David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “August, 2017”

Totally Awesome

Having waited almost 60 years, and being a scientist with a long interest in astronomy, naturally I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to see a total solar eclipse.  My wife and I viewed the eclipse in the Cherokee National Forest of southeastern Tennessee, not far from Bald River Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in that part of the state.


Like many astronomical events, a total solar eclipse is one of those that photographs can’t do justice to.  It’s something you have to experience yourself to really appreciate.  You have the strong feeling that something of great enormity is happening, yet it happens with total and complete silence.  And unlike a lunar eclipse, it is very brief – which makes it seem that much more profound.


A total solar eclipse has a striking rhythm to it.  At first, you can hardly tell that anything unusual is about to occur.  The brightness of the day seems to be getting slowly dimmer – but at first you might just dismiss it as your imagination.  Yet soon it becomes impossible to ignore.  There are no clouds blocking the sun, yet it is getting noticeably darker.  This begins to accelerate.  The darkness is rapidly building.  But it’s an eerie darkness, not like a sunset, when the sun’s rays are weakened because they’re hitting the landscape at a low angle.  The sun is high in the sky, and the sunlit parts of the landscape are still bathed in white light – yet that light is fading rapidly.  It’s as if you’re looking at your surroundings through a dark filter.  Yet to the naked eye, the sun looks no different.


As it rapidly grows darker, you notice fluctuations in the light, as if clouds are passing over the sun.  Yet there is hardly a cloud in the sky to be seen.  Now it is virtually night.  You look up, and suddenly the sun has been transformed into a diamond ring.  A moment later, as if a cosmic window opens, this is replaced by a black disk, surrounded by white flame that wasn’t there seconds before.


The landscape is now considerably less bright than it would be at night under a full moon.  The brighter planets are clearly visible in the sky.  Where the sun was, a strange object is suspended in the sky.  Around the black disk there seems to be a ring of white light – or is it a trick of the human eye?  And streamers of motionless white flame extend out from the disk.

A few minutes pass.  And then, almost instantaneously, the diamond ring returns for a moment, replacing the black disk and its white streamers.  Just as quickly, the diamond ring disappears, and the sun seems back to normal, with the naked eye.  The landscape is still quite dark but the light is rapidly increasing.  In half an hour things seem almost normal again.


Watching such an event is rather like listening to a piece of music that starts out soft and gentle, then slowly builds, with increasing intensity, finally reaching a crescendo.  Then it reverses itself, the intensity rapidly fading, then more languidly moving back to the gentle music, before finally trailing off.

It’s not hard to imagine the reaction of someone who has no idea what is going on.  They might think they had a strange dream or a vision – How else to account for something of such enormity that happened with absolute silence, and was so brief, with no apparent lasting effect?  For a few minutes it would surely seem like the world was coming to an end.  The sky has that effect – It seems intimate and at the same time, distant and powerful, the sun particularly so.  A total solar eclipse is a rare event for a given spot on the earth.  Hundreds of years usually pass before one returns to a given location.  It’s not hard to imagine pre-industrial societies being profoundly affected by them.


For many of us today, they are fascinating and beautiful events.  But they are also very, very predictable.  Some people have an amazing lack of curiosity about such things.  Some folks who actually LIVED IN THE PATH OF TOTALITY didn’t bother to step outside to get a look.  Science gives us the ability to predict such events with incredible precision – and to know exactly when and where such events occurred in the past.  For example, on June 12, 2000 BC, 4017 years ago, a total solar eclipse occurred.  The path was centered over the Atlantic Ocean.


On April 26, 3000, 983 years from now, a total solar eclipse will occur.  The time of greatest eclipse will be 13:04 Universal Time.  The path of the eclipse will stretch from the west coast of South America to the Saudi Peninsula.  There is some error in forecasting an eclipse so far in advance, but not because of irregularities in the motion of the earth and moon – It’s because the earth’s rotation is somewhat erratic.  Even so, there is a 95% probabilitiy that the path of this eclipse will fall within 1000 miles east or west of the predicted path.


For eclipses closer to us in time, predictions are correspondingly more accurate.  For example, on May 11, 2078, 61 years from now, a total solar eclipse will occur.  The path will stretch from the central Pacific to the Atlantic just off the coast of Morocco.  This eclipse will be visible in my home state of Louisiana, among other places.  There is a 95% probability that the path of this eclipse will fall within 17 miles east or west of the predicted path.  Keep in mind that the moon will have completed more than 700 revolutions around the earth by then – Yet we can predict, quite accurately, not just that an eclipse will occur, but exactly when and where the moon’s shadow will strike the earth.


And for the upcoming total solar eclipse in April of 2024, which will be visible over several U.S. states, there is a 95% probability that the actual path will fall within 1.9 miles of the predicted path.  The time of this eclipse (18:17 universal time for eclipse maximum) has a 95% probability of being correct within 8 seconds.


This is the kind of predictive power science has given us.  Unfortunately, many processes are far less regular than the motions of the earth and moon.  Even so, science has banished a lot of unknowns from our lives, and given us the powerful technologies that so many of us take for granted.

Racism, sexism, fascism, nationalism – It’s all the same –ism

In the months leading up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, a strong anti-French sentiment arose in America.  The French expressed skepticism about Bush administration claims concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and concern that an invasion would lead to a destabilization of the region.  The response was a flurry of anti-French sentiment in America, very much abetted by the media.  It went so far that the U.S. House of Representatives actually passed a resolution to have French fries renamed “Freedom Fries.”  The French, mind you – Without France, there would probably never have been a United States of America, and following the infamous events of Sept 11, 2001, thousands of French people gathered at Notre Dame to sign the Star Spangled Banner.


Although France-bashing has gone out of style to some extent, nationalism has not, and it is striking to me that racism has become so socially marginalized, while nationalism is still mainstream.  In fact, I would judge that there is a gradient of legitimacy, as follows:


Racism is very marginalized in America today, sexism much less so.  If you doubt this, imagine what would have happened if Donald Trump had been recorded using the n-word during the campaign, rather than being recorded bragging about sexually assaulting women.  And nationalism, of course, enjoys still greater legitimacy.


But what is the difference, really?  It all comes back to the same thing – I’m better than other people, and I belong to a group that’s superior to other groups.  There’s an us, and there’s a them.  I belong to us, and so I deserve better than one of them.


Anti-French sentiment has been a smoldering feature of conservative ideology for a long time.  It is no accident that racism, sexism, and fascism have been traveling companions.  It all springs from the same source.  The difference in legitimacy, I believe, is all about the Holocaust.  Before the Holocaust, racism enjoyed a lot of legitimacy.  Eugenics was a very popular idea.  Not anymore.  But look what it took.  And it hardly needs to be said that racism is far from extinct.


In order to really defeat racism, I think we need to understand that all of these –isms are fundamentally the same.  It’s all bigotry.  Us and them.  Making these distinctions, giving some of it legitimacy while marginalizing other parts, is like hacking away at one leg of an octopus while you invite another leg for tea.

The Seductive Lure of Ideology

James Damore is the engineer who was recently fired from Google, after a memo he generated was widely distributed in the media.  I hadn’t intended to do a post related to this, but after reading his memo, I realized that it could actually serve a very instructive purpose.


I won’t go into detail here on whether Google was justified in firing Damore.  It’s a perfectly good subject of discussion, but it’s also a very complex question that would require a lot of detailed exposition.  Suffice it to say that I think Google had a tough decision to make.

I also won’t go into detail about the science Damore cites, which gets us into the whole nature/nurture quagmire, except to say that what evidence we have suggests that men and women, on average, have comparable abilities when it comes to math and science.  Nowhere in his memo does Damore suggest otherwise.  In a previous post, I discussed the issue of intelligence, and the strong effect expectations have on what we think of as intelligence.  Where men and women seem to differ is on interest.  Women, for example, are more focused on people, men on things – these are average differences, and they don’t seem to be very large in relation to the vast differences among individuals within each gender.  It is here that Damore focuses his attention, but he is not making the argument that we should treat men and women as monolithic populations – on the contrary, he is complaining that Google is doing just that, rather than judging each person on their merits.


What I want to focus on are Damore’s statements about ideology.  I am always struck when I see an intelligent, thoughtful person in the grip of ideology.  Damore himself urges us to have open minds, to be aware of our biases, to face realities, pleasant or unpleasant.  He describes ideologies as biases, and distinguishes between conservative and liberal ideologies as follows:

Liberal                                                                   Conservative

Compassion for the weak                            Respect for the strong/authority

Disparities are due to injustices                 Disparities are natural and just

Humans are inherently cooperative        Humans are inherently


Change is good (unstable)                           Change is dangerous (stable)

Open                                                                     Closed

Idealist                                                                 Pragmatic

Some of these are pretty good characterizations, but I particularly want to focus on the last one – idealism versus pragmatism.  Clearly, Damore considers conservatives to be pragmatists.  I couldn’t disagree more.  Pragmatism is the opposite of ideology.  The opposite of idealism is not pragmatism – it’s cynicism.  Damore’s first 3 distinctions between conservatism and liberalism are all variations on this theme.  Conservatives are social Darwinists.  Fascism is the logical extreme of this.


Damore is making a familiar conservative argument – that we shouldn’t impose equality on a population when people aren’t really equal.  Arguments like this go all the way back to the ancient Greeks, and strike at the very heart of our political values.  Obviously, some people are more intelligent than others.  Some people are more educated than others.  Some people are more ambitious than others.  Shouldn’t we let those inequalities express themselves?  Shouldn’t we just let people compete with each other in the game of life, and see who comes out on top?

Thomas Jefferson himself spoke of the “natural aristocracy” – people who would rise on their merits above the masses and rule wisely.  It’s a very seductive idea.  The problem is, if it’s correct, how is it that for centuries, we have moved away from exclusion and social Darwinism toward more and more inclusion, more democracy, and more equitability?  Shouldn’t things go in the opposite direction, if conservatism is correct?


Damore wants us to look at the science of evolutionary psychology, honestly and openly.  But conservatives don’t seem to want to look at history, honestly and openly.  In past centuries, empires controlled vast areas of the earth.  One by one, they’ve been overthrown.  In past centuries, populations were ruled under the divine right of kings.  Today we have democracy in Europe, the Americas, Africa, the Far East, Australia – how did this happen?  When America was founded, only white males with property could vote.  Today we have universal suffrage.  HOW DID THIS OCCUR?

Are we to believe that centuries of widening enfranchisement and inclusion are just “flukes,” that somehow civilization will return to dictatorships and feudalism?  Even in the Middle Ages there was movement toward democracy, Magna Carta being one of the most famous examples.


Damore makes a very interesting statement:  “Political orientation is actually a result of deep moral preferences and thus biases.”  He even calls these “prejudices.”  This is perhaps the most revealing statement in the entire memo.  And in a way, he’s right.  When we dig down to the source of people’s political views, we inevitably reach a point where no amount of reason will suffice, because our basic goals are not about reason.  No amount of logic is going to answer the question, “Why do you want to be free?”

But not all political positions are due to differences in basic goals or preferences.  Some people with opposite political positions actually have the same basic goals.  They may both want the greatest good for the greatest number.  But a conservative ideologue may believe that this is achieved by more privatization, low taxes, and a stronger military.  A liberal ideologue may believe that this is achieved by more regulation, stronger labor unions, and better diplomacy.  What makes them ideologues is that they aren’t interested in looking at the evidence of what works – they’ve already made up their minds, and the evidence will just have conform.


Damore tells us that we should focus less on morality and more on “costs and benefits.”  This reminds me of the episode of Star Trek: Voyager called “Critical Care,” in which Voyager’s doctor is abducted by a society in which health care is rationed to people based on a computer’s evaluation of their “value” to society.  If you’re “valuable,” you get the finest health care.  If you’re not, and you have a life-threatening illness, you might not get the medicine you need to stay alive – simply because a “valuable” person “needs” it live to be 80 instead of 75.  Focusing on “costs and benefits” is a very tricky proposition.  Costs to who?  Benefits to what?

It is clear that Damore sees himself as a pragmatist, surrounded by moralists.  But for all of his protestations that we should confront evidence openly and honestly, he seems oblivious to the evidence of history.  In a previous post, I discussed the relationship between gender equity and prosperity.  When women have better economic, social, and political equity with men, men benefit as well.  That is not an opinion.  It is merely an observation.


The problem with intellectual conservatives, it seems to me, is that they look at social Darwinism and say, naively, “That makes sense.  That works.  It must.”  They are seduced by the seeming reasonableness of the “natural aristocracy.”  They look at human beings, with all of their differences, and think, “Trying to impose equality is crazy.  People aren’t equal – not even close.  Some people are smart.  Some people are stupid.  Some people are fast.  Some people are slow.”  But the trajectory of history shows us that this is naïve.  It’s based on a zero-sum notion of human well-being.

Imagine you’re on a planet where there is no democracy, only feudalism.  Most people are peasants.  A few people are nobles.  And there is the king, with his court.  You say, “Look, I have an idea.  It’s called voting.  Every person gets 1 and only 1 vote.  That’s how you choose government officials.  You educate these peasants and give them good-paying jobs.  They will spend lots of money and your society will be more prosperous.”  They laugh in your face.  “You want to impose an equality on us.  People aren’t equal.  There is a natural aristocracy.  All of these peasants simply don’t have what it takes to make good political or economic decisions.  You can try to educate them all you want, they will never have what it takes.  It would be a disaster.”


Why do we have 1 person, 1 vote?  Isn’t this a forced equality?  Shouldn’t we bring back poll taxes and tests?  Or how about we give people who have more money more votes?  Shouldn’t we give people political power based on their demonstrated ability to navigate our society?  The answer is no, and the justification is the evidence of history.  History has made its judgment on fascism and political exclusion.  It doesn’t work.  If it worked, we would have moved in the opposite direction – from universal suffrage and broad enfranchisement toward more and more concentration of power.

Damore makes another remarkable and revealing statement:  “De-emphasize empathy.”  He wants us to “reason about the facts,” otherwise we “focus on anecdotes, favor individuals similar to us, and harbor other irrational and dangerous biases.”  Yet he turns right around and advocates for “psychological safety” and “shared values.”  In a very profound respect, he’s advocating for the very thing he’s complaining about – that there is a minority whose voice is being suppressed, whose rights are being trampled.  Yet we shouldn’t use empathy to correct the problem, because if someone is in a minority, well, maybe it’s because they just don’t have what it takes to make it in that field.


A lot of conservative ideologues complain that so-called “diversity” initiatives aren’t an imposition of equality – they’re an imposition of INequality, displacing questions of merit with questions of race or gender.  But women are telling us over and over that the tech world is full of strong biases against women.  This is the very thing that diversity training is designed to overcome.  Yet Damore would have us ignore all of these complaints (and therefore, presumably all of his) as “anecdotes.”

Google is, by almost any measure, one of the most successful companies on earth.  Its stock has increased about 160% in value over the last 5 years.  Damore himself acknowledges that he has been told by Google’s leadership that diversity initiatives are “both the morally and economically right thing to do.”  Yet he tells us that there is no evidence for this, and warns that these initiatives “can irreparably harm Google.”


The parts of America that are doing well, economically, are those that have an emphasis on education, a lot of ethnic diversity, and more gender parity.  The parts that are doing poorly are those that have low ethnic diversity, low education, and poor gender parity.  Better education, broader enfranchisement, and a more vibrant middle class lead to greater innovation and greater prosperity.  Again, that is not an ideological statement.  It is an observation.  And globally, the societies that are doing well are those that have mixed economies – capitalist, but with strong, transparent national governments, very strong labor unions, and very good social safety nets.  And by the way, relatively good gender parity.

Damore isn’t just arguing that women may be underrepresented in tech because they have less inherent interest in tech.  He argues that women, on average, have more “neuroticism,” as he calls it, which means higher levels of anxiety and less stress tolerance.  He strongly implies that women may tend to avoid leadership positions because of this.  The problem with this is that when we look across the globe, we see places with much greater gender parity in positions of power.  In Finland, for example, 64% of ministerial positions are held by women.  In Norway, it’s 47%.  In Sweden, 52%.  But in America?  26%.


Damore’s protestations provide a good lesson in how an intelligent, thoughtful person can be seduced by ideology.  In another episode of Star Trek: Voyager, Captain Janeway tells her Security Officer, a Vulcan, “You can use logic to justify anything.  That’s its power, and its flaw.”  It is very easy to fall into the trap of RATIONALIZING, when you think you’re simply BEING RATIONAL.  As always, the most important rule is question everything – but especially yourself.


The Information Advantage

Most people probably don’t remember the old Tom Hanks movie Volunteers, about 3 Peace Corps volunteers in Thailand.  John Candy really kind of stole that show, but Hanks has some great lines.  His character, Lawrence Bourne, faces off with CIA operative John Reynolds, wonderfully played by Tim Thomerson.  Bourne is unarmed.  Reynolds tell him, “There’s no one else, Bourne.  It’s just you, me, and Mike.”  If you’re wondering who Mike is, well that’s the name of his knife.  Naturally.  Reynolds explains, “I’m gonna kill you.  I’m gonna skin you.  I’m gonna use your shin bone for a pencil box.”  Bourne is unfazed.  “Well that’s fair,” he replies.  Then he says, “You know, there never was a time when brains didn’t triumph over brawn.”


Many people refer to our society today as the “information society.”  But in a way, this is misleading.  Societies have ALWAYS been “information societies,” in the sense that information is the real source of wealth and power.  Those who have information, and the tools to use it, have always had the advantage.

On February 29th, 1504, Christopher Columbus was stranded on the island of Jamaica.  He and his crew were out of provisions, and the locals had soured on them.  But he knew something they didn’t.  A lunar eclipse would shortly be visible on Jamaica.  So he went to the local chiefs and told them that the Christian God was all-powerful.  He was very displeased with them, and would soon show his displeasure by darkening the moon and staining it with red.


Because a lunar eclipse is visible over half the earth, such events are not that rare for a given spot.  But they often occur late at night on the side of the earth where they are visible, when many people in preindustrial societies slept.  And imagine how you would respond, not knowing how they were caused, when the moon indeed darkened and turned reddish, at the very time that Columbus foretold.  It hardly needs to be said that the chiefs begged for forgiveness and provided everything Columbus wanted.

This is an extreme example of something that is much more pervasive.  The ability to make accurate predictions is more valuable than gold.  How many movies have featured people going back in time armed with the results of major sporting events or stock price information?  If you could make accurate predictions of these things, you could make a fortune in short order.


In fact, that is exactly what reliable stock brokers and fund managers do – they use mountains of information to make predictions about the equities and commodities markets, thus making large sums for investors.  Of course, their services are not free.  They are literally selling their expertise and their predictive power.  It ain’t cheap.

This is exactly why “insider trading” is illegal – inside knowledge of a company’s operation gives an investor a tremendous advantage over those who don’t have such knowledge.  (Although in fact, contrary to popular belief, “insiders” – company executives, for example – routinely buy and sell their own companies’ stocks, which is perfectly legal as long as they report it.)  But the information advantage is routinely used to exploit and manipulate people in our society.


One common expression of this is the “fine print” in many consumer agreements.  The language is intentionally difficult, often full of legal and financial jargon, in order to exploit consumer ignorance.  Insurance agreements are particularly notorious in this regard, and this is nothing new.  One of the most hilarious sketches from the classic Monty Python’s Flying Circus series is the “insurance sketch.”  A vicar tries to pursue a claim when his car is hit by a truck while parked.  His insurance company sends him a little, shall we say, discouragement.  “It says something here about filling my mouth with cement,” he tells the insurance man.  “Oh, that’s insurance jargon,” the man explains.  “In your policy,” he continues, ”it states quite clearly that no claim you make will be paid.”  In the fine print, no doubt.

Then there is finance.  Suppose you wanted to invest in the stock market.  Naturally you will want to know how various companies are performing.  Specifically, you will need to look at the following:  P/E ratio, EPS, EBITDA, Beta, return on assets – are your eyes glazing over yet?  Even if I told you what the abbreviations mean, you might not be much better off.  The fact is, you can make a lot of money in stocks, with a lot of knowledge.  That, of course, is what people pay stock brokers for.


But think about all of the other ways people pay for knowledge and expertise.  Tax preparers.  Lawyers.  Doctors.  Bankers.  An enormous chunk of our economy consists of people who simply know stuff that most of us don’t.  And much of what they do can in fact be performed by sophisticated computer programs.  That’s why, increasingly, IT IS.  Banking, for example.  At this moment, much of what banks do is performed by computers.  I myself rarely interact with a human teller.  Stock trading too.  I own stock and have never interacted with a human stock broker.  Many traders use “bots,” computer programs that analyze stock prices.  And they make a lot of money in the process.

The holders of stock in our society are literally the owners of the country’s largest companies.  At present, the New York Stock Exchange, only one of many global exchanges, contains about 15 trillion dollars in stocks.  Without that capital, our economy would collapse.  It is, in essence, a 15 trillion dollar loan to the business world, with an expectation of a return.  In order for businesses to make money, much larger sums of money must be “out there,” constantly, feeding the wheels of production.  This is something that most working people don’t fathom.  Large sums of money can only be made if even larger sums of money are already “in the system,” already invested.


Working people are accustomed to doing a job in exchange for a paycheck.  Most working people don’t have a clue about investment.  Billionaires don’t have billions of dollars sitting in checking accounts.  They have billions of dollars of INVESTMENTS.  It takes a lot of money to make more money.

Here’s an example.  UnitedHealth Group is one of the largest health services companies in the country.  It has a market capitalization of about 188 billion dollars.  But its annual earnings are only about 15 billion.  In other words, it takes an investment of about 12 times the company’s earnings to produce those 15 billion dollars of wealth.  Facebook is a more familiar example.  It has a market capitalization of about 500 billion dollars.  It annual earnings are only about 18 billion dollars.  It takes an investment of about 28 TIMES the company’s earnings to produce that wealth.


Both of these companies are doing quite well.  But it takes A LOT of money to make money.  Of course working people don’t have a lot of money.  That’s why they don’t collect a lot of money.  Profits go to owners, otherwise known as investors, not workers.  That’s the whole point.  Workers are a COST, not a reward, for owners.

Working people entertain illusions, encouraged by the media, like “my hard work is what keeps our economy going.”  On the contrary, your “hard work,” or more specifically, your human need to be paid, is a cost of doing business.  Machines do the overwhelming bulk of the physical work of production.  But human workers, with annoying needs like vacation time, overtime pay, health insurance, and retirement, are a huge cost of doing business – for many companies, it’s the single biggest cost.  Machines, on the other hand, don’t need to be paid, they don’t need sleep, they don’t get tired or sick, and when they get old they can be discarded and replaced without protest.


Most working people do not have brokerage accounts, at least not directly.  Over the last 20 years, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has increased about 170% in value.  In other words, if you had merely picked stocks more or less at random, you would have more than tripled your money since 1997.  You would have gotten an average rate of return of about 5% per year.  Anyone with a modest understanding of stocks would do much better, likely achieving 10% per year.  In fact, I have traded stocks on a simulator for 2 years, with an average annual return of about 10% – and I am no financial wizard.  At such a rate your money would be multiplied well over 6 times over the course of 20 years.  And a sharp investor could probably achieve an average of 15% per year.  At this rate, your money would be multiplied 16 TIMES over 20 years.

That’s what information and analysis are worth.  Enormous sums of money are collected by people who simply take other people’s money and invest it wisely, or set it aside as a hedge against future disaster.  Bankers, stock brokers, fund managers – and insurers.  And much of what these companies do is now performed by computer programs.


Predators are everywhere.  Manipulators.  Fear-mongers.  Exploiters.  People who make money by taking advantage of the unsophisticated.  From television “programs” that use classic public relations techniques to sell us worthless crap, to junk mail sent to us in official-looking envelopes, we are bombarded by hucksterism.   There is an enormous amount of information that is intentionally concealed from consumers – or at least made expensive to access.  A great deal of what we learn about our finances as adults is learned only from painful experience, not because that knowledge is readily available.

But there is the other side of the coin too.  Shrewd entrepreneurs realized that they could get rich by providing services to defeat the exploiters.  Not very long ago, if you wanted to book a flight, or a cruise, you had to go to a human travel agent.  That person received a commission for hooking you up with an airline or a cruise line.  Today we have on-line travel services like Travelocity and Expedia.  They provide mountains of information about airlines, hotels, and such.  They have made travel much less expensive for consumers – and human travel agents are far fewer.


Not very long ago, you walked into a retail store and purchased a product, based on little more than gut feelings or word-of-mouth.  Often you faced a person who had every incentive to sell you something, whether the products were any good or not.   It is always easier to exploit people when they have only local and limited access to products and information.  Now you can shop on line and get access to numerous comparisons and product reviews.  Increasingly, we see on-line banks, stock brokerages, and insurance outlets.  The internet gives consumers access to incredible amounts of knowledge and analysis.  Which equals money and power.  What has changed?  Why is the internet giving consumers something they never had before?


The reason is global connectivity.  One of the older Simpson’s episodes features Phil Hartmann as a monorail salesman.  He comes to town with a catchy song and manages to get everyone on board – despite the fact that Springfield is a small city with no real need for a mass transit system, let alone a monorail.  But a little out-of-town research shows Marge that the town is being scammed.  And therein lies the key.  When consumers have access to a whole world of information, there’s no place for the exploiters and scammers to conceal their scamming.  We are seeing the gradual destruction of the business of exploitation – because the business of defeating the exploiters is just as lucrative, if not more so.


Before the internet came along, there were sources of information out there for consumers.  Consumer Reports, for example.  But generally, you had to subscribe to them, and they were vastly outgunned by those whose job it was to conceal, distort, and promote – advertisers, retail sales people, even door-to-door sales people.  The very reason we have the internet is that sharp people realized they could make money, not by concealing information from large numbers of people, but by providing it.  The same reason that most everybody in America now has a smartphone.  What was wrong with the old system, in which you had to pay, and pay handsomely, to call someone in Lafayette, Louisiana, if you were right down the road in Opelousas?  It made money, yes.  But sharp people understood that a lot more money could be made by eliminating obstacles to communication, once the technology was in place.

Something like Facebook would have been inconceivable for most of the 20th century.  Facebook requires NO SUBSCRIPTION – yet Facebook is one of the fastest-growing companies on earth.  Facebook’s stock has multiplied more than 8 TIMES in value over the last 5 years.  Facebook could just as easily have made itself a subscription service.  But it wouldn’t have been nearly as profitable.


Many internet services do offer “premium” options, if you want to pay, or pay more, for more features.  But in the 20th century, most everything was a “premium” option – if you wanted information, you had to pay for it.  Today, the amount of information available on line is staggering.  In 5 minutes of web browsing, I can find out more about what’s happening in the world, and more about how to navigate the minefield of exploiters, than I can in 5 hours of watching television or browsing a magazine rack.

In a way, it’s the 21st century equivalent of the very origins of the middle class.  In the robber baron era of the late 19th century, a few people made fortunes by exploiting workers, by keeping them in poverty.  But enterprising entrepreneurs realized that even more wealth could be generated by having a vibrant middle class.  For all his faults, Henry Ford understood that you had to pay the people building your cars a decent wage, because otherwise who was going to BUY the cars they were building?


Inclusion always leads to greater wealth generation.  In the early days of major league baseball, audiences were largely male.  It took decades for the owners to realize that they could make far more money by inviting women and children to games.  When they did, baseball parks quickly grew to become the big stadiums we know today.  Similarly, in the early years of Las Vegas, the city largely provided gambling and prostitution for men.  It took decades for its business community to realize that it could make far more money by making the city family-friendly.  This is what led to the extravaganza that we think of today when we think of Vegas.  More and more inclusion and enfranchisement leads to greater wealth.  The zero-sum game of exclusion and exploitation is revealed to be the road of stagnation.

But the internet, and global connectivity, has added a new dimension.  For years, cable television filled people’s homes with hundreds of channels of commercials and crap, most of which they never watched, at exorbitant prices.  Then along came internet services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.  Consumers suddenly had access to thousands of commercial-free television shows and movies for a fraction of the price – programming that gave THEM control.  For every exploiter, every manipulator, every scammer, there is someone else who can make a fortune defeating them – because exploiters and scammers always take resources away from working people, leaving an opening for those who encourage more inclusion and increase their disposable income.


Most of the exploitation of human labor has been focused on the human being as a PHYSICAL MACHINE.  But the time has long since passed when human muscle could come close to matching machine muscle.  And now, the human eyes, ears, and brains are being replaced as well.  At some point it will become painfully obvious to all that human physical work is a minor component of production.  At that point our society will be revolutionized.  Imagine a society in which bankers, stock brokers, and insurance adjusters are no different than teachers and scientists, with the same agenda – to lift people up rather than exploit them.  If this seems incredible, ask yourself why our society ever managed to create compulsory education and the 40-hour work week, from abject poverty, ignorance, and exploitation.


As I have written before, America is a young country, with a recent frontier.  This has everything to do with our attitudes about commerce.  There’s a pervasive nostalgia for the days of unbridled get-rich-quick schemes.  In the classic movie Little Big Man, Allardyce Merriweather tells young Jack Crabb, “Whales speak French at the bottom of the sea.  The horses of Arabia have silver wings.  Pygmies mate with elephants in darkest Africa.  I have sold all of those propositions.”  Americans feel a lot of sympathy for the Merriweathers of the world – those who use the ignorance and gullibility of others to their advantage.


There is also an element of conservative ideology that strongly believes in the necessity for a few talented men to be able to exploit without hindrance – that this is the real basis for American wealth.  If it were true, the creation of a vibrant middle class would have killed American economic growth long ago.  If the exploitation of the masses is so wonderfully productive, slavery should have turned the South into an industrial powerhouse before the Civil War.  The opposite is true, and the South’s long delay in building a vibrant middle class is arguably a continuing legacy – southern states continue to lag in education and economic development, particularly in the “new economy.”


And then there’s the other side of the coin – Americans recoil at those who inflict suffering on the helpless.  No one celebrates when someone simply robs a frail old woman, or someone in a wheelchair.  In any case, the days of unbridled capitalism are long gone.  The frontier is gone.  In a civilized society, the strong and smart do not victimize the weak and unsophisticated.  We aren’t there yet.  We still give a tremendous amount of wiggle room to exploiters and scammers.  But big changes are on the horizon.

What is it with white American males?

In 1970, America was 88% white.  88%.  Since a little less than half of these people were men, about 43% of Americans were white and male.  90% of American college students were white, and 58% were men.  In other words, about 52% of all college students were white and male.  Today, America is 72% white, so about 35% of Americans are white and male.  But only 56% of American college students are white, and only 42% are male.  In other words, only 24% of college students are white and male, less than half the percentage in 1970.


Since 1970, the white male population of America has increased by about 25%.  Yet the enrollment of white American males in college has increased only about 1 PERCENT!  Huge numbers of white American males are simply not going to college.

Why?  What has caused so many white males to stay away from colleges?  To understand this, first we have to look at the history of college enrollment in America.  The baby boomers were the first American generation to go to college in large percentages.  In 1964, only 13% of Americans 25 to 29 years old had Bachelor’s degrees.  By 1975 this figure had almost doubled to 25%.  But then, in the late 1970’s, something very odd happened.  College completion actually declined.  And most of this decline was due to a decline of men.  In 1975, 27% of American men aged 25 to 29 had Bachelor’s degrees.  By 1985, that figure had dropped to 23%.


In 1965, Congress passed the Higher Education Act.  This law brought into being the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant program.  Notice the word grant.  A grant is not a loan.  Anyone, regardless of income, if they worked hard and maintained their grades, could get a grant to go to college.  It wasn’t a free ride.  It would only pay for basics, like tuition and books.  Most students still had to work part time to support themselves.  But no one had to go thousands of dollars into debt just to get a degree.

What changed in the late 1970’s was simple – money.  College tuition began to increase dramatically, and federal financial aid simply didn’t keep up.  In the short time I was an undergraduate, from 1975 to 1979, tuition at my school more than doubled.  The gap between student aid and college affordability began to grow rapidly.


And then came Ronald Reagan.  Reagan increased military spending dramatically, while refusing to increase revenue to compensate.  The result was an exploding federal deficit.  In 1985, Congress passed the so-called Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act (often called Gramm-Rudman-Hollings).  It provided that if specific deficit reductions were not achieved, federal student aid would have to be cut.  So that’s exactly what happened.  The gap between student aid and college affordability became a gaping chasm.

Reagan’s Secretary of Education, Bill Bennett, was a right-wing ideologue and a walking disaster for higher education in America.  Ever since the Reagan years, low-income students have had to go thousands of dollars into debt in order to get their degrees.  In fact, the very term “financial aid” has come to be almost synonymous in many people’s minds with “student loan,” even though federal GRANTS were the primary form of student aid before the Reagan years.


Through all of this, though, there were organizations that actively encouraged non-white non-males to go to college, recognizing that these demographic groups had been very underrepresented in the past.  It worked.  Despite the financial hardships, women of virtually every ethnicity, unlike men, received Bachelor’s degrees in slowly increasing percentages through the 1980’s.  In the 1990’s, this percentage increased dramatically, and today, about 4 out of 10 American women aged 25-29 have Bachelor’s degrees, double the percentage in 1970.

Meanwhile, only about 32% of young American males have Bachelor’s degrees.  That’s considerably better than 10 years ago, when only 25% of them had Bachelor’s degrees.  In fact, for a quarter of a century, from 1980 to 2005, no more than 25% of American males aged 25-29 had Bachelor’s degrees.  Yet all during this time, the good-paying jobs available to those without degrees were steadily declining, mostly due to automation.  Many young American men are only now waking up to the fact that these jobs are disappearing.


What jobs do I mean?  I mean manufacturing and resource extraction.  The oil industry.  The coal industry.  The steel industry.  Jobs in these industries pay well, despite not requiring college, generally.  And it is a striking fact that many of these industries are dominated by white males.  Coal mining – 77% white, 96% male.  Oil and gas extraction – 74% white, 87% male.  Steel production – 73% white, 88% male.  Machinery manufacturing – 77% white, 79% male.

By contrast:  Computer and peripheral manufacturing – 39% non-white, 31% female.  Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing – 34% non-white, 45% female.  Professional and business services – 35% non-white, 42% female.  Education and health services – 33% non-white, 75 PERCENT FEMALE.


Education and health services jobs total 34 MILLION, almost a quarter of all of the jobs in our country.  Many of these jobs require college.  But men, white men particularly, are avoiding them.  The health sector has been growing rapidly and will continue to do so.  But resource extraction and manufacturing are increasingly automated.

The other factor, and the more basic one I believe, is this.  Unlike other demographic groups, the white American male has been the target of long-term, well-funded propaganda, propaganda that glorifies his physical work.  Propaganda that promotes sweaty, light-skinned male bodies that provide the muscle of production so that lazy, dark-skinned people can parasitize those efforts.  Someone has to do the physical work, the “real” work, this narrative says.


All of this goes back to white Protestant culture, which was the dominant culture in America for most of its history.  A big part of this is the Protestant work ethic.  As I have explained in a previous post, this work ethic was folded into self-improvement and educational attainment in the Northeast.  But in the South and Plains states, where resource extraction was focused in the late 19th century (agriculture, coal, oil, and timber), it never went much beyond the glorification of physical work, and the magnification of the macho caricature of masculinity.

In fact, rather than encouraging ambitiousness and education, religious and political leaders in the Plains, and particularly in the South, have promoted anti-intellectualism, often blended with anti-semitism and the vilification of “city slickers.”  Well-funded propaganda machines have been at this for more than a century.  It is a package – the glorification of physical work and the macho caricature of masculinity, along with the vilification of dark-skinned people, organized labor, and educated “elites.”


It is also worth noting that white America is increasingly concentrated in rural areas of the country.  The big cities are increasingly multi-ethnic, and people’s attitudes are splitting along those lines.  Just recently, the Washington Post, along with the Kaiser Family Foundation, took a poll of 1680 American adults – 1070 from rural areas and small towns, 307 from suburbs, and 303 from urban areas.  Among other things, they were asked this question:

In your opinion, which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor?

The available answers were:

Lack of effort on their own part

Difficult circumstances beyond their control

Don’t know


Among rural people, almost half, 49%, responded that lack of effort was more often to blame for poverty.  Among urban people, only 37% said this.  It is a message you hear over and over in rural and small town areas of the South – that “hard-working” white males are being parasitized by lazy brown people and their elitist enablers.  That the work ethic is disappearing.  That immigrants and urbanities just want hand-outs.  Often, though not always, the racial component is left out, because overt racism is no longer socially acceptable.  But covert racism is as prevalent as ever.


Texas is an excellent example of the rural/urban divide.  The big cities in Texas – Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso – they all have large non-white populations, so much so that the state itself is less than 50% white overall.  Only 1 of these 5 cities has a Republican mayor.  But vast majority of rural Texas is overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly Republican.  These areas once provided large numbers of jobs in resource extraction – oil and gas drilling, timber and paper production, minerals mining.  But all of this is increasingly automated.

Rural America also tends to be older than urban America.  The median age for rural America is 43 years – for urban America, 36 years.  Older Americans have lower labor participation rates than younger Americans, so rural America has a lower labor participation rate – 59.2%, to urban America’s 64.2%.  Rural America is slowly depopulating, as jobs in resource extraction slowly disappear.


And then there is the gender issue.  About 30% of urban men under the age of 30 have Bachelor’s degrees.  For rural men that percentage is only 14%.  In fact, astonishingly, the percentage of young men with Bachelor’s degrees in rural America is actually MUCH LOWER than that among older men – about 24% of rural men aged 60-64 have Bachelor’s degrees.  Rural American males, the vast majority of which are white, are actually becoming less and less educated.


If you’re getting the impression that the rural, white American male has failed to change with the times, I’ve given you the correct impression.  As I said, he’s been relentlessly propagandized by exploiters and manipulators.  Ironically, they have done to him exactly what they have accused liberal “elites” of doing to brown people – exploited him for their own power and wealth.  They’ve catered to his fantasies of a return to an America in which white male muscle was valued over all else – an America that never really existed in the first place.

Full of what? Oh, that.

Most of us have known someone who likes the sound of his own voice.  In the comedy Cheers, it was the character Cliff.  Cliff always had something to say, on every topic.  Cliff once explained that women are genetically programmed to be unaggressive, even going so far as to say that the very abbreviation DNA stands for “Dames are not aggressive.”


Cliff, of course, was totally full of shit.  But he was also harmless, because he had no real influence over people.  Politicians are another story.

One might almost define a politician as a professional bullshitter.  But in fairness, a lot of people end up in politics because they genuinely want to serve the public good.  Politicians lie, politicians mislead, politicians distort.  But many of them, arguably most of them, at least have their hearts in the right place.


And then there are the power-mongers.  The ones who have no guiding principle other than self-aggrandizement.  They will say anything and do anything to achieve it.  Our current Secretary of Energy is Rick Perry, former governor of Texas.  In July of 2015, he said this of Donald Trump:  “My fellow Republicans, beware of false prophets.  Do not let itching ears be tickled by messengers who appeal to anger, division and resentment.  I will not go quiet when this cancer on conservatism threatens to metastasize into a movement of mean-spirited politics that will send the Republican Party to the same place it sent the Whig Party in 1854: the graveyard.”  He went on to characterize Trump as “a barking carnival act” who offers a “toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.”  In May of 2016, this same Rick Perry endorsed Donald Trump, saying “He is one of the most talented people who has ever run for the president I have ever seen,” and offered to be his running mate.

Think of the failure of conscience that is necessary to be so totally full of shit with a straight face, the absence of any moral compass.  Most of us couldn’t do it if we tried.


There’s an episode of the series Star Trek:  The Next Generation in which Captain Picard is tortured by a Cardassian.  The Cardassian shows him 4 lights, and asks “How many lights are there?”  “4,” he replies.  “No, there are 5,” the Cardassian insists.  This process is repeated over and over.  It is an attempt to break the intellectual integrity of the Captain, to destroy the very notion of objective truth.

But for some, there is really no such thing as objective truth.  Food and water are necessary for life.  Shelter from the elements is necessary.  Medicine when you’re very sick.  But if you’ve spent your whole life with guaranteed food, water, shelter, and medicine, those realities don’t really exist for you.  If you’ve never had to struggle to pay your bills, if you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, if you’re sheltered from so much that most people take for granted, what’s left?  What’s left are social constructs like status and power.


Science at its most basic is the ultimate respect for objective truth.  Science says, “I will face reality, no matter how uncomfortable it is.  Wherever the evidence leads, I will follow.”  So it should come as no surprise that we scientists have little patience with people who are full of shit.  But for me, it goes deeper than that.  When you are in a position of power over others, you have a special responsibility.

People talk about the “information society,” and not without reason.  But in an important sense, societies have always been information societies.  Knowledge is power.  The question is whether the information advantage is used to lift others up or knock them down.


Exploiters are everywhere.  We are surrounded by people who are anxious to separate us from our pocketbooks.  Given this, one might think that a big part of education would consist of providing us with the tools we need to defend ourselves.  Yet schooling does very little of this.  Mastering the skills of critical thinking should be a basic as reading, writing, and arithmetic.


Think of how different our society would be if you couldn’t graduate from high school without demonstrating your ability to see through manipulation and exploitation.  Large portions of our economy consist of selling people products and services that are worthless, in many cases downright harmful.  “We have an all-you-can-eat offer!”  But is all I can eat actually good for me?  “This food is GMO-free!”  But are GMO’s bad for me?


The history of last 400 years has been one of ever-increasing enfranchisement and decentralization of power.  In the 15th century, most people were forbidden to even ATTEMPT to read the Bible.  That was for the clergy.  They told you what it said and what it meant.  Then the Protestant reformation came along.  Modernism came along.  Compulsory education came along.  The Middle Class was born.  Slowly, in fits and starts, ordinary people have gained ground.


We live in a curious intermediate period now.  On the one hand we are accustomed to almost universal suffrage.  Every person gets 1 and only 1 vote.  It is a forced political equality that we hardly even notice.  Yet at the same time, we accept vast inequalities in the basics that people need to defend themselves from exploiters – the tools of critical thinking.  When knowledge can no longer be used to exploit and manipulate, our civilization will have moved out of its barbaric era.  I don’t for a moment believe that it will take another 400 years.  The barbaric era is coming to an end.  One way or another.

Baaaaaad President

The following remarks were directed at the President of the United States.

“He’s a disaster at foreign policy.”

“Never had the experience or knowledge.  He is not capable of doing the job.”

He’s “the least transparent President – ever.”

He’s “constantly issuing executive orders that are major power grabs for authority.”

“We pay for his golf.”

The President in question was Barack Hussein Obama.  The person who made these remarks was Donald John Trump.

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