Monday, October 21, 2013

Imagination, Skepticism and Memory

== Tis all in the mind ==

How and where does imagination occur in human brains? The answer, Dartmouth researchers conclude in a new study, lies in a widespread neural network -- the brain's "mental workspace" -- that consciously manipulates images, symbols, ideas and theories and gives humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems and come up with new ideas. 

Especially provocative: "Understanding these differences will give us insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines."  

This type of research provides real grist for new explorations at two new centers devoted to the study of the science of imagination. The new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California San Diego has a goal " to help society become more effective at harnessing imagination." Similarly, the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University brings writers, artists and scientists together "to reignite humanity's grand ambitions for innovation and discovery."  

What of the undiscovered country of the future? Can we use our imagination and creativity to speculate about the problems we will face: See my interview: Five Burning Questions at ASU's Center for Science & Imagination.

And how is imagination connected to creativity? Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, explores the creative process, profiling a hundred talented individuals -- artists, poets, scientists and inventors -- to see how the process can be cultivated. 

==Bias and Skepticism==

An essay in Scientific American, by SKEPTIC editor Michael Shermer, discusses motivational bias -- our tendency to warp our perceptions and inputs to fit the beliefs and narratives we already hold dear.  Liberals do this, leftists and rightists do it. Mass media cater to it. Science tries to combat it - teaching students to recite "I might be wrong" - but scientists (being human) do it too. 

In Shermer's case, the belief structure that he had to wrestle with is a strong libertarian bent -- a leaning that I well-understand because I share many aspects, including a deep respect for competitive endeavors like science and markets, that brought us all our great success.  Shermer discusses how his strong libertarian leanings made it hard for him to begin taking in enough facts to re-evaluate simplistic positions on climate change and gun control.

But the core lesson is bigger than that.  It underlies how we can be marshaled into "belief armies" that follow idea-banners instead of rationally compared evidence.  It is why we like to hear what we believe reinforced, instead of eagerly seeking the argument, contrary evidence and criticism that is the only known antidote to error. Scientists are trained to (often grudgingly) overcome motivational bias.  That may be why strong interests in society are financing the War on Science.

==Memory and Technology==

SmarterThanYouThinkAh but is Google wrecking our memory?  In his book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, Clive Thompson argues that our brains have always been bad at remembering details. But now we've begun to fit machines into a technique we evolved thousands of years ago —“transactive memory.” That’s the art of storing information in the people around us.

Or are digital cameras messing with our memory? The "Photo Taking Impairment Effect" finds that the act of taking a photograph decreases our ability to remember the moment.

== Browsing -- for just 20 years? Really? ==

Can you believe the web browser is 20 years old? Or that MOSAIC took the world by storm ONLY 20 years ago? Either way, it makes you blink, just to imagine the world of back-then. Have a look back via Frank Catalano's brilliant essay about the things we used to take for granted.

When did you first go online?  My first extensive use was while we lived in FRANCE, using their competitive Minitel system, which was better than Compuserve and in nearly every home in France. They were trying hard to get ahead of us with a unified, centrally planned approach and it worked well, if incrementally. Everyone could check the weather, get news and order tickets...

Internet-Deregulation...Then Al Gore (yes, he did not lie) pushed a bill that unleashed the Internet on the world, taking government hands almost completely off. The opposite approach than the French -- and the greatest act of deregulation in the history of history... for which he get no credit, only mockery. From ungrateful fools.

See my talk: The Role of the Internet in the Future. 


== Science marches on, despite attempts to shut it down ==

Congratulations Elon and the SpaceX team for a vital and successful Falcon 9 launch from Vandenburg of the Cassiope research satellite into polar orbit. A secondary experiment -- to re-fire the first stage after cargo separation and test a possible rocket-based recovery process -- was only partly successful. But much was learned toward what might be a breakthrough cost-saving measure. Again congratulations on this vital milestone.

SpaceNewsWill the year of the comets wreck Martian science?  'Three operational spacecraft currently circle Mars: NASA's Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), as well as Europe's Mars Express. NASA also has two functioning rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, on the ground on Mars. All of these spacecraft will have ringside seats as Comet ISON cruises by Mars this year, followed by Comet 2013 A1 (Siding Spring) swooping within 76,000 km of Mars in November of 2014. The comet poses risks to orbiters circling Mars -- a prospect that may lead to re-orienting and maneuvering of the craft to protect them from comet particle strikes.'  Which will be - believe me - rather difficult.  I am worried about those orbiters.

NASA's Plutonium problem - could it end deep space exploration?  Plutonium 238 is special.  Can't be made into bombs, so there was little effort to create an industry producing it.  The isotope happens to be uniquely suited for long range missions beyond the realm where solar power works. I know some of the guys trying to come up with new methods.  Meanwhile, here's a fascinating article on the subject. 

Read a summary of a way-cool conference in Washington DC, hosted by David Grinspoon and the Library of Congress, that featured author Kim Stanley Robinson, NASA historian Steve Dick and other luminous minds, talking about the human future. Should humanity build "lifeboat" colonies in space? Or concentrate on Earth?  Or give up?

Can giant-galactic black holes grow by eating quantum foam? Marco Spaans at the University of Groningen says that black holes can grow by feeding on the quantum black holes that leap in and out of existence at the smallest scale. These quantum black holes are part of the so-called quantum foam that physicists believe makes up the fabric of the Universe.

Back in 1982, while I was a post-doctoral fellow at the California Space Institute, I created a report urging NASA to explore ways to do 3D parts fabrication in orbit, allowing space station personnel to create many of their spare parts, needing only to have the software patterns "beamed up" by radio from Earth. Several potential methods were described, including today's layer-by-layer build-up method… plus a few that to this day have gone under-explored.  Many unfortunate factors -- most of them non-technical - delayed this coming to pass.  Only, now see how NASA is preparing to launch a 3-D printer into space next year, a toaster-sized game changer that greatly reduces the need for astronauts to load up with every tool, spare part or supply they might ever need.

== Cool sci-miscellany ==

Mike Halleck - "The Engineer Guy" - disassembles and explains a wide variety of cool, everyday devices like a liquid crystal display.  Very well-done mini-documentaries.  Great diversion time that beats cat videos by a long way.

Okay, Boston Dynamics is damned scary.  Their latest  robotic"cheetah" can outrun any but the three fastest humans.

Two million years ago, a supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy erupted in an explosion so immensely powerful that it lit up a cloud 200,000 light years away, a team of researchers led by the University of Sydney has revealed.


Kinda gruesomely-cynically funny.  Scientists using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have discovered yet another dead and lifeless planet drifting around a silent, pulsing sun-like star over 100 light-years away, feeding their growing sense of nihilistic despair. Okay... it's for laughs.  But still.

Transparency will abound. And possibly save us. UCLA engineers have created a 1/2-pound, portable smartphone attachment that can be used to perform sophisticated field testing to detect viruses and bacteria without the need for bulky and expensive microscopes and lab equipment.

I discussed starships and asteroid mining and what it might take to bring boldness back to our civilization, on David Livingston's syndicated radio SPACE SHOW, in September 2013.

ScienceSnippetsIn appraising the tradeoffs between competition and cooperation in an organism, these scientists are discussing in the real world what was also covered in my novel Earth.

Fly maggots, the wonder recyclers, will save the seas by replacing the wasteful way meal for fish farms is made by scooping everything living out of the oceans… and many other cool uses. This - plus algae farming and many other looming breakthroughs could just help us to squeak by.

A fascinating chart of the relative amounts of damage - to users and to society - done by abuse of various drugs, both legal and illegal.  Marijuana (canabis) is NOT harmless! While legalizing it, I would retain a presumptive right of families to meddle if a beloved zonker is on a death-to-ambition spiral. Still, recent trends toward sanity are signs that a new generation is ready, at last, to bring a sense of proportionality to an insanely destructive Prohibition.


Earth may have had free oxygen in its atmosphere in appreciable amounts much earlier than we had thought… about 3 billion years ago rather than the more recent "Great Oxygenization" event of 2.3 billion years ago.

What did our distant ancestors sound like? Listen to the linguists' latest reconstruction of 6000 year old Indo-European.  Kinda fascinating.

Why are our bees dying?  This matters a lot!  Become educated about this threat to our food supply.  These are the "canaries" in our environment… and their loss may cost us a lot of money.  The chief counter-measures… to get farmers to plant varicultures, hedges and flowers just along the borders of theit fields and for us to plant…(icky)… flowers!  Watch this TED Talk by Marla Spivak.

Weizmann Institute scientists show that removing one protein from adult cells enables them to efficiently turn back the clock to a stem-cell-like state.  They revealed the “brake” that holds back the production of stem cells, and found that releasing this brake can both synchronize the process and increase its efficiency from around 1% or less today to 100%.  The researchers showed that removing MBD3 protein from the adult cells can improve efficiency and speed the process by several orders of magnitude. Such on-off switches are amazing and rare.

== Finally, how to fight anti-science politics ==

Neutralize-Gerrymandering
The biggest victim of the recent US government shut down may have been science, as crucial experiments were cut off - including the entire research season in Antarctica. To many of those who instigated this disaster, the harm to science was not a Flaw of their plan but a Feature.

This will be a long struggle though there are possible innovations.  For example Salon Magazine has featured my proposal for a unique and potentially effective way for individual voters - one at a time - to rebel effectively against the political crime called gerrymandering. It requires no changes in law, no court decisions or ballot initiatives. We could all start this rebellion tomorrow, without any cooperation from a corrupt political caste. It would benefit BOTH Democrats and Republics as well as third parties. Above all, it would reduce the radicalization of American politics that is tearing the country apart.

==And an announcement==

First, a useful announcement: The Next National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day is scheduled for October 26, 2013.  One or more of your local pharmacies will likely accept your old pharmaceuticals free, no questions.  It disposes of them safely and keeps them out of landfills or sewers where they apparently are having ever-worsening effects on water supplies -- for example putting female hormones from birth control pills into what you drink from the tap.  Go through your cabinet!

47 comments:

sociotard said...

How and where does imagination occur in human brains? The answer, Dartmouth researchers conclude in a new study, lies in a widespread neural network -- the brain's "mental workspace" -- that consciously manipulates images, symbols, ideas and theories and gives humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems and come up with new ideas.

Did you read the Salon bit "TED Talks are lying to you"? It was actually less about TED than about the whole field of books, motivational speakers, seminars, etc that cater to telling people how to be creative. First, it pointed out that this industry is one of the least creative. second:

Consider, then, the narrative daisy chain that makes up the literature of creativity. It is the story of brilliant people, often in the arts or humanities, who are studied by other brilliant people, often in the sciences, finance, or marketing. The readership is made up of us — members of the professional-managerial class — each of whom harbors a powerful suspicion that he or she is pretty brilliant as well. What your correspondent realized, relaxing there in his tub one day, was that the real subject of this literature was the professional-managerial audience itself, whose members hear clear, sweet reason when they listen to NPR and think they’re in the presence of something profound when they watch some billionaire give a TED talk. And what this complacent literature purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue. Creativity is what they bring to the national economic effort, these books reassure them — and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world.

So if the resident author wants ever wants to get in on the tactic used by the olde timey minstrels to get fed by the aristocrats, this might be the way to do it today.

atomsmith said...

I thought black holes feeding on quantum vacuum fluctuations was the basis of Hawking radiation, i.e., how they lose mass...

Carl M. said...

Bees love poison ivy flowers.

Just sayin...

Edit_XYZ said...

"Can giant-galactic black holes grow by eating quantum foam? Marco Spaans at the University of Groningen says that black holes can grow by feeding on the quantum black holes that leap in and out of existence at the smallest scale. These quantum black holes are part of the so-called quantum foam that physicists believe makes up the fabric of the Universe."

If true, this would break thermodynamics' first law, second law - what with the virtual black holes giving real mass-energy to the giant black hole.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I don't even remember the first site I visited online. It probably had to do with movies though.

sgs said...

Re the plutonium problem -- we have a lot of high level radioactive waste sitting around waiting to be reprocessed. Perhaps some of it could be used to replace Pu-238? Or, for that matter, perhaps it contains Pu-238.

I'll just note that processing high-level nuclear waste is a *political* problem, not a *technical* problem.

David Brin said...

Pu238 has very special properties that make it an ideal thermo-electric source unlike any other. It takes a particular neutron-dding process to make much of it.

David Brin said...

The First AAAI Conference on Human Computation and Crowdsourcing (HCOMP-2013) will be held November 6-9, 2013 in Palm Springs, California. How I wish I could attend! (I'll instead be an a European Union conference on the future of the Information Age in Vilnius, Lithuania. ) The Palm Springs conclave will appraise "systems that rely on programmatic access to human intellect to perform some aspect of computation, or where human perception, knowledge, reasoning, or physical activity and coordination contributes to the operation of larger computational systems, applications, and services."

In other words, how networked problem solving systems can make use of human beings as intelligent nodes, sensors, actuators and solvers of sub-problems, empowering the overall system to crowd-source overall solutions… pretty much as I depict happening in our near future, in EXISTENCE.

I hope someone will report in from the event in the desert and let us all know how it goes.

http://www.humancomputation.com/2013/

http://www.davidbrin.com/existence.html

matthew said...

I read about this on Boing Boing and followed up on the link to Krebs On Security: Experian Sold Consumer Data to ID Theft Service
This allegation may be a tipping point in the regulation of big data. There are also some real interesting transparency and legal issues at work here too. Worth a careful read.

David Brin said...

Following up from last time. The Assertion that Arizona has eliminated gerrymandering turns out to be claptrap.

Sam Wang in the New York Times Sunday Review used a seat-discrepancy criterion to find which 10 states are the most “out of whack. Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were worst, plus Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Illinois and Texas. Of this ten worst gerrymandered states, Arizona was redistricted by an independent commission, with Republicans the beneficiaries of all distortions. Texas was a combination of Republican and federal court efforts, but with a notoriously pro GOP warp. Illinois was controlled by Democrats, who benefited. Republicans designed the other seven maps.
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/opinion/sunday/the-great-gerrymander-of-2012.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&

Nine out of ten were home runs for the Republican Party, helping to explain why, despite winning 1.4 million fewer votes for Congress in 2012, the GOP still controls the House of Representatives by a comfortable margin. As Mr. Wang put it: “Both sides may do it, but one side does it more often.”

sociotard said...

Arizona does have an independent redistricting commission.

http://azredistricting.org/

Arizona continues to be Gerrymandered. This is obvious from its map. Its gerrymandering actually has less to do with political packing than you might think. It has more to do with the layout of Native American Reservations in the state; Hopi don't want to have to vote in the same district as Navajo. The politically neutral redistricting commission acknowledges that imperative.

Take a look at the Arizona 2012 race.

Republicans get 52.07% of congressional votes and get 4 seats

Democrats got 43.57% of congressional votes and 5 seats.

By your standard, Arizona is a purple state gerrymandered to favor . . . Democrats.

I maintain that most of Arizona's obvious gerrymandering is done to appease Native populations.

LarryHart said...

Illinois was heavily gerrymandered in favor of Democrats last census, but I'd gladly accept a non-partisan districting method. For the moment, I feel a bit of schaudenfreude when Republicans complain about Illinois redistricting, but I also know the big-picture reasons it is not a good idea.

Although Chicago is notably Democratic, Illinois as a whole has not always been. I think the post-census redistricting of 2000 was done by Republicans, and I KNOW the 1990 one was. Until GOP scandals of the early 00's, the governor's mansion and the legislature in Illinois were heavily controlled by Republicans. So Illinois has not always been as solidly-blue a state as it seems today.

Tony Fisk said...

I see we're following the standard trend of discussing science after a political posting and politics after a scientific one. (Ah, contrarianism!)

Anyway, I thought I'd dip into science and go back a few postings, since I've finally got around to seeing 'Gravity'. I certainly enjoyed it, and only had two wtf? moments during it.

The first was when Matt (Clooney) let himself into the Soyuz capsule while Ryan (Bullock) still had her helmet off. Bit rude in space, what!? I soon figured out what was going on, though!

The second was related to all those stations having a similar orbital vector... and then finding out the Chinese station was about to burn up... soon to be followed by...!? This made me wonder what was in the air tanks to make the opening scene so nonchalant. Whilst on the burn up scene, I thought it very coincidental that it was the right trajectory for re-entry. I also quirked an eyebrow at the tumbling re-entry vehicle at first, but that sorted itself out, as I imagine the offset centre of mass is designed to do.

There was one thing I noticed on the plus side. David commented that Matt might have thrown away his exhausted jetpack to push him back toward the station, and Ryan did precisely that with the fire extinguisher when she was about to miss the Chinese station.

Paul451 said...

Re: Plutonium for RTGs
Might be time to bite the bullet and develop proper space-rated nuclear reactors instead of relying on RTGs.

Re: Gore and Mosaic.
Gore apparently led the push for the National Centre for Supercomputer Applications, which led to funding for Mosaic. (At least according to Netscape founder, Marc Andreessen. And "If it had been left to private industry, it wouldn't have happened.")

So Gore not only "invented the internet", he "invented the browser" too.

Re: Maggots.
Apparently good for chicken farms too. It's their natural food, after all. (And the maggots can be fed other waste, without risking disease spread from the waste. By putting them between current sources of animal-feed protein (other animals) and the feedlot, you break the disease cycle that led to mad-cow.)

Naum said...

First time online? Does BBS access count? In the late 80s…

In 1990, bought an IBM PS/1 and it came with a Prodigy account that I subbed and it was the first "graphical" online experience. A few months later, at the urging of some folk on Prodigy, I got a GEnie account too, and used a text based program called Aladdin to pull down news and bulletin board posts, and batch automate uploads. Later, GEnie added feature to allow Usenet access. All this done on a computer, mind you, that was too underpowered to even run Windows 3.1 (DOS, 1MB RAM, 30MB HD).

First WWW browsing experience in 94-95 using Mosaic (on work machines). Wasn't much out there but I do remember Yahoo and Molson which ran a Hockey fantasy game (simple CGI) that got crushed by user volume.

And yes, the vitriol against Gore boggles, especially from folk who ought to know better (including many early internet aficionados). See Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn -- they give Gore immense kudos (too which those people deride Gore scoff at, dismissing it as a pure partisan ploy). But also, years ago, read a pseudo-biography of Licklider and computing revolution (*The Dream Machine* by M. Mitchell Waldrop) that in a latter chapter, covered how Gore picked up the ball in an age when government funding of this work was being dismantled and Gore championing of NSF (where research moved from (D)?ARPA) was of major impact and influence on internet development, that left to proprietary interests of the day (i.e., IBM, MCI, AT&T, etc.) it would not have happened the way it did.

ZarPaulus said...

I have a few points of disagreement with the drug damages chart.

Hallucinogens, a category that does not actually include cannabis that's just propaganda, are not harmless.

And they listed a date rape drug right below pot, instead of several steps above it.

Alex Tolley said...

Re: Future spacecraft may be 3-D printed

"Spiderfab" is not so far removed from the beam builder of 1970's space colony era. The beam builders would have turned aluminum strip into beams to support solar panels for the SPS. The improvement seems to be constructing the whole structure by joining pieces, rather than constructing the pieces.

Now when you can build a complete spacecraft hull, preferably with in situ resources, then I will sit up and take serious notice :)



Alex Tolley said...

Re: Disposing of old drugs.

Flushing down the toilet isn't a good idea. But seriously, we need to find a pharmacy to dispose of them? Just mix them up and put them in sealable plastic baggies. Add a little water to break down the pill or gelcap structure. Put in the trash. The dump will keep them sealed away from the environment for a very long time. Very little actually decomposes in a dump.

Alex Tolley said...

Re: Plutonium 238 shortage.

From Wikipedia: "Significant amounts of pure Pu-238 could also be produced in a thorium fuel cycle."

I guess that means India will become the major source of P238 in the near future?

Alex Tolley said...

Re: Weizmann Institute scientists show that removing one protein from adult cells enables them to efficiently turn back the clock to a stem-cell-like state.

With the recent demonstration that injecting older mice with young mice cells, there is a certain amount of "rejuvenation" seen, maybe tissue rejuvenation is possible. If so, does this imply that the Brin dictum of major life extension in humans is unlikely, false? There is still the problem of brain function, but who knows if similar approaches might work there too, especially if artificially aided with other tech.

Early days for sure, and we may be disappointed by actual trials, but it seems to me that tissue replacement, cancer targeting (e.g. by viruses) may well go towards keeping us younger and healthier for much extended lives.

Alex Tolley said...

re: Maggot food.

Love the idea. What needs to be determined is how well they convert what they eat - does the protein completely break down? What about contamination by heavy metals and organics like plasticizers? Are maggots better than, or complementary to saprophytes like mushrooms? Or should we just turn organic waste into methane or other biofuels instead?

Good to see some small efforts being made in a promising direction.

LarryHart said...

I'm going on an off-topic rant here, but an analogy just occured to me today at work, and it amazes me that I never saw it before...

When I was a young lad, I remember my dad explaing to me that at a restaurant, the manager has to know how to do everyone's job, and if necessary, to fill in for a missing or overburdened employee. In my twenties, when I first entered the IT field (then called "computer programming"), I assumed the same held true in the corporate world. It took only a few months to be disabused of the notion that corporate managers (or at least IT managers) know ANYTHING about what the people under them actually do. Ask a manager to advise on, or even to review (let alone "fix") a piece of computer code, and you might as well ask them to build a tower to the moon.

If anything, that assessment has gotten worse, not better, in 25 years.

What did this remind me of today? Slavery. The slave-owners on the plantations couldn't do "n----r work", and even in the post-War south, most if not all of the useful work was performed by blacks (though the fruits of the labor was "owned" by whites). Asimov alluded to this in "The Currents of Space" in which the Sarkites were clueless to do any sort of civil service type work (even something as simple as locating a book in the library) except by ordering a Florinian to perform the task.

As the top 0.1% who own the country's wealth become generations removed from ability or even understanding to do the work that they require of their employees, it seems the most natural thing in the world that the masters now think of the working class more and more as slaves. It's what slave economies have always looked like.

It's ironic and funny-in-a-bad-way that the overlords in the new feudalism perceive themselves (a la Ayn Rand) as the true creators of value, and that their serfs live by sucking at the master's teats. The reality is almost the diametric opposite.

LarryHart said...

Tony Fisk:

I've finally got around to seeing 'Gravity'. I certainly enjoyed it, and only had two wtf? moments during it.


I also saw "Gravity" this weekend. Dragged the wife to it, and she usually likes sci-fi, but she couldn't stand the Sandra Bullock character, and that ruined it for her.

For me, this movie wasn't about characters or even plot so much as just the experience of BEING THERE in the environment. I'm glad I saw it on a movie screen instead of on tv, and although I don't usually spring for the extra cost of a 3-D film, this one was worth it. I suspect that in order to compete with home viewing, movies will become more and more about making you feel like you're REALLY THERE (wherever "there" happens to be).


The first was when Matt (Clooney) let himself into the Soyuz capsule while Ryan (Bullock) still had her helmet off. Bit rude in space, what!? I soon figured out what was going on, though!


I had the same reaction, and was then glad (though simultaneously sad) to realize what was really happening. I will say, though, that (without a clue as to whether this is realistic or not), the fact that the outer airlock doors sprung open in such a way as to violently kick the astronaut off of the hull if she's not really careful--I kept wondering if the hatches really work that way. Because it seems like an incredible design flaw to me.

David Brin said...

LarryHart there are two extrema re what happens if the overclass and underclass separate. (1) you get the Eloi becoming useless and then food for the underclass Morlocks.

Or (2) as in EXISTENCE the overlords actually hire boffins to figure out better breeding patterns so that the children of the lords actually WILL become inherently better suited to rule...

Of course you could get neither entrema... the lords occasionally breed into their aristocracy the brave warrior or brilliant innovator or gorgeous beauty but convince themselves they are inherently better and "breeding" means marrying each other and their inbred dopey offspring become prime pickings for Ayn Rand's piratical-virile heroes... who start it all over again..

http://www.davidbrin.com/aynrand.html

Jerry Emanuelson said...

LarryHart,

What you describe about management was first published in the late 1970s as Putt's Law:

"Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand."

This may be expanded as Jerry's Law:

"The domain of Putt's Law tends to expand beyond technology to include everything else."

This tends to make many aspects of advanced civilization very fragile. More attention needs to be paid to this resulting fragility.

LarryHart said...

In the early 90s, before Michael Moore was really famous, he had a TV show in which he filmed himself and his crew pulling outrageous publicity stunts, such as putting up their own stop-and-search barrier on the EXIT of a gated community or having a flatbed truck loaded with women's port-o-potties parked outside an office building.

In one of the segments, he'd stop outside various corporate headquarters buildings and use a bullhorn to challenge the CEO to come down and perform some routine task that the company did. I don't remember specifics, but it would be like challenging the CEO of Burger King to fry up a hamburger. That sort of thing.

Of course, almost all of the bigwigs ignored him or had security pay him a call. Except one. I don't remember the guy's name now, but I believe it was the CEO of Ford Motor Company at the time. He actually came outside with his tie off and his sleeves rolled up, mugged a bit for the cameras, and changed the oil on one of his vehicles.

I found that attitude refreshingly impressive. He not only knew the value of a good publicity moment, he also didn't feel (or didn't give the impression of feeling) that the work he had come up through the organization doing was beneath his dignity. It was probably more like a refreshing break to him--as it is for me to help my 11-yr-old with her math homework. And in the vernacular of the above post, that guy knew what he managed.

Tony Fisk said...

Larry Hart.

I agree with your wife about the Sandra Bullock character. She does come across as a bit of a klutz at first. Rather surprised she got through screening with some of the issues she had. It isn't until the interlude in the Soyuz that her braincells finally start kicking in, so it doesn't surprise me if your wife had already given up on her.

(She managed to sink the Soyuz as well!)

Oh well. Think of her as the next generation's Ripley, who finally learned *not* to walk backwards around corners...

====

re: Pu-238. I remember being soundly chastised about my ignorance on how it's made. Fair enough! Took my licks and suggested that the Thorium cycle ought to be investigated as a commercial alternative.

Alfred Differ said...

I've never worked for management that came even close to an expression suggesting they saw me as a slave or even 'owned'. I would probably laugh if one did and then leave. I suspect the closer truth is that some of them believe that I NEED them to do what they do and that isn't far off. I can develop a skill set similar to theirs, but I don't have the time to wear all the hats a good team must wear in order to function and excel.

I work in IT and would rather the CEO didn't come downstairs to try their hand at the work I do. They NEED me more than I need them.

Alfred Differ said...

On the notion that our 'internet approach' to storing information is a new thing, I'm skeptical. I suspect we've been doing this since the invention of language and the internet simply reduces the costs and quickens the pace.

I'm working through Hofstadter's and Sanders new book on this stuff right now. It's hard work, but their take on what thinking actually IS is compelling. The focus on the level of the mind instead of the brain and build a theory I'm having trouble poking holes in. If their ideas stand up to criticism, I strongly suspect they can 'explain' a number of things that make us what we are and show us where we could go next.

http://www.amazon.com/Surfaces-Essences-Analogy-Thinking-ebook/dp/B00BE65086/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1382516988&sr=1-1&keywords=douglas+hofstadter

Thomas said...

Here in Sweden you can return your pharmaceuticals to any pharmacy, any day of the year. Having a special day for it seems kind of inefficient as only the very responsible will hoard and dispose of all their old medicines at that day, or even hear about it in time.

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred - I have "Surfaces and Essences" in my non-fiction book pile. I was a somewhat disappointed in Hofstadter's last attempt "I am a Strange Loop", and am hoping he gets back to his earlier form with this one.

Alex Tolley said...

@Larry Hart. I think you are going to extreme with the assumption that wealthy people see other people as slaves. I would suggest that servants is more appropriate.

Western educated people pretty much universally find slavery abhorrent today. But even if the wealthy didn't, there are good reasons to not want slaves nor treat people as such.

1. Slaves are property. This means that they have a capital cost. If you need to get rid of them, this requires a market you have to participate in. Age makes people a depreciating asset, especially for physical labor.
For such assets, renting is usually cheaper, and certainly more flexible than ownership.

2. Wealthy people often need affirmation of their traits. The coercive nature of slavery denies them of that from the slave. A servant however, can express love for the individual that is not coerced.

3. With suitable manipulation, good servants can be retained, whilst poor ones got rid of with relatively little effort.

4. Quality work, especially in personal services, is more likely to be gained from people with self interest competing with others.

We see the poor people as servants attitude taken by average people to wait service in restaurants. We see it frequently in interactions with other services staff, to the point that this is literary cliche.

The wealthy just assume their superior position and treat most people in the same way.

Alfred Differ said...

Surfaces and Essences builds on part of what he talked about in the Strange Loop book. It skips past the physiological activity in a brain and focuses upon the 'mind' that is in the activity. While this book isn't like GEB, it certainly IS unorthodox in the theory it proposes for what we are doing at that level.

The only knock I have against it is they could have said much of what they said in FAR fewer pages. I get why they didn't, though. A few examples of a particular point might invite a reader to consider them as exceptional cases. A page full of examples hammers the reader into a different realization. That occurs so often in the first few chapters that it gets predictable. You'll know when they shift from finesse to sledge hammer. 8)

I kinda liked the Strange Loop book, but that is partially due to the timing for when I read it. I was going through a transition myself and appreciated the story-driven approach. My expectations for it being like GEB were minimal, though, because I briefly met Hofstadter years ago on a book tour and saw how he wanted to move on to his next work. I imagine a lot of authors of well received books wind up in a bit of a trap like that. 8)

Paul451 said...

Thomas,
I suspect the same is true in the US. They just have a particular "day" to make everyone aware of that. In the same way that a town "clean up day" isn't the only day the town wants people to not litter.

Alex Tolley,
"Age makes people a depreciating asset [...] For such assets, renting is usually cheaper"

However, slaves also reproduce. So they are more like livestock; you don't just get a single use out of them.

Naum said...

LarryHart: When I was a young lad, I remember my dad explaing to me that at a restaurant, the manager has to know how to do everyone's job, and if necessary, to fill in for a missing or overburdened employee. In my twenties, when I first entered the IT field (then called "computer programming"), I assumed the same held true in the corporate world. It took only a few months to be disabused of the notion that corporate managers (or at least IT managers) know ANYTHING about what the people under them actually do. Ask a manager to advise on, or even to review (let alone "fix") a piece of computer code, and you might as well ask them to build a tower to the moon.

When I first began in professional capacity as a "computer programmer" it actually was true that my superiors were just a more experienced version of me -- that they had written code, built and maintained systems, then moved up the ladder. This was working in a rust belt industry, much derided at the time, and that service oriented industries were the course of America's future.

As my career went on (at different companies, ranging from financial services to claims adjudication to public utilities), most of management was not cut of this cloth -- they were business majors, sociology majors, etc. (not that anything wrong with that, lots of good developers may not have Computer Science / Information Processing) educational pedigree, but quite capable of performing those tasks and have experience of), etc. with no inkling of what actually a software developer did in her day.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Management Competence

From a manufacturing background I found the main issue was not
"Can they do the jobs"
But
"What were their Aims"
From engineers to mid level managers most aimed at
"Making the company run better"
Senior Management almost without exception aimed at
"Improving my personal situation"

Which is to be expected I suppose as somebody who concentrates on "getting the job done" will be overtaken in the career race by somebody who concentrates on "advancing my career"

agimarc said...

Re: Eagle takes down a deer link.

Read an autobiography by a guy who was one of the founders of the NRA. Born just before the Civil War and died in the not so early 20th Century.

He was part of the settlement of the Western US. One of the things that struck me about the book was that the ranchers absolutely hated eagles and would kill them every chance they got.

Reason? Because they feasted on the calves and lambs after birthing season in the Spring each year, wiping out the ability to grow a herd.

It takes a lot of effort to keep a pregnant animal alive all winter, and to lose the young to a predator was intolerable.

Nice to see that the Old Man was right and that nature still behaves like nature behaves. Cheers -

LarryHart said...

Alfred Differ:

I've never worked for management that came even close to an expression suggesting they saw me as a slave or even 'owned' I would probably laugh if one did and then leave.


I don't remember if you're an American or not, so that might make a difference. No, I'm not a slave as such, but my family's access to health care CAN be revoked at any time for any reason at the employer's (dis)pleasure. And although I'm allowed paid vacation days, it is very rare not to have to check in or provide support remotely, even while travelling out of town. So although "slave" might be too loaded a word, it does have appropriate elements to it.


I suspect the closer truth is that some of them believe that I NEED them to do what they do and that isn't far off. I can develop a skill set similar to theirs, but I don't have the time to wear all the hats a good team must wear in order to function and excel.


I admit to a gift for hyperbole. :)

When I commented yesterday, I was not making the observation that my personal employer or manager thought of me as a slave. What I did notice, however, was that management, not just at the director level but down to the developers' immediate supervisors seem to be removed from any understanding of the tasks they manage. I don't expect CEOs, directors, and managers to spend their days doing the same tasks their underlings perform, but I DO think it works better when those supervisors have some understanding of the nature of those tasks, the specific difficulties and challenges and conflicting requirements.

I then free-associated a connection to the image of the slave south and the Jim Crow south in which the masters who held the slave-blacks and then the worker-blacks in such low esteem were also (ironically?) completely dependent on those workers to get the simplest of tasks performed.

It was not a direct accusation that management thinks of us as slaves. More of a cautionary analogy.


I work in IT and would rather the CEO didn't come downstairs to try their hand at the work I do. They NEED me more than I need them.


One problem in IT (especially in support) is that the better you do your job, the less noticible your presence is. Everyone knows when there is a problem, but when things run smoothly, who thinks about how many man-hours are being put in to keep it that way?

LarryHart said...

Alex Tolley:

@Larry Hart. I think you are going to extreme with the assumption that wealthy people see other people as slaves. I would suggest that servants is more appropriate...


Yes, I already admitted to Alfred that I used too supercharged s word there. Since I was equating the view of the ownership class with that of the working class to BOTH the antebellum AND the Jim Crow era south, perhaps even more the latter than the former, "servants" is a more approprate word for what I meant.

Which doesn't exactly undermine the point--that for all the libertarian talk of free agents making free trades of value under mutually-agreeable terms, the ownership class really does think that the very means of human survival are their personal property, and that We The People must bargain as best we can for food, warmth, shelter, etc from a position of supplication.

LarryHart said...

Naum:

When I first began in professional capacity as a "computer programmer" it actually was true that my superiors were just a more experienced version of me -- that they had written code, built and maintained systems, then moved up the ladder. This was working in a rust belt industry, much derided at the time, and that service oriented industries were the course of America's future.

As my career went on (at different companies, ranging from financial services to claims adjudication to public utilities), most of management was not cut of this cloth -- they were business majors, sociology majors, etc. (not that anything wrong with that, lots of good developers may not have Computer Science / Information Processing) educational pedigree, but quite capable of performing those tasks and have experience of), etc. with no inkling of what actually a software developer did in her day.


That's EXACTLY what I was referring to. I got started working in the very late 1980s, probably a bit later than what you're describing.

And again, to clarify, I was not saying that a manager who doesn't know what his employees do is equivalent to slavery. It was more that I saw in the pattern-- near absolute authority to command, combined with near-absolute helplessness to do anything BUT command--a SIMILARITY to the pre-civil-rights-era South. The significance of that similarity can be left as an exercise to the reader.

Or as comics-author Dave Sim put it, "What's the significance? No, it doesn't work that way. What's the significance to YOU?"

Tony Fisk said...

Oh dear...

After over 12 months of above average temperatures, there's a little firestorm in a billy brewing about whether or not the bushfires currently raging around Sydney are linked to Climate Change.

Our new and illustrious leader, Mr. Abbott, fresh from his volunteer fire fighting efforts (for which I give all due credit btw) described a UN official who said there was a link as 'talking through their hat' since Australia has always had bushfires. No argument there. His fellow firefighters seem to have a different opinion, though (the real issue being severity, frequency, and... hello? Springtime?).

Our Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, then backed up his boss by repeating the argument in a BBC interview, and referring to an article in Wikipedia as proof. (when pressed on whether Abbott still stood by an infamous remark that 'Climate change is crap!', Hunt primly stated that he wasn't prepared to be sworn at!)

Well... Wikipedia's pretty reliable, and fine for a quick reference. But, using it as a basis for backing a government policy? I think I'd want something a little more solid. A bit of peer review, perhaps?.. Science Ministry vetting... Oh wait! We don't have a Science Minister! (or is that Jimmy Wales, now?) Still there are other resources, surely? IPCC? If that's too heavy, there's the summaries offered by the (inconveniently crowdfunded) Climate Council of Australia... Oh wait! That might be a little embarrassing since Hunt's first act was to shut down the Council's predecessor, ostensibly to save $1.5 million.

I realise that Americans have seen, and are seeing, far worse. but even so... *whimper*!

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thelousysloth said...

for edit_xyz

Per: http://www.ask.com/wiki/Quantum_foam?o=2800&qsrc=999

"Virtual particles appear in quantum field theory, arising briefly and then annihilating during particle interactions in such a way that they affect the measured outputs of the interaction, even though the virtual particles are themselves space. These "vacuum fluctuations" affect the properties of the vacuum, giving it a nonzero energy known as vacuum energy, itself a type of zero-point energy."

If I read this correctly and if memory serves, the particles produced from the quantum foam "cancel each other out" thereby not contradicting thermodynamic laws. I also seem to remember reading that there might be a finite amount of quantum foam in the universe. If two particles come in to being around a black hole, possibly one of the particles can be sucked into the black hole's orbit before the two particles can annihilate each other. I suppose both particles can then be absorbed by the black hole and contribute to its growth.

Steven Ouellette said...

About IT serfdom,

This is a topic I have explored with my students. Here is my current take on the reason your boss can't do what you do...

IT/comp sci are immature industries. Unlike, say, steel making, IT folks don't really know the interactions between systems (and observably to a terrible job of root cause analysis when something blows up).

Consider the idea that IT/comp sci are still in the medieval guild stages where the equivalent of "quenching steel in the urine of a red-headed boy" thinking rules exist alongside with more scientific thinking.

Now it is coming along more rapidly than, say, steel making did because the modern era thinks more scientifically. So your boss is not successful at your job because the paradigms have changed rapidly from the time they were doing similar things (pre-guild era!).

Eventually, IT/comp sci will learn the science behind a lot of what they do, the rate of change will settle down, and bosses will again know about the job their reports do.

This is not actually a good thing either - a good manager makes sure their people have what they need to do the job. The temptation if you get promoted for being good at a job is to micromanage, since the one thing you know is that job (and we don't train managers how to manage and give them an alternative).

Alfred Differ said...

LarryHart,

I'm an American, so I get what you mean about revoking access to health care. Your slave analogy does make some sense, it is just that I react strongly against it as I won't tolerate a boss (or anyone else for that matter) who thinks of me as a wage slave. I don't even tolerate the concept of 'merit' pay. If I'm paid for my work or get a raise, tie it to the value I add to a team. Don't dare tie it to my worth as a person. Bosses who slip and use 'merit' around me get a nasty look and lecture from me and if they can't handle it, I obviously should work elsewhere. 8)

In a nutshell, a wage slave is someone who has allowed themselves to be judged by another person for their 'worth' and then get paid for it. Follow that idea and you'll see a set of relationships designed to fail. Intolerable for me.

Edit_XYZ said...

"thelousysloth said...
for edit_xyz
Per: http://www.ask.com/wiki/Quantum_foam?o=2800&qsrc=999
If I read this correctly and if memory serves, the particles produced from the quantum foam "cancel each other out" thereby not contradicting thermodynamic laws. I also seem to remember reading that there might be a finite amount of quantum foam in the universe. If two particles come in to being around a black hole, possibly one of the particles can be sucked into the black hole's orbit before the two particles can annihilate each other. I suppose both particles can then be absorbed by the black hole and contribute to its growth."

The article D Brin linked to assumes that virtual black holes can give a real/permanent black hole mass-energy AKA there's net real/permanent energy increase in the universe. This blatantly breaks thermodynamics.
This is no hawking radiation where the real/permanent energy given to the now real/particle comes from the mass of the black hole, which decreases.

Also, the universe is expanding (due to the dark energy place-holder) AKA the amount of virtual particles ("quantum foam") also grows.
The mainstream argument for not breaking thermodynamics is the 'the virtual particles cancel each other out' one (which doesn't apply any longer if the linked paper's assumption is correct).

David Brin said...

onward