I Despise Unrealistic, Nostalgic Romanticisation of the Past

October 22, 2009

So, since this guy was smart enough to turn off comments from people who might disagree with his wistful but not particularly factual diatribe about American history, I’m going to make this post a comment in response to it.

I see one person waxing nostalgic about their youth, creatively equating their actions with those of a select few a couple hundred years ago, and acting like this form of behavior is one that was somehow thriving and is now dying.

This article reads like one of a million articles discussing the Moral Decay Of The Youth During This Generation – and it’s not even good with the details.

Americans weren’t fighting for individual freedom – they were fighting for the ability to represent themselves in government. That’s what “Taxation without representation” was about, our original demand of England was for us to receive representation in Parliament as citizens of England, so we could have a say in our government. Not “My” government – “Our” government. Not individual freedom, but our self-determination as a people. Yes, there’s a difference. Yes, it’s important.

Nor was our government forged from ‘understanding of human nature’ any more than it is today (and what understanding we had then, wasn’t as good as what we have now anyway). Our government was created, in fact, from countless minor compromises and ideological conflicts of every type, some with unspoken underlying issues associated with them, and all of this parallel to some individuals seeking their own personal profit and using the events of the times as a vehicle to obtain it. Meanwhile, the people got preached at by the aristocracy controlling the flow of information, mostly following their lead, and being smacked down when they deviated – the proportion may be different, but the parts of our government are all the same today.

Furthermore, ‘our founders’ were not remotely some holistic monolith of thought and beliefs fundamentally distinct from what exists today. In fact, they almost immediately polarized into two camps, one of which advocated strong centralized government (the Federalists, who were vaguely similar to liberals today), and the other of which advocated weaker decentralized government (the Democratic-Republicans, which we could compare to conservatives today). Some didn’t like slavery, and others thought the Bible advocated it.

Finally, the founders were not all religious, just like they didn’t all believe the same ‘holistic’ junk. Thomas Jefferson even wrote an entire gospel which explicitly excluded all miracles, bucking the fundaments of even the modern Christian faith and effectively creating a philosophical, rather than theistic, Christian text.

Our nation’s founders were people, just like us. They bickered and argued and got into physical fights with each other, and some of them sure as hell did profiteer from the War of Independence (most notably, through smuggling). One wanted the Turkey to be our national bird. One was so incredibly popular, he was literally asked to be our King (Washington, if you’re curious).

When people romanticize these people and try to wax philosophical about how much better “things were back then”, they’re ignoring the reality of those times, and more importantly, they’re ignoring the reality of the present. America is little different in its’ fundament than it was two hundred years ago, with one big exception: Businesses are more powerful than the government is now, so they run the government. There are two ways to fix it, and one involves making the government really powerful, and the other involves destroying some businesses.

Most importantly, even back during the Enlightenment, ignorant blowhards were complaining about how social progress was Destroying All That Was Good. They, most of all, have not changed.

So, A Few Years Ago, I ‘Invented’ A Number System

October 17, 2009

…or so I thought, anyway.

Like many would-be young, aspiring mathematicians, I’d ‘discovered’ a concept that was in use for decades before I’d thought of it. That concept was the factoradic number system (I’d link the Mathworld article, but there wasn’t one – I was shocked).

The number system is simple to explain and tricky to grasp. The radix of any given digit in a factoradic number is that digit’s place from the decimal point+1. (Note: There are also definitions of the system which generate digits which are always zero. I think that’s a silly approach, and furthermore, it’s not how I did it those years ago)

So, in Decimal, the radix is always 10 – each digit is worth ten times more than the one that comes before it (1, 10, 100, 1000, etc). In Binary, the radix is 2 (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc). The equivalent series for the factoradic numeral system is 1, 2, 6, 24, 120, 720, etc – you may recognize this as the factorials (Mathworld).

You would count from 1 to (decimal) 50 in factoradic like thus (I’m counting in 5 lines of 10 numbers each, to make the progression clearer):

1, 10, 11, 20, 21, 100, 101, 110, 111, 120,

121, 200, 201, 210, 211, 220, 221, 300, 301, 310,

311, 320, 321, 1000, 1001, 1010, 1011, 1020, 1021, 1100,

1101, 1110, 1111, 1120, 1121, 1200, 1201, 1210, 1211, 1220,

1221, 1300, 1301, 1310, 1311, 1320, 1321, 2000, 2001, 2010.

Aside from changing a person’s concept of what a number system could be, however, the factoradic system doesn’t actually do very much mathematically (at least, as far as I could ever tell from tooling around with it). It’s used to work some with permutations, but doesn’t seem to have any interesting mathematical properties aside from that.

The article’s not quite complete, though (in fact, the article’s discussion page brings this up – I guess there’s just nowhere this has been officially written out, though I’m clearly not the first to think of it).

Back when I thought I’d invented this system as a novel numbering system, I wanted it to be a full-fledged number system, so I unknowingly expanded on the work you see there in that Wikipedia article – I defined the factoradic system to account for fractions.

It functions basically the same way on the right side of the, er… factoradical point (It’s not a decimal point, it’s not decimal counting!) as on the left side. Rather than each digit representing 1!,2!,3!,4!,5!, etc, they represent 1/2!,1/3!,1/4!,1/5!, etc.

This system maintains the unambiguousness of the standard counting system, and has a couple novel attributes, as well.

A rational number is a number that can be expressed as a fraction. In Decimal and other fixed-base systems, a rational number is any number that can be expressed as a definitive series of digits or repeating digits (such as 1/3’rd, which in decimal is .3 repeating).

In factoradic, a rational number is a number that can be expressed as a definitive series of digits – all rational numbers terminate (because for any possible denominator X in a fraction, there is a factoradic digit that represents 1/X! and thus divides evenly into it). Definitive series of repeating digits are instead used to express irrational numbers – numbers which can not be expressed as any fraction (of which there are at least a countably infinite number describable in the factoradic number system).

The easiest example is the constant e (as is also conveniently noted on wikipedia in the discussion for the article), which is 10.111… repeating.

I would further conjecture that any number that ends in a definitely repeating digit series in factoradic must be an irrational number (excluding extraneous zeroes, of course).

The opposite can’t be true (that all irrational numbers can be depicted in factoradic with a definite series of repeating digits), however, due to numbers such as .00112233…, which as far as I can tell is irrational but would never repeat a series of digits. It’s a shame, since it’d be awesome if there were a number system that were capable of describing all real numbers like that.

That’s the rambling saga of my career as a would-be amateur mathematician. I’ll probably play with the factoradic system off and on for the rest of my life (as I still think of it as my own invention deep in the recesses of my mind), so maybe I’ll even figure out something novel about it one day.

Anyway, I doubt I’m the only one who’s tinkered at math, found out something they thought was astonishing, only to find that either they’d forgotten to carry a 1 or the like, or someone had beat them to the punch tens or hundreds of years ago. I wonder how common it is, and I wonder if perhaps our math education were better, or if we as a culture were more reverent of our mathematics, if all those rediscoveries could instead have been discoveries of new things instead.

Dealing With An Overadvertised Government

October 14, 2009

In the US, campaign advertisements improve a politician’s chance to get or keep a seat. Lobbyists give money to politicians to fund campaign advertisements. Politicians make laws that lobbyists like so they can get more money. So we end up in a government where politicians make laws for lobbyists, not voters.

Thanks to that system, our democracy does not function.

We need to change that.

We can’t change it with the politicians, though – if the politicians don’t do the lobbyists bidding, the lobbyists will pay other people and our politicians will be replaced with people who obey the almighty dollar.

And we obviously can’t change it with the lobbyists – they’re rich.

But maybe we can change campaign advertising, the foundation of the system that renders our representative government ineffective.

There’s a dangerous assumption behind the idea of political advertisements – the idea that if you spend money on them, you can get votes. That is to say, political ads buy votes. And if votes can be bought, our republic can not possibly function.

Why the hell aren’t we offended by the very idea?! Each and every political ad, crafted not to inform you but to influence you, is like a message straight from our nation’s government at Washington saying, “We think you’re a tool.”

But what if, whenever someone saw a political ad on TV, they called the network airing it to complain about it? Or whenever they saw an ad on a website, they sent an email to the site’s administrator? I think we could concievably harass political advertisement out of our society entirely – or at least, make the lives of the people facilitating our cash-for-votes government miserable, as they rightly deserve.

So.

If you think this is a good idea, I have two requests for you.

  1. DO IT. If you see a political ad on TV or the internet, harass the bastards who put it there! Print this out and put it next to your computer and/or phone so you’ll know where to go for the major networks, and if you see it anywhere else, visit the network’s website and find their “Contact Us” section (the link will frequently be at the very bottom of the page, in tiny print). Maybe if we raise enough hell, we can accomplish something.
  2. Email this (by copy/pasting this whole thing into an email if necessary) to any friends or relatives you have you think might also be interested in the idea. No, don’t just spam-forward it to everyone on your address list, I hate it when people do that. Just send it to people you think might be as fed up about this as you are.

Anyway, I took the liberty of making a form letter for such complaints. Make sure to replace the stuff in brackets!

Sir or Ma’am,

I <saw/read> a political advertisement on your <network/website> today. I find it personally offensive that you permit such advertisements. It is impossible to meaningfully inform individuals politically in the <timeslot of a commercial/space of a banner ad>; leaving the sole possible function of a political advertisement as manipulation to ‘dupe’ individuals into adopting a position on a political issue which may or may not be realistic or sensible.

By permitting political advertisements on your <network/website>, you belittle my intelligence, and the intelligence of every American, and you degrade the quality of my government by promoting the importance and influence of campaign money used to buy advertising over that of an informed vote.

In light of this insult to my intelligence, to my people, and to my nation, I insist that you remove the offending political advertisement from your <network/website> immediately.

Mentioning the show/timeslot or specific webpage you saw the offending advertisement on may also help, but is not necessary.

Also, I collected  some contact information for some of the major TV networks:

ABC:
ABC Contact form – http://abc.go.com/site/contact-us
ESPN Contact form – http://proxy.espn.go.com/espn/contact
Disney Contact form (Best to specify channel for this one) – http://corporate.disney.go.com/responsibility/feedback.html

CBS:
CBS Contact form – http://www.cbs.com/info/user_services/fb_global_form.php
CBS News Contact form – http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/feedback/fb_news_form.shtml
CBS Sports Contact form – http://www.cbssports.com/help/contactus/usersspeak

FOX:
Fox Entertainment email – askfox@fox.com
Fox News phone – 1-888-369-4762
Fox News email – yourcomments@foxnews.com
FX email – user@fxnetworks.com

NBC:
NBC Contact form – http://www.nbc.com/Footer/Contact_Us/
MSNBC email listing (by show) – http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10285339/
CNBC Contact form – https://register.cnbc.com/email/EmailSupport.jsp
USA Network contact form – http://www.usanetwork.com/feedback/#theForm

Time Warner:
CNN Contact form (Pick a show) – http://www.cnn.com/feedback/cnntv/
TBS phone – 404-885-0758
TBS Contact form – http://support.tbs.com/ics/support/default.asp?deptID=5475
TNT phone – 404-885-4538
TNT Contact form – http://support.tnt.tv/ics/support/default.asp?deptID=5477

I Made A Picture!

October 9, 2009

It’s designed to exploit our inbuilt facial recognition functionality.

I call it "Circles and Lines".

I call it "Circles and Lines".

It’s also supposed to look creepy (because it hopefully exploits our facial recognition functionality).

So, how’d I do?

On Workplace Morale and Productivity

October 8, 2009

I’ve heard a lot about morale, or ‘esprit de corps’, as a part of my job, but I never really understood the concept until recently.

Recently I moved to a new sub-organization under the same employer, and I know what morale is now.

Where I used to work, people behaved according to high standards of professionalism, were friendly and engaging, and willing to help each other. Discipline was light and didn’t need to be any worse, because individuals complied with directives under their own power, willingly. Individuals were energetic and productive, and the shop accomplished impressive things.

Where I work now, the very idea of professional behavior is a joke, and mentorship is almost nonexistent. Individuals are abrasive and their interactions are caustic rather than constructive. Discipline is woefully light, vitally needed, and respect for authority is low. As such, compliance rates are low and nobody really cares about improving them. Individuals are unfocused and apathetic, and the shop is burdened under a comparatively much smaller workflow.

More importantly, I feel the impact personally. At my previous location, I was eager to face new challenges and accomplish ever-more-impressive tasks. Here, I have to drive myself just to complete the simplest of tasks, simply because I care so much less. My accomplishments feel less significant, the interaction with my coworkers less enjoyable, and my objectives less important.

I believe in the importance of morale now – I am now a convert, having seen it in action, and its’ lack in inaction.

Thinking About Thinking: The Forer Effect.

September 20, 2009

Courtesy of Wikipedia:

In 1948, psychologist Bertram R. Forer gave a personality test to his students. Afterward, he told his students they were each receiving a unique personality analysis that was based on the test’s results and to rate their analysis on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) on how well it applied to themselves. In reality, each received the same analysis:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

On average, the rating was 4.26, but only after the ratings were turned in was it revealed that each student had received identical copies assembled by Forer from various horoscopes.

To summarize, the Forer Effect describes how people take things they hear – particularly positive things – and believe it applies to them for the sole reason that they think it’s supposed to apply to them.

The most obvious consequence of the Forer Effect is that it encourages people to believe in systems that tell things about themselves, even if those systems make no sense.

A couple examples of those obvious Forer-influenced systems:

  • Horoscopes – a system about how the stars at the time of your birth dictate things about you.
  • Japanese blood type personality prediction – a system about how your blood type dictates things about you. (the wiki seems written by someone who does not speak English as a first language)
  • Phrenology – a system about how the bumps on your head dictate things about you.

The principle seems pretty simple: Humans have this little quirk, this ‘feature’, that can make us believe in silly things because they tell us things that we’re hardwired to want to hear and that we’re inherently inclined to believe.

But it’s a bit more significant than that. Vague statements make the effect more obvious, but the key to the effect is not the vagueness, but the impression of legitimacy of the source, which is what makes us inherently more likely to believe it.

As the Forer effect applies to any system which people believe legitimate, and which tells people things about themselves, this behavioral quirk applies to all systems which humans use to describe their own behavior.

This is a bit more significant, ’cause there are a lot of those systems, and some are considered pretty serious science this day and age.

Examples of systems to which the Forer effect applies that are (more)widely considered legitimate include:

  • The Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator – a personality inventory that, given a wide battery of tests about what you prefer doing and what you like or don’t like, etc, tells you a bunch of stuff about yourself. Ditto any other personality inventories.
  • Pretty much any measurement of Emotional Intelligence, by definition, is going to end up telling you a lot about yourself.
  • While we’re talking about intelligence, IQ testing itself invokes the effect – it tells you about yourself and it’s very widely considered to be legitimate in doing so.

What seem to be very simple concepts would seem to invoke this inherently irrational feature in our behavior – introversion and extroversion, imagination and practicality, intelligence, wisdom…

It’s a phenomenon intricately tied into how we see ourselves – every time someone or something we trust says something about us, we’re inclined to believe it for no other reason than they said it about us.

Given all that, how much of our self-identities really describe us, versus just stuff we’ve been told describe us?

Anyway, all that philosophical navel-gazing aside, I think there’s a very practical application of this effect.

Human beings aren’t just inclined to believe things we think are about us. We enjoy hearing things that are about us. Invoking the Forer effect, even in nonsensical ways, appears to be emotionally and intellectually stimulating, and something that we inherently seek out.

My pet theory is that this is because being told things about ourselves is good for us – emotionally, and mentally. It strengthens our self-identity (for better or for worse, admittedly), and it ingrains concepts in our minds by associating them with something we obviously consider is important: Ourselves.

So being told about ourselves, even if those things are just outright false, can sharpen our focus and broaden our horizons – which I also imagine is why so many people tell themselves things about themselves so often.

So, knowing all this, why not use it? Take fancy personality, intelligence, and emotional intelligence tests. Read horoscopes. Find out which of the four humours you are (I’m phlegmatic!). Take the second half of this article seriously.

It’s good for you. Probably. After all, what’re the chances all the students in Dr. Forer’s class are wrong?

A Rational, Self-Interested, Free Market Argument for Socialized Health Care

September 14, 2009

Private health insurance is worthless. Purchasing it does not benefit me.

Let’s say I purchase private insurance. So long as I don’t get very sick, it don’t actually get any benefit – as I could have just saved the money that goes into my insurance and paid for it out of my own pocket (and had the rest as, y’know, actual money).

So, the only way private health insurance could possibly benefit me is if I become so sick that the insurance company would necessarily lose money by paying for my sickness.

So all the people who actually need health insurance are people who are non-profitable for health insurers.

Which leads to a fascinating Catch-22: as any company whose objective is to make profit (all private health insurance) is encouraged to immediately cease to do business with me when it becomes apparent I need their service – because, as noted, I’m not profitable for them.

Even worse, the more sick I am, meaning the more I need their service, the greater their incentive becomes not to provide me with that service.

Furthermore, a free market can not solve this problem through the introduction of honest health insurance companies.

Any market in which an honest health insurance company must compete against a dishonest health insurance company, will have business flowing from the dishonest health insurance company to the honest health insurance company, as interested and informed individuals change their service. However, interested and informed individuals are the ones who need the service, and are thus by definition not profitable (as previously established). So honesty can only ever net a health insurance company reduced profits, ensuring their inability to compete in a free market.

Even a free market in which, somehow, only honest health insurance companies can resist this effect – as it is the nature of free markets to encourage innovation which increases profits, and there is no greater boost for the profits of a health insurance company than refusal to provide health insurance.

Ultimately, this means that I can not trust any health insurance company to actually provide health insurance – while there is a chance that I may receive health insurance if I need it, there is a chance I may not, and the very company which is supposed to provide me with health insurance would conspire that I do not get it.

Health insurance, like all forms of insurance, is a service in which I pay money in exchange for reducing my risk – in this case, my risk of not being able to pay for health care. However, private health insurance does not fulfill this function.

Instead, it shifts my risk – from the risk of being unable to pay for health care, to the risk that my private health insurance company will refuse to do so, leaving me without even the money I would have had if I’d never used private health insurance.

An insurance system that does not reduce risk is a nonfunctioning insurance system.

Furthermore, no amount of regulation can solve this.

Regulation is by its’ nature static and slow-to-adapt, while the market is quick to adapt towards the objective of increasing profits. The government can not be trusted to keep up with a dynamic and strongly motivated private system dedicated to refusing to provide me with service.

Furthermore, successive layers of regulation will increase the system’s complexity, ultimately making it easier for the highly-competitive private health insurance industry to scam me out of providing service, as I must not only contend with the health insurance industry itself but with the additional bureaucratic structures created by the government in an attempt to make public health insurance function.

So ultimately, all government can do to private health insurance is make it even more so a waste of my money.

So I gain nothing from private health insurance. The market can not fix this (and in fact enforces the worthlessness), and the government can not fix this. There is no way a private health insurance company can provide me with a service that I can trust and remain in business.

Ergo, private health insurance is worthless.

Meanwhile, the very problem that most plagues social service – a lack of profit motive which encourages unprofitable spending – is the only thing that can produce a trustworthy form of health insurance. If I need socialized health insurance, the government won’t care! They’ll happily pay the bills at my time of greatest need, not worried that I’m costing them money that they could conserve by simply letting me die.

The government does not need to make money – so they have no reason not to provide me with health insurance.

So I can trust them – socialized health insurance can function to reduce my risk of being faced with health care bills that I can not pay.

So, to reiterate:

Private health insurance: Absolutely, uncorrectably worthless for me.

Socialized health insurance: Accidentally perfectly functional for my needs.

As a self-interested, healthy member of America’s socioeconomic middle class, the only tenable option for me for health insurance is the government.

And I’m pretty sure that applies to everyone else too.

Now the question is: To flowchart this, or not to flowchart it?

If Everyone Is Special…

September 5, 2009

A few basic team management policies I’ve picked up, either through personal experience or through research on the topic:

  • People working in teams function better when they have a clearly defined role.
  • Teams as a whole produce better ideas when the people in the group have more diverse backgrounds, such as coming from different parts of the country, or having distinct socioeconomic backgrounds.
    • Teams only get this benefit if team members aren’t ashamed of said backgrounds as a result of social stigma or an oppressive work environment.
  • Favoritism can cause people to work less – the favored individual because they no longer need to, the unfavored individuals because they see little point in working in a system biased against them.
  • Praise in public, punish in private. Pride is a strong motivator for any individual, no matter how outwardly humble, and feeding that pride while allowing for and encouraging correction can only be ultimately productive.
  • Similarly, gossip weakens team cohesion. Team members should be encouraged to talk to each other – not about each other.

I guess I should actually get to my point.

One of my coworkers said yesterday, “If everyone is special, then noone is,” a line I do believe coined by some Ayn Rand story. Google was not agreeable when I asked it to source the line precisely, so meh. (As an aside, if you put the line into google, guess what you get? A bunch of blog and forum posts. :P)

Anyway, that pithy saying seems to go against modern management principles, tried and tested, and established in accordance with our – admittedly incomplete – understanding of human nature.

And frankly, given the choice between an evil Russian philosopher and the modern management techniques that helped me to grow as a person throughout my ongoing adulthood, I’m going to go with the 21’st century on this.

If everyone is special, then everyone is special*. It really is that simple.

*-Also, your team will have higher productivity, bicker with each other less, get along with each other more, and be better aware of their options and assumptions.

The Political Philosophy of World of Warcraft

September 3, 2009

My generation of my culture is one that thinks in terms of systems.

Previous generations in America thought of people (and still so think) in terms of freedom or repression, but my generation believes only in freedom to function in the system that has been built around you.

Those older generations think in terms of control and power, but my generation acknowledges the power of control only to influence circumstances, which in turn dictate all behavior.

Those generations were individualists, and they believed that everyone could be special – or that if everyone was special, then nobody could be. My generation knows that ‘special’ is more often than not a denotation of your position in the system, often a matter more of luck than of merit.

Those generations preached that by stepping up to play the game of life, you could win. To my generation, so dearly wedded to the power of multivariable analysis and the study of complexity, the imbalances in such a game seem painfully obvious.

Go, if you would, to a forum to discuss a major video game (preferably an online one). In human history there has not existed a more naturally politically liberal group as the one you will see, one so keenly and casually understanding of the principles behind the meritocracy and the reality of its’ nonexistence.

Will exists only within the parameters that the game dictates. Advantages towards one work out to the disadvantage of others, even outside of non-zero-sum systems. One’s fortunes are influenced by one’s community. All of these things are taken as obvious and in-stride that other generations would disbelieve, or only hold halfheartedly.

And yet, these people understand that there are correct and incorrect approaches towards these problems. The disadvantaged do not complain – instead, they describe the nature of the problems, and offer and discuss solutions. The individualists among them, claiming that advantages and disadvantages are trivial and that everything gained is earned, are mocked and derided as worthless to the community.

Video gaming, and the community of system analysts it is raising, stands as a political force fundamentally opposed to the underlying philosophy of conservatism.

And it is ever-so-slowly producing people with the skills to understand, and improve upon, systems.

Of course, having contemplated all that, now I’m wondering about the exact political composition of various MMO playerbases.

The Necessity of Mortality

August 29, 2009

Think of your parents. Compared to you, how well do they fit in in modern society? Do they know how to use their computers? Do they even have computers?

Now one step further. If you knew your grandparents, how about them? They ever own a computer? Or maybe they stick out in a more noticeable sense – maybe they don’t believe people should marry outside their race, for example, or that <enter religion or lack thereof here> is evil and Unamerican and all its’ adherents should be exterminated, or maybe they hold a number of wildly fictional beliefs about the world around them.

Now lets go back to great-grandparents. Maybe they lived with, and were okay with, slavery, or women not being able to vote. Maybe they thought the world was six thousand years old or that space was a painted shell around the earth or something like that (Okay, I admit, I’m exaggerating a bit for effect).

My point here is sometimes, people learn things they can’t unlearn. Our ability as human beings to relearn as the world and our society changes around us is limited, and we tend to leave our elderly behind, as our children will leave us behind in turn.

Within a couple generations, we’re likely to discover a way to attain clinical immortality – that is to say, diseases will no longer be able to kill us, and we may also overcome the process of aging itself.

Now, that introduces problems, of course – the earth can only hold so many people, for instance. But I think the biggest problem with that would be cultural.

What if, in America, all our great-grandparents were alive to vote in this last presidential election? Would the black or female candidates have had any chance? If we went back another generation or two, we’d need to ask if black people or women would even be able to vote.

Since the start of history, human culture has progressed continuously. And one of the primary motivators of that change – perhaps the primary motivator, and certainly a vital one – is that old people die.

Without old people dying, essentially getting out of the way for better-educated, slightly wiser future generations to take the reins of civilization, we would almost certainly stagnate.

This is a problem made worse by the fact that the first individuals likely to benefit from immortality are the ones who most need to die for society to proceed – wealthy, powerful, influential elderly.

A demographic of society which since time immemorial has resisted change, for themselves and for all of us, until the day they die will no longer be dying.

This is a problem compounded by other complications of immortality – what if our solution to overpopulation is to severely restrict the birthrate, causing the elderly to by far outnumber young people with fresh, new ideas? There might not even be any change for such a methuselah population to resist.

Mind that, when I refer to the elderly, I’m not referring to our parents and grandparents. They’re very unlikely to see clinical immortality.  Younger generations alive now – we are the ones most likely to be the oldest generations to experience immortality.

I see a few different possible scenarios unfolding for such a future:

  • The Methuselah Scenario: Mankind attains clinical immortality and deals with the subsequent sustainability problem by severely restricting new births. The elderly hold the overwhelming majority of economic and social power in civilization, and have hundreds of years to indoctrinate the youthful minority into the exact same civilization. Our progress as a society slows to a snail’s pace as the elderly are still replaced through attrition, but only the very slow attrition of tragic catastrophe.
  • The Olympian Scenario: Enough youths are born to form a notable subculture. These individuals are creative, energetic, and increasingly spiteful of the immortals who continue to control economic and social power. Eventually they reach their breaking point and attempt to impose a new order on society by any means, likely through violence as they lack the power to do it any other way. Eventually such a group succeeds and replaces the elderly that a new group of youths rails against, and the cycle repeats indefinitely if civilization is lucky.
  • Planned Obsolescence: Maybe we’re just not built to be immortal. People weary of life arrange their own deaths whenever they feel ready to take that step, and clinical immortality only works out to be a significant age increase. Society continues to progress, perhaps a bit slower than before, but not at an intolerable rate.
  • Future Generations Just Deal With It: As a civilization, we also figure out a way to relearn and/or reeducate ourselves sufficiently such that our brains become culturally sustainable across both young and old generations. I don’t see any living generation pulling that off, but maybe I’m just not being imaginative enough.

It could well be in our power to place our collective hands upon the march of human history, and with our undying strength, force that march to halt. Should we be allowed to let that happen?