David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

The Suspicious Universe

I’m a biologist. So I’m pretty familiar with many lines of evidence concerning the evolution of life on our planet. The genetic evidence. The morphological evidence. The embryonic evidence. The fossil record. Although the details are always subject to revision, broad evolutionary history is built on an absolute mountain of evidence. Mammals evolved from a particular group of reptiles called therapsids. Birds evolved from archosaurs, and now its clear that they evolved from a particular group of archosaurs, the dinosaurs. Crocodilians also evolved from archosaurs, but not dinosaurs. And so on. Our species evolved from apes closely related to chimpanzees, which in turn evolved from primitive monkeys, and so on. Because there’s such an overwhelming mountain of evidence, some young earth creationists make an interesting argument. It’s a test of faith, they say. It’s a trick. God placed all of this elaborate evidence before us as a deception. We’re supposed to ignore it. Others are quick to point out that this would be a very mischievous, even sociopathic, God, who would go to the trouble of giving us our remarkable God-given analytical abilities, throw a mountain of evidence before us, and condemn us in the strongest terms when we actually fell for his deception.

Does Jurassic Park make scientific sense? - BBC News

I am always struck by the story of the Apostle Thomas, in the Book of John. Thomas was not present when Christ first appeared to the apostles after his resurrection. When they told him what they saw, he refused to believe it. “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe,” he tells them. Eight days later Christ appears before them. Thomas puts his finger into the print of the nails and thrusts his hand into Christ’s side. Of course, he then believes. Christ does not even rebuke Thomas, let alone condemn him. He merely tells him, “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Thomas insisted on evidence. He obtained the evidence, he believed. No big deal, apparently. Certainly nothing like the response Peter gets in the Book of Matthew, when he has the temerity to suggest that Christ will not be killed. “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me,” is the reply. Ouch.

Quantum Mechanics Quiz | Britannica

The thing is, the universe does contain surprises, big surprises, that appear only when we look closely. Classical mechanics gives a very good approximation of reality in everyday life. But classical mechanics turns out to be wrong, when we look closely. The universe obeys the rules of quantum mechanics. A universe in which space and time form an inflexible “background” is a very good approximation of reality in everyday life. But it’s wrong. Relativity is the way things actually work. The orbits of the planets are very regular and stable. Many processes seem to be homeostatic or cyclic. But when we look closely, we find that these are special cases. If we merely change the system, or increase the stress parameter, we will see chaotic behavior. This is the more general phenomenon.

Michael Shermer on Twitter: "Since today is pi day (3.14159...) & I'm  quoting from Carl Sagan's Contact, this is the book's ending, implying an  advanced ETI creator?… https://t.co/w1oSOjpOQG"

In the last chapter of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, his protagonist Ellie Arroway finds an unambiguous message buried deep within the transcendental number pi. Of course the number pi is not some arbitrary number. It’s built into the fabric of the universe. But to find the message, you have to dig deep. The creator(s) are not gonna make it easy for you. You have to be very curious and very determined. Why would Sagan, an agnostic, end his novel this way? My suspicion is that he had a suspicion.

Why is the universe so “deceptive”? Presumably the Newtonian view of the universe could have turned out to be correct. The way things look in everyday life could have turned out to apply to everything, including tiny particles. The universe could have turned out to be completely deterministic. Space and time could have turned out to be the same for every observer. After all, this is how things work, to a very close approximation, in everyday life. Why does the universe have these “hidden surprises”?

Simulated Reality | Know Your Meme

My guess is that what we call the physical universe is just one level of a deeper reality. That we call reality is like a running computer program. And just as in a simulation we can create virtual matter, virtual energy, virtual space, and virtual time, these things in our reality are merely manifestations of something deeper. Some of us get glimmers of that something deeper, but the universe is made so that we’re not able to “look behind the curtain” without a lot of curiosity, determination, and frankly, maturity.

Escher Hands Drawing Each Other | performance~marks

Perhaps the universe is set up so as to ensure that beings only achieve certain levels of understanding when they have reached certain levels of maturity. What is consciousness? Most animals seem to have very little of it. They merely follow their genetic programming. They are slaves to it. Consciousness gives beings the ability to free themselves from this. It gives them access to a new world, which has been there all along, but out of reach. The world of the abstract. Would we even predict the appearance of something like consciousness, from the behavior of stars, planets, and bacteria? What if consciousness is just a first step?

Microsoft Flight Simulator Getting First Free World Update Next Week  Featuring Japan

We have begun to create virtual realities composed of active information. As these virtual realities become increasingly sophisticated, we will likely discover that it is quite possible to create virtual beings with consciousness. We will then be forced to wonder whether we ourselves are “virtual” beings being created by a deeper level of reality. Getting the answer may well be the next big step in our maturity as a species. Consciousness is access to the abstract. The next step, which we obviously don’t have a name for yet, may be a look behind the curtain.

Joel Pett's Editorial Cartoons at www.cartoonistgroup.com - Cartoon View  and Uses

We are obviously not ready for that yet. We are barbarians, still dealing with our infantile obsessions, prejudices, fears, and delusions. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe the system is cleverly designed to require a certain level of maturity at each step. Of course, this may all be wishful thinking. Perhaps we will be stupid enough to destroy ourselves before we find out one way or the other. But I have hope. And I still find the universe suspicious.

Women and The Writing on the Wall

Recently I was reading an article about the “People’s Crusade” of the 11th century. Spurred on by charismatic religious figures and unusual astronomical happenings, a large number of German Christians set off on a campaign of mass murder, mostly directed against Jews in Europe. Within less than a year most of the crusaders were themselves massacred by an army of Turks. Naively, one might expect that such a result would put a stop to this kind of nonsense, but in fact this was just the first of a long list of blood baths often referred to as “crusades” between the 11th and 13th centuries. One of the most infamous examples was the massacre of Christian gnostics in the city of Beziers in France. The crusaders decided that it was too much trouble to sort the Catholics from the heretics in the city, and simply massacred everyone. The leader of the crusade, Arnaud Amalric, the Abbot of Citeaux, declared, “Kill them all for the Lord knoweth them that are His.”

NEVER LET YOU FORGET – Marlovian

Mass murder reached a crescendo in the 20th century, with multiple genocides and facilities specifically designed and built for the purpose of murdering large numbers of people. Much of this was centered around ideology rather than traditional religion or ethnicity. Most of the 2 million or so Cambodians murdered by the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s were of Khmer ethnicity themselves. The ruthlessness and scale of such violence illustrates how vulnerable human societies are to almost any variety of usandthemism. It doesn’t have to be about centuries-old ethnicities or religions. It can be about anything. Dialect, skin color, hair style, dress, occupation, ideology, religion, ethnicity. Anything at all, that can be used to distinguish “us” from “them.”

Geology in Motion: The Environmental Fall of the Roman Empire: Review of an  article

When you look at the repeated examples of mass murder and genocide across the long arc of history, it’s easy to fall into a funk of hopelessness. None of it is surprising. Human beings are not blank slates. Over the course of history, societies that were highly cohesive, in which people submitted to authoritarianism, conquered or destroyed those that weren’t. Achieving solidarity with authoritarianism and supremacist thinking has been “successful,” in that sense. But there is one characteristic that divides human beings, and which has been the focus of a great deal of oppression, but which gives me great hope for the human species. Gender.

Who runs the government in Finland? | World Economic Forum

In many different parts of the world, the subjugation of women was the norm for centuries. In America there are still women alive today who were born at a time when most women couldn’t vote. In most places and times, women have been treated as possessions by men. There is still plenty of discrimination and sexism today. Many men still consider women to be “them,” not “us.” Yet in many parts of the world, women have been able to push back against oppression. Misogyny has lost a great deal of its legitimacy. 26 countries currently have female heads of state. Germany has had a female Chancellor for 26 years. She is arguably the most powerful politician in Europe. 46% of Finland’s parliament consists of women. Of course, women in many countries still face oppression. But once women throw off their shackles, it is HIGHLY unlikely that they can be forced back into subjugation.

Take a part in ending violence against women in Pakistan | FairPlanet

When women refuse to be trodden on, what recourse do men have? Women are the one “them” that men can’t live without. They can try to make examples of particular women, but fear only gives you so much control. They can try to brainwash women with culture, religion, and ideology, but in the end the voices of freedom always seem to seep in and women demand their share of power and respect. Once the floodgates open, it is next impossible to close them. Ever seen a society filled with educated, liberated women that succeeded in forcing them back into submission? No, me neither.

Congress is more heavily female than at any point in history — thanks  solely to new Democrats - The Washington Post

America lags behind many countries in female empowerment. This is not because American women are poorly educated. In fact, there are more American women enrolled in secondary and tertiary education than men. Where America lags is in political empowerment for women. On this it ranks 37th, behind most of Europe as well as 4 Central American countries. Only 27% of Congress consists of women, and of course America has never had a female president. But it is highly unlikely that the country will be able to sustain its strong gender inequality when it comes to political power. Women will continue to gain influence, and as they do the forces of usandthemism will yield.

In their book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry describe a continuum of belief in America concerning Christian Nationalism. They cite a 2017 Baylor Religion Survey which asked respondents: “How important is it to do the following if one wishes to be a good person?” Striking differences were found between those who advocated Christian Nationalism versus those who merely practiced their religion assiduously. For example, taking care of the sick and needy was positively correlated with strong religious practice. But it had no relationship to Christian Nationalism. Practicing one’s religion assiduously was positively correlated with actively seeking social and economic justice. But seeking social and economic justice was NEGATIVELY correlated with tendencies toward Christian Nationalism. Large numbers of Christian Nationalists are not even particularly religious. As I have said previously, defense of white Protestant culture is not exclusively or even primarily about religious doctrine. It is about culture. It is about group status. It is about power.

A Careful Critique | Christian Courier

Whitehead and Perry categorized about 20% of Americans as “ambassadors” – the most hardcore adherents to Christian Nationalism. These folks tend to adhere to xenophobia, white supremacy, patriarchy, and homophobia. Only 17% had college degrees. A whopping 60% lived in small towns or rural areas. And 50% lived in the South. At the other extreme were “rejectors” – those who soundly rejected the beliefs associated with Christian Nationalism, who also constitute about 20% of the population. 51% had college degrees. About a third had advanced degrees. 61% lived in cities or suburbs. Only 27% lived in the South.

In Pakistan, women are upending centuries of patriarchy – and men must  catch up

Christian Nationalism is slowly fading. The authors note that the percentage of Americans they categorize as “ambassadors” declined from 24% in 2007 to 20% in 2017. “Rejectors,” meanwhile, increased from 19% to 22%. The average age of “ambassadors” is 54. “Rejectors” average 43. Christian Nationalism is strongly associated with patriarchy and homophobia. But even among Christian Nationalists, patriarchal beliefs are declining. In 2007, 56% of “ambassadors” agreed with this statement: “Men are better suited emotionally for politics than women.” (Only 6% of “rejectors” agreed.) In 2017, only 30% of “ambassadors” agreed with this. In 2007, 63% of “ambassadors” agreed with this statement: “A preschool child will suffer if his or her mother works.” In 2017, only 35% of “ambassadors” agreed with this. Support for same-sex marriage among ambassadors increased from only 5% in 2007 to 25% in 2017.

Shift Toward Greater Educational Attainment for Women Began 20 Years Ago

The trends are unmistakable. American women are increasingly educated. About 4 out of 10 young American women have at least a Bachelor’s degree, and this percentage is likely to increase over time. Highly educated women simply do not support patriarchy. The industries that support rural America – resource extraction particularly – are increasingly automated. Rural America is slowly hollowing out. Christian Nationalists are now having to resort to aggressive voter suppression in order to maintain minority rule. But it won’t succeed. At some point the dam will break.

The Unreality-based Community, Revisited

In a previous post (here) I mentioned an article written by Ron Suskind and published in the NY Times Magazine in 2004. In his article, Suskind described an encounter with an unnamed senior official in the Bush administration. Here is an excerpt from Suskind’s article:

“guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality— judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”

The Roman Empire: History, Facts, Map And Timeline - HistoryExtra

One of the things I find most interesting about this quote is the statement “That’s not the way the world really works anymore” – implying that the world actually did work this way in the past – followed immediately by “We’re an empire now.” For most of human history, people were controlled by autocrats, and not merely by force. They were indoctrinated into usandthemism. They were indoctrinated to revere the cultural trappings of their tribe, religious and otherwise. Eventually small bands of people and city-states coalesced into empires. The rulers of these empires, “history’s actors” absolutely created their own realities. But somehow…somehow…EVERY ONE OF THESE EMPIRES EVENTUALLY BIT THE DUST.

State of the Union (1948) - Turner Classic Movies

Why? If these were “history’s actors,” “creating their own reality,” and everyone else is “left to just study what we do,” why did their empires fall? How did democracy ever come into being? Could it be that there are OTHER ACTORS, not just those in the unreality-based community? Hmmmm. Yep, I think so. In the Frank Capra movie State of the Union, presidential candidate Grant Matthews is standing in front of the White House. Another visitor asks him, “Do you know who lives in this historic mansion?” “Yeah,” he replies, “the spirit of all those who fought for human dignity lives there….The martyrs, the saints, and the poets. Civilizations past and present. Man’s whole history. His evolution from worm to animal to Einstein, his long search for God, all those things live in that noble dwelling….” Every day, there are people and organizations, some loudly but many quietly, fighting the good fight for human dignity and democratic institutions. For truths, comfortable or uncomfortable. Some of them lay down their lives. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that slowly, in fits and starts, human dignity and human freedom have been gaining ground.

Sean Hannity Turns Adviser in the Service of Donald Trump - The New York  Times

There are those who flit about in the rarefied world of wealth, celebrity, and power. In my judgment they are very sheltered in many ways. They end up getting blindsided by events precisely because they aren’t strongly grounded in the real world. It is all a game to them, and the masses of people are merely pawns in the game. Our previous moron-in-chief is a prime example. He has almost no connection to reality. He neither knows nor cares anything about concepts like democracy, integrity, or service. He will likely go to his grave thinking that the history of the world is merely a game between “great men” like himself, and that he is the greatest of them all.

Quote Of The Day – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — THOMAS KELLEHER | WRITER

America has built strong institutions over the centuries that do not easily yield to demagogues. Yet we are far from out of the woods. In a recent editorial in the NY Times, economist Paul Krugman wrote, “America’s democratic experiment may well be nearing its end.” I don’t think this is going to happen, but things may get a lot worse before they get better. The reality-based community has its work cut out for it.

The First Duty

Some Bible scriptures are so often misquoted or misunderstood that most people aren’t even aware of what the genuine scripture says. An example is, “He who spares the rod spoils the child.” The actual King James scripture, from the Book of Proverbs, is “He that spareth his rod hateth his son….” Another example is from 1 Chronicles, a reference to “spilling seed.” The scripture does indeed make reference to the spilling of seed, but this often taken as a prohibition against masturbation. In fact, the scripture is about Onan, who is directed by his father Judah to marry his dead brother’s wife, and “raise up seed to thy brother.” Onan, it tells us, “knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.” (His dead brother, incidentally, was killed by Yahweh, who then kills Onan for this transgression.)

Trivia: The Gospel Of John! Quiz Questions - ProProfs Quiz

And then there is a very famous scripture from the Book of John. It is almost always quoted as, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” In fact, that King James scripture reads, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” This might seem like a subtle distinction, but Christ is saying that the mere attachment to truth is itself a breaking of shackles. It doesn’t SET you free. When you commit to truth, you are already free.

Star Trek TNG - The First Duty - Trek on telling the Truth. - YouTube

One of the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is called “The First Duty.” In this episode Wesley Crusher is soon to graduate from Starfleet Academy. But he is hiding a dark secret. His team leader persuaded his group to try a very dangerous and forbidden precision flying maneuver. As a result one person was killed. Wesley, of course, is torn between loyalty to his team and a commitment to the truth. After some digging, Captain Picard realizes what transpired and confronts Wesley. “The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth,” he tells him, “whether it’s scientific truth, or historical truth, or personal truth! It is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based.”

North Korea says Biden policy shows US intent on being hostile, vows  response

For thousands of years, human societies were controlled by dictators. Dictators maintain control not merely by force. Force is never enough. They must also control hearts and minds. This is familiar pattern in parts of the world today. North Koreans are not just controlled by force. They are controlled by a careful filtering of their sources of information. They are constantly bombarded with brainwashing and falsehoods about the world. For thousands of years, societies all over this planet contained masses of poor people whose lives were filled with drudgery. Whose children often died before reaching the age of 5. Who played Russian roulette every time they took a drink of water. Who lived as peasants without the slightest notion that their lives would ever be improved. Who never even thought in terms of human rights.

Thomas paine quotes Thomas paine quote about team work |  Dogtrainingobedienceschool.com

The attachment to truth, in my view, has nothing to do with “ultimate” morality. It is entirely pragmatic. It is not a duty for duty’s sake. It is a duty with a very practical purpose. History tells me that enormous enhancements of human well-being – more prosperity, better health outcomes, and more personal freedom – have been achieved by a commitment to truth, even uncomfortable truth. Only when people began to challenge the comforting lies that they told themselves and each other were they able to move forward. If I thought for a moment that the truth would cause more suffering than it relieved, I would not value the truth so highly.

Reason, Emotion, and Hitler

Politics, of course, has never been about truth. But neither can it stray too far from the truth without serious consequences. Adolf Hitler showed us that very clearly. The effect of falsehoods on masses of people is something that has been understood for a long time. 400 years ago, Jonathan Swift wrote, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect.” Today, social media have raised this to the level of a crisis.

Join | PolitiFact

The organization Politifact does fact-checking of statements made by politicians, pundits, and media organizations. These days well over half of their fact-checks concern “viral” posts on the internet. Here, for example, are some of the statements they are currently rating:

“Photos show Joe Biden didn’t drive himself during an electric vehicle test drive” – Facebook posts

“Black Lives Matter says it stands with Hamas terrorists in Israeli conflict” – viral image

“Photo shows ‘Palestinian boy cleaning his own family’s blood'” – viral image

“The minions from ‘Despicable Me’ are based off these Jewish children tortured by Nazis during the Holocaust.” – viral image

“Says the CDC’s new tracking policy is covering up cases of ‘breakthrough’ COVID-19 infections among vaccinated people.” – Facebook posts

“Wearing face masks may cause ‘pulmonary fibrosis’ and other health risks in children.” – Facebook posts

Politifact would not have bothered with any of these if they were not viral. Politifact’s rating system is as follows: true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, and “pants on fire.” All of the statements above were rated either false or “pants on fire.” Much of it is simply made up. Not distortions of actual events. Just made up crap, intended to tell certain people what they want to hear.

Germany′s top court rules against Facebook on users′ data | News | DW |  23.06.2020

In the past, politicians often distorted or omitted important facts to suit their purposes. When they were corrected by the major news media, they usually backpedaled. The internet, however, has created a kind of Wild West within the marketplace of ideas, where blatant falsehoods spread like wildfire. Fact-checkers seem to be having little effect on this. Facebook does flag posts that “may be false,” and may even punish repeat offenders by removing their ability to advertise. Yet of the 1294 Facebook posts rated by Politifact, 76% were rated either false or “pants on fire.” Instagram has an even worse record. Of 93 Instagram posts rated by Politifact, 81% were rated either false or “pants on fire.” And as far as “viral images” go, well, 657 were rated by Politifact. 86% were rated either false or “pants on fire.” Politifact itself notes that these images are passed across social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit so widely that the original source is nearly impossible to determine.

Maricopa County (@maricopacounty) | Twitter

It’s bad enough that completely made-up stuff is being promulgated across the internet at high speed. Now we have the very foundation of democracy, the integrity of voting, under attack by powerful politicians and their enablers. It has not escaped the notice of those who work to administer free and fair elections that this is extraordinarily dangerous. We have already had a mob attack the capitol building in Washington. Where does it end? Well, it either ends in civil war, which I think is unlikely, or it ends when it gets so bad that those who promote dangerous falsehoods are discredited and disgraced. The Republican party seems to have trapped itself in a downward spiral. A lot of damage has already been done. America’s position of leadership has been seriously eroded. Is it too late for the country to recover? I really don’t know.

House managers target Trump's "big lie" in impeachment case

It took major news organizations years before they started referring to our previous moron-in-chief’s statements as lies. Not just “falsehoods,” not “mistakes,” not “inaccurate statements,” but lies. Now the NY Times and other media outlets routinely use this word. But there is a timeliness to politics. When the marketplace of ideas is allowed to degenerate to a certain point, it may take drastic measures to restore reasonable discourse. Political discourse has always depended on gatekeepers, organizations and institutions that define the boundaries of legitimacy. In the past, the media environment was so carefully controlled that these gatekeepers didn’t have to worry so much about falsehoods having big effects on the public mind. That seems to have changed. But an unwillingness to challenge falsehoods didn’t start with the appearance of birtherism or anti-vaccine activism.

Kentucky Ark Encounter documentary: What you need to know

Large numbers of Americans believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Large numbers of Americans believe that humans walked with dinosaurs. Many may ask, why does it matter what they believe about such things? My response is that it matters a great deal. When you refuse to question your beliefs in the face of mountains of scientific evidence, you will do the same with any truth that tries to penetrate your comfortable lies. You make yourself vulnerable to charlatans and hucksters who will exploit your fears and biases to wield power and increase human suffering. You will believe that global warming is a Chinese hoax, that Hillary Clinton eats babies, and that COVID-19 vaccines contain tracking microchips. At some point, I believe, it will become quite necessary for our news media and our education system to actually do their jobs – creating and maintaining an informed, educated electorate.

Telling a Story

If you told a lie, my grandmother wouldn’t say, “You’re lying.” She would say, “You tellin’ a story.” The word history contains the word story, and history is just that. Any story told about actual events is, to some degree, a distortion. That doesn’t make it worthless of course. The distortion may actually reveal deeper truths. But in any case, history is always someone’s interpretation. History, unlike science, has an intrinsic subjectivity to it. And history has a purpose. There is no such thing as “pure” history, analogous to pure science. History exists because at least some of us want to understand how we got where we are, and where we might be headed.

Apollo 11 — Dogwoof - Documentary Distribution

I have always been interested in the exploration of space, and many observers have noted that America’s race to the moon was not motivated by noble goals. It was motivated by ruthless Cold War competitiveness. Yet few can deny that very positive results came from the space race. There was a tremendous emphasis on education at the time, particularly in science. A global perspective was gained which helped forward the goals of environmentalism. Three of the Apollo missions brought the world together in ways nobody expected. And huge technological advances resulted, unquestionably improving human lives everywhere.

When Native Americans Were Slaughtered in the Name of 'Civilization' -  HISTORY

In a way, this is American history in a microcosm. So much of our country’s story was built on goals that were far from noble. Greed. Colonialism. Dehumanization. Racial supremacy. In many cases the consummation of those goals has been a great deal of suffering and needless death. Yet it is also true that the American experiment has led to a tremendous advancement of human well-being around the world. The spread of democracy, tremendous improvements in human health and prosperity, all can be traced to the story of America.

Daughter of BTK Killer Dennis Rader struggled to forgive dad | The Wichita  Eagle

Not surprisingly, American history books have tended to emphasize the positives and diminish the negatives. The question is whether this is good for the country or bad. I would argue, and I suspect most psychologists and sociologists would argue, that it is very, very bad. To me America is much like a family. A dysfunctional family, with an abusive father. When I see family photographs with smiling faces, the first thing that pops into my head is, what are they hiding? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps a great deal. A photograph is a moment frozen in time. And like that photograph, an unwillingness to face the ugliness tends to freeze the family in dysfunction, making it difficult if not impossible to move forward.

U.S. History - Articles

American history, as presented in textbooks and school classrooms, often reminds me of family photos full of smiling faces. What are they hiding? If we bother to look, we don’t have to look far. There is plenty of ugliness there. The ugliness does not erase the positives in my view. But pretending it’s not there makes it MUCH more difficult to move forward. And moving forward is NECESSARY, because CHANGE IS INEVITABLE. The only question is what we will change into.

THE UNCOVERED TRUTH ABOUT THE HISTORY OF LYNCHINGS IN AMERICA…. |  sheezacoldpiece

America, like any nation, has lots of ugliness in its past. Understanding the ugliness and how it relates to the present is what enables us to move forward. So why is there so much resistance to exposing it? Probably for the same reason that most families don’t want to talk about their own ugly truths. But for a nation, there’s an important difference. There are some things a nation has to address AS A NATION. Germany had to come to grips with its Nazi period, as a nation, in order to move forward. Rwanda had to come to grips with genocide, as a nation.

Wounded Knee Massacre | Pocketmags.com

When a nation creates unjust systems that cause human suffering, the nation must address the problem as a nation. America, as a nation, supported the institution of slavery. America, as a nation, committed atrocities against Native Americans. America, as a nation, overthrew democratically-elected governments and supported death squads in Central and South America. American conservatives seem to be fond of saying, “I will never apologize for America.” They seem to paint anyone who criticizes the nation as an “America-hater.” This has always been the big problem with conservative ideology, at least as long as I can remember. “America, love it or leave it.” “My country, right or wrong.” These are just different ways of expressing the same idea – that the nation, as a nation, is incapable of doing wrong. But if we look closer, there’s more to it than that.

Phil Valentine: How his mom's sudden death spurred him to chase his radio  dreams

In 2019, radio personality Phil Valentine authored an article entitled “The America-haters.” In this article he mentions a former colleague who challenged him to come up with a list of Americans who actually hate America. His response? In the article, he cites a Gallup poll showing that only 32% of Democrats were proud to be Americans. The only actual “America-hater” he lists is Louis Farrahkan. And he gives us this: “It wasn’t until 2008 when Michelle Obama was 44 years old that she uttered these words: ‘For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country.'” The implication, I suppose, is that you have a choice. You can either be proud of America, which equals loving it, or you can not be proud of it, which equals hating it.

Serial Killers - List & Notable Murderers - Biography

Presumably, this kind of logic holds within families too. If you have an abusive father or uncle, you can either be proud of him, which equals loving him, or not proud of him, which equals hating him. If you have a son who’s a serial killer or child molester, you can either be proud of him, which equals loving him, or not proud, which equals hating him. You can’t love him unless you’re proud of him. And there’s nothing in between love and hate.

As impeachment ramps up, Democrats and Republicans both face risks | PBS  NewsHour

In actual fact, a Gallup poll in 2020 found that 68% of Democrats were either “extremely proud,” “very proud,” or “moderately proud,” to be Americans. Only 14% said that they were “not at all proud.” I’m guessing that Valentine was considering only those who said they were “extremely” or “very” proud (32%) to be actually proud – that being “moderately proud” somehow doesn’t cut it. Incidentally, 8%, almost 1 out of 10, of independents reported that they were “not at all proud.” The question, “Do you love America?” was not asked. But a different survey by YouGov in 2015 found that 82% of liberals reported that they loved America.

Tucker Carlson Is Upset the Pentagon Is Focusing More on Diversity Than  UFOs (Video)

Of course, the blatherings of some radio goober that few people have ever heard of do not represent conservatives in general. Yet the theme is a prevalent one among conservatives who have access to media bullhorns. It is worth noting that pride in America among ALL partisan groups has been declining for years now. The percentage of REPUBLICANS who report that they are “extremely proud” to be Americans has fallen about 20% in the last 20 years. In the 2020 Gallup poll, only 41% of independents reported that they were extremely proud to be Americans. And tellingly, only 24% of non-whites said they were extremely proud, compared to 49% of whites. It is also worth noting that only 34% of women were extremely proud, compared to 50% of men.

It is reasonable to ask why young, college-educated, non-white females tend to be less proud of America than older, poorly-educated, white men. Still proud, but less so. Perhaps it’s because they have a less rose-colored, more reality-based view of the country. But I suspect that the “America” that older, poorly-educated white men are “extremely proud” of is not the real country, but their idea of what the country should be. In this respect they are probably not much different from any other group. The phrase “make America great again” has plenty of strong implications. The biggest one is that the country was once great, but has lost its greatness. To older, white, poorly-educated men, America is absolutely a culture, not a set of ideas. To the extent that this culture has lost its supremacy, America has lost its greatness in their view. An America without this culture in a dominant position is not America at all.

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Imagine an America in which Spanish was more frequently spoken than English. In which Tejano music was all over the radio and white people were a small minority of the population. In which Protestant churches of any stripe were few. In which the country was still a democracy and the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance prevailed. Would older, white, poorly-educated American males still consider this America?

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In the past, this connection between the nation and a culture was much more explicit. White supremacy was quite overt and unapologetic. There was no ambiguity in the term assimilation. It meant assimilation into white Protestant culture, which was imposed on Native Americans and coerced from others. It was not merely assimilation into the ideals of justice, equality, and tolerance. It was about wearing your hair a certain way, dressing a certain way, speaking a certain way, going to a certain church. This kind of assimilation is still defended by American conservatives.

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All of the ugliness I mentioned above – slavery, genocide against Native Americans, the support of Cold War death squads – was defended by American conservatives at the time. Some of it still is. What has changed, what is unprecedented, is demographics. For the first time in its history, America is becoming a minority white nation. This is bound to have a profound impact on the story America tells about itself. Within 10 years, more than 35% of the baby boomers alive today will be gone. This represents an enormous chunk of conservative America. The majority of Americans under the age of 25 will be non-white. Young Americans are voting increasingly Democratic, as you can see here:

Young Americans are increasingly educated and non-white. It is highly doubtful that these young people will stand for whitewashed versions of American history or conservative bloviating about “America-haters.” A whopping 76% of millennials, that is Americans born after 1980, believe that immigrants strengthen the country, compared to only 41% of those born before 1945, and only 48% of baby boomers. This is just one of many examples of how young America thinks of the country quite differently from older America. Are they going to change their minds when they get older? I doubt it.

Breakthroughs and the Failure of Imagination

All my life I’ve been interested in the future. When the first Star Trek episode aired in 1966, I was only 9 years old. But I was entranced. Years later I read Arthur Clarke’s Profiles of the Future. First published in 1962, its first 2 chapters are all about failures of prediction. Many of Clarke’s own predictions have not come true, at least not on the schedule he suggested, but then he didn’t write the book mainly to throw out a bunch of predictions. He wrote it to try to delineate the scientifically possible versus the impossible, and to point out that breakthroughs in science and technology often happen that take writers, even science fiction writers, completely by surprise.

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It is these unforeseen breakthroughs that are mostly responsible for the failures of imagination that Clarke speaks of in his second chapter. No one, not even Isaac Newton, predicted the existence of invisible light. No one, not even Ernest Rutherford, predicted that enormous energies could be released simply by bringing 2 pieces of metal together. In fact, it is often the experts in a field that confidently declare that something related to that field is quite impossible. Invariably someone ignores them and achieves a breakthrough.

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For many decades, televisions were built around the same basic principle. The cathode ray tube, invented in 1897. The CRT has a gun of sorts in the back, which shoots streams of electrons toward a screen in the front. The screen consists of phosphorescent material that lights up momentarily when the electrons hit it. That, in a nutshell, is how a CRT television works. Of course the technology was improved over the decades, but right up until the end of the 20th century, most televisions and computer monitors still worked on this principle. There are 2 problems with this technology. First, it makes for a pretty heavy television that takes up considerable space. But more importantly, shooting electrons at a phosphorescent screen consumes a fair amount of power and produces some unhealthy radiation.

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However, all during this time, research was being conducted on liquid crystals. A liquid crystal is in a state intermediate between solid and liquid. In the late 1960’s, a liquid crystal was finally found that exhibited a nematic phase at room temperature – which is to say that the molecules spontaneously align. By applying an electric field, the molecules would align in whatever orientation the operator wished. This breakthrough led to the first mass-produced LCD’s in the 1970’s. By the early 1990’s, flat screen LCD’s were being used in laptops. But they used fluorescent backlighting and were relatively poor. The maturation of liquid crystal displays depended on another technology, LED’s.

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All during the late 20th century, light-emitting diodes were being developed, devices that light up when supplied with electricity. The early LED’s, in the 1960’s, were dim. Breakthroughs in the 1980’s and 1990’s made them much brighter. Further breakthroughs gave us bright white LED’s. By combining LCD and LED technology, display screens become sharp, bright, and of course, flat. Whereas a 24-inch CRT television would be considered large, flat-screen TV’s now commonly exceed 60 inches. They consume a fraction of the power of CRT TV’s and produce far less harmful radiation. Flat-screen displays are everywhere now, and allow us to share information without consuming enormous amounts of power.

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Computers have also been around for a while. The first electronic computers appeared in the 1940’s. With the invention of integrated circuits in the 1950’s, computers began to get much smaller. The first personal computers were mass-produced in the 1970’s. As computers developed, some in the field began to predict confidently that computers would rapidly achieve human capabilities. But by the late 1970’s, it had become clear that putting “intelligence” into a machine was going to be a lot trickier than many believed, mainly because we didn’t really understand how the human mind does a lot of the things that it does.

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The problem for those who poo-pooed the very notion of artificial intelligence at the time is that scientific and technological advancement doesn’t just stop. Computers continued to get smaller and faster. Meanwhile, research on cognition and perception began to clarify a lot of things. Researchers began to pin down such things as commonsense knowledge, heuristics, and facial recognition. Expert systems were developed for specific fields like medicine and finance. Artificial neural networks began to be developed, which learn by example. Deep neural networks eventually began to produce significant breakthroughs in image and speech recognition.

All of this progress is, in a way, analogous to the progress that has been made in computer-generated imagery. The early examples of CGI were of course laughably primitive. For example, here is a screenshot from an early version of Microsoft Flight Simulator:

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It would have been easy, looking at this, to conclude that computers would never be capable of generating realistic-looking landscapes or objects. Yet through a process of refinement, increasing computer power, and increasing understanding of how objects and light behave, we now have this:

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CGI in movies has now reached the point where I can no longer distinguish digital landscapes from physical ones. Digital animals, too, have become virtually indistinguishable from physical ones. Here, for example, is the digital tiger in the movie Life of Pi:

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The ultimate digital challenge is of course the human face. Here is the digital face of Alita from the movie Alita: Battle Angel:

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This face was being presented in a movie in the year 2019. Does anyone entertain the delusion now, that digital faces and digital expressions will not be completely convincing within 20 years? Such progress happens due to a combination of steady improvement and dramatic breakthroughs.

One recent breakthrough has been with what is called deepfake technology. In the 2016 Star Wars movie Rogue One, the face and mannerisms of long-dead actor Peter Cushing were digitally recreated, with great difficulty. The result was impressive, but many fans felt it was still lacking. Only a few years later, deepfake technology has come along, making such efforts virtually flawless. Deepfakes use deep neural networks to place one person’s face into a pre-existing image featuring a different person. A good example is the substitution of the faces of young William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Deforest Kelley into scenes from new Star Trek movies:

All of this progress is mirrored, and in many cases made possible, by advances in artificial intelligence. Researchers in the field have come to understand a great many things about how human beings perceive and analyze the world around them. Artificial intelligence today is largely confined to specific fields like medical diagnosis, where it performs rather well. However, many researchers in the field predict that such “narrow AI” work will eventually be incorporated into a machine with artificial general intelligence, combining most of the narrow skills and at some point even exceeding human ability in most or all these areas.

Carlsen vs Computer??? - Chess Forums - Chess.com

There are those who would argue that such an intelligence is not really doing what human beings do, but only simulating what human beings do. I won’t get into this can of worms here, but suffice it to say that if a machine beats you at chess, it doesn’t much matter if it is “simulating” playing chess or “really” playing chess. Similarly, if a machine gives us new insights into physics, chemistry, and biology, insights that no human has been able to give us, it doesn’t much matter if it is only “simulating” intelligence.

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When a machine has a broad understanding of the human equation, and can converse in meaningful terms about all of the complexities of the human experience, it has artificial general intelligence. Saying that it is only simulating intelligence will not change the result. Such machines may not experience the full range of human emotions, but then, would we want them to? Would we want artificial beings to experience jealousy, hatred, and rage? It may be out of our hands anyway, when artificial intelligence reaches the point where it can dramatically improve itself on its own.

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Artificial superintelligence will likely soon follow artificial general intelligence. Those who choose to put their heads in the sand and believe such things as artificial superintelligence will never happen are deluding themselves in my view. The problems associated with building intelligent machines turned out to be considerably bigger than many in the 20th century assumed. But they are yielding to the inexorable advances of science and technology. To me technology is much like biological development. The failure of imagination is much like looking at a fertilized egg and thinking, “How could this ever result in a sentient being?” Well, you have the the basic ingredients, then you develop and you just don’t stop. The result is inevitable.

Alcohol Consumption by Country

I enjoy watching Korean dramas, and one of the things I have long noticed is that they seem to feature a lot of alcohol consumption. Soju seems to be particularly prominent. So I was curious about how South Korea stood on alcohol consumption, which in turn made me curious about alcohol consumption around the world.

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It turns out that South Korea isn’t particularly soaked in alcohol. Among 189 countries it ranks 38th in alcohol consumption per capita (10.2 liters/year per capita), a little ahead of America at position 45 (9.8 liters/year per capita) but behind the U.K. at 24th (11.4 liters/year per capita). European countries figure prominently in the rankings. At number 1 is the little country of Moldova in eastern Europe (15.2 liters/year per capita). Of the top 20 countries, all but 4 are European. France ranks 11th, no surprise there, and Germany ranks 5th. Also not surprisingly, Germans turn out to be much more fond of beer than wine, while the French are the opposite. I thought southern European countries would tend to rank highly, but in fact Greece ranks 36th, Spain 39th, and Italy 79th.

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It stands to reason that Muslim-dominated countries would tend to be near the bottom of the list, and Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Kuwait are all in the bottom 10. A number of North African countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, and Libya also have little alcohol consumption per capita. One African country that does rank highly is Nigeria, at the number 6. But Nigerians consume little beer, wine, or spirits. Instead they are fond of a drink called Ogogoro, usually made from palm tree juice.

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Quite a few countries in eastern Europe rank highly, including Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Estonia, and Poland. Beer tends to be pretty popular in these countries, wine somewhat less so. Russia ranks highly at position 16. You might think that cold climates would encourage alcohol consumption, but none of the Scandinavian countries are in the top 30. Alcohol seems to be fairly unpopular in Norway, which ranks 80th.

Asian countries do not seem to rank particularly highly. I have mentioned South Korea at position 38. North Korea is much further down the list, at 122nd. Japan is 71st, and China ranks 82nd. India ranks 103rd.

Central and South American countries also do not rank particularly highly. None of them are in the top 20. Brazil ranks 74th, Mexico 91st, and Colombia 99th.

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It’s also interesting to note where wine is popular. I have already mentioned France, but as a percentage of total consumption, wine is even more popular in Portugal. It is also a popular drink in Switzerland and Greece. Spirits are very popular in Thailand and Haiti.

What is soju and how do you drink it

In South Korea, soju is by far the most popular alcoholic drink. Koreans have strict rules of etiquette when it comes to drinking. When drinking with an elder, the younger person is expected to turn to the side. When pouring a drink for an elder, the younger person is expected to hold the drink with the right arm, while holding the right wrist with the left hand. These manners are frequently seen in Korean dramas. Koreans are taught from their earliest years to have great respect for their elders, and this is even reflected in levels of formality in the use of language. For example, there are 4 different words for older sibling in Korean (depending on the gender of the sibling and that of the person addressing them), but only 1 word for younger sibling. There are more formal versions of “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and many other expressions as directed to elders.

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One tradition associated with drinking in Korea is hoesik, a gathering of people within an organization to eat, drink, and often sing and dance. In the past, drinking was actually required, and binge drinking was encouraged. Many companies still expect their employees to participate in such events after hours. Such gatherings have often provided an excuse for superiors to sexually harass their subordinates. In recent years there have been attempts to combat this, as depicted in the Korean drama Something in the Rain.

Wine, Beer and Liquor Consumption in the US 1950-2015

In America, the pressure to drink alcohol in social situations was once quite strong. There was a considerable stigma associated with not drinking at all. Per capita alcohol consumption has declined considerably since the early 1980’s. Drinking is most prevalent in rural states in the mountain West and the Northeast. Alcohol drinking, like cigarette smoking, was once featured prominently in American movies and television. Both have declined as their glamorization in these media have declined.

Owners and Automation

Imagine that you woke up one day and discovered that you owned stock worth $1 billion. Some people, of course, are born into wealth. They end up owning assets of tremendous value through no effort of their own. Ownership is of course an abstract idea. Most of the things we own nowadays are items we didn’t create ourselves. We purchased them or inherited them.

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I own interests in 2 houses and several parcels of land. I inherited most of this and it constitutes a large chunk of my total assets. In fact I have never bought land. This is no doubt a common pattern in America – that someone whose assets amount to more than $100,000 inherited a sizable portion of those assets. Naturally there are those who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps – who started out poor and became wealthy through their own efforts. But these people are certainly the exception. In a previous post (here), I explained that America has a relatively low Intergenerational Earnings Elasticity. The wealth of parents is a pretty good predictor of the wealth of their children. Economic mobility is relatively low, especially compared to the Scandinavian countries. And in fact, America’s economic mobility has declined over time, as good-paying jobs for people without college have declined.

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In 1800, America’s real GDP per capita was about $1000. Today it’s more than $40,000. Needless to say, the average American doesn’t work 40 times a hard today. What has brought this about is automation and scientific advancement. Automation has created enormous amounts of wealth, and most Americans own machines that save a lot of labor – refrigerators, washing machines, water heaters, microwaves. Not to mention cars. But the thing is, most Americans don’t own the machines that are largely responsible for the physical processes of production – oil rigs, commercial trucks, fork lifts, cargo ships. It is machines like these that are responsible for generating profits for business. And profits are collected by owners, not workers.

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More than 80% of all the wealth in America is owned by the wealthiest 20% of Americans. 40 years of trickle-down economics have shifted the balance of power away from workers and returned us to levels of wealth inequality seen before the New Deal. There is a lot of talk about “redistribution.” The problem with this talk is that it tends to assume that certain human beings are generating wealth, and the question is how, or even whether, to redistribute that wealth amongst other human beings. As I have explained, most of the physical work of production is performed by machines. So the issue is how the wealth generated by these machines is to be distributed amongst ALL of the humans.

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The day will come when this shift in the understanding of the problem will be inevitable. Automation will continue to accelerate, eliminating many, and ultimately most, of the jobs currently performed by people. Wealth will continue to concentrate in the hands of a few owners. This trend is of course unsustainable. Since machines do not purchase goods or services, the economy itself will begin to suffer. Some would argue that this is already happening – that the squeezing of the middle class is responsible for our anemic growth for the last few decades. Human beings, not machines, buy stuff, but without a healthy middle class to buy, the economy slowly grinds down.

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Twice now in American history, the concentration of wealth into mere financial speculation has produced a meltdown – the Great Depression of the 1930’s, and the Great Recession of 2008. These were arguably the 2 worst economic events in our history. Clearly these weren’t enough to bring us to our senses. Automation is not just something that happens in the future. Our economy is already automated, has been for at least a century. We just refuse to see it. Instead we delude ourselves with lies about some people’s “hard work” and other people who “just want handouts.” These lies serve the purposes of owners very well.

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It isn’t necessary to take assets away from owners. All that is necessary is to reset the balance of power between workers and owners. To tax wealth so as to invest in human capital, the real driver of economic growth. To rebuild and reinforce the middle class with decent wages, decent housing, and decent health care. We can still have obscenely wealthy owners and privately-owned companies. The real genius of our American political system is the balance of power. We merely lost sight of that in the ever-present tension between owners and workers.

This Revolutionary Century

Change is the one constant in life. In a self-correcting field like science or engineering, we are accustomed to seeing a lot of change. Obsolete ideas and technologies are cast aside.  Theories and designs are tested, refined, and re-tested.  We see constant improvement. As a society, we take technological advancement for granted. The mRNA vaccines that are being used to combat COVID-19 didn’t exist 20 years ago. They are the result of bold ideas that have gone through tons of rigorous testing, re-evaluation, and retesting.

Look at space travel. Governments and companies design systems, test them, redesign them, retest them. Ideas that don’t work are cast aside. They HAVE to be, because you’re dealing with REALITY.  Reality doesn’t care about your biases, preconceptions, or traditions.  SpaceX doesn’t say, “Well, we have to stick with this, because it’s tradition. We aren’t interested in hearing that it doesn’t work.” Scientists and engineers EXPECT progress. We don’t like to see time wasted on bad ideas.

Aside from some occasional moaning about the evils of technology, there is virtually no significant resistance in America to broad technological advancement.  Medicine, alternative energy, robotics, artificial intelligence, all of it moves forward.  And because it moves forward, rapidly, it will inevitably drag social and political structures with it.  The end of the 21st century will likely look more different from its beginning than the end of the 20th century looked from the beginning of the 18th.

Most people under the age of 60 in the first world have never experienced the kind of sudden dramatic societal changes that occurred in the early and mid 20th century.  These changes were usually brought about by large-scale violence.  The 20th century was the war century.  Communism spread like wildlife in the early 20th century.  A bit later it was fascism.  Multiple genocides occurred, culminating in the Holocaust.  Even after the Holocaust, wars, insurgencies and counter-insurgencies killed millions.  But with nuclear weapons and missiles, war between the major powers became untenable.

Even without war, it is inevitable that events come along that cause major shifts in our society.  The horrific attack on September 11th, 2001 was one such event.  The COVID-19 pandemic that we are still recovering from is another.  But it is often simply the march of technology that induces the truly radical changes in society.  The widespread availability of the birth control pill revolutionized our society permanently.  The arrival of the internet and wifi has done the same.  Still greater technological revolutions are on the horizon.

Revolutions in battery technology and energy production are going to utterly change our country’s infrastructure over the next few decades.  Fossil fuels will fade as renewables become the dominant means of energy generation.  “Fuel” for wheeled vehicles will largely disappear.  Every home will be a charging station for its vehicles.  There are indications that roads will be re-engineered to provide constant recharging for vehicles on the move.  Fossil fuel engines and generators will likely be around for a while as backups, but will eventually fade.

As research proceeds on nanotechnology and immunotherapy, at some point we will be able to precisely target pathogens and cancer cells.  The immune system will be primed to recognize specific threats and eliminate them.  Synthetic antibodies and even synthetic immune system cells will supplement the body’s natural immune system.  Eventually everyone will have nanotechnology within their bodies that constantly monitors for threats and maintains certain physiological standards.

Automation will duplicate many if not most of the jobs humans currently do, more efficiently and more cheaply.  At some point this will necessitate a fundamental re-examination of the whole issue of work and the distinction between workers and owners.  A great deal of the transportation industry will become automated.  Most products will be purchased online and delivered by robots. 

The most significant revolution will be in artificial intelligence.  Some time in the 21st century, machine intelligence will begin to increase exponentially.  As this happens, artificial beings will begin to achieve breakthroughs in science and technology far beyond those of that humans are capable of.  These beings will be potentially immortal and will provide revolutionary solutions to a wide range of problems, likely altering our basic understanding of the nature of reality.  The resulting leaps in technology will make the end of the century almost unrecognizable.  Technologies virtually indistinguishable from magic will be discovered.  Human aging will certainly be conquered, necessitating a major revolution in our whole approach to civilization and procreation.  Even within the limitations of the biological human brain, technologies will be available to enable every person to have a genius IQ.  People will be able to directly access each other thoughts, feelings, and dreams.

Technology has already revolutionized our society multiple times.  Things we take for granted would be incomprehensible to our ancestors of a few centuries ago.  Our economic and political systems, which are already obsolete, will be unsustainable for very much longer.  The few who manipulate the masses for their own purposes are going to find that their days are numbered.  This is how it goes.  The only question is whether our civilization will survive the inevitable turmoil between here and there.

The Geography of Innovation in America

Recently, conservative columnist Bret Stephens submitted an editorial in the NY Times entitled “Biden’s Plan Promises Permanent Decline.” In his column Stephens repeated an argument that has long been popular among American conservatives. He does not deny that many of Biden’s goals are desirable – trying to put a dent in America’s extreme wealth inequality, for example. But he argues that there’s always a catch with government subsidies. And one of the biggest catches is that, in his words, “Big social safety nets typically come at the expense of risk-taking and economic dynamism.” It’s a familiar argument – that innovation depends on the private greed of a few risk-takers.

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I have already thoroughly debunked such notions in a previous post (here). But this seems like a good time to update the geography of innovation within America. The nonpartisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation rates each state on innovation, producing an index called the New Economy Index. If conservatives like Stephens are right, then states with poor social safety nets and low taxes on the wealthy should be hotbeds of innovation. States with strong social safety nets and high taxes should be innovation backwaters.

News Room | ITIF

The ITIF looks at factors such as educational attainment, employment of information technology professionals, share of the economy devoted to high-tech goods and services, economic dynamism, digital technology penetration, and the number of scientists and engineers in the workforce, among others. In 2017, Massachusetts ranked number 1 on the New Economy Index. In 2020, it remains at number 1. This is not too surprising, since the state is a world leader in biotechnology and engineering. The problem for Stephens is that it also ranks 7th on individual income tax burden and has one of the strongest social safety nets of any state. Massachusetts has relatively low corporate taxes (just as the Scandinavian countries do), but high income taxes on wealthy individuals. It has the lowest percentage of uninsured residents of any state and state law mandates that virtually every resident has health insurance, which is subsidized for poor residents.

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And then there is California, which ranks 2nd on the New Economy Index in 2020, as it did in 2017. It also ranks 4th on individual income tax burden and also has a strong social safety net. California has the 3rd highest per capita spending on welfare for its residents and has its own version of Medicaid, as well as its own health insurance marketplace. Health insurance is subsidized for poor residents and California has even flirted with universal health care at various times.

Of the top 10 states on the New Economy Index, 5 are in the Northeast. This region is known for its high tax burdens and relatively strong social safety nets. Of the bottom 10 states, 5 are in the South, a region known for its low tax burdens and poor social safety nets.

Texas is an interesting exception. On the New Economy Index it has moved up from 18th in 2017 to 14th in 2020. The so-called “Silicon Hills” near Austin has become a well-known center for high-tech companies like Apple and Amazon. Texas has relatively high property taxes but relatively low individual income taxes. The thing is, the Silicon Hills and other high-tech centers in Texas stand in contrast to much of the state. Much of rural, conservative Texas is slowly hollowing out, as the rural population ages and extractive industries become more automated. The parts of Texas that are increasingly high-tech and growing, like Austin, Dallas, and Houston, are areas with strongly Democratic-leaning populations. Texas is becoming increasingly blue and may well become a blue state within 20 years.

Texas Population: Still Growing | Texas Almanac

Another good comparison is New York versus Florida. New York is rated by WalletHub as the very worst state in terms of overall tax burden. Income taxes in New York are notoriously high. Florida, by contrast, has very low individual income taxes. It is rated the 6th best state in this respect. So Florida is a hotbed of innovation, right, and New York is a backwater? Well, no. New York is ranked 7th on the New Economy Index. Florida is ranked 22nd. New York is in fact ahead of every southern state except Virginia. As it happens, New York ranks 8th in its percentage of adults with Bachelor’s degrees. Florida ranks 28th. On this New York is again ahead of every southern state except Virginia.

In my previous post, I showed the relationship between the percentage of adults with Bachelor’s degrees and the New Economy Index by state. Here is an update of that relationship for the ITIF’s 2020 report:

The blue dots are states in the Northeast. The one in the upper right is Massachusetts. The red dots are states in the South. The dark red dot is Texas. The green dot is California. There is a fairly straightforward relationship between educational attainment by state and innovation. States with better-educated populations tend to have greater innovation. Many of these states are in the Northeast. States with poorly educated populations tend to lag behind. Many of these states are in the South. Taxation and the strength of the social safety net have very little to do with it.

I seriously doubt that states like Massachusetts and California are in “permanent decline” because they have relatively high taxes and strong social safety nets. I also seriously doubt that states like Louisiana and Mississippi are set to boom because they have low taxes and poor social safety nets. Areas of the country that are hotbeds of innovation have relatively high levels of educational attainment. Seattle, the home of Amazon and Microsoft, is the most highly educated large city in America.

A few more graphs are worth presenting here. This one shows the growth in real GDP per capita over 20 years in 5 states: California, Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, and Mississippi.

realgdppercapitafivestateshistorical

As can be seen, Massachusetts has had the lead all along and shows little sign of relinquishing it. California is a little ahead of Texas but both have been growing. Florida and Mississippi are way behind these and have been fairly stagnant. If we look at the same trends by region, we get this:

realgdppercapitaeightregionshistorical

New England and the Mideast have led all along and continue to grow, although the Far West is catching up. The Great Lakes, Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Southwest have grown more slowly but some growth continues. The Southeast is at the bottom and has been rather stagnant. The graph pretty well captures the difference between investment in human capital versus a commitment to an ideology of low taxation. Innovation is not the result of keeping a few “geniuses” like Jeff Bezos from paying taxes. It is the result of a broad emphasis on education, the real driver of the new economy.

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