David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “November, 2016”

Ideology in America is Driving Us Toward Civil War

There is human health and well-being, and then there is ideology.  Ideology is the opposite of pragmatism.  Ideology doesn’t ask, “What actually works in the real world?”  Ideology already “knows” what works.  The facts – well, the facts will just have to conform.

There are objective measures of human health and well-being.  Income level.  Educational attainment.  Crime rates.  Divorce rates.  Teen pregnancy rates.  Life expectancy.  The list goes on.  The problem is, ideology isn’t interested in these measures.  Ideology says, “I already know what increases incomes, decreases crime, increases life expectancy, etc.  And I will always push for those things regardless of facts.  If the facts don’t agree with me, I will distort or ignore them.”

Ideology has become particularly strong on the American right, but it is by no means completely limited to the right.  On the left we have such things as efforts to eliminate genetically modified organisms.  Why?  Because of ideological attachment to a vague idea of “natural” as opposed to “artificial.”  “Natural” is healthy.  “Natural” is better.  It must be.  But are GMO’s actually harmful?  No.  But the ideologue says they MUST be, because they’re not “natural.”  The facts don’t matter.  If the facts don’t agree with the ideology, they are distorted or ignored.

On the right, we have a huge array of uncritical crap, held up by a combination of fact-free emotion or huge distortions of reality.  What reduces crime?  More guns.  What puts more money in people’s pockets?  Tax reduction.  What decreases teen pregnancy?  Abstinence programs and religiosity.  The list goes on and on.


Here in America, there is an organization called the Social Science Research Council.  It has existed for decades, and publishes a report every 2 years from its American Human Development Project.  This report is called The Measure of America.  The last one was published in 2014.  These studies examine objective measures of human health and well-being:  income levels, income inequality, education levels, life expectancy, and so on.  They take these various factors and create a composite index, the American Human Development Index.  Each state is ranked.  In 2014, the state of Connecticut ranked highest.  The state of Mississippi ranked lowest.  6 of the top 10 states were in the Northeast.  9 of the bottom 10 states were in the South.

Many of the measures used to create this index are correlated with each other – average income is correlated with educational attainment, which is correlated with crime rates, life expectancy, and so on.  What about crime and guns?  No correlation.  Income and tax rates?  No correlation.  Religiosity and human development?  No correlation.

Why don’t we talk about these things in public discourse?  Because our leaders are too busy driving ideology.  It’s easy to appeal to emotion.  It’s easy to appeal to our prejudices and our fears.  It’s easy to tell us what we want to hear.  It takes courage to tell us what we need to hear, to tell us uncomfortable truths.

The trouble is, we have a growing divide between urban, diverse, more educated America, and rural, white, less educated America.  Urban, diverse America has grown tired of the resistance of rural, white America to inevitable change.  Rural, white America has become increasingly entrenched and driven by ideologues who either tell them outright lies or twist the truth to the point that it is unrecognizable.  The media itself is on the verge of splitting apart.  In the past, major media agreed on the basic facts.  Now we may see a huge chunk of the media split off and feed its constituency its own “facts.”  If we can’t even agree on facts, there is no hope for dialogue.

Our country has moved into a very dangerous and delicate time.  The old rules of political dialogue no longer apply.  If political leaders do not step back and commit themselves to telling uncomfortable truths, we will very likely plunge into civil war.  If the media do not take a stand for fact-driven dialogue, we will very likely plunge into civil war.  The disconnect between ideology and reality has become so great in so many that it will take tremendous effort to avoid such a disaster.

the first step…but not the last

I am an American heterosexual male.  I was born in America.  I have blonde hair, green eyes, and light-colored skin.  My ancestry, that I know of, is primarily English, German, French, and Spanish.  I want to say something to all freedom-loving people in the world, including my fellow citizens.  I couldn’t care less what color your skin is or what the texture of your hair is.  It doesn’t matter what your gender or sexual orientation is.  I don’t care how poor you are or how rich.  It doesn’t matter what language or what dialect you speak.  If you can’t speak, that’s okay too.  It doesn’t matter what religion you belong to, or don’t belong to.  It doesn’t matter what kind of food you eat, what clothes you wear, what music you listen to, or how you decorate your home.  If you love freedom, if you respect the rights of others, if you are willing to live and let live, that’s all the assimilating you need to do.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one race.  The human race.  There is no “them.”  There is only “us.”  And I will fight for your place in a free America as well as my own.  One of us had a dream, that one day America would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.  That dream is still alive.  And I will fight for it.  For us.

The Third Great American Crisis

Today 2 of the NY Times’ most prominent editorialists, Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman, expressed essentially the same sentiment, but in different ways.  Our country is headed for some very tough times.  Some very sharp people are now very concerned that we have reached a tipping point – a point at which our polarized society has to get much worse before it can get better.

The wall that Donald Trump talks about building (which will likely never come in reality) isn’t the wall that we are now confronting.  The real wall is the wall that poorly educated white American males have thrown up.  “We will not let the country move forward,” is their cry.  The country is not going back either.  It never will.

Today Paul Krugman wrote:  “We thought that the nation, while far from having transcended racial prejudice and misogyny, had become vastly more open and tolerant over time.  We thought that the great majority of Americans valued democratic norms and the rule of law.  It turns out that we were wrong. There turn out to be a huge number of people — white people, living mainly in rural areas — who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about. For them, it is about blood and soil, about traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy.”  Our country now faces a crisis perhaps as great as it faced in the years before the Civil War.  The forces that have successfully thrown up this wall are now highly emboldened.  The forces that want to tear it down will now be highly motivated.  The clash of the irresistible force and the immovable object has begun.

This crisis has been a while in coming.  Some would say that it has been the latest round in a struggle that goes back to the very beginning of our country.  What are we?  Are we a cultural monolith?  Are we a white Protestant nation?  Or are we a set of ideals – justice, equality, freedom for all?  The Civil War was the first great crisis.  It moved the country forward but didn’t resolve the basic issue.

The 1960’s was the second great crisis.  Again, it moved the country forward but didn’t resolve the basic issue.

Now the basic issue will once again come to a head.  It will not be pretty.  I believe that things will now get very ugly.  Today Paul Krugman asked “Is America a failed state and society?  It looks truly possible.”  But I’ll say it again.  The country is not going back.

If our country survives the next few years, which is a huge question mark, the solution to our problems will be a vast social/political movement akin to what we saw in the 1960’s.  Educated Americans are going to have to take a stand against patriarchy, white nationalism, and willful ignorance.  The moral outrage that spread out of college campuses in those years will have to express itself again.  It is going to take a lot of concerted effort to heal our society now.  It is clear that some people will refuse to yield to multiculturalism, equality, and social justice.  But I firmly believe that the vast majority of Americans will come around.

For years I have watched political and media elites sit back in their comfortable chairs and talk about how quaint the inherent contradictions of white working class America are.  For years they have treated every statement as just somebody’s opinion.  The well-educated have kept their heads down, hoping that willful ignorance would slowly fade away on its own.  Now we are faced with a huge segment of our population that believes it is entitled to its own facts.  The disconnect from reality will now become impossible to ignore.

As the nation begins to crumble, the educated will have to step in to pick up the pieces.  The educated in our society must now take a stand against willful ignorance and self-indulgent, infantile white male supremacy.  The scientific community will almost certainly make its voice heard.  And the business community will have to come to grips with the issue of income inequality.  Americans, educated or not, have to make a decent living.

Carl Sagan once wrote of our “demon-haunted world,” and of science as a candle in the dark.  The demons are now stirring, big time.  The third great crisis is upon us.  We can’t be spectators.

The “Hard Work” Myth, Revisited

Today I noticed an article on the CBS News website about American manufacturing.  It contained some striking statistics.  Contrary to some people’s claim that “we don’t make anything any more” in America, manufacturing production in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled since 1979.  America is second only to China in manufacturing.

Despite foreign competition, American auto manufacturers produce more vehicles than they ever have.  Since 1997, U.S. steel production has increased 38 percent.  So what’s the problem?


The problem is automation.  American auto makers employ only about a third of the workers they did in the 1970’s.  Since 1997, U.S. companies have cut 42% of the jobs in basic metal production.  These jobs have been taken by machines.  American companies and their political allies continue to promote the fiction that human “hard work” is responsible for production, while they continue to replace human workers with machines.


Machine labor gets cheaper and more versatile every year, and automation will continue to replace human workers.  Companies are not about to stay with human workers, when they can increase profits by replacing them with machines.  Machines do not need sick leave, vacation time, health insurance, retirement benefits, or even sleep.  Increasingly, machines will be able to do the complex tasks that humans do.


It’s not hard to imagine an automated supermarket, from the warehouses to the outlets.  Machines scanning and sorting product, preparing pallets of product for shipment, robots loading the trucks, a self-driving truck delivering product to the outlet, robots unloading the pallets from the truck, robots distributing product to the various departments.  And as far as “shopping” goes, it could all be done on line, at home.  We are already seeing the beginnings of this with on line fast food ordering and retail outlets like Amazon.  I myself buy dozens of products from Amazon every year.


If all of this sounds ridiculous to you, you’d better open your eyes.  Ocado, the world’s largest on-line grocery retailer, now has completely automated warehouses.  The fact is, supermarkets were themselves a form of automation.  In a general store, you walked up to the clerk with a list of items.  They then proceeded to retrieve the items for you and completed the transaction.  The whole point of a supermarket is self-service, which allows the company to do much more with less human labor.


There are all kinds of ways to automate production, merely using current technology.  But this is nothing compared to the technology that is on the horizon.  How many people have to lose their jobs before American workers stop buying the “hard work” myth?  And although the bulk of the job displacement is likely to be lower-skilled jobs requiring relatively little education, professional jobs are by no means immune.


The services of an anesthesiologist for a colonoscopy cost $200-$400.  Johnson and Johnson is now marketing an automated system that will deliver anesthesia at about $150 per procedure.  Numerous jobs in the health care industry are occupied by technicians – people who are skilled at one particular task.  They simply operate machines, then read and analyze the results of tests.  Many of these tasks will soon be automated.


Buried amongst the comfortable euphemisms in article after article on labor trends lies the uncomfortable truth.  “….with the current inclinations of corporations, capital will continue to flow upward.”  Translation – the machines and facilities that generate the lion’s share of production are not owned by you, the worker.  Therefore you do not share in the profits.  This is not about the future.  It has ALREADY happened.    The pattern will simply become more pronounced in the future.


Since 1980, the number of manufacturing jobs in America has declined by about 40%.  Much of this decline has occurred in the last 15 years.  Over that time, the median income of Americans with only high school or some college has declined.  The so-called “working class” is slipping farther and farther behind.  Meanwhile, per capita GDP has increased by about 40%.  The reason is simple.  Those few who own the machines and facilities that generate most of the wealth collect most of the profits.  The “hard work” of people who lack college degrees is less and less rewarded – because it isn’t MUCH work compared to the vast amount of physical work done by machines.

These trends, of course, will not continue indefinitely.  At some point, something will give.  There is already talk, especially in high-tech areas of the world, about basic incomes.  But a more fundamental shift is bound to happen.  At some point large numbers of people will shake off the comfortable fictions that they have been propagandized to believe.  The year 2100 will probably look more different from the year 2000 than the year 2000 looked from the dawn of the industrial revolution.


An Automated Supermarket With No Staff

How an Online Supermarket Automated Their Entire Warehouse

Click to access LIGHTSTUNNEL.PDF


The Great Einstein-Bohr Debate

More than 50 years after his death, Albert Einstein is still a household name, and for good reason.  He was an amazing scientist, able to look at the world in ways that few can match, and many of his seemingly bizarre ideas have stood the test of time.  But a contemporary of his, Niels Bohr, is less well known.  Bohr was also a genius, who gave us our basic understanding of atoms, and is considered one of the fathers of quantum mechanics.


Einstein never cared much for quantum mechanics.  One particular aspect of quantum mechanics was very unsettling to him – quantum mechanics tells us that there is fundamental randomness built into the universe.  Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice.”  (In case you’re wondering, no, Einstein did not believe in an anthropomorphic god.)  Like many of us, he did not care for the idea that there is an inherent limit on how well we can predict the future.


For years, Einstein tried to come up with arguments showing why quantum mechanics must be wrong.  Bohr, one its founders, was the most conspicuous defender of QM.  The debates between these 2 geniuses illustrate 3 important things:  the strangeness of QM, the brilliance of the 2 men involved, and most importantly, the way scientists freely challenge each other’s ideas without resorting to personal attacks.


The most famous exchange between the 2 men took place in 1930.  It concerns what are called non-commuting observables.  QM tells us that some observables come in pairs.  If we measure one of the pair very precisely, we lose precision on the other member of the pair.  Position and momentum for example.  If we measure the position of a particle very precisely, we cannot measure its momentum at that moment very precisely.  And it isn’t just about measurement either.  A particle actually doesn’t HAVE a very precise position and momentum at the same time.


Another such pair of observables are energy and time.  If we measure the energy of a system very precisely, we lose track of where the system is in time.  Einstein developed an ingenious thought experiment to challenge this.  Suppose we have a box suspended by a spring.  The box has a shutter which is controlled by a clock.  Inside the box are photons flying around.  At some point the shutter opens for a brief time and lets a photon out.

Since energy and mass are interchangeable (from Einstein’s own equation E = mc2), the box with its photons loses a little mass when a photon escapes.  We can make the clock very precise, thus measuring exactly when the shutter opens and closes.  Since we can measure the mass of the box before it releases the photon, and measure the mass after, we can obtain the energy of the photon released.  So it seems that we can measure both the time and the energy with as much precision as we want, in violation of QM!


When Bohr heard this argument, he was very perturbed.  At first he couldn’t think of any way around it.  It was so simple, so ingenious.  It seemed ironclad.  Bohr left the conference that day in an agitated state.  But the next morning he returned in triumph.  Not only did he have the answer, but he was able to use Einstein’s own theory of relativity to wield his rebuttal.

In order for Einstein’s experiment to work, the box has to be suspended in a gravitational field.  The reason is that we have no other way of precisely measuring the loss of mass from the box when it releases a photon.  Before the box releases a photon, it hangs in one particular position, reflecting its weight and therefore its mass.  After it releases a photon, it is a tiny bit lighter and so it will hang a bit higher.  Simply by using a very precise spring scale, we can get the new reading, then subtract the new reading from the old.


The problem is Einstein’s own theory of general relativity.  The flow of time is affected by gravity.  The flow of time in the box varies slightly as the box moves up or down.  As the box moves up when the photon is released, the flow of time changes at the shutter.  We have to take this into account when we determine the time interval that the shutter is open.  And we have no way of doing so.  The clock on the box is no help.  It only tells us how long the shutter is open from the shutter’s own point of view.  We need to know how long the shutter is open from OUR point of view.  We are stuck.


The time interval for which the shutter is open simply cannot be measured with infinite precision in this experiment.  Conversely, we could come up with experiments that will allow us to measure the time interval with infinite precision.  We will find that in such cases, it is impossible to measure the corresponding energy with infinite precision.  Decades of experience have shown us that these are indeed non-commuting observables.  Precise measurement of one inevitably leads to fuzziness in the other.


This was a tough pill for Einstein to swallow, and it remains a tough pill for many of us today.  The idea that observables like position, momentum, energy, and time may not actually have precise values is contrary to everyday experience, and it means that there are inherent limits to our measurements.  What is perhaps even stranger and more counterintuitive is that some observables, like energy and time, come in pairs.  We tend to think of space and time as “background,” within which matter and energy “do their thing.”  And we can measure space and time as precisely as we want.  But if we do, we find that momentum and energy “fuzz out.”  Similarly, we can measure momentum and energy as precisely as we want.  But if we do, we find that space and time “fuzz out.”


It very much suggests, to me at least, that the so-called physical universe is not made of physical objects, but mathematical ones.  The math of QM is what gives us non-commuting observables, and sure enough, the observables dutifully obey these rules.  Einstein felt that there must be some “hidden variables,” something we’re overlooking, something that is really going on “out there” at a given position in time and space, even if we can’t access it directly.  But decades of research have pointed in the opposite direction, and most physicists have given up on the idea.


Bohr was of course happy with his triumph, but I doubt anyone thought the worse of Einstein.  And as I said, Einstein is the household name today, not Bohr.  The 2 men continued their friendly rivalry for decades.  In many ways, they represent the best of science.  Their ideas had to be challenged, and they both knew it.  Their ideas had to stand up on their merits, not on their reputations, and they both knew it.  The friendly competition brought out the best of both men.  And they both knew it.





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