Category Archives: Future

Nelson Mandela Is Free

Nelson Mandela is dead. The world is full of TV documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles, and blog posts about his life. Most of these are reverent tributes to Mandela’s remarkable contributions to freedom and equal rights for the oppressed, while a few loud voices attempt to paint him as a villain. I haven’t been following the media coverage too closely; there is no need. The figure of Nelson Mandela has loomed large in my consciousness for most of my life. I will not attempt to retell his story here – there are far better sources you can find easily enough. Rather, I want to share with you how Nelson Mandela’s life has influenced mine.

I may be the only person in the world to become aware of apartheid because of a model airplane. I was thirteen years old, and building model airplanes was my main hobby. (For the benefit of my younger readers, “hobbies” were things people used to do before there were smartphones.) I had just finished assembling a Dassault Mirage jet fighter, and the only thing left to do was paint the camouflage and fasten the decals. There were two patterns diagrammed in the instructions: a rather boring French Air Force paint scheme, and a much more exciting one unlike any I had seen. It showed the whole airplane painted like a cheetah, snarling head and all, and it was South African Air Force. It looked fantastic, and I went to find my father and show him what I was going to do.

“Paint the French one,” he said, to my amazement. Then he explained how South Africa was a populous nation of black people ruled by a small white minority through the brutal enforcement of an evil policy called apartheid. I had never heard that word before – like most Norwegian kids in the early 80’s, I was as ignorant about South Africa as I was about Africa in general. The truth was an unpleasant shock. I painted French colors on my Mirage.

Over the next few years, apartheid and South Africa grew increasingly in the public consciousness. By the time I was in high school, everyone knew that Nelson Mandela had been in prison for over twenty years for opposing apartheid in his own country. We sang “Free Nelson Mandela” between classes and listened to United Artists Against Apartheid singing “I ain’t gonna play Sun City” on our boomboxes after school. Social pressure became political pressure; the rest is history. International boycotts and trade embargoes, added to the disapproval of the global public, took their toll. The face of the entire anti-apartheid effort across the world belonged to a black man serving his third decade on Robben Island. When F.W. de Klerk became President of South Africa in 1989, he immediately began the process of ending his own government. Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990. Blacks were allowed to vote for the first time in 1993, with the predictable result that Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.

I don’t suppose anyone knew what to expect next. It would have been very easy for Mandela to rub salt into the deep and painful wounds left by racist-motivated atrocities, to inflame the long-suffering hearts of black South Africans against their white countrymen with words of anger and hate. Instead, he did the right thing – which, as usual, was the hard thing – and chose a path of truth and reconciliation.

And that is Nelson Mandela’s legacy to me, whatever anyone else makes of him: maybe the only public figure of my lifetime to play the roles of prisoner and president, of revolutionary and reconciler, of torture victim and healer of a nation. Now, after having done so much, he has sloughed off this mortal coil.

Nelson Mandela is free.

What You Don't Know Can't Hurt You…Right?

Gravity, it seems, has become a controversial subject once again! For most of my life I had been under the impression that gravity is an attractive force; every reference work I have found describes gravity as being attractive; yet apparently there is a portion of the population who disagrees. Let me elaborate.

The school where I work is, on election days, a polling station. Upon such occasions, the polling booths are set up near the main entrance; students are routed away from there, and everything proceeds as normal. I appreciate the dedication of the volunteers who monitor the polls all day, and usually stop on my way out to exchange a thankful comment or a bit of polite banter, depending on how tired they appear. A couple of weeks ago, one of the volunteers seemed to have had a very hard day. His face bore a heavy frown of weary disgust. I made the mistake of trying to cheer him up. My new business cards had just arrived from the print shop, and I handed him one with a friendly smile. The cards advertise this website; the front side asks “Are you terribly curious?” and the back reads simply “terriblycurious.com”. When I give someone a card, the usual response is to read the front and ask, “What’s this?” Whereupon I reply, “You see? It works!” Not the cleverest thing in the world, but it’s nearly always good for a quick grin.

Not that day! My disgruntled victim looked at the card and sneered, “What’s this?” I was already regretting my choice of daily public relations, and decided against the banter.

“It’s a general knowledge website,” I explained. Waving my hand about in an awkward fashion, I added needlessly, “I’m a teacher.”

His sneer grew into a snarl. “Hah!” he spat, obviously of the persuasion that teachers fall somewhere between pickpockets and drug dealers on the scale of social undesirables. “All right then!” he continued, as if to say let’s see if you know your stuff. “Is gravity a push or a pull?”

I hesitated for a second. My class had just finished experimenting with gravity; we had established to our satisfaction that an object held above the floor will, upon being released, fall to the floor. We had furthermore concluded that this behavior was due to a pulling force known as “gravity”. I considered the possibility that the gentleman confronting me was joking in a strangely belligerent mode, but a second glance at his expression rendered that hypothesis incredible. I gave the most concise answer I could: “Gravity is an attractive, or pulling, force.”

“Huh!” My antagonist tossed the card on the registration table in an overt gesture of perceived worthlessness. “Shows how much you know. Gravity is a push! Look!” And he pulled a pen from his pocket, held it high above his head, and dropped it. As it hit the tabletop, he threw his head back and fixed me with a glare of triumph worthy of Louis Pasteur showing a germ through a microscope to a disbelieving critic.

I tried to smile without showing my teeth. “I’m afraid I have to disagree. You see, the pen falls to the table because of the Earth’s gravitational field. The origin of that field is the Earth’s center of gravity; the pen falls toward the origin, thus the force is attractive, or a pulling force.”

He was utterly unimpressed. With a final contemptuous grunt, he dismissed me and all my heresy with a dismissive wave and turned away; the interview had come to an end. I walked away mystified. How had this poor man grown as old as I with so little understanding of basic scientific principles?

Alas, in our time science has become politically useful, and therefore subject to controversy. The USA has the dubious distinction of being the only nation in the industrialized world in which a significant percentage of the citizenry flatly disbelieves what passes for common knowledge in the rest of the planet.

We need conservatives to make sure we keep those things worth keeping as we travel, each moment of every year, from past to future. Just as importantly, we need liberals to make sure we continue seeking the best possible future instead of clinging to a past which, every second, disappears beyond recall. As an educator, my nature is to work for the increase of knowledge. Our nation will not long remain competitive if we reject any knowledge gained simply because it does not fit our current understanding. The result would be a scientific community made up of individuals like my befuddled friend at the polling station. Our national pride would be the least of our losses. What we don’t know can indeed hurt us.

The Important Things

In a valley nestled between the mile-high peaks of the Mitras, the unmistakable Cerro de la Silla, and the Sierra Madre Oriental lies the city of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. Founded in 1596, it is the third-largest metropolitan area in Mexico and a major industrial hub. But its people are the reason I will always love Monterrey.

CerroDeLaSilla

My wife grew up here; most of her large family lives here still. The old house resounds with the noise of children’s cries and laughter and running feet, of many voices talking. It smells of coffee and pastry and eggs and ham. These are more than in-laws; they are my own people.

This afternoon I am visiting Colegio Mirasierra. No school in the world has a more beautiful view: the twin peaks of La Silla – named for its resemblance to a medieval Spanish saddle – loom behind the campus. Opposite, the jagged ridge of the Eastern Sierra Madre rears against the turquoise sky. I used to teach seventh grade here. My sons once ran around this place in their green and white sport uniforms. Good memories are everywhere.

 

School is letting out, and students are everywhere. The halls and walkways are rivers of green and white. It is the busiest time of the day, but Lulu Valdes, the academic director of the school, greets me with the same warm smile and unshakable poise I remember from years ago. We talk of the last six years and the joys and troubles they have brought to both sides of the border. Lilia and I are both struck by the difference in the rhythm of life. Here, there always seems to be time for a visit and a good talk. Back in the USA, things are faster, as if people are caught in a perpetual cycle of production and consumption. We wonder what will become of the cycle when automation and artificial intelligence – already taking cashiers’ jobs, along with those of forklift drivers; soon to be followed by the rest of them – pushes the jobless rate to 90%. Life will doubtless become simpler for many of us, whether we wish it or not. Maybe we will use the time to sit and talk more, to eat slowly and enjoy our meals, to visit friends and turn our minds to other pursuits than production and consumption. That would, we agree, be not altogether bad.

It is Thanksgiving. I am thankful for the wonderful people all over the world I have been privileged to call my friends and colleagues. I am thankful for the good will that works quietly and ceaselessly while corruption and evil strut and rage, in vain. I am thankful for places like this place, for times like this time. I am thankful for having the choice, in every moment, to stop and see the important things.

Old Dog, New Tricks: Part 3

October is here. More truthfully, October is halfway over! I have spent half the day improving my programming skills, which are…improving.

I have not created the killer app yet, but I have a few good ideas and an increasing understanding of how to translate them into functional code. I know what “architecture” means in the context of software design. I am 90% finished with the online course in the Ruby language available on Codecademy; 41% finished with the course in Javascript; working through C++ using CodeBlocks, and making progress in learning animation together with my son. He learns faster than I do, which is great because I love seeing him acquire a useful skill; it is also kind of discouraging because I used to learn that fast, and watching him makes me feel old. But it is inspiring as well, because he still likes to work with me and his energy and enthusiasm are contagious.

Maybe old and young people are meant to work together. Old people have more discipline, persistence, and experience; young people bring energy, imagination, and a fresh outlook to the table.

So I went to the library today and came home with a stack of books, half of which involve technology. October is here, which marks one year and a month since I started blogging. Eight months since I started learning about programming; five months since I had the idea of building apps. Three months ago, I set a goal for myself to have built an app that is good enough for people to want to pay for, within a year. I am starting to think that just might be possible.

If it sounds like I am tooting my own horn today, you understand me completely! I feel terribly proud of myself for starting to learn how to interact with technology at age 42, instead of just going “gentle into that good night”. Old dogs CAN learn new tricks.

And (with apologies to Dylan Thomas) learning a new trick beats simply raging against the dying of the light.

New Year's Resolutions

Long ago when I was young, I used to tell people that the only New Year’s resolution I would make was to not make any resolutions. Maybe I was trying (in a sophomoric kind of way) to be witty; perhaps it was a rejection of what I perceived as a useless tradition. After all, aren’t New Year’s resolutions famously kept for two weeks and then abandoned? Why bother making great promises you know you’re unlikely to keep? What makes people do this year after year?

Well, the end of a calendar has an effect on our minds (see my article on the “Mayan Apocalypse“, which I correctly predicted would not happen: a feat of astrological wizardry as amazing as the ability to predict sunrise tomorrow). The end of one thing signals the beginning of another, and like the old song says, the beginning is a very good place to start. People naturally want to turn over a new leaf with the new year.

So why are New Year’s resolutions notorious for failing? It’s not because they are a bad idea. The problem is that, although hoping and wishing and dreaming come naturally, good planning skills do not. We have to learn those, and long-term project management is not a core subject in elementary school. It should be.

For the last decade or so I have gone back to the tradition of making a set of resolutions for the new year. I am happy to say that they have helped me change my life in good ways! There are several reasons for this, none of which I discovered on my own. You can find plenty of good books and courses very easily, all of which will build on the same basic principles, including (but not limited to) the following:

1. Don’t be afraid to dream. And when you dream of your future, go ahead and make it a big dream. Why settle for anything less? It’s your dream, and it should make you happy. Just remember that it is still only a dream, and it is up to you to make it come true.

2. Reality check. There are two good reasons for this: first, some dreams are less possible than others; and second, it is a good idea to make sure your dream is not disguised as something else. If all this sounds kind of weird, let me explain. It’s OK to have really big dreams. That is how every great achievement begins! Flying, diving to the bottom of the ocean, and walking on the moon were all impossible until somebody had a really big dream. You should be aware that big dreams will require great effort. If you dream of winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, or exploring Mars, or being elected President, who knows? Those things are unlikely, but certainly not impossible. If your dream is to rule the world from your orbital space station, you should probably get help. Even if you genuinely desire to rule the world – let’s say from a skyscraper in New York, to keep it simple – is that what you really want? Why would you want to rule the world in the first place? Maybe a dream of ruling the world is really a wish to be respected, or to be in control. You don’t need to conquer the world to have those things.

3. Make a plan. Without a plan, your dream is no more than that – a wish, a hope. What needs to happen for you to fulfill your dream? For example, if you dream of exploring Mars, there is more than one way to get there. You could become a billionaire and build your own spaceship, or you could become an astronaut and be selected for an expedition, or you could wait for somebody to build a colony and sign up as a volunteer. All of these plans might get you to Mars, but they have different requirements. You will need to know yourself first. Are you the kind of person who can carry out your plan? You might need a plan for how to become that kind of person before you can achieve your original goal.

4. Turn your plan into a list of actions that you can take. Work backwards from your final goal to your present condition. This makes it easier to keep focused on what it is you want to achieve. For example, to be selected for a Mars mission, you would have to be an astronaut. To be an astronaut, you would have to work for a space agency. To work for a space agency, you would have to graduate at the top of your class in a science program. To do that, you would have to get into the program and study hard with a high-powered peer group. For each step, you should get a clearer idea of what you need to do today.

5. Break your plan into steps. One step might be getting a certain kind of education, or being in excellent physical condition, or meeting a particular individual, or anything else that helps get you from where you are now to where you want to be. It is useful to break your plan into steps that each have a time limit and a specific goal, for example “this year, I will find the best students in my level, join with them in a study group, and improve my grades by one point.” Once you have a year-by-year plan that will get you to your goal, break it down into smaller, more specific tasks that you can check off monthly, or even weekly. The point is that every day can bring you closer to, or farther from, your dream. It all depends on what your actions are each day. An old proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Find out what the first step is, and take it. Then take another.

6. Keep going. A journey of a thousand miles does indeed begin with a single step, but there are another 30,000 steps (roughly) after that. Don’t be discouraged; just keep walking in the right direction. Do something every day that brings you closer to your goal.

If you haven’t made a New Year’s resolution, you now have a good reason to do so! Make a plan for the next year that will help you achieve your dream. If you discover new goals and dreams along the way (and you probably will), plan for them too! Life is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy it, and may your dreams come true!

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.