What Is to Be Done?

Concept art that updates Charles C. Ebbets classic photo of the American working class at its height.What’s happening to my generation’s children, the Millennials, is similar but also worse than what happened to my generation, Generation X. At least my generation had a lot of terrible, entry level jobs in the service sector to start in. We knew late stage capitalism was shit but at least we had something.

The kids now? Not so much.

Uber and Amazon aren’t cutting it. Jobs writing code won’t be enough to replace the jobs lost when robots drive all the fleet vehicles or stack products on all our shelves. It continues to surprise me that people are still surprised by this: innovation is not creating as many jobs as it destroys.

Way back in 1991, when I was working in one of a spotty, desperate career of endless entry level jobs in small businesses, I had a lengthy conversation with my boss about what computers, robots and automation were going do the economy in the long run. I was in my 20s then and it all seemed far away so it was still safely interesting instead of alarming. We were both smart, if seemingly directionless, guys. The work we were doing was staggeringly dull so we hashed it out for a couple of days of conversation. The conclusion for me seemed pretty hopeless, I knew exactly what the problem was–eventually more jobs would be destroyed than created–but he and I couldn’t find a satisfactory solution. It was depressing if distant.

Fast forward through the 1990s, the gigantic, planetary, intergovernmental project called the Internet was opened to the public. This gave a giant shot in the arm to the US economy. The Internet, specifically the World Wide Web, gave me first decent job: temporary work at Microsoft doing data entry. This, in turn, got me another temp job in another group at the same company where I maintained a subsite below the Microsoft domain.A recnet cover of New Yorker Magazine. It depicts a homeless young man in the midst of commuting robots.

In July 2000, Microsoft offered me a full time job as programmer–even though I wasn’t really a programmer, my boss and his brother wrote the code. I just maintained and tweaked it. Anyway, I turned it down for complicated reasons that I’ve only begun to fully articulate now. (Another essay at some point.)

In one sense this was a terrible mistake, I could have had a lot more green in my savings and investments that I currently do, my retirement prospects could have been lot better than they are now. But now, nearly 30 years later, I’m older and can’t be so cavalier as I was back when I was 37. It is very likely I will continue to work even into retirement, all the way until death. Anyway it’s water under the bridge now so let’s move on.

I only outline this personal history to explain that, even though I don’t have any kids myself, I can understand the desperation they currently feel.

(Honestly, I’ve always felt just a shade too much empathy for the kids, that’s why I didn’t want to bring any into this hellworld. But that’s another essay.)

Anyway, in the last 5 years I did learn of a practical solution to the discussion I had with my friend back in 1991. It is one that has existed in one form or another, almost two centuries. And now the discussion around this idea, basic income, is heating up. More and more people are taking notice of it. Is it a small step on the way to fully automated luxury gay space communism or, even better, Iain Bank’s Culture?

A 1924 Soviet movie poster for Aelita, Queen of Mars. There's your fully automatic luxury gay space communism, right there!Idiots on the right side of the aisle have suddenly decided to hate it, even though the idea has had a lot of support from the right wing for decades. The arguments of these idiots are easy enough dismiss, even for me, as a non-economist. The arguments against basic income from the left are more subtle and harder for me, as a lefty, to dismiss.

Given the current political climate it seems very unlikely to me that UBI will be instituted in the United States any time soon. I mean my country is still so utterly ignorant and barbarous as to think that the idea of a national health service is godless commie talk. But I wrote this essay in my tiny, neglected corner of the Internet as a way to quickly sum up my thoughts on the matter and as a way to quickly reply to skeptics of the idea.

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How to Prevent Demagogues in the United States

First, fix the Electoral College. Many people still view the EC as some brilliant move of statesmanship worked out by our supernally wise founders back 1787. This is not supported by history. The founders of this country weren’t superhuman and the creation of the Constitution was just as messy, slow moving and controversial as today’s politics–this despite restricting the meeting only to white, male, landowners.A photo of the Orange Orc from New York and the obligatory HL Mencken quote.

Instead the EC was a messy, last minute, hacked ploy to get the small states to ratify the Constitution. The EC has never worked as advertised. But abolishing it w0uld require a lengthy and difficult amendment process. But we do have an alternative way, that’s already in the Constitution (And has been since 1787.), to fix its most serious flaw: how electors are assigned. And this reform is already halfway to completion; we just need several more states to join in ratifying NPVIC laws. If this happens the EC vote shall always follow the popular vote.

Second, we need change how we vote for candidates in any political office. Currently, in most of the United States, elections for candidates are first-past-the-post, a system with many problems including gerrymandering, the spoiler effect and domination by two parties. Now, people have suggested many methods to fix specific problems, like gerrymandering or domination by two parties but, really, these two problems are strongly driven by the system itself: first-past-the-post.

But there is an alternative called single transferable voting that:

  1. Strengthens minor parties
  2. Removes the most of the incentives for gerrymandering.
  3. Removes the spoiler effect

Several states and countries already have variations on STV in place and we need to make this much more common across the United States. These days there is a common refrain among voters that the system doesn’t represent them and they feel not stake in it. Representation of minor parties will bring these alienated voters back into the system. Not being worried about the spoiler effect will us all free to vote our conscience instead of handing victories to the opposition; this will also bring alienated voters back into the process.  And, as gerrymandering becomes a thing of the past, people will find their government more representative of their neighborhoods.

Third, we need to open the franchise and make it easier for everyone to vote. Voter fraud is a myth and is used to justify voter suppression. We need to either make election day a holiday or move it to the weekend. We need to allow for mail in voting.  Considering we have one of the highest percentages of population in prison, we need to return franchise to prisoners who have served their time.

Fourth, we need to bust the money and corruption out of US politics. Make no mistake our country is now in the hands of a small number of oligarchs, the Gilded Age has returned. Laws don’t get passed by popular assent anymore, instead it depends on who has the most money.

This can be fixed in a wide variety of ways. We can start at the local and state level and eventually push the anti-corruption reforms all the way to Federal level.  In fact, fixing points one through three might go some of the way there.

So, if we fix the electoral college, change the way voting works, broaden the franchise and bust all the money and corruption out of politics, someone like Trump won’t happen again–at least for the near future.

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The Business Equivalent of Skynet.

The title sequence of the Twilight Zone, "The Brain Center at Whipples"This didn’t come from a dream but I had a great idea for a science fiction story!

It’s about a small Seattle, union owned, coffee cart workers coop, I’ve tentatively dubbed Silly Crab Coffee, that uses open source expert systems and business management software to manage their business, profit sharing and legal stuff.

Some ten or twenty years of upgrades later, they have vaulted onto the world stage, stolen most of the market share from Starbucks only to lead by diversifying into many industries, like Amazon or General Electric.A screenshot of the billionaire robot from Futurama.

They are still a privately held workers coop of some twenty or so people; everything else is robots and software. They are not the first  bloodless transnational business, Amazon and others would likely beat them to that, but they are the first bloodless transnational workers coop–without sacrificing their ideals of worker ownership of the means of production.

Silly Crab Coffee becomes the business version of Skynet. Not incinerating us with nuclear weapons and killer robots but essentially taking over our global economy and leveraging government corruption and human nature–like Asimov’s “Evitable Conflict” or his “All the Troubles of the World”–to get what it wants. Or maybe not, maybe the software remains true to its core directives and does whatever it can, legally, financial, politically to protect it’s tiny 20 stake-holding workers?

I wrote about five pages of stuff but, the problem is I know too many details. The story gets bogged down with a lot of dull explanation and then I ran out of steam. Maybe I’ll take a another swing at later.

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Science Reporting and Lazy Language

Deep philosophical questions about the nature of God and the meaning of existence aside, I can point to many religious scientists who have no trouble accepting and refining our understanding of evolution by natural selection, abiogenesis, cosmology and the Big Bang without muddying the waters with mythology. I just wish more ordinary people were like this.

A movie poster of Wegener's 1920 silent classic Der Golem. I put it here as an example of just how long we've been contending with these philosophical issues.

The acceptance of this, provided you’re philosophically sophisticated, is not an attack on a person’s religious beliefs. Science has accumulated more than 500 years of evidence that the forms and functions of nature don’t require an engineer. As I said, there are many religious scientists who accept the whole of Darwin’s idea and who have no problem with accepting natural explanations in the Big Bang or the Standard Model.

I realize this is hopeless semantic hairsplitting but, I just wish we’d stop seeing lazy headlines that read, “…the Designs  of Nature….” Case in point, this Vox video about  engineering by biomimicry:

Sloppy use of language causes so much needless confusion in understanding these subjects. This is not just another cliched complaint about nonsense like creationism and intelligent design. This sloppiness bleeds into many areas of science that are not closely related to the evolution of human beings. For example, artificial intelligence, cosmology, chemical evolution and cognitive science still contend in flushing out magic, teleology and mysticism in new forms. It’s my thinking that these all areas contend with two problems:

  • Sloppy use of language as described here
  • Understanding how chaos dynamics generates complexity through emergence.

Yes, we are machines but, machines don’t need a designer and there is no supernatural division between life and death, mind and incognizance.

This complaint of mine is a huge subject. I could point to endless examples where this same confusion comes up again and again. But I’m not a scientist or philosopher. Maybe I should just leave it here.

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See, I’ve got records on y’all now!

Since doing the clean install of my site on the 19th, my security has noted that my first spambot attack came from IP blocks in Malaysia, Poland and California at three in the morning, Seattle time. These were searching for file exploits in, of all things, Movable Type. An animated sequence from Person of Interest. Seems as good a metaphor for the Internet as any.

I even got some lazy taps from Microsoft’s Bingbot spider for files that haven’t existed on my site for over five years now–hard to interpret that one. Either Bingbot needs to have old data flushed out of the spider or, much more likely, one tiny tendril of Bingbot has been compromised. I now suspect the latter because the IP numbers that trace back to Bingbot were also looking for more obviously suspect files (Boner pill shit.) on my server.

Am I going to alert Microsoft? Ha! Never mind that I’m just inexpertly misinterpreting my log files and could be disastrously wrong but, being a good Internet citizen by informing Microsoft would be like, to paraphrase the immortal Douglas Adams, trying to attack a lunatic asylum with a banana!

And for days afterwards the spambots came from all over the world, looking for things that didn’t exist anymore, generating 404 errors. I shouldn’t be surprised over how quick this was. Mere minutes after setting things up again, the botnets attack. Robots are infinitely patient, I guess. That and my domain has been stable since 1999 so, I guess, it’s a high value target for spambots trying to SEO links for boner pills.

It’s the invalid log attempts that worry me the most. 175 attempts in the last four days alone! These try with a short list of obvious usernames combined with combing my content for less obvious strings. In all this dictionary attacking, some of these actually got my account name right. I’m going to have to change my username to a long random string to protect at against this.

In the same span of time, the spambots only bothered to comment spam me 3 times. The operators of these botnets know better these days. Injecting linkspam into the main content counts for more in SEO than merely injecting it into comments. And such spam harder to fix.

The Internet is a jungle. For this and many other reasons I can see why so many, less technically inclined, have abandoned the Web for the walled gardens of Google, Twitter and Facebook. These aren’t all that safe either but at least you can find someone to blame. Me? I’m stickin’ it out. I learn important stuff fighting this.

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Education Stinks, Part III

About two years ago I wrote a brief update on a longer essay I wrote back in 2005, titled “Education Stinks.” The gist is that despite all the new forms of technology and multimedia we dumped on students over the last century, education really hasn’t improved. It still takes about 20 years to make a mathematician or brain surgeon. There isn’t a science fictional Mandarin language course in pill form. The educational revolution of Van Vogt’s nexialism still doesn’t exist. A screenshot from the Matrix movie, from a scene just before Trintiy instantly learns to fly a helicopter. I make an apt-get joke in the image's caption.

In the second installment of this ongoing series of essays, I pointed to YouTube smart guy, CGP Grey‘s video about “The Digital Aristotle.” There he hinted that technology may  allow for super-individualized education–every computer a tutor–tuned to each student’s idiosyncratic learning style. What I didn’t know was that another YouTube smart guy, Veratasium, had made a video rebuttal to “Digital Aristotle.”

In that rebuttal Veratasium covered the history of technology introduced in classrooms and how each change never quite gave us the revolutions promised. In a later video, shown below, he explains why education is so difficult. Basically it’s down to the way the brain has evolved. It’s hard to get people to deeply learn and memorize complicated subjects:

Why is this so important to me? Well, intelligence amplification ultimately depends on education and, education is one of the key drags identified by Bob Seidensticker as working against technological exponentiation.

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Ban Autonomous Weapons

These machines don’t exist yet but, they only require modest refinements in current technology. They are only a few years into the future. Make no mistake, the militaries of the world are spending millions to make this happen. Turns out the Terminator franchise had it backwards, the swarm intelligence of the nanobots that comprise the T-1000’s body will come first. Machines don’t have to be that smart to become very dangerous. Behold:

Take it Lenny, “I’ve seen the future, brother It is murder!”

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We are all living inside in a Consolidated track

A photo of an imagined Okay, so around September of last year, I had a second SQL injection of boner pill links on my site.

In the intervening twelve months, the true nature of one in five people in this country has manifested. Why do I say one of five? Because that’s how many voted for Donald Trump. Approximately 65 million people in this country didn’t consider his racism, his religious intolerance, his jingoism and xenophobia, let alone his sexism a deal breaker. And the deeply broken Electoral College handed him the White House even though over 3 million more people voted for Clinton over him. And then there are the 118 million people who, through active voter suppression, disillusionment over our winner take all election system, annoyed with a lack of an alternative to the two flavors of neoliberalism endorsed by both parties,  didn’t vote at all.

Now we have fascists openly marching and killing in our streets, the corruption of industry special interests is out in the open now, we mere steps away from instituting internment camps of American citizens and religious hypocrites saying gay marriage is worse than pedophilia. Bowie’s dead now, but he understood America surprisingly well. There aren’t open street battles, yet, but things are looking very Wiemar-ish at the moment. This sickness that’s flaring up is very, very old. It’s far deeper than Trump. Despite his meglomania, he’s merely a symptom of many, many deep problems in this country. After he’s gone, hopefully by impeachment long before 2020 rolls around, it will take decades to fix the corruption that produced him.

Anyway, if the politics here offends random folks on the Net, believe me, it’s far less Bolshie than my Facebook wall. I, and many like me, were silent for too long and look where that got us. If people like me want that promised Star Trek future, we’re gonna have to fight for it!

Anyway, let’s see how this mirrors to Facebook.

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Pat Robertson: Hundredth Level Paladin?

Okay watch this clip and be prepared for a lot of ballistic eye rolling.

Okay, so to put this video into context, Sherman, let’s dial the way-back-machine to 1979, Michigan State University and James Dallas Egbert III*  This was when the “D&D is a tool of Satan” myth first started. It was hysteria and stupidity then and nothing has really changed in the forty years since.  And I and millions of other intelligent people are just biding time when Sweet Zombie Jesus calls Pat home.

Anyway, Pat’s bullshit works on several levels.

First, most religious cults are intensely jealous of anything that diverts the attention of youth, especially if those cults don’t control it. Notice that Pat never criticizes television, which is also highly diversionary to the kids. Christian leaders just loooooove TV. And Protestant Evangelicals have been trying for decades for now to create alternatives to pop music. This has largely failed so they continue to demonize pop music.** And, for the same reasons, they have created alternative table top role playing games. Put “Dragon Raid” in a search engine and see what comes up. Dragon Raid pretty much takes a page from CS Lewis’ fantasies and it was never really a big seller so, I guess, Robertson, a dusty, crotchety, hateful, angry, old charlatan continues to drag out this 40 year old myth.

David C. Sutherland III's classic D&D illustration of a holy knight fighting Hell's infernal legions.Anyway, there is a more subtle level on which this hysteria is operating on. This is why I think religious zealots really fear D&D: The game and all its imitators and ilk are pop culture versions of college level history, anthropology and comparative religion courses. It encourages teenagers and young adults, just at the age when they are starting to form their own abstract thoughts, politics and ideology, to think about cultures and religions that are alien from their own. It encourages them to do research and create and write up extensive notes to make for more satisfying play and better worldbuilding.

This is intellectual nitroglycerin.

You and your players are creating narratives for invented protagonists within cooperatively created worlds. Think about it: as a D&D gamemaster who has created a very detailed, carefully researched ruined temple of Greek gods for her players to explore, face battles and solve puzzles in, is it really that much of a leap for those players and gamemasters to comprehend that, just as Greek Gods are fiction, to then further conclude that all gods are fiction?

There’s old joke among D&D cognoscenti dating from around the same time as Egbert’s death that encapsulates this idea perfectly:

D&D can’t be a tool of the Devil! My hundredth level paladin killed Satan last week!

That is what I think people like Pat are really afraid of–D&D can help break the spell.

*A tragic and disturbed young man who, like generations of other tragic and disturbed youngsters for millennia and eons before, latched onto some passing bit of ephemera and then, in suicidal death, became indelibly associated with it, even though the original bit of ephemera really had nothing directly to do with their  tragedies or deaths.

Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Scientologists and so on should recognize this story because that’s essentially how all their various cults got started.

** Really, they should have quit with “Amazing Grace,” nearly the only gospel tune worth a damn.

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Udra's Gnomes and How They Differ from D&D and Cliche

Gnomes–the also-rans of Dungeons and Dragons. Ever since being introduced to them in AD&D’s Monster Manual, it’s been hard for me to know how to distinguish them. They aren’t quite dwarves, aren’t quite haflings and Gygax and the writers at TSR never really gave them their own identity. The Dragonlance material had it so they’d be gaslight fantasy or proto-industrial, quasi-steampunk inventors but that was about the same time I had weened my own campaign off science fantasy. And besides, aside from humans, dwarves always struck me as the ones who’d betray magic and go for science and technology. Anyway, until recently, no players in my game ever built a gnome characters–probably because gnomes are so lackluster.

An illustration of Kitunusi Gnomes.Luckily along came Atlas Games truly wonderful campaign background Nyambe–cultures that weren’t just another dull, quasi-European, medieval fantasy pastiche. Since the early aughts I’ve been steadily incorporating a lot of the material from Nyambe into my campaign. It’s helped me to give historical and cultural grounding where I had none. Case in point: gnomes.

In Udra gnomes are very rare, far rarer than halflings, dwarves and elves. Out of Udra’s cultures, gnomes have probably remained the truest to their Nyambe roots.

In Nyambe, gnomes are known as “kitunusi” and practice a culture of stoicism, emotional reticence and and detachment, they’re a bit like Trek’s Vulcans or, perhaps, Buddhists or Spartans. They have emotions but it is considered social weakness and deeply embarrassing to share these publicly and definitely not with strangers. They tend to be very strongly associated with illusionist and shadow magic or earth elemental forces. For ancient historical reasons, dating all the way back to betrayals in Nyambe, Udra’s gnomes are often strongly suspicious of dwarves.

An illustration of a kitunusi gnome in EntarelandTheir extreme stoicism leads to a very spartan artistic culture. There food is nutritious but very bland–think of the poi of Hawaii. Their music is dull, droning and occasionally oddly disturbing. They’ve produced no poetry and literature of note save some strange, incomprehensible parables that are a bit like Zen koans. Only in two areas does their culture truly flower: textiles and architecture.

They are extraordinarily skilled in textile arts and weaving of all sorts, their cloth is the most beautiful in all Udra, easily surpassing that of elf-make, and fetches the highest prices.  However this is because gnomes consider uniforms and clothing as part of their complicated caste system. Almost all gnomes tend to wear elaborate and beautiful uniforms of a sort. While this suppresses their own individuality, at a glance, any other gnome can look at a comrade’s raiment and know her family, place of birth, skills and social standing. It’s a bit like heraldry. As such gnomes don’t give their fabrics or tailoring away lightly. They do sell it to outsiders but be expected to pay a lot. For gnome, it is considered highly dishonorable to have one’s clothing, one’s uniform stolen. Gnomes who violate their own dress codes are considered fools, criminals and bordering on insane.

The other area Nyambe’s kitunusi gnomes excel at their elaborate sunken architecture, usually carved into basaltic or other forms of volcanic rock. Think of places like Petra or the rock hewn churches of Ethopia. As yet, there is no major gnome settlement in Udra. For the last few centuries, they’ve been too few and  they’ve been content to blend into the bustle of human settlements. Udra has not seen gnomish architecture.

In all other ways Udra’s gnomes conform to the guidelines on page 39 of the Nyambe source book. They’re favored class is rogue, not bard. The material on page 17 of the 3.5 D&D Player’s Handbook should be ignored.

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