Welcoming 2020 I guess

(NOTE: you can skip all the downer stuff if you like, and go straight to my happy wishes for you in bold text at the end.)

The last decade has been pretty good to me personally. I mean, I almost died a couple times (OK three times) but you know, it’s like striking a student’s worst test scores before averaging the grade. Seen that way, I’m holding up fine.

This was the decade my country slid off the road and began rolling down a steep hill through the brush toward fascism. Lot of people trying to grab the wheel and maybe hit something soft but the outcome is still in doubt.

This was the decade my planet really began to show the symptoms of global warming. I mean, California was on fire, and Australia is really on fire, and Greenland ice melting is getting ahead of the worst-case scenario, and on 24 December Antarctica melted more ice than any summer day ever, and Northern permafrost is losing its perm while belching methane, and multiple countries have elected climate deniers but hey, at least ordinary people are finally getting the message. Often by running for their lives.

My mother isn’t doing very well. She’s in her 90’s and had an awful stroke which (thanks to immediate medical attention) she rallied from, but now she’s headed into the memory unit. My brother and his wife are her heroic primary caregivers and both of them have medical connections so she is receiving great care. But in my last conversation with her I realized all the rest of our conversations will only be about happy things even if they are not real things. If there were any questions to answer or issues to resolve, they’re somewhere in the Gulf now.

Wait, you’re still here? Wow. I got nothin’ but props for you for hanging in there.

Sorry, man, I shouldn’t be a downer like that. I mean, we’re both riding six sextillion tonnes of metal and rock, completing another orbit around that fusion reactor in space. We’re in this together.

So here’s the thing: we have this invisible spot marked off in our orbit, and when we pass it some guy’s gonna make a ball fall down or something and we’re on track for the next round. And there’ll be fireworks.

(They already HAD fireworks in Sidney – how’s that for irony?)

Here’s the important part 🙂

Anyway, here is my sincere hope for you and yours: I hope New Years’ comes next year and you can ask yourself just one question:

“What the hell was I worried about? Everything turned out fine!”

Gonna leave this post up for a week, then take it down. Have a great year!

(NOTE: I don’t care about that argument on when a decade “really” begins.)

Prepping for a historic campaign of lies

I have bad news for you: the 2020 campaign season is ramping up.

In the past this has meant candidates saying stuff that was a bit exaggerated with the occasional whopper. But now it means literal troll farms spreading outright lies, which will be amplified by cable news, and even candidates. The apparent goal seems to be to undermine the very concept of truth, with so much “fake news” that the phrase will be applied to all news.

There are fact-checking sites, but the trolls have done their work so effectively that fact sites are constantly accused of bias. Use them, but be prepared for monkeys screaming “Fake News!”

To make matters worse, new technology called “DeepFake” can create videos of people saying things they never said. That’s going to make fact-checking even harder. What to do?

Here’s my tool kit. These are practical things I do to try stay in the orbit of reality:

  • Don’t watch TV news. Once upon a time, TV networks spent 23 hours preparing for a one-hour program. They weren’t perfect, but they took their work very seriously. Now teams of talking heads sit in front of a camera, reacting to stuff. This goes on all day and night. If you had a fire hose that sprayed bullshit, it would be cable news. Avoiding it will reduce factual pollution in your head.
  • Read books on factual topics that aren’t specifically related to current news events. As Mark Twain may have said; “History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes”. So reading history will help you spot patterns. And the physical world does indeed repeat itself, so invest some serious time in science and math. That way, when someone makes a claim that seems… improbable, it will stand out.
  • Think in terms of probability. The Mark Twain quote above can’t be confirmed, so it’s better to say he “may have” said it. This is a way of keeping an open mind without letting your brains fall out. Is a quote or action consistent with what you know about a person? Then OK, sure, maybe, until it’s confirmed, which means “high probability”. Not consistent? Then probably not. Probability as a proportionate output of consistency, which still leaves room for stuff you never saw coming.
  • Follow experts on social media. There are people you can follow today who are real experts in the actual field of study in question. Engineers, system designers, historians, specialist doctors, epidemiologists, geologists, climate scientists, space scientists, physicists… the important thing is that they are experts in a specific field.
  • Watch for media people who refer to expertise. For example Bill Nye, a science guy, is a licensed engineer with more authority in engineering than other topics. So when he talks about gender expression or climate science, he consciously lines up with specialist science in those fields. Another example would be Greta Thunberg, whose message repeated like a warning buoy reads: “Don’t listen to me, listen to the science.”
  • Follow people who are not like you in some way. You can learn more in one day about the effects of gender law by following a transgender artist than you could in a year of watching cable news. This principle works in reverse, too; you would learn very little about Islam from your Christian legislator.
  • Realize that where you are is not the whole world. Is the weather nice where you are? Good. Is your community in good shape? That’s great. How’s the rest of the world? For that matter, how’s the rest of your state?
  • Watch out for bots and trolls online. Learn to recognize accounts that fit the profile of a bot farm account. This is a major industry now, with outputs on both sides of the major ideological divide. Their goal is confusion and discord. Check your followers list. When you spot one, block, don’t engage.
  • Watch out for logical fallacies. So an immigrant committed a crime, and people with an ax to grind are all over the news with it? Stop to ask yourself what that means for immigrants generally. (Spoiler alert: not much.)
  • Check things out, confirm, verify, measure, get out your calculator. Don’t stop with the first thing in print that confirms what you thought. Especially when someone makes a surprising claim that isn’t consistent with what you know. Dig, look up, open books, sit down and do some math. Pay attention to orders of magnitude. When you find out you made a mistake, don’t double-down; edit your post with an explicit correction.
Judge Claude Frollo from Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame
This fucking guy

Finally, dial back the concept of absolute Truth. For practical purposes you can absolutely depend on the laws of thermodynamics, for instance, but when you get to talking about anything metaphysical, not so much. When someone’s going on about what God intended, ask how they know.

If you ask a scientist how they know something, they’ll start talking about experimental methodology, data collection, statistical techniques, and correlation with other fields of inquiry. And the conclusions they draw are “highly likely” or “an interesting result, calling for more study” but almost never claimed to be absolute Truth.

I won’t lie; this is exhausting work. Spend more time educating yourself than you do engaging online. And give your mind a break; get some rest, enjoy a fantasy story, do something pointless but fun.

NOTES:

Tom Scott’s 59-minute video about social media, lies and propaganda is well worth your time:

You will find disinformation on both sides of the ideological divide, but both sides are not the same.

The economic choice we make

Ever since Ayn Rand injected the American mind with her economic prion disease, we’ve been moving ever further into neoliberal economics. And somehow, with the certainty of religious faith, it has been sold as both constructive and inevitable. But.

Economists, union leaders, environmental leaders, and others have been shouting from the rooftops that nothing about neoliberal economics makes sense for anyone but the super-rich. The rest of us are just along for the ride into an ever-more destructive future. They have not gotten far; by equating wealth with credibility, our society has set itself up to hear only the words of the very rich.

All right, then. Listen to this rich guy:

Some things really stick with you

(Polyurethane glue, for instance)

I set about making some box beams today, which involved gluing some wood panels. But it’s cold in the garage and regular wood glue just doesn’t work below about 55 f. So I used Gorilla Glue, which works down to about 40 f.

I don’t bother with gloves when I use regular wood glue, because it washes off with soap and water. But for Gorilla Glue, I always use gloves because it’s waterproof and… very difficult to remove.

For instance, if there were a tear in the glove, and some glue got in. So that a bit of the glove was securely attached to your thumb

I’ve tried peeling it off, but the sensation of removing skin dissuaded me. Any solvent that will dissolve polyurethane glue, you really don’t want on your skin either. (By comparison Super Glue is easier to remove because it softens in acetone)

Well I reckon it’ll come off in 12 hours or so, or maybe 24, as skin cells do slough off. Even if polyurethane glue does not.

Things we used to say and still should: “Believe In Yourself”

“Believe in yourself” is one of those contrived platitudes that gets a lot of criticism. And the Internet, for all its platforming of such positivity, is just the place for your efforts at learning a new skill to be compared with the skills of someone who does it for a living.

Honestly, the Internet, and in particular social media, are not a place where mental health fares well. But we can do better.

“OK,” I hear in comment threads, “Just toughen up then. Develop a thicker skin. Some armor, if you will.”

Armor. All right, armor. Sounds right. Except… how well do you perform while wearing armor? Can you learn your moves, barely able to see out of the helmet? Can you become graceful, clanking around in a metal suit? Can you even hear the one voice you need, the one that helps you find your strengths, inside the squeaking, rattling cage you are wearing?

I see this all the time in, of all places, 3D printing forums. Someone designs a solution to a problem and prints it, and ten people will jump in to tell them why they are wrong; they should have done it with cardboard, or metal, or could have bought it cheaper than making it.

There’s a flip side to this coin: helping others believe in themselves as well. You see a friend creating something, find something positive to say. There are already plenty of people out there who will cut them down. Including, probably, the memory of so many people they’ve known over the years who are trapped in their own cages of creative negativity.

(This is not to say you can never be negative. If there’s some part of you that just wants to let someone have it, fine… But save it for damage where damage is due. For purveyors of hatred, of prejudice, for fear mongers and war mongers, for people actively making the world worse.)

Life is short, and the universe is cold and dark. Make it a little brighter and warmer.

Rivian electric trucks

The “skateboard” that underlies Rivian electric utility vehicles. And soon, Ford and Amazon. And who knows what else?

Normal, IL had an auto plant that closed, and I was kinda hoping that Tesla would show an interest in it. But wait… this is better!* Rivian trucks is gearing up to make heavy-duty vehicles. So far they have a truck and an SUV.

Imagine you have a delivery business, or a plumbing company or construction company or any other small fleet. You don’t need extreme range but you sure would like to have clean vehicles that don’t require a lot of maintenance. Electric vehicles fit that bill perfectly. No oil changes, air filters, spark plugs…

Ford motor company, and Amazon, have both invested heavily in Rivian for this reason and others. Both companies will be using the skateboard in their vehicles.

I’m really happy to see this company in Normal. Internal combustion is a dead technology; mature, but with no future. We just can’t keep burning carbon to make energy. That puts Rivian in a growth position, and Normal with it.

Their website portrays ‘adventure vehicles’ but let’s face it, fleet trucks are a great market.

NOTES:

  • (Partly, one assumes, because of my strong dislike of Elon Musk but I digress)
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  • I tried to get a picture of the pickup truck, but the crowd pressed in too closely.
  • Rivian also has facilities in Plymouth, MI, San Jose and Irvine CA, and the UK.

Daniel Gibson (the people you meet on the renewable energy trail)

Downtown Normal had an event for Rivian Auto, showing off the electric truck technology they are developing, which I’ll cover in a separate post. And riding to the event I met this guy:

Daniel Gibson showing his work on renewable energy to travelers on the Constitution Trail, 13 Oct 2019

He’s been exploring renewable energy on his own since 2013, and even built a demonstration solar-powered shelter with light, entertainment system, and heat. He uses large solar cell arrays and a solar air heater of his own design. What better day to shout out than when there’s electric vehicles on display and people are already thinking about renewables? So we talked for a while.

Describing himself as an ‘experience-based learner’ he showed off solar electricity. Using solar panels and cheap batteries, “A thousand bucks buys 30 years of 250 watts.” The bulk of that cost was in the electronic equipment. And the cost keeps dropping – you can get solar for around a dollar a watt online now, including shipping.

For demonstration, he cooked meals, had a football game going on his TV, and his computer running. While we were talking several people stopped to learn.

If you’d like to get in touch with Daniel, his email is danielgib@protonmail.com

No telling where he will end up but if I had to guess, his future is bright enough to run solar panels.

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