Don’t Panic!

Panic button
Do not push the red button! Peter Hermes Furian/Shutterstock

20 March 2019 – The image at right visualizes something described in Douglas Adams’ Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At one point, the main characters of that six-part “trilogy” found a big red button on the dashboard of a spaceship they were trying to steal that was marked “DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON!” Naturally, they pressed the button, and a new label popped up that said “DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON AGAIN!”

Eventually, they got the autopilot engaged only to find it was a stunt ship programmed to crash headlong into the nearest Sun as part of the light show for an interstellar rock band. The moral of this story is “Never push buttons marked ‘DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON.’”

Per the author: “It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because it has the words ‘DON’T PANIC’ in large, friendly letters on the cover.”

Despite these references to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this posting has nothing to do with that book, the series, or the guide it describes, except that I’ve borrowed the words from the Guide’s cover as a title. I did that because those words perfectly express the take-home lesson of Bill Snyder’s 11 March 2019 article in The Robot Report entitled “Fears of job-stealing robots are misplaced, say experts.”

Expert Opinions

Snyder’s article reports opinions expressed at the the Conference on the Future of Work at Stanford University last month. It’s a topic I’ve shot my word processor off about on numerous occasions in this space, so I thought it would be appropriate to report others’ views as well. First, I’ll present material from Snyder’s article, then I’ll wrap up with my take on the subject.

“Robots aren’t coming for your job,” Snyder says, “but it’s easy to make misleading assumptions about the kinds of jobs that are in danger of becoming obsolete.”

“Most jobs are more complex than [many people] realize,” said Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist.

David Autor, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology points out that education is a big determinant of how developing trends affect workers: “It’s a great time to be young and educated, but there’s no clear land of opportunity for adults who haven’t been to college.”

“When predicting future labor market outcomes, it is important to consider both sides of the supply-and-demand equation,” said Varian, “demographic trends that point to a substantial decrease in the supply of labor are potentially larger in magnitude.”

His research indicates that shrinkage of the labor supply due to demographic trends is 53% greater than shrinkage of demand for labor due to automation. That means, while relatively fewer jobs are available, there are a lot fewer workers available to do them. The result is the prospect of a continued labor shortage.

At the same time, Snyder reports that “[The] most popular discussion around technology focuses on factors that decrease demand for labor by replacing workers with machines.”

In other words, fears that robots will displace humans for existing jobs miss the point. Robots, instead, are taking over jobs for which there aren’t enough humans to do them.

Another effect is the fact that what people think of as “jobs” are actually made up of many “tasks,” and it’s tasks that get automated, not entire jobs. Some tasks are amenable to automation while others aren’t.

“Consider the job of a gardener,” Snyder suggests as an example. “Gardeners have to mow and water a lawn, prune rose bushes, rake leaves, eradicate pests, and perform a variety of other chores.”

Some of these tasks, like mowing and watering, can easily be automated. Pruning rose bushes, not so much!

Snyder points to news reports of a hotel in Nagasaki, Japan being forced to “fire” robot receptionists and room attendants that proved to be incompetent.

There’s a scene in the 1997 film The Fifth Element where a supporting character tries to converse with a robot bartender about another character. He says: “She’s so vulnerable – so human. Do you you know what I mean?” The robot shakes its head, “No.”

Sometimes people, even misanthropes, would prefer to interact with another human than with a drink-dispensing machine.

“Jobs,” Varian points out, “unlike repetitive tasks, tend not to disappear. In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau listed 250 separate jobs. Since then, the only one to be completely eliminated is that of elevator operator.”

“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” founder Elon Musk mea culpa-ed last year “Humans are underrated.”

Another trend Snyder points out is that automation-ready jobs, such as assembly-line factory workers, have already largely disappeared from America. “The 10 most common occupations in the U.S.,” he says, “include such jobs as retail salespersons, nurses, waiters, and other service-focused work. Notably, traditional occupations, such as factory and other blue-collar work, no longer even make the list.

Again, robots are mainly taking over tasks that humans are not available to do.

The final trend that Snyder presents, is the stark fact that birthrates in developed nations are declining – in some cases precipitously. “The aging of the baby boom generation creates demand for service jobs,” Varian points out, “but leaves fewer workers actively contributing labor to the economy.”

Those “service jobs” are just the ones that require a human touch, so they’re much harder to automate successfully.

My Inexpert Opinion

I’ve been trying, not entirely successfully, to figure out what role robots will actually have vis-a-vis humans in the future. I think there will be a few macroscopic trends. And, the macroscopic trends should be the easiest to spot ‘cause they’re, well, macroscopic. That means bigger. So, there easier to see. See?

As early as 2010, I worked out one important difference between robots and humans that I expounded in my novel Vengeance is Mine! Specifically, humans have a wider view of the Universe and have more of an emotional stake in it.

“For example,” I had one of my main characters pontificate at a cocktail party, “that tall blonde over there is an archaeologist. She uses ROVs – remotely operated vehicles – to map underwater shipwreck sites. So, she cares about what she sees and finds. We program the ROVs with sophisticated navigational software that allows her to concentrate on what she’s looking at, rather than the details of piloting the vehicle, but she’s in constant communication with it because she cares what it does. It doesn’t.”

More recently, I got a clearer image of this relationship and it’s so obvious that we tend to overlook it. I certainly missed it for decades.

It hit me like a brick when I saw a video of an autonomous robot marine-trash collector. This device is a small autonomous surface vessel with a big “mouth” that glides around seeking out and gobbling up discarded water bottles, plastic bags, bits of styrofoam, and other unwanted jetsam clogging up waterways.

The first question that popped into my mind was “who’s going to own the thing?” I mean, somebody has to want it, then buy it, then put it to work. I’m sure it could be made to automatically regurgitate the junk it collects into trash bags that it drops off at some collection point, but some human or humans have to make sure the trash bags get collected and disposed of. Somebody has to ensure that the robot has a charging system to keep its batteries recharged. Somebody has to fix it when parts wear out, and somebody has to take responsibility if it becomes a navigation hazard. Should that happen, the Coast Guard is going to want to scoop it up and hand its bedraggled carcass to some human owner along with a citation.

So, on a very important level, the biggest thing robots need from humans is ownership. Humans own robots, not the other way around. Without a human owner, an orphan robot is a pile of junk left by the side of the road!

How to Train Your Corporate Rebel

Tebel Talent Cover
Rebel Talent by Francesca Gino makes the case for encouraging individualism in the workplace

13 March 2019 – Francesca Gino, author of Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and In Life, is my kind of girl. She’s smart, thinks for herself, isn’t afraid to go out on a limb, and encourages others to do the same.

That said, I want to inject a note of caution for anyone considering her advice about being a rebel. There’s an old saying: “The nail that sticks up the most is the first to get hammered down.” It’s true in carpentry and in life. Being a rebel is lonely, dangerous, and is no guarantee of success, financial or otherwise.

I speak from experience, having broken every rule available for as long as I can remember. When I was a child in the 1950s, I wanted to grow up to be a beatnik. I’ve always felt most comfortable amongst bohemians. My wife once complained (while we were sitting in a muscle car stopped by the highway waiting for the cop to give me a speeding ticket) about my “always living on the edge.” And, yes, I’ve been thrown out of more than one bar.

On the other hand, I’ve lived a long and eventful life. Most of the items on my bucket list were checked off long ago.

So, when I ran across an ad in The Wall Street Journal for Gino’s book, I had to snag a copy and read it.

As I expected, the book’s theme is best summed up by a line from the blurb on its dust jacket: “ … the most successful among us break the rules.”

The book description goes on to say, “Rebels have a bad reputation. We think of them as trouble-makers. outcasts, contrarians: those colleagues, friends, and family members who complicate seemingly straight-forward decisions, create chaos, and disagree when everyone else is in agreement. But in truth, rebels are also those among us who change the world for the better with their unconventional outlooks. Instead of clinging to what is safe and familiar, and falling back on routines and tradition, rebels defy the status quo. They are masters of innovation and reinvention, and they have a lot to teach us.”

Considering the third paragraph above, I hope she’s right!

The 283-page (including notes and index) volume summarizes Gino’s decade-long study of rebels at organizations around the world, from high-end boutiques in Italy’s fashion capital (Milan), to the world’s best restaurant (Three-Michelin-star-rated Osteria Francescana), to a thriving fast-food chain (Pal’s), and an award-winning computer animation studio (Pixar).

Francesca Gino is a behavioral scientist and professor at Harvard Business School. She is the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration in the school’s Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit. No slouch professionally, she has been honored as one of the world’s top 40 business professors under 40 by Poets & Quants and one of the world’s 50 most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50.

Enough with the “In Praise Of” stuff, though. Let’s look inside the book. It’s divided into eight chapters, starting with “Napoleon and the Hoodie: The Paradox of Rebel Status,” and ending with “Blackbeard, ‘Flatness,’ and the 8 Principles of Rebel Leadership.” Gino then adds a “Conclusion” telling the story of Risotto Cacio e Pepe (a rice-in-Parmigiano-Reggiano dish invented by Chef Massimo Bottura), and an “Epilogue: Rebel Action” giving advice on releasing your inner rebel.

Stylistically, the narrative uses the classic “Harvard Case Study” approach. That is, it’s basically a pile of stories, each of which makes a point about how rebel leaders Gino has known approach their work. In summary, the take-home lesson is that those leaders encourage their employees to unleash their “inner rebel,” thereby unlocking creativity, enthusiasm, and productivity that more traditional management styles suppress.

The downside of this style is that it sometimes is difficult for the reader to get their brain around the points that Gino is making. Luckily, her narrative style is interesting, easy to follow and compelling. Like all well-written prose she keeps the reader wondering “What happens next?” The episodes she presents are invariably unusual and interesting themselves. She regularly brings in her own exploits and keeps, as much as possible, to first-person active voice.

That is unusual for academic writers, who find it all too easy to slip into a pedantic third-person, passive-voice best reserved for works intended as sleep aids.

To give you a feel for what reading an HCS-style volume is like, I’ll describe what it’s like to study Quantum Dynamics. While the differences outnumber the similarities, the overall “feel” is similar.

The first impression students get of QD is that the subject is entirely anti-intuitive. That is, before you can learn anything about QD, you have to discard any lingering intuition about how the Universe works. That’s probably easier for someone who never learned Classical Physics in the first place. Ideas like “you can’t be in two places at the same time” simply do not apply in the quantum world.

Basically, to learn QD, you have to start with a generous dose of “willing suspension of disbelief.” You do that by studying stories about experiments performed in the late nineteenth century that simply didn’t work. At that time, the best minds in Physics spent careers banging their heads into walls as Mommy Nature refused to return results that Classical Physics imagined she had to. Things like the Michelson-Moreley experiment (and many other then-state-of-the-art experiments) gave results at odds with Classical Physics. There were enough of these screwy results that physicists began to doubt that what they believed to be true, was actually how the Universe worked. After listening to enough of these stories, you begins to doubt your own intuition.

Then, you learn to trust the mathematics that will be your only guide in QD Wonderland.

Finally, you spend a couple of years learning about a new set of ideas based on Through the Looking Glass concepts that stand normal intuition on its head. Piling up stories about all these counter-intuitive ideas helps you build up a new intuition about what happens in the quantum world. About that time, you start feeling confident that this new intuition helps you predict what will happen next.

The HCS style of learning does something similar, although usually not as extreme. Reading story after story about what hasn’t and what has worked for others in the business world, you begin to develop an intuition for applying the new ideas. You gain confidence that, in any given situation, you can predict what happens next.

What happens next is that when you apply the methods Gino advocates, you start building a more diverse corporate culture that attracts and retains the kinds of folks that make your company a leader in its field.

There’s an old one-line joke:

I want to be different – like everybody else.”

We can’t all be different because then there wouldn’t be any sameness to be different from, but we can all be rebels. We can all follow the

  1. READY!
  2. AIM!
  3. FIRE!

mantra advocated by firearms instructors everywhere.

In other words:

  1. Observe what’s going on out there in the world, then
  2. Think about what you might do that breaks the established rules, and, finally,
  3. Act in a way that makes the Universe a better place in which to live.

What is This “Robot” Thing, Anyway?

Robot thinking
So, what is it that makes a robot a robot? Phonlamai Photo/Shutterstock

6 March 2019 – While surfing the Internet this morning, in a valiant effort to put off actually getting down to business grading that pile of lab reports that I should have graded a couple of days ago, I ran across this posting I wrote in 2013 for Packaging Digest.

Surprisingly, it still seems relevant today, and on a subject that I haven’t treated in this blog, yet. It being that I’m planning to devote most of next week to preparing my 2018 tax return, I decided to save some writing time by dusting it off and presenting it as this week’s posting to Tech Trends. I hope the folks at Packaging Digest won’t get their noses too far out of joint about my encroaching on their five-year-old copyright without asking permission.

By the way, this piece is way shorter than the usual Tech Trends essay because of the specifications for that Packaging Digest blog, which was entitled “New Metropolis” in homage to Fritz Lang’s 1927 feature film entitled Metropolis, which told the story of a futuristic mechanized culture and an anthropomorphic robot that a mad scientist creates to bring it down. The “New Metropolis” postings were specified to be approximately 500 words long, whereas Tech Trends postings are planned to be 1,000-1,500 words long.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little slice of recent history.


11 November 2013 – I thought it might be fun—and maybe even useful—to catalog the classifications of these things we call robots.

Lets start with the word robot. The idea behind the word robot grows from the ancient concept of the golem. A golem was an artificial person created by people.

Frankly, the idea of a golem scared the bejeezus out of the ancients because the golem stands at the interface between living and non-living things. In our enlightened age, it still scares the bejeezus out of people!

If we restricted the field to golems—strictly humanoid robots, or androids—we wouldnt have a lot to talk about, and practically nothing to do. The things havent proved particularly useful. So, I submit that we should expand the robot definition to include all kinds of human-made artificial critters.

This has, of course, already been done by everyone working in the field. The SCARA (selective compliance assembly robot arm) machines from companies like Kuka, and the delta robots from Adept Technologies clearly insist on this expanded definition. Mobile robots, such as the Roomba from iRobot push the boundary in another direction. Weird little things like the robotic insects and worms so popular with academics these days push in a third direction.

Considering the foregoing, the first observation is that the line between robot and non-robot is fuzzy. The old 50s-era dumb thermostats probably shouldnt be considered robots, but a smart, computer-controlled house moving in the direction of the Jarvis character in the Ironman series probably should. Things in between are – in between. Lets bite the bullet and admit were dealing with fuzzy-logic categories, and then move on.

Okay, so what are the main characteristics symptomatic of this fuzzy category robot?

First, its gotta be artificial. A cloned sheep is not a robot. Even designer germs are non-robots.
Second, its gotta be automated. A fly-by-wire fighter jet is not a robot. A drone linked at the hip to a human pilot is not a robot. A driverless car, on the other hand, is a robot. (Either that, or its a traffic accident waiting to happen.)

Third, its gotta interact with the environment. A general-purpose computer sitting there thinking computer-like thoughts is not a robot. A SCARA unit assembling a car is. I submit that an automated bill-paying system arguing through the telephone with my wife over how much to take out of her checkbook this month is a robot.

More problematic is a fourth direction—embedded systems, like automated houses—that beg to be admitted into the robotic fold. I vote for letting them in, along with artificial intelligence (AI) systems, like the robot bill paying systems my wife is so fond of arguing with.

Finally (maybe), its gotta be independent. To be a robot, the thing has to take basic instruction from a human, then go off on its onesies to do the deed. Ideally, you should be able to do something like say, Go wash the car, and itll run off as fast as its little robotic legs can carry it to wash the car. More chronistically, you should be able to program it to vacuum the living room at 4:00 a.m., then be able to wake up at 6:00 a.m. to a freshly vacuumed living room.

Socialist Mythos

Pegasus
Like the mythical Pegasus, socialism is a beautiful idea beloved of children that cannot be realized in practice. Catmando/Shutterstock

27 February 2019 – Some ideas are just so beautiful that we try to hang on to them even after failure after failure shows them to be unrealizable. Especially for the naive, these ideas hold such fascination that they persist long after cooler inspection consigns them to the dust bin of fantasy. This essay looks at two such ideas that display features in common: the ancient Greek myth of the flying horse, Pegasus, and the modern myth of the socialist state.

Pegasus

The ancient myth of the flying horse Pegasus is an obvious example. There’s no physical reason for such a creature to be impossible. Actual horses are built far too robustly to take to the air on their own power, but a delicately built version of Equus ferus fitted with properly functioning wings could certainly be able to fly.

That’s not the objection. Certainly, other robust land animals have developed flying forms. Birds, of course, developed from what our ancestors believed to be great lumbering theropod dinosaurs. Bats belong to the same mammalian class as horses, and they fly very well, indeed.

The objection to the existence of Pegasus-like creatures comes from evolutionary history. Specifically, the history of land-based vertebrates.

You see, all land-based vertebrates on Earth evolved from a limited number of ray-finned fish species. In fact, the number of fish species contributing DNA to land-vertebrate animals is likely limited to one.

All land vertebrates have exactly the same basic body form – with modifications – that developed from features common to ray-finned fishes. Basically, they have:

  • One spine that extends into a tail,
  • One head appended to the forward (opposite the tail) end of the spine,
  • Two front appendages that developed from the fish’s pectoral fins, and
  • Two rear appendages that developed from the fish’s pelvic fins.

Not all land-based vertebrates have all these features. Some originally extant features (like the human tail and cetacean rear legs) atrophied nearly to non-existence. But, the listed features are the only ones land-based vertebrates have ever had. Of course, I’m also including such creatures as birds and dolphins that developed from land-based critters as they moved on to other habitats or back to the sea.

The reason I suggest that all land vertebrates likely hail from one fish species is that no land vertebrates have ever had anal, caudal or adipose appendages, thus we all seem to have developed from some fish species that lacked these fins.

“Aha!” you say, “cetaceans like dolphins and whales have tail fins!”

“Nope,” I rebut. “Notice that cetacean tail flukes are fleshy appendages extending horizontally from the tip of the animals’ tails, not bony appendages oriented vertically like a fish’s caudal fins.”

They developed independently and have similar shapes because of convergent evolution.

Okay, so we’ve discovered what’s wrong with Pegasus that is not wrong with bats, pterodactyls, and birds. All the real land-based vertebrate forms have four limbs, whereas the fanciful Pegasus has six (four legs and two wings). Six-limbed Pegasus can’t exist because there aren’t any similar prior forms for it to have evolved from.

So, Pegasus is a beautiful idea that simply can’t be existent on Earth.

Well, you could have some sort of flying-horse-like creature that evolved on some other planet, then caught a convenient flying saucer to pop over to Earth, but they wouldn’t be native, and likely wouldn’t look at all earthlike.

Socialist State

So, what has all this got to do with socialism?

Well, as I’ve intimated, both are beautiful ideas that people are pretty fond of. Notwithstanding its popularity, Pegasus is not possible (as a native Earth creature) for a very good reason. Socialism is also a beautiful idea that people (at least great swaths of the population) are pretty fond of. Socialism is, however, also not possible as a stable form of society for a very good reason.

The reason socialism is not possible as a stable form of society goes back to our old friend, the Tragedy of the Commons. If you aren’t intimately familiar with this concept, follow the link to a well-written article by Margaret E. Banyan, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Southwest Florida Center for Public and Social Policy at Florida Gulf Coast University, which explains the Tragedy, its origins, and ways that have been proposed to ameliorate its effects.

Anyway, economist Milton Friedman summarized the Tragedy of the Commons with the phrase: “When everybody owns something, nobody owns it … .”

The Tragedy of the Commons speaks directly to why true socialism is impossible, or at least not tenable as a stable, permanent system. Let’s start with what the word “socialism” actually means. According to Merriam-Webster, socialism is:

any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”

Other dictionaries largely agree, so we’ll work with this definition.

So, you can see where the Tragedy of the Commons connects to socialism. The beautiful idea relates to the word “collective.”

We know that human beings evolved as territorial animals, but we’d like to imagine a utopia where we’ve gotten past this primitive urge. Without territoriality, one could imagine a world where conflict would cease to exist. Folks would just get along because nobody’d say “Hey, that’s mine. Keep your mitts off!”

The problem with such a world is the Tragedy of the Commons as described by Friedman: if everybody owns the means of production, then nobody owns it.

There are two potential outcomes

  • Scenario 1 is the utter destruction of whatever resource is held in common as described at the start of Banyan’s essay.
  • Scenario 2 is what happened to the first recorded experiment with democracy in ancient Athens: somebody steps up to the plate and takes over management of the resource for everybody. For Athens it was a series of dictator kings ending with Alexander the Great. In effect, to save the resource from destruction, some individual moves in to “own” it.

In scenario 1, the resource is destroyed along with the socialist society that collectively owns it.Everyone either starves or leaves. Result: no more socialism.

In scenario 2, the resource is saved by being claimed by some individual. That individual sets up rules for how to apportion use of the resource, which is, in effect, no longer collectively owned. Result: dictatorship and, no more socialism.

Generally, all socialist states eventually degenerate into dictatorships via scenario 2. They invariably keep the designation “socialist,” but their governments are de facto authoritarian, not socialist. This is why I say socialism is a beautiful idea that is, in the long term, impossible. Socialist states can be created, but they very quickly come under authoritarian rule.

The Democracy Option

The Merriam-Webster definition admits of one more scenario, and that’s what we use in democratically governed nations, which are generally not considered socialist states: government ownership of some (but not all) resources.

If we have a democracy, there are all kinds of great things we can have governmentally owned, but not collectively owned. Things that everybody needs and everybody uses and everybody has to share, like roads, airspace, forests, electricity grids, and national parks. These are prime candidates for government ownership.

Things like wives, husbands, houses, and bicycles (note there’s been a big bicycle-sharing SNAFU recently reported in China) have historically been shown best to not be shared!

So, in a democracy, lots of stuff can be owned by the government, rather than by individuals or “everybody.”

A prime example is airspace. I don’t mean the air itself. I mean airspace! That is the space in the air over anyplace in the United States, or virtually the entire world. One might think it’s owned by everybody, but that just ain’t so.

You just try floating off at over 500 feet above ground level (AGL) in any type of aircraft and see where it gets you. Ya just can’t do it legally. You have to get permission from the Federal Government (in the form of a pilot’s license), which involves a great whacking pile of training, examinations, and even background checks. That’s because everybody does NOT own airspace above 500 feet AGL (and great, whacking swaths of the stuff lower down, too), the government does. You, personally, individually or collectively, don’t own a bit of it and have no rights to even be there without permission from its real owner, the Federal Government.

Another one is the Interstate Highway System. Try walking down Interstate 75 in, say, Florida. Assuming you survive long enough without getting punted off the roadway by a passing Chevy, you’ll soon find yourself explaining what the heck you think you’re doing to the nearest representative (spelled C-O-P) of whatever division of government takes ownership of that particular stretch of roadway. Unless you’ve got a really good excuse (e.g., “I gotta pee real bad!”) they’ll immediately escort you off the premises via the nearest exit ramp.

Ultimately, the only viable model of socialism is a limited one that combines individual ownership of some resources that are not shared, with government ownership of other resources that are shared. Democracy provides a mechanism for determining which is what.

Binary Thinking

binary thinking image
Binary thinking leads to artificial dichotomies and lack of cooperation. vs148/Shutterstock

13 February 2019 – Most mentally adult human beings recognize that binary thinking seldom proves useful in real-world situations. Our institutions, however, seem to be set up to promote binary thinking. And, that accounts for most of today’s societal dysfunction.

Lets start with what binary thinking really is. We’ve all heard disparaging remarks about “seeing things in black and white.” Simplistic thinking tends to categorize things into two starkly divided categories: good vs. evil, left vs. right, and, of course, dark vs. light. That latter category gives rise to the “black and white” metaphor.

“Binary thinking” refers to this simplistic strategy of dividing whatever we’re thinking about into two (hence the word “binary”) categories.

In many situations, binary thinking makes sense. For example, in team sports it makes sense to divide outcomes of contests into Team 1 wins and Team 2 loses.

Ultimately, every decision process degenerates into a selection between two choices. We do one and not the other. Even with multiple choices, we make the ultimate decision to pick one of the options to win after relegating all the others into the “loser” category.

If you think about it, however, those are always (or almost always) artificial situations. Mommy Nature seldom presents us with clear options. You aren’t presented with a clear choice between painting your house red or blue. House paint comes in a wide variety of hues that are blends of five primary colors: red, blue, yellow, black and white.

Even people aren’t really strictly divided into men and women. It’s a multidimensional mix of male-associated and female-associated traits that each blend from one extreme to another. The strict division into male and female is a dichotomy that we, as a society, impose on the world. Even existence or absence of a penis is a situation where there are numerous examples of intermediate forms.

The fact that we see binary choices everywhere is a fiction we impose on the Universe for our own convenience. That is, it’s easier and often more satisfying to create artificial dichotomies just so we don’t have to think about the middle.

But, the middle is where most of what goes on happens.

More than once I’ve depicted the expected distribution of folks holding views along the conservative/liberal spectrum by an image like that below, with those holding conservative views in red on the right and those with liberal views in blue to the left. That’s what I mean by my oft-repeated metaphor of the Red Team and Blue Team. It’s an extreme example of what statisticians call a “bimodal distribution.” That is a graph of numbers of examples plotted along a vertical axis with some linearly varying characteristic on a one-dimensional horizontal axis, that has two peaks.

Gaussian and bimodal distributions
Expected continuous spectral distribution of folks holding conservative vs. liberal views contrasted with the bimodal distribution imagined according to how the two main political parties behave.

The actual distribution we should expect from basic statistics is a single-mode distribution with a broad peak in the middle.

The two main political parties, however, act as if they imagine the distribution of political views to be bimodal, with one narrow peak ‘way over on the (liberal) left, and another narrow peak ‘way over on the (conservative) right. That picture leads to a binary view where you (the voter) are expected to be either on the left or the right.

With that view, campaigning becomes a two-team contest where the Democratic Party (Blue Team) hopes to attract voters over to their liberal view, making the blue peak larger than the red peak. The Republican Party, in turn, hopes to attract voters to their conservative agenda, making the red peak larger than the blue one.

What voters want, of course, is for the politicians to reflect the preferences they actually have. Since voters’ views can be expected to have a standard distribution with one (admittedly quite broad) peak more or less centered in the middle, Congress should be made up of folks with views falling in a broad peak more-or-less centered in the middle, with the vast majority advocating a moderate agenda. That would work out well because with that kind of distribution, compromise would be relatively easy to come by and laws would be passed that most people could find palatable, things would get done, and so forth.

Why don’t we have a situation like that? Why do we have this epidemic of binary thinking?

I believe that the answer comes from the two major parties becoming mesmerized in the 1980s by the principles of Marketing 101. The first thing they teach you in Marketing 101 is how to segment your customers. Translated into the one-dimensional left/right view so common in political thinking, that leads to imagining the bimodal distribution I’ve presented.

The actual information space characterizing voter preferences, however, is multidimensional. It’s not one single characteristic that can be represented on a one-dimensional spectrum. Every issue that comes up in political discourse represents a separate dimension, and any voter’s views appear as a point floating somewhere in that multidimensional space.

Nobody talks about this multidimensional space because it’s too complicated a picture to present in the evening news. Most political reporters don’t have the mathematical background to imagine it, let alone explain it. They’re lucky to get the basic one-dimensional spectrum picture across.

The second thing they teach you in Marketing 101 is product differentiation. Once you’ve got your customer base segmented, you pick a segment with the biggest population group, and say things to convince individuals in that group that your product (in this case, your candidate) matches the characteristics desired by that group, while the competition’s characteristics don’t.

If you think your chosen segment likes candidates wearing red T-shirts, you dress your candidate in a red T-shirt and point out that the competitor wears blue. In fact, you say things aimed at convincing voters that candidates wearing red T-shirts are somehow better (more likeable) than those awful bums wearing those ugly, nasty blue T-shirts. That way you try to attract voters to the imaginary red peak from the imaginary blue peak. If you’re successful, you win the election.

Of course, since voters actually expect your candidate to run the government after the election, what color T-shirt he or she wears is then immaterial. Since they were elected based on the color of their T-shirt, however, you end up with a legislature sitting around cheering for “Red!” or “Blue!” when voters want them to pass purple legislation.

An example of rabid binary thinking is the recent Democratic Party decision to have “zero tolerance” on race and gender issues. That thinking assumes that the blue peak on the left is filled with saintly heaven-bound creatures devoted to women’s and minorities’ rights, while the red peak on the right is full of mysogynistic racist bullies, and that there’s nobody in the middle.

That’s what “zero tolerance” means.

Liberals tried a similar stunt in the 1980s with “Political Correctness.” That fiasco worked for approximately zero time. It worked only until people realized that hardly anyone agreed with everything the PC folks liked. Since it was a binary choice – you were either politically correct or not – most folks opted for “not.” Very soon the jokes started, then folks started voting anti-PC.

What started out as a ploy by the left to bully everyone into joining their political base had the opposite effect. Most Americans don’t react well to bullying. They tend to turn on the bullies.

Instead of a cadre of Americans cowed into spouting politically correct rhetoric, we got a generation proudly claiming politically incorrect views.

You don’t hear much about political correctness, any more.

It’s quickly becoming clear that the binary thinking of the “zero tolerance” agenda will, like the PC cultural revolution, quickly lead to a “zero support” result.

Perhaps the Democratic Party should go back to school and learn Marketing 102. The first thing they teach you in Marketing 102 is “the customer is always right.”

Americans are Ready for the Libertarian Party

Nick Sarwak Photo
Nicholas Sarwark is the Chairman of the Libertarian National Committee. Photo Courtesy Libertarian National Committee

13 February 2019 – The following is an invited guest post by Nicholas Sarwark, Chairman of the Libertarian National Committee

Republicans and Democrats often have a stranglehold on the U.S. political process, but Americans are ready for that to change.

According to a Morning Consult–Politico poll conducted in early February, more than half of all voters in the United States believe a third party is needed, and one third of all voters would be willing to vote for a third-party candidate in the 2020 presidential election. A Gallup poll from October showed that 57 percent of Americans think a strong third party is needed.

It’s no wonder why. Another Gallup poll from January revealed that only 35 percent of Americans trust the U.S. government to handle domestic problems, a number that increases to only 41 percent for international troubles. Those are the lowest figures in more than 20 years. A running Gallup poll showed that in January, 29 percent of Americans view government itself as the biggest problem facing the country.

This widespread dissatisfaction with U.S. government is consistent with the increasing prevalence of libertarian views among the general public. Polling shows that more than a quarter of Americans have political views that can be characterized as libertarian.

All of this suggests that the Libertarian Party should be winning more and bigger electoral races than ever. In fact, that’s exactly what’s happening. Out of the 833 Libertarian candidates who ran in 2018, 55 were elected to public office in 11 states.

One of those officials elected is Jeff Hewitt, who in November won a seat on the board of supervisors in Riverside County, Calif. while finishing up eight years on the Calimesa city council—three as mayor. Before being elected to the city council, he had served six years on the city’s planning commission. Hewitt recently gave the Libertarian Party’s 2019 State of the Union address, explaining how Libertarians would restrain runaway government spending, withdraw from never-ending wars abroad, end the surveillance state, protect privacy and property rights, end mass incarceration and the destructive “war on drugs,” and welcome immigrants who expand our economy and enrich our culture.

Journalist Gustavo Arellano attended Hewitt’s swearing-in ceremony on January 8. In his feature story for the Los Angeles Times, he remarked, “Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Hewitt just might be the strangest Libertarian of them all: a politician capable of winning elections who could move the party from the fringes into the mainstream.”

During Hewitt’s time as mayor of Calimesa, he severed ties with the bloated pensions and overstaffing of the state-run fire department. He replaced it with a local alternative that costs far less and has been much more effective at protecting endangered property. This simple change also eliminated two layers of administrative costs at the county and state levels.

Now Hewitt is poised to bring libertarian solutions to an even larger region, in his new position with Riverside County, which has more residents than the populations of 15 different states. This rise from local success is a model that can be replicated around the country, suggested Fullerton College political science professor Jodi Balma, quoted in the L.A. Times article as saying that Hewitt’s success shows how Libertarian candidates can “build a pipeline to higher office” with successful local races that show the practical value of Libertarian Party ideas on a small scale, then parlaying those experiences into winning state and federal office.

That practical value is immense, as Libertarian Laura Ebke showed when, as a Nebraska state legislator, she almost single-handedly brought statewide occupational-licensure reform to nearly unanimous 45-to-1, tri-partisan approval. This legislation has cleared the way for countless Nebraskans to build careers in fields that were once closed off from effective competition behind mountains of regulatory red tape.

The American people have the third party they’re looking for. The Libertarian Party is already the third-largest political party in the United States, and it shares the public’s values of fiscal responsibility and social tolerance — the same values that drive the public’s disdain for American politicians and wasteful, destructive, ineffective government programs.

The Libertarian Party is also the only alternative party that routinely appears on ballots in every state.

As of December 17 we had secured ballot access for our 2020 Presidential ticket in 33 states and the District of Columbia — the best starting position since 1914 for any alternative party at this point in the election cycle. This will substantially reduce the burden for achieving nationwide ballot access that we have so often borne. After the 1992 midterm election, for example, we had ballot access in only 17 states — half as many as today. Full ballot access for the Libertarian Party means that voters of every state will have more choice.

The climate is ripe for Libertarian progress. The pieces are all here, ready to be assembled. All it requires is building awareness of the Libertarian Party — our ideas, our values, our practical reforms, and our electoral successes — in the minds and hearts of the American public.

Nicholas Sarwark is serving his third term as chair of the Libertarian National Committee, having first been elected in 2014. Prior to that, he has served as chair of the Libertarian Party of Maryland and as vice chair of the Libertarian Party of Colorado, where he played a key role in recruiting the state’s 42 Libertarian candidates in 2014 and supported the passage of Colorado’s historic marijuana legalization initiative in 2012. In 2018, he ran for mayor of Phoenix, Ariz.

Luddites RULE!

LindaBucklin-Shutterstock
Momma said there’d be days like this! (Apologies to songwriters Luther Dixon and Willie Denson, and, of course, the Geico Caveman.) Linda Bucklin/Shutterstock

7 February 2019 – This is not the essay I’d planned to write for this week’s blog. I’d planned a long-winded, abstruse dissertation on the use of principal component analysis to glean information from historical data in chaotic systems. I actually got most of that one drafted on Monday, and planned to finish it up Tuesday.

Then, bright and early on Tuesday morning, before I got anywhere near the incomplete manuscript, I ran headlong into an email issue.

Generally, I start my morning by scanning email to winnow out the few valuable bits buried in the steaming pile of worthless refuse that has accumulated in my Inbox since the last time I visited it. Then, I visit a couple of social media sites in an effort to keep my name if front of the Internet-entertained public. After a couple of hours of this colossal waste of time, I settle in to work on whatever actual work I have to do for the day.

So, finding that my email client software refused to communicate with me threatened to derail my whole day. The fact that I use email for all my business communications, made it especially urgent that I determine what was wrong, and then fix it.

It took the entire morning and on into the early afternoon to realize that there was no way I was going to get to that email account on my computer, find out that nobody in the outside world (not my ISP, not the cable company that went that extra mile to bring Internet signals from that telephone pole out there to the router at the center of my local area network, or anyone else available with more technosavvy than I have) was going to be able to help. I was finally forced to invent a work around involving a legacy computer that I’d neglected to throw in the trash just to get on with my technology-bound life.

At that point the Law of Deadlines forced me to abandon all hope of getting this week’s blog posting out on time, and move on to completing final edits and distribution of that press release for the local art gallery.

That wasn’t the last time modern technology let me down. In discussing a recent Physics Lab SNAFU, Danielle, the laboratory coordinator I work with at the University said: “It’s wonderful when it works, but horrible when it doesn’t.”

Where have I heard that before?

The SNAFU Danielle was lamenting happened last week.

I teach two sections of General Physics Laboratory at Florida Gulf Coast University, one on Wednesdays and one on Fridays. The lab for last week had students dropping a ball, then measuring its acceleration using a computer-controlled ultrasonic detection system as it (the ball, not the computer) bounces on the table.

For the Wednesday class everything worked perfectly. Half a dozen teams each had their own setups, and all got good data, beautiful-looking plots, and automated measurements of position and velocity. The computers then automatically derived accelerations from the velocity data. Only one team had trouble with their computer, but they got good data by switching to an unused setup nearby.

That was Wednesday.

Come Friday the situation was totally different. Out of four teams, only two managed to get data that looked even remotely like it should. Then, one team couldn’t get their computer to spit out accelerations that made any sense at all. Eventually, after class time ran out, the one group who managed to get good results agreed to share their information with the rest of the class.

The high point of the day was managing to distribute that data to everyone via the school’s cloud-based messaging service.

Concerned about another fiasco, after this week’s lab Danielle asked me how it worked out. I replied that, since the equipment we use for this week’s lab is all manually operated, there were no problems whatsoever. “Humans are much more capable than computers,” I said. “They’re able to cope with disruptions that computers have no hope of dealing with.”

The latest example of technology Hell appeared in a story in this morning’s (2/7/2019) Wall Street Journal. Some $136 million of customers’ cryptocurrency holdings became stuck in an electronic vault when the founder (and sole employee) of cryptocurrency exchange QuadrigaCX, Gerald Cotten, died of complications related to Crohn’s disease while building an orphanage in India. The problem is that Cotten was so secretive about passwords and security that nobody, even his wife, Jennifer Robertson, can get into the reserve account maintained on his laptop.

“Quadriga,” according to the WSJ account, “would need control of that account to send those funds to customers.”

No lie! The WSJ attests this bizarre tale is the God’s own truth!

Now, I’ve no sympathy for cryptocurrency mavens, which I consider to be, at best, technoweenies gleefully leading a parade down the primrose path to technology Hell, but this story illustrates what that Hell looks like!

It’s exactly what the Luddites of the early 19th Century warned us about. It’s a place of nameless frustration and unaccountable loss that we’ve brought on ourselves.

Farsighted Decisions

"Farsighted" book cover
Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson

30 January 2019 – This is not a textbook on decision making.

Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most does cover most of the elements of state-of-the-art decision making, but it’s not a true textbook. If he’d really wanted to write a textbook, its author, Steven Johnson, would have structured it differently, and would have included exercises for the student. Perhaps he would also have done other things differently that I’m not going to enumerate because I don’t want to write a textbook on state-of-the-art decision making, either.

What Johnson apparently wanted to do, and did do successfully, was lay down a set of principles today’s decision makers would do well to follow.

Something he would have left out, if he were writing a textbook, was the impassioned plea for educators to incorporate mandatory decision making courses into secondary-school curricula. I can’t disagree with this sentiment!

A little bit about my background with regard to decision-theory education: ‘Way back in the early 2010s, I taught a course at a technical college entitled “Problem Solving Theory.” Johnson’s book did not exist then, and I wish that it had. The educational materials available at the time fell woefully short. They were, at best, pedantic.

I spent a lot of class time waving my hands and telling stories from my days as a project manager. Unfortunately, the decision-making techniques I learned about in MBA school weren’t of any help at all. Some of the research Johnson weaves into his narrative hadn’t even been done back then!

So, when I heard about Johnson’s new book, I rushed out to snag a copy and devoured it.

As Johnson points out, everybody is a decision maker every day. These decisions run the gamut from snap decisions that people have to make almost instantly, to long-term deliberate choices that reverberate through the rest of their lives. Many, if not most, people face making decisions affecting others, from children to spouses, siblings and friends. Some of us participate in group decision making that can have truly global ramifications.

In John McTiernan’s 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, Admiral Josh Painter points out to CIA analyst Jack Ryan: “Russians don’t take a dump, son, without a plan. Senior captains don’t start something this dangerous without having thought the matter through.”

It’s not just Russians, however, who plan out even minor actions. And, senior captains aren’t the only ones who don’t start things without having thought the matter through. We all do it.

As Johnson points out, it may be the defining characteristic of the human species, which he likes to call Homo prospectus for their ability to apply foresight to advance planning.

The problem, of course, is the alarming rate at which we screw it up. As John F. Kennedy’s failure in the Bay of Pigs invasion shows, even highly intelligent, highly educated and experienced leaders can get it disastrously wrong. Johnson devotes considerable space to enumerating the taxonomy of “things that can go wrong.”

So, decision making isn’t just for leaders, and it’s easier to get it wrong than to do it right.

Enumerating the ways it can all go disastrously wrong, and setting out principles that will help us get it right are the basic objectives Johnson set out for himself when he first decided to write this book. To wit, three goals:

  • Convince readers that it’s important;

  • Warn folks of how easily it can be done wrong; and

  • Give folks a prescription for doing it right.

Pursuant to the third goal, Johnson breaks decision making down into a process involving three steps:

Mapping consists of gathering preliminary information about the state of the Universe before any action has been taken. What do we have to work with? What options do we have to select from? What do we want to accomplish and when?

Predicting consists of prognisticating, for each of the various options available, how the Universe will evolve from now into the foreseeable (and possibly unforeseeable) future. This is probably the most fraught stage of the process. Do we need a Plan B in case of surprises? As Sean Connery’s “Mac” character intones in Jon Amiel’s 1999 crime drama, Entrapment: “Trust me, there always are surprises.”

Deciding is the ultimate finish of the process. It consists of finally choosing between the previously identified alternatives based on the predicted results. What alternative is most likely to give us a result we want to have?

An important technique Johnson recommends basing your decision-making strategy on is narrative. That explicitly means storytelling. Johnson supplies numerous examples from both fiction and non-fiction that help us understand the decision-making process and help us apply it to the problems we face.

He points out that double-blind clinical trials were the single most important technique that advanced medicine from quackery and the witch-doctor’s art to reliable medical science. It allowed trying out various versions of medical interventions in a systematic way and comparing the results. In the same way, he says, fictional storytelling, allows us to mentally “try out” multiple alternative versions of future history.

Through storytelling, we explore various possibilities and imagine how they might turn out, including the vicissitudes of Shakespeare’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” without putting in the time and effort to try them out in reality, and thereby likely suffering “the fuss of mass destruction and death.”

Johnson suggests that’s why humans evolved the desire and capacity to create such fictional narratives in the first place. “When we read these novels,” he says, “ … we are not just entertaining ourselves; we are also rehearsing for our own real-world experiences.”

Of course, while “deciding” is the ultimate act of Johnson’s process, it’s never the end of the story in real life. What to do when it all goes disastrously wrong is always an important consideration. Johnson actually covers that as an important part of the “predicting” step. That’s when you should develop Mac’s “Plan B pack” and figure out when to trigger it if necessary.

Another important consideration, which I covered extensively in my problem solving course and Johnson starts looking at ‘way back in “mapping” is how to live with the aftermath of your decision, whether it’s a resounding success or a disastrous failure. Either way, the Universe is changed forever by your decision, and you and everyone else will have to live in it.

So, your ultimate goal should be deciding how to make the Universe a better place in which to live!

Why Diversity Rules

Diverse friends
A diverse group of people with different ages and nationalities having fun together. Rawpixel/Shutterstock

23 January 2019 – Last week two concepts reared their ugly heads that I’ve been banging on about for years. They’re closely intertwined, so it’s worthwhile to spend a little blog space discussing why they fit so tightly together.

Diversity is Good

The first idea is that diversity is good. It’s good in almost every human pursuit. I’m particularly sensitive to this, being someone who grew up with the idea that rugged individualism was the highest ideal.

Diversity, of course, is incompatible with individualism. Individualism is the cult of the one. “One” cannot logically be diverse. Diversity is a property of groups, and groups by definition consist of more than one.

Okay, set theory admits of groups with one or even no members, but those groups have a diversity “score” (Gini–Simpson index) of zero. To have any diversity at all, your group has to have at absolute minimum two members. The more the merrier (or diversitier).

The idea that diversity is good came up in a couple of contexts over the past week.

First, I’m reading a book entitled Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson, which I plan eventually to review in this blog. Part of the advice Johnson offers is that groups make better decisions when their membership is diverse. How they are diverse is less important than the extent to which they are diverse. In other words, this is a case where quantity is more important than quality.

Second, I divided my physics-lab students into groups to perform their first experiment. We break students into groups to prepare them for working in teams after graduation. Unlike when I was a student fifty years ago, activity in scientific research and technology development is always done in teams.

When I was a student, research was (supposedly) done by individuals working largely in isolation. I believe it was Willard Gibbs (I have no reliable reference for this quote) who said: “An experimental physicist must be a professional scientist and an amateur everything else.”

By this he meant that building a successful physics experiment requires the experimenter to apply so many diverse skills that it is impossible to have professional mastery of all of them. He (or she) must have an amateur’s ability pick up novel skills in order to reach the next goal in their research. They must be ready to work outside their normal comfort zone.

That asked a lot from an experimental researcher! Individuals who could do that were few and far between.

Today, the fast pace of technological development has reduced that pool of qualified individuals essentially to zero. It certainly is too small to maintain the pace society expects of the engineering and scientific communities.

Tolkien’s “unimaginable hand and mind of Feanor” puttering around alone in his personal workshop crafting magical things is unimaginable today. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus character, who had mastered all earthly knowledge, is now laughable. No one person is capable of making a major contribution to today’s technology on their own.

The solution is to perform the work of technological research and development in teams with diverse skill sets.

In the sciences, theoreticians with strong mathematical backgrounds partner with engineers capable of designing machines to test the theories, and technicians with the skills needed to fabricate the machines and make them work.

Chaotic Universe

The second idea I want to deal with in this essay is that we live in a chaotic Universe.

Chaos is a property of complex systems. These are systems consisting of many interacting moving parts that show predictable behavior on short time scales, but eventually foil the most diligent attempts at long-term prognostication.

A pendulum, by contrast, is a simple system consisting of, basically, three moving parts: a massive weight, or “pendulum bob,” that hangs by a rod or string (the arm) from a fixed support. Simple systems usually do not exhibit chaotic behavior.

The solar system, consisting of a huge, massive star (the Sun), eight major planets and a host of minor planets, is decidedly not a simple system. Its behavior is borderline chaotic. I say “borderline” because the solar system seems well behaved on short time scales (e.g., millennia), but when viewed on time scales of millions of years does all sorts of unpredictable things.

For example, approximately four and a half billion years ago (a few tens of millions of years after the system’s initial formation) a Mars-sized planet collided with Earth, spalling off a mass of material that coalesced to form the Moon, then ricochetted out of the solar system. That’s the sort of unpredictable event that happens in a chaotic system if you wait long enough.

The U.S. economy, consisting of millions of interacting individuals and companies, is wildly chaotic, which is why no investment strategy has ever been found to work reliably over a long time.

Putting It Together

The way these two ideas (diversity is good, and we live in a chaotic Universe) work together is that collaborating in diverse groups is the only way to successfully navigate life in a chaotic Universe.

An individual human being is so powerless that attempting anything but the smallest task is beyond his or her capacity. The only way to do anything of significance is to collaborate with others in a diverse team.

In the late 1980s my wife and I decided to build a house. To begin with, we had to decide where to build the house. That required weeks of collaboration (by our little team of two) to combine our experiences of different communities in the area where we were living, develop scenarios of what life might be like living in each community, and finally agree on which we might like the best. Then we had to find an architect to work with our growing team to design the building. Then we had to negotiate with banks for construction loans, bridge loans, and ultimate mortgage financing. Our architect recommended adding a prime contractor who had connections with carpenters, plumbers, electricians and so forth to actually complete the work. The better part of a year later, we had our dream house.

There’s no way I could have managed even that little project – building one house – entirely on my own!

In 2015, I ran across the opportunity to produce a short film for a film festival. I knew how to write a script, run a video camera, sew a costume, act a part, do the editing, and so forth. In short, I had all the skills needed to make that 30-minute film.

Did that mean I could make it all by my onesies? Nope! By the time the thing was completed, the list of cast and crew counted over a dozen people, each with their own job in the production.

By now, I think I’ve made my point. The take-home lesson of this essay is that if you want to accomplish anything in this chaotic Universe, start by assembling a diverse team, and the more diverse, the better!

Nationalism and Diversity

Flags of many countries
Nationalism can promote diversity – or not! Brillenstimmer/shutterstock

16 January 2019 – The poster child for rampant nationalism is Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party, commonly called the Nazi Party. I say “is” rather than “was” because, while resoundingly defeated by Allies of WW2 in 1945, the Nazi Party still has widespread appeal in Germany, and throughout the world.

These folks give nationalism a bad name, leading to the Oxford Living Dictionary, giving primacy to the following definition of nationalism: “Identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” [Emphasis added.]

The Oxford Dictionary also offers a second definition of nationalism: “Advocacy of or support for the political independence of a particular nation or people.”

This second definition is a lot more benign, and one that I wish were more often used. I certainly prefer it!

Nationalism under the first definition has been used since time immemorial as an excuse to create closed, homogeneous societies. That was probably the biggest flaw of the Nazi state(s). Death camps, ethnic cleansing, slave labor, and most of the other evils of those regimes flowed directly from their attempts to build closed, homogeneous societies.

Under the second definition, however, nationalism can, and should, be used to create a more diverse society.

That’s a good thing, as the example of United States history clearly demonstrates. Most of U.S. success can be traced directly to the country’s ethnic, cultural and racial diversity. The fact that the U.S., with a paltry 5% of the world’s population, now has by far the largest economy; that it dominates the fields of science, technology and the humanities; that its common language (American English) is fast becoming the “lingua franca” of the entire world; and that it effectively leads the world by so many measures is directly attributed to the continual renewal of its population diversity by immigration. In any of these areas, it’s easy to point out major contributions from recent immigrants or other minorities.

This harkens back to a theory of cultural development I worked out in the 1970s. It starts with the observation that all human populations – no matter how large or how small – consist of individuals whose characteristics vary somewhat. When visualized on a multidimensional scatter plot, populations generally consist of a cluster with a dense center and fewer individuals farther out.

Globular cluster image
The Great Hercules Star Cluster.. Albert Barr/Shutterstock

This pattern is similar to the image of a typical globular star cluster in the photo at right. Globular star clusters exhibit this pattern in three dimensions, while human populations exist and can be mapped on a great many dimensions representing different characteristics. Everything from physical characteristics like height, weight and skin color, to non-physical characteristics like ethnicity and political ideology – essentially anything that can be measured – can be plotted as a separate dimension.

The dense center of the pattern consists of individuals whose characteristics don’t stray too far from the norm. Everyone, of course, is a little off average. For example, the average white American female is five-feet, four-inches tall. Nearly everyone in that population, however, is a little taller or shorter than exactly average. Very few are considerably taller or shorter, with more individuals closer to the average than farther out.

The population’s diversity shows up as a widening of the pattern. That is, diversity is a measure of how often individuals appear farther out from the center.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection posits that where the population center is depends on where is most appropriate for it to be depending on conditions. What is average height, for example, depends on a complex interplay of conditions, including nutrition, attractiveness to the opposite sex, and so forth.

Observing that conditions change with time, one expects the ideal center of the population should move about in the multidimensional characteristics space. Better childhood nutrition, for example, should push the population toward increased tallness. And, it does!

One hopes that these changes happen slowly with time, giving the population a chance to follow in response. If the changes happen too fast, however, the population is unable to respond fast enough and it goes extinct. So, wooly mammoths were unable to respond fast enough to a combination of environmental changes and increased predation by humans emigrating into North America after the last Ice Age, so they died out. No more wooly mammoths!

Assuming whatever changes occur happen slowly enough, those individuals in the part of the distribution better adapted to the new conditions do better than those on the opposite side. So, the whole population shifts with time toward characteristics that are better adapted.

Where diversity comes into this dynamic is by providing more individuals in the better-adapted part of the distribution. The faster conditions change, the more individuals you need at the edges of the population to help with the response. For example, if the climate gets warmer, it’s folks who like to wear skimpy outfits who thrive. Folks who insist on covering themselves up in heavy clothing, don’t do so well. That was amply demonstrated when Englishmen tried to wear their heavy Elizabethan outfits in the warmer North American weather conditions. Styles changed practically overnight!

Closed, homogeneous societies of the type the Nazis tried to create have low diversity. They try to suppress folks who differ from the norm. When conditions change, such societies have less of the diversity needed to respond, so they wither and die.

That’s why cultures need diversity, and the more diversity, the better.

We live in a chaotic universe. The most salient characteristic of chaotic systems is constant change. Without diversity, we can’t respond to that change.

That’s why when technological change sped up in the early Twentieth Century, it was the bohemians of the twenties developing into the beatniks of the fifties and the hippies of the sixties that defined the cultures of the seventies and beyond.

Jerry Garcia stamp image
spatuletail/shutterstock

Long live Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Ice Cream!