Plucking the Goose

Follow the Money to Congress

Follow the Money to Congress

How much fairness is there in our current tax system? Let’s just admit right from the start that taxation isn’t about being fair. Since fairness is a relative and very subjective concept, we will never, ever, have a system designed to be fair. Politicians privately never even seriously discuss what is really fair and only come up with trivial measures of wealth that do not reflect the complexity of reality. So, how can anyone expect to ever agree? The best we can do is to discuss what is tolerable and workable. People who disagree and are intelligent or wealthy enough will usually find some ways to get around the tax system. The tax system is really about power.

The Art of Taxation

The Art of Taxation

“The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.” – Jean Baptiste Colbert, Minister of Finance under King Louis XIV of France

For years, people watching Congress have complained about the lack of effective campaign finance reform and how it is needed to stop corruption in Congress. The group Citizens Against Government Waste publishes an annual compilation of the pork-barrel projects in the federal budget. In their 2010 Congressional Pig Book, they identify 9,129 projects at a cost of $16.5 billion in the 12 Appropriations Acts for fiscal 2010. While this figure has been higher in the past, it is still chump change when compared to other benefits that can be bestowed by Congress on its supporters.

Tax Reform

Tax Reform

Campaign finance reform is a Red Herring. It is merely a futile attempt to limit what members of Congress can receive in return for the favor of campaign contributions. However, it fails to address the way in which favors can be granted that drive contributors to donate to their campaigns in the first place. It also fails to address the issue of favors granted for financial benefits that an elected official expects to receive after leaving office. In other words, it addresses the symptoms of the problem (campaign donations) without addressing the cause of the disease (the power of Congress to grant favors). The tax code is one method that empowers corrupt legislators, so it stands to reason that another way of reducing government corruption is to reduce the power that Congress has to mis-use the tax code.

Income Tax Criminals

Income Tax Criminals

“The income tax created more criminals than any other single act of government.” – Former Senator Barry Goldwater

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the pharmaceutical and health products sector spent at least $855 million on lobbying from 1998, through June 2005. They also gave nearly $107 million in federal campaign contributions. According to IMS Health, the top 20 pharmaceutical firms had nearly 77 percent share of the $253 billion United States prescription drug market in 2005. What benefit did they gain from such expenditures?

The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 barred the federal government from negotiating on prices of drugs supplied through Medicare. In January 2007, the Senate failed to act on a bill that would have allowed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries. In May 2007, a drug-import plan that would have eased the process of importing cheaper prescription drugs into the country from Canada and other foreign countries was defeated. In November 2007, legislation that would have prevented reverse payment, or the practice of brand-name drug companies paying generic drug manufacturers to delay market entry of generic medications, stalled in Congress.

One of the largest underfunded benefit programs in the federal budget is Medicare, yet Congress has blocked initiatives to lower the cost of prescription drugs because it would have reduced the profits of the largest pharmaceutical companies. They would rather drive up the deficit and the national debt than allow any attempts to lower prices.

Tax Revenue History

Tax Revenue History

In 2004, President Bush signed into law a bill that created a special low tax rate that a coalition of 60 corporations had spent several years and about $1.6 million lobbying for. It reduced the tax rate on earnings from foreign operations for one year from 35% to 5%, saving them about $100 billion in taxes. Some backers say $100 billion overstates the savings because some of the foreign deals would not have been made without the lower rate, which was essentially taxpayer-subsidized business.

What was so great about the above deal other than the money the lobbyists made? It was the fact that the tax break was only a temporary measure, meaning that they would have to come back and lobby or donate some more if they want future benefits. Their ability to pass temporary measures fuels the power of Congress to extract more money from its supporters later.

Invasion of the Lobbyists

Invasion of the Lobbyists

Why are the lobbyists so powerful? No only are they extremely well paid to influence Congress, they also include former members of Congress and well-connected staffers. As of a 2005 report compiled by a watch group called Public Citizen, 43% of the 198 members who have left Congress since 1998 and were eligible to lobby have become registered lobbyists (86 lawmakers).

While departing Congresspersons are restricted from lobbying for one year after they leave office, they often “advise” other lobbyists during that time. They also have the special privilege of retaining access to the House and Senate floor as well as private gyms and restaurants available only to Members of Congress.

Approximately $2.1 billion was spent on lobbying in 2004, but for organizations to spend that much money, the expected return on investment would have to be several times larger. For instance, the Carmen Group Inc., a mid-size lobbying firm, annually publicizes its clients’ costs and compares them with the benefits they receive. In 2004, Carmen claimed to have collected $11 million in fees while delivering $1.2 billion worth of benefits to its clients.

The bottom line is that pork barrel spending is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits that paid lobbyists are looking to exploit. The tax code, which is responsible for the generation of trillions in revenue per year, holds the key to a much larger source of potential financial benefits. This is why tax reform isn’t so much about fairness as it is about the ability of incumbents to acquire wealth and power.

Cost of Tax Breaks

Cost of Tax Breaks

Campaign finance reform can only hope to try and limit the ways in which Congress can be influenced, and is most likely to fail because of a little thing called the first amendment as well as the innate human ability to avoid or evade rules or get special loopholes. But tax reform is a way to eliminate the power they have to make campaign donations worthwhile in the first place. There is no point in bribing someone who has no power to help you, is there? So, let’s start thinking about how we can implement tax reform in such a way as to reduce the power of Congress to reward supporters.

I don’t care if you think a simple tax system is going to be fair. No tax will ever seem fair. If it is able to reduce corruption in Congress, I’d pay double because it will eventually save us from financial ruin and allow the people to take back its government.

Fix Broken Tax Code

Fix Broken Tax Code

Wired for Destruction

Human Progress

Human Progress

There is a tendency in science fiction writing to assume that our civilization will progress far into the future, but that humanity will retain all its current flaws. That is, we will acquire increasingly advanced technology, but will never really evolve into creatures of greater intelligence with fewer of the social and emotional problems that cause conflict among us. How are we likely to evolve? Will we improve, stay the same, or get worse over the next few million years?

Are we destined to become a society of idiots with blasters and flying cars? Will we spend our time gossiping, watching the Kardashian girls take naked yoga lessons, going to see boxing robots, or going to the Jersey shore while robots do all the real work? Can we look forward to a life of leisure where everything is provided for us, so we have nothing better to do than act like a bunch of spoiled, lazy high school brats? How will this make us happier if we still have the same flaws as ever? Or will we become even more depressed without the distractions of work and family responsibility?

Global Suicide Map

Global Suicide Map

Statistics seem to show that suicide is on the rise worldwide, with a 60% increase in the past 45 years. It is natural to want to know why this is happening, but I prefer to ask a different question. Will this trend continue and, if so, how will it help or hurt our evolution as a species? Could suicide be a major evolutionary factor?

Suicide Rates Rising

Suicide Rates Rising

One of the core tenets of evolutionary theory is that those who are best adapted to their environment will thrive and those who are not well adapted will fail. Does that mean that suicide is another indication that a creature is maladapted to its environment and another way of strengthening the gene pool? If so, it is just a normal part of evolution and can be expected to continue indefinitely. Hopefully, I don’t get flamed for this, since suicide isn’t a trivial issue and it can be devastating to those left behind. But I still have to ask the questions anyway.

Suicides by Race

Suicides by Race

A recent study showed that African Americans had a far lower suicide rate than Caucasian Americans. Since African Americans have generally lower levels of wealth and opportunity, and poverty is correlated with lower levels of happiness, some have asked why suicide rates would be lower rather than higher. No, I’m not going to suggest that there is an inverse correlation between wealth and happiness. One theory is that the suicide rate is actually masked by a higher homicide rate, because many of the homicides may actually be suicides where the victim takes advantage of a dangerous environment to allow himself to be killed. At a minimum, the victim may simply disregard the risks of a situation because he just doesn’t care. If this is true, it follows that, as homicide rates decline within a community, thus reducing the opportunity for an easy way to die, intentional suicide rates will rise.

This seems plausible because there are other indications that suicide rates are masked by other forms of death. Deaths from single car accidents, where only one car is involved, increase at approximately the same times of the year that suicide rates increase. This correlation is significant because it indicates that people are intentionally killing themselves with their cars or engaging in uncharacteristically risky behavior.

Suicides by Method

Suicides by Method

In Scandinavia, where an obsession with safety has resulted in lower deaths from accidents, suicide rates are among the highest in the world. This is another possible indication that people kill themselves by other means rather than the traditional methods, which include firearms, hanging, suffocation, and poisoning.

Joiner's Theory of Suicide

Joiner’s Theory of Suicide

If people commit suicide because they are not well adapted to their environment, then it follows that one way to reduce the suicidal tendency is to provide sufficient social mobility for people to move to a different environment to which they are better adapted. But social and physical mobility today is greater than it has ever been before. People are, in many cases, able to move from their home to a new city or country more easily and quickly than ever before. In addition, people can communicate with other like-minded people via the Internet more effectively than ever before. So, it doesn’t seem to make sense that suicide rates should go up rather than fall if they are more able to change their environment. Unless, greater connectivity provides an even greater feeling of isolation when we compare ourselves to our perceptions of everyone else.

Could it be that suicide rates increase with level of intelligence? If so, it might be a limiting factor in the evolution of our brains. Some studies do show a correlation between IQ level and suicide, but others show an inverse correlation between IQ and suicide. Some studies show that wealth is correlated with greater happiness and lower rates of suicide. A major study conducted in Sweden appears to indicate that people with mid-range IQs have higher suicide rates. Maybe they are smart enough to understand that there are opportunities available to intelligent people that are not available to those of low intelligence, but they just aren’t quite smart or skilled enough to take advantage of them.

In other words, people of low intelligence don’t know what they are missing, so they are happy with what they have, while people of the highest intelligence are generally more able to get what they want. Those in the middle with moderate intelligence fully understand what they are unable to obtain and don’t like it.

Suicide vs. Fertility

Suicide vs. Fertility

Oh, but we’re not done yet. There are more factors to consider. There also seems to be a correlation between lower national levels of fertility and higher rates of suicide. Countries such as Japan and Sweden have a very low birthrate and among the highest suicide rates. The United States and the rest of the industrialized world also have declining fertility rates and increasing suicide rates. It makes sense that people who have kids will feel a greater responsibility to stay alive to ensure their kids survive and thrive, a basic evolutionary trait of successful species.

Even though these are relatively wealthy countries, relative wealth does not seem to be a significant enough factor. While the United States is experiencing a growth in income disparity, Sweden and Japan both have a low rate of income disparity. So, we can’t necessarily say that it is just the have not’s within a society who are the ones more likely to be unhappy enough to kill themselves.

Suicide Rates by Country

Suicide Rates by Country

Of course, suicide also must have a lot to do with mood, and studies show that physical exercise improves mood and therefore feelings of overall happiness. I’m sure there are also associations between levels of physical fitness and wealth, nationality, and many other factors that need to be considered. Suicide prevention is really a complicated issue and is probably better addressed in other indirect ways. We can’t just stop an unhappy person from killing himself if he really wants to. Since men have much higher rates of suicide than women, I feel pretty comfortable using “he” instead of he or she.

Exercise and Happiness

Exercise and Happiness

When you look at what data are available, it isn’t possible to come to a certain conclusion. However, my gut feel is that the factors most likely to decrease suicide rates are wealth combined with high intelligence, physical fitness, and high social and geographic mobility, which may decrease the reasons to commit suicide, as well as high fertility, which may decrease one’s willingness to go through with suicide when the desire is there. The only problem is that the first four factors usually lead to low fertility rates (i.e. fewer kids). Slower population growth is better in terms of resource sustainability, but worse when it comes to suicide.

So, I think the bottom line is this. The intelligent, wealthy people will have less of a reason to commit suicide, but fewer offspring, so they will kill themselves when they feel like it. The unintelligent poor will keep reproducing at a higher rate, but will be less likely to kill themselves in large numbers because they are too busy working and taking care of their kids. Those in the middle will probably just self destruct or slowly disappear. This means that the outlook for a continued increase in overall human intelligence may be kind of low. Just when some of us start to get really smart, we get overtaken by the rest of the dumb masses.

Mongol Empire

Mongol Empire

It used to be that the smartest and most powerful people would and could reproduce prolifically, as in the case of Genghis Khan, who is estimated to be the direct genetic forefather of about half a percent of the world’s population. For all we know, the higher scores that Asians get on academic tests could even be traced directly back to the genes of that one brilliant Mongol conqueror himself! Of course, he was also responsible for the deaths of about 11 percent of the world’s population.

The solution? Intelligent, wealthy people should go back to the practices of our ancestors that served us so well. They should stop being monogamous and start spreading their seed around a lot more than they have been lately. We need to get that fertility rate up to help increase our happiness, decrease the suicide rate, and increase the overall level of human intelligence!

“Really, honey, I’m just thinking of the human race as a whole when I say I need to spread the wealth, and my genetics, around a bit more. We can’t possibly spend a billion dollar fortune now, can we? But if I had a couple hundred kids…. Can we do it for the human race? Sometimes you just have to sacrifice a little of yourself for the good of society.”

This theory has also inspired me to come up with some great new reality TV shows. Here are some suggestions: “Indecent Proposals of the Rich and Famous” or “Hollywood OBGYN” or “The Duggar Challenge,” or “The Billionaire Bunch.” Maybe Forbes will have a special issue covering the most prolific billionaires of the year.

The rich and powerful also had a tendency to wage a lot of wars and get a lot of their people killed, but I’m not saying we need to start killing more dumb people. They usually end up doing that to themselves anyway. As long as we don’t get too crazy with new safety regulations, and we reform tort laws so people can’t sue someone else when they do something really stupid, the dumbest of the dumb won’t survive long enough to worry about!

Intelligent Evolution

I think I can evolve....

I think I can evolve….

The theory of evolution, as formulated by Charles Darwin, proposes that creatures evolve through random mutation and that the subsequent competition among and within species results in the survival of those with the most successful characteristics. There is strong evidence that random mutation occurs and that competition leads to survival of the fittest. But is this theory a complete explanation for the process of evolution, or just one major part?

I knew I could evolve!

I knew I could evolve!

Darwin’s evidence is compelling, but it does not exclude the possibility of other biological mechanisms at work. We cannot, for instance, prove that all mutation is random. In fact, there is reason to believe that some genetic changes may be induced by organisms themselves in response to changes in the environment. This needs to be studied in a rigorous scientific way. The hypothesis would be that non-random evolutionary mutations occur when an organism is subjected to different environmental conditions. We may further hypothesize that mutations can be induced by either changes in the physical environment and the mental, hormonal or other states of the organism.

Microbiome

Microbiome

Deeply religious people who deny the scientific validity of evolution prefer to believe that there is a superior intelligence directing all biological changes. They claim to have a scientific basis for their theories about an intelligent designer, but really have nothing more than a belief in god and their resultant doubts about evolution. But what if organisms actually have the inherent capability to influence their own design? Could it be that our DNA can be easily altered when necessary? Can the microorganisms living within us adapt by prompting changes within our own DNA? Humans are just not singular organisms, we are a microbiome comprised mostly of bacteria and other organisms, including more than 10 times as many bacteria cells as human cells.

A complex organism such as a human might require many generations over an extremely long period of time to adapt to an environmental change through random mutation. But what if we don’t have very long to adapt or die in a crisis? The organisms within our bodies are short-lived and therefore can adapt much more quickly. What if we rely on these organisms to speed up own own adaptation? If these organisms can adapt quickly to our body’s changing internal environment, which is affected by our external environment, and respond by manipulating our bodies, doesn’t that mean that genetic changes can be driven by environmental changes as perceived through our senses of touch, taste, smell, sound and sight? Are changes activated subconsciously or in reaction to conscious mental perceptions of environmental changes or simply due to the influence of our microbiome?

In March 2005, a Perdue University study revealed that Arabidopsis plants, a member of the mustard family that is a favorite experimental subject, can correct defective genes inherited from their parents. Although both parents had mutated versions of a particular gene, they discovered that ten percent of the children had somehow repaired the mutant gene using ancestral DNA. This accidental discovery showed that there is another way that genetic information can be inherited that was previously unknown. These plants, in effect, were able to reverse the process of mutation through use of a “backup” copy of older DNA. We need to understand the conditions under which evolutionary mutations can be reversed. Was this a random event or a reactive response to a bad mutation induced by the organism itself? This ability to reverse the evolutionary process may be infrequent and does not invalidate the theory of evolution, but it should lead to a refinement of the theory.

Natural Camouflage

Natural Camouflage

Is there secret information in our DNA? We know that our DNA is like an incredibly detailed blueprint for the creation and operation of our bodies. It contains instructions for when to activate and when to turn off certain genes. Maybe it also contains information on how our genes can be modified to better enable us to adapt to environmental changes. If adaptability is such an important trait, why wouldn’t it make sense for an organism to gain an advantage by building in the capability to adapt through deliberate mutation instead of just random mutation? We may not be chameleons able to change our color at will, but maybe, given enough stimulus over a long period of time, we can slowly change our eye color, our skin color, our hair color, and many other aspects of our bodies rather than wait for a random mutation to do the job for us.

Not your average bear

Not your average bear

It would be useful to examine that ability of an organism to induce mutations by creating studies to measure the frequency of advantageous mutations compared to disadvantageous ones. The study would have to create artificial changes in the physical environment such that certain mutations could be clearly defined as advantageous or disadvantageous. An organism that already has advantageous characteristics (e.g. different color scheme, thicker skin, more hair) would be examined to provide a point of reference for likely trait changes that may be observed. If the frequency of advantageous mutations compared to disadvantageous ones is greater in the study groups than in the control group, then we will have some indication that mutations can be induced.

A further step would be to examine the ability of an organism to induce mutations mentally. Such a study would replace changes to environmental conditions with the mental perception of a particular event. The event could be something that clearly benefits an organism with advantageous characteristics and punishes those with disadvantageous ones. The ability of simple organisms to perceive and react to threats to their survival might make such a study possible. However, the threats would have to be perceived rather than real and there would have to be a set of advantageous and disadvantageous responses to that threat that would affect the genetic makeup of their offspring.

Exploding Toads?

Exploding Toads?

The ability of organisms to perceive threats is well known. A mysterious case of exploding toads caught the attention of journalists in 2005. It turns out that in a particular part of Germany, birds had learned that toads had tasty livers and had learned how to swoop down and pluck them out. The toads responded to this increased threat by puffing up their chests so much that they started exploding by the thousands. I wonder if this case of widespread fear will induce a genetic change that increases the ability of toad offspring to puff up their chests or to protect them in some other way instead of relying on natural selection to weed out the bad genes.

Some believe that spiritual or energy healers can cure physical conditions in our bodies. If this is true, can this same process be used to induce permanent changes in our genes? Since a sophisticated study of the ability to mentally induce mutations may require the ability to perceive and understand current events or to anticipate future events, it may be necessary to limit participation to the most intelligent animals or human subjects. The placebo effect is well known and taken into account in all medical studies to ensure that the effect of new drugs can be established separately from the mentally-induced effect upon people who believe they are taking a new drug. Perhaps a similar methodology can be developed to measure the ability of people to induce mutations in their own DNA.

For example, a controlled study could be established that purports to be testing out a new drug designed to cure an inheritable condition. The cure for the condition would have to clearly require changes to a well-known gene. A successful study would require that couples take the placebo before conceiving children and subsequently have children who exhibit the needed changes to that gene. The probability that such mutations could have occurred randomly would have to be statistically insignificant. Unfortunately, the ability of humans to induce specific genetic changes may be extremely rare, so the chance of success in such a study may be extremely low if it does not have a huge sample population.

There may be other ways to test the ability of people to mentally influence the functioning of their bodies that do not require actual genetic changes. The survival of the fittest rewards characteristics that promote the continuation of the species, so experiments that involve reproduction are important. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that human couples have more babies after men return from a war than they would otherwise have had in more normal circumstances. While the variables in this situation are many (e.g. the amount of sex and the effects of long periods of abstinence, restricted diet, and extreme physical and mental exertion) it leads me to ask another question. Are military couples more likely to conceive prior to a deployment for war than they would if they did not anticipate such a deployment? If so, the factors that influence the answer should be limited to the effects of mental anticipation and the number of times they have sex.

There is also anecdotal evidence of people being unable to conceive a child when under extreme stress but able to do so as soon as that stress is relieved. It would be useful to study this and determine if humans have the capacity to suppress the functioning of their own reproductive system through the release of hormones or some other mechanism. If so, it will provide additional support to the theory that a variety of physical changes can be induced mentally and can perhaps even be made permanent through changes to inheritable genes.

I can’t say I’ve seen compelling evidence that changes in DNA can be deliberate as well as random, but I suspect this is because nobody is looking. Scientists usually have no interest in challenging a well-accepted theory, and they are even less likely to do so when the only ones challenging it are non-scientific types like the Intelligent Design crowd. No respectable scientist would want to be caught dead on their side. So, who is willing to take a new, fresh, look at the theory of evolution to refine and build upon it? Sir Isaac Newton wasn’t wrong about classical mechanics, but Albert Einstein corrected his work with his theories of relativity. Who is willing to build on the work of Charles Darwin? It has been long enough. The time has come.

Alien Politics

Roswell UFO Crash

Roswell UFO Crash

Many people believe that an alien craft crash-landed at Roswell, NM in 1947. The main problem I have with this has nothing to do with the existence of extraterrestrials, the possibility that they may have been visiting our planet for thousands of years, or the probability that our own government has decided to cover up the evidence for our own peace of mind. Covering stuff up is, after all, something the government is used to doing and does fairly well when it comes to perceived national security issues or illegal activity by government officials.

The main problem I have with the Roswell incident is that I don’t understand why an advanced alien civilization would not have immediately sent out a search and rescue party to recover the bodies and ship debris and, if possible, clear out the memories of anyone involved in the discovery. There could be many explanations for this, so let’s do some postulating.

UFO Observing Earth

UFO Observing Earth

With the rise of smart phones and GPS, we have become pretty good at locating each other. I would expect a super-advanced alien civilization to be even better at locating each other precisely, so there shouldn’t have been any question as to where the ship went down. If we can build an accurate GPS system, they’ve got to have something much, much better.

On the other hand, what if they don’t need all the technological gadgets that we do? We developed GPS mainly so we could do a better job of spying and dropping bombs on each other. Maybe that just isn’t a concern for them. Maybe they really can communicate via telepathy, or via some kind of biological communications technology embedded in their brains, so they don’t need some artificial tracking device to tell them where their buddies are. Besides, would tracking devices even work through wormholes or during time-warping travel? Telepathic aliens  might normally be in contact at all times, so it could be that there just isn’t any market need for tracking devices.

UFO Crash

UFO Crash

What if the ship that crashed at Roswell was disabled before they could send out a telepathic or technical call for help. Maybe the mother ship really didn’t know where they were until the local Air Force base announced the discovery and it was broadcast over the radio.

Roswell Newspaper Story

Roswell Newspaper Story

By then, enough damage had been done and perhaps it would have been too difficult to try and retrieve the bodies that were being examined by military officials. Perhaps aliens have some physical weakness and were afraid to confront too many soldiers with guns. I doubt that extraterrestrial explorers would have much need for specially-trained SWAT/special forces teams to execute covert snatch/grab operations.

Alien Attack

Alien Attack

But somehow, I doubt that our visitors would be totally helpless. Wouldn’t they at least have advanced robotics that could go into harms way for them? How do they explore hostile planetary environments that do not support their form of life? Humans are already sending robots to explore the most distant bodies in our solar system, so why wouldn’t aliens be able to do this too? Besides, there are plenty of reports of alien abductions where people have been paralyzed by an unknown force while they are kidnapped and examined or experimented on, with their memories mostly wiped except for flashbacks and dreams. So, why didn’t this happen … or did it? Maybe there is no evidence because it was later retrieved.

One might envision a scenario would go something like this.

“Captain Kloop reporting from Earth station Alpha. We just had a Grey harvest ship go down on the planet. Two are dead and one is in critical condition. The ship is a total wreck. The ape-men have already spotted the wreckage and several hundred of them are swarming over the area, so we can’t launch a quick recovery mission. We’ll have to wait until they relocate the bodies and plan out a snatch mission after nightfall. We may need a full squad of our best teleparalyzers, some kinetic beamlifters, and a recovery sweeper. Hold on, we’re picking up an ape-man broadcast announcing the crash. We’ll probably have thousands of reporters and other natives swarming over the area in a few hours. We’ll have to get some guidance from the Terrestrial Preservation Committee first.”

Men in Black

Men in Black

“Since it was just a low-tech Mini ship and it’s pretty smashed up, the committee decided to leave it up to the federal ape-man liaison group to cover up the news and retrieve the ship and its crew. We’ll notify the men in black to start working the issue.”

Using humans to work on their behalf would be a natural way to deal with any terrestrial situations that arise. Human empires have always installed colonial authorities mostly run by native peoples as an effective way of governing the locals. Why wouldn’t aliens make at least some use of humans to help them achieve whatever aims they might have? Some believe they even grow their own humans.

On the other hand, perhaps nobody came to recover the craft. What if the ship was exploring on its own and was therefore not in touch with a nearby mother ship? Maybe alien cultures have poachers and smugglers just like us. They could have been on an illicit mission that was not sanctioned by the governing authorities, or maybe there are no governing authorities.

Cowboys and Aliens

Cowboys and Aliens

They could have been looking for gold, or cow blood, or Earth collectibles. Maybe Earth is a wildlife preserve that is supposed to be protected for approved scientific research only and they were breaking the rules. If this were the case, maybe nobody knew that they were even there, never mind that they crashed.

Who knows what kind of alien politics could have been going on behind the scenes after the Roswell crash? Speaking of the Men in Black, could one of these buildings be their present or future headquarters? The Pentagon just doesn’t cut it anymore–it’s just so … 20th century.

GCHQ Headquarters

GCHQ Headquarters

 

Apple's Proposed Spaceship Headquarters

Apple’s Proposed Spaceship Headquarters

Death, Taxes, and Digital Rights

Digital Identity

Digital Identity

You can’t take your stuff with you when you die, so the last act of any individual is usually to specify who gets their stuff. Much of it may be taxed to death, depending on where you live, but that is only if the government can find and value it. We know that your real property and accumulated wealth will be taxed (unless it is small enough to hide from the tax authorities), but what about your digital property?

The current generation is probably the first one to ever consider the likelihood that, when we die, we may have accumulated a very large stash of digital content or even money. For all intents and purposes, that content will be as perfect as the day it was downloaded or created, unless someone creates new formats that makes the old formats unusable or undesirable. This is likely as we move to video formats with even higher resolution (4K) and music formats that have better sound quality than MP3 (which is actually much worse than old, uncompressed CD files). The content will still have at least some value and would probably command a reasonable price. Even a digital identity in an online game may have value to other gamers, who would otherwise need to spend years to achieve the same level of success or acquire the artifacts one gamer has managed to accumulate.

Digital Media

Digital Media

But can your digital property be passed on to your heirs? Will each heir be able to get their own copy or will only one copy be legal to pass on? Will it be taxed? If so, how will that be possible and how will it be valued? Can content even be sold to someone else in order to generate the money needed to pay the tax? Could it be that the issue of digital rights will actually force a change in our obtuse tax code, which requires that everything we own be shared with the government first before it can be passed on to the friends and family that most likely have been enjoying our stuff for years? I know they will try to find and tax digital money, but will the government try and tax digital content?

You can’t tax what has no market resale value, so might the IRS try and force Apple and Amazon, for instance, to value someone’s digital music library and allow its transfer to an heir and its resale to others so that they can take part of its value in taxes? Imagine that Apple sells, say 1 million copies of a song each year, but 10,000 of copies of the same song end up in the accounts of newly-deceased customers. To tax those 10,000 copies, the government would have to ensure that ownership of the property could be passed on and that there exists a marketplace in which it could be sold. Would Apple be required to put those 10,000 copies up for sale again? That effectively means they would have to subtract the value of those 10,000 copies from their new sales and disburse the proceeds to the inheriting owner and the IRS. The same applies to movies, e-books, and all other forms of digital content.

Identity Theft Tax Fraud

Identity Theft Tax Fraud

I know, it sounds ludicrous, but if the government can find a way to tax something, it probably will try. But considering that the IRS paid out over $5 billion in fraudulent refunds to identity thieves in 2013 and can’t seem to stop themselves from giving away taxpayer money, I doubt they have the capability to even think about finding and taxing digital content.

It it were possible to easily transfer or resell digital content, this would eventually lead to the proliferation of copies until there was no longer any demand left for the purchase of new copies. All existing digital content would lose market value and become free. Isn’t this the trend anyway? The cost of computer processing, storage and bandwidth is already headed towards free. The only thing stopping content from following them down the road to free is the artificial restriction we place on its transfer to other individuals. How long can content owners expect to receive royalties for their work? 1000 years from now, will Michael Jackson’s descendants still receive royalty checks? I doubt it, but his estate currently earns $145 million per year. How long will the gravy train last?

Should the government even try and tax digital content? Will anybody claim that there is a need to prevent the next generation from inheriting collections of music, movies, digital books, digital art, and other treasures lest there be a permanent gap between the haves and have-nots of knowledge and culture? Probably. We already hear about the “digital divide” between kids who have access to computers and the Internet and those who do not. I can hear the complaints now about access to content. “It’s not fair that rich kids have access to all the world’s best entertainment and educational content, leaving the poor with nothing, even though the marginal cost of bits is zero. Besides, information wants to be free!

Cloud-Based Content

Cloud-Based Content

Digital rights schemes were originally devised in such a manner that the right to an object was assigned to a particular piece of hardware. However, the movement to cloud-based storage and applications means that content is now mostly assigned to a digital identity (i.e. a person), not a particular piece of hardware. But how is a digital identity managed? Does it die when we die? No, there is currently no connection between our digital identity and our real identity unless it is tied to real property such as your home or bank account. Our digital stuff, and our rights to that stuff, could theoretically continue forever. I could pass on all my accounts and passwords to everything I own to one or all of my heirs, as long as the cloud-based service providers do not take steps to obtain my real identity and limit access to purchased content after I die.

In real life, we share stuff with our friends and family, including books, movies, and music. We don’t share them with millions of people, just a few. So, how can we ensure that our digital stuff can just as easily be shared within this circle after we die? Most music now consists of unencrypted MP3 files, but the same cannot be said of movies or e-books. I don’t know of any current way to transfer digital content from one digital identity to another. You can buy a Kindle e-book and give it to someone else as a gift, but you can’t give away your entire Kindle library.

Bitcoin

Bitcoin

Bitcoin is a new kind of digital property because it is digital money that is tied only to a digital identity. There is no requirement to tie it to your real identity, so there is no sure way for the government to find and tax it. You can store it in a digital file or print it out on paper. You can pass that file or paper to your heirs with nothing more than an account and a password and be able to pass that value secretly to anyone you choose. Of course, you had best make sure you don’t forget to pass on the information or it will be lost forever. In other words, put the account details where your heirs will find it.

I predict that, in the coming years, people who are organized enough will ensure that their digital identities live on so that their heirs can benefit from their digital property. Estate planners may even recommend transferring some assets into Bitcoin or other digital currency. Once it is in digital form, it can be divided, moved and hidden. Sure, the government will be able to watch bank transfers into and out of Bitcoin, but I’m sure that other, more secret, methods of converting money will arise. Will the desire to hide money from the government without the need for a Swiss bank account (which, by the way, is no longer a safe place to hide from the US government) drive up the value of Bitcoin over time? It is already being driven up in value mostly by speculation as to its future value.

This means that people will need to leave, in their will or another private document, a list of accounts such as Bitcoin accounts, email addresses, Amazon.com account, AppleID, Google Play account, etc., so that their digital property can be preserved. Eventually, I suspect that content owners will attempt to move people from an ownership model to a pay-for-access model for digital content. Examples include Netflix or Amazon Prime for movies and Pandora or Spotify for music. This kind of model will ensure that digital rights die with you, since somebody will still need to pay for them to ensure continued access.

Transcendence

Transcendence

Will anybody be able to buy a lifetime membership anymore? Not if a business can’t tell if you are dead or alive. My father has been dead for years, but my mother continues to receive the magazine that comes as a part of his lifetime membership in the NRA. I wonder how long it will be before they figure out he’s probably dead, or will they ever? Maybe digital content providers will try and move towards biometric authentication, in which case you may need to keep your loved one’s finger or eyeball to ensure continued access to their digital property. Is this a business opportunity? Hmmm. “Hey dad, I made an appointment for you with Digital Immortality. They will scan your entire body, take video and audio samples, and then store you in digital form so we can keep you around forever! For now, we’ll keep you on my iPad, but eventually we may be able to buy a customized robot that looks and sounds just like you! Isn’t that cool?”

I’ve already begun the process of storing myself digitally. Photos, videos, music, books, writings, ideas, scanned art and artifacts, and anything else I can get into digital form. Where will it be stored? In the cloud, I presume. I plan to have my digital identity live forever. This blog may never die, assuming someone wants to inherit the account and keep it going. Maybe I’ll write a year’s worth of stories and write a program to post one of them every week. Maybe I’ll integrate it with an news-writing algorithm to make it look current. Eventually, the bots will write our news and you will not be able to tell the difference anyway.

Digital Persona

Digital Persona

Nothing used to be certain but death and taxes, but I think we can add another thing to the list. Within a couple of generations, all old digital content will probably become free. When this finally happens, my digital identity will be able to rest in peace. In the meantime, I’m going to try and make it live as long as possible.

Save the Cows on Yom Kippur

No leather shoes on Yom Kippur

No leather shoes on Yom Kippur

I was just reading up on Yom Kippur because I’m expected to attend a “break the fast” party at the end of the holiday. This is when most Jews get together to stuff their faces after having fasted for 24 hours. I learned that, while everyone knows not to fast, they probably don’t know about four other prohibitions for that day.

For some reason, Jews are not supposed to wear leather shoes on Yom Kippur. Maybe god just didn’t want anyone to wear any good shoes at all, since it is a day of rest after all. Leather was just the best available footwear technology at the time, but I don’t think he would have been that specific without a reason. Was god not able to predict the development of plastic and other artificial materials? Throughout the Old Testament, it is quite evident that god wanted us to sacrifice a lot of livestock. With all that killing of animals, I would expect there to have been an abundance of leather available for shoes and other items of apparel. So, I don’t quite get why he would want to ban the wearing of leather shoes specifically.

Beyonce in Leather Boots

Beyonce in Leather Boots

Maybe he really wanted to ban the wearing of sexy leather clothes to protect us from our sado-masochistic impulses. Of course, he couldn’t come right out and say we can’t dress in leather boots, tight leather pants, leather face masks and leather whips, since some people would have run right out and invented them that afternoon and committed all kinds of perverted sexual sins by that evening. No, he had to be more subtle and hope we stopped making leather apparel in general, thus avoiding the temptation entirely.

Some people really do want to follow all the rules, even the ones that are not commonly known, so they have already looked into other types of footwear that might be permissible. Crocs would seem to be a perfectly good alternative since they are completely made of artificial material.

Crocs on Yom Kippur?

Crocs on Yom Kippur?

However, according to Lithuanian religious leader Rabbi Elyashiv, crocs should be avoided since they are too comfortable and do not provide the level of suffering one should feel on the holiday. Yup, he wants you to suffer more. Sure, god could have just said “no comfortable shoes,” but that leaves it up to the discretion of the wearer as to whether or not they are really comfortable. It also makes his intent more apparent, which, at least according to some religious scholars, is the desire to make us suffer, if only for a day.

On the other hand, maybe god wasn’t bothered so much by the leather as he was by red meat in general. Maybe god really just wanted to ban the eating of red meat to protect our hearts. He had already banned shellfish and a bunch of other “non-kosher” stuff, presumably to protect us from sickness, but probably didn’t want to keep raining down manna until we found some other decent food supply. Maybe he figured that we would be so busy sacrificing animals that there would only be barely enough left for one serving of red meat per person per week. I believe this limit was supposed to have been inscribed on the first Egyptian food pyramid. He probably didn’t think we were smart enough to figure out that it didn’t make much sense to burn all of our livestock and live in poverty and on the verge of starvation. He certainly couldn’t have realized that McDonalds would eventually give up counting how many billions of customers would be served artery-clogging beef by-products.

Animal Sacrifice

Animal Sacrifice

But maybe he really is smarter than I give him credit for. It could also be that he was actually thinking ahead to a time when people would actually be able to make decent shoes without leather and wanted to give the animal rights activists another good reason for banning the misuse of animals. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the one who made all those rules commanding us to sacrifice perfectly good livestock is actually a huge proponent of animal rights? I guess if we look at it from a wider perspective, we will realize that there really weren’t that many people back when the Laws of Moses were first made, so the impact on the livestock population probably wouldn’t have been as bad as it would be today. If a thousand Hebrews burned a thousand animals per year back then, can you imagine how many we would have to sacrifice today to meet the weekly quota? I don’t think there would be a burger left for McDonalds to sell and Italian leather goods would be unaffordable. So, god must have predicted we would eventually figure out that we had to stop sacrificing animals to avoid their extinction. Unfortunately, we haven’t been smart enough to figure out that too much red meat might kill you, and who wants to waste all that leftover leather?

To take the place of animal sacrifices, god had to find a way to ban leather without saying why he didn’t want us to have leather. If he told us it was to keep cows from going extinct, we would have shrugged our shoulders and moved on to lamb, and buffalo, and alligator, and kangaroo, and whatever else makes a good hide. God must be an animal rights activist who was way before his time. He knew that a little bit of animal sacrifice back then would have given the people something fun to do to spice up the boring prayer sessions, but would, in the long run, have to be phased out.

Land of Milk and Honey

Land of Milk and Honey

Why didn’t god just tell Moses the secret for how to make other kinds of shoes? That could have saved a lot of cows in the past few thousand years. Cotton would have been a good choice, but it was probably fairly hard to grow in the desert and he apparently had no interest in making the Middle East a friendlier place to live. After all, if it were too nice, full of rivers, waterfalls, flowers, rolling plains and forests, for example, people would have been more inclined to fight over it. Who would want to fight over a desert? Hmmm, I’m still not sure why anyone would want to do that.

The secret of polyester would have been an awesome gift to give Moses. But it also probably would have prematurely made the Hebrews rich beyond their wildest imaginations. Unfortunately, there is nothing worse than wealth and success to discourage people from worshipping a god. People seem to be far more appreciative of the almighty when they are poor, uneducated, and continuously persecuted by other groups. So, apparently, god decided to make the Hebrews burn their most valuable assets (i.e. livestock) to keep them poor, humble, and extremely devoted. He also declined to provide any substitute for leather shoes until such time as the technology enabled the Chinese to make shoes so cheap that nobody else could possibly make any money from them.

In short, god banned leather shoes on Yom Kippur to save our hearts, save us from sexual perversion, and save the cows. As a bonus, it would also be a way to prevent wealthy Jews who buy hideously expensive Italian (i.e. Roman Catholic) leather shoes from showing them off on the high holy days. I’m glad I figured that out, because I can now explain the reason I will be going shoe less.

No bathing on Yom Kippur

No bathing on Yom Kippur

Two of the other activities prohibited on Yom Kippur are bathing/washing and anointing oneself with perfumes or lotions. Now I’m not sure how they celebrated the holiday back then, but I can imagine that it was really hot and stinky in the temple all day. By the time the day was over, I’m sure everyone wanted to enjoy breaking their fast in private, where they could actually smell the food, not the stinking bodies around them.

Today, it is a tradition for Jews to get together in temple to see people they haven’t seen all year, because they probably haven’t been to temple since last Yom Kippur. This isn’t a problem for Jews, since they only have to confess their sins once per year and get to start all over again. It is certainly much more convenient than the weekly confession system than the Catholics set up to boost attendance. After Yom Kippur services, someone usually hosts a party where their friends can share a big meal to break their fast. This holiday is a time when people want to be seen at their best, which means wearing their best clothes (minus the Italian leather shoes), getting their hair styled, fixing their makeup, putting on their most expensive jewelry, and, oh, not stinking. If they followed the rules to the letter, the human stench would make this whole holiday needlessly unpleasant.

No perfume on Yom Kippur

No perfume on Yom Kippur

So, the question is, why did god ban both bathing and perfume instead of just one or the other? It seems to me that he could have given people the option to either cover their stench with perfume or to wash, but not both. It would still have involved some sacrifice, but not enough to keep us from showing up in public at the most important holiday of the year.

For people who decide to follow both rules, one would hope they at least clean themselves before the big party after sundown. But people are usually so starving by then that they want to get right to the food. Men can just jump in the shower and be ready in a few minutes. But it’s a little too much to expect women to be ready without having most of the day to prepare. They need to shower, shave, blow dry their hair, get dressed, get undressed, change into something else, find out what their friends are wearing, change back, put on their makeup, and finally get out the door before their husbands and boyfriends leave without them. The night would be over by the time most of them were ready. So, it seems to me that these two rules must be a mistake.

It could have been an either/or choice that got lost in translation. Or maybe bathing was just one of those things that used to involve a lot of work and thus was not considered appropriate for a day of rest. Someone had to carry many buckets of water from a well, pour it into a basin and start a fire to get the water nice and warm. Watch Survivor and see how much fun it is trying getting a fire started without matches. Today, taking a bath or a shower is fun. Who is against having fun on a day of rest? Perfume, for that matter, was probably something that only Egyptian princesses could afford anyway, so banning it wasn’t exactly a sacrifice. So, you can consider the perfume ban a reasonable sacrifice, but going to a public function without bathing, no way! At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I’m hungry.

No sex on Yom Kippur

No sex on Yom Kippur

OK, now for the final prohibition for Yom Kippur. Marital relations. That’s right, no sex Friday night and no Saturday morning quickies–just a long, boring night with no food, no sex, and nothing else that violates the rules for the Sabbath. It always comes back to sex, doesn’t it? God just can’t get over the fact that we really like to have sex. Like I said, who could be against fun, especially on a day or night of rest! It isn’t like sex is actually work. OK, maybe that isn’t entirely true. It probably used to be work back in biblical times if you were just one of many concubines or slaves and had to put out even when you were tired, especially if your master threw a party and decided to share you with his friends. So, for some, I agree, sex could have been more work than play. I guess god wanted to make it a holiday even for wives and slaves. Today, women are perfectly willing and able to say no to sex if they don’t want it, which is pretty likely if they are planning a big party or getting dressed and ready to go to temple for the first time all year.

To make sure it was a day of rest, god could have just said no concubines, slaves, prostitutes or orgies during Yom Kippur. But that would have implied he knew we were going to be breaking his other anti-sex rules every other day, which of course we do and always will. So, he couldn’t exactly say that and not look like a fool. Hence, the total ban on sex during the holiday. Is this reasonable? No sex for a day? Considering that we’re supposed to be confessing our sins, asking for forgiveness, and praying all day, I guess I’d have to say yes, it is a small sacrifice to pay. After a day spent in temple checking out all the gussied up hot guys and girls and, hopefully, getting forgiven for what we did last year, followed by a night of binge drinking and gorging, the sex is bound to be that much better anyway. So, in a sense, god was doing us a favor by making us wait.

In summary, Yom Kippur is a day when you just have to suck it up for a day. No food, no bathing, no perfume, no Italian leather shoes, and no sex. Would you even want to have sex without bathing or perfume? For guys, probably yes. For women, not so much. In fact, there are plenty of other interpretations on what else needs to be banned, even if they were not specifically mentioned by god, including technology, toothbrushes, and makeup.  But whatever you do, please, please, please, take a long, leisurely hot shower before you show up to pig out at the sundown food fest. Eat plenty of bagels, Whitefish and Smoked Salmon. Then get your asses home and finish off the evening the way god intended–drunk, naked, and satisfied. But whatever you do, no burgers or leather apparel, please. Save the cows!

Hunger Games Yom Kippur

Hunger Games Yom Kippur

Hunger Games

Endangered Species in Africa

Endangered Species in Africa

How much, I wonder, would it cost to buy about one million square miles of sub-Saharan Africa? The continent itself is about 11.67 million square miles, but I don’t need it all. I just want to build a zoo large enough to save most of the endangered African animals. By contrast, the US is about 3.8 million square miles and the entire world has about 57 million square miles worth of land. Even with a human population projected to reach 11 billion people by 2100, surely there has got to be some room for our favorite large animals. Let’s face it, most people don’t really care about all the tiny, little-known creatures that are threatened with extinction. But we do care about the big, scary ones. The ones we go to zoos to see. Lions and tigers and bears–er, elephants–oh my!

African real estate can’t be that expensive, especially considering how much food, medicine, and money we already send them just to keep the poorest of them alive. It’s a pretty crappy place for people to live anyway. It’s beautiful, but harsh. I suspect that central Africa would be available at a bargain price if someone were to make the right offer. The only condition would, of course, be that all humans would have to move out and stay out.

We could move the native African populations to where, as Sam Kinison would say, the food is. Why keep sinking our money into sustaining poor African countries that can’t manage to even feed themselves when we could pay to build them a new habitat someplace else where they could actually sustain themselves with a sufficient amount of food, water, medicine and shelter? Pay off a few dictators and we’d have a deal for the zoo of all zoos. Actually, let’s call it a wildlife reservation.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Let’s look at the African real estate and see if there are any bargains out there. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is smack in the middle of sub-Saharan Africa and probably a great place for wildlife. It is also one of the poorest nations. It has about 67.5 million people and a per capita GDP of $454 as of 2013. And it has been going down, not up, so I’m thinking it’s bargaining time. This comes to under $31 billion in GDP for over 900,000 square miles of space. That amount of space would do just fine for a wildlife reservation, and it’s chump change for the USA. We increase our national debt by more than that every two weeks.

I’d probably have to build some kind of wall around the reservation in anticipation of a rebound in the predator population and also, of course, to keep people out. About 50 years ago, there were about 450,000 lions, 700,000 leopards, 500,000 rhinos, and millions of elephants in Africa. Now, there are only about 20,000 lions, 50,000 leopards, 25,000 rhinos, and maybe 300,000 elephants left. They are still being slaughtered at rates that could easily drive them into extinction within the next decade or two.

So, here is my solution. Forget about zoos. Not only are they cruel prisons for animals, they are also boring. Who wants to go to the zoo only to, at best, get a glimpse of a lion sleeping in the grass or on a rock? Who wants to see a cheetah that can’t trot more than a few yards? This is the age of computers and global communications, so why not just scrap the whole idea of a zoo and provide a high-tech way to follow them into their natural habitat?

BBC Africa

BBC Africa

I know–we already have plenty of movies and documentaries featuring the animals of Africa. I do enjoy watching them, but this is not what I mean. How about a real, live, 4K super high definition, 3D feed from cameras and microphones, and maybe even odor sensors, in Africa watching, and maybe even following, them around. Throw in some infrared cameras for night viewing and we’ll have quite a show. We would use broadcast towers, self-driving jeeps with cameras, remotely piloted vehicles, or even balloons–whatever it takes. It would be the Greatest Show on Earth! Remind me to buy that trademark.

Survivor Africa

Survivor Africa

It would be kind of like the Hunger Games movie. No, exactly like the Hunger Games minus the people. Well, actually, I would consider including people if we find them trying to poach some of our protected wildlife. That would be a special pay per view event option for adult viewing only. To be fair, I would give them a knife to protect themselves, and maybe even a flak jacket, but obviously they would have to surrender their high-powered rifles.

Don’t give me that look, you know people would pay to see a guy get eaten by a lion or trampled by a rhino! The Romans did it for sport, but I would use it merely to discourage criminal activity within the zoo. Surely you can see the difference. It probably wouldn’t even be that frequent an event, but if it generates enough cash to help maintain the reservation, then it’s a win-win situation! I might even consider offering convicted prisoners on death row with a choice: survive for a month and you can go free. We would follow them around with drones and guys on the ground, of course, so it could be a new hit reality TV show. Move over Survivor Africa, here comes the new, improved, Survivor Africa! I have to remember to buy that trademark too. That show will certainly bring in millions of dollars in TV rights. Maybe there will even be action figures for the guys who actually survive. The abandoned human cities could even be used as film locations for disaster or alien invasion movies.

Steve Irwin Crocodile Hunter

Steve Irwin Crocodile Hunter

Eventually, the animal population would rebound and provide breathtaking viewing opportunities. We might even allow hunters into the park for special hunting events. No, they wouldn’t be allowed to use super long-range elephant guns. Just an old fashioned rifle and as much courage as they can muster. Maybe even guys like Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, will just want to go in with no weapons at all just for the hell of it! I guarantee you that the bidding for these limited opportunities would probably go through the roof and generate tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Please don’t talk to me about cruelty to animals. If I can provide a park that saves many species from extinction and allows their populations to grow and flourish in freedom, then I think I can sacrifice a few of them to help make it all possible.

Every zoo in the world would be encouraged to give up their live animal cages and replace them with super 3D viewing, listening, and smelling rooms. We could even regulate the temperature, humidity, precipitation, and air movement to match that of the African environment. If the live video feeds aren’t exciting enough, we could record the best activity and replay it. Imagine listening to Enya’s album “Storms in Africa” while actually being in a virtual African storm!

The question is, can we earn $31 billion per year in revenues so that the place will at least break even? It might not have to if we can actually get the people of the Congo trained to be more productive than they currently are and we get a cut of the profit. We will probably have to reserve some real estate around the capital city of Kinshasa, which is fortunately near the edge of the country, as a place to relocate the citizens. However, I would prefer to create an entirely new type of city shaped in a ring around the wildlife preserve that is only a few miles thick but a thousand miles around connected by a high-speed rail system. This would provide the needed support for all the border guards and maintenance personnel who will need to work on the surveillance vehicles. I will, of course, need lots of people to build the border fences and border security guards to keep people from breaking in. To generate revenue, I would need vehicle operators and maintainers, video commentators and editors, wildlife guides, veterinarians, communications tower technicians, TV producers, etc. I’m working on that business plan right now.

Enya - Storms in Africa

Enya – Storms in Africa

I think it’s a cool idea and I’m willing to put billions of dollars on the line to get it started. I just need billions of dollars and a bit of diplomatic support to help get the people out of the Congo and into a new city. If you think this is a bad idea, then consider the alternative. We can do nothing until these animals really all are extinct and then have nothing left to build but a super 3D computer-generated viewing room full of fake animals doing what people think they would have been doing had they still been alive. Not so exciting.

Would you really choose virtual reality over real reality? If so, I guess you are also likely to settle for a virtual girlfriend instead of a real one. Good luck with that. I’ll be discussing virtual sex in an upcoming post, so stay tuned. But I’d rather look into the eyes of a beautiful lioness and hear her chilling growl than settle for a computer simulation any day.

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How The Internet Killed Profit

EarthVisitor:

Great article. How Internet retail works: you lose money but make up for it in volume! Is a second dot com crash coming when investors finally figure this out?

Originally posted on TechCrunch:

Editor’s note:Tom Goodwin is the founder of Tomorrow Group, a marketing and advertising consultancy for the post-digital age.

New eras in technology have always brought a fear of job losses and the devastation of legacy industries, but the Internet has taken us beyond “creative destruction.” It’s destroying the very foundations of business.

Software is indeed eating the world, in Marc Andreessen’s words, and we’re presented with an abundance of value being generated for consumers, but what if it’s killing the profit margin? It was Heraclitus who thought that nothing new ever came into our lives without a hidden curse, and from the steam age to the electrical age to the early Internet, we’ve long heard the cries of Luddites or neo-Luddites angry at the change.

They’ve had a point: Whether it was the industrialization of agriculture or the long decline of the postal industry, we’ve seen job losses on…

View original 1,487 more words

Public Safety For Sale

Safety for Sale

Safety for Sale

Have you noticed that car license plates, which used to be simple and boring, can now be purchased with many different designs and custom characters? When I was a kid, we used to try and identify the state of a license plate just by its background and text colors. I know, it was kinda lame, but without cell phones or built-in car entertainment systems, there wasn’t much else to do on a long road trip. Anyway, the numbers were large and easy to read without any clutter in the background to obscure them, so it wasn’t terribly hard. Not any longer. There are way too many designs for every state.

Specialty License Plate

Specialty License Plate

You can now pay extra for designs that sometimes interfere with one’s ability to read the numbers from a distance. The colors of the background can merge with or distort the appearance of some characters so that they cannot be easily identified. Private groups can even get their own special logo on a license plate now, along with a reserved sequence of letters and numbers. Special plate configurations even use two or three letters arranged in a vertical column, which means that they are much smaller than a normal license number.

Has anybody in state motor vehicle administrations taken an eye exam recently? If so, they should know that smaller letters cannot be seen from the same distance as larger ones. But of course they know this. They are just solving a new problem. No, not the problem license plates were invented for, which, in case they have forgotten, was to identify the vehicle and its owner. The new problem is how to make more money by adding special logos and art while still managing to squeeze in the required six or seven characters.

License Plate Frame

License Plate Frame

We also now have people who put frames around their plates with car dealer advertising, sports team names, or short phrases. The problem is that they often cover the name of the state. With so many different designs, you will probably not be able to identify out of state plates, so a frame that covers up the state name is a bad idea. Actually, it is probably illegal, not that anyone ever gets a ticket for doing it.

License Plate Shield

License Plate Shield

Some people even add shaded plastic covers that diminish the reflectivity and readability of the plate. The covers may keep the plate itself clean, but collect just as much dirt, if not more, and interfere with everyone’s ability to read the numbers. You can even get a license plate cover that protects itself from camera flashes by emitting its own flash to prevent a camera from taking its photo.

I suspect that cops are not really big fans of the new license plates. I could be wrong, but I suspect it makes their jobs harder than they should have to be, though I suspect not many people really care. But if I had to identify a hit-and-run driver, or an escaping criminal, or some other public safety hazard, and the characters were one half to third the size they should be, and were unnecessarily covered up or obscured, I would be really pissed off if I couldn’t read the number.

Am I complaining about nothing? Maybe we don’t even need license plates after all. Do they really have a useful function or are they just another place where we should get to express our individuality? Not enough room for more bumper stickers? Let’s decorate our windows with little stick figures and our license plates with crappy art. When does it end? The only function of a license plate is to enable someone to identify the owner of a vehicle, but smaller numbers reduce one’s ability to do so at a distance. This is just another way in which government has sacrificed one of its duties in order to generate more money.

Maybe we don’t really need license plates anymore anyway. The government could just mandate the installation of electronic tags that can be read by road sensors that can track us wherever we go. What if we could just get on our smart phones and use a live tracking app to select the car causing the problem and notify the police. Maybe the cops could then just press a button to order the smart tag to disable the engine until they can arrive to make the citation or arrest. Or, we could just stop messing with our license plates.

Red Light Money Machines

Red Light Camera Accidents

Red Light Camera Accidents

According to a Los Angeles TV station investigative reporter, a city claim that red light cameras reduced accidents by 34% is incorrect. The reporter filed a public records request and examined every accident at every red light camera intersection for six months before and after installation of the cameras. The data showed that accidents increased for 20 of the 32 intersections, while 3 remained the same and only 9 decreased. Some intersections had triple the number of accidents after the cameras were installed. Why is this? Because there were more instances of people slamming on their brakes and getting hit from the rear.

In fact, many studies have come to the same conclusion. A study from Melbourne, Australia, which had cameras installed as far back as 1984, showed an increase in rear end and adjacent approach collisions. A Virginia Transportation Research Council study showed an increase in rear-end crash rates of 27% and an overall increase in crashes. North Carolina A&T State University’s Urban Transit Insitutue conducted a study for the US Department of Transportation and showed that “red light cameras were associated with higher levels of many types and severity categories of crashes.” An Ontario Ministry of Transportation study concluded that use of red light cameras resulted in an overall increase of 49.9% in property damage and an increase of 4.9% in fatal and injury-causing rear-end collisions. All of these studies used scientific control groups to ensure that the measurements were accurate.

Traffic Signal

Traffic Signal

Furthermore, a 2001 report prepared by the US House of Representatives found that the installation of red light cameras has become a substitute for proper safety engineering of intersections. Before cameras were used, engineers would go to intersections with accident problems and adjust the timing of the lights. After cameras came into widespread use, government traffic officials dropped the requirement to fix signal timing.

A Michigan study showed how other solutions that did not involve red light cameras were able to decrease crashes by 47%, with a 50% reduction in injuries. They included enlarging traffic light lenses, restriping left turn lanes, re-timing the traffic signals, and adding an all-red clearance interval to stop all traffic before any signals changed to green. Yet, local governments continue to turn to revenue-generating red light cameras instead of good traffic engineering that actually works.

Let’s see, we can fix the red light running safety problem by paying engineers to solve it or we can just charge money when people do it. Never mind about the accident rates. Which makes more sense? Wait, I have a better idea. Why don’t we use electronic tags like EZ-Pass to let people pay even more to go through red lights? If they are in a hurry, surely people would pay extra, just like they pay for special lanes, no? Some locations have traffic lights that will change red lights to green to let emergency vehicles pass through more quickly. So, why not put this capability up for sale too? Imagine being able to pay for an electronic tag that will change red lights to green as you approach an intersection. It will come at a cost, of course, but somebody’s got to pay to fix the roads! Funeral processions often cut through red lights. Why not charge the dead for the right to do so. They won’t mind.

The only beneficiaries of red light cameras seem to be the local governments collecting the fees, the companies supplying the technology, and the insurance companies increasing car insurance rates for drivers who are issued a ticket. Everyone else has been placed at risk.

Red Light Camera Shield

Red Light Camera Shield

My Car’s a Bitch!

Knight Rider

Knight Rider

The Jetson’s envisioned flying cars in our future, but never self-driving cars. Until the past few years, few people thought that driver-less (autonomous) cars were even possible. But they are not only becoming reality, they will probably end up eliminating most truck, bus, and taxi driving jobs within the next generation. On the bright side, they will probably also save tens of thousands of lives each year and enable people who cannot drive to get around more easily. But these cars will initially have some drawbacks.

Jetson's Flying Car

Jetson’s Flying Car

First of all, current self-driving cars drive like your grandmother. You know, slowly, cautiously, and no faster than the speed limit. Obviously, they have to be programmed that way to be careful around crazy human drivers and because no manufacturer will want the liability of a risk-taking car. No politician will dare to allow self-driving cars that speed. But I guarantee you, there will be a market for that. I don’t want to drive a grandmother-mobile. I want my car to be a bitch! Maybe KITT from the Knight Rider, or an awesome Batmobile.

Batmobile

Batmobile

Think about it. Most people drive above the speed limit. They change lanes to get an advantage over other drivers. They sometimes take risks to get somewhere faster. I’m not saying that’s all good. I’m just saying that it is reality, and nobody is going to voluntarily sit in a slow car that breaks for every jackass who wants to merge into your lane and cut you off. There is nothing more frustrating for me than getting stuck driving behind a cautious, slow-ass driver. But until all the cars on the road are driver-less, they will have to be programmed to defer to human drivers and obey a low speed limit.

We already have hacks for just about every type of electronic device out there, so why not for car software? You know that some hacker will figure out a way to get his driver-less car to go above the speed limit. He might even program it to dominate other driver-less or regular cars.

Let’s say the typical driving software will always yield to other cars that have the legal right of way. Say you want to merge into another lane, but there is a car slightly behind you by less than the legal following distance in the other lane. A driver-less car would not cut in front. It would also yield to a naughty human driver who improperly cuts in front of you. A self-driving car software developer would know that it would be possible to manipulate other driver-less cars by breaking the rules and forcing them to yield to you. In other words, you could simulate aggressive human driving behavior.

Self Driving Sensors

Self Driving Sensors

Now that regular cars have features that automatically brake when they detect another car, a properly hacked self-driving car will even be able to intimidate human-driven cars. It’s sensors may even be able to identify the make and model of other cars around it and determine how susceptible they are to manipulation. I’d pay good money for that! If I can’t get it, I at least need a steering wheel, gas pedal, and brake so I can take over from the machine when I get really frustrated. Sorry, but there is no way I’m buying a car that has no steering wheel. The self-driving feature has to be optional.

In a world with only driver-less cars, this would be entirely unnecessary. But in a world that is still full of human-driven cars, it would be entirely desirable to some. And anything that somebody finds desirable is probably going to happen whether other people like it or not.

Self-Driving Road Train

Self-Driving Road Train

The better, and more socially acceptable, solution is to get rid of human drivers entirely. On a road with only driver-less cars, the machines would be able to go much faster, have narrower lanes, use less space between them, and be far more efficient overall. Every driver-less car would be able to watch and communicate with each other and have a standard protocol for yielding, merging, and performing other activities that humans get in a big fuss over, thereby causing accidents and massive traffic jams. So, how can we get driver-less cars on the road more quickly without the distraction of human drivers?

First, we could build special lanes just for self-driving cars, including cars driven by humans with an optional self-driving mode, instead of carpool or bus lanes. We could even build entirely new highway lanes instead of wasting our money on light rail projects, which generally cost about 50 times as much as bus service and serve fewer customers at a huge expense to taxpayers. Politicians love the idea of Light Rail because it is a great way to spend taxpayer money and get a lot of publicity for building public infrastructure that sounds great, even if it isn’t. You thought the bridge to nowhere was a good use of our taxes? How about an overpriced rail system that will soon be obsolete and unused?

Zipcar

Zipcar

But, you say you won’t be able to afford a self-driving car? You probably don’t need to. New services like Zipcar and Uber, among others, are probably salivating at the idea of making them available to you any time you need one at a reasonable cost. Just call a car service using your app and it will pick you up and drive you anywhere you want to go. For the cost of a wasteful Light Rail project, we could probably have self-driving cars with their own highway lanes available anytime you need one. Bye, bye bus, taxi, and rail services. The average bus isn’t even much more efficient than the average car. Once entrepreneurs start making small self-driving electric cars for use on demand, I’m pretty sure the cost-efficiency case for buses will disappear entirely, not to mention the fact that cars are so much more convenient.

Deer Collisions

Deer Collisions

One more thing. Car collisions with deer on the roadway kill about 200 people a year in the US and over a billion dollars in damage. How are self-driving cars going to deal with this? I suspect they will have an advantage if they use sensors to detect the deer plus sound and light emitters to scare them off. But to really minimize the threat, we could deploy infrared sensors along the most risky roads to detect the presence of animals, not to mention humans, and broadcast warnings to automated car systems in the area. Even human-driven cars could benefit from the use of animal sensor warning systems and emitters to scare them off.

A new world is approaching in the world of transportation. It is green and automated. But that still doesn’t mean we won’t want our bitchin’ hot cars! Forget the pokey Prius with its fuel economy. What people really want is the performance of a Tesla. Combine that with autonomous features and we will eventually achieve driving nirvana.

Accident Statistics

Accident Statistics