Archives For future

poor homeless forgotten

Ontario, Canada is going to try something new to help people get their lives back on track and become ground zero for a pilot program for a universal basic income. Though the province has not released any details, and the whole thing may still get scrapped, it shows that there’s some flirting with the concept from governments eager for a new way to tackle poverty. Essentially, a universal basic income is exactly what it sounds like. Everyone gets a certain sum of cash on a household basis simply for existing to address some basic needs. Anything above that is your choice and whatever other income you earn will be added to your UBI stipend, however you’re getting that money. Think of it as an efficient way to make sure your citizens don’t simply starve to death or are left homeless and destitute, or see crime as their only option for survival. But it’s not exactly a perfect system and considering the pretext for its advocacy in Europe, and now in the United States and Canada, it does seem to carry a certain sense of desperation, a positive spin on the admission that the officials implementing this ran out of ideas for job growth.

Now, I can just hear conservative pundits having conniptions on the subject. Money for nothing from the government? How would anyone be motivated to work, to study, or do something that isn’t watching TV and playing video games if all their basic needs are already met? And while it may be easy to dismiss these concerns by saying that no one should have to be forced to get a good education and a job at the gunpoint of starvation, it’s also impossible to deny that there’s going to be a group of people who use it as an excuse to do nothing whatsoever with their lives because they no longer have to in order to survive. On the other hand, considering that you will always have those only interested in putting in the absolute minimum effort required, going out of one’s way to base policies affecting everyone on the most efficient way to punish them is not just myopic, but harms those who genuinely need a hand up. There are numerous surveys and accounts which show that people who desperately want to escape poverty but can’t, are simply not planning for the future because they feel like they don’t have one, and every inconvenience can quickly turn into a budget-crippling disaster. UBI may be their ticket to the middle class.

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is easier when you can afford them in the first place, and knowing that you will have some money for the basics and to cover emergencies will allow the beneficiaries in poverty to start saving, get a financial plan together, and have confidence that they’re not one bad day away from becoming homeless. When they can see a future, they can follow a plan to make it into something better. The way many nations provide assistance yanks the necessary safety nets the minute those receiving it start climbing out of poverty, rather than provide incentives to keep going and a safety net to prevent them from falling back in, giving no flexibility to decide how the assistance money is spent, even if the recipients can prove that the current package isn’t going to help them get ahead. Just giving them cash will allow them to do what they need to and allocate a token sum meant for food to fix a car so they can get to work, or get a laptop so they can attend online job training classes to earn more money. But again, it does seem like using it to combat slow job growth and stagnant wages is a treating a symptom rather than curing the disease, and while it will help the poor, the question is how much.

Sadly, outsourcing and automation have made a lot of people basically obsolete, and instead of helping them adapt to the new way of things, we’ve made learning the new skills they’ll need to compete prohibitively expensive. Now, instead of addressing what really seems to a problem in how we educate our workforce and how we plan for the future, UBI advocates are saying that a stipend should help because let’s face it, when half the world may be struggling to find a job by the year 2035, we might as well give in and accept that keeping people off the streets and from starvation is a necessary budgetary evil. But if we use UBI as a crutch, wouldn’t we then give a handy excuse to colleges who refuse to implement apprenticeship programs or participate in a job training program for snobbish, self-centered reasons, and companies who refuse to drop a four year degree as a requirement for even getting an interview despite not needing those who work for them to hold this degree 74% of the time? Go ahead, take whatever classes you want and pile on those student loans. It’s fine if we don’t train the next generation and outsource the jobs for which we don’t want to pay higher wages. It’s no biggie. They’ll just get a UBI check. To enable the acceptance of the status quo like that may end up doing a great deal of harm.

woman with barcode

If you live in the U.S. and still watch certain TV channels, you may be forgiven for thinking that if you don’t know your FICO score, or lack apps and services to notify you of every slight change within a moment, you may as well give up on actually owning or renting anything without having a massive pile of cash sitting in a bank. Cutting through the commercial hyperbole, there’s a bit of truth to that in a country where borrowing is high and saving is low. Lenders need to have an objective and quick way to figure out how likely you are to repay them, and one company called Fair Isaac has long claimed it owns an equation to predict exactly that based on your history of making timely payments and other factors that seem important. The end result is quick, a three digit number that seems to speak volumes. But is it objective in an age where getting laid off as automation or outsourcing claim one’s job, or a dire medical problem can instantly land you in a world of financial pain and ruin? Probably not. No matter how you look at it, the FICO score has some pretty significant shortcomings, but fixing them could actually get really, really ugly…

For a few years, credit rating agencies have been toying with the idea of using social media as an additional barometer of your creditworthiness, particularly Facebook and LinkedIn, trying to find a correlation between your online contacts and odds of a default. In some cases, you can make fairly accurate predictions. A senior manager at a very large corporation whose contacts on professional social networks are all high powered business people, with a resume full of big numbers and grand accomplishments is probably not going to stop paying for his new BMW or buy a new house and skip town. But what about a hardworking college student with a couple of stoner friends who never amounted too much still listed in her Facebook contacts? You may as well flip a coin because if you’re deciding the worth of a person only by the company he or she keeps, not only does it open the door to discrimination, but removes that applicant’s agency by holding friends’ failures real or imagined, over this person’s head. Yes, this student may default and fall behind. But she could also be determined to build up a great credit score no matter the personal cost and pay in full, on time, every time, while working her way to adulthood.

Now, as scary as the attempts to base your credit rating on that of your friends sound, they got nothing on China’s grand plan to develop a social score for its citizens that goes far beyond the humble creditworthiness rating and all the way into meddling in their personal lives and political beliefs. Not only do you need to have a great history of on time payments to qualify for loans or ownership of private property, but you must also demonstrate yourself a productive citizen who is loyal to the party. Buying video games penalizes you while buying diapers rewards you. Your friends started posting sarcastic, Soviet-style jokes about the Communist Party? Well, you really didn’t want to buy a new house or get a new car, did you now? Oh, you did? Too bad. Probably shouldn’t be friends with unpatriotic dissidents then. You can see where this is going. Imagine a similar score in the U.S. used by the NSA and FBI to assign one’s likelihood of becoming some sort of criminal or terrorist, their less than airtight statistical models used to justify searches and seizures of random individuals whose personal choices and behavior matter less and less than the choices and behaviors of their social group. It’s like dystopian a sci-fi tale coming to life.

Really, there’s a limit to how much data we should be collecting and using, and allowing people to opt out of collection processes they think can be abused. Maybe a credit rating agency does want to create a financial product for people who want to use their friends to vouch for them. It would be their choice to see how it pans out. But if it’s using the same kind of research on new line of credit applicants who have not consented to this process, it needs to be heavily punished so that violating the rules costs much more than just complying with them. Just because we are fully capable of quickly and easily creating the tools for an Orwellian society doesn’t mean that we have to enable tyranny by algorithm and pretend that because computers are making some decision based on data they’re collecting it’s all objective and above board. People program all of these sites, people collect and organize this information, and people write the algorithms that will crunch it and render a verdict. And people are often biased and hypocritically judgmental. If we let their biases hide in lines of code watching out every move and encouraging us to be little model citizens, like the Chinese plan does, the consequences will be extremely dire.

abandoned tree house

Few things appear to be as terrifying for the American political establishment as Donald Trump doing everything we’re told a politician should not do if he wants to win an election, yet rising to become the unstoppable front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. Heading into Super Tuesday, he boasts commanding leads, and should he clean up the way polls predict he will, it will be mathematically implausible for his competition to catch up. So, despite often vastly over-inflating his wealth, four bankruptcies, vague stances that change with the weather, and a style of the debate that’s less debating and more spoiled rich kid in high school in a shouting match, this New York tabloid punchline convinced millions of Americans that he’s their hope in an ever-changing world that seems to need them, and care about them, less and less. To the media at large, they seem utterly baffling and grossly irrational, but their despair and possibly newfound appreciation for authoritarianism actually makes sense in their own context.

It’s true that our world is changing. We’re becoming more and more urbanized, small towns in many countries are being left to slowly decay, and what jobs can’t be cheaply outsourced, but won’t require specialized creative skills, are being automated so quickly that almost half of the world is facing unemployment in the next few decades if nothing changes soon. Long gone are the days when you can just get your high school diploma or GED, then go straight to work in a factory for the next 30 years, or sit a cubicle for a similar stretch of time, going to college while your company paid your tuition in exchange for more guaranteed years of your employment to get a return on its investment, while making enough to raise a family and afford for a spouse to stay at home. Most of the factories have been closed for many years and college costs soared by 200% as prices for everything are 55% higher over the last 30 years, while wages over the same time period have remained stagnant when adjusted for inflation. Now you must pay for a $30,000 degree, move to the city, and try to compete for jobs companies who’ll now expect you to be a perfect fit the second you walk in can’t wait to automate or outsource. Fun times.

Oh, and I should also mention that the expensive sheet of paper you will have to acquire to get this lovely experience firsthand is going to be worthless some 73% of the time. Yes, that’s what the typical person has to do today to make ends meet; to start with tens of thousands of dollars in non-dischargeable debt looming over his or her head, and jobs in which her or she is viewed as a disposable, temporary expense, a necessary evil really. And that brings us back to Trump and his most ardent supporters who see the results of this mess and need someone to blame, ideally someone with a foreign accent, or a darker skin color, or young and a little too vocal for their taste, which is exactly what they get from him. We’ve shown them that the system doesn’t care about them in day to day life and reduced them to really, nothing more than numbers in a spreadsheet rather than real people with real problems. Now they get to assign blame and rage against the electoral machine. They’ve been ignored and left behind. Well no more! Hear them roar as those empty government suits fall before their unstoppable, self-appointed avatar who seems to share in their formerly impotent, simmering fury at their nation being neglected.

While we shudder in terror and disgust at the notion of President Trump, voted into power after violating every rule of social decorum we thought were expected of those who are supposed to lead us, what we should be worried about is that there will be more Trumps, and that they’ll get even worse if we don’t fix our education system and provide incentives for sizeable businesses to once again invest in those who labor for them. Yes, mocking Trump’s supporters is easy and pointing out The Donald’s shortfalls is like shooting fish in a barrel with tactical nukes. It’s giving those who aren’t aghast at his antics and disgusted at what’s tricking down to us after 30 years of supply-side economics, hope that things could be better that’s hard. But if we really are that shocked that a narcissistic reality star who fancies himself the world’s finest businessman and engages in antics even a rich frat bro villain in a college movie would find in poor taste when all the spotlights are on him, has a shot at being president, that’s what we need to do. We have to pop the college bubble, create apprenticeships, abolish asinine test-driven education standards created by grossly ignorant politicians, and create every possible incentive for companies not to treat their workers as disposable. We failed to plan for the future. That’s how we got here.

old cyborg

Over all the posts I’ve written about brain-machine interfaces and their promise for an everyday person, one the key takeaways was that while the idea was great, the implementation would be problematic because doctors would be loath to perform invasive and risky surgery on a patient who didn’t necessarily need said surgery. But what if when you want to link your brain to a new, complex, and powerful device, you could just get an injection of electrodes that unfurl into a thin mesh which surrounds your neurons and allows you to beam a potent signal out? Sounds like a premise for a science fiction novel, doesn’t it? Maybe something down the cyberpunk alley that was explored by Ghost In The Shell and The Matrix? Amazingly, no. It’s real, and it’s now being tested in rats with extremely positive results. Just 30 minutes after injection, the mesh unwound itself around the rats’ brains and retained some 80% of its ideal functionality. True, it’s not quite perfect yet, but this is a massive leap towards fusing our minds with machinery.

Honestly, I could write an entire book about all the things easy access this technology can do in the long run because the possibilities are almost truly endless. We could manipulate a machine miles away from ourselves as if we inhabited it, Avatar style, give locked in stroke victims a way to communicate and control their environment, extend our nervous systems into artificial limbs which can be fused with our existing bodies, and perhaps even challenge what it means to be a human and become a truly space faring species at some point down the line. Or we could use it to make video games really badass because that’s where the big money will be after medicine, after which we’ll quickly diversify into porn. But I digress. The very idea that we’re slowly but oh so surely coming closer and closer towards easy to implant brain-machine interfaces is enough to make me feel all warm and fuzzy from seeing science fiction turn into science fact, and twitch with anticipation of what could be done when it’s finally ready for human trials. Oh the software I could write and the things it could do with the power of the human brain and a cloud app…

[ illustration by Martin Lisec ]

tower of babel

Humans can sure take up a lot of space. Not literally mind you, if you stacked humans in pods just big enough to accommodate the average person and raise them 50 units high, the entire global population would comfortably fit within the Bronx metro area, with 23 square kilometers left over. For those curious, yes, I actually did the math. I know, I’m a nerd. But like all abstract calculations, this is technically correct but very much irrelevant since we don’t live in pods with a few inches of wiggle room in every direction, we like to have our space. This is why even a high density megacity can take up as much as 7,000 square miles. Start adding in suburbs, exhurbs and other bordering towns that seem to merge with our biggest cities, farms that feed the many millions living in this area, and you end up with vast swaths of space dedicated to perpetuating countless humans with the substantial environmental costs that entails. So what if, asked many architects over the years, we were to consolidate entire cities in massive skyscrapers?

Now the idea is sound if your first priority is efficient allocation of resources. While no huge city could be perfectly efficient, on average, any megacity could concentrate resources and shorten supply chains. This can mean less waste, more productivity, and more economic activity. But if we take it one step further and start structuring them around giant, self-contained skyscrapers, we can wring out many of the current remaining inefficiencies in resource allocation. A vertical farm in each skyscraper would double as green space and the perfect place for producing a lot of staple crops that instead of being delivered across a country are delivered to a different floor which saves a lot on infrastructure costs. From a utopian perspective, embracing growing your own crops in a vertical community garden inside a giant building that also has apartments, bars and nightclubs, movie theaters, schools, and offices could return many millions of square miles back to nature should every city in the world make that leap. But would that ever happen?

Today, such a transition would be politically dead on arrival and technically hard to execute. It’s not for a lack of ideas though; within the last 30 years there have been no shortage of plans to build these cities in a skyscraper including Sky City 1000, Shimizu TRY Pyramid, and just a few weeks ago, Sand Sky City. But just because there are plans doesn’t mean there’s enough raw materials to actually build these projects or money to afford them. Between buying all the land required to pour the foundations, or in the case of Sand Sky City, establish robust routes to get materials to a job site in the middle of nowhere, even getting started comes with a price tag few governments could afford, and those that could, probably have many other uses for the money, ones that will be much more popular with their constituents. Speaking of which, how do you get people to live in these skyscrapers in numbers that make them economically viable? 

One rather popular conspiracy theory here in the United States is that extreme urban planning proposals like this are really the machinations of an evil cabal trying to enslave humanity for an amazingly wide array of sinister purposes, so there go millions of potential residents. Plus, how many people would be fine with giving up their privacy, living with over a million others not just around them, but in the same building at any given time? Just like flying cars look great from a purely utilitarian, utopian point of view, the reality of actually creating them is fraught with many problems that will take a long time to address. Maybe at some point in the far future, with more globalized economies and massive changes in culture, buildings housing an entire city could be viable, and by then we’re bound to have plans for hundreds of them. But we’re not going to get them anytime soon. They simply cost too much, require too much, and unlikely to provide the kind of return on investment we’d need to make them worthwhile. At least for now…

future highway

As I said before, we really want the Musks and Gates of the world to keep investing exactly the way they’re investing now and we want to keep on encouraging their choices through every tax credit, rebate, and whatever other enticement we can think of. Then we need to take that cash and start pouring it into the sciences and education. Why? Because the biggest reasons those knocked out of the job market by machines and outsourcing will not be able to find new, steady work are a) one-way globalization by nations happily trading goods and services, but severely restricting the flow of labor, and b) lack of skills for new careers and the prohibitively high price tag of acquiring relevant credentials. The former is very, very hard to solve because it’s asking certain countries to put the good of the world above their self-interest, which is political suicide for their leaders. The latter, on the other hand, is something we can take on quickly.

Right now, the typical new degree requires about $18,000 not including books, fees, and living expenses for the next three to four years. And by the time you graduate, your job may already be made obsolete by a new app or maxed out by existing candidates. You’ll also have trouble with getting enough experience in your new chosen field for employers and end up having to work an unpaid internship position just to put something on your resume. Oh and your student debt could only be dismissed by an act of Congress or an alien invasion, and given the current political climate, I would bet cash money on the aliens. Although I’m sure Sally May would keep their employees hounding debtors even while buildings around them are being mowed down by the invaders’ lasers until the bitter end, knowing how they typically operate…

This is an asinine state of affairs. We need something closer to formally accredited certification programs and really, really consider making the college degree optional again for fields which honestly don’t involve specialized knowledge requiring years of theoretical study. If we sponsor enough universities to offer them for affordable sums and actually do job training programs with major companies, we’d be giving millions of people displaced by machines new chances in life. There are trade schools and community college programs that try to fulfill this function already, but there aren’t enough, too many are just predatory scams, and too many HR departments will scoff at these credentials when they see them on a candidate’s resume. We need to tackle this as directly as possible because even management experts consider the way companies hire to be often broken and completely illogical, often indicating a management problem.

We also need to take our education system seriously, easing up on standardized testing across the board and setting our sights on helping students discover what they really want to do in life as they’re getting their general education, providing chances for real world experiences in their fields of choice. When they can see what their lives would actually entail if they choose to follow their dreams, they’ll make better choices about how to peruse them rather than play education poker with a college which views them as customers receiving a product for which they borrow many to pay and expect a bang for their buck, not students to be educated so they can acquire a career by employing the theoretical framework their professors give them.

The common thread in all this is of course lowering the financial and time commitment bars for getting to work and learning new skills as they are needed by the marketplace by getting rid of nonsensical requirements that don’t actually help students or adults looking to make a change. Not only would it help them immeasurably, but they could give them a chance to explore their potential, try more new things in life, and live up to their aspirations without sticker shock. Yes, we could try to create some sort of minimum national income for all citizens as some suggest, but other than the many social questions this idea raises, questions we’re obviously not ready and willing to answer, passively reacting to a decline in jobs and income growth for the 99% by widening the social safety net and hoping that we can change things by doing exactly what got us into this mess in the first place, this approach would kill the potential of millions.

Today we’re snuffing out engineers, writers, doctors, and designers by under-educating them the first 12 years of their schooling, bilking them the next four, and subjecting their resumes to death by a thousand keywords and buzzwords. Just giving them some money while placing all their goals even further out of reach isn’t going to do any good whatsoever. What we need is a lot more moon shots, crazy inventions, and government aided competitions for solutions to our big problems; big picture thinking that asks “what about tomorrow?” rather than “how do I make a buck today?” We got into this mess by taking the easy way, by assuming things won’t change. More of the same solutions to our problems, like Piketty’s wealth tax, or standardized testing, or more lopsided free trade deals, or pouring our money into another bubble, won’t get us out. We need to rethink our priorities and focus on investing in a new post-industrial world where basics like education, wealth, and jobs, aren’t just zero-sum games.

female robot

According to The Matrix’s extended universe, the machines went to war with humans after they founded their own city called 01, and became an economic powerhouse with which no humans could compete. The nuclear holocaust and weaponized plagues, forced, artificial breeding and xploitation of humans was basically us getting the rough end of a business dispute. Obviously, I could write a book as to why this couldn’t happen in the real world —  I won’t of course, but I can, just a friendly warning  —  but new machines are making certain humans obsolete right now, and believe it or not, you’re responsible for it. Automation is taking away more jobs than outsourcing and only recently has the alarm bell been rung. More than 2 out of 5 jobs might be done by an app in the next 20 years. And that’s a big, big problem for our future economy…

Unfortunately, this techie is contributing to it. One of my old projects involved what amounted to automating a middle management job for a group of closely related industries. You tell the app what you expect done, when, and who you may have available for the job. It will then supervise that the job gets done, have the capacity to update you on top stars and slackers, and through thorough records of how work is being performed, learn how the real world differs from your set expectations, to adjust those expectations accordingly. And I can see how it could’ve been used run friendly competitions between workers, give basic performance reviews based on what you feel is important. I’m sorry. You may start hating me… now.

But wait, how could automation like that be taking away job after job and we’re only now waking up to this fact? Well, as much as we should not blame the victim, it’s kind of your fault. At some point during your day at the office you catch yourself thinking “oh for the occult worship rites of Cthulhu, if only someone could do some arcane programming magic for me so I don’t drown in this paperwork!” And we could. It’s not going to be perfect, you’ll still have to review some of it, click buttons, add notes, approve the results, etc. But as time goes on, you trust the app more and more, the bugs have been shaken out, the once steady focus on a single part of a tedious process has become adaptable code that could be easily modified, and you start thinking again. You’re always doing that. “By the Glowing Orbs of Yog Sothoth! Couldn’t this thing just run with the results of all that data and handle the whole workflow for me?”

You know what? With all the information you fed into it on how to do that, It probably can. Only one tiny little problem. Your job was to deal with all the reviews and approvals of that incoming paperwork. Now, by the time you get to the office and grab your fresh cup of coffee for the day, the machine has already done your daily quota. Let’s say there were a few issues kicked back for review and you had to make a few phone calls. By the time early lunch rolls around, you’re basically done for the day. Some days there are no issues and nothing at all for you to do. Your boss starts wondering if someone else couldn’t just work resolving those issues into her routine and free up a few tens of thousands of dollars a year because your boss gets paid based on a list of objectives that includes cost-effectiveness and paying someone to do nothing is not what anyone would consider a good use of company resources, and so, it’s time for a layoff.

Now, now, it’s nothing personal really, it’s not that you haven’t been doing a good job, I’m sure you were. But you see, you’re human. And you have needs. Expensive needs. Food, housing, entertainment, kids, a retirement. Computers need none of that. They will do your paperwork in a hundredth of the time, with minimal errors that can be fixed to never happen again, and when they fail to perform, you don’t have to interview or train a replacement with some of those really expensive humans needs mentioned above. Just isntall new software. Of course you also won’t have to pay them, give them lunch breaks, or days off. They are the perfect workers by design, specializing in complex, repetitive, attention-draining tasks. You can’t compete. You also like to hand them your job by having them automate the vast majority of your workday.

So while you and your bosses kept asking the IT department for your machines to handle more and more and worried about losing jobs to off-shoring, the current wave of jobs lost to software probably snuck up on you. Now, 45% of all jobs are at risk of vanishing in the next few decades and if your workload happens to be somewhat repetitive and deal mostly with big numbers and paperwork, keep an eye on that whirring box of plastic and silicon in front of you. It wants your job, and will probably get it. Again, nothing personal, just business. While Singularitarians fear that a morally ambivalent AI will one day conquer us as the lesser things made of flesh that we are to its somehow superior mind, the real concern is that they will leave half of us unemployed and with very few options to make a living in the current economic climate.

Considering that we’re panicking today when official numbers show 9% unemployment, can you imagine the turmoil and uproar when they hit 40% and keep climbing? Populist uprisings would siege Capitol Hill, demanding the lawmakers’ heads on sticks! Techies like me would be hunted down for sport! (Ok, I don’t think that would really happen.) And while the pundits would lament the exploitative ways of corporations on one channel and telling the unemployed to just go get a job and quit asking for handouts on another, the truth is those most affected would be stuck.

And all this brings us right back to Piketty and the wealth tax. Not only will capital fueled by the steady hum and blinking lights of a million servers keep skyrocketing, but the economic growth on the other side will fall off. Hopefully the machine work on real problems and in real industries will offset the voodoo investing and trading of today and stabilize the foundation under all those capital gains, but we’ll still be left with the problem of having to take from the rich to give to the needy, Robin Hood style. It would very much appease some on the far left, but will be every bit as unsustainable as simply allowing the current fiscal chasm between the 1% and the 99% turn into an interplanetary divide because you give the backbone of the economy every incentive to put their money elsewhere or voluntarily trap their assets in an illiquid and hard to tax form. But there’s always a way out. It just takes some foresight and willpower, and we’ll dissect it with the conclusion of this series of posts tomorrow…

los angeles

It’s been such a long, long time since this blog got an update, but this is all about to change. In just two short weeks, Weird Things will be officially rebooting, and we’ve got some big plans for the future. And no, this was not a royal we, because Mrs. Fish will also be writing, bringing her unique wit and insights from her experience in the world of education to the blog on a regular basis. But that’s not the only thing that’s changing. We’re leaving WordPress behind to roll out a custom content management system to serve as a platform for testing new ideas, trying new features, and serve as a springboard for potential new projects. Yes, WordPress was a great way to get started, but it always irked me as a programmer that I had to deal with a system that was given rather than the system I really wanted, and so I’m fixing this situation.

And we’re still not done. Weird Things will no longer be coming to you from a Midwest college town, but from sunny California where yours truly has joined the Silicon Beach scene, working on business intelligence and Big Data tools, fulfilling his and his spouses’ dream of living in a warm place not too far from an ocean, and where mature palm trees are found growing outside of malls and botanical gardens. Planning and carrying out this move was an enormous job and took over a year since we both had very stable jobs and were comfortably settled into our lives by that point. But something just kept nagging us, a constant feeling that something was just a little off and no matter how comfortable we were, we weren’t going to be completely happy with how things were, and neither of us are best described as willing to just settle.

After a lot of careful thought and seeing many of our friends moving out West, we’ve made the decision to join them, which is the primary reason why the blog so slowly went quiet. Now, with everything back on track, the urge to keep writing still strong, and access to more resources than ever before, this is the perfect time for Weird Things to return. We hope that you’ll mark your calendars to tune back in and join us as we bring back the weird science, critical analysis, and skepticism we’ve been delivering for years.

calvin superhero

Apologies for the lengthy pauses between posts but with Project X in full swing and long days at the office, there’s only so much time to write, and the more gets written the more problems there are for the aforementioned project. But more on that in due time. For now, I decided to take the occasional detour into the realm of meta-debates and talk about news stories documenting the growing pains of the skeptical movement. Their common theme is that there are people under a banner called skepticism who want to confront pseudoscience while at the same time arguing a great deal about how to do it, and with certain influential skeptics trying impose their politics on the entire movement. Does a skeptic need only to worry about debunking Bigfoot, UFOs, quack remedies, and ghosts? Does a skeptic need to be atheist? Are skeptics allowed to shelter hope that a belief for which there’s little to no evidence might still somehow end up being true? And in the grand scheme of things, what do the skeptics really want to accomplish in the end and who gets to be invited to join them in their campaigns? In short, what exactly makes one a skeptic?

But hold on, you might object, why does arriving at a concrete definition matter? Aren’t skeptics just scientifically literate folks applying basic scientific methodology to bullshit claims made by all sorts of profit-minded shysters and by well-meaning but potentially dangerously ignorant people who pass them on or weave them into their personal brands of cargo cult science? Well, yes, in the broadest way that’s correct, and it’s what let me to start forging ties with organized skeptical organizations when this blog was in its prime skeptical phase. However just because you called yourself a skeptic for denouncing pseudoscience and were recognized for it by JREF or another skeptical group, doesn’t mean the topic you’re best equipped to address will ever get any major boost, even within the group. For example, I’m most often cited for Singularity skepticism, mostly because I’m a techie by profession and education, and have the experience and tools to put the wild claims of our impending immortality through technology under very tight scrutiny. Good for me, right? A new branch of skepticism can be added to the collective’s efforts, right?

Sorry but no dice. In fact, a certain very popular 2012 skeptic once told me that until he started reading my dissections of Kurzweil & Co., he thought that their ideas were a lot more plausible than they actually were, and the Skepchicks hosted a very sympathetic take on the claims and predictions being made by the attendees of a Singularity Summit. After talking to those involved on the subject, I was told that while my take was appreciated in the form of links, what I wrote on the subject was "sort of advanced skepticism" and they wanted to focus on something that was more common, the old school skeptics-as-common-sense-debunkers approach. Pretty much the only recognizable skeptics not only interested, but willing to give transhumanist and AI skeptics a real platform was the team at Skeptically Speaking, for which I ended up doing half an episode, and a two-hour debate with a prominent transhumanist. That’s right, we were so popular and the audience was so receptive, I had to come back twice. But to the old school skeptics, it’s really all about debunking common myths and popular quacks. It needs to be done but for those of us no longer interested in that, there doesn’t seem to be much room in organized skepticism.

And this is one of the biggest sources of friction that I’m seeing right now. Those of us who are technical experts in one subject or another interested in applying our specialized knowledge to a possibly arcane but still popular topic, are sick and tired of the umpteenth dissection of Dr. Oz and a UFO sighting now decades old, but we’re not really being included or asked to bring light to a new topic or two because that puts the old school skeptics out of their comfort zone. Now, I won’t be surprised if by now you’re tempted to dismiss this grievance by pointing out that it came from personal experience and makes for only one data point. But if you go back to the Atheism+ fight for just a bit, you’ll hear an undertone of the same exact issues from a completely different group of people with completely different goals. They wanted to turn organized skepticism into a left wing political movement rather than broaden its primary topics, but their reason for trying to create a new offshoot was due to a) feeling that the skeptical old school is not interested in new ideas for the future, and b) their avoidance of the skepticism vs. atheism question based mostly on marketing considerations, to make the religious feel more welcome at skeptic meetups.

Today’s big, organized skeptical groups don’t seem to be evolving or really expanding past the few topics that bound them together. More and more skeptical meetups seem to be preaching to the choir rather than exposing skeptics to new topics. The whole movement just seems stuck in place, retracing the same fake Bigfoot steps and analyzing the same flying saucer on a wire for the hundredth time. And as if that wasn’t enough, we get drama and gender wars on an endless loop for publicity and stats instead of guidance and fresh ideas. Wasn’t the point of well-funded, organized skepticism to spread education and combat the popularization of pseudoscience in all of its forms rather than spending a lot of time with people who agree with what you say? Where are the skeptical conferences that invite expert speakers to expose skeptics to big, cutting edge scientific ideas to peak their interest in broadening their horizons and taking on new topics? Is a skeptical equivalent of TED without the buzzwords out of the question? No wonder reporters on missions to write about organized skepticism all end up asking where would the movement go in the next few years and fail to prove an answer. They can’t. There’s no future game plan…

quantified self

With the explosion in fitness trackers and mobile apps that want to help manage everything from weight loss to pregnancy, there’s already a small panic brewing as technology critics worry that insurance companies will require you to wear devices that track your health, playing around with your premiums based on how well or how badly you take care of yourself. As the current leader of the reverse Singularitarians, Evgeny Morozov, argues, the new idea of the quantified self is a minefield being created with little thought about the consequences. Certainly there is a potential for abuse of very personal health metrics and Morozov is at his best when he explains how naive techno-utopians don’t understand how they come off, and how the reality of how their tools have been used in the wild differs drastically from their vision, so his fear is not completely unfounded or downright reflexive, like some of his latest pieces have been. But in the case of the quantified self idea being applied to our healthcare, the benefits are more likely to outweigh the risks.

One of the reasons why healthcare in the United States is so incredibly expensive is the lack of focus on preventitive medicine. Health problems are allowed to fester until they become simply too bothersome to ignore, a battery of expensive tests is ordered, and usually expensive acute treatments are administered. Had they been caught in time, the treatments would not have to be so intensive, and if there was ample, trustworthy biometric information available to the attending doctors, there wouldn’t need to be as much testing to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. As many doctors grumble about oceans of paperwork, logistics of testing, and the inability to really talk to patients in the standard 15 minute visit, why not use devices that would help with the paperwork and do a great deal of preliminary research for them before they ever see the patient? And yes, the devices would have to be able to gather data by themselves because we often tell little white lies about how active we are and how well we eat, even when both we and our doctors know that we’re lying. And this only hurts us in the end by making the doctors’ work more difficult.

That brings us full circle to health insurance premiums and requirements to wear these devices to keep our coverage. Certainly it’s kind of creepy that there would be so much data about us so readily available to insurance companies, but here’s the thing. They already have this data from your doctors and can access it whenever they want in the course of processing your claim. With biometric trackers and loggers, they could do the smart and profitable thing and instead of using a statistical model generated from a hodgepodge of claim notes, take advantage of the real time data coming in to send you to the doctor when a health problem is detected. They pay less for a less acute treatment plan, you feel healthier and have some piece of mind that you’re now less likely to be caught by surprise by some nasty disease or condition, and your premiums won’t be hiked as much since the insurers now have higher margins and stave off rebellions from big and small companies who’ll now have more coverage choices built around smart health data. And all this isn’t even mentioning the bonanza for researchers and policy experts who can now get a big picture view from what would be the most massive health study ever conducted.

How many times have you read a study purporting the health benefits of eating berries and jogs one week only to read another one that promotes eating nuts and saying that jogs are pointless with the different conclusions coming as a result of different sample sizes and subjects involved in the studies? Well, here, scientists could collect tens of millions of anonymized records and do very thorough modeling based on uniform data sets from real people, and find out what actually works and for whom when it comes to achieving their fitness and weight loss goals. Couple more data and more intelligent policy with the potential for economic gain and the gamification offered by fitness trackers, and you end up with saner healthcare costs, a new focus on preventing and maintaining rather than diagnosing and treating, fewer sick days, and longer average lifespans as the side effect of being sick less often and encouraged to stay active and fit, and you have a very compelling argument for letting insurance companies put medical trackers on you and build a new business model around them and the data they collect. It will pay off in the long run.