Archive for November, 2011

Allow Us to Conduct You to the World that You Desire

November 30, 2011 Leave a comment

They wanted to know my preferred future.  So I told them.  Let the chips fall where they may.



My preferred future, eh? This is a slightly daunting assignment, since, as we’ve already seen in this course, futurists have an extensive track record of being hilariously wrong. Even extremely clever ones, like Vannevar Bush and his building-sized, waterfall-cooled computers, or Count Zeppelin and his fleets of slow-moving, comically vulnerable airships plying the skies of a curiously German world. As I am neither extremely clever nor a proper futurist at all, this should be… interesting.

Here are a few developments in the next 50-100 years that I consider possible and desirable (although, contrary to the suggested framework, I don’t always consider the things I prefer to be terribly probable, human nature being what it is).

Maturation of Human Attitudes

This is the whole fulcrum of my vision of the future. Hutchins’s 22nd century is predicated on the probably-overly-optimistic idea that it’s about time the human species grew up and threw off its lifelong addiction to superstition. Crystal gazing, orgone energy, pyramid power, astrology, ghosts, alien abductors, astrology, dire predictions of the world-ending wrath of some unobservable god or gods, psychics, astrology, and I may have already mentioned astrology – none of it’s real, none of it helps us advance, and it all has to go into the dustbin of history, alongside werewolves, trial by ordeal, and eight-track tape cassettes. We in the Western world, particularly, have no call to shake our heads at the benighted savagery and quaint folkways of primitive desert tribesmen when we’re still printing horoscopes in our daily newspapers and stifling important biomedical research because we’d rather wring our hands about scientists Playing God.

I recognize that this may be a difficult thing to ask of humanity, but on the other hand, it’s probably an easier ask than global brotherhood; in fact, I suspect it’s a prerequisite of global brotherhood. Until we abandon our superstitions and approach the world from one universal, rational perspective, we’re never going to make useful progress toward the goal of worldwide common understanding.

Which brings us neatly to


The future of governance lies in the decline and fall of militant nationalism. Particularly fashionable since Napoleonic times, this popular human prejudice is responsible for war, obstruction of global progress, economic instability, enormous expenditure of resources on vast and useless "defense" systems, and the general persistence of needless divisions among the peoples of the world. It’s a dangerous waste of time and effort and it has to go. This is the century when humanity must finally pull itself together and recognize that – not so much in the eco-warrior or flower-generation sense but as a concrete, practical reality – there is one planet Earth and one human species living upon it, and there are too many of us going in too many different directions for this "competitive nation-states" business to be workable any longer. It was fine in ancient Mesopotamia, but one only has to look at the mess that is modern Mesopotamia to see how counterproductive the concept of the sovereign nation is in the 21st century.

Mind you, even with modern instantaneous telecommunications and the like, it’s an inconveniently big planet with a staggeringly impractical number of people upon it, so a single world government is a pipe dream on the same scale as universal love and brotherhood. In the short or even medium term, it’s likely that the best we can hope for is a slow erosion of the ideological differences that divide the existing nations so completely. This needs to start locally, with, e.g., the rendering unfashionable of such unhelpful, obstructionist philosophies as Not In My Back Yard and There Goes the Neighborhood. These things can happen within one generation. For precedent, we have only to look to earlier social advances, like the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century.


If the maturation of human attitude is the fulcrum of this future, then education is the hinge pin. Without a comprehensive system of education, we’re never going to find our way out of the swamp humanity has managed to arrive in in these opening years of the 21st century. Rather than attempt massive reform to the aforemention systems from the start – systems which, in all their broken glory, many people today have a vested interest in maintaining – it’s my belief that a future generation, properly educated, will come to the conclusion that these changes are necessary without having to be led to it.

This is not the Communist dream of the New Soviet Man I’m talking about here, programmed from childhood in the Correct Thinking. I’m talking about a generation of young people equipped with the tools for critical thinking and rational understanding of the world that everyone should have – what Carl Sagan called the "baloney detection kit". Our schools should already be outfitting everyone who passes through them with these vital tools, but instead we find ourselves in a situation where an alarming percentage of high-school graduates have trouble with words longer than "rotfl". This will not do.

Fortunately, it’s also the simplest thing on the list to fix. Great schools require, when you pare everything back to first principles, one thing: a lot more funding than they’re getting now. Funding pays for facilities, it pays for equipment, and, most importantly, it pays for teachers. Right now a person has to be almost pathologically dedicated to the enrichment of the young, or completely out of options, to choose public school instruction as a career. Group A are great, and will continue to be great if we pay them a wage that isn’t an embarrassment to our entire civilization. Group B are not, and we wouldn’t need to retain them if we paid teachers enough to attract Group C, the really bright but slightly less crazy people who presently opt for jobs that pay better than fast-food management.

If schools had funding enough to attract and retain the right people, the rest of the problem would take care of itself. Get enough bright, dynamic, motivated people together and the endless wrangling about the finest points of the curriculum, the hidebound traditionalism, the lowest-required-effort assessment methods, and all the rest of the rigmarole that’s strangling education today will just go away, because people like that don’t have time for it. Does Simon Hauger look like he has time for student self-actualization index metrics? No, because he’s too busy getting great education done.

That’s it. That’s really, truly the key to the future right there. Pay teachers enough. If you build it they will come, and if they come, the next wave of graduates will be outfitted with everything they need to clean up what we can’t get to of the almighty mess our parents’ generation is leaving us. If you don’t build it, on the other hand, we’ll go down in 24th-century history as the people whose fault the new Dark Ages (ca. 2025-2350) were.

Ill-Timed Illness

November 30, 2011 1 comment

Sickness has played a fairly major role in this semester.  My own bout of bronchitis caused me to lose the thread of my online tech/soc/ethics/whateverthehellthisis class (more about this in future, I suspect), and just as it ended my history prof went down with a suspiciously similar illness and missed nearly two weeks of lectures.  Fortunately, what we need to know for the final in that class will be pretty well-documented, and I should be able to catch up.

Then my physics instructor experienced a sinus/ear infection that at one point caused him to cough so violently that, though recovered from the actual illness now, he has lost his voice.  This is particularly a problem for him, as his usual approach is to teach the lecture as if it’s a late-night TV commercial for that exciting new retail product, introductory college physics.  Seriously, it’s like spending three hours in a room with Science Billy Mays.  He even kind of looks like the late Mr. Mays.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that losing his voice is a particularly troublesome kind of disaster for this particular teacher.  When we arrived two Thursdays ago for lab, which was a demonstration of gas pressure phenomena (the balloon in the bell jar, siphon principles, etc.), he had to show us a video of a previous year’s version that someone had shot with a Flip camera.  Which is fine, except that the student he had doing the recording didn’t know that Flip cameras will not record indefinitely, so we didn’t actually have the part of the lab involving siphons.

This was smooth sailing compared to the following Tuesday (the day before Thanksgiving break began), when I arrived in the classroom (after, I just want to point out, a 75-mile drive from my house to where it is) to be handed a pair of DVDs by an unspeaking instructor and waved back out the door.  On the plus side, that makes reviewing bits of the lectures on temperature, thermal expansion, and the general gas law easier.   On the minus side, that was a lot of gas burned to pick up a couple of DVDs.  If I had known, I could have done it Monday, when I was already down there anyway.

Yesterday I got in and discovered that his voice still hasn’t returned, but he doesn’t have movies of the ideal gas law and calorimetry lectures, so… well, let’s just say it was painful to listen to.

On the other hand, it was the last of the lectures for my division of the class; our last test is next week, and then we have the option of coming back the following week (finals week) at the usual time to retake any or all of the four tests we have time for.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be off and write an essay about my preferred world future.  This should be interesting, particularly as it largely involves a wish that humanity will finally outgrow superstition.

Well, That’s Not at All Ominous

November 28, 2011 3 comments

A message posted to my history class’s electronic notice board by the professor during Thanksgiving break:

For reasons which I will not go into, [REDACTED] will no longer be a t.a. for this class.  He may continue to offer his assistance, but please know he has no formal affiliation with this class and it is my advice that you do not seek his help or accept his offers to help if he makes them.

This message, particularly the warning at the end, was reiterated in class today, with the added notes that Sacked TA might actually be dangerous to seek further assistance from, and, “You all know my other TA, he is not crazy and will continue to help you out.”  Pressed for further details, he would say only, “I’m a doctor, but not a medical doctor.”

All I can think of now is the scene in Real Genius where the guy just loses his shit in the common room.

We tell ourselves, “The right people will get this.”

November 3, 2011 2 comments

I was in German lab the other day.  German isn’t really a subject one would think of as a lab science, but that’s what it’s called.  It’s a supplement to the regular classroom sessions in which we spend an hour each week doing a sort of “immersion therapy” in the language lab.  Only German may be spoken in the lab unless some special circumstance intervenes, which is interesting in that, on the student end of things, we barely know anything yet.

One of the exercises we did this week was to split up into teams of two and work out a dialogue between a young man with an incredibly full social calendar and his mother, who seemed, if we were reading the handout correctly, to be meant to interrogate him comprehensively on what he was doing at every point in his very busy day.  My partner and I were not sure we had apprehended this correctly, so we beckoned Herr Tozier over and, with much fumbling, asked him if we were reading it right.

When he assured us that we were, I asked him, “Stefans Mutter – arbeitet sie für das Stasi, oder… ?”

(Roughly, “Stefan’s mother – does she work for the secret police or what?")

And then I had one of those “oh God what am I doing here” moments, because while Herr T got the joke, nobody else in the room did…

because no one else was old enough to know what the Stasi was.

If I had said “Gestapo” probably everything would have been fine – Nazis, as my old pal MegaZone reminds me, are timeless – but East Germany, not so much.

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