A Mayor, a CEO and a Doctor Walk into a Bar

So, a mayor, a CEO and a doctor walk into a bar.

The CEO orders up a bottle of the most expensive wine, saying he’s celebrating the 10th anniversary of his company’s founding and the 5th straight year of double digit growth.

“You know, most companies don’t even live for 10 years,” he says, rolling up the sleeves on his Gucci shirt. “Like they say on Vulcan, live long and prosper, baby!”

“I’ll drink to that,” says his doctor friend. “One of my patients hit the 100-year mark today, no doubt due to some brilliant physicking.”

“Nice job, but those aren’t really milestones for mayors. This city’s just three hundred years old, hardly out of diapers. I’ll buy the wine when it hits its adolescence in another 700 years or so.”

The CEO and the doctor laugh but then go quiet.

“You know, Mayor,” says the CEO finally, “you make me feel like a mayfly. You sure know how to suck the joy out of being a corporate animal.”

“Sorry,” says the mayor. “No offense intended. Businesses serve a purpose. They provide some services for a while and then die out. At least the vast majority of them do.”

“Like blood cells in a body,” says the doctor.

“Jeez,” says the CEO. “Now you’ve got me drinking for other reasons.”

“If you ever want to learn about the art of managing for the long haul, let me know,” quips the mayor. “We’ve got some internships opening up.”

“Shut up, Mayor,” says the CEO.

“Garçon, a round of seltzer water over here,” calls the doctor. “We’ve got to settle our friend’s case of sour grapes.”

Featured image from A.Savin (WikiCommons) - Own work View from Lycabettus in Athens (Attica, Greece)

Scenarios for a Pesky and Unpredictable Energy Future

Writing scenarios about energy is about as hip as writing science fiction about time travel or Moon colonies. Energy scenarios are, after all,  the original business scenarios. They are the vanilla of ice creams, the beige of home decorating, the Honda Accord of automobiles.

Scenarios actually began, for the most part, in the energy industry because, in a crazy and shifting world, that industry has always needed to take a long-term view and make long-term investments. That’s why so many people in that industry give off a vibe that is weirdly geeky as well as stodgy and superior. It must be the cross-breeding of engineers and geologists, gutsy wildcatters, fat-cat corporate diplomats, egg-headed forecasters and corrupt marketers.

Perhaps I picked up the energy bug from the study of scenarios in general and some exposure to energy companies. At any rate, I have been thinking and reading about such scenarios for years, and today they are inextricably linked to climate change. So, here are some my recent thoughts all nicely wrapped up in four scenarios.

Year 2032 Climate Change Scenarios

Scenario One: So Far, So Good

Assumptions: lots of green energy as well as geoengineering

By 2032, intelligent geoengineering is no longer controversial. In truth, rightly or wrongly, it has gotten some of the credit for keeping the world cooler than some had predicted it would be.

Some of the credit has gone to the United Nations, which formed the first coalitions of countries that negotiated a sulfate aerosol program that started off very modestly and then grew moderately more ambitious as various nations became comfortable with the technologies.

“We had to find a global approach to geoengineering,” said the Secretary-General of the United Nations. “Unilateral approaches could have caused international conflicts and dangerous unilateral actions.”

Another form of geoengineering, direct carbon capture, has been driven not by the UN but by a large group of nonprofits allied with private investors. After a number of major technological breakthroughs, experts now project that that within 20 years, they will be able to absorb over 30% of the carbon that has been dumped into the atmosphere over the last 100 years.

Then there are the global reforesting efforts, which are sometimes viewed as a “natural” type of geoengineering. There are multiple companies, some of them non-profits, using large squads of drones to conduct fast and effective reforesting.

The trend emerged in 2022 when AirSeed Technologies started using artificial intelligence to find areas in need of trees and fired seed pods from the sky with drones. Even at the time, the drones were reportedly able to plant over 40,000 seed pods per day, far faster and cheaper than via other methods of reforesting. Today, the number has moved past a half million per day.

An ambitious project has emerged as the reforestation companies have started to run out of promising acreage to plant. The new plan is to partner with new desalination enterprises in northern Africa in order to reforest swaths of the Sahara. This is an extension of project begun in 2007 when the African Union decided to build a “Great Green Wall” in hopes of restoring 100 million hectares of land between Senegal in the west and Djibouti in the east. The idea was to create a 15-kilometer-wide and 8,000-kilometer-long mosaic of trees, vegetation, grasslands and plants.

In every case of geoengineering, critics has emerged to warn of dire consequences. The sulfate aerosol program, they warn, may yet have an unpredictable impact since no one can accurately model climate patterns. The carbon capture programs are still unproven, and the reforestation efforts could do more harm that could.

One climatologist states, “If reforestation results in more vast, uncontrolled forest fires, as seems likely, then the process will only serve to add carbon to the air as oppose to remove it, making global warming worse.”

So far, however, these controlled geoengineering initiatives along with the fast spread of green energy sources seems to be working on level.

“So far, so good,” says the the UN Secretary-General. “Yes, some of these initiatives may not pan out. Yes, there are some potential dangers, but it’s best if we engage in these programs in controlled, internationally ordered way when possible.”

To which one critic has said, “Oh, sure, making huge mistakes via unwieldy global bureaucracies is always better. Sure it is.”

Scenario Two: Exponential Green

Assumptions: lots of green energy and little geoengineering

By the year 2020, solar photovoltaics were down to just 5.7 cents per kWh and were seen as less costly than fossil fuels. And, by 2025, the energy storage problem was well on its way to being solved via a combination of new types of batteries, efficiently converted hydrogen, and fuel cells. Investing in other fuel sources started to look like a bad investment, which meant the lower costs came even more quickly thanks to new investments.

But today, in the year 2032, it’s not all about the photovoltaics. Wind energy has also become very inexpensive, and smaller, more modular nuclear plants have made nuclear energy more price competitive. In addition, several small and still experimental nuclear fusion plants have come online.

Most new homes in the U.S. are sold with solar panels and a collection of fuel cells for storing any energy that doesn’t go directly to the electric grid. In addition, most windows are installed with clear carbon nanotube films that can reflect and collect solar energy, depending on the needs of the home.  There’s also a big business in retrofitting older homes.

This means that a growing number of energy consumers have become energy producers or energy neutral, a situation that has continued to annoy energy utilities, especially after several decades of slowing energy usage among home owners in the U.S.

There have also been advances in wireless energy delivery. The most prevalent technologies are based on lasers and magnetically coupled resonance, allowing a wide range of wireless devices to run in households without the need for wires and plugs. But the largest benefits stem from applications that allow neighborhood homes to share solar energy via ad hoc, computer-controlled and wireless grids.

Renewable energy is now estimated to make up 65% of all energy generated in the world. “We expect to the U.S. to hit 95% renewable energy by 2040,” said one utilities CEO. “It represents an amazing achievement. While humanity hasn’t exactly ‘solved’ its energy problems, it feels like we’re on the road to a sustainable future. As an industry, we’re now looking at other markets where we can be equally successful, especially the transfer of high-bandwidth information via utility infrastructures.”

The world hasn’t solved global warming but most experts are optimistic that humanity will be able to cope without the necessity of risky geoengineering projects.

  Scenario Three: Desperate Times

Assumptions: little green energy and lots of geoengineering

Global warming has hit humanity harder than most of the experts predicted. Back in 2022, Nature reported, “The negative impacts of climate change are mounting much faster than scientists predicted less than a decade ago.” It drew this conclusion from Climate Change 2022: ImpactsAdaptation and Vulnerability, a dire but well documented report from the United Nations climate panel.

What occurred in India and Pakistan shortly thereafter only underscored the point. In May 2022, nearly an eighth of the people on the planet found themselves struggling to endure a relentless heat wave. India had just gone through the hottest April in 122 years, which followed the hottest March on record. Pakistan didn’t get off much easier, encountering its hottest April in 61 years. In Jacobabad, Pakistan, temperatures rose above 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

During the heat wave, there was so much demand on the electrical grid that there were power outages for two-thirds of Indian households. Meanwhile in Pakistan, outages were cutting off power when people needed cooling the most, and many families lost running water without electricity.

This was just the beginning. By the mid-2020s, India and Pakistan were regularly besieged by murderous heats waves and droughts. That’s when the two nations, which had long been enemies, joined forces to implement the most ambitious and controversial geoengineering project in human history.

Starting in 2026, they began using high altitude jets so spread sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere with the goal of reflecting away sunlight. Of course, this resulted in a planetary effect that was greeted by outrage in some nations, gratitude in others. Russia almost immediately engaged in nuclear saber rattling, with its president warning, “This is an attack on Russia itself, threatening to make our winters longer, our growing seasons shorter and our storms more destructive. We will not stand idly by as rogue nations assault our food supplies and starve our citizens.”

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan as well as many other nations argued that climate change was the result of trends brought about by Western nations that had no right to inflict existential harm on their countries.

In the U.S., many took the side of India and Pakistan. One Kansas farmer stated, “We’re just glad somebody’s trying something. The droughts have been brutal the last few years, and the cost of irrigation is through the roof. It’s not just us farmers, either. It drives up the cost of food for everyone. Throwing some dust high up in the sky to cool things off a little seems like the commonsense thing to do to me.”

Not everyone agreed. Some climatologists warned that India and Pakistan were not being patient enough and might well overshoot the mark, wreaking even greater havoc on the global environment. “This could end in the kind of wild swings in global temperatures that do far more harm than good,” one warned.

Scenario Four: Hot, Hotter, Hottest

Assumptions: Little green energy and little geoengineering

In the year 2032, green energy has hit the flatter part of S-curve in a major way. The energy storage technologies never quite worked out, so countries have stuck with tried-and-true natural gas even while slowly building nuclear plans hindered by cost overruns. Engineers have done a pretty good job of making automobiles more fuel efficient, not just through better batteries but the more efficient engineering of all the other components, especially the not-yet-dead combustion engine. Most cars, after all, still run at least partly on petroleum.

Fully 55% of all energy production is still based on fossil fuels (only about 5 percentage points of improvement from 2021). But with China and India and growing parts of the African continent still ramping up their economies and energy usage, there’s even more trepidation about global warming. The scientific news has dismal in the shadow of massive and deadly heatwaves, droughts, forest and bush fires, super storms and ever more cases of daytime flooding in coastal cities. Many have given up hope, saying we’re already past a point of no return for high rates of global warming.

This problem has set the stage for a carbon tax that is expected to be implemented by all G25 countries in 2033 (though some U.S. politicians are still promising to withdraw from the pact if elected) . The funds will be mostly allocated to three areas: 1) increasing the reliability of renewable technologies to the point where natural-gas-using peaker plants are no longer needed , 2) greater energy conservation regulations in all forms of engineering, and 3) smaller, cheaper and safer nuclear plants.

“Look,” says one energy guru, “we’ve made progress over the last 20 years in terms of bringing down the costs of renewables, but they haven’t grown at the exponential rate some predicted. Still, global warming has finally gotten bad enough – and the technology good enough – for us to make a global push. We predict that if the political coalition holds, then by 2050 we can get things down to just 35% fossil fuels and the rest nuclear and renewables. Is it as good as we hoped? No. Are we going to suffer from even worse global warming? Yes. But half a loaf is better than none.”

Given the slow pace of progress, more and more nations are developing geoengineering strategies, but little has been implemented. Large-scale geoengineering initiatives remain controversial and are still being debated in the United Nations and elsewhere.

Concluding Comments

Which of these scenarios is most likely? I don’t know. The one I’d like to see most is “Exponential Green” but it’s hard to say how quickly green energy will grow and, even assuming exponential growth for now, when the trend will slow down and hit the S-curve.

We may need to add geoengineering to the mix in order to avoid disaster, but geoengineering comes with its own risks. Thing can and often do go wrong. Engineering solutions can result in unforeseen problems. If we do need to engage in geoengineering at a large scale, I hope it’ll look more like “So Far, So Good” rather than “Desperate Times.”

The best we can do, I think, is help bring the most positive of the scenarios to fruition. Even if they don’t work out, we will have spent more days in hope than despair. There’s something to be said for active optimism.

Featured image from 林 慕尧 / Chris Lim from East Coast (东海岸), Singapore (新加坡) - Windmills in China?{D70 series}


On U.S. Misleadership

Generally speaking, it’s not our fellow Americans who are the problem. It’s the leaders — or, rather, the misleaders — desperately trying to keep Americans in a state of outrage and divisiveness for the purpose of ratings, money and power.

When they actually sit down and talk, Americans realize that they have most things in common. When they allow themselves to be immersed in their tribal echo chambers, however, they get the impression that the “others” are nothing like them.

We need to abandon our echo chambers and give up our outrage. The echo chambers are, I believe, typically run by bad people who don’t give a damn about us. The misleaders only want our fury, the path to their power.

Featured image: Filter Bubble Graphic by Evbestie. An echo chamber is "an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own." This echo chamber (yellow circle) is closed and insulated from rebuttal (8 arrows).

On Cortada’s Red Wolves

Back in the Before Times, I went to an event and exhibition of  Xavier Cortada’s works at Creative Pinellas. Cortada is a Florida-based artist whose work often to focuses on the environment. I was one of a group of people reading from their works of environmentally focused fiction: in my case, part of a chapter from my novel The Tollkeeper.

During that event, they explained a contest in which writers were invited to compose a poem based on Cortada’s works. I took several pictures of his pieces to see if anything sparked my poetic impulses.

I don’t compose a lot of poetry, but I did write two pieces that I brought along to the contest on the appointed day. Then I learned that the poems were supposed to be written during this second event, not before it. I clearly hadn’t read the fine print. I briefly considered presenting one of my poems as having been written the day of the event, but that wouldn’t be fair. Both poems had taken me well over an hour, and an hour or so as the time we were allotted to write in situ.

So, I composed in incomplete poem during the event, one that had no chance of winning. But I still had these other two poems sitting on my proverbial shelf. Then a few years later I came across an unusual online magazine called Apocalypse Confidential. Reading though it, I thought the tone fit with my two Cortada-inspired poems and so submitted the one I thought was strongest.

To my surprise (I’m always surprised when someone accepts something of mine), they agreed to publish it. So below is a link to it for anyone who is interested in a strange (definitely) and darkly humorous (I’m hoping) ekphrastic poem.

“ON CORTADA’S RED WOLVES”

Featured image: Head shot of artist Xavier Cortada taken in 2007: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Xavier_Cortada_2007_artist_headshot.jpg

.

Poetry, Programming and People Management

The human brain does ambiguity well. Most of us are strangely drawn to multiple meanings, surrealities and pattern recognition. We thrive on metaphors and similes, rejoice in symbols, dance to nonsense syllables and ad hoc syncopations. And paradoxes? We both hate and love them — paradoxically, of course.

This may be one of the reasons so many people become frustrated and even fearful when confronted by math and logic. Those disciplines feel so cold and hard-edged with their unitary meanings and wearisome concatenations of implacable reasoning.

It’s the same with computer coding. If you take an Introduction to Computer Science course, the professors often go out of their way to compare natural languages (a phrase which itself is an oxymoron) with computer languages.

Yao graph with number of ray k=8; from Wikimedia, by Rocchini

The gist is that while while both types of language share common and, indeed, essential properties such as syntax and semantics, they differ widely in that natural language can often be understood even when the speaker or writer fails to follow basic spelling or grammatical rules. In contrast, a computer program (much like a mathematical equation) will typically fail to work if even a single character is left out or misplaced. An absent bracket can be a fatal bug, a backwards greater-than symbol can cause an infinite loop, a poorly assigned variable can inadvertently turn  100 dollars into a dime.

A computer has no use for the artful ambiguities and multiple meanings of poetry. If you give the machine a couple of lines of verse such asanyone lived in a pretty how town (with up so floating many bells down)”,  it will — unless you carefully guide the words into the code as a string —  give you an error message.  (I know a lot of people who might respond the same way, of course.)  Yet, without the precisely imprecise wordplay of e e cummings, those lines of poetry would not be poetry at all.

So, what does any of this have to do with people management?

Just this: people management is sometimes poetry, sometimes programming, and it helps to know which is which. Before the rise of civilizations and cities, when virtually all people were hunting and gathering in smallish bands and clans, people management (in the forms it would have existed then) was all poetry.

Walden Pond; from Wikimedia, by QuarterCircleS

Sure, there were unwritten rules, harsh taboos, constant rumors and deadly serious superstitions. And a leader, to the degree there were leaders as we understand them today, could leverage those cultural components to influence his or her clansmen. But this was mostly a matter of nuance, persuasion, the formation of alliances, the wielding of knowledge and lore (when, that is, it wasn’t a matter of force and coercion). In the largest sense, it was art and song.

Today, good managers must still be attuned to the poetry of human attitudes and actions, able to sort through the ambiguities of rumor mills and hurt feelings and arrogant posturings. But now managers must also cope with or even rely on laws, regulations and rules.

Is there a “zero tolerance” clause in the company policy somewhere? Then even a terrific employee who gets caught using illegal drugs may need to go.  Are there complex legal regulations barring a worker from having financial holdings in a certain client company? Well, then, the employee must divest or hit the door. There are countless other examples of rules that are as hard-and-fast as rule-of-law societies can make them. Although these human rules will never be quite as rigorous as the requirements of programming languages, they are a kind of human programming; there are true and false statements,  barriers that can’t be broken, classifications that should never be breached.

This is why we have legal departments. It is also why uncertain managers call in the hired gun of the HR professional to take care of dismissals and drug tests and background checks.

We simultaneously hate  this programming of human behavior and depend on it. We can, for example, rely on the kind of code that states:

while worker performance >= level 3: { {

provide paycheck and health insurance }

else if: {

performance <= level 2:

leverage performance review proceedings

 }}

Okay, the coding in companies is much more complex than that. Still, the point is that we rely on it because it’s clean, logical and, best of all, spares us from having to make hard and potentially dangerous decisions on our own. In such settings, we are no longer “poets of people management,” the kind of managers who might have led a clan though a vast and dangerous prehistoric wilderness in millennia gone by.

This dependence on programming is a shame in many ways, one that harried managers should ponder from time to time.  I know we can’t utterly avoid modern programming — at least, not unless we retreat into the wildness, as metaphorically  isolated as Thoreau in his cabin by Walden Pond. Nor should we. The rule of law is essential to our modern societies, and formal policies are often forged to protect employees from arbitrary or biased decisions. Still, we might strive to be better poets, respecting employees as the people they are rather than viewing them as components of a well-programmed machine.

Featured image: The Parnassus (1511) by Raphael: famous poets recite alongside the nine Muses atop Mount Parnassus.

You’re More Than Just a Number: Now, You’re a Vector

Unless you’ve been hiding in a bunker for the last few years (and who’s to blame you if you were?), you know that data science, big data, and machine learning are all the rage.  And you know that the NSA has gotten scary good at surveilling the world via its data-parsing mojo.

These trends have overturned — or at least added a whole new wrinkle to — the concern so prevalent when I was a kid: that individuals in modern societies were becoming faceless numbers in an uncaring machine. Faceless number? These days,  a lot of people aspire to that. They leverage the likes of the search engine DuckDuckGo in the hope of reverting back to being just a blip of anonymous bits lost amid mighty currents of data.

Image from Wikipedia

Well, unless you’re willing to live off the grid — or get almost obsessively serious about using encryption tools such as PGP  — you’ll just have to dream your grand dreams of obscurity. Even if we somehow rein in the U.S. government, businesses will be doing their own “surveilling” for the foreseeable future.

But look on the bright side. From one perspective, there’s been progress. You’re not just a number these days, you’re a whole vector, or maybe even a matrix — with possible aspirations of becoming a data frame.

No, this isn’t an allusion to the disease vectors that have become such a hot topic during the pandemic. The statheads among you may recognize those classifications as belonging to the statistical programming language R, which vies with Python for the best data science language.

In R’s parlance, a vector is “a single entity consisting of a collection of things.” I love the sheer all-encompassing vagueness of that definition. After all, it could apply to me or you, our dogs or cats, or even our smartphones.

But, in R, a vector tends to be a grouping of numbers or other characters that can, if needed, be acted on en masse by the program. It’s a mighty handy tool. With just a couple of keystrokes, you can take one enormous string of numbers and work on them all simultaneously (for example, by multiplying them all by another string of numbers,  plugging them all into the same formula or turning them into a table). It’s just easier to breath life into the data this way. It’s what Mickey Mouse would have brandished if he were a statistician’s rather than a sorcerers’s apprentice in Fantasia.

Now imagine yourself as a vector or, at least, as being represented by a vector. Your age, height, weight, cholesterol numbers and recent blood work all become a vector, one your doctor can peruse and analyze with interest. Meanwhile, your purchasing habits, credit rating, income estimates, level of education and other factors are another vector that retail and financial organizations want to tap into. To those vectors could be added many more until they become one super-sized vector with your name on it.

Now, glom your vectors together with millions of other peoples’ vectors, and you’ve got one  huge, honking, semi-cohesive collection of potentially valuable information. With it, you and others can, like Pinky and the Brain, take over the world! Or at least sell a lot more toothpaste and trucks.

The bottom line is that we have three basic choices in this emerging Age of Vectors:

Ignore It: Most folks will opt for this one, being too busy or bored for the whole “big data” hoopla. Yes, they know folk are collecting tons of data about them, but who cares? As long as it doesn’t mess up their lives in some way (as in identity theft), then this is just a trend they can dismiss, worrying about it on a case-by-case basis when it directly affects their lives.

Fight the Power: If you don’t want to be vectorized —  or if you at least want to limit the degree to which you are — you can try every trick in the book to keep yourself off the radar of the many would-be private and public data-hunters who want to dig through your data-spoor in their quest to track your habits (either as an individual or as part of a larger herd).

Use the Vector, Luke: Some will gladly try to harness the power of the vector, both professionally and personally.  They’ll try to squeeze every ounce of utility out of recommendation engines, work assiduously to enhance their social media rankings,  try to leverage every data collection/presentation service out there to boost their credit ratings, get offered better jobs, or win hearts (or other stuff) on dating sites. They will certainly wield vectors at work for the purpose of prediction analytics. They may even turn the vector scalpel inward with the goal of “hacking themselves” into better people, like the Quantified Selfers who want to gain “self knowledge through numbers.”

That’s not to say that we can’t pick and choose some aspects of each of these three basic strategies. For instance, I’m just not cut out for the quantified-self game, being just too data-apathetic (let’s s a 7 on a scale of 10) to quantify my life. But, when it comes to analyzing other stuff, from labor data to survey findings to insects in my backyard, I’m all in, willing and ready to use the Force of the Vector. Now, I just have to figure out where I misplaced my statistical light saber…

Featured image from IkamusumeFan - Plot SVG using text editor.

The Extended Human

A nest or hive can best be considered a body built rather than grown. A shelter is animal technology, the animal extended. The extended human is the technium.

Kevin Kelly

I like the phrase “extended human” because these days so much of our lives is spent doing just that: extending. We extend toward one another via our increasingly pervasive networking technologies, of course, but also via our words, our art, our organizations and our sometimes frighteningly fervent tribes of like-minded people.

Without these extensions, there can be no reticula – or, at least, none that includes humanity. It’s as if we are all connected neurons, the tentacled creatures of our own dreams and nightmares.

Kevin Kelly, the author of What Technology Wants, uses the phrase extended human to mean the same thing as the technium, which he defines as the “greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us.” But I see the extended human as beginning not with our technologies but with the reticula within: our woven, language-loving, community-seeking minds. A human who is armed only with ideas and imagination still has an amazing ability to extend herself into the universe.

Connection Matrix of the Human Brain

Technological Kudzu

Still, it’s true that the technium vastly enhances our natural tendency toward extension. In fact, as Kelly points out (and all anthropologists know), our inclination toward tool usage predates our emergence as a species. Our evolutionary predecessors such as Homo erectus were tool users, suggesting this propensity is somehow encoded or, at least made more likely, by our DNA.

These days, our extensions are growing like so much technological kudzu. Think about the growth of Zoom and other video conferencing applications. These technologies have become among of the latest technological imperatives, along with basics such as electricity, plumbing and phones/cell phones.

But there’s something missing in all this. Extensions are powerful alright, but what, exactly, are we extending? That is, what is at the core of the extended human? It isn’t a technological issue but, rather, a philosophical, psychological, existential or even spiritual one.

How Far Is Too Far?

This is where things not only get tricky but downright divisive.  The Buddhist may argue that “nothing” is at the core, that most of what we want to extend is sheer ego and delusion. The Christian may argue that immortal souls are at the human core, souls which have the propensity for good or evil in the eyes of God. The Transhumanist may argue that the human body and brain are the core, both of which can be enhanced and extended in potentially unlimited ways.

Few would argue against the idea that humans should be an extended species. Even the lowest-tech Luddites rely on tools and technologies. What we will spend the next several decades arguing about are two related issues:

1) What is at the core of humanity? What should we value and preserve? What can we afford to leave behind in the name of progress and freedom?

2) How far should we extend ourselves? Should we set collective limits for fear that we’ll lose our essential humanity or cause our own extinction? If so, how can we reasonably set limits without magnifying the risks of tyranny or stagnation?

All sorts of other subjects will be incorporated into these two basic issues. For example, collective limits on technological advances become more likely if associated dangers – higher rates of unemployment, increased risks of terrorism, environmental crises, etc. –  loom larger over time. Although we will frame these issues in various ways, they will increasingly be at the center of our collective anxiety for years to come. It’s the price of being the most extended species in the reticulum.

Featured image by Sheila1988; Agricultural tools at show

Do You Treat Employees Like Fixed-Program Computers?

Computers didn’t always work they do today. The first ones were what we now called “fixed-program computers,” which means that, without some serious  and complex adjustments, they could do only one type of computation.

Sometimes that type of computer was superbly useful, such as when breaking Nazi codes during World War II (see the bombe below). Still, they weren’t much more programmable than a calculator, which is a kind of modern-day fixed program computer.

The brilliant mathematician John von Neumann and colleagues had a different vision of what a computer should be. To be specific, they had Alan Turing’s vision of a “universal computing machine,” a theoretical machine that the genius Turing dreamt up in 1936. Without going into specifics, let’s just say that the von Neumann model used an architecture has been very influential up the present day.

One of the biggest advantages associated with Turing/von Neumann computers is that multiple programs can be stored in them, allowing them to do many different things depending on which  programs are running.

Von Neumann architecture: Wikimedia

Today’s employers clearly see the advantage of stored-program computers. Yet I’d argue that many treat their employees and applicants more like the fixed-program computers of yesteryear.  That is, firms make a lot of hiring decisions based more on what people know when they walk in the door than based on their ability to acquire new learning.  These days, experts are well paid largely because of the “fixed” knowledge and capabilities they have. Most bright people just out of college, however, don’t have the same fixed knowledge and so are viewed as less valuable assets.

Employers aren’t entirely in the wrong here. It’s a lot easier to load a new software package into a modern computer than it is to train an employee who lacks proper skill sets.  It takes money and time for workers to develop expertise, resources that employers don’t want to “waste” in training.

But there’s also an irony here: human beings are the fastest learning animals (or machines, for that matter) in the history of, well, the universe, as far as we know. People are born to learn (we aren’t designated as sapiens sapiens for nothing), and we tend to pick things up quickly.

What’s more, there’s a half-life to existing knowledge and techniques in most professions. An experienced doctor may misdiagnose a patient simply because his or her knowledge about certain symptoms or treatments are out-of date. The same concept applies to all kinds of employees but especially to professionals such as engineers, scientists, lawyers, and doctors. In other words, it applies to a lot of the people who earn the largest salaries in the corporate world.

Samuel Arbesman, author of The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, stated in a TEDx video, “Overall, we know how knowledge grows, and just as we know how knowledge grows, so too do we know how knowledge becomes overturned. ” Yet, in our recruitment and training policies, firms often act as if we don’t know this.

The only antidote to the shortening half-life of skills is more learning, whether it’s formal, informal or (preferably) both. And the only antidote to a lack of experience is giving people experience, or at least a good facsimile of experience, as in simulation-based learning.

The problem of treating people like fixed-program computers is part of a larger skills-shortage mythology. In his book  Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs , Prof. Peter Cappelli pointed to three driving factors behind the skills myth. A Washington Post article sums up:

Cappelli points to many’s unwillingness to pay market wages, their dependence on tightly calibrated software programs that screen out qualified candidates, and their ignorance about the lost opportunities when jobs remain unfilled…”Organizations typically have very good data on the costs of their operations—they can tell you to the penny how much each employee costs them,” Cappelli writes, “but most have little if any idea of the [economic or financial] value each employee contributes to the organization.” If more employers could see the opportunity cost of not having, say, a qualified engineer in place on an oil rig, or a mobile-device programmer ready to implement a new business idea, they’d be more likely to fill that open job with a less-than-perfect candidate and offer them on-the-job training.

The fixed-program mentality should increasingly become a relic of the past. Today, we know more than ever about how to provide good training to people, and we have a growing range of new technologies and paradigms, such as game-based learning, extended enterprise elearning systems, mobile learning and “massively open online courses” (aka, MOOCs).

A squad of soldiers learn communication and decision-making skills during virtual missions: Wikimedia

With such technologies, it’s become possible for employers to train future applicants even before they apply for a position. For example, a company that needs more employees trained in a specific set of programming languages could work with a provider to build online courses that teach those languages. Or they could potentially provide such training themselves via extended enterprise learning management systems.

The point is that there are more learning options today ever before. We live in a new age during which smart corporations will able to adopt a learning paradigm that is closer to that of stored-program computers, one that they’ve trusted their technologies to for over half a century.

Featured image: A rebuild of a British Bombe located at Bletchley Park museum. Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Maksim. Wikimedia Commons.

Sitting on Your Set Point

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

This will be my last post on obesity and weight loss for a while. I have plenty more entries in my food journal to draw from, but I feel the need to move onto other less self-focused topics.

I’m writing this last post of the series in case anyone is struggling with weight loss but suffering from disappointments. I know that feeling so well.

Dealing with Disappointment

 Let’s say you’re doing everything right in your eyes. Yesterday, you went to the gym, where you lifted some weights and did half an hour of aerobic activity. 

Then you came home and went to work. You ate a sensible breakfast (oatmeal), lunch (Minestrone soup) and dinner (chicken and salad), and avoided eating after dinner after an apple for dessert.

In other words, you did everything right.

You’re kind of eager to weigh yourself, wanting to find out how much you’ve lost. After all, if it’s as much as a pound, you can redo the calculations in your head to assure yourself you’ll be svelte by Christmas or whenever.

But how does the universe respond to your good deeds?

Well, it turns out you’ve actually gained a couple of pounds since yesterday!

“I don’t deserve this,” you think to yourself. This reminds you of the movie Unforgiven, the scene in which Little Bill (played by Gene Hackman) tells William Munny (Clint Eastwood), “I don’t deserve to die like this.” Munny, who is about to blow his head off with a shotgun, says, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” 

Okay, comparing your slight weight gain to getting executed on a barroom floor is a tad dramatic, but you get the idea.

Then you talk yourself down with a hundred truths, tropes and tiny deceptions. 

It’s just a bathroom scale and isn’t all that accurate. Besides, you’re going to naturally swing a bit day to day. Besides, your body strives to maintain equilibrium. Besides that, muscle weighs more than fat. You just have to have patience. No one said it was going to be easy. You’ll get there. You just need to double down on your efforts. You can do it!

A lot of that’s true. Still, there’s that inner child within saying “It’s not fair!” The child that wants to take his ball and go home. The child that thinks they might as well have some ice cream because it just doesn’t matter one way or the other. 

The child isn’t the Dogman, but the child may aid and abet the Dogman. Maybe not intentionally. “Don’t you let that dog out the door?” you yell, a parent from a bedroom, your voice already scolding but muffled. But, the Dogman, sensing an opportunity, muscles its way past the kid when the door is open just a crack, and out he suddenly flies, free to chase squirrels, crap in the neighbor’s yard, bark at strangers, or even knock over a trashcan and scour it for anything resembling food.  

Does the kid care? Maybe a part of them does, but the other part says, “Life’s not fair. Let the dog go have some fun. Somebody ought to, and it’s definitely not me these days.”

Patience on the Set Point

One of the reasons it’s so easy to suffer a series of what can feel like “crushing defeats” is because your body seems to have what’s sometimes called a “set point.” This is the weight around which your body wants to hover. It’s not so hard to lose weight if you’re five pounds above that set point, but trying to lose it once you’ve hit the set point can be brutal if you come at it with the wrong attitude

My set point as I’m writing this is in the range of 224 to 229, by the bathroom scale (higher if you use the mechanical column scales found in doctor offices and gyms). If I’m at 233 or higher, it’s not so hard getting back to that set point. But getting below it can be pretty rough.

This proclivity of your body to “want” to maintain a set point makes a lot of sense for two-legged nomadic hunters and gatherers who went through periods of feast and famine. After all, you might get pretty hungry while you’re waiting for the fruit on certain trees to ripen or while tracking down that wily wooly mammoth you’ve been pursuing.

As you’re waiting, your body tries to conserve energy and fat as best it can. It’s a survival mechanism. Without it, we probably wouldn’t be here to begin with.

But in an age when there’s plenty of food around, that set point mechanism can be a bummer.

My advice is to be patient. Keep your meal servings sane. Keep getting the right amount of exercise. Remember that eating in a healthy way is its own reward. Weight loss is often just a bonus.

On the Margins and in Good Time

In my experience, weight loss happens around the margins. You won’t gain weight if you have one sausage for dinner, for example, but having two of them? You won’t gain weight if have a handful of nuts, but having two or three handfuls? 

This is the hardest thing for me. I mean, I’m not “pigging out.” I just want two burgers rather than one. How much worse can that be? “It’s just protein,” I tell myself. “After all, a lot of diet books out there are recommending staying away from carbs and eating meat.”

But it doesn’t work that way. Not in my experience, anyway. Having that extra burger or sausage repeated over days and weeks messes me up.

For lots of people, avoiding that extra burger doesn’t sound hard. But for me it’s been brutal in the past, especially if my other primary meals are a bowl of oatmeal with fruit and a nutritious salad for lunch. Don’t I deserve a couple of helping of real meat?

No, not necessarily. It depends on a lot of other factors. You need to be listening to your own body. “Deserves’s got nothing to do with it,” my inner Clint tells me.

So, I need to be better around the margins. Maybe just one helping, not two. Not three. How about a chicken strip? Okay, two helpings, but not three. Or four. The gains or, I should say, the losses are made around the margins and they take a long time to happen.

Again, be patient. Learn as you go. Eat and live well. Eventually you’ll probably get by your current set point. (Though keep in mind there may well be other set points in your future.) Don’t get distressed by not being able to hit some ideal goal. Don’t let some socially constructed ideal of a “right weight” define you or make you unhappy.

So what if you’re a work in progress?

I’ve got news. We all are.

Featured image by Diane Krauss (DianeAnna); Diane Krauss put it under GFDL and CC-BY-SA-2.5. The German tennis player Tommy Haas at the public training for the World Team Cup in Düsseldorf, Germany, 2005. Wikimedia Commons.

Weighting for Godot

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

Wait a little longer, you’ll never regret it.

–Samuel Beckett

The good thing about eating healthier is that there’s no end to it. It’s not like a diet that you do for six weeks or whatever. It’s not a matter of waiting to hit some goal; it’s a lifestyle choice.

These days, I weigh around 226, which means I’ve gained some weight back since I was at 217 or so. I’m still technically overweight according to the BMI scale. But that’s okay. This is a process. As long as I’m not binge eating, I’m pretty happy with the ways things are going. I continue to maintain the habits I outlined before.

Do I need to tweak some things? For sure. In fact, I’m trying some different lunch and snack alternatives these days. But I feel no need to go on a diet or starve myself in order to hit some numerical objective.

My main goal these days to get in better aerobic shape. I ran a 5K recently and am trying to balance running against keeping the Achilles tendonitis in my right heel tamped down.

I still plan to get to 195 lbs or so but, even if I achieve it, there will be no moment of triumph when I can suddenly go back to eating  Barbecue Lays Potato chips on the sofa while watching a string of Sunday football games or a long chain of Marvel movies. I’m hoping those days are permanently behind me. I certainly don’t miss them.

But I know that nothing is certain in this game and that maintaining a healthy approach to food requires constant upkeep and vigilance. My ultimate goal is to continue eat in a healthy and happy way until the day I die, or at least until Godot finally makes that long-awaited appearance.

Featured image from Waiting_for_Godot_in_Doon_School, by Merlaysamuel