How Smart Can Robots Become?

We like to think we all have unlimited potential.  And there is a common myth that we only use five percent of our brains.  Sadly, neither of these beliefs are true.  Most people are of average intelligence by definition, and few brains tear up reality like Einstein.  Brain capacity is limited, so why shouldn’t intelligence.  That’s why I’m asking about robots.  If the brains of AI computers and robots can be larger, and their density limited only to the laws of physics, then obviously artificial intelligence can grow to astoundingly high levels of IQ.

There are many many kinds of intelligence.  Some people think Ken Jennings, who won so many Jeopardy games represents a major kind of intelligence.  AI machines will be able to memorize whole university bookstores and beat any human at Trivial Pursuit.  But can an AI machine study all the books and journals on economics and tell Barack Obama how to solve the current economic crisis?  Memorizing facts is one kind of intelligence, but synthesizing knowledge is another.  The human mind can only juggle so many ideas at once, and even if a robot can juggle more, will that mean AI can solve all problems, or big problems?  We throw a lot of supercomputing power at trying to understand the weather but only get so far at predicting it.

Rocket scientists and physicists who talk to each other in mathematical symbols represent what many people consider the big brains on the planet.  Can you imagine a robot with vision that overlays tiny formulas of mathematical analysis onto everything it sees?  Will robots just be able to visualize the grand unification theory (GUT) of physics in their idle thoughts? 

Will giant AI astronomers have their minds hooked up to every telescope in the world and every satellite in the sky and just daydream in cosmology?  Will scientists of the future just read the journals that AI specialists write that explain everything in human terms?  Once you start thinking about the limits of robotic minds, you realize how far they can take things.  But even then, there will be limits.  At some point, even robots will preface their conversations with, “With what we know today we can only say so much about exoplanets.”

I’ve always thought it’s a good thing that God doesn’t just hang out on Earth with us because he’d be such a pain in the ass know it all.  Is that how we’ll feel about uber-geek robots?  Or will it really matter?  There’s plenty of superbrain dude and dudettes walking the planet and the average Earthling has no trouble ignoring their brilliance while pursuing their dumb-ass beliefs.  If some AI the size of Utah tells the world there is absolutely no evidence of God in reality I doubt the entire human population of Earth will become atheists.  If tomorrow’s newspaper printed the most eloquent equation for GUT discovered by Stephen Hawking and confirmed by legions of physicists I doubt it would make much of an impact with 99.9999% of the Earth’s population.

I have a feeling that in the future, with a world full of AI thinkers, many of them will sit around and lament how much they don’t know and write blog essays about inventing even more powerful artificial minds.  Can you imagine the put-downs the smartest of the AIs will use to burn the dumbest of their bunch?  “You’re no smarter than a human.”  Ouch.

Most of the people who commented on my last essay about robots worried that smart machines would get together and decide that the best way to solve the problems of the planet Earth is to stamp out those pesky humans.  That really is a potential worry we must face, but for some reason I naively believe we needn’t worry, although most science fiction ends up predicting the same thing that Jack Williamson did in his classic novel The Humanoids.  I guess I should worry about AI tyrants who seek fascist solutions to their theories about how Earthly reality should be run. 

I guess I believe we’ll build the AIs first, and if they get uppity we’ll just quickly pull the plug.  Many people do not want to open Pandora’s box even once.  They may be right, but I think we can isolate AIs easy enough.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have an AI Economic Guru to get us through this current crisis?  If we assemble such a machine and then ask it how to create an economy with maximum jobs for all and steady sustainable growth, do you think any AI mind could ever tell us the answer?  Or what if AI doctors could tell us how to cure cancer and Alzheimer’s?  What if you could watch a movie directed by an AI auteur that magnificently comments on the human condition?  Or listen to AI music?  The temptations are too great.

JWH – 1/26/9

Birds and Robots

The goal of AI scientists is to create an intelligent robot but many people feel that goal is impossible.  These people believe that the human mind is beyond nature and contains a soul that transcends our physical world.  If that is true, then the goal of silicon life is probably a fantasy.  However, if men and women are merely the most complex example of intelligent beings and leaves behind a trail of previous experiments by mother nature to fashion biological machines that can think, then there is a good chance we may one day give birth to our evolutionary descendants.

Folks who believe that man is different from the creatures of the Earth do so because they believe that animals lack our kind of intelligence and self-awareness.  Animals studies are showing more and more that our relatives on the tree of life often show cognitive traits that we once defined as the sole providence of human nature.  As intelligence and awareness are explored we’re starting to see that we homo sapiens are not that unique.

What we are learning from both robotics and animal studies is intelligence is a huge collection of tricks.  To be human actually means many things, including a fantastic repertoire of abilities, any one of which standing alone can be faked by machines or revealed in animals.  Robots can be programmed or designed to do one thing we can, and even do it better, like playing chess, but that doesn’t mean the robot is intelligent.  The same can be said of animals and their special traits.

Animals far exceed what any robot can do today, and they too are collections of abilities.  We’re starting to see robots that do more than one thing in a way that makes us see ourselves in their struggle to evolve.

Look at this video of Snowball, a head-banging Cockatoo and ask yourself if this bird is not enjoying himself rocking out to the music, and how is his response to music different from yours.

Snowball keeps better time than I do and I can’t match his dance moves.  Building a robot to dance to the beat probably would be easy for today’s robot engineers, but could we build a machine that enjoys a good downbeat as much?  Snowball stands above anything we’ve done with robots as people tower over ants.  Right now each artificial intelligence experiment struggles to create a single intelligent function that works in the most minimal of fashion.  Most people won’t think that Snowball perceives reality like a person, but if we make a list of all the things this bird can do and compare it with what we can do, there is a huge overlap.

Now look at this violin playing robot.  The robot is not aware of playing music, but it can do something that most humans can’t.

But can we say that Snowball is aware of music?  For all we know, the dance to the beat the bird is doing might be its way of showing pain, and we’re just anthropomorphizing that it’s getting down with the tune.  I don’t think so, though.

Now look at this news story about artificial intelligence to get some idea how complex the challenge of programming abilities into a machine.

Notice how many different projects this news story covers where the robot just does one simple thing.  Snowball and you have subsystems to do thousands if not millions of functions that could be considered an intelligent reaction to reality.  How did evolution program all those functions?

Now look at this video of Alex the talking parrot.  This bird seems to think.  Alex even asks for things it wants.  This is way beyond what robots can do, even though some of Alex’s tricks have been pursued in AI studies.  The question becomes can a robot ever think for itself?  Can a robot be created that learns from interacting with its environment like Alex the parrot?

Here’s a collection of videos that shows off robotic abilities.  None of these robots think for themselves, although some give the illusion they do.  Are we just highly evolved illusions?  There is a difference between perceiving or reacting to reality and being able to think about and understand reality.  Anyone who knows people who have suffered strokes or live with dementia know how fragile our unique abilities are, and how they can be taken away.  We also know how severely the body can be damaged and yet the mind inside can soar to brilliant levels, like Helen Keller or Stephen Hawking.  We have no idea what’s going on inside of the mind of an animal.  Dolphins could be just as aware and intelligent as humans.  How will we know when a robot becomes aware?

Robotics is the one area of science fiction prediction that is rushing ahead as fast as science can apply itself.  It’s not costly like manned space exploration and the general public anticipates more benefits of its results, especially in Japan.  Theoretically, an AI intelligence could be created by a high school kid in his bedroom.  How soon will we see an AI robot that has the intelligence of Alex the parrot?

If you’ve studied this concept at all you’ll know it’s not something that will be programmed.  Someone needs to invent an artificial brain that learns, and pattern recognition is the key.  Vision, hearing, taste, touch and smell are all sensory inputs that process patterns.  The brain appears to be general purpose enough to adapt the same kind of physical neural structures to handle each of these sensory pattern types.  Are we, that is our minds or our souls, a byproduct of pattern recognition?  What abilities do Alex the parrot have that scales up to become us?  Alex can hear questions, observe something in his field of view, and reply correct.  Do you see that trait in the robot films?

Spend some time and watch the film of Alex over and over.  Also watch the robot films carefully too.  Do you see patterns of behavior?

JWH 1/21/9

Surviving Bad Times

I have lived through six previous recessions, but I only remember four of them.  Bad economic times are downers, for the economy and our state of minds.  Even knowing those six economic downturns only lasted 1-2 years each, it always feels like we’re on the brink of doom when we go into one.  It doesn’t help that the talking heads constantly bring up the Great Depression, which lasted 10 years, and peaked with 25 percent unemployment. 

I’m glad those commentators don’t know about the Long Depression, 1873-1896 that lasted 23 years.  I wonder how many people remember the survivalists back during the early 80s depression, when people bought land and guns thinking the end of civilization was around the corner.  It’s very easy for dark economic clouds to bring doom and gloom that make us all a little paranoid and crazy.  What we need is light therapy for our economic depression.

My favorite movies were those made during the ten years of the Great Depression, including both the gritty social ones focusing on the bad times, and the glittery ones that help people escape their daily woes.  Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation tells us how greatness came out of those bad times.  If we’re entering into long years of hard times it might help to study that decade.

If we’re lucky, times won’t get that bad.  And how bad are bad times anyway?  The worst is losing a job and your home – check out The Grapes of Wrath for insight into that kind of bad times.  I remember my parents and grandparents talking about the great depression and how bad it was, but they also had lots of fond memories from those years.

Things are much different now than back then.  We have social security, medicare, unemployment checks, food stamps, and all kinds of other social programs and charities to help people.  I don’t think we’ll see hobo jungles outside our large cities, or hordes of men riding the rails looking for work, or long bread lines.  We are going to see a lot of people out of work.  We’ll probably see a lot of people sharing apartments and homes, and a lot of two family incomes become one.  I expect a fair number twenty-somethings deciding it’s a good time to move in with their parents awhile and finish up that college degree.

Back during the depression the number of people in a household was much higher than it is today, sometimes including three or even four generations.  We live in times when everyone wants their own house or apartment and that’s an extravagance.  Bad times cause people to band together and share expenses, and everyone learns to be frugal.

Of course, everyone suddenly concentrating on the value of a buck only causes more layoffs and worsens the recession and makes people talk about depression.  Recessions are psychological as much as economic.  If you’re afraid for the future you won’t spend money, but consumer confidence and spending is how we get out of a recession.

A recession is when the economy pulls back from a boom, and business and families decide to cut the fat and go on a spending diet.  Recessions are a readjustment period where we excise the excesses and get practical.  I expect a lot of people to cancel their $100 a month cell phone plans, cut their Netflix plan from 5 discs to 2 out at a time, trim a lot of cable television options, stop buying toys they just have to have but only use for a week or two before thinking about new toys, or rethinking $50 dinners that are wolfed down like fast food.  People who used to brag about drinking $25 dollar bottles of wine will now brag about the $12 great discoveries they are making.

Folks shopping at Target who have been loyal brand users will suddenly notice store brands have the same chemical compositions for dollars less.  When people realize that $400,000 houses are really worth $150,000, they will start wondering about the value of a $50 video game or $10 movie tickets.  Women with husbands making six figures will strangely discover coupons and thrift shop clothing.

My advice is if you’ve been living paycheck to paycheck, now is the time to learn how to manage money.  But if you’ve always managed your money well and have savings, now is the time to be patriotic and go shopping. 

If you’ve got money to spend, it’s a great time to do green remodeling.  Read Hot, Flat and Crowded to get an idea of what Thomas Friedman calls ET economics.  Friedman predicts America could get out of this economic slump and create a world-wide boom by focusing on environmental technology, ET, that will rival the IT boom, caused by information technology.

I hope Barack Obama uses the recession to redesign the growth economy into a green steady-state economy.  The NY Times is reporting that bad economic times is pushing global climate problems out of the news.  Reengineering our society to be green, will cost jobs and create them.  Now is the time to remember that.

What I hate about recessions are the funding cuts to big science as if the quest to understanding reality is one of our most wasteful extravagances.  How many jobs and spin-off technologies would be created if Congress took that $34 billion they are thinking of giving to the Detroit Big 3 and put it into the colonization of the Moon and Mars?  Or at least starting a renewable energy industry.

I don’t know why I write these essays about economics.  They get no hits.  I think they are therapeutic.  We really could be on the brink of a terrible economic collapse and my writing Pollyannaish blog posts of hope help me get through the chills of economic ghost stories.

JWH 12/7/8  

10,000 Hours to Greatness

What was your adolescent dream ambition?  Rock star, football player, violinist, chess master, actress, master chef, writer, film director, video game programmer, reporter, politician?   I wanted to be another Robert A. Heinlein on most days.  On other days, I pictured myself competing with Bob Dylan or Neil Young, but during those rare moments when I thought I was being down-to-Earth, I figured I’d become an astronomer.  I became a computer programmer, and not even a very exciting kind of programmer, like those guys who program artificial vision or Mars rovers, but a name and address kind of database guy.  Probably all of us, in our teenage fantasies, expected to do a whole lot more with our lives than we actual did.  So why didn’t we become rock stars?

Malcolm Gladwell explains why in his new book, The Outliers: The Story of Success.   To learn about one of the factors of success, read a significant extract in The Guardian.  Gladwell makes the case that successful people, the kind that become rock stars or computer programming billionaires, succeeded because they all have devoted at least 10,000 hours of practice to their craft.  That figure has been reported for years, but Gladwell explores the idea further and wider.  Want to be the next Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen or the Beatles, then practice a lot, a whole lot, for about 10,000 hours and you’ll be ready for Carnegie Hall.

I must be a genius at television watching because I’ve probably logged more than 25,000 hours watching TV.  Ditto at listening to music and reading novels, but those passive activities really don’t count.  And I know I’ve put in 10,000 hours at work programming computers, but I’m no Bill Joy.  I’m nowhere near as good a programmer as my friend Mike.  Mike has spent thousands of hours studying programming after work.  I seldom do that.  My guess, the 10,000 hours Gladwell is talking about, are those hours where you’re pushing your brain to learn something new, where you’re constantly trying to get something right, where you stay on the cutting edge of discovery.

Another factor I wonder about is age.  Many of the examples Gladwell covers deal with people putting their 10,000 hours in before they were 20.  That’s practicing 2.7 hours a day from the time you’re 10 till 20.  What kind of kid has that discipline?  Bobby Fischer, Bill Gates, John, Paul, George and Ringo.

To test this concept, we should start teaching about the rewards of 10,000 hour of practice to every kid that begins kindergarten and remind them every day until they finish high school.  What if we all gave copies of The Outliers to every tiny tot expressing a desire to be famous, could we create a super ambitious next generation?

Would every seven year-old that was actually able to grind out his 10,000 hours of practice become a major success?  If I could time travel back to my younger self and convince him to pick something and stick with it, would I have been able to become a rock star or science fiction writer?  We like to think winners are big successes because of lucky genes, or the lucky bastards were at the right place at the right time.  Malcolm Gladwell suggests it isn’t always so.

The answer I am seeking is whether or not I can use this knowledge now, at age 57.  I’ve tried to play the guitar more than once in my life, but I doubt I’ve put 20 hours of solid effort into the endeavor.  If someone had shown me this article before I bought my first guitar at a pawn shop when I was a teenager I might have saved myself $25.  Then again, maybe I would have bought the guitar with more realistic expectations.  But do the math.  Let’s say I was disciplined enough to practice 1 hour a day.  That’s 365 hours in one year.  Ten years of study will log me 3,650 hours of practice time.  That’s almost three decades to mastery.  Gee, I could become a studio musician by the time I’m 97.  I could speed up the process by practicing 2.7 hours a day and be looking for music work by the time I’m 67.

Are old dogs too old to become virtuosos.  Gladwell said that music students who only gotten in 4,000 hours of practice were destined to teach.  That makes me ask:  How many hours until I’d be a competent hobbyist?  Let’s say I wanted to take up the guitar again.  How many hours would it take to learn 10 of my favorite songs, and be able to perform them for my friends so they could 1) recognize the tunes, 2) endure listening to all ten songs, 3) be willing to testify that I could play the guitar without smirking, and 4) be able to play those songs in time with other musicians?  I’m not talking about being great, but being able to play like people used to do back in 19th century, when friends would play for fun because back then, if you wanted to hear music you had to make it yourself.

I can think of several hobbies I would like to be moderately accomplished at.  I’ve recently taken up digital photography.  I’m better than most snapshot shooters, but light years away from the good amateurs that I see presenting their work in online galleries or selling photos at arts and craft fairs.

I’d also like to be a better web graphic artist and master Photoshop.  At work I develop web pages, but mostly for data entry and reports.  I’d like to have the skills to create better looking web sites.  This desire overlaps somewhat with the digital photography because people wanted more photos on the web pages I maintain.

Would 1,000 hours of applied practice make me a skilled amateur?  There’s a chance I’ve already put in 100 hours at digital photography, and I can already feel a great deal of improvement.  Would 1 hour a day of dedicate study and practice get me a quantum leap ahead by next holiday season?  I think it would, despite the fact that I’m 57.  I went and shot some friends yesterday for about 2 hours.  Before I left I studied my camera’s manual and picked out a handful of new techniques to try.  Knowing about those tricks didn’t magically make me shoot better pictures, but I was seeing different looking photos than what I’ve been shooting before.

Taking MFA writing courses helped me improve my fiction writing.  Where I failed was the daily practice.  If only I had developed the discipline to practice one hour a day since Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in 2002, I would have logged 2,200 hours of practice.  I think I have put in 600 hours on blogging since last year, and I see improvements there.  To be honest, I would be much better if I consciously studied creative non-fiction techniques and applied them in a systematic disciplined way.  I should dissect great essays for practice.  To work, I think practice means pushing the envelope.

January 1 is still over a month away, but an interesting New Year’s resolution experiment for 2009 would be to apply the techniques I’m learning from Gladwell’s book to see how far I can take this old dog brain of mine.  If I really wanted to scientific, I should pick the guitar, something I’ve got about zero skill with and see how far I can get in one year.  Does the 10,000 rule apply to everything?  Or does it only apply to a person’s natural inclinations to pursue certain skills?  If we all put an hour a day into juggling, would we all reach the same skill level after a 1,000 hours of practice?

The only song I can remember the words to is “Happy Birthday,” and I still stumble on that third line.  I’ve listened to “Like A Rolling Stone” at least a 1,000 times, but I can’t recite the lyrics, nor could I hum the tune.  A friend once taught me the chords to that song, and I got so I could play them through consistently, but few people could ever guess what I was playing.  Logic tells me since I’m rounding the bend towards the home stretch to the social security years, I shouldn’t waste any of my practice hours chasing skills that have little chance of paying off.  Would any number of hours of practice help a tune-deaf person lacking any sense of rhythm learn to play music?

The only endeavor I’ve stuck to in recent years has been this blog, and piddling around with my three other web sites, The Classics of Science FictionLady Dorothy Mills and Classic Booklists, which are all extremely homely when it comes to web design.  Let’s see what 400-600 hours of disciplined practice would do for these existing efforts.

To be honest, I’d still like to be great at something, but I think I’m too old for that.  How many late bloomers make a success at 57?  Sounds silly, doesn’t it?  But is age really the factor?  If success is dedicated focus and discipline, could it be those traits always show up by the adolescent years not because those are they best years to learn, but because if you’re going be focused and disciplined person those traits would have shown up by then?

I was never great at anything because I never wanted to pick one thing and stick to it, pursuing that one skill like an idiot savant.  What would be fascinating to know if I could somehow discipline my brain to focus on one pursuit and ignore all other interests, would mastering that skill be any different at 7 or 57?  If I was 27 or 37 or even 47, I think I’d try hard to find out.

JWH 11/29/8


I’m listening to “Everybody Wants to Rule The World” by Tears for Fear, but that just finished and Todd Rundgren begins singing “Change Myself.”  That’s a better song for my mood, and it’s a nice transition from Tears from Fear because Todd sings,

I want to change the world
I want to make it well
How can I change the world
When I can’t change myself
Try again tomorrow

But then I go back to Tears for Fear and listen to,

It’s my own design
It’s my own remorse
Help me to decide
Help me make the most
Of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever

Every day I wake up knowing what I want to do.  I have been struggling for months to work on a short story that I have tried off and on for years to finish writing.  I tell myself that’s the one thing in life that I want to complete, yet I can’t, no matter how I apply myself.  I guess it’s writer’s block, but since I’m not a real writer I think it’s something else.  I can write essays until the all the bovines get back to the barn, but writing fiction is like pushing the molecules of my body through a concrete block.

This leaves me in a state of continual restlessness that I can only fight by occupying my mind with other diversions, such as watching “The Big Bang Theory” or flipping through my 18k of mp3 songs looking for mental stimulation.  My restless is often soothed by words, such as Bob Dylan’s,

You will search, babe,
At any cost.
But how long, babe,
Can you search for what is not lost?
Everybody will help you,
Some people are very kind.
But if I,
Can save you any time,
Come on, give it to me,
I’ll keep it with mine.

I can’t help it
If you might think I am odd,
If I say I’m loving you not for what you are
But what you’re not.
Everybody will help you
Discover what you set out to find.
But if I can save you any time,
Come on, give it to me,
I’ll keep it with mine.

The train leaves
At half past ten,
But it will be back
In the same old spot again
The conductor
He’s still stuck on the line
And if I, can save you any time,
Come on, give it to me,
I’ll keep it with mine.

Every evening I am back at this word processor at half past ten.  When I can’t paint my own words I stare at words others wrote.  I should give up and shoot up some TV.  I’m so restless that it eats away at me, but writing about it doesn’t really help.  I wish I was a machine so I could program myself to do exactly what I want.

JWH 11-3-8

Plan B 3.0 by Lester R. Brown

Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization can be downloaded for free, but I recommend buying a copy and making it your personal Bible.  Lester R. Brown, from the Earth Policy Institute, continues to monitor the Earth’s economic and ecological health and analyze what needs to be done to build a sustainable future.  We’ve all boarded the Titanic, and Lester Brown knows about the iceberg, but few people listen to him.  Studying this book gives me so much to contemplate.  Just glancing at the subjects in the table of contents will tell you what’s this book is about, and you can read every chapter online, or download a .pdf of each chapter or the whole book, and even download an Excel spreadsheet of the data too, if you like studying numbers.

Just look how he has divided the problems we face:

  • Deteriorating Oil and Food Security
  • Rising Temperatures and Rising Seas
  • Emerging Water Shortages
  • Natural Systems under Stress
  • Early Signs of Decline
  • Eradicating Poverty, Stabilizing Population
  • Restoring the Earth
  • Feeding Eight Billion Well
  • Designing Cities for People
  • Raising Energy Efficiency
  • Turning to Renewable Energy
  • The Great Mobilization

What is My Fair Share?

To ask if God exists, is philosophical speculation.  No on knows, and we have debated the question for centuries and will continue to do so.  To ask if there is a limit to economic growth is not imaginary speculation.  We will soon know the answer, one way or the other.  Most people believe there is unlimited economic potential for growth.  The economic foundation of our society is based on this belief, just like the builders of the Titanic believed they had built an unsinkable ship.

There are new economists that now see that any model of economics that does not include the ecology of the Earth is doomed to fail.  Lester Brown says that any product that doesn’t factor in its complete costs from all sources is doomed to bankruptcy in the market, like Enron failed as a company because it cooked the books and hid part of its true operating costs.

What this means is economics is really a subset of ecology.

If you accept this, then you come to understand that the Earth has limits, and realize that growth based economics means we’re all cells consuming the Earth like a cancer spreading in a host.  The idea of steady-state economics is a theory that suggests we can all be healthy cells that live symbiotically within our planetary organism.

Once you realize this, your primary ethical question of existence is:  How much can I consume without being cancerous?  This is more than just worrying about carbon dioxide and global warming.  That’s only one of many cancerous growths attacking the Earth.  The answer has to be more than:  As little as possible.  Economists and ecologists need to set goals for individuals to aim for in their daily lives.

If you could buy a piece of land and live there in a totally sustainable manner, without using resources outside of your property, that might be one answer, but not a practical one.  Scientists are just beginning to explore this issue.  Think of the parable about the fishes and the loaves, but this time divide them between 7 billion people and then factor in that the supply of wheat and fish should never end.

Another way to think about it would be to let scientists determine how much carbon dioxide can safely go into the atmosphere each year and then divide that number by 7 billion and let us each figure out how we’re going to budget our CO2 use.  A recent issue of the New Scientist suggests that might only be 1 ton per person, which means living like someone from Yemen or in the Republic of Congo today.

Since I’m probably using 10-20 times that, I’m quite cancerous.  About the only way to get myself down to using 1 ton of carbon per year would be to ride a bike and make my house perfectly energy efficient.  A possibility, but not a likely one.  The 1 ton per person is a global fair share estimate and much more restrictive than those 50% and 80% reduction goals for American peak usage.

What Happens If We Don’t Change?

Even if we don’t concern ourselves with various forms of pollution, there’s a good chance we’re still heading for economic collapse.  If unlimited economic growth is truly unsustainable, then it will also fail for other reasons, other than too much poisonous output.  We can also fail for not having enough input.  The economy can also crash and burn by not jogging faster than debt, something that’s been dominating the news lately.  Other canaries falling dead are stories about shortages.  Just before the liquidity scare, it looked like we were about to start running short of oil.  Luckily a cure for high oil demand is a slow economy, or is that lucky?  What if we ran out of oil but didn’t have renewable energy.  What if we ran out of fresh water before we ran out of oil?  We could easily face critical shortages of commodities long before we faced surpluses of rising oceans.  Reading Plan B 3.0 illustrates the enormity of all the problems we’ll be facing.

Human nature tends to ignore looming icebergs or melting glaciers.  We like to focus on what we want, and not people shouting that the sky is falling.  However, we have seen great positive social transformations happen quickly – just look at the switch to electricity or going from horse power to horsepower.  And isn’t it amazing how fast we all became geeks with our computers, video games and cell phones?  I think we’ll all change over and over again, whether changing for good or bad, whether we move into an ecological paradise, or a depression that makes the Great Depression seem like the good ole days.

We can’t avoid change.  The real question is whether we can surf change or will change flow over us like a tsunami.

Change is Happening Now

Everything Lester Brown writes about in Plan B 3.0 can be seen on your high definition television right now, if you’re willing to tune in to the right shows.  If you only watch Pushing Daisies and Heroes you can delay learning about the iceberg until after it hits.  A good way to set up your early warning system is to watch PBS Frontline each week.  Keep adding PBS shows, and then documentaries from National Geographic and the various Discovery channels.  Watch between the scenes.  Count how many references to drought you’ve seen in one week, or how many continents and countries are losing their glaciers.  You don’t need a supercomputer or Al Gore to spot trends in global weather patterns.

How Smart Are People?

All the problems mentioned in Plan B 3.0 can be managed.  Theoretically, if humans can cause the problems, humans can fix the problems, but that may not be how things play out.  What everyone really wants to know is whether they are going to be one of those people at the Superdome after Katrina, or will they be the kind of person who had the resources to get out safely on their own.  Being prepared helps.  Sometimes luck is merely a coin toss, and other times luck favors those who plan ahead.  But how do you prepare for global recession?

Plan B 3.0 is a look at what the people in power need to be doing to solve the transition from the economics of growth to a steady-state economy at the macro level.  What we need now are Plan B handbooks for us little guys, advising us what we should be doing to make the same adjustments at the micro levels.  This could be books about careers for college students, to how-to books about starting businesses in a steady-state economy.  I doubt the plumbing industry will be shaken up, but is there much of a future for jet airline pilots?

JWH – 11-2-8

Free Stuff Table

At work, years ago we set up a “Free Stuff” table, up on the third floor near the student copier.  I work at a university, in the College of Education.  The free stuff table started with old text books, from a school book repository.  We had a library of K-12 schoolbooks, and when new editions came out, we’d put the old ones on the free stuff table.  After that, when a professor would move their office, or leave the college, they’d dump academic books and journals on the free table they didn’t want to take with them.  Eventually, faculty and staff, began bringing books, magazines, music CDs and LPs, software, VHS tapes, DVDS from home and drop their stuff off on the table.

Sometimes the donations were good stuff, and the table would clear in less than an hour, sometimes even within minutes.  Other times, the table would fill with boring stuff, 20 year old educational journals that would lay there for weeks, but would eventually thin out and disappear.  I used to take old books to the library, but bringing them to work is much easier.

Because of its location, the table needs to stay neat, so mostly people leave small stuff.  Sometimes we’ll see a DVD drive for a computer, or little radio, or various office supply gadgets, but for the most part the giveaways have been books and magazines.  We have a couple hundred faculty and staff, and a few thousand students, and the table is by the computer labs, so it sees a lot of traffic.  The free stuff table has become a form of recycling.

I’m also fascinated by what kinds of books show up there.  Lots of fiction, lots of educational books, but also religious books, statistics, psychology, sociology, kids books, cook books, etc.  After my mom died, I took a bunch of her old books up there, various bibles, religious books, and Edna Ferber novels.  They went quickly.  The other day my wife set out a box of Christmas ornaments to give to Goodwill.  I took them and put them on the free stuff table and they were gone within 5 minutes.  What’s worthless to one person is valuable to another.

I’m writing about this free stuff table as a way to recommend the idea to others.  It could be a common concept at most offices, but I don’t know.  All we did was tape down a sign on a 30″x42″ table that said, “Free Stuff.”  After that, the table took a life of its own.

JWH 10-21-08