Category Archives: Serious

Twenty Years Ago Today …

… the following words were simultaneously published in both the Washington Post and The New York Times.

1. The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster
for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of
those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have
destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected
human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological
suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have
inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued
development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly
subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage
on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social
disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased
physical suffering even in “advanced” countries.

2. The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break
down. If it survives, it MAY eventually achieve a low level of
physical and psychological suffering, but only after passing through a
long and very painful period of adjustment and only at the cost of
permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to
engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine. Furthermore,
if the system survives, the consequences will be inevitable: There is
no way of reforming or modifying the system so as to prevent it from
depriving people of dignity and autonomy.

3. If the system breaks down the consequences will still be very
painful. But the bigger the system grows the more disastrous the
results of its breakdown will be …

These were scary words then, and they are scary words now.

They were scary words then because they were the first three paragraphs of the Unabomber‘s manifesto — a former mathematician and Professor who engaged in a nationwide bombing campaign against people involved with modern technology where he planted or mailed numerous homemade bombs that were encased in or disguised as wood as to fool people as to the package’s contents.

And they are scary words now because while much of the manifesto is arguable, these paragraphs have an unnervingly truthful ring to them (which fades as the reader works further into the manifesto, but is there in the beginning).

1. While the industrial revolution has been a great boon for the first world countries, the third world countries have suffered. Consider our recent post on Societal Damnation 48: Worker’s Rights which exemplified the (sometimes abysmally) poor working conditions overseas that often lead to suicide and death on a regular basis. It’s bad enough that people in these poor countries still have to contend with yellow fever and malaria, two pandemics that annually kill hundreds of thousands of people, but they sometimes have to risk their lives everyday just to put food in their mouths and the mouths of their children.

2. Global Warming is increasing. And the occurrence of natural disasters due to the resulting changes in weather patterns is increasing as well. Droughts. Fires. Hurricanes. Tsunamis. They are getting worse and more frequent.

3. Continued development and utilization of technology in an uncontrolled*1 manner will worsen the situation as it has always done.

4. The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break down. We’ve seen rumblings of failure on a massive scale with recent failures of big automative companies that required big bailouts to prevent what was projected to be even bigger failures. With the return of inflation and a slowdown in global growth, we can see a breaking point. That doesn’t mean we’ll ever hit the breaking point, but it does mean that our system is not perfect.

5. If the system breaks down, the fallout will be severe and painful in first and third world countries. And the bigger a system gets before it fails, the worse the consequences.

As tempted as we are to push aside and forget the ramblings of a serial killer and a terrorist, we have to remember that despite his very misguided views, he was still a very smart man with an IQ of 167 who saw some of the harsh realities of the world for what they were. (Unfortunately, he did not see the right way of addressing them.)

I. Technology on its own is not good (or bad). It is only how it is used that determines whether it is good or bad, so we have to use it wisely.

II. If we do not replace what we take from nature, we will continue to deplete the environment, possibly to a point where it can no longer sustain us.

III. If we continue to harm the environment, it will harm us back. Nature is a delicate balance, and the more we disrupt it, the more it will disrupt us with natural disasters of unprecedented levels.

IV. If we continue to march forward like there is no limit to economic growth, we may push the system over the edge. If population growth is 1% per year, it is foolish to expect that economies can continue to grow at 4%, 6%, 8% or more per year. Simply foolish. And trying to force the system to grow at an unsustainable rate could break it.

V. If the system breaks, we go from being damned to being dead.

We don’t have the answers here at SI, but we do know that the problems will never be solved if they are ignored. And we do know that:

a. We can do our best to make sure that each application of technology is for a greater good (and not just implemented for technology’s sake).

b. We can continue to research and invest in renewable resources and product designs that use renewable resources.

c. We can build factories that use cleaner production processes, trap particulates, and filter wastewater for dangerous contaminants before such water is pumped back into streams and rivers.

d. We can create realistic growth projections and be happy when we reach them, rather than create unrealistic projections that force us to manipulate the books, steal marketshare by any means necessary, or use a supply chain likely powered by slave labour to make the numbers.

e. We can design a sustainable system rather than one with a limited lifespan.

And if we take it one step at a time, there’s no reason that the overall global situation can’t improve over time, leaving future generations to wonder how there could ever have existed a world like the one described by Mr. Kaczynski which pushed him, and other eco-terrorists, over the edge.

*1 This is one thing Mr. Kaczynski got wrong. Not all technology is bad. Most technology is neither good nor bad, it’s whether it is used or abused. Hence his claim that the continued development of technology will worsen the situation is wrong in its unqualified form.

Creative or Crackpot. How do you tell the difference?

the doctor has been called both. Thought leaders early in their career, including modern legends in science and business, have been called both. And anyone who pushes the boundaries in unusual ways will be called both. But how do you tell the difference?

It’s a tough problem. There’s such a thin line between genius and insanity, and even if the individual was a genius yesterday, who’s to say the genius hasn’t crossed the line and become a bonafide crackpot today.

But it’s one that should be tackled. the doctor could cross the line himself someday and the best way to prevent that from happening for as long as possible is to be aware of the warning signs and take proactive action. (Just like the best way to avoid dementia is through a combination of good eatin’, regular exercise, stress management, and regular mental activity.)

So the doctor did some research and found a pretty interesting article over on boingboing that provided some advice on the identification of the modern crackpot.

According to the article, written by Maggie Koerth-Baker, the science editor at boingboing and a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University from August 2014 to May 2015 (which only accepts candidates with the potential for journalistic excellence), there are five indicators that, if present, might indicate the individual has crossed the line into the realm of the crackpot (or, even worse, has always lived in crackpotopia).

1. Is the story being uttered by the individual too feel-good?
(Like the Big News from Grand Rock.) Good educators care more about the evidence, technology, or practice than the story.

2. Is the proof being presented by the individual too self-evident?
If it really is obvious common sense, the individual is not as smart as he is making herself out to be. And if it’s not, there’s more smooth in the talk than there is substance, and that should set off a lot of warning bells. Proof generally requires explanation. Sometimes lots of it.

3. If the individual is trying to convince you that acceptance of the new idea will make you smarter than the official experts, be suspicious.
Very suspicious. Experts aren’t always right, but they usually are. Plus, at best, you should be as smart as the experts. Not more so.

4. If the studies the individual is using are (really) old, if there’s only a few studies, or if the individual is trying to use some weird meta-study across mostly unrelated studies (and ignore Pinky and the Brain’s lesson in statistics), dig deep. Really, really deep. What looks like truth when you look at five samples can quickly become completely untrue when you look at five hundred.

5. If you are told that you cannot trust any other source of information (because of some big, corporate, conspiracy or because such-and-such expert is a sell-out), then the individual is either the pre-eminent expert or a complete crackpot. (And we will leave it to you to guess which one is considerably more statistically likely.) An individual must know his or her limitations. There’s a reason SI tends to focus on some things (like optimization and analysis) and ignore others (like market speculation and merger benefits). That’s because the doctor is an expert in the first and not an expert in the latter.

This is not a complete or exhaustive test, especially since the greatest of geniuses who truly see the future years before anyone else will often only have a few studies to draw on, come up with proofs so logical that they seem self evident, require you to mistrust most accepted sources of information, and present a story that is truly exceptional. However, ground-breaking advances like this tend to only happen every few decades at most. So the test present by Ms. Koerth-Baker is a good one.

Your Chrysler Will Drive You Off The Road!

As per this recent article over on CNN Money, Chryslers can be hacked over the internet and hackers can cut the brakes, shut down the engine, drive it off the road, or make all the electronics go haywire.

SI seems to recall indicating that this would happen in the continuous, ridiculous pursuit, of autonomous driver-less vehicles, as per these posts last year on some things should be autonomous, but automobiles and you can have your Google chauffeur. I’ll choose good ol’ Alfred every day of the week?

What do you think LOLCat?

Great grandpa was right. Ride a bike.

Grandpa LOLCat rides a bike