Break out the tinfoil helmets!

From "Signs," 2002

From “Signs,” 2002

I find the tinfoil helmet image is always good for a laugh – don’t want those pesky aliens messing with our thought patterns! At the same time, we all know aliens aren’t the problem. I recently read a statistic that in the US, we see as many advertisements in a year as people 50 years ago did in their lifetimes. Advertisers explicitly set out to mess with our thought patterns. Now an NPR post reveals that “Facebook scientists” have messed with our thoughts as well.

The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935

The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935

Here’s the gist of their experiment:

“For one week back in 2012, Facebook scientists altered what appeared on the News Feed of more than 600,000 users. One group got mostly positive items; the other got mostly negative items.

Scientists then monitored the posts of those people and found that they were more negative if they received the negative News Feed and more positive if they received positive items.”

Experimental methods rapidly followed the birth of psychology in the last century as social scientists sought acceptance into the real community of science. Freud, after all, won his Nobel Prize in literature, not science.

Back in the day, psych experiments were conducted on helpless animals and hapless college students who needed to make a buck. Now, Facebook Scientists (don’t you wish you could see their credentials?) can run such tests on all of us for free, because no human being now living has ever read the Terms of Service for anything online that they wish to join.

I actually find it interesting that this particular test confirmed a hunch I’ve been working out on this blog over the last few months:  Reading negative news makes me crabby, while reading positive news improves my disposition. Only took me four years of blogging to work that out, a truth that could also be summarized by these wise words of British author, Kingsley Amis:  “Nice things are nicer than nasty ones.”

Oh yes, and I was being precise when I said four years – I launched this blog four years ago on June 28. They say most blogs don’t last that long, and I know I’m posting less often lately – it seems like I always get lazy in summer, especially in June. But all of you readers keep me hunting for interesting things, or weird things (like Facebook scientists) to share.  So thanks, I appreciate it, and please stay tuned!

Virtual dreams

A few nights ago I had a 21st century dream in which the key event was losing my cell phone.  In days of yore – say five or ten years ago – losing a wallet was the common dream image for a disruption to one’s persona.  Now my smart phone probably tells me more about my public life than a wallet.  It shows me where I am, where I’m going, when I need to be there, how to find my way, and it gives me multiple ways to connect with people I need to see when I arrive.  In a few years time, I’m sure we’ll all have digital ID’s and credit cards.

Though I still think of dreams in terms of archaic elements, clearly the psyche will use whatever it needs to make a point.  As technology is part of our lives now, it is also part of our dreams.  All of which leads me to the heart of this post:  we ain’t seen nothin’ yet! 

Last Wednesday, I caught an amazing segment on virtual reality on the PBS Newshour.  I didn’t expect to be interested.  Since I don’t play video games or World of Warcraft, VR seems like just one more distraction in an ADHD world.  It may well be, but the Newshour piece demonstrates the power of this technology, beyond anything I’d imagined.  I instantly thought of the “Feelies” – multi-sensory movies in Huxley’s Brave New World.  We aren’t there yet, but it would be foolish to rule out the possibility.  Watch the clip and see what you think.

The power of imagined experience has long been established.  In the early 20th century, Jung developed a technique he called “active imagination” and used it in therapy.  In the 50’s, research proved that imagined practice was as useful as “real” practice for improving basketball free throws.  In reference to meditation, Lama Thubten Yeshe, a prominent 20th century Tibetan teacher, said, “What we have to learn is that the experiences we have through imagination and those we have through our senses are actually the same.”

All of these applications involve self-generated imagery, but if and when VR comes into our living rooms, it will come through the same corporate interests that flood us with adds already.  Do we want them reaching even farther into the deep psyche?

We’ll be clamoring for it!  If you have any doubt, check out Life, the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality by Neal Gabler.  In terms of an obvious metaphor, The Matrix, once we have the ability turn our living rooms into personal holodecks, that blue pill of restless sleep will surge in popularity.

MorpheusWarning

To paint a huge subject in simple terms, over time, our race has transferred successive parts of our brain functions to technology.  Printed books marked the end of bards who could recite epic poems.  We don’t find the griots of Alex Haley’s Roots in literate cultures.  The imaginations of my parents’ generation got a better workout listening to The Lone Ranger on radio than mine did watching the masked man on TV.

I love technology, but I’m wary of it too, and not just the obvious stuff like the NSA.  I’m wary of all the ways we can use it to foster oblivion until, as T.S. Eliot put it, “Human voices wake us and we drown.”

Robots ‘R Us, installment 2

The Steam Man of the Prairies, 1868.  Public Domain.

The Steam Man of the Prairies, 1868. Public Domain.

An obscure author, Edward S. Ellis, who published a dime novel called The Steam Man of the Prairies 145 years ago, may prove to have been a visionary according to two recent news articles.

The first, in the New York Times, reports that Google quietly acquired seven robotics companies over the last six months (Google Puts Money on Robots).  The scale of the investment is huge and appears to be aimed at automating manufacturing processes.  “The opportunity is massive,” chirped Andrew McAfee, an M.I.T. research scientist.  “There are still people who walk around in factories and pick things up in distribution centers and work in the back rooms of grocery stores.”

The second article I noticed bears an uncanny relation to the cover of  The Steam Man.  The California DMV has set rules for companies aiming to test automated cars (Driverless Cars Could be Cruising California Roads by Spring).  To put it in the terms of the M.I.T scientist, we may soon be able to robotize trucks and remove even more inefficient humans from the workforce.

The problem with this manufacturer’s wet dream should be obvious.  Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton puts it simply: “the economy remains lousy for most people. It will likely remain that way: As technology and globalization take over the economy, the U.S. has no national strategy for creating more good jobs in America.” (The True Price of Great Holiday Deals).

Economic discussion, with few exceptions, focuses on how to get back to the good old days of (relatively) full employment and opportunity for those who work hard.  Politicians bicker over which levers to pull, but no one dares to ask the fundamental question: has the structure of the world economy changed too much to recapture that particular sort of past “good times?”

A few years ago, news got out of worker mistreatment at Foxconn, the huge Chinese assembly plant where much of our high-tech gear is assembled.  Foxconn agreed to reforms, and the CEO announced plans to deploy a million robots.  By December 2011, robotic arms had reduced the number of workers on certain assembly lines from “20 or 30 down to 5.”  As we argue over fair wages for fast food workers, it’s a good bet their employers are working on ways to automate the task of making a burger, which can’t be harder than plugging components into a motherboard.

The problem, of course, is that downsized workers will not be buying either Happy Meals or iPhones.

Last March, in a post called Robots ‘R Us (?), a first look at such issues, I quoted a blogger named Orkinpod who was already considering them in depth.  On Feb. 27 he said:  “When the future arrives (and I believe that it is very, very close), and machines can supply all the things that humans could possibly ever want, what is everybody going to do?”

One thing many may wind up doing is working on food production.  Last summer I wrote of a compelling PBS NewsHour series, “Food for 9 Billion” (1).  That’s the total number of hungry humans who will occupy the planet in 2050 as the amount of arable land continues to shrink.  One of several examples given of coming change was Singapore, where five million people live on an island with only 240 acres of undeveloped land.  A 50 year old Singapore engineer developed a revolutionary type of vertical greenhouse that prompted the Directer of the National Institute of Education to say, “I think, eventually, urban factories for vegetable production will take the place of electronic factories in Singapore.”

It’s a grand irony to reflect that industrialism, which began by channeling people out of agriculture, may have succeeded too well; its end game my involve shifting some of them back into food production again.  But what about everyone else?  What happens as robotics and marvels like 3D printers leave ever more people idle?  Insiders aren’t even asking the question, though science fiction writers have since the mid 20th century.

robot3

Unfortunately, in stories where humans go up against robots, the outcomes are usually not the ones we would like to see.

Big news for online education

In mathematics, an inflection point is the place on a curve where the curvature changes from concave upward (positive) to concave downward (negative) or vice versa.

point_of_inflection

Andy Grove, former Intel CEO, gave the term a new relevance.  In his management book, Only the Paranoid Survive, he wrote:  “A strategic inflection point is the time in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change.  That change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights.  But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end.”

Grove borrowed a parallel term, “disruptive technology,” from business writer, Clayton Christensen.  A disruptive technology is an innovation, very often appearing crude at inception, that can change or eliminate entire industries.  The first horseless carriage must have seemed silly to buggy makers, just as the first kindle looked like a toy to brick-and-mortar bookstores.

A week after my first post on free online college classes, an article in Sunday’s Sacramento BeeAn elite school offers master’s degree online, suggests that we’ve already  passed an inflection point and that online coursework is a “disruptive technology” that is destined to change higher education in ways we cannot yet grasp.

Online classes are nothing new; I took an early online programming class in 1998, with mixed results.  Online graduate degree programs in business as well as software exist, many offered by private colleges.  What’s different now is the scale.

Beginning in January, Georgia Tech will offer online master’s degrees in computer science at a cost of $6,600, compared to the $45,000 price tag for the same courses taken on campus.  Some of the funding comes from AT&T which “will use the program to train employees and find potential hires.”  Estimates of future interest in this degree run as high as 10,000 students a year, including international participants.

Because of Georgia Tech’s prestige and the ambitious nature of this undertaking, educators are watching closely.  There is no guarantee of success for this particular program, but from the perspective of student loans alone, there is a huge need for innovation of this sort.  The first producers of new technologies are not always the ones who succeed, but like the first makers of personal computers and ebooks, they define inflection points that change the world.  Georgia Tech may well be doing the same thing.

MIT Open Courseware

Open: characterized by ready accessibility and usually generous attitude: as (1) : generous in giving  – Webster’s Online Dictionary

“The idea is simple: to publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone.” – Dick K.P. Yue, Professor, MIT School of Engineering

Between 1968 and 1972, an idealistic Stanford educated biologist named Stuart Brand published an amazing compendium of ideas called, The Whole Earth Catalog:  Access to Tools.  The title came from photos of our planet taken from space – appropriate, since it was Brand who launched a public campaign in 1966 to get NASA to release the pictures.

In his 2005 Stanford graduation speech, Steve Jobs said, “When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation…. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.”

One of the great notions that inspired Jobs and other idealists was the thought of putting computing power into the hands of “the people.”  That much has been accomplished.  Every kid with a smartphone holds more computing power in the palm of one hand than NASA had when they made those pictures in space.  Now, off course, we see plenty of less-than-ideal side effect of the digital age – unintended consequences that dreamers like Brand did not imagine.  I won’t repeat the headlines – if you’re reading this blog, you’ve seen them.

That is all the more reason why it’s a pleasure to learn how one of our finest universities has embodied the best of the information age dream in order to benefit people all over the world.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has freely posted class materials from every one of its courses online – MIT Open Courseware.

Sign on Canal Street, New Orleans, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Sign on Canal Street, New Orleans, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Under the “Courses” button, you can see class offerings by department.  I invite everyone to look at some of the courses.  The technical classes are vast and impressive, as one would expect, but they aren’t the only ones.  I saw more than one syllabus in the Literature section I plan to check out.  This is attractive enough, but I think the importance of MIT’s move goes beyond personal enrichment.

Our system of higher education is floundering; while technical jobs go unfilled for lack of qualified applicants, tens of thousands of students who thought a college degree was the door to a better life find themselves saddled with debts that amount to 21st century indentured servitude.  The recent congressional “fix” will make few besides college administrators and bank loan officers happy over the long run.  I saw a different model in play during earlier days of the tech boom.

The best boss I ever had, now an industry expert in semiconductor design rules, went to work with a two year degree in drafting.  A friend who was a senior systems analyst studied math in college for three years and then dropped out.  After that, he went to work in a hospital that wanted to computerize; when no one else knew what to do, he gave it a shot.  My own experience was similar.  Clearly this doesn’t apply to every field – you don’t want your doctor learning by trial and error – but inventiveness, ability, and the ability to learn are not guaranteed by a formal degree.  The lack of a degree does not proves those qualities are missing.

As I noted in my review of The Unwinding by George Packer, Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and co-founder of Paypal believes that education is America’s “latest bubble.”  He offers grants to people under the age of 20 with ideas that “could make the world a better place,” if they are willing to leave school for two years to strike out on their own.  I see parallels between education now and traditional publishing at the start of the ebook era.

The digital world we now inhabit brings multiple ways of doing more and more things.  The good people at MIT, who live at the proverbial cutting edge of technology, should be applauded for their decision to share their vast resources with anyone, anywhere.  Good dreams change, but they survive.  Forty-five years after the first Whole Earth Catalog, “Access to Tools” has a whole new shape.  I hope we see much more of the same.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer

In the first sentence of The Unwinding, George Packer tells us what his title means:  “No one can say when the unwinding began – when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way.”

Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, the author of an award winning book on American involvement in Iraq, two novels, and a play.  You could almost guess it would take someone with Packer’s chops to weave together the disparate threads of change that have irreversibly altered the country we thought we lived in.

It began in 1973, when the mid-east oil embargo coincided with models showing American had reached peak oil production.  And in 1977 when the steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio, that once stretched side-by-side for 25 miles, shut down.  When an idealistic young man named Jeff Connaughton, got an MBA and then decided to go to Wall Street, because by the early 80’s, getting a business degree and going to work for a company “that actually made things,” was viewed as failure.  When, according to Packer, concern over exported jobs prompted Wal-Mart to hang “Made in the U.S.A” signs over racks of clothing from Bangladesh.  When Connaughton became a Washington lobbyist and one of his colleagues told him, “Four-hundred thousand a year just doesn’t go as far as it used to.”

Poets see things before the rest of us, and Packer quotes Bruce Springsteen, who put it like this in 1984:  “Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?”

Now, almost 30 years later, when we all know we’re on a downbound train, Packer turns a light on some of the hydra-headed influences that led us collectively down this road.  He also shows us where positive change is likely to come from.  And where it is not.  It won’t come from the power elites, though it may come from disaffected refugees from those elites.

Jeff Connaughton, who made it into the outer circles of the inner circle, as a legal council for the Clinton White House, left Washington after being “radicalized by a stunning realization that our government has been taken over by a financial elite that runs the government for the plutocracy.”  Connaughton is now writing a book called The Payoff:  Why Wall Street Always Wins.

Packer also profiles Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who co-founded Paypal and helped bankroll Facebook as a startup.  Thiel put it like this:  “…the deep secret is there’s nobody at the steering wheel at all…People pretend to be in control, but the deep secret is there is no one.”  Thiel now looks for unusual entrepreneurial projects to fund.  Claiming that education is “the latest U.S. economic bubble,” he compares university administrators to sub-prime mortgage lenders.  In response, he began awarding Thiel Fellowships, two year grants of $100,000 each, to 20 people a year under the age of 20, willing to leave school to work on projects that “could make the world a better place.”

Packer doesn’t just profile movers and shakers in the post-unwinding world.  He details the story of Dean Price, son of generations of tobacco farmers, who overcomes multiple obstacles, including personal bankruptcy, to establish a working and profitable biodiesel refinery after learning about peak oil and taking the message to heart.

George Packer

author George Packer

In writing the book, Packer spent a lot of time with Tammy Thomas, an African-American woman who was 11 when the mills closed in Youngstown.  A few years later, she found herself an unwed mother of three, with a fierce determination, which she attributed to her grandmother, to get off welfare, even as jobs evaporated and gangs took over the neighborhoods.  She succeeded in doing so, and is now a community organizer and advocate, but her story makes clear that the odds were stacked against her.  She survived for 19 years in a car parts factory but is scornful of politicians who attach the label of “good jobs” to such work.  “Mitt Romney would be dead in week,” she said.

Packer interweaves the individual stories in a way that keeps you turning pages, like a novel with a large cast of characters that you care about.  Not all the stories have happy endings, and the suffering of individuals, cities, and regions is palpable.  By giving so many seemingly separate events the name, Unwinding, Packer helps clarify connections I had been sensing but unable to articulate.

“Alone on a landscape without solid structures, Americans have to improvise their own destinies, plot their own stories of success and salvation.”

A problem has to be named and described before we can begin to imagine solutions, and for this reason The Unwinding is a profoundly important book.

Data-mining for Screenplays

the-history-of-3d-cinema-0

‘“It’s the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.” – Andy Warhol

I had planned to continue discussing the story of Jorinda and Joringel from the Brothers Grimm, but a pair of articles I saw on successive days suggested a compelling interlude.  We’ll return to the forest shortly.

The first article, “Big data,” outlines ways that new software and methods can identify structures in parts of the oceans of data that retailers and governments have not been able to access before.  Everyone knows that advertisers target us based on our Facebook likes.  Now there are ways to do the same with the photographs we post and other aspects of our online behavior.  New algorithms find new patterns in all our activities, online and off.  This includes the movies we pay to watch.

The second article appeared in the May 5 New York Times, “Solving Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data.” In it, Brooks Barnes writes about Vinny Bruzzese, a highly paid script consultant, who charges up to $20,000 for a sophisticated analysis of a screenplay in terms of past box office performance.  Bruzzese, a former statistics professor, can tell you which sort of demons do best in horror films and warn you that bowling alley scenes are a hallmark of low-grossing movies.

Though Bruzzese’s services are still too taboo for most movie people to cop to, Barnes says studios have hired him to analyze at least 100 scripts, including an early version of Oz the Great and Powerful.  Meanwhile, Scott Steindorff, who produced The Lincoln Lawyer said, “Everyone is going to be doing this soon.  The only people who are resistant are the writers.”

“This is my worst nightmare,” says Ol Parker, who wrote the script for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  “It’s the enemy of creativity…It can only result in an increasingly bland homogenization, a pell-mell rush for the middle of the road.”

I wonder if there is a greater nightmare lurking for writers like Parker – not just computer driven analysis, but computer driven generation of screenplays?  I’m certain it’s possible.

First of all, interactive online books have been around for some time.  Secondly, I’ve seen how this works in the field of computer graphics.  My day job involved microchip design automation, starting over 15 years ago – chips helping to draw the next generation of chips.  But what really convinces me that elements of screenplays could be synthesized is a computer generated astrological profile I ordered on whim last winter.

I plugged in my birthdate, place, time and, paid $50.  Sixty seconds later, I was reading a 20 page, Jungian-style analysis of my natal chart, that was uncanny in describing my relationship with parents, among other things.  It’s not that hard to understand how it is possible.  The Sun in Aquarius, at one degree, forty-four minutes, in the second house, has a defined meaning.  Assemble text to match the possibilities, and the rest is just number crunching.  A literary outline would have fewer data points.

Colonel Mustard in the library with a wrench, for those who remember Clue.

Or this.  Pick your genre – teenage slasher movie.  Choose setting (urban, suburban, rural).  Choose decade.  Chose your villain (insane human, mutant, supernatural creature).  Choose your hero (I’ll go with brainy nerd who has a congenital limp and can’t get a date for the prom).  Choose the hair color of a cheerleader he will rescue.  Finally, pick a screenplay structure (Save the Cat), add any notes, and hit send.  A few minutes later, you’ve got your outline and pitch, with no hint of a bowling scene.

Oh brave new world!  Andy Warhol saw it coming 50 years ago when he said, “Some day everybody will just think what they want to think, and then everybody will probably be thinking alike; that seems to be what is happening.” 

The alternative is simple too – we keep our day jobs and write all the damn bowling scenes we want to.  Life is to short to let someone else dictate our demons.  As my computer generated horoscope said: “You need to face your fear of the world’s criticism, and your tendency to sabotage your creative efforts out of a deep need to be approved of by society.”

Feel free to borrow that bit of advice whenever you want to.

More on Robot Surgery

In a strange synchronicity after my robot post yesterday, our Sunday paper business section carried an article called “Robot surgery faces lawsuits.”

The source for the piece is listed as Bloomberg News, and this appears to be original story, posted on their website March 5.  No cute robot pictures this time, and no comments from me except to suggest everyone read this: Robosurgery Suits Detail Injuries as Death Reports Rise