Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Incredibles

The dust has long settled on the theme of teams beating individuals, or viceversa. We already passed judgement on that in the old post Teams vs. Individuals.   But what if the participants are of the Superhero class. A Superhero in a comic book and in real life has extraordinary powers of some sort.

These extraordinary powers are generally uni-dimensional, either the ability to fly, run at amazing speeds, climb walls like arachnids, or some other very specific quality. Even a Superhero cannot excel at everything.

Specialized traits force screenwriters to sacrifice credibility through plots where a narrow ability somehow saves the day. This is compounded by most superheroes working independently, so if there is no use for the skill, that is it, the superhero is as powerless as any mortal.

Sometimes, like in The Incredibles, Superheroes operate as a team, in this case as a family of superheroes. Interestingly its creator, Brad Bird, was open to a sequel of the movie if he could come up with a plot superior to the original one. 

Here are the powers the sequel characters should have. They are not physical powers, that is boring, we already have powerful machines.

One has the trait of knowledge. Knowledge is power you might say, and we can use that character in half the action movies you see on TV. 

A second one knows how to read people, a not so subtle variant over raw knowledge. Reading people helps untangle things involving human motives and actions. Tangle and untangle people.

And the third just understands. Hard to explain what understanding the essence of things means, but superheroes are seen in action, not explained.

Reality provides abundant plots. Having named their powers I can now stop and let plots happen.

Monday, August 20, 2012


I remember the earliest diagrams of transistor circuits from Professor Rasines and how they worked. Professor Rasines was a mentor, because in my book a mentor is one whose teachings we remember, not one whose teachings we understand. 

One may argue that my mind was then "tabula rasa" and recorded anything new thus turning every teacher into a mentor, but that is not the case. His sentences were important and synthetic enough to be stored. For example the mysterious precept "beware of a person that does not laugh".

I never understood why I had to beware of them. I do use and abuse humor, possibly because I believe people take themselves too seriously. And just like that, a couple of days ago, a comedian-academic shows up on my radio dial to prove Rasines' wisdom.

Check out this link for Robert Lynch's take on the role of humor in human evolution. Lynch believes a reaction to a joke reveals if people's beliefs and preferences matched what they found funny. By laughing at the same joke we signal to each other that we share the same values and beliefs. 

So far so good. A way of predicting the fate of a blind date, or an engagement would be through laughter and humor. I buy that. 

But it gets better, Lynch experiments with laughter vs. self-deception (where self-deceivers are people who don't see their own values and beliefs clearly), and remarkably self-deceivers were less likely to laugh.

Rasines has been vindicated, my use of humor has been vindicated, I am just too lazy to find out the hard way what others are all about, so I just test their reaction to my humor.

Today, on the same dial, the late Gore Vidal is asked what does he want to be remembered by. He bluntly replies that anybody stupid enough to want to be remembered will surely be forgotten.

Want it or not, my mentors are remembered.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Compound interest stopped being the most powerful force in the universe way before I heard that Albert Einstein may have never said it was. I have heard about the power of exponentials from other credible people, and I heard that in person. But is exponential growth a force in the usual sense of driving action? Or is growth a force only to the extent that it pushes and displaces things around it?

A powerful force must lie behind actions that otherwise would not occur, or that otherwise would be unexplainable. Specifically human actions that are unexplainable either under the opposing models of Homo Economicus or Homo Reciprocans. 

These actions pop up everywhere, from people running in front of a dozen bulls in Pamplona every year, to entire countries placing a Queen and her family in Buckingham Palace to lead a life of idle ceremony for 60 years and then make a big fuss to thank her for her service. What service? Privilege is no service.

Mysteriously unexplainable are familial episodes of honor killings. Make one to reconsider if all parents really want the same for their children, and if we are all really driven by the same forces.

Partially unexplainable are the self sacrifices of the Fukushima nuclear plant workers deliberately taking radiation. One may argue they fall under the same self-sacrifice umbrella of suicide bombings in war, a la kamikaze or their well known Middle Eastern variants. But the latter ones are hardly explainable, because when a young person sacrifices their entire descent bloodline disappears, by not ever happening. Why is then the suicide bomber profile a really young person as opposed to an 80 year old bomber whose bloodline is already spoken for?

The invisible force behind all these is Culture, making it more powerful than compound interest. Anthropology early on defined culture as some sort of cultivation of the mind, but the URL in your browser shows that this is my blog so I get to pick the definition, one with some McGrew elements. Patterns of behavior that are consistent across performers in social units, patterns that endure across generations. 

Or Culture simply as a set of actions we take automatically, without questioning, out of group tradition.

Right or wrong, postulating Culture as "the force" is a more benign view than the alternate mantra of the only common thread in the world being absurdity.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


Time to break a lance for gas guzzlers. A curse affects most oil producers and many oil consumers, and if gas guzzlers hasten the end of our "Oil Age" they are welcome. Walking is the wrong metaphor here but I walk the walk by feeding a 3.5L engine for as long as I can.

Given Sheikh Yamani's mantra "The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil" does conservation delay the end of the Oil Age as I suggest?

GM folks are doing high fives since the Chevy Volt earned multiple Green Awards in 2011. Not earth shattering to have a plug-in-hybrid in 2011 when GM had a fully electric vehicle in 1996, the EV1. And really old news when Ferdinand Porsche made Lohner-Porsche mixed gasoline electric cars (aka hybrids) around 1901. The same 1901 year the Oil Age arguably started at the Spindletop oil field in Texas.

I want to witness the end of the Oil Age. Electric cars are long overdue, but I do not have another hundred years to wait for them. And it is not clear conservation is always welcome. Riding a bike and using solar energy are great, but more efficient gasoline cars can have unintended consequences.

Doubling fuel efficiency, for example, means oil supplies will last twice as long. Is that good?

Actually with double car gasoline efficiency producers could raise fuel prices with no impact to consumers. That is what I would do in their place, and cartels are smarter than me. Producers would get twice as much per unit of production, instantly making them twice as rich either on revenues or reserves. A higher sustainable oil price also adds production capacity that would not be viable at lower prices, along with the environmental impact of production, emissions, and the prolongation of the Oil Age.

Granted, one can dig deeper than my facetious plot does. Me, I find no heros in the story worth a curtains call when it ends, preferably sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Minkey

Not that we can avoid the pitfalls of neglecting the important by spending energy in minutia, but in our family we at least have a term to identify such situations. A minkey, as Inspector Clouseau's French pronunciation of the word monkey.

The metaphor is inspired in a great scene from "The Return of the Pink Panther" where distracted checking the license of a blind accordionist and his monkey, Clouseau botches a bank robbery.

It turns out that the Social Security Administration denied survivor benefits to twins artificially conceived after their father's untimely death. The case bubbled up all the way to the robes at the Supreme Court. There are about one hundred such cases in the whole country, so this case does not affect the citizen's lives in any meaningful way, and clearly the lawyers and process involved will cost much more than just paying based on pragmatic and humane common sense. That case is a minkey in my book.

I understand that justice is done one case at a time, but God knows while the nine justices deal with this minkey bigger injustices fester and grow.

And before my disappointment wanes I open the umbrella to the fallout of the Health Care Individual Mandate case just started at the Supreme Court. Three years of legislative energy hanging by the thread of the decency of a few unelected appointees in robes. Nine lucky robes that landed a job and health insurance for life are deciding for lesser ones.

I can accept any ruling, but I cannot accept a 5-4 ruling. The law may be flawed, but an outcome where it is flawed to roughly half of them and not flawed to another half means that more than law experts they are political animals.

If we ask untrained jurors to be unanimous in their findings why can't we ask from justices the same thing? Stay sequestered until you agree, or let me get my Justice from a blind accordionist and his monkey.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Close elections maximize the leverage voters have to get their singular issues addressed. That can be useful, but a 51-49% kind of result tastes of division. Division tastes bitter.

I wonder why we bother counting votes at all. If forecasts show a conclusive result, they can be used to call the winner without voting. If forecasts are very tight we should toss a coin. It is cheaper and less prone to manipulation than vote counting. A close call means we are ready to live with either outcome.

With elections decided by statistical sampling, the sampled population has a higher chance of influencing the result. High schoolers study every day in case they are called up the next day. People would likewise care to be informed about the candidates in case they are sampled.

Granted, with my scheme individual votes are not counted. But who cares about counting every vote when a single vote cannot make a difference. Take California, before the polls close the elections are generally settled by the Eastern states results, so no vote here counts. But even in perfectly synchronized elections what are the chances that my lone vote decides the outcome?

The odds of a single vote deciding an election are lower than the odds of dying in a traffic accident on the way to vote. And yes, accidents seem to be higher on Election Days according to Mark Brady. He also tackles the myth that one should vote else one cannot complain.

"Don't Blame Me, I'm From Massachusetts" Nixon era bumper stickers morph into "Don't Blame Me, I did Not Vote" but the idea remains, you can only complain if you did not vote for a deficient leader.

Personally I wish for 70-30% outcomes so we have a sense of direction and common purpose, yet without falling into the ridiculous 99% results common in some places. Places I wouldn't like to live. Places where the ruler can say he is the 99%.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tall Order

I just heard that Gratitude Healing is remarkably effective. A week of deliberate focus on things one is grateful for yields six months of measurable benefit to one's mind. A 24 to 1 return is remarkable, especially when I did not even know about gratitude healing until last week.

When wishful wishes had us try raw food as the panacea du jour, we ended up at Cafe Gratitude in San Francisco. The apex of raw vegan foods along with a spiritual holistic approach to nutrition. Strange decor and personnel. The waitress surprised us with her: What are you grateful for today? Followed by my quick facetious answer.

I am not bothered by the formulaic waiter line: How are you doing today? I like it and defend it when questioned as insincere. But my answer about gratitude was cynical. I forgot what I thought I learned from a very wise person, cynicism is not wisdom.

Turns out Cafe Gratitude is closing most locations and laying off most workers. Looks like one ungrateful server sued the place over pooling server tips across locations, and the owners don't feel like defending against the suit. Strange and ungrateful reasoning.

Gratitude is a tall order. The best time to exercise it is precisely the least likely, when things are going well. I flunked gratitude at the Cafe even when things were not going well.

And if it is not gratitude another spiritual boost in the news comes from psilocybin. In the John's Hopkins study 30% of the participants reported the most spiritually significant moment of their lives was under the influence of psilocybin. The medical possibilities are intriguing I hear.

Maybe pharma will rediscover and repackage the Magic Mushroom the Aztecs knew as teonanacatl and used until suppressed by the Spanish. They replaced the Aztec ritualistic use of the teonanacatl with the sacrament of the Eucharist, which in a roundabout way has the following interesting definition in Greek:

"εὐχαριστία" (transliterated as "eucharistia"), which means thankfulness, gratitude, giving of thanks.