The Weight of Paper

Nanny, my grandmother on my mother’s side, was born in 1881 and grew up before the automobile, airplane, radio and silent film.  She watched all the technology emerged that in my boyhood I took for granted, like electricity, the telephone, refrigerators, cloth washers and dryers, air conditioners, etc.  She died a couple years after Neil and Buzz landed on the Moon. 

My mother was born in 1916 and grew up with the radio, at a time when movies morphed from silent pictures into talkies, watched the television age emerge, drove across the country before the interstate highway system was built, and lived long enough to see computers become personal, phones stored in pockets and the world wired for computer networks, although she refused to own a cell phone or computer. 

I was born in 1951, and I’m not sure if I’ve seen as much dramatic cultural change as those two women, but I grew up in front of a TV, watching the advent of the space age, the computer age and the digital age, and if I live long enough I might see far more dramatic transformations.  They both lived to 91, and if I could live as long, I will see the world change as much as they did from 1881 and 1916 until 1951.

Computers are changing the way we all live, but have they changed us as much as the automobile, airplane, radio, movie and television?  Current digital technology often makes me dislike the way I used to do things, even though I feel strong nostalgia for how things were. Take reading for instance, all aspects of my reading habits have changed in my lifetime.  I now listen to books on an iPod, or read them printed on small digital screens like in Star Trek.  For a more specific example, my wife is nagging me about my magazine collection, housed in two six foot high bookcases. 

I love magazines, and spent six years working in a Periodicals department at a university library.  My home library contains hundreds of issues from dozens of titles.  Even Susan asks, “Can’t you get them on online?”  I stopped reading newspapers years ago, and I might stop reading magazines soon.  I prefer audio books now, even though I spent my whole life as a bookworm, and 99% of the words I read with my eyes each day come through my computer screen.  I even listen to magazines, like The New Yorker, and prefer it to reading.

The weight of a single sheet of paper is almost unnoticeable, but the weight of twelve shelves of magazines is quite heavy.  Since we had new flooring put in this month, I had to move four bookcases of books, and two bookcases of magazines and the weight of that paper was almost backbreaking.  How many trees went into making all that paper?  What was the impact on the environment?

Awhile back, to do my bit to fight global warming, I started going paperless, and cut my magazines subscriptions from over 20 to just 2 (Sky and Telescope and Rolling Stone – what an odd couple, huh?).  But I kept all my old issues hoping to get the maximum reading value someday, and maybe even clip the best articles to scan into my computer.  I’m at point in time when I’m shifting away from one kind of living, with paper, and moving into another way of life, without paper. 

I still buy an occasional mag at the bookstore, but even that makes me feel guilty, because that means my pile of unfinished magazines keeps growing, and more trees were cut down.  I tend to flip through a magazine and read the shorter pieces and tell myself that I’ve just got to find time for those great longer pieces someday, but I seldom do.  The weight of paper can also be measured in time, and I have a huge amount of time theoretically reserved for that reading.  Throwing all those magazines out will reduce the weight of possessions and free up a lot of imagined obligated hours, probably in the thousands.

I have nice long runs of Sky and Telescope, Astronomy Magazine, New Scientist, Scientific American, National Geographic, Smithsonian, Popular Photography and many others.  I like to think of them as my reference library, but honestly, I rarely refer to them.  Reading online has become my habitual way of info-gathering.  And since I often read online articles about the dwindling subscriber base to newspapers and periodicals, I’m guessing there are many people like me.  If only they made a Kindle-like reading device with a large full-colored screen, I’d probably do 100% my eye reading from online sources.

But I must also emphasize the shift from eye reading to ear reading has been very important to me.  That’s another paradigm shift, and I think it scares people in the literacy profession.

Throwing away my magazine collection would be like throwing away the past.  According to Wikipedia, general interest magazines started in 1731 with The Gentleman’s Magazine, so will we see the era of the printed magazine end before it’s 300th anniversary?  When I was born the pulp magazine format was dying and the science fiction and fantasy digest magazine was beginning.  Today those digests are disappearing and a new crop of online SF/F magazines are emerging.  Read Jason Sanford’s recent survey of these new short story venues for emerging writers of fantastic fiction.  Will getting published be as exciting?  It will certainly be easier to send copies to your friends.

Today I read “Ten things mobiles have made, or will make, obsolete.”  Among the ten items was paper, (also included were pay phones, landline home phones, MP3 players, netbooks, small digital cameras, handheld game consoles, wristwatches and alarm clocks).  It’s quite easy to read on an iPhone, whether it’s a book, short story, magazine article or news item.

There is also talk that the United States Postal Service is failing.  I can understand why, because only 1 piece of mail in 15 is something I actual need, and even that piece could be eliminated by electronic billing.  Nearly everything I get in my mailbox goes right into the recycling bin.  This is especially a shame for all those fancy full-color catalogs, resources terribly wasted because I don’t even flip through their pages.

The era of paper might be nearing its end.  The more effort I put into recycling the more I realize that most paper trees die in vain, and their lives would be better spent absorbing carbon dioxide.  I will agonize over all the people in paper related industries who will lose their jobs, but the history of the world is change, and nothing stays the same.

If I lived until 2042, to become 91 like my mother and grandmother, I might see the end of newspapers, magazines and books.  I’ll probably see the passing of paper photographs, 8-16-35-70mm film formats, LPs, CDs, DVDs, BDs and any other form of audio-visual physical storage.  Stranger still, I might see the end of libraries and bookstores.  Everything will be digital, and the net will be a universal library.  Newsstands are already disappearing fast.  Bookstore business is still growing, but if the Kindle and its kin catch on, that will change too.  And libraries aren’t what they used to be.

The age of wasting natural resources should end in our lifetimes, either from changing our lifestyles to avoid the worst of global warming, or by adapting to the new environments that global warming brings into existence.  It is impossible to know the future.  It is impossible to know what black swan changes are in store for us.  The folks of 1881 could not picture 1916 much less 1951 and 2009 is beyond anything anyone could imagine from the 19th century, so I can’t really predict 2019 or 2042.

However, when was the last time you put a coin in a pay phone or a letter in a letter box?  How many other things have you stopped doing in recent years that you haven’t even notice you stopped doing?  It’s easy to be amazed by new inventions, but will we even notice when the weight of all that paper is gone?

JWH – 11/24/9

Where are the Wholesome TV Shows?

I’m wondering if the TV shows I watch make a statement about my personality, or even more, if they influence it.  I constantly argue with my friends about the old nature versus nurture debate, with me believing biology is the stronger force, while my feminist friends holding firm to the power cultural influences.  If my lady friends are right, then television programs us.  If me and my males friends who side with biology are right, then television only reflects our baser instincts.

And I’m sure members of God’s flock will ask: Where do I, an atheist, get the moral authority to judge what’s wholesome about TV.  Maybe I can define “wholesome TV” in a way that both the spiritual minded seeking moral goodness, and the secular wanting uplifting humanism, can agree.  I’m afraid my definition will be tricky because it aims to be two things at once.  Fiction is both a mirror to personality and a microscope examining culture.  To question fiction’s purpose is akin to debugging one’s own programming.

My definition of “Wholesome Television Shows” are those teleplays that reflect positive cultural programming or ones that educate viewers about biology’s influence on human relations.  Wholesome TV should provide inspiring role models and illuminate the weaknesses we should all seek to overcome.  Wholesome fiction should constantly explore what it means to improve oneself and our species.  Whether you are a fundamentalist or a humanist, the desire for wholesome entertainment is a desire to improve the whole. 

TV shows from the 1950s often naively tried to do this, with each episode of “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” presenting a moral lesson, and reinforcing conservative beliefs.  Creating wholesome fiction is not the goal of most TV writers, they seek to make money by entertaining.  Most audiences find moralizing condescending.  Uplifting is a very difficult trick to pull off.

The other night I watched an episode of Leave it to Beaver, and then rewatched my favorite science fiction movie, Gattaca.  From my viewpoint, Gattaca is the perfect example of modern, adult wholesome entertainment.  I wonder what Christian fundamentalists would make of my evidence?  Just because I don’t see God in the universe doesn’t mean I don’t see the beauty of spiritually uplifting humanity.  Vincent Freeman’s relentless drive to overcome the dictates of genetics is a uplifting spiritual quest.

The average TV viewer doesn’t want morality plays about improving their souls, they want high impact entertainment that provides fabulous escapism.  In other words, Americans crave boob tube heroin, where they can kick back in their recliners and experience opium intense visions through their flat panel screens.  This adult audience doesn’t want wholesome TV.  Wholesome TV is primary a idealized concept that parents want for their children, and some adults want because they are tired of feeling like Romans at the Coliseum when turning on their TVs.

I’m too old to wonder what I’ll be when I grow up, but I have to wonder how kids today view their future.  And if I was a proud parent, would I want my kids watching television?  If my feminist friends are right, and cultural programming is the dominant influence on personality, then what kind of code are we loading into the brains of today’s rug rats?  As a concession to my feminist friends, young women of 2009 are far different from young women of 1909 or 1809.  I would argue they are the same because of biology, but freed of cultural repression, we are seeing more of their true instinct.

The overwhelming message to kids from modern television, is teaching them that if they aren’t extremely sexual active they are failures, losers and dorks.  Following that, television illustrates that wealth is everything, that money equals sexual partners, freedom, and power.  After that, the subtle message that’s constantly beaten into their heads is violence is the best solution.  Is it any wonder I claim biology is the dominant influence on personality?  Television constantly shows alpha males fighting for prized females, or females going to inhuman efforts to be sexual irresistible.

Don’t get me wrong, modern television does have it’s good messages about tolerance for diversity, preaching ecological education, promoting GLBT acceptance, often dealing with subtle ethical issues, while regularly championing societal underdogs, and exploring political controversial topics of the day.  However, it seldom promotes hard work and discipline and usually sees the academic successful as the socially challenged.  On TV, sarcasm is presented as the supreme method for demonstrating intelligence.

The television shows I like to watch reflect a deep addiction for fiction and escapism, but I can also imagine they could also represent moral failure.  My top three favorite shows right now are Big Love, Dexter and True Blood, in that order.  Critically I’d rate them A+, A+, A-, but none attempt to be Gattaca.  None of them are wholesome, although, strangely enough, I might advocate Dexter, a sympathetic look at a serial killer, as the most wholesome of the bunch. 

Dexter Morgan knows his genetic programming commands him to kill, but he constantly struggles with the ethics of being a serial killer, all the while trying to understand what it means to be a good human, because he knows he’s not.  Don’t get me wrong, I would rate all my favorite shows M30.  I’m not sure people under 30 should watch them.  In fact, I can’t think of any primetime ABC, CBS, NBC show I’d recommend for the under 18 crowd.  Over at Parents Television Council, they could only find one show they gave their Green light to, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader.  Most primetime broadcast TV shows are rated Red, and a few Yellow by the stoplight metaphor coding.

The most wholesome network show I watch is The Big Bang Theory, which the above group rates Red.  I love this geek fest show, especially because it’s the only show on TV about scientists, but I’m not sure if it’s a flattering portrayal, and it gives a bad message to kids:  Scientists are comic book reading dweebs, nothing but silly characters who can’t get laid, or worse still, don’t even think about getting laid.  What if television producers create a show about JPL scientists that was realistic, dramatic, inspirational, and encourage kids to believe science was a tremendously exciting career?  Television has totally failed at presenting science to the public.  Science fiction is usually fantasy escapism, and shows like CSI lamely present a silly, simplistic, and inaccurate view of science and technology.  CSI makes science look like slight-of-hand, only reinforcing Arthur C. Clarke’s famous comment, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Is all of this a failure of television, or really a failure of fiction?  If we consider non-fiction, then there’s a true abundance of shows worthy of young people’s viewing.  Fictional television fails at presenting role models, and its efforts of cultural programming are mixed.  Nor is fictional programming that educational about burden of biology places on our personality.  It amply illustrates the sex drive, but never reveals it as a burden.  Television only reflects a worship of sex and never deconstructs sexual impulses.  We all know rubbing our genitals together is pleasurable, but why is the quest to find the right frictional partner so common in storytelling?  And if fiction isn’t about sex, it’s about conflict and violence.  Would the Harry Potter books been as satisfying if they lacked all the killing?

Sex and death are natural parts of life, but fiction gives the illusion that sex and death are the most common aspects of life.  By not watching the local news, my crime filled city seems peaceful.  In real life I never see other people having sex.  Mostly I see people struggling to get ahead at their education or work, or improving their house and lawn.  Is the craving for fiction the urge to see what we don’t in normal life?  Is my craving for wholesome television just a craving for what I don’t see in my life?

The defining moral and ethical issue of our lives is global warming.  Will we be the generation that fiddles while Rome burns?  Many scientists are now saying we only have one decade to transform ourselves before our habits push the environment past the point of now return.  We are a generation of Noahs, but instead of building an ark and collecting animals, we’re watching television.  As far as I’m concerned fiction has totally failed to address this issue.

If I had any backbone I’d beat my addiction to fiction and throw it off completely.  I crave wholesome fiction, because I feel it’s a time in our culture when we need it.  However, my addiction to sensational fiction is too great.  It’s beauty is to powerful to ignore.  However I am cutting back on my drug of choice by reading more non-fiction.  Mostly I fix my fiction habit with television and movies, and leave reading to non-fiction, but I’m starting to watch ever more documentaries.  If I was a parent, I’d urge my kids to watch quality documentaries, but there is a third force in the nature-nurture debate that may even be more powerful, and that’s peer pressure. 

The young will find their own art to admire.  We have no choice in the matter.  The young are programmed by biology and fuel by pop culture.  I can’t image what they will look back to in forty years and see in this decade as their wholesome television.  Two and a Half Men is no Leave it to Beaver.  And what kind of role models do Britney Spears, Fergie and Lady GaGa make for young women?  Read this interview with Megan Fox to see an example of a contemporary thoroughly modern Millie.

The moral majority’s demand for wholesome TV is really a tempest in a teapot.  Just watch ABC Family and Disney Channel TV shows.  Are they really that wholesome?  They might be cleaner, but are they uplifting?  And are their shows improving this generation of children?  Is Disney’s Britney Spears a reasonable example of a wholesome upbringing and current role model?

NBC’s ER was a reasonably good wholesome show because it was very positive about doctors and medicine, providing gritty, but realistic role models.  Compare that to Gray’s Anatomy?  Is there any show on TV now that have characters you’d want for your children to admire?  I hate to say it, but Dexter the serial killer is at least aspiring to be a better human.  I don’t even see that in most shows.

JWH – 8/13/9

We Need A Number

Go do a Google search on this phrase – “Target Atmospheric CO2” – and include the quotation marks, and you will find 2,400 links.  The links point to essays discussing a scientific paper by James Hansen and other scientists called “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”  The gist of the story:  The likely safe high range for CO2 in the atmosphere is 350ppm, and we’re beyond that at 385ppm.  Hansen is the NASA scientist that first alerted Congress to the global warming problem back in 1988.  Randomly read some of those essays reacting to the paper and you’ll save me the time paraphrasing it.  The paper itself is perfectly readable, if you’re patient, but it’s bumpy with scientific speak, so it might be easier to read the commentaries.

Many of the writers act like 350 is the magic number we need, and in some ways that’s true.  It gives humanity a very specific goal.  It tells everyone that if we want weather like the nice weather we grew up with, then everybody needs to go on a carbon diet and get the atmospheric CO2 below 350 again.  However, that does not convey the sacrifice needed to achieve the goal.

I think we need another number.  Scientists need to decide what is the fair share target number we all need to stay under personally to get the job done.  Recycling paper and buying compact florescent lights are not going to do the trick.  I think until we have a personal number to target, along with proper labeling on everything we buy, people won’t understand how much CO2 they need to cut out of their lives.

How much sacrifice do we need to make?  If the nations of the world had a crash program to switch to 100% solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear and other sources of clean energy, would that solve the problem?  Would that be one way to solve the problem without asking individuals to think about the details?  Or should governments just kill off some of the most polluting industries?  Do we need to give up the beef industry?  Or the paper industry?  Or the airline industry?  Or all of them plus more?  Or would it be better to ask the citizens themselves to take on their own share of global warming responsibility and let them make their own decisions on how to clean up their share of personal waste?

If we had a number to measure our personal use against, we could all decide the sacrifices we’d like to make.  Some people might be willing to dry their clothes on the line outside for a year to budget flying to New York City for a vacation.  Other people might buy high tech cars that put little CO2 in the atmosphere so they can enjoy living in a larger house.  Others might choose to walk to work so eating steaks wouldn’t break their personal greenhouse gas consumption budget.

Many people have suggested having a carbon tax to help fund a Manhattan style project to convert to clean energy power plants.  This would discourage waste and finance change.  Having a tax would be one way to quantify for the public their duty to humanity.  It could also simplify the decisions people make.  If gasoline with a carbon tax was $12 a gallon, then you’d think long and hard about wasting it.  If the price of electricity from coal went to 4x with a carbon tax, it would give utility companies income to build new plants and customers incentives to make their houses energy efficient.

This would be the easy route.  What if in the next ten years we screwed around and didn’t do anything and it became frighteningly obvious we need to do something drastic?   Would we make bigger sacrifices then?  What if we had to outlaw the gasoline powered car?  Or outlaw airplanes?  Or ration electricity?

There are thousands and thousands of things we can do now by freely making the choices ourselves before the governments of the world have to get heavy.  If we knew what our carbon allotment was, it would be easier to make those choices.

Take for instance paper.  I have no idea how much paper contributes to the problem of global warming, but I have seen one number that says that junk mail adds 114 billion pounds of CO2 annually.  My reaction is to give up paper completely.  I’m phasing out my magazine and newspaper subscriptions, I’m doing my best to never print computer documents, I’m working to reduce junk mail, and I’m finding ways to shop for products with less packaging.

If everyone thought this way, paper magazines would disappear from society and everyone would read electronic periodicals.  Is this good or bad?  That’s a lot of jobs lost.  Potentially, it could mean a lot of businesses would go under.  I’d hate to see that, but on the other hand, paper really isn’t needed in our computer networked society.  My local newspaper just started offering a weekly electronic edition that looks just like the print edition, but costs less than the Sunday only paper subscription.  I’m moving to a paperless lifestyle, but even though it’s logical to me, is it what everyone else should be doing too?

I draw the line at magazines and newspapers, but feel that books are worth their environmental costs because we preserve them and consider newspapers and mags disposable.  What if that’s wrong.  What if there’s a way to have environmental safe magazines?  Unless scientists tell us the values associated with all our consumption we won’t know how to make enlightened decisions.  If a National Geographic subscription form came with a number – 24 – for 24 pounds of CO2 added to the atmosphere per 1 year subscription then that would be a big step in understanding the problem.

However, unless I know my allotment number, say 1,000 pounds per year, I wouldn’t be able to practically use the 24 figure I got from National Geographic.  So Mr. Hansen, it you and your science buddies would be so kind, give us another number.  350 is cool for the world to know, but we all need another number, a number that would tell us how to live by so all 7 billion people riding on spaceship Earth pulls that 385ppm figure down to 350ppm.  That number is the maximum amount in pounds of greenhouse gases we can each safely add to the atmosphere in a year.

President Elect Obama, you could help with this too.  Instead of offering another general economic incentive package, offer us tax breaks on buying specific clean energy products and services.  That would be another way to quantify a solution.  Tax what’s bad for the environment, and subsidized what’s good.  Get the U.S. to do more than it’s fair share to get the world below that 350ppm number.  We owe the rest of the world.

JWH 11-9-8

Future History and Science Fiction

We generally live in the now, washing dishes, typing emails, talking to friends, staring at the television.  Looking backwards at history does fill our minds on occasions.  Education seems all about looking backwards, and much of fiction is about the past, and even during football games or golf playoffs on TV, commentators will spend time talking about past games and legendary players.  Many hobbies dwell on the past including collecting coins, guns and stamps, genealogy, airplane modeling, refinishing antique furniture, learning to play music, art collecting, woodworking, rebuilding old cars, and so on.

Of the past, present and future, we mainly live in the present, and look backwards, but some people like to think about the future.  When you buy a lotto ticket you are hoping to change the future.  A political election is all about the years to come.  But there are little ways to think about the future too.  Like waiting for an anticipated job change, or looking forward to your favorite TV show coming back next week, or just thinking about cake after dinner.  Overall though, we don’t spend a lot of time on the future.  People are notoriously bad about preparing for what’s to come, such as saving money for retirement, eating right for getting old, teeth care to avoid large dental bills, and so on.  The future is there and we know it, but we only deal with it in a cursory fashion, like planning your day during a shower, or studying Consumer Reports to pick the best TV to buy.

The past has a sweep of 13.7 billion years to the big bang.  K-12 and college years are when we cram in thousands upon thousands of facts about the past.  We don’t however dwell on the next 13.7 billion years, that is unless we read science fiction.  I’ve always felt that reading science fiction was studying future history.  Robert A. Heinlein even called some of his SF stories his future history series.  Now science fiction isn’t meant to predict the future, but its alternate name is sometimes speculative fiction.  We could also call science fiction, tales of future histories.  Science fiction may come true, but that’s accidental, what science fiction tries to do is show what happens if this goes on, regarding a single point of speculation.

I’m not particularly old at 56, but I can remember the Mercury space program and how TV commentators talked of the future Gemini and Apollo programs.  I waited a few years and those missions came to pass.  Then NASA talked about orbiting labs, space shuttles, robotic missions to the planets, and a giant space telescope called Hubble.  I waited and they too came to be.  Stuff NASA has been doing since 1958 was vaguely suggested by science fiction going back hundreds of years.

It is possible to change the future through imagination.  Take for instance T. Boone Pickens and his Pickens Plan?  Pickens, an oil billionaire gets an idea, and now he’s trying to create a future in which his vision unfolds.  It helps to be a billionaire if you want a big idea implemented fast, but it also takes a practical idea that millions will support.   Whether Pickens’ plan plays out according to his intent still remains to be seen, but I think it’s pretty obvious that energy windmills will start sprouting all across the U.S. midsection like giant dandelions.  You don’t have to be a science fiction visionary to spot a money making idea.

There’s a new nonfiction book out called 10 Books That Screwed Up the World by Benjamin Wiker.  Wiker is a Christian moralist worried that ideas can be unleashed that adversely affects our culture.   I don’t agree with his conclusions, but I do think ideas can be like seeds that blossom into cultural change.  Over the years I think science fiction, and it’s earlier incarnations, have planted many of these seeds.  Some have taken a very long time to come to fruit, and others won’t blossom until far into the future, and many still, will never germinate at all.

Space Travel

Science fiction’s biggest claim to fame is space travel.  Stories of fantastic voyages to the moon, planets and stars go back centuries, but many people give Jules Verne and H. G. Wells credit for popularizing the ideas for the 20th century, which led to modern science fiction, rocket experimenters, and eventually the Russian and American space programs.  I won’t dwell too much on this idea because it’s so obvious, but I will say it’s been over speculated.  Although the word “science” is part of the label “science fiction” the field has always been weak on the science aspect and heavier on the fiction component.  Many readers can’t tell fantasy from speculative fiction.  The potential for mankind traveling across the galaxy is there, but it probably won’t look like Star Wars or Star Trek.

The human race is about three years away from its 50th anniversary of manned space flight.  Long dormant, manned space exploration has gotten renewed interest with the take-off of the Chinese space program.  I think the odds are good for humans returning to the Moon, and slight for making it to Mars during the next 50 years of exploration.  For imagining further we need to study both space science and science fiction, and reconcile the two visions.


Almost as old as space travel are dreams of creating mechanical men.  If you watch the science shows on television you will know that the science of robotics is taking off like a Atlas V.  Most people are familiar with toy and movie robots, and some even know about industrial robots, but will intelligent, free moving humanoid robots ever appear in the next 50 years?  Guessing that involves following a number of scientific breakthroughs.

Electronic and mechanical bodies that are roughly shaped like people, and are as mobile as our species, should be ready within 50 years, and probably much earlier.   We have humanoid robots now, but they are slow and limited. Like futuristic cars, battery technology will limit the range of android life.  Robots will always be hungry for energy and an AI companion that can go where you go, and for as long as you go, will require some very good batteries.

Next in limitation is intelligence.  There will be two levels of intelligence involved.  What scientists are working on now is what we might call mammalian intelligence.  They need to create a machine with the hardwired wits to survive in the real world like an animal.  Currently the progress seems to hover around the development of insects, but I’ve seen one robot that reminded me of a dog in its behavior.  Of course the real goal of our robotic dreams is artificial intelligence.  We want our mechanical pals to be as smart as Data on Star Trek.

What we’re waiting for is an AI breakthrough, the singularity, like that promoted by Vernor Vinge.  Personally I don’t see any laws of science stopping us there, not like Einstein’s laws putting the kibosh on FTL interstellar travel.  Like the kid in 1961 waiting for the moon landing in 1969, I feel like seeing intelligent robots is merely a matter of waiting.  This is going to have a big impact on society.  For a period robots will be like serfs and slaves, but at some point the civil rights of AIs will come up.  At what point does your faithful Rosie the Robot maid become too close to a manmade Hazel?

I’m hoping personal robots will be ready by the time I get old and need a caretaker.  I’ve watched a lot of people age and lose their independence, so I think the most obvious purpose for a personal robot is as a companion and helper for when we get frail.  Interestingly, this overlaps perfectly with another science fiction prediction, life extension.

Life Extension

Science predicts that I should die around age 79.  Those are my odds.  I might beat them by a bit, or I might cash in early.  In other words, on average I can plan to live another 22 years.  With the direction my body and mind has taken during the past decade I worry that even those 22 years will not all be good ones.  However, I’d like to think that medical technology could fix me up and keep me going.  If I had decent health, especially if my mind holds out, I could picture wanting to live to 100 or 110.  There’s plenty of science fiction predicting people will live hundreds, if not thousands of years, but for the next fifty years I think those stories are in the realm of the fantastic.  My personal fantasy is to double those 22 expected years and live a bit past 2051, and enjoy a 100th birthday.

The odds are against me, but medical science is moving fast.  I really don’t want to live to be 100 so much as I want to see what life will be like a 100 years after my birth.  Will we make it to Mars.  Will intelligent robots be common.  Will we make SETI contact.  Will space telescopes detect Earth like planets with artificial chemicals in their atmospheres?

With a little bit of life extension, baby boomers might get to see another decade called The Sixties.  What will life be like then?  Well, we all know what science is predicting for those years, the weather.

Global Warming

Science is usually not in the business of predicting the future, except for the limited time frames of controlled experiments, but climate scientists are now oracles prognosticating quite far into our futures and it isn’t good.  Despite the beliefs of climate change deniers, thousands, if not millions of scientists, engineers and technicians are working on the assumption that human activity is changing the climate of planet Earth and they are working hard to engineer ways to stop it.  In relation to science fiction, global warming is not an idea that came out of left field, because science fiction has often explored the end of the world through environmental catastrophes.

Global warming, overpopulation and the limits of resources will really determine the true nature of the next fifty years, and those forces could drastically effect what happens with space travel, robots and life extension.  If you want to get an idea how bad things could get, and why we should avoid any possible chance that we’re damaging the environment, then take up reading after-the-collapse stories written by some of the more gloomier science fiction writers.

For science fiction to be truly speculative fiction it must consider the laws of science carefully.  Will it be practical for 10 billion people to own a robot and live longer?  We know we can apply alternative technologies to solve the problems and answer the question in the affirmative, but science isn’t very good at predicting human nature, and that’s the real factor in how our future unfolds.

The reason why I’ve taken side tracks into exploring polarized attitudes and speculating on twin human species is because I’m not sure we can change our habits even with the aid of better technology.  If you read Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded, you’ll see with some changes in the laws we could dramatically transform society.  That transformation will be like the major societal shifts we’ve seen in the last few hundred years.  Examples include converting to an industrial economy, the migrations to urban environments, the move from horse power to horsepower, learning to fly, and supplementing our neural brains with silicon thinking.  Climate change deniers may have no more impact on slowing change than Luddites or lovers of the horse and buggy did in the past.

If this is true, science fiction has a lot of room left in writing future histories.  Despite what conservatives want, and fundamentalists dream, we won’t stay the same or move backwards in social development.  Fossil fuels will run out, but new technologies will replace them.  The future can be as bright as we want, the question is will we dial darkness or light.  If we can unintentionally change the world, can we intentionally change it back?


Humans show a talent for adapting, just look how fast DVDs, cell phones and iPods were adopted.  I think integrating robots into society will happen just as fast.  Reading science fiction will give us a range of future histories to study on how to handle that problem, from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics stories, to City by Clifford Simak, and Blade Runner‘s demand for empathy for androids.   Space travel is harder to accept because most of us will be paying for a few people to have all the fun.  And how many will reject life extension if offered?

Humans are very quick to accept change if it’s cheap and easy.  Dealing with Global Warming is more like not smoking, eating healthy, exercising and flossing your teeth.  Being disciplined on a world-wide level will require laws because on average we’re not a particularly disciplined species.

I read science fiction to think about all those centuries that I won’t get to see, all those billions of years of evolution I won’t get to study.  If you’ve explored the past you know great upheavals are common.  It would not be all that hard to write science fiction novels about futures where the number of carbon molecules in the atmosphere doubled and tripled, and the population halved and then halved again, and then again and again.  Humans have the adaptability and survivability of cockroaches and eventually we’ll make a comeback.

People do not like change.  Overall, we’re all like gamblers who go to casinos every single night hoping to break even.  What are the odds on that?  We don’t like change, but we certainly have the training for it.

JWH 9/28/8

Two Species of Human Beings

One of my all time favorite experiments dealt with visual perception.  I’m recalling this from memory of a book I read long ago, but maybe someone can let me know the original source.  In this experiment scientists raised two batches of kittens in different controlled environments.   Half the kittens were raised in a room with no vertical lines and the other half brought up in a place with no horizontal lines.  After six months they let the kittens out into the normal world.  The kittens who were raised without horizontal lines would not jump up onto a flat chair seat or shelves, and kittens raised without vertical lines would walk into chair legs.

When I read this I wondered what was missing from my vision because of my limited upbringing.  This current election makes me think of that experiment, because the Republicans are shouting at the Democrats, “Hey, Liberals, can’t you see the vertical lines, they’re right in front of your face!”  And the Democrats are yelling back, “Dudes, can’t you see those horizontal surfaces, they’re right there!”

Global warming deniers are making me wonder if there’s two different species of human beings living side by side.  Their absolute refusal to see the problem is so adamant that I have to wonder if it’s a matter of failed perception.  I don’t know what to say to them.  They clutch their false out-of-date data like it was handed down from God on stone tablets and they refuse to look at any new data because they think it’s from false prophets.  No matter how much information I’m willing to provide, they deny that it’s valid or that it really exists.  They are like the kittens raised without vertical lines that can’t see chair legs.

But the implications are far greater than this.  The division of the two species divide other issues like politics and religion.  How can we as a nation solve our problems, especially big problems, if we’re always polarized?  I wonder if the deniers have an innate sense of the cat in the quantum box, knowing at an unconscious level that as long as they don’t look inside the box the cat will be okay?  Will a global warming denier even understand what I just said?

To me the issue has gone beyond global warming.  I’m starting to worry that there is an even more dangerous problem than climate change, and that’s this division of perception that polarizes the population.  Is it like a law-of-nature barrier that keeps anything from going faster than light.  What if the average intelligence of the human race limits how far we can progress as a species?  We’re seeing more and more big problems that will require us to work cooperatively if civilization is to survive, but we’ve reach a total impasse on communication, refusing to do anything because we can’t agree.

Let’s avoid the global warming issue for the moment since it’s such a touchy issue.  Many of the climate change deniers scoff at climate predictions because various scientists have made predictions in the past that have apparently turned out not to be true.  Or appeared that way for awhile.  Two books, The Population Bomb (1968) and The Limits of Growth (1972) are often used as examples of failed predictions.  The trouble is, these deniers didn’t wait long enough to give the forecasts time to unfold.

Forty years later, many people think the world is just fine with 6.7 billion people and figure we can grow much larger, and they don’t think our rich lifestyles show any limits.   Perception is everything, but we’re on a roller coaster that’s climbing to the peak of the Kingka Ka, because we haven’t started the blazing ride down yet.  Now that China and India have taken up our American consumer habits, and resources are starting to be fought over, and hundreds of little stories tell me that The Limits of Growth is about to come online,  I’m getting the feeling that we’ll arrive at the peak of the climb soon.  Hold on for the ride down.

The people with rose colored corneas, obviously don’t watch a lot of documentaries, or keep up with diverse science magazines.  Conservative news shows tend to focus on the same old tired issues while ignoring the little stories that shows a whole lot of different barometers are all falling.  It’s funny that millions welcome the Christian apocalypse, but can’t see the world possibly ending in some other way.  The trouble is, the world doesn’t end, we just end up in a big mess that we’ve got to clean up.

It worries me that so many people enjoy the end-of-days stories that are so popular.  Why is it so easy to believe that an imaginary superior being will destroy us, but so hard to believe that we can destroy ourselves through pursuing those same old seven deadly sins that that same superior being warned us against?  You can not drive a SUV through the eye of a needle to get to your destination.

Maybe it’s a matter of language, and science is not the language to use to communicate across the gap that divides us.  I’ve been listening to the Bible this past year, on my iPod.  I know it’s an odd thing for an atheist to do, but I consider it learning a language.  I find it fascinating that all the things that the New Testament teaches are the things we need to do to change ourselves to avoid problems like global warming, over population and dwindling resources.

I have been thinking for days on how to reply to global warming deniers, and it is now occurring to me that I can’t recommend studying science.  That isn’t their language.  My reply to them is to buy an iPod and get a good audio edition of the Bible and really listen to it.  Listening is far superior to reading, and start at the beginning.   Pay attention to what’s happening chapter by chapter.  I know you conservatives don’t like the word “evolution” but the Bible shows an evolution of spirit.  Pay particular attention to the transition between the Old and New Testament.  Fundamental thinking is based in Old Testament philosophy.  It teaches about nation building.  The New Testament teaches about soul building.  For the people of the Earth to survive climate change will require a lot of soul building.

It is my belief that climate change deniers are worried that changing the world requires changing themselves, and they just don’t want to change.

JWH 9/22/8