Sunday, December 30, 2012

Optihumanist Principles 2012

My addition to the Optihumanist Principles for 2012 is as follows:
The skeptics inspect and inquire;
the gullible accept and expire.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Magnet Checklist Revised

In a previous blog entry, I documented using a Magnet Checklist for my daily maintenance tasks. Previously, I had mounted my magnet checklist to the side of a steel bookcase because that was the only ferromagnetic vertical surface in my bedroom. Unfortunately, I was not using the checklist on a daily basis as intended. I suspect this was partly because I had positioned it around a corner out of sight of the bedroom entrance and partly because I had to lean over the corner of a desk to reach the magnets.

A few months ago I moved my daily maintenance checklist to the inside of my bedroom closet door. Now I can display the checklist or put it away just by opening or closing the door. It is also much more accessible.

The catch was that I had to mount a magnetic surface to the wooden door. To prevent the surface of the door from being marred when I remove the checklist in the future, I used 3M Command strips instead of the adhesive backing that came with the magnetic whiteboard. Command strips are adhesives which separate from the surface cleanly when you stretch them by pulling on a tab.

I could have just marked the lines for the rows on the whiteboard using a dry erase marker but instead I stuck to using painters tape. Previously I have had problems with marker lines smearing when I slid the magnets back and forth between the "To-Do" and the "Done" columns. The tape also makes it easier to reorder the rows.

However, it did take excessively long to position and evenly space out the paint strips. For my new daily diet checklist on the side of my fridge, I just printed out the rows on a piece of paper. This made everything very easy, especially with regard to changing or reordering the rows in that all I have to do now is to edit the document and print another copy.

The other improvement was that I switched from using round disc magnets to push pin magnets are they are easier to manipulate. With push pin magnets, I now lift instead of slide. It is a wee bit quicker and probably reduces wear on the checklist surface.

This is my revised recommendation for building magnet checklists. It seems a bit funny that you might buy a magnetic dry erase whiteboard with no intent to actually write on its surface with a dry erase marker. I am not currently aware of a better magnetic surface to use for this purpose, however.

On a related note, I also have some travel preparation checklists which I maintain in Google Drive as electronic documents. I have discovered that if I just read the checklists online, I will sometimes gloss over an item and only notice that I skipped it later when I open my suitcase in my hotel room and find that I forgot to pack my shaving kit. I think this emphasizes the point the checklists should be checked. Now I print out the document each time I travel and check off, circle, or cross out items with a pen to make sure that nothing is overlooked.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Stars Are Ours

The stars are ours,
The first our Sun,
We've come so far,
Yet just begun.

Creative Commons License
The Stars Are Ours © 2012 David Wallace Croft.
This poem is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Deducing Reality

I just finished reading the graphic novel Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth. It is based on the biography of Bertrand Russell and his quest to derive all of mathematics using logic, e.g., to prove that one plus one equals two.

A recurrent theme in the book is that there is a tendency in logicians towards madness. A friend once told me the same about philosophers. Certainly logic and philosophy are related fields.

The book leaves it open as to the direction of the cause-effect relationship of this madness-logician correlation. Does delving into logic drive you mad or does being a bit mad drive you to logic? I suspect it is more of the latter.

Schizophrenia was cited as one of the main causes of madness that plagued the logicians and their family members. Schizophrenia is characterized by auditory hallucinations, i.e., hearing voices in your head. Rather than being able to determine the true nature of reality based on their own objective observations, schizophrenics have to deal with the possibility that their internal demons, of the sort proposed by Decartes, might be fooling their senses. In this situation, what can you truly know, other than that I am?

A respite from this uncertainty might be the alluring potential of deduction. Certainly much knowledge of the unseen can be deduced from the induced as is common in the sciences. And perhaps even the non-existence of the seen, or heard, can be deduced if the facts and logic merit.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Autothysis

A new form of altruism in the insect world has been discovered. Older individuals of a species of termite have the ability to create a toxic goo via a chemical reaction which kills both themselves and their attackers. This is another variant of autothysis (Greek: auto-, self; -thysis, sacrifice) in which an insect ruptures an organ to release a defensive substance when attacked.

Of course, we all know that a bee that stings in defense of its hive dies soon after. Likewise, human soldiers sacrifice themselves in defense of their families. A question to ask is how is insect altruism different from human altruism.

As far as I know, insects never need to be conscripted. Humans, however, are frequently less inclined to lay down their lives on behalf of others without some external persuasion.

A key difference might be that humans engage in within-species competition. Ants are designated as either workers, soldiers, or royalty at an early age. Humans, due to their increased intelligence, have the potential to be be any or all of these things, depending on their competitive interactions with their fellow humans.

As part of this within-species competition, humans are also intelligent enough to be able to exploit the altruism of others. Rather than merely acting instinctively to preserve the species, individual humans can imagine and implement a chain of causes and effects which lead to reaping benefits for themselves at the expense of their more generous and gullible brethren.

This might explain why humans have evolved to be so much smarter than other species. By evolving past a certain critical threshold of intelligence, humans not only have to contend with the tooth and claw of lions, tigers, and bears, but also the force and fraud of their siblings. Those individuals that are able to deceive while not being deceived produce more offspring. Instead of males evolving bigger antlers to fight off other males for mates, humans are in a runaway arms race for bigger brains.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Predatory Exchange

Ideally, in a voluntary exchange, each party is better off as a result.  Since neither party is forced into the trade, neither has any motivation to proceed with the transaction unless it is to their individual benefit.  I trade you my excess apples in exchange for your excess oranges.  Now we both share the fruits of our labor.

There is a subset of voluntary exchange, however, in which one party is consistently worse off.  That is to say, they would have been better off not engaging in the trade at all.  Why do they do it?  Because they expect to be better off even though they will not.

When the other party knows it, the relationship is predatory.  I would call it cannibalistic except that the predatory party never considers the exploited class to be of their own kind.  Since there is no coercion involved and the victims are outside of their group, the predators do not view their behavior as unethical.

While no force is involved, there is often fraud.  The snake oil salesman is a classic example.  The priest is another.  I trade you my excess snake oil in exchange for your excess apples and oranges.  I trade you supernatural life after death in exchange for your tithe.  Now we both share the fruits of your labor.

Another form of predatory exchange involves neither force nor fraud.  Instead the predator relies upon the ignorance of the prey.  "Caveat emptor", they rationalize.  Some victims eventually wise up but there is always another generation:  "There's a sucker born every minute".

If you are engaging in a transaction with another member of the human race and you know that the other fellow would be better off not doing the deal, stop.  If you are committing fraud, you are clearly in the wrong.

If you are merely exploiting the ignorance of others, you are still in the wrong.  You might be able to still do the deal with a clear conscience if you can explain to the other party what they need to know to make an informed decision.  If they still want to proceed, at that point you have to wonder what they know that you do not.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Magic Man

Many years ago, someone posted to an Extropian or Transhumanist mailing list something like "Check out our new online banking site, X.com!"  I was suspicious.  The domain name sounded like something you would use for a porn site and the homepage design looked a bit too simple to be legitimate.  Was this a website created to steal personal financial information?

Later when I was at an Extropian or Foresight conference, I wandered over to a cluster of folks in the main hallway to introduce myself.  I was turned away, however, as I was informed that this was a group of PayPal employees having an impromptu private meeting.  If I recall correctly, PayPal was one of the conference sponsors.

Now that SpaceX.com has successfully launched a spacecraft that has docked with the International Space Station, I have finally connected the dots back to X.com, the website which eventually became PayPal.com.  I had already known that the PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel was swimming in Transhumanist circles.  More recently I have been intrigued by his Thiel Fellowship in which Peter offers students money to drop out of college to create a startup.  Now my attention was directed to another PayPal co-founder, Elon Musk.

In this 2012 Caltech commencement speech video, Elon Musk describes how at an early age he decided to tackle some of the greatest problems facing the future of humanity and how he used his initial profits as a serial entrepreneur to fund those endeavors:

http://www.ustream.tv/caltech?utm_source=eNews+2012-06&utm_campaign=eNews+2012-06&utm_medium=archive

There are many gems in his speech.  I have listened to it many times and I have shared it with family and friends for discussion.  Here is the video timeline:
  • 29:30  Mr. Elon Musk is introduced.
     
  • 31:30  Elon starts his speech.  He jokingly thanks the introducer for leaving "crazy person" out of the description of his career.
  • 34:22  Elon talks about dropping out of graduate school in 1995 to jump on the Internet bandwagon.  He jokes, "Fortunately, we're past graduation so I cannot be accused of recommending that to you."
     
  • 47:00  Elon ends his commencement speech with "Go out there and create some magic."
  • 48:00  The introducer thanks Elon and describes him as a "21st Century Magic Man".
  • 48:30  The Caltech glee club sings.
  • 52:35  The President of Caltech is called to confer the degrees upon the graduates.  The President jokes, "Before we start, if any one of you wants to follow in the footsteps of the Magic Man and drop out, now is the time.  It's the last time.  It will be too late in five minutes.  No takers?"
Seventeen years ago, I was on that same lawn to receive my first Masters degree.  This was the same year that Elon Musk was dropping out to become an Internet startup co-founder.  A year later, I was sucked up into the Internet whirlwind along with many other research-oriented individuals.  While in Silicon Valley, I randomly bumped into of two of my former Caltech teaching assistants, one in a startup I was interviewing at and another at a restaurant while he was interviewing a candidate.  They had earned their doctorates studying the visual system or neuronal networks and now they were building e-commerce websites.

Here are some other entrepreneurs I have noted, all of them based around Dallas where I live:
  • Anousheh Ansari:  As the first female space tourist, she paid for her trip to the International Space Station with the proceeds from her successes as a serial entrepreneur in telecom. She and her family sponsored the Ansari X Prize.
What do these entrepreneurs have in common?  They did not just join a startup; they founded a startup.  When the startups grew, their equity gave them the resources they needed to fund new startups targeting their loftier and financially riskier goals.


Additional links to the commencement speech by Elon Musk:

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Rat Bites

Some years ago when I was a graduate student in the Cauller NeuroEngineering Lab, I noticed that something seemed to be amiss. There was a broken flask on the floor and I thought I might have possibly heard something even though I was alone. I put it out of my mind and left.

I returned to the lab a day or two later and I was working quietly when suddenly an escaped lab rat started moving about on the lab bench. The poor thing must have been running around loose in the lab for at least a couple of days as the lab had been mostly absent recently due to a school holiday or break. As a part-time student in the lab focusing primarily on software, I had no previous experience with handling lab rats but I thought I might put this one back in its cage by myself.

Figuring that it was probably hungry, I put some pellets out on the lab bench and when it started to nibble at them I grabbed it with my hand from behind. The rat twisted its head around and gave me a severe bite to one of my fingers. Instantly I thought of at least three key mistakes that I had just made.

I did not release the rat immediately because the damage was already done and I thought I could finish my objective quickly. I transferred the rat from my wounded right hand to the left as I quickly walked to the cage, careful to hold the rat firmly without putting too much pressure on its small body. I then received an even more severe bite to the tip of my left forefinger.

I held on and was able to get the rat into the cage. A student in the adjacent lab treated my wounds and I was reassured by the other students that lab rats are extremely clean animals so I had nothing to fear. They were, of course, quite right as the only long-term consequence was a small scar which is barely perceptible today.

When I reported the incident to Dr. Cauller, he was somewhat surprised as lab rats tended to be docile based on his many years of experience in handling them. He put his hand in the cage and the rat lunged to bite at it. He had only exposed the flat of his hand toward the rat so the teeth could not get a grip.

Dr. Cauller then stated to me that lab rats can sometimes turn feral if on their own for awhile without human supervision. Furthermore, this one appeared to have some bruising on its tail, suggesting a possible explanation for its unusual behavior. He told me he would have to put this animal down as it was now too aggressive to be around students.

I think there are several lessons to be learned from this. To bring out one in particular, I want to emphasize the part of my story in which I optimistically transferred the rat from one hand to the other after receiving the first painful bite. I think that this says something about me, both good and bad, which I will have to consider.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Science Sunday

Today my wife Shannon hosted a Science Sunday event. She wanted to do something for the older children in the Dallas Brights Family Meetup. She set up eight stations throughout the house with hands-on projects:
  • Attractive Ballons
  • Bending Light
  • Changing Solid to Liquid
  • Coffee Can Magic
  • Let's Make a Polymer
  • Raise the Raisins
  • Sink the Orange
  • Tornado Tube
Some of the parents in attendance volunteered to host future Science Sundays or create science stations so hopefully we can keep this going as a regular event.

While the children were engaged with experiments, I pulled the parents aside to show them my latest discovery, the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2011 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. I have the first seven pages of this taped to the side of our refrigerator with the entries sorted by annual mean wage. The lesson of this station is clear: it pays to have a medical degree.

If you have a child who is interested in becoming an academic research scientist, you might warn them that after many years of graduate school at poverty level wages only about half successfully earn their doctorate and only about one in eight eventually finds a faculty position. For an equivalent number of years in medical school, a Medicinae Doctor (M.D.) graduate is looking at guaranteed employment at three or more times the wages of the Philosophiae Doctor (Ph.D.) graduate lucky enough to land a research position.

And that is not to say that M.D. graduates cannot do research. If you compare the salaries of M.D. research faculty to Ph.D. research faculty at the same medical research institution, it quickly becomes clear that although both groups are doing science, one group is being paid substantially more than the other. If you have a budding scientist in your family, you might want to nudge them in the direction of a Medical Scientist Training Program.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Specialize or Generalize?

There is some question as to whether you should live your life as a specialist or a generalist. When I was in high school, I was advised to model the Renaissance Man. Likewise, one of my favorite authors from when I was growing up, Robert A. Heinlein, wrote in the voice of the immortal Lazarus Long:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

But consider this from the viewpoint of a customer. When you hire someone to do a job for you, you want a specialist. Preferably it is someone who does the same thing repeatedly and has completely mastered it. Not only do they keep up with the latest techniques in their field, they are leading it. Whether it is bone setting or computer programming, a client wants the best.

As Matt Ridley points out in his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, specialization and exchange makes everyone better off. This assumes, of course, that what you specialize in is a career and not a hobby. You can be the world's leading expert in something, but if no one is willing to pay you for it, you will be poor. Possibly widely appreciated, but still poor. Keep in mind the advice of Aristotle:
Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, therein lies your vocation.

The needs of the world tend to change over time, however, and that is where being a generalist can keep you alive. Environmental changes determine whether the generalist or specialist species go extinct. Us humans, however, are fast adapters. We can maximize the profit in a specialty for all its worth for as long as we can and then move on when the cheese is gone.

Having said that, however, I would like to point out that moving on can be a lot easier if you have some experience with what you are moving on to. This is where your hobbies come in. For the sheer love of learning, you play at things that do not have any immediate pay-off. Bouncing from one hobby to the next makes you the jack-of-all-trades and the master of none but a little knowledge is a start and might become your foot in the door for a new career someday.  It also makes you a big picture person who can relate to others.

So here is my conclusion:
Specialize in your career; generalize in your hobbies.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Preppers

I was listening to a radio story about Preppers recently. These are folks who are learning to be self-reliant so that they can survive a future societal collapse. If you are going to be prepared, you have to have plans. Currently the plans that are consuming my resources are the 401k, 529, HDHP/HSA/LEX, ESPP, FICA/FUTA, and multiple forms of insurance including cryonics.

While I am not a Prepper, I am obsessed with stories about the forthcoming zombie apocalypse. I have been listening to a horde of audio books on the subject. I eagerly pay $2 an episode to watch the television series Walking Dead. I read the Center for Disease Control's zombie comic book. Although technically about "vamps", I classify the infectious undead in the movie Stake Land as being close enough to be in the same genre.



I know that there are a lot of theories about why people are fantasizing about the end of civilization right now and I suppose I fit into at least one of those descriptions. Perhaps it is because of all of those aforementioned plans.

The radio story made me think about why we are so interdependent. When we specialize and trade, the efficiencies make everyone better off. Subsistence farming is what it sounds like.

The specialist optimizes on one particular method of making a living right now. The generalist diversifies in anticipation of sudden environmental transitions. Which is correct depends on being able to accurately predict the future.

And the future could go either way. Collapse or Singularity? It seems to me that prepping should include the possibility that things could go very right. Rational optimists might want to join me in reading the recently published book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.


Tuesday, January 31, 2012

One Change

For my most recent New Year's Resolution, I was inspired by this question:

What is the one change in your behavior that you can make now that will have the greatest impact on your life?

I am not sure where I first heard or read this recently but I was able to IxQuick it just now and find at least one hit so I know that it is not completely new. If you know of the original source, please post the reference in a comment.

My resolution for 2012 was to stop watching television after 8:30 PM. This decision was partially based on reports that screen time before bed can impede sleep. It was also based on my hope that it would increase my reading to viewing ratio.

I was a little reluctant to commit to this as I do enjoy my Roku. So far, though, it has been working out as I am usually able to read myself to sleep with a little help from diphenhydramine. I am hoping this new habit has all sorts of direct and indirect benefits for my health and productivity.