?

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Seeing Seeing Double Double

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As I recall, a bunch of us first-graders were waiting for to take our turns in some kind of race. While we waited on the edge of the playground to be called, I looked at and then through the hurricane fence in front of us. I discovered that I could look through the fence and see another fence. This second fence was gigantic and far away. Yet, it was also quite close! Indeed, it seemed as though this was no ordinary fence, but a magic fence that I could place where I liked just by changing something in my head. I know I tried to share this information about the magic fence with the other kids waiting with me but I failed to get them to see the magic fence. I didn’t have long. It was my turn to race.

And race I did — but rather badly. I was amazed to discover that I was not the fastest kid in first grade. It had always seemed to me that I ran extremely fast!  That’s how it felt inside. But many kids in my class ran faster than I did. Even many girls ran faster than I did which seemed at the time absolutely impossible. How could it feel so fast to run and yet be slower than so many other kids? Even the fattest kid in the class ran faster!

Later in first grade, upon returning from ten days at the hospital, my parents bought me bunk beds and the bunk beds were covered with a green bedspread which had a repeating pattern of identical and quite stylized white flowers. I could lay on the bedspread, look at the pattern and then look through it to another larger bedspread father away. In fact, I could find several bedspreads at various distances. I experimented by getting closer or father away from the bedspread and by fooling with my eyes. I did not understand exactly what was happening, but one thing was clear. The world that I had thought was “out there” proved very changeable under my own actions and volitions. I could “change” the world out there — or at least how it appeared — by what I did in my own head.

My grandmother supervised the Sunday School at the Methodist church my family attended. Sunday School proved fairly neat. For instance, I memorized the most verses from the Bible and as a result, won a glow-in-the-dark cross. I was supposed to look at this at night and derive comfort from it. I don’t recall that working but what I did discover, which was really cool was this: if I put my eye right up to that cross in total darkness, I could see tiny flashes of light. The cross, like so many “glow in the dark” items back then included both phosphorescent paint and radium laced paint. Same with my “glow in the dark” watch. When the lights first went out, these items would glow quite brightly from the phosphorescence. But even hours later, when that effect had completely vanished, there was still a faint glow from the radium paint. When placed directly on the eye, however, there was an effect like looking at a blurry bout of heat lightening.

Our Sunday School teacher told us that when we prayed, we went to heaven! That certainly seemed kind of cool. I wasn’t exactly sure what heaven was like, but in at least some of the pictures, there were some beautiful angels and it would certainly be fun to meet them. So, I decided to test out our Sunday School’s promise. I would sit in the pews, close my eyes, and pray just as sincerely as I possibly could. When I was praying up a storm, I would suddenly snap my eyes open! And there I was! In Sunday School. I hadn’t even moved to a different seat. No clouds. No heaven. And worst of all, no angels. I would try it again. Same result. I wondered whether opening my eyes could somehow instantly bring me back from heaven to Akron, Ohio. That seemed unlikely. But I tried a few experiments where I would pray hard and then not open my eyes, but just notice whether I still felt the hard wooden pew, and smell the same musty curtain smell and hear the same kids breathing and fidgeting around me. Well, in case you are wondering, it didn’t matter which sense or senses I used, I never got the slightest hint that I had gone to heaven. It not only didn’t look like heaven; it didn’t sound like it, smell like it or feel like it either. This was disappointing because one of the angels pictured in my “Red Letter Testament” Bible Study book looked out of that book right at me! Her beautiful eyes seemed to invite me to join her in heaven. But how? I don’t think I had quite figured out that this was an “artist’s conception” of what a beautiful angel might look like (e.g., a girl and just my age!). No, I knew she was there and I wanted to meet her.

About this time, I began to notice that my grandfather never joined us at Church. This seemed odd. At last I asked about it and he said he didn’t go because he didn’t believe in God! What? This seemed pretty inconceivable to me because everyone else around me kept talking about God as though He were real and definite. The way people talked gave not the slightest hint that God was something only some people believed in. God was portrayed as definitely there. There were paintings of God, for instance. Some of the illustrations in my books looked almost photographic in their realism. It made no sense that people would treat God as real if He were not.

My next door neighbor on Johnson Street played all sorts of games with me. I don’t recall her name; she was cute though occasionally mean. She liked to tie up people or put tape over their moths. But I really didn’t have that many choices of people to play with. One day, on the way to Sunday School, my parents and I ran into her and her parents. We were all dressed, as they say, in our “Sunday finest.” So, I did the polite thing and greeted her warmly, “Hello, little S*** A**.” All at once everyone’s faces including the little girl’s exploded into horrified expressions. I just used one of the main greetings that she used. I had no idea what the phrase meant or even the individual words. Later, after I was punished, I still persisted to try to find out how these words could possibly have so much power. My parents couldn’t even bring themselves to tell me. My mother delegated this task to my grandfather. Perhaps looking back on it, his being an atheist meant he could say words like this or at least explain them.

He took me with him into the landing area in the stairway to the basement. Grandpa’s house had some of the coolest features including a “Root Cellar”, a “Coal Cellar” and a “Disappearing Stairway.” In addition, Grandpa had a rock garden, a vegetable garden, a staircase and the house had three doors. There was a front door into a small entry off the living room. The back door went directly into the kitchen from a passageway near the garage. And, there was a third door that led off the basement stairs onto the patio near the apple tree that my mom had planted as a kid. My grandfather kept that door locked and no-one was allowed to use it. And that seemed a shame because our house only had two doors. It seemed to me, if you had a house with three doors, you would want to use all three! Anyway, it was near that door as he was emptying some trash that he explained what those magic words referred to.

He did not explain why they were powerful. He did not explain why my companion acted shocked when I used the words when I had learned them from her and she often referred to me and other playmates with this phrase. He did not explain why everyone had been upset. Once he explained what it referred to, I could kind of understand why she might not want to be called that although that was what she called everyone else. But why had her parents been so upset and why had my parents been so upset? It was one of those “explanations” that only explained the surface of a complex tangle of issues.

With a longer perspective, I can say that most so-called explanations are like that. They tell you  why someone picked a particular color to paint their car. They don’t explain how cars work or why we have so many cars in this country and such limited public transportation. When it comes to religion, most explanations seem very much about the color of the paint. It’s very hard to dig beneath that to find out how people really relate to their religion. And, this too always struck me as odd, especially for people who claim that their religion is a central part of who they are. Perhaps, it is not so much that people are unwilling to explain how religion works for them as they are unable to explain it.

After all, I was able to alter my perception of the hurricane fence and the repeating pattern bedspread long before I understood how I was doing it. In fact, I never found anyone else who either could or wanted to use this technique until much much later. In college, I read a book (I think by John Dewey but I’m not sure) and discovered that this author had also learned this same trick at an early age. Indeed, I still find it a useful skill many years later. For example, if I am sitting somewhere across from people at a table, I can “merge” the images of their heads to make a composite image. That’s kind of fun. In grad school, before “COMP” functions, I found it useful to compare hexadecimal disk dumps by putting them side to side and crossing my eyes until the two dumps overlapped character by character. Anything that changed from one disk dump to another popped out instantly. While I thought it might be a useful skill for others and explained how to do it when asked, I never felt the slightest urge to make everyone learn this skill. I never claimed it was the only way to look at the world or even the best way to look at the world.

I never seemed to get into an argument with people about forming clear double images. If I decided to see two apples — one image with each eye — instead of converging my views to see one image, it never seemed much of a big deal to me or to anyone else. If I said, “It looks to me right now like there are two apples” and someone said, “Yes, but there is really only one” then I would just say, “Yeah, I know. But it’s kind of fun to see double sometimes.” If they didn’t feel like doing that, why would that bother me?

Of course, one could argue that seeing double is just a private exercise but that religion comes into play when it comes to cooperative endeavors. For example, in a complex society like ours, there are laws, rules, customs, taxes, and all sorts of systems that require cooperation. If there are going to be taxes, there have to be some rules about the taxes. If some people believe that cigarettes and booze are “evil”, then they might argue to tax these things more heavily than say, a health club membership. This makes a certain amount of sense in the abstract, but specifically, it does not seem to explain much. For example, though America has never been nor is it a “Christian” nation in the sense of a state sponsored religion, 70% of the population identify themselves as “Christian.”  Although I have forgotten the many Bible verses that won me my radium painted glow in the dark cross, I still know that a main message of the New Testament is to love your neighbor as yourself; to turn the other cheek; to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Yet, the United States has more billionaires than any other country. And the highest incarceration rate. Odd. Meanwhile, China purports to be a “Communist” country and one of the main tenets of Communism is “from each according to their abilities and to each according to their needs.” And China has the second highest number of billionaires. So, in the very places where coordination is necessary, there is a huge disconnect between what people claim are central principles guiding their lives and what they actually chose to do.

The mystery behind seeing double clearly is basically this. Our eyes adapt as we look at something near or far. When we look at something far away, our eyes are pointed at infinity. At the same time, we allow your lens to “thin” and the eyes are also focused at infinity. (There isn’t much difference in either of these beyond forty feet. When I look out my office window at the ocean, I can tell the ocean if father away than the palm trees because of other cues such as interposition (the palm trees partly obscure my view of the ocean so they are closer than the ocean) and aerial perspective (the ocean is slightly “fuzzier” than the palm trees because there is more distortion due to the air). If we look at something close, normally our eyes converge (point inward slightly toward the object) and we focus at the same time; that is, we make the lens thicker. However, it is possible to “train” oneself to separate these two actions. For example, I can converge (“cross”)  my eyes to look at my nose but accommodate (to the extent I still can) to distance so that objects in the distance look “sharp” — it’s just that there are two of them. Even though I am capable of seeing double, I don’t walk around seeing double all the time. It would be very impractical and inconvenient.

So, perhaps religion is like that for some people. Looking at things from a “Christian” perspective is, for some, something one learns to do at church, but it is too inconvenient or too impractical to keep doing it when it comes to actually interacting with other people. When you meet someone dressed in their “Sunday Finest” and they call you a S*** A**, you act really offended and shocked. But that doesn’t mean you can’t call them that the other six days of the week. And, if you own a factory where you hire young girls to paint the dials on glow in the dark watches, you encourage them to use their tongue and lips to repoint the little camel hair brushes that they use. And after a few years, they may not look much like angels any more. But you can still deny that your radioactive paint had anything to do with it. Because, apparently, although Jesus may have said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” that has nothing to do with killing actual human beings in order to maximize profit. After all, “Business is business” trumps the Golden Rule. If you’re having trouble understanding that, maybe it will help if you learn to cross your eyes. Don’t learn to see too clearly though. No, we wouldn’t want that.

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Inventing a New Color

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Inventing A New Color — from Schooled Haze

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After my dad returned from World War II, he married my mom and nine months later, I was born. We lived in a number of places, but when I was about three and a half, we moved to Portugal. My dad headed up a tire factory there. I don’t remember much about Portugal, but I do recall going with him to some of his fancy dinners. For reasons I did not understand at the time, when I was five, my mother and I took the long ocean liner ride back to America without my dad. Mom and I lived with grandpa and grandma at their house. I attended a kindergarten in Firestone Park and had a very nice teacher. I loved kindergarten.

I missed my dad but liked grandpa and grandma. She told me “Old Pete” stories and we listened to radio shows such as Roy Rogers, Hop-along Cassidy, and Tom Corbett and the Space Cadets. “Little Grandma” lived there too. She was my grandpa’s mom and stooped over very tiny, very old, and looked like a Native American. Much later, I learned that that was because she was Native American or perhaps half Native American. I loved “Little Grandma.”

Grandpa worked as an engineer and designed airplane wings, among other things. Grandpa was also a painter and his beautiful and detailed oils hung in large wooden frames throughout his house. Mostly, these were landscapes but there were also portraits and my personal favorite depicted two warships firing cannons at each other while being tossed on giant waves. Grandpa taught me many things. Naturally, I wanted to return the favor. When I was about five, I overheard him saying that it was impossible to invent a new color. Well, I could definitely teach him something about that! I loved the idea of being an inventor.

In the middle of kindergarten, my dad returned from Portugal and re-united with my mom. He bought a house and we moved away to a different neighborhood. I had to start school in a new kindergarten with all strange kids. The very first day, my new teacher decided that I would lead the parade and draped the rope of a large drum around my neck. I didn’t want to play the drum and I made that about as clear as I could to her, but nonetheless, I ended up marching around the room with the heavy drum around my neck. I hated kindergarten.

My dad worked as an engineer and my mom was a teacher so both of them were gone all day. They hired a housekeeper to take care of me. And, somehow, after the first day, I convinced my housekeeper that I did not need to go to kindergarten any more. This was fine with me because she was nice enough to give me my favorite lunch every day — a jar or maraschino cherries!  They were so sweet and such a pretty red. And, not only were the cherries themselves delicious. The jars proved to be perfect for my experiments! So, in the second half of kindergarten, I stayed home and instead spent my time inventing a new color to show grandpa. I had a paint set and I water and I had lots of empty cherry jars. It was all a matter of time and careful work. At last, I would be able to teach grandpa something. I love teaching.

After many weeks of careful work, I finally created a new color. When grandpa and grandma came to visit, I was ready. Under my bed were about 40 little jars of diluted paint. Thirty-nine of them were failed attempts. But one of them contained the prize. I carefully crawled under the bed and located my invention, pulled it out, and scampered into the living room where the adults practiced their buzz-talk. Buzz-talk sounded serious and low but didn’t actually mean anything so far as I could tell. Surely, no-one could mind if I interrupted buzz-talk by announcing my invention. I proudly held out my prize to grandpa. Surprisingly, because grandpa was very smart, he did not immediately understand the significance of the watery liquid in the maraschino cherry jar. “Grandpa! It’s a new color!” He glanced at it and said, “I’ve seen it before.” And just like that, he went back to buzz-talk!  Crest-fallen, I wandered back to my bedroom and placed the prize beneath my bed with all the failed experiments. Apparently, this was just another one. Despite this terrible turn of events, I hardly gave up. I just redoubled my efforts. I knew there was a new color out there somewhere and I would find the perfect mix and next time be successful! I loved the challenge.

Grandpa had already taught me that red and yellow paint made orange; that yellow and blue paint made green; and that red and blue paint made purple. So, obviously, most of my experiments involved various proportions of red and green, purple and yellow or orange and blue. Most of them ended up as fairly similar shades of gray-brown. But if I mixed very carefully, I produced not dull gray-brown but something with a slight tinge of something…new! I somehow found other jars because I needed more than just the supply offered by one a day lunch-time maraschino cherry jars. I didn’t think bigger jars would have anything to do with inventing a new color, but it was possible. After a few weeks, grandpa and grandma came over to visit again. And again, I interrupted their dull living room buzz talk by showing off my latest creation. This time, I was more apprehensive. The first time, after all, I had known for sure I had a new color. This time, I was uncertain. I waited for the right opportunity — that slight pause in the buzz-talk — to display my new creation.

“I’ve seen that,” Grandpa said and turned back to buzz-talk. I wasn’t yet old enough to argue. And, even now, years later, if someone claims they have seen a color and you think they have not seen the color, I am still not sure how to argue. Convincing other people is seldom an easy task and convincing them that their own perception is limited — that is extremely difficult. Many times, I have heard the old saw, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” I actually doubt that. I suspect in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is more likely to be declared in league with Satan and gets stoned to death.

Let’s think about this. Suppose you are the one-eyed person in the land of the blind. Say everyone is hungry and you see a berry bush a couple hundred yards away. Now what? Well, you could say, “Hey, everyone! I see a berry bush over there (uselessly pointing). Let’s go pick some berries.” Everyone else says, “What berry bush? I don’t feel one. I don’t hear one. I don’t smell one. There’s no berry bush. Be quiet and stop talking non-sense.” Alternatively, you could just quietly walk over to the berry bush and bring back a small quantity for everyone to share. Of course, if everyone went, you could bring back a lot more, but no-one wants to follow you. You bring back some berries but people would be suspicious. They might well think you had been hiding these and had many more you failed to share.

Similarly, if you saw a pack of hyenas headed your way and warned people, the blind might well think you were in league with the hyenas. After all, you were the first one to know about them. You must have told the hyenas where everyone was. At long last, if you were the one-eyed person, you might be pretty tempted to put out that other eye. Life would run a lot smoother for you. Alternatively, you could leave the tribe and live on your own. And, many people do make this choice, essentially. But it’s a pretty lonely life. You could try to patiently explain that just as sometimes they could smell things they could not feel and feel things they could not smell, and hear things they could not yet feel or smell, that you could “see”…ah, that’s the sticky bit.  How do you explain sight to the unsighted?

Of course, my grandfather was not blind. Far from it. He was not only an adult, with more power and experience and knowledge than a five year old kid. He was, in fact, an artist. He was an expert on color. I could see evidence of his expertise everywhere. His paintings adorned our house and his own. So, he probably was right about the particular colors I had shown him so far.  But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t invent one next time that was truly new. So, back to the lab, I went. I failed a few more times and eventually gave up. Inventing a new color really was impossible.

Or was it?

Many years later, I attended an art exhibit in Pittsburg. It featured many kinds of “modern art” including a very cool kinesthetic art exhibit. In one exhibit, I simply stood on a platform in front of a large rotating disk. I watched the disk rotate until quite unexpectedly, the disk was quite still and I was rotating the other direction! But of particular interest were some extremely large extremely brightly colored canvasses which featured huge swaths of complementary colors. If I stared for a good long time at the super bright red and then moved my eyes over to the super bright green, the combination of temporal and spatial contrast produced an unearthly bright green, a “supersaturated” color impossible to produce by merely using one pigment. While I had not invented this, at least I now had experienced a color it was likely my grandpa never had. I could not really check this out though because he was long dead. Of course, I have met him in dreams many times and in the dreams he’s not really dead. It was all a big mistake. And, in my dreams, there are often landscapes painted in supersaturated colors that even he has to admit are new inventions. I love it when even the wisdom of elders may be mistaken and changes over time.

My grandpa knew that we humans are all mortal but he also knew that we still had some fragmentary art that was thousands of years old. Perhaps art provides a kind of immortality. When I was about ten, grandpa visited Europe and saw many of the oil paintings of the “Old Masters” that he had admired so much. He saw with his own eyes that, over time, the oil that they used turned yellow and the colors that they had used were transformed. Father Time himself invented new colors for these artists. When, he returned from Europe, he switched from oil painting to water colors. Beyond that, he limited himself to using only three pigments all of which were oxides of metals. He was also very careful in his choice of canvas for the same reason. He stuck to these constraints so that his paintings, unlike those of the “Old Masters” would not yellow or fade with time.

Grandpa’s paintings were designed by an artist/engineer to be stable and unchanging over time. When Grandpa died, I inherited quite a few of my favorite water colors and I can testify that the colors were extremely stable over time. They remained stable, that is, up until the time we moved to California and almost everything we owned was burned up in a moving van fire. What was burned up included all our furniture, electronics, papers, and almost all clothing and paintings. All the carefully laid pigments of metals were altered forever. All of the work and effort were now white ash floating somewhere in the sky near Continental Divide Arizona. A little carelessness on the part of a trucker in too much of a hurry, perhaps, to check the lubrication and the whole truck went up in flames. Robert Burns comes to mind.

It seems to me that our country once comprised a long-standing collaborative work of art involving many artists and many colors. This was a painting of scale and magnificence, though not yet completed. Every shade of the rainbow and more besides swept from sea to shining sea. The painting combined portraiture and landscape, scenes of war and peace, city, country, rivers, lakes, deep woods, and shining plains. Yet, somehow, people became impatient with the progress of the painting. Maybe, they thought, the work would go faster if we just painted the whole canvas white. They no longer cared what the end result looked like. They just wanted to get done so we could move on to the next project. We really couldn’t take the time to make sure the bearings were lubricated. And, now, the transport burned up along with the painting. What’s left are scattered white flakes snowing down on the countryside. I love irony, but I loved the paintings more.

At some point, grandpa said something else to me about color. He said that most people look at color in the light but that there is also color in the shadow. And, so, despite the deepening, darkening shadows, I am trying to see the color hidden there in those shadows. It is too soon to know whether I am inventing a new color, inventing a new way to look at color, or just seeing what is actually an after-image, beautiful for now, but sure to soon fade to the dull white gray of old and sooted snow. Maybe one of us can invent a new color or a new way of painting or a new way of looking or a new way of helping people be less impatient with the slow careful progress required for a timeless, collaborative work of art. Inventing new colors is not easy work; that I can say for sure, as is restoring true color that has faded to a uniform and pasty gray. Perhaps I’ll buy a jar of maraschino cherries.

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After the Fall

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NOTE: The following is the first of a series of short stories. The collection is called “Schooled Haze.”  Readers might also enjoy other works of fiction and non-fiction available at the link at the bottom of the page.


 

I have only a few scattered memories from the time before I learned to read. Like Ohio autumn leaves, early memories are often brightly colored but randomly assigned far from their tree. The sight of swelling giant green ocean waves over the railing of the ship lacks attachment to any origin or destination of the voyage. The shiny red toy gun appears but no stem attaches to a giver or an occasion. My father’s quavery voice as he hunkers down in the bow of the paddle boat, cautioning us to do the same because of the airplanes overhead, held no connection to his time in the army, his wounds, or where we were.

Once formal schooling began, whether because of age or training, memories began to connect to a framework. Whether this made my memories more accurate or less accurate still causes intra-psychic debate, but that they were different — this is not in doubt. In the first grade, we began to learn to print. I actually already knew how to print. I had taught myself before school began. I suppose that was part of the problem. Even now, I don’t make my letters and numbers with the same “strokes” that most people do. Anyway, we were supposed to be learning to print, and since I was there, I wanted to play the game along with everyone else.

With our giant awkward green pencils poised above our cheap, lined, gray-yellow paper, we were to copy our teacher’s printing. At that point, blackboards were still black and chalk was still white.  Miss Wilkins had neatly printed: “TODAY IS TUESDAY. TODAY IS TUESDAY. TODAY IS TUESDAY.” We were to fill our paper with this vital all-caps phrase. Indeed, it was Tuesday, but I really only needed to print it once to remember that. In fact, zero times would have sufficed. But, you see, there were rules in school. There were rules at home as well, but by comparison, very few. Home rules almost always made some modicum of sense, even to a six year old. School rules seemed part of some elaborate, religious, magical ritual or game imposed without explanation or exception.

Of course, this only surprised me a little because home and school smelled quite different. The black slate board had a smell. The chalk had a smell. The cheap shiny paper had it’s own cheap shiny smell. And, if you took the time to notice (which most kids did), the bare wood of the giant green pencils smelled quite nice and much better than the shiny green paint part of the pencil. In fact, volunteering to sharpen pencils was a job most people were eager for, not only for the wonderful woody odor but also for the idea that we were making our own tools, and possibly our own weapons.

I understood the task at hand. I needed to fill up the page with “TODAY IS TUESDAY.” And, so I began. First I made a long vertical line for the “T” letters. Then I crossed every “T.” Then, I made a long vertical column of “O’s” and another long vertical line for the “D’s.” I began to add the bows for the “D’s.” Just as I was about halfway done with my “D-bows” however, the teacher yanked me out of my chair. She screamed as she marched me out into the hallway. Then, she grabbed me by my shoulders and shook me. As she screamed, she began to sob. I felt kind of bad for her, but I honestly had no idea what she was so upset about.

Sadly, this was not my only run-in with my first grade teacher. We also had a long debate about whether heavier objects fell faster than lighter objects. She seemed quite satisfied that her example of the rock and the feather should leave any sane person convinced, but whether sane or not, it didn’t convince me. My father and grandfather were both engineers and my grandfather subscribed to Sky and Telescope, Scientific American, and The Atlantic Monthly. I probably mostly perused the pictures, but I also read articles from a very early age. Whether from reading or from talking with Dad and Grandpa, I somehow had heard about Galileo’s little experiment on the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I explained this to her as best I could, but she refused to believe it. Again, she gave the example of the stone and the feather. She must have thought me a bit dense.

Perhaps that is why she thought so little of it when one of my classmates pushed me down the concrete steps in front of our school door. Such a head over heels tumble presents the oddest sensations! I recall being astounded by the seemingly random jumble of images swirling by. My head didn’t feel too great either, but I think the lack of control over what I was seeing was even more disconcerting. Typically, one of the few school rules that did make sense to me was that we were not allowed to hit, kick, bite or shove other pupils. I have never felt that much inclined to injure others so I didn’t mind following this rule at all. But here I was, not having been punched or kicked, but victim of a potentially far more dangerous rule violation. At the time, as well as I can recall, I didn’t think of it so much as dangerous as it was rude. And, beyond that, it clearly constituted an egregious violation of the rules. If we were going to have all these school rules, why should they not apply to everyone? Why should someone get away with pushing me down the concrete steps when I had seen the mildest of pushes and punches get punished mightily?

At the time, I could generate no coherent explanation. The cognitive confusion about how adults failed to meet my expectations simply added to my perceptual confusion from free-fall tumbling. It seemed as though the world were saying to me, “All Bets are Off” and “Adult Authorities are Not to be Trusted” and “You never know.”

Who could be trusted, then? Well, my beautiful dog Mel for one. My Dad brought Mel back from Portugal. He was a beautiful honey-colored Cocker Spaniel. Mel loved me no matter what. A few weeks earlier, however, I had heard my parents talking about giving him away because other kids in the neighborhood were teasing him and he, tied up, was snapping at them. He had a wire lead connected at one end to his collar and the other end was looped around a horizontal wire. Some kids quickly saw just how far he could go and found great pleasure in getting him to run to the end of his lead and then watch his neck snap back as he reached the end. This infuriated Mel and he snarled and snapped at them. My folks were worried that a bite could lead to a lawsuit.

I made them promise not to sell Mel. And, they didn’t. When I got home from school one day, he was gone. But he hadn’t been sold at all. Not at all. He had been “put to sleep.” Our small two bedroom bungalow had one main hall closet with a blue quilt folded up at the back. That’s where I went to hang out for the next hours. I didn’t much want to talk to my parents. Not about Mel. Not about anything. It seemed to me, that if anyone should have been “put to sleep” it would be the kids who were teasing him. I just sat in the dark on the cool blue quilt crying for Mel.

Despite what my first grade teacher might think, sometimes small, light things — things even so light as a soul — can fall very fast.


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#BACK2017

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Here is the germ of the idea. Have people see that other people are actually mostly not being greedy nasty bullies. Instead, show feedback as in the following scheme.

BACK: a Billion Acts of Compassion and Kindness. Here’s the idea. During 2017, people throughout the United States perform acts of compassion and kindness every day, particularly across potential divides like age, gender, race, religion, political party, national origin, but basically everyone counts if you’re doing it without monetary reward. We have people on Facebook and Twitter (perhaps other social media) use #BACK in their messages about it. At the end of the day, the various social media update the totals and they are posted by all participating social media. I think the results should be displayed with stickers in groups and super-groups shaped like American Flags. Every day, citizens will be reminded that there are plenty of generous people out there doing good things. By the end of 2017, I would like to see a BILLION acts reported. In some cases, all people need to do is post or tweet something very minimal such as: “Helped a non-English speaking person get directions” or “invited a LBGT couple over for Holiday dinner” “called out some absurd misogyny” or even “chalk up another one.” In other cases, maybe people have come up with a good idea that can be used by other local communities and they may want to include more details.

In the news media, there is a natural tendency to report on “bad news” which may be inherently more fascinating and attention grabbing. If you add the profit motive on top of that, it is very tempting for the mainstream media (and many sponsored sites as well) to report on outrageously bad behavior. This makes it actually *more likely* for others to think such anti-social, anti-American behavior is acceptable.Instead, if people are shown feedback that indicates the vast majority of Americans actually spend most of their time being productive contributors and some of their time helping others even when they aren’t compensated.

If we can get this going it also sends an important message to the government of other countries. “Of course, you have to deal with the official government of the USA. However, never forget that we as a nation are comprised *not* of mostly fascists but are a diverse nation of mostly good hearted people and we’re still here. Keep that in mind.”

Comments and suggestions welcome.

A Bridge too Far?

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A Bridge Too Far? Have We Overdone Globalization?

There are many benefits to globalization. Indeed, I have been somewhat involved personally in attempting to make one of the organizations I belong too more global. In the early days of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group in Computer Human Interaction, major conferences were held in North America and most of the attendees were from North America with a good number of European colleagues joining. Over time, there have been more local chapters world wide and we have had our major conference in Europe several times and recently held a very successful conference in South Korea. Others have been held in other continents as well. I have no doubt whatever that this process has brought a wonderful diversity of thought into our field that would not be there if we had stayed focused in North America. Apart from the progress in an academic field, meeting people from all over the world provided a huge opportunity for everyone involved. If you meet decent people from all over the world, it certainly becomes more difficult to “demonize” them or desire your government to bomb them.

Similarly, the economic benefits of “Free Trade” have been touted for a long time and by many economists. Although opinions differ somewhat, most economist believe that the net effect that freer trade has had. for example, on the US economy is good, not only in providing cheaper goods for consumers but ultimately creating more jobs than are lost. Of course, if you are one of the people whose job is lost and you have almost no prospect of getting one at equal or greater pay, that is small comfort. I am willing to grant that, on average, it makes more sense from an efficiency standpoint to have the “cheapest” place produce goods and services, other things being equal.

Naturally, other things are seldom equal and jobs often shift overseas from North America and Europe to places who not only give less money to their workers but where they have very lax safety conditions, loose child labor laws, loose if any controls on environmental impact and allow harassment of workers. In addition, there can be unanticipated costs associated with coordination across time zones, cultures, and educational backgrounds. The predicted savings of moving operations overseas are not always realized.

I have seen all of these issues been addressed before but I would like to focus on another issue: the impact of situational ethics. We all like to believe that we are one of the “good guys.” We like to believe that we (and indeed, most people) behave ethically most of the time and it is only a few “bad apples” who behave unethically. When people’s behavior has actually been studied though, what we see is a more nuanced picture. Most people most of the time in most situations, cheat “a little bit” and about as much as they assume other people cheat. However, the propensity to cheat depends a lot on the details of the situation. In particular, people are more likely to cheat or take more than their fair share when they are removed from the situation.

For example, if ten people are sitting around a table passing around a plate of twenty Easter Eggs, the vast majority of people will make a quick calculation and pick two. Indeed if someone is allergic and passes on the eggs leaving two left to share among 9 people, everyone falls all over themselves to offer the eggs to someone else. It’s extremely rare for someone to start by taking six or seven eggs for themselves! No-one would think of taking all twenty!

Now, imagine instead that the Monday after Easter, I bring into my work group (which happens to have ten people) 20 Easter Eggs. I tell everyone at the morning staff meeting that I brought in 20 Easter Eggs and put them in the fridge next to the coffee maker. Let us assume that all ten of us get along pretty well. The chances that someone goes into the break room and takes 3-4 eggs increases hugely over the “sitting around the table” scenario.

 

We humans are social animals. We respond to social cues and we care about our reputation. Most of us experience empathy. If we are sitting around the table and take more than our share of eggs, we don’t just worry that others will judge us badly. We genuinely do not want to “feel the pain” of someone looking forward to the eggs and not getting any. That’s just the way we are wired. If we take more than our share from the break room however, it is far more abstract. We don’t really know whether everyone will really want Easter Eggs. And, even if we are pretty sure they will, we don’t know who the last person will be. We can’t really “see” the disappointment of the last few people who open the fridge.

Now, consider how this plays out in commerce. Imagine that you are a baker of bread for a local village. It doesn’t really matter that much whether your are the baker for a small town in Vermont, Germany, England, France or Egypt. Of course, you want to make enough money to survive, but you want to make really good bread. You want people to say good things about your bread. You want to think of these faces that you recognize having your bread be a part of the pleasure of their meal. You want to be part of having them and their family grow up and thrive because of your bread. 

Now, contrast this with being a worker in a bread factory that makes bread that is shipped all over the country. Again, it doesn’t matter that much what the country is but let’s assume it’s a factory outside of Paris. You feel some obligation to do a good job, but you are far less invested in making sure your bread is especially good than if you were the baker in a small town. Part of the reason for that is that you won’t really see that many faces of the people eating your bread. Part of the reason is also that you are following a recipe and a procedure that someone else constructed for you. Of course, other things being equal, you’d like to make a good product and do a good job — and not just because you could lose your job if you don’t. It’s more than that. Most people really do want to do a quality job. But suppose one day the boss comes in and says, “Hey folks. Bad news. Profits are down and costs are up. We are really getting squeezed. We are going to change our recipe to put a little more water and a little less egg in the bread. It will save costs and we’ll be able to stay in business. And, you’ll be able to keep your job.” You realize that this will make the bread a tiny bit less tasty and a bit less nutritious but still —- you do need to keep your job. So, you go along as do your fellow workers.

Now suppose a few months later, the boss comes in and says, “More bad news. We are going to have to cut costs still further. We are going to add more water, but to keep the bread from being too runny to bake properly, we are going to add a bit of glue. Most people won’t notice the taste and most people won’t get sick enough to die from it, although a few might. Still, we need this to keep in business.” I believe that at this point, there would be a rebellion. You would not go along with this and neither would most of your colleagues. But we need to remember that in France, there are strong unions, the population reads, there is a government that you may not agree with but that you count on to enforce laws. You may not be able to get a job as good as the bread factory job, but you will get something. If all else fails, you have friends and relatives you can count on as well as a financial safety net. You have reasonable costs for health care.

Now suppose instead that this factory is not outside Paris and shipping bread to France. Instead, let’s imagine it’s in a country that is far more authoritarian and hierarchical. You are in a small village constructed solely for the purpose of making bread at a giant factory. You are not making bread for your fellow citizens. This bread is being shipped overseas to somewhere you have very little knowledge of and no realistic prospects of ever visiting. Even under these circumstances, I believe the vast majority of people would like to do the right thing; they would like to do a good job. However, you are being told to adulterate the bread in order to keep your job. You already owe two months rent on the company housing that you would have no way to pay off without your job. You have zero other job prospects in any case. There is nothing in the town except the bread factory. You cannot call up “Sixty Minutes” or the local newspaper or the police and protest this. You know from your own personal experience that every other worker is likely to go along. And so do you. It isn’t because the people in all these previous scenarios are “good” while the ones in this scenario are “bad.” It’s because the scenario has become increasingly divorced from our natural social cues for doing the “right thing.”

In essence, this points to a “hidden cost” of globalization. It isn’t just a question of efficiency. As producers become more and more isolated from the consumers in terms of geography, culture, and physical contact and as more and more steps intervene, there is an increasing process of abstraction. Along with increasing abstraction, it becomes easier and easier for people to avoid, ignore or actively work against ethical principles. (By the way, there is another hidden cost to globalization; the bread may not be as tuned to local tastes as bread made in the village but that’s a topic for another post).

Simultaneously, there is another sort of abstraction going on. The top executives of the hypothetical “bread company” are not themselves making bread. They are not meeting with consumers. What they are looking at is numbers; specifically, they are looking at the profit and loss, ROI, their stock value. So for them, in fact, it has very little if anything to do with nutrition, bread, pleasure of eating, or ethics. It is all a numbers game. The numbers do not typically reflect much about ethics. Of course, there is a chance that poison bread may come to light and that might be slightly embarrassing, but the chance of the top executives going to jail is slim. True, they may scapegoat the local manager or some of the workers, but they themselves are fairly immune and they know this. But it isn’t only that they are immune from prosecution. It is also because they will not have to look the sick end users in the eye.

Besides the abstraction that comes from remote geography and the abstraction that comes from monetization of interaction (as opposed to actual face to face interaction), there is another kind of abstraction that makes unethical behavior easier. Discussions of driverless cars lately have quite rightly begun to focus on ethics. One scenario involves a car having to “decide” whether to run over a small number of children or veer off the road quite possibly killing the driver. Regardless of what you personally think the “right answer” is, I contend that most human drivers in control of such a car would instinctively swerve off the road and avoid the children even though it was likely to result in a serious accident or death for the driver. It would be extremely difficult for most drivers to choose intentionally to run over the children to save their own skins. On the other hand, if you worked at a car company as a programmer, it would be far less stressful to program the car to behavior in that way. It would be easy to rationalize.

“Well, the chances are, this section of code is never going to actually run.”

“Well, the driver after all is the one paying for the car. And, he or she does have the option to over-ride.”

“Well, if I don’t program what I am ordered to program, what is the point really? They will fire me and hire someone else to program it and they will keep doing that until they find somebody who will program it that way.”

All is “well.” Or is it?

But I contend that this same programmer, if they were actually driving the car, seeing the faces of little children, is quite likely to swerve off the road to avoid the kids.

Yes, we humans have developed some fairly elaborate ethical codes, but often we behave “ethically” simply because our sociality is “built in” genetically and guides us to the ethically correct behavior. If we abstract away from social situations, whether through geography, monetization of value, or by programming another entity, our “instinctive” ethical behavior becomes easier and easier to over-ride. Perhaps then, rather than making unethical behavior “easier” for people by removing social cues, we need to re-instate them — perhaps even amplify them. If you really need to send a drone into an elementary school, maybe you need to hear the screams of the unwitting “participants.”

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Is Smarter the Answer?

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Lately, I have been seeing a fair number of questions on Quora (www.quora.com) that basically question whether we humans wouldn’t be “better off” if AI systems do “take over the world.” After all, it is argued, an AI system could be smarter than humans. It is an interesting premise and one worthy of consideration. After all, it is clear that human beings have polluted our planet, have been involved in many wars, have often made a mess of things, and right now, we are a  mere hair’s breadth away from electing a US President who could start an atomic war for no more profound reason than that someone disagreed with him or questioned the size of his hands.

Personally, I don’t think that having AI systems “replace” human beings or “rule them” would be a good thing. There are three main reasons for this. First, I don’t think that the reason human beings are in a mess is because they are not intelligent enough. Second, if AI systems did “replace” human beings, even if such systems were not only more intelligent but also avoided the real reasons for the mess we’re in (greed and hubris, by my lights), they could easily have other flaws of equal magnitude. The third reason is simply that human life is an end in itself, and not a means to an end.  Let us examine these in turn.

First, there are many species of plants and animals on earth that are, by any reasonable definition, much less intelligent than humans and yet have not over-polluted the planet nor put us on the brink of atomic war. There are at least a few other species such as the dolphins that are about as intelligent as we are but who have not had anything like the world-wide negative ecological impact that we have. No, although we often run into individual people who act against our (and their own) interest, and it seems as though we (and they) would be better off if they were more intelligent, I don’t think lack of intelligence (or even education) is the root of the problem with people.

Here are some simple, everyday examples. I went to the grocery store yesterday. When I checked out, someone else packed my groceries. Badly. Indeed, almost every time I go to the store, they pack the groceries badly (if I can’t pack them myself). What do I mean by badly? One full bag had ripe tomatoes at the bottom. Another paper bag was filled with cans of cat food. It was too heavy for the handles. Another bag was packed lightly, but too full so that the handles would break if you hold the bag naturally. It might be tempting to think that this bagger was not very intelligent. I believe that the causes of bad packing are different. First, packers typically (but not universally) pay very little attention to what they are actually doing. They seem to be clearly thinking about something other than what they are doing. Indeed, this described a lot of human activity, at least in the modern USA. Second, packers are in a badly designed system. Once my cart is loaded up, another customer is already having their food scanned on the conveyer belt and the packer is already busy. There is no time to give feedback to the packer on the job they have done. Nor is the situation really very socially appropriate. No matter how gently done, a critique of their performance in front of their colleagues and possibly their manager will be interpreted as an evaluation rather than an opportunity for learning. Even if I did give them feedback, they may or not believe it. It would be better if the packer could follow me home and observe for themselves what a mess they have made of the packing job. I think if they did that a few times, they’d be plenty smart enough to figure out how to pack better.

Unfortunately, packing is not the only example of this type of system. Another common example is that programmers develop software. These people are typically quite intelligent. But they often build their software and never get a chance to see their software in action. Many organizations do not carry out user studies “in the wild” to see how products and services are actually used. It isn’t that the software builders are not smart. But it is problematic that they do not get any real feedback on their decisions. Again, as in the case of the packers, the programmers exist in an organizational structure that makes honest feedback about their errors far too often seem like an evaluation of them, rather than an occasion for learning.

A third example are hotel personnel. A hotel is basically a service business. The cost of the room is a small part of the price. A hotel exists because it serves the customers. Despite this, people behind the desks seldom have incentives and mechanisms to hear, understand and fix problems that their customers encounter. A quintessential example came in Boston when my wife and I were there for a planning meeting for a conference she would be chairing in a few months. When we checked out, the clerk asked whether everything was all right. We replied that the room was too hot but we couldn’t seem to get the air conditioning to work. The clerk said, “Oh, yes! Everyone has that problem. You need to turn on the heater for the A/C to work.” This was a bad temperature control design for starters, but the clerk’s response clearly indicated that they were aware of the problem but had no power (and/or incentive) to fix it.

These are not isolated examples. I am sure that you, the reader, have a dozen more. People are smart enough to see and solve the problems, but that is not their job. Furthermore, they will basically get “shot down” or at best ignored if they try to fix the problem. So, I really don’t think the issue is that people are not “smart enough” to fix many of the problems we have individually.  It is that we design systems that make us collectively not very smart. (Of course, in outrageous cases, even some individual humans are so prideful that they cannot learn from honest feedback from others).

Now, you could say that such systems are themselves a proof that we are not smart enough. However, that is not a very good explanation. There are existence proofs of smarter organizations. The sad part is that they are exceptions rather than rules. In my experience, what keeps people from adopting better organizations; e.g., where people are empowered to understand and fix problems, are hubris and greed, not a lack of intelligence.

Firstly, in many situations, people believe that they already know everything they need in order to do their job. They certainly don’t want public feedback indicating that they are making mistakes (i.e., could improve) and this attitude spreads to their processing of private feedback. You can easily imagine a computer programmer saying, “I’ve been writing code for User Interfaces for thirty years! Now, you’re telling me I don’t know how?” Why can we imagine that so easily? Because the organizations that most of us live in are not organizations where learning to improve is stressed.

In many organizations, the rules, processes, and management structure make very little sense if the main goal is to make the organization as effective as possible. Instead, however, they make perfect sense if the main goal of the organization is to keep the people who have the most power and make the most money to keep having the most power and making the most money. In order to do that in an ongoing basis, it is true that the organization must be minimally competent. If they are a grocery store, they must sell groceries at some profit. If they are a software company, they need to produce some software. If they are a hotel, they can’t simply poison all their potential guests. But to stay in business, none of these organizations must do a stellar and ever-improving job. 

So, from my perspective, the reason that most organizations are not better learning organizations is not that we humans are not intelligent enough. The reason for marginally effective organizations is that the actual goal is mainly to keep people at the top in power. Greed is the biggest problem with people, not lack of intelligence. History shows us that such greed is ultimately self-defeating. Power corrupts all right, and eventually power erodes itself or explodes itself in revolution. But greedy people continue to believe that they can outsmart history. Dictators believe that they will not suffer the same fate as Hitler or Mussolini. CEO’s believe their bad deeds will go unpunished (indeed, often that’s true). So-called leaders often reject criticism by others and eventually spin out of control. That’s hubris.

I see no reason whatever to believe that AI systems, however intelligent, would be more than reflections of greed and hubris. It is theoretically possible to design AI systems without hubris and greed, but it is also quite possible to develop human beings where hubris and greed are not predominant factors in people’s motivation. We all know people who are eager to learn throughout life; who listen to others; who work collaboratively to solve problems; who give generously of their time and money and possessions. In fact, humans are generally very social animals and it is quite natural for us to worry more about our group, our tribe, our country, our family than our own little ego.  How much hubris and greed are in an AI system will very much depend on the nature and culture of the organization that builds it.

Next, let us consider what other flaws AI systems could have.

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Pros and Cons of Artificial Intelligence

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The Pros and Cons of AI Part Three: Artificial Intelligence

We have already shown in the two previous blogs why it more effective and efficient to replace eating with Artificial Ingestion and to replace sex with Artificial Insemination. In this, the third and final part, we will discuss why human intelligence should be replaced with Artificial Intelligence. The arguments, as we shall see, are mainly simple extrapolations from replacing eating and sex with their more effective and efficient counterparts.

Human “intelligence” is unpredictable. In fact, all forms of human behavior are unpredictable in detail. It is true that we can often predict statistically what people will do in general. But even those predictions often fail. It is hard to predict whether and when the stock market will go up or down or which movies will be blockbuster hits. By contrast, computers, as well know, never fail. They are completely reliable and never make mistakes. The only exceptions to this general rule are those rare cases where hardware fails, software fails, or the computer system was not actually designed to solve the problems that people actually had. Putting aside these extremely rare cases, other errors are caused by people. People may cause errors because they failed to read the manual (which doesn’t actually exist because to save costs, vendors now expect that users should look up the answers to their problems on the web) or because they were confused by the interface. In addition, some “errors” occur because hackers intentionally make computer systems operate in a way that they were not intended to operate. Again, this means human error was the culprit. In fact, one can argue that hardware errors and software errors were also caused by errors in production or design. If these errors see the light of day, then there were also testing errors. And if the project ends up solving problems that are different from the real problems, then that too is a human mistake in leadership and management. Thus, as we can see, replacing unpredictable human intelligence with predictable artificial intelligence is the way to go.

Human intelligence is slow. Let’s face it. To take a representative activity of intelligence, it takes people seconds to minutes to do simple square roots of 16 digit numbers while computers can do this much more quickly. It takes even a good artist at least seconds and probably minutes to draw a good representation of a birch tree. But google can pull up an excellent image in less than a second. Some of these will not actually be pictures of birch trees, but many of them will.

Human intelligence is biased. Because of their background, training and experience, people end up with various biases that influence their thinking. This never happens with computers unless they have been programmed to do something useful in which case, some values will have to be either programmed into it or learned through background, training and experience.

Human intelligence in its application most generally has a conscious and experiential component. When a human being is using their intelligence, they are aware of themselves, the situation, the problem and the process, at least to some extent. So, for example, the human chess player is not simply playing chess; they are quite possibly enjoying it as well. Similarly, human writers enjoy writing; human actors enjoy acting; human directors enjoy directing; human movie goers enjoy the experience of thinking about what is going on in the movie and feeling, to a large degree, what people on the screen are attempting to portray. This entire process is largely inefficient and ineffective. If humans insist on feeling things, that could all be accomplished much more quickly with electrodes.

Perhaps worst of all, human intelligence is often flawed by trying to be helpful. This is becoming less and less true, particularly in large cities and large bureaucracies. But here and there, even in these situations that should be models of blind rule-following, you occasionally find people who are genuinely helpful. The situation is even worse in small towns and farming communities where people are routinely helpful, at least to the locals. It is only when a user finds themselves interacting with a personal assistant or audio menu system with no possibility of a pass-through to a human being that they can rest assured that they will not be distracted by someone actually trying to understand and help solve their problem.

Of course, people in many professions, whether they are drivers, engineers, scientists, advertising teams, lawyers, farmers, police officers etc. will claim that they “enjoy” their jobs or at least certain aspects of them. But what difference does that make? If a robot or AI system can do 85 to 90% of the job in a fast, cheap way, why pay for a human being to do the service? Now, some would argue that a few people will be left to do the 10-15% of cases not foreseen ahead of time in enough detail to program (or not seen in the training data). But why? What is typically done, even now, is to just the let user suffer when those cases come up. It’s too cumbersome to bother with back-up systems to deal with the other cases. So long as the metrics for success are properly designed, these issues will never see the light of day. The trick is to make absolutely sure than the user has no alternative means of recourse to bring up the fact that their transaction failed. Generally, as the recent case with Yahoo shows, even if the CEO becomes aware of a huge issue, there is no need to bring it to public attention.

All things considered, it seems that “Artificial Intelligence” has a huge advantage over “Natural Intelligence.” AI can simply be defined to be 100% successful. It can save money and than money can be appropriately partitioned to top company management, shareholders, workers, and consumers. A good general formula to use in such cases is the 90-10 rule; that is, 90% of the increased profits should go to the top management and 10% should go to the shareholders.

As against increased profits, one could argue that people get enjoyment out of the thinking that they do. There is some truth to that, but so what? If people enjoy playing doctor, lawyer, and truck driver, they can still do that, but at their own expense. Why should people pay for them to do that when an AI system can do 85% of the job at nearly zero costs? Instead of worrying about that, we should turn our attention to a more profound problem: what will top management do with that extra income?

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Pros and Cons of Artificial Insemination

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The Pros and Cons of AI: Part Two (Artificial Insemination).

Animal husbandry and humane human medical practice offer up many situations where artificial insemination is a useful and efficient technique. It is often used in horse breeding, for example, to avoid the risk of injury that more natural breeding might engender. There are similarly many cases where a couple wants to get pregnant and the “ordinary” way will not work. This could be due to physical problems with the man, the woman, or both. In some cases, it will even be necessary to use sperm from someone who is not going to be the legal father. Generally, the couple will decide it is more acceptable emotionally if the sperm donor is anonymous and the insemination is not done via intercourse.

But what about all those cases where the couple tries and indeed, succeeds, the “old-fashioned way.” An argument could certainly be made that all intercourse should be replaced with AI (artificial insemination).

First, the old-fashioned way often produces emotional bonding between the partners. (Some even call it “making love.”) No-one has ever provided a convincing quantitative economic analysis of why this is beneficial. It is certainly painful when pair-bonded individuals are split apart by divorce or death. AI would not prevent all pair bonding, but it could help reduce the risk of such bonds being formed.

Second, the old-fashioned way risks the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. Even when pairs are not trying to get pregnant and even when they have the intention of using forms of “protection”, sometimes passion overtakes reason and people, in the heat of the moment, “forget” to use protection. AI provides an opportunity for screening and for greatly reducing the risk of STDs being spread.

Third, the combinations of genes produced by sexual intercourse are random and uncontrolled. While it is currently beyond the state of the art, one can easily imagine that sometime in this century it will possible to “screen” sperm cells and only chose the “best” for AI.

Fourth, traditional sex if often quite expensive in terms of economic costs. Couples will often spend hours engaging in procreational activities than need only take minutes. Beyond that, traditional sex if often accompanied by special dinners, walks on the beach, playing romantic music, and often couples continue to stay together in essentially unproductive activities even after sex such as cuddling and talking.

There are probably additional reasons why AI makes a lot of sense economically and why it is a lot better than the old-fashioned alternative.

Of course, one could take the tack of considering life as something valuable for the experiences themselves and not merely as a means to an end of higher productivity. This seems a dangerously counter-cultural stand to take in modern American society, but in the interest of completeness, and mainly just to prove its absurdity, let us consider for a moment that sex may have some intrinsic and experiential value to the participants.

Suppose that lovers take pleasure in the sights, sounds, smells, feels, and tastes associated with their partners. Imagine that the sexual acts they engage in provide pleasure in and of themselves. There seems to be a great deal of uncertainty about the monetary value of these experiences since the prices charged for artificial versions of these experiences can easily vary by a factor of ten or more. In fact, there have been reports that some people will only engage in sex that is not paid for directly.

So, on the one hand, we have the provable efficiency and effectiveness of AI. On the other hand, we have human experiences whose value is problematic to quantify. The choice seems obvious. Sometime in this century, no doubt, all insemination will be done artificially so that everyone (or at least some very rich people)  can enjoy the great economic benefits that will come about from the increased efficiency and effectiveness of AI as compared with “natural” sex.

As further proof, if it is needed, imagine two island countries alike in every way in terms of climate, natural beauty, current economic opportunity, literacy and so on. In fact, the only way these two islands differ is that on one island (which we shall call AII for Artificial Insemination Isle) all “sex” is limited to AI whilst on the other island (which we shall call NII for Natural Insemination Isle) sex is natural and people can spend as much or as little time as they like doing it. Now, people are given a choice about which island to live on. Certainly, with its greater prospects of economic growth and efficiency, everyone would choose to live on AII while NII would be virtually empty. Readers will recognize that this is essentially the same argument as to why “Artificial Ingestion” should surely replace “Natural Ingestion” — cheaper, faster, more reliable. If readers see any holes in this argument, I’d surely like to be informed of them.

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The Pros and Cons of AI: Part One

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This is the first of three connected blog posts on the appropriate uses and misuses of AI. In this blog post, I’ll look at “Artificial Ingestion.” (Trust me, it will tie back to another AI, Artificial Intelligence).

While ingestion, and therefore “Artificial Ingestion” is a complex topic, I begin with ingestion because it is a bit more divorced from thought itself. It is easier to think of digestion as separate from thinking; that is, to objectify it more than artificial intelligence because in writing about intelligence, it is necessary to use intelligence itself.

Do we eat to live or live to eat? There is little doubt that eating is necessary to the life of animals such as human beings. Our distant ancestors could have taken a greener and more photosynthetic path but instead, we have collectively decided to kill other organisms to garner our energy. Eating has a utilitarian purpose; indeed, it is a vital purpose. Without food, we eventually die. Moreover, the quality and quantity of the food we eat has a profound impact on our health and well-being. Many of us live in a paradoxical time when it comes to food. Our ancestors often struggled mightily to obtain enough food. Our brains are thus genetically “wired” to search for high sugar, high fat, high salt foods. Even though many of us “know” that we ingest too many calories and may have read and believe that too much salt and sugar are bad for us, it is difficult to overcome the “programming” of countless generations. We are also attracted to brightly colored food. In our past, these colors often signaled foods that were especially high in healthful phytochemicals.

Of course, in modern societies of the “Global North” our genetic predispositions toward high sugar, high fat, high salt, highly colored foods are manipulated by greedy corporate interests. Foods like crackers and chips that contain almost nothing of real value to the human diet are packaged to look like real foods. Beyond that, billions of dollars of advertising dollars are spent to convince us that if we buy and ingest these foods it will help us achieve other goals. For example, we are led to believe that a mother who gives her children “food” consisting of little other than sugar and food dye will be loved by her children and they will be excited and happy children. Children themselves are led to believe that ingesting such junk food will lead them to magical kingdoms. Adult males are led to believe that providing the right kinds of high fat, high salt chips will result in male bonding experiences. Adult males are also led to believe that the proper kinds of alcoholic beverages will result in the seduction of highly desirable looking mates.

Over time, the natural act of eating has been enhanced with rituals. Human societies came to hunt and gather (and later farm) cooperatively. In this way, much more food could be provided over a more continuous basis. Rather than fight each other over food, we sit down in a “civilized” manner and enjoy food together. Some people, through a combination of natural talent and training become experts in the preparation of foods. We have developed instruments such as chopsticks, spoons, knives and forks to help us eat foods. Most typically, various cultures have rituals and customs surrounding food. In many cases, these seem to be geared toward removing us psychologically from the life-giving functionality of food toward the communal enjoyment of food. For example, in my culture, we wait to eat until everyone is served. We eat at a “reasonable” pace rather than gobbling everything down as quickly as possible (before others at the table can snatch our portion). If there are ten people at the table and eleven delicious deserts, people turn many social summersaults in order to avoid taking the last one.

For much of our history, food was confined to what was available in the local region and season. Now, many people, but by no means all, are well off enough to buy foods at any season that originally were grown all over the world. When I was a child, very few Americans had even tried sushi, for example, and the very idea of eating raw fish turned stomachs. At this point, however, many Americans have tried it and most who have enjoy it. Similarly, other cuisines such as Indian and Middle Eastern have spread throughout the world in ways that would have been impossible without modern transportation, refrigeration, and modern training with cookbooks, translations, and videos supplementing face to face apprenticeships.

Some of these trends have enabled some people to enjoy foods of high quality and variety. We support many more people on the planet than would have been possible through hunting and gathering. These “advances” are not without costs. First, there are more people starving in today’s world than even existed on the planet 250,000 years ago. So, these benefits are very unevenly distributed. Second, while fine and delicious foods are available to many, the typical diet of many is primarily based on highly processed grains, soybeans, fat, refined sugar, salt and additives. These “foods” contain calories that allow life to continue; however, they lack many naturally occurring substances that help provide for optimal health. As mentioned, these foods are made “palatable” in the cheapest possible way and then advertised to death to help fool people into thinking they are eating well. In many cases, even “fresh” foods are genetically modified through breeding or via genetic engineering to provide foods that are optimized for cheap production and distribution rather than taste. Anyone who has grown their own tomatoes, for example, can readily appreciate that home grown “heirloom” tomatoes are far tastier than what is available in many supermarkets. While home farmers and small farmers have little in the way of government support, at least in the USA, mega-farming corporations are given huge subsidies to provide vast quantities of poor quality calories. As a consequence, low income people can generally not even afford good quality fresh fruits and vegetables and instead are forced through artificially cheap prices to feed their families with brightly packaged but essentially empty calories.

While some people enjoy some of the best food that ever existed, others have very mediocre food and still others have little food of any kind. What comes next? On the one hand, there is a move toward ever more efficient means of production and distribution of food. The food of humans has always been of interest to a large variety of other animals including rats, mice, deer, rabbits, birds, and insects. Insect pests are particularly difficult to deal with. In response, and in order to keep more of the food for “ourselves”, we have largely decided it is worth the tradeoff to poison our food supply. We use poisons that are designed to kill off insect pests but not kill us off, at least not immediately. I grow a little of my own food and some of that food gets eaten by insects, rabbits, and birds. Personally, I cannot see putting poison on my food supply in order to keep pests from having a share. However, I am lucky. I do not require 100% of my crop in order to stay alive nor to pay off the bank loan by selling it all. Because I grow a wide variety of foods in a relatively small space, there is a lively ecosystem and I don’t typically get everything destroyed by pests. Farmers who grow huge fields of corn, however, can be in a completely different situation and a lot of a crop can fall prey to pests. If they have used pesticides in the past, this is particularly true because they have probably poisoned the natural predators of those pests. At the same time, the pests themselves continue to evolve to be resistant to the poisons. In this way, chemical companies perpetuate a vicious circle in which more and more poison is needed to keep the crops viable. Luckily for the chemical companies, the long-term impact of these poisons on the humans who consume them is difficult to prove in courts of law.

There are movements such as “slow food” and eating locally grown food and urban gardens which are counter-trends, but by and large, our society of specialization has moved to more “efficient” production and distribution of food. More people eat out a higher percentage of the time and much of that “eating out” is at “fast food” restaurants. People grab a sandwich or a bagel or a burger and fries for a “quick fix” for their hunger in order to “save time” for “more productive” pursuits. Some of these “more productive” pursuits include being a doctor to cure diseases that come about in part from people eating junky food and spending most of their waking hours commuting, working at a desk or watching TV. Other “more productive” pursuits include being a lawyer and suing doctors and chemical companies for diseases. Yet other “more productive pursuits” include making money by pushing around little pieces of other people’s money. Still other “more productive pursuits” include making and distributing drugs to help people cope with lives where they spend all their time in “more productive pursuits.”

Do we live to eat or eat to live? Well, it is a little of both. But we seem to have painted ourselves into a corner where most people most of the time have forgone the pleasure of eating that is possible in order to eat more “efficiently” so that we can spend more time making more money. We do this in order to…? What is the end game here?

One can imagine a society in which eating itself becomes a completely irrelevant activity for the vast majority of people. Food that requires chewing takes more time so let’s replace chewing with artificial chewing. Using a blender allows food with texture to be quickly turned to a liquid that can be ingested in the minimum necessary time. One extreme science fiction scenario was depicted in the movie “Soylent Green” which, as it turns out, is made from the bodies of people killed to make room for more people. The movie is set in 2022 (not that far away) and was released in 1973. Today, in 2016, there exists a food called “soylent” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soylent_(food)) whose inventor, Rob Rhinehart took the name from the movie. It is not made from human remains but the purpose is to provide an “efficient” solution to the Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan). More efficient than smoothies, shakes, and soylent are feeding tubes.

Of course, there are medical conditions where feeding tubes are necessary as a replacement or supplement to ordinary eating as is being “fed” via an IV. But is this really where humanity in general needs to be headed? Is eating to be replaced with “Artificial Ingestion” because it is more efficient? We wouldn’t have to “waste our time” and “waste our energy” shopping, choosing, preparing, chewing, etc. if we could simply have all our nutritional needs met via an IV or feeding tube. With enough people opting in to this option, I am sure industrial research could provide ever less invasive and more mobile forms of IV and tube feeding. At last, humanity could be freed from the onerous task of ingestion, all of which could be replaced by “Artificial Ingestion.” The dollars saved could be put toward some more worthy purpose; for example, making a very few people very very rich.

There are, of course, a few problematic issues. For one thing, despite years of research, we are still discovering nutrients and their impacts. Any attempt to completely replace food with a uniform liquid supplement would almost certainly leave out some vital, but as yet undiscovered ingredients. But a more fundamental question is to what end would we undertake this endeavor in the first place? What if the purpose of life is not, after all, to accomplish everything “more efficiently” but rather, what if the purpose of life is to live it and enjoy it? What then?

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