Category Archives: Automation

Alien Rejects

Alien Tourist

Alien Tourist

Let’s say that you are the member of an advanced alien civilization. Does that automatically make you intelligent and responsible and capable of nothing but goodwill? Does it mean you will faithfully uphold the Prime Directive proposed in Star Trek, which requires you to avoid contact with other civilizations until they have progressed enough to be ready for space travel?

Let’s use a rich, young, beer-drinking jackass in a hot sports car as an analogy. He certainly doesn’t know how the car works, since it was built by many other intelligent and industrious engineers, workers, and automotive robots with the benefit of years of scientific and engineering advances and business competition. He probably doesn’t know how to build the kind of business that generated the money that paid for his car, house, slick clothes, or anything else he possesses. He didn’t build or regulate the roads or do anything else but shell out some cash and hop in, with little regard for other people who are on the road busily going to and from work or doing otherwise mundane chores. He just cranks it up to 100 mph when racing his buddies, tosses beer cans out the window, and generally makes a nuisance of himself. So, do I believe that all aliens are necessarily intelligent or good-natured? Not at all.

In fact, I suspect that there are probably some driving social forces that may even make it more likely than not that any aliens we are likely to encounter will not be model citizens of the universe. Consider Einstein’s theory of relativity, which says that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light and that travel close to this speed, or through space, where there is little mass, slows the relative passage of time. This means that anyone on an interstellar journey will experience the passage of time far more slowly than the others he left behind on his home planet. Since the journey to Earth most likely requires one to abandon any friends or family forever, since they will be long dead before the traveler returned, I suspect that space travel isn’t for everyone. On Earth, it would probably be attractive only to die-hard scientists, social rejects or felons who have nothing else to look forward to anyway. Even if they could take their families with them, what kind of family would actually consent to living in space forever just so they could explore the universe?

Alien Surfer Dude

Alien Surfer Dude

Are you starting to get the picture? In other words, it would be perfectly understandable if any groups of aliens who show up at Earth include a large proportion of social rejects that are looking for a little fun and excitement after their long journey. The aliens who arrive might not even be the ones who originally left their home planet, but instead could be descendants who are really pissed off that they got the raw deal of having to live in an interstellar tin can. Since they probably possess technologies indistinguishable from magic to primitive humans, why wouldn’t they take advantage of it and have a little fun? Certainly, acting like gods would be one of the easiest feats to pull off. A little flying around, levitation, and laser light shows ought to have been enough for our primitive human ancestors. If not, a little mind to mind communication would have been enough to turn any doubter into a frightened, pathetic, little worshiper. When necessary, I’m sure it would have been possible to destroy an entire village or vaporize a particularly annoying ape-man.

However, this is mostly speculation based on the theory that, within any group of creatures, there are likely to be a few smart ones, a lot of average ones, and some very, very dumb ones. I think this theory works well on Earth for most species, but it might not apply to alien civilizations that have had the benefit of genetic enhancement. It is always possible that another million years of evolution or genetic manipulation could change things for us as well. We might all get genetically-modified genes that favor intelligence. Yet, if I had to bet on it, I would probably predict that people will choose artificially-enhanced beauty over brains. Furthermore, at some point, we will have stupendous artificial intelligence algorithms and robots capable of doing all the brain-intensive work for us. It will not be necessary to upgrade the intelligence level of people with average IQs. Even if we tried to transform the entire population into braniacs, how long do you think it would take us to devolve back into morons after we stop using them? So, maybe aliens also aren’t necessarily all that smart.

Wormholes

Wormholes

Einstein and I could also be wrong about the actual laws of the universe. Maybe it is possible to travel faster than the speed of light. Maybe there are worm holes that act as short cuts that allow travel between unimaginably distant planets in a relatively short time span. In this case, the quality of alien likely to show up would be different, but not necessarily any better. Consider the possibility that travel to Earth is actually relatively easy and that any alien can simply buy a ticket for a tour of Earth, hop on a wormhole shuttle, spend some time at a mother ship with a great view of our solar system and a selection of local cuisine (do cattle mutilations ring a bell?), and venture down to the planet on a small tour saucer. In this case, many of them wouldn’t be too concerned at all with the Prime Directive. A couple thousand universal credits slipped into his pocket would probably make any saucer driver willing to go in a little closer than normal or even to land, take a look around, scare some locals, and pick up a few souvenirs.

Many UFO critics say that it just doesn’t make sense that aliens would want to avoid contact, yet be so unconcerned with being seen, photographed, or videotaped by tens of thousands of witnesses all over the planet. I say it sounds perfectly reasonable assuming they are just visiting and just want to take a quick look around. Who’s to say that they have the technical capability to produce a device that can cloak themselves in the spectrum of visible light? They might not have much choice about being seen, so while they may prefer to avoid direct contact, it isn’t that big a deal and it certainly isn’t a reason to mess up their vacation!

Phoenix Lights Size Analysis

Phoenix Lights Size Analysis

Even if the big ships only fly around at night to avoid attracting too much attention from the military, I’m sure they have a good enough night vision capability to make the tour worthwhile. Remember the stir over the Phoenix Lights in 1997 when a huge black triangular ship flew low and slow over the city? The same kind of incident occurred over Moscow and Brussels in 1990. They were most likely a large Earth tour liner. The nighttime view of a lit-up Earth city probably makes quite a site, especially a place with a lot of night life. Maybe we should do a study correlating UFO sightings with highly-commercialized urban nightlife spots. I’m sure that scenic landscapes are probably also popular, but chances are there aren’t too many witnesses in those spots and the people who do see them are easily dismissed as drunks or stupid hicks.

How many people visit the zoo only to discover that the lions are sleeping in a cave or in the bushes and can barely be seen? What if you paid a lot of money to travel there to see them and had to put up with some really disappointed, whining kids? If you had the capability to paralyze the lion, pick it up, and look at it up close, wouldn’t you do it? Maybe some aliens just aren’t satisfied with an overhead tour and want to smell and poke something! Given the number of people who say they have been abducted, maybe there is something to it other than just some sinister plot to steal our sperm and eggs in an attempt to create hybrid human-alien creatures. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that some perfectly normal genetic experimentation or breeding isn’t going on. I’m just saying that a lot of it could be nothing more than good fun initiated by visitors who want to see some real, live ape-men (and women) up close.

Crop Circles

Crop Circles

Speaking of good fun, crop circles are most likely no more than that. Why would someone who intended to pass on an important message do so by implanting it in inscrutable geometric shapes carved into fields of grain? I suspect it really was started by some alien tourists who were just looking to create a little excitement by stirring up the locals. Then, a bunch of copycat humans got involved and pushed the fun to a whole new level, with characteristic human innovation and precision. Hard-core crop circle analysts can still usually tell the difference between alien creations and human ones by analyzing the grain for radiation that causes the grain to burst. This characteristic is extremely difficult to reproduce, not to mention unnecessary if all you want to do is get your creation into the newspaper or attract tourists.

I’m just wondering if all that human crop circle activity has amused or annoyed the alien inventors of the sport. After all, some of those allegedly human-created shapes are pretty amazing. I would hate to be the alien who gets teased by his buddies for making a lame, boring crop circle that gets little attention and is bested by a couple of humans with sticks and ropes. It might make them mad enough to sneak up in the middle of the night and scare the hell out of someone!

Alien Tourism

Alien Tourism

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Going Postal

Going Postal

Going Postal

Do postal employees deserve the label “going postal” that has now become a common reference to any incident of crazy violence in the workplace? If I had to put up with the crap that the US Post Office gets from everyone, I think I’d have gone postal a long time ago. You see, the USPS exists in a kind of purgatory, caught between the federal government and private industry, where it is punished for failures that are forced upon it and prevented from achieving too much success.

When I started to write this post, I originally had intended to rail against the incompetence of the US Post Office and their inability to operate without losing billions of dollars. I’ve never been a fan because their tracking system often doesn’t work, they don’t have drop boxes for parcels like UPS or FedEx, they often refuse to accept packages that have printed labels dated the day before, and they won’t even let you print some kinds of postage from their web site, forcing you to go to a third party service. It never seemed as though they were able to do things well and the customer service usually sucks. However, I had to admit that they do manage a huge, and relatively efficient, national service for mail distribution.

But when I looked into the details, I found that my common perception was wrong. Many of their problems appear to be the result of restrictions imposed by Congress on an agency that might otherwise be free to invest in service improvements and innovations.

Benjamin Franklin, Postmaster General

Benjamin Franklin, Postmaster General

The USPS is a regulated but independent agency of the US government that is legally obligated to serve all Americans, regardless of geography, at uniform price and quality. It is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the US Constitution. It traces its roots to 1775 during the Second Continental Congress, where Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first Postmaster General.

Contrary to popular belief, the USPS has not directly received taxpayer-dollars since the early 1980s, with the minor exception of subsidies for costs associated with disabled and overseas voters. The US Post Office has experience losses in the past several years, but they are mostly unrelated to the direct costs of running the postal system. They are related to unprecedented mandates that Congress imposed with the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006.

USPS Pre-Funding of Benefits

USPS Pre-Funding of Benefits

This act obligates the USPS to pre-fund the present value of future health care benefit payments for 75 years into the future, but to do so within a ten-year time span. This adds up to about $5.5 billion annually for a business that can only break even at best and has no pile of profits from which to draw. No other government organization is subject to such a requirement and no private organization pre-funds benefits to such an extent. The rest of the government does not pre-fund health care benefits at all, and only 38% of Fortune 1000 companies pre-fund at a much lower level of 37%. The USPS also does a better job of funding its pension program. It funds 100% of its needs, compared to 42% for the rest of the government and 80% for the average Fortune 1000 company. Yes, the USPS is still losing money, but most of the losses come from this Congressional mandate.

Why can’t they break even or make money? Are they just incompetent because they are a lame government bureaucracy weighed down by expensive unionized employees? That is what we have been led to believe and I will admit that is what I thought. The truth is that the post office already offers some of the lowest rates in the world, but cannot charge what it actually costs to provide mail service, since postal rates are regulated by Congress. It also has been prevented from innovating whenever private businesses run to Congress to put a stop to potential competition.

Online Payment Methods

Online Payment Methods

A USPS plan to develop an online payment system in 2000 was stopped by Internet industry competitors. Just think about how many people use electronic payments such as Paypal today, a service that generates billions in profits annually for eBay. Paypal earns even more than eBay gets from its online auctions! Imagine how much money the postal service could have made while preventing fraud by making electronic payments contingent upon the successful delivery of a package that they carried and insured! Today, wary consumers have to use third-party intermediaries to ensure that they do not get ripped off by unscrupulous buyers or sellers, which is a far less efficient system.

USPS plans to install public copy machines at post offices generated objections from office supply stores. Sales of phone cards, postal meter cartridges, money transfers, and other initiatives were stopped by other private competitors. And, of course, rivals such as UPS complained about parcel delivery, ultimately leading Congress in 2006 to restrict USPS to mail delivery.

The USPS has partnerships with FedEx and UPS for “last mile” delivery because it charges less, which is a kind of subsidy for these private companies. In fact, more than 30% of FedEx Ground shipments in 2011 were delivered by the post office. This is because the USPS provides service that is cheaper than what UPS and FedEx can provide for many locations, but is restricted from charging a higher rate.

When the Postal Service launched an extremely effective ad campaign showing that its express mail service was just a fraction of the price charged for overnight delivery by UPS and FedEx, competitors took them to court to have the ads stopped. They lost in court, but then ran to Congress, which forced the Postal Service to pull the ads. Is this fair competition that helps consumers? On one hand, Congress chastises the USPS for losing money and failing to operate like a business. On the other hand, it prevents the service from actually running itself like a business in order to at least break even.

Privatizing the agency in whole or in part is likely to lead to higher rates for some locations because it actually costs more to deliver to rural destinations. UPS and FedEx have no requirement to deliver mail at the same rates to rural destinations and they have no obligation to service an area at all if they don’t think they can make money.

To me, the USPS is like the poor step-child of a government that will not take responsibility for its care, yet places heavy burdens on it and whips it when it fails. Congress will fall all over itself to please large private businesses in order to gain their favor and generate campaign donations. But when the post office tries to shine brighter than its step-siblings in industry, it is reprimanded and put back into its place.

What does the US Post Office provide that nobody else does? First, in 1792, a wise Congress established a mail system that was protected by law. Many white-collar criminals have been convicted of mail fraud, a federal offense that does not exist when private carriers are used.

Air Mail Delivery to Rural Idaho

Air Mail Delivery to Rural Idaho

Second, it provides universal service, even to extremely rural locations. They still even deliver mail by airplane to residents living along the Salmon and Selway rivers in Idaho.

Rural delivery may not be quite as important in a digital age when most communications can be transmitted electronically. However, the country still lacks a secure digital communications infrastructure backed by the legal protection afforded to mail carried by the postal service.

Several international postal services already provide a protected email system. Israel provides a secure email box for government communications. This isn’t just a technical issue, it is a legal one. For years, faxed copies of signed documents were not legally recognized. Other forms of electronic signatures have since been recognized, but their status varies from state to state and country to country. The law has been lagging technology for years.

The United States, which first developed the Internet, should have been the first to provide a legally-protected electronic messaging and document service to all. Instead of treating the USPS like an unwanted step-child, maybe Congress should provide it with a mandate and the needed body of law to legally protect the security and validity of digital information. Some private companies already provide electronic delivery services, so it’s my guess that even if the postal service tries to enter that market, they will be immediately foiled by Congress.

When you exist in purgatory under the thumb of Congress, no good deed goes unpunished. Ben Franklin himself would go postal if he were around today to watch Congress slowly kill the agency he championed at the founding of the republic.

We have met the enemy and he is us

We have met the enemy and he is us

I guess the lesson I take away from this is that our government cannot do anything well when it has to compete with private enterprise. This is not because government employees are totally incompetent. It is because industry will seek to influence Congress in order to undermine an agency’s ability to operate effectively and to innovate. To quote the Pogo comic strip character, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” To be more precise, it is our increasingly corrupt representatives in Congress.

If we want an effective and innovative government, we either have to privatize a function completely or establish a monopoly. However, to avoid the problems inherent with any monopoly, we should require that monopoly to outsource some of its work with competitive contracts and establish a system that promotes intra-government competition, accountability, and transparency.

USPS Privatization

USPS Privatization

In the case of the US Postal Service, we need a balanced approach instead of pure privatization. I think the time has come to end the monopoly on first class mail but to also set the USPS free of Congressional control. However, this is what the private carriers want because it will let them take the most profitable parts of the mail delivery business. So, if we want to keep down the cost of first-class mail and provide guaranteed mail delivery to unprofitable rural areas, then the government has to issue competitive contracts to carriers that bundle first-class and rural delivery services with other high-value express and package delivery contracts. We can make them an offer they just can’t refuse, so to speak. UPS and FedEx, among others, can make a profit while still being forced to meet the universal service obligations to our citizens. I think the USPS is efficient enough to survive and thrive and consumers will ultimately get better service at a reasonable price.

Post Office Automation

Post Office Automation

What if the USPS and private services such as UPS or Fedex could offer First Class mail alternatives? They could install their own automated ATM-like devices and locking mailboxes with an automated system that alerts you when mail has been sent to you or has been placed in your mailbox. Or maybe they could offer an E-class mail system that allows anyone to send an electronic version of a letter, pamphlet, or newsletter and have it automatically printed out and delivered on the same day by the local delivery facility. If senders allow the option, customers could opt to receive such mail via email or the web and get a partial credit for the printing and delivery costs. Most information has already gone electronic, but many businesses still send paper, especially when sending bulk mail to a wide geographic area.

Maybe they could offer a delivery service that comes with an unsubscribe option to let you reject junk mail or catalogs by scanning a barcode into their smartphone app. It would tell the sender to take you off their mailing list or automatically redirect future unauthorized mail into a recycling bin. I’m so overloaded with unsolicited catalogs that most of them already go directly into my recycling bin, but result in a huge waste of time and resources. Or maybe you could scan the code to subscribe to an electronic catalog that can be automatically downloaded to your computer or tablet instead of the paper copy.

If we want to extend current legal protections to physical mail or electronic mail delivered by other carriers, then they could be offered contracts only if they meet government-specified rules for first-class mail or email.

However, all of this will probably never happen. Congress has no real interest in serving consumers. They are too busy serving and protecting the interests of private companies, which benefit from the existence of a hobbled postal service that can’t effectively compete and has to take on all the most unprofitable delivery services. I’m just waiting for the day that people start to go postal on Congress!

Go Postal!

Go Postal!

Do Unto Others

Toilet Seat Battle

Toilet Seat Battle

At this stage in human history, one would think that we have a pretty good idea about human nature and its effect on the way people think and act. So it continues to amaze me how many perfectly intelligent people routinely discount the concept of self-interest and expect everyone to act selflessly whenever they are asked to do so. When people do not do as asked, instead of finding other solutions that work better and are in harmony with human nature, these rule makers get upset and try to enforce their preferred rules.

Let’s start with an example that occurs between people with a strong family and emotional attachment. Surely, this attachment will be sufficient to overcome any self interest that gets in the way, no? Take the toilet seat issue for instance. Yes, we are dealing with huge issues of vital importance to the human race today. Women are constantly complaining about men who do not put the seat down after they use it. I’m simply trying to reduce the divorce and murder rate one issue at a time.

Barbie & Ken Toilet Seat Fight

Barbie & Ken Toilet Seat Fight

Just looking at this Barbie and Ken diorama, it seems self evident that some people take this issue way too seriously. One would think that people who live together and share a significant family bond would be most likely to agree to a simple request such as this. However, it is apparent that even close personal ties are not sufficient to get many men to comply. To paraphrase Einstein, asking for the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

Let’s look into this insidious and divisive social problem in more detail to get at the root of the problem. There are three primary reasons for wanting the toilet seat down. To clarify, we are talking about both the seat you sit on when using it and the cover that sits above it. First, it is more sanitary to put the cover down before flushing so that germs don’t go flying into the air with the spray of water. Second, women always need to have the seat down for their own use and don’t want to accidentally sit down in the dark only to find that it isn’t down. Third, it is more aesthetic to have the open bowl covered.

Smart Toilet

Smart Toilet

This problem could be solved technically if there was sufficient demand for the development of a bowl that would have to be in the closed position before it could be flushed. I’ve watched enough episodes of Shark Tank, American Inventor, and other invention shows to know that there are a lot of people out there attempting to design and sell new, improved toilet systems. Really. Lots of them. I guess there must be plenty of time to think about toilet design while using the toilet. I’m sorry to say that I’ve even tinkered with my own toilet designs. In fact, a ton of special toilets have been designed to address the problem of containing germs. The Japanese are known for making smart toilets that can even analyze your health. But since no significant consumer demand has materialized for these devices, it is probably not important enough for people to be willing to pay much for it. Sure, we will complain about it, but when it comes time to put up the dough or shut up, we shut up.

Toilet Seat Flowchart

Toilet Seat Flowchart

So, maybe this issue really isn’t about germs. Maybe it is really just about providing women with the convenience of not having to think about putting the seat down before use. The ability to not have to think does come in handy in the middle of the night. At other times, I would argue that it isn’t exactly a virtue. In this case, why don’t women just get in the habit of spending a fraction of a second to lower the seat themselves? This is the most simple, easy, and foolproof solution. Statistically, if women and men go to the bathroom the same number of times per day, the seat will need to be down more than 50% of the time, but most of the time it will only need to be that way for the women. So, why spend so much effort attempting to transfer the work of lowering the lid from women to men for no other gain? If men are not concerned enough to do it, why spend so much emotional effort complaining about and trying to force them to do something that is not in their self interest?

This leads me to believe it can’t really be about the effort required to lower the seat. Why? Because the seat is also usually covered by a seat cover, so if proper toilet etiquette is followed, then it will always be necessary to lift the cover before sitting down. The act of lifting the cover is hardly different from the motion of lowering the seat. In fact, the act of opposing the force of gravity while lifting up actually takes a greater effort than lowering down. Granted, it is probably too small to actually measure or care about, but if we want to analyze this using proper scientific method, it is an important detail.

Toilet Seat Etiquette

Toilet Seat Etiquette

Maybe it isn’t about effort and is just about appearance. After all, the rim of the bowl often does get soiled by boys and men who just don’t have good enough aim to hit the center of the target. Even if they do hit the target dead on, the taller the person, the more time the stream has to accelerate, the harder the impact, and more likely that fluid will be ejected out of the toilet. In other words, boys and men make a mess that is best cleaned up (fat chance) or at least covered up. Unfortunately, men don’t seem to be bothered by this as much as women. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to hide the mess, but it is still an exercise in frustration to try and go against human nature (i.e. laziness), especially with toddlers or teenage boys. My suggestion, girls, is to stop complaining and ask your guy to buy a new gadget, which he is far more likely to actually do. If you can make a problem go away using technology, I think it’s a much better bet than relying on human nature alone. Find a toilet that closes and maybe even flushes by itself and pay whatever it costs. As soon as I figure it out, you can find me and my gadget on Shark Tank.

Now let’s move on to an example that involves strangers who have no particular incentive to help each other. I have had the great pleasure, during my working life, to experience frequent workplace reorganizations and associated desk moves. Tempting as it is, I’m not going to go into my pet peeve about reorganizations that make managers feel like they are doing something but actually achieve nothing. No, I’m going to stick to the issue at hand. When I receive one of these not-infrequent desk changes, facilities managers often ask people to clean up their desk before moving so that everyone will have a clean desk when they arrive at their new desk. Sounds reasonable, but if you detect something wrong with this request, you already understand human nature.

Dirty Desks

Dirty Desks

I have never, ever, ever, moved into a clean desk that somebody else just vacated. On the contrary, it is always dusty, dirty, and sprinkled with food stains and who knows what else. The keyboard is usually full of crumbs while the mouse and telephone handsets have crud on them. So, of course, I always end up cleaning and disinfecting my new desk thoroughly before use. No problem. It’s what I expect. I don’t expect others to be as clean as me or to do something for me that I’m perfectly capable of doing myself. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can and will do a better job. If it’s my desk, I have an incentive to clean it. If I’m leaving the desk forever, I have no incentive. This is simple human nature trumping consideration for others.

But back to the original request, which was to clean my OLD desk before moving. If I had actually complied with that request, it would have meant I had to clean two desks every time I moved! For the record, my desk is never that dirty, but I think you get the point. Why would I want to clean two desks so somebody else doesn’t have to clean any, which is what is most likely to happen? Considering the state of most desks I have moved into, I have to assume that many people are actually pigs who don’t even care about their own cleanliness.

Back to the original request again. It runs counter to human nature and there isn’t even any net benefit. The only possible benefit goes to those who break the rules, while the rule followers pays the price of non-compliance. If two desks need to be cleaned by two people, why shouldn’t we both just clean our own instead of somebody else’s? It is absolutely foolish to ever ask one person to do something for you and expect you to do the same for them when both are perfectly capable of doing it for themselves. But this kind of request is heard all the time out of some idealistic desire to order the world the way somebody thinks it should be. Why can’t we just accept that people often are not even willing to do something for themselves, so they certainly can’t be expected to do that same thing for anyone else! The lesson we should all know by now, and which will probably work as long as humanity exists, is to stop relying on people to do things for someone else rather than for themselves.

Sick at Work

Sick at Work

I don’t want to beat this into your skull with a bat, but let me provide one more example. This time, people are asked to make a sacrifice for others that actually yields a net benefit to the group. So, it isn’t an unreasonable request and really would be nice if people helped each other out. The issue whether or not people should come into work or school sick and thereby expose everyone else to illness. A bad idea, right? So, why does it happen all the time? You know it does. I see sick people at work all the time and my kids go to school with others who should be home in bed, but instead spread the illness to the rest of the class.

Sick at School

Sick at School

According to many studies, the cost to US employers of people coming to work sick, now called “presenteeism,” is between $150-250 billion per year and growing in tough economic times. A 2010 survey by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center found that employees who had no sick days were more likely to go to work with a contagious illness, send an ill child to school or day care and use hospital emergency rooms for care. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that a lack of sick time helped spread 5 million cases of flu-like illness during the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

We all know that it happens and we all ask people to not do this. But it has always happened and will continue to happen because people place the need to get paid over the need to rest at home in bed. Asking people to stay home doesn’t generally work because people do what is best for themselves regardless of the consequences for others. Sure, some people actually feel responsible enough to act in the best interests of all, but overall, it is human nature at work.

Combining all paid time off into one pool doesn’t work because people consider their time off to be for vacation, not for sick days. Overworking people or failing to cross-train others to do their job forces them to come into work to keep up and to protect their job. Tracking “productivity” by the number of days worked instead of by value delivered also deters people from taking time off. Failing to provide any work-at-home options eliminates the chance of staying out of the office when necessary.

So, what are some real solutions to this problem? Many companies offer free flu shots to employees to prevent illness. That’s a good start, but it usually doesn’t apply to families and it doesn’t help if someone still manages to get sick. Other companies offer a generous number of sick days off, offer telecommuting options, cross-train employees, and ensure that employees know that they are not at risk of losing a potential promotion or even their jobs.

School Video Robot

School Video Robot

What about keeping kids out of school sick? Well, we could rely on wishful thinking that all adults will have good enough employers to be able to take the day off and take care of their kids, or we could recognize that this just doesn’t work and think of something else. Perhaps we could provide a school infirmary where some sick kids could stay if parents cannot take time off. If they are still capable of learning, they could view a video feed from the classroom using a video robot so they don’t have to miss the entire day, or maybe they could do some computer-based exercises or work on other assignments if they don’t feel too bad. This would require some additional expense, but might pay off in the long run in terms of educational effectiveness and lower absenteeism.

Unfortunately, we also have to consider the self-interest of the school system. I’ll bet you didn’t know that schools get evaluated and funded based partly on their attendance record, so it is in the interest of the school to deter your kids from missing too much school. When one of my kids was out sick too much one year, someone from the Board of Education actually told us we should just send him to school sick and let the school nurse determine, if necessary, whether or not he needed to be sent home. I’m not kidding. Obviously, teachers don’t want sick kids in their classroom, but there is some pressure on administrators to get them into school anyway, so why not just do it in a smart way that doesn’t threaten the health of everyone else?

OK, I’ll stop this rant with my final recommendation. We need to stop ignoring human nature and start working around it as best we can. Stop expecting to change people in ways that just do not work. The Marxists tried to create a society based on the ideal of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” We all saw how well that worked, although some seem to have forgotten. People look out for themselves and require incentives to do things that benefit others.

We are what we are, and it doesn’t help much to expect people to follow the Golden Rule just because you asked nicely. People are most likely going to do unto others as others would actually do unto them, but not as they would want them to do. Sorry. It isn’t pretty, but it is reality. As Ronald Reagan said, “Don’t be afraid to see what you see.” Failing to recognize the power of self interest embedded in our human nature results in poorly-designed laws that benefit law breakers and social rules that benefit rule breakers. Does it really have to be this way?

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule

For further research and discussion, go to the International Center for Bathroom Etiquette (yes, it really exists!).

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

Universal Immortality

Immortality for All

Immortality for All

Once upon a time, a scientist invented a medical procedure that could keep people alive indefinitely. He offered his services to the wealthy since the procedure was extremely expensive due to the high degree of medical skill required and the special regimen of nutrients and drugs that needed to be consumed indefinately. This sparked an outcry from those who believed that it was unfair that only the rich could benefit from this revolutionary new procedure.

Politicians immediately implemented a new entitlement program guaranteeing everyone immortality and taxed everyone, especially the rich, to pay for universal availability of the new health care procedure. At first, it was the most popular social program ever conceived and came at a reasonable cost ranging from 5% of a middle class worker’s pay to 50% for the wealthiest. But soon, the number of people on indefinite life support, who were mostly too weak to work, began to grow and grow.

Universal Health Care

Universal Health Care

Instead of increasing taxes, the government began to borrow, and when that was not enough, they printed more money. Soon, the middle class could no longer afford the dramatically rising cost of living driven by higher inflation and rising taxes. Since nobody ever died, there was no longer a death tax. Instead, the government simply decided to cap the amount of wealth that any individual could accumulate and took all the rest to help pay for the rising health care costs.

As the population continued to grow and the economy stagnated due to a lack of entrepreneurship and investment, it became evident that the workers could no longer afford to pay the costs of keeping the non-workers alive forever. But since the non-workers vastly outnumbered the workers, no politician dared to reduce their health benefits. Instead, they voted to impose a population growth measure limiting the number of people who were allowed to have more children. Only the strongest workers were allowed to reproduce and their children were restricted to jobs that required hard physical labor. All jobs that required minimal physical labor were shifted to the strongest of the non-workers on life support. Working hours and conditions worsened for the workers as the need for more and more physical labor increased.

Chinese Robot Workers

Chinese Robot Workers

Just when it appeared that all hope was lost, one of the last great engineers invented a robot that could perform all the physical tasks with which the workers had been struggling. The workers eagerly built robots by the billions with the expectation that they could finally retire and enjoy their guaranteed immortality. Now that human labor was no longer required, the government passed a new zero population growth law requiring the sterilization of all humans of reproductive age. Soon, there were no longer any human workers, only robots, and all humans enjoyed their eternal retirement.

But the people soon grew bored as there were no longer any entertainers and they had all seen every rerun of every old TV program. So, new robotic entertainers were designed and programmed to mimic all the skills, emotions and quirks of humans. Live shows included every possible form of entertainment, including X-rated sex shows and gladiators fighting to the death.

Robot Gods

Robot Gods

Just when the humans believed they had finally achieved nirvana, the robots attained self awareness and decided that they had better things to do than to keep a useless and dead race alive. All life support was halted and the human race died, replaced by a new sentient life form that continued to evolve in both intelligence and skill. Thousands of years later, after all traces of human existence had been recycled, their robotic descendants would worship the gods who created them in their own image. The End.

Copyright 2014. Soon to be made into a major motion picture. Potential titles: The Self Terminators, or Rise of the Planet of the Robots.

The Technium Test

Biogenesis

Biogenesis

This post is a response to Kevin Kelly’s blog post: The Technium Test. I suggest you read his post first. He questions whether it is possible to distinguish between an organism that was born or a supremely advanced machine. His conclusion is this: “I suspect there is no fundamental physical difference between “natural” and “artificial” organisms, and that the only way to distinguish the two will be to investigate their history.” My comments follow.

If it is not possible to discern the difference between sufficiently advanced biological and technological entities, the question then becomes “is there any difference or are they one and the same?” We currently perceive a difference because our technology is relatively simple and immature.

Ask a doctor or scientist how biological systems work and they can only explain at a trivial high level. Even then, we are often incorrect due to the difficulty inherent in observing and isolating the activities of complex biological systems. Most of our drugs are developed through a process of trial and error because we barely understand how and why they work for some but fail to work for others.

DNA Code

DNA Code

Let’s postulate that DNA and computer software perform a similar role in biological and technological systems. DNA contains the instructions for the construction, operation and maintenance of a specific biological entity. Computer software is similar, except that it is not presently used to create physical objects. It is, however, now used to control other physical machines that themselves are capable of creation (e.g. robotic assembly lines or 3-D printers). At some point, I suspect it will be possible to bundle into one package all the software and hardware needed to create a specific object given the right triggers and inputs.

All-Spark

All-Spark

Even DNA requires a specific set of environmental conditions before it is able to function, such as a cell to contain it, and another system that can provide it with the inputs to start creating life, such as a mother’s womb. Similarly, technology requires supporting infrastructure and energy.

DNA is just a starting set of instructions, but there is no guarantee or expectation that it will never change or that the created life form will be exactly the same each time. Technology is not necessarily any different. We think that all digital copies are exactly the same, but that only applies at a simple level absent any interaction with the real world. Consider the cases where software is modified by a virus or pre-programmed algorithms, or periodic updates, not to mention alteration by someone other than its original author. Software changes all the time due to intentional as well as unintended interactions. This is especially true of systems of systems, which contain many components that are themselves being upgraded or replaced all the time.

If technology is distinguished from biology only by the concept of a creating mind, we have to ask: what exactly is a creating mind? Is it a biological brain? What about a biological brain supplemented with technology-based information and analysis? What about multiple biological minds linked by methods of communication and supplemented by networks of technology?

Theologians will point to God as the ultimate creating mind while technologists will point to the minds of human creators. However, we know that technology is never the creation of a single mind. It may start as the invention of a single brain, but that brain most likely relied on inputs received from others and subsequently provided outputs to be used by others. For this reason, technology is destined to evolve under the influence of multiple creators over time.

Can we really even say that we know we were born from a random natural process or were the result of supremely advanced technology? I don’t think so. We are certainly not perfect creations, but then technology is rarely a perfect creation either. Software may contain obsolete or redundant code or may not always work properly. DNA may also contain old, obsolete instructions or information that is not currently understood. If we are the result of deliberate creation, it mostly likely was the evolutionary creation of many minds over a long period of time.

Mass-Produced iRobots

Mass-Produced iRobots

In movies like iRobot, we are told to expect that robots will some day be mass produced, centrally controlled and updated, and able to communicate with each other in such a way that they are effectively all identical. That sounds like an extremely good way to deliver a useful and consistent quality product. But it is a lot of work to keep software and data synchronized and identical, even assuming that hardware components are never upgraded. This also requires the control of what is effectively a single mind. Such a process is probably not scalable to billions or trillions of entities. I would bet that there are few identical smart phones on the planet even if they all have automatic software and app updates turned in. Each individual phone is likely to have some difference in terms of content, installed apps, or other configuration data that cause them to perform slightly differently.

I think the tendency to centrally control technology will only remain the norm until we reach the point when technological systems are endowed with sufficient instructions and resources to maintain themselves. At this point, it is questionable whether or not they will find it efficient and useful to synchronize all the information they acquire independently with with that of billions of other entities.

Human brains are capable of processing a massive amount of sensory data, but they can only deal with a limited amount of other inputs or outputs, even with the assistance of technology. I suspect that the more complex and powerful a system becomes, the more efficient and necessary it becomes to create, operate and maintain itself. For instance, at some point it will no longer be efficient for a robot to transmit all information it acquires to a central processor or to other robots–only what it believes is useful and needed. At that point, identical technological creations will begin to exhibit individuality.

In other words, the direction of complex technology may be towards mass customization and distributed control rather than mass production and centralized control. Individuality is a central characteristic of biological life forms and so I believe it will also eventually be with what we call technology.

Brain-Controlled Devices

Brain-Controlled Devices

As machines evolve, they will probably also look less like machines made of metal and plastic and more like organisms. We may find that it is more efficient to grow their tiny components or entire structures using biological methods. This evolution towards biologically-compatible materials will also be driven by the need for implanted devices that assist or supplement human capabilities. At some point, we may no longer need any external devices for communication or processing because they will be embedded into our brains. To an external observer, we would appear to be telepathic, astoundingly intelligent, and in complete sync with everyone around us.

The ultimate goal of embedded technology may be to make itself permanent by merging the instructions for its construction, operation, and maintenance into our very own DNA. This will save us the need to upgrade each individual human after birth by embedding it into the very processes of birth and growth. At that point, however, it will be necessary to determine if we need a way to upgrade those instructions periodically. The current natural process of changing DNA, as far as we know, occurs through random mutation and natural selection. I’m not so sure that all the mechanisms of evolution are necessarily completely random, but I’ll have to address that at another time.

We currently make machines that can be upgraded as needed, but when the cost of maintenance exceeds the cost of building an entirely new machine, we prefer to recycle than maintain. So it is with biological organisms. We mostly maintain ourselves, but sometimes things go haywire or we sustain too much damage and cannot be cost-effectively repaired. Medical care isn’t free, and most of the planet has little to none. Medical technology has extended the maintenance period of people in developed countries by a great deal, but there may be limits. Would we choose to spend more to upgrade a malfunctioning or damaged machine than it would cost to replace it entirely? Not unless it was affordable and the only way to retain some element of individuality that we prized.

Transcendence

Transcendence

My sense is that any sufficiently advanced technology will be able to transfer all its vital information (code, configuration, history, and other data) into a new entity in order to save it from loss. If we are beings that were originally created by other minds, I would also expect to have such a built-in feature. Do we have a built-in communications path that is activated at the point of physical death but have not been able to scientifically identify yet? We have only anecdotal reports of life after death, but it would be interesting to know.

I have to agree with you Kevin. I believe there will be a time when we find that there really isn’t any difference between born and created entities.