Monthly Archives: November 2012

What Happens On Dec. 21?

Lots of students are asking me what will happen a few weeks from now on December 21, 2012. Some of them are really worried, so I wanted to write a post in case you might be worried too.

If you ask, just about everyone will tell you that Dec. 21, 2012 marks the end of the Mayan calendar. Why is this a big deal? Well, the Mayan calendar is actually a composite of three different calendars that fit together, like the way we use weeks and years (and sometimes lunar cycles) to measure time. There are 52 weeks (or 13 lunar cycles) in a year – but not exactly. There are a few days left over at the end. You would have to keep counting for a number of years (1,456 years if my math is good) before the new year started on the same exact day as the new week and the new lunar cycle. So the Mayan calendar is very long – about 7,885 years long. And Dec. 21, 2012 is when it finally comes to an end.

The end of the world? There are plenty of crazy ideas going around about how on December 21, a giant asteroid will hit the Earth, or how a black hole will appear and swallow the planet, or how the universe will just disappear for no apparent reason, or how a mysterious disease will suddenly turn us all into zombies. Not one of these ideas is based on facts or observations at all. They are funny – unless you are too young to know better. Sadly, many children are truly worried, even frightened, because they do not have enough experience to recognize a ridiculous piece of bad information. If you belong to that category, stop worrying! The only thing that is going to happen on December 22, 2012 is the beginning of a new Mayan calendar.

What do we do when the calendar stuck to the front of the refrigerator expires on Dec. 31? Do we hide under the bed whining about the world coming to an end? Of course not. We go buy another calendar, stick it on the fridge, and start over on January 1. There are two reasons why it doesn’t occur to people to do the same with the Mayan calendar:

First, it lasts for 7,885 years, and they didn’t have refrigerators 7,885 years ago the last time it expired, so this time seems more significant. Second, the Mayan calendar was carved out of big round stones – too heavy to hang on the refrigerator anyway.

So go ahead and make your plans for December 22. As for me, I intend to build, then eat, a gingerbread house.

Omega Point

If you have not yet heard about the Omega Point, you need to read this post. But you would have heard about it soon enough anyway; it is increasingly becoming a topic of discussion. The term “Omega Point” was coined around 1950 by the Jesuit priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (yes, he was French) to describe the point at which things would change so dramatically, so totally, that it would be pointless to make predictions about what would happen next.

Teilhard de Chardin was talking about a spiritual change, but roboticists, programmers, and artificial intelligence experts are using the term “technological singularity” to describe a similar change, technological in nature, that is coming in the near future.

In 1965, Gordon E. Moore made one of the most famous successful predictions ever, so accurate that now, fifty years later, we call it “Moore’s Law”. In plain English, it predicts that computers will become twice as fast every eighteen months. Moore’s Law has not only held true for half a century, it has defied obsolescence as the materials and components of Moore’s day have reached their limits: new materials and new technologies have appeared in time to keep progress going (and Moore looking more and more like a prophet). Today, at the end of 2012, this means we can buy a laptop for $1000 that is a million times more powerful – and infinitely more useful – than a similarly priced first generation home computer. But it gets really interesting when we finally have a computer with the same processing power as the human brain. Some very smart and well-informed people, mentioned a bit later in this post, think this is likely to happen sometime in the next fifteen to twenty years. This does not surprise you; there are enough movies about smart robots that such an idea no longer sounds far-fetched. Now, hold on to your socks, because here it comes. If Moore’s Law holds true – as it has for the last fifty years – eighteen months after that human-equivalent computer, there will be one twice as smart as a human. And eighteen months after that, another four times as smart. By that time, these artificial brains will be as far beyond us as we are beyond a chimp. One way or another, our world will change in ways we cannot imagine. The new intelligent machines will be able to find creative solutions almost instantaneously to problems that have us stumped. They will be able to design new mathematical frameworks to model scientific theories about things like antigravity and faster-than-light travel. And if they calculate that we are in the way for some reason, they might decide to do away with us.

I didn’t come up with these ideas; futurists like Ray Kurzweil, Bill Joy, and Marshall Brain have been talking about them for many years. These guys are not paranoid kooks. A little bit paranoid, maybe, but not kooks. The point is quickly approaching when everything will change – for better or for worse – so dramatically that our familiar world will be swept away.

Back to Teilhard de Chardin. His “Omega Point” was a spiritual change, a new stage of evolution beyond the physical, resulting in a connectivity (de Chardin called it the “noosphere”) that would unite humanity and make our big problems like racism and war a thing of the past. If this sounds just as pie-in-the-sky, rainbows-and-unicorns idealistic as the other guys sound paranoid, well, it is. The thing I want to say tonight is that our survival of the one may depend on our achievement of the other. If we can stop being stupid and violent and dangerous, then we are far less likely to make the kind of mistakes with technology that would result in our own extinction.

Beyond the Omega, there may be a new Alpha – or not. The choice is ours.

Freedom May Not Be What You Think

What comes to mind when you think of freedom? Some of the answers I get most frequently from students include:

“Doing whatever I feel like.”

“Not having anybody tell me what to do.”

“Being able to do what I want.”

At first, those three seem like the same thing, but they are not. The first statement is opposed to the next two, which are compatible but not equivalent. We will come back to the reasons why in a moment; first let’s think about maybe the most well-known image of freedom: “free as a bird”. Birds, or to be precise, their ability to fly, have inspired us from prehistoric times. Some of our most ancient stories tell of human beings achieving the dream of flight: Icarus, from Greek mythology; Jatayu, from the Hindu epic Ramayana; the Chinese legendary giant Kua Fu; and many other similar figures from all over the world. Oh, to be free as a bird! To leap up from the ground and take to the sky, where walls, rivers, mountains, even seas are no longer a hindrance; to ride swiftly upon the wind to anywhere you please!

But are birds really free?

Sure, they can (with the exception of ostriches, emus, cassowaries, kiwis, and penguins) fly over obstacles instead of climbing or going around, or simply staying put. But what do birds do with all that freedom?

The answer: the same thing as all the other animals. They do what they are programmed to do by their genetic code. Geese migrate over thousands of miles, but always on the same flight paths. Albatrosses ride the trade winds across the oceans, doing nothing for months at a time but hanging in the air and eating fish. Turkeys run through the woods eating bugs off the ground and fly flapping into the treetops to roost. Every day. It does not occur to any of them do do anything differently, to begin something new. They are really not free at all.

Doing whatever you feel like? To a fourth grader, that might mean skipping school, eating nothing but pizza and ice cream, and staying up all night playing video games. It does not occur to them to imagine what happens when the bills come due, the utilities are cut off, and the truant officer rings the doorbell one morning to find them crusty-eyed and bloated, miserable with toothache and scurvy. To a teenager, that might mean indulging a new-found range of emotion and desire, with little thought of what early parenthood really feels like. Adults who do whatever they feel like quickly face loss of relationships, loss of employment, and even the ultimate loss of freedom, incarceration. Ask Bernie Madoff how free he feels. Impulsive behavior – or a disregard for consequences – is a step in the direction of restriction, not freedom.

Not having anyone tell you what to do? If you are taking care of your own business without messing up anyone else’s, chances are you know this kind of freedom. Most people will not offer advice unless it is needed. Here we are back to social behavior: human beings have the option of either observing accepted modes of action, or removing themselves to remote places away from other people. No society tolerates for long a member who refuses to act with any restraint whatsoever.

Being able to do what you want…that sounds like a good definition of freedom to me. This will, of course, be understood as meaning that you have a plan for action that benefits you and does no harm, and that you are enabled to put your plan into effect. Being able to do what you want requires first knowing what it is you really want; this is very different from acting on impulse or animal instinct. You must know yourself before you can truly be free to be yourself.

Obviously, our three original ideas of freedom turn out to be completely different things, all connected with self-control. A complete lack of self-control leads to control imposed from without, and a corresponding loss of freedom. With basic self-control comes freedom from outside interference. Real freedom, self-realization, requires a high level of self-discipline, sufficient to control not only overt actions but one’s own entire being.

Freedom, it seems, is found through making and observing our own rules, while respecting others. The Golden Rule is the only one we need, but also the hardest one to keep.

If you found all this even slightly interesting, you may wish to read about Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development; a different subject but closely related to that of freedom.