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Futurism Is Awesome

Centuries before the invention of the airplane, a special group of people was trying to figure out how to create a flying machine.

In the early 1800s, the same community—and one man in particular—was talking about digital computers. In the 1940s, they actually predicted the PC revolution of the 1980s.

Almost three decades before the Manhattan Project, this group was speculating about nuclear weapons and what they might mean for the world. And as the first bomb exploded over Hiroshima, they were already philosophizing about combat drones.

Inventors, writers, philosophers, and businesspeople, they work in many professions, but share a singular fascination. These are the futurologists, or more colloquially, the futurists. Their specialty is taking past and current trends, and extrapolating those trends into the future.

Sure, they’ve gotten stuff wrong. We don’t have flying cars, widespread space tourism, or a virtual-reality internet… yet. But the fact that futurists have successfully predicted so many technologies that have radically transformed our social, political, and psychological spaces makes my ears perk up whenever the futurist community has something to say. Aware of past failed predictions, modern futurists focus less on predicting the future and more on extrapolating possible futures, so we can all plan which futures to aim for and which to avoid. Their methodologies are getting more accurate all the time, becoming more science than art.

Different futurists have different degrees of accuracy, and of course we’ll never know for sure how right or wrong they were until the actual …

Should Politics Be Science?

And by science I mean real, empirical, data-driven science.

My instinct says that political science should live up to its name and actually become a real science. One political party should test a hypothesis, preferably on a small population. And if the hypothesis withstands that experimentation (i.e. maximizes flourishing and minimizes suffering), then everyone should agree to adopt it on a larger scale until something better can also be rigorously tested and withstand experimentation. If a hypothesis doesn’t withstand experimentation, then everyone should agree to drop it and look for another solution. This is a tried-and-true method for discovering truth in so many arenas outside of politics. It guards against bias taking over a system, and against rule by tradition. It encourages change where change is needed. I think it’s a great ideal to strive for.

But I feel the counterarguments strongly, too. Is it worth testing an idea when the testing itself could result in widespread human suffering (since some of the ideas tested will inevitably be bad ideas)? Does widespread human flourishing (the end) justify using populations of people as lab rats (the means)? Could politics-as-science ever work in a system poisoned by money from vested interests? And will society ever be rational enough to be able to admit when all or part of a cherished idea isn’t working, and move on?

But there are also rebuttals to the counterarguments. Won’t politics-as-science work just fine if we can get big money out of the system before …

Climate change gets all the press. Biodiversity loss is a greater threat.

Caring for the natural world that supports us is one of the most important issues to me, political or otherwise, and it’s such a common-sense idea that I think very few people actually disagree with it. “We should destroy nature,” is simply not a sentiment that most people have.

So then why is there such a political shouting match over environmentalism? I scarcely scroll by one article on my Facebook feed reading, “What, you don’t believe in FACTS?” before another article pops up about brainwashed alarmists jumping to fanciful conclusions.

What gives? Caring for nature isn’t liberal or conservative. It’s just the right thing to do. But even many who profess to care about nature seem like they’re just trying to score points in an argument when they talk about climate change.

Climate change. The crux of the matter. Liberals think it’s an urgent, world-threatening problem while many conservatives aren’t convinced it exists at all—especially when solving it would mean increasing government regulations on businesses. Like all controversy, this controversy sells, so climate change has stolen the environmental headlines. It’s rare to see an environmental story in the news that isn’t about climate change. So I have an important question to ask:

If climate change were solved tomorrow, would the environment be saved?

We’d still be dumping eight million tons of trash into our oceans every year. We’d still be rapidly destroying our planet’s topsoil, 40% of which is already degraded from too much farming. We’d still be burning through …

What Science Is

When I was in high school and college, I thought science classes were pretty boring. Why did I have to learn this stuff? Who cared about the phases of cell mitosis, the difference between ionic and covalent bonds, and Newton’s laws of motion? What practical value would science ever hold for me?

I wasn’t alone in my opinion that science was boring and had no relevance to my daily life. The US is currently facing a crisis of far too few students entering STEM fields, and I think basic science education is a major contributing factor.

I’m not saying I had bad science teachers. I had great science teachers! The problem isn’t with teachers themselves—it’s with how our education system demands that science be taught.

In most of the western world, science is presented as an endless litany of facts. Students memorize enough information to pass their tests, but too few students leave the classroom with a true understanding of what science actually is, and why it’s so important.

And because we see science as a meaningless encyclopedia of boring facts, a wide variety of misconceptions about science creeps into our worldviews as we age and form our identities. This makes us susceptible to all sorts of agenda-driven groups who manipulate our opinions and perceptions of science, its practitioners, and its findings.

It’s hard for me to describe how deeply this saddens me, because today, I love science, and I value the clear arc of technological progress that science has …

AI and AC Are Two Different Things

A growing community of people—both laypeople and experts—believe that since computers are getting exponentially smarter (and have been for many decades), they will become more intelligent than humans sometime within the next fifty years, and when they do they will be a major threat to us. I am one such worrywart. But when weighing this claim, many people—both laypeople and experts—often bring a specific, and horribly wrong, counterargument against the worrywarts. That argument goes something like this:

“A conscious computer? Like in the movies? Give me a break. Computing technology is centuries away from being able to create a machine that has feelings, awareness, and a sense of selfhood like that of humans. The human brain is far too complex. It’s pointless to worry so much about something that won’t exist for hundreds of years.”

This argument fails to realize what AI actually is. The first artificial superintelligence will not be a conscious being. It won’t have feelings, it won’t “hate humans”, it won’t be aware of its own capacity to think, and it won’t have a mind that can process and reflect on subjective experiences the way ours can. The skeptics are right that, given current trends of technological growth, we’re probably centuries away from being able to create such a truly conscious being. But that’s not the point, and it never has been.

The point is that consciousness and intelligence are not the same thing. And AI researchers aren’t trying to build artificial consciousness (AC). They’re trying to …

The War at Home

In an effort to be more patriotic, I’ve recently decided to start spending my personal income in the same increments as our federal government spends its revenues. First I pay off my numerous debt obligations, and then I have a certain amount left to spend.

This leftover amount is what I call my “discretionary spending”. Here’s what it looks like:

(No, this isn’t the pie chart that PolitiFact debunked. This is the actual pie chart.)

The smaller slices pay for my smaller, unimportant expenses, like the power bill, school, food, and rent. I could almost do without those things, as could we all. But do you notice the big blue slice that takes up almost half of the pie? Like our government, for the sake of my own safety, I’ve decided to spend almost half my money on this one thing. I’ve decided to spend almost half my money on…

While typing this blog post, I’m currently surrounded by a squad of heavily armed soldiers securing my house. But don’t worry: they’re part of my very own private paramilitary security force! I just hired them, and they’re only here for my protection. They’re here to keep me safe.

I’ve hired these brave soldiers to equip my house’s perimeter with an electric fence, barbed wire, and pillboxes, from which machine gunners constantly monitor my house and its surroundings. A cluster of land mines has been placed under my driveway, just in case an enemy vehicle tries to penetrate my …

La La Land Made Me Angry

Well, I finally saw the film La La Land and I have some opinions on it.

It’s a good movie. Actually it’s a great movie, and you should see it. It’s romantic, and sizzling with enthusiasm for life and for art, and directed with incredible class and style. In fact I’m super jealous of Damien Chazelle, who directed it, because he’s around my age and is way more talented than I am. How’d you get such mad directing skills, dude?! (Oh, you studied filmmaking at Harvard? I guess that explains that.)

As someone who’s always wanted to make a feature length musical film (still a bucket list item for me!), I got lost in the musical numbers, the choreography, and just how damn well the whole thing is put together. And La La Land provoked some strong reactions in me, as I think it will in any young artist, or young-at-heart artist. It made me feel that raw hunger for art that I felt in my early twenties, that feeling that no matter what I was working on, it was important, and necessary. It made me feel the calling that all artists feel in a fresh and new way.

That drive, that hunger—it never left me. It’s just as strong as it ever was, but it’s become less raw and more focused as I’ve gotten a little older. My artistic hunger has become so focused, actually, that it drove a wedge between myself and La La Land, a film …

Question Power

In the final episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson says something that I think demonstrates profound humility. After teaching us about the wonders of the universe for twelve inspiring episodes, he dedicates the final episode to explaining why curiosity and openness are so important. And at one point he looks directly at the camera and tells us, “Question everything. Even me.”

That was the exact moment when I first became a die-hard Neil deGrasse Tyson fan. He’s so dedicated in his quest for truth that he actually invites scrutiny and challenges to his own ways of thinking. He’s so eager to know what’s true that if he’s wrong about something, he actually wants you to prove him wrong so his beliefs will more closely mirror reality. These traits run so counter to the common, unspoken plea of many other thought leaders: “Question everything. Except me.” And unfortunately, it’s not only the bad leaders who adopt this code. Many otherwise good leaders follow it, too.

To me, one of the most frustrating aspects of this election season has been our willingness, both as individuals and as a society, to condemn authoritarianism when we disagree with it and yet eagerly embrace it when it caters to our own cherished beliefs. When our political opponents want to silence us and bend us to their will, we see that as evil. But somehow we think it’s okay for us to silence our political opponents and bend them to our will. …

The Epic Time Travel Story I Will Never Write

Has anyone ever written the Game of Thrones of time travel? By which I mean the definitive, sweeping epic that exemplifies the time travel subgenre in the popular imagination? I’m honestly asking; I don’t know the answer. I can point to the definitive time travel film—Back to the Future—but not necessarily the definitive time travel book. Which is weird, because I love time travel.

For every other genre of speculative fiction, there’s a particular, well-known book or two that encapsulates the genre in its grandest, most complex, most fully realized and developed state. Fantasy fans might point to A Song of Ice and Fire or the Malazan series. Sci-fi fans would probably point to Dune, or maybe Foundation. Horror fans can point to The Shining, or if not The Shining, then at least to the best of Stephen King’s work.

Even subgenres have definitive works. Military sci-fi has Starship Troopers and The Forever War. Cyberpunk has Neuromancer and Snow Crash. Weird fiction has the Cthulhu Mythos, post-apocalyptic fiction has The Stand, urban fantasy has The Dresden Files. I could go on.

But for the life of me, I’ve never been able to find the single time travel book that anyone can point to and say, “That! That right there. That one book is the time travel genre, defined.” You might say H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine fits the bill, but it was published in 1895, and is more of a …

A Brief History of the Thorn Saga

Demons are a fascinating concept to me, largely because they’re the most untapped of the great movie monsters.

Vampires? Played out. Werewolves? Snore. Ghosts? Blah. But I think there’s still a lot that could be done with demons, if we just had the imagination to think outside the box we’ve put the devil in.

Unfortunately, the creative world seems to be stuck with three stereotypes of demons:

1.) The loud, feral, violent, sex-crazed, Catholic demons you see in every possession film that knocks off The Exorcist.

2.) The snarling Buffy-esque minion-type demons with copious movie makeup that are basically indistinguishable from orcs.

3.) The hunky antihero fallen angel whose fall from Heaven was nothing compared with how deeply he falls in love with our virtuous young heroine, with whom he can never be due to X, Y, and Z. (I obviously love the antihero part; the rest not so much.)

Protestants have their own demon myths, but for some reason the “Protestant demon” has never really caught on in pop culture, to the best of my knowledge. Pop Christian fiction contains plenty of demon stories, most notably Frank Peretti’s super-popular This Present Darkness and C.S. Lewis’s classic The Screwtape Letters. Sometime during my undergraduate film studies, almost a decade ago, the thought first occurred to me that someone should write a horror-fantasy story about these Protestant demons, but one that’s not in any way religious and can appeal to a broader audience. And soon, as so many story …

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