The Purpose of the Human Race

The other day, as I was riding home from work, I had an interesting thought. One thing about riding as slowly as I do — you get plenty of time to think about stuff.

Although, when the wind is at my back, pretty much the only thought in my head is “Whee!” and when the wind is in my face the cursing leaves no space for other thought. However, during the non-raining wind-from-the-side portions of my ride, I had time to chew on an interesting thought.

It started somewhere on Homestead Avenue, when it occurred to me that the Information Age was the inevitable consequence of being an organism that uses language. Our brains are built to interpret the world around us, breaking it down into the symbols that allow us to communicate abstract thoughts. We are biologically hard-wired to process symbols that represent the world; we are as hungry for information as we are for food.

But we didn’t stop at reducing the world into symbols, we began to recreate the world, using those same symbols as the building blocks. Early religions might be the first recorded attempts at building a symbolic world on top of the observable one, but any good story is a new world.

Facing a rainy headwind while I pushed down Park Avenue (a pleasant street), those thoughts were forgotten for a while, but by the time I reached Bird they had grown. We are now creating worlds entirely out of symbols. Worlds built purely out of language. World of Warcraft is an obvious example.

While WoW is crude compared to the (presumably) atom-based world we occupy most of the time, it’s easy to imagine that as we build ever-more eloquent languages (in this case programming languages and the frameworks that provide them vocabulary, which in turn express the desires of designers who communicate with more traditional languages) we will create more “real” worlds built solely with language.

By the time I’d huffed over the Curtner Hump and turned into the cemetery, I came down to a core question: Is this what we set out to do a million years ago?

Did we grow brains that had language so we could build better worlds, or was the ability to communicate mundane information twisted to introduce fiction? Are those cave paintings we know so well simply recording history, or are they expressing something larger that we all understand — the desire to build new worlds using the symbols we developed to understand the physical world?

What happens, then, when the world is entirely composed of symbols? What comes next? Are we finished?


How Quickly they Change their Tune

Remember when Republicans were all saying “Extend the patriot Act! Strengthen it! The FBI needs to be able to go after the bad guys!” and the Democrats were all saying “No! We have to protect civil liberty! Approving all this surveillance damages our democracy!”

That wasn’t very long ago. And by the way, ceding more power to the government is not “conservative”. It’s just one of many places where Republicans have proven to be the exact opposite of conservative.

Now the same people who loudly trumpeted the need to expand the ability of the FBI to investigate US citizens are crying about how the FBI is abusing its surveillance powers. You made this bed, Republicans, now lie in it. (And the lying has commenced, indeed.)

If that weren’t bad enough, the Democrats, who are often mistaken for liberals, have switched sides, too, trying their best to defend the FBI’s use of the power congress gave it. They’re crying about not being allowed to use the same low tactics the Republicans used to make political hay from the Trump/Russia investigation.

Why can’t just ONE Democrat point out that the FBI’s new power is a separate issue that may ultimately be more important than having an evil President for a couple of years?

An Engineer’s Approach to Tax Reform

A few years ago Malcom Forbes (I think it was) proposed a 17% flat tax – the same rate for everyone, no loopholes. That proposal would actually have increased revenue. How is that possible? Lower rates for everyone, but higher revenue? Crazy! But true. The increase in revenue comes from what Forbes (I think) called “loopholes”.

“Loophole”, when applied to the tax code, is a conservative code word that the liberals have not deciphered. Because really, no one wants loopholes in the tax code. Loopholes allow the rich to get richer, at the expense of the little guy. Of course liberals hate loopholes.

But in this case, “loophole” actually means “policy”. There are essentially two ways for our government to fund a goal: collect money and then distribute it where needed, or not collect money from where it’s needed in the first place.

Ideally, the tax code would be about exactly one thing: collecting revenue. But it is MASSIVELY more efficient, especially with our terribly inefficient government, to not collect money than it is to collect it, filter it through the bureaucracy, and return a fraction of the amount to the point of need.

Our current tax code is a relatively simple set of rules for collecting revenue, and a gargantuan codex of exceptions. Many, perhaps even most, of those exceptions are defensible for the good they do. Food for hungry children. Incentives for businesses to reinvest in themselves. It’s all over the map.

There are also purely evil clauses in the tax code, carefully designed to benefit specific campaign donors. Actually, there’s quite a lot of those. Actual loopholes.

So: we can’t just wave our hand and sweep tax law clean of all “loopholes”. A lot of people would suffer, and finally we’d pass a bunch of other laws to fund those goals in a less-efficient manner. But somehow we have to weed out all that evil.

From an engineering standpoint, it’s simple. Break the one huge, incomprehensible law into maybe five hundred smaller laws.

First you have the tax revenue collection law. It’s a simple baseline describing brackets or whatever. How we bring the money IN.

Second you have a framework that allows separate laws for single, specific exceptions to that rule. Single. Specific. Each voted on by congress separately.

“Madness!” you cry. “My legislator could never understand 500 separate bills well enough to vote responsibly.” You’re probably right, but your legislator already cannot understand the 500 exceptions in the one tax bill she votes on now. At least she could abstain on policy decisions she couldn’t get to.

So much debating, so much deal-making… so much more work for our legislators. THAT’S THEIR JOB! And when the chips fall, we will have a list of who voted for each provision independently. We would have an exact list of the people who supported “cash for bankers” and who supported “breakfast for children”. There would still be deals, but the deals would be a lot more transparent. And I think that’s a good thing. Each provision of the code would have to stand on its own merits. It is exactly what our legislators DON’T want. It’s a lot harder to hide the fact that you’re in the pocket of a special interest when that vote sits out there on its own.

Implementing this plan would be bloody and painful. Cash cows would wither in the light of inspection (vampire cash cows?), political careers built on hiding shit in the tax code would end. On the downside, the turmoil would probably paralyze government for a year or two, and more than a few of the programs I deem worthy would not survive. People would suffer.

But honestly I think the pain would in the end be worth it. If every “loophole” were scrutinized separately, we could eliminate a lot of pork while making the government a much more efficient expression of the voice of the people.

Harry Potter and the Two-Hour Prologue

Last week the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings & Half-Baked Ideas and I decided to watch the first Harry Potter movie. It was my first exposure to the franchise. Considering all the hype, and the penetration of the film into pop culture, the movie was surprisingly mediocre. Of course, it’s possible to make a crappy movie no matter how brilliant the source material is, but in this case the biggest problem with the movie was simply in its storytelling. I suspect it is a faithful reflection of flaws in the novel itself.

The biggest storytelling flaw in this flick is that it takes forever for the story to actually begin. I have been accused of “walking to the story” often enough to recognize it when I see it.

We start with a prologue that reveals nothing which isn’t amply explained in short order. Then we have many scenes that do nothing but establish setting. Crappy home life (perhaps more interesting if we didn’t know what we already do), shopping for school supplies, and so forth. As far as the actual story goes, we finally hear a whisper of the name that will shape his young life. But only a whisper, and we proceed with a series of events that aren’t moving anywhere. There are, James Bond-style, offhand mentions of things that conveniently turn out to be important later, but that’s about it.

Once he’s at school, we get closer to a plot, but not very quickly. We get to meet important friends and rivals, but mostly it’s still establishing setting, building a whimsical and magical world. Don’t get me wrong, the movie does a fine job of this, but it’s all done through a series of unrelated events.

One of those disconnected events is that Harry’s natural broom-riding ability leads him to be the “seeker” for his house team in the sport of Quidditch. The game is like this: A bunch of people fly around under very complicated rules, scoring points here and there, then the seeker from one of the teams catches a tiny flying robot-magic-thingie and the game is over, all the rest of the activity having been rendered moot. It makes for some good action scenes, but they are not in service of the story.

The story, what there is of it, is that there’s an important thing that bad guys want to steal. The most interesting part of that story is Snape, a teacher and the head of the “asshole” house at the school. So many things suggest he’s a bad guy, but… when shit gets real his actions are noticeably absent of evil.

When one makes a movie based on a novel, the hardest decisions the screenplay writers face is what to cut. A movie simply can’t contain an entire novel. I wonder, looking at what they decided to keep, looking at scene after scene that did not serve the story, what they decided to chop. More of the same? Or were they worried that rabid Harry Potter fans would riot if the movie didn’t include the gratuitous prologue that was in the novel, and instead cut more interesting things to remain “faithful”?

The next night OSoMR&HBI and I watched the next movie in the series, and now we have consumed two more. So clearly HP-1 was not so awful we walked away from the franchise. This was partly because friends assured us the following movies got better.

Today I realized why. The first movie is ALL prologue. It is the reading you are supposed to do before coming to class. Being a story is a secondary goal, behind introducing us to the world.

Aspiring writers take note: WORLD BUILDING IS NOT STORYTELLING. I recently had the privilege of reading a friend’s draft of a novel, and I realize now I forgot to compliment her on the way she built a really strange world through the telling of her story. She hit the ground running and we got to see the world as the action unfolded, in a natural way. So, just do that.


My Last Car

My faithful little Miata is getting long in the tooth; I purchased it new off the lot in the summer of 1999. Eighteen and a half years is pretty old for a car, but these days not exceptional.

Still, after spending the weekend replacing ignition components and discovering oil on my hands more than once, I have to admit that the car is not as mechanically tight as it used to be. It’s only a matter of time before it crosses the line from “reliable transportation” to “hobby”. I don’t need another hobby.

From time to time I peruse the Internet, fantasizing about the car that will replace the Miata. Convertible is an absolute requirement, two seats a preference. There are some pretty cool cars in this space, but the frontrunner remains the Mazda Miata. I could spend a lot more and get a somewhat more exciting car, but the Miata remains an excellent intersection between fun and economy, with no serious challengers.

But boy, that F-type purrs like a kitten. A tiger kitten.

As I consider the expected lifespan of my next car, the expected lifespan of me, and trends in technology, it occurred to me: It’s quite possible that this will be the last car I ever buy. Twenty years from now my driving skills will be degrading, and as long as I live in a town of any size, it’s entirely possible that self-driving on-demand cars will be significantly cheaper than car ownership, especially when you take into account how few miles I drive.

My last car. Wow. But…

I don’t really need to replace the Miata at all. There is almost never a time when both the family cars are out of the garage, and the few times it does happen could easily be handled with transport alternatives. I could rent a convertible for road trips. Perhaps I have already bought my last car. Wow.

Often, when I take the old girl out for a spin, I first have to remove the tool boxes and other items piled on top. Home repair and crafts projects lead me to pull items off the shelving next to the car and put them on the top or on the hood for access.

A typical look at the Miata

Perhaps the next four-wheeled item to occupy that slot in the garage will be something like this:

The next thing to live on the right side of the garage?


Time for the Stars

Recently an acquaintance of mine asked the hive mind for examples of short stories that featured the time-dilating effect of traveling near the speed of light. Ideally the story would also feature one element where that rule is broken.

I immediately forgot the “short story” requirement and recommended Time for the Stars, a Young Adult novel by Robert Heinlein. It is exactly about that; it even takes a break for a lecture on time dilation, complete with the equation I call the “Einstein fudge factor” carefully typeset in the narrative.

I happen to have recently been reunited with a copy of that novel, one I received as part of a box set one fine Christmas morning in the early 1970’s. There were a couple of things I particularly remembered about that story, so I decided to give it a read once more after all these years.

The part of the story that Heinlein got the most pleasure from, I believe, is an organization called the Long Range Foundation, or LRF. They were endowed to pursue pie-in-the-sky research with no hope of commercial reward in any reasonable time frame. The kind of research that corporations and even governments can’t justify.

It turns out, however, that taking the long view can be embarrassingly profitable over decades and even centuries, and the LRF is constantly looking for deeper holes to dump their giant piles of cash into. One of those holes is interstellar travel. (They are already gushing cash from developing technology to allow travel all over the solar system.)

So they build a bunch of giant spaceships to go out and explore nearby star systems. They don’t actually expect any of those ships to ever make it back home, so they need a way for them to keep in touch. Which brings us to another one of their projects.

Pat and Tom are twins, the youngest children of a family over the quota for number of children (the Earth is staggering under the weight of five billion occupants). The LRF offers them a bit of cash to participate in a study. While they think they are cheating on a test, they are actually confirming that they are psychically linked.

This linkage is not bound by relativity and does not diminish with distance. The LRF gathers up all the psychic-twin pairs it can and loads up their giant spaceships (called Torch Ships) with half of each pair, several teams per ship. Now, even should the spaceships never return to the home world, the information they gather will.

The dynamic between the brothers is interesting, as they jockey for which will see the stars and which will stay home. One of the moments in the book that stuck with me all these years was when the ship’s doctor points out that Tom really doesn’t like his brother at all.

So Tom’s Torch Ship, the Lewis and Clark (or Elsie for short) flies away, and the time shift between the ship and Earth gradually accelerates. Communication is more and more difficult as the brains of the pair work at different speeds. Finally there is a period of isolation — a few weeks on the ship, and many years back home. Not all the psychic pairs can reconnect after such a long break, and a lot happens on Earth during that time each jump.

Meanwhile, science is trying to recreate itself to allow the concept of simultaneity, which relativity pretty thoroughly ruled out. It’s quite a long range sort of project.

Decades pass on Earth, months and then years pass on the ship.

Small Spoiler: Disasters happen, friends die — including the people in charge of helping everyone get along— and morale among the survivors becomes very low.

Occasionally, especially during disasters, I had to smile at the casual 1950’s-era sexism, and while the crew is racially diverse without making a big deal about it, there is a Wise Old Negro. I hadn’t noticed that stuff last time I read the story. Also, there was a bit of recklessness on the part of the crew when it came to exploring strange worlds. Plague sucks.

Big Spoiler: The most striking thing about the story is how it ends. Once physics introduced the concept of “irrelevance” — the idea that some things were not bound by relativity but existed outside that framework — work began to harness that phenomenon. After one particularly bad disaster, the Elsie is orbiting a planet and is told to stand by and wait for a rendezvous. A faster-than-light ship arrives shortly thereafter, straight from Earth. The install a device on Elsie and say that they will be returning to Earth. This is met with great joy among the remaining crew.

“When will we get there?” Tom asks.

“I thought we’d wait until after lunch, if that’s all right,” is the answer. Or something like that. Push a button, you’re home again. No fuss.

They return to Earth little more than a curiosity, Rip Van Winkles rendered suddenly and absolutely obsolete. Already faster-than-light ships have far eclipsed what had taken the Torch ships decades to accomplish. That the new technology could not have happened without their sacrifice is not much of a solace. And women, apparently, no longer wear hats, which was unthinkable when Tom left Earth.

There is a happy ending, at least for Tom; others of the crew have highly specialized skills that just don’t matter anymore. At least they have a few decades of back pay that’s been earning interest all this time. After all, legend has it that Einstein said compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or these silly shoes), I get a kickback.

My 2018 Resolutions

Last year I made several ambitious-but-attainable resolutions. I failed at all of them.

For 2018, my goal is much simpler: do better at everything than I did in 2017. The bar is pretty low.