Robot series 4: An engineering problem

Posted in Society at 15:50 by RjZ

It may be easy to sort through a database to find the things you want or need to complete a project, but the logistics of bringing it all together isn’t trivial. We already enjoy world-wide, point to point, next-day shipment. Automated warehouses are the next critical step in moving things around easily and cheaply. Companies like Amazon have giant warehouses with thousands and thousands of different products. Getting to them can be like finding the needle in a haystack, but an automated forklift with keen, 3D capable vision, can scan kilometers of shelves, select the right products, and package them in a custom box for shipping.

But why find or ship anything when you can make it at home? 3D printers have been around for more than two decades, and now they’re going mainstream. Just don’t think of them as printers; think of them as Star Trek replicators. Today, they print with plastic or metal, but the technology is being adapted to print with nearly every conceivable material from textiles to food. 3D data capture technology will turn printers into 3D copiers. Need a spare widget? Snap a 3D picture and print yourself one. What effects will these developments have on society? Nearly all these developments aren’t the stuff of sci-fi. They’re more or less around right now.

Artificial Intelligence has been promised for decades and while we’ve seen the brute force mental achievement of Deep Blue, the chess computer that beat human masters, or the vast, encyclopedic knowledge of Jeopardy winning Watson and its ability to understand natural language questions, AI remains a tough problem.

We’ve been promised nano machines that will revolutionize everything from materials to health care (or turn everything into grey goo) and we’ve been expecting quantum and integrated optical computers which should be powerful enough to finally make artificial intelligence a reality, well, maybe.

Edison wasn't the only one to invent the lightbulb. It was inevitable.

Unfortunately, few developments have come from all these ideas even after so much effort. It’s been no waste of time, but these problems are extremely difficult. Robots and 3D vision aren’t like that. They aren’t a matter of invention and discovery, they are a matter of engineering. Where discovery resists time-tables and prediction, often occurring in fits, starts, or flashes of insight; engineering comes from mental effort, trial and error, and ingenuity. Business can be built on engineering because it’s reliable. Engineering results can be forecasted with some success. It isn’t easy to create brand new things from unrelated parts, but the goal is often in sight.

Many “inventions” in the past were really just innovations of engineering. The light bulb was nearly simultaneously invented by Joseph Swan, Hiram Stevens Maxim, and Thomas Edison. The radio, telephone, television, and dozens of other inventions have all been developed by multiple people nearly simultaneously. Each of these came into being because everything necessary to produce them had finally been discovered, and was essentially waiting for incredible engineers to put them all together. They were, so to speak, inevitable.

The promise of robotics, 3D machine vision and printing are inevitable too. How will they change the way we live? The impact of inexpensive automation, automated warehouses, 3D copiers, and safe robot assistants will be broader than just a few more gadgets. They will change economics, political power, and even how we value ourselves. Even if the Singularity doesn’t come in our lifetimes, everything we need for sweeping change is already out there, just waiting for some clever folks to put the pieces it together. No invention required.

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Robot series 3: Stuck in flatland

Posted in Society at 14:56 by RjZ

Google has taken street view off-road. Teams of (lucky) engineers are walking around national parks and wild places like the Grand Canyon carrying a backpack full of cameras and GPS devices. They’re working towards Google’s mission of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. Amazing stuff; you can see a demo here.

What’s missing from all this work is the third dimension. Of course, street view info is mapped onto rough 3D contours, but generally, the information being collected is 2D. For most things, that’s just fine. Humans experience much of the world in only two dimensions because everything beyond a dozen meters or so is essentially two dimensional. Mapping the world with street view is well-served with 2D information, but it’s obviously not the whole story.

Try this. Imagine wearing a camera that records everything you see throughout the day and uploads this information to a cloud-based server. Sometime later, you realize you’ve misplaced your sunglasses. What if you could search through all that stored information, find a copy of your sunglasses from a time when you knew you had them and then have the server search for the last place they were seen? Repeat for keys, where you parked your car…even for people you’ve met…what was his name again?

Everything necessary to do this already exists today just waiting for someone to bring it all together (and, make a business out of it to pay for it….) Critical though, is that 2D data alone make this problem much more difficult than it should be. For example, a 2D system can’t tell the difference between your mom, and a picture of your mom. Storing 3D information can actually end up easing bandwidth problems, and certainly the search problems that need to be solved before this idea becomes a reality. A single 3D model of mom’s face helps the system to identify her, even from her profile and not just her portrait. The sunglasses can be spotted lying on the counter face up or face down.

In Japan, an aging populace has been wondering who will take care of them as they enter their later years. The Japanese government has been heavily promoting robot assistants as a potential solution. The recent film Robot and Frank took a charming look at what these future relationships might be like; but for Robot to be able walk around, do the dishes, and cook (not to mention, learn to pick locks…) classic 2D machine vision won’t be enough. Not convinced? Check out these convincing anamorphic illusions and you’ll be convinced of some of the limitations of 2D vision!

3D adds much more than just image acquisition. It allows security cameras to match a persons captured face with a mug shot even if the angle shot is completely different. 3D motion capture can enable computers read sign language or lips or be used as an interface that requires no buttons or touching whatsoever. Machine vision algorithms, amazing as they are, are pretty simple today. More information makes them more powerful and emerging, inexpensive, 3D capture technologies provide that valuable detail. From industrial bin and picking, 3D copiers (a natural extension to 3D printers like Makerbot that already exist today) to more personal applications, compact, inexpensive, and fast, 3D data capture is just one more piece of the modern robotics puzzle.

[Disclaimer: the company I work for, Chiaro Technologies is developing just this sort of inexpensive, fast, accurate, 3D capture technology.]

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Robot series 2: Evil and dangerous?

Posted in Society at 18:19 by RjZ

The Terminator wants to kill John Conner. Most robots today don’t want to kill anybody, but they would if they got the chance.

Today’s robots are mostly just arms. Small, fast moving arms that pick up small objects and put them down somewhere else or giant, strong arms that wield welders on sheet metal for industrial products. These arms are precise and move in a carefully orchestrated dance that is programmed into them ahead of time and repeated perfectly time and time again. Most of these arms are dumb and blind and move incredibly fast. They’re dangerous and if one were to collide with you your head while moving on its appointed rounds it might kill you. As a result, automation robots are cordoned off in cages or behind glass.

Not all robots are like this of course. The iRobot Roomba is an automated vacuum cleaner that roams around your house scaring your cats while cleaning floors with little or no interaction from you. iRobot was founded by Rodney Brooks, formerly the chair  of MIT’s computer science department, Dr. Brooks has been hiding for four years at his new company: Rethink Robotics. He’s not the only one, but Dr. Brooks thinks robots might be more useful if they weren’t so dangerous. Rethink Robotics, along with a few other companies, are now offering a new class of ‘compliant robots’ which aren’t so fast, but much more friendly that today’s automation robots.

Typical automation robots are so fast and precise because they use powerful motors and precision gears to move grippers perfectly from place to place. Compliant robots, like Baxter from Rethink Robotics, use cheaper motors to drive springs that actuate the arm. When compliant arms come in contact with a soft, fragile, human, they give a little. Force sensors in the springs can slow them down and the puny human is spared. Since the blind and dumb arms won’t accidentally kill or injure anyone, they can be released from their cages and work side by side with us.

Sitting next to the robot does more than enable friendships; it opens up new opportunities for easier programming. For example, Baxter can be programmed by a person simply grabbing the cuff of its arm and showing it where to start and finish a movement. Compare that with traditional automation robots which sometimes take months or longer to program. Baxter, and robots like it, is cheaper, can be installed or moved around a factory floor easily and programmed for a new task in hours.

As most everybody knows, manufacturing has been leaving the United States and Europe for more than a decade now and the biggest driver has been cheaper labor. Even when poor Chinese laborers finally start demanding the same gadgets they’ve been cheaply building for the west, there will still be poor laborers in the next third world country to build them. The West loses jobs, but the rest work like slaves. It’s not a good situation, so, how do we compete?

“Reshoring” is the name of a trend-in-the-making: manufacturing returning to the West. There are still thousands of manufacturing companies the United States. They concentrate on high value, short run jobs that may last only for a few weeks. They’re responding to another important market trend: customization. New products from other small companies that get started on websites like Kickstarter can’t justify the tooling, high costs, or even traditional automation robots, that they’ll pay for with the economies of scale and a million parts. 
 An inexpensive, easily reprogrammed robot that works 24/7, without health care costs, is just the ticket for small manufacturing companies and the dozens of businesses they enable. Baxter and friends might well replace a few jobs (jobs that, for the most part, already left for cheaper shores), but, hopefully, they create just as many more in all those small, innovative businesses. At the same time, we can expect unique products for smaller niches and tailored to our individual taste.

No new technology here, but this slight tweak has the potential to change the balance of world economy. Baxter, by the way, is made in America.

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Robot series 1: big thoughts and robots

Posted in Society, Uncategorized at 10:09 by RjZ

I’ve been thinking about robots lately. I mean, robots are cool and they have a lot of promise but, like artificial intelligence and flying cars, we really haven’t gotten everything that science fiction promised. In Kevin Kelly’s book What Technology Wants the editor of Wired magazine explains that many technological inventions and the changes in the society they cause, happen as a result of tech that has already been around for a while. Often, everything has to be out there, in the marketplace, just waiting for enough pieces to come together and then it seems that suddenly something new has hit us as if it came out of nowhere.

In the next few posts I will review some pretty basic technology and show how this stuff has the potential to change everything. It probably will. The real question; the question I’ll be asking you, is how? What will life look like when technology changes the very socio-economic premise of our society? What do robots and communism have to do with each other anyway? What’s the difference between your mom and a picture of your mom? How can America get manufacturing back without improving the economy? What do Kickstarter and big pharma have to do with each other? I’ll talk about all that, but also robots. Come back and let me know what you think!

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Americans are mad!

Posted in Liberty, Society at 9:34 by RjZ

Yet another tragedy struck the United States and the rest of the world thinks we’re simply mad. Now, statistics and patently ridiculous statements from both sides of the debate are swirling around like flurries in a snowstorm.

Pro-gun politicians say “now is not the time to talk about gun control.” ‘Don’t play politics with people’s tragedy’ they suggest, but controlling the conversation is politics and it’s been very successful. Time heals wounds and the pro-gun side simply waits out the momentary anger that might motivate change. People’s positions rarely change. (If you didn’t feel like banning guns after the Columbine shooting, the Virginia Tech shooting, the Aurora shooting, well, the Newtown shooting isn’t likely to suddenly change your mind.)

Meanwhile, the gun-control advocates have been offering some pretty damning statistics around gun violence. The viral image comparing 10,728 gun deaths a year in the United states with a measly 8 in Great Britain is certainly disturbing. It wouldn’t be as impressive if population were taken into account. In that case, U.S. rate of gun deaths is only three times the rate U.K. rate. It’s still sad and disturbing but not nearly as frightening as ten thousand times as bad.

The most popular argument from gun supporters is that outlawing guns would do nothing to stop criminals from having guns. This specious claim doesn’t survive even the lightest scrutiny with respect to these tragedies. Each of attackers were law-abiding citizens who only became criminals after they finally used the guns. Just the same, taking guns away from people has does not have as much effect as you might imagine. Australia hasn’t had a gun massacre since it dramatically curtailed gun ownership, but gun deaths in that time have actually increased slightly. Gun massacres aren’t common occurrences and so we don’t really expect to get good statistics from rare events. Either way, countries with more liberal gun polices and gun ownership don’t always have more gun related deaths than countries where firearms are illegal. America just seems to be a particularly bad case. Maybe there is some other cause.

Now may be the time to do something, but let’s face it; for good or ill, Americans aren’t going move from gun-ownership being a constitutionally granted right and freedom to a complete repeal of the second amendment. The best gun control advocates ought to hope for might be some limitations of assault rifles or similar weapons. But would that be enough to really avoid these horrifying massacres?

Wait, that’s another embarrassing pro-gun argument: you don’t need a gun to kill people. Timothy McVeigh, they suggest, did his damage with fertilizer. Falling for this ploy would be a case of letting ‘perfect’ become the enemy of ‘good’. We will not ever be able to stop every person from inflicting violence on another and even attempting to do so would likely result in a world so devoid of freedom no one would want to live in it anyway. Yet somehow, we don’t give up and we try to fashion rules that straddle rights of the individual with harmony in society. It isn’t easy, and we often fail, simply because neither side will be able make a completely compelling argument isn’t a case for doing nothing.

So fine, maybe gun rights advocates will have to budge a bit and lose their freedom to easily buy assault rifles and high capacity magazines and gun-control supporters won’t manage to keep us safe by removing all guns from the hands of law-abiding citizens. Such a comprise might be sensible, but won’t likely accomplish much.

But there is one thing that’s different about the United States and other countries with nearly as liberal gun ownership policies, and it’s likely much closer to the root cause of the problem. What do each of the assailants in these recent cases appear to have in common? They were mentally ill. We don’t know that exactly, but frankly, isn’t it a good hypothesis that a person who decides shoot up a movie theater or elementary school has at least something undesirable going on in his brain?

The real path towards a solution might have nothing to do with gun control. Instead now is the time to increase access to mental health care. To work diligently to identify people who may later be capable of these acts and to offer them help, where possible, and, even detainment if proven impossible. Few industrialized nations have so little access to health care and particularly mental health care as the United States. Regardless of how you want to create the access, it’s clearly in the best interest of everyone that people can be identified and treated before they buy or borrow a gun. Mental health is part of health and if we’re going to guarantee life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we’re going to have to help those people who otherwise will wind up slaughtering innocent citizens.

It’s true, guns don’t kill people, but mentally ill people do walk into shopping malls with guns blazing. Instead of arguing about how dangerous guns are, or suggesting armed teachers might have avoided this carnage, let’s invest time and money in changing people’s minds about mental illness, and working to identify people with those illnesses before a sick teacher brings a gun to class not for protection but to act out her own violent delusions.

The time to act is now, but please, let’s do something about the cause of these horrific acts, instead of bickering about the tools.

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Changing landscape in the culture wars

Posted in Society at 18:00 by RjZ

The culture wars have returned, just as they do every year around this time. Fox News is reporting that Arkansas atheists are trying to stop kids from seeing “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” A local Arkansas paper offers a local, balanced approach to the same story, explaining this isn’t about the innocuous play, but the associated, and public school supported, proselytizing.

It’s safe to say The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers (wow! in Arkansas?) probably over reached on this one. They’ve opened themselves up to a public relations debacle over a play because a child might be ostracized for not going (attendance was not mandatory). Meanwhile, the American religious right gets to force its majority role on the student body while simultaneously playing the victim in this culture war.

Until recently, many considered it laughable that Christians could play the victim at all. In the United States 86% of congress claims to be Christian), and leaders [see 35:00] can remain on the government’s science committee after admitting “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, the Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.” The Pew Research Center has described atheists as harder to elect than muslims or homosexuals, but Christians slavishly repeat the story at every atheist billboard, and protest.

Thing is, they may finally be right. The War on Christmas hasn’t been lost, but they are finally on their way to losing.

Twenty years ago there were no billboards declaring “You know it’s a myth, celebrate reason this season.” Twenty years ago the Freethinker society wouldn’t consider stopping schools from proselytizing Christianity. In 1956 when “In God We Trust” was added to U.S. currency, American’s were afraid of the atheist Soviet Union and wanted to anything to ensure American values were maintained. Religion was a part of the fabric of society, regardless of which religion its citizens were.

But times have changed and people’s values change. Judging from comments on recent news of fighting in Gaza, average folks have begun to frame the conflict as a religious one, sometimes proposing both sides should just kill each other off.  Come on, you’ve imagined something like that yourself, haven’t you? Laying the blame on religion’s feet is a dramatic change of perspective. Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins have suggested that believers hate atheists much more than those from other faiths. A muslim and a Christian share an essential belief in a personal god. But an atheist mocks them both equally by refusing to accept even the notion of god. All the while, people have looked on at one religious figure’s personal scandal after another religiously motivated war after another ignorant attack on science, and have begun to wonder if just sharing essential beliefs is enough. Even the faithful distance themselves from the Westboro Baptist Church. Most Americans still believe in God, but is no longer automatically assumed to make you a better person. (I know, no one said that a proclamation of faith alone makes us a good, but when we say that we won’t vote for an atheist, we’re admitting that’s not actually how we think.)

In Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape he argues that one day ethics too may be explained by science. We have a long way to go, but no longer is the question of how do we know what is good presumed to be the sole domain of religion. But it isn’t only anonymous internet commenters who have begun to question the role of religion. Now, world recognized religious leader, Dalai Lama, has gotten people talking by his Facebook post: (as of this writing, over 149 thousand “Likes”)

The reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.”

The War on Christmas isn’t over. Fox News and many others will be able to milk this issue for years to come. Indeed, perhaps, now that the secularists are finally gaining some ground, we can likely expect to see more and more headlines about the conflict. During a mock debate with Bill O’Reilly, Jon Stewart described the so-called victims of the War on Christmas by saying “they confuse being able to pray everywhere with being able to pray anywhere; the loss of absolute power with persecution.”

Before the Freethinkers of Arkansas or Atheists United are jailed for war crimes, we will have to ask: when religion is removed from the public square is there real evidence of a moral failure in society? (And remember, correlation doesn’t imply causation!) Is the world really falling apart compared to the fifties? Are communities where religion and faith are the default really better off, more just, more safe? What’s changed is that more people are even asking the questions.

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Protest the protesters

Posted in Society at 15:57 by RjZ

I don’t blame Islamic protesters, marching around U.S. embassies and shouting death to America. It is too easy, from the point of view of a western person with access to mostly free media, multiple language websites, and some actual experience with the average American, to wonder how they could think Americans are out to get them. How could these angry young men could think that my friends didn’t see this horrible film insulting the prophet without cheering it on? Of course we were more likely out hiking or having a beer and had no idea such a low budget film was being made, let alone make time to watch it.

But if you live in the slums of Cairo and all of your news and information is highly skewed by the people around you, by the fact that your country has had a controlled media for decades, that your new, weak, government is desperately trying to figure out how to even stay in power in a democracy, and you’re surrounded by people who aren’t exactly seeing the benefits of western hegemony, well, maybe you might come away with some pretty extreme views. Compare with the bible-belt frequent-church-going, southerner and imagine how hard it is for him not to think that homosexuals are destroying families—he hears it every Sunday and, as far as he knows, he’s never met real homosexual person. After all, his gay neighbors are closeted in fear or got the hell away from their bigoted home town in their pilgrimage to the big city.

I don’t blame the protesters and I don’t believe they represent the average person in the muslim world, but that doesn’t mean I’m not angry! Where is the intelligentsia? Where are the wise religious leaders, civic leaders, newspaper editors, and young university students who do have access to a more balanced news, who aren’t afraid of losing a vote, and who might have even met a real-live westerner and noticed that we’re not all that bad? Shouldn’t they be marching in the streets shouting down these young hooligans who are dragging Islam’s reputation through the dirt?

Instead of suggesting, as the prime minister of Turkey has that “Insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad cannot be considered freedom of speech.” Leaders must remind angry protesters that “…insulting religion cannot be an excuse to attack people” as the prime minister eventually got round to saying.

It seems that must be the message. Regardless of how abhorrent you believe this movie to be, the response we’ve seen raging around the entire muslim world might very well not be representative of the average muslim, but I don’t see how I could know otherwise since the call to peace, the protest against this un-Islamic extremism, has been silent.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., muslims and copts are condemn both the film Innocence of Muslims’ insulting of the Prophet, and from my perspective more importantly, the misguided violent response. When religious extremists like the Westboro Baptist Church disgustingly picket military funerals in the U.S., everyone from fratboys to the Foo Fighters protest back—notably, without any violence.

I don’t blame ignorant hooligans, but, if this isn’t the real face of Islam (and I can’t believe it is) then where are the faith’s true warriors? Why is no one protesting the protestors?

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Best of both worlds or lesser of two evils

Posted in Society at 15:49 by RjZ

I know how many of you in the United States feel. You’ve seen enough political ads already and you don’t want either of them. It’s a common problem these days but not likely a new one. The American middle is frustrated by both the left and the right. Each side is working so hard to get their base out to vote, that they’ve move farther and farther from the rest, and indeed majority, of the citizenry. Maybe you’re one of the many self-described socially liberal, fiscally conservatives? Perhaps you’re the kind of person who wouldn’t mind if the U.S. were run a bit more like your home, that is, don’t spend more money than you’ve got, and don’t stick your nose into other’s business.

Why isn’t there a party that offers this? Even libertarians (who, theoretically offer exactly this recipe) are often tainted by a decidedly non-pragmatic view allowing for zero compromises. Does Ron Paul really think the Gold Standard is a practical solution right now? For those centrists seeking to get the best out of our two party system who are uncomfortable “throwing away their vote” on a party outside the mainstream, I propose the following simple solution.

Liberals in the Whitehouse, conservatives in the legislature. As a libertarian I actually like the idea of gridlock that such configuration has shown to produce. Wallstreet likes it too. The Dow doesn’t rise more for business friendly conservatives; instead it does best when power is split. I don’t want my government to do so much for me, as it’s nearly impossible for such a large system to avoid unintended consequences and not cost a fortune doing it. But don’t worry, this isn’t the real reason you should agree to such a balance of power. There are many advantages, even without gridlock. Generally, conservatives are better at passing laws that spend less than liberals and are less over-reaching. They preach small government and, even if they’re not always very good at living up to it, it’s safe to assume that their starting point for new laws isn’t exactly over-arching social reform. So let’s get them into the legislature where, if they’re going to write more laws, at least they’ll tend towards limiting government’s reach, and their extremist Tea-Party wing will scream at every penny they want to spend.

Of course, my liberal readers are screaming too right now about how deep conservatives are reaching inside people’s living arrangements and even into the pants of women! Today’s conservatives seem to think that religion, particularly, their socially conservative anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-anything that doesn’t look like a Christian Taliban version is part and parcel with small government and a Christian-God-First society is the only way to restore America to it’s former glory. This non-sensical view isn’t borne out by any evidence. Has the U.S. really fallen into deeper moral decay due to gays being married? Is it really worse than the 60s? Have they seen Mad Men (looks like people weren’t so morally upright fifty years ago either)? 2012 U.S. isn’t more morally corrupt; if anything, we’re simply more morally honest.

Never fear liberal readers! The crazy religiously motivated laws that a conservative legislature will write and pass will simply be vetoed by a liberal president. Why a liberal president (instead of, say, achieving strategic gridlock the other way around, with a conservative president and liberal legislature)? Frankly, a so-called elitist, liberal president is a better bet for foreign policy. Just a moment’s comparison of Obama and Bush II should provide at least some evidence here. A liberal president is better received by most of our international allies and can still aggressively respond to threats, without bluster or bullying. The current liberal administration ended a war, is ending another one, yet is no softy. They captured and killed the head of a terror organization that threatened us and jumped into a conflict in Libya where Europe dithered and proposed a no-fly zone while tanks rolled in to destroy a city. The same liberal president has restored or improved relations with critical not-quite allies like China and Russia; where as our current choice for conservative leader seems to think that antagonizing Russia is a plan that wouldn’t just play into Russia’s prime-minister-for-life strength. (it would!)

But there’s more. The chief executive has an important power beyond not acting like a bullying playground child. The president appoints Supreme Court Justices. Selected for life Justices wield incredible long-term social power that can change the face of our nation. If you’re one of the majority of Americans who wants the government to do what is necessary but nothing more (even if we argue about what necessary is) without limiting our freedoms nor telling us who we can have sex with, marry, or when we must have a child, then, no matter how much you might dislike a liberal president’s track record or promises, his or her choices for the Supreme Court are safer for you than the conservative.

You think you might like Romney and Ryan’s view for a financially secure, lower taxes, future, but wish they didn’t spend so much time talking about gay marriage, or how God has chosen Team America to be the best country on earth? Afraid of Obama’s invasive health-care spending and pinko vision of an everybody-just-has-to-help-everybody society, but you can’t deny, the guy did send Qaddafi packing and eliminated Osama Bin Laden, all while generally raising America’s profile world-wide?

Easy enough: you can vote libertarian, or, if that’s no good for you, at least consider how you can get the best of both worlds by voting for the lesser of two evils: Liberals in the Whitehouse and conservatives in the legislature! What’s your take?

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Could Obama-care cure obesity?

Posted in Society at 21:16 by RjZ

Is obesity the government’s problem? Debaters during a recent Intelligence2 US faced off over this topic. Those for the motion suggesting that the government is responsible and needs to, among other things, build more parks; while their opponents, including Paul Campos (of University of Colorado, Boulder), suggest that obesity is a myth altogether and that maybe we should stop accusing people of it if we really don’t want them to feel bad.

Just looking around during my travels, I can’t believe that obesity is only a problem of body types. Overweight appearing people are more common in some states than others and, judging by airplane seats, some countries have less of a problem than others too. Something must be going on and the government, through subsidies that have dramatically effected our food chain might well be culpable. The thing is, what could the government do about it?

Is education really the answer? Well, we’ve tried that before, with, for example, smoking, and it rarely moves the needle much in terms of public behavior. Rachel Herz’s book That’s Disgusting may have an answer.

Herz’s book surprises us by revealing that the complex emotion of disgust is learned, not innate. Little children aren’t the least bit disgusted by mud pies and their own poo, and, it turns out, the older we get, the less often we’re disgusted as well. Disgust is socially acquired and it helps shape our behavior in everything from what foods to avoid to which laws not to break.

Smokers continued smoking long after they learned how bad it was for them. American society is especially individualistic and thus, few of us care about what someone does of their own volition. If education did little to stop smoking, what finally changed people’s habits? Once it became known that second-hand smoke might be harming your baby, it became difficult to avoid accusing looks from others as you pushed the carriage, cigarette in hand. When the health risks of smoking became a social problem, opinions started to change. Disgust is social—when the group impact of smoking was seen not in its individual effects, but in a broader, you’re-killing-the-bartender, way it began to lose its coolness and smoking has certainly decreased dramatically.

Stigmatizing over-weight people has done little to lower shrink our waste bands. Of course, we haven’t yet closed the circle on obesity. Obesity is, of course, linked to a range of health problems later in life, but here we are, an individualistic society, and, well, that’s that individual fat-guy’s problem!

I don’t believe that obesity is the government’s business, but it’s quite likely that many will start disagreeing with me once the Affordable Health Care Act (Obama-care) is in full swing. Suddenly, that fat guy’s later-in-life health problems are my problems. They’re costing me money! The stigma of obesity could suddenly become real enough to effect change. Could this be an unintended (and positive) side-effect of Obama-care?

I believe it could, but there are a few problems. First, we can readily stigmatize smokers because, addicted as they may have become, it was, and still remains, their choice (even if a difficult one) to smoke. Obesity is sometimes a choice and sometimes genetics, and we barely know enough about why, let alone who is just eating too much of the wrong foods, and who has a much tougher battle that diet alone will not solve. It seems a bit callous, and hardly helpful, to sneer at every fat person for wasting our money if there is no fault to be found. Thus, some will get a free ride, living an unhealthy lifestyle free of disgusted looks from others because we can’t yet know if they’re “to blame” or not.

Sadly, perhaps we won’t have such an easy solution to a growing, (weak pun intended) problem. But while the government is busy trying to make obesity its business, maybe our money would be better spent removing and rationalizing the food and farm subsidies which have made so many empty calories so inexpensive to produce. If it’s not one set of unintended consequences, it’s another. Let’s fix one problem before adding some more.

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Math is beautiful, or just learning to think

Posted in Society at 19:36 by RjZ

The other day I got the chance to tutor my niece. She needed some algebra help; solving equations with exponents. I actually don’t think she really needed much help; what she needed was a chance to concentrate. I could hear her little brother bouncing around the room and vying for her attention and even her father was trying to facilitate the phone call. All this distraction seemed to make her want, most of all, was just to get this over with, and who can blame her?

I was pretty glad about one question she didn’t ask though. At no point did she raise the classic teenage reaction to troublesome mathematics, namely “when am I gonna use this stuff anyway?” It’s a fair question, actually. How often have you had to simplify equations of the sort x3y-2/x5y4? Note: hers were much more daunting than this! Working with exponents beyond knowing approximately what they are, isn’t something we have to do much in order to be sure our bank balance right, and I bet you just trust the bank’s computers to do that nowadays. Who balances a check book, or even uses checks, any more?

What high school teachers and parents alike fail to mention (and this too is understandable since not many students would likely listen) is that you learn this stuff not for the content alone, but rather to sharpen your brain and learn how to think. To learn that with some quiet contemplation and concentration, you too, can do it. Learning how to think is as much of the battle as studying algebra.

“I’m never gonna be a rocket scientist!” is another argument a teenager might make against annoying homework. Problem is, that’s today. Tomorrow, things might change and only by being exposed to this broad range of thought and experience can you reliably choose just what moves you. There is more than one reason most of us don’t end up becoming what we thought we’d be when we were 10 years old. It might not have been realistic to plan on being an astronaut or astronomer (which was certainly my plan). But even if it were, learning a wide enough range of things gives you the chance to realize that maybe you really want to be a ceramicist, neuroscientist, accountant, fireman, or teacher instead.

I’d already given up on the astronomer plan by the time I chose physics in college. Today, my degree mostly just makes people go “oooo, sounds hard” but I don’t use it very often either. Still, I’ll never forget the moment in my electro-magnetism class when we finally arrived at an equation that related two mundane natural constants for electricity and magnetism to…wait for it…the speed of light ( c2 = 1/(ε0μ0, in case you’re wondering). I was floored. I felt like Maxwell himself. How could the speed of light suddenly fall out of equations dealing with things like Ohm’s law for resistance. One minute we’re talking about capacitors and resistors and the next the speed of light is on the board. Sometimes the seeing the beauty in art is an inspiration. Other times, it’s the beauty of an equation. If you never got the hang of math, I can tell you, you’re missing out. (stop your snickering!) Hopefully, at least you gave it a fair try.

My niece resisted the typical teenager temptations, and I’ll call that a victory, even if she’s still having trouble with algebra right now (if you read this, feel free to call and ask for more help!) Loads of things give us trouble and that too is a lesson. Math may end up coming easier to her with time, or it may not, but learning your limits isn’t a bad thing either. Following your strengths is often a great path to happiness, and it works better if you have an idea what you’re actually good at. You can only know that if you keep trying at a bunch of things. And sometimes just letting your brain work on something in silence is enough for all that magic to happen.

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