10 reasons the Neural Singularity won’t happen

Ramez Naam has an interesting view of the future, built around brain implants and mental augmentation.  He has written a trilogy of novels about altering the brain’s functioning with a drug that causes telepathy by linking minds together. (BTW, I need to read this trilogy: it sounds terrific.)

He has a blog post up at Charlie Stross’ about how current, crude attempts at brain augmentation could eventually turn into wonderfully-advanced superpowers for humans. It’s a longer version of a piece he did for Tech Crunch. He details some of the amazing things we are doing right now with cochlear implants, bionic eyes, Parkinson’s treatments, transferring thoughts and nerve signals through artificial means. Real verging on cyborg stuff that is cool as hell, especially for those who benefit from restored senses, limbs, and functionality. But Naam goes further, calling for what I like to call the Neural Singularity: technology lets us all upgrade our brains into Cyborg/Jedi Knight/Mentat/Betazed territory.

I’m skeptical that today’s advances will ever develop into what Naam is speculating. I mean, I agree that we could develop and refine the tech, that it is doable. I just think they will never progress in social acceptability beyond terrific medical treatments for severe physical and psychological injuries. And without that widespread acceptance, the advances will never gain the toehold they need to be refined into commercial versions.

Just as the Singularity itself is probably as unlikely as the Christian Rapture (if it’s not simply a geek re-interpretation of it), I don’t think we’ll reach this Neural Singularity. And the 10 reasons why are practical, non-political, and non-religious:

  1. Complications: brain surgery is not a low-risk enterprise. Are the benefits worth the risks and recovery from elective brain surgery? Let’s see some hands. Anyone? Hmm, this may make it hard to find commercial viability.
  2. Cancer: brain cancer is usually fatal. Sticking electronics in your brain, which could have some EM, radioactive, or thermal side effects could be a recipe for jacking up cancer risks. Also, simply traumatizing your gray matter may have some terrible consequences. And if you replace your implant(s) as often as you do your phone…
  3. Rejection: your brain may reject the Xbox iPhone you shove inside it. The immune system has this obsession with finding foreign bodies and attacking them. In your brain, that means swelling! Maybe your enhanced memory chip will help you remember to take the anti-rejection meds you need because of your enhanced memory chip.
  4. Mental disorders: Enhanced senses, telepathy, telekinesis, reality-altering perceptive differences or even just a Facebook page scrolling in your mind’s may damage your mental health. How will these electronics interact with brain chemistry, and the ebb and flow of hormone-driven changes in how we think? We have no idea. What are the chances that we luck into absolutely no side effects, in a system that is so delicate that low blood sugar can alter mood, decision-making and reaction times? Yes, you may get telepathy, but you also may get a terrific case of schizophrenia, dementia, or soul-sucking depression when you learn your loved ones think you’re a fraud and an asshole.
  5. Security: If your phone is hacked, you can turn it off and walk away. Not if the phone is in your brain. Not if the software is always on, letting people step into your mind to learn your passwords and sexual fantasies involving prosciutto.
  6. Hubris: People will push the envelope, screw up, and scare everyone off. One or two literal brainwashing episodes, or the first neural implantee who goes on a killing spree, will be quite a kick in the head to the brain-implant industry.
  7. Skull: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Because once you do, it’s never quite the same. And we’re finding out all the time that the old grey matter needs as much protection as possible. Cutting through your skull electively is like sawing at the sides of your seatbelt in a race car you just upgraded with nitrous oxide. I think our great-grandchildren will marvel that people didn’t wear helmets when riding inside cars, trucks, and buses. This is the Brain Protection Century.
  8. Easier alternatives: Rather than risk brain surgery, it seems like all of these advanced capabilities could be obtained with tools one can separate from one’s body. Phone, remote control, etc. Easy, cheap, sharable, and no recovery time. Except we can’t replicate telepathy. Who exactly wants to be on the receiving end of telepathy though?
  9. Power supply: battery in your brain? Or do you juice up via plugging in? Or by biological means, delivered by the circulatory system? Let’s face it, they’ll be sticking an old watch battery in there because it’s the cheapest. Which leads to…
  10. Maintenance: Parts wear out, batteries die, hardware needs upgrading and rebooting. If you need a service call on your noggin, that means more brain surgery, so go to the top of this list and work your way back down here again. “Uncle Owen! Aunt Beru has a bad processor!”

Vox has 26 signs that everything is awesomer than you thought

For all of you smiling under a warm spring sun today, enjoying the blooming of blossoms and the greening of grass, here’s an extra happiness injection: it’s getting better. What is it? Life. This story from Vox is something that I have sat on until happier times thawed from winter.

Vox, one of the best explainer journalism sites out there,* put together 26 charts showing how things are getting better. And these things are not just minor stuff, we’re talking the big important stuff like life expectancy, poverty, hunger, child labor, violence, disease, war, democracy, and so on.

We often don’t like to believe that things have improved. I know, a number of you are stricken by “but what about” thoughts. What about income inequality? What about the environment? What about the rise of <insert religious, political, sports antagonist here>?

Why can’t we accept good news? One reason may be exposure to the negative-slanted news, which has equated being informed with being pessimistic. Or maybe our own lives have declined, and it’s easier to believe that misery has company.

Age plays a role in our pessimism too. I think it has something to do with projecting our feelings about aging on to the world around us. How can ‘things’ be better if you are feeling or performing worse, right? Or maybe it is a reaction to a sense that the world we grew up with and are comfortable with is passing away, and the new-fangled things replacing it are unfamiliar and unwanted. It’s rare that you see a young person complain that the world is getting worse. It’s just as rare that you’ll come across a pack of seniors talking about how much better the world is.

Western culture also plays a role. Western civilization has been obsessed with its own collapse for a solid millenia or so. Disaster and a new dark ages is right around the corner. The naysayers causes keep changing (the Reformation, smallpox, Turks, the enlightenment, abolition of slavery, industrialization, democracy, women’s suffrage, racial integration, religious tolerance, gay marriage, etc.) but they keep on getting it wrong.

So the next time you see a bunch of seniors moaning about rising crime rates, and all these wars, and poverty, go running by and yell ‘everything is awesome!’ Because it’s not only hopeful, it’s true as well.


*I should pen an Ode to Vox. Ezra Klein’s site is full of interesting pieces that explain and provide context around stuff that gets dropped into the news like a three-legged dog who can do calculus. Most news sites regurgitate headlines. Some will tack on a snooty op-ed piece that declares what it all means, loaded with droll analogies and dog-whistles to intellectuals with wine preferences and subscriptions to The Atlantic. Others will just feed in the latest developments as new ammunition to fire the same old shitshells in a continuing political or cultural war online. Vox just digs deeper. Vox is my 27th sign that things are getting increasingly awesomer.

10 Signs You’re Just Getting By at Work

Writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch recently blogged about an epiphany she had about people who get by at work and those who do so much more. Her epiphany resulted from realizing that a lesson she learned at day jobs (waitress, editing, publishing, etc.) over the years applies to writing. Specifically, she has found that writing is just as filled with get-by workers as any other field.

Based on her observations and my own, I present the 10 signs you may be a ‘get by’ worker:

  1. Expect recognition for effort or time investment
  2. Talk a good game but have a poor track record
  3. Miss deadlines or other expectations regularly, but always for a good reason
  4. Wait for the boss to assign work/stretch work to fill up the day
  5. Dodge sticks and carrots to improve your performance
  6. Do the minimum necessary to avoid being fired
  7. Do the maximum necessary to avoid more responsibility
  8. Expend a lot of energy acting busy
  9. Convince others to do your work for you
  10. Feel threatened by automation, efficiency, or a perceptive boss

There are get-by workers in every organization, from construction sites to management teams to writers. I’m not completely sold on the idea that they are all bad and that society needs drive them from the work force. I’m fairly sold on the idea that many of them have given up on the job, themselves, or life in general and may be one inspiration away from passing by rather than getting by. Oh, and without them, hard workers wouldn’t look nearly as great by comparison.

The Stubble Bubble

In movies and TV, stubble on a man used to mean one thing: here was a man who was too down and out, too busy saving the world, to shave. Indiana Jones would be a prime example.

Now, every character on TV, in every movie, has a thin coating of hair, perfectly trimmed, on his face. It’s not a beard, or a mustache; it’s stubble.

These are not all men who are in the middle of saving the world, or who are obsessed with perfecting a cure for ebola, or who have retreated to the mountains to train with their sensei to avenge their murdered family.

They have stubble at their own weddings, stubble at company board meetings, stubble with freshly-cut hair, stubble while wearing tuxedos, and stubble when running for office. Not scraggly stubble that goes down to their collarbone in streaks and clumps, but perfectly trimmed stubble.

The stubble is supposed to imply seriousness, thoughtfulness, and an inability to stop their important work for mundane stupid stuff like shaving. Well, they are shaving sometimes, because they don’t have beards, they’re just taking the time from their glorious, enriched lives to rein in the stubble when it’s poised to beard the heck out.

Stubble has jumped the shark. It’s a stubble bubble.

And no, I’m not envious of this stubility. I could grow some stubble on some parts of my face, and look like a radiation-poisoned man. Growing a beard, yeah, I wish I could do that. But wanting a thin coat of bristles, perfectly sculpted on my cheeks and neck? No.

I don’t begrudge Indiana Jones stubble. He’s been in the jungle, running for his life, and he hasn’t had time for hair care. But a guy who has perfect hair, all dressed up, but who has a mug full of stubble? It’s incongruous. It is the mullet, the curly perm for white guys of this decade, to be laughed at by future generations.

Friends don’t let friends stubble.

The top 10 stupid Flying Snowmen arguments against Interstellar

NOTE: This post is loaded with spoilers. If you can handle that, you may be able to handle the post.

SECOND NOTE: This post is a public service announcement to jerds* (jaded nerds) who watch Interstellar, wipe the tears from their eyes, try to stop their brains from spinning, and then declare: “Worst. Movie. Ever.”

It’s nearly Oscar time and Interstellar got nearly totally hosed with nominations (it got 1, for musical score). I’m posting this now because it’s possible Interstellar (and Chris Nolan) getting ignored will put the movie back on the nerd discussion circuit. Which would be great, because I am one nerd who really liked this movie, almost as much as I like calling out a Flying Snowman.

A Flying Snowman argument is a particular phenomena found in the nerd community where someone craps on some science fiction story by claiming that snowmen can’t fly. Yes, if you clinked* the link in the previous sentence, you’ll find that John Scalzi coined the phrase, because he’s a precocious genius. In a nutshell, everyone agrees that a snowman can walk, sing, dance, eat hot soup, and live, of course, but some will insist that he can’t fly. It is just one of the many arguments that holier-than-thou jerds like to launch at cool nerdy things to feel superior or coolly jaded.

Interstellar is loaded with Flying Snowman bait. Knowing how cerebral the director and writer are, it may be that they deliberately built the Flying Snowmen on purpose just so the jerds could vent their spleen at something, and the rest of us could jettison them like a first stage booster. Here they are, so hopefully you won’t act like a jerd.

  1. Love. It burns the jerds that Cooper signals his daughter because of love, that love does seem to be the thing that transcends dimensions and physics, and that there’s no hard physics to support it.
  2. Gravity. Solving gravity? Launching an entire space station (actually an O’Neill colony) from below the Earth’s surface? The jerds burn over these things; they rage about the lift weight of an O’Neill, for example.
  3. Inside the blackhole – crying foul about what happens to Cooper inside the black hole. The physics of the inside of a blackhole is essentially unknown. There are theories, but as the scientists in the movie repeat several times, no one really knows.
  4. Near the blackhole. How Brand escapes the black hole, how close the planet (and it’s sun) are to the blackhole, there’s all kinds of jerdish hard sci-fi outrage to be had here. Again, we don’t know that much about black holes. Anything in a movie about what happens up close to the event horizon is pure speculation. And when it’s awe-inspiring, and moves the story forward, and touches our hearts or makes us grip our seats, that’s a very good thing, jerds.
  5. Wave planet. Jerd: The wave motion is wrong, the waves are too high and will collapse sooner, the shuttle’s strength against the waves, etc.
  6. Ice planet. Jerd: “You can’t have frozen clouds!” Shut up, jerd.
  7. Placement of the wormhole. Jerd: “Why was the wormhole dropped near Saturn? Why not near the moon, or at Earth’s G5 spot or something closer? Worst. Superbeings. Ever.” Because of the story, jerdhole. The Endurance crew knows it has at least 4 years of lost time with Earth because of the 2 year cryosleep trip to Saturn. It lays the emotional groundwork for the rest.
  8. Wormhole – You’re a jerd if you accept some or most of the following, but not necessarily all: a wormhole can be dropped into a specific place, a wormhole can be stable, a ship can transit a wormhole safely, that the transit takes as long or short as it does in the movie, that it looks like that inside and out, and that it doesn’t cause any undue problems for Saturn, Saturn’s moons, or Saturn’s rings.
  9. Metaphysical infodumps. Jerd: “Brand said she chose Edmunds because it was love traversing dimensions. That is totally, like, not plausible physics.” Relax jerd. Not everything said by a scientist in a movie is the writer lecturing you about science. If anything, Brand is admitting she’s subjective, and biased, but she’s saying, all else equal, if the thing that tips the balance is that she loves one of the guys, there may be something behind it, so what the hell go for it.
  10. Forgetting the deus ex machina. Jerd: “The god-like beings can drop a wormhole, futz with the inside of a blackhole, but it is somehow wrong or silly for them to teleport astronauts across time and space back to comfy hospital beds!” Once again, super being goddish things. Maybe the super beings are human and they wanted to give Cooper closure. Maybe they knew Cooper needed to get his ass to Edmund’s World to help Brand.

*Scalzi, Shakespeare, and Taleb Nassim have inspired me to coin more terms. English is malleable, gorram it, so why not contribute a new term or three?

10 things I learned from Steve Jobs’ life

In my recent pillaging of the public library, I couldn’t turn down the chance to read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I had read many accounts of Steve Job’s life and work, at least up to about the time of the iMac. This biography went much further and much later in his life (it was published shortly after his death in 2011). It was an excellent book and Isaacson is an expert biographer. I couldn’t stop reading it and highly recommend it.

Here are the things that I learned:

  1. Jobs’ superpower was pushing for the best in design, simplicity, and beauty, by marrying technology to art. He knew this one thing, and developed that skill into a form of magic.
  2. His attention to detail, as evidenced by his super-polished presentations, was his second superpower. The return on investment seems limitless. Watch his 2005 Stanford commencement speech which may be one of the best ever.
  3. He was horrible to other people. He parked in handicapped spaces. He screwed over early Apple employees’ stock options. He drove without license plates. He was cruel and demeaning. He thought rules were for other people. He sounds like the guy Dennis Leary described in his hit song “Asshole.”
  4. He seemed to have little use for women. He surrounded himself with men at Apple and seemed to avoid all women but his wife, including brushing off his three daughters. Strange and probably misogynist.
  5. He lied his ass off. Asserting facts that weren’t true. Claiming ideas that weren’t his. Charming people he hated. Committing to things he had no intention of doing. That level of dishonesty is just disgusting to me.
  6. Rich folks, movers and shakers, are so few in number that they inevitably end up knowing each other. Steve Jobs ran with the who’s who of famous people: Bono, Bill Clinton, George Lucas, Joan Baez, Al Gore, Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, Bob Dylan, just to name a few.
  7. If Jobs just had some of the gentleness and humility of Steve Wozniak or Neil Gaiman, he could have been so much more successful. (Neil Gaiman also gave an amazing commencement speech which has been turned into its own illustrated book.)
  8. Why is Jony Ive not running Apple? He seems to be the spiritual son of Jobs’ melding of technology, design, art, and ease of use.
  9. Deep down, control freaks dislike and distrust others. Steve Jobs categorized people into A and B players, geniuses or idiots. It’s clear to me that, reading between Isaacson’s lines, Jobs had a low opinion of people, even the A players he regularly belittled. He was hardcore about the integration of hardware and software, but it was an excuse to impose his artistic sense on others. I don’t mind the beauty, the design, and the simplicity, Steve, but let me do what I want with my computing device, okay?
  10. I wouldn’t have worked for him and would probably have detested him if I knew him personally. I think Steve Jobs would argue that life is too short to put up with a boss like Steve Jobs. But, damn, the world is worse off without him.

Temporary malental incompetence

That at one point women were considered the weaker sex has always been ridiculous to me. That some people (male and female) in this century cling to this belief is nothing short of astonishing and depressing.

Consider the Darwin Award winners. Nearly all male. Other nefarious categories dominated by men: violent criminals, property criminals, financial criminals, pedophiles, terrorists, war criminals, internet trolls, dictators, and philanderers.

Yeah, men have more muscle mass. That is our only physiological advantage relative to women, and it is getting increasingly meaningless in a sedentary, robotic world. Other than that small advantage, we have weaker immune systems, higher prevalence of birth defects, worse hearing, male-pattern balding, easily-damaged external genitals, and shorter life expectancy.

I would add to this list a disability/psychological disorder/temporary mental incompetence: an unhealthy inability to assess and avoid danger. I call it malental incompetence. It has a sudden onset, causes a substantial loss of mental activity in the parts of the brain where fear and rationality reside, and disappears shortly afterwards.

Consider any smart man you know (above the age of 24, when mental mature apparently occurs). Now, catalog all of the stupid things that man has done during brain farts, bursts of manliness, “hold my beer” moments, etc. Many of these episodes result in death, hospital visits, physical scarring, destruction of property, money loss, or at the least stress and mental anguish for those around them.

I’m no exception. I am Phi Beta Kappa, have a graduate degree, and am proud to have once been called ‘the most risk-averse man in the universe.’ But, even a risk-averse man is not risk-averse all of the time. Therefore, my brain gets blinkered at times by testosterone, or the Y chromosome, or whatever. When I get that cocky grin, or grunt incoherently as deh stupidz descends, I wreck my shoulder while weight-lifting and need surgery. Or move my 401k money around when I should leave it. Or change lightbulbs while standing on a chair with wheels or a shaky side of a couch. Not all of these stupid moments backfire or end poorly, but they are way too risky. And all of them make women shake their heads politely, because no mentally competent woman would do such things.

No, I’m not asking for maleness to be added to the list of disabling conditions or to be allowed as a legal defense. I’m not calling for men to just act smarter, or be more like women. And I’m not saying that men deserve some kind of special dispensation, break, or advantage. We’ve created more than enough of those for ourselves already.

I’m just pointing out that when you see a man going ‘malental’, don’t enable him by holding his beer, or cheering him on because this will be hilarious. Try to gently steer him away until he stops trying to beat the average market return or juggle chainsaws. Some day we’ll figure out how to treat us guys to counter the effects of our genetic disadvantages, but in the meantime, we all need to muddle along.

And, in case you were wondering, this malental disability provides a lot of grist for some future writing projects. <big, cocky=”” grin=””>