WARNING: WORK IN PROGRESS. This text is a huge mess but if I wait for the moment where I have enough time to polish it up, it will all be obsolete or I will simply be dead. Therefore I dump it on the internet as-is and will update it whenever I see fit, which could be: tomorrow, next month, in ten years, or never. Consider yourself warned: do not expect a coherent whole despite the fact that the first sections may appear well-structured.

This text is the successor to my older rant, which to be honest is crap for a large part. It is still available though for the interested.

TL;DR: this is not a text for people who think everything can be summarised into a single sentence.

Last (significant) change: 2024/05/24.

A short note for Dutch-speaking readers / Een opmerking voor Nederlandstalige lezers

Er was een Nederlandstalige versie van de oude versie van deze tekst, maar aangezien ik nog niet eens de tijd heb om deze Engelse versie deftig af te werken, heb ik zeker geen tijd om een vertaling te maken. U kan proberen het door een automatische vertaler te draaien, maar hou er rekening mee dat het resultaat op niet veel zal trekken. Ik raad u sowieso aan om Engels te leren en indien mogelijk nog een paar andere niet-Germaanse talen, er zal een hele wereld voor u open gaan.

Before you start reading, a few rules

  1. You must not read this text if you are younger than 16 years, are in a depression, belong to an extremist religion, or have never thought with at least some depth about the meaning of life. If you are a fervent humanist who believes humanity is infallible and who cannot stand any criticism about it and rather sticks one's head in the sand than listening to arguments why we should do certain things differently, then this text is not for you. Most likely you do not want to read this text at all but of course you will only notice that when it is too late. The author of this text cannot be held responsible in any way for possible malicious consequences of the reading if this text. It is solely at your own risk.
  2. You must not force anyone to read this text (obviously especially not anyone from the groups mentioned above). You may suggest it, but must respect their decision if they do not want to read it.
  3. You must not read this text if you do not want to, even if anyone else asks or urges you to.
  4. You should not link to this page or put it on a social network site unless you really, really want to. I have not put any visible links to this text on my site or elsewhere, with the intention that people will only find it through search engines. I would like to keep it that way. If you do want to link, you must link to the top of this page, in other words make sure these warnings are not skipped.
  5. If you are adamant about posting a part from this text somewhere but you want to honour the previous rule, feel free to either copy that part or rewrite it in your own words. The main reason why I do not want to brag about having written this text by pasting my name all over it, is because a lot of it is merely a reformulation of things that others figured out long ago. And I am too busy (or lazy) to research whether those parts I did figure out by myself, have not already been derived before. The whole idea of this text is that it does not matter who wrote down something, it is the content itself that matters. It would be nice if you would stay true to this idea by not making it seem as if anything you copy from this text is your own work. If anyone asks for the source, try to get away with: “I found it on the internet.” If they keep asking, of course I will not mind if you do give them the link.
  6. This text is not a scientific publication that has gone through a rigorous review process (then again, as the text itself explains, even that would not guarantee anything). It is a big smorgasbord of logical thinking, opinions, and some emotions. Do not blindly accept anything you find in here, be critical.
  7. You must not do anything stupid inspired by anything in this text. Really, don't. If you do anyway, I distance myself entirely from it.
  8. This text contains expletives. If you do not want to read a text containing expletives, then in all likelihood you wouldn't want to read this text either with the expletives removed.
  9. Usual copyright stuff applies to this text, even though I deliberately omitted my name. You must not copy parts of it in publications without my permission. That would violate the second rule anyway. If you are a student and believe to be smart by plagiarising this text, be warned that I have already noticed that this page is often fetched by automatic plagiarism detectors.
  10. You shall not mail me about this text nor shall you speak about it if you ever meet me in real life, unless you are certain you have a very good reason. Some examples of bad reasons are: asking clarification about anything that you could also look up yourself, or throwing an emotional tirade at my head because you feel insulted about something. And please no mails in the vein of: I agree with your text, but may I suggest adopting [insert some common way-of-life here], that basically mean as much as: I did not read or understand your text at all, or: I want to shove my way of life up your nose, or: I have no control over the instinctive part of my brain that still lives in a small village where it was efficient for everyone to be similar. I am also not interested if others wrote texts similar to this one, I know that is obvious. I did not write this to elicit a discussion with others, I do not like to participate in lengthy discussions. I did it mostly to vent off steam about stuff that bothers me in everyday life. I do not want to be reminded of that stuff. This text is basically a few hundred pages of bile distilled into text, glued together with reason in an attempt to reduce or even neutralise the bitterness of the bile. Many of the conclusions in this text came at the time when I was working on it. This could be considered a kind of polished ‘brain dump’.
  11. Even if you just want to say “thanks” because you feel this text changed your life or something, I'd rather you would not. If you agree with the text, then do something in your life that will visibly improve the state of the world so I can see it happening. That will put a much bigger smile on my face than a textual message that probably only boils down to: I agree but I am too lazy / chicken / scared to act.

The core idea of this text is something that cannot be grasped in language. Either the reader will already know what I am trying to tell here or not, but they will not get the point by reading this text unless already on the verge of figuring it out by themselves anyway. That makes this whole heap of text mostly useless except for some generally applicable concepts you might learn from it. Again, I mostly wrote this to order my own thoughts as a kind of therapy.

I repeat: you will most likely not want to read this text anyway, because it will either attack your entire way of life, or explain things you already know or were about to find out anyway. This is not the kind of feel-good text full of politically correct ideas made up by people who believe that bad things can be made to go away by consistently ignoring them. This text lifts up all your carpets and shows how much dirt you have wiped under them in the hopes of never having to clean it up. It is like a party pooper who replies to all questions of other partygoers with dry logical answers that spoil all the fun. Reading it might produce for some the same sensation as taking a brick and bashing it into their own face. Continuing to read it all the way through the end, may feel like picking up that brick again and bashing it in their face over and over again. Do not tell me I did not warn you.

Hint for the adventurous readers

If you see anything like “[LINK:TOPIC]” in the text, it means there must somewhere be a section marked with “[REF:TOPIC]” that the link should point to. I intend to replace this with actual hyperlinks when the text would ever reach any degree of maturity. Until then, you will need to use the ‘find’ functionality of whatever device you are using to read this page. This will probably cause you to jump around uncontrollably in the text, but that will not matter because it has a serious lack of structure anyway. If you see an asterisk (*) between paragraphs, it often indicates a complete change in subject without titles or introductions.

Why Do We Live? What Is the Purpose of Life?

Possible subtitles: “A Text Nobody Wants to Read,” or “Sorry, the Handbrake on My Brain Is Broken.”

Why do we live? This is a question that most people will ask themselves at some point in their lives. And many of them will fail to find a concluding answer. That is not so surprising given the answer itself. It is in fact so simple that most do not even consider it a possible answer. I am not claiming here that I am absolutely certain of knowing the real answer but I believe I am pretty close.

Now, the major problem is that it is rather pointless to give the answer. According to the ‘Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy’, the meaning of life, the universe and everything is ‘42’. That does not make sense but it is likely that to many readers of this page, neither will the real answer. As will be explained below, really understanding a specific concept is only possible for someone who either has the right context or comes close enough. In other words, either you already know what this text is about or you were about to realise it yourself anyway; in all other cases you will most likely not comprehend what I am going to say. So this whole text is actually useless. You'd better stop reading, I mean it. I have only written it as a kind of self-therapy to vent off steam. If you decide to read on anyway, well, it is your own time you're wasting.

To the Point

I will not take any roundabouts and just summarise The True Meaning of Life™ in the next paragraph. The entire rest of this text is just an illustration of what this means, why other explanations are less likely to be correct, and what consequences it has for the things people do every day.

Here goes: there is no goal to life, at least not any goal that clearly dictates a certain optimal way of life. We live because billions of years ago, by a conjunction of circumstances, life has originated on Earth. Life is nothing more than a combination of chemical and physical processes that are able to maintain themselves thanks to addition of energy, the most important of which is solar radiation. This life has mutated and the mutations that were unfit for continued existence have died out. The others have mutated in their turn, and this process has repeated itself countless times. This has led to what we are now. In short, we only live because it is possible for us to live. If we jeopardise this possibility to live, we jeopardise our own existence.

So, there you have it. The above paragraph is clear and unambiguous, and everyone who can read English should understand it. Yet, there is a vast difference between understanding what I am trying to tell, and fully realising what it means. The difference between both is the same as between one the one hand just assuming that a certain mathematical proof is correct because you know some smart person has proven it, and on the other hand making the proof yourself and understanding every single step of it, as well as every single step in every other proof that this particular proof uses to prove its own statement. Mind that I do not claim here that I can prove what I have written above, or every intermediate step to reach that conclusion. I can however fill quite a few of the gaps in the reasoning that leads to the above conclusion, instead of just assuming that it is correct. I believe the resulting explanation, despite the fact that it is still uncertain, is a lot more plausible than the various things many other people blindly believe in.

Some things I learnt from the previous iteration of this text

An older version of this webpage was written in a way that made it seem as if I was the only person who realised the above. This was because I wrote that version only shortly after coming to that insight myself. The next section will explain why this gave me an illusion of knowing more than most other people. Other sections of this text will explain why this made me arrogant [LINK:ARROGANCE]. In the meantime I have realised that all those things I figured out through logical thinking, and which I painstakingly wrote down over the course of many years, have already been written down by others, probably long ago. My goal for this new iteration of the text has therefore merely become the bundling of all that long-known but sometimes mothballed knowledge into one lump of text. And especially, to write that text in plain language with as little jargon as possible, and keep it structured such that anyone with a basic level of education could pick it up from the start, and not be bogged down by implicitly assumed prior knowledge. I did not stuff the text with mathematical equations to express things I could also say in words. Some have mailed me about the old text, stating that it was a revelation, others said it only confirmed their thoughts, and others claimed it told nothing new and they were certain the majority of people understands its message. And of course there were also some predictable mails from persons who attacked certain parts of the text in an attempt to funnel their raging emotions.

Even though it is obvious to me now that there is a substantial number of people for whom this text cannot bring anything new, I am certain it is wrong to assume that most know it. Maybe those who mailed me, only really meant: “most people I know,” because on a very, very regular basis I encounter people who act in ways that demonstrate that they obviously have no clue about the core message of this text. Let me remind you: I do not want to receive mails about this text. I do not want to be reminded of it. I do not even want to know if this text changed your life for the better or something. That is the very reason why I tucked this lump of prose away in a corner of my site without any visible links to it. I should not have put this online at all, but part of me could not resist doing it anyway. If you do want to show your appreciation, then live like it so I can see the world change for the better.

The main problem with the realisation above, is that at first sight it is utterly useless. It is generally very difficult to tell from someone's behaviour whether they act according to that idea, let alone whether they are aware of it at all. In most everyday situations, its knowledge will not influence decisions. Only for specific core decisions with far-reaching consequences, it can make a huge difference. For anyone who has only recently fully grasped the gravity of the realisation, it may be tempting to feel superior if it appears they are the only one with the insight. This was the case with my very self when I wrote the old text long ago. It is also tempting to keep on ignoring all the evidence that a considerable part of the rest of the world has already gone through this phase long ago and moved on towards a life where on a superficial level they appear to be unaware of this realisation. Admitting to that, would mean letting go of yet another ego-booster [LINK:ARROGANCE]. This scenario does not only apply to this True Meaning of Life™ idea, but also to more mundane things, but don't worry: in the rest of this text I will most likely bore you to death with numerous other references to people locking up themselves into a small frame-of-reference in order to protect themselves from the risk of feeling insecure.

An interesting fact: the previous version of this webpage existed in both an English and Dutch version. During the years that the previous versions had been online, I kept statistics of the visitors. Even though the number of Dutch-speaking people globally is negligible compared to English-speaking people, the Dutch page had accumulated three times the number of visitors over the same period. Moreover, within this Dutch-speaking group of visitors, the Belgian ones accounted for more than twice the number of visitors from the Netherlands, despite the fact that the Dutch-speaking Belgian population is far smaller than the population of the Netherlands. I am not sure what kind of conclusion to draw from this, but it seems to indicate that the willingness to philosophise about life is strongly geographically dependent. This is not surprising as such, but the discrepancy between the tiny Dutch-speaking community and the massive English-speaking community is striking.

I wrote this text directly in English. I will probably never translate it to Dutch because of the insane amount of work it will require. The fact that I did not write this text in my mother tongue proved interesting later on, when I discovered a certain scientific article: [KeEA2012]. Apparently it is much easier to reason logically in a foreign language. It was also often exactly while I was writing things down here, that I figured out new conclusions.

What to expect

I will start out in the next section by explaining why reading this text is mostly pointless if you did not yet come close to understanding its core message yourself (in which case it obviously is also pretty pointless).

By the way, if you wonder why there are only very scarce references in this text in the sense of citations of scientific articles, it is because I have not directly read any scientific articles about most of what I am talking about here. Most of it is deduced from basic facts that I explored elsewhere in this same text. Some of it is inspired by things I remember from too long ago to find back the actual reference. This text is not intended to be rigorously scientific, it is more of a bird's-eye view on reality. The main idea is that it should stand on its own. As will be discussed further on, I am starting to have my doubts about the current trend of science being treated as a huge dumb database of piled-up keyhole-view observations with little to no attempt to find relations between them or search for the root cause behind the observations.

I believe that once a scientific study based on measurements (as most studies are) leads to a logical conclusion that stands on its own, then there is little use in keeping to refer to the measurements themselves (although they should always be kept and occasionally re-verified). Moreover, I believe that if a fact can be proven through a watertight string of reasoning, then an experimental validation of this fact is not only redundant but also risks making the proven fact appear invalid through observer bias or overseen (maybe intentional) errors in the validation procedure.

If you want to verify anything yourself, go ahead and do some research. Do not readily believe what is written here or anywhere else. It can be wrong and some things are in all likelihood wrong. Who knows, maybe I intentionally added some wrong stuff here and there to test anyone who reads this. Or maybe I did not. You must learn to think for yourself. Do not be an ape that only copies things.

If you are the kind of person who approaches reality like a mathematical proof, stubbornly rejecting everything that has not been proven with 100% certainty, believing that at some point you shall be able to grasp the entire complexity of the universe without admitting there are things you will never understand or resorting to approximations like statistical models, then you might as well stop reading here: this text is not for you. Its purpose is not so much to give readymade answers as it is to raise questions and take a wrecking ball to all the assumptions that humanity has been collecting since its inception—and even way before that. Again, if you are the kind of person who does not even allow raising questions over things assumed to be proven, this text is not for you. Or maybe it is after all…

Perceptual Aliasing and Learning

The true enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.
— Stephen Hawking

There is a fundamental problem when it comes to explaining people—or any intelligent being for that matter—any concept that requires even the slightest bit of background knowledge. Which is, pretty much everything. It can be the core message of this text, it can be the reason why someone is wrong about something, something artistic, something technical like for instance why a modern stick shift petrol car will consume more energy if you bring it to a halt by pushing the clutch and then braking than if you only depress the clutch pedal when the engine is about to stall, and so on.

The phenomenon is simple, obvious, and has been known for ages. Yet few seem to be truly aware of it. There is not even a general name for it as far as I know, or maybe I missed it. Just to be able to refer to it further on, I call the problem ‘perceptual aliasing’. The phenomenon is obviously long known in literature. As I figured out only very recently, it is closely related to the Dunning-Kruger effect [LINK:HUBRIS]. What I want to explain is more general though and I will therefore refer to it using the ‘aliasing’ term, for reasons I will soon explain.

In this text I define perceptual aliasing as: “the phenomenon where the larger an observer's inability to comprehend a certain subject, the more unaware this observer becomes of its own inability to make correct judgments about this subject.” This may sound blatantly obvious because in a certain sense, it is. Yet it is easy to overlook the important nuance in this definition. It does not merely state that increasing lack of ability to comprehend something increases the lack of understanding—that is plain obvious. Instead it states that at a certain point, the observer will not even be able anymore to understand why it is unable to make correct judgments. It has a risk of misperceiving its inability as an ability. There is some regularity in how the judgment is distorted. In general, a certain relation exists between the degree of incompetence and the perception of understanding, and this relation has some surprising consequences.


Suppose two persons, A and B, have vastly differing intellectual capacities with A being the most intelligent. If A tries to explain something which is far above B's level, B will not just be unable to understand the explanation. The key problem that lies at the base of perceptual aliasing is that B is also likely to be unable to realise his inability. The farther B's upper limit is removed from the required level to understand the matter at hand, the larger this likelihood becomes. It is possible that B ends up thinking A is dumber than him and is telling nonsense, or even that he thinks he does understand the explanation even though he does not.

The term ‘aliasing’ means that B's judgement about the correctness of A's explanation will be an incorrect projection of the right judgement inside B's limited frame-of-reference. The judgment that B finally relies on will be some alias of the true correct observation, but B will be unable to be aware of this. When observing either the alias or the actual observation, B sees no difference.

This may all seem a bit abstract, so I shall explain the physical phenomenon from which I borrowed the term aliasing. The concept comes from the field of signal theory, and is important whenever one wants to represent a continuous signal like a sound wave or a moving image with a limited number of data points, so-called ‘samples’ or ‘frames’ in case of a video. Aliasing can be easily understood, and is best known from the phenomenon in video recordings where spinning wheels appear to start rotating backwards as they spin forward faster and faster. This starts happening when the wheel makes more than half a turn in between two video frames, in other words when the number of revolutions per second is more than half the video frame-rate. Within the ‘universe’ of classic cinema where the frame-rate is 24 frames-per-second, wheels that spin faster than 12 rotations per second cannot exist. They are all aliased to wheels spinning at apparent speeds between zero and twelve rotations per second in either direction. There is no way of knowing if a wheel that appears to spin backward is not actually spinning forward fast. Heck, even a wheel that appears not to be moving at all could be spinning at any multiple of 24 rotations per second.

Illustration of aliasing for a clockwise spinning wheel. The top row (marked with 1) shows a sampling of the wheel at eight samples per revolution. The following rows show what happens when either speeding up the wheel, or reducing the sampling rate. At a certain point, the sampled representation of the wheel is seen to be spinning counter-clockwise (easiest to see in the lower half of the image where the samples have been arranged next to each other).

This has been formalised in the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem: if a signal is sampled at a certain rate, any frequencies higher than half this rate (the Nyquist frequency FN) cannot be represented, and will ‘fold back’. The frequency of their sampled counterpart will be below FN, by the same amount as the actual signal is above FN. The seemingly lower frequencies in the sampled signal are said to be ‘aliased’. They are incorrect projections of the real thing, but there is regularity in where the projections end up. A signal of twice FN will appear as a frequency of zero, and from that point on the aliased frequency will rise again. It constantly bounces back and forth between zero and FN (strictly spoken, between -FN and +FN).

The Nyquist frequency for classic cinema is 12 Hz. A wheel spinning at 16 cycles per second will appear to spin at 8 cycles per second in the other direction. A wheel spinning at 24 cycles will appear to be stationary, and at 25 cycles it will seem to spin at 1 cycle per second. The above figure illustrates this for the case where the frame rate is initially eight frames per revolution of the wheel. The subsequent rows show what frames are obtained when either keeping the frame rate constant while speeding up the wheel by an integer factor, or keeping the rotation of the wheel constant while reducing the frame rate.

Wheels that have a radially symmetric structure, for instance if they are constructed with spokes, will exhibit aliasing in classic film at much lower speeds than 12 revolutions per second, because for a pattern that repeats say two times, the wheel will appear identical each half revolution. The Nyquist frequency for such wheels is divided by the number of times the pattern overlaps with itself across one revolution. For instance, around 32 minutes into the film ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, there is a nice example of aliasing to be seen on carriage wheels that appear to turn backwards, because those wheels have 16 spokes and will therefore exhibit aliasing when they make a complete turn in 1.33 seconds or less. The only way a spectator could readily see that a wheel is spinning faster than can be represented by the frame rate, is if the exposure time per frame is long enough that motion blur becomes obviously visible. The aforementioned scene however was shot in bright sunlight hence required a fast shutter speed which resulted in frames with nearly no blur.

Recognising Intelligence Requires Intelligence

Why the above diversion about signal theory? Well, I believe a similar phenomenon applies to humans when they judge a situation, problem, or subject. Of course, those things do not involve anything like sampling a signal at regular time intervals, even though arguably they are still based on a limited discrete ‘sampling’ of a continuous truth. Intelligence is one example but it also applies to other subjects like a certain field in science or the appreciation of a certain art form; anything that requires knowledge, a context or frame-of-reference, to be understood or appreciated. The ‘frequency’ would then correspond to an intelligence level, knowledge about works of art of that kind, etc. Someone's ‘sampling frequency’ would correspond to that person's own level or capabilities. The main reason why I find the term ‘aliasing’ appropriate, is that it refers to multiple different realities being mapped to one single observation that may or may not be the correct one, which is exactly what happens in this human context.

The root cause of perceptual aliasing is that humans lack a robust mechanism to detect their inability to understand concepts. Instead, they tend to be overconfident and desperately yet unconsciously try to re-map anything they do not understand to something they do know. One can see why this can make it useless or even risky to explain someone's mistakes. If that person is vastly unable to understand the cause of the mistakes, they may think the other person is telling nonsense or worse, is insane. To put it bluntly, it is pointless to explain to an idiot why they are an idiot, because only those who have already raised themselves far above the level of idiocy can understand why someone is an idiot.

Luckily the parallel between perceptual aliasing and the sampling theorem is not to be taken too strictly or it would imply that learning is impossible. It is hard if not impossible to map for instance an intelligence level to a single number like a frequency (although some believe they can, for instance with IQ scores). Most of all however, while aliasing in the frequency domain is strict, in the case of human perception there is a certain ‘fuzziness’ at the edges. Someone who is only slightly below the level of another person can actually learn from this and boost their own level. This is why the best way to learn for instance a game like chess is to play against opponents who are slightly better than you. You will not learn from someone who does nothing that you do not know yet, but on the other hand the moves of an opponent whose level is way beyond yours will just seem random to you and you will not learn either, or learn the wrong things. Of course you can learn from someone with a much higher level, if that person can gauge your level and restrict themselves to play the game at a level only slightly higher. This is a skill on its own and is what sets a successful teacher apart from a mere professional. This is why it makes sense to speak of a ‘learning curve’: one can only learn something properly by following a smoothly rising curve, not by trying to take sudden huge leaps.

As with the sampling theorem (think of the spinning wheels), it is possible to ‘fold back’ between zero and the maximum frequency indefinitely. It is perfectly possible that someone thinks they understand something while they do not, because their perception may have folded back exactly to a point of apparent understanding. In other words, people will in many situations be unable to realise that they do not understand something. This is more or less what the Stephen Hawking quote at the start of this chapter is saying.

Let's go back to our persons A and B from the first paragraphs. Remember, A is significantly more intelligent than B. Suppose they face a complex problem. B might come up with a solution that seems perfect because he does not see any obstacles. However, A may detect hidden flaws in this solution that will cause more problems later on, or subparts with an unacceptably high probability of failing. However, person B ignores those obstacles because he cannot even understand they exist. A's explanation may seem like nonsense or may fold back in B's perception to something that appears solvable after all. If B is lucky while executing his solution, the highly risky action(s) may work by chance, and the hidden flaws may not be immediately apparent. Because person A had concluded there was no acceptable solution, person B may then appear more suited for the task of problem solving and be assigned to solve other problems in the future, with disastrous consequences. I believe this scenario occurs often in reality. Generally, if someone is very enthusiastic about something but cannot tell what its weak points are or why exactly it is so great, be very wary. Some however are pretty good at instantly making up a bullshit explanation and make it seem plausible at the same time, therefore always be wary.


Even for those who get lost in all the signal theory behind this explanation, there is a clear-cut conclusion to be remembered from of all this. It is fundamentally wrong to assume that someone shall be able to reconstruct the entire string of low-level reasoning that has led to a high-level concept, by giving this person only that high-level conclusion. They may appear to be able to, and they will often believe they understand, but what they derive has a high risk of being wrong or incomplete. Their understanding of the high-level concept itself will be flawed in those cases. There may be a few who happen to have the right background to fill the gaps or have a higher capability of ‘connecting the ends’, but that does not mean everyone has that same background or capability. Yet, letting people derive a higher-level conclusion by themselves is a much better learning method than simply spoon-feeding the entire string of reasoning to them. Therefore the right way to do it is by giving them the right number of intermediate steps and letting them connect the dots themselves, while constantly monitoring them to ensure they are not going astray.

Likewise, testing someone's knowledge about a topic by only asking very advanced questions, does not guarantee that someone who gives the right answers really has a correct understanding of the entire topic. This person might just have studied all the advanced details about unusual situations by heart, while lacking the ability to correctly operate at the everyday lower level.

While using the ‘aliasing’ analog, I only considered one-dimensional signals that can be represented by a single frequency (e.g., the rotational speed of the wheel in my cinema example). This is of course another major difference with human thinking: the ‘signal’ at hand is not one-dimensional, nor two- or three-dimensional, but of a staggeringly high dimensionality. The limited sampling interval then becomes a ‘box’ or hyper-rectangle in this multi-dimensional space.

Coming back to the idea of an IQ test, what I wonder is how an entity with a given intelligence level could construct a test that could accurately measure beyond that entity's own intelligence level. It would require insights in problems that are far beyond that level. If the person constructing the test had those insights, it would lead to the contradictory conclusion that their level would be higher than it is. An IQ test would not be able to measure beyond the level of the most intelligent person who constructs it. It is possible that the problems constructed in the test can be solved in a smarter manner than the composer of the test intended, giving different and therefore apparently incorrect results. One might be tempted to rely on tests that one cannot solve oneself, and consider the ability of someone else to solve those problems a proof of higher intelligence. Of course this strategy is extremely flaky: the proposed solution may be wrong and neither the constructor of the test nor the purported more intelligent solver might be able to detect this flaw. In other words, such tests risk being subject to aliasing as much as the reasoning of real persons. Therefore I have very little confidence in any formal test that tries to measure intelligence, and I also wonder what is the whole point of it aside from ego-tripping. Quoting Stephen Hawking again: people who boast about their I.Q. are losers.

All the IQ tests I have seen, consist exclusively of a set of extremely synthetic problems constrained each to some single narrow problem space that has no link to real-world situations. It is not because someone is able to figure out what arcane number juggling was used to generate a set of numbers in a grid where one number was omitted, that they will be able to solve a real-world problem that involves combining observations from multiple senses and diverse knowledge gathered over many years.

Magic, Craziness, and Mathematics

For a general example of perceptual aliasing, consider the concept of magic, as for instance associated with witchcraft and sorcery. Suppose I am a modern female doctor and I am able to travel back in time. I teleport myself to a village in the Middle Ages, carrying current medications with me. I shall in no time end up being burned at the stake as a witch, because people from that time period do not have any background to understand state-of-the-art medicine, instead their background is built mostly upon superstition and folklore. It would take way too long to teach them about how the medication actually works. They'd rather kill me instead of going through that steep learning curve. A similar story holds if I would be a male scientist carrying current technology like lasers. I would be judged as being a sorcerer, because the people from that time period have no clue at all about electricity let alone quantum physics. Or as Arthur C. Clarke worded it: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

On the other hand, consider the concept of ‘craziness’. Whenever someone exhibits behaviour that is not understood by others, there is always a strong tendency to instantly label that behaviour as ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’. This concept seems similar to magic, only it is just subtly different as I will explain below. The concept of ‘crazy’ is actually much more dangerous than ‘magical’.

The built-in instincts for the very concepts of both ‘magical’ and ‘crazy’ seem to have evolved for the sole purpose of allowing humans to somewhat cope with things they do not understand. In a certain sense they are similar to the concept of imaginary numbers in mathematics. The imaginary unit i (or j for engineers) is defined as the square root of −1, in other words i multiplied by itself equals −1. The definition of the square root s of a number x is that s multiplied by itself produces x, or s2 = x. This has as a consequence that for any real number s, its square x can only be positive because multiplying two negative numbers always yields a positive number. Therefore when students are first being taught the concept of square roots, the teacher will most often stress that it is impossible to take the square root of negative numbers. That is true only if one remains limited to the use of real numbers. By treating i as something special, something imaginary outside the field of real numbers, taking the square root of negative numbers suddenly becomes possible. The square root of any negative number s then becomes i times the square root of −s.

Although it is possible to understand what the square root of a negative number actually means, it often is unnecessary, hence even when students are later on introduced to imaginary numbers, usually these keep on being treated as something magical. The mere definition of imaginary numbers allows people to use them in quite a lot of computations without requiring the deeper knowledge. Only for more advanced operations where the imaginary numbers cannot be factored out, it becomes necessary to delve deeper. Much deeper in fact, the step between making abstraction of the incomprehensible and actually comprehending it is often staggeringly steep. Magic is actually a very good analog for the imaginary number i, craziness not so much. The difference between both is that there really is no such thing as magic while insanity does exist. This implies that the act of mapping incomprehensible things to magic is actually much safer than mapping them to insanity, because in the latter case there is a large risk of throwing away perfectly correct information just because of an inability to understand it. It is better to file that information under a label ‘magic’ and define this label as: “to be investigated when more capable and the need arises.” Calling something or someone ‘insane’ on the other hand is a cheap and quick way of giving up on trying to understand it, and taking a hostile stance instead.

Zero Point: Floating Reasoning

[TODO: NOTE TO SELF: I think this part sounds like Chinese 中文 to someone who is not familiar with signal processing, TODO: try to clarify with figures.] Another difference between perceptual aliasing and signal aliasing concerns the ‘zero point’, i.e. a frequency of zero, the bias or so-called ‘DC’ value. DC stands for ‘direct current,’ which would correspond to the average current flow if the signal being analysed is a variable electrical current. In classic signal theory, the zero point is always present regardless of the sampling frequency. It represents the overall average signal value. Not knowing this value means it becomes impossible to reliably compare signals because regardless of how good the knowledge about higher frequencies is, not knowing the bias means the absolute signal value is unknown.

Even a sampling frequency of zero (one single sample) could reliably represent the bias value depending on how it was obtained. In human thinking however, the ‘zero point’ may be higher than zero. In this sense, it may be more appropriate to compare human thinking with polyphase sampling or modulation, but the parallel with regular sampling on its own is dodgy enough already that I will not even try to go beyond it. What I mean with this variable zero point, is that the level at which people can manipulate concepts in their minds does not only have an upper limit, but also a lower limit that does not necessarily need to be zero.

The fact that the mere concept of ‘zero’ was mostly unknown throughout a large part of human history, including advanced civilisations like the Roman empire, is one telling example of this. I believe that even today there is a considerable number of people who do not have a complete understanding of the concept. Those will also have problems with negative numbers: understanding them correctly requires correct knowledge about the true concept of zero. The greatest example however may be the very core idea of this whole text: realising that life does not really have a point, requires being able to go all the way to zero. Grasping the concept of zero and negative numbers, is akin to using the apparently depressing fact of the zero point of life to derive that there is meaning to it after all.

Even within a ‘biased’ frame of reference that hovers above zero, the aliasing principle still holds, with only a minor twist. Concepts that are below a person's minimum level will be projected into some incorrect higher level. Inside this frame, what is perceived as zero or the lowest possible level in whatever aspect, will actually not be zero. It will be impossible to reliably compare any two things that do not happen to fall within the range of the frame of reference, because there is no correct reference point. [TODO: ADD SOME PICTURES TO ILLUSTRATE]

The consequence of this is that it is perfectly possible and in my opinion extremely common, to have ideas that could be considered ‘floating’. The ideas seem to make sense within their frame of reference, but they have no basis that allows to either compare them to other ideas in any meaningful way or determine whether they make any sense from a global point-of-view. Comparing the ideas is like trying to prove that one person is taller than another by comparing the vertical position of the top of their heads—with either or both of them beheaded. Even if only person B would be decapitated, his disembodied head alone cannot be used to determine whether he was taller than A or not. It can be held at any altitude to ‘prove’ whatever desired point.

Cargo Cults

One of the most striking practical examples of trains of thought that have become entirely floating are so-called cargo cults. Certain indigenous cultures that were exposed to Western culture especially during World War II, witnessed events like military air drops and cargo deliveries. These people were used to obtaining goods only through hard work, and could not grasp how wealth could be produced in such quantities. They did not know about factories and workers, they only observed the end result: boxes filled with goods pouring out of flying machines. They mapped their observations onto their own frame-of-reference and considered them magical and the acts of gods. When the war was over and the armies abandoned the bases, the tribes kept alive many of the practices they had witnessed: they built mock airstrips and mock aeroplanes, and created rituals that mimicked military drills and air traffic control schemes. They hoped that by doing this, they would be able to summon the same cargo deliveries they had previously witnessed. The acts of building airstrips and executing military drills had become entirely detached from their roots, but still those people performed them because within their frame of reference, there was a connection between those acts and the goal of obtaining goods.

This is an extreme example. Although cargo cults may be in the process of fading away, their legacy still lives on. In software development, the term ‘cargo cult programming’ describes the practice of always including certain dependencies or copy-pasting source code without knowing what it really does, in the hopes that it shall automagically make the program work. There is many a more subtle way in which certain thought patterns can become detached from their origins yet kept alive through incorrect mental constructs, and it is not always as obvious as in this example of cargo cults. I am certain the capacity of the human mind to grasp concepts is limited, and people will forget essential core concepts if they keep on learning things at ever increasing levels. At some point they will start juggling with those high-level concepts without realising that they are violating boundary conditions imposed by one of the tiny low-level details they forgot. Maybe you believe you are not subject to this phenomenon, but how could you be so certain of that? While reading the rest of this text, you may notice that a whole lot, if not pretty much all of it, is an attempt to expose many of those floating ideas in present-day human reasoning. My hope is that mankind will learn to anchor those ideas back to the ground before they crash spontaneously, dragging along many people in the process.

A common scenario that spawns floating reasoning is when a single person, or only a very tiny group of persons, solves some very complicated problem. Even if the general public is being explained how the problem was fixed down to all the tiny details, they tend to very quickly forget not only all those details, but also in general how difficult it was to fix the problem. It quickly becomes treated as trivial and for granted. For instance, a large part of the population drives and flies around in very complicated solutions for the problem of transportation. Yet the number of persons who would be able to build a functional car, let alone a usable and safe aeroplane from scratch, is probably quite small, I do not even dare to make a guess at a percentage. The general public only observes the final step required to solve the problem, and therefore never learns anything about the problem-solving process that would help to fix similar problems. That process is simply perceived as magic.

Floating reasoning often reveals itself through excessive use of expensive high-level words, jargon, and acronyms, while lacking the ability to reformulate what is being said into simpler wordings. Needless to say, politicians are quite prone to this kind of behaviour, but it is also common for typical professions that shield their practitioners from the ‘common plebs’ through a barrier of jargon. The persons throwing around all that bloated vocabulary have some vague, often emotional association for each of those words, and glue them together in a way that seems to make sense within the narrow frame-of-reference of those associations. They do not realise and generally do not care that those high-level concepts are built upon a pyramid of important low-level concepts. If there are fundamental holes in the base of that pyramid that compromise its structure, then there is no point in trying to reason with the high-level concepts only. That would not be any different from trying to cast some magic spells in the hopes of making things better, or acting like a cargo cult. One of my goals for this very text is to write as much as possible from the ground up. Ideally, if the reader doesn't understand something, it should be sufficiently explained elsewhere in the text. I am aware that this is rather utopian and I am probably failing horribly at it, but at least I try. Knowing about the pitfalls of aliasing is one thing, avoiding them is something entirely different.

The Cave

The phenomenon of what I dubbed ‘perceptual aliasing’ has been known for ages. Only recently after writing all this, I discovered the following quote by Thomas Sowell that perfectly nails it: it takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance. It goes way further back in history however, as evidenced by the Greek philosopher Plato's allegory of the cave. In short, it tells a hypothetical story of people who have since birth been chained inside a cave, lit only from behind by an eternally burning torch that casts their shadows on a wall before them. Abstraction is made of who has set up this experiment and why, how the people are being fed, and other practicalities about being chained in a cave, because that is not the point of the story at all. Assume there is some supervising entity that controls this set-up and ensures the “well-being” of the persons in the cave despite their strange predicament.

Now consider what happens once they grow up and develop consciousness. Because their heads are limited in movement, the shadows on the wall are all they can see. They will eventually identify themselves with their shadows because they notice that only their own shadow reacts consistently with their movements. Those shadows shall be their self-image and their only idea of reality. Some day, one of them is temporarily freed and allowed to view and interact with the outside world. When he goes back into the cave, the people who remained inside cannot understand what he is talking about because their frame of reference is limited to seeing shadows on a wall. They will rather assume that he has gone insane than believe him. The person who got a taste of freedom will most likely go insane if he is again chained inside the cave of course, because now he realises what a messed up situation it is. The others do not mind being chained because they have never known what it means to be free. A more modern version of this story is featured in movies like ‘The Matrix’ (1999), although there the situation is actually reversed and humans are raised in a fake world that seems a lot more appealing than reality. (By the way, if you wonder why the two sequels appear not to make much sense, it is probably because the directors never made it obvious enough that the ‘real world’ from the first movie was also still a simulation.) I already used the word ‘projection’ and you may have heard this term in a context related to psychology. Indeed, the mechanism of projecting one's own situation and expectations onto others, is very strongly related to what I refer to as ‘perceptual aliasing,’ and this will be explained in more detail further on.

The funny thing is, knowing about perceptual aliasing does not make things easier because it works in both directions. If someone explains something that does not seem to make sense, it might be because it is indeed flawed reasoning or because of inability to understand it. There is a saying: if you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. This is true, one can knock even the most brilliant people off their socks—at least temporarily—by flooding them with stuff that makes no sense. The trick is to make it seem as if it does make sense. (This strategy was satirised in a 1998 South Park episode where an attorney managed to convince a jury by means of a ‘Chewbacca defence’.) The only way to get around this when it happens to you, is studying the explanation in detail and looking for things that may be beyond your level. If you cannot find any, you can analyse the explanation and prove its (in)correctness. Otherwise, you cannot and must not judge the correctness. Perceptual aliasing, especially in combination with arrogance [LINK:ARROGANCE], can make one feel smarter than others because they say and do things that do not seem to make sense to the observer, while in reality it may be the other way round. If you often feel as if you are the only person who knows what something is about, you are either a genius and really are smarter or more intelligent than the rest, or you really know so much less or are so much less intelligent than all the rest that you are under the delusion of being much more capable and suffering from a severe case of Dunning-Kruger. It is pretty obvious which of these two options is the most plausible.

Most importantly, knowing and understanding the concept of perceptual aliasing does not imply no longer being subject to it. I have heard people referring to it and still obviously falling prey to it every few minutes. I myself am also still subject to it, even despite thinking about and writing down all this stuff. Any reader of this text must be aware of that. Anyone who gets a feeling of: this guy sounds like he knows much more than me, I should blindly believe everything he writes, should re-think that for a while and be a little bit more critical.

Evolution has provided humans with some hardcoded mechanisms that exploit aliasing from a low to a high level. The most obvious one is probably arrogance [LINK:ARROGANCE]. Even if someone is completely inept, being arrogant enough may create a temporary impression of being actually suitable for a certain task. It is very important to stress that this impression not only manifests itself in the eyes of outside observers. It also—and especially—applies to the arrogant person itself: they will actually believe to be up to the task and not realise that this belief is based on nothing but an assumption. This is one of the causes of the Dunning-Kruger effect. I will elaborate on this further on in this text [LINK:HUBRIS], in this chapter I mostly focus on what happens with regard to outside observers.

The aliasing concept also indicates how dangerous it can be to use ironical remarks in the sense of saying the inverse of what one really means. It is OK to do this with interlocutors of whom it is known they will have the right context to detect the irony. When doing this with unknown people however there is a high risk that they shall interpret it completely differently, perhaps even in a way that was not even anticipated by the person who uttered the ironical remark. But wait, it gets worse. If it was assumed that the other party understands the irony, any reaction (within certain limits) will be interpreted as a confirmation of this understanding. Even if the reaction seems to hint at misunderstanding, it may be perfectly explained as another ironical reply to the original irony. This can spiral out of control quickly, therefore anyone who wants to be certain to be understood and does not want to clean up the mess of such convoluted conversations afterwards, should be smart enough to stay clear of irony and sarcasm. Even though there may occasionally be something like “a lie for someone's own good,” just sticking to the truth will always work best in the long run. If you ever wondered why many languages and cultures have proverbs in the vein of: honesty is the best policy, and none like: lying and sarcasm work awesomely great, this may be one of the reasons. Apparently evolution did not work out so well for the civilisations that adopted the latter proverb as a way of life.

Perception Corruption: Catch Me If You Can

People generally only look at a subset, a sampling of characteristics to judge someone's abilities in a certain field, which again justifies why I like to use the term ‘aliasing’ in this context. Resorting to a limited sampling makes sense because it is obviously too costly to perform a complete evaluation. Yet, the subset may be taken way too small to reach even a reasonable level of confidence. If the person under scrutiny can replicate exactly that small subset of sampled characteristics, they will appear capable even if unable to do anything else outside the subset. Arrogance works in this aspect because in a perfect and honest world, people only boast their purported abilities when they truly have them. Most likely, humans initially lived in such simple world, hence evolved the simple initial positive reaction to boasting that we still experience. Only when this reflex had become standard human behaviour, it became profitable to abuse it, and arrogance was born. The next step would be to develop a reaction against arrogance, but it should be obvious that this whole chain of reactions is becoming increasingly long and increasingly inefficient. One could simply reject any boasting, but this incurs a risk of rejecting true abilities. Only when given enough time to get a better ‘sampling’ of a boasting person, it will become apparent whether it was justified or the purported abilities were either exaggerated or plain non-existent.

Put otherwise, within the frame-of-reference of a naïve person who only recognises bragging as evidence of true abilities, any kind of bragging is believed to be proof of competence. People with a larger FOR that includes knowledge about the concept of arrogance will know that bragging can map to more than just a single thing. Either it is evidence of true abilities, or only of imaginary abilities put forward either out of ignorance of the subject themselves, or out of intent to deceive. How evolution ‘copes’ with this is obvious: the naïve who stick to their simplistic subset of observable properties to fathom the abilities of others, will be disadvantaged to such a degree that eventually they shall disappear. Others may develop mechanisms to detect arrogant behaviour. In the best case, maybe someday people will evolve to quicker realise that appearances can be deceiving.

This could be generalised towards a concept of ‘perception corruption’ that is a risk to every entity that observes certain limited parameters to measure the underlying quality of a subject. The estimate of the quality can be corrupted by manipulating either the observable property itself, or at a deeper level, the mechanisms that convert the observation into a true quality estimate. For the entity that is being fooled, there is almost never any advantage in this, unless it becomes aware of the corruption and can somehow exploit the ‘parasite’ in its turn. For the corrupting individual themselves, the initial positive pay-off is likely to turn very negative as well in the long term.

Applied to people, a person could pretend to have certain skills or qualities by mimicking traits that are generally considered evidence for possessing those skills or qualities. All it takes is to figure out exactly what features are being used as criteria, and mimic those features. An excellent example is the true story of Frank William Abagnale, Jr., illustrated in the book and 2002 film titled ‘Catch Me If You Can’. Abagnale had been able to keep up the appearances of being a pilot, doctor, legal prosecutor, and other professions, while in reality being nothing but a brilliant con artist. The film nicely illustrates how he pulled this off merely by mimicking typical superficial traits of those professions.

A simple present-day example: electronic devices with batteries often have two ways to give the user an idea of how long the battery will last. First, the total capacity is printed as a milliampere-hour (mAh) value on the battery itself. It is trivial to corrupt this: just print a larger value (fortunately, the relation between this value and battery life is not obvious and the average consumer barely cares about it). Second, the device will have some active indicator of how much capacity the battery has left. This can also be corrupted by manipulating the algorithm that converts the observable battery parameters (voltage, current) into a percentage or remaining time. For instance, a rudimentary indicator for a Li-Ion battery inside a low-power device that operates at a constant temperature, could use the quite predictable relation between voltage and charge level. This indicator would rely on a lookup-table of voltage versus charge level. It is easy to manipulate this table such that the battery seems to drain slower than it really does. When the battery is really almost empty, the charge indicator suddenly plummets, leaving the owner of the device utterly confused. Obviously, once this kind of fraud is exposed with the general public, the reputation of the manufacturer risks being damaged, annihilating any tiny profit they might initially have obtained by exaggerating their battery capacities. Does this kind of stuff happen in reality? You bet. I have bought a few cheap (and not so cheap) Chinese gadgets and I have found occurrences of both exaggerated ratings printed on batteries, and a misconfigured battery level indicator.

A more complex example is counterfeit money: anyone who can make a piece of paper that looks exactly like a real bank note, has corrupted the monetary system. A bank note on itself has nearly no value, the value lies only in the convention that it represents a certain amount of debt (see also [LINK:WHATISMONEY]). The note can in theory be traced back to the moment where people agreed that it was a valid representation of true debt. A fake bank note however not only has no value on itself, neither does it represent any agreed upon true value. When tracing back its transaction history, it will prove to have originated out of nothing and any chain of debt that was constructed trough the use of the note cannot be resolved. The fake bank note is a false observation of an assumed underlying value. If the monetary system would be swamped with counterfeit money (which can exist under many more forms than just fake bank notes), the system will eventually collapse and everyone loses, including the counterfeiter who will be unable to buy anything with their counterfeit money and worse, not even with real money.

A nice example in nature are breeding parasites like the common cuckoo, that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. The parasite chick has a reflex to throw the other eggs or chicks out of the nest. It exploits the parental instinct of the abused parent bird, which originally only looked at egg-shaped objects. As a natural defence, some birds have learnt to recognise the ‘alien’ eggs and remove them. In their turn, some breeding parasite bird species have then evolved to produce eggs that look very similar to those of the species they abuse [TODO: FIND ARTICLE]. Again, if this process would continue to the extreme, the bird species that is being abused would become extinct because its offspring is systematically being replaced by the parasite. With this species gone however, the parasite that has specialised itself to profit from that specific species will also have lost its means of procreation because it relied entirely on the extinct species and will disappear together with it. This makes this kind of process long-term stable only when used in moderation on a population that is large enough for the abuse to remain either undetectable or too expensive to combat—one could say, on a population that has outgrown its optimal size and that has become so large that it is more efficient for it to ignore decay than to fight it.

Few will like to acknowledge that many things that have become acceptable behaviour in modern cultures, are nothing more than a similar parasitic corruption of mechanisms that might be crucial for long-term survival in periods of crisis. In the end if any individuals emerge from this, they must be the ones who can recognise parasitic processes in general, and exterminate them in a more deep-rooted manner than simply trying to continue the kind of futile arms race that is only a slow spiral towards probable death. In a certain sense the concept of advertising is an example of perception corruption in human society, at least the kind of advertising that aims to make people buy stuff they do not need. I believe this will eventually disappear through straightforward evolution, and only truly informative advertising shall survive. Every kind of abusive advertising effectively destroys itself in the long term.

Animal Farm

No matter how good their intentions are, teachers at schools often fail because they try to teach concepts at a level way above the pupils' current level. What the students actually learn then—if anything at all—is often not what was intended. The right way to teach something complex or something that requires a certain background, is to estimate the level of the pupils, making sure they have the right frame of reference, and then teach something that is only slightly above that level. Once that has been mastered, complexity can again be increased incrementally. There is no point in starting at a level way beyond what the students can handle. They will either learn nothing at all or something completely wrong. They may end up with a hatred towards the subject because it does not seem to make any sense, to such a degree that they may not even want to learn about it when they have grown up and reached the correct level.

This is also why I believe it is ridiculous and counter-productive to force pupils in high-school to read entire literary works in the likes of ‘1984’ or ‘Animal Farm,’ or to try to force them to appreciate other ‘adult’ works of art like classical pieces of music or paintings, by totally dissecting those down to the tiniest details of the specific interpretation of some jumped-up critic. Although there may be some pupils who will at that age be able to understand what those works actually are about, I believe most of them will not learn anything useful. They will study everything by heart the teacher expects them to know about the works and regurgitate it at the exam. All that remains in their memories afterwards will be the sour aftertaste of having to read through a seemingly boring book that was full of incomprehensible gibberish and memorising spoon-fed conclusions just to pass the exam.
I am not saying those books should be completely dropped from the curriculum, on the contrary. They should still be discussed, but only through fragments and general summaries, maybe a movie adaptation, not by force-feeding the students with the complete unabridged works. It should be an introduction that could lead to the students eventually reading the books by themselves should they want to, be it immediately or many years later.

I can remember as a teenager having read a book in Dutch from the early twentieth century that might have had pretty much the same goal as this very text. I cannot remember which book it was and what its message was exactly, because I did not understand it. It tried to go from a low to a high level by starting out as a children's fantasy story but it obviously failed: after a few chapters I lost track because it took a huge leap and the rest of the book was above my level. If you are way past high-school by the time you are reading this, try picking up one of those books again or watching those old ‘uncool’ movies they forced you to watch. You might be surprised at how much you missed back then. If you are still in high-school, just try to learn the minimum you need to pass the exam and set a reminder in your agenda to revisit the work in ten to fifteen years when you have more cultural baggage to truly appreciate it. Do not point your teacher towards this text. If you plan to do it anyway, don't tell me I did not warn you, and first ask yourself whether you truly understood the whole point of this entire chapter.

The Box

If this all sounds new to you, keep in mind that it probably is not. You probably have heard the phrase: you should think outside of the box. It is the same thing. The box represents the frame of reference. The saying means one should try to break out of their current frame of reference and think in a way they never did before. This is possible but very hard, and most will not do it spontaneously, only when forced to (which may be when it is already too late). And the ‘distance’ one can leap outside their current ‘box’ at one time is limited. Most people probably believe they can think outside their box but are actually only looking at things from another corner within the same box. [could link to XKCD 915].

The problem is, I am certain the size of this ‘box’ is inherently limited. It depends on the computational abilities of whatever entity is trying to model its surroundings. Considering humans, those computational abilities vary wildly between individuals, but there is a strict upper limit. When trying to model a topic at a very high level, for instance some specific specialisation in biology, the only feasible way is to make the box ‘float’, centred around that high level, such as to be able to grasp all the tiny details of the topic. This means the person will need to reduce its modelling accuracy of everything outside that specialised field, possibly to the degree that nothing else is modelled at all. Such persons would become professional idiots. My definition of an idiot is tightly tied to my idea of perceptual aliasing: I consider an idiot “a person who has strong ideas that are based on only a narrow frame-of-reference, and who will not deviate from these ideas even in the presence of obvious evidence that proves the ideas incomplete or incorrect.” (This definition is different from the average person's by the way, which I believe to be rather something like: “a person who has different ideas than mine” [LINK:EVERYONEISLIKEME].)

The only way to model a wider span of topics is to reduce the amount of detail per topic. In other words, it is futile to try to know everything. Those who try it anyway, tend to over-specialise only in a narrow field such that they can keep up the illusion of being omniscient, because they always know more from that narrow field than pretty much everyone else. They simply ignore every indication that they know almost nothing outside those few fields, because that would put a dent in their egos [LINK:ARROGANCE]. The only tractable strategy not to become either insane or an idiot, is to try to keep an overview at all times and temporarily drill down on details when necessary. The sheer complexity of the present-day world, combined with increasingly unreasonable expectations, makes this increasingly difficult. This may be one of the reasons why we have a culture that produces an ever larger number of professional idiots who cause an ever larger number of problems whenever they need to interact with anything outside their ivory towers. Moreover, these professional idiots also become increasingly grumpy because the abundance of communication systems makes it increasingly difficult to keep up the illusion of the the ivory tower.

The core idea of what I am trying to explain with this entire text is very susceptible to perceptual aliasing. It is pretty much a binary thing: you either get it or you do not, and the opportunities for aliasing are huge, in all directions. The idea itself is very simple but to truly understand it, one needs an enormous amount of knowledge from various domains. It is very possible that some parts of this text are a load of hogwash because I am making mistakes that are too high above my level for me to detect. Some will probably think the entirety of this text is hogwash because they are unable to understand it. Do not feel too comfortable if you think you can understand or rebuke everything, because it could be an illusion. Do not blindly believe either what you read here and anywhere else, verify it if you can. It is not because something is written in print or in an official-looking and tidy lay-out with a big name on it, that it is true. And realise that next to ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, there is always the possibility of: “I don't know.” In many cases, that is the most useful judgement one can make about something. If you cannot verify something, always keep remembering that you have not verified it, until you can. Do not pick a random or convenient decision and consider it true.

The most obvious problem with aliasing is that even those who are aware of it are still subject to it. It takes a considerable change in mentality to reduce the risk of stepping into one of the many aliasing pitfalls. The risk can never be entirely eliminated because that would require infinite knowledge. The solution is to become aware of the inevitable limitations and to learn to model uncertainty instead of always trying to map everything to something known.

The Bad Touch

Coming back to The True Meaning of Life™ I kicked off this entire lengthy rant with: it is present in many locations outside this text, some expected and some unexpected. People are exposed countless times to all these ‘hints’ without recognising them, due to lack of the right frame of reference. Remember the song ‘The bad touch’ by ‘The Bloodhound Gang’? Yes, it is silly and few will ever consider paying any attention to the seemingly inane lyrics, given TBG's reputation. Yet, the refrain: You & me baby ain't nothing but mammals, so let's do it like they do on the Discovery channel summarises the longer ‘meaning of life’ explanation I have given above. A less obvious example is ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon. Unlike TBG, Lennon probably better understood how pointless and potentially dangerous it is to throw such a difficult message into people's faces, so he wrapped it in a formulation that seems harmless to anyone who is not ready for it. (Eventually though, perhaps the formulation proved not harmless enough for him to not get killed.) There are countless other examples, in books, movies, art. The best examples are often the ones that are the least noticed. For instance, it was only when I watched ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (1995) for the second time, that I noticed how much overlap it has with topics I had touched upon in this text before even seeing the film for the first time. It is not an easy film to grasp, which explains why I was overwhelmed during the first viewing. Luckily it is so visually stunning that it lured me into a second viewing, which gave me more than I bargained for. Keep this in mind if you have never watched it and intend to: it has way more depth than the common contemporary Hollywood production, and it does not spell out things for you. But once you can get through that depth, the reward shall be great.

I somehow learnt enough stuff over the duration of my life to come to the conclusion I started this text with, and be fairly confident about it. Theoretically, I could start from a reasonable level of knowledge that most readers should have attained and then try to gradually build upon that, to finally explain why I believe my explanation is likely correct. However, that is pretty much impossible. It is hard to guess what this ‘reasonable level’ should be, and if I would estimate it conservatively low I would have way too much to explain and the text would be full of redundant fluff for many readers. Therefore I will only explain some important key concepts and I will leave it up to the reader to learn more if they think they're missing something. You are reading this text from the Internet, which means you should have access to pretty much all the knowledge required, if you can manage to dig it up amidst the gigantic amounts of garbage amongst which it is hidden. Even if you are somehow reading this after humanity has completely fucked up and you have to dig up books from the ruins of a library or school, then by all means do it.

Occam's Razor

You might be wondering how I can be so confident that “zero” is the most likely outcome of “the equation of life.” Some might accuse me of picking a degenerate solution (in the same sense that zero is always a solution for x in A⋅x = B⋅x2), but I don't think so. There was this monk at the turn of the fourteenth century who came up with a great idea. His name was Occam, or Ockham or however you like to spell it. If there is anything you should learn from what I am trying to tell here, it is that it does not matter much who thought up an idea, when they lived and how their name is spelled, it is the idea itself that counts. And the idea at hand boils down to this: the simplest explanation that fully explains a phenomenon is also the most likely to be the correct explanation. Or likewise, the simplest effective solution to a problem is also the most likely to be the truly correct solution. You may be inclined not to trust something thought up by a medieval monk but it makes perfect sense. There may be multiple definitions of ‘simple’ in this formulation. A popular one is: “having as few assumptions as possible,” but in practice pretty much any interpretation of ‘simple’ shall do.

Rote Learning

A typical way in which people try to explain a phenomenon is to just record the conditions of the phenomenon and its outcome and store this as a fact that can be played back later. If A, then B. And if that proves not to be accurate enough: if A and B, then C. Facts keep on being piled up and add to the rule. At a certain point the rule may become something like: if A and B but not D when A is E and B is F and if C is somewhat like G and B seems to be a bit like H, then C. And anything that does not fit within this model is an exception and should be ignored, because it is just too much hassle to further extend the model. The fact that the model might be rubbish is not to be questioned because hey, it took a damn lot of effort to make it.

This is kind of the whole idea behind rote learning that is the (in my opinion deeply flawed) basis of a lot of education nowadays. It is not the correct way to explain something. Remember ‘thinking outside the box’. Someone whose box consists of a fixed pile of facts will only be able to interpolate between facts inside that box. Extrapolating [LINK:EXTRAPOLATION] is possible but utterly unreliable because it relies on the dodgy assumption that the situation outside the box is the same as inside(1). Worst of all, studying stuff by heart down to the tiniest details has become increasingly pointless ever since the invention of script and print, and this pointlessness has completely skyrocketed with digital communication. Especially with access to stored information becoming so easy nowadays, being able to retrieve and manipulate that information is becoming much more important than storing it in one's own brain, which I find a huge waste of time and effort. I am not saying everybody should stop learning anything by heart, only that the emphasis on studying inane details is pointless. Everyone should still construct a solid basis of knowledge by learning enough to maintain a good overview, and learn how to drill down from there. In fact, offloading all the puny details allows to build a better overview by avoiding the high risk of “not seeing the forest through the trees” associated with rote learning.

[(1): NOTE TO SELF: TODO: this actually makes a lot of sense and explains why the aliasing theory is plausible. IMPORTANT! Extrapolating by assuming that the situation outside one's frame-of-reference is the same as inside it, is actually the same as ‘bouncing back’ any observation such that it remains inside the box, just as a sampled signal with a frequency beyond the Nyquist frequency will bounce back such that it stays within the range that can be represented. TODO: try to add this to the aliasing chapter because it still lacks an actual justification of the theory.]

Suppose I give you the series of numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The most obvious model in this case is that the next number is the previous plus one, and the next number will be 6. That is a very simple model as everyone who has learnt to count can understand. Another prediction could be that the next number is again 1 and then 2 and so on. This is still based on a pretty simple model but it is more complex, because it needs to specify that there are five numbers that repeat. There are actual ways to represent facts like these in standardised ways and to calculate their complexity. Look up Kolmogorov complexity if you want to know more.

Now suppose I give you the series of numbers: 0, 0.5, 0.87, 1, 0.87. You may guess that the next number will be 0.5 and probably also the number after that will be 0. That is correct. However, it may be tempting to say that the number after that is again 0.5 and so on. This is possible but not likely. The eighth number I wanted to see is actually −0.5. This may seem strange unless you know the sine function. Then the model simply becomes sin(n⋅30°) or sin(n⋅π/6), with:

This is a very simple model, much simpler than: there are four numbers: 0, 0.5, 0.87 and 1, and they first count up and then down and this repeats indefinitely and please do not ask why it are those specific strange numbers. In some situations that might actually be the right, or at least acceptable explanation, but on average if there is a simpler explanation that fits, it will beat the more complex one.

The catch is, it takes a frame of reference to understand why the simpler explanation is actually correct, because without this frame of reference a sine function is just like magic. And then we are back to perceptual aliasing. If you are still not convinced about sin(n⋅30°) being a better model, try to explain why if I would ask for the numbers in between the given series, the correct answers would be 0.26, 0.71, 0.97, and so on.

I will not explain the motivations behind the principle of Occam's razor down to the deepest details, I leave it up to the reader to do some research about this. Intuitively, it makes sense that if one observes a phenomenon that only implies rules A and B, then adding a rule C that is not certain to be proven by the evidence, will incur a risk of making the explanation too restrictive. A new observation may contradict rule C and require a different and incompatible rule D to be added. A model that contains more rules than necessary, is bogged down by extra ballast that does not contribute to the correctness and increases the risk of errors.


This does not just work for numbers of course, it works for everything. Suppose we go back to our ABC-type explanation from the earlier paragraph, and C happens to be the fact that a certain animal or plant species exists. Some weird nineteenth-century guy came up with the idea that C happens because of Y and Z, and Y and Z were nothing like the A to H anyone had previously seen, for the simple fact that Y and Z are not immediately observable. Our weirdo is called Charles Darwin and Y is the fact that entities that are more likely to survive in a certain environment will eventually beat the entities that are less likely to survive (which is pretty damn obvious) and Z is random mutations between generations (which is also obvious but very hard for many to grasp). This is an elegantly simple model and it makes a whole lot of sense.
When truly stripping Darwin's idea down to the bone, it actually states: “something that is unable to survive, dies.” It explains an awful lot, much more so than a pile-up of inane rules like: the giraffe's neck stretched by sheer willpower such that they could reach the leaves in high trees and somehow the instruction to grow longer necks got stored in the giraffe's DNA. If you think that is a simple explanation, mind that the unexplained and inevitable “somehow” contained within it basically blows up its complexity to infinity. In science there is no “somehow.” Now take Darwin's theory. Giraffes thrive on leaves in high trees. The giraffes whose neck was too short were more likely to die of starvation hence unable to pass their genes. Genes mutate during procreation, which made it possible that even from two giraffes with short necks, mutant offspring with longer necks can be created. End of story. No “somehows” in this explanation, unless it would be analysed down to unexplored levels where the other explanation has long been proven utterly ridiculous and pretty much everything is unsure anyway.

A considerable number of people will now come up with the explanation: but what if a god saw the poor giraffes with short necks and reprogrammed their DNA to make them longer? Or: what if a god designed giraffes to have long necks from the start? That sounds like a simple explanation, doesn't it? Yes—if the huge gaping holes in it are ignored. Who is this god and why does he act this way? Where does he come from? How did he create giraffes and why? What is his motivation to improve the living conditions of giraffes? Where did he learn about nucleic acids and how does he manipulate them remotely? If he invented them, why did he design them that way? I can keep on asking. Any question about the existence of giraffes themselves will also apply to the existence of a god that creates giraffes. The introduction of this whimsical god entity only complicates manners greatly. I will come back to this later on [LINK:RELIGION] but I think you will already know where it is going unless you are a religious fanatic who ignored the red text at the start of this page. If you are, and this text is already enraging you at this point and you are not willing to scrutinise your views on reality, please stop reading now and go do something else, because it will only get worse. The fact that this very chapter was inspired by a monk's ideas and monks are probably pretty fanatic about religion, will probably not seep through to you. If you do feel attacked at this point, keep in mind that you shall not gain anything from continuing to read and I will instantly trash any hate mail you might want to send. Only continue reading if you feel comfortable.

Occam's principle is not restricted to theoretical models. It applies to any solution to any problem. The simplest correct solution to the problem is also the optimal solution. A ‘solution’ in this case can be anything, like an explanation for a problem, a piece of engineering, a building, a piece of infrastructure, software, … If a more complicated solution does prove better, then plainly the original problem formulation must have been incomplete hence the simpler solution was also incomplete. Any solution that is unnecessarily complicated will only have unnecessary additional risks of failure with no additional benefits, except in some very rare cases where the designer of the solution had the luck of their wild unfounded speculations being correct.

If one looks at history or even just the present, it is obvious that the principle of Occam's razor is not embedded in the brain of every human. In the brains of some maybe, but they appear to me either a minority, or not part of the small group of people who are in charge. What I mostly see are attempts to build horribly overly complicated models for everything. The people who do this, revel in drowning themselves in stupid little details that obscure the obvious big picture. There is little to no attempt at obtaining a bird's eye view, only an endless piling-up of facts. Even if someone comes up with an elegant model like Darwin's, it takes ages and ages before it is accepted. And even then, at the slightest impression that it is not a good model, they will drop it and replace it again with some inane contrived kludge that is mostly inspired by a bunch of primitive instincts. They seem to prefer a complicated model full of holes and dubious assumptions, to a simple elegant model that only has a few easily explained exceptions. There appears to be a built-in repulsive force inside those people that instills a strong rejection towards the elegant explanation. They arm themselves with those few exceptions that make it less than 100% mathematically correct. Yet they see no problems in a the alternative, being a patchwork theory constructed from a pile-up of raw observations, riddled with unexplained holes and many more exceptions than the simpler theory. The fact that this kind of approach is much further away from the kind of perfect mathematical proof they tried to employ in order to debunk the more elegant theory, is conveniently ignored [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. The idea of approaching reality as a perfect mathematical proof is fundamentally flawed, but it does make sense to approximate it. It does not make sense to only apply rigour when it suits best.

I have caught myself making the same mistake of over-engineering the solution to a problem many times. I have also seen this when working on products made by others. We humans seem inclined to make wild guesses at every possible detailed outcome of an event, and a bit in the vein of rote learning we design something that will keep working in every one of those outcomes. What we do tend to ignore however is the whole path in between the start of the event and each of those outcomes. When testing our solution and discovering at what specific point it breaks along that path, it is always tempting to only fix it for that specific point by treating it as yet another possible end point. If instead we would focus on the whole path and design our solution so it goes in the right direction early on, we don't even need to consider all theoretically possible outcomes. It is a way better strategy to design something that is conceptually as simple as required for the majority of cases and perhaps add a few small exceptions, than to make it a pile of exceptions from the start.


[REF:RELIGION] This may be a delicate subject but hey, I kicked off this entire text by basically throwing every fable about human existence into the dumpster anyway, in order to be able to start over from scratch. It should not come as a surprise that I shall now deconstruct the whole concept of religion down to its tiny and not always pretty bits. Don't forget the red text by the way.

Occam's Razor can be, and should be, applied to religion. Saying that a ‘God’ created everything and controls everything may seem like a simple explanation for reality, but actually it is not, not even by a far stretch. From an information theory point-of-view [LINK:INFORMATIONTHEORY], attributing everything not understood to a ‘god’ is like storing every observation as a fact and completely overfitting the model to the data. This makes it a very complicated explanation. By attributing everything to a deity, the problem of explanation is merely shifted to the problem of explaining why that deity exists and why it created us. A compact set of independent rules or formulae on the other hand that explain a large part of all observations, is a much better model.
Likewise the idea that humans are apes that mostly act according to a set of simple principles like ‘monkey see, monkey do’ and only use their intelligence in emergencies, explains an awful lot of human behaviour. The much more complicated idea that humanity somehow evolved from dumb apes to emotionless meaty robots in only a few thousand years, is a total fable in comparison.

There is a large and varied set of religions across all human cultures. Yet many of them are quite alike. They share common elements, common stories, and most of all they share a common feel. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the existence of ‘standardised religion’ and its associated scriptures. There are multiple possible explanations but there is one which I particularly like.

Imagine that thousands of years ago someone already had insights similar to the ones explained in this text, and perhaps more. Consider the realisation that it is hopeless to expect everyone to understand everything required to fully understand reality. For instance why typical instinct-driven human behaviour has a high risk of causing self-destruction, and why it can take excruciatingly long to teach everyone everything required to act intelligently in every circumstance. Some people simply lack the mental capabilities to ever reach that level altogether. Others are so locked up in a limited frame-of-reference that it is too time-consuming and expensive to break them out of it.

Given that realisation, instead of actually bringing everyone to that higher level, a viable alternative is to bring them to a level that may be not as high but is good enough. Instead of taking everyone through a slow and tedious education that teaches every aspect of reality, invent a bunch of fixed rules that map well onto typical human instincts, first and foremost our built-in desire to attribute the reason for our existence to some larger-than-life entity. Most humans still drag along their tribal instincts from the time when our ancestors worshipped things larger than life. It is merely a matter of guiding those instincts. Wrap the rules inside nice compelling stories to make them memorable. If this has roughly the same effect as going through the slow but rewarding procedure of teaching everyone everything from the ground up, then these rules can act as short-cuts for the ‘real thing’. Certain religions like Christianity really did an effort to map existing human behaviour, often pagan rituals, into a new religious framework. Habits and folklore from previous cultures were not destroyed, instead they were were assimilated into the religion, which raises the question to what degree the religion truly is something fundamentally new compared to what came before.

If this all sounds like the concept of ‘floating reasoning’ explained elsewhere, that is because it is exactly the same process. It does not really matter whether it has all been intentionally designed or merely originated organically and accidentally: religion is a prime example of floating reasoning. And as any kind of floating reasoning, it has a risk of crashing down hard. If my hypothesis of ‘designed religions’ is correct, it is the only thing that sets apart those religions from cargo cults. Instead of a spontaneous mapping of certain observations to certain actions out of some limited belief, the designed religion is very consciously crafted by one or more very intelligent persons to create a mapping between low-level behaviour every human is expected to have, and high-level behaviour that is derived out of a difficult chain of thoughts that cannot be expected from every person.

Scientific research has proven that it is possible to synthetically trigger or amplify a ‘god feeling’ in humans [TODO: find articles]. This is yet another one of the many instinctive traits that preceded our ability to reason logically. It existed in our predecessor species and might also be found in some current ape species (obviously any attempt to research this or publish the results will be strongly opposed by religious groups). This built-in instinctive emotion is an excellent anchor point for attaching a religion, whether it be consciously designed or grown accidentally.

God Is Everywhere and Turn the Other Cheek

I have been raised in a Christian culture, so I will give two pretty nice examples of what I believe to be difficult logical reasoning mapped to ready-to-use guidelines inside that religion. The first is the “God is everywhere” idea, which is not specific to Christianity but can be found in pretty much every religion. It incites respect for everything because everything is deemed evidence of the acts of God. Taken even further, everything is part of God. This idea basically tries to map the concept of God to the universe and intends to incite respect for everything including the environment. The latter is important for long-term survival as I will explain to great lengths in other chapters. Unfortunately in my opinion this “God is everywhere” construct is way too abstract a concept for the average person, so it kind of failed. I still remember teachers in secondary school trying to explain it and none of the pupils really understood it in the end. The leap from this abstract idea to something practical was way too much asked from children at that age, and perhaps from many adults as well.

The second is “turn the other cheek,” which intends to prevent vicious circles of destructive self-fulfilling prophecies [TODO: ELABORATE, connect to LINK:SFP].

The fact that religion is floating reasoning also indicates its pitfalls and dangers. No matter how good the intentions of the person(s) who ‘designed’ the religion, eventually they had to convert all their ideas into words that were conveyed either through oral or written tradition. As explained before, teaching or explaining anything to anybody incurs a risk of misinterpretation. It is nearly impossible to write a text that cannot be misinterpreted. There are bound to be people who will interpret the scriptures from within a frame-of-reference that is incompatible with the true intentions of the authors. The more extremist a reader of the scriptures, the higher the risk that they will only seek justifications inside the texts for continuing the extremist tendencies they already had. Worse, the texts might amplify those tendencies in ways the authors never thought of.

My belief—as far as it is wise to use that word in a paragraph about this topic—is that religion actually works for many. They would barely benefit from going all the way and deriving the same high-level concepts as the religion taught them. For others however, religion fails and sometimes it fails badly. Religion failed badly for those who think it is justified to shoot, blow up, decapitate, burn innocent people in the name of ideas cherry-picked out of an old text. My message to those people is to re-read their books and re-read them entirely and carefully, because they probably overlooked quite a few things.

I can understand the appeal of religion even though it obviously takes away many freedoms, like in extreme (extremist?) cases the ability to enjoy any kind of music one wants, or to indulge in many of the finer things in life. It seems many are willing to exchange those freedoms for the feeling of support and security offered by the rigid rules imposed by the religion. They cannot handle the boundlessness of freedom, somewhat in the same vein as an agoraphobic is afraid of too large open spaces, hence they lock themselves up in a cozy enclosed space that limits the complexity. I do not care if someone else wants to do this, go ahead if it makes you feel better. However please do not impose this way of life onto others who do want to try exploring this big open space of freedom.

My bottom line about religion is the following: I do not mind that it exists at this time and I will not try to actively convince people that they would be better off without it, unless in very rare situations where I believe that to be the case. There are some religions that are pretty mature and which strive for ideals that make a lot of sense while getting rid of most of the traditional hocus-pocus (for instance Sikhism). Many people are actually better off with religion. However, I will get angry at anyone's attempt to convert me to some religion. I do not know where the following saying comes from but it pretty much sums up my sentiments: religion should be treated like your genitalia: you can be proud of it, but you should keep it private. Nobody in their right mind shows it off in public or shoves it down other people's throats.

In the very long term however, humanity shall need to let go of god-centric religion if it wants to get anywhere. It will probably fade away by itself because something that incites to wage endless wars and make oneself hated by the rest of the world, does not really give any long-term advantage in the course of evolution.

Less Is More

Occam's razor should not only be considered when modelling existing entities. It must also be applied when designing something new. Certain people tend to completely over-design and add loads of completely useless bloat (Microsoft, anyone?) Of course all this bloat increases the risk of bugs that can break the important features people really need, as well as the risk of additional vulnerabilities through which the product can be attacked, and it makes expanding upon the design terribly difficult. This is basically the idea behind the ‘KISS’ principle that originated in the U.S. Navy in 1960, which stands for: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

In a certain way, Occam's razor is the inspiration behind the ‘less is more’ idea. The problem with this idea is that people generally have no clue what it really means. They will try to drive it way beyond the optimal point where ‘less’ really becomes ‘less’. They may remove essential components and leave redundant but incomplete ones. Slightly oversimplifying is worse than slightly overcomplicating. If parts of a model are simply missing, then the model may fail drastically. If it has a few redundant components, they may only be extra baggage that reduce optimality, but at least it will still work. Of course which of these two is truly worse will depend entirely on the specific situation. I for one would rather have redundancy than shortage. Eventually however, one will always want to strive for a solution with no missing parts and no useless extras.

If there is one thing you should remember from this chapter, it is to keep things simple. Do not burden yourself with unnecessary clutter. Do not speculate on additional complexity that might perhaps be useful in the future. If uncertainty is inevitable, model it and be prepared for it. If you expect additional complexity, design or model the concept at hand such that it is easy to add that complexity when it emerges, instead of adding it immediately and having to drag it along all the time. Also, re-evaluate everything regularly and try to shave off the things that have become redundant or incorrect.


There is a very important concept that stems from the field of thermodynamics. The study of thermodynamics was mostly fuelled by the need to understand steam machines in ye olde days, but it proved to be applicable to much more than that. I believe it is such an important field of study that at least a basic course in thermodynamics should be part of any education, even for those who will never be involved in anything technical—mind how in the present-day world it is becoming pretty much impossible to never get involved with anything technical. If this seems crazy to you, read on. The concept at hand is called ‘entropy’ and although it is pretty difficult to fully understand, one can get a rough idea of what it is from everyday examples. It has some very important consequences for everyday life. As usual I refer anyone who wants to know more about thermodynamics and entropy to literature, and I will summarise the most important things.

The First Law

The theory of thermodynamics is organised into a set of laws, which can be considered specific laws of physics. The difference between the prototypical laws of physics many people are familiar with (like F = ma for the relation between force, mass, and acceleration), is that some of the laws of thermodynamics have a statistical aspect. They cannot be applied to single entities, but only to a sufficiently large system as a whole, across a sufficient time span. The most important law as far as this chapter is concerned, is the second one. It would be a bit silly to move on to the second law without first explaining the first, so here goes. (Fun fact: I am actually skipping the ‘zeroth law’ which exists as well.)

The first law of thermodynamics is nothing but a variation on the well-known law of conservation of energy, which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. In a perfectly isolated system, the total amount of energy must remain constant no matter what happens inside it. The only catch here is that ‘energy’ in this definition must be understood as the sum of typical energy as we know it (heat, electricity, …) plus mass. It is possible to convert mass to energy, and arguably even the other way round, with the famous relation E = mc2 between both, but for all practical purposes we can ignore this in this discussion.

The law of conservation of energy is for instance the reason why a bouncing ball that is released from a stationary position at a certain altitude above a stationary surface, can at best bounce back to the same altitude, never higher. The altitude has a one-to-one relationship with potential energy from the ball's position within earth's gravity field. In practice it will always bounce back to a lower altitude, and eventually stop bouncing altogether. The reason for this, lies exactly in what will be explained next. As a teaser I can tell that the ball and/or its environment will be slightly warmer when it has reached its standstill.

The Second Law: Entropy

Within the scope of this text, there is not much point in explaining the second law in detail, it are actually the concepts it introduces as well as its corollaries that are most interesting. Entropy, often denoted by the symbol S, is defined by the second law of thermodynamics and is strictly spoken a measure of energy not available to perform useful work in a thermodynamic process. In more down-to-earth wordings, entropy is a measure of disorder or chaos. Entropy is the inverse of usefulness. It can be best understood through a few examples.

If one takes a box of pencils and carefully puts them all upright on a table, the whole of the table and the pencils will form a system with a certain amount of entropy. If the table is then bumped such that all pencils fall down, the entropy of the system will have increased. Or if you have just carefully washed your car it, will have a lower entropy than when you pour a few buckets of mud over it afterwards. Your car is less useful with mud poured over it, because it is for instance more difficult to drive with the dirty windshield, windows, and mirrors. The final states in both these examples are somehow more chaotic than their previous states. Their entropy has increased. It is possible to bring them back to their initial states (reorder the pencils or wash your car), but there is a catch.

dS ≥ 0

From the second law of thermodynamics follows a very important corollary concerning entropy. It states that in an isolated system the entropy can only increase. Or: dS ≥ 0. What this means in practice is that if you are going to take that heap of fallen pencils and put them back upright, or if you are going to wash the mud off your car, then only in the most ideal case you will have reverted the entropy of those ‘systems’. Your table-with-pencils, or your car and buckets of mud, will be back to their initial low-entropy state and there will be no consequences elsewhere in this ideal situation. In practice, this most ideal case is unattainable and in any real isolated system the entropy will always increase unless the system stays at rest. As long as the system stays isolated, the entropy cannot decrease, ever—except perhaps in ridiculously short time spans only relevant to theoretical physicists.

In the case of the pencils, you moving your arms and hands to put the pencils back upright requires chemical processes in your muscles, and some heat and waste products will be released in the process. Maybe some of the pencils got damaged by falling as well, which means you would need to replace them which could energy-wise be a costly operation, and you would be left with the broken pencils as waste products. To bring the car and mud back to their original state, you would need to remove all mud from your car and put it—only the mud—back in the buckets. That is possible but insanely hard and it will require a huge amount of work. Any real and practical method to clean the car will produce mud that is much more polluted than the original mud, as well as other waste and heat. It is possible to filter the mud and detergents etcetera to bring all products back to their original configuration, but doing this will require a massive input of external energy that will end up as heat. And a fact easily forgotten: merely building the infrastructure to perform that task will already produce an enormous amount of waste. Plus, cleaning the car will probably introduce some wear and scratches on the bodywork, which again is an increase of entropy. The best thing you could have done to avoid the increase in entropy is not to pour the mud over the car in the first place.

Another example you might know from your childhood is Play-Doh, Plasticine, or any similar modelling compound. These compounds typically come in tins or sticks each in a single colour. If you have played extensively with this stuff, you know what happens to those colours after a while. I still remember getting a rainbow-coloured set of Plasticine sticks as a kid. I made things with them, and noticed I could mix colours to obtain other colours. After repeated mixing, an increasingly large portion of the compound had taken on a dull brownish colour. The only thing I could do was create more of this dull-coloured stuff, not less. Eventually the whole set ended up being this single colour. There was nothing I could do to bring the colours back. The entropy of the system of originally colour-separated sticks had increased. In theory it could be possible to separate this lump of mixed compound back into its original colours. It would require either certain chemical reactions, or building an insanely refined machine that can somehow pull the differently coloured molecules apart again, and sort them. Either method would produce a lot of waste and/or heat when executed.

In general, when returning a system from a high-entropy to a low-entropy state, the inevitable by-product is less useful by-products, heat, or both. If it is possible to convert all physical by-products to useful products, there will always be an amount of waste heat left. This makes sense because heat is in a certain way a measure of disorder at molecular and atomic level. If we would place our table with pencils in a thermally perfectly isolated enclosure together with a robot that continuously bumps the table and then rearranges the pencils, the temperature inside that enclosure would steadily rise with every cycle of bumping-and-rearranging. Moreover the pencils as well as our robot would eventually wear out and break down. Their own entropy levels will increase as well. There will never be any technological advance that that will change the outcome of this experiment, only the speed at which it happens can be influenced. If there is any event that can decrease the entropy, it will either be only momentary and be nullified immediately, or it must be something that will pretty much obliterate everything we consider our ‘universe’. There is no point in pursuing it unless for those who are really suicidal and can convince everyone else to join in their insanity.

Another way to look at this is statistical. A system will be much more inclined to transition from a state of low to high entropy than the inverse, even though it is not entirely impossible to go in the other direction. For instance if you again slam your fist onto the table with disordered pencils, they might jump up and as by incredible coincidence all land back upright and perfectly ordered. This is not impossible yet humongously improbable. And, you have still added energy to the system by slamming the table. The pencils will never spontaneously reorder themselves without external energy input. For the Play-Doh mix, I cannot think of any way in which it would spontaneously become unmixed. On average everything is always much more likely to go from low to high entropy than the other way round. The extent to which this is true even allows to use it as an alternative definition of entropy.

If the system is not perfectly isolated, things become more complicated because one needs to consider interactions with the outside environment. But as long as the ‘leak’ in the isolation is small enough, it is still OK to assume the system is isolated. If the rate at which entropy increases is much larger than the rate at which it can leak away, the leak is of no importance except over very long time spans. If for instance there would be an indestructible room that is perfectly isolated except for a tiny hole drilled in a wall, you would still not want to be inside that room if someone would detonate a hand grenade inside it, because the hole won't make any appreciable difference compared to a perfectly sealed room.

Maxwell's Demon

A classic thought experiment that appears to offer a way around the second law of thermodynamics is Maxwell's demon. The experiment assumes a box with two compartments A and B, separated by a tiny door that can open and close very easily and quickly. Suppose we start out with the situation where the door is closed and only compartment A of the box is filled with a gas. The other compartment B is perfectly empty, a vacuum (figure MD1, top left). As in any gas at room temperature, the molecules inside the full compartment bounce around incessantly. The pressure difference between the gas and the vacuum can be used to do some useful things—remember the definition of entropy. For instance it could be used to move a piston in an engine.

Maxwell's Demon
Figure MD1: Maxwell's Demon: the spontaneous uniform distribution of gas molecules across two compartments appears to be reversible at no cost, but it is not.

Now assume we open the door. The molecules will immediately start flowing through and eventually there will be about as many molecules in each of the two compartments, equalising the pressure (figure MD1, top right). The situation where the gas is trapped in only one compartment has a lower entropy than the one with the gas distributed over the entire box. The latter situation offers fewer useful possibilities than the one before, hence has a higher entropy. Due to their random motion however, gas molecules will keep on travelling between the two compartments via the door. Now imagine that a tiny ‘demon’ monitors the molecules coming towards the door and only opens it whenever a molecule is heading from compartment B to compartment A, and closes it whenever a molecule tries to go from compartment A to B (figure MD1, bottom). Eventually this would lead to all molecules again being trapped in compartment A, the same low-entropy situation as in the beginning.

This might appear proof that the second law of thermodynamics is flawed because the molecules seemingly move back to compartment A through their own motion. Whoever thinks this is valid proof however, forgets that the demon itself needs energy to operate. It needs energy to monitor the molecules, and energy to move the door. Worse, observing the molecules will be impossible without somehow influencing their behaviour. Detecting an approaching molecule may require imparting enough energy onto it to push it away from the door, making it impossible to get all molecules in one compartment. Whatever practical implementation one would try to make of this experiment, the demon will always end up producing more extra entropy than it removes from the rest of the system.

Every time someone comes up with an idea that violates the laws of thermodynamics, it usually boils down to a variation on the above. There is always some step in the reasoning where something essential is swept under the carpet. This is especially the case with so-called free energy devices as discussed later on.

It is actually possible to classify types of energy according to their ‘quality’ from a thermodynamical point-of-view. For instance both electricity and heat are types of energy, but they are very different. It is extremely easy to convert electricity into heat at an efficiency of 100% by just ‘burning’ it up in a resistor. The inverse however is not just extremely difficult, it is impossible. In any real-world situation, one cannot take a certain amount of Joules of heat and convert them all to the same amount of Joules of electricity. There is a hard upper limit on the efficiency at which it can be done. Heat is kind of like a ‘dirty’ type of energy while electricity and certain other types of energy are ‘clean’ types of energy. All types of ‘clean’ energy are actually variations on impulse or impulse moment, in other words a motion in a well-defined direction. Heat on the other hand is chaotic movement in all directions. Bringing this chaotic movement back to movement in a single direction is somewhat similar to realigning the pencils on our table: it cannot be done without bringing in some extra energy that will end up as a waste product.

As an illustration of the above, consider migrating from combustion engines in cars towards electric motors, versus using an electric heater instead of burning fuel to obtain heat. The first transition is (potentially) good. The second transition is always bad. Why? Making a car move is giving it more impulse: increasing its kinetic energy in one single direction. Achieving this goal by burning up fuel, means somehow getting a clean unidirectional motion out of the wildly random movement of heated or exploded combustibles, which is a process subject to fundamental thermodynamic limitations. The efficiency will never be 100%, it will not even come close to it. Using electricity however, it is possible to get very close to 100%. There will still be some limitations due to losses in conductors, but converting the ‘unidirectional’ electric energy into motion can be done very efficiently. Hence if the electricity can be generated in a clean way as well, migrating towards electric vehicles is a win. If one understands this explanation, it becomes obvious why the heater scenario is the opposite. Heating is always a process with 100% efficiency when considering the amount of energy produced either by a chemical reaction or by consuming electricity. When doing this by converting a ‘clean’ energy like electricity into ‘dirty’ heat however, there is a considerable overall increase in entropy, and a loss in the overall amount of available useful energy. When doing it by burning fuel, it is not that bad because the result of the combustion was heat to begin with, there is no step that degrades a nicer form of energy into a less useful one. There are still nasty side effects like pollution, but at least from an entropy point-of-view this process is not wasteful. In the end, it simply is best not to produce any kind of heat when it can be avoided. It makes more sense to better insulate a house than to generate more heat inside it, regardless of the method. As explained below, using a heat pump to move existing heat from the outside into the house is also OK, although this process will inevitably also generate some heat, or in other words degrade the quality of a certain amount of energy.

Fire, Boats, and Aeroplanes

A nice example of entropy increasing spontaneously is fire. Combustion is in fact one of the nicest examples of the second law of thermodynamics. Building a house from raw materials requires a lot of time and energy. The end result, the house, will have a low entropy. (Keep in mind, taken together with all the waste products generated, the overall entropy of the house and its environment will be higher than initially.) Now unless this house is built in a very fire-proof way, all it takes to destroy it is the virtually effortless action of lighting a match and dropping it in the right place. The entropy of the house will increase drastically and fully automatically. The state of the house being a cloud of gases, a pile of charred materials, and a large amount of heat, is a more favourable state from an entropy point-of-view than the constructed house. Restoring the house from this destroyed state without introducing new materials is practically impossible. If there would be any sci-fi way, it would require enormous amounts of energy.

There are a gazillion other examples in real life. Take the Costa Concordia for example, a large cruise ship that capsized in the Italian port of Gigli early 2012. Building that ship and making it float took years of work and massive amounts of energy. The floating ship with all the accommodation inside it working as intended, was a situation of very low entropy. Keeping it in this state required constant effort and attention. At the slightest mishap, which happened to be a collision with an underwater rock, the ship automatically returned to a state of higher entropy by capsizing. Removing the ship from the Gigli harbour means again lowering its entropy, a very costly operation. Returning it to its former glory would mean patching up the damage in the hull and repairing all the damage caused by months of exposure to salt water, for instance replacing most of the furniture, electrical systems and engine parts. Simply demolishing and recycling it is a more sensible solution than attempting to repair it, which would be more costly both economically and ecologically than building a new ship. And worst of all, in the end there would still be no way to bring back the dozens of people who perished in the accident.

After an example on land and an example on the water, it is only reasonable to complete the list with an example in the air. A flying aeroplane is in a state of extremely low entropy. The prevalence of commercial flight has made us oblivious to the difficulty of lifting and keeping an aeroplane in the air. Developing and building something like a commercial airliner requires a staggering amount of resources and effort that builds upon ages of know-how. The only reason why commercial flight is so safe, is the combination of design, maintenance effort, and protocols, that went and goes into it to make and keep it safe. This effort comes at a price, which is why commercial flight is expensive. If some of this effort is skipped in an attempt to save costs, the risk increases that the plane will go from low to high entropy, often very quickly and drastically (the popular term for this is “crash”). When I first saw a photo of a crash site as a kid, I wondered: where is the plane? I could not relate the spray of scattered parts to what I believed to be a rigid and safe structure. This same naïve sentiment is also the reason why conspiracy theorists refuse to believe that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon during the 9/11 attacks: the plane was completely obliterated. The safety of an aeroplane lies more in how it is treated than in its inherent structure, which is for the most part an incredibly fragile balloon. Of course nothing recognisable is left if one smashes a fragile balloon filled with kerosene into a building at more than 800 kilometres per hour! This is not much different from hurling a raw egg into a wall. The only reason why commercial flight is tractable for the average person, is the fact that each airliner is shared by many passengers. Next time you pay for an airline ticket, multiply the regular non-discounted ticket price with the number of passengers that fit in the plane, deduct some (small) percentage to compensate for profits, and you'll get a rough idea of what a commercial flight costs.

As a sidenote, I do believe commercial air travel is too cheap at the moment of this writing. First of all, airlines benefit from a loophole to buy fuel tax-free, which is a situation that should be changed. However, the main reason why I believe traveling by air is underpriced, is that the total long-term costs of burning tons of kerosene are not considered. If we would include the effects of pollution and carbon dioxide emissions, the costs would be much higher. Instead of pushing those costs to future generations, we should let present-day travellers pay the costs. The best solution is to update the design of airliners such that they emit much less pollution and CO2. That solution will be expensive and increase the cost of air travel, but at least it would make those costs more visible to present-day travellers, instead of leaving them as an unwelcome legacy for future humans.

Let's go back to the concept of entropy. Just as with the incredibly rare occurrence of the pencils in my example jumping up again, it may be possible to find counter-examples in the real world where entropy appears to have decreased ‘automatically’. For each such example however, even if it does not conveniently ignore important energy flows and is a true valid example, there will be maybe hundreds, more likely thousands, and most likely millions of examples that confirm the second law of thermodynamics. Clinging on to that single counter-example would only be an evidence of extreme denial and a total lack of statistical insight [LINK:SUCK_AT_STATS].

Global Warming

If one thinks twice about all this, it seems to have a pretty gloomy consequence. If we are living in an isolated system, whatever we do will steadily increase the entropy, hence temperature. Eventually the heat will kill us. The saving grace is that even if we consider the entire universe and assume it is an isolated system—which is nothing but an assumption—the universe is still pretty damn huge. Unless we do something really stupid, it will take an awfully long time to heat it up to the so-called thermal death. Nevertheless if the assumption holds, this will happen eventually. I cannot say how valid the assumption of an isolated system is but I tend to believe that for the human situation it does hold for all practical purposes.

For our planet, the second law of thermodynamics is very important even though Earth obviously is not an isolated system. There is a constant inward and outward flow of both energy and matter (which are actually the same, which is what Einstein's famous formula E=m⋅c2 says). It all boils down to the equilibrium between those inward and outward flows of energy. The inward flow is pretty large: about half of the earth's surface is constantly being bombarded with electromagnetic energy from the Sun. The only reason why this does not make our planet burn to a crisp is that most of this incoming energy is radiated back into space. This is thanks to both the albedo of our planet (which is a measure of direct reflection), and its black-body radiation (which re-emits absorbed energy). There may also be a fraction of this incoming energy being converted into matter through processes like life, but this fraction is completely negligible for all practical purposes (our planet is in fact even losing more mass than it gains, cf. scientific report [TODO: LINK]).

Everything taken together there is no way around it: whatever we do increases the entropy on this planet. If you blow something up with explosives, wash your car, clean your house, take your dog for a walk, or even just breathe, you increase entropy. These activities only differ in the amount of entropy generated. If you clean something that did not need cleaning, you are actually for no good reason making your environment dirtier overall than if you would have done nothing at all. Your act of unnecessary cleaning will make your situation worse even though it may not be immediately obvious.

The only way to decrease the entropy again is to convert it to heat and somehow get rid of this heat. The mere fact that we exist implies that up to this point, we must already have been at an equilibrium situation where our planet stayed just at the brink of neither heating up or cooling down in an unbounded manner. To avoid that our waste heat will build up and kill us, we must get rid of it and/or ensure that the production of heat stays within bounds. If we cannot get rid of the waste heat quickly enough, there will be little practical difference with the hypothetical situation that our planet would be an isolated system. It will only be a little harder to calculate exactly. This is actually what the whole discussion of ‘global warming’ boils down to.


Thermodynamics proves that there is no way to use all of our waste (heat) to do useful things. Yes, we can recycle some of the heat and use it to perform useful actions, but this very recycling process will also produce its own waste heat, making it impossible to ever recuperate all the heat into useful products. Importing external energy in an attempt to get rid of all the waste heat, will only result in a net addition of heat. A simple and nice example of this, is running a refrigerator with its door open inside a thermally perfectly isolated chamber. Needless to say (see Maxwell's Demon), a cold room has a lower entropy than the same room heated up. Even though cold air will flow out of the refrigerator at one side, its cooling system at the other side will produce heat, more heat than is extracted from the cooled air. It can be proven (see Carnot's theorem) that for any refrigerator design, it is not even possible to reach break-even, the efficiency is always smaller than 100% except perhaps in unattainable ideal cases where enough constraints are dropped. The net result will therefore be that the temperature in the chamber increases. There is no way to build any machine that will be able to cool down the chamber in this scenario and keep on running indefinitely without eventually failing. One could isolate the hot part of the machine with the same idealised insulation material as the chamber, but the machine will become unable to pump heat into this hot reservoir when it reaches a certain temperature. Even if that limitation is ignored, the steady accumulation of heat would eventually destroy the machine. The only way out is to break the constraint of the system being isolated, and release the excess heat to the outside world—which in a certain sense only moves the problem elsewhere. It is actually the same story as with Maxwell's demon.

The latter, namely breaking the isolation constraint, is exactly what an air-conditioning does: it pumps heat to the outside environment. Like the demon, it requires a substantial amount of additional energy to perform its task. Air-conditioning is much more expensive than many would like to believe and there are many situations where having it running continuously on non-renewable energy is a scandalous waste of resources just so people can feel chilly for the few minutes they need to be in that space (and risk catching a cold to boot). It is also obvious why it is a huge waste to run air-conditioning with windows open: this is identical to the ‘open refrigerator’ story. I have seen even worse: rooms with independent floor heating and air-conditioning systems, both set to maintain a certain temperature. During winter the air-conditioning unit would constantly kick in to expel excess heat from the floor heating which, due to its huge latency, always exceeded the set temperature of the unit. It should be obvious to anyone that using an air-conditioning unit in winter for pumping out heat is downright stupid. Just open a window! The most sensible way to run air-conditioning is to power it through solar energy: the more solar radiation there is, the larger the need for cooling and the more power available to do it. Yet even when doing this, our environment will overall still heat up more than if the radiation were reflected back into space, and there would be more pollution to build and maintain the machines than if they would not be present. Therefore covering the entire planet with solar-powered air-conditioning would still be much worse an idea than preventing it from heating up in the first place.

Actually the most sensible way to use an air conditioning unit, is in the opposite way from what the average consumer might expect. In this opposite configuration it is usually referred to as a heat pump, and is used for heating during winter. Traditional heating systems take a form of stored energy (like fuel, or electricity) and ‘burn’ all of it into heat which is then released into the space to be heated. A heat pump on the other hand takes heat from the outside and pumps it inside, in the same way as an air conditioning pumps heat outside during summer. Even when it is freezing outside, a properly designed heat pump can still extract energy from that cold air and will return even colder air to the outside environment. This is why compared to a traditional stove or electric heater, these heat pumps can obtain efficiency figures far above 100%. This may seem magical but it is plain simple physics. This efficiency figure only looks at the indoor heating result, from whose point-of-view we do get more energy than what we are feeding to the machine. The only reason why the efficiency can never be infinite, is again due to the pesky laws of thermodynamics which dictate that the unit also needs to consume electricity to operate. This electricity ends up as additional heat, which in this case is still OK because we wanted heat in the first place. The only bummer is that this part of the heat is taken from our electricity bill while the part pumped in from the outside is basically ‘for free’. It is obvious that this way of heating is a good deal both for one's wallet and for our environment.

(Speaking of air-conditioning, I really don't understand why some like to have these things running even in situations where simply opening a window would provide sufficient cool air. I guess it is because they believe that if one sets an air-conditioning unit to a requested temperature, it will blow air at that temperature. No it does not. All the machines I have seen so far, are only able to either blast icy cold air at one single temperature, maybe also lukewarm air, and usually also just recirculate the ambient air in ‘fan only’ mode. They regulate the temperature like any plain old thermostat, meaning they switch between icy cold air and recirculated air at regular intervals. This is the same as opening an outside door or window in winter while it is 6°C outside, and then a few minutes later closing it again when it becomes too cold, and then repeating this cycle endlessly. Nobody in their right mind does that. Then why have we designed these artificial draft generators that simulate exactly this scenario? If you work for a company designing air conditioning units, please try to build something smarter.)

As far as I am concerned, there should be some kind of tax on each method for indoor or outdoor temperature control that does not even attempt to limit the amount of waste heat released into the environment. The worst things in this regard, are so-called patio heaters: gas or infrared electric space heaters on open terraces. Using those things in non-enclosed spaces is like opening all the windows in one's house and then turning up central heating to the max, only then even worse. Using them in enclosed spaces is usually plain dangerous, so in practice they are always used outside. (And no, it is not because a heater is electric that it is much better. It is not like with cars, where electric motors are likely to be better than combustion motors, as explained in the section about entropy.) Such heaters should be taxed so hard that nobody would even think about buying, let alone using them. They aren't even very effective, because they usually roast one part of one's body while the other parts are still freezing. Running air-conditioning to cool down rooms to a temperature above the outdoor temperature, is obviously also to be heavily discouraged. Of course this is utopian because in practice it would be near impossible to impose such a tax, although making it somehow undesirable to buy or use an outdoor heater should be pretty feasible. The electric variety of heater could be discouraged by increasing the cost for electricity when keeping on consuming multiple kilowatts across an extended period. This kind of cost increase is likely to be implemented regardless, because the cost of producing electricity will become negligible to the costs of transporting it, given the ever increasing demand.

Perpetuum Mobile

Even though it may not be immediately obvious to those unfamiliar with thermodynamics, the second law is also the very reason why a perpetuum mobile cannot exist. There are two variations on the idea of the perpetuum mobile, which is Latin for ‘eternally moving’ or ‘perpetual motion.’ The first is a machine that keeps running eternally on its own without any addition of external energy (and given E=m⋅c2, this also means no addition of external matter). The second variation is even stronger and if often called a “free energy device” or “over-unity device”: not only would it run eternally on its own, it would also produce a net outgoing flow of energy that can be extracted. This is generally the idea that people have about a perpetuum mobile, because it would have a practical use while the first one would be nothing but a novelty.

The first variation is impossible already, although it can be approximated very closely. The simplest and arguably best design is to take a big heavy wheel with a very efficient bearing, place it in a vacuum chamber, and give it a spin. There is no point in trying anything that has additional mechanics because those will just cause more friction and reduce efficiency. One might try to make the bearing magnetic, but even that will not be entirely frictionless because the magnetic fields will induce electrical currents in conductive parts that move relative to them, or interact with materials in other ways. Obviously, such machine is good for nothing except for people who like to watch spinning wheels. As one says, the hardest part about building an eternally spinning wheel, is hiding the battery… and replacing or recharging it while nobody is looking.

The second variation, the free energy or over-unity device, is utterly impossible. One can never extract energy from a machine that has no incoming energy feed, without reducing its own energy and eventually bringing it to a halt. As the first law dictates, the machine will need to get the energy from somewhere. It cannot create it from nothing.
People who do believe in the perpetuum mobile either know nothing about thermodynamics or try to apply physics models that somehow assume one or more idealised boundary conditions, like in Maxwell's daemon. The very pursuit for the perpetuum mobile on itself is already a waste of energy. That does not mean you should never try to invent one. It is actually a good exercise: it will give you a better insight in the whole concept of thermodynamics. If your invention is simple enough such that it will not cost a scandalous amount of your precious time and resources and will not be a threat to others, you can actually try to build it so you can feel that hard wall of inevitable failure hitting you. Even Leonardo Da Vinci went through this exercise, and he concluded it by postulating: for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. Yes, that's Newton's Third law, two centuries early.

Ever so often I still see people trying to design free energy devices. They stubbornly ignore any ‘naysayers’ that whack them around the head with the cold hard logic that proves they are wasting time and resources. If you are one of them and do not want to believe what all the smartest minds of the past centuries have repeatedly proven, just wonder why humanity has not even managed to build a simple eternally spinning wheel, let alone anything that keeps producing energy out of nothing. It may be tempting to believe you'll be that first person to crack the secret because you have this deep-rooted feeling that you are smarter than them all. If you keep on reading however, you'll find some bad news regarding that very idea as well [LINK:ARROGANCE, HUBRIS].

Another corollary of the laws of thermodynamics is that it is impossible to reach the absolute zero temperature (i.e. zero Kelvin). We can come arbitrarily close to it, but we can never reach it. You can already get a feel of why this is the case by considering that an environment at zero Kelvin would have zero entropy, and applying what is explained above. Read more about this if you want to know the details.


I already gave fire as a nice example of why systems are much more likely to go from low to high entropy than the other way round. As a matter of fact there is an even nicer example and it is the very process of life. Life is a state of low entropy. As scientific progress has shown, creating life from nothing is incredibly difficult. And as everyone knows, killing something is much, much easier than bringing something to life or even merely keeping it alive. On the other hand, life is abundant on our planet. Scoop up a spoonful of soil and it will contain more life than you can ever imagine. Put an unsealed bucket of water in any natural environment and within a reasonable time span it will be inhabited by living organisms. There is life in some of the most extreme environments on our planet. This seems counterintuitive. If life is a state of low entropy, then why do so many things on this planet seem more likely to go from a state of ‘dead’ to ‘alive’?

If this seems puzzling to you then it is because you are not seeing the big picture. You need to consider the whole of our planet and the sun. In fact you would need to consider the entire solar system or even the universe, but the sun plus earth alone are a sufficient approximation. The only reason why there is so much life on our planet is because it happens to be in quite a rare sweet spot of optimal conditions where the constant influx of solar energy enables chemical processes that constitute carbon-based life. We are also blessed with a magnetic field that deflects most of the Sun's harmful radiation. Within the combination of this giant fusion reactor in space plus our little piece of rock which happens to contain the right ingredients, the creation of life is in fact a faster transition towards higher entropy than the mere heating up of the ingredients without them reacting in any way. Therefore it is likely that any other planet in the universe that has similar conditions as earth, will develop some form of life. It is also likely that certain other planets with vastly different parameters will also develop a very different kind of life, if those parameters allow the right kind of sustained reactions.


One may again wonder, if it is so likely that life is created on our planet, then why does every living thing die at some point? This is also only a matter of entropy steadily increasing within each life-form. Each living being is, compared to all its constituents just scattered in some primordial soup, quite an isolated entity with a much lower entropy inside it than outside. The amount of exchange of matter and energy with the environment is limited, just as it is the case with planet earth. Each life-form needs to work continuously to keep the entropy within itself low. It expels the removed disorder through heat and waste products. At some point, wear and tear and outside contamination start to compromise the mechanisms that keep entropy within bounds. Life itself is in fact only a transitional state. At some point the entropy becomes so high that for the life-form, it is a more likely state of affairs to die than to keep on living. The only true way for the organism to somehow persist, is to procreate: spawn one or more new individuals built from scratch, equipped with fresh low-entropy organs. From the perspective of the rest of the world, this is also more desirable because keeping the ‘worn-out’ life-form intact would require so much consumption of additional resources that it would compromise the living conditions of other life-forms in the same environment.

Our fight against certain pests and diseases can be seen in the light of thermodynamics, and it does not cast it in a terribly good light. The naïve will like to believe that throwing around more pesticides, medicine, and technology, will always kill the pests and diseases. Those with a better insight in biology will know that there is a high risk of creating resistant strains by aggressively combating these ‘evils.’ When naïvely trying to kill a pest, it is possible to encourage it to evolve towards a state where it can no longer be beaten. Or, by removing the pest, another even worse pest that used to be kept under control by the lesser one is allowed to grow unbounded. Often it is better to leave the pest alone while ensuring its environment does not allow it to become a true threat. Diseases can be seen as a transition from low to high entropy: it is easier to become ill and die than to go from ill to healthy through conquering the disease. In this regard the disease becomes a symptom of the existence of an unstable situation. The larger the risk of the disease spreading, the more unstable the situation must be. By combating only the symptom i.e., the disease itself, one tries to build a barrier against this transition from low to high entropy. The mere creation of this barrier risks acting like a dam, accumulating behind it a driving force towards higher entropy. At some point that dam will burst with a force that would never have existed if the barrier had not been there. The emergence of resistant strains of diseases is just one way in which the situation tries to equalise itself. By increasing the threshold for the disease or pest to have its way, we might actually be encouraging it to evolve towards a more aggressive variant that we may never be able to conquer. If instead we would reduce the incentive for the disease or pest to exist, it would have a much slimmer chance to become more aggressive. Becoming more aggressive is expensive, therefore if there is no need for it, the cost will never outweigh the investment. As always, it is a matter of careful balancing.

The same holds for violence between humans. For instance every time there is a shooting incident, there will be immediate outcries to ban guns. This looks obvious but it is again nothing but symptom-fighting that might lead to worse situations. People do not shoot each other because there are guns, they merely use the guns as a tool to channel aggression. Take away the guns without doing anything about the aggression, and this aggression will seek other paths. Perhaps there will be fewer incidents in total because the threshold has been raised, but due to this higher threshold, the incidents that do keep occurring are likely to be at a more severe level with possibly more casualties per incident. Of course politicians like to be able to say they have improved public safety because they have banned guns. In reality they have created an incentive for aggressors to step up their game towards explosives, or ramming vehicles into crowds, or simply trying a little harder to obtain guns illegally. After all, if they would be obeying the laws, they wouldn't be criminals, would they? The root cause of the aggression has not been tackled in the slightest because that is just too difficult and not as easy to explain to the general public as: “look, we have taken away one specific obvious tool in the arsenal of people bent on killing others.” Something I heard in a radio news report in June 2021: “after a decline in gun ownership since the introduction of the stricter weapon law, there has been an increase again which is attributed to a growing feeling of insecurity.” The answer here is obvious: lower the feeling of insecurity and people will automatically have no reason to buy more guns. But no, the rest of the radio report hinted at even stricter laws. More dumb rules on the symtom-fighting pile, which is of course way easier than tackling the true root cause of the problem.
In this case, taking away the guns is like trying to reduce entropy within an isolated system. The changes happened only within the boundaries of the system, therefore they will at best have no effect, at the worst they will have increased entropy. Truly taking away the aggression is like fundamentally changing the system as a whole, breaking the boundaries and allowing entropy to be vented away. It is harder to do in the short term but will have much greater rewards in the long term. Of course the problem with politics is that there is almost only focus on the short term. To do something about that, politicians should be held accountable for everything they do even long after their term of office has ended. We should find some way to ensure that if a politician takes a decision, that decision, whether good or bad, will always eventually affect them just as much as the rest of the population. This will automatically encourage to only make decisions that are good in the long stretch.
This is not a plea for gun ownership. What I want to say is that in a society that is truly healthy in all aspects, there could be no objections against persons having weapons of any kind. Taking away the weapons will not heal an unhealthy society. Neither will the introducing of other pointless changes like banning certain words or having Elmer Fudd hunt Bugs Bunny with a scythe instead of a shotgun.

Likewise, the corollaries of the second law of thermodynamics mean that any striving for immortality is quite likely to have an adverse effect in the long stretch. Immortality is simply impossible within the constraints of our universe, which from a human perspective we can quite safely treat as an isolated system. Extending people's lives would in the end become so expensive that it will also degrade or threaten the life of younger people who have not reached the point where they would die of natural causes. In some of the current scientific research there seems to be a belief that our bodies have built-in intentional mechanisms for self-destruction and it would be possible to disable those mechanisms. This may be true, and it would mean we could live longer by reaching the aforementioned point where our bodies are truly worn out. Anyone however who thinks disabling those built-in self-destruction mechanisms would be smart, should perhaps first wonder why such quite non-trivial mechanisms would have evolved in a species in the first place. There are probably very good reasons. I wonder however if certain people are not simply mistaking straightforward processes of wear for ‘intentionally programmed’ mechanisms, and are making the same mistake as those who try to design perpetual motion devices. If there proves to be a rather straightforward way to suppress the normal wear and tear, then why hasn't this evolved all by itself? Perhaps the answer is that in a global sense, there simply is a need for the population to be renewed. Try to suppress your instinctive human inclination to stop thinking when solid reasoning tries to pull the emergency brake on a runaway euphoric train of emotionally inspired thoughts [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. Your fellow humans, present and future, will be thankful for it.

The Bottom Line

Entropy will increase no matter what we do. In principle this is not really a problem if we keep the increase in check with the inherent ability of our planet to release waste heat, and offload the extra entropy to the universe. The funny thing about it is that the harder we try to fight the increase of entropy without truly understanding the science behind it, the faster it will increase. This does not happen as if by some magical process: the increase is directly related to the attempted decrease, it is an inevitable by-product of it. There will always be some causal connection between the decrease and increase. By trying to keep everything sterile and clean, and trying to build stuff that could last almost forever but then not even keeping on using it anywhere near its potential lifespan, one will actually decrease the lifetime of pretty much everything else in the same environment. The bottom line is that no matter how counter-intuitive it may seem, trying to create order where it is not needed, is worse than leaving it disordered. Now, given this knowledge, take a look at what humanity is doing right now. Are we doing well?

I suppose many people will now be yelling: but you cannot apply a theory invented for steam machines to life and the entire universe! I have read this in some places and at some point in time I have even found something that hinted at it on the Wikipedia article about entropy. But I have never seen any explanation of why it would not be applicable. That does not surprise me at all. An explanation for this lack of explanation will be given further on in this text [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. It can also be understood from perceptual aliasing: the era of steam machines has long passed and anything related to steam machines has shifted out of the frame-of-reference of the average person and is regarded as historical. Because the field of study of thermodynamics is so strongly associated with steam machines, people could have an incorrect reflex to file it as ‘obsolete’.

Some consider the conclusions from this chapter a valid excuse to just be wasteful and not care about our environment and the future because: “hey, science says that it will all go to hell anyway.” I shall say it outright: they are idiots. If everyone before us had followed this train-wreck of thought, we probably would not even be alive, or our situation would be a lot shittier than it is now. The science here tells us that the more we care, the longer everything will last and the more time we will have for enjoying things. Enjoying things does not imply being wasteful. There are many ways to have fun without causing irreversible damage.

Maybe not everyone understands the thermodynamical background behind the concept of entropy, or not everyone believes that a theory which sprouted from the need to understand steam engines can extend to everyday life and the entire world. Yet it remains obvious that when picking any situation outside the tiny subset of exceptions, any transition from an ordered/useful to a disordered/useless state is more likely to happen than the inverse. It is also obvious that effort is always required to bring (back) order into a disordered state. Whoever ignores these facts and believes in magical things like order appearing out of nowhere, will at some point be presented the bill for all the ignored energy costs anyhow.

Optimisation: Greedy Algorithms versus Less Dumb Approaches

SECTION UNDER CONSTRUCTION. TODO: Add proper intro, sections. Link to HUMANTHOUGHT, which actually should become a subsection of this chapter.

[REF:GREEDY] Optimisation. Steepest slope vs. highest peak. [Ah, as usual I have dived into writing about this without first writing the essential intro. TODO: EXPLAIN WITH SIMPLE 1D FUNCTION IN FIXED INTERVAL. Add 2D image. Add 3D image. Explain that the world itself is N-D, with N larger than anyone could ever imagine or visualise in any way. Show that the idiotic strategy of making linear extrapolations for everything is a prime example of greedy behaviour and that it does not make any sense.]

What is problem solving? It is the process of finding a path between a problematic situation and a less problematic one, perhaps one where the problem is completely gone. Key to problem solving is to set a goal and striving to reach that goal. When viewing this in a scientific or mathematical context, the process of problem solving is called optimisation. Every living being has certain algorithms for optimisation built-in. The more primitive the organism, the simpler the strategies, and the more often they are hard-wired directly in neural circuits.

Steepest Hill

Optimisation 1
Figure OP1: steepest hill ascent as a way to optimise the altitude in a landscape. Here, the steepest hill ascent works fine because there is only one global maximum (if this image would depict a mountain, the ‘summit’) with no local maxima.

Consider the simple figure OP1. It depicts some kind of curve, let's assume it is the cross-section of a landscape. Suppose our goal is to find the highest peak in this landscape, and we start out somewhere at a random point. How do we proceed? The dumbest thing to do is to simply stay put at our current location. We might be lucky enough that our starting point happens to be the optimum. This is the cheapest possible strategy but obviously also the one with the worst possible results. A much better strategy is to observe the landscape around our current position, and take a step in the direction where the slope goes upward the most. Then repeat this process, until we no longer find any upwards slope anymore. We may then assume to be at the highest point. This straightforward strategy appears effective, at least for this specific example. It is a typical ‘steepest hill ascent’ strategy. It is a greedy approach, because it only looks around its current situation and chooses the path with the greatest immediate reward starting from there.

Optimisation 2
Figure OP2: the same steepest hill ascent applied to a different situation. It fails because there is a local maximum.

Now consider figure OP2. We apply the same strategy to a different situation. As the figure shows, now there are two peaks, one of which much higher than the other and the highest one is obviously where we want to end up. However, our strategy that seemed so smart in our previous situation fails in this one, it gets stuck at the lower peak. If it is not immediately obvious why this happens, look at figure OP3 which shows the situation from the algorithm's own perspective. As far as it is concerned, the end result is perfect because it complies with our rules. Because the algorithm only looks in the immediate vicinity of where it currently is, it is unable to see that we are not at the goal we should have reached.

Optimisation 3
Figure OP3: what the algorithm sees while trying to optimise the situation from figure OP2. Because it only considers the slope around its current working point, it has no way of detecting that its end point is not the global optimum.

It is easy to extend this algorithm beyond one-dimensional curves, for instance in a real landscape one can start from a certain point given by x, y coordinates, and walk in the direction of the steepest slope around that point. The only difference is that the simple choice between left and right from figure OP1 has been extended to the choice of any direction in a 360 degree range. Of course this opens up even more possibilities for the algorithm to fail in interesting ways. Figure OP4 shows a practical example from the natural world. Consider a simple organism, maybe indeed just a single cell, which is equipped with some kind of propulsion system like flagella (tiny whip-like structures that can vibrate and provide thrust in water). If we also equip the organism with two sensors that are sensitive to light and we connect them in a cross-wise manner to two flagella at the other end of the body, then one can see that this provides a rudimentary way of automatically swimming towards a bright light source. When the left eye sees more light than the right, it will cause the right ‘engine’ to work harder and therefore make the creature turn to the left. When the light is straight ahead, both sensors will cause both engines to run at the same power and the creature will head straight for its goal. To make this work in three dimensions, one could add a third eye and engine, and arrange them in a triangular configuration. This is a simple but pretty effective design and many insects rely on variations of it. Of course the light can be replaced by any other stimulus like the delicious smell of something putrid for a housefly, or CO2 concentration for a mosquito.

Optimisation 4
Figure OP4: a single-celled organism with two photo-sensitive ‘eyes’ and two ‘motors’. By using the left eye to activate the right motor and vice versa, the organism will automatically steer towards a bright light source it can observe from its current position.

Greedy Optimisation

The steepest hill strategy discussed above belongs to the category of greedy optimisation algorithms: it only considers its current state to decide what next step to take, and makes a decision that only maximises the immediate profit. There is neither any foresight into the future, nor a re-evaluation when it has reached its supposed optimal point. As already illustrated in figures OP2 and OP3, this incurs a severe risk of getting stuck in local optima, places that seem optimal but are not by any stretch. Coming back to our simple single-celled organisms or insects with their naïve optical navigation system, this means that when the organism is near a rather dim light source, it would swim towards it and never discover a much brighter light source that appears more dim because it is much further away. This tendency to get stuck in a local optimum can be exploited to build effective traps. For instance, figure OP5 shows a classic design for an insect trap. It is easy to build this by cutting a plastic bottle in two and inserting the top end upside-down. Then place at the bottom of the bottle some substance which is likely to attract insects, for instance a sugary substance to attract wasps, or something rotting for flies.

Figure OP5: a basic insect trap design. Left: the insect is attracted by the odour of some attractive substance inside the trap. Right: when the insect tries to leave the trap by aiming for a light source, it is very likely to miss the narrow opening and get stuck in a corner, because it will keep on aiming for the light and not the actual exit.

The reason why this simple design works, is that the chance of the insect finding the way back to the outside is exceedingly small. Whenever the attraction of the substance at the bottom is overwhelming, the insect will fly away from the exit. Whenever the outside light is overwhelming, the insect will fly upwards, but it only has any chance of flying through the exit if the light source is on a direct line between the insect's current position and that exit. Otherwise it will fly past it and get stuck in the upper side of the trap. This situation is similar to the one shown in figure OP6, which should be familiar to many: a fly is on the inside of a window and you open a door next to the window, but the fly does not follow the obvious path to the outside. It will stubbornly keep on aiming for the direction in which there is the most light, and keep on hugging the glass pane.

Dumb fly
Figure OP6: a fly will generally not follow the obvious path to the outside, not even if the obstacle is very minor like the ridge shown in this picture or even less, for instance a window's own bezel with a thickness of a mere few centimetres. The greedy navigation system will not even consider flying a few centimetres away from the seemingly optimal direction to escape its local optimum.

Non-greedy Optimisation

The only reason why we can laugh at the dumb fly in the above situations is because we have the ability to think beyond the insect's simplistic greedy navigation system. As far as the fly itself is concerned, it is doing the smartest thing it can because it does not have the ability to survey the situation and notice the stupidity of it. Within the frame-of-reference of the algorithm that aims towards the brightest light source or the most smelly odour, flying in an opposite direction even for the shortest of time spans seems dumb. Indeed, this again boils down to perceptual aliasing. For the fly in this example, flying in the opposite direction of what its instincts tell it to, is downright crazy.

Generally spoken, greedy algorithms only work inside a problem space that is ‘convex.’ For our insect for instance, its navigation algorithm will work fine as long as the insect and its goal are inside a geometric shape that is convex. This means a line segment between any two points inside the boundaries of the space will never cross the boundary, in other words every such line lies entirely inside the space. You can see that this constraint is violated in the situations of figures OP5 and OP6, which is why the insect has problems with such spaces. Such spaces are called concave. When extending this idea to the problem of optimisation in general, the design of a successful and efficient optimisation algorithm often boils down to finding some way of guaranteeing that the problem space is always convex, or applying some transformation that transforms a concave space into a convex one such that a greedy algorithm can be applied.

Convex vs. concave
Figure OP7: left, a convex geometric shape: any line segment between two points inside it lies entirely inside the shape. Right, a concave shape: there are line segments that start and end within the shape, but partially lie outside it.

When there simply is no way to make the search space convex, then the only way to avoid the pitfalls of greedy algorithms is to take radically different approaches. This is where it gets tricky. We could say that greedy approaches are one step up from absolutely stupid approaches like picking the starting point as the solution, or always heading in the same direction until we hit a wall. Greedy strategies allow to extend the search space from a degenerate space that consists of only a single point which is also the optimum, towards any convex search space. However, there is no general strategy to take another step up towards always finding the solution in any concave search space within a predictable time span.

There is one method that will always find the optimal solution in any space, but there is a pretty annoying catch. The method is relatively simple: find a way to generate perfectly random points across the entire space, and a way to evaluate the optimality for every point. Then keep on generating new random points and remember the last best one as the current global optimum estimate. These methods are called Monte Carlo methods, due to the obvious connotation with the gambling resort of the same name. The annoying catch is that due to the randomness, one can never predict how long the method will take to find the true optimum, in fact one can never be certain that the currently found estimate is the global optimum unless the search space consists of a finite number of points. Due to the fact that this strategy needs an infinite amount of time, it may seem dumb and is not usable in its pure form, but it is a very good basis to implement strategies that neither suffer from the pitfalls of a purely greedy algorithm, nor take an infinite amount of time to find a solution that has a very good chance of being either optimal or at least close to optimal. One of the most difficult things about random algorithms is the generation of perfect randomness itself.

Tractable non-greedy optimisation approaches will therefore often combine randomness with a greedy search to refine candidates proposed by an initial random picking. The randomness is crucial: when omitting it and re-running the same purely greedy algorithm from the same starting point, it will always yield the same result. If it was wrong the first time, then it will keep on ending up at that same wrong result all the next times. Throwing in some randomness avoids this. Our insect for instance would have a much better chance of getting out of the flytrap or finding the open door, by halting its greedy search every minute, flying in a totally random direction for a few seconds and then resuming the greedy navigation. My guess is that most insects actually do something similar to a limited degree, otherwise every windowsill would be littered with starved insects.

Even when picking different starting points but restricting oneself to a predictable formula for choosing them, for instance a regular grid of points, someone may be able to exploit the regularity in the formula and construct a concave search space—a trap—that causes every search to end up in a local optimum anyway. Only true unpredictability can prevent this. Remember the concept of ‘crazy’ I discussed before? It should now start to become clear why the most brilliant of geniuses often seem crazy to others (again, feel free to imagine the photo of Einstein sticking out his tongue here).

However interesting the mathematical or computational repercussions of greedy versus non-greedy algorithms may be, it is not my goal to discuss these here. I refer the interested readers to specialised literature. As usual my goal is to apply this kind of theory to human behaviour, to expose how things often go awry. My point is that there is a direct analogy between the ‘greediness’ in abstract optimisation processes as illustrated above, and ‘greediness’ in human behaviour. After all, no matter how it is approached, life can always be considered as some kind of optimisation process. The word ‘greedy’ in everyday speech is typically associated with financial greed but as I have shown above and as I will show in many other parts of this text, greed is much more universal than that, and causes similar problems in many more contexts than the financial market.


[REF:EXTRAPOLATION]When it comes to making predictions out of a limited set of observations, there are two main strategies. The first is interpolation, which makes a prediction about an unobserved point that lies somewhere in between two observed points. The second is extrapolation, which involves making a prediction about something that lies outside the region of observed points. Interpolation and extrapolation are tightly coupled with optimisation in general. Quite often, the set of data points that can be gathered during the quest for an optimal condition is limited. Being able to make predictions about other points near the existing ones can be very helpful to find the optimum.

Figure EX1 illustrates both interpolation and extrapolation for an observation of the temperature of some object varying over time. Both practices are risky because conclusions are drawn about something that was never observed. How large the risk is, depends on how valid the assumptions are that were used to arrive at the prediction. Typically, the prediction will assume that all boundary conditions that were valid for the observed points, will also be valid for the unobserved points. Mind how this assumption in itself is already an extrapolation! The farther the unobserved predicted point is removed from the observed points, the larger the risk that this assumption is invalid. When interpolating between two or more known points, the distance will typically remain limited, it can never be larger than the largest distance between any two observed points. This somewhat limits the margin of error. With extrapolation however, all bets are off. There is no limit on the distance between the observed and predicted points. Only predictions near the first or last observed points are sensible. The farther away one goes, the more one risks treading into the zone of utterly nonsensical predictions.

Interpolation vs. extrapolation
Figure EX1: illustration of interpolation versus extrapolation. In this case, a simple linear fit between two data points A and B was used. The points represent a varying temperature of a certain object across time.

Figure EX1 shows a very popular method for interpolating and extrapolating: it is called linear interpolation, respectively extrapolation. As the name says, a simple straight line is drawn between the data points, and any predicted points are assumed to lie on this line. If there are more than two observed points that make up a roughly line-shaped pattern, a linear fit can be performed, which finds the line that represents the best fit for the point cloud with respect to some criterion. This is done for instance by striving for the lowest average error when considering the line's distance to the observations (usually the squared error is being minimised, leading to a so-called “least squares” fit). The problem with this approach is that again it relies on a big fat assumption. Interpolating in this manner is a sensible thing to do, if it is known from the characteristics of the observed system that it behaves linearly, or if it is obvious from the observations that they follow a sufficiently linear pattern within the observed range. Extrapolating may not be as sensible, or could be downright dangerous.

Linear extrapolation is especially popular in journalism because it is a cheap way to shove a pseudo-scientific foundation under news articles with doomsday scenario headlines. Ever so often I see a stupid headline in the pattern of: “everyone will soon [be in some state that is considered undesirable by the general public].” The article will then contain one or more graphs that exhibit a seemingly linear upward or downward trend at their end, and the journalist has then of course (explicitly or implicitly) simply whacked a linear extrapolation onto that part of the graph to justify their hyperbole headline. They have thus generated yet another piece of ‘clickbait’ by succeeding in their mission of generating a maximally controversial headline. This is one of the reasons why I mostly stopped following mainstream news, it is too obvious that the act of generating controversy and luring people into either buying subscriptions or generating online ad revenue, has taken priority over offering actual objective information.

Anyone with basic physics knowledge should have objected against figure EX1 the moment they saw it after reading its description. The linear fit would only be justified if this observation was known to be made from an object well-isolated from its environment while a steady amount of heat is added per time unit. This is actually a pretty unlikely situation outside of lab environments. Figure EX2 shows the actual situation together with our previous predictions. The object is simply a thermometer that has just been brought from a colder room into a room that is not much warmer than TB. Any passive object in such situation will follow a curve that is much closer to an exponential curve than a linear curve, because the rate of heat transfer is approximately proportional to the temperature difference. This means the rate will decrease as the object's temperature approaches the temperature of the environment. The figure shows that despite our linear interpolation, the predicted temperature TI is not too far off. The extrapolated prediction for TE is very bad however, because our assumptions were completely wrong.

Interpolation vs. extrapolation, again
Figure EX2: the same figure as EX1, only this time the actual curve that produced the observations is plotted as well. The interpolated point I does not deviate a lot from the actual point. The extrapolated point E does.

If I would have told beforehand what kind of situation had produced the measurements A and B, then it should have been obvious that those two points alone were insufficient to make any reliable prediction. Either more points would need to be measured, or parameters of the observed object and environment would need to be obtained. This exactly is a common mistake: as soon as any kind of prediction can be made that looks vaguely scientific, people are tempted to grab on to that prediction and consider it final and valid without asking questions. This is bad.

Still, even if the person making the prediction would have made a fancy and perfect thermodynamic model of the thermometer inside that room, the extrapolation could still completely fail. Suppose someone opened a window right after moment tB and it is freezing cold outside. Then, as shown in figure EX3, the curve would take a dive and the extrapolated prediction would again be wrong. In this case, the boundary conditions have changed, making any prediction beyond the moment of change useless unless the change itself can also be modelled exactly. This is true for any prediction: even if one would build a perfect prediction machine, like an extremely complicated neural network, trained on a certain set of graphs of the stock market such that it scores 100% perfectly on another set of validation graphs, it would still fail horribly when trying to use this to predict what the actual stock market will do next. The mere introduction of this prediction machine will cause the stock market to change in such a way that the predictions quickly become worthless [LINK:UNIVERSE].

Extrapolation gone wrong
Figure EX3: here the person making the extrapolation used a third measurement C to get a good estimate of how the temperature would evolve. Unfortunately someone opened a window right after tB, making the extrapolation E worthless because it did not consider this change in boundary conditions.

This example concerned time on the horizontal axis, and a one-dimensional observable signal. The principles of interpolation and extrapolation can of course be extended to any kind of observation across a domain of any dimensionality. Obviously the same pitfalls exist there as well, and the added dimensions can make it a lot harder to see why the extrapolation is unreliable.

The Future

The most obvious and common example of extrapolation is predicting the future as was illustrated in figures EX1 to EX3, but there are many other situations. For instance, extrapolating one's own experiences across the entire world [LINK:EVERYONEISLIKEME], or extrapolating a recent string of events to fill in the gaps during an investigation that needs to reconstruct a past string of events that started in the same way, etc. Extrapolating is only justified if the boundary conditions for the entire extrapolated time span (or region in the general sense of the word) remain exactly the same as they were during the observed time span (or region). One of the most obvious violations against this requirement, is trying to apply linear extrapolation to everything, as was the case in figure EX1. This means assuming that the problem space will remain entirely linear across the region wherein the prediction is being made. Due to the innate tendency of people to be utterly overconfident when they have just acquired a tiny bit of new knowledge (‘hubris’ [LINK:ARROGANCE, HUBRIS]), someone who has recently learnt about linear extrapolation will be tempted to believe it is awesome and it allows to predict everything, hence they will also try to apply it to everything. What really happens here is that they have learnt this simplistic mathematical construct, and suddenly they believe to know all about mathematics and statistics because they lack the additional knowledge to understand the limitations of what they currently know. There are a gazillion other ways to extrapolate observations, and not a single one of them is the one to rule them all. For many observations it is downright impossible to make any prediction into anything but the immediate future. It is much better to consider all possible outcomes, than to take a wild gamble at a single one.

Any prediction of the future is an extrapolation. This is why I tend to frown heavily upon anyone who puts blind faith in predictions of a future whose boundary conditions are entirely unknown. My frown obviously becomes the more severe the farther in the future the prediction goes. For instance, a popular way of justifying predictions of the future is by looking for a point in the past that has something in common with the present, and then looking how some aspect had changed when reaching a more recent point (typically, the present). Then it is assumed that a similar change will occur between the present and a point in the future, roughly equally far away as the previous two observed points.

A simple example: an old book or science-fiction movie depicts a situation or technology that did not exist at all or only in a very embryonic stage at the time the work was written or filmed. Today the situation or technology is widespread. Extrapolation: things depicted in present-day works of science-fiction will also exist at some point in the future. Quite often, the extrapolation is so crude that it even assumes all things predicted today will become reality. What happens here is that people are taking a keyhole view on just one specific example where the past prediction came true, and they ignore the multitude of other examples where predictions proved complete nonsense. They will of course also gladly ignore the examples where a more scientific prediction of the future was made and it came true, if the prediction involved something uncomfortable like increased environmental hazards.
In another chapter I discuss predictions of nuclear aeroplanes and flying cars [LINK:NUCPLANE]. Almost anyone today would heavily oppose any attempt to build a nuclear aeroplane, but I can guarantee you that back in the 1960s, the general public found it an awesome idea, just as people today find certain predictions of the future awesome, while these will prove to be totally horrible. The problem is that everybody keeps blatantly ignoring the obvious indications of something being a bad idea, until it has actually killed or threatened enough people to create a feeling of disapproval in the general population, just as what happened with Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima, … As these examples show, because this disapproval is generated through primitive limbic system mechanisms, it will be crude and exaggerated, and will hamper adoption of safer and more sensible applications of this technology that only caused casualties due to a few cases of blatant misuse.

Here is a more subtle example where the past is extrapolated into the present or near future. Elsewhere in this text I state that people seem to become ever more asocial due to increasing use of information technology. I am not alone in this observation, it is prevalent and so are the reactions against it. Those who feel attacked or insulted by this statement will point towards old photos and paintings of people reading newspapers instead of talking to each other. Is this extrapolation? You bet it is. The idea behind referring to those old pictures in an attempt to debunk the present-day statement, is the following. Evolutions in information technology have occurred before, and they did not result in disaster. If we assume that the current evolution is completely similar to the previous ones, we can predict that nothing bad will happen in the future either. We extrapolate the current situation into the future, using boundary conditions from more than a 100 years ago. That seems dodgy to say the least. In the rest of this text one can also find my doubts about excessive use of information technology not being harmful.

You see, this is why I am very wary of any predictions of the future at all. Most are utter gambles disguised in pseudo-science that ignores all the counter-arguments. It is possible and useful to rely on history to make plausible predictions of the future, but only for relatively constrained situations, not for the state of the entire world.

Life as an Optimisation Process

Life could be considered an optimisation algorithm, a metaphor for trying to find the highest peak while walking around in a foggy landscape, similar to the figures OP1 and OP2 and especially OP3. The fog represents the fact that one cannot look into the future (“where we are going”) except for a very limited range. The altitude in the landscape represents some kind of overall state of optimality of life. Some use the most braindead approach possible—no approach at all: they do nothing and are content wherever they sit. Arguably just as stupid a strategy is to keep walking in the same direction no matter what. Others use a strategy that is a little more advanced but in the end still simplistic. With every step they take, they look around and walk up the steepest slope visible within their immediate limited view, assuming that it will lead to the highest peak. That is a reasonable assumption when not knowing anything more, but it is a typical ‘greedy’ algorithm. There is no guarantee that the steepest slope will lead to the highest hill, hence only a local optimum will be reached most of the time as in figure OP2. The big problem is that once people have reached a ‘summit’, many of them are completely unwilling to consider the possibility that it is only a local optimum, and refuse to go down the hill again [LINK:PRECEDENT] to look for a higher hill, especially if all other hills visible in the neighbourhood have less steep slopes (see figure OP3). Yet, going up and down the hills and sometimes passing through very deep valleys is the only way to arrive at truly high peaks. Sticking with the first best optimum is like being caught in the insect trap of figure OP5 or behind the window pane of figure OP6.

If we take a look at the current state of the world, and even the state of the world for the past few thousand years, it seems that most of us have this idea lodged in their heads that if we always try to do the best thing we can figure out at any given moment and never ever allow taking a step back, then our long-term situation must steadily improve. The above explanation and especially figures OP2 and EX3 illustrate that this is a very wrong assumption. Those figures are the simplest possible cases in a 2-dimensional space. In the real world the opportunities to get stuck in local optima are much more numerous. Obviously we cannot look ahead into the future to know what is the best action to take at any given moment, but frantically sticking to the most greedy steepest-hill approach at all times is pretty certain not to lead to the best possible future, not even a reasonably good future if we're really unlucky and get stuck in a local optimum that is very hard to escape from. It makes more sense to think about certain goals we want to reach and then try to find a path to those goals, even if those paths lead through some pretty deep valleys in the optimisation landscape. Also do not pick just one goal, pick multiple and try to find paths to all of them, such that there is something to fall back to when a specific goal proves to be unattainable. Sometimes, as in figure OP6, it pays off to give up on stubbornly trying to reach a certain point and just do something random or unexpected.

Many feel smug when they act in a greedy way while other people do not [LINK:ARROGANCE]. They think they are smarter because they have no clue why the others do not give in to the dumb greedy action they regard as optimal and ingenious. It takes additional insight to realise that it is more optimal to act otherwise or even do nothing at all in that situation. There is no other way to put it: from an algorithmic point of view, greedy behaviour is only one step up from absolute stupidity. It is only one degree of complexity above the strategies with no complexity at all, like always picking the same answer to any question, always acting in the same manner as a response to any problem. If greedy strategies are all someone knows, then all other kinds of behaviours—including the more advanced ones—will be aliased as apparent stupidity into their narrow frame of reference.

Those who are locked up inside a simplistic convex world view where greedy behaviour is the best solution to everything, will not merely scoff at others who do not exhibit unconditional greed. They will even try to convince them to follow the same kind of behaviour because obviously, everyone must either be the same or a total idiot who needs re-education [LINK:EVERYONEISLIKEME]. Of course such people have no idea how embarrassingly much of a fool they make out of themselves by trying to teach a primitive idea to someone who has evolved way beyond that level. Again, it requires considerable knowledge to realise to what extent someone is an idiot.

From an evolutionary point-of-view, in the timeline of a species there must be a transition from zeroth-order behaviour (just always doing the same) towards first-order optimisation (greedy behaviour, see figure OP4), and then towards more intelligent approaches. It seems to me there are actually people who believe in the opposite. They believe greedy behaviour is the smartest thing ever and is the next logical step in evolution. They seem to assume that living beings like humans previously acted in more complex ways and then ‘evolved’ to become greedy. I do not know how they would explain how a species would first reach a state of advanced intelligence and then backtrack to near total stupidity. Obviously it must be the other way round, unless the species has actually stopped evolving and is degrading towards a state of collective dementia as a precursor to extinction.

Practical Examples of Greedy Human Behaviour

It may be hard to recognise greedy behaviour in everyday situations aside from the obvious cases of financial greed, so let's start with whatever I can find at the very moment I am writing this paragraph. If I just look at today's news, here is a nice example. A farmer with only a record of not too severe offences decides to do a little monster truck rally on a set of police cars, in response to facing a minor drugs charge. This act is only good at fulfilling some very basic instincts like revenge, and maybe there was a hint of logical albeit dumb thinking in the idea of disabling the police cars. If it would have been a pure act of protest, then why did he try to flee the scene? It is not like there was any chance he would not get arrested. Now, by performing this act of boundless stupidity, he has amplified his minor offences to an enormous collection of major offences. Any bit of sound reasoning would have led to the conclusion that this act would only greatly aggravate the performer's situation.

Another example involving cars. It is a common practice, at least in my country at this time, for a company to offer a car as part of an employee's reward package in exchange for a slightly lower net wage. Some people have a tendency to abuse these leased cars and drive inefficiently, because they have the feeling they do not have to pay for the costs. Of course this is a greedy and simplistic reasoning that only looks at the immediate gain of arriving marginally faster at their destination, or simply giving in to the childish desire of driving like an idiot. The wasted fuel and damage to the car must still be paid for. By whom? The company. Yes, the same company that pays those employees. Even if the cars are leased from another company through a string of roundabout financial constructions, eventually the costs will always find their way back to the company itself. If it has to spend money on fuel and prematurely worn-out cars, then it will have less money to spend on wages. Of course, this loss is beyond the horizon of someone who draws a straight line between their current state and the next best thing they see, and assumes the line will keep on going upward indefinitely [LINK:EXTRAPOLATION].

Hey look, yet another car-related example: the so-called ‘dieselgate’ scandal from 2015. At some point it seemed a good idea for Volkswagen executives to make cars pretend to meet certain emission norms, by making the engine detect when it was placed on a test bench and then operate in a special mode that ensured the norms were met. On the road, the engine would not care about the norms just so it could provide more punch. This was a greedy decision because it is a cheap instant short-sighted win. There was no foresight into the future, and boy that future proved bad. It was obvious that someone would at some point notice this fraud. Maybe VW never considered the repercussions for the company's reputation. I cannot imagine that implementing this lie in the engine's software was so profitable. My guess is that the extra cost of going the extra mile and continuing to research until that engine really met the norms, would only have been a tiny fraction of the losses caused by the scandal.

A classic one: taking doping for a major sports contest. If it works, there is an initial obvious gain of winning. The risk that the fraud will be exposed is huge however, look at the Lance Armstrong case where it did not help to keep on denying it. Once exposed, a lot or even all of the profit from winning melts away and worse: there will be massive damage to the athlete's reputation, almost impossible to repair. Even if (s)he wins a subsequent contest without doping, there will still be many who assume tampering to be involved. I am not even considering the potential damage caused by pushing one's body over the limit through stimulating substances. The damage may be such that the athlete will be unable to perform anywhere near the level (s)he could reach before starting to take doping. Then, there is also secondary damage to the entire event. It loses its credibility and eventually risks being scrapped. Anyone who made profit from helping to organise the event loses their job. Everyone loses.
For me, someone who in a fair way barely wins only one single contest in an entire career, deserves much more respect than someone who is basically a vessel for a contest-winning drug. Anyone who would want to stop the downward spiral of lack of credibility in events like the Tour de France, would vote to greatly reduce the ridiculous monetary prizes down to a level where the reward becomes comparable to the cost of doping. Fair play will automatically return and the event will revert to what it truly should be, a celebration of sports instead of a big circus orchestrated by high-level thieves.

Another example, which I hope is fiction although it would not surprise me if there would be actual real-world examples of it. Given the current advances in biotechnology and medicine, it has (or will) become possible to cure certain diseases through figuring out how they work on a very low biological level (e.g., DNA) and then designing something that counteracts it. If that is possible, then it must also be possible and perhaps easier to actually design diseases themselves. It is the staple of many a poorly written science fiction Hollywood movie where some evil company has designed both a disease and a cure, and intentionally spreads the disease such as to boost sales of the cure. This may look clever at first sight, but it is on second thought one of the dumbest things technology could be abused for. Such scheme will only work if everything works out perfectly, and it will go horribly wrong in all other cases. Those other cases outnumber the cases where it goes perfectly by a multitude. Refer back to the discussion about entropy. In the movies, of course the plan has to go awry to make the story interesting, and then the heroes save the world through a string of ridiculously implausible events that could never happen in reality. As a company, there is no possible justification for intentionally making one's customers ill or exposing them to a threat. Killing your own customers is the worst possible business strategy ever. It does not need to be as extreme as this, merely making customers ill in any way will also eventually get back at the company that reaped short-term profits from selling unhealthy crap, even if they managed to avoid the instant bankruptcy that would result from the general public becoming aware of the situation. Producing food with cheap substances that have long-term detrimental effects will eventually nullify any profit obtained through the lower prime costs [LINK:DEPRIFOOD]. The hidden costs may take a very lengthy roundabout and a long time that may even span multiple generations, but they will eventually get back to the people who ignored them (cf. the 2008 film “Food, Inc.”). In the long stretch, the ‘invisible hand’ theory will always get the upper hand (pun intended). Unfortunately this stretch is generally way too long to rely on it as the only means of regulation.


You see, I can keep going on like this because the real world, and especially the human world, offers endless inspiration. Here's another elaborate ‘true story’ example of true classic greediness in the sense that most people associate with the word. I order a somewhat expensive gadget on eBay and it does not meet my expectations. I send it back to the seller. I have two options: pay for more expensive shipping with tracking, or just send the package by cheap regular mail. I pick the greedy solution with minimal immediate cost: regular mail without tracking. For weeks I wait for my money to be refunded, but it never happens. I contact the seller but he never answers. There is no point anyway, he could simply claim the package never arrived and I would have no way to prove him wrong. It is becoming clear that minimising my immediate cost has led to maximising my risk. My only option to get my money back would be a lawsuit, costing much more than the price of that gadget, and still no guarantee that I will win, therefore utterly pointless. There, saving me a few Euros on shipping has led to a total net cost of the price of the expensive gizmo + regular mail shipping, with no rewards at all. If I would have paid the small extra for tracking, I would have been able to force the seller to refund my money or have sufficient proof to get a refund through eBay, and the net cost of this whole story for me would only have been the price of a tracked mail package.

But hey, the story does not end here! There is a double whammy and you'll see that in the end, nobody wins in this situation. Most surprisingly, it is I who has the best chances of ending up the least disadvantaged. Obviously, the seller's act of pretending to never having received the return shipment was greedy: he can keep my money and sell the same piece of crap a second time. Before you think: how clever, let's think further. This is the 21st century. There are many, many channels where I can tell everyone how I never received my refund from that specific seller. And again, I have a choice here. Easy and greedy would be to spam his name everywhere: again a bad idea, because as one says: there is no such thing as bad publicity. Optimal is to keep it simple and leave a negative feedback on the eBay feedback system that is specifically designed for situations like these. Or, I can give a description of the seller elsewhere that only allows to recognise him, not to find him. Every potential customer who thinks of buying something from that seller will have a reasonable chance to see this negative feedback and find out that the seller is a crook. Even if this causes just one single person to toggle his/her decision of buying that gadget towards not buying it, the net reward for the seller caused by his greedy action of not refunding my money is already zero. That single person could even be myself: obviously I will now avoid the seller like the plague. If instead I would not have been ripped off, I could have returned to buy more stuff. Very likely, there will be more than one customer who will refrain from buying. The total gain of stealing my money is nullified by the loss of not selling another unit. The eventual net profit for the seller may be pretty negative. Of course it will not be obvious because it will be all hidden costs. An immediate small gain is much easier to see than slow starvation.

Somewhat in the same category: a stubborn marketeer keeps calling me on my mobile at least once every day, even though I have already made it obvious that I am not interested. The rationale behind this is most likely that the attempted phone calls are almost for free, but the profit would be big if I would change my mind and buy their product. Unfortunately I am a person with a cumulative sense of irritation, hence each time my phone rings about the same moment of the day, I get increasingly annoyed, but I cannot block them because they use a huge pool of random caller numbers. Eventually a friend tells me that my country has an official list where one can register one's phone number, and no company can make unsolicited calls to any number on that list, on pain of a hefty fine when reported. Obviously I register my number and luckily for them they honour it. As you can see, the end result of their greedy strategy to stubbornly keep on calling the same person has negative profitability, as well as for any other telemarketing company. Neither can now call me, even if they would happen to sell exactly the product I need at that moment. Moreover, I will now recommend others to register their number on that list, further reducing the target group for all telemarketing companies. This would not have happened if this particular company had given up the moment I told them I was not interested, instead of continuing their greedy quest of optimising locally by trying to gain one additional customer.

The music and movie industries also offer endless examples of greed. I don't know at what point in history it all went wrong here, but somehow those companies all ended up being run by short-sighted persons who aim to scrape every bit of here-and-now profit from every situation, with a total lack of long-term vision. Every time there is a case of music or movies being pirated (copied illegally), we are being fed these reports of estimated losses. An estimate of the number of pirated songs is taken, multiplied with the profit normally gained from selling a song through an official channel, and bam: one gets the alleged estimated losses due to piracy. This estimate will then be used to justify combating every kind of music or movie pirate by every means possible. Such estimates make no sense and are gross overestimates. A major part of the music copied illegally, would never have been sold normally if the piracy would not have been possible. People will often copy things just because they can. Moreover, pirated music may bring profits in the long term. Someone might learn to know new favourite artists through these copied songs, and it is not unlikely they will want to buy the next real official album just because they don't want to go through the hassle of finding a pirated copy. This is hard to quantify, but that does not mean it should all be given the maximally paranoid treatment. Banning every YouTube video that contains some copyrighted song fragment is equally unproductive. Yes, it is highly dubious when someone just puts a whole song or album online, especially if the goal is to get ad revenue from it. But someone accidentally playing a song in the background, or merely using a short fragment? Come on. It's free publicity! If the video creator is famous enough, fans are likely to want to know what music it is and want to buy it. I fail to see the losses here. I think the reasoning behind this, is that the creator might be making some kind of profit from this video that contains a tiny bit of copyrighted material, and hell no: that cannot be allowed! Every tiny bit of potential profit must be scraped, even if this act of scraping causes damage to the perception of the company or industry as a whole, and losses in the long term.


Those were all examples were the greed is clearly visible, and is the kind of ‘evil’ greed that generally pops up in people's minds when hearing the word, the prototypical greed as displayed for instance in the 1987 film ‘Wall Street’. Here is a much less obvious example. Suppose I work at a company in an office with many coworkers. Some day I catch a contagious disease, but it is not bad enough to make me unable to work, although it does impact my productivity. The simplest kind of reasoning here is: I am ill therefore I should not go to work. This is a zero-order kind of reasoning: actually there is barely any reasoning at all, it is just a dogma. It may seem smarter to move to a first-order reasoning: if I go to work anyway, I will be more productive to the company than if I would stay in bed at home, because I am not totally impaired and can do some work. Yes, this is a greedy kind of reasoning. It may not seem as such because there is no immediate selfish profit to be gained, but from a computational perspective this is a greedy approach: I consider the company's profit a goal, and I look around only in the immediate vicinity of my current situation for the best first step that will maximally increase the score in the short term. And I completely ignore what happens beyond that first step.
Let's see what happens if we do not ignore the next steps. I go to work and annoy my coworkers with my incessant coughing, and remember: this disease is contagious hence I spread around my virus. Many colleagues around me catch the disease. Total productivity in the company plummets. Some employees may react more severely to the disease and become unable to work at all for many days. Plus, even though I am working and am theoretically doing more than nothing at all, my reduced mental state might cause me to make errors that will require a multitude of my spent man-hours to fix afterwards. In the end, my seemingly noble idea to do my best for the company has completely backfired because I failed to think beyond the first positive step, hence ignored all the negative consequences that nullify it. You see, this is a nice example of common sense [LINK:COMMONSENSE] as well. In this specific case, breaking off the string of reasoning before actually starting to reason, and just accepting the general dogmatic idea of not going to work when diseased, worked just as well as going all the way.

Even less obvious is a related example of extreme workaholics who feel it is better to keep on overriding themselves and work over time, than to take regular breaks and vacations (they will generally also be the same people as in the previous example). They measure their productivity purely by time spent on work. Any reasoning that could lead to working less, is cut off [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT] by the dogma that working more is better than working less. Obviously there is no risk of contagion here and little risk of immediate nuisance. Yet they do not realise nor want to realise that by depriving their mind and body from the necessary time to recuperate, they will go down a steady spiral of making an increasing number of mistakes due to increasing fatigue. With every mistake, more work is required to fix it and mistakes in this fix spawn even more work. At some point all this inefficiency spills over to colleagues, other departments, and eventually the entire company. I know people like this, I have seen this happen, I have had to clean up the mess they made, and at times I wondered in what kind of numbed-down and burnt-up state one had to be to make such trivial mistakes. Sleep is not a waste of time. It is essential to allow one's brain to rearrange things. Without it, stuff keeps on being piled up and it becomes increasingly difficult to function properly. These people became noticeably slower as they wedged themselves deeper into their state of burn-out, they neglected to eat properly (because eating obviously is also considered a waste of time), and it became gradually more difficult to explain them even the simplest of things. I guess at some point it even became impossible for them to understand how deep they were getting stuck in their vicious circle, and how to get out of it.

Someone who believes time spent is a sufficient measure of efficiency and quality, should get an old-fashioned phone book and copy it by hand. I mean, either with a pencil or a keyboard. When done, this person will have done an impressive amount of work that required an immense time span. And it will have been utterly pointless and nobody will get any value from it. The amount of work spent is not a valid measure for the value created by that work. Worse, stubbornly keeping on working on something that is inherently valueless, is likely to cause more damage than simply doing nothing at all. [LINK: countries that work the longest hours are not necessarily the most efficient.] I will say it outright: I live in a region of workaholics and I fucking hate it. Get a break, people. The world will not end because your arbitrary deadline was missed. It is more likely to end because of the incessant striving for useless deadlines.

If there's one common thing I have observed in workaholics, it is that they usually work inefficiently. I can't tell whether their inclination to work overtime is merely to compensate for their inefficiency, or their inefficiency is actually a strategy to satisfy their craving for endless work. If one's only goal is to ensure being able to work for extended periods regardless of what the actual work entails, then a simple greedy solution is to work inefficiently, delivering results that will likely break and require more work to fix. They might even intentionally design things such that they are bound to break at a given time. Obviously nobody would want such kind of employee in one's company.

I do not have any hope of turning the tide with rants like these though, because I am almost certain this kind of workaholic behaviour is deeply hard-coded, a relic from a past when acute problems were so frequent that there was barely any time to take a break. This is not just a hunch of mine, there are scientific reports which prove that the degree of ‘laziness’ of a population is dependent on the environment in which it evolved. I have heard these kinds of workaholics literally state how they are unable to simply relax. They will feel physically uncomfortable when taking an extended break. This discomfort will play a big role in the exit strategy of their trusty thought process [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT] whenever they are engaged in a discussion that puts them at “grave risk” of having to relax for an extended period. Their mind and body incite them to be busy at all times, under the assumption that there is always some acute problem to be solved or bound to emerge. Of course, when being busy for no good reason and trying to fix what is not broken, problems are indeed likely to emerge, making it difficult to detect the counter-productivity of this kind of behaviour [LINK:SFP]. An ideal being would be able to anticipate every real problem and become busy solving it only when necessary, and when there is no problem in in prospect, idle around in some non-wasteful fashion. Unfortunately humans are far from ideal beings and have to make do with crude inbred mechanisms.

Robot insect trap

I can even give an example that doesn't directly involve humans. I have a website which contains a form through which visitors can send mails. When I first created that form, I got a lot of spam through it, which proved to be almost exclusively from automated web crawling robots looking for such pages and entering their spam messages into them. Luckily, whoever programs those stupid things suffers from greed to such a degree that their robot will also be utterly greedy. I have exploited this fact to prevent those robots from sending any spam with a 100% success rate to this day. The trick is simple: the webpage has one input form called ‘address’ or something, but it is surrounded by clearly visible warnings to leave this field empty. The greedy spambot algorithm is unable to interpret these warnings and cannot resist entering an e-mail address in that field (supposedly for me to reply to the spam). This is sort of a digital implementation of an insect trap as illustrated in figure OP5, and it works amazingly well.

The whole concept of ‘trends’ is actually a natural implementation of a greedy approach and is tightly tied with the whole assimilation principle [LINK:ASSIMILATION] and social behaviour. Looked upon from a computational perspective, the mechanism of trends in human behaviour is not much more than a (sloppy) steepest hill ascent strategy, distributed over a large group of individuals. The only goal is to make all the individuals move in the same direction that appears to go upwards from their current state. This does not necessarily make them move in the right direction. There is no guarantee or even attempt to make them move in the right direction when looking beyond the apparent best short-term path to take. It is not because we happen to move in what appears a positive direction right now, that this will remain the case in the near or far future, or that this is the right direction altogether when considered from a broader viewpoint than the narrow tunnel vision of trendiness.

The mechanism behind trends is actually extremely primitive, extremely prone to getting stuck in local optima, and as a result extremely inefficient. As with any greedy algorithm [LINK:GREEDY], it only appears smart to someone who does not know anything more advanced and can only compare it with ether inaction or the dumbest possible approaches. Anyone who is chasing trends, is by definition lagging behind and will never do anything ground-breaking. I will put it bluntly: trends are an easy way-out for those who are either too lazy or too dumb to figure out the best path to take from their current situation by themselves. We can do much, much better. To make things worse, it is a mechanism that can be manipulated relatively easily. The richest persons on this planet did not end up in their current state by chasing trends, instead they created new trends and reaped the benefits of making others follow those trends. I have quite a firm belief that in due time, humans will evolve to either ditch the whole concept of trends or severely constrain it, but I guess there will first have to be a lot of hurt, gnashing of teeth, and outright casualties before we reach that point.

Jumping Out of the Window

To conclude this section, let's consider a somewhat absurd hypothetical example that illustrates perceptual aliasing, cut-off reasoning [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT], and extrapolation all at once. Suppose someone is in a building at an altitude of ten metres above ground level and wants to reach the ground floor with a minimum of effort and elapsed time. The person has only very limited knowledge about physics, but has just learnt linear equations in basic mathematics. The building only has windows and a stairwell leading to an entrance on the ground floor. Option 1: walk down the stairs. Option 2: jump out of the window. This person has walked the stairs before and knows it is fatiguing and slow. He has never jumped out of a window at this altitude, so he decides to do a little test. He takes an object, a tape ruler, and a chronometer. He drops the object out of the window and measures how long it takes for it to travel a distance of half a meter, which is approximately 32 hundredths of a second. Dividing traveled distance by time he gets an estimated speed of 1.6 metres per second, or about 5.6 kilometres per hour, or 3.5 MPH. This means it would only take about 6.4 seconds to get down the full distance of 10 m, and 5.6 KPH is a perfectly safe speed. So he jumps out of the window and gets severely or possibly lethally injured hitting the ground at about 50 KPH (31 MPH).

What went wrong in this scenario? Several things. First, perceptual aliasing. The person only knew about linear equations, not quadratic equations nor the fact that gravity will cause objects to steadily accelerate until they reach terminal velocity. Therefore he applied his limited knowledge to everything, including situations where it must not be applied. Everything is mapped to linear equations. When all one has is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Second, cut-off reasoning. The desire to reach the ground quickly or maybe just the plain arrogance of believing that he could now predict everything with his mathematics knowledge, could have made him to ignore the observation that the test object did not merely move down at a steady pace but accelerated, and only took about 1.4 seconds to hit the ground. Third, extrapolation. He took an arbitrary observation of an observed parameter (distance), and extrapolated it without considering whether the extrapolation was valid. He assumed that the speed of a falling object is a constant v = 1.6 m/s and therefore its distance versus starting point is this number multiplied by time. The true speed of the object versus time (assuming the average Earth acceleration constant and ignoring drag, which is justified at such low speeds) is v = 9.81⋅t m/s, and the distance relative to its starting position is x = (9.81⋅t2)/2 m. The time to fall a given distance can therefore be calculated as t = √(x/4.9) s.

This was of course a slightly ridiculous example due to its simplicity and nobody has ever made this kind of stupid mistake, at least not as far as I know. Replace the simplistic observations and calculations with more complicated ones however, and it becomes much less obvious where the potential flaws and invalid assumptions are in the reasoning, and which of the things that appear smart are actually disasters waiting to happen.

I kind of lied when I said the previous example would conclude this section. Today I found a real-world example that is just way too good not to mention. The 2016 paper “Seeing Red: Traffic Controls and the Economy” by M. Cassini and R. Wellings from the British Institute of Economic Affairs concludes that we could boost the economy by ripping out 80% of all traffic lights. This conclusion is made on the same kind of terribly crude and unfounded extrapolation that I have seen made by other economists as well: they took the average time a motorist waits for a red light, and multiplied this by the number of traffic lights. This results in some time measure, which is then converted to some economic measure by again multiplying it with some other wet-finger figure. This kind of calculation would be OK as an exam question for basic maths in junior high school. As the basis for a scientific study, it is downright embarrassing, just as embarrassing as those RIAA claims that a number N of illegal music downloads result in a net loss of N⋅M, with M the average profit of a song being sold through official channels. One of the big problems as usual, is that these researchers are from their youth on completely wedged into a frame-of-reference where ‘the economy’ is the only ultimate model of reality [LINK:NOECONOMY] and all the rest is subsidiary. For this traffic light example, what about the costs of all the accidents that will happen as a result of removing infrastructure that was created with the explicit goal of making traffic safer? What about reality?
Hey, if they can make such ridiculous guesses, so can I. My guess is that those researchers were frustrated by waiting for red lights to such a degree that they wanted to physically remove them without even thinking twice about the consequences. If I am allowed to make another stupid wild guess, they are probably avid fans of Top Gear as well—their conclusion sounds like something Jeremy Clarkson would propose. I also hate red lights from the bottom from my heart and I love Top Gear (at least before the trio got swapped out), but that does not prevent me from maintaining common sense. On the one hand I am happy that these ‘researchers’ handed me such a nice example to illustrate this chapter, on the other hand I am deeply worried that such poor research can end up in a published state and get so much media attention. It is yet another indication that the world seems to be in a state of regression when it comes to overall maturity [LINK:INFANTILE].

Of course it is possible to make actual trustworthy predictions of the future, when knowing all the required parameters to make the prediction as good as 100% accurate. For instance the trajectory of an asteroid can be predicted quite accurately. If this trajectory proves to cross the one of our planet, we can make a pretty damn accurate and trustworthy prediction that we will all die at the moment when that happens unless we do something about it. Despite being quite difficult, this kind of predictive calculation is very manageable because it involves a single almost entirely inert object flying around in an almost entirely empty space with a limited set of celestial objects, which all obey well-known laws of physics. There is not even any point in trying to compare the complexity of this calculation to the complexity of predicting the future of an entire planet with trillions of interacting living organisms.

Human Thinking, or Lack Thereof

TODO 1: Add proper intro. TODO 2: split up this whole chapter in two parts: 1. early exit loop thinking (short term) and 2. goal- or panacea-driven thinking (long term): pick a goal and then try to reach that goal by any means necessary, ignoring all the rest (using a string of early-exit loops), until it becomes extremely obvious that the goal cannot be reached, then rinse, repeat. The default goal is obvious: try to convince oneself and others of the superiority of one's own ego, through any means necessary.

The exit-loop strategy

[REF:HUMANTHOUGHT] A common mistake is to assume that humans are perfectly rational beings. They are not. Even those who believe to always act logically, do not. I am pretty certain that many confuse true logic with a fuzzy feeling they had when someone for the first time explained something logical to them and told them “this is logical.” Whenever they re-experience that feeling, they believe they have been acting logically. No. Human reasoning is a flaky and easily sidetracked process that is deeply interwoven with instinctive behaviour. What makes things particularly difficult, is that there is never a clear signal when one of those instincts throws a wrench in the logical machine. They hook into the reasoning process at subtle moments. It seems that one of the chief instincts that has developed over the course of evolution, is to give people the impression that they are still reasoning logically while their train of thoughts has in fact been completely derailed by any kind of shortcut.

When simplifying reasoning down to its most basic form, one arrives at a basic feedback loop that consists of the following steps (see figure HT1, left part):

  1. Observe the problem.
  2. Propose a (different) solution.
  3. Verify the solution. If the solution is satisfactory then exit the loop and stop; if not then go back to step 1.

Any complicated reasoning process can somehow be broken down into one or more of these loops. Every step in the loop is a complicated process on its own, that may consist of multiple nested loops, and can be performed in many different ways, but I make abstraction of that here. In human thinking, an extra step has to be added to this loop (see the right part in figure HT1). This extra step can actually be added anywhere in the loop, but it best fits right before the ‘verify’ step. This results in the following simplified model of human thought:

  1. Observe the problem.
  2. Propose a (different) solution.
  3. Is this a convenient time to stop thinking? If yes, then exit the loop and ignore everything else about this problem.
  4. Verify the solution. If the solution is satisfactory then exit the loop and stop; if not then go back to step 1.
Human thought process
Figure HT1: perfectly logical reasoning (left) versus typical human reasoning (right).

This is actually not a bad mechanism in itself. It is in fact very good and even essential for any being that does not have infinite computational resources, because it can prevent getting stuck in useless thought patterns or wasting time and effort on striving for a solution that is way too costly to obtain. It even protects against paradoxes that would freeze a perfectly logical entity into an infinite loop. Its success crucially depends on how the decision to exit the loop is made. The funny thing is that a lot of people will cut off their reasoning way too early in situations where it really is necessary to go all the way, while they do keep on looping in the most useless of situations. There is no other way to put it, their decision mechanism for breaking the loop plain sucks.

I got a bad feeling about this

Obviously the model shown in figure HT1 is grossly oversimplified, but I have found it to map surprisingly well to reality. The biggest practical difficulty with this model is to figure out what caused someone to take the early exit. This added ‘exit’ is what discerns a human from a perfectly logical thinking machine, and it should not come as a surprise that this extra step is almost entirely steered by instincts and emotions. Any time when an I got a bad feeling about this sensation pops up, it will try to push the train of thoughts off its track. Right now at this very moment when you are reading this, it may be happening. Perhaps you as a reader have a feeling like: yeah, this is how humans act, but doing anything about this feels terribly difficult, therefore case closed! Peeeooowww. There goes all brain activity, all the way down to zero. It seems this module was wired differently in my brain when it was being assembled. It keeps on going in situations where other people's thoughts grind to a halt. Not that I am unaffected by it, not at all. I do often have to clean up a mess I made myself, wondering: why the hell did I pick this stupid and wrong solution back then, and considered it a sufficient reason not to continue thinking? However, unlike some other people I seem far more willing to push that train of thoughts back on its track and move it way beyond the point where it initially felt inconvenient.

Basically, what figure HT1 illustrates is the concept of a taboo. Certain barriers, whether they be evolutionary (nature) or cultural (nurture), prevent the mind from continuing along certain paths. Obviously these barriers stand in the way of being able to solve any given problem. Taken to the extreme, some may deliberately try to construct certain of those barriers in the minds of others, such that they can later on steer the way in which their victims will reason about certain topics. Others may try to figure out what barriers already exist in the minds of certain persons, and then exploit those barriers in a similar manner. As I said above however, figuring out what barriers exist in someone's mind is not trivial. One possible way is to deliberately expose the target to vague statements that could be perceived as controversial or insulting if a certain barrier would be present in their mind, but are meaningless to anyone who analyses them in full detail. If the person falls for this kind of bait, the existence of that specific barrier is confirmed. The typical ‘troll’ is someone who has made this kind of practice their favourite pastime, merely looking for those particular things that cause their victims' minds to seize up and then keeping on bombarding them with variations on the same themes.

It is extremely important to note that this mechanism mostly does not operate at a conscious level. Most of the time it happens at a lower level where it cannot even be detected by the person to whom it occurs. Most ironical is that when trying to make people aware of it, this very mechanism will protect itself. It will shut down the targeted person's reasoning while they or someone else try to expose their cognitive flaws. Kind of like “first and second rule of Fight Club.” It takes a certain skill and experience to become aware of this mechanism and take control of it in your own conscious hands.

The emergency exits in this loop can be anything. Many of them will be instinctive, for instance a facial feature one detects in some person [WiTo2006]. Who knows, maybe someone's ancestors were under threat sufficiently by people with that facial trait that it proved an evolutionary advantage to automatically hate people with that trait and avoid them. Therefore they will now try to turn every discussion they have with such persons into their disadvantage, even if the latter are perfectly in their right. Or maybe someone does not like the voice of a particular singer for a similar reason, for instance his voice contains certain harmonics that in some distant past were associated with a detrimental situation in some vague way that nobody nowadays could remotely guess what it was. Or maybe someone will avoid certain persons because they exhibit subtle features that historically used to be an indication of having a contagious disease (see also the uncanny edge [LINK:UNCANNY]).

The discussion about magic and craziness is also tightly related to this mechanism. Calling something magical or crazy is giving up on trying to understand it, and taking an early exit. As I said before, labelling it as ‘magical’ is generally safer than ‘crazy’ because the latter implies a hostile attitude while the former implies an attitude of respect or wonder that has a much better chance at eventually leading to understanding after all.

The exit trigger may also be something less deep-rooted, but still buried deep enough in someone's subconsciousness that they are unaware it is clouding their judgment. For instance, someone may have been irritated by sitting in traffic jams every day to such a degree that any short-sighted solution that appears to smooth out traffic seems brilliant, even if sound reasoning proves the solution to exacerbate the situation in the long run. There is often no use in presenting the hard argumentation to such persons, they will most likely block it out because it is not what they want to hear.

The exit trigger does not need to be negative by the way. Someone's mind might as well take the early exit because it has arrived at a situation it really likes, and it does not want to risk getting out of this state by continuing to think. This is often as simple as: I had this problem before, I then applied a certain solution and it more or less solved the problem, so I apply the same solution now and do not think twice about it. In practice, thinking twice (or thrice, …) about it may lead to a solution that is better and could prevent the problem from ever reoccurring altogether. Even if a problem was never encountered before, it is often very tempting to just think: “there is something fishy here, but everything seems to work well enough, and I am too scared to figure it all out and possibly open up a can of worms, so I pretend there is no problem.” This is somewhat related to the concept of the ‘panacea’ [LINK:PANACEA] that people really like to believe in, the utterly utopian idea of a single solution to every known problem.

It is all part of a conspiracy

It is important to note that there is generally no point in trying to re-start the cognitive loop in someone's mind in the hopes that they will not take the early exit next time, unless considerable effort is done to put them in a situation that shows them wrong. Even then they will not be guaranteed to overcome their self-inflicted brainwashing. They will consistently keep on taking the same exit if the train of thoughts is similar. Even when managing to push them beyond that first exit, they will take the second one, the next first best that brings them back to their desired end point. This is why a lot of discussions are unfruitful: people only keep on figuring out new ways to maintain the stance they already had at the start of the discussion. This stance often boils down to something as simple as: “I am right, I must be right,” and the actual topic of the discussion is only a vehicle to prove this [LINK:ARROGANCE]. The discussion was pointless from the start because the persons involved only hoped to convince the others of their own stance and to confirm their own ego, and they consistently shut off their brains whenever this appears to be unsuccessful.

Conspiracies are also a nice illustration of the above. Conspiracy theories are dangerous to mental health because they tend to become a vicious circle. They make it even harder to get past the additional exit in figure HT1 that discerns typical human thinking from unbiased problem solving. Once someone believes in a conspiracy theory, attempts to debunk this theory are easily dismissed by re-applying the same theory over and over again, sometimes even amplifying it while doing so. Obviously, if somebody tells a conspiracy theorist that what they believe in is false, it must be because that somebody is part of the conspiracy itself! Be very wary of thought patterns like this. If you know to be prone to get sucked in by conspiracy theories, stay away from groups where similar persons gather and amplify their delusions. Always look at things from multiple vantage points. If something looks ridiculous from all but a single point, then in almost all cases it actually is ridiculous. But not always.


For any of the real pressing current problems, people tend to stop thinking exactly when they should continue. In most cases, this is when stuff becomes difficult, but also interesting. I know people who keep analysing completely pointless things like the puniest little details in works of entertainment and fiction. It is baffling to see how they are able to drill down to ridiculous arcane details of their favourite (or hated) movies, books, video-games, TV shows, or actors, while at the same time they exhibit a lack of insight in the real world. While they bicker about plot holes that are absolutely negligible and irrelevant for the sake of entertainment in a work of fiction, in the real world they waste energy and resources in ways that could be easily prevented by just thinking twice about them. It reeks of pure escapism. Of course it is easy, because in fiction everything is possible and making mistakes has no repercussions unless the story requires it. It seems to me that a considerable fraction of humanity is increasingly losing touch with reality. In reality, everything might also be possible, but many of those possibilities have fatal consequences that are blatantly ignored in fiction for the sake of entertainment. A general term for delving into the details of something of low importance in an attempt to escape a much more important but much more difficult task, is ‘bike-shedding’ or ‘Parkinson's law of triviality’. The inspiration for the term's name was a committee spending a disproportionate amount of time and effort on deciding how a bike-shed should be designed, while their actual task was to design the nuclear power plant the shed was only a tiny detail of.

I also ‘suffer’ from this way of thinking but I try to apply it in a way that makes sense. I do not think about entertainment, I do not want to think about it. I do no want to know more about a certain character in a film or book than is required to understand and enjoy the story. Knowing every single background detail would suck all of the joy out of the work of fiction anyway. I want to keep some of the ‘magic’ in the work. I do not want to be able to predict everything in it. On the other hand I want to know how I should live in a way that won't get me or anyone else killed prematurely. I do not want magic in the real world unless I know it is just a shortcut for something too complicated to understand readily, but of which I know it actually works and I would understand it if I spend some more effort. Many however seem to want to suck all the magic out of their fictional worlds and keep reality wrapped in a kind of infantile magic that must not be desecrated.

One of the most favourite moments to shut down one's brain is when costs and disadvantages of something start becoming apparent. The quest for perpetuum mobiles is a prime example of this, whether it is an explicit striving for free energy devices or a more implicit striving for a human society with infinite growth and no decay [LINK:MAXPOP], which is nothing but a type 2 perpetuum mobile on a massive scale. Anyone who keeps on pursuing them keeps on ignoring their inevitable energy losses.

It all depends on whether the person at hand is an optimist or a pessimist. The optimist will first think of the benefits and cut off the analysis before the costs come into play. The pessimist will first think of the negative things and stop thinking before arriving at the positive aspects. A realist on the other hand will gather as much relevant positive and negative points as they can muster and handle, and weigh them against each other. The latter is of course the optimal strategy—in the ideal case where the person has unlimited capabilities and there are time constraints. It is of course more complicated and takes more time to evaluate. Even if there are severe limitations, merely looking for the most significant positive and negative point and weighing those two against each other, will eventually prove better than always picking one negative or one positive point only. Those other approaches that presume either a negative or positive outcome are actually nothing but gambles. I do not like to gamble outside of a purely recreational context, which is why I try to stay realistic. It is also why this text is neither a typical ‘feel good’ pep-talk nor an endless rambling about how hopelessly doomed the world is. There is a bit of both in it because that's just the way reality is.

Breaking off the problem solving loop too early is a bit like sticking one's head in the sand like an ostrich: “there is no problem if I cannot see it.” Which, by the way, is a fable: even ostriches with their tiny bird brains are not that dumb that they would simply try to avoid a pressing problem by pretending it is not there. That is a worthless strategy. Ostriches may be poking their heads in a hole when checking or turning their eggs, but they will not stick their head in a hole under the assumption that this makes them invisible to impending danger. They might sit still and try to camouflage themselves, but will carefully monitor their surroundings while doing so. The head-in-the-sand misconception seems to have originated from writings by Pliny the Elder (23-79AD). In the same vein, there is also the myth of a frog being slowly boiled alive if the water heats up slowly enough, which is a metaphor for not acting when a situation deteriorates only very slowly. Actual experiments have shown that real frogs will try to get out of the water when it gets too hot, no matter how slowly it heats up. That's two examples of animals taking smarter decisions than certain people. Do not follow the example of the metaphorical animals, take their real-world counterparts as an example instead.


There is a very good reason why this kind of early cut-off mechanism exists: it is necessary. Well, maybe not in a strict sense because there are various other possible strategies to solve problems, but it is unavoidable for any being that has to reason within bounds of finite memory and finite processing time, in other words for any real-world being. The process of solving a problem can be represented by a tree of possible solutions that have been proposed and tested. Without a cut-off, this tree can grow arbitrarily wide and deep, and require infinite time to traverse.

This mechanism is also the reason why most humans are completely unaffected by paradoxical situations or statements. Suppose I would say the following to a being that reasons according to the ‘ideal’ first loop from figure HT1: I always lie. Am I currently telling the truth? This being would get forever stuck in its loop because there is no satisfactory solution to this problem. A human would maybe loop twice at best, and then say: screw this, and exit the loop. Similarly, even for someone who lacks the capabilities to reason perfectly logically, it is possible to approach perfectly logical thinking by exiting the loop whenever it becomes apparent that someone else is trying to bullshit them by feeding them false information.

I repeat: this explanation is a very simple model and its only merit lies in highlighting the problem, not in offering a solution for it. For a given person in a given situation, you will almost never be able to figure out the single trigger that breaks off their thinking. First of all, an actual reasoning process consists of multiple loops. Second, everyone has maybe a million triggers, some weak, some strong, and the set of triggers is different for every individual. The human brain is a big ball of instincts inside a very thin shell of reason that cracks very easily. I am convinced that deep-down, most humans, even the most intelligent ones, are driven by very simple rules. Most of their intelligence serves to find excuses to keep sticking to those simple dogmatic rules, not to re-evaluate them. It is sometimes baffling to see what kind of complicated cognitive roundabouts are taken just to be able to keep running in circles about a very simple and dumb belief or instinctive notion.

It is plausible why a high level of intelligence may be an evolutionary disadvantage [LINK:IDIOCRACY]. I believe that when considering usefulness, there is an upper limit to intelligence. Above this limit, the ability to figure out how everything works has such a high risk of giving insights that lead to self-destruction that it becomes more of a hindrance than a quality. There have been many highly intelligent people in the past, there have been groups of such people, yet so far they have not managed to permanently overtake the less intelligent groups, which could be telling. Look at this very text: at many times I really wished I had never figured out many of the things I wrote down here, especially the core idea from the first section.

When looking at the grand scheme of things and taking everything into consideration, there are many paths of thought that lead to depressing conclusions. There are a few however that do not, and these may even lead to a state of happiness that is more intense, stable, and longer-lasting than any state that can be achieved through the cheaper mechanism of cutting off reasoning early on, and surfing the wave of the first best emotion-driven instinct that passes by. The problem is that it is very difficult to find those very few rewarding paths. For those persons without the ability or patience to do so, the early cut-off mechanism is much cheaper and works reasonably well. If all this sounds like Zen Buddhism, well someone has once mailed me that even the previous crappy version of this text had hints of it, and it would not surprise me if the current one comes even closer, despite the fact that I have no real clue what Zen Buddhism is supposed to be about, I haven't bothered to look into it yet.

The true intelligence of any entity that follows this exit-loop strategy lies not in the degree to which it stubbornly follows the loop, it is for the most part contained in the exit strategy. The way in which new hypotheses are generated is important as well, but is only of secondary importance: it matters little when the loop is always cut off so early that no more than a few hypotheses are ever validated. When the exit strategy is overly eager, the entity will think fast but dumb; when the exit strategy is so complex that it becomes slow, or too conservative that it evaluates too many hypotheses, the entity may react too slowly to critical situations. There is a sweet spot between speed and complexity. For quite a few problems however, speed is mostly irrelevant and taking any early exit will always lead to poor solutions. Although there seems to be a built-in bias in humans to admire persons who always think fast, I tend to be wary of such people because the only way in which they can be consistently fast, is through cutting corners in their reasoning. They often learn things in incredibly sloppy ways and never update their incomplete knowledge unless something goes really awry. Instead of considering multiple possible paths that start out from their current situation, they pick the one single path that feels best according to whatever idiosyncratic criteria, forget entirely about all other possibilities, and keep on chasing down the path higher up the tree of reasoning where only one preferred branch is considered at every fork. If they had the luck to always pick the right exit at each of those mental crossroads, then they will of course quickly arrive at the best solution. If on the other hand they already picked a bad choice at one of the first crossroads, then they are stuck in a local optimum and are doomed to keep suffering from this poor solution unless they are willing to backtrack their whole string of reasoning and start over.

[TODO: make a practical example that shows in detail a plausible train of thoughts for both a perfectly rational being, and a human with a certain instinctive repulsion against a person exhibiting a certain trait.]

The Box, Part II

Coming back to the saying ‘thinking outside the box’ I discussed earlier, the exit-loop strategy could be considered one of the reasons of remaining stuck within one's mental ‘box’. I commonly see people pour massive amounts of energy and effort into analysing things that do not really matter while essential problems are not even investigated. It looks like escapism, but of course it is merely due to taking similar early exits in the though process all the time. It is like calculating the exact motion a certain part in a certain very complicated specialised construction will make when another part in the same construction moves in a certain way, while actually the roof above your head is on the verge of collapsing and crushing you together with your fancy construction before you can even verify if your stupid calculation was correct. Or it is like looking up to the stars while you are walking in the street, and falling down an open manhole, or getting run over by a car because you did not notice the red crossing light. Or worse, it could be like spending decades on building an intelligent self-conscious robot, and then getting killed by it because one only focused on making it work, without ever considering the possible dangers.

Rolling ball experiment
Figure HT2: a thought experiment with a rolling ball released from a stationary position at point A.

Consider two locations A and B on a planet with a uniform gravity field, as depicted in figure HT2. B is at a higher elevation than A, with a bumpy landscape in between that has no spots at the same height as or higher than B. If I hold a metal ball on the slope at A and release it, it will start rolling towards B. Assume the landscape is shaped such that from a bird's eye top-down view, the ball will roll in a straight line from A to B such that the image shows a perfect cross-section of the path the ball would follow. The question is, will it reach B?

There are two ways to approach this problem. The first one is to start calculating the speed and trajectory of the ball starting from A and update this calculation in steps that are deemed sufficiently small, then continue like this until it becomes clear that the ball will either reach or not reach B. This approach seems sensible because it simulates what would happen in reality. If I suppress al the things I have been learnt, it is my first instinctive idea of solving this problem, and I am pretty certain it is also what most people with no education in physics or mechanics will attempt. It is however terribly complicated, time-consuming, and prone to errors.

The second way is to almost literally get outside the ‘box’ of this diagram, and look at the problem as a whole from the outside. If we use the fact that B is at a higher position than A, this immediately dictates that the ball will never reach B. The explanation in short is the law of conservation of energy. In more detail, an object of a given mass will have a higher potential energy relative to the source of gravity, the higher it is elevated from that source. To reach a higher altitude, more energy must be imparted on the object. When the ball is released from point A and starts rolling down, it starts exchanging its potential energy into kinetic energy (speed): it accelerates. Whenever it rolls uphill, it again exchanges kinetic energy back to potential energy: it decelerates. Because the ball had started from lower altitude position A with no other energy than its potential energy, it can never obtain the extra energy required to reach B. It can only convert its potential energy in kinetic energy and back again. Ignoring any energy losses, whenever it gets back at its original altitude, it will have zero kinetic energy (hence stand still) and roll down again. Only in the most ideal case it can end up at exactly the same height as A. This is related to entropy: in practice the ball could not even reach B if the latter had been at the same altitude as A, because some of the energy would get lost in friction and drag.

Rolling ball experiment alternate view
Figure HT3: how one should actually look at figure HT2.

Mind how this entire explanation almost completely bypasses the exact shape of the landscape or the ball's exact trajectory. That information is irrelevant for the answer to this question, aside from the few boundary conditions that I imposed in the beginning. Figure HT3 shows how one should actually look at this problem. Yet anyone who would endeavour into the calculation of how the ball will roll exactly, would waste countless hours on it and risk making mistakes that might lead to the incorrect conclusion that the ball can reach B.

This is an abstract example, but in the real world there are many similar ways in which people dabble in irrelevant details, while a short look at the same problem from a bird's eye viewpoint would instantly prove that trying to solve the problem is a waste of time and resources or worse, an enabler for self-destructive behaviour. This is very much related to the problem of greedy versus non-greedy optimisation [LINK:GREEDY]. The first way of solving the problem is a greedy approach because at each step, it only considers the local situation. The second approach is global and if the information to use that kind of approach is available, it is way more efficient and less error-prone than the first approach.

I can also illustrate this with one of the more embarrassing moments in my life as a young child, namely the very first time I was asked by someone to draw a tree. The moment was embarrassing enough that it became one of the most vivid memories from that period, perhaps one of my very first memories altogether. I know this probably demonstrates that even at that age already my mind did not work like the average human mind, but given that this whole text makes that an utterly obvious observation, I don't care. It is a nice illustration of not seeing the forest through the trees. Actually this was more a problem of not seeing the tree through the branches.
So, I was asked to draw a tree. I had never drawn a tree before hence I approached the problem logically. I knew a tree consisted of a trunk, with branches, and each branch split into more branches. I started drawing the trunk, then I split it into two branches, then I split the first branch into two smaller branches… I did get the sinking feeling that this would take me quite a while to finish, but I pursued. The teacher, noticing it took me unusually long to draw just a simple tree, aborted my attempt at drawing what was nothing short of a fractal, and showed me the ‘correct’ way, hence afterwards I drew the typical kid's trees with a ridiculously thick trunk and a small treetop, and we could all pretend that I was a perfectly normal kid.
Just as with the rolling ball example of figure HT2, what had happened here is that I was stuck in way too local a solution method for the simple problem of quickly drawing a tree. It would have been an awesome drawing if I would have been allowed to continue for an hour or so, but it was complete overkill for the simple goal of just drawing a basic thing that vaguely resembled a tree.

Technological advances tend to follow a cost/reward curve shaped somewhat like y = 1 - enx, with n some positive real number (see figure HT4) and ‘1’ or 100% the point of absolute perfection. This is a simplified model of the concept of “diminishing returns.” Above a certain cost, the curve comes extremely close to 1: the increase in reward for a fixed increment in effort becomes negligible. A lot of our research is way beyond that point. It is stuck in the same phase of trying to improve little details without looking at the bigger picture, just like me drawing little branches while I was supposed to merely draw a tree roughly. For instance, megapixels in cameras and now also on screens (ultra-HD video), digital audio, computing power, … People have forgotten the meaning of the word ‘enough’. We are pouring so much energy in trying to push that curve just a fraction of a percent higher, that we are actually making our overall situation worse by ignoring costs and wasted energy that will sooner or later be needed for truly important things. Everything taken together, a reward curve that considers all parameters could actually start declining again above a certain cost.

Figure HT4: some curves of the form y=1-e−n⋅x for different values of n, as possible illustrations of diminishing returns. The reward gained per unit of cost or spent effort declines rapidly with increasing cost or effort. The curves never really reach 100%, they only come arbitrarily close to it.

Panacea-induced thinking

[FIXME: PART 2 STARTS HERE] [REF:PANACEA] The exit-loop strategy discussed above results in a corollary which is evident from everyday human behaviour: the phenomenon of the panacea, the tendency to only consider one solution or technology as the ultimate cure for everything. When some new fancy invention has recently been made or is expected soon to be made, for any problem that is vaguely related it becomes very tempting to take the early exit in the thought process while evaluating that invention as a possible solution. It is assumed that the invention will also fix that problem and there is no need to think further. This kind of flawed reasoning is applied for instance to:

Nuclear Aeroplanes and Flying Cars

[REF:NUCPLANE] In the attic of my parents' house I found an interesting book. It was a children's book from the 1960's with predictions of the future. Nuclear power was the panacea from that time, so the book was full of grand ideas like commercial airliners and cars powered by nuclear reactors. The aeroplanes were supposedly already being designed according to the book. They actually were, look up NB-36H and WS-125. They never got around the problem of avoiding that the reactor would irradiate everyone sitting inside the plane, without adding so much shielding that the engines would not be able to lift much additional weight into the air beside the reactor, the shielding, and the pilots. The idea was even proposed to just use older people as pilots, so it wouldn't matter that much if their genetic material would be scrambled by the inevitable radiation. The Russians did manage to get a plane airborne with nuclear-powered engines: they simply omitted the shielding, with obvious long-term consequences for the crew. Their engines were also of a direct-drive design that contaminated the exhaust gases. Even if the radiation problem would have been solved, as well as the difficulties in designing an engine that is light and powerful without spewing radioactive exhaust, just imagine airliners with nuclear reactors hanging in the sky everywhere. Properly designed reactors would not explode on impact, but they could still make one hell of a dirty bomb. It would be Al-Qaeda's wet dream. Or imagine your nuclear car being rear-ended by a truck, smashing up your trunk-mounted reactor. Whiplash would be the least of your problems. Luckily, nobody ever tried putting a nuclear reactor in a car, aside from the fictional Doc Brown in the ‘Back to the Future’ movies. As for nuclear commercial flight, the idea was quickly abandoned, but for military use the research went on for quite a while. The idea of an actual unmanned nuclear flying dirty bomb almost came to fruition with the SLAM project. Competition from the much more successful nuclear submarine development was one of the main factors in shutting down the research in nuclear military planes.

The same book also predicted that everyone would have a flying car by now. The flying car panacea is a stubborn prediction that keeps on rearing its stupid head. It can be found in other material from the same era, like the ‘Jetsons’ animated series, as well as in later productions like the second ‘Back to the Future’ film or ‘The Fifth Element’. Don't get me wrong: those are great films, delightfully entertaining. Good predictions of the future however, they aren't. It is only the prediction of flying cars that I'm criticising here.
Every now and then, a newspaper article will present a new experimental flying car model with headlines like: everyone will soon be flying one of these, despite two obvious facts. First, there has not been any truly practical design for a flying automobile since those 1960's predictions, that could become even half as widespread as regular automobiles today. Second, flying automobiles are the opposite of the practical solution they are believed to be. They are often touted as being the solution against traffic jams, but they will in fact only be practical in low-population regions that never suffer from traffic jams to begin with. If they would be used in densely-populated areas, they would introduce hazards much worse than traffic jams. Piloting a flying vehicle is an order of magnitude more difficult than driving a car on wheels, which already proves quite hazardous. When a vehicle is constrained to the ground, the consequences of any mishap are also constrained. When we allow vehicles to become airborne, we introduce many new ways in which any problem can lead to terrible consequences. A flying vehicle literally has an extra dimension for things to go wrong. A car that only rolls on wheels can in the worst case crash through a wall and kill a few people inside buildings built next to roads only. The speed of the car is inherently limited. A flying car on the other hand can crash through any building at any location in any kind of way, and will likely do so at a much higher velocity because it is either falling from the sky, or it needs a high speed to sustain flight. There are no road bends nor speed bumps to limit an airplane's speed. If two ordinary cars smash into each other on the ground, damage and casualties mostly are restricted to those two cars. If on the other hand two flying cars crash into each other, their falling debris can cause additional casualties on the ground or hit other flying cars and cause a cascade of crashing and falling vehicles. The possibilities for death and destruction are much more numerous. But as usual, people consistently ignore all these negative aspects when they are struck by the warm fuzzy idea of having a personal airplane.

The final word in the previous paragraph says it all: a flying car is just an airplane, only designed such that it will be somewhat more practical to drive on a regular road (and probably less practical or efficient to pilot in the air) than a vehicle specifically designed for optimal flight alone. One cannot just buy an airplane and take off with it, this requires a pilot's license. For some reason the word ‘flying car’ makes people assume they can circumvent this requirement. Wrong. I see no reason why one would be allowed to pilot a flying car without the same pilot's license currently required to pilot a small airplane like a Cessna, because whatever design someone comes up with for a flying car, it won't be that different from such small plane. It takes years to obtain a pilot's license and it is expensive. Perhaps the thing will be more similar to a helicopter—which is even more difficult to learn to pilot. If there is ever a flying car design that doesn't suffer the same ill fate as all its predecessors, it will be a privilege for the happy few and the rest will still be stuck in traffic jams, only now with the added risk of being hit by something from above. The alternative to requiring a pilot's license would be an autonomous piloting vehicle, but given that it proves so hard already to design a self-driving car that is guaranteed not to kill pedestrians, I don't see this idea being extended to the third dimension anytime soon. An autopilot as currently in use on airliners is totally unable to handle the complexity of bringing a vehicle from any point in any city to any other point, avoiding both buildings and swarms of other vehicles in its path, and especially the most difficult part of it all: landing it anywhere the occupant desires. This is vastly more difficult than taking off from an airport, staying in a neatly reserved corridor, and then landing at another airport.

I'm not even considering the energy requirements and associated pollution to keep a vehicle airborne, especially at low velocities when wings cannot offer lift (e.g., consider the fuel consumption of a Harrier jet or F-35B during vertical hover versus horizontal flight). Of course we could avoid burning up fossil fuels in flying cars by combining the two above panaceas and arrive at nuclear flying cars! Let's not.

Magical Health Improvements

Of course, it is not because I am aware of how easily humans fall for panaceas that I am immune against them. A personal example of panaceas rearing their ugly head: I have been struggling with vague health problems for many years, with symptoms so all over the place that I didn't even know what kind of doctor to go to, and the doctors I did visit had no clue, most of the times during consultations the wildly fluctuating symptoms would happen to be absent. It gradually became unbearable, so I started investigating. I found a hypothesis that seemed plausible, and indeed my condition improved enormously when acting accordingly. I firmly believed this discovery solved all my problems, but it did not, I got worse again. I looked further and found another hypothesis that resulted in a new jump in my health. I was very inclined to reject the previous hypothesis and consider the new one the ultimate explanation for everything. Then I got worse again. This scenario repeated itself a few more times, with as only variation a few medical tests that were either positive or negative. Lactose intolerance proved an important factor and every doctor was extremely eager to consider it the ultimate explanation and attribute all my symptoms to it. Yet, even when avoiding lactose entirely, I still experienced many of the problems I had before.

I stumbled upon another hypothesis involving histamines which was actually backed by rigorous science, unlike some of the previous ones. I gained another huge improvement in the quality of my life by avoiding excessive accumulation of histamines in my body. Yet the root cause of this phenomenon remained unknown. Maybe the years of undiagnosed lactose intolerance had made me extremely sensitive to histamines produced by the incessant bacterial overgrowth from fermenting lactose in my bowels? Still, I did not drop all that I had figured out earlier on, because when I did, I got worse again. Moreover, I still had problems without a clear explanation even when applying all these solutions, so the histamines theory was not the holy grail either. Eventually I found out that my body simply does not tolerate alcohol in significant amounts. This one was particularly hard to find because the ill consequences only start about 3 days after consumption and can then last between one week and a whole month, depending on how much I had overindulged. The problems seem to be caused by two main phenomena: the alcohol promoting and persisting random spontaneous inflammations of pretty much any possible part of my body, and ‘leaky gut’ syndrome, which means that alcohol greatly reduces the ability of the gut to prevent noxious substances and organisms from reaching the bloodstream. The latter explains why I often got an acute allergic-like reaction within a few hours after eating things with my bare hands without first disinfecting them as if I was about to do surgery. Substances that should normally be blocked managed to leak into my blood, which caused an ‘all hands on deck’ from my immune system and me feeling absolutely awful. Again, I finally found scientific backing for this: [OlRoLo2010], [BjPeWi1984], [WaZaJu2010]. Reducing alcohol intake to near zero provided yet another improvement, probably the greatest of all.

During this whole bumpy ride it had become obvious that each and every one of those smaller changes in my lifestyle I had tried before, from first to last, all had an effect to some degree. I had simply been doing many things that my body disliked, and I had to force myself to stop believing in a single solution for them all. Why pick just one solution if everything combined produces an even better result? I could write down all of those things here, but I will explicitly not do that because I am certain that many are specific to my situation, and people would be inclined to blindly try to apply them to theirs. The message I want to give away here is exactly to avoid doing that. The only thing I will recommend is to strictly limit alcohol intake. My rule of thumb is that if I notice in any way that there is alcohol in my blood, I already had too much of it.

The intolerance against alcohol still is obviously not the root cause of all my health issues. Together with all the other things, it must be a symptom of an underlying condition. It is terribly hard to find the right doctor because this condition does not fit anywhere within the traditional pigeonholes of the Western medicinal system. I have noticed that when I do pick one of those pigeonholes, the doctor will usually be reluctant to admit that the issue does not match their field of expertise. Instead of admitting their limitations and referring me to someone else, they will try to find the most plausible hypothesis within their field, and try to prescribe a treatment according to that hypothesis. This treatment might cause more issues than it solves, so in the end I prefer no treatment until I have found a doctor who does give a strong impression of knowing what this is all about. Over the years I have built up so much experience with managing this condition, that it looks like at this time I am the least inappropriate person to cobble together a treatment.


One of the most obvious panaceas at this time are smartphones, or more generally the family of ‘smart’ tablet-like devices. They seem the solution for everything: one can browse the internet, make phone calls, take photos, use as GPS, calculator, accelerometer, … The truth however is that although these devices can perform many tasks, they often fail to excel at any because the whole device is a pile of compromises. The screen is too small to do anything but the simplest of tasks, and making it larger makes the device less portable and more awkward to use as a telephone. The ergonomics are poor when it comes to using the device as a phone, because the device is designed to be a screen and not a telephone. The photo quality has been improving but the sensors are necessarily tiny, therefore inevitably noisy and slow. These things will never be able to trump a device whose every component was engineered to make good photos, as opposed to performing one out of a billion tasks. (Plus, most advances in sensor technology to improve photo quality for those tiny camera systems can also be applied to larger cameras to make them even better.) Some of those phones have quite a good GPS, but a built-in GPS in a car can ensure optimal signal reception, as well as rely on odometry when the GPS signal is lost. With a good calculator app, it is possible to do many things that are impossible with even the most advanced pocket calculators. Yet some of those pocket calculators could run for ten years on a single battery charge as opposed to at most one week, and the tactile feedback of physical buttons allows to enter numbers without even having to constantly look at the device. Typing on a smartphone sucks in general, even when ignoring the tactile feedback issue. And no, making the phone vibrate or mimic a button press does not even come close to being able to feel buttons before pressing them. Even though the on-screen keyboard eats away a lot of screen area, it is still too small to be very practical. When holding the phone, the only parts of your hands that have easy access to all keys are your thumbs: your thickest and least accurate digits. I could go on and on.

These ‘smart’ devices are jacks-of-all-trades: they can do a bit of everything but they do not really excel at anything because the whole design is inevitably full of compromises. It needs to be a phone but it must also be usable for reading short texts (not long ones because the ergonomics are just too bad for that), watching movies and recording movies, taking snapshots, and doing various other things. For any specific task, a specialised device yields better results with less required effort than a smartphone. Yet again, people are constantly ignoring all their disadvantages and scoffing at everyone who uses such specialised tool for a task that could also in some way be performed with a smartphone, no matter how kludgy and poor the smartphone is for that task. Expecting these devices to be the only thing any human will ever need now or in the future, is naïve to say the least. Moreover, who would want to put their life in the hands of just a single device, which is probably manufactured by a single company to boot?

Wi-Fi Etcetera

I could give innumerable other examples of panaceas. New ones pop up every day. Another prevalent one that currently exists and probably won't be tamed soon: wireless technology. It seems self-evident to many that everything will be wireless at some point. Whoever believes in this, obviously lacks the technical insight to understand why wires cannot be eliminated in every possible situation and why it is often not even desirable to make something wireless even when technically possible. One word: power. So many people are going apeshit over the fact that a cell phone tower emits large amounts of electromagnetic power, yet they expect everything to run wirelessly without batteries. The only way to do that is to transmit power electromagnetically through the air, at levels that make the emissions of a cell phone tower laughable. If one would want for instance a wireless microwave oven, one would need to transmit at least the same amount of power from some base station towards the oven as is being radiated into the food. In practice the power transmitted from the base station would need to be quite a bit more, to compensate for all the losses of the transmission and reception of the waves. Anything standing inside that beam of energy is likely to be cooked just as hard as the food in the oven. Heck, the oven is redundant: the room through which the energy is being transmitted becomes a huge oven. Even though the energy transmission would work at a different wavelength than the typical 2.45 GHz of a microwave oven, at such high levels of power there will always be some substance in a human body or some circuits in electronic devices that will absorb enough of whatever frequency is being used, to cause severe problems. The whole concept is downright stupid to begin with, because nobody has a need for kitchen appliances to be truly mobile devices. Nobody lugs around their microwave oven all the time, it will typically stay at its same spot for years, hence nobody (except idiot hipsters who favour design over practicality) gives a damn about the wire at the back. Even though a wireless microwave oven may seem ridiculous to anyone with a modicum of common sense (at least I hope so), it does not need to be this extreme. Merely add up enough smaller devices that all need power, and your house would still be a constant bath of electromagnetic waves that cannot be harmless.

Things remain problematic even at lower levels of transmitted power. It is then that power over time, i.e. energy, becomes the biggest problem. Wireless transmission can only in an ideal case require the same amount of energy as doing the same over a wire. In all practical cases it requires more energy because of losses in the transmitter, the receiver, and the mere fact that the transmission is not point-to-point but at best point-to-area. Wireless energy transfer is inherently inefficient. Most of what is being transmitted either goes to places where it is not needed due to the non-directionality of the antenna, or is absorbed by obstacles in between sender and transmitter. (It is possible to approximate area-to-point transmission by using antenna arrays, but a lot of the energy still goes elsewhere in that case.) Wireless chargers may seem practical but they are inefficient and must not be used for anything that requires a substantial charging current. Around the middle of 2016, I've heard the first concerns popping up in mainstream media about the ever increasing power consumption caused by all this wireless technology. It will only get worse.

Another way to transmit power wirelessly is through ultrasound, which is supposedly less harmful although any imperfection in the transmitter can cause audible and very annoying noise. The biggest problem is that it is extremely easy to block the path of the sound waves, even easier than with EM waves, making this technology terribly unpractical in most everyday situations. Moreover, the efficiency must be so poor that I don't believe this is a technology that belongs in the 21st century.

Actual story: an architect had the brilliant idea of omitting all network cabling in their design for a new building, because cables are so twentieth century. For a company that does not require highly reliable high-bandwidth connections, Wi-fi might indeed suffice although I can guarantee that workers sitting in certain places of that building will be eternally cursing their network connection. The stupidest aspect of this idea though, is that there wasn't even a provision for any uplink cables to main Wi-fi access points. Heck, there wasn't even a cable to bring in network from the outside. I suppose the architect would propose to use a horribly expensive and unreliable cellular data access point instead of a proper high-bandwidth copper or fiberoptic cable. Then this inherently shoddy connection would need to be further distributed across the entire building through wireless repeaters. If you have ever tried to install a Wi-fi repeater in your own home, you know how ‘reliable’ those are. The concept is inherently flawed because you need to place the things far apart for them to be useful, but the farther you place them apart, the lower the quality of the connection. Now imagine building an entire network constructed out of nothing but the damn things. For anyone not getting the sarcasm here: when I used the word ‘brilliant’ above, I actually meant that the architect is a total idiot and should be fired for being an incompetent moron who lets hipster trends get the best of common sense.

Even for things that require much smaller amounts of power, why do they all need to be wireless? I have a wired keyboard. It has not moved from its position in the last seven years. Making it wireless would force me to move it alright, because I would need to replace or recharge the stupid batteries every few months. Its final move might well be being smashed against the wall when the batteries run out in the middle of a fantastic gaming session. Making my keyboard wireless offers no advantages whatsoever in my situation. It seems there is insufficient repulsion against batteries in the general population. Batteries suck. They are always empty at the wrong moments because of the plain hard fact that there can be no ‘right moment’ for a battery to run out! They are polluting and take ages to charge. I consider it progress whenever batteries can be eliminated in favour of reliable continuous power delivery. It may sound surprising but batteries are older technology than mains power. The introduction of a power grid was a technological advance. Everyone however seems to have forgotten about that, and now they consider going back to Volta's ancient invention an advance. Going in circles once more. The current trend to require batteries in every single component of a system, for instance ditching the 3.5 mm jack on a smartphone and requiring everyone to have batteries in their earphones as well, is a regression. I laugh every time someone in a video meeting suddenly becomes mute because their stupid trendy earphones run out of charge.

Wireless transmission is almost exclusively used for information transfer because there the power levels are usually relatively low, and efficiency is secondary to efficacy. The prime concern is to get the data across the link, not to consume the absolute minimum of power. There is an optimal solution to every problem and because all problems are different, the optimal solutions are also all different. Wireless technology is one possible solution that is optimal for certain problems, but shoehorning it into the solution process for everything, is not a smart thing to do. The same goes for every other kind of technology.

Where does this craving for panaceas come from? I believe it is tightly tied with the early cut-off mechanism I discussed in the first section of this chapter [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. What is happening here must be something along the following lines: initially people start looking for some kind of solution to their problems. They find something, and the early-exit system kicks in: they stop thinking. Any problem encountered is considered solved whenever the previously found solution vaguely seems to solve this problem as well. Any problem that seems unsolvable with the newfound solution, is ignored. At this point, the solution is in panacea status. The relation with the technology in this stadium is in fact very similar to love [LINK:LOVE]. People keep on using this solution and will at best try to improve it within a frame-of-reference where it remains the one true solution for everything. A huge mental barrier that nobody will easily cross, had been erected at the moment the solution gained panacea status. Hence they will never resume their original train of thoughts they aborted at the time when the solution looked amazingly attractive or when a major disadvantage was at the brink of becoming obvious. At some point however, that major disadvantage or another one hits them in the face like a hammer. Quite often, that problem could be overcome by resuming the original thought process, but does this happen? No of course. The experience of being hit in the face by the disadvantage was so goddamn painful that it creates a new mental barrier. This barrier now becomes the dominant way of exiting the thought process. The solution has now lost its panacea status and is dismissed pretty much forever. Something new is sought after, and the same scenario repeats itself, endlessly.

People do not realise they are running in circles this way, because the circle occurs at a level much higher than what is readily observable. By the time we've come back at the start of the circle, we have forgotten what it looks like or it might look somewhat different, and we fail to recognise it. It would make a lot more sense to keep on looking at all possible solutions and trying to improve each of them simultaneously and perhaps combine them, than to jump from solution to solution while discarding everything that seemed less than perfect at first sight. I am afraid however that the whole reason why humans only focus on a single solution at a time, is because they are frankly too simple to cope with more than one thing at a time. Unfortunately most are too arrogant [LINK:ARROGANCE] to admit their limitations and to take steps for improving their capability of coping with more complexity, or at least try to reduce the complexity to a manageable level. This arrogance leads to the usual scoffing at anything that is not considered ‘modern’ or ‘trendy’.

[TODO: I can give a very concrete example of the previous paragraph through the history of nuclear power.]

Assimilation and Clustering of Similar Individuals

[TODO: extremely messy. Needs proper intro, structure. There are two related but distinct things I want to explain here:]
A. A group of people has the best chances of achieving optimal performance if they all act in the same manner with respect to the aspects of the goal they want to achieve. Tit-for-tat: for two individuals, it is on average the best strategy if one mimics the behaviour of the other, following the same set of rules. A group of less capable individuals that are tuned into each other, can easily outperform a group of mixed and conflicting individuals, even when the latter group contains considerably more capable individuals. For instance, it may be more important when recruiting people in a company to ensure they are all compatible, than to find a few excellent employees while disregarding how they will interact with the rest. The most extreme example of this is an army: the whole purpose of drilling soldiers to act in identical manners, is to maximise efficiency and efficacy.
[TODO: the text does not convey this message in any clear manner, worse: it contains apparently conflicting parts. This is the core reason why tit-for-that works: if one party does something good and the other party mimics it, then obviously it is a win-win situation. If one party does something bad and the other party mimics it, then they have a higher chance for self-destruction, which actually is still optimal for other parties because they are better off if everyone with a tendency to exhibit the bad behaviour eliminates themselves quickly. If one party treats another badly, then it is optimal for the other party to respond with the exact same treatment. It will either again result in self-destruction (not the best solution but still best for others), or both parties realising and agreeing that if they both cease their bad behaviour, it will be a win-win. If one party simply submits to the abuse of another, the abuse will never end.]
B. Given that groups of similar beings are more optimal, species have a tendency to evolve towards a situation where all its individuals are identical to a certain degree, and are equipped with instinctive mechanisms to encourage striving for that situation. This tendency makes perfect sense within certain constraints. There is an upper limit to the advantage of assimilation however, and it can become a severe liability if all individuals share the same weakness. This is why any healthy ecosystem will always contain a variety of different species. Diversity means robustness, but not when forcibly striving for it without knowing what exactly it means. Indiscriminately mixing species that evolved isolated from each other, will yield very unpredictable results and most of those results will be bad. The same goes for mixing humans from vastly different cultures according to arbitrary ratios determined by arbitrary rules that make no sense.

[REF:ASSIMILATION] [Explain, connect with group behaviour and evolution. Example: if you treat people as objects, you will be treated as an object. Self-fulfilling prophecy.]
Every evolving organism or species will converge towards a behaviour that encourages all individuals inside the species to act in the same way most of the time. It does not matter how this behaviour is implemented in practice, only that it has the desired effect. I will not give a hard proof of this, I assume it has already been given by others. Yet another thing for the interested reader to look up. However, it is easy to see intuitively why such behaviour is optimal given certain boundary conditions.
For instance, assume that whenever someone builds a train, they arbitrarily choose the distance between the left and right wheels, i.e. the wheelbase. If they are lucky, they have picked a wheelbase that someone has already used, and they can run their train on the tracks already laid out for that other train. Otherwise they will have to lay their own whole new network of tracks. That is inefficient and any interaction between the two rail networks will be complicated. Now if instead of arbitrarily choosing the wheelbase they would first look around and pick the most common wheelbase, there will be a large network of tracks already available for that particular wheelbase. In the end, everyone will want to converge towards the same wheelbase. Then every train can run on every track.
Now, one could also build a train with a variable wheelbase. That would make it work on any track, but it will be more complicated to build and more likely to break down because it has many more parts than a simple train wheel. It would be much simpler and reliable to just have to attach two wheels to a bar of a fixed size. There is nearly nothing about this that could break.

This is a very simple example but what it tries to illustrate is that most often it is much more expensive overall to have multiple methods that serve the same goal, than to have a single method. Even when having two different methods of a rather high efficiency, the overall efficiency could be considerably lower than with a single method whose efficiency is lower than any of those two. That is what the tit-for-tat principle boils down to. If someone else does something in a certain way, I do it in the same way. It can be applied to much more complicated situations and behaviours than building railroads or even anything that maps well to the railroad metaphor.
If we stick to this railway metaphor just for a little while longer, assume that someone has performed some fancy calculations and/or experiments and determined the perfect wheelbase that happens to be different from any wheelbase currently in use. Even though this wheelbase is proven to be optimal, it is probably pointless to try to enforce it onto the rest of the world. Most likely all the wheelbases that deviate too hard from the optimum have eliminated themselves anyway. All the ones still in use will be at least reasonably viable and most likely there will be at least one quite close to the optimum. If that single scientist stubbornly tries to introduce his optimum that will only give a 1% advantage, he is an idiot. There are many examples of products that tried in vain to displace a non-optimal standard with something that is only marginally better. It is perfectly OK to figure out how far a current standard is from the optimum, but it is stupid to try to replace the standard if the gain is insignificant.

[TODO: discuss imperial versus metric as another example]

It may not be immediately clear how a high-level principle like tit-for-tat can find its way into the behaviour of living beings through a process like evolution. Nevertheless, the mere fact that it is part of striving for optimality must mean that those beings must at least develop elements and approximations of the principle in some way. What I am saying here is that practically no human being has a single clear built-in vision of: “it is good if everyone acts in the same way,” but all humans do have a whole bunch of instincts that make them act more or less according to this principle in many situations. There will be instinctive behaviour that encourages humans to seek to live together with other humans that share many of their own characteristics.

Ego-driven Clustering Leads to Extremism

[REF:EXTREMISM] Here is one particular example of a prime driving force for people to cluster together into groups of similar individuals: the instinct to maintain one's ego [LINK:ARROGANCE]. This instinct has only one goal: constantly convincing oneself and others of being at least on par with the cream-of-the-crops, if possible being better than everyone else. Living inside a diverse group of individuals with varying skills makes it difficult or impossible to upkeep this illusion, because many of the others will have certain skills that exceed one's own. The optimal way to minimise the risk of getting a dent in one's own ego is therefore to group together with others who are similar in as many aspects as possible. These groups will usually erect defensive walls around them, consisting of jargon and possibly arcane rituals, to make it harder for the uninitiated to unmask how little substance the group actually is built upon. This also explains why those who want to preserve a self-image of being intelligent, often like to watch inanely stupid TV shows featuring truly dumb people. This is also nothing else than an ego booster: pretending that the rest of the world is stupid, makes oneself look more clever. (The funny thing is that exposing oneself to such crap all the time, might have a risk of eventually adopting some of the observed behaviour.)

As might be evident from the span of topics covered by this whole text, I do not have this inclination to turn myself into a professional idiot just so I can cater for this bit of primal tribe-related behaviour. Quite the contrary: my goal is to know everything possible—even though I know in reality this is impossible, certainly given the quality of my memory, but at least I try. In the long term nobody wins from locking up oneself in an isolated group. That kind of behaviour might have worked OK when we were still living in tribes, but that time is long gone.

There is a less extreme example of this kind of clustering everyone will be familiar with: it is the endless and tiresome battle of the sexes, or the concepts of sexism and feminism for that matter (in most of its incarnations I deem feminism a flavour of sexism). If there is one cheap and obvious way to cluster together, it is by picking members of the same sex. This immediately makes oneself part of a well-defined group that covers roughly half the entire human population. Of course the benefits of this near 50-50 clustering aren't that great because instead of being able to boost the very own ego, it only really boosts the collective ego of one's own half of the population. Moreover the actual differences within one's own group are often much larger than assumed. But hey, it is a start and the fact that the group is so huge, makes up for these weaknesses in the strategy. Merely believing in sexism automatically labels the whopping half of the global population as supposedly inferior beings. Not only that, it also turns the own half of the population into potential supporters that may help in sustaining at least this bit of alleged self-superiority. It is always easy to find some fellow members of the own group to defend oneself or to actively attack the other group. It is a nice stepping stone to further delve down into smaller groups that provide a more fine-grained feeling of self-superiority.

Biology as well as history have armed each of these two groups with a whole pile of sticks to beat their respective other sex with, as well as enough strategies to stick one's head in the sand each time the other sex manages to strike a hit. There are some fundamental differences between the sexes, which means there are always weapons available for this ridiculous battle. Men and women will endlessly pound their respective adversary with the same scientifically dubious arguments repeated over and over again, and at some moments in history the collective ego of one of these groups will temporarily achieve the upper hand over the other, only to be inevitably pounded back into submission a while later. Neither of the sexes will ever get the upper hand for the simple reason that all the purported points of superiority are either total bogus or irrelevant in the long term.

I guess there must be some evolutionary reason why this behaviour hasn't faded away over time. One of my guesses is that it might be some crude kind of population control, to keep the sexes well-separated most of the time so we don't procreate like bunnies too much. Graphs of the human population over the years show this control obviously isn't working, so this guess is either wrong or the control mechanism no longer works in our current situation. Another guess is simply that our species still is way too young to have evolved away from these primal behavioural traits that belong in the same category as our drive to cluster together in tribes. Next time you get an urge to prove yourself superior to someone of the opposite sex, you should ask yourself whether you are willing to lower your standards to that of a primeval troglodyte to achieve your goal.

Of course the same goes for racism and the like. In my opinion sexism and racism are only different flavours of the same thing. The only difference lies within how the observer partitions their world into different groups. Racism works even ‘better’ than sexism in this regard because unlike offering only a 50-50 division, it divides the world into many more different races. Hence when believing in racism, one's own group will be much smaller and many more individuals can immediately be labeled as supposedly inferior beings. The most lazy of persons can obviously combine racism with sexism to further chop the rest of that smaller group in half again. Cheap and easy ego boost!

Sexism and racism are only two examples of this kind of ego-driven incentive for clustering together. It has many more incarnations and in general we can say that it has severe risks. In a certain sense arrogance is a nice breeding ground for extremism. This is especially true for the type of ‘deconstructive’ arrogance that tries to obtain its goal of making oneself appear awesome, through shielding oneself from others who appear superior—or worse: sabotaging them [TODO: LINK to where I explain the difference between ‘constructive’ and ‘deconstructive’ arrogance]. If people are allowed to cluster together in an unbounded fashion, the cycle of boosting one's ego by seeking like-minded people and rejecting anyone with deviating thoughts, will result in amplification of extremist ideas. Eventually the group will crystallise into a small set of persons who agree on the same extreme ideas. The smaller someone's frame-of-reference becomes due to being locked inside a small narrow-minded group, the higher the risk that they will start developing crazy and dangerous ideas about anything that has been kicked outside that frame-of-reference. The only true remedy against extremism is an open mind combined with sufficient education, a healthy dose of humility, and always being prepared to communicate without prejudices. An arrogant and aggressive ego that is too afraid to learn something new out of fear of failing, stands in the way of all those things. Of course for all this to work, it is paramount that there is an opportunity for letting oneself be educated in the first place. If no education is available at all, then it becomes all the easier to go down the spiral of increasing narrow-mindedness.

As any historical example shows, as well as the horrible events at the very time of this writing (Paris 2015, Brussels 2016), extremism that has spiralled out of control never ends well. It only leads to destruction, especially nearly always the self-destruction of those who have let themselves spiral out of control. There is a certain point beyond which it becomes impossible to bring extremists back on the right track, just as it becomes impossible to quench a fire that has reached a certain degree of energy and self-sustenance, or to halt the chemical reaction of a substance exploding. The only practical solutions in such cases is to either isolate the extremists and wait until they have destroyed themselves or if that is not an option, actively eradicate them. I am not a fan of the latter option but sometimes it is the only one that remains.


[TODO: explain tit-for-tat and how it fits in this chapter: the optimal situation for multiple parties is if they agree, i.e. if treat each other in the same manner. This does not necessarily mean they need to treat each other well: both parties treating each other like dirt is a better situation than one doing the other's bidding while getting nothing back. ‘Respect’ is tightly tied to tit-for-tat: the ‘re-’ prefix indicates mutuality: respect must come from both sides, otherwise it does not work. Give some practical examples of this.]

[FIXME: unfinished and maybe this should be moved up!] The so-called ‘tit-for-that’ principle roughly states it is optimal for individuals in general to mimic the behaviour of others around them. This doesn't merely mean that there is some kind of set of rules upon which everyone has agreed and which everyone follows, the ‘rules’ are implicit. The mere act of following or ignoring a certain rule may be exactly the result of people adhering to the tit-for-that principle. The principle tells nothing about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ nor whether adhering to it will lead to an immediate positive or negative situation for the parties involved. It only means everyone should treat each other in the same manner, even if that would mean treating each other like dirt. A situation where everyone treats each other like dirt has a better chance of ending up optimal in the long term than a situation where everything is mixed.

Coming back to human behaviour, it makes sense that humans who live in groups will evolve to become equipped with instinctive mechanisms that encourage assimilation. This works twofold: either an individual will try to enforce their own way of life onto others, or they will want to adopt the behaviour of others, or a bit of both. [TODO: insert EVERYONEISLIKEME here and the part about jealousy. Split off INFANTILE to other section.]

Does this kind of drive towards assimilation make sense? I know this is completely unfashionable to say at the moment of this writing, but you bet it does, but only within certain limits. There is no denying that we live in an era where the complexity of our living conditions is skyrocketing. One of the root causes of this increasing complexity, is an endless fight against the clustering of likewise individuals: we try to mix everyone together. There is also no denying that there is currently a firm belief this is all logical, politically correct, and inevitable, and it must and shall keep on going. I on the other hand predict that this will lead to a period of crap nobody even dares to think of at this moment, followed by a severe historical hangover in the not so distant future, and in history lessons our current time period will be discussed as: well, that was interesting but it could never work out because of X, Y, Z, …, or maybe just: what the hell went wrong there? What were they thinking? No idea.

[TODO: the part about globalisation fits quite well here. Link tit-for-tat with globalisation. Stress that acting the same everywhere is only optimal if the boundary conditions are also the same everywhere.]
There is a general sentiment that “everything is possible” [LINK:EVERYTHINGPOSSIBLE]. Mind how I use the word ‘sentiment’. There is no proof at all that our current state of evolution has a bright future or that it makes sense to pursue it. There is only an enormous collection of hunches, inspired by fiction, science that is sometimes embarrassingly dodgy, and instinctive behaviour. Scattered across the rest of this text, I will swing my sledgehammer at many of the things that are likely to contribute to the collapse of this attempt at a hyper-globalised super-high-tech multicultural future [LINK:MAXPOP, INFANTILE, SMALLTOWN, DNA]. I can already give the low-down on all my ranting here. I believe it will be a double whammy: first, the majority of people are unable to cope with the degree of complexity that is being strived for. Second, the degree of complexity that is being strived for is entirely unnecessary yet extremely costly. The price tag simply does not add up. The main problem however is that an increasing amount of people are being sucked to such a degree into the allure of this utopian view of the future, that they are completely ignoring hard cold reality.

A real-world example to indicate at what complex level this principle can manifest itself: I am a rather silent person. One might not believe it from the verbosity of this very text, but verbally I am anything but a waterfall of speech. I only tend to say something when I find it useful or necessary. That is just the way I am, I am very introvert. Speaking is somehow difficult, writing comes much more natural to me. I see no point in making myself feel uncomfortable by forcing myself to blather about stupid things, just because others seem to expect me to. My brain is so geared towards written text anyway, that whenever I try to talk about totally unprepared topics for an extended time, it turns into a jumbled mess with lots of pauses. I hold the following saying in high regard: it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and take away all doubt. (This is often attributed to Lincoln or Mark Twain, but the true author is uncertain and a similar saying can be found in the Bible. As I have said before however: what an idea expresses is far more important than who expressed it.)

Now, it has taken me a long while to figure this out but I noticed that whenever I entered a new environment with new people, they would initially be quite talkative towards me, but after a while (between a few weeks and half a year) they would seemingly inexplicably start acting ‘weird’ towards me. (This seemed to get even worse as I became even more silent due to my health slowly deteriorating thanks to an undiagnosed condition, see also below.) The weird behaviour entails them rather suddenly saying much less to me, and sometimes seemingly intentionally and ostentatiously asking things to others while they ought to know that I have a much better background for answering that question. Needless to say this kind of behaviour pisses me off. After seeing it occur for the umpteenth time however, it became obvious that my very own behaviour plays a key role in this. Those people simply start mimicking my own behaviour, saying little to me unless they really think it is relevant in some way. I am pretty certain they do not do this consciously, but it is just one of the gazillions of ways in which the tit-for-that principle has wormed itself into our behaviour. Only because they are not exactly like me, their copy of my behaviour often rubs me the wrong way [LINK:UNCANNY]. Maybe I wouldn't even appreciate seeing anyone else exhibit a perfect copy of my own behaviour anyway. Instinctively it sometimes makes me want to punch them in the face for it, but luckily I realise that they simply cannot help it.


Another complicated example: consider the phenomenon of lactase deficiency. Lactase is an enzyme that allows to decompose the sugar molecule lactose, an essential component of milk, into two other sugars that can be readily digested. Long ago, humans only had the ability to synthesise lactase in their intestines during the first years of their life, when it is essential to digest mother's milk. After these first years the ability diminished and eventually vanished, because it was no longer needed and it probably has a certain biological cost associated with it (why else would it not have been lifelong from the start?) Some individuals did maintain the ability however. When people started breeding and milking cows and other milk-producing animals, milk became a relatively cheap and ubiquitous potential source of nutrition. Maintaining the ability to digest lactose beyond the first years of one's life became evolutionary advantageous enough that it outweighed the cost. At some point there must have been an extended period where being able to digest milk offered much better chances for long-term survival. Those individuals who had the genetic code to maintain their ability to digest lactose, were advantaged. Hence a large part of the Western world population has evolved to maintain the ability to produce the enzyme lactase in their intestines far beyond childhood.

What happens if a lactase deficient person consumes lactose anyway? The stuff cannot be decomposed into digestible parts and stays in the intestines. It attracts water, making it act as a laxative. It also becomes an abundant source of nutrition for the various bacteria that are an essential part of the digestive system. The types of bacteria that are the most apt in decomposing lactose will grow in numbers uncontrollably. They offset the other bacteria types and cause a severe imbalance in the fragile equilibrium required for a healthy gut. Moreover, they turn the lactose into noxious waste products, for instance biogenic amines like histamine. In layman's terms, the food starts rotting inside the intestines. The result is not just uncomfortable, it can become downright dangerous in the long term. If someone does not realise they are lactose intolerant and this situation keeps on occurring over a long timespan, all bets are off. The toxins may accumulate in various organs. Perhaps the immune system will treat the incessant infections as a disease and develop reactions to pretty much anything that looks suspect, for instance those bacteria that are essential for digestion—how could it know they are not the root cause? It simply cannot. It is not unthinkable that this might lead to certain systemic diseases that persist even when eventually avoiding lactose consumption. What makes this condition difficult to diagnose is that the effects are never felt immediately and can vary wildly depending on timing and the combinations with other foodstuffs consumed. This, combined with the utmost belief in certain countries that dairy products are unconditionally healthy, makes it entirely plausible that someone keeps on suffering from the effects of lactase deficiency without realising it.

Obviously I speak from experience here, I am lactase deficient myself and the above is basically the story of my life. I have probably been lactose intolerant to a certain degree before I reached my teens but it was only diagnosed when I was 34, several years after my health had been getting really bad. Now whenever I go to a store, I am obliged to scan the list of ingredients of every foodstuff I plan to buy. I would appreciate it if it became mandatory to mark packaging with an obvious indicator of “contains/does not contain lactose.” I estimate that if I would pick any random edible item in a typical Belgian supermarket, the chance that I have to reject it due to presence of lactose is about 70% (extreme wet-finger guess). Lactose is incorporated in the most diverse and sometimes unexpected products. I have found lactose added to a certain brand of Bolognese sauce. Why? The city of Bologna would sue the manufacturers for daring to call this Bolognese! Even though lactose is a sugar, it is hardly sweet, it has almost no taste (in a Cody's Lab video where he tries all sugars in his collection, Cody describes the experience of eating lactose akin to eating sand).

The reason why lactose is so ubiquitous in mass-produced food is probably because it is cheap, and especially because it has useful properties when manufacturing food industrially. After a while I found a pattern in the occurrence of lactose in foods: every time a machine had been used to squeeze or extrude food into a specific shape, lactose was a main ingredient. It is simply used as a kind of ‘glue’ or ‘cement,’ an additive to make food more sticky and malleable. Many pills are also made with lactose exactly for this reason. This substance is not added to your food for reasons of nutrition, it is purely to allow machines to shape the food. Sausages, hamburgers, and any other meat products pressed into special shapes, will nearly always be full of lactose. At one time I bought a ready-to-eat meal that was supposed to be ‘pasta with chicken strips’. This certainly should be safe, right? Nope: to ensure the chicken strips would have a consistent look, the meat had been minced into pulp, lactose added to it, and then this sludge had been pressed back into strips that can be easily cut and all look the same. That's 21st century food processing for you.

Something else that is pretty much off-limits for me in a supermarket, is for instance the entire candy section except for stuff that consists of pure sugar only. All the rest is chock full of milk chocolate, which is one of the worst substances a lactase deficient person can eat. Not only does it contain one of the highest percentages of lactose in all foods, it also contains a lot of plain sugar that further fuels the happily multiplying fermenting bacteria. Quite a few types of cookies without chocolate still have lactose, again due to the fact that it makes it easier for machines to shape the cookies.
I avoid going to restaurants because I have grown tired of having to explain time and again to the waiter that the cook cannot use any substance that contains a significant amount of lactose, quite often they do not even have a clue what I am talking about. The awareness is increasing, but only very slowly. Even then, they will usually omit every single ingredient of which they believe it might contain lactose. If I specifically order something with a hard cheese that is naturally lactose free, they will still omit it because within their simple reasoning, cheese is made from milk hence every cheese must contain lactose. One would expect from an establishment whose core business is food, that they have extensive knowledge about said food, but in reality this is often rather disappointing.
Then there is also the price aspect: as described above, I am often being served an incomplete dish but I still have to pay its full price! Same with pizza deliveries: it is commonplace to only add a surcharge for custom ingredients, while not accounting for the omission of standard ingredients. For instance, replacing the mozzarella with a lactose-free cheese alternative means paying the same surcharge as when adding any other extra, without omitting anything—it is a borderline scam. (Luckily some companies will actually subtract a bit of the price when omitting ingredients.)

Milk consumption has become so prevalent in the culture I live in, that anyone who refuses to eat it is instinctively regarded as a pariah. There is always this air of superiority from persons who aren't lactose intolerant, and quite often also hints of accusing me that it is my own fault because I have supposedly chosen to avoid the substance in the same way a vegetarian avoids meat (totally wrong—I just had bad luck in the genetic lottery). I have noticed this first-hand even from close relatives. It can come in handy: if someone bothers me and I want to avoid contact with them, I merely need to make them aware of my condition. Works like a charm quite often (if it fails, the person usually proves to be more open-minded than assumed and worth talking to anyway). I hear it in every single discussion about lactose intolerance, on TV, on the radio, in newspaper articles. Any journalist working for anything less than a rigorously scientific journal and attempting to write an objective article about lactose intolerance, will still use headlines or in-between-the-line connotations that treat lactase deficient people as idiots or lepers. The idea that milk is essential and one will drop dead the moment one stops consuming it, is being brainwashed into every child. There are even slogans about it that everyone knows, like: melk, de witte motor (milk, the white engine). The mere existence of slogans about a specific foodstuff must mean that certain interest groups paid quite a lot to employ communist-like tactics to influence the entire population. These same interest groups also try to prohibit selling plant-based alternatives to dairy products using names that contain words typically associated with dairy, like ‘butter’ or ‘milk’. (For some reason ‘cocoa butter’ and ‘coconut milk’ would have been exempt from this, I guess because… Belgium. Luckily Amendment 171 of European Regulation No 1308/2013 [EU1308-2013], which would have provided legal backbone for this kind of prohibition, has been rejected in May 2021.)

Lactose might actually not be that healthy for anyone, even for those who can digest it. After all it is a hard to digest sugar no matter what, and excessive amounts will overwhelm any intestine's ability to produce lactase, and trigger the same problems as in case of lactase deficiency. Even when the lactase enzymes do their work fine, the lactose is still decomposed into pure sugars which as we all know are in large amounts also unhealthy. The arguments why cow's milk as a whole would be healthy are dodgy as well and are based more in folklore than in science. The only common argument you'll hear from the average Belgian is that milk contains a lot of calcium which is supposedly good for the bones, yet I do not see the big part of Asia where lactose intolerance is widespread having any more problems with their skeletons than us. This makes sense because there are many other good dietary sources of calcium. If consuming milk beyond infancy would be so vital, humanity would never have survived beyond the prehistoric period where adults lacked the lactase enzyme, and that huge part of Asia living healthily must be some kind of miracle as well. But I digress, so let's get back to the situation for lactase deficient people inside an environment where lactose has become commonplace.

One can see the pattern growing here: although it is perfectly possible for me to survive in this environment which is from my point-of-view ‘polluted’ with a toxic substance, there is a substantial cost to being lactase deficient in this environment. The cost can be made explicit: I can buy lactase supplements, which give me a limited ability to consume lactose. These pills are not cheap and only work when consumed at the exact right moment, and only with foods that are sufficiently liquid (they do not work for things like pizza, which forms a big ball of bread, fat, and cheese, pushing away the single portion of lactase instead of mixing with it). A good option actually is to migrate to a region where lactose is not widespread, like East-Asia, where the majority of people are lactase deficient. You see, this whole situation has only two outcomes that are profitable in the long run, and both result in stronger clustering of both lactose-digesting people and lactase-deficient people in their separate regions. Either the lactase-deficient ones perish due to the health problems or extra cost of staying in the region where lactose is common, or they migrate to the other region.

At the time of this writing, there is a hype of pretending to be lactose intolerant, gluten intolerant, and so on. It is fashionable to enter a restaurant and demand food without gluten or lactose, even though the person has no medical proof whatsoever that they suffer from those conditions. If you are one of those persons, consider the fact that you are undermining credibility for everyone, including those who actually have those conditions. If you have never undergone a reliable medical test to confirm gluten allergy or lactose intolerance, please do not just assume you have it: you probably do not, especially not gluten allergy which is very uncommon and no sane person would deliberately want to inflict a gluten-free diet on themselves. You will only be unnecessarily missing out on things while at the same time making things difficult for yourself and others.

Acting the same is no guarantee for acting sane

Now, the catch is that the assimilation or tit-for-that principle says absolutely nothing about how well a system scores in which all the individuals act the same, only that it has a good chance (not even a guarantee) of scoring better than other systems with multiple behaviours. Or in other words, it is not because we are all acting the same that it is per definition the best behaviour overall. It may be awful and much worse than an inefficient mix of two incompatible behaviours. In our simple railroad example, if we have picked a wheelbase of twenty centimetres, trains will constantly topple over when taking curves due to their poor balance. If we have picked a wheelbase of ten metres, trains will be unpractically wide and exhibit other problems.

Although the cost of replacing an inefficient ‘standard’ can be high, in the long term it can produce enormous savings and the replacement cost will eventually be compensated for, but only if the new standard lasts long enough. Constantly switching standards is just as inefficient as trying to let multiple incompatible standards coexist simultaneously. The best course of action is to think twice about the optimality of something before even starting to make a first version of it, and then ensuring that everyone sticks to it. It makes more sense to keep on using something that is far from perfect but that does the job, and in the meantime carefully and patiently designing something that is better, than to hastily switch to something half-baked that only solves a few problems with the current system and introduces a dozen others. Take traffic rules for instance, a great example of something where it is paramount that everyone follows the same rules. Changing these rules every few years is pretty much equivalent to teaching half the population different rules from the other half. This both counts for the general rules as for the traffic situation (e.g., signage) at a specific location.

Despite what our warm fuzzy feelings related to group behaviour want to tell us, the principle does not imply that acting the same way will cause a steady improvement for all individuals involved. It is perfectly neutral in this regard. This means it may also cause a spiral of self-destruction, which of course can be considered still being globally optimal. If a group acts in a stupid and noisome way, from within the scope of all other groups it is better for it to destroy itself as quickly as possible. Two wrongs do not make a right and seven billion wrongs certainly do not make it any more right, on the contrary. In a certain sense the tit-for-tat mechanism works as an amplifier, which makes sense from a system theoretical view, because it is based on feedback. It does not only improve the situation for groups that act in the right way, it also speeds up the self-destructive process of groups that act in a bad way. If incapable individuals cluster together and are unable to improve upon themselves and are keen to clone their stupid behaviour, then they shall hasten their self-destruction. For any entity outside their group this is better than if the damaging group would keep on existing at its current level and keep on causing damage. It is better for them to ‘explode’ than to continuously ‘burn down’ everything around them. Or as some like to quote a lyric by Neil Young without apparently understanding what it really means: it is better to burn out than to fade away. It is not better at all for the person who burns out, but it is better for the rest. [Apply to love, social behaviour.]

Coming back to the ‘social’ example above, here is a subtle way in which mimicking someone's behaviour is counter-productive. Maybe you also have experienced this example yourself, but most likely you have never realised it was happening. Suppose someone is grumpy by nature. When that person enters a store, acting in their usual grumpy manner, the shopkeeper will quite likely reflect their first impression, and also act in a grumpy manner. More generally, everyone will mirror that person's grumpy behaviour because this simply appears to be one of the gazillion instinctive implementations of the tit-for-tat principle, there is no reasoning behind this. Seeing the typical traits of grumpiness will trigger a bunch of mental reflexes that also make the observer act grumpy. If one thinks about this, this is rather counter-productive behaviour. The grumpy person shall never learn that the others act grumpily because he appeared grumpy towards them. He will never learn that by starting out with a positive attitude, the situation can greatly improve for everyone. From his point-of-view, it simply seems as if the entire world is inherently grumpy, and being grumpy oneself is justified. Whoever wrote books like the Bible [LINK:RELIGION] must also have had this realisation, which is why you will find some stories in there that encourage to break this kind of stupid vicious circles by assuming and maintaining a positive attitude from the start, no matter what (“turn the other cheek”). Of course, this does not always work. If the other people are grumpy due to an actual pressing problem, then pretending that everything is happy and joyful will not do anything about the real problem, it could even make it worse.

A kind of ‘reasoning’ I often hear is in the lines of: if most people in [a group] are [doing something stupid, annoying, and/or damaging], then the best strategy is doing the same. Of course there is no actual reasoning behind this. I have never heard anyone give a reason why such behaviour would be optimal, it is always posited in a dogmatic manner. The only explanation for the belief in such statements I can think of, is greedy behaviour [LINK:GREEDY] combined with utmost social commitment, to the degree that being social through acting stupid is instinctively still preferred over being asocial through acting intelligently.

Suppose I live in a town and everyone throws their garbage on the street instead of bringing it to the nearest dumpster. According to the idea described previously, it would be advantageous for me to also throw my trash on the street. Doing that yields me zero benefit however, any results I get from it beyond the immediate short-sighted future are negative. I would only be further polluting the street I live in and make it even more cumbersome for me to walk past all that junk. It is still better for me to properly dispose of my garbage to limit pollution of my own living quarters. If everyone reasons like this, the situation is perfectly fine for everybody. If everyone reasons in the way I described first, the situation is completely awful for everybody.
Other example: suppose I live in an apartment building and everyone else plays their stereo too loud. Unless I would really be in the mood to play my music loud at that time, I will get no benefit at all from cranking up my own stereo as well. It will only annoy me, give me more hearing damage, and prompt the others to further increase their volume. The overall situation gets worse and nobody gains anything. The only way in which runaway bad situations like these become ‘good’ is if they escalate to a point that destroys the ability of everyone to further exhibit the stupid behaviour. One obvious way in which this can happen is if the escalation kills those people, if the situation allows it. Maybe this is why this kind of behaviour has survived evolution as a kind of meta-behaviour that serves to hasten self-destruction when individuals have degenerated to a hopeless state? (Compare to my explanation of “better to burn out than to fade away” elsewhere.)

A generalisation of this theme is people accessing a limited shared resource. Suppose three persons A, B, and C access some resource, like a limited food supply. If A starts consuming more of the resource than he really needs, B and C will be tempted to also start wasting the resource to the same degree because they believe they will otherwise be disadvantaged. There is no real reasoning behind this, it must be a stupid instinct that stems from the time when it was difficult to reach excess anyway and taking as much as possible was likely the best option. Nowadays however reaching excess has become much easier, making this behaviour counter-productive. The key words here are: more than he needs. Person A gets no advantage from wasting the resource—otherwise it would not be wasting, right? If anything, he is more disadvantaged than B and C who use the resource efficiently, because dealing with the excess waste requires additional effort or consuming too much causes health problems. Now if B also starts wasting the resource, the only net effect is more disadvantages for everyone. The resource will be used up faster and this counts for everyone, not only for A and C but B as well. He made everyone's situation including his own, worse to the same degree. No matter how wasteful others are, in the long term it always remains optimal to keep on only using exactly what one needs. Wasting is never optimal, otherwise it would not be wasteful. From B's own perspective, there is nothing to be gained by cloning A's stupid behaviour. Globally spoken however, wasteful individuals killing themselves sooner is a win of course. For C, who has no inclination to start wasting as well, the best option if possible is to isolate himself from A and B and find and manage his own resources. If that is not possible, in the long run he will still emerge as the winner even if he just continues living efficiently and ignoring the abuse of the others. In a certain sense, this could be an interpretation of the saying: “the meek shall inherit the earth.”

Obviously, this reasoning can be extended to the whole planet, which is a limited resource when considering any fixed time interval (and even infinity). There is only so much edible stuff, energy, and habitable space that can be used per time unit. There is no point in trying to get anywhere near that limit and there is absolutely no point in trying to exceed it.
To go back to a more concrete example, take for instance an endangered species that is hunted for a certain product, like elephants for ivory or tuna for meat. The mere fact that these resources are becoming increasingly rare, drives up their price thanks to the mechanism of supply and demand. However, if at some point the resource disappears, its price will become infinite or rather irrelevant because there is zero supply. Anyone who still profited from the scarce supply will suddenly lose all source of revenue. Therefore those who keep on hunting these endangered species are killing their own source of revenue out of a short-sighted drive for immediate profit. It makes much more sense to ensure that the supply keeps on existing. It is better to have a lower but steady and certain income, than a one-time high with nothing ever after. Mind that some are actually trying to exploit this idea by storing bluefin tuna meat in so-called ‘tuna banks’, huge freezers at -60°C. They count on the species going extinct which would make the stored meat nearly priceless—until it runs out, the freezer fails, or someone does a heist on this tuna vault, and then it is game over forever.

Even when everyone around you is doing the same thing that is provably bad, it still is not optimal for you to join in this activity when looking beyond the short-term apparent benefit of acting the same as the rest of the group. If the behaviour is bad and damaging, the group will eventually destroy itself and you do not want to be part of that. Even if stepping away is not an option, persevering in not joining will pay off in the long term even if it may hurt in the short term.
Few will like me saying this, but if a group is acting in a hopelessly self-destructive way and there is no tractable way out, it is actually better to encourage them to keep on going while trying to ‘sandbox’ them. This means: avoiding that they harm the people that do not want to join them, such as to contain the damage they cause to themselves only. There is no need to worry about them feeling bad about it, because they won't. They'll be much happier if they are allowed to keep on doing their thing than when they would be restricted. We all have nicely evolved to feel great while acting in group, even if the act is utterly stupid.
Mind that this is exactly the inverse from what many are currently trying to do. We keep on making new rules and restrictions to prohibit people from acting in ways they would really like. It. Does. Not. Work. Prohibitions on their own do not work. All I am seeing is that those people are anxiously waiting for the slightest opportunity to break those rules in ways more exaggerated than if the rules had never existed. Eventually such opportunities will emerge and the consequences shall be dire. [REF:SANDBOX] My proposal, which many will without any doubt call insane, is to try the inverse instead. Create an environment where they can indulge their noisome desires without limitations but also without damaging other people. This kind of practice is sometimes called ‘sandboxing’, as if the individuals are confined to a sandbox that is isolated from the outside world such that it does not matter whether they mess it up or not.

The hardest part is this isolation aspect, it is in fact very difficult to come up with anything that does not conjure the term ‘ghetto’ and does not have the kinds of negative properties that are associated with that concept. But suppose there would be a way to do it, then it would cause poorly behaving persons to either learn from their mistakes or remove themselves from the gene pool without causing collateral damage—a win-win. What we are doing now is exactly the opposite. We thwart any opportunity for learning by prohibiting all actions that could possibly be enlightening, and we keep these people in the gene pool and in the vicinity of others. Hence we preserve the risk that they will not only cause damage to themselves, but to those others as well. Why are we doing this? Are there any other motivations aside from: I have this primordial desire to force every individual on this planet to be identical [LINK:EVERYONEISLIKEME], and: I have this warm fuzzy feeling that life is sacred and we must do anything to prevent anyone from ever dying, even those who would instantly kill themselves when not being constantly supervised in a costly way? Yes, I am ‘crazy’ that I dare write something like this. I already know. Please do not mail me to remind me of it. Go punch a wall or a dead cow if reading this makes you angry.
The main problem is of course that it is physically impossible to implement this isolation aspect. It would require a near infinite number of environments to cater for all tiny variations on stupid behaviour that other people need to be shielded from. In practice there is no other way around it: we may only be able to make a rough approximation of this ideal situation and we will have to put people with incompatible lifestyles together, and somehow find a way to make them compatible after all. A lot of trouble can be avoided with proper education. It is much easier to create mental barriers against stupid behaviour in children while they are in the process of learning fundamental concepts, than to show adults who grew up in a skewed environment the error of their ways.

The Uncanny Edge

[REF:UNCANNY] Living organisms, especially humans, are fine-tuned to detect members of their community who appear slightly off. Figure UE1 shows a sketch of a graph that plots on the horizontal axis the degree of similarity of an observed entity to oneself. The vertical axis represents the acceptance of the observed entity as a member of one's own group. As expected, the graph goes upward initially, but perhaps unexpected is the sudden dip in the curve when it approaches perfect similarity. This dip is called the ‘uncanny edge’ or ‘uncanny valley’. The phenomenon is for instance observed in video games, or computer graphics in general (e.g., CGI renderings of humans in films). People are generally not bothered by cartoon-like renderings of humans because they regard those as abstract representations. The cartoons are treated as proxies or avatars for real humans. Their exact appearance is not important. (True, a certain religion instills an aversion against cartoon representations, but that is an entirely different matter and not relevant here.)

Uncanny Edge
Figure UE1: sketch of the ‘Uncanny Edge’ effect: a rough simulation of a human is quite easily accepted as representing a real human, until it comes very close to being indistinguishable, when it becomes easily rejected.

On the other hand, very accurate but not entirely perfect renderings of human faces, bodies, or motions, are often discomforting to look at, or we are annoyed by these virtual humans not behaving according to expected human manners. These renderings are good enough to cause us to drop the proxy indirection and consider the depictions as real humans, and this engages all our fine-tuned mechanisms for identifying subtle flaws in humans. Regarding virtual representations, it is generally at least as hard to climb up that second slope as it has been to climb up the first one, if not much harder. A concrete example: I saw someone complaining about NPCs (Non-Player Characters) in the video game ‘Skyrim’ not reacting at all when placing buckets over their heads. Yet nobody had complained about the NPCs in much older games looking like a highly stylised representation of a person by means of a rough pixelated sprite or a few polygons. People simply accepted that those rough representations were avatars of humans.

The origin of this phenomenon is obvious: humans are highly sensitive to any indications that an individual might carry a disease or have bad intentions, and we have an instinctive repulsion towards individuals exhibiting such indications. Therefore we regard the almost-but-not-quite perfect renderings as suspect, because unlike the cartoons they do look very similar to real humans, but something is off about them. In the real physical world, when we see a human that is slightly off such as to end up in that valley of the uncanny edge, we will reject them as a member of our group. The decision to do so has often already been made in the first few hundred milliseconds when we saw the individual for the first time [WiTo2006]. This is all connected to instinctive behaviour [LINK:SMALLTOWN] that makes us avoid contracting diseases and stay away from individuals that might have a condition that makes them dangerous in any other way. Mind you, this instinctive behaviour makes perfect sense and it would be tremendously stupid to try to disable it, although it would make a lot more sense to apply extra verification to it. The instinctive repulsion must not be the final decision, but a first alarm that leads to further investigation.

Uncanny-Edge-based Clustering of Partners

[REF:SIMILARPARTNERS] It should by now be obvious that this is not necessarily a feel-good text. Whether it will make you feel good depends entirely on how you approach it yourself. Therefore if you are still reading at this point, you probably will not mind getting another possibly depressing example of how things often work out in life, how this automatically leads to clustering of similar individuals, and why this means that the situation of disadvantaged individuals has a high risk of only getting worse unless they are aware of this risk and actively counteract it.

Suppose person A has a certain quite rare disease that is externally observable, in other words person A appears different from the rest. It will be problematic for this person to find a partner, because the visible symptoms will trigger the uncanny edge phenomenon in others. Their instincts cause them to avoid catching the disease if it is contagious, or having offspring with the same disease if it is genetic. Unless of course, there is some person B who has the same disease. Then this person has nothing to lose by joining individual A who shows the same symptoms. The genetic aspect still remains, but chances are that if persons A and B have learnt to live with the inconveniences of their mutual disease, they will assume to be able to educate their offspring to overcome them as well. The mutual disease makes those people similar enough that from within their perspective, they end up at the far end of the similarity curve in figure UE1 where it goes upward again.

There are even extra stimulants that will bring such potential partners together, for instance people with specific problems will often join self-help groups or join activities that are especially compatible with the shortcomings or help to reduce them. Therefore there is an increased likelihood that such people will meet. And last but not least, all our social instincts are geared towards finding people who are similar to us. A human who knows to be different will have a tendency to shy away from the ‘normal’ rest, further increasing the isolation aspect. If this person then discovers other individuals who are more similar, there will be a strong drive to cluster together with them. There are quite a few advantages to living with someone who has the same health issues. For instance in case of intolerance towards certain foods, buying quantities of harder-to-find specialty foods for two persons is more efficient than for one, and there is a lower risk of being exposed to the non-tolerated foods.

In short, what I am saying here is that when living life the obvious way, there is a high risk that hereditary diseases or genetic conditions in individuals will be maintained or even amplified over multiple generations. Generally this means these individuals will disappear faster than if they would pick partners randomly, unless the condition proves to be an advantage. One could consciously try to find a way out of this, through awareness of these ‘clustering’ mechanisms. This requires the will to work against both these mechanisms and the overwhelming social instincts. Plus, one should consider the risk that genetically mixing with a partner who has very different traits, may lead to unpredictable results that may be much worse than going for the safe path of choosing a more similar partner with known issues. In the end, trying to fight this mechanism that to some may appear similar to the concept of ‘fate’, may only make one's overall situation worse. Accepting it may lead to a much happier, albeit perhaps shorter life. But then again, in the very long run nobody's life really leads anywhere anyway.

If you do not believe in the phenomenon of the ‘uncanny edge,’ you could do a little experiment. Obviously, from a social standpoint this is a highly risky experiment and you would be doing it entirely at your own peril. Either go to an experienced make-up artist or learn how to apply make-up yourself. You goal is to make yourself look subtly ill in a realistic way, without actually being ill. Make your skin a little paler, add subtle dark circles to your eyes and some spots here and there. Do not overdo it. Do this for a few weeks non-stop: every morning, before you meet anybody, apply your layer of fake illness. If you combine this with other behaviour that is slightly off, like talking less, taking a bit longer to respond to questions, appearing confused, … then the effect will be maximal. You will notice that everyone around you will start acting strange towards you, total strangers as well as people close to you. The most sensible thing for the others to do in such case would be to notify you that you do not look healthy. In reality though, you will notice that nobody will do that. At best they might give some remark that vaguely hints at it. This is because nobody will even realise that certain instincts are triggered that detect your apparent illness. When it comes to instincts, the way in which they work exactly is irrelevant, only their end result is [LINK:EMOTIONS]. These persons will only receive subconscious triggers of you appearing ill, and instinctively do all kinds of things to get away from you. They will become unfriendly, and you may start noticing that in some situations you keep on being treated like dirt even if you do the utmost correct things possible. There is no point in asking them why they act that way, because they do not know the reason themselves, it operates at way too low a level. What you will experience is their built-in collection of instincts that helped humanity get through epidemics like the plague, by avoiding individuals that show first symptoms. Those who did not have these built-in repulsions kept on hanging around the diseased, caught the disease themselves, and died. Simple evolution. Of course, the big question is whether this kind of behaviour is still excusable in the modern world where science and medicine have vastly evolved. I believe the answer is: no.


And now for something completely different, or maybe not. What happens when extreme clustering and assimilation occurs in a realm totally different from organic life, for instance the software world? Let's look at an example called Windows. Through aggressive and clever marketing, and probably also quite a bit of sheer luck, Microsoft managed to make their computer operating system a de facto standard over the course of the end of the 20th century. Yet many an IT professional, especially if they have experience with more operating systems than Windows alone, will tell you that it is a product full of flaws and disadvantages, and for many tasks where Windows is currently deployed there are technically much better suited alternatives. Even home users complain about how bad it is, but they don't dare to choose an alternative, often they are not even aware of the existence of alternatives or do not dare search for them out of fear for things that deviate from what they already know.

How Windows can have gained and sustained its market dominance for so long, is the result of many factors. Most of them have nothing to do with software or inherent quality, but with human behaviour. For instance the mere fact that Microsoft managed to be the first to make their product so widespread, gave them the typical massive advantage of first-to-market. Once they were in this position, there was no need to offer perfect products because consumers were locked in a frame-of-reference where the inferior product was the only known one. Through aggressive strategies, Microsoft destroyed any competitors that could show how much better a product could be. When some company announced a new product, Microsoft quickly hacked something together with similar functionality (and a plethora of bugs) to convince their existing customer base that they did not need to move to another company for that kind of product. Or they just bought the company and killed it from within. But I digress.

As far as the example I wanted to showcase is concerned, the most interesting fact about Windows is exactly its popularity and ubiquitousness—especially when combined with the observation that as an operating system it has over the course of decades been plagued by a ridiculous number of viruses and exploits, some of which very severe. Its mere popularity has made it very lucrative to exploit its weaknesses in order to steal user data, install bot-nets, spam users with ads or try to install spy-ware, and whatnot. The result is that the current versions of Windows are necessarily bloated constructs with multiple layers of very annoying protection mechanisms that hamper productivity and performance in order to keep the thing usable at all while still maintaining some compatibility with programs from the time before the fixes were applied. In some cases these mechanisms will even break Windows itself, a bit like an autoimmune disease. Only because finally some competition has emerged in the last few decades, security in Windows is currently taken much more seriously as evidenced by the incessant flow of new ‘Windows Updates’ every few weeks.

Especially in the past, the less popular operating systems like Linux and Mac OS had much fewer exploits which were most often fixed preemptively, before a practical implementation emerged. One reason is that some effort has been spent in making these systems less easy to exploit by design, unlike Windows which has grown as a patchwork of legacy junk that kept on being piled up to keep existing customers happy (there is even a concept of ‘bug-compatible’ in Windows). But at least as important is the fact that these other systems have a much smaller market share, making it much less profitable to write an exploit. Even if it would have been the other way round and Windows would have been properly designed from the start to be secure while the other systems would be insecure kludges, then still Windows would be the prime target for all kinds of exploits thanks to its mere market share. Even if the system itself would be unbreakable, it would still be the prime development platform for ‘social engineering’ exploits. Those are the kind of exploits where the human user becomes the weakest link and is tricked into revealing profitable information. If a crook has to choose between a system with 90% market share and two systems with 5% market share each, they shall pick the first one even if it will require more effort to write an exploit for it. The return on investment will be much larger. This explains that even today when Windows has a much better security track record, it still is the platform of choice for exploits due to its still dominant market share.

In a nutshell, this story illustrates how there is a limit to the degree in which converging on a single standard brings benefits. At some point the assimilation starts to become a disadvantage, a vulnerability, and when taken to the extreme it becomes a downright threat. This is as true for biology and society as it is for software.


Mind that even though this whole section could make it seem as if assimilation and clustering are the ultimate paths to follow for any entity, they are not, not by a far stretch. As I have mentioned already, this principle only holds if certain boundary conditions are met. The most important boundary condition is a meta-boundary condition: the conditions must be identical for all individuals involved. And even then the principle does not guarantee ultimate bliss. All the individuals who have converged to be completely identical will also exhibit the same flaws and weaknesses. A single external attack that targets such weakness or flaw has a high risk of wiping out the entire population. Take the honeybees for instance: at the time of this writing their numbers are dwindling and there are major concerns about possible extinction. The cause, although still uncertain at this point, will most likely prove to be a single environmental parameter that has changed (like the introduction of yet another pesticide that was poorly tested). That is the price to pay for evolving towards a species that is entirely based on extreme assimilation. Having diversity within a population makes it robust against threats like these. The individuals that are immune against some external attack can shield the vulnerable individuals, such that they can do the same if there is another attack that targets the others but not them. The optimal strategy is a fine line between striving for both assimilation and diversity.

Try to structure the rest of the text such that it makes sense. Everything can be grouped under a limited set of topics. Or give up and just dump the junk below as-is with a big disclaimer.
I should start by explaining core stuff like Occam's razor, entropy, tit-for-tat, cellular automata, neural networks. Then use this to explain human behaviour, self-fulfilling prophecy, emotions etc.
Actually, there is a pretty good chance that I'll have to perform my usual routine of reversing pretty much the entire flow of the text. It is starting to look as I am constantly digging deeper into root causes of things I already wrote about without having a perfect explanation. For instance, the whole aliasing stuff could be better explained by starting from the few hard-coded mechanisms that are prevalent in human thinking.

It seems pretty hopeless to really turn this into a text that will not suffer from the PA phenomenon for every possible reader. To do that, I would need to bundle a few courses on physics, thermodynamics and maths into this. I should point people to ‘required reading’ instead.

Take care to avoid formulations with ‘you’. When the text ever gets finished, go through it again with the mindset of someone who has never read it, and look for anything that appears to attack the reader too directly and reformulate it with ‘(some)one’, ‘people’, etc. This should reduce the risk of stupid mails from people who feel personally attacked and ignore the red text.

Try to balance out the negative stuff with something positive. It is true that a lot of our primitive behaviour is prone to go horribly wrong, but it also works a lot of the time. Life is what you make it and if you expect it to suck, it is almost guaranteed to suck. If you expect it to be great, it will not automatically become great, but it is a very good starting point anyhow. To make it great you need to work to make and keep it great. The whole idea of this text is to make people stop fighting their own nature and stop blindly pursuing technology that is often useless, and try to make the right fusion of both.

Make sure each section ends with a clear conclusion.

Replace in-line hyperlinks to external pages with citations (link in citation).

Idea: port this to LaTeX instead. It is easy to generate HTML from it anyway. This thing has grown way beyond something that fits in a practical webpage.

Grammar blah: this text is written in British English just because I usually use it for writing. Apparently in BE it is allowed to place the comma both inside or outside the quotes in constructions like “quoted,” but in U.S.E. only inside, so do it inside, idem for periods & QMs.


Most of what follows is devoid of any decent formatting. There will be sudden topic changes without a title or introduction (generally marked with “*”). If you are a brave person who dares to read through this text in its embryonic stage, be aware that some of the most essential things I want to explain are still missing. I do have a bad tendency to write in a kind of reverse manner where I start with conclusions and work my way to the all-important intro. You may be better off just jumping around randomly in the text.

Old idea: Suggested structure:

  1. Theory: Occam, entropy, tit-for-tat, optimisation, evolution, information theory. Also explain some very basic things like linear vs. exponential.
  2. Practice: debunk common misconceptions or “dogmas,” see below.
  3. Conclusion.

New idea: this will probably be inevitably messy. I think it is hopeless to fit it in a single neat structure, it will be more like a web of thoughts with many loose connections between them. Yet, every time I go over this heap of junk, I see more general concepts under which I can group a lot of the previously disjunct ideas, so maybe it will crystallise to something clean after all.

Debunk (reorder: try to put the most essential things first):

[TEMPORARY]: Quick thought dump: stuff which I am still unsure of in what section it belongs best, or stuff I quickly jot down before my volatile memory is overwritten by merely opening this file and accidentally reading something.

List of (largely) universal hard-coded instinct-based concepts I have so far identified in humans, that are never questioned although they really should be:

And then there are some things that work at an even lower level not easily formulated in words. For instance the drive for symbolism that serves as a catalyst for community-forming (a topic that Dan Brown likes to touch upon in his novels). This is a very nice illustration of our tribal past [LINK:SMALLTOWN].


This is where it gets really unstructured, and again: mind that I have a bad tendency to first start writing about corollaries of something essential I want to explain, and only add the essence later. Therefore some essential parts are missing.

Arrogance and the Ego

[REF:ARROGANCE] [TODO: this is actually tied tightly to aliasing. Move and connect it.] After observing people during my entire life it has started to dawn upon me that most people's behaviour is not defined by what they are truly capable of. It is defined by what they believe to be capable of. The difference between these two things can be huge and often there is no attempt to reduce this difference. Their course of actions is almost exclusively defined by a fixed set of what I would call ‘dogmas’. I assume some of these can be considered instincts that are truly hard-coded in our genes, others are part of education or so-called ‘second nature’. It is important to stress that these dogmas are rigid: people are not any more flexible in adjusting their dogmas than a porcelain cup is flexible against a hammer. Perhaps the most important dogma is their own self-image, or to use the classic term, their ‘ego’. Confirming this self-image receives absolute priority regardless of whether it is dictated by instincts (very likely) or education (less likely). In the most inflexible of persons there is no hint of trying to readjust this self-image to better represent their true abilities: their porcelain cup will either bounce or break when struck with anything that contradicts the self-image. The discrepancy with their true abilities can sometimes be immense. Often the self-image will at the same time be both a gross overestimation and oversimplification.

It is hard to sufficiently stress how important this concept is. I rarely see any evidence of people realising this potentially huge discrepancy between their own or other person's true natures and apparent natures. Any attempt to make them aware of it is greeted with a storm of self-defence mechanisms. It is also hard to sufficiently stress that the ability to detect this discrepancy in an individual is not only absent in external observers but also—and especially—in the individual itself. The first rule of arrogance is: don't talk about arrogance. (This reference to ‘Fight Club’ is not just a pun. It is arguably the whole point of the book or movie.) The external observers are more likely to detect the discrepancy than the individual itself. This is again nothing but perceptual aliasing. The reason why external observers can more easily see the discrepancy between a person's believed and true abilities, is because unlike that person they are not imprisoned inside the very frame of reference they are observing and their observations are not aliased into this frame. [TODO: Beach Boys stuff fits here]

The entire course of actions in the life of what I would call ‘the average person’ revolves around confirming and even enforcing this self-image, not on making sure it has any solid grounds and certainly not on adjusting it to better represent reality. Adjustment will only happen—if at all—after painful mistakes. If there is no adjustment, the painful mistakes keep on coming until perhaps one of them is lethal. These persons never evaluate whether their behaviour makes sense or has side-effects that will eventually nullify any positive results. I try not to work this way. I am willing to reconsider my self-image even if it is not as pretty as I believed it to be when I was a kid. I am certain this will get me a lot further in the long run than freezing myself in a romantic childish I-am-awesome self-image or a lazy boo-I-am-good-for-nothing cynical depressed self-image.

It may be tempting to only tie negative aspects to the concept of the ‘ego’, but it can have its upsides, sometimes. Even the actions of the most altruistic of persons still serve in some way to uphold their own ego. Being able to help others is just as big, or perhaps even bigger an ego boost as being able to trump others in some skill. Being able to bring someone else at one's own level is often much more difficult and therefore much more rewarding, than bashing them down so their level stays lower than one's own. Even better, once everyone has been brought to the higher level, there is even more incentive to reach for even higher levels. Therefore we should not try to kill the phenomenon of the ego, but we must try to get rid of the kind of arrogant ego that resorts to any means necessary in its quest to prove itself better than the rest. Even altruism comes in many variations and some of them are equally bothersome as plain egoism. For instance the kind of person who will always insist on helping because they are certain that they are superior hence more capable of helping than anyone else. Actually I am much less annoyed by someone not doing any effort to hide their blatant egoism, than someone who pretends to be a samaritan but actually only does so to mask their superiority complex. These are the kind of persons who will often sabotage other people's attempts at providing help to those who need it, just so they can appear to be the only ones capable of offering help, even if what they offer is inferior to what others could have provided if they hadn't been deliberately sabotaged.

Unfortunately for an apparent vast majority of people in the region where I live, their inflexible self-image is exactly rife of this kind of arrogance, bigotry, alleged superiority. I say apparent, because the problem with such persons is that they make a lot of noise and could therefore appear much more numerous than they really are. They think they know more than anyone else, are more intelligent, and pretty much better in any other way. They are not. Yet in any conversation they will do the utmost effort to convince everyone else—and especially themselves—that they really know more and know better how to solve problems than others, until someone is able to confront them with the hard truth. When having a conversation with such people, the discussion is never really about the actual topic. It is not about finding the truth, neither is it about solving the problem or actually helping someone else in the best possible way. It is about enforcing what they believe is the truth, and solving the problem in some way that is familiar to them, disregarding anything else, preferably also in a way that upholds the impression that they are better than everyone else. They will often uproot well-designed existing solutions to be able to enforce their own inferior solution. It is all about them being able to keep up the illusion that they know more, are better, smarter, more intelligent, etcetera, regardless of whether anything they are proclaiming is true in an absolute sense or not. If this happens in a commercial context, it can be extended from the individual level to company level. The result is a crappy product full of flaws because the goal was never to make a good product. The real goal was to keep up the appearance of that company being the only one capable of making a good product. Those two goals only look similar on the surface. In truth they are vastly different and will lead to different results.

Captain Subtext

Arrogant people tend to rely on a limited bag of tricks to uphold the illusion of being superior. A concrete example: someone demonstrates something interesting, and someone else says: “the person who did that obviously had too much time on their hands.” If Captain Subtext from the TV Series ‘Coupling’ would exist and put on his ‘Truth Helmet’, he would read: that looks cool but I fear I am unable to do that. Hence my ego is under threat because if someone would ask me to do it, I would fail and be embarrassed. Therefore I must attack the maker of the cool thing and do my utmost best to make it seem uncool, preferably by trying to exploit basal instincts that cause a feeling of social disapproval. Mildly accusing someone of wasting time seems good enough. This doesn't mean the person will actually go through this exact train of thoughts, certainly not consciously. The mapping between the observation and the reaction may well be purely emotional [LINK:EMOTIONS] but in the end it has the same underlying motivation and the same effect.

Another concrete example with possibly worse consequences: suppose someone has an uncommon (or perhaps common but un-trendy) disease with vague symptoms. This person goes to a doctor in the hopes of getting better directions. In an ideal world, the doctor would be all-knowing and recognise the disease. In a less ideal but still fair world, the doctor would recognise that the symptoms do not match anything known, admit this lack of knowledge, and direct the patient towards a doctor that might have a better chance at making a good diagnosis. Now let's go to the real world. I am not making this up, this is from first-hand experiences, from friends' experiences, and from reports I regularly bump into without even explicitly searching. If the doctor has a big ego to uphold, admitting not to know the disease is not an option. Neither is referring the patient to another doctor, because that again implies lack of knowledge and in a naïve way it also implies the other doctor is ‘better’. Some of the most common exit strategies are the following.
Easiest is to dismiss the symptoms as hypochondria—and dismiss the patient as well. The Truth Helmet translates this into: I really have no idea what is going on here but if I blame the patient, nobody will notice my ignorance.
Another way out is to simply pick any known disease as diagnosis even if it does not map well onto the symptoms, and then prescribe a treatment. This could translate as: I must give an impression of confidence and therefore I pick something that seems plausible and treat it as if it is absolutely certain.
A slight variation is to cherry-pick those symptoms that do map to a known disease, and attribute the other symptoms to another disease (or again hypochondria), or simply completely ignore them. This probably gives the best chance at upholding the ego because it is plausible that the patient indeed has that disease, even if in itself it is a symptom of a worse underlying condition that remains untreated.
Needless to say, neither of these scenarios are beneficial for the patient. Luckily not every doctor is like this, but finding the good ones can be a challenge.

Of course it can get even worse than this, take for instance the phenomenon where a firefighter starts fires in order to be able to help putting them out and having a chance at becoming the hero of the day. There are many possible variants on this scenario and in most cases we are probably unaware when they occur.

The only reason why inept people can get away with arrogance to uphold the illusion of being superior, is that there is a sufficiently large fraction of individuals in their surroundings who either are gullible, act the same [LINK:ASSIMILATION] and are locked up inside the same frame-of-reference, or recognise this behaviour and ignore or ‘sandbox’ [LINK:SANDBOX] them. The second stance is the most common: arrogance has become standard behaviour. Nobody knows shit but everyone pretends they do. Nobody dares to take down someone else's façade because it would compromise their own. Of course arrogant people always vehemently defend the very concept of arrogance, because it is often the only thing they can rely on. If it would break down, they would fall from their pedestal. Arrogance always has a severe risk of becoming a vicious circle that is very hard to break out of. When it becomes the only thing one relies on, eventually the only way to maintain it is to destroy anything else that might be evidence of arrogance being a false illusion. I am convinced for instance that many kinds of terrorism are an indirect consequence of egos that have spiralled out of control and cannot stand certain population groups that appear to threaten their illusion of self-superiority. Many forms of supposed religious terrorism only use the religion as a vehicle and an excuse to lower the level of others, just so the own level appears higher.

I believe that arrogance will have to be severely curbed or maybe even to vanish entirely, if humanity wants to evolve beyond its current level. Saying that there is no reason to curb arrogance because the world seems to run well enough on it, is like equipping wagons with octagonal wheels because they are easier to build than perfectly round wheels, while ignoring the extremely unpleasant bumpy ride as well as the eventual destruction of the wagon and its contents by the vibrations. Arrogance is yet another silly greedy strategy [LINK:GREEDY] that works in the short term but has large risks of crumbling down and backfiring in the long term. For instance, acting like a windbag and creating an illusion of having certain qualities by relying on certain tricks, may work for a while. But eventually the tricks will wear thin and everyone will start noticing that these windbags keep on failing at things they were boasting to be good at, causing their entire credibility to go down the drain. Eventually everyone will hardly pay any attention to what the arrogant persons say, because experience has shown it is likely to be bogus anyway. At that point, when the windbags claim to be good at something, nobody will believe them anymore even if it is really true. Their only escape is to hop around and change environments when this point is nearing, and hope they will be able to keep on doing this without running out of gullible people. The latter of course becomes increasingly difficult in a world that becomes ever more connected and where a reputation can spread faster than ever before. Perhaps the internet will kill arrogance. Good riddance.

“I am the Centre of the Universe!”

To put it bluntly, there are two core problems with humans. First, they are not terribly intelligent. Second, they are too proud to admit this. The first is not a huge problem as such because there are ways around it. However, it becomes a huge problem due to the second one, which causes the first one to be evaded instead of being tackled. Most persons seem to be born with the instinctive idea that they are the centre of the universe and everything revolves around them. They believe they are the perfect blueprint for the rest of humanity. They want to live like kings, see every square inch of the entire planet before they die and perhaps even a part of outer space too, all things that are enormously costly. Think again: every human is only one in more than seven billion people (and counting), which means less than 0.0000000002 worth of the entire world population. That is pretty insignificant. It is stupid and arrogant for a single one of those seven billion persons to believe that all the rest will suit their lives to his or hers, such that he or she can live his or her life the way he or she meticulously planned it, and that he or she has the right to destroy his or her environment just to cater for some stupid short-sighted ideas.

Sometimes this ‘centre of the universe’ idea is to be taken literally, not merely figuratively. Before Copernicus and Galileo, humanity as a whole projected this idea onto the planet it was living on, actually firmly believing that Earth was the centre of the universe and everything revolved around it. Even after Copernicus it took a long time to get rid of this idea—or at least suppress it. Galileo was imprisoned in his own house for the rest of his life for trying to defend the heliocentric theory laid out earlier by Copernicus. Even though the Sun is not the centre of the universe either, from within observable reality at that time it was a far better model than a geocentric one. As far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as a centre of the universe [LINK:FRACTALUNIVERSE]. One might believe Galileo was persecuted because the heliocentric idea contradicted what was written in holy scriptures, but if one investigates the actual lines of text that would hint at geocentrism, they are pretty weak and open to interpretation. I am certain that the core problem was that Galileo was clashing with something simply hard-coded in the average human brain.

When viewing things in perspective, it is obvious that geocentrism even in a more figurative interpretation is a load of hogwash. It is so very probable that we are not the only life in the universe. Really, (human) life is not such a big deal. There may be other species with much more advanced civilisations. We'd better hope they will not come looking for us, because the chance that they will be happy friendly E.T.'s is slim. Happy friendly intelligent aliens will take a big evasive manoeuvre around a planet infested with a parasitic self-destructing half-evolved species. It is far more likely that the kind of alien that will happily land here will do so after verifying that their weapons technology is far more advanced than ours (pretty likely if they have technology for interstellar space travel), and go all ‘Avatar’ on our asses—only with us in the role of the Na'vi. The 2010 film ‘Skyline’ pretty much sucked, but aside from the ridiculous ending it is in fact one of the more realistic scenarios of what would actually happen if aliens came to our planet. The same with ‘Independence Day’ if one would strip it of all the typical Hollywood nonsense and the parts that involve humans fighting aliens with anything that does any damage at all (and obviously, the preposterous hacking scene). A species that lives on a rich home-world with long-lasting potential and that has learnt how not to destroy that world, does not have any incentive to start a large, risky, and costly venture into deep space until the natural end-of-life of the planet is in sight. Sending probes and signals everywhere would only increase the risk of being discovered and their precious planet pillaged by a parasitic species. If there is one technology such species would likely develop, it would be a defence system to fend off outside threats.

Where does our built-in arrogance and self-importance come from? It actually makes sense that people are born arrogant. To be more correct, we are born egocentric, which is not the same as arrogant although the transition from egocentrism to arrogance is a very easily followed slippery slope. If a child would be aware of its inexperience and total lack of proper knowledge to deal with the complexity of reality, it would have a high risk of becoming utterly bogged down and demotivated, and do nothing (or worse, kill itself). Therefore we humans have evolved to be pre-programmed with two simple and strangely conflicting beliefs to make the first years of our lives easier: first, the belief that all humans are identical clones [LINK:EVERYONEISLIKEME]. This makes it appear manageable to interact with the entire world. Within the confined environment most children grow up in [LINK:SMALLTOWN], this assumption is sufficiently correct that it usually does not cause total disasters. Second, the belief that the whole universe revolves around us. Again, from a child's perspective this is a reasonable self-image. The first stages of a human's life are in a large part about self-development, which is difficult enough on its own. Putting the focus mostly on oneself makes it more manageable than if all the complexities of interacting with others would be included from the start. This egocentrism can sometimes be observed as little children wrongly feeling guilty about them being the cause of certain mishaps they were not involved in. This egocentrism does tend to come with an arrogant undertone which becomes stronger with increasing age. If there is no sufficiently humbling experience or education to curb it, this kind of arrogance easily spirals out of control and overtakes the plain egocentrism, and we end up with adults stuck in this state of childish egocentrism that has mutated into arrogance and egoism.

Indeed, the idea of being the only important person in the universe totally conflicts with the previous assumption that everyone is identical, but this doesn't matter because the human thought process is first and foremost geared towards ignoring paradoxes, not to think perfectly logically [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. For children, those two aforementioned illusions kind of work initially because they encourage to do and try all kinds of stuff, even though due to their blatant incorrectness they incur a great risk of doing something stupid that may be lethal. There is no doubt that there are better ways to cope with reality, but these just happen to be the mechanisms that pulled us through our primitive era and we are still stuck with them. They are cheap mechanisms and evolution is a stingy miser, it loves cheap mechanisms. The risk of doing something lethally stupid is inherently limited in the immature, exactly because they are immature. They lack the skills and means to perform truly devastating actions. This lack of skills is compensated for by a safety net of instinctive behaviour that both encourages them to do the right things most of the time, and discourages them from doing truly dangerous things. Practically all predecessors who had too large gaps in their safety net, have been wiped from the gene pool long ago. Mind how with all present-day technological advances, this implicit safety net could become compromised because some find it necessary to sell potentially dangerous technology to everyone, including immature persons. Nobody has instincts that protect against the dangers of this new technology because it will take many generations for those instincts to evolve. Plus, people are increasingly believing they must suppress everything instinctive because they believe to know everything and can do everything; they can pick a recipe from the internet and execute it without having any idea what is truly behind every step in the process and what could go wrong.

The initial growing arrogance in childhood offers a drive to learn new things because it incites to surpass abilities witnessed in others. It gives a feeling of being awesome, more important than anything or anyone else, and being able to do anything. This avoids being bogged down by one's own inevitable failures. To put it bluntly, arrogance is a natural defence mechanism against the effects of people's own stupidity on themselves and others. This means the arrogance is acceptable and even up to a certain degree desirable in children, but it should vanish when one has sufficiently developed oneself and reached a certain level of maturity. At that point it simply becomes unproductive and rather a liability because as I explain elsewhere, an alternative strategy to appear better than others is to sabotage them instead of trying to raise one's own level. I am not claiming that every arrogant adult is dumb or inept, but there is a pretty strong correlation. Someone who really knows how everything in the universe fits together, no longer has an excuse to be arrogant. Am I sounding arrogant here? You bet. Do I know how the universe fits together? No fucking way. Make no mistake: it is not because I am bashing this stupid instinct I hate, that I do not suffer from it myself.

Dunning-Kruger Effect or Hubris

[REF:HUBRIS] This built-in simple mechanism that encourages people to do more than they are actually capable of, is reflected in the Dunning-Kruger effect. It was already known in classic Greek civilisation, where it was referred to as hubris (ύβρις), although probably only in a more specific situation. Typical hubris in the classic sense is the feeling of being able to trump an adversary who is far more superior, out of the inability to recognise how much higher the adversary's level is (this is in fact a direct example of perceptual aliasing). Failure to recognise their hubris in time, obviously leads to disaster and tragedy for the characters in the ancient Greek stories.

Figure AR1 is a sketch of what the mechanism has as result: the estimated own capabilities of an individual first rise unrealistically quickly, then comes a (generally painful) moment of realisation that the true own skill level is far lower than thought, which causes the estimate to drop back to a more realistic level and grow in a more correct way. If the topic at hand is a combination of multiple smaller topics, then the estimated confidence for the topic as a whole will probably contain multiple bumps, because each of its smaller subtopics will cause its own feeling of overconfidence at different moments. [TODO: MOVE THIS FORWARD. THIS IS ENORMOUSLY IMPORTANT.]

Figure AR1: rough sketch of ‘hubris’, or the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’. The curve plots the skill level an individual believes to have, versus their true skill level.

One doesn't need to look far to see evidence of this phenomenon. I just witnessed it moments ago before writing this: I showed a colleague something and he was quite confident why the piece of software exhibited a certain glitch. From his background I know he had no basis to make that assumption, and even though I didn't know the exact cause of the glitch myself, from my years of experience I knew his guess made no sense. Obviously, asking what he meant exactly and how it caused the glitch, led to a dead end very quickly.

Current technological progress also offers countless new opportunities for Dunning-Kruger to rear its ugly head, often in ways that are more complicated than merely over-estimating one's personal skills. We also grossly over-estimate the impact of technological advances on the need to choose between developing own skills, versus instead delegating them to technology. A nice example is automated translation. There is a growing belief that learning languages has become obsolete because we have automatic translators, with even fancy augmented reality apps that substitute translated text in a camera image in real-time. Ironically, it is only when one has spent many years learning the actual language, that it becomes possible to realise how unreliable and ludicrously bad the automated translation often is, and how difficult it will be to improve the quality. It is not terribly hard to make a basic automated translator that produces half-way decent results for simple texts, just as it is relatively easy to learn some words and basic sentences in a new language as a human. Getting from that initial level to something a native speaker considers acceptable, is often incredibly difficult though, just as it is hard to evolve from a cartoon representation of a human to a simulation that cannot be distinguished from a real person without triggering all the instinctive alarms that have evolved over millions of years [LINK:UNCANNY]. This over-estimation of technological progress is nothing new, remember the section about nuclear aeroplanes and the like [LINK:NUCPLANE]. Humans have a strong tendency to over-estimate technological advances in the short term, while under-estimating progress in the long term, which is kind of obvious because nobody can predict the long-term future.

I repeat: the mechanism behind overconfidence is simplistic. It is cheap and works reasonably well, initially. In the absence of any better method to evaluate capabilities and dangers, it is better than being conservatively cautious. Eventually it does become much more efficient overall to develop skills and knowledge to correctly deal with reality without acting stupid. When succeeding in this, the instinctive behaviour becomes a fall-back, a life buoy. Part of those skills is learning when it is OK to give in to instinctive behaviour and when to curtail it. Most importantly, this means the instinctive arrogance becomes obsolete: nothing but a burden and a risk that should be eliminated. The period in someone's life between arrogant stupidity and wise humility is often the most hazardous, because of the combination of childish arrogance and ever growing but still incomplete or incorrect knowledge. That little bump at the left of figure AR1 is the very point at which many people have lost their lives. Knowing when to drop the arrogance is the whole point of becoming an adult, of education. And as I have explained elsewhere [LINK:INFANTILE], there seems to be an increasing lack of it these days, and people increasingly get stuck in their infantile phase of dumb arrogance. [TODO: connect this with the study that shows increasing overconfidence in US freshmen → an indication for the [INFANTILE] theory.] I also believe some deliberately try to keep others in this phase of infantile arrogance because it is usually terribly easy to manipulate and exploit such persons. The steep downward slope in figure AR1 is often the moment when the person experiencing it is losing a lot of money while others are gaining it. If they can then push the person back up that same slope instead of making them go forward and up the slower slope, they keep gaining profits by repeating this process.

Perhaps I am biased in this regard but it seems to me that this arrogance is mostly a staple of the Western world. It exists everywhere, but the West seems to have the largest inclination to export it to the rest of the world where it used to be much more subdued. Look at all the colonialism from the past, and the crusades before. Or the worst example of all, the 20th century World Wars. Most of us Westerners severely toned down this behaviour because we have burnt our fingers on it, but we (and especially a certain country) still act as if we have the right to rule the world and impose our way of life on others, with no other justification for it than the belief that we are superior. We believe to know what people in other countries think and feel, and that they must be unhappy because they do not live like us. We consider some countries or regions as backwards because they do not have the same luxury as us. Now do they really need it? I thought the whole definition of luxury is that it is redundant. Somehow it seems to me that a population that has learnt how to live without wasting resources on redundant junk, is more advanced than one that goes as far as destroying essential resources just to be as cozy and as forcibly happy as possible 100% of the time (only in the short-term of course, the long term is completely ignored). Yet we export this striving for unbounded waste and call it ‘development’. We invade what we believe to be primitive cultures and force them to adopt all our self-inflicted stress that spawns from self-fulfilling prophecies.

There have been scientific articles [TODO: FIND THEM] that explain why people living in warm environments are less active than in cold and demanding environments, because warm environments like the ones in Africa and the Caribbean simply do not require (or even support) a higher degree of activity. The most sensible corollary of this conclusion is to simply accept this fact and stop trying to export behaviour that is optimal for a certain environment only, towards other climates. This is not the kind of conclusion that I have heard from the mouths of anyone who mentioned that study however. Nobody said it explicitly, but there was always an undertone of racism being justified after all, and the expectation that people in those warm environments must unconditionally adopt our busy-bee culture suitable for colder climates. Instead of expecting people to adapt to their surroundings, we got the ingenious idea of transforming every environment to some arbitrary standard, for instance by installing air-conditioning everywhere to chill it down (which, as discussed in the section about entropy, will eventually further raise the overall temperature). We destroy perfectly stable natural environments and replace them with costly synthetic crap that has no long-term future. All just because this crap offers more instant short-term luxury, and we are absolutely certain this is incredibly smart because we shut down our brains [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT] as soon as any disadvantage starts to loom at the distant horizon, or when it seems that we are less awesome than our egos want us to believe.

The Boy in the Bubble

There are many historical examples of humanity as a whole stepping into the pitfall of overconfidence. For instance the discovery of bacteria and other micro-organisms was an essential step in improving surgery in the few past centuries. However, this same discovery led to people to attack these organisms indiscriminately, thinking that they only caused diseases and getting rid of them all would lead to a perfect life or who knows, maybe even immortality. Obviously this is wrong.

The whole purpose of our skin and other organs that form a barrier between the outside world and our internal organs, is to form a shield against outside contaminants like bacteria (see also the explanation about life vs. entropy). Surgery needs to temporarily break through this shield, therefore surgery can only be safe if it is performed behind a sterile barrier against contaminants that would normally be blocked by a healthy body's defence mechanisms. For this purpose, the discovery of bacteria and ways to eliminate them was a huge step forward. For some reason though, people started believing that it would be smart to apply the same kind of surgical sterilisation protocols to their entire lives. That is why we currently have household washing products full of antibacterial chemicals, and rubbing alcohol dispensers in locations that have nothing to do with surgery. After a while it became apparent that many micro-organisms are essential for the correct functioning of larger living organisms like humans. However, the additional insight that the practice of washing oneself multiple times per day with vast quantities of antibacterial chemicals, is not only massively wasteful but may also have unexpected side effects, has yet to dawn upon humanity it seems.

The title of this section is also the title of a famous song by Paul Simon. This title refers to David Vetter, an actual boy who had to live almost his entire short life in a sterile plastic bubble because he suffered from severe combined immunodeficiency. This means his immune system was basically defunct and he lacked the barrier against infections that normal people have. He could only survive if the same kind of barrier was provided externally, artificially. This was possible, as evidenced by the fact that he has lived for 12 years. However, the cost of keeping him alive this way, was staggering. NASA had designed a suit that allowed him to walk around in the outside world for a limited time, a bit like an astronaut in space. The cost of that suit was probably comparable to that of a basic astronaut suit, but it was nothing compared to the cost of building and maintaining the entire plastic-wrapped habitat he normally lived in. This cost aspect is easily overlooked when considering cases like this, yet it is important. In this case the cost eventually paid off, because a lot was learnt about this disease thanks to David Vetter staying alive in his plastic bubble for 12 years. Children who suffer from the same disease today can lead a fairly normal life without having to be imprisoned in a plastic bubble or wearing a suit, thanks to the gained insights. It also illustrates however that applying the same kind of strategy where it is not justified, will only cause a steady drain of resources with no benefit and possibly unexpected side effects. It is obviously insane if one would lock oneself up in a plastic bubble just to never have to experience the inconveniences of catching a common cold. However, when moving on to less extreme measures, there is a whole range between the insane and the sensible, and it seems to me there is a tendency to nudge ever so close towards the insane nowadays.

Of course manufacturers of antibacterial products will show adverts with cute babies biting on toys that are spraying around CGI cooties, giving the impression that you are only a good parent if you rigorously disinfect all those toys all the time—with their products of course. Don't, unless you want your child to have a dysfunctional immune system later on in its life.

Within the small FOR where micro-organisms were some unknown evil, attacking them indiscriminately seemed smart. Within the larger FOR where their role in the process of life is better understood, attacking them indiscriminately is dumb, possibly dumber than the situation before people knew about their existence and unknowingly only relied on natural mechanisms to deal with hostile micro-organisms. This is a general theme in human reasoning and another consequence of the Dunning-Kruger effect: it is often much better to know nothing and let existing mechanisms do their job, than to know just a little and take arrogant decisions based on this naïve incomplete knowledge. Of course, knowing everything is better than either of these two situations, but it can take an awful lot of time to reach that state, usually it is plain unattainable. A good alternative is to become aware of the overconfidence, curb it, accept one's limitations, and rely on better techniques to deal with the inevitable uncertainty. Ordered from least to most likely to do something awfully stupid and dangerous:

  1. an all-knowing genius,
  2. an animal with only instincts,
  3. someone arrogant with incomplete or incorrect knowledge.

The gap between 2 and 3 may well be much wider than the one between 1 and 2. That gap between 1 and 2 could be further bridged by adding an intermediate step: a being aware of its limitations and willing to improve upon them. However, at present I see very little evidence of such awareness, which is why I omitted this step from the list. I hope some day it can be added.

Overconfidence Is a Big Shiny Glittering Accident Waiting to Happen

I seem to remember a scientific study claiming that overconfidence in one's own abilities is good in some way. Even if I only imagined it [TODO: find it], still ever so often I hear people unconditionally praising others who exhibit confidence even though there is no basis for it. It is obvious that any hastily constructed study like that, has no other option than to end with this conclusion. The whole problem with such a study and the entire concept of overconfidence for that matter, is that it is bound to prove itself, it is a self-contained self-fulfilling prophecy. It starts out from the assumption that ignoring negative things will only lead to positive outcomes, therefore the only allowed conclusion for the very study is an overly confident one. For someone believing in overconfidence, admitting that it has negative aspects is not an option because that would undermine the belief. It is not surprising that any attempt at a scientific study would also ignore any negative aspects disproving the desired outcome. If the study was started from a desire to prove that overconfidence is good and it would not present its result with absolute confidence, it would disprove itself. It is an umpteenth example of a study that only looks at direct short-term benefits and ignores the longer term effects, a sorry excuse to dabble in naïve greedy behaviour [LINK:GREEDY].

That study might be right to a limited degree. There can be no doubt that when faced with a problem, the best starting point for trying to solve it is a positive attitude. When assuming beforehand that trying is futile, well then obviously one will not even try much if anything and this obvious self-fulfilling prophecy [LINK:SFP] will indeed cause the problem never to be solved. Big fat however: if one is intelligent enough to prove that the problem really is unsolvable, then making no attempt truly is the best course of action. A problem that provably has no solution is not really a problem. For instance the impossibility to make a perpetual motion machine is not a problem, because such machine provably can never exist anyway. Throwing resources and time against an inevitable failure offers no benefits whatsoever. In other words overconfidence is a trick, a gimmick that often works in the absence of anything better. Anyone with the capabilities to analyse the problem and immediately find either a foolproof solution or a proof that the problem cannot be solved and some evasive action must be taken, is always better off than someone who compulsively makes a happy-happy-joy wild gamble in the hopes of getting a winning hand in the end. Gambles are only good in the absence of something better. If there is a way without gambling, relying on a bet is simply irresponsible and unacceptable.

People who live inside a frame-of-reference of unconditional overconfidence are at risk of failing to learn from mistakes. They will refuse to acknowledge errors because that would put a dent in their ego: their only option is to deny any wrongdoing. Taken to the extreme, proving that one has learnt from one's own mistake, means admitting to having made the mistake. In the most extreme of cases, someone excessively overconfident and arrogant would therefore not even try to learn from their own mistakes.

The average character in the average Hollywood film also radiates arrogance like a piece of plutonium-239 emits alpha particles. Maybe this is one of the factors that contributes to the increasing arrogance of recent generations, who have been force-fed this kind of crap from their infancy on. Of course it is easy to be arrogant in a work of total fiction, where everything is possible and every character can be given whatever knowledge required to keep the implausible plot rolling. Children and gullible adults however, dazzled by the high production values, might happily assume it is all representative for reality. They may also have a firm belief that any car going down a ravine will explode in a huge ball of fire, and any bullet perforating a cabin window of an airliner at cruising altitude will instantly punch a huge hole in the fuselage that produces a magical incessant outward flow of air that keeps on sucking things out of the plane until everything is gone. There are no rational arguments for both of these things to happen and they have been logically and experimentally demonstrated multiple times to be impossible, yet the belief persists because such images have been burnt into people's infant minds by works of fiction while they were building their mental model of the world.

The reason why people generally do not notice they overestimate their own intelligence and wisdom, can be explained by our behaviours that are geared towards converging the entire population to the same standard (see also trends, [LINK:ASSIMILATION, EXTREMISM, SMALLTOWN]). They result in everyone focusing on the same narrow frame-of-reference (FOR). Everyone aliases things into this standardised FOR in a similar fashion. In other words, nobody really notices the enormous limitations of this common FOR because there is nothing else to compare it with. Actually there is, but it is being systematically ignored [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. Everyone who is sufficiently connected, looks at the world through the same window. They only consider what they see through this window and ignore everything else. The window does move around, but everyone instantly forgets what just dropped out of visibility, and obviously nobody considers what is about to come into view either. When it comes to news, the time interval is often very narrow: any news topic about a single event will last a week at best, often just a few days. Mentioning the topic again after two weeks as if it is new, will often not be frowned upon, because the others will likely have forgotten most of it. However, they still vaguely remember it, which makes them feel comfortable because it gives them a feeling of: “I know this already, therefore I am not a total idiot.”

When considering longer time intervals of months to a few years, everything from that period and region is basically all the same. Just look at music, movies, literature, architecture, technology, design, etc. from any given time period and geographic region. It is all ‘standardised’. For movies this is can be pretty extreme: it is not unusual that several films with very similar topics are released within a span of only a few months (for instance ‘The Matrix’ and ‘The Thirteenth Floor,’ both from early 1999). Even people's general attitudes, I dare even say personalities, are generally synchronised—even the degree of arrogance follows the trends of the time period. I notice that arrogant persons seem to expect everyone else to be as arrogant as themselves and when they encounter someone less arrogant, they will react with the usual arsenal of ape instincts geared towards assimilation [LINK:ASSIMILATION] to encourage that person to become as arrogant as themselves. Their reaction always has a subtext of: “OMG this person isn't an arrogant prick like me, he must have some kind of disease, I must heal him!” This irritates me to no end. I do not really mind if someone is arrogant, I know what it usually means regarding the person's true nature and I have learnt to ignore it. But if that person tries to export that arrogance to me, then I get angry. I do not like being brought down by idiots to their own level so they can beat me with experience.

This is also one of the biggest problems with excessive arrogance: it is very difficult to knock it down. It keeps itself alive through a vicious circle, if need be through temporarily letting itself be projected onto someone else until the moment is right to retake it. Suppose it is rigorously proven to a hopelessly arrogant person that they are not the hot-shot they believe to be. The reality is of course that the person's capability is equal to many others. There is no reason to feel inferior because the person is not worse than the rest, and is likely still more proficient in certain skills than many other persons. Now there is the problem exactly: the concept of ‘equal’ does not exist in the minds of such people. They only consider better and worse. If they are proven not to be the best, then someone else must necessarily be better and they will feel threatened. Quite often they will redirect their anger towards the person who told them the proof, which is why it is pointless to try to make such people aware of their skewed vision on reality by simply telling them. A better albeit more difficult way is to put them in a position where it becomes painfully obvious that they are not any better, but also not any worse than many others around them. It does not suffice to do this once, because the arrogance will recover over time. Even if they accept ‘defeat’, as long as they keep believing in arrogance as the only possible model of reality, then this only means handing over the “I am the best” trophy to another person, and then going on a quest to reclaim it. Their arrogance needs to be repeatedly punched in the face to keep it down.

It is also possible that someone who has been hit by the realisation that they are not the centre of the universe, will not hope to reclaim this feeling of self-superiority in the future but instead try to suppress it permanently, by dismissing both one's own and everyone else's achievements in an equal manner. These are the kind of persons who will dismiss even the most amazing feats as mundane, and try to paint anyone who does express awe as being naïve. Of course this means the arrogance hasn't really been suppressed, only that it has been brought in a permanent state of childish grumpiness in the vein of: “if I cannot have it, then nobody can.” This state also usually isn't permanent at all, the arrogance will bound up again at the next opportunity. It is obvious that neither this stance nor the previous one will improve things in the long term. The only stance that can help bring oneself to a true higher level is to become aware of this primitive instinctive mechanism and snub it at a deeper level.

Beach Boys

There are some nice historical examples where the general concept of the ‘ego’ is fiercely defended, especially the arrogant kind. This defence goes as far as not only repelling attacks against one's own ego but also against that of others, or against the whole concept as such. People will momentarily drop their self-superiority complex if someone else's ego or the whole ego concept is sufficiently under threat. One such example is the song ‘I Know There Is an Answer’ by the Beach Boys. This song originally had different lyrics and was called: Hang On to Your Ego. One can find a recording with these original lyrics, and The Pixies and Frank Black have done a cover with these original lyrics as well, which were written by Brian Wilsons under the influence of an acid trip—a drug notorious for breaking down the ego, as evidenced by experiments by Timothy Leary. Some interpretations of these lyrics consider them a warning against overuse of LSD but if I read them, I rather see an attack on the concept of the ego. This also makes sense if the lyrics truly were written under influence of the drug. The other band members objected to the title and lyrics once they learned what they meant, even though they maybe had no exact idea of what an ‘ego’ really is—the mere feeling that attacking it could compromise someone's self-image was probably sufficient to trigger all kinds of instinct-driven alarm bells. Obviously the band also didn't want to be strongly associated with drugs. The final version of the song still criticises one's self-centredness, but in a much less explicit manner.

Things like macho behaviour can be understood from combining an evolutionary point-of-view with the concept of the ego. It makes perfect sense why people like to encourage others to do things that are stupid, unhealthy or downright dangerous. If someone can convince others to do any such thing, and those actually get killed or otherwise disadvantaged in their chances of survival or procreation, then the person who incited them has an advantage to a certain degree. The catch is that the persons who encourage the macho behaviour have to either refrain from performing it themselves, or be certain that they can perform it themselves without an ill outcome. The latter is of course a good ego boost.
The inverse of macho behaviour is jealousy-induced discouraging of certain activities. If someone estimates themselves to be lacking in skill to perform a certain activity (for instance something requiring intelligence), their ego will feel threatened. A plethora of instinctive defensive responses will be triggered in an attempt to protect the ego. For instance they will try to make the activity appear uncool, useless, or disadvantageous in any other way even if their arguments are completely invalid. This will generally involve group tactics in order to pit the entire group against the few individuals who possess the skills. A typical argument often used in this context is “that person has too much time on his hands,” because wasting time is universally deemed bad. The point of this strategy is to appear smarter by making the rest of the world dumber. It is the strategy of idiots bringing others down to their own lower level in order to beat them with experience.

In both these cases it is important to note that often no reasoning is involved, only a bunch of instinctive ways to probe the other individuals and instinctive responses to their behaviour. All this stuff happens at a level below the conscious, or just at the edge between the conscious and subconscious. A sufficiently elaborate experiment, for instance in the vein of the one that revealed jealousy in capuchin monkeys [BrWa2003], will probably expose this kind of behaviour in certain ape species. People expressing such instincts generally have no clue as to why they are doing it, and will not even want to learn the clue. Nobody wants to know that the reason why they are inciting others to act stupid, might actually be an attempt to kill them. Nobody wants to be aware at all that they are scoffing others to hide their own shortcomings and protect their ego (because obviously, agreeing with this explanation is again an attack on the ego). At some point people may even try to construct scientific studies that are crafted to disprove all this in an attempt to justify this kind of behaviour. Yet the key to evolving beyond these primitive mechanisms that stifle innovation and evolution, is exactly to become aware of them and learn to mute them at the right moments or divert them towards positive actions that lead to a win-win situation for everyone, instead of a lose-lose situation [LINK:JEALOUSY]. This awareness must not only be targeted towards others, but especially towards oneself.


The behaviour of the vast majority of humans is not steered by logic or a desire to ‘do the right thing’ in the most general possible sense. It is much simpler than that: the main drive is to reach whatever goal currently imposed by some basal instinct. The set of instincts is limited and the most common one is: I must convince everyone and especially myself that I am the best at everything and I am always right. Or to use Freud's terminology, an unstoppable drive to uphold one's own Ego. Many of Freud's ideas were dodgy but he was right about this one. When humans argue with someone else, the actual topic of the discussion is often of no real importance. During the average conversation, people will only use their intellect to derail the discussion towards: I must be right and I must therefore have the last word in this discussion and I will bend reality if necessary to make it so. On Internet forums, this can often be seen as people adding yet another reply to a question that has already been answered in a previous reply, either by rephrasing what has already been said and offering no added value whatsoever, or worse: by adding an incorrect answer. I am pretty certain that for instance the current trend of ‘flat earthers’ is nothing but another instance of this. Most of them probably do not care that what they proclaim is utter nonsense disproven both by scientists millennia ago as well as through trivial experiments anyone can perform. The only thing that counts is that they have something to contradict others with. The same goes for those believing that the moon landing was a hoax or vaccines are a scam.

✻ PRO TIP for incorrigible trolls! ✻

If the ultimate goal is to have the last word in a discussion, then holding on to a claim that is provably wrong is an excellent strategy, at the condition that one is tenacious enough to persevere in one's bullshit to the point when every other party has become tired enough to give up. Of course that last word will be considered definite proof that the person is a complete idiot, but that does not matter if the only goal truly is just to have the last word regardless of what word it is and what the longer-term consequences are.

If you notice you have ended up in any such pointless discussion that obviously only serves to prove the other party's purported self-superiority, it is best to either just play along to keep wasting the other party's time if you can afford it (this can also be pretty amusing), or abort the conversation and let the person bask in their delusion of grandeur. What usually works well, is to seek exactly that part in their reasoning they obviously are not understanding well or at all, and which is at the root of their incorrect claims. Then post a very short and polite question to explain exactly that thing, formulated such as if you do not know how it works yourself and you want them to explain it to you. If you do this correctly, then there are only 3 possible outcomes:

  1. They do not bother looking up anything, and answer your question based on their incorrect knowledge. Now you have written proof that they are an idiot. Make sure to quote their whole nonsensical reply verbatim in your next reply, such that they cannot delete or modify it after you have punched them in the ego.
  2. They just give up because they have finally started to do some research about what you asked, and it becomes all too clear that they are an idiot but they do not want to openly admit this, hence they silently vanish. Maybe they learn something and won't make the same mistake again.
  3. They do their homework and look up the information needed to properly answer your question, and they discover they have been an idiot and will (perhaps begrudgingly) admit this. Obviously this is the best possible outcome because they hit the hard wall of reality all by themselves and learn more than anyone could teach them through a million words or by keeping on throwing around insults. Unfortunately this scenario is rare.

What you should never do in discussions on Internet forums, is merely asking obvious questions that would expose the other party's lack of knowledge if they would have to answer promptly. This works in real-time face-to-face discussions, but not on the Internet where the other party has ample time to look up any information before they reply, and then give the impression that they knew it all along. An ego-tripper will never want to give any hint that they were unable to answer your question at the moment you posed it. They will do everything to prove they supposedly knew not only the answer but also much more than that (evidenced by them throwing in bits of extra information about the topic you did not ask for, but that they found on its Wikipedia page or wherever). This makes it not so trivial to apply the strategy I described above, because you really need to carefully craft your question to make it impossible for the other party to merely look up something and make it seem they already knew it. Next to the added veil of anonymity, this turn-based game aspect has made discussing things on the Internet often thoroughly more annoying than in the physical world. If you want to have a truly fruitful discussion with someone, I advise to do it face-to-face, either physically or through a video call which you might even want to record if it is really important.

To conclude at a more general level: human arrogance incites to create an illusion (both for the own individual and others) of being ‘smart’ or better in any other way, by constructing a small narrow-minded frame-of-reference the individual can grasp with its limited capabilities, and then folding back every observation into this small FOR. Anything that cannot be mapped into it and that risks shattering the illusion is ignored, or mapped to emotions like ‘crazy’ or ‘stupid,’ and avoided like the plague. If possible, anything that appears truly superior will be attacked and attempted to be destroyed, because if the level of the rest of the world can be lowered, one's own relative level will rise. It is obvious that this hostile type of arrogance is a primitive and stupid instinct and is a massive roadblock for humanity to evolve to a higher level. It is good to feel challenged when observing someone superior and then trying to boost one's own level to surpass the other, but resorting to what boils down to simple vandalism is plain unacceptable and this kind of behaviour should be punched into the ground and then beaten to pulp until nothing is left of it.


[FIXME: this seems to have got lost somewhere, belongs with assimilation stuff]

Coming back to the convergence of the state of the entire world to a single ‘standard’: despite the fact that the human population is steadily increasing, cultural diversity seems to be steadily degrading. In the past, even at a single moment in time one could still observe a rich and vast diversity across different regions across the globe, but this seems to be eroding in present times. Again, you will only really be able to notice this if you can free your own frame-of-reference from the current standard and stretch it to accommodate the differences over multiple time periods and cultures. Warning: if you do this, the present-day world may suddenly become annoyingly boring, and the increasing degree of arrogance of your fellow humans may become annoyingly irritating. There is a definite general sentiment that we are becoming smarter and that we know everything, but this is nothing but an illusion held up by our fragile technology and communication networks, an illusion that can be shattered at any moment. Most of all, this illusion is boosted by an increasingly small frame-of-reference. Of course someone will feel smart if most or all things they discuss with others are also known by those other people, because those happen to be the trendy subjects in mainstream and social media. Suppose I would try to strike up a conversation with a random person on the streets about the construction of zeppelins, steam machines, or vacuum cathode tubes. That person would feel very uncomfortable because that knowledge is completely out-of-fashion. If you have the feeling your ego is growing too large and you are a true genius that knows everything, walk into a library (or a digital equivalent), head to an obscure section where nobody has set foot in the last few days, and grab some totally random books about technology from various time periods. Then try to understand them in the same way you understand the current technology you interact with every day. Then realise that no matter how old, unfashionable, or alienating the technology in that book, it is not impossible that it will become relevant again in a near or distant future, and that it might even provide better solutions for some present-day problems than our current trendy technology.

For some reason I crave diversity, it is in my very nature. But only real spontaneous diversity, not the forced kind that seems to be making its advance. I loathe the sight of suburbs where every house and garden looks the same as far as the eye can see. I would go insane if the entire world would be flattened to the same standard. It has become obvious to me that this is a rare trait. In school I was always the kind of ‘diplomat’, that one kid that never fitted in any of the obvious groups or ‘clans’ which had spontaneously formed between the various pupils. The kind who was always picked last when other kids were asked to assemble a sports team. I always travelled between each group and I could never settle in any of them. I was neither rejected nor fully accepted in any of the groups, but I didn't care. I preferred to have the liberty to look for the best traits in all the groups and combine them, while ignoring the bad things. At times this mobility between the groups allowed me to help in resolving conflicts between them. If this sounds ideal to the degree that one would prefer everyone to be like this, it is not. This could never have worked if the entire population would consist of this kind of ‘diplomats’, because there would basically be only one group that cannot learn from any other group. Again, this shows why diversity is important and why it is not bad to have groups that are for a large part isolated from the rest, as long as there are no insurmountable conflicts between them, and there are certain persons who remain outside of them to act as a kind of ‘glue’. I am certain this kind of situation works better than the one which is currently alarmingly trendy, where everyone is being bashed on the head with a forced striving for fake diversity where someone has wet-finger-guessed a supposedly ideal ratio of stereotypical population groups, and tries to enforce that ratio onto everything.

The idea from the previous paragraphs can be taken a step further. A person's behaviour is not only defined by their self-image, but by their entire image of the world. Nobody has a perfectly accurate concept of the world around them, nobody can. Remember that only the universe itself is a perfect model of itself [LINK:UNIVERSE], and for human beings the model does not even come remotely close to a sloppy copy of the universe. Everyone has to do with a gross simplification. Nobody sees the world exactly as it is, because that would require infinite delay-free sensory perception, infinite memory, and infinite processing power. What humans ‘see’ is a model of the world that their brains make for themselves based on limited sensory input [LINK: stopped clock illusion article / blinking light appearing paused]. We do not perceive the world itself, we perceive our own model of it. Perception is in fact nothing but a model-forming process. This is also why dreams can sometimes seem extremely realistic: dreams stem from this same model that starts running by itself without sensory input. Some like to say that reality, or truth, does not exist because our perception of it is always subjective. This is nonsense. Reality and truth do exist, only it is impossible to perceive them with perfect accuracy.

A person's self-image is part of their simplified world model and it is necessarily very inaccurate because no entity could model itself entirely at perfect accuracy, let alone model itself plus the entire world around it. It is possible however to make this simplification such that it is still reasonable by trying to make unbiased approximations of everything and estimating their uncertainty. When necessary, any of these approximations can be refined to a deeper level, even if only temporary because it requires too much data to store in long-term memory.
That is how I try to live. Whenever any of my models prove to be biased, I adjust them. Given other people's utter incompatibility with statistics and inability to deal with uncertainty [LINK:SUCK_AT_STATS], it has become obvious to me that this is not how every other person tries to live. It took me a while to realise this and stop succumbing to the pitfalls of [EVERYONEISLIKEME]. It seems to me a considerable fraction of all people appears to have some very specific idea about a small part of the world, and ignores everything that falls outside of this part, or tries to project it into this small limited ‘keyhole’ view on the world. These people studied their model by heart when they were young and are very reluctant to adjust it. The way they live is entirely steered by this small world view and they will try to force everyone else to adopt the same view. They will automatically consider others who refuse to adopt their view as idiots, even though basic reasoning will prove themselves to be the idiots. Of course, whenever that conclusion is looming ahead in a string of reasoning, their minds will quickly take the next emergency exit [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. They will not adjust their view unless it becomes truly blatantly and painfully obvious that it is bogus. They have already made up their mind about what the future will look like, and they will mould their every action in line with this speculation and educate their kids with it, no matter how silly it is when viewed in a broader light. The rest of this text is rife with examples of such childish predictions and explanations of why they are poor and dangerous.

Mind that I am here in a sense doing exactly the same as others who try to impose their world view onto others. Why did I write this text and make it (somewhat) public? Why, in the hopes that others will adopt this world view of mine of course. However, I am not claiming that this view is The Only Possible Ultimate Certainly Correct View™. Although I placed a set of vague guidelines at the end of this text, I do not give a bunch of very concrete ways in which people should lead their lives—I believe any world view that forces people into a fixed set of specific behaviours has no long-term future [LINK:RELIGION]. I am merely suggesting a world view, or rather some guidelines for anyone to construct their own world view in a non-biased manner, and I attempt to give some justifications for it based on what others have figured out during thousands of years. You are certainly free to reject all this and live your life any way you like, but I would suggest to at least consider the consequences of doing that.


Evolution and Natural Selection

Ever so often I encounter someone who obviously does not quite understand how evolution and natural selection really work. Their built-in instinct to search for a greater order and purpose in life [LINK:RELIGION] makes them believe there still is some intelligent mechanism behind it that somehow is designed to steer the direction in which things evolve. This is not the case. Evolution works because of a perfect marriage between chaos and order: randomness, noise and errors, and rules of logic. I dislike writing “rules” of logic because it implies the rules were invented or designed by someone or something. They were not, they just occur. We are in fact ‘failed’ copies of apes that lived long ago. Given perfect knowledge of everything that has ever happened, those apes themselves could be traced back to simpler mammals, and so on back to single-celled organisms. It just happens to be that at some point those first single-celled organisms reproduced, and a glitch in the reproductive process caused its offspring to be not identical. Errors happen all the time and in the vast majority of cases they turn out fatal. But in a very tiny fraction of cases they turn out to give the ‘incorrect’ copy an advantage. All the failures die and the successes survive. If their ‘flaw’ allows them to live longer or procreate more efficiently in their environment, they will eventually displace their ancestor species. That's it. It is a simple model and it explains everything. And no, there is no goal this process will lead towards. It just happens because it can. End of story.

There is no such thing as cheating in evolution. If a scrawny little guy can build a gun and shoot someone physically much ‘fitter’ in the head (‘David vs. Goliath’), that just means the ability to build a gun makes him fitter overall. Being the strongest does not necessarily mean being the ‘fittest’ in the popular formulation of Darwin's theorem: Survival of the Fittest, because the word ‘fit’ in the first place means: “best fitting in its environment,” not: “being the physically strongest” [LINK:FIT]. Evolution cannot be ‘beaten’ or ‘cheated’. You know what I am going to say: there is no such thing as an entity ‘evolution’ that can be isolated and defeated [LINK:NONATURE, NOECONOMY]. Evolution is just a name we humans have slapped upon a virtual concept that models the result of random processes and simple laws of logic, a simplified model to allow our brains to cope with the infinite complexity of reality. If something mutates and one of those mutations has a better way to cope with challenges imposed by its environment, then that one has a higher chance to survive.

It is not because some creature is put in an inhospitable environment for long enough, that it will evolve to be more adapted to that environment. This can only happen if the creature has any chance to mutate from its current physiology towards one that is better suited to live in that environment. If this chance is zero, it becomes extinct. If it is not allowed to mutate, it becomes extinct. If it has insufficient time to produce the successful mutation, it becomes extinct. Most obviously, the environment must be able to support life of any kind at all. It is pretty obvious why birds did not evolve to venture out into space, because outer space is an extremely hostile environment for any life-form (and of course, getting there by merely flapping wings is totally impossible).

A considerable number of people seem to have a built-in disdain for the process of natural selection even though it has created our very selves, and they are so naïve and arrogant as to believe it can be ‘beaten’. They cling to the few scarce examples where the rule appears not to have been followed, and ignore the billions of other cases where it was followed [LINK:SUCK_AT_STATS]. This will not turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy [LINK:SFP]. If trying to ignore reality and fight basic laws of logic reduces the chances of survival (and any valid reasoning points in this direction), then trying to ‘beat’ evolution will in fact increase the risk of extinction. Saying that natural selection is a stupid process, implies acknowledging that it was designed by some entity that could have done a better job. Again: this is nonsense. Natural selection is a consequence of simple cold hard reality. Rejecting reality is obviously not a strategy that will improve upon bad situations.

When a child is born that would normally have no chances of survival, we spend extreme amounts of effort and energy to keep it alive and let's face it, let it live a life that is quite likely to be miserable. It is a tough thing to say but in many cases everyone would be better off if we did not keep certain people artificially alive. In some cases ‘alive’ is hardly an appropriate term, but their bodies do keep consuming resources that could have served others, and they get little to no reward from it nor do their relatives. Instead of the short pain of seeing the person die, we stretch that period of pain across months, years, sometimes decades. Eventually the person dies anyway. Some call this a ‘humane’ treatment, I would rather call it ‘torture’. Is this justified? Any sensible reasoning will produce the answer: “no.” The only true reason why we do keep on doing it must be because of an instinctive feeling that life is unconditionally sacred, and perhaps the monetary benefit of a very small group of people who actually do not give a shit about where the money comes from. True, it is bad in general to end a life, but there are cases where it makes a lot more sense than causing prolonged suffering by postponing inevitable death. The person itself does not benefit from this because their suffering is prolonged or they are not even capable of being aware of it. The relatives do not benefit from this because their suffering is also prolonged. Even when the person has eventually died, the suffering continues due to all the accumulated memories of the artificially stretched death struggle. Sometimes it makes much more sense to let go and move on.

Every news article about some miraculous surgical feat always has a between-the-lines connotation of: look, we have conquered this disease, now it is no longer a problem if someone ends up in this situation. Obviously this is the ubiquitous ‘precedent’ instinct rearing its head [LINK:PRECEDENT]. Unfortunately it is not that simple, except for the rare cases where the cure proves of the trivial “why didn't we think of this earlier” kind. What is consistently omitted from such articles in mainstream media, are the costs and possible complications of the treatment (which arguably could also be considered costs). One of the best examples is artificial insemination. Compare the cost of causing pregnancy in the usual way (i.e. sex), which should be something like the cost of a snack and five minutes of time, versus the cost of this treatment of which I know too little to give an actual number. I am pretty sure however that the cost of a truckload of snacks won't cover it by far. Even though it works—in the cases when it works—and is possible, people for whom it is the only way of procreating are still severely disadvantaged. The cost of putting a human being on this world with the ‘classic’ method is so much lower in comparison, by a factor so large I do not even dare to make a guess at it. The costs do not end there because if the infertility is hereditary, the offspring also risks having it and will again be presented with the costs. It is fundamentally wrong to allow (or worse, expect) the world to evolve to a state where humans can only procreate through artificial means. If we somehow mess up things so badly that those costly methods become the only way of procreation, we're done for, especially if we want to keep up the present-day global population number. Consider multiplying seven billion by that very small cost of conceiving a baby in the usual manner, versus multiplying it by a cost that is say 100 times higher (which is an extremely optimistic estimate). Someone has to pay for that cost or it can never happen. I know this may all sound pessimistic and dark, but I believe that facing reality as it is, will go a much longer way than trying to bend it and later on being presented the unexpected exorbitant bill with interest on top.

Those who forget their history, are bound to live through it again

In the past, if someone did something stupid that got themselves killed, that was it. The person was dead and if the lethal act was incited by a tradition or (lack of) a genetically coded instinct, over a sufficiently long timespan all individuals with that tradition or (lacking) instinct would disappear. Nowadays however, there is so much communication that whenever someone kills themselves in some stupid way, it is all over the news and people will get a panic reaction: “OMG this could happen to everyone, we must prevent it.” All kinds of things are then being implemented to prevent anyone from doing the same stupid thing in the future. This is evidenced by an endless piling-up of increasingly obvious warnings on product labels. What is happening here, is that the seemingly cruel mechanism of natural selection that operates at a physical level, is bypassed with a set of additional rules that only exist at a ‘virtual’ level: education, legal systems, or other man-made constructs. Problematic behaviour is not removed, it is only suppressed. It may seem a crazy thing to say, but I do not think this is a strategy that can be upheld for a long time. When the virtual restrictions fail in any way, the hard-coded dumb behaviour shows up again and in the meantime it might have spread across a substantial part of the population.

[FIXME: this part is messy and seemingly contradictory. Which is of course, because neither of these two viewpoints is wrong.] You see, this is also a bit the problem with an evolutionary mechanism that exclusively focuses on survival in single individuals. For the species to survive as a whole in the long term, the individuals must not only develop a drive for acting in ways that benefit survival and procreation. They should also develop a repulsion against noxious behaviour in other individuals. This repulsion is only a secondary mechanism, as opposed to the primary mechanism of wanting to do those things that ensure no immediate death. Not having the repulsion will work out fine, as long as the damage from those other individuals with their noxious behaviour stays within bounds. Still, in the long stretch this repulsion mechanism can make the difference between survival and extinction. Suppressing the evolution of such mechanisms by imposing artificial restraints, could prove very costly.

If someone in the past had a tremendously stupid idea that eventually got them and/or their offspring killed, the evidence of both that lethal event and the ideas that caused it, has likely vanished over the course of time. Only if someone had a good idea and managed to keep on living and pass this idea to their offspring, then this living offspring is persistent evidence of the quality of the idea. Similarly, if nearly every individual has the same innate repulsion against certain behaviour, it is quite likely because that kind of behaviour has in the past eradicated everyone who lacked that repulsion.

In other words, when frantically striving for ‘innovation’ and perhaps out of some kind of disdain for established values, trying to introduce supposedly new things that mildly or blatantly violate what is deemed common sense, maybe one is simply about to do a variation on something stupid that is not new at all but has got people killed in the past. Ideally, truly universal good ideas would eventually become genetically embedded such that there is no need for education and no risk of educational failures. In the very long stretch, an instinctive repulsion against certain noxious behavioural traits could emerge, but there is no guarantee for this. It only gives an entire population a better chance. It does illustrate though that fighting subtle deep-rooted behaviour embedded in most individuals, might not be a terribly smart thing to do. [TODO: could illustrate this with a timeline figure, although it will be difficult to make something that is both sufficiently elaborate and comprehensible.] It also illustrates that there should never be an expiry date on memorials for certain horrible mistakes. For instance it is a good thing that every year, we are still remembering a world war from a hundred years ago. Those who forget their history are bound to live through it again at some point.

It may seem smart to figure out how exactly our DNA fits together and correct it ourselves so we can remove what we believe to be stupid behaviour without anyone having to die, or having to construct an unmaintainable library of rules. But is this really a smart idea? Every few weeks I hear or read a journalist or someone else claiming that humans will certainly be genetically engineered in fifty years or the like. (Of course, fifty years ago journalists probably said exactly the same.) Obviously, what those self-proclaimed clairvoyants do is the old routine of taking two points, drawing a straight line between them, and then extrapolating this line into infinity [LINK:EXTRAPOLATION]. The first point on the line is somewhere in the past where research in genetics was not as advanced as it is now. The second point is the current situation, which is slightly more advanced. The whole motivation behind this scientifically very questionable approach seems to be disdain for the random factor in evolution. Those Nostradamus-wannabes simply want the future to look like that. Maybe they saw something like it in a cool movie and badly want it to become true. Or maybe they hope to be cited in the far future as that person who predicted the future so accurately. Or perhaps they were born with some trait or defect they do not like and hate the fact that it was not their choice, and therefore consider it a victory if they could beat this randomness. Hmm, how could an entity that does not exist yet, choose what it wants to be?

I am convinced that any species that would manage to eliminate the random factor in its evolution, is signing its own death warrant. If we start messing with our own evolution, we will only do so from within the limited frame-of-reference we know. If we start ‘correcting’ what we believe to be diseases in DNA of embryos, we also risk destroying opportunities. Where do we draw the line between a disease or just any variation in genetic material? If the ‘evolution’ of a species is railroaded by any means, any chances will be lost of dealing with unexpected situations that were not foreseen by the entity laying the tracks. As I said elsewhere, one cannot bypass natural selection. Imposing the same rules onto an entire species will merely shift the selection from the individual level to the level of the species as a whole. Make all individuals similarly unfit for survival, and the species will die as a whole. Mind you, I totally believe those journalists. At some point humanity will try to be their own designer and it will seem to work great at first. Then after a while it will go horribly wrong. Only then might we realise the whole problem behind it, because we seem to be too lazy to go beyond merely learning from mistakes.
The problem with learning from mistakes only, is that some mistakes are lethal and for some mistakes the lethality can go far beyond the individual level, especially if we are going to eliminate the very concept of individuality.

[REF:SEAL] The random factor in evolution is a little bit like craziness. If anyone exhibits apparent random behaviour, we call them crazy. If anyone makes an invention or scientific discovery that is completely unheard of in the frame-of-reference of the people from that time period, that inventor or scientist is deemed crazy. (Feel free to imagine the famous photo of Einstein sticking out his tongue inserted here.) But it are exactly those few people who push humanity forward, not the others who keep on bouncing around and making dumb extrapolations within their same frame-of-reference. Similarly, it are those individuals who are born a little different due to some random mutation, who push the species forward and allow it to cope with unexpected situations. As Seal aptly worded it: we're never gonna survive unless we are a little crazy.

Emotions, Liking and Disliking

[TODO: use liking/disliking as an intro for the more general concept of emotions/instincts. As it is now, the two parts are there but overlap quite a bit.]

Liking, Disliking and Happiness

[TODO: include the stuff about the Angela Palmer article, and the platform effect, although the latter actually makes the link with habituation.]

[REF:LIKE] Why do living creatures such as humans like and dislike certain things? Why do certain things make them happy and other things make them sad or stressful? Why do some things cause pain—physical or mental—and others joy or a ‘good feeling’? It seems to me that most people think all these things are universal and fixed across all humans. Even though there is a common base across all humans, the general idea that everyone likes the same things is obviously wrong [LINK:EVERYONEISLIKEME]. I have no idea what kind of explanations the proponents of this idea would conjure up to explain either or both the origin of the likings and the alleged uniformity across the globe. I suppose most of them never even bothered to search for an explanation. I believe however it is useful and important to do so, because it could cast a light on whether it is a good idea to try to maximise short-term enjoyment and happiness at all costs.

Some try to approach happiness from a purely abstract, philosophical point-of-view, which I believe is fundamentally wrong. One cannot explain it properly without considering the physical aspect. Regardless of the romantic ideas that some may have about what pain and joy really are, in the end they boil down to neural impulses that arrive at certain places in the brain and that trigger various reactions that we experience as pain and joy. There is nothing magical about it. Those mechanisms have only one goal: to make us do things that are supposed to be advantageous to us, and to keep us from doing things that will inflict damage. The crux of the matter is that the distinction between those could only have been ‘programmed’ into our DNA from past experience. [LINK:DNA] There is no guarantee at all that everything which is disliked by someone is really bad for that person in their current situation and in the future. Only the likes/dislikes that are common across practically everyone can be assumed pretty certain to be universal, but even then there is no guarantee.

[FIXME: the following is pasted together from several chunks, fuse them together and provide a better flow. Can elaborate by linking to PERCEPTION CORRUPTION, GREEDY, EXTRAPOLATION.]

[TODO: FIX THIS INTRO, NEEDS WORK] It is often a bad strategy to fanatically strive to maximise enjoyment, which is steepest-hill greedy optimisation [LINK:GREEDY] in its worst form. A few basic examples are sweetness and sex. For some less basal examples we could look at things like cosmetics or purely cosmetic breast implants. When these become goals on their own without considering their origins, they become a waste of resources and benefit nobody in the end except the people who can sell them, and even that is only in the short term. Our notions of like and dislike are entirely relative to our past environment. Any attempt at maximising our enjoyment by merely trying to provide the right stimuli while bypassing the need to bring our environment in the kind of state that originally caused us to like it, is not only a waste of time and energy, it is dangerous.

There are quite a few things that are common across nearly every human being and related animal species even. Physical pain is the most obvious example: pretty much everything that lives will experience some kind of pain when subjected for instance to too high temperatures. Any organism that did not develop this reaction did not care that it was being burned or boiled and therefore had a much higher risk of getting killed and becoming extinct. Once we move away though from the obvious things that kill and towards things that are more subtle, we arrive at examples like sweetness. Sweet substances are liked by a vast majority of living things, down to relatively simple organisms like fungi and bacteria. The reason is simple: in the natural world where everything evolved, most things that are sweet were as such due to a high sugar content and sugar is rich in energy. The supply of such sweet foods was limited, making it difficult to consume unhealthy amounts of sugar anyway, therefore it was both important and not dangerous to gather it unconditionally. In a world where sugar was relatively scarce, any species that evolved to like sweet food was more likely to get enough nutrients to survive than a species that had no preference. No species developed a strict mechanism to limit sugar intake because this was simply not necessary hence not profitable, because availability of sugar was limited by the environment and there was hardly any risk for consuming sugar in too large amounts. Now however mankind has developed ways to produce purified sugar in near unlimited amounts. The results are obvious: diabetes, obesity, tooth decay, unbalanced intestinal flora, and so on. The reason why those diseases will not cause a strong evolutionary filtering anytime soon, is that their onset usually comes late enough after the moment of having offspring that this offspring has no immediate harm from it.

An even more obvious example is sex. Why is sex fun in general? Because it is the key driving force behind procreation. Any living entity that does not in some way appreciate the act of procreation and avoids it as a consequence, will be much less likely to persist than an entity that has a desire for procreation. Obviously something that does not procreate becomes extinct in no time. Therefore eventually only species that somehow enjoy the act of procreation will persist.

Unnecessary breast implants example (i.e. for non-reconstructive purposes): let's stack the pros versus the contras. Pros: 1. People who like to see big breasts are more pleased. 2. There is an improved chance of attracting partners who like big breasts. 3. Uhmm… that was about it. There is no third argument. So, on to the contras: 1. It is expensive. 2. It is a lie. Partners will eventually notice or discover the truth and be disappointed. 3. It will only increase the risk of health hazards, at best it will have no negative effects, but there is no way it can improve health. 4. The kind of partners that are attracted by the fake large breasts are more likely to be not the kind of partner that is really compatible with the person who had naturally small breasts. Therefore even if the partner never notices the enlargement, there is an increased risk of having a poor relationship. [LINK:SIMILARPARTNERS] 5. Having larger breasts gives almost no physiological advantages, only extra disadvantages (extra risk of sports injuries, and obviously, the things being in the way). Naturally large breasts might be able to produce more milk, but this obviously does not count for artificially enlarged ones.

The only reason why men like to see big breasts is because this is a primitive instinct that aims at choosing a partner who is more likely to be suitable to raise children. The main and arguably only function of breasts is to produce milk for feeding babies. Obviously, being able to feed babies is a rather essential element in procreation. Hence in a primitive basic survival environment before the advent of artificial breast milk, the babies of women who were unable to sufficiently feed them died out, and their genes disappeared with them. The bottom line is that someone who undergoes a voluntary breast enhancement for purely cosmetic reasons, spends part of her livelihood on an expensive lie that is only justified by a short-sighted naïve idea that tries to circumvent a basal instinct that exists for very specific and fundamental reasons. The only way to believe it is a good idea, is to take the good old early cut-off in the human thought process [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. Of course, there is the fact that the essentiality of breasts may appear to have been long undermined by artificial breast milk replacements. This ignores the possibility that at some point the ability to manufacture artificial milk may be compromised, or a flaw makes the product toxic for everyone at the same time (remember the 2008 Chinese baby milk powder scandal?) There is also quite a bit of evidence that real breast milk is more healthy. Another big advantage is of course that in a certain sense it is free to produce. It is very unlikely that producing a true 100% identical individually-tailored synthetic substance will ever be more efficient than simply breast-feeding babies instead. Anyhow, even though artificial baby milk does reduce the negative impact of faking large breasts, at the same time it also makes striving for big fake breasts even more ridiculous. It changes the formulation to: “… spends part of her livelihood on an expensive lie that … tries to circumvent a partially obsolete basal instinct.” In the end, there is mostly only one person who is fooled by purely cosmetic operations like these, and it is the person who undergoes the operation themselves. Of course I am not dissing cosmetic surgery in general here, it is very useful to repair accidental damage. But those who use it merely in the hopes of giving themselves an advantage over others, ignore the fact that it is likely to bring a negative reward in the long run.

There will of course be many who will not want to believe such a simple and trivial explanation for the reasons behind liking and disliking, unless it would be corroborated by scientific studies performed by people with roaring names and an impressive track record. The problem is, how is one going to do an experiment on something that is either long gone or way too complex to simulate in a controlled environment?


The prototypical way in which humans try to take a shortcut to experience a feeling of joy that our bodies originally only awarded after performing a specific action, is by taking drugs. This is one of the most direct shortcuts because the drug will typically be a substance similar enough to chemicals normally released by the body itself, such that it triggers a similar feeling. The risks of taking drugs are universally known (and of course universally ignored by addicts): most of these substances have noxious side-effects and even the ones that haven't will result in exaggerated habituation that requires ever increasing doses of the drug in order to experience the same feeling. Even if the drug is not terribly toxic in normal amounts, the fact that the dose needs to be steadily increased will eventually make it problematic. Fortunately there is a general aversion against drugs like these. I wonder then why there is no general aversion against some of the other obvious shortcuts that humans take in order to trigger a feeling of joy that has only evolved to encourage certain actions. In my opinion there is no difference between consuming a toxic drug and performing an unnecessary surgical procedure if the only goal of both is to simply experience a feeling of reward without performing the required action for that reward.

If we continue our current research in genetics and neurology, it will most certainly at some point become possible to design people with built-in likes and dislikes for nearly anything. It will become possible to create people who thoroughly enjoy killing others or who feel a permanent urge to stab themselves, drink gasoline, or jump into fires (or why not, first drink gasoline and then jump into fire!) It will become possible to disable the mechanisms that cause us to fear or dislike things that are highly likely to get ourselves killed. There is no theoretical barrier against this. It will be just like reprogramming a computer. There is nothing that will prevent this kind of manipulation, except common sense [LINK:COMMONSENSE]. In the end we are all biological machines that act according to programs built into our DNA. True, many of our actions are steered by what we would call ‘free will’ and by things that are nowhere to be found in our DNA, but as I made clear in many other sections of this text [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT], the driving force behind a lot of our actions is hard-coded. What we mistake as free will in those cases, is the liberty to choose what kind of path to follow in order to arrive at the hard-coded goal imposed by some primitive instinct or something burnt into our memory during our early stages of life.

DNA and the way in which it works, is in principle not that different from a Turing machine, a computer. Suppose I have a robot that can execute programs in a simple natural language as follows:

take hammer
repeat until 1 equals 0:
    swing hammer at own head

If this program would be fed to the robot and it would have no built-in routines to keep itself from executing dangerous actions, it would grab the hammer and keep on hitting itself until it destroys something vital and breaks down. This may seem incredibly stupid but from the robot's viewpoint there is neither stupid nor smart, there is only machinery that takes instructions as input and converts these instructions into actions. For the robot to understand that bashing its own head with a hammer is terribly stupid, an extra layer of software needs to be placed in between the command interpreter and the system that turns the commands into actions. This software would be many orders of magnitude more complex than the above program, perhaps also more complex than the basic machinery to execute programs. DNA is chock full of such extra layers that prevent individuals from performing self-destructive actions. All the evolutionary branches that lacked an essential control layer have wiped themselves out over the course of time.

Just as a regular computer will run any self-destructive program unless there is an additional layer of software around it that prevents this, there is no reason why DNA could not be reprogrammed through biological engineering to run the most insanely stupid and destructive programs—it sometimes already does this when accidentally damaged. In our robot example, we can make things worse by programming it to receive a feeling of reward every time it hits its own head. If the robot is programmed to experiment and try out all kinds of things by itself, we don't even need the above explicit program. In that case it will eventually discover this insane source of joy and smash its own head with whatever heavy object it can get a hold of. There is no deity or other supervising entity that will prevent doing something similar to humans. Only we ourselves can prevent it. And you can be pretty damn sure that at some point in time, someone with the required skills will find it cool to try it anyway, or someone unintentionally creates something disastrous thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect [LINK:HUBRIS]. In the long term we will only be able to avoid extinction by developing a protection mechanism against such people.

Emotions and Instincts

[REF:EMOTIONS] One could argue that liking and disliking are subsets of the more general concept of emotions. What exactly are emotions? In a computational sense, emotions are like vector operations: MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output). They take a whole set of observations as input and through quite complex hard-wired circuitry in our brains, produce a judgment from that input in a split second. They provide fast shortcuts for complicated situations where thinking logically would either be too slow for survival or has too high a risk of leading to a wrong conclusion, or is downright impossible due to lack of all the data required to lead to the right conclusion. Emotions are like life buoys. Instincts are strongly related to emotions, one could say that instincts manifest themselves through emotions, which is why you'll see me intermix both terms throughout this text. Emotions can actually make people perform in ways that are smarter than could be achieved by trying to think logically using only readily observable parameters. This may sound contradictory because emotions are typically regarded as dumb. How can an emotion beat logical thinking? An emotion can make someone perform actions that would be judged to be unprofitable through any limited string of reasoning (see [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]). Even if the reasoning is sound given the known parameters, in general it cannot include every single historical parameter that led to the emotion evolving into its current state.

How did emotions originate through evolution? Despite the tendency to treat logic and emotions as fundamentally incompatible concepts, in the end emotions are nothing but the product of logical consequences over a very long time period. One could simulate the following in a virtual environment to prove that new emotions can emerge seemingly out of nothing, I am pretty sure it has already been done many times. It suffices that there is some way in which a permanent mapping can be created in the brain of an individual and its offspring. This mapping links specific observations to specific sensations that produce a drive to perform a certain action or behave in a certain manner. The sensations will generally be associated with a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ feeling, but the whole range of possible feelings is much larger than this dichotomy. How this mechanism works exactly is irrelevant. Just imagine that whenever a child is born, it receives a random grab bag from its two parents' emotional mappings, plus it has a chance of receiving a small set of novel, totally random mappings. If the set of mappings that the child received incite it to always perform actions that are great for survival, then it will have a good chance of porting those mappings to its offspring. If the mappings include utterly stupid things that lead to death, well then the mappings die with that individual. The set of randomly generated mappings is where evolution happens: it allows to generate new emotions for previously unseen situations. The actual implementation of these emotional mappings is probably a mix of both genetic and cultural baggage: the genetic programming provides a way to map low-level observations to emotional drives. The cultural or educational aspect ensures that individuals generally create the same links between those low-level genetically coded mechanisms and actual resulting actions. For instance, I am sure that at this very moment children have emotions for concepts in video games that did not exist at all thirty years ago.

Having such built-in inclinations for certain actions can make the difference between survival and extinction. The whole key to emotions is that only two things are of importance: the input and the output. What comes in between does not matter, as long as the mapping between input and output has the right effect. Emotions can produce a false sensation of logical reasoning for something that fails any scrutiny when analysed in a truly logical way. Emotions can even be chained when the action performed in response to the first emotion triggers another emotion. It is possible that certain steps in the resultant chain of actions are actually bad when viewed in isolation. Again: if the end result is good, then this does not matter. In a certain sense, emotions are the ultimate example of floating reasoning because there is no trace of reasoning left at all, only the most essential drive to do the right thing remains. Skip the entire dodgy and error-prone thought process and steer the individual towards the only thing that counts: the goal. The very best example of this will be discussed elsewhere: love. [LINK:LOVE]

Emotions are a kind of distributed smartness [LINK:SMART], a kind of implicit collective memory: for a single individual they may not provide an immediate benefit but in the long term they should be advantageous for the entire group, at the condition that the boundary conditions under which the emotions evolved remain valid. The latter is a very important remark: the environment we live in has changed considerably, and this must mean that part of our instincts have become obsolete. It is unfortunately not easy to figure out which ones, especially because it is very often not easy in the first place to figure out whether someone is acting logically or emotionally.

The emotional fight against emotions

Those who pretend to live without emotions are fakers. Many (typically, but not exclusively men) take great pride in the claim that they ‘do not show emotions’, which is pure hypocrisy if one thinks twice about it. As far as emotions are concerned, pride is right up there with the strongest possible ones, and it really does not matter what the subject of the pride is. The way those people react to the display of emotions of others, can only be described as highly emotional. Someone who truly lives without emotions would ‘live’ like a robot and not care a bit about it. If there is nothing useful to do, they would go sit on a chair, stand in a corner or sleep, and do absolutely nothing, like a Roomba sitting in its docking station. Any sign of caring about that being boring, having a desire to listen to music or go do some sports, caring about the weather, the taste of food, is showing emotions. Constantly blathering to friends about anything except strict necessities is showing emotions. Blathering about emotions is showing emotions. The whole reason why I wrote this text is because of emotions.
Some, I dare even say many, seem to regard such robot-like state as the absolute summit of existence and attempt to live like that. I tried it as well, helped by health problems that numbed my nervous system and sucked all the energy out of my life. But there is just no point to it, no point at all. When I became aware of those health issues and managed them, it was like coming back to life. The emotions that had been suppressed by my state of illness, also came back when my body regained its previously lacking inflow of energy. From an evolutionary point of view, the emotions could have been intentionally disabled so I had less of a chance to procreate and risk spreading the condition if it would have been contagious or hereditary. Now I look back on that period of numbed senses and emotions as a dark nightmare and I could not fathom how anyone could intentionally strive to live like that. It would be like stabbing out one of your eyes because you can also live with one.

The reason why there is no point in trying to kill your emotions is exactly the same as why there is no possible state of perfection for a living being except death [LINK:PERFECTION]. There is no point to life, but there is even less point in eliminating the last parts that make life worthwhile. One might as well just be dead if one does not care about anything. If you want to be emotionless and act according to pure logic, suicide is basically the only plausible outcome of the equation. It is the logical thing to do, given the fact that our life is pointless and is only a way to speed up the destruction of the universe. An emotionless being should not be afraid to die anyway, because fear is an emotion. (This might be a good moment to remind of the red text in the introduction, by the way.) One cannot experience joy if there is no pain. Yin & Yang is not bullshit if one really comprehends what is behind it. Men who get pissed at women being emotional are just as emotional as those women, only with a different range of emotions. Do I need to remind you that being pissed is an emotional state? One cannot ‘live’ in the true sense without emotions. If you do not feel anything, you could as well be dead.

It seems to have become trendy to bash emotions. Which is of course ironic as hell, because the whole mechanism of slavishly following trends is entirely steered by emotions. I cannot tell whether this is indeed a purely sociological phenomenon or there is some environmental trigger like a subtle but persistent type of pollution that influences our physiology and thought processes. If there is such thing as antidepressants that make people feel euphoric and experience intensive emotions, then the inverse must also exist. It sure as hell cannot be evolution because anyone who thinks such a large change can occur within just a few generations or even a single generation has no clue how evolution really works. Remember my story about the introduction of a depressing substance [LINK:DEPRIFOOD]. Maybe it is actually happening.

The popularity of certain TV shows like ‘House M.D.’ in which the characters show little emotion and tend to bash the emotions of others, is pretty telling. There seems to be some kind of contest going on in finding the most universal emotions possible and ‘proving’ that we should always act in the very inverse way they try to push us. There seems to be a general sentiment that emotions are some kind of flaw in humanity. For some reason people have started to believe that emotions are some kind of trap laid out for us by whoever or whatever, and avoiding this trap is the ultimate victory over whatever it was that laid out that trap for us. Yeah, right. Nobody designed our emotions. Remember what emotions are [LINK:EMOTIONS]: they are shortcuts to do on average the right thing in the majority of situations without having to go through a slow and potentially flaky thought process. No, they are not always correct, but if they would cause individuals to act in a detrimental way most of the time, then they would have wiped out those individuals and their offspring over time. Therefore if a significant group of people has a certain emotion for certain situations, there is probably something to it after all and it may not be a good idea to combat that emotion. If you do believe that we can replace all emotions by logical thinking, you may want to re-read the perceptual aliasing section. We are in many cases unable to detect if we are wrong or missing essential information. We cannot wrap our simple brains around the complexity of the entire universe. Even those who are pretty certain they are acting logically, often are not because they only act logically within an overly simplistic framework of blatant overconfidence. In the rare cases where the reasoning is correct, it is often way too slow to act in time.


[REF:IMMORTALITY] People have always been obsessed with immortality in some way. For instance Lindbergh, the aviator who first flew over the Pacific, tried to construct machines that could extend the life of a human being. Immortality sounds like a cool concept if one does not think deeply about it. As a kid, I once drew comic strips and in the second story I made the main character drink a magic potion that turned him immortal, because it seemed cool. But it soon became apparent that it was not. It was so boring that I took away the immortality in one of the later stories. That is exactly the problem with the typical craving for immortality: it is a childish emotion few have ever thought of deeply.

There are many, many problems with immortality. First of all, it is impossible. As explained in the section about entropy, everything must die at some point in time. ‘Immortality’ would merely mean that one cannot die from merely getting older or from simple diseases. It would not mean that someone couldn't pulverise your ‘immortal’ head with a rifle or blow you to smithereens with explosives. It will not matter if the ‘you’ is a being of flesh and bones, a robot, or currents in an electric circuit. A sufficiently strong bomb, a high enough temperature, a massive EMP, or other destructive forces can wipe out all of those. In other words, you can still die, and that is a troubling thought for someone who has invested in probably extremely expensive, complicated and possibly painful methods to become ‘invulnerable’.

Most people enjoy their life especially because they know it will end some day. They do crazy things because they know tomorrow they may not be able to do them anymore. For an immortal in the biological sense, there is no incentive to do anything exciting at all, on the contrary. They may not want to risk a parachute jump because the parachute might not work and they will die after all. They should not risk a deep-sea dive because their respirator or whatever power source might fail. Even if they have turned themselves into a near-indestructible machine, they could still make a misstep and have to spend the rest of their eternal life at the bottom of the ocean where they cannot move and nobody will ever find them. That sounds worse to me than actually dying! They might not even want to step into a car because there is a considerable chance that they will get into a lethal accident.

Even if someone is not afraid of all that, they could do all possible exciting things over and over until they are utterly bored of them all and there is nothing left to try. It seems that the life of an immortal is doomed to become boring inevitably. The most exciting thing for an immortal will eventually end up being death itself. I don't know about you, but I would rather live a short interesting life than spending eternity in boredom.

“I Do Not Want to Believe You!”

I am pretty certain that in the heads of many readers, there will still be a little voice that screams: do not believe it, immortality is cool! So, let's go even deeper. Even if we accept the fact that ‘immortality’ has to be toned down to the less exciting “living much longer than ±80 years,” it is still very problematic. Suppose that all humans on this planet would become ‘immortal’. That would be an outright disaster in many ways. We would be stuck with all the same people who want to fight and kill each other for nothing, and who are equipped with instincts and emotions from bygone eras, most of which are geared to keep a population of mortal beings in existence. Children will disappear because nobody should procreate anymore, otherwise this planet would become even more cramped than it already is. Natural resources would be destroyed even faster than they are now, up to the point where everyone does die because there is nothing left to eat.

The mere existence of the cycle of death and life provides opportunities to get rid of flaws and mistakes in a population. Freezing the population to a certain state will also freeze all the existing flaws and hard-coded misconceptions and noxious behaviour. When reading the whole rest of this text, it should be obvious that I am highly convinced that humans in general have quite a limited ability to learn new things. A population as a whole can only learn new things if it keeps refreshing its individuals. If everyone would keep on living eternally, evolution would be completely halted and everyone would die anyway due to failure to adapt to a changing environment.

Even if we are able to sustain a planet full of immortals, the fact that everyone's life situation has pretty much been frozen would cause huge problems. Any profession related to birth, growth, ageing, death or diseases would become useless, and those are much more numerous than you may think. What are all those people going to do?
This is one of the key questions with immortality: what are you going to do with it? How are you going to spend ‘eternity’? The most likely answer may end up being: finding a way to die to escape boredom. Immortality would bring a halt to the most fundamental dynamics of life: birth and death. Any definition of life somehow includes those two elements, hence if they are cancelled, life ends. We would effectively be dead already even though we won't be able to die.

Of course, the previous paragraph is very improbable: there will never be a whole planet full of immortals. Becoming immortal would be a privilege for the happy few, not for everyone like the people in poor third-world countries. It will involve expensive medicine and procedures and must necessarily require continuous ‘maintenance,’ making one's immortality last only as long as one's bank account. Moreover, when looking back in history at everyone who seriously considered immortality, we end up with a list of mostly freaks and lunatics, to give an idea who those ‘happy few’ will probably end up being. Even Lindbergh who is respected by many, believed his inventions should not be available to the ‘lesser’ people. He sympathised with the Nazis and their eugenics.

The most likely future in case immortality is achieved, is therefore one where almost everybody is still mortal, governed by some immortal deranged dictators who will make the mortals' life expectancy even shorter than it is now. In other words, exactly those people everyone wants dead as soon as possible, will live the longest and the rest will suffer because of them. No matter how one looks at it, immortality is a far cry from the romantic thought that many have. The only thing it really is, is in the best case a guarantee for eternal boredom, and in the worst case a sure road to hell on earth. There is simply no point in trying to extend the lifespan of people indefinitely. Efforts should rather be spent in improving the quality of life at old ages. I want to live a pleasant life and then suddenly drop dead with no pain. I do not want to be kept alive like a vegetable for 20 years while having to swallow painkillers to keep it borderline bearable. Fuck that.

Why We Strive to Be Immortal

Where exactly does this instinctive concept of immortality being the ultimate state of existence come from? Staying alive is a core instinct of all living beings. As with all instincts, the exact way in which they work is irrelevant, only the end result matters [LINK:EMOTIONS]. The emotions associated with the instinct do not necessarily need to give a correct insight in reality, as long as they steer the being in the right direction. Primitive beings have a limited set of instincts that give them a good chance to stay alive within their environment. Be afraid of fire, avoid heights, don't trust animals that have a specific appearance or behaviour, … At some point however it becomes too complicated to store an avoidance instinct in the being's brain for every possible lethal situation. A better or at least cheaper solution for a being intelligent enough to figure out new solutions by itself, is to give it one single instinctive goal instead. This instinctive goal is the striving to stay alive at all times, in other words immortality.

Therefore what I believe to have happened, is that although humans do have a bunch of fast instincts to avoid death in certain specific situations, they have also evolved a higher-level instinct for immortality. It is an approximation of reality, because as I already discussed in the section about entropy, immortality is a bit like a perpetuum mobile and is impossible. This inaccuracy and its hazards are compensated for by the lower cost of this simplified solution versus an overly large set of separate instincts. Yet if a sufficiently large group of people would start striving for immortality at all costs, the cost of this simpler solution will become significant and it will cause many others to die in the long term. A fight against the inevitable increase in entropy can only be maintained by increasing the entropy of everything else.

Immortality Equals Death

There are many possible definitions of ‘being alive’. A simple one that is surprisingly accurate, is: “being able to die.” Therefore something that cannot die must already be dead. The only way to become truly absolutely immortal is to die. It is the only state that perfectly satisfies the requirement of ‘being unable to die’. This is yet again the same kind of discussion as the one about perfection [LINK:PERFECTION]. As a matter of fact, I am certain that any rigid analysis of the concept of immortality will reveal that it is entirely equivalent to death. Why is there no living thing that is anywhere near immortal despite billions of years of evolution? Why are we not observing anything in the universe that is irrefutable evidence of an immortal conscious entity, why is everything changing constantly? Because immortality is nonsense, hooey, baloney, humbug! The only way for anything to prolong its existence is to exploit continuous cycles of decay and rebirth of its constituents, but even that will eventually have to come to an end. Ironically, the whole striving for immortality will become suicide when taken to the extreme. Any attempt to strive for immortality is in some way an approximation of suicide. There is no problem with this as long as immortality remains in the realm of romanticised fantasy where it belongs. The more the striving for immortality seeps through into reality however, the more life-threatening it becomes. If you do not want to kill yourself but you are too afraid to live, go to a hospital and ask to be intubated and be put in an artificial coma. Of course in practice that makes as much sense as suicide.

My fellow Belgians can get an appetiser of how hard immortality would suck, by considering the recent evolutions in the official retirement age. I bet that until a few years ago, many thought: “yay, now we live longer on average so we can get more out of our retirement.” Haha, busted! The government simply raised the retirement age accordingly. They had to, especially when considering Belgium's pathological population pyramid (or rather mushroom) that will severely compromise the paying out of pensions in the near future, in spite of this decision which was obviously taken way too late. Hence contrary to being able to enjoy a longer retirement, we now have to work longer and unfortunately some parts of our bodies still wear out as quickly as they did before so we'll simply experience more pain and inconveniences at the same age when our ancestors were indeed already enjoying their retirement. When we do finally retire at that older age, it will be with more worn-out bodies and minds. This makes me wonder then what advantages remain about being able to live longer? I struggle to find any. I can only readily find some disadvantages, like being able to see more of your friends die or having a better chance of living long enough to witness the next major global disaster—and being violently killed by it instead of dying a peaceful natural death.

Cuteness and Babies

Another nice example of a hard-coded liking mechanism is the concept of cuteness. The cuteness of babies is nothing more than a natural defence mechanism. It is a trivial consequence of evolution. The primitive humans who did not find babies cute have just let them die, because the only other properties of babies are that they crap all over the place, require constant attention to protect them from injuries, and make the most annoying noises ever—another hardcoded mechanism to prompt us to solve their needs. It takes very long before the benefits of bringing children to this world start to show through, therefore there is a need for a short-term reward mechanism. Those baby-hating humans removed themselves from the gene pool, causing people (at least a large part of them, see further) to evolve to baby-loving creatures. Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with these mechanisms but there is definitely something wrong with wanting to create more than the average 2.1 to 2.3 children per couple required to maintain current population just because babies are oh so cute. Just to put this into perspective: Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin and Kim Jong-Il were once also cute babies, you would not recognise them from their baby photos. On the other hand, Gandhi, Einstein and Mother Teresa were also once cute babies. The fact that a baby is cute has absolutely nothing to do with what it will do when grown up.

Cuteness is actually something very interesting. We find many baby animals cute, even those of predators that will maim and kill us once they have grown up, and of some parasites. Why is this? It seems that natural selection has caused many species to evolve towards a generalised standard of ‘cute’. The defence mechanisms of baby creatures of various kinds have converged onto a general notion of ‘cute’. If we see a cute little animal that has some of the same cute traits as a human baby, we will be less inclined to kill it. Hence species that managed to tune in on this general standard of cuteness, have an advantage over species with non-cute babies.

Babies are just small people. You were once a baby. These are statements so obvious that I find it embarrassing to write them down, but it baffles me how some seem to fail to realise this, and treat babies like objects or toys (or worse: who consider children some kind of pest and it is a triumph not to have children). There are two important facts to consider: first, babies grow up into adults who will be heavily influenced by how they were raised. I have said it elsewhere: humans are not general-purpose computers that can run any program and switch behaviour at the flip of a switch. Second, every baby placed on this planet will grow up into an adult who will require resources to survive.

Regarding the first fact: for instance, enormous efforts are sometimes poured into allowing certain persons to have children, to fulfil their basic instinct of ‘child wish’. What I always find seriously lacking in discussions about this, is the child's point-of-view. What kind of a life will a child have, raised in such situation which is sometimes very different from anything humans have lived in since the beginning of history? There is no way to predict what will happen except trying it and then possibly seeing it end up in disaster. How is one going to explain that kind of thing to a person in such situation? “Hey buddy, you were an experiment. Sorry that things did not work out for you. Bummer.” The way in which a child is raised is very determining in how it will behave as an adult. If one is going to raise children like a commodity, I do not even want to know how they will behave once grown up.

Regarding the second fact: the amount of resources on this planet and its reachable surroundings is limited. Therefore we should ensure that the number of people stabilises, no matter how hard our instincts want us to feel that birth control is blasphemy and that we must put a baby on every square meter of this planet and then start stacking them once we have reached that point. I am not saying we must impose a fixed number of children per couple, that just does not work. What we need is first and foremost better education. Every human should know what the consequences are of overpopulation. If that does not suffice, we could try cost/reward schemes that try to encourage the population to keep their number stable. If that does not work, try something else dammit! It is not because nobody at this point has come up with a decent solution yet, that there is none. Any solution is better than waiting until the situation stabilises itself in some gruesome manner.

What often annoys me is how even today people keep claiming it is good to produce many more than 3 children because we need this to sustain the pension system and the economy in general. Not only is this kind of thought outdated, it is the exact thing that caused many of the problems we have today. Please stop spreading this instinct-driven nonsense. Creating a new ‘baby boom’ will in the long term not solve any of the problems caused by the previous baby boom, on the contrary. Not only will it fail to solve anything because the problem is merely shifted forward into the future, it will also make that future version of the problem even worse than the current. It would be like fighting a fire by pouring gasoline on it, or stopping a flood by adding more water. There should never have been a baby boom in the first place. The number of problems it has caused is often swept under the carpet because nobody is willing to admit there can be anything negative about the act of creating children. If you now feel your brain squirming like: but babies are cute! Baby boom must be good, that is perfectly normal. Normal but stupid.

The reason why the love for babies is not entirely unconditional in most people and why there are even quite a few who downright hate babies, may seem surprising. The reason for this is that “baby-loving creatures will win in a race for survival” is too simplistic a model. If all individuals in a group evolve to baby-loving creatures to such a degree that they will start procreating like bunnies, they will eventually choke themselves due to a population that devours much more than their environment can provide for everyone's survival needs. If this happens very drastically, it may even wipe out the entire population. The “survival of the fittest” idea—the correct interpretation [LINK:FIT]—not only counts for individuals, it also (and especially) applies to entire species. One needs to consider that if a species gets enough time to evolve, it will converge towards a situation where all individuals are more or less the same [LINK:ASSIMILATION]. At that point, the entire species can be in fact be treated as a single entity and the laws of evolution can be applied to that entity. If this entity has converged towards a state of unfitness for survival, it will die. This mostly means that all individuals constituting that species will die.

Any entity that wants, or worse, needs to grow boundlessly is unfit for survival in any environment without infinite resources (i.e. in any realistic environment). This is why there is no future for any species that does not have some regulating mechanisms on its procreation, be it external or internal. ‘External’ would mean that an environmental limit on resources curbs the species' growth by killing off excess individuals through starvation. ‘Internal’ means the species has evolved to have its own regulation mechanism built-in, which is more efficient because it will limit the population to have no excess individuals at all. In certain animal species, such regulation is implemented through only being able to create offspring during certain periods. One of those internal mechanisms in humans is a reluctance in most individuals to create offspring, sufficiently offsetting the drive for sex. This is why it makes sense that there are even people who do not want any children at all. During their entire life there will be enough opportunities for a lapse in their stance and there is a pretty large chance that once or twice in their lives they will make children anyhow, if need be in a drunken stupor or so. And that is sufficient for their genes to be carried on. Now if we bypass all those regulating mechanisms for our own species through technology, we risk destroying ourselves in an unstoppable meltdown of procreation, which might sound cool but it really is not.

Coming back to those numbers of 2.1 to 2.3 I mentioned above, I wonder how many people actually realise that the romantic times when it was perfectly fine for any couple to produce a multitude of children are over. From looking at the global population graph I believe it must be only a minority. Given how strongly we are hard-coded to reject any attempt at forced birth control, I believe we should try to suppress this primitive drive for boundless procreation in a manner that is subtle yet at the same time fundamental. A global feeling of social disapproval should be cultivated against the bygone romantic age of huge families where every couple spawned many more than 2 or 3 children. In the present age couples should strive to have what I would formulate as “2 or maybe 3 children.” I'm not just pulling those averages near 2.2 children per couple from my behind, those are numbers I have encountered in scientific contexts. The actual number varies because it depends on the location and time span but it is obvious that it must be slightly above 2. In the most simplistic hypothetical situation where there are exactly as many women as there are men who are all heterosexual and fertile, and each one of those men forms a couple with one of those women for the whole rest of their lives, it is obvious that each of those couples needs to produce exactly 2 children to maintain a stable population number. In reality there are many deviations from this idealistic scenario, which is why on average slightly more than 2 children per couple are required to make up for those who never find a partner, never produce offspring, die prematurely, and so on. Nowadays the ‘couple’ concept is of course also eroding with increasing occurrences of divorces and people marrying multiple times. Hence the idea of trying to control the number of children per couple is outdated as well. Divorcing and marrying again obviously cannot be a free ticket to again produce “2 or maybe 3 children” with the new partner! We should instead consider an average number of children per person and it is obvious that this number would be 1 in our naïve scenario and slightly above 1 in reality. Any governmental child benefits system should encourage every individual adult to take responsibility for one or maybe two children, while providing increasingly stronger discouragement the more this number is exceeded. All the obsolete systems that encourage people to breed like rabbits must be abolished, they should already have been abolished in the 1990s.

I know I have been and will be driving this message home ad nauseam in the rest of this text, but we cannot keep up an infinite population growth. Loosely quoting YouTuber ElectroBOOM: populating this planet is not an exercise of trying to fit as many clowns as possible into a little car. If our economical model makes it seem as if we need infinite growth, it is because the model is naïve, stupid, and flawed. I know our deep-rooted instincts make us feel extremely uneasy to even think let alone talk about this topic of regulating birth rates, but we will need to ram this taboo into the ground and properly educate everyone about it if we want to keep this planet habitable in the long term. If not then we're not performing any better than a colony of bacteria in a petri dish filled with sugar, devouring all of it as fast as possible and prematurely dying horribly as a result, possibly killing each other in the very final stages of their self-inflicted ordeal in an attempt to gather the last remaining bits of resources.


The bottom line of this whole chapter is: stop trying to get quick wins when it comes to stuff you instinctively like or dislike—this means anything that gives you the feeling it is the right thing to do although you have not reasoned even one second about it. The goal of those instincts is to make you do things that work well in the same kind of environment where the instincts were allowed to evolve. Applying the same primal urges to a totally different situation will have totally unpredictable results, and the opportunities for things to go wrong are much more numerous than the ones that work out well. You have the ability to reason, use it. If you decide to cling on to the natural way of following instincts anyway, either do the effort to stay in an environment where the instincts make sense, or do not be surprised when eventually you are dealt with in a similar natural way.

Habituation, Overexposure, and Perfection

[TODO: intro. Palmer article might be good glue to connect with the previous section. This follows nicely on the chapter about liking/emotions, because it is the next step in evolution: the liking mechanism must be curbed to prevent individuals from over-indulging themselves to a lethal point.]
[TODO] The sigmoid curve: [explain: neurones, saturation, AI research]. It is hard-coded into every neurone in our body. Not the subject of someone's ideas determines how much of an idiot they are, only the extremity of those ideas. This statement applies to itself. Or as Mark Twain said on a related note: all generalisations are false, including this one. With this I mean it may sometimes be necessary to use extremes. Or in other words, one should never be extreme, even in the not being extreme. Really becoming adult means becoming able to tame that sigmoid curve such as to have a more linear overall response, which seems something that fewer and fewer people nowadays are able to. Many seem to get stuck in their childhood, or in the best case in their teenage-hood [LINK:INFANTILE]. Again, they are unable to realise this due to PA. It is OK and necessary to live according to a limited set of sound principles. However, anyone who decides upon a fixed ideology and strictly abides by it, will become prone to some form of abuse based on flaws in that ideology. At some point in time, someone will find the loopholes in those rules and exploit them to rape you hard without you having any means to escape aside from breaking your own rules. There is no logical system that cannot be exploited in some way, not even pure logic itself. This statement is false. I always lie. The only way to get around this is to be prepared to bend your rules when it becomes necessary. Anyone who will claim that this is a sign of weakness, is either an idiot or has bad intentions.

[REF:HABITUATION] [TODO: Explain habituation as the evolutionary step that follows after greedy behaviour. Overexposure can kill anything—one of the main reasons behind the red rules at the start of this text.] Habituation is an essential mechanism for living beings, but it only works under certain boundary conditions that are often violated in the kind of world we have created for ourselves. Eat your most favourite food for a whole week and you will never ever want to eat it again (especially if you ate so much that it caused you to puke, which will pretty much program your body to give you an instant feeling of repulsion every time you see that food). Many people nowadays live like this, constantly childishly overexposing themselves to whatever they currently like the most, until it makes them puke. Then they move to the next thing and rinse, repeat. Eventually there is nothing left to overexpose themselves to. They have bludgeoned themselves with everything that is enjoyable and beautiful, to the degree that they hate it all. Then they move on to ugly and unenjoyable crap and pick the few parts out of it that are still OK, again overexposing themselves until they get bored of it. Eventually, there is nothing left to try. The only option at this point is to become a numbed-down cynical drone, which happens all the sooner nowadays due to the abundance of technology and communication.

This overexposure is visible in ratings and reviews that can be found on the internet for things like movies or music. For certain reviewers it has become impossible to ever write an unanimously positive review. They have burnt out their own perception to such a degree that everything is either flawed or looks too much like something they already know. See also the thought experiment about ‘the perfect movie’ in the section about perfection [LINK:PERFECTION]. Lately I see an increasing occurrence of reviews that boil down to: “there was this certain plot hole in the beginning of the TV episode and this spoiled the whole rest of it for me,” while older reviews unanimously praise the same story. For instance I watched a certain Star Trek episode and I thought: “man, that is some poor security policy for a 24th century starship,” but still in the end I found it one of the best episodes of the entire series. Yes, that was a bit of a cheap shortcut in the story but I couldn't care less because it was completely unimportant with respect to what the episode truly wanted to convey. But on IMDb I found a review (deservedly voted down as ‘not helpful’) where someone indeed dissed the entire episode just because of that shortcut in the story.

I have one message to such nitpickers who seem to expect everything to be like a perfect mathematical proof: if you ever want to go back to enjoying your life, stop seeking for perfection. Learn to enjoy a less than perfect movie by focusing on what it really wants to tell, instead of some stupid detail that was sloppily executed or some outdated effect or prediction of the future. You are not giving an impression of being smarter by pointing fingers at a plot hole that everyone saw and ignored out of suspension of disbelief. Learn to accept that sometimes a director will simply take a shortcut in an unimportant initial part of the story, to be able to propel the much more important main plot. You are not wasting time by watching something that is not exactly like that single particular model of a perfect movie you have in your mind. It does not matter that your life has a finite duration. Once you're dead, you will not give a shit about the purportedly wasted time anyway.

I believe some understand the phenomenon of habituation very well, and abuse it to cause people to ignore pressing issues. Whack someone around the head with the same information repeatedly and eventually they will get used to it, or bored of it (one of the main themes in Orwell's ‘Animal Farm’). This is one of the reasons why I have no intent to widely publish this text: the more people will be bludgeoned with it repeatedly, the higher the risk they will get tired of all the warnings it contains. In a certain sense, it would be better for any given person to read this text at most thrice and then either destroy their copy or pass it to someone else. I say it again: if you're forcing yourself through this text because someone else made you but you actually don't really want to read it, stop reading right now and throw it away.

The Platform Effect

[REF:PLATFORM] Why is it that no matter to what level people have elevated their lives, they will keep on whining and complaining about their situation, even though when objectively comparing it to others, it is obvious that they have no reason to complain at all? It is as if those people are standing on a platform, and when the platform rises to a higher level, they only notice this improvement for a short time. Then they forget it, and only focus on the smaller differences they can observe within the platform itself. It does not seem to matter for humans in what absolute state of well-being they are. Worse, the better the situation, the larger the tendency to complain and be grumpy about things that are not supposedly perfect (cf. the Angela Palmer article about the most polluted vs. cleanest places on earth). Humans will always complain and keep on striving for improvement, even if there is nothing to improve at that time and any forced attempt at improvement will deteriorate their situation. Why is this?

This is of course tied to everything else explained in this text, but mostly to the concept of ‘floating reasoning’. The problem is that our minds are too limited to have an overview of the entire universe and our absolute situation. Instead, we can only lift the ‘platform’ around which we can wrap our minds, and only observe what happens around that platform, neither below nor above it. Our ancestors have evolved inside an environment with continuous threats and a continuous need for maintenance to counteract natural decay. We are chock full of instincts that work well inside such an environment, and we have no drive nor built-in means to fathom our absolute situation, we only care about what happens in our immediate neighbourhood [LINK:SMALLTOWN]. Even though modern technology enables us to see how other people live anywhere else on the entire planet, most do not care. To properly compare one's own living conditions to someone else's, one first needs to fully grasp how bad the other conditions really are, and therein exactly lies the problem. Those who have always lived in a spiffy-clean environment with few to no threats are unable to fathom how bad the other's conditions really are. When forced to look at much worse conditions, the general reaction is total ignoring and possibly disbelief, because those awful situations do not map to anything recognisable. This is just Plato's cave, only in reverse. For anyone having grown up in the rich and normal world outside the cave, it is also pretty much impossible to imagine what it must be like to have grown up chained inside that cave. When people do seem to care and do give money to charity, it is because they did see a few details that happened to look familiar, or by chance something got aliased towards something recognisable. Instincts that previously served to function efficiently in the former demanding environment may have become mapped to whatever irrelevant ‘first-world’ junk while growing up, therefore even those cannot provide a basis for comparison. It are those instincts though that keep on causing a drive for continuous improvement that makes no sense at all anymore in an environment that has already been perfected to an unnecessarily high degree. Because no reward can be achieved by solving the unsolvable problems hence the instincts cannot be fulfilled, people become sour and grumpy. Eventually this boils down to the same conclusion as about perfection [LINK:PERFECTION]: the harder a living being strives to obtain perfection, the closer it comes to death.

Some try to force their lives to be positive in all aspects by systematically avoiding anything negative. They will avoid persons who criticise anything because that is regarded as negative. They will avoid listening to music that is not upbeat and happy because they fear it may have some depressing effect. They will describe everything in positive words. Here's my message to such people: stop doing this because it does not work. Your mind will automatically shift its reference point to restore balance within the artificially happy and positive platform you have imprisoned it. The slightly less positive words will become the insults, the slightly less happy music will become depressing, and the slightly less unanimously positive remarks will become criticisms. It will become difficult to enjoy anything because the distance between what you perceive as bad and good will become very narrow. Your world view will become distorted to such degree that you will have problems interacting with others. Face reality like it is, and accept the fact that unpleasant things do happen in reality.

Living a reasonably stoic life with the occasional excess is much more rewarding than trying to maximise everything all the time. One cannot live in constant excess because that is physically impossible. Excess is by definition deviating significantly from whatever one is normally doing. Therefore someone who constantly lives at the maximum is always doing the same which is not excess. Any excess beyond that point will be lethal because it will immediately exceed the maximum. Constantly living on the edge of not killing oneself is constantly living at the same level. That makes it very similar to living a perfectly stoic life (μηδεν αγαν), the only difference lies within the level of the ‘plateau’ at which one is living.

Overexposure Can Destroy Anything

[TODO: make proper intro out of relevant bits from above]


If for instance one looks at the mastering quality of music albums, from a purely objective point of view it has on average been steadily deteriorating since 1990. Some aspects have still been improving, but the kind of irreversible distortion that was gradually eliminated after decades of technological advances, was now gradually being reintroduced to make the music sound louder and louder. For some styles of music this did not matter because they actually benefit from distortion. However, pretty much every style received the same treatment and even remasterings from those meticulously produced early-nineties albums have been maimed to make them sound louder.
As far as the music itself is concerned, pretty much anything that is made nowadays can be either mapped to a style from a bygone era or an awkward mix of styles, or it is the same formulaic polished stuff that has been made since the year 2000. There is hardly any novelty in music anymore. Songs from the fifties, sixties, seventies etc. are instantly recognisable as being from that era but there is barely such thing as a ‘nillies’ style. Only the overuse of the pitch-shifting effects in the vein of ‘Auto-Tune’ may allow to identify some songs, although many a more recent song still suffers from it, maybe even more so than when the effect was new back in 1998—see below. The music from 2010 and beyond has even less identity. Yet, ask a random teenager if current music is better than music from any older era, and in many cases the answer will be a resounding ‘yes’ because they might still believe in the myth of continuous progress.

If one looks at the kind of music that has topped the hit charts over the decades, it has varied wildly until about the turn of the millennium. After that, I got the impression that the hit charts consist mostly of ever the same songs with minor variations. Anything that somehow stands out, is mostly a reincarnation of a style that has already been done long ago. Not surprisingly, because with the introduction of advanced DSP gadgets like multi-band compressors and pitch shifters, pretty much everything has become possible, from re-creating the sound of old recording technology to creating a sound that is supposed to be perfect. After the technology to reproduce music had been perfected, now the technology to make music has become perfect, and again everyone is trying to go beyond what is already perfect. While multi-band compressors are actually only meant to be used for correcting bad recordings, all mainstream recordings nowadays are squeezed through them in their entirety, with the damn things configured to approximate the most perfect power spectrum at any point in the recording. Even the most un-talented person can now make something that on a superficial level sounds ‘perfect’ because people believe they have unraveled the secrets of creativity. All hit chart songs are a non-stop slurry of ‘perfection’, produced according to a recipe distilled from numerous scientific reports or anecdotical evidences that seek for The Ultimate Sound Wave. The result is that it all sounds the same and is utterly uninteresting. For certain ‘songs’ I wonder what fraction of them is produced by a bunch of algorithms and if there was any human intervention at all involved in making them. Barf. All the interesting music nowadays needs to be sought way outside the stagnant mainstream circuit, and the same holds for movie productions as well, and video games are also heading in this direction.

It is not the first time this has happened. Do the effort to listen to the album ‘Wave’ by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Some may laugh at it and call it elevator background music, or ‘muzak’, or ‘massage parlour music’. (Muzak is actually still protected as a brand name, but if I were involved with the company, I would consider releasing it and finding a new name.) Now try to imagine what it was like in 1967 at the time that album was released. There was no such thing as elevator music at that time. ‘Wave’ was groundbreaking and refreshing. It was so good that people got the initial impression that they could listen to it indefinitely without getting tired of it. Some idiots therefore thought music like that was ideal to play as background music everywhere. After a while everyone got completely over-exposed to this style of music of course, and now it is burned into the collective memory of mankind as the never-ending noise coming from tinny loudspeakers in small, often uncomfortable rooms and corridors. It is a good thing Jobim is no more.
Or for another example in music of an entirely different genre, consider ABBA. Although they were enormously popular in their heyday, they received surprisingly little airplay in the decades between them splitting up and the moment they reunited in 2021. Where I live, it was a rare event to hear any ABBA song on radio stations outside of the traditional “classic hits charts.” What I believe to be the problem with ABBA's music is again that it is too perfect. It is polished perfected pop music, crafted by very proficient musicians. It is very easy to overexpose oneself to it, and this is why many of those who experienced the peak of ABBA's popularity, did not want to hear it anymore, except the hardcore fans or those who have managed to avoid being bludgeoned to death with it in the past.

One of the greatest songs of all time in my opinion, is ‘Little Wing’ by Jimi Hendrix from the 1967 ‘Axis: Bold as Love’ album. You know what I believe to be part of what makes this song immortal? It is unfinished. Right in the middle of Jimi playing a mind-blowing solo, the song suddenly fades into silence. I don't know if this was planned, or merely because something went wrong with the recording and they had to cut it short. However, the result is that this early cut-off leaves one wanting for more, every time. This feeling of wanting more has become an integral part of experiencing the song. It makes it almost impossible to get overexposed to it. The listener is only given a glimpse of the perfection that could have been, instead of being given everything, including the opportunity to completely overindulge oneself. This recording is inherently imperfect and as I will explain below, this may be its ticket to immortality.

Even when ignoring the artistic aspects and only considering music recording technology, there is a striking fact that vinyl and cassettes have been experiencing a come-back after the start of the 21st century. Those formats have major drawbacks, yet even a considerable number of young people who cannot possibly be motivated by nostalgia, tend to enjoy playing music from those more cumbersome and inefficient formats, as opposed to merely using a smartphone or digital player. How is this possible? It is quite simple: the digital playback systems are boring thanks to their greater level of perfection. The music sounds exactly the same every time. Nothing ever changes unless the whole player breaks down and then nothing comes out of it due to the digital nature of the whole thing: all or nothing, 1 or 0. With a record however, scratches and wear will develop over time and the record may sound subtly different from the last time. Maybe it has a specific scratch on it that reminds you of the event that caused it, and every time you play that particular record you will be reminded of that event. The mere fact that the record can become damaged will cause the owner to take much more care of it than of an MP3 file on a computer or phone. The vinyl record may have a certain odour when it is taken out of its sleeve, it also has a weight and feel. The digital file has none of those. All things considered, the overall experience of playing the digital file is utterly poor compared to playing the same music from a record, cassette, or reel-to-reel tape. The same goes for many other digital equivalents of physical things. If we continue striving for further perfection by digitising everything in our lives, the overall experience of life risks becoming utterly poor. Obviously the new generations won't be immediately aware of this, because they will be imprisoned in a digital equivalent of Plato's cave.


Coming back to Auto-Tune and related effects: I had hoped the over-using of these effects would die out over time after it was introduced with Cher's ‘Believe’ in 1998, but unfortunately it suddenly got a lot worse again, and this makes perfect sense. The original patent that governed Auto-Tune has expired at the end of 2018. Unsurprisingly, this allowed cheap clones of the technology to emerge and every small room that could call itself a recording studio will now have an effect bank in this style. And for some reason, almost every person recording a song now insists on being subjected to pitch bending.
For the nitpickers: it is incorrect to always call this effect Auto-Tune. The similarly sounding modern effects that are often bunched under this name, are based on the same pitch shifting class of algorithms, which is why they sound similar. They are all vocoder type effects, where the incoming vocal track is decomposed into its constituents, then one or more of these constituents are altered, and finally the vocals are reassembled using these modified constituents. The only thing that determines whether one can call a specific instance of the effect ‘Auto-Tune,’ ‘vocoder,’ or ‘pitch-bending,’ lies within how the tonal component is altered. If the vocal pitch is shifted (without much other alteration) to the nearest perfect note when it deviates, it is called Auto-Tune. If the pitch is deliberately shifted across a much larger range, it is pitch-bending. If the timbre of the tonal component is heavily altered, it is a general vocoder type effect.
The above nitpicking matters little, in the end all these effects sound similar and they sure do get on my nerves when over-used. In way too many current songs, even if the singer has no problem holding a pitch, they will still apply this automated melisma or an awkwardly fake vibrato, just because it is supposedly cool. The result is again an endless stream of very similar sounding songs, with similar sounding vocals with the same clichéd pitch bending effects applied ad nauseam. The effect no longer is a status symbol for rappers who want to show off that they can pay for the formerly expensive effect, it has now permeated music as a seemingly obligatory way to demonstrate the singer is not a dinosaur from past century.

I do not care about arguments like “demise of talent” because the machines now hide mistakes and blah dee blah. I just find the timbre of these pitch bending effects goddamn annoying, it is as simple as that. Somehow it triggers the same response in my brain as the sound of a buzzing mosquito. When the effect is not overly obvious, it often tumbles deep into my uncanny valley [LINK:UNCANNY]. No amount of reasoning can reduce this nuisance, just as one cannot convince me that the sound of nails on a chalkboard is not irritating. If you are a musician and you do not care about being a good ape by cloning the latest trends, please consider not slathering your entire song with these tiresome effects.

This situation is similar to what happened with synthesizers, which in the 1960s were new but complex and expensive, and rather sparingly used by the few bands who were willing to pay the premium price to experiment. By the time patents expired at the dawn of the 1980s, suddenly a lot of music was permeated by shrill and cheesy synthesizer sounds, thanks to simpler and way cheaper derivatives of the original synthesizers. It went as far as Queen proudly claiming that their earlier albums had no synthesizer sounds, although they would eventually also embrace them, luckily to good effect. It would take decades until the use of synthesizers went back to reasonable and responsible levels, so I guess this time I will again just have to limit my exposure to hit chart music to avoid the needlessly warbling flattened robotic vocals of the umpteenth song that tries to be hip and trendy by copying old news.

Breaking Boundaries Already Broken

I took music as an example because I am interested in it and I have a background in signal processing, so I know what I am talking about. But it is not just music. The same is happening in pretty much every type of entertainment. Films also go through a similar kind of ‘perfecting’ pipeline which is why pretty much every current blockbuster either has the same polished look and feel or tries to mimic a style from a bygone era. This even extends to the movie posters, which are made according to such fixed clichés that I often feel I have already seen a newly released film when looking at its poster. The sad thing is that if I then do watch the film, it often feels indeed like I have seen many parts of it before. Special effects have advanced to such a degree that it has become possible to show pretty much anything in a film. The only limitation has become the imagination of the directors, which for many of them proves quite limited indeed. I find many a current film quite boring despite the fact that it throws the most flashy and complicated things into my face that I have ever seen. In fact they try to show so much at once that there is simply nothing to see at all aside from a spastic jumbled mess of SFX overload. It is just visual noise [LINK:INFORMATIONTHEORY].

Staying in the realm of motion pictures, consider horror films. When it comes to relying on fear of the unknown and inexplicable, the scariest films that can be watched over and over without losing their scare potential, often even becoming scarier with repeated viewings, are not the ones where an overload of special effects is thrown into the spectator's face. No, it are the ones where the gruesome thing stays just out of view. Showing a hideous monstrosity is scary only once. After that, people get used to it, and keeping on showing it may even make it laughable. Suggesting something gruesome on the other hand works much better because the monster will be imagined by the spectator, and they will never get used to their imagination. Next time they watch the same movie, they might imagine additional elements that make it even scarier. This is another tactic that had grown out of fashion since the advent of CGI and other special effects, although I have noticed a few more recent films (like the 2013 The Conjuring) that seem to have rediscovered the merit of “less is more” in this context.
Explicit gore can work well in a movie if it is not the sole thing it relies on to be interesting. It works well for instance in the ‘Saw’ series of films because the true horror is in the situations it places its actors in. It also works well in the 1982 film “The Thing,” because its true horror lies within Stephen King's idea of an alien life form that disguises itself as an indistinguishable copy of other beings, like humans.

I know quite a few who are still waiting for a film to surpass the ‘wow’ factor they had when watching ‘The Matrix’ for the first time. Here's a spoiler for them: it will never come. That film had a dose of great effects and a great atmosphere, complementing a solid compelling multi-layered story, and this combination was unprecedented in 1999. Although most of these subcomponents had already been used in films before it and most of the special effects had already been used, it was the first film that combined all these ingredients in such a well-crafted and perfectly dosed manner. The mere fact that it was the first of its kind, is a very important part of its appeal and the reason why the experience cannot be duplicated, and why the film might look ordinary to present-day spectators watching it for the first time, because they have probably seen many newer productions that mimic it. As another example, the 1941 film ‘Citizen Kane’ probably looks ordinary in the eyes of today's average viewer. That mere fact in itself is very telling, because it means the film was so far ahead of its time that even after 70 years it just looks ‘normal’ and not outdated like its contemporaries.
This goes for every film: if you want to know what makes a classic truly great, you must place yourself in the mindset of the period in which the film was released. Watching the film with a contemporary mindset and expectations that are tailored to present-day films, is utterly pointless and a waste of time. Instead of in vain trying to find another film that provides exactly the same experience as their all-time favourite without feeling like a rip-off, those people should move on and watch some different films instead of wedging their brains into that single bygone narrow frame of reference. It is the same as watching as an adult that film or TV series you liked so much as a kid, and expecting it to bring the same joy as it did back then. It might, but only if you can teleport yourself back to the mindset and context of the kid you were. If you cannot, and watch it with present-day expectations for a cutting-edge production, it is certain to be a huge disappointment.

It goes even further than just entertainment. Everyone in the western world today is trying to do better than perfect on pretty much every level. There is really no point in this at all. Worse, there are very good reasons not to do it. You can wait for the scientific studies that will prove this if someone ever dares to research such an un-trendy and at first sight depressing topic, but why wait if one can arrive at the same conclusion through reasoning? If there is one surefire way to become extremely frustrated and depressed, it is trying to push beyond a boundary that has already been crossed without realising it. Or a boundary that can never be crossed and that requires an exponentially increasing amount of effort the nearer one tries to approach it—a bit like the absolute zero temperature. Especially if one is allocating all their precious time in their short lives on it. As I will explain below [LINK:PERFECTION], striving for perfection is equivalent to striving to commit suicide. I prefer to pass on that.

I have given up on this pointless dogmatic quest and I try to focus on what really matters. Henceforth the only real source of stress for me has become the watching of people who are still stuck in that vicious circle, still threatening their future as well as mine in the process, by compromising their and my living conditions by chasing a stupid dream. I intentionally do not overexpose myself to ‘perfection’. I can still appreciate ‘Brothers in Arms,’ ‘Watermark,’ and ‘Wave,’ because I only listen to them once in a blue moon. There is so much other music available that I see no point in bludgeoning my senses with the same song or album ten times in a row. I can watch and appreciate a good old film or TV series even though it is not stuffed with the latest advances in CGI or the latest trends in story writing. I have a good audio system yet I often listen to music on mediocre equipment—almost intentionally. And I have quite a bit of mediocre music in my collection and even some truly crappy songs that I will occasionally listen to, merely to remind me how good the other songs really are. It is like good wine: if you drink too much of it, it will either make you sick or you will get so accustomed to its taste that it will start to taste bland, and everything of lesser quality will taste even worse than it already did. It will become impossible to appreciate anything. Why would anyone want to do that? Only an idiot would.

We could try to start mucking about with our very own physiology, and try to ‘upgrade’ our DNA so we can start to appreciate even more ‘perfect’ things. We could make our ears sensitive to a wider frequency range and more than 120dB(A) of loudness without damage. We could enhance our taste buds and olfactory system so we could appreciate an even more complex palate of wine. If you truly understand why we live and are what we are, you should find it obvious that all of that would be utterly and completely stupid. Even if we are so dumb as to try it, eventually we will again bump into some real fundamental limitations. Then we are not just back in the same boat, it will be much worse. Supporting all those ridiculous and redundant ‘extensions’ will have made us so much more complicated than necessary to survive in our environment that they will be a huge liability.


The main risk of all the present-day overexposure in groups that are unable to resist it, is that it could cause what could be dubbed ‘devolution,’ evolving away from an optimal state of being. Some say there can be no such thing as ‘devolution’ because any adaptation to a changing environment is evolution, but I like to consider true evolution to be positive for the species at hand and not leading to eventual self-destruction. True, it is appropriate to call an adaptation to a short-term change “evolution,” but if this adaptation makes the being disadvantaged for coping with an upcoming longer-term change, I find it appropriate to call it “devolution.”

In living beings, all the hard-coded mechanisms of liking and enjoyment serve a single purpose [LINK:LIKE]: to encourage them to do things that until now have given their ancestors on average the best chances of continued existence, which includes not destroying the components that constitute a good environment to live in. When we overexpose ourselves to the very stimuli that keep us on the right path, our habituation mechanisms will eventually get the upper hand and cause us to get tired of, and even hate, the very things that are essential to our survival. We will start to believe that we should do the inverse of what we really like to do. Eventually we might even extrapolate this idea [LINK:EXTRAPOLATION], and assume that anything that gives us a basal feeling of enjoyment must be bad, even if we did not yet overexpose ourselves to it. We might believe it is smart to be depressed and stupid to be happy. How messed up would that be? I may be missing something here, but in what way is striving for self-destruction smart? This striving for overexposure is not only unnecessary, it is potentially very damaging. Not being able to resist it is a severe evolutionary disadvantage.

I even get the impression that people's habituation mechanisms have become so skewed nowadays that they start to get over-habituated to really fundamental things like basic laws of physics. Remember the second law of thermodynamics? If people get too accustomed to it, the temptation to believe that it can be broken may re-surface, causing them to ignore the rigid proofs and go back to square one and try to make idiotic perpetual motion machines and free energy devices again. Another nice example of this, are ‘flat earthers.’ Most of them are probably trolls and others are just people with mental problems, but I also believe quite a few of them are just so over-exposed to science that they start to reject it despite the obvious evidence that their alternative theories make no sense at all.

Square Wheels

[REF:SQUAREWHEELS] I am actually anxiously waiting for someone to believe there is any point in literally reinventing the wheel. The round wheel is so darned old! The thing has been circular for many thousands of years, therefore it must be outdated, right? For those who would doubt it: yes, I am being sarcastic here. I had originally planned to include a design in this very text to present a way to make square wheels actually work [TODO: if enough time, do it anyway]. To offset the effect of the non-circular shape of the wheel, a complicated suspension mechanism could be added that cancels out the vertical movement of the contact point of the wheel relative to the axle, producing a net smooth rolling motion. There would also be a horizontal oscillation in the speed of the vehicle, which might be cancelled by accurately varying the rotation speed of the wheels.

The idea behind this ridiculous exercise would be to illustrate that even though it would work, it would be way overcomplicated for the problem at hand and would have many more points of failure and parts susceptible to wear than a simple round wheel. Then it occurred to me that despite the craziness of the idea, it might actually surpass round wheels in some very specific occasions like driving through very rough or loose terrain. I have had this idea since the year 2006 give or take, but I have never communicated it with anyone. Great was my surprise and amusement when I watched the April 2012 episode of ‘MythBusters’ that featured attempts to use actual square wheels. The episode even ended with an unsuccessful attempt to find a good use for the bolt-shearing contraptions—indeed by driving through loose soil. Even though their implementation was crude and did not involve any attempt at actively counteracting the suspension-wrecking motion of the squares, the whole episode reminded me of the train of thought I had years before. All this was a confirmation of my suspicion that especially in current times, there will be many who will independently arrive at the same ideas even in the absence of direct communication.

I have seen other attempts at literally reinventing the wheel, like trying to replace the central axle with some contraption that suspends the wheel at its edge. Aside from looking cool, this design has no advantages except perhaps in very specialised circumstances. Otherwise it is more complicated and more prone to break down than the old-fashioned wheel. One area where a minor reinvention of the wheel has managed to persist, is in fancy and useless spoke patterns for bicycle wheels. The classic bicycle wheel with 36 spokes symmetrically arranged, is apparently becoming too boring to some, therefore they invented new and stupid designs with the spokes clustered in groups, which requires multiple different spoke lengths to build one wheel, and induces the risk of uneven tensioning. There is no advantage to this kind of design, aside from looking cool to the uninitiated, and stupid to the experts. The only marginal advantage that might be offered is more room for a bicycle pump, but that is only a very small improvement compared to the extra cost.

My whole point of the square wheels story is that there are many things that are simply right and that cannot become outdated. Although perfection is a paradox [LINK:PERFECTION], some things are truly in the best possible state that can ever be reached under the constraints of reality. Any deviation from this state can only be deterioration. We should ignore our habituation mechanisms entirely when it comes to these things. For wheels it is quite obvious that they are the best solution for many applications. The more complicated a problem and its solution however, the easier it is for people to become distracted by details and reined in by their instincts that handle simplistic trends and concepts like ‘modern’ and ‘outdated’. For many technologies those concepts are irrelevant, and it is wrong to enforce them by replacing something that works perfectly with something flawed, just because it appears to be more trendy than the ‘boring’ thing we have grown so used to, or because people believe change is mandatory for everything.

Speaking about ‘boring,’ remember Elon Musk's Boring company? Not sure if it will still exist while you are reading this, but they are also a great example of what I am trying to convey here. Musk claimed to offer ways of drilling tunnels at far cheaper prices than usual. There were great plans to let high-speed autonomous pods drive inside these cheap tunnels, with the possibility to descend one's car through a street-level elevator and put it onto such pod, to bypass traffic jams above ground. The system was touted to be a subway system killer. A few years later, the first prototype of the actual thing was unveiled in Las Vegas. It ended up being a pair of narrow tunnels akin to storm drains (which are indeed cheaper, just because they are narrow), with regular electric cars driving inside them, piloted by humans. The cars could not reach more than 40 MPH in straight sections or 30 MPH in curves, because they had to obey pesky laws of physics like the dreaded F = ma. Gone were the futuristic self-driving high-speed pods. It was just ordinary cars driving in claustrophobic narrow tunnels with no safe exit in case one of the electric vehicles would catch fire, it is an outright deathtrap. Even the disco RGB LED lighting could not fool the general public, it probably only made the poor human drivers even more disoriented. The passenger capacity of the whole thing was lower than a subway system by a factor 40, give or take. It was yet another poor reinvention of the wheel.

The group of concepts like ‘new,’ ‘old,’ ‘outdated,’ and ‘modern,’ all share the same root. Almost every day I am confronted with someone who will diss anything like a movie, video-game, music, book, architecture, technology, and whatnot, for the sole reason that it is not the latest and newest. There is never any sound argument for this. It is obvious that the reaction to the age of the subject at hand is completely emotionally driven. It must be some kind of instinct. [TODO: ELABORATE, CONNECT]


[REF:PERFECTION] The catch with ‘perfection’ and the reason why I have been putting quotes around the word at many places in this text, is that perfection cannot exist for any living being. It is a paradox. The definition of perfection is that it has no negative properties at all. Now remember: life is a process, it is dynamic. Standstill is death. If this process ends and it becomes static, life ends. That is clearly a bad situation for a living being. Now suppose we have reached perfection in every aspect possible. Then there is nothing left to do. Even worse, doing anything risks breaking the state of perfection. That very state of perfection will be imperfect because it has the negative property that it will prevent us from doing anything. It will prevent us from living. In fact, there is only one such state of perfection for living beings and it is death, not something any sane person wants to strive for. Life is necessarily imperfect and there is no way around that. Any being that is unable to stop striving for perfection when the costs start outweighing the benefits, is bound to destroy itself. The only reason why mankind has until now been able to keep on existing, is because we have always been inherently limited in our pointless quest for perfection. The more technology we develop in an attempt to reach perfection, the closer we approach the possibility of global suicide.

No matter how contradictory it may sound, death is necessary for life. This is discussed in more detail in the section about immortality [LINK:IMMORTALITY]. If we would be immortal beings, we would have enough time to reach perfection at some point and we would die anyway. The whole cycle of death and birth is the only thing that can keep on going. Anyone who believes an infinitely long straight line is the only true path to follow, is a complete idiot and a danger to everyone else. The biggest idiots of them all will determine the direction of their straight line by connecting only two dots: one dot representing their current situation, and another dot, either something from the past or a speculated future point they can see from within their viewpoint [LINK:GREEDY, EXTRAPOLATION].

As a short illustration of this whole idea, consider the incessant striving for industrial automation, which I will discuss below in more detail [LINK:AUTOMATION]. Perfection in this case is a world where nobody needs to do anything because everything is completely automated. In any healthy economy, people work to fulfil needs and they get rewarded for this work. It is a closed circle of supply and demand, and every person is somehow both supplier and consumer, which is the only way in which the system can keep on working beyond merely the short term. Look at any stable natural environment: everything inside it is both consumer and producer, and produces and consumes exactly the required amount of resources to keep everything going. What we are doing now in our infantile [LINK:INFANTILE] striving for a Garden of Eden, is trying to get rid of the producing part by delegating it to machines. By doing this, we are actually making ourselves increasingly useless and we risk eventually removing ourselves from the equation as well. We will be all consumer and no producer, a being with no raison d'être at all. Of course we will never get that far, the economic system will have degraded or collapsed in various ways before that point is reached. We cannot have machines endlessly churning out ‘value’ and keep handing that ‘value’ to humans doing nothing worthwhile. That is nothing but a type 2 perpetuum mobile. The concept of an unconditional minimum wage cannot work in the long term.

On a macro scale, this whole idea could be a partial explanation why humanity has known several periods where a civilisation evolved to a high level and then collapsed. One can analyse the hell out of all those cases, for instance the fall of an advanced civilisation like the Roman empire, and easily get drowned in details. Or, one could consider it from a birds-eye view. As a civilisation grows to increasing levels of comfort with decreasing required effort, it starts to tear away at the justifications for its very own existence. The civilisation basically suicides by solving all its problems and approaching perfection. Eventually it becomes so easy for its citizens to live, that they lose the drive and skills required to prevent the civilisation from either being overrun by another, or slowly crumbling away into decay. The seemingly contrary conclusion from this, is that one should not work too hard to fix all problems, because eventually one risks also fixing the problem that the very process of life tries to solve, making this process itself redundant.

If this sounds like publicity for the concept of laziness, in a certain sense it is. Laziness is not as unequivocally bad as some consider it. The mere fact that laziness is such a universal concept that is present in pretty much every living thing, means it is essential. Laziness enforces efficiency, and efficiency offers a better chance at survival in the long term than defaulting to being busy even when there is no reason to. The next time you have nothing to do, maybe you should consider just relaxing instead of trying to whip up some potential problem and making it come true through a self-fulfilling prophecy [LINK:SFP].

The Perfect Circle

If all this seems overwhelming, consider something more limited. Imagine the possibility that at a certain point, someone analyses your brain and figures out what would make the most perfect movie you could ever watch, that would give you the most intense feeling of joy ever. Suppose then they actually make this movie and you watch it. After this moment of the most intense joy you could ever experience from a film, everything goes downward. Every time you watch that movie again, it gets less thrilling because it gets old. Watching any other movie is disappointing because those are less perfect. No movie can ever surpass that one movie because it was the most perfect thing that could ever be made. The movie has effectively killed itself and dragged the rest of cinematography as a whole down with it. It was perfect, yet the consequences of its existence are anything but perfect. Only idiots strive for absolute perfection. The rest strives for something that is good enough.

Figure P1: two circles.

Consider the above image, it shows two representations of a circle. The left is the most perfect circle I can generate on this computer. It has a constant radius and a line thickness of four pixels. That is about everything I can say about it. The circle at the right was hand-drawn on a piece of 224g/m2 "C" A grain drawing paper, using a Medium Wash 4B pencil. I found that pencil long ago on the floor in a classroom where I used to have drawing lessons. Other pages in the same block of paper contain some sketches from the time when I used to draw comic books, and the drafts of a secret code script. Mind that this circle is barely a circle, it is not even a closed shape. It is almost egg-shaped and the bottom left is a bit blurred because I photographed it with a low-quality camera from a Chinese watch phone. The line thickness is not constant, probably because I varied the pressure while drawing it and because the tip of the pencil is a rather blunt affair. From the line thickness and variation in darkness you can see that I started drawing this circle at the top left and then went counter-clockwise, and I lifted the pencil a tad too early to make it a closed shape.

You see, I can tell a whole lot more about the circle on the right than the one on the left. There is also a lot more to see about the right circle, because the other is basically described by only one parameter, at most four when considering its position on the page and the line thickness. The left circle may be more beautiful than the right one, but it is a lot more boring. Moreover, there are gazillions of other circles like it. Whenever someone draws a circle with those four parameters in a drawing program, it will look exactly the same. When someone on the other hand would find that same paper type and pencil I used, it still would be almost impossible to draw a circle identical to the one on the right. The left circle is perfect, it is like an ABBA song. One cannot do anything creative with this circle, because that would break its perfection. (Yes, you can easily guess what I think of Madonna's ‘Hung Up’.) The right circle is not perfect by any stretch, it is like a Tom Waits song, from his later period with his gritty sandpaper voice from all the alcohol abuse. Many people might not like that circle, just as those Tom Waits songs may sound awkward at a first listening, but they both are way more interesting than a piece of polished perfection. Anyone can try to improve upon that circle or on that song they don't really like, by drawing another or making a cover. The imperfect entities offer opportunities. The perfect ones only offer boredom and death. Perfection is death.

We can make the same exercise with this circle as we have already done for the perfect movie above. Suppose you're an artist who refuses to use computers yet wants to paint a perfect circle by hand. If you would some day succeed in this, you have only one way to go from there, and that way is down. You could keep on painting the same perfect circle over and over, but there would be no redemption in it because you already did it before, it would get boring and nobody cares about those extra copies because they are identical to your first perfect circle. Because you have already painted the perfect circle, any deviation that you paint must be imperfect. Basically, if there would be such profession as a ‘painter of circles’ and it would be the basis of your career, then you would have destroyed your career. The mere act of achieving perfection is an act of self-destruction. The only way to prevent this, is to remain imperfect.

If all the above examples are still too abstract, consider a company that is specialised in pest control. The most perfect pest control possible will forever eradicate the pest. Therefore if this company would achieve perfection, it would destroy its own source of income, its own raison d'être, and go bankrupt. It is actually a much better long-term strategy to be imperfect, just good enough, at the point where the pest is not causing any significant harm but at the same time is not declining either. That's probably why it is called pest “control” and not pest “elimination”…

And again, we can port the same reasoning to the process of life. Life can be seen as an attempt to solve the problem of not dying. Life is imperfect because every living thing dies at some point, due to the pesky inevitable laws of thermodynamics. If we would manage to perfectly solve this problem of never dying and achieve immortality, we have also eliminated the need for the process of life to exist, hence we would be dead after all. This is not something worth striving for.

This might be the single most important section in this entire text. If there is any part in this entire lump of prose that gives a halfway useful answer to the question in the title, this comes closest. I left it buried in between the rest however, because nobody would grasp the seriousness of it if I would have kicked off with it. I might be tempted to throw away the entire rest of this text and only keep this section. However, the rest of the text unfortunately remains essential to fully grasp what I am trying to explain here.

Automation: Everything Is Possible?

[REF:EVERYTHINGPOSSIBLE] Many are trying to create a world where “everything is possible” and believe it will be awesome. No. It will be horrible, the most boring world ever. [LINK:INFORMATIONTHEORY] The very reason why life is interesting is because reality has limitations, and limitations pose challenges. Taking away those challenges is like playing a video game with all cheats enabled, or a recreational poker game where everyone can see everyone's cards in advance as well as the cards that will be laid on the table. Both these things may sound cool for a while—especially if you are a young kid that ignored the red text at the top of this page or if you are an adult who never grew out of childhood [LINK:INFANTILE]—but it will become extremely boring very fast. Just compare the experience of playing a video game where one needs to use wit and skill to sneak past guards and find a secret thingamajig in a labyrinth-like building, versus the amazing ‘experience’ of typing cheat codes ‘killeveryone’ and ‘noclip,’ which causes all guards to drop dead and allows the player to walk and fly through all walls in a straight line towards their target. Or why not just type ‘wingame’ and you outright win the game without having to even move your game character. That is lame beyond belief. Anyone who would act like this would be a bigger loser than anyone who has tried to play the game, even those who failed completely—at least they tried. It will prevent one from experiencing any joy experienced by actually playing the game. Not only has the game been completely bypassed, so has all the entertainment its gameplay offers.

Now imagine that this video game is your very life and it is possible to bypass any challenge by means of some kind of incredibly advanced technology. Push a button like a chimpanzee in a lab and get instant reward. Add the fact that this technology will in all likelihood require insane amounts of energy or pollution just to perform such real-life cheats or ‘hacks’. Your life will both be boring and destroy the environment that keeps you alive. Is that really something we should all strive for?

It is easy to step into the pitfall of believing it is worth it to try to ‘bypass life’ through technology, in the same sense that winning that video game through hacks allows to obtain some reward without having to go through the ‘burden’ of playing the game itself. There is this type of person who really embraces any technological advance that appeals to a naïve desire to obtain more reward with less effort. Their brains systematically cut off all reasoning when any negative aspect of the technology appears on the horizon [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. The hard truth is: there is no reward when bypassing the ‘burden’ of life. That ‘burden’ is all there is about it and the art of making one's life worthwhile, is to turn that burden into success. Go back to the start of this text: life has no other goal than to exist on itself. Trying to circumvent the process of life is exactly what it sounds like: a fancy way of committing suicide. At best, those who go down this road would become like plants, watered and fed at the right time. Heck, even actual plants do much cleverer things than simply trying to irreversibly consume all the resources they can gather without returning resources that allow to upkeep cyclical processes. The ones that did the latter, have wiped out themselves through the process of evolution long ago.

When assuming that a world where everything is possible can actually exist (by ignoring its impossible price tag), it will be just as horrible as a world where nothing is possible. This can be explained from an information theory point-of-view [LINK:INFORMATIONTHEORY]. It can also be connected to the whole model of life seen from a thermodynamic point-of-view. And finally, it is another illustration of the “perfection paradox” [LINK:PERFECTION]. I believe this increasing drive towards a utopian perfect world is tied to the increasing lack of maturity of the western population [LINK:INFANTILE]. It will not end well.

People who really want to live in a world with nearly no restrictions, must also accept the consequences. It seems that whoever strives for such a world, hopes that they will be able to get rid of the restrictions imposed by regulating or governing bodies while still maintaining the positive aspects. It will not happen: there is no such thing as a free lunch [LINK:FREELUNCH]. It will be a throw-back to dog-eat-dog evolution. For instance, if people get rid of a governing body and replace it with nothing but merely the hopes that people will organise themselves, then they should not be surprised if this self-organisation involves crime and violence that was previously curbed by that governing body. True, the governing body may occasionally abuse its power and exhibit dictatorial traits, it is the name of the game. One cannot have everything, and ignoring this fact will not turn it into a magical self-fulfilling prophecy. Ignoring reality will only make reality worse. This all boils down to the dichotomy between left-wing and right-wing politics. In the end, it does not matter which one is chosen: they both strive for a utopian situation. They are equally flawed in an absolute sense, only the ways in which they are flawed differ, in a complementary manner. Both history and reasoning show that neither of them work on their own, but why on earth would they be the only two exclusive options? The only system that can work is a clever and flexible mix of both left- and right-wing mechanisms that approximates the utopia of a perfectly centred system.


I do not see the point in research that tries to automate creativity in entertainment. Why would someone want a machine that emulates ‘creativity’? For instance, what is the point of a machine that would compose music in the likes of a great human composer, or paint like Van Gogh? It would be an utterly pointless gimmick that devaluates the original works of art for no good reason. I can only see the appeal if I lock myself up in a very naïve frame-of-reference of instant greed without foresight. Mankind invented machines to solve everyday problems and relieve us of menial chores. It makes perfect sense to build a washing machine. It makes perfect sense to build a car or a calculator. All those devices can do their tasks better or more efficiently than a human. Moreover, most humans find the tasks of washing, hauling objects, or crunching numbers, uninteresting or even dreadful. There is however an acute need for them, therefore delegating them to an automaton is a winning situation. On the other hand, there is no acute need to compose beautiful music, there is no clearly defined way to do it because beauty is subjective, and those who do it mostly do because they like to do so. Anyone who is in a position where they are forced to write music and it is a burden and they wish they could delegate it to a machine, is either the wrong person for the job or the job is worthless on itself. In that situation there is no need to make the music sound creative and inspiring anyway: just throw together some clichés and it will be OK.

Having a clearly defined recipe for creativity would be a paradox. If it is known beforehand how it can be done, there is nothing creative about it, it would be ‘replicative’. A machine programmed with the recipe could churn out the supposedly creative stuff in endless amounts, quickly turning it into commonplace drivel that is the very opposite of creative [LINK:INFORMATIONTHEORY]. A large part of the appeal of works of art is exactly due to the fact that they are rare or unique. I can find no justifications to build a machine that pretends to mimic the process of a person channeling emotions into musical patterns. That machine would have nothing else to tell than: buy me so my maker can become rich, or: I am a pointless machine made by apes who could have better spent the resources and would probably be happier if they did my task themselves. Neither of those things interest me one bit.

It is not just creativity, there is no point in trying to automate everything. It is a tempting but naïve thought: if we make robots or clones or whatever, that can perform tasks we do not like, we expect to have more time to do the things we like. Or, we can move on to more advanced things. This is only true if it is executed correctly, and when ignoring the facts that everyone neither likes and dislikes the same things nor has the same skills and capabilities as others. Making a certain task obsolete because one does not like performing it oneself, may suck the joy out of other people's lives because they do like to perform the task, but now they will lose their job because a machine can do it cheaper. The idea of delegating tasks to machines may seem smart, but in the way it is currently executed it is a humongously stupid train of thoughts. It only seems great because people keep on breaking off their thinking [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT] when they reach the fuzzy-warm-feeling of: yay, more free time, or: now we finally can do the things we saw in that cool sci-fi movie!

I can start out by saying: do not be afraid, this extreme automatisation will never happen. If it does anyway, there will either be such a gigantic revolt that it will be smashed to pieces very quickly, or the economy will collapse very soon. A world where robots do all the work and humans are on an eternal holiday but still get paid, is fundamentally impossible and will degenerate into a horrible dystopia in no time. Just look at recent history. We have built computers and robots that were supposed to give us more free time. Now do they? No. We have in fact much less free time overall. By automating everything, we have merely lifted the level at which we live to a higher stratum. Because it is a higher level, it requires more maintenance: the machines allow to do everything faster and in greater amounts, therefore the net cost of keeping everything running has increased. We have shifted the work that needs to be done by humans from menial physical tasks to more complicated mental tasks. If we would manage to automate those tasks as well, other tasks of an even higher complexity will emerge. The consequences of a failure in a machine becomes the more grave as the task performed by the machine becomes the more complex and the more interwoven with our daily lives. The stress level incurred by such failure also becomes much higher. The fraction of persons who can deal with that complexity and its associated stress levels, becomes increasingly small. We tend to ignore these hidden costs however. We have become slaves to the technology that was supposed to be our virtual slave. Well, some people do have infinite free time because the jobs they specialised themselves in were suddenly made obsolete by automated processes. I do not think they are that happy though. The others have to continuously repair, update, and reinvent the computers and robots, and get stressed out endlessly by this. Of course we then try to implement even more automation in an attempt to delegate the things that stress us out, but it becomes increasingly difficult to grasp the complexity of it all. It is an endless spiral, a vicious circle. Eventually we may arrive at robots building robots that were originally supposed to serve humans, but the humans may have removed themselves from the equation altogether. That is a situation that is absurd and pointless, and anyone who tries to strive for it is insane, plain stupid, or both.

Technological Suicide

[REF:AUTOMATION] Economically, automating everything does not make sense. What about all those who lost their jobs to an automated process? Consider for instance that to run a web shop that can serve say 100000 people, it takes far fewer employees than to run a set of smaller local stores that serve the same 100000, especially if the web shop is implemented as a fully automated storage system. Yet all those former employees of those stores are still supposed to be good consumers and buy stuff—at the large web store obviously—with the wages they no longer receive. It may seem to work now in the short term, and for the customers who can buy stuff at lower prices it may seem great [LINK:GREEDY], but it will not work in the long term. The potential for increased consumption is boosted enormously, but eventually there will be neither means nor need for the intended target group to consume products in the vast quantities that are enabled by shops automated to the extreme. The automation is of course costly. The shops could only get viable return on investment if the automated systems would be used near their intended maximum performance, which is utterly utopian in the long stretch. You see, this kind of system will collapse far before the point is reached where it becomes truly disastrous. So don't be afraid, but keep in mind that preventing such collapse altogether by not even starting to pursue it, will lead to a situation much less painful than when actually going through this cycle of predictable stupidness and waiting for the inevitable moment when it all goes south.

If we take this further, suppose we have automated our cars, medicine, and every possible job that involves manual work. Where do humans fit in such a world? The next step is to build some kind of AI that can automate the very process of automating [LINK:AI]. Oh look, we are already making our first steps towards this with the OpenAI things! Some envision a utopia where each human still receives some kind of minimum wage pulled from thin air, and can then revel in endless entertainment. Does. Not. Compute. That utopia will not work and will very quickly turn into a horrible dystopia. Humans would be nothing but meat-bags being aimlessly driven around in self-driving cars and spending their time playing games and watching films or philosophising about useless things, because all real work has been taken over by machines. Let's ignore for a while the fact that economically this does not add up at all, and focus on the automation aspect only. If we make that AI sufficiently autonomous, it might at some point in time evaluate the situation and decide that the meat-bags serve no purpose in this scheme and are only a bunch of useless bloated egos wasting resources, and it would be damn right. It would then probably try to kill us, maybe in a subtle way we do not notice until it is too late. What do we learn from this? Simple: do not commit technological suicide by building the goddamn thing in the first place. Either that, or avoid the situation where everything has been automated to such a degree that humans become redundant. Actually the latter is the best solution by far.

When technology has eventually advanced sufficiently, it may become tempting to create entities that are very similar to humans (cf. ‘replicants’ in fiction literature and films like Blade Runner). This brings a whole string of nasty problems with it, some of which have been explored in fiction. In the end, those things may become so similar to humans that they will seek the same rights and treatment as humans. The question is, if one creates something that is indistinguishable from a human, should it not also be treated like a human? I believe it should. Otherwise it will be the era of slavery all over again. I believe that if one creates a self-conscious entity and treats it as a slave, then that undermines the integrity of any self-conscious creature, including its creators.

I believe that someone will create or at least know how to create a provably self-conscious machine by the year 2030 (give or take, I am probably stepping in the same pitfall here as everyone else who made predictions like these and suffered from the typical human tendency to overestimate technological progress in the short term.) This does not need to be a robot, it could be a system mangling data in a data centre, a mere computer program anyone could install on a PC or a smartphone, or it could be an NPC in a video game. As a matter of fact the latter is a likely candidate for it to happen. The entity will not need to be particularly smart nor intelligent to be provably self-conscious or to fool people into believing it is human for that matter. The question is, if this would happen and it would be possible to create sentient, self-conscious entities at will, what would that imply? Currently we have a strong tendency to consider anything that exhibits self-conscience as sacred because we equate it with life. According to strict definitions of life however, the self-conscious computer program will not be alive. It will become possible to spawn hundreds to millions of those entities in a split second and again destroy them instantly. It will be possible to create perfect copies. Will they all be sacred? Will it be mass murder if they are all erased again? Will it change the way we look at the conscience of biological beings?

In the end, if you ask me whether we should build replicants, then my answer is: only if we really, really know exactly what we are doing. In other words: not anytime soon.

Devaluation of the Human Being

[REF:VALUEPERSON] I have a measure of how valuable a person is, that may appear strange to some. This value is roughly proportional with the difficulty of replacing the person with a machine. The higher the impact on other people if the person would be replaced by a robot or a bunch of computer programs, or the more impossible it is to automate the skills of the person, the higher I value that person. In this sense the worst persons to me are total workaholics who spend most of their time on tasks that could be automated by algorithms that are feasible and sensible to implement, while they disregard everything that is regarded as ‘human’ behaviour. Such people would hardly be missed when replaced by machines because the machines would do everything the persons already did, probably in a better way.

This implies that this scale is dependent on the state of computing, and it also gives an idea of why I see no use in trying to make machines mimic typical human abilities. Machines are tools and just as there is no point in humans trying to act machine-like, neither is there any use in making a tool act human-like. If it would be necessary to make the tool identical to a human, then why did we build it in the first place and not simply let a human do the job? If we are going to make all human behaviour programmable, then to me all humans will become basically worthless. Of course the machines that mimic the behaviour will not be any better in my opinion, on the contrary. It will be technological suicide.

The fear that humans will be displaced by the very machines they have created, is a recurring theme with some notable peaks in recent history. For instance in the 1970's there was the movie ‘Westworld’ (1973) where the androids in a theme park started murdering the guests under their own impulse, or its successor ‘Futureworld’ (1976) where the machines took a more subtle approach in trying to replace humanity. Later on we had the obvious Terminator (1984), The Machine (2013), Ex Machina (2014), Transcendence (2014), etcetera. In certain video games like Deus Ex (2000) and Fallout 4 (2015), machines replacing humans is a core theme as well. As usual, the short-term impact of technological advance is grossly overestimated in all these works of fiction, but the long-term impact is probably underestimated. It is not unthinkable something will go terribly awry if we keep on wildly developing artificial intelligence without having a specific goal of what we really want to achieve with it [LINK:AI]. One can be pretty certain however that the way in which it will go awry, will not resemble anything predicted in any of those movies. Quite likely though, any attempt to create a truly dangerous situation will be smothered in advance as long as there is a sufficiently large group of persons who can maintain their common sense—oh god, we are so fucked, aren't we?

[TODO minimum wages stuff, Garden of Eden, elaborate on what was shortly mentioned in perfection paragraph above, can refer to Matrix]

How to Be Unhappy

As a closing note for this entire chapter that revolves around overexposure and perfection, here is my little Guide to Unhappiness. You might be wondering, why on earth would I want to provide such a guide while pretty much everyone else writes entire books about how to be happy? Simple: because explicitly stating ways to become unhappy, makes it way more recognisable when you are unknowingly acting in such a way, perhaps under the delusion that it was supposed to make you happier. When merely giving a list of goals that are supposed to be a recipe for happiness, then readers will forcibly try to find paths between their current situation and those goals. Those paths will cut corners and involve other strategies that have a risk of becoming one's main source of frustration and unhappiness. Providing anti-goals instead might not guarantee ending up in a happy state, but will at least reduce the risk of ending up in an unhappy state.

This guide is nothing but a straightforward application of what I discuss elsewhere in this text. One of the most effective recipes for striving for unhappiness is the following: Have very strict, very specific, and very high expectations for everything. Unfortunately simply reversing this and dropping such expectations does not guarantee happiness at all, although it often is an essential initial clean-up step that allows rebuilding more realistic expectations from scratch. Moreover, sometimes one does need to have high expectations to end up in a happy state. The key is to make those expectations at least remotely achievable.

A simple recipe for happiness I cannot give, but I do can give some things that stand in the way of it. All items in the following list are based on actual behaviour I have observed in persons I have known.

  1. Before watching a film, make a model of it in your mind of what it will probably be like, and then watch it as if the makers of the film were complete idiots if they deviate in any way from your expectations. If you are out of inspiration, just pick your most favourite movie ever and expect every film to provide exactly the same wow factor as the first time you watched that one movie.
  2. Before going on holiday someplace or doing sightseeing of any kind, have wild expectations about the place, even if you have nothing to base your expectations on—just invent things if necessary: the more outlandish, the better if you want to be maximally unhappy.
  3. Frantically learn everything by heart, and every time you encounter something new, expect it to be truly new and not similar to what you already know. Scoff at everything that is not considerably different from everything you already know.
  4. Accept only infinite progress and growth, and assume it is possible to live in a way that exhibits neither cyclical processes nor crises of any kind.
  5. Grab every freebie you can get a hold of and consider it an acquired right. When the freebie or the opportunity to grab similar ones is taken away, endlessly fret about this for the rest of your life, clinging on to the hope of reclaiming your acquired right even if it was based on absolutely nothing.
  6. Believe in the existence of a single perfect piece of music that is the best possible song in existence. Spend a large part of your free time searching for this song, by basically downloading whatever you can get hold of and skipping through it without doing any attempt to listen to more than 20 seconds of each song, let alone enjoy even just one of all those songs. (Yes, I have known someone like this. Really.)
  7. When you find something that is exceedingly beautiful like a fantastic song or film, put it on repeat and expose yourself endlessly to it until you are completely sick of it. You can also do this with delicious food: keep eating it until it makes you puke. Then find the next most beautiful thing and repeat this cycle endlessly, until you hate everything because anything worthwhile has been repeated way too many times, and everything else was worthless to begin with.
  8. Lock up yourself in a fantasy world where everything is exactly the way you like it.
  9. Strive for perfection in everything, including things where it doesn't matter at all.
  10. Stubbornly try to focus on happy things only by ignoring or even fighting everything that hints at unhappiness, like things even as simple as a song in a minor key.
  11. Stress yourself out on things you have absolutely no control over, like the weather, a disaster at the other side of the planet, or an architectural feature in some building.
  12. Try to possess as much as possible, whether it be money or any other kind of wealth, without having any specific goal for what you will do with all that stuff.
  13. Believe you are the centre of the universe and you are better than everyone else. Keep ignoring all evidence that proves otherwise.
  14. Believe you are a worthless piece of shit incapable of achieving anything great.
  15. Believe there is no point in trying to preserve your environment because it is supposedly all doomed to be destroyed anyway. Smash any glimmers of hope that it isn't doomed after all, by cherry-picking certain bits of science and news reports and halting your train of thoughts whenever there are hints at improvement in those same science or news reports.
  16. Believe that every problem will be solved through technology. For an added bonus, believe one single technology will solve all problems and the most trendy thing currently in existence must be that technology.
  17. Never be content with any of your work. When something is nearly finished, drop it and start something new. Never take the time to really finish the previous task completely, such that you are never able to really enjoy it—that would only be possible by properly finishing it.


The Fermi paradox

Given that the universe is so huge and there must be other planets that support life similar to Earth, why do we not see any evidence of advanced civilisations that transmit signals into space or perform interstellar space travel? If a warp drive is theoretically possible, why don't we see evidence of it? The easy, convenient and cheap explanation is that we humans are unique, a chance of one in billions that a civilisation like ours can evolve. We are either ahead of any other civilisation that might exist, or not that far behind that the slowly propagating signals of other civilisations have already reached us. The less convenient explanation is that the stage where such technology can evolve is also the stage that is most likely to kill the civilisation. The civilisation is either starting to consume so many resources that it destroys its own means for survival, or it develops technology it cannot control and that first wipes out its creators and then breaks down because it is totally unfit for the environment it exists in. Or, it keeps on striving for perfection to such a degree that it achieves it, and as I explain elsewhere, this means it suicides [LINK:PERFECTION]. Some call this stage a great filter because it is a barrier a civilisation would need to overcome to enter a ‘next stage’ of evolution.
We could and should learn from this conclusion, and we could easily avoid the potential lethality of that great filter, and safely seep through it at a leisurely pace. We can do much better than we are doing now, and evolve in a less greedy way that is not likely to cause self-destruction. But as it is now, it seems we are not ready for that. We will go ahead anyway, like a kid that puts its hands on a glowing kitchen hotplate despite having been told a dozen times not to. Who knows, maybe we will actually not burn up entirely and become that one single civilisation that manages to get through this stage unscathed, but I do not get my hopes up high.

Of course there is an even less convenient explanation, and that is that the stage of advanced space travel as we envisage it, is simply impossible or so uneconomical that it makes no sense to pursue it and any species that has attempted it, has failed. Maybe there are distant civilisations out there that thrive without it, perhaps in ways we cannot even imagine because we lack the frame-of-reference, just like the people chained inside Plato's cave could not even imagine what it would be like to see the real world. Let's face it: the largest basis we have for the assumption that we will be able to easily travel in giant fancy spaceships between planets, solar systems, and even galaxies, are works of science fiction. There may be actual science behind it, but it has huge gaping holes and ignored costs. Most importantly the fiction came first, and it is also the first thing almost everyone comes into contact with during their lives. The latter makes it very difficult to view the real science in an objective manner.

There is a huge discrepancy between the perception of space travel by the general public, and actual space travel. Ask the average man-in-the-street how they would fly to the moon starting from a circular parking orbit around Earth, and most of them will probably say: just wait until it comes in sight, aim for it, and keep burning your engines! Like in the movie ‘Space Cowboys.’ Well, that could work in theory, but it would consume a ridiculously larger amount of fuel than with a proper Hohmann transfer. In practice the ship would run out of fuel and risk ending up in a lethal return trajectory towards Earth. This kind of strategy is nonsensical because it spends almost all its energy on forcing the normally elliptical trajectory of the space ship into a straight line for no good reason. It probably follows from the misconception that the most efficient path in space is always a straight line, or the highly idealised fact that a solitary object in a perfectly empty void will keep on travelling in the same direction. Add a good dose of Dunning-Kruger [LINK:HUBRIS] and this Hollywood strategy ends up being proposed with the usual overconfidence. When this dumb strategy fails, the ship will be stuck on whatever trajectory it reached at the moment the engine ran out of fuel, which might be an ellipse that dives steeply enough into earth's atmosphere to burn up the ship. Yet, the same persons proposing this strategy would probably have the grandest ideas about space travel, instilled by their favourite sci-fi book or film where it all seemed easy, and flying towards a target did not involve something as boring as relying on conics to perform an optimally short prograde burn at the ejection point in orbit. Maybe now and then we should take a rest from our frantic attempts at turning all this fiction into reality, and see if we should not separate facts from fiction. We should as well consider the repercussions of blindly pursuing goals that can never be achieved, and that might lead to self-destruction if we try anyway.

Dunk Junk Into the Sun

[TODO: images will make this a whole lot more comprehensible for the average reader! Can also add some actual numbers illustrating the difference between the approaches, based on a KSP simulation or just plain calculations.]

Similarly, a popular idea that is often coined by people with limited knowledge about space travel, is to get rid of our most hazardous waste, for instance nuclear waste, by shooting it into the Sun. Again, ask how this should be done and you might get an answer like: “just shoot it in the direction of the Sun.” Those with slightly more knowledge about space flight may suggest to use slingshots around other planets, which would supposedly make it an extremely cheap operation. Those answers are based on Hollywood physics and superficial knowledge. They also do not consider how utterly disastrous it could be to have a launch failure with a rocket full of highly radioactive material. Obviously this operation would be tremendously expensive, therefore we wouldn't merely put a few kilograms of nuclear waste on that vehicle, we would stuff it with as many tonnes as possible. If that thing would explode on launch, or suffer a failure that would cause it to burn up in the atmosphere, it would be the largest dirty bomb ever conceived. This alone makes the whole idea completely unviable in my opinion, until we either have an extremely reliable launch vehicle, or ways to safely land the payload if the launch would fail.

Nevertheless, just to show the discrepancy between this naïve idea about space flight and reality, let's ignore the hazards and see how feasible this idea of dunking junk into the Sun is anyway. How should it be executed, as opposed to ‘aim and fire’?

Orbital mechanics 101: planets and other objects do not fall into the Sun because they have sufficient tangential velocity, i.e. velocity perpendicular to the direction in which the Sun's gravity is pulling. This tangential velocity makes them follow a generally elliptical trajectory, called an orbit. It is a bit the same as swinging a rock tied to a rubber band around one's head: the rubber band represents the Sun's gravity. The rock keeps following a circular trajectory as long as you keep swinging it at a certain speed. This is because the rock wants to fly in a straight line, but the band prevents this. The force due to the rock trying to escape the circle, is exactly the opposite of the tensional force of the stretched band. If you stop swinging, the force of the rock trying to escape the circle disappears, the rubber band pulls the rock towards your head, and pain ensues. The orbit of many a celestial body is sufficiently round, that in a simplified model it may be considered circular, which of course is just a special case of an ellipse. Our nuclear waste is positioned on Earth, hence it orbits the Sun together with it. In other words, to make the waste fall into the Sun, one needs to undo its tangential orbital velocity, currently the same as Earth's tangential orbital velocity.

The most straightforward way is a two-step approach. First, bring the junk into a low Earth orbit (LEO), which means an orbital velocity relative to Earth of about 8 km/s. When looking towards the north pole, Earth rotates counter-clockwise around the Sun at a velocity of about 30 km/s. The most efficient launch would bring the junk in a counter-clockwise equatorial orbit around Earth. This means that for the second step, when the junk crosses the line between Sun and Earth, it would ‘only’ need an additional 22 km/s push to lose all its orbital velocity relative to the Sun and plunge down into it. We can do with a little bit less because it is sufficient that the junk follows an elliptical orbit with a perihelion (nearest distance to the Sun) within the body of the Sun. In practice, to break free from the sphere-of-influence of Earth, it may require multiple burns instead of a single one, depending on how powerful the propulsion system is. With each of those burns, the Earth orbit of our ‘space dumpster’ would become increasingly elliptical until it breaks free from the Earth gravity field. From then on, it follows its own roughly circular orbit around the Sun, slightly farther than Earth. All it takes then is to keep on burning retrograde (i.e. in the opposite direction of its orbital trajectory) until its perihelion falls within the body of the Sun, and the garbage will plunge down and become part of the solar fusion reaction.

Of course the above could also be done in one single long sequence if the vehicle can be launched at exactly the right moment such that there is no need to temporarily park it in a LEO. The latter simply has the advantage that the moment of the launch is decoupled from the moment where the retrograde burn w.r.t. the solar orbit is performed.

That is the basic idea, not necessarily the most efficient. What about using slingshots to make it more efficient? Even those with sufficient knowledge to understand or come up with the explanation I made so far, still tend to step into the pitfall of believing it is possible to use a single slingshot around Venus for instance. The idea is to utilise the planet's gravity field to change the vehicle's direction such that it flies “straight towards the Sun” which would save us all the fuel normally needed for the trip between Venus and Sun. This is again the same mistake as before, based on the belief that objects in space can be trivially made to fly along a straight line, ignoring all laws of orbital mechanics. More specifically, this mistake is due to confusing the vehicle's trajectories relative to Venus, respectively to the Sun. There is no way that the slingshot could completely remove practically all tangential solar orbital velocity unless the incoming trajectory is such that there is not much left to remove. Such slingshot could indeed save us a bit of fuel, but only if it were the final step to bring the perihelion down to the final target value.

Intuitively, it may seem beneficial to use slingshots to first bring the vehicle in an orbit as close to the Sun as possible and then do ‘a small final burn’ to dunk it into the Sun, but that is actually the worst possible strategy. Basic rules of orbital mechanics dictate that bringing the ship closer to the Sun, i.e. changing the perihelion, can be done most efficiently at the aphelion (farthest distance from the Sun). The higher the aphelion, the less fuel is needed to achieve a certain change in perihelion. Even without the exact mathematics, this can be understood intuitively: the only way for a vessel to zip by the sun at close proximity (at the perihelion) is by going very fast, otherwise it would not be able to counteract the Sun's enormous gravity, and crash into it. When the vessel is very far from the Sun however (at the aphelion), it needs to go very slowly to avoid escaping the much reduced effect of the Sun's gravity altogether. Reducing this small velocity requires much less energy than trying to do the same for the huge velocity. Hence the conclusion that may seem surprising to the uninitiated, is that first boosting the aphelion to a point much higher than the aphelion of Earth, and then shrinking the perihelion at that higher aphelion by means of a tiny reduction in velocity (a small retrograde burn), will be significantly more efficient than my basic strategy described above, and will likely beat any attempt at using slingshots. The only disadvantage is that the whole trip will take much longer, but that is not really an issue for this particular scenario.

This problem of bringing objects nearer to the sun is similar to the question whether an astronaut in orbit around Earth would be able to throw a baseball back towards the planet. Intuitively, it seems the nearer the astronaut is to Earth, the easier it should be to throw the ball back towards it. Again, reality is contrary to this intuition. For the astronaut not to fall down and burn up in the atmosphere, he or she must be in a stable orbit. The closest orbit that could be considered sufficiently stable, would be a low Earth orbit at about 8 km/s as stated above. Throwing the ball straight down towards Earth from this circular orbit, as would be the most intuitive thing to do, won't help at all: this throw is perpendicular to the direction in which the ball was already moving while the astronaut held it. The throw will therefore just increase the ball's total velocity and only marginally change its direction, bringing it in an elliptical trajectory with both apogee and perigee higher than previously! The best the astronaut could do in that situation, is throw the ball retrograde to subtract as much velocity from its orbit as possible. The highest recorded speed of a baseball pitch at the time of this writing, is about 47 m/s. (Let's ignore the fact that this could never be achieved while wearing a space suit.) Subtracting this number from 8000 m/s only yields a slightly lower velocity, meaning its perigee will only be lowered slightly (it will drop from 6227 km to 6081 km). Ignoring drag, its apogee remains at the point where it was thrown. It would experience slightly more atmospheric drag at the lower perigee, making it lose altitude marginally faster than when simply leaving it in the original orbit which has lower drag. Trying this nearer the planet, in other words from a lower circular orbit, only makes it more futile because the orbital velocity there is even higher. Going into an orbit however with a much higher apogee where the orbital velocity is near 47 m/s (the easiest way to obtain this is through a highly elliptical orbit), makes it perfectly possible. Throwing the ball retrograde at that point, will reduce its velocity to near zero and make it fall down almost in a straight line towards Earth. (Of course the ball would just burn up during atmospheric re-entry, but that is not the point of this exercise.)

If you do not believe me and have many hours to spare, there is a great computer game called ‘Kerbal Space Program’ that allows to quite accurately simulate the strategies I discussed, albeit in a fictional solar system. The latter doesn't matter because first of all, the system is quite similar to the real thing and moreover, it demonstrates the principles accurately enough despite the limitations of the patched conics approximation it relies on. You will notice that any attempt to bring the overall orbit of a space ship nearer to the Sun, will make it harder to bring it even nearer in subsequent manoeuvres. No matter how counter-intuitive it may seem, making the ship crash into the Sun becomes the easier, the farther away from the Sun it starts out.

Space Tourism

Now that we're talking about space travel anyhow, it may be a good moment to discuss the concept of space tourism that used to be a distant dream, but became a reality around the year 2020. If you ask me whether this is a good evolution, my answer is: I seriously doubt it. With regular tourism, persons take a trip to some remote location where they usually contribute to the local economy. In the case of space tourism on the other hand, the persons depart from one location and basically return to the same location. The trip only consists of that: a trip. And not just any trip, it consumes an enormous amount of fuel, most of which is needed to bring the craft into orbit.

The first SpaceX launch that carried tourists brought them in an orbit even higher than the ISS, but since the energy required to reach this higher orbit is small compared to the overall energy for the entire launch, it is fair to compare it to a trip to the ISS. Someone calculated the emissions of a launch to the ISS and compared it to some modes of transport an average person is more familiar with. The result looks better than one would expect at first glance, because the carbon footprint of one Falcon 9 launch is calculated to be “only” about 5 times that of a transatlantic flight. In reality though, that flight is usually shared by hundreds of passengers, while the space capsule will only contain a handful of passengers. Adding more passengers to the space capsule has a much more profound effect on the fuel budget than is the case for the airliner. And, the space capsule passengers do not really go anywhere, they just burn up fuel to make a few orbits around the planet without contributing much if anything to science or to any other humans than the ones providing the launch infrastructure and fuels, and then they return. The calculations per km travelled in the article are pretty pointless. As I said, for space tourism the practical distance travelled is zero because the travellers will depart from their home and return to it, and any additional travel besides the actual space flight is merely overhead and not the goal of the actual trip.

The merits of this whole endeavour are questionable. Resources that may be needed in the future are being wasted, and a considerable amount of pollution is generated, basically for nothing. As I have heard an astronomer state and as I explain elsewhere [LINK:INTERPLANET], humans do not really belong in space. We belong on this planet, and for some reason we seem determined to mess it up to a point where it becomes a hostile environment to human life. Why?

Patched Conics

By the way, have you ever wondered why there might have been such a large emphasis on conic section equations in math lessons during high school? This may depend on what country you have had your education in, but every Belgian teenager is fed mathematical knowledge about conics like ellipses, parabola and the like, as if they are the most important thing ever. I never really wondered why, although when I moved on to real life, it gradually started to annoy me that I barely could put any of all that knowledge to good use. By the time I victoriously discovered that I needed to solve a quadratic equation as part of some task, I had to admit that I had almost forgotten the formulae due to blatant disuse. When I started to play the aforementioned Kerbal Space Program game, things started to dawn upon me. The following may be one of my many guesses, but it sure does make a lot of sense.

The curriculum I had been following, had in all likelihood been greatly influenced by the evolutions in space travel since the 1960s. A simplified way to calculate the trajectories of objects in space, is by using the patched conics approximation, which describes the trajectories as segments of conic section quadratic equations joined together, hence the name. The persons who had created the curricula, probably firmly believed that all children from then on should be educated to be great astronauts who could calculate a patched conics approximation for the trajectory of their spaceship with nothing but a pencil and a piece of paper. The funny thing is, even though Kerbal Space Program is built upon the patched conics approximation principle, I did not have to solve one single conics equation while playing the game, which was the closest thing to actually piloting a real space ship I have ever done in my life. Even when I meticulously planned a whole mission to send an armada of three ships to the game's equivalent of Venus, pick up something from the planet surface, and return, I still did not need more than basic arithmetic. The computer did all the fancy conics and delta-V calculations for me, and for picking an optimal launch window I used an online mission planner.

I am not saying all that education was pointless, on the contrary. Knowing about the theory behind all that automation gave me much greater confidence in relying on it. If a bug in the software would have caused something very implausible, I would have a much higher chance of noticing it. My whole point though is that for me, the apparent goals of that education were only fulfilled while playing a freaking video game for the sake of pure entertainment. Most of my former fellow students will not ever play any game like this, let alone ever have to plan an orbital trajectory once in their entire lifetime. Maybe part of the time spent on teaching all those conics equations to the greatest details, could have been better spent on teaching a broader range of topics.

If you now get the feeling you should try out Kerbal Space Program, be warned that it requires massive amounts of time and a keen interest in space flight to be fully appreciated. The interest obviously was not a problem for me, and at one point I also had loads of time. I had a whole lot of work holidays left at the end of a year, so I took them all at once without any concrete plans for travel or whatsoever. I ended up taking a holiday in space: I played KSP for more than two weeks straight. It ended up a very memorable holiday period, during which I learnt a ton of new things, utterly disproving the notion that no video game can ever be educational. The game was still in development at that time, it had no mission system so I had to make up my own missions, like deliberately stranding someone on a random planet or in a random trajectory around the Sun, and then staging a rescue mission. I'm not sure if the current released version has better tutorials, but they were quite spartan at that time, so don't expect the game to hold your hand. A rather simple mission may already take hours. The aforementioned mission to ‘Venus’ (or Eve as it is called in-game) took several days (in real life, obviously the virtual mission itself spanned several years).


One of the biggest problems with all our technological ‘progress’ is that most people are unfit for all the power the technology offers. Not only are they unfit for it, even if they would be able to use the technology responsibly, they still would not need it at all. We are way beyond the point where all of our technology solves real acute needs. Instead, marketing tries to convince everyone that they need the latest gizmos that solve some very specific problem that only truly affects a few. A lot of current inventions are only useful to a small number of people, some are useful to nobody at all. If someone tells you of a certain product: you won't know you need it until you have it, then you can be pretty certain that even when you have it, you still do not really need it. The apparent need will be nothing but an illusion, a self-fulfilling prophecy [LINK:SFP] that initially hides all the extra problems introduced by the product and your newfound addiction to it.

In principle there is no problem with trying to improve luxury (with ‘luxury’ by definition something that offers no improvement in necessities). If there is some surplus in both time and resources that allows to improve perceived quality, then there is nothing wrong with using this surplus. The problems arise when there is no surplus, yet essential resources are still being consumed just to increase luxury. It seems to me that this is happening quite a lot at the time of this writing. The surplus may seem to be available, but it is borrowed from the future where it will be badly needed. Wasting the surplus right now, creates a debt that may become impossible to repay.

Giving average people access to mass-produced powerful machines, chemicals, communication technology, … is like giving straight razors to infants and hoping they will not cut up themselves or others. In fact, if my theory of society becoming ever more infantile [LINK:INFANTILE] has any solid ground, what we are currently doing is exactly that: putting dangerous things into the hands of persons with the mindset of a child because we either do not see their immaturity or do not care. It is obvious what kinds of results this will lead to. There are countless people who have grand ideas that seem awesome at first sight but that would utterly destroy everything that enables us to live when executed. The only reason why this has not yet happened is because they did not have the means to execute their apparently awesome but in reality utterly stupid ideas. With every technological ‘advance’ we make that brings us closer to the possible execution of such stupid idea, we increase the risk of unleashing an unintended but nevertheless idiotic disaster.

The bottom line is that if you do not want someone to do stupid things, then in the first place do not give them the means to do those things, especially not if those means are good for nothing else. Giving them those means anyway and telling them not to abuse them, simply does not work. Believing in the effectiveness of that prohibition will be just as infantile as the other's desire to break it. At some point they will ignore or forget your warning. What is the point of enabling the average car to go much faster than the highest speed limit? What is the point of making massively unhealthy food and allowing people to buy it in unlimited amounts? What is the point of giving people the freedom and means to turn their environment into dead space covered with waterproof materials that accumulate noxious fine dust particles, disrupt the ground water system, and cause floods whenever rainfall exceeds average levels? What is the point of allowing everyone to buy antibiotics and use them at the slightest hunch that they might help, while the only thing they are really doing is breeding resistant bacteria? What is the point of putting largely untested nano particles and other substances in everyday products (look up Triclosan [DiTeCh2014, SaXiZh2018], or trehalose [CoRoDa2017, CoJa2018]) before it is certain they have no long-term toxic effects, and encouraging everyone to buy the stuff with unfounded claims (as was the case with Triclosan for instance) that the additives will bring nothing but benefits? It surprises me how some can on the one hand be so scared of natural things like bacteria we have coexisted with for thousands of years, while these same persons on the other hand happily accept that manufacturers are ‘enriching’ everyday products with novel, unknown, untested, and potentially much more lethal substances against which our bodies have no protective barriers at all. Those substances are designed to fix one single tiny inconvenience while ignoring all the possible long-term health effects that fall outside the scope of this inconvenience. It baffles me how easily this stuff is allowed to enter our environment and food chain. There appears to be a general attitude that any product should be allowed unless there is explicit proof that it has horrible consequences. This attitude is unacceptable and should be the other way round: a product can only be allowed if it has been explicitly proven to not have any nasty effects in both the short and long term.

Just a few days ago I noticed that my recently bought tube of toothpaste now proudly boasts “without Triclosan” on its label. The stuff should never have been in there in the first place! I don't see anyone putting labels like “without hydrogen cyanide” on their products. This is nothing new by the way. After radium was discovered, it was being used for pretty much anything at the start of the 20th century, including as a wonder ingredient for toothpaste. Of course today anyone would be abhorred by the idea of radioactive toothpaste, but people from the future will be equally abhorred at the kind of crap we are naïvely putting in various products today.

There is also the problem of microplastics and nanoplastics. Unfortunately the naming is poor: one would expect “microplastics” to have dimensions in the order of magnitude of micrometers, and “nanoplastics” about 1000 times smaller, but due to historical reasons the naming is a mess. Microplastics are chunks of plastic smaller than 5 mm. Later on, a need arose to give a different name to particles smaller than 1 micrometer because they had different properties. The sensible name for these was already taken, so the only option was to continue the misnaming tradition and call these particles “nanoplastics.” Anyhow, the problem with those things and especially the nanoplastics, is that it has been proven that these are now distributed pretty much everywhere across the entire globe, even in zones one would consider pure and clean like remote mountain regions. Apparently nanoplastics can be easily carried around by wind and remain suspended in the air long enough to reach even the most remote regions. The consequence is that this rubbish is now everywhere, also in our bodies. Even an unborn child is already infused with this junk because it can traverse the placenta. Nobody really has any idea what long-term effects nanoplastics will have. Perhaps they cause weird inflammatory conditions. Perhaps they will cause even worse problems when their concentration keeps rising. Perhaps they will disrupt enough of the marine ecosystem that there will be ill consequences for all life on this planet. Perhaps the human species will be slowly killed by this subtle toxin, and ironically the only evidence of human existence that will remain on this planet after millions of years, will be a layer of plastic particles in sediments.


[REF:SYMPTOMS] What we are mostly doing with our technology is tackling symptoms instead of causes. Western medicine is probably the greatest example. If something hurts, we develop a painkiller that targets exactly that pain and everything is deemed OK. The mere existence of that pain however has as purpose to signal that something is wrong. Masking it does not solve anything, on the contrary: it removes the drive to solve the problem, allowing it to grow further. It is like boozing up oneself to forget one's problems. This parallel works great because just like too much alcohol, the symptom-masking medicine often has side effects and introduces other problems next to the one it tries to hide. Or as a non-medical analog, it is like taking the battery out of a smoke detector because it is signalling that your house is on fire. Luckily I am not the only one who thinks this way. I even found a doctor who addresses this issue in his blog, featuring even exactly the same fire alarm analog. Remember, I am not only targeting medicine here. We need to change our attitude towards every kind of problem. Otherwise we will ‘burn up’ before we know it, because we have disabled all our alarms.

It is not just in technological contexts that we fail to solve problems at their root level, it is in all contexts including humanitarian ones. The crisis that caused a steady flow of refugees from the Middle East in the early 21st century for example, was only tackled at symptom level. We tried to allow those refugees, or migrants or trans-migrants or whatever we like to call them, to integrate into our society. For whom this failed, we tried to at least provide sufficient shelter. For whom even that failed, we tried to prevent them from entering the country. We only looked for solutions to the problem of random persons wanting to cross our borders. A while later we were forced to start looking at the problem of some of those persons wanting to blow themselves up or play real-life Carmageddon in the middle of crowded places. Nobody poses the question: “what is the root cause of those people fleeing their countries, and can we not remove that cause?” The refugees are a symptom of that root cause. Treating the refugees in the best possible way still is mere symptom-fighting. Even the apparent best solution of integrating them into our country is much less ideal in my opinion than allowing them to continue living in their own country, where they do not lose the way of life they are used to, stay with friends and acquaintances they are used to, in a climate they are used to, and can keep on eating the things they are used to. As opposed to having to live in a country with a different culture and habits, in a different climate and with different food, surrounded by strangers many of whom have an instinctive drive to dislike anyone who looks or acts differently. Of course a major reason why we do not really consider fixing the root causes is because of the high difficulty. The root causes are almost always wars which we do not want to get involved in too much. However, the rewards in the long term of taking away those root causes will be much higher than keeping on supporting this steady drain of refugees. The vast majority of those refugees are just people who want to live a normal life. This means that the majority of those who stay behind in the troublesome country, might well be the kind of persons who are eager to keep on fuelling the conflicts, and the situation just keeps on steadily worsening.

[TODO] Recycle the “overreacting upon disasters” and pendulum movement section from the old text, re-work, explain from [ASSIMILATION] principle etc. Within the perspective of society acting like a high-level living entity, such behaviour is similar to an autoimmune disease, an allergic reaction where the ‘body’ causes more harm than benefit to itself.


Ecology: There Is No Such Thing as ‘Nature’

[REF:NONATURE] There is no such thing as an isolatable entity ‘Nature’ or ‘Mother Nature’. It is just an umbrella term for a series of phenomena that stem from ages and ages of evolution. What we call ‘Nature’ is a bunch of observable parameters of an equilibrium situation that has settled over billions of years between innumerable physical and chemical processes. The specific set of parameters that is included in this definition of ‘nature’, varies between different groups of persons, and between individuals inside those groups. This simplified definition allows our small minds to make abstraction of the vast complexity of reality. I am pretty certain that every human, deep inside, still associates the word ‘nature’ with the same type of primal instincts that made our ancestors worship the sun and the moon, and perform rituals to appease what they perceived as a conscious deity. A ‘hippie’-attitude is not any better or worse in this aspect than an attitude of “let's conquer nature and fight it.” They are equally stupid and only differ in how the imaginary concept of ‘nature’ is looked upon. There is in fact more truth to the hippie-attitude once it is stripped from all silly feel-goodness.

Despite what some like to believe, we are a part of those processes and their equilibrium. The equilibrium is so complex that nobody as a single person could ever grasp it. Neither can I, but at least I can accept that it exists and that I will never be able to wrap my mind around all its details at the same time. This equilibrium has never been stable and never will be, but the rate of destabilisation has started to skyrocket in mankind's most recent history. The endless craving for technological advances coupled with endless population increase is a certain recipe for disaster. Some would say that nature will punish us, which could be translated from ‘hippie-speak’ into plain English as: we will eventually have wasted all the resources that are necessary to survive and have caused irreparable damage to essential ecosystems that support human life, hence we will all die because you know, destroying the necessities to survive is a pretty poor strategy for survival.

The equilibrium situation that we call ‘nature’ is only one out of a sheer infinite number of equilibria. In the vast majority of all those possible equilibria, there is no room for life, let alone human life. The fraction of equilibria in which sustained human life is possible, is very tiny. It does not take much to disturb our current equilibrium such that it shifts to one of the unfavourable ones. This seems to be something that too few humans are truly aware of. The typical reaction to reports about how bad the situation is becoming, is to instantly stick one's head into the sand [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. This is a useless reaction. One cannot make this problem go away by pretending it is not there, in fact this stance only amplifies the problem. From a purely logical viewpoint, this kind of reaction makes absolutely no sense at all. There are worse reactions like actively denying that this problem exists, or even actively increasing the kind of damaging behaviour, but the fraction of humans belonging to the latter groups is pretty negligible compared to the big majority who are guilty of pretending the problem can be made to go away by ignoring it.

I notice there is a considerable fraction of people who consider nature a completely isolated entity and find it no problem if it would ‘die’, because mankind is purportedly completely independent of it and will certainly be able to survive on technology alone. Even when ignoring the fact that the concept of ‘nature’ is utterly vague and fuzzy, how could one be so naïve to believe such a thing? Perhaps by being so lodged inside a tiny frame of reference where all the things that can go terribly wrong in this scenario are happily ignored. Especially by ignoring all the costs of replacing processes that have evolved over millions of years to be stable and maximally efficient, with comparatively crude and kludgy technology based on steepest-hill reasoning [LINK:GREEDY] and power-hungry machinery that can often only be built with resources that are bound to run out in the not so distant future. That technology is designed to do a few things better than the natural processes, but the fact that it does many other things much worse is not considered. Nobody likes to consider the possibility that entities that have tried to do those few things ‘better’ in the distant past, have become extinct because the long-term return is negative.

This personification of ‘nature’ is one of the things that stands in the way of truly improving upon our situation. As long as we keep on slapping names like ‘Mother Nature’ onto what is nothing but a grab bag of observations and models, henceforth treating it as an independent conscious entity that reasons and wants to fight us, humans will keep on trying to fight this phantom entity and inflicting damage to the very environment that allows them to survive. Personifying something (or to use an expensive word: anthropomorphising it) and making it appear to have an ego of any kind, is a surefire way to make everyone raise their defences to protect their own little egos [LINK:ARROGANCE] and short-circuit their logical reasoning [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. ‘Nature’ is not a person and does not have an ego. Fighting it out of sheer arrogance is utterly idiotic and counterproductive. It should be made more obvious that when we destroy what many call ‘nature,’ we are actually killing ourselves in the first place.

It is tempting to accuse those who believe we should try to live more ‘naturally’ of being romantic (ah yes, yet another extremely vague concept). Most ironical is that whoever tends to constantly mention the concept of ‘nature’ as something we should fight against because it is a terrorist (I heard that one on the radio this morning) or whatever, probably has a more romantic idea of nature than someone who realises that it is just an abstract concept. Isn't it much more romantic to believe that ‘nature’ is some well-defined semi-conscious entity that wants us all dead for who knows what reasons, and that must be conquered through technology (which never has done us any wrong, right?)

Let me make this perfectly clear: I am not defending the kind of hippie attitude here of blindly looking at how things used to be and going back to that way of living because it is all ‘natural’ and fuzzy and flower power and bunnies and trees and deer. I believe anyone who wants to go that route is a complete idiot. For instance it is not because some product is ‘natural,’ that it is safer than a synthetic product. I can brew you a tea with all natural ingredients that will make you thoroughly ill. Heck, a tea made from horse manure is also 100% natural. If you would go to the rainforest (or what's left of it), catch one of those golden poison frogs and and take a few good licks at it, you would probably die—one hundred percent naturally. Uranium ore is also natural, but one would not want to build a house from uranium ore bricks. What I want to say is that anyone who blindly wants to reject everything not entirely controlled and manufactured by mankind because it is part of something they can describe as ‘romantic’ at best, is just as big a complete idiot as anyone who rejects anything man-made because it is not ‘natural’. We must stop going down these narrow-sighted paths that are steered by unconditional belief in one single methodology, panaceas [LINK:PANACEA], simple dogmatic ideas, and dumb assumptions about high-level concepts with no attempt at verifying their low-level basis. We must take a much broader view that does not exclude anything out of emotional reasons, especially because people often do not know when their reasoning becomes emotionally steered [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. Otherwise it will not matter what kind of route we take, each will lead to a pretty damn shitty situation I do not want to experience.

Mosquitoes and Mao

For instance, there are many proposals at the time of this writing to eradicate mosquitoes from this planet. The motivation for this is often quoted as being the ultimate way to fight diseases like malaria (and recently, Zika has joined the club), but I suspect the true motivation to be much simpler and much more mundane. Every time one of those stupid little buggers is humming around my ears with its horribly irritating sound, I get a desire to make the damn things become extinct too. I have quite a firm belief that this is the true general motivation. Nobody in the cozy Western world truly gives a shit about people in distant continents stricken by malaria. Even those who believe they do, are probably being fooled by their own lazy and overly optimistic mind [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. In the end it does not matter whether it is sincere or not: the concern for the health of distant and unknown groups of people is nothing but a politically correct excuse to mask the shamefully simple desire to get rid of the god awful buzzing at night. Therefore we make grand plans to destroy an entire animal species just for the sake of luxury. We try to ignore any evidence that this might have a large impact on the rest of the world. Maybe it has not, or maybe we consciously or unconsciously ignore an apparently small detail that will blow up to an enormous disaster.

[REF:4PESTS] During Mao Zedong's ‘Great Leap Forward’ around 1960 in China, he introduced the ‘Four Pests Campaign’. The campaign tried exactly this: to wipe out certain species that were deemed noxious according to certain narrow-sighted goals. Sparrows were deemed a pest for the simple reason that they eat seeds and grains. The reasoning seems to make sense: kill this ‘pest’ and agricultural yield will increase. Uhm, no. The sparrows were actually nearly eradicated in certain regions, but this had unexpected consequences: with this natural predator for many insects gone, those insects could reproduce almost indefinitely and now they were devouring all the crops. But no worries, there was another short-sighted solution for that: throw around loads of pesticides until the bugs were eradicated as well. This was before the age of ecological awareness, which might explain why nobody considered the fact that insects are needed for pollinating plants. The obvious end result and big unpleasant surprise at that time, was that the whole campaign led to severe losses in agricultural yields and had exactly the opposite effect of the originally intended one. The disruption of the ecological cycle was so severe that even to this day, there are still regions where humans have to manually pollinate plants to fill the gap in the ecological cycle. That must be one of the shittiest jobs ever, especially when being aware that it has only become necessary due to dumb and naïve decisions made long ago. The only upside of this whole string of cock-ups is that it probably contributed a lot to the growing ecological awareness about a decade later.

To get a better idea of what is wrong with many a modern approach to nature and technology, consider the difference between something that exists in nature, for instance a kind of plant or animal, and something that was designed and created by humans, for instance an office building or a car. Why does the first exist and why does the latter exist? The natural entity exists because it originated at some point and proved able to keep on existing across thousands or even millions of years. It exists “naturally” in every sense of the word: it does not try any less than necessary nor does it try any harder to exist than necessary, and therefore it has the best chances to keep on existing. The man-made entity on the other hand exists because it was forcefully constructed, spawned out of an idea that it could be useful or out of a need to implement something else that was deemed useful. And sometimes just because we want to satisfy some instinctive drive that has no real purpose anymore in the present-day world. There was never an acute need to build automobiles, someone only invented them at the time when mankind had discovered electricity and fossil fuels, and they proved to come in handy. Automobiles spawned and promoted all kinds of activities due to their mere existence, as self-fulfilling prophecies [LINK:SFP]. Mankind could have perfectly survived without cars as it had done for the tens of thousands of years before. Who knows, perhaps in the long term mankind may prove to have had a better chance at survival without them.
For anyone who is in doubt, replace the car in this example with smartphones or tablets and consider how necessary those really are. The difference with the natural entity is enormous: the building, car, or tablet is made from materials that were costly to obtain, they will break down spontaneously even if unused instead of automatically recovering from damage, and have not even the slightest hint at a mechanism to ensure offspring (imagine that, a procreating car).

The natural entity on the other hand is a tiny cog inside a huge system that exists because it originated spontaneously and can maintain itself—otherwise it would not have survived for millions of years. It fulfils a certain task in the maintaining of a giant cyclical process and it has displaced all other entities that tried to do the same task less efficiently. The artificial entity however is a resource sink inside a system with a total lack of foresight into anything but the very near future. It serves only one purpose that is sometimes not even based in physical reality, it fulfils an apparent acute need and ignores all the negative effects it has. Its path of existence is not cyclical, it is a straight line that is bound to hit a hard obstacle at some point.

This is why the tendency of many to regard every new major technological invention as the ultimate panacea [LINK:PANACEA], annoys me to no end. The mere fact that all the previous inventions proved not to be The Ultimate Solution To Everything™, should give a hint that neither the new one will be the promised magic remedy to everything. I would expect that humanity would learn from previous mistakes and disappointments, but instead it keeps on being overly optimistic and remains stuck in the idea that ‘learning’ is the act of piling up ever more facts without trying to find an overview. Humanity keeps on bumping its head against the same stone over and over again. Only because the stone looks a little different every time, people do not notice it is the same goddamn stone. Eventually this will go away of course. One can only butt one's head against a stone so many times before getting an aneurysm or bleeding to death.

Instead of putting inane and childish messages on packaging or in product manuals like: please recycle this product to protect (mother) nature, it would be better to write: please recycle this product to avoid fucking up the environment you live in and henceforth slowly killing yourself. Replace the term ‘nature’ with variations on ‘the world that keeps you alive.’ This might help to make more people act a little bit more intelligently. Of course, the really dumb people will believe to be smart by throwing their trash a little further away such that it is not in the environment they live in. It may be useful to append something like: we live in the same world as you. If we find out you threatened our lives by polluting our environment, we will come kick your ass.

“Mother Nature Is a Terrorist”

Quite a few like to scoff at efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollution that may contribute to climate change. It is difficult to estimate how many of such people there really are because on general they tend make a lot of noise, hence attract a lot of attention. Their exact fraction in the population is not important though, their absolute number is. It suffices that there are a few of them to spoil everything for the rest. They tend to mention polar bears, baby seals and penguins, in an attempt to indicate how little they care and how they think that global warming is only about some extra ice melting and some poor endangered animals dying. Or worse, they simply deny it is happening at all. They believe it will not affect them in any way and want to cling to their current way of life where getting from A to B at a speed of at least 120 kph today is more important than the certainty of having something to eat and a place to live tomorrow.

A naïve opinion about ‘global warming’ that I hear someone using as an excuse every few weeks, is that it will only have the positive benefit of warmer weather. This is nonsense because first of all, a large part of the human population lives in areas where warmer weather is the most undesirable of things. Next, it is entirely possible and even likely that a change in climate will cause temperatures to drop and weather conditions to worsen in specific places. Yes, it may get warmer on average, but that does not mean that it cannot become much colder in some places due to for instance the gulf stream changing course. Moreover, what benefit would warmer weather have if it would be pouring rain all the time due to the introduction of a monsoon climate? Or if the place where it got warmer becomes entirely flooded? Or if the changed climate is detrimental to agricultural yield? Maybe it is worth it to not stop thinking at the point: “warmer, yay!”
Those who ignore the issue, seem to believe to be completely independent of their environment. They believe they are somehow immune against anything screwy that happens with ‘nature’ because it is only that fuzzy thing from Disney movies filled with bunnies and deer, and which is completely separated from humanity, and we will be able to fix any problems through technology. One would need to be extremely naïve to believe in that. I do not give a shit about those polar bears and penguins either, but I find their sudden decline one of many worrying signs. It means something is wrong. At some point, the problem that threatens those animals may come knocking at the door of those who believe there is no reason to care. Again, in principle I could not care less, but I live in the same world as those people and the problem can therefore come knocking at my door as well, and that is when I do start to care.

Coming back to this ‘Mother Nature is a terrorist’ idea I have mentioned before, just consider how dumb a statement it is when taken literally. First of all, even human terrorists will almost never incite terror just for the sheer fun of it (aside from the very few total nut-cases). They almost always do it with a specific goal in mind, which is mostly to draw attention to a plight or to discourage people from acting in a manner they consider hostile, or maybe just because they think they are the centre of the universe and everyone else is inferior and must be killed. Even when making the childish assumption that nature is some conscious entity, what would be its motivation for inciting terror in humans? To take revenge for cut down trees and adorable baby seals clubbed to death? Why do I even bother trying to find an answer to this question, the question in itself is nonsense, it is like wondering why a piece of rock wants to hurt you when you drop it on your own feet. I say it again: nature does not think, nature does not like nor hate, nature does not feel anything, certainly not a desire to act revenge, for the plain simple reason that ‘nature’ is just an abstract concept that only exists in our minds [LINK:NONATURE]. There is only reality and in reality bad things do happen from time to time because nobody could ever control every aspect of reality such as to prevent every possible disaster. One can either be prepared for those bad things such that they have the least possible impact, or cry and be angry at them like a dumb little child, and make one's overall situation after a disaster even worse by starting to combat something that does not even exist.

Stop brainwashing children with ecological propaganda, it backfires

I do not know if it is still the case nowadays but when I was a kid at elementary school (especially) and high school, we kept on being bombarded with what some would call ‘green propaganda’. There is a historical explanation behind this, because the school curricula of the 1980's were mostly constructed by people who went through the birth of the ‘ecology’ movement that started around the early 1970's. Don't get me wrong: ecology is extremely important. But as usual, people exaggerated. Apparently those who made up the curricula, believed they could create a more nature-conscious generation by basically brainwashing its youngsters with as much ecologic awareness as possible. I am afraid this plan backfired in quite a few of those persons who as kids underwent these curricula. I did not mind at the time and neither did most of the other kids. We all believed in it and there was absolutely nothing wrong with that, because most of it was actually based in valid science and reasoning. But the fact that it overshadowed other important material to be learnt, hence caused us to so strongly associate ecology with our childhood, may exactly be the problem. As those kids grew up, two things happened: first, they saw that many adults did not live at all according to the principles they had been taught at school. Big disillusion! It was all lies. Next, they considered themselves ‘grown up’ and probably wanted to dissociate themselves from their childhood. Hence everything that had united them as kids, they now treat as childish. All the eco-stuff is supposedly for little children, now they have the right to pollute and destroy at will, because that is all adult and mature. I may just be wildly guessing here (as I so often do in this text), but every time I hear someone who considers themselves ‘adult’ scoff at ecology, there is always this undertone of: that stuff is for little children.

Long story short, I would suggest to severely tone down the patronising stuff at school and everywhere else as well for that matter. Teach children a bit of everything. Do not wedge them into a certain thought pattern no matter how well-intended it is. If you want to teach children about ecology, just take them on a nice excursion to a landfill or polluted site. If protective clothing must be worn for their safety, that's actually a plus. If you need to tell them not to touch the dead animals that died from eating the garbage, that's totally awesome! Do not precede or follow it by some long speech, only a short introduction of what they will see and why it is shown, and what will happen if nothing is ever done about it. The mere experience will speak for itself. If there is any discussion, do it after the excursion. Maybe a few of the children will never understand the point of it, but for those there's probably no hope anyway.

One of the most ecologically scary things I have ever seen as a kid was a display in a museum with a doll representing a person inside a jar, connected to the exhaust pipe of a model car. Pushing a button supposedly started the car, and the display shifted from the ‘before’ to the obvious ‘after’ situation. I couldn't yet read at that time but words were pretty much unnecessary. (In case you are reading this at a time when cars no longer have combustion engines: the exhaust gases are highly toxic and the person dies painfully.) It did not take long until I realised how little difference there is between the situation in that display and the world we live in. The ‘jar’ may be a lot bigger, but the effect would still be the same if we would reduce its contents down to merely humans and polluting machines. If one teaches people enough of everything and shows them all aspects of reality and not just the happy-joy-filtered aspects, they will eventually understand the big picture all by themselves. The insight not to destroy the very environment that keeps them alive, is part of that big picture.

It is not just the amount of what is learnt, the quality of it should also be scrutinised. In the next section I will explain what kind of role trees and plants play in the cycle of carbon dioxide versus oxygen. What I wrote down there is not what I learnt at school or at least not what I remembered from it, it is based on scientific reports and plain logical thinking. The idea I had when leaving school, was that trees are magical filters that continuously inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen at a steady rate. This is incorrect. I believe it is a very bad idea to teach children incorrect things out of some assumption that the correct information might be too difficult or too devoid of funny cute stuff. The incorrect ideas will remain lodged inside their brains and will be very difficult to correct afterwards. It is better to teach the correct things from the start, if necessary simplified a little, than to tell a lie and hope they will discover afterwards what the truth really is, without reacting angrily if they ever do.

Plants vs. Carbon

A common misconception is that trees and other plants really transform carbon dioxide (CO2) into pure oxygen (O2), and the carbon (C) magically disappears. It does not. What really happens is that the carbon becomes stored in the plant as a building material, for instance cellulose and lignin (wood in layman's terms). The oxygen is a waste product from the process of growing the plant. Cellulose consists of chains of C6H10O5 molecules, which could be built from 5 water (H2O) molecules plus 6 carbon dioxide molecules, which leaves 12 redundant oxygen atoms or 6 molecules as ‘waste’ (because 5⋅1 + 6⋅2 - 5 = 12). Making lignin from the same source materials also leaves behind a big surplus of oxygen. As studies have confirmed (and as logic dictates), this means that only young growing trees substantially contribute to reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere. The slow growth rate of a mature tree is offset for a large part by the shedding of dead material which is partly converted back to greenhouse gases when it rots away. This also means that when cutting down trees and burning them completely, the carbon stored in the wood again reacts with O2 from the atmosphere and the circle is round: we again get CO2. Important to note is that fossil fuels are basically nothing but remnants of prehistoric forests. In prehistoric times our planet's atmosphere was chock full of CO2. The main reason why today it has an abundance of O2 is because there has been an era (the Carboniferous) when forests grew and absorbed a lot of carbon in the atmosphere. The forests subsequently died and at that time the conditions were unfavourable for the dead trees to quickly decompose, hence they remained mostly intact until they became buried and possibly even fossilised. After the dead trees of the previous forest had disappeared under the ground, new ones could grow on top. Next to this, carbon was also absorbed by algae which underwent a similar fate of becoming buried, often at the bottom of oceans. This cycle of trees and algae growing and becoming buried was repeated often enough for the carbon to reach such a low level that the atmosphere was no longer toxic to animal life.

On top of this, due to imperfections, plants also sometimes decompose water into pure hydrogen and pure oxygen gas. From the plant's perspective this is undesirable, hence plants evolved to keep this fraction really small, but over a very long timespan it does accumulate. Some other processes may also break up hydrocarbons into pure hydrogen gas, oxygen, and possibly other substances. The overall amount of hydrogen produced this way across millions of years became very significant. Why then is there no significant amount of hydrogen gas in the air we now breathe? Well, this gas is light enough that it easily escapes from the earth's atmosphere out into space. The oxygen is much heavier, hence most of it stayed behind. This is why there is an abundance of oxygen, which eventually reached a sufficient level for animals to thrive.

Obviously it is perfectly possible to reverse this process and glue all those carbon atoms stored in deposits back to 2 oxygen atoms each, by digging up the remains of those forests (i.e., coal from the trees and petrol from the algae) and burning them up. Which no sane being would do because it would be tremendously stupid of course, especially when also cutting down living forests without planting new ones. Hey, wait a minute…
Due to the lightweight hydrogen gas escaping into outer space, it will not be possible to completely reverse the result of what happened during and after the carboniferous. It will not be possible to consume all the oxygen and again end up with the prehistoric atmosphere of almost nothing but CO2 and nitrogen. Even when burning up all fossil fuel deposits and incinerating all organic material on earth, the fraction of oxygen in the atmosphere would only drop a little. The escaped pure hydrogen gas has created that much of an overabundance of oxygen. However, the amount of CO2 would rise more than enough to cause severe problems. If some humans would be spared from this hypothetical incineration of all organic material, they would still be able to breathe, there would still be plenty of oxygen and not too much CO2 for it to be toxic, but so many processes on the planet would be messed up that surviving would be pretty difficult to put it mildly.

The above also casts a different light on all propaganda that claims it is better to get rid of paper as an information carrier entirely. Paper is considered not environmentally friendly because trees need to be cut down to make it. Is it? Electronic communication is far more efficient obviously for any type of short-lived information like letters, tickets, short messages, … But for documents that need to persist across many years or books that are meant to survive multiple generations, consider the fact that to maintain them in a purely electronic form, a continuous maintenance effort is required due to the inherent volatility of electronic data. When storing them on a solid-state device, it needs continuous refreshing. One might propose to store this kind of data on a passive physical medium like a DVD-ROM which does not have that problem. Indeed it does not, but every access still requires additional energy and quite likely considerable effort will be required as well to interface this old storage format with future technology. Reading a sheet of paper on the other hand merely requires grabbing it and turning one's eyeballs towards it. This same tiny amount of biological energy is also required for all of the digital solutions, the difference is that they throw a big pile of extra electrical energy on top (and usually also a lot of chemical waste to manufacture the devices). You could do the exercise if you want, but I am quite certain that this amount of physical human energy is peanuts compared to the electrical energy required by the digital solutions.

Now let's get back to the idea that making paper out of trees is environmentally unfriendly. Why would cutting down a tree to make paper be bad? It only is when not replacing the cut-down tree with a new one. This misconception follows from the other misconception that trees keep on absorbing carbon from the atmosphere at a steady rate no matter how old they are. Quite likely it is better to cut down a tree and convert it into long-lived products while also planting a new tree, than to do absolutely nothing and leave the tree as-is. The total amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere has a good chance of being larger in the first scenario. Merely cutting down the tree and burning it, is of course a scenario much worse than either of the previous, see the above. The idea that cutting down a tree is a one-way process seems to be somehow deeply embedded in the mind of certain populations. It might be another side effect of the city-idealism phenomenon I discuss elsewhere [LINK:CITYIDEAL]. Maybe humans have somehow developed the stupid instinctive idea that cutting down trees is definitive, and any piece of soil where a tree had previously grown must be paved with something ‘civilised’ or else we are all going to die in some horrible unspecified way. The concept of humans having such kind of built-in idea, sounds like bullshit and I really hope it is, but it would not be the first time when reality proves more absurd than my wild ideas.

Here is another example of what is wrong with how people think about ‘nature’ these days. Some think it could be a good idea to build ‘artificial trees’ that store CO2 or perhaps convert it to oxygen through an artificial process of photosynthesis. There may be an underlying idea here that once we have those things, we no longer need to bother with real plants. If that would be true, just think twice about how ridiculous a scheme this is. Manufacturing and maintaining those things will cause pollution and waste products, no matter how we do it. Remember the whole section about entropy. Any hitch in the manufacturing or maintenance processes would be an instant hazard for the entire human population if we would have actually been that stupid to destroy the natural mechanisms that convert CO2 to O2 + carbon compounds. These machines, or at least their manufacture, will require a continuous influx of energy that has to be generated by other machines that also incur pollution during their construction or run-time. Of course, these costs are happily ignored in all proposals for such things. Now think about what is required to make ordinary trees decompose CO2 into carbon and oxygen. All we need to do is find some nutritious soil, plant some seeds and pour water on them, and have some patience. Those seeds will grow into self-replicating, self-maintaining machines that have evolved over billions of years to be a very efficient way to convert CO2 to oxygen. Those trees require no maintenance from our part, no man-made power supply, and produce virtually no waste products that are not reusable. And with reusable I mean for the whole ecosystem, not just for a tiny subset.

Trees and other plants are not just important for producing oxygen, they are also good at removing filth from the air. Assuming that it rains from time to time, even a dead tree can still do this to some extent because it still has a considerable surface area due to its structure. A living tree with leaves or needles is obviously much more useful because it has a multiple of that surface area, part of which is renewed on a regular basis and which is often covered with sticky substances as well. Even if a fine dust particle would only have 1% chance of sticking to any part of the tree when colliding with it, the tree as a whole is still an excellent filter due to its enormous surface area. (In reality, that chance is probably significantly higher. The interested or skeptic reader may want to research actual values for both surface area and ability to retain dust.) Compare this to a synthetic environment that consists of simple box-like structures which do not only have a relatively small surface area, but are also typically constructed from materials specifically chosen not to accumulate dust and instead leave it lingering around for everyone to inhale, because we consider it essential that our boxes remain shiny with minimal cleaning effort.

Yeah, those artificial ‘trees’ would better fit in a naïve capitalist model, because natural trees do not really fit in a simplistic model of production and consumption by entities frantically collecting virtual reward units [LINK:WHATISMONEY] and striving for infinite growth. If we would have sufficient time to keep on improving our ‘artificial trees’ before we all kill ourselves, it is not unlikely that we would eventually end up with the equivalent of a natural tree. We will however in the process of this null operation have wasted an irresponsible amount of resources that could have been spent on things that really matter. Other stupid ideas are storing CO2 in the seas or ground, which is yet another excellent example of tackling symptoms and not the underlying cause [LINK:SYMPTOMS], and of short-sighted reasoning. How certain is it that this CO2 will never escape? Or building a gigantic solar screen in space. Whoever came up with that idea has probably not considered the cubic kilometres of CO2 that will be produced by launching that stuff into orbit, or the fact that we already have so much crap hanging in space that it will be a miracle if that shield will not contribute to an enormous ablation cascade. I'm not even considering the effects of reducing exposure to sunlight on the physical and mental health of humans. What about the following idea: we stop producing too much CO2 and other noxious substances in the first place, and ensure that their production and consumption stay in balance just as they have been for the past few million years. Or does that make too much sense?

One could argue that in the above paragraphs, I claim that trees are ‘for free’ while elsewhere [LINK:FREELUNCH], I claim the concept of ‘free’ not to exist and everything to have a cost. First of all, the word ‘free’ does not occur in the previous paragraphs. Second, from the viewpoint of a life-form that requires oxygen like a human, carbon-consuming plants are not just ‘for free,’ they are better than free. Regarded from within the entire big picture however, the plants are not for free at all, they require resources to grow. A considerable part of those resources just happen to be waste products from the oxygen-breathing life-form, and waste products from the plants happen to be resources that the life-form can use. It is a closed cycle. We might replace part of that cycle with something we build ourselves, but why would we want to replace a proven and tested autonomous mechanism with a design that probably contains many flaws waiting to emerge, and which requires continuous maintenance to not break down and compromise the supply of resources? It would be a non-stop source of trouble and stress. It would be just stupid.

Fact is, we have already messed up things so hard that merely planting new forests won't do. At some point we won't have space left to plant more. The trees will mature hence no longer absorb carbon at a significant rate. Even if we cover all available space with forests, we won't be able to compensate for the multitudes of fossilised forests we have already dug up and burnt during the past few hundred years. However, there is a way out of this by stepping up the forest planting idea, even though this brings it to a level many will consider insane. What we should actually do is to cut down those newly planted forests when they have matured. The excess of cut-down trees that cannot be used for building and manufacturing things, we bury in underground mines in a way such that they won't combust or otherwise release CO2. We could do the same with algae, which are another way to perform photosynthesis. Then, very important, we again plant new forests, a tree for every one we have previously cut down. We keep on repeating this cycle multiple times. This process will lower the CO2 content in the atmosphere because it is the exact inverse of digging up fossilised remains of forests and burning them. I guess if we do it right, we might be able to bury the forests in such a way that they will again turn into some kind of fuel over a very long stretch, meaning we have a full cycle. The question then is, do we really want to spend this much effort on maintaining some kind of inefficient power-hungry economy based on a naïve model of boundless growth?

Nobody must be the sole owner of valuable natural regions

It is obvious that at the time of this writing, exactly the opposite of what I proposed above is happening. We aren't planting new forests in an attempt to draw carbon out of the atmosphere, instead fire is being deliberately set to even more vast swathes of forest. Wetlands where algae thrive are being drained for industrial or housing developments. One of the biggest forests is the Amazon and it is very tempting for Brazil to just destroy this gigantic region for ‘development’ because it would allow to keep satisfying the incessant human craving for infinite growth for quite a while. I have a solution for this, but you can be pretty damn sure Brazil won't like it.
The Amazon forest should be detached from any country and become a no-mans-land, under a responsibility shared across the entire planet. As many countries as possible should get together and buy the Amazon forest region from Brazil, and then declare it a no-mans-land forever, guarded by all those countries at the same time. Repercussions for violating the neutrality and integrity of this zone or deliberately destroying parts of it, must be severe. We simply cannot afford to rely on a single country to take care of this important natural resource, and also it just isn't fair to push all this responsibility to a single country and then blame them if bad things happen. The only fair solution is to make it fundamentally impossible for anyone to destroy this region under the veil of ‘development.’ Arguably, the same should be done for any other large important nature reserve. Obviously one could not simply tell a country to give up part of their territory for nothing in return, they should in some way be compensated for it. I couldn't tell how to plan and organise such kind of scheme, but maybe this simple piece of text will spark a much needed revolution in the heads of people who can.

Silent Running

I do not know if it is a thing of the times or just of the country I live in (let's call it by name: Belgium, more specifically the Flemish region), but there seems to be some war against trees going on, an increasing drive to cut down every single tree in the entire country. Since the year 2010, give or take, it has suddenly become common to see piles of logs next to highways, and barren landscapes full of tree stumps instead of green areas. The central reservation of many a highway has been clear-cut and sometimes covered with a concrete shell to really prevent anything from growing on it. Areas that used to be full of trees are now bald and bleak, without any efforts to add some new vegetation to them. Some talk of this as if it is some kind of progress. I do not know what kind of justification they have for it. There are a few suspicions of course, first of all contractors in Belgium have more power than politicians (remember UPlace: at the time of this writing nobody wants it, almost all politicians are against it, but still I won't be surprised if it will have been built in five years). Second, consider my discussion about ‘city-idealism’ [LINK:CITYIDEAL]. Another possibility is that people hope to reduce allergic reactions by cutting down trees (there have been actual suggestions to cut down all birch trees, I guess Mao would have liked this idea [LINK:4PESTS]). Tell me, how much sense does it make that people would suddenly become allergic to an environment they have lived in and evolved in for thousands of years? None. Any sound reasoning will reveal that the trees cannot be the real cause of the problem. Cutting them down is tackling a symptom, not a cause [LINK:SYMPTOMS]. Sooner or later the real cause, whatever it is, will probably trigger allergic reactions to pretty much everything, including people's own bodies. I bet this real cause will prove to be something man-made, perhaps it is the smog and NO2 from the filthy diesel engines the average Belgian is so in love with. Who knows, maybe the trees that have all disappeared would prove to have been the only economical means to get rid of the true pollutant. Maybe I'm searching too far for an answer and it is much simpler, for instance it could be that we are simply cutting down all those trees to feed the stupid ‘biomass’ power plants or the fabrication of pellets for automated stoves, which by the way both are things that should be outlawed by any politician with more than half a brain. Doing this kind of stuff is completely equivalent to people in underdeveloped African countries destroying forests for firewood, only at a higher technological level and much less excusable. There are ever rising complaints of smog and fine dust particles, yet we are cutting down all the natural dust filters at the side of our highways and converting them to fine dust in stoves. Something does not compute here. Except in someone's pay-check maybe.

There are actually incentives from the European Union to treat wood stoves as renewable energy sources, which might be one of the reasons for the eagerness to cut down everything. Those incentives aren't wrong per se because as explained above, wood is a renewable energy source as opposed to petrol or gas originating from oil wells. There is an extremely important precondition however for this to be true, and it is the requirement to plant a new tree for each one that has been cut down. The latter is clearly being forgotten, probably with the help of our stupid instinct that makes us feel cutting down trees is irreversible. In Belgium, at best the government will place a silly billboard next to the clear-cut areas stating “this area has been cleared to allow new vegetation to grow,” but there is usually no trace of new growth (sometimes the area has just been paved). The main problem with wood as fuel is the production of fine dust. Either we try to solve that problem through better stove designs, or we find a way to convert vegetation into pure gas that can then be burnt while new vegetation is planted that will re-absorb the produced CO2. Everyone seems to believe that any form of gas is a much better fuel than wood, but that is only true if the act of producing the gas can forever be paired with another process that converts all the CO2 from the burnt gas back into fuel. This is not the case with gas obtained from oil wells, which is merely the remains of prehistoric plants and trees in a different form.

Every time trees in a public location are cut down or an area with natural vegetation is paved, a storm of protest ensues. Entire movies have been made that covertly or overtly boil down to a protest against the destruction of forests or nature in general. If you want to see a truly fucked up example of this, watch ‘Silent Running’ (1972) but do not complain that I did not warn you it is weird. The film depicts a future when earth has become so overpopulated and polluted, that the only forest-like environments remaining are inside giant domes attached to a giant spaceship orbiting the planet (how the people on the planet are supposed to survive in their hopeless situation is never explained). At some point the costs of maintaining the domes is deemed too high, and the crew is given the task to destroy them. One of the crew members however starts to resist and eventually ends up murdering the entire rest of the crew, and if this already sounds messed up, I won't even give away how the film ends. If you're looking for a feel-good film, by all means do not watch this one. It oozes despair and dread until the very end.

It may seem peculiar how there can be such a strong built-in aversion against deforestation in a large proportion of all humans, and a motivation to spend so much effort on a film that weird (‘Silent Running’ does have some impressive and expensive models and special effects for its time, thanks to the expertise of SFX guru Douglas Trumbull). The protesting group is often large enough that even when none of them have any significant power on their own, they are still able to prevent the few high-level individuals from continuing. Contractors and city planners will of course attack this deep-rooted reflex with words like ‘romantic’ and ‘quaint’ in an attempt to make it seem uncool. Yes of course they will because any tree that cannot be cut down is a patch of land that cannot be built upon, hence missed potential profit. Those words ‘romantic’ and ‘quaint’ do not mean anything. On the other hand, the existence of this ubiquitous innate desire to live in a green environment must mean something. Suppose that in the past, two groups of humans each clustered together and evolved away from each other: one that developed a built-in appreciation for trees and one with a desire to turn their environment into a dead barren wasteland. Which of the two groups was the most likely to survive in the long term?

On March 15th 2014, I heard in a news report that CO2 levels in the atmosphere had reached a record high in hundreds of thousands of years. Of course the news report was presented as if this were a huge surprise. There is nothing surprising about it, aside from the fact that it took so long for this fact to be reported in mainstream news. Even though I had never looked at any curve of CO2 levels, I was certain it must be skyrocketing. The logic is simple: mankind is destroying mechanisms that synthesise O2 from CO2, and at the same time it is adding more mechanisms that produce CO2. We extract fossil fuels from the earth's crust: remnants of old forests that had decomposed CO2 into carbon and O2 and stored the carbon. Now we reverse that process and glue those stored carbon molecules back to oxygen molecules by burning up all those fuels. How can it be a surprise that CO2 levels are increasing? It is like making a campfire inside an airtight room and being surprised that people inside the room start to choke.
Now I have looked at the actual curve, it is even worse than I thought. It is going up vertically. Here is a prediction without even looking at any studies: the levels will keep on rising, the rise in levels will cause humongous problems, many will die directly and indirectly as a result of those problems, and only then will the average public start to realise how bad the problem is, and it will be way too late. I think the havoc will be worse than the worst thing anyone dares to come up with today. Any economical profits that are currently being made by processes that make the curve go up in such a ridiculously steep way, will be annihilated and converted into massive losses. Nobody will even give a fuck about economy anyway, merely surviving will be difficult enough on its own. I guess one of the main reasons this topic gets so little media attention, is simply that widespread panic might erupt if everyone would become aware of how bad the situation really is. It is funny to hear John Kerry say that the technology to reverse the effects of climate change exists. Of course it exists, it has existed for millions of years. What seems to be severely lacking though, is the good will he mentioned.

The general sentiment the majority of people in my surroundings seem to have, is that for some undefined reason all this crap is unavoidable. When someone who has spent their last dozen years in a city environment finally takes a break and notices that their country still has some beautiful unscathed pieces of nature, they will usually be pessimistic and claim it will be ‘inevitably’ destroyed in due time. Coming back to Silent Running, one particular reviewer on IMDb wrote that the kind of future depicted in that film is ‘unavoidable’ as well. I have no idea what kind of reasoning—if any—is behind such statements. Obviously anyone who assumes beforehand a bad future is inevitable and not worth fighting against, becomes imprisoned inside this stupid self-fulfilling prophecy [LINK:SFP]. Granted, tackling the problem in its current state will not be trivial. It will require extreme measures, it will require letting go of some of our luxuries, and the mere momentum of the damage that has already been done will keep on deteriorating the situation for a while even if we pull all the stops and implement the best possible cure. We need to keep this in mind and not give up if things do not improve immediately. The only alternative is a situation much worse, and that is exactly what we will get if we just keep on being lazy and indifferent.

One might expect another news report to come sooner or later, announcing a drop in oxygen levels in the atmosphere. This kind of report will never come however, and the reason is explained above. Due to hydrocarbons also being decomposed partially into pure hydrogen gas in fringe cases, and hydrogen gas escaping out into space much more easily than oxygen gas, an over-abundance of oxygen has been gradually built up over millions of years—a million times a fringe case equals a very significant case. There is not enough carbon readily available on the entire planet to consume a problematic portion of all available oxygen, even when ideally combining every carbon atom with every pair of oxygen atoms. Hence we won't die from lack of oxygen. Unless we do something about it however, we will die more indirectly, though some extinction-level disaster caused by too high a total amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
As a matter of fact, we would be “better” off if it would have been possible for the oxygen levels in the atmosphere to drop too low to survive after all. It is far “better” to die from lack of oxygen than from an excess of carbon dioxide. Taking away the oxygen out of normal air will result in a nearly pure nitrogen atmosphere. A human placed in such atmosphere of pure nitrogen will pass out and die unconsciously and painlessly. On the other hand, a human placed in an atmosphere with an ideal amount of oxygen but too much carbon dioxide, will die consciously in a very painful manner. The sensation of choking one experiences when holding one's breath for too long is not due to lack of oxygen in the body, it is because of a build-up of CO2 in the blood. The excess of CO2 causes the acidity level of the blood to increase, which leads to horrible pain and eventual death. But don't worry: as explained above, it will not be possible to end up with an overall CO2 level in our atmosphere that is truly toxic. (Of course, toxic levels may be reached in local areas, if somehow enough carbon dioxide is allowed to accumulate there.)

The nasty thing is that we can cause a huge mess before it gets extremely obvious that the increase of CO2 has become problematic. As the rest of this text explains, humans only tend to understand the extremely obvious because they keep on conveniently ignoring the less obvious [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. The extremely obvious in this case is simple: a significant number of people will have to start dying in a way that can be traced back rather directly to the disruption of the oxygen-carbon cycle. For instance, massive floods caused by icecaps melting, or in the most extreme case: people actually dying from CO2 poisoning in places where it managed to accumulate, although by the time this starts becoming commonplace, we might already be collectively fried to death by the greenhouse effect. What makes things much worse, is that there is an aspect of momentum involved. When those first people start dying, many more will inevitably follow even if we pull all the stops.

What I mean with the momentum aspect, is that by the time we finally decide that we need to act, it will be like having to stop a heavy freight train running at full speed. Two factors will be working against us: first, it may be impossible to immediately shut down all the processes that produce CO2, because we may have become so dependent on them that halting them also causes people to die. In the most preposterously extreme case, if the world population keeps on skyrocketing to truly ridiculous levels, a significant part of CO2 production may come from merely people breathing, which we obviously cannot halt just like that. Second, just as it took a long time to mess up the entire mass of earth's atmosphere, it will take a long time to fix it again. Hence regardless of how exactly we messed everything up and how we try to fix it afterwards, large numbers of people will most likely keep on dying for a while even after we have managed to restore the oxygen-carbon cycle. If we messed up truly bad, that cycle will not recover in time before everyone has died. You see, these kinds of situations always sort themselves out in the end, but the automatic solution may be pretty undesirable. The best solution is plain obvious: do not mess up things to begin with, but as I said before: this won't happen because we only seem to be able to learn from mistakes.

Look at it this way: even in the hypothetical case that we would decide to go all-in with our striving for destroying everything natural and instantly halt all processes that turn CO2 into O2 and stable byproducts, it would take quite a while before the effect becomes truly noticeable because we can cope with quite a bit of extra CO2 or a bit less of O2 in the short term. Our planet has a huge atmosphere and it takes a lot of time to change its constitution. It will take even longer if we do it gradually. During this period where we do not notice things are deteriorating, we have a lot of time to mess up even further. The naysayers and anyone profiting from the polluting processes will keep on denying that things are going south as long as there is still plausible deniability. The actual point where humanity as a whole realises how bad the situation is, will be the one where the Grim Reaper starts to sway his scythe, because that seems to be the only thing universally understood to be bad, even by the biggest of idiots.

Electronic Communication

It is not just ways to fix pollution, also many of our attempts to avoid pollution are deeply flawed and based on short-sighted naïve strategies that tend to backfire. Coming back to the ‘paper is evil’ idea, consider the repercussions of replacing all possible paper-based communication with electronics. Replacing paper books with e-readers would be an OK idea if everyone—including those who read few books—would not be forced to buy a new reader every year because it breaks or is “out of fashion.” Manufacturing one e-reader and keeping it in working condition is an order of magnitude more polluting than creating several paper books, which are easily recycled and will still ‘work’ in 500 years without ever requiring energy or maintenance. Not a single high-tech electronic consumer device made today will still work in 500 years without requiring expensive repairs, unless it is conserved with extreme care. Heck, by then it might even be difficult to find someone who still knows how to bring it back to life.

More generally, electronic communication is often touted as more environmentally friendly than paper-based communication. Is it? If someone is taking notes on a tablet that syncs data across the internet and that needs to be recharged every day just to be of any use at all, does this really have a smaller ecological footprint than someone jotting down the same things with a pencil in a paper booklet? Maybe that booklet is perfectly sufficient for the situation. There is no continuous cost associated with keeping the booklet in ‘working order’ because its mere physical existence is its working order. Accessing it requires no more energy than required to grab it and open one's eyes. The same effort is required for accessing the tablet, plus the easily overlooked cost of the electrical power to run the tablet, the even more easily overlooked electrical power to send the data over networks and wireless receivers, and of course the resources required to generate all that electricity and to manufacture the device and all that infrastructure. The situation is way more complicated than people like to assume. In certain cases the electronic communication will certainly be more efficient and have a lower impact than other means, in other cases it will be a huge resource drain and source of pollution.

I seem to remember someone computing the cost of performing a simple calculation by typing it in Google. There is hardly any need to find that article nor to compute the exact numbers for that matter, if we merely think about this for ourselves. I have a pocket calculator that can run on three LR44 button cells for more than 10 years under typical usage. The calculator is quite advanced, it can even be programmed. The button cells provide a total of 4.5V and can deliver 150mA for one hour. You won't get very far with that on a present-day mobile device. A small and efficient mobile device might survive for a few hours on that amount of power. It might be able to handle some hundred calculations performed through the search engine, while the pocket calculator can probably do a million calculations. However, for the calculator the power usage is constrained to the device itself. The mobile device on the other hand, is just the start in a long chain of power-hungry machines that ends somewhere in a data centre that gobbles up enough power to heat a swimming pool. I am pretty certain the 0.675 Wh or 2430 joules contained within the calculator's button cells are by far insufficient to handle even a single request across this entire chain. Heck, I could probably even perform that same calculation in my brain, which might require something like the energy contained in a grain of sugar (which would be about 0.01 joules). Of course the latter is a wild guess, but it certainly won't be much.

Next to the environmental aspect, practical aspects are also often brought forward to promote electronic communication. Again, which kind of technology is the most appropriate, depends on the situation. If I work in a company where everyone has a short scrum meeting every noon, and we need to be aware of each other's summer vacation plans, then we could either rely on the official planning software which generates an overview of everyone's registered vacation periods, or we could simply stick a printed blank timetable to the wall where we hold our meeting, and put a pencil and eraser next to it. The first solution might seem optimal until one realises that to view the online table, someone needs to open a web browser and log into the administration tool, and then click through to the overview. As for the piece of paper, we are all standing next to it anyway so in the worst case one needs to take a few steps to come closer to it. Moreover if anyone is not entirely sure yet of their exact vacation period, they will not yet have entered those days in the system because it only is meant to enter finalised data. On the paper it is easy to note a preliminary period and any associated comment. The eraser makes the paper sufficiently adjustable. There is an ecological aspect as well: the single piece of paper will be used for about four months which makes its cost insignificant. It requires no energy to remain stuck to the wall and be visible, and the energy required to read and update it is negligible as well. Consulting the online tool daily during the same period on the other hand, will have a much larger ecological impact. Even if the practical aspect of the table not being readily available is mitigated by mounting a computer-driven TV or tablet on the same wall, then consider the cost of running that machine for the same four-month period, and the relative cost of manufacturing an entire complex machine that will be used for this single purpose only. I have the same concerns about paper billboards being replaced everywhere with TV screens that consume between 100 and 300 Watts continuously, while a paper billboard consumes zero Watts (maybe a few dozen Watts at night for a backlight). Of course, all these hidden costs are never touched upon in the mind of anyone who still rides the wave of the panacea [LINK:PANACEA] of electronic communication. They only look at the positive aspects and cut off their reasoning before any negative aspect is considered [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT].

When I have to design anything or reason about an algorithm or whatever, I always start out with a sketch on a simple piece of paper, quite often a literal “back of the envelope” design. If accuracy is not a concern (it never is during the first design stage), then simply scribbling on paper is the most direct and practical means. There is no setup cost of launching apps and logging in and waiting for stupid updates or discovering that some developer found it necessary to rearrange the whole user interface for the umpteenth time in the latest update. The only cost is in moving my arms (which I would also need to do for an electronic design). Often the sketch is sufficient for the final work, and in that case I will indeed convert it to electronic form by merely making a photograph or scan, to store on a digital medium for easy archiving. I do not believe in a single solution or technology for everything. I believe in the right tool for the right job and my ego can just bugger off when it is too afraid to learn something new or stick to an untrendy but proven old technology.

Here is a very simple practical example of how attempting to reduce pollution or energy consumption can have adverse results when not considering all the implications. We had a halogen lamp with a motion and light sensor outside our house. It would only activate for a minute every time motion was detected and it was sufficiently dark. At one point, the light sensor failed in a state where it always produced a ‘dark’ measurement, and the lamp would activate upon detecting motion at any moment of the day. This meant increased power consumption and accelerated wear. Accessing this lamp was very cumbersome, so instead of immediately replacing it, I had the idea of simply putting a time switch on its easily accessible mains plug, to take over the role of the broken light sensor. This is the point where the typical politician would consider the case solved and they would execute this plan. I however am an engineer and I have been taught to validate things before deploying them. Hence I measured the power consumption of the time switch which proved to be not negligible, and I made an estimate of how often the lamp would activate and how much power consumption this would incur if I simply kept the situation unchanged. I also had to take into account that the lamp would activate an additional time every evening when the timer transitioned from off to on. The result was that it was not worth the effort. Even in the best case, adding the timer would consume more than it would save. I simply left the lamp as-is and replaced the whole assembly when the halogen bulb failed.

Electric Cars and Solar Cells

Consider electric cars, often touted to be the solution against pollution caused by internal combustion engines. It seems perfectly ecological: no exhaust gases—until one starts thinking where we will get the electricity. I will elaborate on this further on, but the simple fact is that an electric car is at best as eco-friendly as the means to produce the energy it is charged with. If we produce the electricity in coal and gas plants, we are probably doing worse than burning fuel inside the car itself because the latter skips the notoriously inefficient conversion step between heat and electricity, as well as all the costs of getting the electricity from the production plant to the car. And then we haven't even looked yet at the batteries themselves. Batteries are buckets or packets of chemicals, they require other chemicals for manufacturing and eventually they will need to be disposed of when worn out. Even when totally ignoring all ecological aspects of manufacturing and disposal, these batteries are also the largest practical hurdle. It takes ages to charge the damn things and any attempt to charge them faster will also wear them out faster. We do not gain anything on the safety front either, I'm not sure whether an exploding lithium battery is any less hazardous than a gasoline leak catching fire. As a matter of fact, incidents have shown that once a lithium battery pack catches fire, it is pretty much impossible to extinguish. The best strategy is to simply isolate it and let it burn out, obviously not a great strategy if the vehicle is inside a tunnel or underground parking lot.

Perhaps the internal combustion engine is not as polluting as it may seem. Who knows, if we provided sufficient green areas everywhere instead of destroying them, maybe these areas would be perfectly sufficient to filter out the pollution from modern combustion engines. But city planners seem to prefer to level and pave everything with asphalt and concrete surfaces that nicely accumulate all the soot and fine dust particles that might appear similar enough to pathogens that they make our immune systems go crazy. I guess these planners will advise people to simply hold their breath until the next rain shower. Or why not, to always travel by car equipped with air filters when going outside, which obviously only worsens the overall situation.

Moreover, combustion engines have become so advanced that a considerable part of the pollution produced by a modern car does not come from the engine. It comes from brakes and tyres wearing off and releasing fine dust particles. Switching to electric cars does not remedy this, although the need for mechanical braking can be reduced by braking electrically which allows to recover part of the energy as well (regenerative braking). The disgusting black crud however that consists of tiny rubber fragments from worn-out tyres will not go away, and I do not believe it is harmless.

Solar panels are another example. Yes, once one has a solar cell, one has basically ‘free energy.’ To the uninitiated, they look like magic: put them in sunlight, connect some wires and ta-da, electricity for free. What those people tend to forget is that it costs energy to manufacture solar cells, and that the manufacturing process is complicated and polluting. I have made high-end solar cells in a lab myself. Some of the chemicals involved you really do not want to come into contact with. Of all silicon platters that enter a high-end manufacturing process for efficient panels, a considerable fraction will not survive up to the final product but will become waste. Solar cells do not last forever either, neither do the electronics required to condition their output into usable electrical power. Both do wear out and must be replaced after a while, meaning another manufacturing cycle consuming power and producing waste. Even if the technology would advance and produce panels that last forever, there is still the inevitable problem of day and night. To make solar power useful beyond the moments where there is daylight, storage is required—batteries again. This means yet more chemicals and yet more electronics to manufacture and maintain. It does not make sense to put high-end cells on short-lived disposable products. On average, those cells will not even come near to generating a break-even for the resources that went into making them, unless care is taken to recover and re-use the cells from discarded devices until they have really worn out from usage. Then again, that refurbishing process will also be polluting and reduce the net positive effect of using the cells, compared to either using some other energy source or avoiding the need for a powered device altogether. I can go on like this, but there is little point because most people already cut off their reasoning at: “free energy, yay!”

The whole drive towards ‘green energy’ is not flawed per se, but it offers many pitfalls that the naïve often forget or do not want to consider. Even windmills that may appear very clean, require components that may be very polluting to produce. They require continuous maintenance, they also wear out and must eventually be replaced. The huge blades of wind turbines do not last forever, they degrade or become damaged from erosion, and must eventually be replaced. These blades are made of fibre composites that are currently near impossible to recycle, therefore the only option is to bury them in turbine blade graveyards, which is arguably not that much better than having to store radioactive waste. The long-term effects of these fibrous materials slowly decomposing are unknown. Even if this problem would be solved, wind turbines still have other inherent drawbacks. Placing them on land may involve destroying considerable patches of natural areas, and even when they are placed on sandbanks in the sea, these windmills are a hazard to birds.
Coming back to solar cells, our neighbour once requested us to cut down most of our trees because they would cast shadows on his soon-to-be-installed solar panels. Similarly, forests may need to be cut to provide a clear path for the wind to reach a turbine park. Green energy, yeah right! Of course the brain of the average politician or environmentalist extremist has already shut itself down long before these problems loomed on the horizon [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT].

There are also these stupid concepts like ‘solar roadways.’ The idea is that most of the time, road surfaces are not covered by vehicles (which is unfortunately not true with all present-day traffic jams), hence we could supposedly use all this surface to gather photovoltaic energy by incorporating solar panels in the road surface. Anyone with half a brain however can predict that driving even lightweight vehicles on top of brittle silicon sheets is a terrible idea. The panels can be protected with a tough surface, but that will be detrimental for light transmission, especially when this surface starts accumulating scratches and dirt brought in from elsewhere, acting as an abrasive. Roads are a terrible place to mount solar panels. Just place them next to the roads instead, elevated and angled towards the sun, where they can also double as roofs for car parks and the like. It makes no sense to start putting solar panels inside roads unless all other available space has already been used up, which is a situation we must not even allow to develop in the first place, ever! At the time of this writing, all test projects of this kind have failed horribly, even those where they didn't even dare yet to let cars drive on top of the panels. Even bicycles proved too harsh for the panels in one case! Here are two EEVblog videos summarising all those failures: 1, 2. There is also a variant where the panels would be placed between railroad tracks, also a horrible idea due to the vibrations and iron dust the panels will be exposed to.
The most infuriating thing about these projects is all the government funding and ecological resources that have been wasted on them, which could have been better spent if anyone bothered to consult a competent engineer beforehand. This is somewhat like my timer switch story, but on a much larger scale. Please validate things before spending tax payer money on them.


Yes, nuclear power is a problematic technology and as it works now, it is not a long-term solution. However, hastily tearing down existing nuclear plants in response to events that were due more to poor management and planning than inherent unsafeness of the technology, will risk being much poorer a solution than to gradually phase out the technology or trying to evolve it towards a safer and more efficient state. If nuclear plants are closed prematurely before sufficient ‘green’ replacements are available, the resulting shortage in electrical power will need to be filled in by fast and readily available alternatives like coal and gas plants, or local gasoline-powered generators. Those are exactly the kind of sources of pollution we wanted to get rid of by switching to nuclear power initially and renewable sources later on. Replacing petrol engine cars with electrical vehicles is pointless if the electricity to charge those vehicles is produced in such CO2-spewing power plants or if large patches of forest must be destroyed to construct solar and wind energy farms. As usual, the story is not as simple as some want to believe, and trying to keep it simple by blatantly ignoring important facts, only makes the whole situation more complex and worse.

In North Rhine–Westphalia in Germany, there is the mind-boggingly large Hambach open-pit coal mine. It produces lignite, which is a very low-grade type of coal. The mine will devour and annihilate two entire villages if it is allowed to grow to its planned exploitation area. The lignite is used in power plants, where the low efficiency is not that big of a deal. The demand for this polluting kind of coal has soared recently, meaning the survival of those two villages as well as the remaining forest in the same region, is more in jeopardy than ever. You know why? Because environmentalists campaigned to close down nuclear power plants elsewhere. [YT-TTT2019] The loss in electrical power from the closed nuclear plants had to be compensated for, with increased capacity in coal-powered plants. The irony is pretty thick here. Keep in mind that the only real problem with a well-constructed and well-maintained nuclear power plant is its nuclear waste. This waste is very nasty but it takes little space, can be stored in a well-confined manner with no effects on its surroundings, and its properties are well-known. The alternative the Germans have now received in its place, is a giant depressing pit, and a steady release of huge amounts of a greenhouse gas that goes anywhere it wants around the planet, possibly causing future effects nobody has yet anticipated.

I am somewhat skeptical about nuclear fusion reactors ever becoming viable without introducing nasty side effects that are currently still beyond the horizon or blatantly ignored (as has been done in the heydays of nuclear fission), but I keep my hopes up and I believe research in this field is very useful, as long as we do not keep pouring effort and resources into avenues that are obvious dead-ends. Keep in mind that even if it works out, it will not be the ultimate miracle solution that will make energy basically free and that will allow us to do anything. There will still be substantial costs and probably also some kind of noxious waste product we currently aren't considering. We will still (and much more easily) be able to turn our planet into an oven that kills us, and we will still be able to destroy everything that keeps us alive. But, we will also have more means to avoid all those things. It will be entirely up to ourselves what we decide to do.

Coming back to the problem of charging electric car batteries, there seems to be too little awareness of how problematic the slow charging speed will become when electric vehicles become truly popular. There will be a much larger demand for charging points. Equipping every parking spot with a charging point will be too expensive. Providing high-power charging stations in every single home will be problematic. Given that each car will need to be hooked up to a charging point for dozens of minutes or even hours, this situation will quickly become impossible. Roads will be littered with stranded cars that have used up their last bit of juice in search of an available charging point.
How about treating electricity somewhat like gas? Standardise the battery packs, and make them easily swappable. If making the entire battery swappable is too difficult, cars could still have part of their power source as a removable pack, that makes it possible to instantly regain enough power to reach a charging point (if need be at limited speed) to recharge the built-in packs as well. There could be an electrical equivalent of gas stations, that have a large stock of charged battery packs in a robotic storage system. Just drive in, a machine swaps the battery pack, you pay, and drive away. This could be faster than filling up a gas tank. The packs can be recharged optimally at the station, which also checks their health and replaces them when too much wear is detected. Concentrating the charging at those stations allows for a way easier and more efficient organisation of the power grid, as opposed to ensuring that every house and parking lot have sufficiently beefy power links. The electricity flowing into the packs at the station could effectively be cheaper than at a house, when considering grid transport costs. Of course, anyone could still top up their battery at home or at a charging point, but that should be the exception to the rule.
This idea also allows to keep the concept of gas stations alive without any major change in concept, even when fossil fuels have become uncommon. Converting stations into places with regular chargers, where each charge point will be occupied for at least 15 minutes, is too big of a change and would kill all the smaller stations. Nobody will want to risk having to wait possibly 15 minutes until a charger becomes available, and then another 15 minutes to get any usable level of charge into their vehicle. They would immediately seek out a larger venue that has a better chance of a readily available charger. This is not unimportant, as even the smaller gas stations offer many conveniences besides merely providing fuel. Keeping the stations alive merely for those conveniences, would not be economically justifiable.


[REF:ECOEQUIVALENT] There is a simple fact that is severely violated in present times. The fact is that the concepts of ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’ become equivalent when considered over a sufficiently large scope and sufficiently long time span. [LINK:NONATURE, NOECONOMY] For the average consumer, this time span is very short: when buying something that is truly ‘eco’, it should not matter whether that is the abbreviation of ‘ecological’ or ‘economical’ because the repercussions for the consumer are the same. The ecological product will incur less usage costs, e.g., an ecological heating system will spill less energy into the environment, therefore consume less fuel, therefore have a lower running cost. Moreover it can only be ecological by lasting long in order to reduce pollution due to disposal and replacement by a new installation. Again savings for the customer, therefore the ecological product is also economical.
For a company making these products however, the time span for the equivalence to become obvious is much longer. Initially the ‘best’ strategy seems exactly the opposite as the one for consumers: considering short-term profit the ultimate goal and disregarding all the rest, it is better to sell something incredibly wasteful that will break down quickly, like the average contemporary ink-jet printer (see also below [LINK:INKJET]). Yet as the time span increases, this greedy [LINK:GREEDY] snatch-and-grab strategy will start to backfire and become very unprofitable eventually. Only the kind of company that keeps on delivering what the consumer really needs (mind how I do not write: “wants”), will persist.

Mind that I am not claiming that economy and ecology are simply the same thing. They only are when considering a sufficiently large scope. Some try to escape the responsibility of having to care for their environment by claiming everything existing on this planet is part of ecology, and this includes humans hence whatever we do is ecological. Nice try but no cigar. Whoever says such thing, steps into the pitfall of a somewhat creative yet still lazy premature exit of human thinking [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. Even though in the very long term their statement is sort of correct, it never is within the short term they consider when using this as an excuse for amusing but self-destructive behaviour. In any healthy system, something that is economically good must also be ecologically good. If it is only good in a short-term economical sense while being ecologically damaging, then after a while it will also become economically damaging. All the ecological damage will eventually need to be paid for, possibly with a high interest rate on top. The reason is simple: in the end, the economical system runs on the ‘hardware’ of the ecological system it destroyed. The damage will eventually find its way back into the economy and if it has been let to accumulate sufficiently, it can be devastating. At the point where the damage is lethal, it will not matter much whether the victims are the consumers who have been squeezed like lemons during all those years, or the CEOs of companies who have basically been stealing from those consumers. Perhaps the former are better off since they have less to lose.

As I have been repeating countless times in this entire text, this is all a matter of scope. Economy and ecology both model equilibria. Ecology mostly looks at global equilibrium over a long time span, while economy tends to look at local short term equilibrium only. The word “sustainable” tends to be applied to the kind of economy that is in line with ecology, but I try to avoid that word because it has been overused so much that it has adverse effects on the average person [LINK:HABITUATION]. For someone who is too naïve to look any farther than the immediate future and the narrow cosy context of capitalism, this paragraph may sound like flowery hippie-speak. If that is the case then I wonder why you are still reading, because the whole rest of this text will only be more of the same.

The previous paragraphs hint at the main problem with economy versus ecology: the scope of economical models is generally small both in time and location, while the scope of ecological models is generally global and extended in time. In the end, the ultimate ecological model would model the entire universe, which of course is utopian [LINK:UNIVERSE] but a model limited to our planet alone is quite feasible and sufficient for avoiding the majority of problems. The fact that our economical models are overly simple would not be a problem as such, if it were not for all the problems with human thinking I elaborate on elsewhere in this text [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT, ARROGANCE]: we like to lock up ourselves in a narrow frame-of-reference and either ignore or scoff at everything that falls outside of it, so we can uphold the illusion that we are all-knowing. Someone provided a nice illustration of this in the news of the day of this writing: he defended the cutting of a patch of forest to allow expanding his company with an argument that basically boils down to “economy is at least as important as ecology.” Unfortunately it is not. A world with ecology alone can run perfectly on its own as it has done for the past few million years. A world with all ecology destroyed and nothing but the kind of economy as some currently envisage it, will not last longer than a few decades. This is why I would like to stop hearing this stupid excuse in the veins of “… but we cannot improve upon this ecological aspect because we also need to consider economical reality!” That economical reality will go nowhere if it keeps destroying the ecological basis it runs on.

Another important difference is that ecology models something that was already present before humans even existed at all. Economy on the other hand models something that only exists because humans created and maintain it. This is why I frown every time I see economical predictions that try to go beyond more than a few years. Those predictions seem to assume that the economy is a rigid given, controlled by external factors, and our only option is to ride its waves. Wrong: we are the economy. We have defined and created it and our options to influence it are much more numerous than our options to influence the environment that keeps us alive. If we give up beforehand and assume the economy is yet another fatal thing that will inevitably become shitty, then we have yet another dumb self-fulfilling prophecy on our hands [LINK:SFP]. If scientific research on the other hand would show that the ecology would become worse in the next few decades due to fuck-ups made long ago, then we might have a problem much, much worse.

Ink-jet Printers Suck

[REF:INKJET] At the time of this writing, there is a striking example of this discrepancy between economy and ecology: printers (especially ink-jet printers). A study [TODO:LINK], as well as experiences of my own, have shown that manufacturers are incorporating special circuits in their products that cause them to refuse to print long before the ink cartridge is really empty (in my own test with an Epson Stylus Color 680, the cartridge proved to contain 50% more ink than estimated). Worse, some printers are programmed to apparently break down after a specific period of use. The whole idea of loathsome practices like these is of course to sell more ink cartridges and keep the sales of the printers themselves flowing as well. Not a single consumer benefits from this. So much for the ‘invisible hand’ theory. The few who benefit from the printer sales do get profits in the short term, but they make their printers so hated with their customer base that people will start to look for alternatives and try to eliminate the need for printing altogether. Now where is the profit in a company that sells printers nobody wants to buy? Eventually the invisible hand works after all, but unfortunately it only applies to the long-term. During the time span while it settles, there are many opportunities to make peoples' lives miserable, and accumulate hidden costs that need to be repaid in the future.

In principle there is nothing wrong with trying to create an ‘ecosystem’ where everything needs to be replaced regularly. If one looks at nature, it consists almost exclusively of such processes. Things die and are replaced by new generations all the time. Within a certain time span, pretty much every cell in our bodies is regenerated. The whole difference between this and the forced replacing of products however, is exactly that forced aspect. In nature, the replacement happens exactly when it is required, because evolution has wiped out all entities that were too slow in replacing worn-out parts, and also the ones that wasted too many resources by prematurely replacing. Things generally last exactly as long as they can and when they are worn out, the replacement is readily available or built on demand. This is entirely different from making something that can last fifteen years, and programming it such that only a tiny essential subcomponent self-destructs after three years. All the other parts that are still perfectly good need to be discarded or forcibly recycled, which is nonsense. If we truly want to ensure that customers will need to buy a replacement in due time, then the product must be designed such that it will ‘naturally’ wear out within some expected time span. Not just one single component, but the entire machine. This means the entire machine will need to be built from cheaper materials, and this necessarily means that economical equilibrium will force the price of the machine to go down compared to a version built out of expensive parts. What would be really cool, is if the machine could then just be thrown in a compost bin and it would simply decompose into useful substances like any other organic remains. This will require some vastly different approaches to manufacturing. But in the end it will become a necessity if we want to survive beyond anything but merely the near future.

If the idea of slowly rotting printers and other commodities sounds too awkward, no problem. Both economically and ecologically, it is perfectly OK to strive for products that last for decades, at the condition that we get rid of the intentional self-destruct mechanisms and make the products repairable until they have reached a state where too many parts are worn out. At that point it must still be possible to decompose, recycle, or reuse every part of the machine in a non-polluting manner. There have been long periods in human history where things used to be like this, and to me these periods appear a lot more stable than the current. It makes sense that such kind of economy is stable, because it offers more varied work opportunities: next to the mere manufacturing and recycling like in the previous type of economy, it also offers repair and maintenance opportunities. Obviously these two paradigms of short and long lifetime products can coexist perfectly, but only when separated at product boundary level. Once they are intermingled inside the same product, we are back at the dodgy situation of products that never reach the lifetime required to produce a holistic break-even on their investment cost.

As far as product longevity goes, the same goes for packaging: why do we package foodstuffs that perish within two weeks, inside packaging that can last ten years? This is completely backwards. The whole package should start to decompose within reasonable time when exposed to water and bacteria from the outside. Of course we will still want to provide some barrier at the inside, because we wouldn't want the whole thing to instantly become a pile of putrescence when its contents start rotting. I know the idea of rotting packaging will trigger some obsolete instincts in many persons, but face it: those same instincts cause almost everybody to throw away food packaged in our current indestructible plastic armour when the outside has been exposed to dirt. This makes no sense because the packaging is designed to protect against that. Why design the packaging to last forever and be impenetrable, while we pretend it is perishable and permeable? This is a waste of resources. And don't get me started about the stupid blister packaging for simple small products, that can only be opened by using heavy-duty scissors lest one wants to get serious injuries.

Right to Repair… or Fight to Repair

Sadly, around the year 2020 we seem to be moving away from the ideal of repairable products, and instead a disease is spreading across companies that causes them to pretend to be selling products while they are actually really renting or leasing the products and making it impossible for the customer to repair them. If something breaks about the product, the customer has to go through some specific procedure to send the product to only one of a few official repair centers, which will often just claim it cannot be repaired and a new one has to be ren… sorry, “bought.” The customer has paid a full retail price but they do not really own the product. Active measures will be taken to make it hard or impossible for independent repair shops or creative individuals to obtain parts to repair the product themselves, or the product will be designed such that attempting to repair it without specialised tools or DRM keys will at least break some functionality, if not the entire device. Schematics will be impossible to find, which makes it easier to add deliberate mechanisms or poorly designed parts designed to cause the product to fail prematurely.
This is disgusting. It is an act of using modern technology to outright go back to the middle ages where feudal ‘corporations’ protected the trade secrets of their profession. Modern companies will fence with flawed reasoning about ‘security’ to defend this neo-feudal corporate culture. If you notice a company engaging in this kind of behaviour, stop buying their products and encourage lawmakers to bring a halt to this practice of dumb greedy parasitism, and support the ‘Right to Repair’ movement. I want to see this “you will own nothing and you will be happy” nonsense being buried. No, you will not be happy, only the few parasites at the top of this dystopian food chain will be.

I have even heard commercials on our national radio (sponsored by a large bank, of course) that claim this new type of economy where everyone basically only rents products and never truly owns them, is the greatest thing since sliced bread and is good for the economy, your wallet, and the environment. Lies! The ecology argument will be nullified by the fact that greed will cause these companies to force renewal of the products way before it really is necessary, causing unnecessary pollution due to disposal or recycling efforts. If this ‘evolution’ is allowed to continue developing, we will end up in a dystopia where a small number of large tech companies controls everyone's lives. Small companies will be unable to set up the infrastructure and logistics to follow this kind of system, and they will go bankrupt or be swallowed by one of the bigger companies. The whole parallel economy where anyone is able to make money by repairing or refurbishing things, or even merely reselling them, will die. Anyone not closely connected to this proprietary ecosystem of rented products which can only be serviced by authorised centres, will lose income. That whole group will become poorer and have less things to spend their time with. A large group of poor and bored people is an excellent breeding ground for riots, vandalism, and all sorts of crime. It will be awful. Please fight this awful ideology of technological dictatorship before it is too late.


The big problem with ecology is that a mere mentioning of the word tends to conjure up images of tree-hugging idiots who amongst other clichés drive hybrid cars, are vegetarians for no good reason, and women who do not shave their armpits. This image is so widespread in the region where I live, that it is also the first thing that pops into my mind, and I need to remind myself that it has no solid grounds. The sad thing though is that there is some truth to that image.

After it emerged around the start of the 1970s, the word ‘ecology’ has been gradually losing its core meaning. It has lost its zero point and started to float. Some 40 years later, it had become one of the many vapid ready-made ‘lifestyles’ that offer a preset bunch of behaviours that somehow map onto a set of basic emotions, an easy shortcut for people to lead a life without having to think deeply. Most of those tree-huggers either adopted this lifestyle because certain aspects of it feel good, or they had it spoon-fed through their parents. I do not believe many of them will be able to drill down even only superficially on any of the scientific backgrounds that justify ecology. If asked, their argumentation may well end short at references to poor cute endangered animals and dogmas about peace and love. In practice they probably act quite often in ways that are actually ecologically damaging. In this regard, those people are in no way better than someone who picked a wasteful and destructive lifestyle that appeals to other primitive instincts that only made sense in a long gone period where quick growth was useful and feasible due to the small number of humans on this planet.
I do not drive a hybrid car and do not intend to buy one until the technology has been thoroughly proven to be both ecologically and economically justified, I enjoy consuming probably the equivalent of an entire cow every year, and if I had been a woman, my decision to shave my armpits would be exclusively based on whether it has any practical benefits. Yet this text is full of motivations to live ecologically, and I do avoid any pointless behaviour that only wastes resources. The sole reason for this way of life is that it simply makes sense when considering everything together instead of going for the easy route of cloning some pre-digested behaviour like an ape.

Some seem to have been so over-exposed [LINK:OVEREXPOSURE] to ecological propaganda in the past that they will overreact to anything reeking of ecology, in the most peculiar of ways. Merely mentioning the word or trying to incorporate an ecological message into a movie will cause such peoples' minds to prance like a horse that has been kicked in the face. It is not uncommon to see reactions like: to compensate for this, I will burn a vat of gasoline in my garden or: I will buy a Hummer and use it to drive to the grocery one block away. Such reactions apparently are some kind of attempt at… well, frankly I don't know. My best guess is displaying boundless idiocy or something. The only reason such people still exist, is that there aren't enough of them to wipe themselves out through natural selection, because that is obviously what would happen if enough of them would be isolated in an environment with limited resources. I believe it is pointless and counterproductive to shove ecology into people's faces, it will at best reach those who were already aware of it, at worst it will make the others become even more opposed to it, or even worse: it could annoy those with a neutral stance to such a degree that they become opposed. The frame of reference of the group that was already opposed is so tiny that it is almost impossible to cram any thought into it that requires a wider scope. The only real practical way is that they learn from their mistakes, if those do not kill them.

Unconditional adaptation is potentially lethal

Many people are amazed at the ability of humans to adapt to their environment and consider it one of the greatest strengths of our species. I do not see it in such an unconditionally positive way. Adapting to an environment that will eventually become lethal is not a strength, it is palliative care at best. Adaptation is only good if steered in the right direction. The problem is that the adaptation stage of humans appears to be almost entirely unrestricted and is by far the strongest during the first few decades of their lives. For some reason, bludgeoning humans with the same bad things over and over again will eventually make them accept it. This is a recurring theme in George Orwell's ‘Animal Farm,’ where repetition of the same ideas and exposure to the same bad situations leads to acceptance, regardless of how bad the ideas and situations are, within certain limits. This initial youthful stage of unconditional adaptation gradually erodes when humans get older: they tend to mostly freeze into whatever frame of reference they grew up in, treating it as the ultimate model of everything and attempting to transform everything that does not fit within that frame such that it fits. If the frame is really small, this often means crushing and destroying stuff to make it fit—both literally and as a matter of speaking.

It makes sense that this age-limited adaptation mechanism exists. The skyrocketing rate of change of the world is only a very recent phenomenon (and probably a short-lived one at that too). Mankind and its ancestors have evolved in a world that did not change appreciably during the lifespan of a single individual. There was only a need to learn how the world worked during childhood, after that it was simply playback. Therefore I believe that humans are programmed to consider the world as they see it during their childhood as a blueprint for the rest of their life (cf. Plato's cave allegory). When the world deviates from this blueprint, they will try to force it back into the plan they know. Even those who pretend to keep on following all the latest fads will still project them into their rigid world view. Their idea of ‘keeping up with the times’ boils down to looking at the present from different corners of their rigid frame-of-reference until they get a view they like.

[REF:CITYIDEAL] It seems to me for instance that there is a considerable group of people who think it is obvious that some day, every square meter of this planet that is not entirely inhospitable, will be covered by some kind of densely populated city-like environment. This is not surprising given that a large part of mankind now dwells and has grown up in cities. They have rarely seen anything else, evidenced by anecdotes of teenagers who have never seen a live cow and have no real idea where milk, steaks, or other types of food come from. I did not believe these anecdotes until I met someone who really could not believe that milk comes from cow udders. Such people simply believe that the environment they grew up in is ‘normal’ in the sense of ‘the norm’. They never really wondered where the plastic bottles or cartons with milk in the stores come from, they took them for granted as being part of the city environment. They believe it is obvious that the world will evolve towards a transformation of everything into that kind of environment.

This vision of a world-wide city is in reality a nightmare. Aside from problems discussed elsewhere that are inherent with covering the entire surface of the planet with inhabited space [LINK:MAXPOP], it becomes clear that this kind of situation has no future when looking at it from any holistic point-of-view, whether it be thermodynamical, ecological, or economical. A city is a low-entropy environment that requires a constant influx of resources to maintain itself. Obviously I cannot prove this but if anyone would be crazy enough to do the extremely complicated maths, I am certain that any typical city as it exists now would be proven to die within a short time span if it were completely isolated from the rest of the world. The city can only survive through exchange of resources with the outside world (more specifically, through importing useful resources and exporting mostly waste, a considerable part of which will be waste heat). If that entire outside world would become city as well or become saturated with waste, the city would starve. Therefore if the entire world would become one huge city, the entire world would starve and choke in waste and heat.
If isolating an entire city seems too far-fetched an experiment, consider the first experiment that ran in the Biosphere 2 facility, a research project that attempted to create an isolated ecosystem. This first experiment was not a success due to various reasons like wildly fluctuating CO2 levels and the disappearance of certain important animal species. Now consider the fact that this was a direct attempt to build a functional ecosystem. If even that proves so difficult, then how viable could an environment be, that has grown merely from a drive to fulfil a limited set of naïve desires with no attempt at looking at the bigger picture?

The more city-minded people are who read this, the harder they probably feel their brains squirm at this point, trying to find an emergency exit out of this hostile and uncomfortable string of thoughts [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. They may be thinking of stuffing agriculture into buildings, arcologies, or downright insane ideas like trying to transform humanity into beings that no longer rely on biological resources. All solutions that introduce many more problems than the one single apparent problem they try to solve.
The only way to avoid nonsense like this is proper education. People would not believe dense cities are the ultimate structure to pave the entire planet with if they would have been shown all aspects of the outside world, including byproducts of the glorious city life like massive landfills that grow day by day with no prospect of ever shrinking, or island-sized heaps of plastic garbage floating around in the oceans. Those who have moronic ideas mostly have them because they have never known the bigger picture that exposes the silliness of the ideas. They are not really to blame (cf. Plato's cave allegory). Those who educated them, or rather neglected to educate them, are. I picked this ‘city-idealism’ as an example because so many can relate to it. There are much worse, albeit fortunately less common ways in which people can grow up with a skewed vision of reality. There are children who grow up with access to machetes, grenades and automatic weapons, and the impression that it is OK to use those things to kill anyone who appears different from their own kind. [Note 2014-11-09: two words: Islamic State. It may be necessary to rewrite this paragraph because reality has surpassed absurdity.]

Although I believe the ability for adaptation is by far the strongest during youth, it is not such that it suddenly grinds to a halt at a certain age, it only gradually fades. Otherwise not everyone would not be able to cope with the current pace of change (although anyone can easily see elder people struggling with it for instance). Again, there is no reason to view this in an unconditionally positive light.

[REF:DEPRIFOOD] For instance, suppose that some substance is introduced in the food chain that makes people ill in such a way that they start acting in a long-term self-destructive manner, for instance it makes them utterly depressed. If this would be very local, people outside that region would notice the unusual behaviour and notify or try to treat the affected persons. Conversely, the small group would notice that they are different from the outside region and start looking for the cause. Consider however the scenario where the substance is distributed gradually and evenly across the entire population. How will people notice that their situation is deteriorating? Basically, they will not. Everyone will obey their ape instincts and gauge their own situation by looking around them, and they will see the same behaviour everywhere because the substance wreaks havoc everywhere equally. If a few would somehow have avoided exposure to the substance, not only will the others consider them deviant, they may believe to be ‘abnormal’ themselves. This is why it is important to look further than only one's immediate surroundings and time period to gauge whether your situation is OK. Perhaps things used to be better indeed and there is no justification to make them worse.

It's the same with global warming. The first time the temperature record was broken in my country, it was big news. The next time we reach the same temperature, there might be some mention of it in the news. The times after that, nobody will care anymore. Hence we slowly adapt to a situation we should not be adapting to. On the day that something truly disastrous happens as a result of this gradual temperature increase, we will all be wondering how it could have gone so wrong. The answer is simply that it's all our own fault because we are too complacent.


It seems that many if not most people nowadays consider technology a goal. That does not make any sense. Per definition, technology is a means to a solution. In other words, it is a means to reach goals, not a goal on itself. There is no point in blindly pursuing technology without having a clear vision of what one wants to achieve with it, otherwise it is merely wild speculation. It seems to me that the only kind of goal that quite a few have to justify our current technological efforts, is some utopian vision of a heaven-on-earth (or in space?) supported by advanced technology. To anyone who understands the whole rest of this text, it should be obvious that this sci-fi future has a very high probability of never happening. Worse, the harder we strive for it the more likely we will create a hell-on-earth instead. The whole problem is that even when technology is being developed to arrive at some goal, there is actually not always a clearly defined goal at all. Everyone believes we all know what we are doing and that everyone is striving for the same goal—because you know, everyone must be the same as myself [LINK:EVERYONEISLIKEME]. The reality is that everyone has a different idea of this goal, perhaps very different from what others think. Wherever there is a hint of a clearly defined goal, it is mostly something short-sighted, greedy, and unrealistic.

This is actually the same problem as with money. Money is in fact a kind of technology [LINK:WHATISMONEY]. It is also only a means to achieve goals but I am really only stating the obvious if I say that for many, obtaining as much money as possible has become their ultimate goal of life. Someone who only pursues money on itself is aimlessly walking around like a decapitated chicken, wasting time and energy while going nowhere. That goal cannot be reached because no matter how much money one has, it will never be “as much as possible”, more is always theoretically possible. For any amount N of money, N+1 is always larger, and larger seems better. It is one heck of a way to get frustrated. The only pseudo-goals that some people invent to justify this meaningless pursuit for money are just as idiotic as the excuses for making cool but pointless gizmos.

The whole pursuit for technological advances is increasingly starting to get a religious aspect. When I hear some people defend the reasons why they pursue something, there is often a lack of true fundamental motivations and it starts to remind me of religious speeches or excerpts from the bible in some way. This is not surprising. A large part of the western population has basically killed its ‘classic’ religions in the last few decades (and all the child abuse scandals certainly didn't help for the popularity of Catholicism), but there is no way that they have suddenly lost their innate craving for a greater order, a craving that helped humanity get through its dark ages and that must be hard-coded in human genes. It will take at least a few thousand more years of evolution to get rid of that, not just one generation. Therefore this craving must now have been re-channeled into something else, and for many people this channel has become some technological, economical, and/or scientific pursuit. The result is that there is far less rigour in this scientific pursuit than many want to believe. For others, the channel seems to have become political correctness as I discuss elsewhere [LINK:PC].


[TODO: this chunk seems like it should be part of ASSIMILATION, or maybe it should stand on its own?]

Group behaviour: [TODO: similar to other sections, try to merge] most peoples' lives revolve around nothing else than finding out how the majority around them lives, and then mimicking this behaviour no matter how stupid it is. For such people there is no absolute notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, aside from a few primitive hard-coded instincts. ‘Good’ is simply what the others mostly tend to do, and their monkey-see-monkey-do instinct automatically produces a warm fuzzy feeling when they do the same thing. ‘Bad’ is anything that seems unusual. There is no grand scheme of things, no central control. The only thing that steers them is this simple mechanism. In a certain way, humans are nothing but relatively simple cells in a massive cellular automaton. The only difference with a typical cellular automaton like Conway's Game of Life is that the cells are free to move and have the potential to act intelligently on their own, but they do that only very rarely. There are quite a few of those cells that have barely any problem-solving abilities at all, but they can still function through copying the behaviour of more intelligent cells [LINK:SMART]. Of course, if they copy the wrong behaviour or make errors in this copying process, things can go horribly wrong.
This extremely basic social instinct is the reason why ‘social networking’ things like Facebook and TikTok are so popular: now everyone can even mimic each other without even requiring any form of physical contact! Social networks are taking over the role of magazines which were filled with hollow fluff about current trends. Trends are ready-to-use guidelines to act in line with the almighty group. Once someone is reined in by the blissful feeling that they ‘belong’ and live like the rest of their group, they don't even want to consider if the way they're living is stupid or ‘wrong’. Their brains will instantly shut down [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT] any line of thought that comes remotely close to questioning the group behaviour. Within their group, behaviour that fits with the group is ‘right’ and otherwise it is ‘wrong’, period. Those who act according to the group's rules are ‘sane’ and others are ‘crazy’. Religion is a great example. Most people proceed from the incorrect assumption that everyone else is just like them [LINK:EVERYONEISLIKEME], which is just one of the mechanisms through which group behaviour is implemented, and this mechanism is deeply hardcoded in human behaviour. If someone is not like the others, we slap a label on them, call it a disease or mental disorder, and then it is all right because it fits in our simplistic model of the world. When someone asks: “what is your problem?”, the unspoken answer is in most cases: “you do not live the same way as I.”

The big problem with this is that given certain boundary conditions, there is such thing as an absolute good and bad. If we want everyone not to die prematurely and have a chance of a pleasant life, then doing anything that will either wilfully or involuntarily violate those conditions is bad, period. But the primal drives to make us all do the same stuff are so strong that we will happily violate as many conditions as necessary to keep that nice feeling of belonging.
Many ‘know’ this fact, but very few fully realise and understand it and its implications. Really, it is the same thing as evolution being a better explanation of nature than religion [LINK:OCCAM]. In this case, the assumption that the average human is a basically a copying machine with just a dash of intelligence is much simpler an explanation than the assumption that every human is infinitely intelligent and always does what makes the most sense. There are so many exceptions to the latter assumption that it must be a poor explanation of what can be readily observed: people do stupid things all the time yet they keep copying this stupid behaviour. The stupidities are often only corrected once the entire group has converged to better behaviour, often only after witnessing a sufficient number of individuals dying because of the stupidities. This is an excruciatingly slow, tedious, failure-prone and inefficient process. We can do better than that, but we do not want to.
Really, the average person acts pretty dumb most of the time [TODO: recycle the pinball metaphor from the old text]. Most of us are capable of acting intelligently, but we only do it when things get critical (which in most cases is when it is already too late). Our default behaviour is dictated mostly by group dynamics, and many of mankind's achievements are more the result of emergent behaviour than from the efforts of separate persons. It is not a coincidence that many inventions or scientific and mathematical breakthroughs were obtained ‘independently’ by multiple persons at almost exactly the same time. It is not a coincidence that movies with similar themes are often released around the same time despite the fact that it often takes years between conceiving the movie and releasing it. I am pretty certain that at this very moment, many others are writing stupid texts exactly like this one just because the knowledge and incentives to write something like this are ubiquitous. Given that I am generally slow, books and blogs are probably already filled with stuff like this, but first of all I am too busy and lazy to look for them. I do not have an urge to constantly scour all information sources because there is way too much information. Moreover, I like going through the exercise of independently doing all this from scratch. I am pretty certain that even the few things I wrote here of which my ego would like to believe that they are unique, can all be found elsewhere. Then again, if I had intended or hoped to become famous with this text I would not have done the effort to distance myself from it. One of the funniest things I have found so far is the 2012 album ‘The 2nd Law’ by Muse, which tries to bring the message from the ‘entropy’ section in musical format. My naïve arrogant self wants me to believe that they had been inspired by the conclusion of the previous crappy incarnation of this text, but even though the possibility exists, my realistic self tells me there are ample other sources to get that information from. The same goes for many other parts of this text that have been sitting hidden on my hard drive and in an obscure webpage for years because I considered them unfinished and unfit for release. Now suddenly I see whole books being published about those subjects. Obviously I am not the only one who is being pissed off by certain stupid human behaviour to the degree that I want to spit my bile about it. Therefore I gave up the idea of polishing this heap of junk before publishing it, and dumped it more or less as-is on the web. Enjoy.

In the same way that simple and dumb animals like ants can show apparent intelligent (so-called emergent) behaviour through a simple set of rules embedded in each individual ant, humans show apparent ‘intelligent’ behaviour through simple rules like mimicking our conspecifics. It suffices that one human invents something clever to make others appear clever or ‘smart’ [LINK:SMART] by mimicking it, even without having a clue as to how it was invented. This is both a strength and a weakness because as I said before, most people have no ‘quality control’ over the things they mimic. Even if they have, there are probably instincts based on long gone obsolete needs that will suppress or compromise it. Plus, the mimicking process introduces errors over time and the persons who invented the clever things die eventually, leaving humanity with a baseless set of mutating gimmicks. Eventually the knowledge of how to properly do the clever things dies out completely, and anything based on them collapses into oblivion. This has happened before and it will happen again.
Group behaviour has made us what we are, but it is time to improve upon this primitive mechanism. Simply copying behaviour is a greedy strategy with a high risk of getting stuck in a local optimum. Example: Conway's game of Life. It is actually a good thing that a disaster happens now and then, because it shakes up the ‘foggy landscape’ [LINK:GREEDY] and/or kicks us from the mole hill of sub-optimality we're standing on. Also the very existence of asocial and anti-social people helps to pull humanity out of the inevitable local optima it gets stuck in. When thinking logically about it, an entity that only copies behaviour of other entities without any evaluation, is disadvantaged towards an entity that can properly evaluate whether it makes sense to copy certain behaviour. Evolution will do the rest. Hence if there are any humans left in the far future, they are not unlikely to be mostly nerdy, ‘selectively social’ persons, whether you like it or not. Who knows, maybe everyone might evolve to have a built-in repulsion against unconditionally social persons.

☆ PRO TIP for aliens or robotic overlords bent on world domination! ☆

Do not waste your budget on heavy weaponry! Humanity can be defeated in much subtler and funny ways. All you need to do is build a small army of human replicants that are charming and charismatic, and program them to do stupid things that are not obviously fatal at first sight, but only in the long term. Then let them loose, just wait and enjoy the show. Hey wait a minute, isn't this already happening?

Smart versus Intelligent

[REF:SMART] There is a distinction between what I would call being smart and being intelligent,, two terms that might be considered equivalent by people who confuse pure memory with pure intelligence. I define ‘being smart’ as “having the right knowledge to solve a specific problem.” It is possible to have a ‘smart method’ to build a house, play chess, or solve a Rubik's cube for instance. It is not too difficult to be smart, all it takes to solve a specific problem with a known solution, is having memorised the right recipe for that solution and being able to play it back. Smartness is therefore mostly based on memory and rote learning.
On the other hand, I define ‘being intelligent’ as “being able to solve previously unseen problems.” The more intelligent someone is, the more complicated the problems that can be solved. Smart and intelligent are two entirely different things. They can help each other but this is not necessary. It is possible to know a terribly smart solution to a very specific problem, yet being unable to solve a very minor variation on the same problem because of lack of intelligence.

This distinction can also be seen from the ‘box’ idea. Those who try to be ‘smart’ try to build a huge mental box that contains all the knowledge in the universe, which is obviously an inherently flawed idea [LINK:UNIVERSE]. They are the kind of people who can quickly respond to any question of which they happened to have heard the answer before, but when presented with a small variation on the same problem, they will either panic and crash, or dumbly apply the same solution as for the nearest known problem, with potentially disastrous results.
There can be no entity that is purely ‘intelligent’ because solving any problem requires at least a basic set of known facts—axioms if you wish. A certain basis of ‘smartness’ is always required. However, putting an emphasis on being intelligent offers a much better chance to break out of the confines of the box. There is always an aspect of randomness required for intelligence: solving a novel problem for which no known solution exists, will not be possible by relying on memory alone if the solution is not a combination of known methods. At some point a leap needs to be made that has never been made before. There cannot be a fixed recipe for making this leap because this fixed recipe would then become a rigid fact, again making it impossible to find a solution when this rigid strategy is insufficient.

As I have said before, I have always had the impression that there is an enormous emphasis on ‘smart’ in the world, and very little effort to do actual intelligent things. The degree to which this is true may be region-specific. Judging from the number of quiz programs on my country's TV stations, striving for maximum ‘smartness’ must be a national sport. It is evident from our educational system, which at the time when I was a high-school student was entirely geared towards absorbing and regurgitating facts, and I believe not much has changed in the meantime. It all seems so obsolete. If today you are going to do something that requires knowledge, are you going to dig up that knowledge from the school books in your attic, or your memory, hoping you still remember it right? Or, are you going to use the abundance of digital communication to quickly search and verify the facts and perhaps find new and updated ones in the process?

Being smart does not imply being intelligent. The inverse does hold, but only when ignoring the temporal aspect. Someone sufficiently intelligent can figure out all the smart stuff through mere thinking, but it may cost precious time. To be maximally successful, one needs to be have both memory and intelligence, otherwise time and energy is wasted on reinventing the solutions for the same problems over and over. An entity that relies on memory alone on the other hand will only function inside an environment that corresponds to the memorised boundary conditions, and will be completely helpless as soon as one or more of those conditions change.

Over the years I have figured out that I am in the first of the aforementioned situations: my memory is a huge train wreck and I cannot rely on it to memorise any large sets of data in great detail. The decay rate is annoyingly quick and I often have to look up the same things over and over again. Some of the data really disappears but most of it merely becomes impossible to retrieve actively or within a useful timespan, and will come back when either waiting an awfully long time or someone or something external reminds me of it. At times I am unable to remember something obvious I have been using for years, then the next day it is back. If you think I am exaggerating, consider the fact that it took me about half an hour to realise that during my PhD defense, someone in the audience I could not identify at first, was actually my best friend during six years of high school whom I had not seen for merely five years. That was terribly embarrassing and obviously very bad for the friendship. Something is definitely broken up there, I suspect something may have gone wrong due to a chronic lack of nutrients caused by undiagnosed lactose intolerance while my brain was supposed to develop. Recently I also figured out that any significant amount of alcohol will send my whole body, including my nervous system, into a state of mild inflammation for at least two weeks, which has a very negative impact on mental functioning as well. When I found scientific explanations for this [OlRoLo2010], [WaZaJu2010], I pretty much gave up on alcohol entirely, aside from the occasional tiny sip of a good Scotch. Things have improved greatly since, but the quality of my memory will never be stellar.

When looking at others who have excellent memory however, it has gradually become clear that my wonky memory is not so much a flaw as it is a quality in quite a few situations. Those others have spent their entire youth stuffing facts into their brains and now they have come to a point where the bucket appears to be full. They start to fail to memorise new facts or start forgetting things due to ageing. Because they have never learnt to deal with unreliability and missing data, the only thing they can do is consider their bucket of facts as the ultimate model of reality. They are stuck inside a fixed frame-of-reference that gradually starts to break down. Their only defence against this is denial, arrogantly pretending it is not happening. My model of reality on the other hand has always been slowly eroding and I have become ever more aware of this. Therefore I have learnt to reason in ways that are robust against corrupt information, to verify everything over and over, and to hang on to what is truly important. I constantly rebuild and repair my crumbling model of reality and in this process of repairing I am able to correct the parts that were wrong. When reminded of facts that had dropped outside my ability of spontaneous retrieval, I often realise: hey, that is something I used to believe, but I forgot about it and learned something more accurate in the meantime. In the end it seems that being able to forget is essential in not getting stuck in a flawed and obsolete train of thoughts. It also protects against getting habituated to important issues due to overexposure [LINK:HABITUATION] because I tend to even forget the state of being habituated.

The Dutch language has a proverb saying: “those who aren't strong must be smart.” The English equivalent is: “necessity is the mother of invention.” Given my definitions of smart and intelligent, the English proverb is a sequel to the Dutch one. If one isn't strong, one can get away with being smart. If one isn't smart, one can get away with being intelligent (i.e. be able to invent new solutions). I tend to believe that sheer necessity has forced me to become more ‘intelligent’ than a person who is ‘smarter’ than me according to the above definitions. I would probably have long been dead if I had to rely on my worthless memory alone. It has struck me for instance that whenever I play an online game with friends and we try out a new level, I score best for a while and then the others gradually beat my performance. This makes sense because initially the others cannot rely on prior knowledge about the novel level, while I can rely on more advanced strategies that I can figure out on-the-fly. Eventually though, their stored knowledge about the level surpasses the abilities of my wonky memory, and it allows them to react faster instead of having to reinvent the same strategies over and over again or wait for the data to trickle from my brain like molasses. Likewise I tend to believe that people with an excellent memory are quite likely to be less intelligent, because they do not have a need for it. As long as they stay in an environment that matches well with what they have memorised, they will function efficiently. Even stronger, they will often do the utmost effort to keep their environment the same as they remember it to avoid getting into trouble. Most of this does not work at a conscious level but through crude subconscious mechanisms like the ego and arrogance [LINK:ARROGANCE].

Intelligence versus Common Sense

[REF:COMMONSENSE] Just as there is a distinction between being intelligent and being smart, there is a clear distinction as well between common sense and intelligence. Again, these are not equivalent even though many people seem to believe they are. I prefer the Dutch term for common sense, gezond verstand, which literally translates as: “healthy sense.” It does not contain the connotation of group consensus as the English expression, instead it hints at doing the right thing in the right situation. In a certain sense, ‘wisdom’ could be an adequate synonym for what I consider common sense. For me, this kind of ‘common sense’ is the ability to make the optimal decision with regard to one's own situation and the situation of others. ‘Intelligence’ on the other hand is, as stated before, the ability to solve previously unseen problems—the catch is that neither the kind of problem nor solution is specified in this definition. Having a high intelligence level is not a requirement for having a sound level of common sense. Moreover, having a high intelligence does not even imply having a lot of common sense.

I often see people pour massive amounts of effort and time into solving some terribly complicated problem, and they actually succeed in it thanks to their sheer intelligence. They lack the common sense however to see that it made more sense to simply leave the problem alone because ‘solving’ it only made the overall situation worse and it would have gone away by itself anyway. There are many who are doing stuff that has little potential benefit, but a large risk of killing others and themselves in the long term. Those people have a serious lack of common sense. How this is possible, can be explained by the ‘typical human thought process’ [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. The more complicated a string of reasoning is, the more possible convenient way-outs exist for instincts and dogmas imposing their will and forcing the thinker into some behaviour that satisfies certain hard-coded urges. Having common sense basically boils down to always picking the optimal point for breaking off the string of reasoning in the thought process.

Put otherwise, I have encountered quite a few persons in my life who obviously have a high intelligence, but still they do tremendously stupid things sometimes. And if someone notifies them of those stupid things, they will often vehemently defend themselves and use every trick in their arsenal of intelligence to justify the act. I can only explain this through the fact that humans appear to be entirely driven by instincts and dogmas. Intelligence has only evolved as a means to help reaching the goal imposed by those instincts, not as a means to figure out the meaning of life and acting in a way that makes the most sense overall. From within this viewpoint, those examples of ‘stupid intelligent behaviour’ suddenly make sense because they always boil down to some dogmatic idea the person has, either a deep-rooted instinct or something taught when the person was still a gullible child in the process of building its mental model of the world. The typical human thought process [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT] nicely models this: if the goal imposed by the dogma comes close enough at any point during the string of reasoning, that string is broken off even if there are obvious problems visible ahead—often especially when those problems become visible.

★ PRO TIP for archetypical villains who for some reason want to exact vengeance on humanity! ★

Do not waste your budget on sharks with lasers and other thingamajigs! Mankind can be catapulted into an endless period of dread in a much more effective way. First, devise the very best strategies for humanity to act in order to have a stable and prosperous future, like living ecologically, in cultural harmony, with a stable economy. Next, gain power in not too aggressive a way. Start spreading the ideals you devised earlier, making sure you become a synonym for them. Then start doing utterly atrocious things like holocaust, that will cause you to be remembered as a total lunatic across many generations. Defend your acts as if they are in line with your ideals. From then on it will be all automatic. You will most certainly be killed but you can be sure that mankind will compulsively keep making poor decisions for a long time, because the best decisions will be eschewed, they will keep on being associated with pure evil through the memory of your persona.

I call the above the ‘limbic system exploit’. It works by deliberately storing certain information in the long-term memory of the general public, and then blocking access to this information by connecting it with something awful by relying on an even deeper-rooted cognitive mechanism. Especially when memories are tied to persons, a primitive mechanism in our brains called the limbic system will cause us to make judgments in a split second whenever we are reminded of those persons. This is related to the same mechanism that causes us to make instant judgments about previously unseen persons based on nothing but a very short glance at their faces [WiTo2006].

My inspiration for the above satirical bit of villain promo comes from recurring examples in mainstream media. Whenever anything that vaguely reminds of World War II reaches mainstream news, it will be presented with the usual sauce of disgust and disbelief and lack of willingness to further analyse it. For instance when the state of Oklahoma declared they wanted to switch to suffocation by nitrogen for executing death row inmates, in my country there was a news reporter calling it ‘gassing’ and wondering whether those Americans didn't make the connection with what happened in WW II. Apparently it is a big taboo to use gas to perform the death penalty because it reminds of Hitler. Using unreliable injections that can cause extended death throes must obviously be better? The reporter kind of made an ass out of himself by making it seem as if nitrogen is a poisonous gas like Zyklon B (side note: the Dutch word ‘stikstof’ for nitrogen literally translates as ‘suffocate substance’). He obviously was unaware that the air he continually breathes, consists of about 80% nitrogen. ‘Gassing’ someone with nitrogen basically means taking away the oxygen from regular air, which leads to loss of consciousness and subsequent death without risk of prolonged death throes. This is actually a very humane way of dying as opposed to locking up someone in an airtight room which will lead to a steady increase of CO2 concentration and a very painful slow conscious death. Yet I bet that due to this linguistic quirk, a large part of the Dutch-speaking population would prefer an environment with too much CO2 over one with too much nitrogen.

Everyone Is Like Me

[REF:EVERYONEISLIKEME] [TODO: this is actually just an intro to the whole SMALLTOWN concept. Or is it? Actually it also belongs with the whole ASSIMILATION part… I think the whole structure of the text needs more clustering.]

Everyone is like me and anyone who isn't, is an idiot and should either be forced to become like me or die. Few will want to admit it, but this is how pretty much everyone behaves. Some try to hide this, others execute it in a more explicit way, some even very explicitly. This basically is nothing else than the assimilation [LINK:ASSIMILATION] principle that has wormed its way into our whole way of interacting with others (look up the ‘limbic system’ if you want to know the gooey details about this). Few or no people will ever explicitly ‘think’ that idea, but they will feel it through a myriad of emotions that will often short-circuit any thoughts that try to counteract it. I see this happening every day, in conversations, in discussions on the internet, in news reports, everywhere.

Next time you ask someone to explain something to you which you know absolutely nothing about, pay attention at how many wrong assumptions that person makes about your own knowledge. You will actually learn more about that other person than about the kind of things you really wanted to learn, because that person will project their own situation onto you. Most likely they will use terminology you could never know and assume you already know many of the very things that you actually wanted to learn about. Of course you may be lucky and the person may know something about learning and teaching, but my experience tells me such people are a minority.

There are always outcries of surprise when things go awry after people from vastly different cultures and religions have been thrown together. This can only be surprising when stubbornly clinging on to the assumption that every human being is the same, has the same background and motivations, and strives for the same goals. That assumption is completely wrong, but it is deeply hard-coded into almost every human, and in one of the next paragraphs [LINK:SMALLTOWN] I will have a guess at finding a root cause for this.


Over the years I have developed a firm belief that communication between humans is extremely flaky and flawed. The band ‘10cc’ has a song titled ‘The Things We Do for Love,’ with the following phrase in its lyrics: “Communication is the problem to the answer.” I wholeheartedly agree. Human communication works through a massive pile-up of assumptions that do not make sense, first of all the assumption that the other participants in the conversation know the same things and think in the same manner. Wrong, wrong, wrong! If that would be true, then there would not be any need for communication in the first place. This stupid hardwired intuition worked reasonably well in small communities where everyone was sufficiently similar [LINK:SMALLTOWN], but is becoming increasingly wrong with increasing complexity of the world and communication between vastly different populations. Most of the inane conflicts that originate through communication are rooted in dumb assumptions. The general consensus however still seems to be that communication works pretty well and everyone always understands each other.

The reason why communication is so difficult is because of many reasons that are mentioned elsewhere in this text. In short, we all have a model of the world inside our brains, this is the frame-of-reference that is mentioned in the section about perceptual aliasing. Everyone's model is different, sometimes just a little, but often vastly. I also believe this model may change within a single individual across pretty short time spans. This model is a person's only criterion to measure reality, in fact for that person the model equals reality. It is impossible to detect changes in the model unless the person incorporates redundancy in its model, or the changes become obvious by noticing that the model no longer matches with observations of actual reality. Yet we assume we are all the same and have a perfect and rigid model of the world, and we communicate under this assumption. When we notice that someone else has a few ideas that are the same as ours, we are immediately tempted to extrapolate this [LINK:EXTRAPOLATION], and assume that all their ideas are identical. When we transmit information to other individuals, they project—alias it into their frame of reference. In their turn they again assume they have the same model of the world as the person they are communicating with. There are so many points where things can go wrong in this process that it is amazing it sometimes works at all.

Of course when it comes to communication between humans, everything I explained in the section about typical human thinking also applies [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. If there is one thing I have learnt over the course of my life, it is to make every conversation as concise as possible. Otherwise with every added sentence there is an added opportunity to take a premature exit in the thought process. If I have to explain someone something in a written message for instance, the longer this message is, the more opportunities for the person to either stop reading and reply with their assumption-ridden incomplete knowledge built up at that point, or to only remember bits and bobs from the last few sentences. Unfortunately it is often impossible to explain things in single simple points. The only thing I can do in such cases is sigh and be prepared for a tedious process of sending the same information over and over again in different formulations until the other side seems to have got the point. The worst thing about this, is that I can see it coming from miles away but there is just no way to short-cut it, no matter how hard I try to craft the first few messages.

The key to successful communication is not merely stating the information one wants to transfer to the other party. First and foremost it is ensuring that the other party has the same context as you. In many cases it will become redundant to transfer the actual piece of information once each conversant has been brought to the same wavelength, because the right context on its own likely makes it obvious what needed to be communicated. This may sound a lot easier than it actually is. One of the biggest problems for instance is the nearly immutable component in many a person's frame-of-reference, being their big fat ego that assumes that whatever the topic of the conversation, their own opinion about it must be the right one and the conversation only serves to convince other people of this fact [LINK:ARROGANCE]. This is obviously a very poor starting point for any attempt at information transfer, in fact it generally makes the transfer impossible.

A scenario that often occurs is that on day X, I have or overhear a discussion with certain people. On day X+1, I hear the same persons discuss the same thing between each other, and for some reason many of the elements in the discussion have suddenly changed. Sometimes the same persons will suddenly tell the opposite of what they said the day before, or there is some extra information that was clearly unknown the day before but is now treated as known and obvious to everyone, even though nobody has talked to each other after the discussion on day X. Things that were introduced the day before as pure conjectures are suddenly treated as near-certainties. The only possible explanations for things like these, is that those people have picked up some information from a random place or simply each dreamt up something similar during the night, and associated it with yesterday's discussion, often believing that these new elements had been discussed at that time. Or maybe their memories are simply unstable as hell, even worse than mine. If you are wondering why certain companies suddenly break down and go bankrupt or why certain countries wage wars concerning conflicts that originate out of nowhere and seem to make no sense, well I do not.

Even in the case of written communication, things often go wrong in ways that make no sense from a logical point-of-view. Sometimes after I have written an article or mailed someone, a reader will ask questions that have already been answered in that very article or mail, even if I anticipated those questions and stressed and repeated the answers in the text. My best guess as to why this happens is that either the person did not really read the text, or they did read the answer in the text but did not want to believe it, therefore they ask it again in the hopes of getting a new answer that better fits their bias. It is also possible their ability to process information is so shaky that they did read the answer and understood it momentarily, but then it broke down and now they have this interesting unanswered fact floating around in their mind without a clue as to where it came from, hence they ask about it. In other words, in this case my act of trying to avoid the question, triggered the asking of it. What a mess!

From the time when I wrote big long letters or e-mails, I gradually learnt that it is always a very bad idea to ask more than a single question in one mail. The vast majority of correspondents would reply only to either the first or the last question. Apparently it is just too much asked to create a mental queue for a list of questions, and then process that queue. For many, their queue is of size one—at most. This might be one of the explanations behind the success of instant messaging systems and social media like Twitter: due to the impossibility or cumbersomeness of entering long texts, they force users to only ask one question at a time, making communication less error-prone at the cost of greatly reduced efficiency and completeness. It is not just lists of questions that are problematic, any piece of sequential text has a risk of being misunderstood. The risk increases with increasing length of the text unless the length is due to endless repetition of what the text wants to convey. Sometimes a piece of text a mere six sentences long will trigger unnecessary questions from readers because they could not even manage to remember essential context given in sentence 2, while they were reading sentence 5 which relies on that context. Those times when a reply appeared to be written confidently, upon closer inspection it became clear that the person just made sentences with words and concepts randomly picked from my text, with no coherence between them aside from perhaps grammatical correctness if I am lucky enough. Again, things like these make me understand why at regular intervals, all efforts at building advanced civilisations just crumble into a total mess.

Next time you browse through an internet forum, look at how many discussions boil down to nothing else than: the problem you report must be your own mistake because I do not have it, or: the problem you have is not a problem because I do things in a different way and you should too. The problem does not exist in my cozy little world. Join my world and you will be happy. Websites like StackOverflow are… overflowing with this kind of crap. Ask how to solve a problem and you will be flooded with answers that tell how to work around the problem instead of actually solving it. Any steps towards truly solving the problem are hampered by the authors defending their kludgy workarounds they're so proud of. On other sites, when someone posts a negative review for a product that gets overwhelmingly positive reviews, the usual replies to this review will be like: “you are an idiot,” “you must be getting old,” “you are a liar or a drone from a competitor,” and so on. No replies in the vein of: “you must have skipped a crucial step, let me help you,” or: “it seems you received a faulty unit, do the following to have it replaced.” There seem to be two main motivations for such typical derogatory replies. First, those people feel attacked in their warm fuzzy feeling of being part of a community that is bound by the common property of owning the same nice product. Second, they assume and expect everyone else to be the same as them and will reject anyone who deviates too much from this ideal. They want to assimilate everyone into their own private universe. One of the most baffling examples I have ever encountered on the internet, was a discussion between someone who had lost their arms in an accident and had a huge problem with a change in a user interface that makes input with a foot mouse impossible. I cannot remember the exact replies but it came down to again the same thing. Some apparently cannot imagine what it must be like to have to control a computer with only one's feet. They will revolt against the introduction of a tiny little checkbox somewhere in a control panel that would greatly improve the situation for people with alternative input devices. That checkbox would have no impact at all on regular users, yet some react against it in amazingly emotional ways. I could paste a label onto such type of persons but I leave it up to the reader to pick the most appropriate term or historical example.

Another thing I see all too often in discussions on the internet, is someone replying in a denigrating way to something being explained by someone else, because “obviously everyone already knows what you are explaining, look at the brains on you, you must be stupid to believe this needs to be explained, blah dee blah.” Again, the driving force behind such replies is the poor assumption that everyone on the world must be identical and has received the same kind of education. Not only is this kind of assumption a blatant display of naïvety, it also exhibits ugly hints of self-superiority, and the worst thing is that the writers of such replies often make it seem as if they somehow were forced to read the explanation and felt like it was a waste of their time, while it was entirely their own choice to read it. Writing the pointless reply is a much bigger waste of time.

The sloppy way in which humans communicate, can be witnessed when someone has asked a question vague enough that it is unclear what is really being asked at all. If you want to expose the undercurrent of problems within a certain (online) community, just ask a chaotic question that makes no real sense but contains certain words that hint at the kind of problems that seem to exist in the group. In one particular case, I have seen someone asking how to “design a machine to make a group more polite.” That made no sense at all and the only response a sensible being should give would be: “your question makes no sense, please rephrase it.” In reality however, it spawned all kinds of rather detailed replies where suddenly certain persons in the group started venting their frustrations. It seems they had only diagonally scanned through the question, had seen certain words, and then filled in the gaps with their own imagination. I am pretty sure this is actually how many if not most humans communicate all the time. This sloppy strategy usually works if all conversations always follow certain rules of normality. If everyone talks in the same way, then a lot of the conversation will be ‘boilerplate’ that can be ignored. If the input to the conversation is chaotic on the other hand, then the result can sometimes consist of all kinds of interesting output. I cannot tell whether the person who asked this particular ‘polite machine’ question was just bad at English or had used an automated translator, or was fully aware of what he was doing by intentionally posing this absurdist question.

Tribes, Villages, and Small Towns

[REF:SMALLTOWN] Where does this hard-coded belief in similarity come from? Here's what I tend to believe. These kinds of instincts that aim to equalise everyone, did make sense in small communities or tribes that only occasionally traveled or communicated with distant communities. In such local communities, keeping everyone at the same wavelength was paramount [LINK:ASSIMILATION]. For a community that lived in a small bounded environment, it made sense to expect everyone to converge towards a way of living that is as compatible with that environment as possible. Actually this makes quite a bit of sense no matter what. Eventually it made sense to assume everyone within that community to be nearly the same, because it was true in most cases. Not having to probe someone else's abilities saves time and boosts efficiency.

Regarding people's ‘box’ or frame-of-reference, it does not make sense to expect anyone to be able to stretch this box such that it can contain all the knowledge in the world. The human brain has evolved to cope with small situations. It will alias anything bigger into this small FOR, simply to avoid going crazy. Only very recently mankind has developed communication networks that span the entire globe. There has not been to the least any sufficient time span to let humans evolve to adapt to this kind of situation. As a side note, I heavily doubt whether it is useful and desirable at all to adapt to it in the sense of becoming entirely dependent on it, which is obviously what is currently happening.

Given that humans have been fine-tuned to operate in small cozy limited environments with well-defined boundary conditions, I strongly believe that people therefore keep applying small-community principles to the entire complex world, with all the obvious problematic consequences. Yet there seems to be a general belief that individuals exist who can wrap their mind around the complexity of the entire world down to the tiniest detail. Worse, some believe they are such individuals themselves.

This innate assumption that a single person can grasp the complexity of the entire world manifests itself in the “everyone is like me” instinct [LINK:EVERYONEISLIKEME]. Our instincts want us to reject the possibility that there are hundreds, thousands of different groups of people and that there are good reasons for that diversity. It is so much easier to assume there is only one or perhaps just a few, and cut off all reasoning [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT] upon every glance of evidence that would increment the counter. The excuses to justify this arbitrary cut-off result in all the typical vices we see every day, ranging from mostly innocent things like annoying subtle remarks of certain persons scoffing at the ideas of others, to worse things like pestering, sexism, racism, and eventually towards horrible things like murder, terrorism, genocide, and holocaust.

The lack of confidence in many people (especially women when considering confidence about one's appearance) and the pointless and sickly striving for stupid unattainable beauty ideals can also be explained from this point-of-view. The depictions of one single exceedingly rare case of extreme beauty is extrapolated by many as if it is the norm [LINK:EXTRAPOLATION]. The fact that it is a one-off that is not at all representative, is completely ignored. People stress themselves out endlessly to bend their own reality to match this exotic tiny and utterly insignificant example. Nowadays this example is being copied everywhere in all kinds of media, making things much worse because it creates an illusion of prevalence. There is a simple remedy against this for those who are unable to filter out this flood of useless information: turn off the information stream. If it is mostly garbage anyway, not much will be lost. The truly important information will seep through via other channels anyhow.

Another consequence of our bundle of small-community instincts is that terrorism, i.e. murdering innocent individuals of a certain large group in an attempt to change the ways of others in that same group, never ever works in the long term. The only thing achieved with it is triggering one of the most basic instincts of all living creatures that possess a modicum of self-preservation: avoiding self-destruction. In other words, the only thing those other members of the attacked group will want to do, is eliminate the killer and anything that is associated with the motivation behind the killing, no matter how sound the reasoning behind it may be. There will be no reasoning in the brains of the members of the attacked group. The instinctive motivation for hunting down and eliminating the killer will be extremely deep-rooted and divert each and every decision in the ‘decision loop’ [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT] towards elimination of the threat. From an evolutionary point-of-view this is completely obvious. It is a basic requirement for any species to develop a hatred against anything or anyone that kills other individuals of their own group (unless those individuals proved to be an obvious direct threat themselves). Any group that did not develop this instinct has a high risk of letting themselves be eradicated at some point. In the long term this means survival only for groups that have this instinct. Therefore anyone who ever thinks it is a good idea to kill some random victims to draw attention to their cause or to discourage others from behaving the same as the victims, is plain wrong. Next to being a display of utter and disgusting cowardice and lack of respect for human life, that kind of behaviour is extremely counterproductive.


We humans are extremely biased towards extrapolating a narrow-sighted observation across the entire world [LINK:EXTRAPOLATION]. Consider for instance what happens when someone watches television. TV is sometimes called: a window to the world, and that is how people indeed treat it. Whatever is shown on the small screen is instinctively assumed to be true for everything that falls outside the frame. If a news report shows some flooded houses, the spectator will immediately assume that the entire region around those houses is flooded. If the news shows people fighting and looting, the spectator will assume that the entire town or even country shown is in turmoil. Quite likely, the spectator's impression will even be that those problems are also occurring in the spectator's own neighbourhood—this impression will either be immediate or build up with repeated exposure to the imagery. If the news report speaks of a contagious disease, there is immediate fear with the spectator that the disease will be a threat, even though any rational analysis will reveal that there is zero risk of the disease spreading outside the region shown in the news report.

There is no reasoning behind this drive for extrapolation, it is pure instinct. Again, this all makes sense when considering it from within our not-so-distant past where the tribe or village someone lived in was pretty much their entire world. If someone in such village looked out of an actual window and saw flooding, then it was likely that the entire village was flooded. If there was severe violence, it was likely to be more than just a quarrel. Anything that was observed or reported must have necessarily been from nearby, therefore any reported calamity was almost always an immediate threat.

This kind of instinct worked and used to be efficient because it made the entire small community react as a whole to the real threat. Now however it backfires. It causes us to constantly react to ghost threats we should not react to. This is a constant drain of resources and it causes endless unnecessary stress. Both of those things will in the long term cause much more damage to the health of people relying on those old instincts, than any of those phantom threats in the news reports ever will. (By the way, anyone who thinks making TV screens larger will solve this problem, is really completely missing the point.)

Obviously this problem is not limited to TV. It already existed before electronic communication existed, but was never as severe as these types of faster and more widespread media have made it. Any kind of media, whether it be newspapers, radio, websites, social media, whatever… have a similar effect to varying degrees. Arguably it gets worse in the order in which I summed them up due to the increasing speed and involvement. We project any incoming news onto our own situation, no matter how distant and irrelevant it is. We still react to the news as if it is being reported by the trustworthy neighbour next door from our small village, unless it really does not map at all to our situation.

Now given this knowledge, let us consider what kind of news reaches us through the media. Is it representative for the normal state of affairs in the world? Of course not! What is reported is mostly fringe stuff because normal events are not considered interesting [LINK:INFORMATIONTHEORY]. Uninteresting news about normal daily events does not sell subscriptions, nor does it make people watch commercials in between, nor does it warrant the steady resource drain to ensure clockwork news updates. Worse, in Western media there is an enormous bias towards reporting negative news (as opposed to Chinese newspapers for instance, which will be biased towards positive news). Apparently this is what the general Western public likes to read—or at least what the newsmakers believe to match the field of interest of their subscribers. Giving the public the impression that the world is in a state of non-stop disaster, is of course a cheap way to make them buy or watch your next news edition, because it is assumed that they will want to stay informed about how the disaster unfolds.

Likewise if there is some scientific discovery that triggers primordial emotional responses of disapproval (e.g., anything that seems to threaten the natural life cycle as we know it), it will be headlined for the simple reason that it is very likely to make people angry. It doesn't matter whether the discovery really has any merit to be reported to the entire world (which rarely is the case because it usually is more of a theoretical nature), or completely impractical to port from the typical experimental lab mice set-up towards a human situation. The only thing that matters is that controversy is maximised such that the headline will anger people to the point that they will want to read the article. I have progressed to a level where I get angry at the newspaper for wasting my time and energy on irrelevant garbage, and I do not want to read the entire damn publication at all.

Due to this way in which news topics are selected, if someone is going to take mainstream media as a criterion for reality, then they will get a pretty fucked up view of the world, constructed of the few tiny percents of pathological stuff that news agencies have cherry-picked from the global scene. The extrapolated world view that for instance a TV spectator gets, is completely distorted and makes the whole ‘small-town’ issue even worse. They will over-estimate the share minority groups have in society, because news reports will rather report something unusual that happened with those groups than how an average joe went to work at 9AM, ate a sandwich at noon, and went back home at 5PM. They will also over-estimate the severity of the impact of any disaster on their own life, because the news reports will thwack them around the head with non-stop updates about that disaster even if it happened on the other side of the globe. The advent of ‘social media’ has changed little in this regard, perhaps it has only made it worse. It are again spectacular but often utterly exotic events that spread across social networks like wildfire, not the everyday happenings of 99% of the population. The surprising and ironical conclusion from this, is that in the majority of cases one should pay the least attention to the most spectacular news. In present times it has the lowest chance of being relevant to the person receiving the news. At times I get the impression that modern news reports have a lot in common with the kind of travelling freak-shows that were commonplace around the start of the 20th century. It's fun for a while but it gets old fast.

Oxygen Masks

Anyone unable to suppress this small-community instinct of: “I must help everyone in need I see, even if it is on a TV screen,” has a risk of suffering a similar fate as the kind of person who would suffocate inside a depressurised airplane because they did not first put on their own oxygen mask before helping others. The reason why every airplane instruction placard states that you must first help yourself before helping others in that situation, is that our instinctive behaviour does not map at all onto that situation. This is obvious because the situation is totally alien compared to anything humans have been exposed to in the course of their evolution. When following the instinct instead of the cold hard logic of first ensuring you won't pass out yourself, not only will you pass out and possibly die, so will the person(s) you could have helped if you had not passed out. (Luckily it doesn't matter too much in the end: the pilot will have descended the plane to a level with breathable air by the time the passengers risk being truly harmed even if they couldn't put on their mask.) A parallel can be drawn with emergency situations observed through the media: we have no instinctive mechanisms whatsoever relevant to watching others suffer through an electronic display. We react with an instinct that totally ignores the distance, the delayed observation, the keyhole view crafted to be as spectacular as possible, and the endless repetition of the imagery. When we apply the same response in this situation as when we would see someone suffer physically right before our eyes, all bets are off. If we start to move heaven and earth to help that person at the far end of that media pipeline, we might be compromising our own situation in unexpected ways and end up being unable to help anyone else in the future as well.

The practice of scheduling news updates, newspapers and magazines at regular intervals [LINK:CLOCKWORK] only exacerbates this issue because of the news agency's obligation to publish something seemingly newsworthy in every edition. This incurs a risk of digging up dirt that nobody should care about anymore, and giving a false impression that the reported problems are topical again. The reality is that the crew behind the news service had nothing noteworthy to tell, hence they dug up some old news and polished it up. They cannot simply cancel an edition of their magazine or radio/TV show, otherwise the usefulness of their regular service might come under scrutiny and it would cause a huge mess with paid subscriptions. Now when the general public gets this old news rubbed in their face, they might start reacting to it as if it is an actual threat and act in ways that will actually revive the problem that had been solved before [LINK:SFP].

We Are All Going to Die Because I Saw It on TV

Coming back to typical Western news, if I skim through news reports that a news service sent to me last week, I do not see many articles about people doing some successful fundraiser or celebrating the first good year of a startup company. No, instead I see for instance a report of two different cases of a random innocent pedestrian in a nearby city having been beaten unconscious for no good reason. This kind of report seems trendy, a few weeks ago there was a similar one that also mentioned that the perpetrators only had to spend one day in jail after beating someone almost to death just for fun. Dear editors: the impression that I get from your choice of news reports, is that I live in a country where coming out of my house will make me end up in a hospital being fed through tubes, and the persons responsible will never be punished because our legal system is a complete and utter joke. Even if that is true, I do not believe scaring people to the point where they become afraid to come out of their houses or even start thinking of emigrating, is the best way to tackle this problem.

One of the motivations for producing an endless stream of what is supposed to be ‘news’ that gives a constant impression of endless disaster, is of course because this has a better chance of inciting the consumers of the news to get the next news update and the ones after that. From a purely information-theoretical viewpoint [LINK:INFORMATIONTHEORY] this kind of news has a higher information content even though for the average human the true practical information amount is probably zilch. If only positive stuff would be reported, it could be perceived as “all problems have been solved, you can stop following the news now.” Obviously, that is not what someone wants if they make their living from news reports. This is why anyone who gets trapped in this stream of cherry-picked whipped-up disaster reports, will risk getting a horribly skewed and overly pessimistic view on reality that can become depressing and damaging on multiple levels.

My strategy regarding this matter is simple and surprisingly effective. I mostly ignore all the clocked news sources unless I am accidentally exposed to them. I haven't watched any televised news in more than ten years, except very sporadically. I never read magazines, and newspapers only sporadically. I do not constantly scour social media for supposed news. Over those years I have noticed that whenever something truly important happens, I will learn about it anyway within due time. People will either talk about very pressing issues spontaneously or act in a way that makes me ask what's going on. After a while I learnt that I can even make a very good guess about less pressing issues as well, by simply listening to what everyone around me talks about or the stuff they start buying suddenly and apparently inexplicably. If I am interested, only then will I skim through news sources to find out more about it. In a certain sense I use the people around me as a filter that lets only the interesting items seep through.

Some may consider this strategy a kind of escapism, but look at it this way. Learning about something spectacular that happened moments ago but very far away from me, and of which nobody really knows yet what is going on, is often utterly useless unless it directly affects me. In the latter case I will have learnt about it first-hand anyway. It makes more sense to simply wait until the dust has settled and efforts have been done to write a decent report. Otherwise I am just wasting time and stressing myself out over what is mostly speculation from both the newsmakers' and my part. You have no idea how hard my overall stress level has dropped since I stopped taking my regular dose of sensationalism. I can still feel the stress rising again every time I pick up a newspaper or magazine or its digital equivalent, or when I happen to pick up a fragment of televised news. Then again I see how little actual informational value most of the purported news has, and I look for something more useful to do.

I discuss this in more detail in other sections of this text, but one of the biggest problems with “the media” is that they all work according to schedules and predefined formats [LINK:CLOCKWORK]. Every day there needs to be a newspaper with a certain minimum number of pages. Every week there must be a shiny magazine with a flashy cover page. Every month some production company must spit out a spectacular TV reportage that spans a given number of minutes. Etcetera. The shift towards platforms like YouTube has changed little in this regard, because the popular content creators also work according to a fixed schedule and the assumption that each video must span a certain amount of time. Each of these products must draw maximal attention. Every edition must give an impression of being relevant. Therefore the newspaper and magazine are stuffed with all the most spectacular stuff that could be gathered, whipped up with some exaggerations if necessary, and the reportage is presented in a way that will elicit maximal emotional response from the viewer from the first few seconds on. It doesn't matter whether this response is positive or negative, only that it is extreme. Like I said before, negative news is prevalent because it gives the highest incentive to keep on receiving the next news updates. The only explanation I have for the state of angst in which some of my acquaintances live, is that they are being constantly brainwashed to believe that they live in a covert war zone where everyone is out to attack them. In the long term this will be very damaging and counterproductive for the society as a whole.

A practical example (freely adapted from an actual reportage): “in this reportage we will show you how technology is evolving so rapidly that machines could become a threat in the near future. We will need to make sure that machines will be our allies and not our enemies.” This kind of description immediately evokes visions of the Terminator films and the like. It makes it seem as if there is a looming threat that is pretty much inevitable. Now if we think twice about it, the only difference with Terminator is that for the latter it was obvious that it was science fiction made for the sole purpose of making spectators buy movie tickets. The reportage is almost just as much science fiction, only it is made to appear utterly serious. The future it depicts is still unlikely and would only happen if humanity as a whole would be truly dumb. Elsewhere I discuss the fact that only through our very own effort we will be able to make machines that could pose a real threat to ourselves and if we do this, it would be our own very dumb fault. There is nothing inevitable about being surpassed by our own technology, unless we all have the strange combination of high intelligence but a blatant lack of common sense [LINK:COMMONSENSE]. The only real purpose of that reportage is to be watched by as many spectators as possible, in the hopes of giving the makers the impression that they spent their allotted time slots and pay wages in a fruitful manner, and of course to make the spectators watch commercials dispersed in between the chunks of reportage. To be a trustworthy prediction of the future, was not a goal. Of course by far not everything shown on TV falls within this category and there is actual good stuff worth watching, but it is often difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Even now that TV seems to be slowly dying and being displaced by things like YouTube, nothing really has changed because it is often difficult to avoid the ‘clickbait’ videos in YouTube that are the modern equivalent of sensationalist reportages. The primary goal of YouTube as it is now, is again not to show you informational videos, it is to make you watch the advertisements in between the videos.

Write-once Memory and DNA

Coming back to the ‘small villages’ idea, an awful lot of instinctive behaviour can be understood by considering how humans have lived during the past few thousands of years. All our instincts are reflections of the past, not of the present and certainly not of the future. Due to the way evolution works, as well as knowledge transfer beyond hard-coded mechanisms, many of the instincts and traditions that had become embedded in human behaviour over all those years are still present. If you believe you are a perfectly instinct-free rational computer that happens to dwell inside a hunk of living meat, then it is because some of those very instincts you do not believe in, make you believe that lie. Even if an instinct has become utterly obsolete, it will only go away if all the people who express it, remove themselves from the gene pool. This explains why humans are still chock-full of dumb instinctive behaviour that is at the worst annoying. Those with truly dumb instinctive behaviour that has become self-destructive, have already eradicated themselves or are in the process of doing so.

[REF:DNA] Consider the concept of ‘write-once memory,’ like the recordable CD-ROMs that were popular around the turn of the millennium. It is only possible to append data to a WOM medium, not to overwrite or even erase existing data. There are ways to mimic rewritable data on such a medium however. For instance new data can be appended at the end, together with instructions to override some of the previous data. The reading device would then need to read the entire disc sequentially to end up with the final version of the data. More efficient is to write a new index together with every chunk of new data, representing the most up-to-date state. The reading device then only needs to find this most recent index and ignore the older ones. Data can be ‘removed’ by dropping it from the index. The data itself is still on the medium, only it cannot be found when considering the latest index as the only source of truth.

Now consider DNA. As far as my limited biological knowledge goes, there is no obvious way to completely rewrite a grown-up living being's DNA or to readily reprogram the DNA that will end up in its reproductive system, and certainly no natural way. This means that from a short-to-medium timespan point-of-view, DNA is to be treated as write-once memory. Only in the very long term, when crossing many generations, it can be ‘rewritten,’ not in the true sense of the word but in a very roundabout kind of manner.

Therefore there are only two automatic ways in which existing DNA corrects itself across the transition between a few generations: either the flaw must disappear by a chance mutation or it must be overridden by other DNA code. The first is optimal because the flaw is completely gone. It is unlikely however, and even if DNA can be manipulated and the flaw would be known, it may be far from trivial to purposefully find which parts of DNA to modify without side-effects. The second is therefore what usually happens: mutations cause extra mechanisms to be introduced, suppressing the unwanted bits of existing behaviour. The old stuff keeps lingering around and is suppressed by extra controls that make a switch to the new behaviour. This is somewhat evident when looking at how a human grows up: every child that is growing up, actually exhibits a bit of a shadow of entire human evolution. Children start out with almost pure instinctive and reflexive behaviour, which is then gradually overridden by more advanced mechanisms that slowly develop. The role of hard-coded behaviour in DNA gradually decreases with the increasing complexity of these mechanisms. Eventually the most complicated mechanisms, the social ones, require interaction with other humans to develop and maintain themselves, because they are volatile and mostly exist in memory alone. These mechanisms are more adaptable than truly hard-coded instinctive behaviour, although my general impression is that it is much easier for someone to learn something than to ‘un-learn’ it or replace it with something else, so the write-only-medium argument still holds there to a certain degree. This process of ‘personal evolution’ continues until dementia starts kicking in, then things go slowly in reverse.

This system of overriding old data, like creating a new index on a WOM medium, implies two risks: first, the extra control may break down or be lost in the future due to a mutation, reintroducing the old flaw. Second, there is more ‘code’ in total that can become corrupted (this could be DNA code or something else, for instance culture). If the original code changes, the added control may have an adverse effect. The possibilities for things to go wrong, grow exponentially with the length of the program. The point where this outweighs the benefit of adding more code, is the point where the species or race gets into evolutional trouble.

Skyrim and Rodents

If you do not believe that humans drag along a lot of their ancient history, there are countless examples of structures in our bodies that are evidence of our distant past, even from the time when our ancestors were still fish swimming in an ocean. The reason why humans tend to snore for instance, is because the ‘design’ of the soft tissues in the airway is just extremely poor, but the threshold towards a better design is much larger than the risk it poses, therefore we are somewhat stuck in this poor evolutionary local optimum [LINK:GREEDY] and every night many have to either endure the horrible noise from others and/or suffer oxygen deprivation to their own brains that is most of the time not bad enough to cause lethal damage in the short term.
Next to the physiological aspects of evolution, there is also a plethora of hard-coded behaviour that is not immediately observable. Here is a concrete example: I still have some kind of hunter instinct for: “chasing a small animal in a snowy landscape.” Really, it gives me a very unique emotion and drive that I have felt as a child when I traced bird footsteps in the snow, and much later while chasing a virtual rabbit in the video game Skyrim as an adult. This instinct must be ancient but it is still in my DNA. Not that this bothers me, who knows it may come in handy some day.

As a child I also had an instinctive fear of skulls and skeletons that could not be suppressed by any amount of reason. This also makes sense because encountering skulls in a primitive environment probably meant there was a risk of dying from the same cause as the people those remains belonged to, and running away could make the difference between either becoming part of the pile of bones oneself, or growing up and procreating. This fear vanished as I grew up. My niece and nephew also had an obvious instinctive fear of things that look like snakes when they were very young, even though I never had this. They however have very close ancestors from India, where an instinctive fear of snakes is much more of an evolutionary advantage than in the region my ancestors evolved in.

I, and many others, also have obvious instinctive behaviour that causes instant discomfort when hearing sounds that are typically associated with rodents. The nails-on-chalkboard or cutlery-scratching-ceramic-dishes sound is one of the most obvious triggers, because those sounds share many characteristics with squeaking rodent sounds, and there are others. For instance whenever someone mimics with their fingers on a table the sound of a rat scurrying over a wooden floor, I get an immediate discomforting feeling in my teeth and an urge to get away. Worse, I have had colleagues who obviously have learnt to type on mechanical typewriters and still mash their flimsy laptop keyboards with the same technique and force, which also results in a noise that falls in the same category as if rodents are nibbling and gnawing on some piece of whatever. This sound irritates me on a level so primeval that it is impossible for me to get used to it or mentally cancel it out, and because I can obviously not demand that those colleagues stop typing, I can only resort to playing loud music on noise-isolating headphones. The latter is less detrimental for my level of productivity than my mind being overwhelmed by alarm signals. Mind that there is no conscious connection between these sounds and the realisation that they remind of rodents. The sounds never trigger a spontaneous thought of: “a rodent, I must avoid it,” they only trigger basal feelings of discomfort and urgency. It was only after I thought about this, that I made the link between these sounds and rodents. This is a true instinct that manifests itself through emotions: an instant shortcut from trigger to reaction with nothing in between. The only goal of these specific emotions is to get away from the sound, not to know all the tiny details why this should be the case.

It should be pretty obvious where these rodent-avoiding triggers come from: rodents are typical carriers (so-called vectors) for certain diseases and over the course of history, anyone who developed instincts to stay away from them had an advantage over those who did not care. Although its relevance has been reduced in developed countries, this instinct still makes sense today. There are probably many other instincts however that are truly obsolete and that I'd rather not have. And they will not all be as obvious as the chase-little-critters or avoid-rodents instinct. There is an obvious one however that has been proven: studies have demonstrated jealousy in other species, not only in monkeys but even in dogs, for instance, the experiment by Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal [BrWa2003] where a capuchin monkey was given a slice of cucumber while another received a grape. Do I consider jealousy an obsolete instinct? If it concerns the kind of unconditional negative jealousy [LINK:JEALOUSY] that incites people to sabotage the abilities and achievements of others just so they can protect their own ego, then by all means yes. That kind of crap has to go if we ever want to get somewhere as a species.


Humans are probably also equipped with all kinds of instincts that encourage people with certain health problems to act in manners that protect other individuals in their society. Most obvious would be an instinct to get away from the group when having a potentially contagious disease. Such instincts can be observed in other species that live in social groups. For instance rabbits will generally leave their group when they feel diseased and find a lonely place to die. Wild rabbits suffering from the highly contagious myxomatosis disease that raged through Europe in the 1950's, would often be found sitting far away from their burrows, not fleeing from humans as they normally do. I have experienced something similar with a pet rabbit. Even though it lived alone inside a cage in the house, one day it had left its cage and was sitting under a cupboard in another room although it did not appear ill. I put it back and closed the cage. The next day it had died—from cancer as an autopsy revealed. Of course cancer is not contagious but still it would be very bad for a rabbit to die and start decomposing deep inside a burrow where other rabbits live.

It may not be obvious how an instinct that removes individuals from the gene pool can persist in the surviving individuals, but it makes sense. The instinct does not need to express itself during the lifetime of healthy individuals for it to persist. It suffices that the dormant instinct is present, and only activated when an individual could become a liability and would pose less of a risk to others if it would leave. A group of individuals in whom this instinct exists has an overall better chance of survival than one where diseased individuals keep spreading their disease before dying.
A variation on this can be more subtle: it is not unimaginable that there are also instincts that discourage persons from procreating when they detect that they have some kind of condition that could affect their offspring. It is even less obvious how such instincts can originate through evolution but again: a group in which this kind of instinct has developed has a better prospect for the future than one where it has not.

Why have I picked these specific instincts as an example? Well, consider the population pyramids of certain ‘developed’ countries, and why not pick the country I live in: Belgium [TODO: ADD GRAPH]. The reason why it is called a population ‘pyramid’ is that under normal circumstances it looks like a pyramid with a wide bottom (children) and a narrow top (elderly). Belgium's pyramid however looks pretty diseased, more like a mushroom cloud. At the time I was in school, teachers explained this to be a consequence of the post-war baby boom. Now however we are more than 20 years later and the thing still looks just as bad as it did before, the base has hardly widened. Apparently there are many who do not want to procreate, and I actually know quite a few of them. Even worse is that I also know quite a few who do want to have children but are unable to. Both these observations worry me badly and seem to hint towards a general state of unhealthiness of the population—both physically and mentally. If feeling diseased does indeed trigger an instinct not to procreate, it could explain the worryingly large fraction of people who do not want offspring even if they are lucky enough not to belong to the other worryingly large group with fertility issues. The simpler ‘myxomatosis-like reflex’ might also be a factor in the apparent trend of people in my surroundings becoming ever more asocial. Unlike the diseased rabbits, they have no place to go because everything is pretty much overpopulated, so the only option left is to avoid social contact. Belgium scored pretty well in certain studies from around 2008 that measured specific well-fare parameters, but if one would ask me whether I would recommend anyone to come live here, you can guess my answer. If anyone hands me an opportunity to leave this country and go live in a place that is not overpopulated or full of sour and cynical people, you can guess what I will do.

Mankind has lived in small communities for ages, even long before we were able to build settlements. This allowed—or even required—all instincts that work well in small communities to become deeply embedded in our innate behaviour through evolution. In the present however we have connected together everyone with completely different backgrounds, living in environments with vastly different conditions and requirements. It actually makes no sense at all to try to make all those people identical to the same degree as was necessary in local tribal communities, yet we still try it. As an electrical analog, we have short-circuited the entire planet while everyone is trying to bring it to a different voltage. The only way this will go away is either by the collapse of this attempt at ‘globalisation’, or by an adjustment of the assimilation mechanisms such that they only work at the very limited set of levels that make sense to be equalised at a global scale, while tolerating differences at any other level.

At the very time of this writing, a popular study which is being regurgitated in mainstream media, states that populations in central African countries are generally more lazy because they can basically pick fruit from trees and do not need anything more than a shack to live in, thanks to their climate. When someone discusses this study, there is always a general undertone of: “those people should change their way of living and live more like in Western countries.” Why? Why on earth? If they have everything they need, why should they destroy it and start living as in a country with a Northern climate? This makes no sense at all. Please stop projecting stupid primitive tribal instincts onto people in far-away countries. Nobody benefits from it.

Numbers and Sockets

As far as the adopting of sensible world-wide standards versus conserving local habits is concerned, it is funny to see how we are currently not really heading in the right direction. While many are keen to try to impose their own cultural idiosyncrasies onto other countries, each country still has differing standards for electrical connections for power and communication, and there are many different measuring systems in use. When going on a vacation, any electronic device that requires mains power must be accompanied by a cumbersome adaptor to cater for the proliferation of incompatible power sockets. The device must be able to work with anything between 100V and 250V and between 50Hz to 60Hz, which complicates the design (remember the train with variable wheelbase example [LINK:ASSIMILATION]). Next to this, there are differing standards for weights, lengths, speeds, and ways to write dates even from the same calendar system. People seem willing to introduce food habits and corporate culture from other countries, eroding away their rich local culture. At the same time however, they seem to cling with emotional vigour to their power sockets and numerical systems, even though things like month-day-year ordering make no sense at all and are only good for confusion and messing up sorting procedures. Tell me, what date is this: 10-8-15? October 8th, 2015? August 10th, 2015? August 15th, 2010? Unless a format is imposed, I always write dates in YYYY-MM-DD format. There is almost no way to misinterpret something like 2015-08-10. For starters, the entirety of China and Japan wouldn't misinterpret it because this coarse-to-fine ordering is embedded into their entire language.

I find it strange how some can have such an emotional attachment to boring things such as bare numbers, size and weight units, and the shape of electrical contacts. I have even seen evidence of emotional attachment to the 1024-based size indicators for digital file sizes (kilobytes versus kibibytes), for instance in the manual page for the Linux ‘resize2fs’ program—you should be ashamed, Theodore, for such display of lack of professionalism. The concept that is represented by those numbers will not change one bit (pun intended) if they are rescaled or written in a different order. The electrons and the numbers themselves will not care. The practicality of measuring information sizes in powers of two has been reduced to a small number of fringe cases, while for all other cases it causes confusion.
It makes a much larger difference if people suddenly start eating things that are not readily cultivable in their neighbourhood or compatible with their physiology, or destroying age-old and valuable ecosystems to mimic some kind of industry or urban environment that appears to work well in a far-off country that is vastly different from the local one. It makes much more sense to cling to those cultural differences than to try to conserve some electrical interface, date format, or measurement unit based on the body part size of a distant ancestor.

As a side note, if we would finally be willing to converge on a single power socket standard, there are basically three options. The first one is to kludge and try to design a socket that accepts every possible plug design in use today. There have been attempts at this, but it is a design and safety nightmare that would cause Occam to roll over in his grave. It would expand the inefficiency of flexibility for multiple voltages and frequencies towards mechanical design as well. The second option is to pick a standard currently in use, based on how well it is designed (not on how widespread it is). This will of course raise protest from the combined egos of pretty much every nation that does not use this plug design. Therefore if we cannot overcome this childish debate for instance by letting the ‘advantaged’ country or countries cover some of the costs of adaptation in other countries, a third option may be the most fair. It would be to design an all new plug that does not match any in use today. When looking at practically every existing plug type, this may seem like a desirable option, because nearly all designs are either unnecessarily bulky, obligate a ground pin that is redundant for quite a few types of devices, and/or have safety and reliability problems. Yet, the existing IEC 60906-1 plug is probably the best exception to this rule, so my vote goes to selecting it instead of reinventing the wheel. It is only in widespread use by one country anyway, so the argument of unfairness is negligible. The next step would be to settle on a single voltage and frequency. Of course this is all pretty utopian, because the cost of these changes is staggering and the transition period would be long and arduous. We are stuck in our sump of organically grown standards and we have grown too comfortable with systematically ignoring all its hidden costs, and I'm not talking about electrical sockets alone.


[TODO: this probably belongs in the ASSIMILATION section.] There are two major ways in which humans obey their basic instinct of “everyone is like me” [LINK:EVERYONEISLIKEME]. Either they have a tendency to be dominant and will try to impose their way of living on others, or they will adjust their own way of living to match the ‘norm’. Of course, the dominant way only works if the others are actually capable of adjusting. If the dominant way requires something that is simply absent in the others, there are only two ways out. The first one is to eliminate the incapable persons. If this is too difficult due to physical or social reasons, the second option is the only one left: to bow to the lower norm and adjust. Stubbornly sticking to that own way of life, even if it is certainly better, will cause detachment from the group and the loss of that warm fuzzy feeling of belonging.
In other words, the more social contact there is in a society that prioritises treating everyone equally, the larger the ‘risk’ that everyone will tend to adjust to the lowest common denominator. Everyone can only be the same if everyone adjusts to the least capable individuals, because they would be excluded if the norm would be above their level, and that would violate the number one priority of equality. Of course there is a lower limit to this willingness to adjust, but this limit is not strict. It is surprising to what degree some are prepared to lower their standards just so they can belong to a group. The social instinct is perfectly able to completely disable all logical reasoning in a person [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT], or to distort it to make the most illogical things seem obvious. Cf. the famous experiment where a test subject is placed inside a room, together with a bunch of actors who were instructed to ignore the simulated indications that the building had caught fire. Most of the test subjects would mimic the actors and ignore the smoke and noises as well. This experiment was inspired by a true event where it was suspected that people had died in a burning restaurant because they did not dare leave their tables in time due to social pressure. There is no justification for making that decision in that situation, it would only be worthy of a Darwin Award. There are probably other similar experiments that are even more startling and unsettling, but I bet most people will not want to know about them because those cast the warm fuzzy social instinct in a bad light. The only gleam of hope from that experiment, is that there were some test subjects who did the logical thing and walked away, ignoring the actors altogether.

[REF:JEALOUSY] [This actually links with ARROGANCE.] Something like jealousy is a prime example of a mechanism that implements this kind of higher-order equalisation. If an individual notices that another person is better at solving some problem, it will most likely trigger a jealous reaction. Jealousy has been demonstrated to exist in other species than humans (cf. experiments by Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal), it is a great example of a simple instinct that worked well to lift simple organisms to a higher level but at the same time risks severely hampering organisms to evolve towards an even higher level. Jealousy is pretty complicated and it is tightly tied with perceptual aliasing. There seem to be two kinds of jealousy, a positive and a negative kind, and they differ in how the observed more advanced behaviour folds back into the more limited frame-of-reference of the observer.

In the case of ‘positive jealousy’, the individual does recognise the behaviour as advantageous and will try to learn how the other person solved the problem (i.e. try to become smarter). In the very best case, they will try to improve their own skills to solve problems in general (i.e. try to become more intelligent). In the case of ‘negative jealousy’ however, the individual interprets the advanced ability as a threat or flaw and will through various means try to stop the other person from executing their ability. If either method succeeds, the two individuals will end up being at the same level. Obviously, in the first (positive) case that level will be high and everyone wins. In the second (negative) case the level will be low and everyone loses. The most degenerate way to ensure everyone is at the same (low) level, is to kill the more advanced individuals. To some this may seem like ‘winning’, but in practice the survivors lose big time because they destroyed any chance to learn the more advanced solution to the problem. This negative variation on jealousy sucks. Stay away from those who act like it. Let them choke in their own self-destructive behaviour.

The above can work in subtler ways, for instance whenever I show to various persons something complicated that I created or repaired, some of them will invariably have an immediate reaction of disbelief. They will generally be those who are neither close friends nor total strangers, those who could be described as ‘just friends’. Truly close friends know me well enough to have a fine-grained estimate of my capabilities, whereas total strangers obviously know nothing about me. The interesting stuff happens with this in-between group: their model of ‘friendship’ is for the most part a simple one-size-fits-all model mostly based on instincts. One of those instincts tells them that anyone who exhibits sufficient similarity to themselves, must be entirely similar in almost every regard. When I present my surprisingly impressive task, and they cannot fathom how they could finish that task themselves, the only ‘logical’ conclusion within this framework of blunt assumptions is that I am lying. Otherwise there is a conflict between the assumed fact ‘this person is identical to me’, and the observed fact ‘he did something I cannot do’. The assumption of a lie is an easy and lazy solution to this conflict. They have this notion in their brains that the thing I just demonstrated can only be performed by specialists who have spent their entire lifetime studying and practising it. When I shatter that notion, they will be more inclined to reject what they observe than to reject their instinctive assumptions. Again, never make the mistake of believing this is a conscious process: asking whether they aren't making any mistakes in their reasoning is completely futile because these reactions work at an emotional and sub-conscious level, which is also why they occur so fast, in the order of just one second: nobody can make this kind of reasoning so quickly—in a correct way, that is. Only emotional responses can be that fast.

Stupidity Meltdown

[REF:INFANTILE] This whole discussion about this instinctive drive for equalising all humans may all seem like an unimportant side-note to human behaviour, but it is not. In fact I believe the drive for assimilation is the essence of human and perhaps even all animal behaviour, and pretty much everything else follows from it. A lot of our current technology serves practically one purpose, and that is to satisfy the average person's craving for unconditional social contact. People are expected to be online constantly and share their entire life with the world. Others try to use this to figure out what is the most common among all these reports and then clone that behaviour. Social control is ever getting faster and stronger, and many feel an urge to adjust themselves to other people whom they don't know anything about. Everyone wants to belong and be the same as everyone else, whatever the definition of “everyone else” may be. Now consider the fact that the internet is increasingly populated by teenagers and younger children—because sitting behind a computer or mashing a smartphone is so much cooler than playing the old-fashioned way. Moreover, who has the most spare time to spend online? Adults with a daily job and a family? Of course not. The kind of people with the most time available to be active on the internet are teenagers and children. And in a healthy society with a normal population pyramid, they are the most numerous.

All this has a nicely unsettling consequence. Yes, I am implying that there is a risk that the entire online community will have a tendency to become puerile or even infantile just to be all at the same wavelength. And since there seems to be a general assumption that the entire world must go online, this means that the entire human race might one day tend to adapt to the level of children who have just learnt how to get online. Add to this the fact that nobody will be inclined to learn anything aside from how to get online. All knowledge can be pulled from a machine, so why bother memorising it? Why bother developing skills if every problem that is remotely complicated is either delegated to a machine or can be solved by mimicking actions in a video like an ape? Hey, learning to read and write is not even necessary anymore if everything is stored in videos. I am not kidding, I have heard proposals to stop teaching the skill of writing to children, because now we have touch displays. Panacea ahoy! [LINK:PANACEA] The proponents of that idea are so deliriously taken in by the panacea of touch screens and the vague ‘digital’ concept, that they do not mind bringing people to the same level as the chimpanzee in that certain movie clip, pushing numbers on a touch screen in a faster and better way than any human ever could. The ability to write is unique to mankind. The ability to punch and drag something on a flat surface is not. Some are surprised that infants can operate a touch display before they can even walk or talk. What is so surprising about that? There is almost nothing to learn about it. It is a much more basic skill than walking, talking, or reading and writing. Anything that truly requires learning about operating a present-day smartphone or tablet, will be specific to present-day operating systems and apps, and will become obsolete and useless knowledge very soon. If we would find a caveman perfectly preserved in ice for thousands of years and be able to thaw and reanimate him, he would be able to do all basic things on the touchscreen device in no time, but it would take ages to teach him to write if that is possible at all. Dropping the skill of writing from education is like shifting civilisation into reverse.

Imagine that all electronics fail and nobody is able to write text on a simple piece of paper, or look up information without the help of a machine. How is anyone going to make notes that allow to repair the electronics? Purely from memory and spoken word? Or do you believe an event that causes a breakdown of electronic communication is impossible? A total collapse of civilisation does not seem entirely unlikely. Despite how handy children may seem with electronics and software, they do not have the background, experience, know-how, mindset, nor patience required to make reliable and sustainable technology, especially not if all the required knowledge to repair the broken-down technology is locked up inside that very technology. Just imagine that there is a large-scale power loss, and people were dumb enough to only store the instructions on how to recover from such power loss inside devices requiring electrical power. This is an obvious example but similar scenarios can manifest themselves in much more subtle ways. There is a real risk that humanity can catapult itself into a second Medieval age or worse. Just imagine that all your electronic devices stop working just for one day. If you can. If you dare. I believe there actually are persons who would go insane if they would be disconnected from the internet for longer than a few hours, because their brains have become wired to be entirely dependent on online access. I have seen examples of them, lugging around battery packs to ensure their phone will last through the day. This might sound like a strange statement from someone who was one of the first kids in his class to have a website and who would rather build a computer from scratch than buy a prefabricated one, but I believe this is a very bad evolution.

Sometimes I have a feeling this downwards spiral to immaturity is already happening and the ‘western’ world in a pretty advanced stage. If one looks at the main driving forces behind a lot of scientific research nowadays, it is all stuff that is basically geared towards fulfilling childish desires like living eternally and having infinite pleasure without effort, or realising cool but ultimately unnecessary things from sci-fi films or books. Even the things that seem more serious, still often reek of a naïvety and a desire for a simpler world that could at best be described as childish. We think we can become bigger than life through all our knowledge and technology, even though there are basic laws of logic, physics, and thermodynamics that tell us we cannot. Just look at the workplace culture of a certain very big company, where offices are basically organised playgrounds. It worries me.

As I explained at the start of this text, the younger and the more inexperienced someone is, the higher the risk that they cannot have a clue that something is wrong. When looking at everything from inside a childish limited frame of reference where everything seems easy and happy because all the obvious or subtle risks fall outside this mind-set [LINK:HUBRIS], the potential to cause massive damage becomes huge. The fact that lack of skill is often masked by arrogance [LINK:ARROGANCE] does not help at all, obviously. Ever so often I see young persons who are highly convinced they can do things better just because they lack the frame-of-reference to see why they cannot (Dunning-Kruger). They are too inexperienced to see that what they are planning to do, is to tear down something that is already as good as it will ever be, only to replace it with either something that is exactly the same or maybe worse. Even if this leads to a break-even, the mere fact that this whole process of destroying and rebuilding wastes a lot of resources and time, will already make the outcome worse than when just maintaining what already existed.
This used to be not a problem because there were simply no means to do the stupid things that sprouted from people's inexperienced minds. Now however we have an ever increasing arsenal of technology and we make it easy for anyone to acquire and use it. Keep in mind that the inexperienced cannot be blamed for doing stupid things due to their lack of reference. It is not like they chose to have those cheap aliasing mechanisms built into their brains, that worked OK for our ape ancestors. It is the task of those who do have the right frame of reference to impose limits on the use of potentially dangerous technology, show others the error of their ways, not give them tools until they are experienced enough to handle them, and prevent them from inflicting damage to themselves and others. As I explained elsewhere [LINK:FIT], physical or technological strength alone does not guarantee success for a species. If it is unable to control the strength or consider its costs, then the species shall not survive.

I wrote all the above at a time when it was still hypothetical. I silently hoped it would remain that way, but it did not. I do not need to look far to find examples, meaning that even the tip of the iceberg is pretty large already. When for instance I type a few words in Google Translate, it displays suggestions for completing the sentence. One of the first suggestions when typing “your” at the time of this writing, is: “your welcome.” What's the deal with my welcome? Obviously, this is a typical grammar mistake and it should have been “you're welcome” instead. It is OK if the webpage translates this piece of poor grammar, but it should never give this as a suggestion and if the user does type it, it should clearly indicate that it corrected the entry before translating. This way, the user can learn two things at a time. How can such mistake be in one of the most used translation tools, and how can it even be labeled as “verified by the community” to boot? Exactly because of what was explained in the previous paragraph: many of Google's services are based on artificial intelligence that requires training to work. Anyone can contribute to it by clicking some links inside the Translate webpage. Volunteers are given semi-random pairs of phrases and have to mark them as correct or incorrect, or provide a translation if none of the options are valid. This data serves as input for the algorithm. The kind of people who have the most time to do this, are not those I would want to learn a language from, or translate my documents. Their motivation to participate in this system is often not to improve translation quality. It may just be to get a higher score than their friends in what they consider a game, meaning they will favour quantity over quality. I do not believe in this system of unbounded crowdsourcing. It can work, but there must be a layer of quality control on top. It is not because this ‘community’ of those with an excess of spare time has marked a grammatically inexplicable construct as correct, that it is. The English language is already a horrible train wreck of historical anecdotes, so let's not make it worse.

I am not saying that this ‘stupidity meltdown’ doomsday scenario is bound to happen, only that the risk exists, and from time to time I see indications pop up that it might actually be in the process of happening. On the other hand, similar advances in technology have occurred before, and mankind has managed to get through them (albeit not always unscathed). The breakdown is a worst-case scenario and many a less disastrous scenario is possible. Whether it will truly occur, will depend entirely on mankind's active efforts to prevent it. I am pretty certain however that it is continuously happening at a more local scale. We are certainly losing tiny bits of knowledge all the time. The world is not continuously improving everywhere, there is continuous decay as well [LINK:ENTROPY]. Our task is to keep the rate of improvement at least on par with the decay.

The fact that the internet offers far-reaching anonymity is one of its major problems. It is worthwhile to think about ways to improve upon this. Everyone is just thrown together into one big pool, and it is often impossible to determine the age and skill level of persons we're communicating with. If I post a technical question on a community forum and I get an answer that looks surprising, then maybe it is because my own level is quite low, or maybe it is just because the other person is a teenager who has nothing better to do all day than pretend to be a hot-shot and give in to their boundless hubris [LINK:ALIAS, HUBRIS]. Or maybe it is just a troll. Their language skills may be good enough to present their ill-advised response in a way that makes it seem reliable at first glance. Even if I eventually figure out it is nonsense, I still have wasted some of my precious time on it. If I do not figure it out early enough, I may waste both time and resources and be put at risk by following the poor advice given. It is nice that children can go on the internet and learn new things in ways that were previously impossible. It is not so nice that they can end up on websites that teach them things they should not yet be doing at their age. It is nice that everyone can try to help everyone else on the internet, but it is not so nice that immature persons can spread around bad advice, intentional or not. We should somehow get rid of part of the anonymity that has been part of the internet since the beginning. I do not need to know who exactly is behind every nickname on a forum, but I want to get at least a reliable ballpark figure of their age or skill levels without having to rely on shoddy heuristics like quality of their spelling or word use.

Minority Report

Here is a practical illustration of how things seem to be shifting towards less maturity instead of more. For years, we have seen fancy but stupid and utterly unpractical user interfaces in Hollywood movies: dark screens with white or blue-greenish text, stacks of semi-transparent windows, 3D interfaces, circles, spinning and scrolling stuff, often accompanied by silly sound effects inspired by teletype machines. The only reason for this is that it looks cool, and most Hollywood movies are only concerned with looking cool and offering instant superficial gratification. Nobody cares about a fake user interface in a movie being unpractical and nobody should, because it is only entertainment. Nothing wrong up until here. Here comes the big ‘however’. Look at many a contemporary smartphone app interface or desktop window manager. Yes indeed, it is starting to look like those Hollywood interfaces. Big, empty interfaces with circles and smoothly scrolling and/or spinning stuff. Nice to look at from afar, but often infuriatingly unpractical to use and bad for the eyes after prolonged exposure. Semi-transparent window headers. Either dark backgrounds with light text, or a layout that suffers from extreme whiteout syndrome, where text and overly stylised icons float in a sea of white with nearly no visible edges. Real-time blur effects. Entire videos as backgrounds. Stupid animations everywhere. When I press ‘enter’ in the Android calculator, the result doesn't pop on the display instantly. No, it scrolls. This leads to the calculator needing more time to display a result than a calculator from the 1960's. Sometimes all that is missing in certain GUIs to make them identical to the movie operating system interface, are the idiotic ‘blip’ sounds every time a button is pressed, and text that appears one character at a time with again a ‘blip’ at every character. I hope I am not giving anyone ideas here.

Why is this happening, why are basic human interface guidelines being violated? Well, simply consider the people who are developing those interfaces right now, and consider the kind of movies they watched as a kid, while they were sculpting their mental model of the world. Everyone of course assumes that every human being is perfectly able to recognise the computer interfaces shown in movies to be unusable junk that is just for show. However, consider someone never having seen a real computer interface yet, who is exposed to all those fake movie interfaces. This person has no notion of what a decent interface should look like. In the absence of counter-evidence, the most sensible conclusion any being could make, is that the movie depicts a real computer interface. Remember Plato's cave allegory: the person has no examples to prove their assumption wrong. In the late eighties and nineties, the only counter-examples available to kids were the god awful DOS prompt, the very ho-hum design of Windows 3.11, or the black-and-white Mac OS likely in a 512×384 pixel screen, if their parents gave them access to the home PC at all. Compared to flashy Hollywood UIs, all those real-world UIs are underwhelming even if much more usable. When children who have built up expectations from fancy movie interfaces are later on being shown such real interfaces that are practical yet ‘ugly’, the risk exists that they will reject those interfaces and attempt to design something that looks like the movie UIs they are so familiar with. Even when re-educating those people through solid arguments why such interfaces are stupid and unusable, their deep-rooted concept of what an interface should look like might keep on breaking through, and will eventually end up in finished products. From this point on the situation only gets worse because not only do people now see stupid unusable interfaces in movies, they also see them in real products, and it becomes even harder to convince the general public that a less fancy interface might be much more productive to use.

For a very concrete example: remember the 2002 movie ‘Minority Report’? At the time while I was doing my PhD in the decade after its release, slipping this name into a research project proposition seemed to greatly increase the chances of obtaining funds. I have seen many attempts at reproducing the user interface depicted in the movie. It seems many are willing to sway their arms in front of huge screens. Because it looks cool. Whether it is really practical is irrelevant, because it looks cool. A lot of effort has already been poured into enabling the detection of swaying arms (e.g., the Kinect), and now the industry is adamant on giving us huge screens (ultra-HD, 4K, and even 8K,) that offer no perceivable improvement over full HD unless installed at sizes and viewing distances that are unpractical in almost every normal consumer environment. It is not just this, the striving for self-driving cars was also often justified by referring to Minority Report in the few decades after its release. <IRONY>Maybe we should try to breed those ‘precogs,’ mutant people with psychic powers as well, so we can predict the future. Maybe we shouldn't: they might tell us that the future we're trying to create is a load of bullshit and an irresponsible waste of resources.</IRONY>

I remember going through an introductory app when my dad had bought our first Macintosh computer in 1989, an SE/30. It was a kind of game that came on a diskette with the computer, and it introduced the user to the graphical interface and the way the computer worked in general. The key to the Mac interface from that time was that pretty much everything worked in exactly the same way. This uniformity was part necessity, because available memory was so small that GUI elements stored in the ROM needed to be maximally reused. Every program used the same menu structures, the same window layouts, and the same workflow, inspired by the Xerox Alto interface that Steve Jobs had seen during his 1979 visit to Xerox PARC. The 1-bit interface might have been primitive and appear ugly to someone who has been brainwashed with current design trends, but it was apparent that years of thought had gone into designing it and making it functional. It was exactly this uniformity that made the computer amazingly easy to operate overall, in spite of its laughably low resolution screen compared to modern standards. It was often unnecessary to read any manuals at all when buying a new application, because the expected features could always be found in the same places. Now 25 years later, computer memory is cheap and everyone believes they can make a better interface than what already exists. Therefore we have a multitude of different interfaces, even within the same computing devices. Worse, developers find it necessary to completely overhaul interfaces almost every year. They cannot decide whether to use a single paradigm for both desktop and portable devices, therefore sometimes we get a horrible bastard mix of both (Gnome 3, Unity: ugh). It doesn't matter whether a new interface is truly better: there is too little time to adapt to it. By the time I have adapted, they overhaul it again. This constant instability makes everything difficult to use, especially for the older generations who lack the adaptability of youngsters. Maybe at some point the mix of interfaces will become so messy that it becomes a new virtual tower of Babel.

Open source projects are the worst in this regard because unlike in specific companies where there is usually at least an attempt at sticking to a single interface guideline, with open source software there is no governing entity when it comes to UI design. Every time new developers join a project, they often inject some more random changes according to their own idiosyncratic ideas of how the software should behave. However, I firmly believe that the awkward imperfection of open source programs like GIMP, InkScape, RawTherapee and so on, are also a good defence mechanism. This might sound slightly absurd, but look at it this way: if software that is available to everyone at no cost would rival a commercial program in every aspect, then the company behind that commercial program would employ every tactic to prevent people from installing the open source program. As a matter of fact, this is probably already happening. For instance Apple has become much more hostile towards open source than they used to—pretty sad for a company that based their entire Mac operating system on an open source project. So, if you work on an open source program, know when to stop trying to make it perfect. It should hurt just a little bit for the user to work with it, just not too much, but also not so little that the greedy commercial leeches will feel threatened in their endless quest for steepest-hill optimisation.

Technology Is an Amplifier for Both Intelligence and Stupidity

The above can be generalised. Technology, especially information technology, i.e. any technology related to communication and replication of data (in other words: learning), acts as an amplifier in both directions. It makes smart/intelligent people smarter and dumb people dumber (mind the subtleties about smart vs. intelligent [LINK:SMART]). There has been a study long ago that proved this for television (exercise for the reader with a lot of spare time: find this study. Good luck!) It makes sense however that this applies to any kind of information technology, or technology in general. It is important to note that the ‘zero point’ or bias at which this amplifier operates, in other words the threshold that divides between becoming dumber and becoming smarter, is variable. It shifts with the overall capabilities of the technology but is unfortunately very hard to pinpoint.

How this works exactly, is as follows. Technology in general is a means to automate tasks that used to be performed by humans. The technology is intended to push the set of possibly useful tasks for a human to perform, to a higher level.

Conceptually it is easy to speak of this ‘level’ which acts as the threshold or zero point in the amplifier, but in practice it is very difficult to define this threshold exactly. A conservative definition could be: if someone would be able to build a new exemplar of the technology from scratch without a step-by-step recipe, they are guaranteed to be above the threshold. This is a fuzzy definition of course, and unrealistic in the present-day world. I do not think there is a single person who would for instance be able to build a smartphone from scratch, and I really mean starting from absolutely no pre-built component at all. For instance, they would need to be able to make an integrated circuit and all the required tools for this process, starting from nothing but bare sand, metal ore, and other raw materials. If in the definition however, we replace the single ‘someone’ with a group, then it works. In practice this does not change much because knowledge is becoming increasingly distributed anyway and it does not matter whether we consider individuals or groups.

If technology would be allowed to evolve at an uncontrolled and inconsiderately quick rate, at some point this threshold may become so high that when the few people above the threshold die, all that is left are people below it. The devices that work as a dividing amplifier between stupidity and intelligence however, will not always immediately die together with the few smart persons that built them (consider the automated doctor machine in ‘Idiocracy’ [LINK:IDIOCRACY]). They will keep on doing their thing until they break down. In a certain sense, they could turn from their original intended function of protection mechanisms to becoming effective indirect killing machines, but not in a ‘Terminator’ kind of way, it will be way subtler.


For instance, the combination of a person plus an advanced smartphone may be ‘smarter’ or perhaps even more intelligent [LINK:SMART] than a similar person without a smartphone. But after a while, if one takes away the smartphone and compares those two persons alone, the one that was bereft of their smartphone has a risk of severely falling behind the one who never had a smartphone. In other words, it is possible that a smart-phone will actually make its user dumber. I already experience this phenomenon with simpler technology, like a basic notebook. Instead of memorising everything I wrote down in the notebook, I tend to only remember a kind of index of the book. The combination of me plus that notebook is smarter because I can store more information and retrieve it quite quickly, while reducing the risk of relying on degraded data in my brain. If I lose the notebook however, I am worse off than if I would have memorised the data myself, even if only in a rougher manner. This phenomenon obviously gets a lot worse with something that can do much more than a simple notebook. It does not surprise me when I see certain persons lugging powerbanks around all the time, because they know they would become practically brain-dead if their smartphone would lose power. I strive to inherently avoid that kind of situation altogether, by aiming for an optimal way of working where I never completely depend on this fragile technology, especially not if it is controlled by others. When it comes to learning something, I try to both memorise a rough overview, and use technology for extra details that are not crucial. It should never matter much if the technology breaks down. Obviously, if my brain itself breaks down, I won't care anyway and the technology won't help me no matter how much information it contains.

It is the same with automated translators, which I mention elsewhere in this text. If we could build a kind of universal translator as was featured in the Star Trek series, will this mean nobody should ever need to learn a new language anymore? Star Trek itself gives the answer, and it is: no. There is a particular episode in the Next Generation series, called ‘Darmok,’ arguably one of the very best episodes across the entire series. [Spoilers ahead!] In this episode, the universal translator at first appears to work fine during an encounter with a previously unknown alien species and produces grammatically correct output, yet the crew cannot make any sense of the phrases. The lack of mutual understanding leads to conflict, but eventually captain Picard realises that the aliens speak entirely in historical metaphors from their past history, which means there cannot be any way in which the universal translator could ever have produced meaningful translations without a prior learning phase. Of course this was an extreme fictional example, but to a certain degree it also holds for human languages: translation involves a lot more than merely looking up words in a table and fitting them into grammatically correct sentences. That may work for simple isolated facts like weather reports and driving directions, but for many other things a whole extra layer of culture and reasoning comes on top of the basic vocabulary and grammar. This is very difficult to model within a bunch of fixed algorithms or something that only learns by extrapolating a limited training set. One can see how the automatic translator in the Darmok example acts as an amplifier: because it does solve the initial problem of converting the alien speech signals into recognisable words, it allows Picard to take the next step and not only attach meaning to those words, but also respond with novel phrases that the aliens understand. For someone unable to take that cognitive leap however, it does not help at all and may well lead to a higher risk of conflict than in the case where the alien speech would not be converted to anything recognisable. In the latter case, at least the person would be fully aware of the fact that they do not understand anything, while in the first case they might have a false impression of partial understanding and misinterpret some of the words as hostile.

If you see commercials for magical devices that will translate everything for you while you are on holiday in a foreign country, take this with a big grain of salt. These things will be OK for simple tasks like asking how to get to the airport or the nearest restaurant. They will be useless for having any interesting conversation, and they will certainly be useless when it comes to obtaining respect from the local population. Even if you speak their language in a terribly broken way, they will be much more inclined to pay attention to you than if you push a machine in their face and expect it to act as an interpreter. The main difference between being able to speak the language yourself and having to use an interpreter, is that the latter is inevitably much slower and tedious, no matter how good it is. The translator can only provide a somewhat reliable translation after the end of each sentence. Then it has to start speaking the translation. Then you have to understand what was said and formulate your answer, and then this loop repeats in the other direction. This is not the same at all as each conversant immediately reacting to words as they are being spoken. Moreover, the interpreter, whether it is a human or machine, will always deform the meanings—perhaps intentionally to bend your interpretation of the conversation towards something that benefits them or their manufacturers. Some things simply cannot be translated. You can only understand certain expressions in foreign languages by actually knowing the language and culture. The fictitious ‘Darmok’ example above takes this to an extreme, but it holds for every real language to a certain degree. Anyone proclaiming that learning languages will become useless, is either an idiot or a translator salesman. It is true that for many people, automated translators may become good enough for basic needs during a trip to a country they will only visit once. For anything more serious, you will want to be sure of what the other party is really saying, and you'll want to be sure that the other party is hearing what you believe to be saying.

Automated translation especially fails on single words, short sentences, or expressions, due to lack of context. Take the word ‘spring.’ It cannot be translated without additional information because it has two distinct meanings in English, one is a mechanical component and the other is a season. Things like these make it for instance a terrible idea to run a file containing movie subtitles through an automated translator. The subtitles typically consist of sentence fragments that would first need to be glued back together and then split up again to act as acceptable translated subtitles. Moreover, often the context of what was said earlier or what can only be seen in the video, is essential for a correct translation. At some point a holistic system that is able to do this will probably be made, but at the time of this writing we are not quite there yet.
It is also tempting to use an automated translator for software UI elements, and I notice some companies step into this pitfall. Again this is exactly where these systems perform very poorly because the text often consists of mere words or sentence fragments. The result can be total nonsense whose true meaning can only be understood by figuring out from what source language it was translated and what the original text was. For instance in Windows 10, currently the weather forecast in Dutch may state “meest bewolkt,” which is a direct and poor translation of “mostly cloudy.” The translation means as much as “the most cloudy possible,” which makes no sense, it should have been “overwegend bewolkt.” This gives the user an impression of lack of professionalism from the part of the product's manufacturer.

Earlier I mentioned the proposal to stop teaching the skill of writing to children. [SARCASM]Why stop there: we can also drop the skill of reading because now we have the means to perform all communication through video and audio.[/SARCASM] Imagine that a large group of humans has effectively become entirely reliant on high-tech to communicate and organise their lives. The others who design all this technology cannot drop those skills, they need them more than ever to handle the complexity of the designs. Again, this shows how advanced technology may act as an amplifier that pushes populations away in either direction from a certain threshold. Now consider the kind of society that has been created this way: we have basically a group that leads a life very similar to how the majority of humans lived in the middle ages or even earlier: only verbal communication with very limited ability to disseminate knowledge efficiently. (Imagine having to find something on Youtube without being able to read, let alone write. You could search by voice, but the only way to evaluate which of the thousands of results contain what you want, is to watch them all or at least wait for the computer to have read out loud all titles, because you cannot read titles nor descriptions yourself.) True, this communication now happens through high-tech for a large part and can span much larger distances and time delays than in the middle ages, but nobody in this group knows how to build any of those communication systems from the ground up or fix them if they break, to them it is almost pure magic. If for some reason all this technology breaks down at the same time, they will effectively be back in the middle ages. Maybe they will still have some limited writing and reading skills after all, if drawing emojis can be considered writing. This would mean they would be at a level that was already reached by humanity some 5000 years ago. If I look at some instant messaging conversations today and what kind of things are being added to the Unicode standard every few years, I wonder whether we aren't in the process of reinventing hieroglyphs…

If the above scenario seems too extreme, here is a subtler one that can already be observed today. Consider the current trend of people scoffing at professional photographers or even enthusiasts still using cameras, because everyone can now take pictures themselves with their smartphone. Everyone can pretend to be a professional photographer when ignoring the fact that taking photos with these things imposes way more limitations than when using a decent camera, usually they lack any optics beside their fixed lens which makes them unusable for photos of things in the distance, and the tiny sensors in these phones produce noisy or blurry photos in situations that are not well-lit. Of course nowadays a huge layer of post-processing will be poured on top of the sensor output to hide its limitations and make it look OK for people who will only watch pictures on small screens and do not care that their final photo is for a large part guesstimated by algorithms and not an accurate record of what was really observed.
But most importantly, being a good photographer has little to do with the quality or abilities of the camera. What is really happening here is of course twofold. First, the smartphones are stuffed with algorithms that are the result of decades worth of research, to ensure the result is more or less decent even when the user is trying to do something utterly poor. Second, people are arrogant as hell and are only interested in one thing: proving that they are better than others [LINK:ARROGANCE, HUMANTHOUGHT]. Being able with a cheap device to trump someone who asks a fee of a few hundred Euros or Dollars for a photo session, is of course a big ego boost. Or is it? The only thing one can prove with this, is that they are able to push a button. An ape can do that too. Heck, I have seen videos of birds intentionally pushing buttons.
The smartphone user who merely pushes the button and effortlessly gets a decent looking photo is not a good photographer by any stretch, their phone is. The average tourist from 1990 who occasionally took photos with one of those disposable cardboard cameras, was likely to be a much better photographer because they knew they had to get the most out of their limited film roll, they couldn't just take 3 photos and then immediately pick the best and delete the others, the quality of the photos they would eventually have developed on paper would be determined first and foremost by their own efforts. I couldn't care less about the person who pushes the shutter button on the advanced smartphone, I'd rather admire all the scientists and engineers who built the machinery inside that device. They would probably be able to build a robot that walks around and takes beautiful photos without any human intervention at all. The only reason why they haven't done that yet, is because most of them know that such thing is just completely stupid and useless. The photos would have no story or interesting motivation behind them, it would be a gimmick that quickly gets old. See my discussion about how I value people [LINK:VALUEPERSON].

Delegation: the Clippy-syndrome

[REF:DELEGATION] This principle of the ‘stupidity amplifier’ applies to any kind of technology. Any action that tries to remove a problem in a way that does not consider how the problem fits within the great scheme of everything, risks degrading the ability to deal with the same or similar problems in the future. The ability is delegated to something external, removing the need for the users to maintain the skill if their own ability is below the threshold imposed by the machine that performs the task in a better way. If the machine, the external entity, fails, the risk that nobody can solve the problem anymore becomes real.

Why don't the people below the threshold notice they are at risk, and why do those above the threshold not notice that risk either? It can be explained from within the aliasing theory: the technology will allow people with a sufficiently large frame-of-reference (FOR) to constantly surf on the wave of just-being-beyond-their-FOR that enables learning, while those with a smaller FOR will only alias everything back into that FOR. They will never be able to come near the edge of the learning curve and this edge will move further and further away as the technology advances. The group of people whose FOR degenerates to the bare minimum of skills required to operate or ‘consume’ the technology, keeps on growing. Those with the large FOR who produce the technology, do not notice that the size of their group is shrinking, because they will remain inside the everyone-is-like-me [LINK:EVERYONEISLIKEME] illusion until the very end. The rest of the intelligence is locked up inside the technology. When it breaks down and there is nobody with a FOR large enough to understand the current state of technology such as to repair it, all that remains is stupidity. Or worse, the few who do understand the technology, could abuse it to make the others do their bidding. When done right, the victims will never notice this, because they have no other option than to put all their trust in the technology. It is the price to pay for incorrectly considering technology a goal instead of a tool.

Do you remember Clippy? Those who have known the ‘Office Assistant’ in the Microsoft Office software suite around the end of the twentieth century, will instantly know what I am talking about. For the others: Clippy was a small animated character that would pop up whenever the user tried to perform certain actions in the Office suite of applications. For instance, when creating a new document in the ‘Word’ text editor and starting to type certain words, it might say: it looks like you're trying to write a letter. Would you like help? Then it would offer all kinds of supposedly smart options. Clippy was perceived as annoying to such a degree that it was parodied and vilified in popular culture, leading to Microsoft eventually removing it in a subsequent release of their Office suite. My opinion is that it was not the animation nor the way in which it asked its questions that made it irritating. It was the fact that the software pretended to be smarter than the user, while this was the case not by any stretch of the imagination. In its process of bothering the user at regular moments, it decreased productivity instead of increasing it. The intentions of those who designed it were good: for the utterly inexperienced users Clippy probably was helpful, for a while. However, after having received the same kind of suggestions more than twice, even those users probably started damning the thing. Clippy was an attempt to introduce some artificial intelligence into the word processor, unfortunately in the end it became an example of artificial stupidity.

Luckily, Clippy could be disabled by the user (it actually was smart enough to suggest this after having been sufficiently insulted). Has humanity learnt from this lesson? It seems not. Elsewhere in this pile of text I will demonstrate how Microsoft stepped into exactly the same pitfalls some 25 years later when AI chatbots became mature, but other companies also went a similar path much sooner than that.
Hold on to your socks because here it comes: I will equate Google to Clippy. That's right: when simply trying to search for something in the Google search engine around the year 2015 and beyond, it would exhibit quite a bit of Clippy-like behaviour, only in a much more covert manner. In the early days of Google, the search engine behaved predictably. Looking for any set of words was almost guaranteed to return pages that contained all those words. Anyone with basic notions of set theory or just plain common sense could craft their queries to steer and refine their results. Gradually however, they attempted to make the search engine ‘smarter’ and make it return any kind of result that vaguely looks like it may have something to do with the search terms. It suffices that certain words occur on the result pages which in some contexts have been deemed to be related to the search terms. Some algorithm in the vein of latent semantic indexing must be behind this. Moreover, it heavily favours results with a high popularity. The consequence is that when something is really popular at a certain moment, result pages about it are likely to swamp the true relevant results when looking for basically anything. Searching for something specific has become increasingly difficult. Even when trying to disable all the bells and whistles by digging in the advanced search options, I still notice a certain sloppiness and fuzziness that never existed in the early days of the search engine. Again, this kind of behaviour benefits the novice users who are unable to, or do not want to apply things like set theory when looking up something on the internet. They only care about finding those highly popular pages even when entering a sloppy query full of typos. However, it hampers the users who want to go beyond that level.

One would expect that moving to another search engine like Duckduckgo, would allow to escape from this trend of artificial stupidity, but in my experience the latter are trying hard to produce similar results to Google. It exhibits a similar fuzziness that highly favours a small set of popular webpages regardless of which exact search terms were entered. All these popular search engines give me a feeling of being imprisoned in some particular view on the world, either imposed by the search engine algorithms or perhaps even manually crafted by a small group of persons running the engine. I do not like that at all.

Another example of this plague of Clippy-like behaviour spreading, is in the ‘Spotlight’ search system of Mac OS X. After upgrading to OS X 10.14 ‘Mojave,’ I noticed it started to put results on top that only match the search string when taking it with a big grain of salt. Documents that have the exact string in their name are ranked lower. The sloppiness is not as elaborate as in Google, it only appears to favour applications whose name loosely matches the search terms. For instance each time I want to find documents called ‘wages,’ I will have to skip the first result for the ‘Pages’ app that will be stubbornly put on top, because obviously everyone tends to mistype ‘w’ when they wanted to type a ‘p’.

What annoys me the most about this situation is that the laziness and ineptitude of others is invading the software and tools that I am using, with often no option to escape this. It feels like evolution is going in reverse. The main drive for all this nuisance is of course steepest-hill greedy optimisation of profits [LINK:GREEDY]. While in the early days of computing and the Internet, everything was designed and run only by those who cared about computing, nowadays software is created in companies run by marketeers who do not care about computing. They only care about maximising profits and making a product that is aimed towards the lowest common denominator of the general public which also doesn't care about computing but instead expects computers to be as sloppy and fuzzy as humans. The software is written by the cheapest labour forces that can be found, not those who are the most motivated to create something truly good. Things are changed at regular moments for no good reason, only to uphold the illusion that the cheap labour developers must be kept on the payroll. I don't mind this happening but I do mind that the same tools I have been always using are gradually eroding away into useless garbage. If only there were a big toggle switch on the Google website and in every operating system to disable all the artificial stupidity…

Stupidity Meltdown Redux

The worst thing about this trend of making sloppy and fuzzy software that tries to make lazy users feel at ease, is that it may prevent people from evolving beyond the level where the software is ‘smarter’ than them. There is no longer an opportunity to learn by experimenting and making mistakes, because the software imprisons its users inside a frame-of-reference where all the mistakes are masked and the smarter things are expected to be delegated to the machine. There is no incentive to try to use better search terms in the search engine when it happily keeps returning results even when using a leg ham to punch loosely related words full of typos into the keyboard. Those who are content with this situation, risk sliding down a slippery slope of increasing laziness and lack of cognitive effort—or plain ‘stupidity’ if you prefer to call it like that. Only those who understand the ‘smart’ algorithms entirely and know how to put them to good use, or why and when to disable or circumvent them, will become smarter. The very smartest persons will not even bother with the mainstream algorithm and instead implement their own. The more complicated the algorithms, the fewer the people who belong to those latter groups. Taken to the extreme, when keeping on ‘improving’ those algorithms, eventually everyone aside from the single very smartest person on earth who developed the smartest algorithm, will fall below the threshold. This is again the same scenario as the ‘stupidity meltdown,’ only told in a different manner. The bottom line is twofold: first, whenever ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ behaviour is implemented in software, the option to easily disable it must always be offered to cater for those users who possess the skills and understanding that exceeds the automated behaviour. Second, we must never allow our situation to devolve to the one where almost everyone is dumber than machines built by a small minority, even if that minority originally had the best of intentions.

At the end of 2022, ChatGPT was introduced by OpenAI. This will again boost the threshold of the amplifier to a higher level. The number of people who truly understand how this thing works from the ground up is small, smaller than the number of people who could build a simpler search engine or chat bot—arguably ChatGPT is a hybrid of both of those. ChatGPT and its inevitable future clones are tremendously useful to gather information and consolidate it in reports of any desired format, but these constructs also have a high risk of dumbing down their users. When you ask it to write an essay about a topic and take the result for granted or try to pass it off as your own homework, you will have learnt nothing. Your contribution is again barely more advanced than the chimp pushing a button in a lab set-up or the bird pushing a button because it knew it would get a reward by doing so. If on the other hand you rely on these tools to gather information in a more efficient and more effective way than relying on a sloppy advertising-biased search engine like Google's, and then cross-reference the obtained information to make sure it is truly useful, you have a good chance of staying above the dreaded threshold of the stupidity amplifier.

Of course this principle is not limited to software. If a government believes it knows better than its citizens and starts filtering the media and imposing all kinds of supposedly protective restrictions to shield the citizens from anything that could be remotely dangerous, then this will have the exact same effect of curtailing the opportunities for those citizens to learn and evolve.

This idea is not limited to mental development either, it also applies to physiology. For instance if we are going to make our environment ever more sterile, we remove the need for humans to have a strong immune system. We delegate this task to external technology that keeps our environment spiffy clean. In doing this, not only do we make our immune systems useless inside such environment, they become a potential danger because the risk remains or maybe even increases that they will attack our own tissue, causing autoimmune diseases. Eventually it would become safer and more efficient for our immune systems to become weaker inside those sterile environments. At some point however our external technology that keeps everything sterile at great cost will either degrade [LINK:ENTROPY] and break, become too expensive to maintain, or is intentionally corrupted or destroyed by others. If this happens and our immune systems have been completely numbed down by that time, we will die—killed by trivial diseases that any child from the mid-twentieth century could conquer through staying in bed for a few days. I can only think of one word to describe this situation, and that word is: stupid.
Somewhat to my own surprise, I have an innate repulsion against sterile-looking environments and I am not alone in this. Could it be that the scenario I just described has already happened and produced people with a built-in aversion against it? You have no idea how hard it stresses me out to see entire neighbourhoods being built that are basically the equivalent of open-air hospitals. I have seen living quarters that looked more sterile than most hospitals I have visited. I experience those environments as hostile, both from an intuitive and rational point-of-view. It baffles me how people can live there and think it is a good idea. Well actually it doesn't really baffle me. It can be perfectly explained by how humans think [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. The reasoning must be something like: “no germs! Yay! Let's not think any further and certainly not consider the bigger picture.” Let's not think about the fact that we are all living beings, yet ‘sterile’ in essence means: “devoid of life.”

When applying the delegation principle to our instincts and emotions [LINK:EMOTIONS], any technology that reduces or eliminates a risk associated with an emotion is likely to neutralise that emotion in the population over a long span of generations. The mere existence of the emotion stems from the need to urge people to reduce the risk themselves. As such the ‘obsolescence’ of the emotion is not a problem, unless the technology is unreliable or unsustainable. If it breaks down, the lack of the emotional drive will have brought the people back to the same level as before they evolved the emotion. In extremis, if we solve all our problems through technology, we risk becoming emotionless and even though it may sound contradictory, we will be much more vulnerable than before. Well, the upside of having become emotionless, is that we won't even care about the fact that we have basically destroyed our best chances of survival. We'll just fade away silently.

For instance take the current ‘social media’ fad. It may help truly social people to become even more social, but it also removes the need for the less social ones to act in a social manner. Why bother with keeping track of friends and going through the process of communicating if it has all been automated by some web application? Of course, as usual the truly social people hardly notice that the world around them is becoming more asocial, because exactly due to their reinforced social tools they get the impression that the world is becoming more social. They do not realise that they only look at the limited world they know, which may be steadily shrinking.

Staying within the realm of computing, it has also become much easier to put together anything that could fall under the name ‘software’. For someone who doesn't aspire to break outside the confines of everything that is tried-and-true, there is no need to learn the dirty details of programming, because there are frameworks and libraries that can be used to achieve certain results by merely putting bits and pieces together. By looking up common problems and copying example code from websites like Stack Overflow, one can create something working without actually knowing much about the programming language itself.
The worst thing of this is that when someone does ask a question on a site like Stack Overflow about a lower-level aspect of the programming language, they tend to be buried under answers that tell how to solve the problem by pasting together bits from the most popular library. For instance when asking something about JavaScript around the year 2012, one would most certainly get answers that relied on JQuery even when explicitly asking for pure JavaScript solutions only. Any attempt to explain why one wants pure JavaScript, had a high risk of resulting in denigrating responses or even a flame war, because whoever has gotten used to implementing everything through JQuery will never want to admit that they are unable to do anything else than putting prefabricated building bricks together, and they will create these horrible constructs that look like the bastard child of Perl and Lisp while the same could be achieved in a few straightforward lines of bare JavaScript. Luckily JQuery's popularity has dwindled, but the general problem remains. I have the impression that this is a general tendency in programming: a holy fear to do anything new from the ground up, and instead rely on bloated overkill or cargo cult solutions that require a truckload of dependencies, most of which will never be used and are only sitting there as a ticking time bomb, waiting to cause problems in a future update.

What makes this worse, is that many of the core technologies everyone is using are poorly designed projects that have become popular by accident. The popularity makes it hard to fix core problems because too many people already depend on the bad design which has become a de facto standard, to the point that ‘bug-compatibility’ is preferred over fixing the bugs. (The concept of bug-compatibility originated in Microsoft Windows, which is arguably one of the best examples of this scenario.) Someone else will then usually step in and write a wrapper around the original project, hiding all the ugly details and workarounds to avoid the bugs. Of course the documentation of the original project never refers to this wrapper, either because the authors are too proud or merely because the original project is so scattered that nobody owns it, hence nobody has the ability to properly maintain its documentation. When someone then tries to get started with the original technology and stumbles upon its old documentation and asks questions about it, they will usually be insulted for being such a ‘n00b’ for not using the fancy new wrapper that everyone is supposed to know. In other words instead of fixing the problems with the original technology, we merely wrap it in another shell as for instance JQuery did for JavaScript. We just polish the turd and wrap it in a shiny layer instead of truly cleaning it up. Unfortunately this observation does not even remain limited to software alone…

Of course generative AI tools like ChatGPT have now lifted this art of pulling dubious software from a magician's hat to a whole new level. One can ask the AI construct to write a program in any language, and it will produce something interpolated from all existing things seen during its training phase. With a big pile of luck, the produced code might actually run without modifications. If it does, and the person requesting it does no attempt at analysing the generated code, they will have learnt absolutely nothing, even less than someone who did the effort to paste together bits of libraries by themselves. Of course a more experienced programmer could leverage things like ChatGPT to quickly construct a rough draft for something they are not entirely familiar with and build upon this starting point, but a truly experienced programmer will likely be better off writing their own code from scratch, than to rewrite most of the auto-generated code anyway because it is not up to the desired standards.



There is another way to see why globalisation will be horrible if executed in an extreme and unthoughtful manner. First of all, I believe there is not even any rigid definition of ‘globalisation’. The word has just dropped from the sky and everyone seems to assume some interpretation for it. And yes, of course everyone assumes that everyone else's assumption is the same [LINK:EVERYONEISLIKEME]. I think most who see globalisation as something positive, believe in something like: it is obvious that we are evolving towards a state where the entire population of this planet becomes the same because this has enormous advantages. Given the general evolution towards assimilation [LINK:ASSIMILATION] and our tendency to view everything from within the perspective of a small community [LINK:SMALLTOWN], the existence of this desire makes sense. The desire itself however does not. There appears to be an increasing fraction of people who take pride in disavowing their own cultural identity and believe they are ‘world citizens,’ whatever that is supposed to mean. They want people to be the same all across the world, but in some way they also want to accept all kinds of different cultures and let them coexist. That is a paradox. Everyone across the entire planet will only be able to be the same if the rich variety between all current cultures is practically entirely destroyed.

The mere striving for a ‘multicultural world’ in the fashion as it is currently happening, will destroy that very world and turn it into exactly the kind of monocultural world the proponents of ‘multiculturalism’ do not want, and which nobody will want if they would know the consequences. This ‘super-diverse’ society as some call it, will only exist for a short while. After that, it will either dissolve into itself, or explode in conflict.

Given the capabilities of present-day human beings, it is impossible to both preserve the richness of cultural diversity and connect everyone together at the same time. The reasons behind this are explained in the section about clustering and assimilation [LINK:ASSIMILATION]. If one takes a look at any present-day situation where significantly differing cultures do coexist in a stable manner, it always involves an aspect of isolation and limited interaction. Take for instance ‘Chinatowns’ and similar clustered ethnic groups inside cities. The only reason why such communities have managed to maintain their identity, is because they have developed a certain degree of isolation with respect to their surroundings, and this is by far not as bad as it might sound. Those communities still interact with their surroundings, but at the same time are often isolated to such degree that they act as tiny time capsules for the state of their originating country at the time they migrated. Inhabitants from a typical Chinatown would hardly be able to return to present-day China because it has changed a lot more than the Chinatown itself. If you want to get an impression of typical China from the last century, do not go to China itself. Visit an average Chinatown instead.

Why would someone want to assimilate elements of cultures that evolved in an environment that is nothing like the one they live in? More importantly, why should they? Nobody can assimilate all cultures of the entire world and turn them into one super-diverse culture because that is a contradiction in itself. We have not evolved to be able to do that, and it will never happen because it makes no sense. If we do keep on forcibly smashing different cultures together, then at some point many elements of all those cultures will have to go, if we want everyone to be compatible. Some people will not be able to absorb as many elements as others, therefore if we badly want to keep everyone at the same level, we will have to stick to the lowest common denominator and throw out the elements that are problematic to those few persons as well. Eventually barely anything noteworthy will be left and instead of promoting ‘diversity,’ we will have destroyed it.

That great global ‘super-culture’ would be a poor and utterly boring shadow of even the poorest example of a culture one could find nowadays, and it will only be able to sustain itself through expensive, fragile communication technology prone to manipulation. Everyone would live according to only some bare elements that are common across all current cultures, and nobody will live in a way that really fits with the environment they live in. Unless of course we would take globalisation to the extreme and force all environments on the entire planet to be physically the same through technology. That would be like trying to bring an entire slab of copper at the exact same temperature while it is permanently dipped in ice at one side and set on fire at the other side. It may be theoretically possible but it will be extremely expensive, the equilibrium will be so fragile that it is better to say it is not there at all, and most of all, it is utterly and completely unnecessary. There is no other motivation for it than innate hardcoded instincts which are a reflection of the past [LINK:SMALLTOWN], not a guarantee for the future, and which are only applicable to communities of a limited size, not the entire world.

You know, around 1940 there was someone in Europe who tried to make everyone the same and we all know how that ended. He used some pretty explicit methods which is why others quickly stepped up and managed to stop the utter madness, but even then the devastation was already enormous and its effects are still felt to this day. It occurred to me that fanatical ‘politically correct’ people are actually striving for the same goal. They are convinced that this giant forced ‘milkshake’ of as many cultures as possible is the only true way forward for humanity. Of course they try to do it through means very different from Hitler's, and obviously they do not realise what they are really doing and how it will end. I am not equating political correctness to Nazism here, it is the fanaticism that is the problem. Actually pretty much any fanatical way of thinking, regardless of what its core beliefs are and how well or ill-intended, will lead to the same terrible end result.

If you do not believe me that fanatically striving for ‘diversity’ will destroy that very diversity, here is a real example from my home country Belgium, my endless source of inspiration for writing this kind of text. Around May 2017, traditionally the time when Mother's day is celebrated in these regions, a school decided to abolish the tradition of having pupils craft a present for their mom during class hours. Their motivation was that their school is “diverse” and they had quite a few pupils coming from a culture where Mother's day was not celebrated, at least not around that period. Next to this, of course nowadays the whole concept of the classic family has been let to crumble to such a degree that there are quite a few kids with no (accessible) mom, or two moms, or perhaps even two dads. (I wonder in the two moms case, should the kid then be forced to do twice the amount of crafting work?) Hence to protect diversity, they ditched part of it by simply not having the kids do anything at all. Wait, what? Yes indeed, they have ditched part of their own culture into the dustbin in order to contort themselves into a set of constraints they have imposed on themselves in the hopes of supporting multiple cultures. This is a nice illustration of the proverb “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” It reminds me as well of solving a mathematical equation having a degenerate solution, by picking only that solution and throwing away the real useful one. Taking such measures in order to protect a mere principle without thinking of the consequences, to me is an obvious sign of extremism that will lead to very bad things in the long stretch.

If you still believe globalisation is great, let us take a look at it from a biological viewpoint. Before the advent of easy transport methods and the desire to ship goods all across the globe, every spot on this planet was pretty isolated. From a biological viewpoint this was a good thing. If anything went really awry in one spot, like a pest or contagious disease growing out of control, then it remained confined to that spot. Now however we have created fast and easy links between all spots. We can ship beneficial goods across those links but at the same time pests and diseases can also traverse those links, sometimes piggy-backing on the trade goods, vehicles, or persons in ways much easier than anticipated. There is an ever increasing number of native plants and animals in my country that are becoming threatened by invasive species that have been imported from far away countries during the last few decades. There is usually no way to fight these pests because we have only imported the pests, not their natural predators. Those were left behind in Asia or wherever they came from. The best thing we usually can come up with in our futile attempt to win the battle, is to destroy all the infected plants. If this process continues, we will create a nice collection of every possible pest from the entire globe while at the same time eradicating our very own native flora and fauna, ending up with a very anaemic environment that may have a negative impact on our very own health. We might even import diseases that affect us directly. One can draw a parallel beyond biology, with the pests becoming ideologies and extremisms which we also happily import under the veil of ‘diversity’ while what we're actually doing is obliterating all diversity across the entire planet by blending it to a pulp. WAKE UP FROM YOUR STUPID IDEALISTIC DREAMS, PEOPLE.

What the heck is political correctness anyway?

[REF:PC] In my opinion, the concept of ‘political correctness’ belongs in the same bin as ‘globalisation’. (Feel free to use any interpretation of the word ‘bin’ here, all interpretations apply.) I am pretty sure that if one would pick random people from the streets and ask them what exactly is political correctness and where it comes from, then one will obtain the most diverse and sometimes implausible and incompatible definitions. When looking at the Wikipedia article about the subject (which also lacks a clear definition), it is obvious that the term has been used throughout history in very different contexts and meanings, and the current association has only emerged since the 1990s. This current generally assumed meaning is the pejorative one of exaggerated care not to offend minority groups in any way, especially verbally. As a matter of fact it is nigh impossible to give any strict definition of political correctness at all. Any attempt to make one will be post-hoc. There simply is none and this is one of the biggest problems with its whole concept to start with, because there is no real concept and it is therefore stupid and unacceptable to try to impose this non-concept in the first place.

If one would ask me my definition of political correctness, here goes. Obviously it is post-hoc as well, but I'll do my best to write down my impression of the concept as accurately as possible.

Political correctness is a set of rules and prohibitions that originate from the rule-maker's naïve and arrogant assumption of knowing exactly what the emotional response of other persons is—especially minority groups—to certain actions or statements. More specifically, the rule-maker assumes that those actions or statements will elicit negative emotional responses in the other groups, and those actions or statements are therefore prohibited. The only basis for the prohibition is a set of unfounded assumptions, the most obvious one being that all humans are identical enough to be entirely predictable from one's own experiences.

That is a whole mouthful so I will stress the most important elements. My biggest gripe with political correctness as I experience it every day, is that certain people seem to believe they are perfect empaths. They project their own reaction to certain situations onto everyone else, especially minority groups. For instance if someone makes a joke about persons with a certain handicap, it is assumed that everyone with that handicap will be offended by that joke. Not only is this a display of arrogance, also the idea that the purportedly insulted person must be protected from the joke, is potentially much more insulting because it assumes that this person cannot even think for themselves nor react to the joke. It is exactly this arrogance that bothers me the most. The vehement criticism inspired by political correctness almost never originates from within the group that is supposedly being offended, it always comes from a member of another group that believes they have the right to think in the place of the purported ‘victims.’ Political correctness operates under the extremely naïve assumption that every human knows what everyone else, regardless of origin and culture, will feel as a response to any given input. Read the rest of this text [LINK:EVERYONEISLIKEME] and you will understand that I am absolutely certain that such assumption is a big pile of hooey that will have very dangerous consequences when applied indiscriminately without attempts at validation.

Just this very evening I have heard someone on a radio talk show state the same fact, i.e. nobody really can tell what political correctness is supposed to be. Yet they also mentioned that they found it an important concept. Does not compute! How the heck can one assign importance to a concept that is not even well-defined? I can only think of one explanation, which is that political correctness is yet another grab bag of built-in instincts and emotions that are present in a large group of persons who have done a vague attempt at grouping those instincts and emotions by slapping a name onto them. This is an approach that is doomed to fail because like I said before, everyone's interpretation of this grab bag is different.

The level of political correctness in my country has reached proportions that strongly remind me of the ‘newspeak’ concept from Orwell's novel ‘1984’. With this I mean there are situations where violating certain aspects of political correctness has actually become punishable by law (or rather by the ridiculous ‘GAS-boetes’ which dwell somewhere at the edge of the legal system). This is an extremely bad development that will lead to even worse situations if it is allowed to continue in the same vein. I know the majority of people is against it, but for some reason they do not revolt. I guess it is the typical Belgian inertia that has grown over our long history of being subjugated by various invaders. All the mainstream media are heavily influenced by left-wing politics and are big proponents of the PC concept, therefore all news items are sent through a PC filter. Worrying events that involve obvious undesirable behaviour in a minority group normally protected by the PC police, like the mass groping of women in Cologne by migrants during the 2016 New Year, are only reported when the public outrage has become too loud to further hush it up.

Talking about ‘newspeak,’ political correctness really tries to replace certain words by others in the hopes of moulding everyone's behaviour. This has gotten worse with the advent of the “woke” movement, which is like political correctness on steroids. For instance I have kept using the word ‘handicap’ in the above paragraphs on purpose, even though somehow it has been blacklisted by political correctness these days. (Heck, even the word ‘blacklist’ is becoming blacklisted, what a goddamn mess.) The word ‘handicap’ or any other classic name for a mental or physical deviation tends to be replaced by terms that end in the word ‘challenged.’ This has a two-fold motivation: it attempts to both give a positive twist to the obviously disadvantageous situation, and consequently to make it less appealing to use this new term as an insult. Mark my words: the word ‘challenged’ will be used as an insult within due time. It probably already is at the time of this writing. This is inevitable, because the word is becoming tied to the same primitive instincts as ‘handicap’ or ‘retard’ or whatever other other words from the past, and it are those instincts that turn the words into insults, not the words themselves. Changing words will not improve anything in the long term, it is only an exercise in the futile. A more deep-rooted approach is needed.

The same goes for changing brand names and appearances in response to a public outcry against something only vaguely related to the brand. For instance in 2020, the brand name “Uncle Ben's” was changed to “Ben's Originals” and the logo with the old smiling dark man was removed. This was a response to the ‘Black lives matter’ movement that had gained traction in the years before. What true improvement will this decision bring? Absolutely none. It is a pretence of having done something useful, such that it can be used as an excuse to not actually have to do things that truly matter. I have never ever associated the name and logo on a box of Uncle Ben's rice with slavery, until the very moment this name change appeared in the news. I have always interpreted the ‘uncle’ as just someone's uncle who happened to own a rice farm, but the term is supposedly a reference to an elder slave. Even for those who knew it had some association with slavery, at least the name and logo offered an opportunity to start a discussion, perhaps it has made children aware of the history of slavery. These opportunities are now being thrown away together with the old brand. This decision will not improve the life of even one single black person.
Related is the decision to change the default branch name of Git repositories from “master” to something else like “main.” It will improve nobody's life and only causes nuisance due to changing a long-standing default. Only those who took these decisions will get this warm fuzzy feeling of believing they have done something substantial without actually doing anything. It is just a big joke.

To me, political correctness, or ‘woke’ or whatever you call it, gives me a double feeling, neither of which is good.

  1. The English language has a perfectly adequate word to describe my first impression: “self-righteousness.” Some people believe they have the right to impose rules on others, because they believe to be morally superior. This is pretty ironical, because the whole movement was supposed to oppose feelings of superiority. It seems the whole thing is almost inevitably a paradox.
  2. My second impression of this whole movement is that it feels like a religion that lacks a god or holy scripture. It has the rules and prohibitions of a religion but it lacks the backbone. Part of Western culture is trying to detach itself from religion but it obviously is not capable of doing so, therefore the controlling elements of the religion it tried to get rid of, come bubbling up again in the form of vague rules loosely grouped under the name of something nobody can really explain. I believe this is a situation worse than having the same set of rules tied to something well-defined, even if that well-defined thing is basically nothing but a nice story [LINK:RELIGION].

Beam Me Up, Scotty

Where does this modern interpretation of political correctness come from? One could argue that one of the very first popular occurrences of political correctness in the modern sense, was the composition of the cast of the first Star Trek TV series (1966-1969). The idea behind it made sense: it was assumed that mankind could not progress towards the complexity of interstellar space travel without cooperation on a global level. I believe this assumption makes a lot of sense indeed. An additional assumption was that every region or population group on Earth would be perfectly able to preserve its cultural identity as it was around 1970. I do have my doubts about this one, but let's continue. Based on those two assumptions, the writers conceived the crew of the space ship Enterprise to be a grab bag of people from various present-day cultures with some fictional extraterrestrials thrown in for good measure. (The fact that Americans and Russians were happily cooperating on the Enterprise, as well as the plot of many an episode, were also obvious protests against the Cold War which was in full swing at that time.) Somehow, adaptations of the aforementioned two assumptions survived beyond the TV series, or they were merely reflections of an already brooding idea. Nowadays anyone making a mainstream TV series, film, or video game, is pretty much obliged to forcibly make the cast include every kind of population group, minority or not, that is currently accepted as a member of the ‘PC Club’. For instance as an illustration of how the standards of political correctness change, one will be hard-pressed to find examples of gay persons in the original Star Trek series. Obviously the actor George Takei is now known to be gay, but this was not noticeable in Sulu, the character he played. Nowadays however one would be hard-pressed to find anything mainstream that lacks at least an attempt to include a gay person.

There is no denying that political correctness originally was well-intended and many of the elements that are common across its plethora of different interpretations, do make a lot of sense. No matter how well-intended a principle however, when executed with sufficient extremism it always results in a bad situation. Even if those following the principle do not cause damage by taking roundabouts outside the established rules in order to fanatically adhere to said rules, other people with bad intentions will always be able to find ways to abuse the set of strict rules. Every system of strict rules can be exploited by turning the strictness against itself, and will be exploited until it eventually breaks down. This is not the fault of the people who exploit it, it is the fault of the people convulsively holding on to their rules. The only remedy against this is flexibility, and common sense. Next to those following the rules too strictly to the letter, some may also selectively pick only those bits of the rules that fit their agenda and ignore the rest, like religious extremists claiming to be inspired by holy scriptures even though they are violating certain key aspects of those scriptures.
I treat extremism as follows: never be extreme, not even in the not being extreme. In other words, sometimes the only way out of a situation is to be extreme after all. The tricky part here lies in the word ‘sometimes’. If extreme actions are one's way out of everything, then one is doing things in a very wrong manner. Sticking to this adage of mine means one cannot hide behind dogmas or precedents that offer shortcuts and excuses for every possible situation, instead it means one has to actually use their brains every time.

It probably is not a coincidence that political correctness was mostly inexistent until after World War II. I believe this is the true origin of the movement: a runaway reaction to a terrible event. Certain population groups have been horribly persecuted during the war and the images of trains and furnaces filled with corpses have been distributed across the world, repeated endlessly, and augmented with an ever increasing arsenal of fiction that keeps feeding on itself. Mankind is trying to make sure something similar could never happen again, and in itself this is a good reaction. However, for some reason this reaction has spiralled out of control and is becoming increasingly extreme, and I suspect this to be fuelled by too much interconnectivity through social networking and the like. (Yes, I am certain there can be such thing as too much connectivity and communication.) At some point this pendulum will have swung to an extreme which, even though opposite to what caused it, will cause something equally awful to happen.

To illustrate how worrying the degree of extremism seems to be becoming, there have been accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’ against certain persons wearing clothes from another culture. Wild assumptions of evil intent were being thrown around while the person merely wore the piece of clothing because they thought it looks nice. Again most of the accusations came from persons who had no links with the culture in question. In 2018 there was this American girl who wore a Cheongsam (旗袍) on a photo of her graduation party. My guess is that whoever reacted negatively to this photo merely didn't like the kind of attitude displayed in the photo or maybe they just don't like Americans in general. Hence in an attempt to disguise their simple hatred, they pull far-fetched arguments out of their hats about cultural appropriation and past oppression of Chinese peoples by Westerners. The Chinese themselves however for the most part didn't care. Quite a few of them even liked the photo and commended the girl for raising awareness of Chinese culture. The mere vehemence of all these reactions worried me a lot because in the end, what we had here was a small group of people imposing prohibitions onto others based on rather extremist thoughts. I have seen this scenario before, maybe it was at the other end of the left-right political spectrum, but to me that doesn't make any difference at all when it comes to overall badness.

Globalisation Redux

Assume that globalisation has succeeded and has been performed to a utopian (or rather dystopian) extreme, such that every human is identical to the same degree as all drones within a certain beehive being pretty much identical. You go out on the street and meet someone. What will you say to that person? Nothing. There is nothing to discuss because they will have the same ideas, the same tastes, the same preferences. Any conversation will have no value, no information content [LINK:INFORMATIONTHEORY]. There is no point in asking anything except perhaps really basic stuff and you will never engage in an interesting conversation because each conversant already knows what the other is going to say. If this is not the case, the extreme globalisation has not yet been fully accomplished. You might perhaps want to ask something you forgot, which will likely trigger huge suspicion in everyone else because you do not know exactly the same things as them and they may even try to expel you from society for that, or worse.

Now suppose that in this perfect globalised world a problem occurs that can only be solved through a specific action. If the ability to perform that action is not part of the global standard for human beings, or the standard contains some flaw that will cause an individual to react incorrectly to the problem, then everyone will react incorrectly to the problem because everyone is identical. If this reaction is really badly flawed then it may cause everyone to die. The very existence of diversity increases the chance that at least someone will have the ability to correctly solve the problem and either teach the others about it, or prevent them from making the mistake, or at least shield themselves and others from the damage caused by the ones making the mistake. Really, I cannot find any positive property of extreme globalisation that does not turn into a negative property when not taking the convenient first exit in the lazy thought process [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT].

It is not a coincidence that I picked a beehive as an illustration above. At the time of this writing, honeybee populations are dwindling. Even though the exact cause is not certain, it is obvious what is happening. Honeybees are an example of extreme assimilation: all individuals are the same and one would be hard pressed to find significant differences between bee colonies in nearby regions either. These insects have been optimised through assimilation to the max. And now some parameter in their environment has changed, apparently a small one given that it is so hard to identify. There is no margin against this change due to the high degree of optimisation. The bees have very little means to adapt. Unless we can revert that parameter, they are doomed, possibly causing an avalanche of unforeseen problems due to their demise. I don't know about you, but I'd rather not go the same way.

Just imagine that the entire world is an exact copy of the environment you are living in, and some day you get tired of that environment or you want to escape from it for any reason, for instance because it is obvious that everyone is acting in a provably self-destructive manner and you cannot convince them to stop. There would be nowhere to go because wherever you go, everything is the same. It would be a horrible nightmare. There is nothing more cruel than to place intelligent beings in a situation of which they can derive by themselves that there is no escape from imminent destruction.
I believe the only proper way to proceed is to let all cultures exist and keep the amount of interaction between them limited. Stop pretending that everything is 100% compatible because it is not. Stop short-circuiting the entire world: it will not work. There is some optimal degree of interaction above which cultures will degrade and hamper each other. Below this threshold the cultures will not benefit from each other as much as they could, and will degenerate towards extremism because they are imprisoned inside their frame-of-reference. It is difficult to find that sweet spot between maximal and zero connectivity, but it must be possible and it will be much more rewarding than trying to bludgeon everything with the dumb blunt hammer of unconditional assimilation.


Coming back to the ‘small communities’ idea touched upon in [SMALLTOWN], if one looks at human behaviour, there are other plausible consequences of living together in small tribes, villages, or towns, beyond the unconditional drive for ‘assimilation’. There are many other instinctive behaviours that also make sense from this historical background. For instance, the automatic repulsive feelings towards people that look ill or strange (cf. Überfremdungseffekt), instinctive repulsion against people that produce unpleasant odours [LINK:UNCANNY], … It goes much farther than these low-level instincts however. I believe most people are still under the delusion that they live in a small community. They communicate with people at the other side of the globe and treat them in a similar manner as someone would have done 500 years ago with someone from the other side of the village. For them this is all self-evident and they ignore what it took to enable this kind of communication and how fragile it is, and what would happen if it would break down for an extended period. We have no built-in mechanisms whatsoever to cope with long-distance communication, therefore we experience and treat it from within our framework that has evolved over millions of years to optimise communication over very short distances.

One of the most commonly experienced effects of these ‘small-town’ instincts is what happens when a disaster of some kind occurs someplace. ELABORATE, INCORPORATE OLD TEXT: live TV enhances the small community feeling, the positive effect is immediate help, negative is more stress and inefficiency of the immediate help, and potential negative effects in the long term (cf. things like Live Aid). Things that are actually unimportant because they are way too remote to have any impact, are experienced as immediate threats due to lack of perspective, and this is worsened by the media looking for the most spectacular reports. TV and live reports make it seem as if it is happening next door. For instance, food poisoning reports, murders, natural/nuclear disasters… As A. J. Liebling phrased it: people everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news. My advice: reduce exposure to TV and introduce a (real or mental) distance-dependent delay on incoming news to smooth out the initial storm of unreliable and often unimportant details. It may seem selfish to shield oneself from news reports about disasters, but there is nothing selfish about not trying to go crazy for no good reason. [TODO: connect or incorporate with old ‘overreacting’ part.]

A major problem with mainstream news is that for some reason it exudes authority. Anything that is presented in a tidy layout or that has the name of an official news agency stamped on it, is perceived as true, reliable, and important. I have no studies or data to back this up, but I am quite certain that any properly conducted study will confirm it. I do not know where this apparently hard-coded perception comes from, but it is plain wrong. Yet, even though I know it is wrong, still I instinctively perceive every news item I am exposed to as reliable, important, and urgent. I need to consciously override these feelings that I can only describe as basal instincts.

A fact often overlooked, is that the goal of the average contemporary newspaper or other commercial news source is not to provide reliable and relevant news. The only true main goal is to make money through the sale of newspapers or subscriptions, and especially through paid advertising. Of course, some news agencies may have additional goals like steering the opinion of the public (cf. Berlusconi's media empire). I believe there is a chance that humanity could evolve away from the use of language as we currently know it, because it is abused to such degree that the majority of the population who relies on it exclusively, has a risk of becoming evolutionary disadvantaged.

The fear of minority groups like homosexuals, and more generally racism and similar behaviour, is also understandable from the small-town point-of-view where people assume that everyone is identical. Everyone who is not identical is regarded as an intruder to the small community. If this intruder's way of life is very different from what is regarded as normal, the intruder is seen as a threat. In this sense a homosexual could be considered a threat to a small community when following the naïve assumption that everyone must be the same. In this train of thought, integrating the gay person into the community could in some twisted way cause the whole community to become gay and nobody would procreate anymore, causing the entire community to disappear. Of course this train of thought is in reality a train wreck full of holes that does not make sense, but the human mind will most often have been paralysed by instincts long before there is any question of making sense through reasoning.

The bottom line is that I believe our small-community-based instincts cause more damage than good in our current world where everything becomes ever more interconnected. Does this mean we need to either suppress those instincts or cut back on the degree of interconnectivity? I tend to believe we will need to do a bit of both. We will not want to cause everyone to have an urge to assimilate each other and rely on an artificial and complicated vulnerable communication grid, but neither will we want to isolate everyone and make it impossible to help each other.


Quite a few people simply do not seem to understand what is meant by principles like the ‘égalité’ from for instance the slogan of the French revolution: égalité, liberté, fraternité (equality, freedom, fraternity). They seem to believe that principles of ‘equality’ mean everyone should be made the same, i.e. globalisation or assimilation [LINK:ASSIMILATION] to the extreme. Wrong. The principle is good but the way in which it tends to become distorted is not. Equality means people should get equal opportunities, not that they should all be forced to become equal. Unfortunately the distinction between equal opportunities and unconditional assimilation is absent in the minds of quite a few, some of whom are in decision-making positions.

Of course, turning everyone into identical clones would be a trivial and degenerate solution to enforce ‘equality’. It is a brain-dead shortcut solution that would be disastrous in many ways. Nobody must be forced to do things they are less suited for, just because others tend to be good at it. Neither must others be prohibited or discouraged from doing certain things they are good at, out of ‘solidarity’ with those who are inherently unable to do those things. If we would want to do that, we should all stab out our eyes because some people are blind. What ‘equal opportunity’ really means is that nobody must be prohibited from exerting their abilities for reasons like prejudice.

For instance it does not make sense to prevent women from striving to do a job that is regarded as typically male, like engineering. But neither does it make sense to force the number of for instance female engineers to be equal to the number of male engineers, or in general to strive for a 50/50 male/female distribution in any profession or in politics or wherever. If women are on average less suited to do this kind of job, then so be it. If the average settles at 80/20, then so be it. It is ridiculous to try to bend reality to make it seem otherwise and to satisfy some dogmatic assumption by blindly staring at raw numbers. And again: even if one could figure out the exact ideal global ratio of men vs. women for a certain profession, one must never try to enforce that ratio, because it could change at any time and it will only be a global average that might be pointless to enforce in a specific situation or location. What people need to do instead is take away all artificial barriers that prevent the ratio from reaching its natural equilibrium.

Also consider this: if you are still adamant on enforcing this kind of assumed ideal ratio, what are you going to do with all the LGBTQI+*&!@# (or whatever letters and symbols have been added by the time you're reading this)? If you consider each of those letters and symbols a unique kind of gender, should you not also include those in your ideal distribution to be enforced on each group of persons that have to work together in some way? Of course not: it would become a total mess to figure this out, and the ratios could not be imposed anyway on any group that has too few members to approach the statistical ratios, which will all be sloppy unreliable estimates anyhow that are only applicable to a certain region and time period. Most of all, it would make absolutely no sense at all to try this in the first place, so please do not. The only thing that makes sense is to ensure that there are no barriers and let the equilibrium settle all by itself.

There is a tendency to take the fight against this perceived gender inequality to the extreme and try to turn humanity into a genderless affair. I plead guilty: if one would take a look at the predecessor of this very text, the one I wrote when I was still trying to figure out how reality fits together, one would find similar ideas in it. Nearly half of my old essay discussed gender inequality and hinted at a desire to eradicate as many of the differences between men and women as possible. I sure hope that old text was not the spark that ignited all the current nonsense… I have become quite a bit wiser since then and I am certain that there are some real fundamental differences, and enforcing such kind of genderless society to the extreme would push humanity into a slow but certain spiral towards self-destruction. Enforcing equality by destroying diversity is way too simplistic a solution to the problem of injustice caused by diversity. It does not solve the problem, it is just an attempt to redefine reality into something where the problem cannot exist, destroying this very reality in the process.

It is disadvantageous for society to force people into positions they are not really suited for, thereby reducing the chance that suitable persons can take those positions while increasing the risk that the unsuitable persons will cause problems. It is however equally ridiculous to prohibit certain individuals from deviating from the average (or worse, from some binary clipped exaggeration). I have no doubt there are women who can be much better engineers than the average male engineer. Even if it could be proven that those women would be rare, it would again be disadvantageous to society to prohibit them from being good engineers. This is all a matter of statistics, which explains why so many have problems with it [LINK:SUCK_AT_STATS].

It may be hard to really understand what I am trying to say here so I'll try to explain it in a different way. Humans are very eager to clip to extremes. If the one extreme is proven wrong, they consider the opposite extreme the only possible alternative. For some reason the whole range of possibilities in between is completely ignored. When it comes to the topic of ‘equality’ I am discussing here, the same will happen and this is of course quite ironic: one will never be able to reach equality or equilibrium by continuously bouncing between extremes! Within our context of allowing persons to exercise their true abilities, the two extremes correspond with two possible situations. The first situation is the ‘old-school’ one, with its plethora of typical prejudices, clubs, gangs, rituals, and clichés, where people are bullied because they want to do things outside the standard clichés and prejudices of the club they ended up in. The second situation is the currently leftist ‘trendy’ one that tries to steamroller everything and fuse all the little groups and clubs into one big communist-like group where it is assumed that every single individual is completely equivalent to the others, and anyone who tries to prove otherwise is bullied. Fact is, when executed with the same degree of extremity, those two situations suck in almost exactly the same way. They only differ in the number of groups that force their members to be the same. The degree to which those situations suck depends purely on the degree of extremity in which they are enforced.

In the ‘traditional’ pigeonholed situation there are many different groups that each have their own set of enforced rules. When a more capable individual in a specific group exhibits behaviour that is beyond the capabilities of the rest, those will feel threatened and bully the individual in an attempt to curtail its abilities. Likewise, a less capable individual will be scoffed at for its lack of capabilities that are expected in the group. This ‘deviant’ individual can only be happy if it can find and migrate to a different group with rules that match its abilities and limitations.

In the forcibly ‘politically correct’ situation there is only one group. Everyone is squeezed into this single super-group that must obey a set of common rules and where everyone is assumed to be the same. Unlike in the other system where everything is rigid within each group, the rules of this single group are constantly adjusted to match some arbitrarily defined majority. It is however intractable to create a set of rules that match the diversity of all possible individuals, therefore there will always be minorities falling outside the rules. Again, the rules will force them to curtail their abilities or to do things above their capabilities, and only those who match the set of common rules can be happy.

The bottom line is that in either of those cases, life sucks for anyone who deviates from the rules. The pigeonholed situation has many sets of rules which allows to ‘shop’ for the best matching set of rules, but for some people no good match will exist. The one-size-fits-all situation has one set of rules that tries to match everyone, but again some will fall outside this. The only true difference between the two situations is the number of groups. Quite likely, the fraction of people falling outside the established rules will be the same in both situations. Enforcing this kind of degenerate ‘equality’ merely shifts problems around, it does not solve them. The idea of ‘equality’ that certain decision-makers seem to have is in fact exactly the opposite of what it should be. They introduce laws that give unfair advantages to groups that were previously disadvantaged. Some call this “positive discrimination,” which is one of the biggest oxymorons possible: there can never be anything positive about discrimination! By giving privileges to one group based on some trait, the other groups become disadvantaged. Instead of producing equal opportunities, the situations wherein people are discriminated are only being shifted around. Someone took a bad situation and the only thing they did with it, is turn it upside-down or shake it a little. The result is equally bad, perhaps worse, because the total number of disadvantaged people may have increased, and the existing discriminating groups may be handed additional fuel to justify their behaviour. The correct approach is to drop the privileges that already existed, instead of creating additional ones.

As I already hinted at above, the distinction between these two cases is almost a one-to-one mapping between right-wing and left-wing political scope. The right-wing approach is to cluster together with similar individuals and then erect a barrier against anyone differing too much from the standards of the cluster. The left-wing approach is to force everything to be at the same level no matter what, which when thinking twice about it eventually boils down to the very same approach as the right-wing one: again a barrier is erected to try to create a group of identical individuals. Only the definition of the group and the way in which it is constructed differs. Neither approach works in practice. I cannot readily tell what does work but it will need to be something in between these two extremes, probably with aspects that sprout out into other directions than merely left and right.


An obvious example of a flawed attempt at improving ‘equality’ is feminism. The mere fact that the word ends in -ism should already ring an alarm bell because it implies an extreme striving for a single ideal. As I hope to explain in other parts of this text, such approach is always doomed to fail. Although generally perceived as a modern ideal and therefore perhaps associated with political correctness and the like, feminism actually belongs in the old-school pigeonholed category described above, even though it only really considers two pigeonholes. Feminism is a reaction to an obvious bad situation that indeed needs to be improved upon. However, creating a movement that puts focus onto a single population group only is hardly a good way to fix the existing problem, which has resulted exactly from focus onto a single population group, albeit a different one. Even if it was not intended as such, giving something a name that can be interpreted as striving for dominance of a single group is a very bad move. Quite a few men will have that kind of interpretation when they hear the word, and this first impression will immediately shut down any hopes of reasoning and will make them fight the idea even if it would strive for true equality. Conversely, quite a few women will also believe in that interpretation and strive for a kind of dominance that is exactly the kind of thing we want to get rid of, they only want to turn the tables.

It is for instance fashionable to write texts where generic persons are always referred to as ‘she’ and ‘her’ instead of the usual ‘he’ and ‘his’ one would systematically find in older texts. For instance the imaginary user mentioned as an example in a product manual or review will now be referred to as: “the user, when she accesses this feature of her product, …” The rationale behind this might be that we should now compensate for all those decades of masculine-oriented articles and product manuals, by making them all feminine. This makes no sense! At what point shall we decide that the balance has been sufficiently filled on the feminine end and start pouring masculine pronouns on the other end again? Will someone be counting the pronouns perhaps? (I hope nobody considers this a serious proposal because it would be completely absurd.) If you look at this very text, you'll notice that I went to quite great lengths to avoid pronouns with a gender altogether. It is possible to do this, although the severe lack of gender-indifferent pronouns in most languages including English makes it necessary at times to contort sentences in awkward ways.

To conclude, the problem with the concept of feminism is twofold. First, the name is poorly chosen and second, the whole approach is flawed because it still focuses onto a single population group and only tries to define rights for that group while ignoring the rest. As explained in the section about clustering of individuals [LINK:EXTREMISM], I believe the main driving force behind feminism is an attempt to boost the collective ego of the female population in a rather naïve way. If this extreme interpretation of feminism would succeed, then the logical consequence would be the emergence of a ‘masculism’ movement. This is running in circles without any foresight of ever exiting the circle. Only a system that defines rules for everyone without discriminating anyone based on any of their characteristics, has any chance to work in the long term.

Another real-world example of a train-wreck-of-thoughts where people try to assimilate everyone in an attempt to avoid problems with cultural differences, are attempts to prohibit pupils in schools from exhibiting cultural symbols. Lawmakers hope to avoid friction between people of different religions by prohibiting any headwear including turbans and veils. How does this help people to respect each other? It does not. It merely hides the diversity between cultures and gives an illusion of everyone being identical drones. It is a lazy and truly degenerate solution to the problem, not a solution at all.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

[TODO: recycle good parts from the old text. I still lack the true core of how it works. Try to find some more examples and analyse them. Write two stories that start out from the exact same initial situation, and elaborate what happens when either proactively acting according to some assumption, or just observing and then taking action. The story from the old text was actually pretty good, but try to find another one that involves larger groups of people.]

[REF:SFP] The self-fulfilling prophecy, abbreviated further on as ‘SFP’: how does it work? This is a terribly important concept and it is tied to practically the entire rest of this text. One of the driving forces behind it is group behaviour, or more generally, feed-back. There is always an element of feed-back involved, either within a single individual, but mostly between multiple groups of individuals. Hence there are two flavours: directed towards others and directed towards yourself. As for flavour one, if you are going to assume beforehand how people are inclined towards you then you will act (in all senses of the word) in a way that is in line with that assumption. Unless those people really are not remotely as you assumed, they will adjust their behaviour to be as compatible with your assumption as possible, because they want to belong. Eventually though this will wear off and everyone will return to their own nature. This is often when endless stupid conflicts ensue because everyone's assumptions are being shattered.
The self-fulfilling prophecy can be best understood by looking at a few examples.

Example 1a: [this is similar to the Überfremdungseffekt example from the old text, only a bit more generalised] a new individual approaches a group. The relation between the individual and the group is perfectly neutral at this point, neither knows anything about the other. Suppose one of the members of the group somehow assumes that the new individual has bad intentions, although there is no evidence for this at all, he only had a quick glance at the individual from a distance. Before the individual even had a chance to introduce itself to the group, the unfounded rumour about him being a bad person will already have spread. This will cause everyone in the group to act in a hostile manner. Because the individual had no previous information about the group at all, this hostile welcome will be his first impression, and it is a pretty bad one. The individual will almost certainly react negatively to this poor welcome, which will of course give an impression to the group of their hunch being correct. They will probably react again in an even less positive manner, and this kind of stupid loop maintains and amplifies itself. It is very difficult to reverse the way in which this is headed. Eventually the individual might end up so pissed off that he actually does something really bad, and this fulfils the prophecy of his bad intentions that originated out of nowhere.

Example 1b: now take exactly the same group and exactly the same individual as from example 1a. As only difference, assume the first person who sees the individual approaching has a positive impression and believes the guy will be nice. When the individual addresses the group, they will quite likely all share the positive expectations and react accordingly. The initial impression the individual has of the group, is therefore also positive. It is noteworthy that in this case, it might not be that difficult to reverse the way in which this is headed. It seems easier for a negative self-fulfilling prophecy to come true, than a positive one.
If this example seems far-fetched, scientific studies [WiTo2006] have shown that humans have built-in mechanisms that will produce an initial impression of an individual's trustworthiness, based on nothing but a set of facial traits. This decision is made in the brain in a time span of a few hundred milliseconds at most, which indicates that no conscious reasoning can play any part in it at all. It hardly matters whether there is any validity in this instinctive judgment or if it is utterly obsolete. The SFP will make it come true in many cases, no matter what the set of criteria is.

Example 2: it is assumed that a certain group of people are ‘stupid’ in the sense that they lack the ability to learn a given skill or intelligent concept. Therefore no effort will ever be done to expose this group to anything that exceeds their presumed level, because the assumption implies it would be effort wasted. This will prevent the group from ever learning anything, see the explanation about aliasing and learning. Initially, this may indeed keep them stupid, but it is very well possible that they evolve beyond the assumed level all by themselves. If this goes quickly enough, they may appear to have suddenly become much smarter as if by magic.
In somewhat more detail, this may work as follows. Person A assumes that person B whom he knows nothing about is stupid, and therefore never exposes B to material that can be learnt from. He treats B as stupid and therefore only exposes him to a reference frame that is supposedly ‘safe’ for people of that expected level. Therefore B will initially be unable to learn due to lack of the proper stimuli and indeed remain ‘stupid’. B may however be intelligent [LINK:SMART] enough to find the right materials by himself and boost his own level far beyond what A expects. It will take a while for A to realise this, because he will keep on viewing B from within the same expected frame-of-reference where B is dumb. Evidence that B has become smarter than A will be ignored or folded back into expected observations (perhaps attributed to sheer luck). The larger the discrepancy becomes between B's expected and actual level, the more difficult it will become for A to realise this discrepancy [LINK:ALIAS]. Eventually B may end up far smarter than A, and when something happens that finally proves this fact, it may be a pretty painful moment for A. In this whole story, ‘B’ may be an entire group or even an entire country.

Example 3a: an exceedingly important one, especially at the time of this writing. Presuming someone is a criminal, incurs a considerable risk of inciting them to perform actual criminal acts they would not have performed if not proactively accused. E.g., forcing consumers to watch non-skippable copyright infringement warnings before watching their legally bought movies (this really was a plague in the DVD era), is likely to increase their inclination to obtain illegal copies that do not have these irritating warnings. Or when indiscriminately treating a whole population group as (potential) terrorists, the members of that group who had a perfectly neutral stance will be more likely to turn towards terrorism. After all, they have nothing to lose by doing so, because they were already considered a criminal to begin with. Confirming this prejudice is a path much easier to follow than to fight the prejudice. If there isn't even any willingness from the other party to adjust the prejudiced stance, then confirming the prejudice is the most optimal (or better: the least bad) course of action possible. Need I say this is a scenario to be avoided at all costs? If I look at the news, it seems I cannot say it loud and often enough.

Example 3b (kind of the inverse of 3a): assuming one is a potential victim of a crime can greatly increase the risk of becoming an actual victim. Walking around in a city while assuming there are criminals around trying to get at you, will make you act in ways that are likely to draw attention from potential criminals. You may be looking around appearing worried and stressed, which others may interpret as signals of being weak and an easy target, or at the least having something to hide. If on the other hand you walk around giving a confident and strong impression, then potential criminals are less likely to try to attack, especially if there are other targets in sight that look more vulnerable. Obviously there are no guarantees in this scenario, there is only a potential to influence the risk level within certain limits. Do not step into the usual human pitfall of ignoring the inevitable uncertainty [REF:SUCK_AT_STATS].

Example 4: scientists have figured out that until now, our planet has gone through cycles of warm periods alternated with ice ages. Mankind has only been able to thrive after the last ice age made way for a warmer climate. According to certain predictions, the next ice age is on the brink of starting. Now, assuming that mankind could only thrive in a warmer climate, this would mean that no matter what we do, it will all go to hell anyway so why not just keep on wasting and polluting everything? Consider two possibilities and two courses of action:

Combining the two possibilities with the two courses of action, there are four possible futures in total.

In this example, future 1+B is the prototypical self-fulfilled prophecy: we assumed that the ice age would kill us, therefore we gave up beforehand and acted in a way that destroyed any chances of escaping the assumed fate. The mere fact that we expected the situation to end badly, made it end badly. In scenario 1+A there is no certainty that we survive, but the chances are much better. Scenario 2+B is not really a pure self-fulfilling prophecy because the original assumption did not come true. It is actually worse: the prophecy was not necessarily fulfilled but the negative aspects of assuming that it would, are still present. In this sense it still is a self-fulfilled prophecy that came true through an unexpected chain of events.

Example 5: when it comes to ‘progress’, there is a general sentiment that standstill is the same as going backwards. Elsewhere in this text [LINK:PERFECTION] I explain that at a physiological level, this statement is true for living beings because life is a dynamic process. However, merely sticking to always the same kind of cyclic and recurring processes associated with life, also tends to be deemed ‘standstill’ in the general context of technology and civilisation. There is a striving for continuous improvement in about everything. This is a really nice example of an SFP, because this striving has spawned exactly out of the very assumption of it being required. Let's make it concrete: consider two countries that observe each other. If these two countries are identical in all aspects and they both are content with their situation and do not really care about their relative level w.r.t. the other country, then there is actually no problem at all if this situation stays the same. The alleged ‘standstill’ here does not mean going backwards if the countries have a nicely working closed loop of production and consumption. Now, to spawn the SFP of ‘standstill means regression’, we'll just inject this very idea into one or both of these countries. There can be multiple motivations behind this idea, an obvious one is self-superiority. If the people in one country have the feeling that they must at all times be the best in everything, then their current situation is deemed bad because instead of being better than the other country, they are ‘merely equal’. If they do some effort to advance their situation and the other country has a sufficient degree of jealousy, then for that other country standstill would indeed be regression. Relatively, not improving their own level is the same as going backwards because the difference with the other country's level keeps on growing. In an absolute sense they are not going backwards, it is only because they pin their reference point to the highest level they can observe, that their own level is experienced to be dropping when someone else advances. The motivation for the other(s) to advance is exactly the same. It is obvious that this statement ‘standstill equals regression’ is only valid if it is assumed to be true: it proves itself, an excellent example of the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that chases its own tail. Take away this idea and the need to grow indefinitely vanishes as well. This scenario works just as well for a single isolated entity as it does for multiple parties, for instance an entire planet with no other planet to compare itself to. All it takes is to replace the observation of another party's higher level, by some imaginary higher level that serves as a new reference point. That imaginary level may for instance be something out of a work of fiction or who knows, maybe just any random thought that someone dreamt up without any solid ground for it to be achievable. To summarise, standstill is only regression if at least one part of a group believes it to be. Even then it is not necessarily true regression, it is only really perceived as such.

You see, it is much easier to find examples where an SFP leads to deterioration than to improvement. The last example of ‘self-fulfilling progress’ can lead to actual improvement, but will eventually lead to deterioration if it keeps on amplifying itself indefinitely to the point where the parties involved keep on enforcing useless changes in an ‘arms race’ kind of way. Their ideology and the mechanisms it spawned, have made it unacceptable to stop for a while. Not only are detrimental SFPs more numerous, the likelihood for negative SFPs to come true is generally higher than for scenarios that end up in improvement as well. This makes sense because one could link the SFP to the Second Law of thermodynamics. In layman's terms, the Second Law implies that the number of opportunities to fuck things up is on average always larger than the number of opportunities to succeed. Preventing something from becoming worse, i.e. from its entropy to increase, requires effort. Assuming beforehand that one will fuck up, hence not spending the required effort, will automatically pave the way for one of the many bad outcomes. Does this mean it is warranted to simply give up? I say no, and I believe the people who attempt to use all this knowledge to justify their act of giving up, are lazy fucks and often a hidden danger to everyone else.

The SFP directed towards oneself is probably even more prevalent. In fact I believe that the behaviour of many if not all people is based almost exclusively on SFPs. Or in other words, the entire world runs mostly on SFPs. [ELABORATE: consciousness is a SFP. Je pense, donc je suis.] People are born or raised with stupid assumptions that make no sense, but they will act according to them because they do not know any better. Instinctively they will be certain that the assumptions are right. They will act according to them and in this process create an environment where they are likely to hold, therefore the assumptions will appear to have been correct even if it is all virtual and the auto-generated environment may be terribly unstable. This is important to note: nobody is aware that they are living in this ‘dream’ full of assumptions until these are really obviously disproven.
For instance in the area where I live, many who did not yet have a decent reality check believe they are smarter than everyone else (cf. perceptual aliasing). This will cause them to act in a way that will often cause others to believe they actually are smart [LINK:ARROGANCE]. Unfortunately this also wears off when the others get enough time to evaluate the purported smartness. When the assumptions of both the person who ‘seeded’ them and the ones who adopted them get shattered, the originator will not only be disillusioned but will also have lost his/her credibility with others, especially if those others repeatedly saw their initial impressions debunked.
Other people seem to be born with the assumption that they are dumber than the rest. I believe there is some genetic aspect behind this and the inclination towards feeling superior/inferior may therefore be geographically clustered. It is perfectly possible though that it is carried over through education as well. Unfortunately this ‘inferiority’ assumption is much more self-reinforcing than the inverse. When one never tries anything intelligent under the assumption of being unable to, one will never show any sign of intelligence and nobody will ever consider the possibility that the person making the assumption is not as stupid as (s)he seems.
Of course people like to stay in this dream where everything still went well and they were walking up the sweet steep slope of local optimality [LINK:GREEDY]. They will revel in reading short-sighted ‘scientific’ studies or books that want to make its readers believe that this kind of simplistic predictive behaviour really works beyond the short term, or they will publish such things themselves. A lot of people keep on avoiding the big heavy hammer of the reality check, until it has become so heavy that it utterly crushes their entire dream world or even kills them outright.

Now if it is true that the SFP would really be the basis for many persons' behaviour, it is not too crazy to believe they will try to apply it to things for which it cannot remotely work, not even in the short term. The SFP does not work for many things that are not steered by social mechanisms, like physics or logic. One can expect spoons to bend by looking at them, but they won't. One can expect to be able to triumph over death and natural selection, but death and natural selection are not social creatures. They are not even entities, only constructs of our mind, hence they could never give a fuck about what we expect—they just happen. Someone who tries to bend the laws of physics will probably only end up bending and breaking themselves. We will die eventually and if it was because of stupidity, our genes will die with us [FIXME BAD PHRASING]. End of story. Get over it.

It is amazing to see how many people hate themselves. Not directly, but they seem to hate being human. They are the kind who will waste scandalous amounts of resources to mask or eliminate aspects that are pretty much inevitably part of being an organic life-form. There is no long-term future for people like that. If there is any SFP that will never come true, it is the assumption that humans can be ‘upgraded’ to some utopian fantasy being that relies on finite resources to live an eternal life. See ‘immortality’ [LINK:IMMORTALITY]. I know quite a few who believe we are certainly evolving towards a situation where we will create something technological that will ‘surpass us’ and make us ‘obsolete’. Now there's an SFP that has a reasonable chance of momentarily coming true, aside from the fact that the technology will not be as great and robust as they want to believe. If one is going to assume that for some reason we must make ever more complicated technology that has as only goal to wipe out humanity, then all kinds of possibilities are opened up to make this actually happen. What I wonder then is, why the fuck would someone want that kind of crap to happen? Do they really have this desire to commit suicide in such amazingly fancy and complicated manner? Well I do not. I really do not care if those people want to get themselves killed. But I do care if I have to share in the destruction and I will do whatever it takes to protect myself against it.

Eventually it will all boil down to this: those who assume they must keep on living, have the highest chance of actually surviving, because they will do everything in their might to keep that assumption true. This is why the will to survive is probably the strongest built-in instinct in any living being, and all basic reflexes of every creature are geared towards taking those decisions that overall lead to the highest chance of survival. Those who assume they somehow need to destroy themselves, well at some point they will destroy themselves, duh. Whether the first group that does not have a drive to prematurely eliminate itself actually survives, will also depend on whether it can avoid being dragged down the same self-destructive path as the other group. Eventually it may even need to evolve instincts to eradicate people who exhibit signs of a desire for self-destruction.

People often make assumptions that are based on nearly nothing, and immediately forget that it was an assumption, and then it becomes a de facto truth to them. And then shit hits the fan! It is OK to make assumptions, because otherwise it often is impossible to do anything. However, one should always remember that they are working under assumptions that could be wrong. They should try to verify those assumptions whenever possible, which is what science is all about. Everyone should be a bit of a scientist. Everyone should also be a bit of an engineer, a doctor, an economist and everything else. Alas, the norm nowadays is for everyone to become a specialist in an incredibly narrow field and know nothing from other fields. This means that according to my definition of an idiot, most people are striving to be idiots. This leads to them making stupid decisions that are only based on the simplified models they know. Unfortunately we do not live in ‘the Matrix’: we cannot bend spoons with our mind by just believing in it. The self-fulfilling prophecy only works under some very strict boundary conditions. It is much more important to know what you know and do not know, than trying to know as much as possible.


The Fractal Universe

[REF:FRACTALUNIVERSE] The existence of a ‘god’ is a rather irrelevant question. If there really is anything that created us, it is likely to be an entity which has either destroyed itself in the process of creating our universe, or perhaps we are the consequence of an experiment of this entity. Given the size of the universe and how insignificantly small a part of it we are, it is exceedingly implausible that this potential ‘creator’ knows we exist, let alone care about what we do.
I tend to believe we were not created on purpose by anything however. I believe the universe is fractal, and there are structures at each possible scale, perhaps with similar but not necessarily identical structures over large scale differences, like in a Mandelbrot set. The Mandelbrot set is one of the prototypical examples of a fractal: one can zoom in indefinitely on it, and keep on seeing variations on the same structures as were visible at other scales, see Figure U1. In a fractal universe, ‘time’ in the sense of a general measure of how quickly things change, is relative to scale. In a sense, the smaller the scale of a system, the faster ‘time goes’. This means that there could be an entire universe inside each atom, with something more or less equivalent to galaxies and planets inside it, or perhaps something entirely different. We might be subparts of an elemental particle that is part of another particle that is part of a ‘cell’ in the body of some entity so much larger than us that nobody can even imagine it. The lifespan of our solar system may only be just a picosecond in the time scale of this entity, so we will never be able to communicate with it even if it would happen to be looking at exactly the right place. We might be destroying and creating entire universes with each particle collision experiment. The search for a ‘God Particle’ is pointless because that God particle will consist of an infinite amount of universes within.

Figure U1: example of a fractal: the Mandelbrot set at three different zoom levels. (Images created with the open-source program Fraqtive.)

Understanding concepts of the universe at a scale much smaller or larger than what we can observe becomes increasingly difficult with increasing scale difference, and the understanding can only be complete if every intermediate scale is well understood. It will get progressively more difficult to figure out what exists at both the scales much smaller than the one at which our perceivable reality exists, and the scales much larger. To get an idea of what I mean, look at the resources that went into confirming the existence of the Higgs boson. The discrepancy between what we need to do at our observable scale to detect effects at much smaller scales, becomes larger with increasing difference in scales. At some threshold of scale difference, experiments may simply become prohibitively expensive. Therefore I believe there is a fundamental limit to the range of scales that humanity can understand. Increasing our comprehension becomes exponentially more difficult the farther we move beyond our current scale range, and trying to manipulate entities at increasingly different scales becomes increasingly more expensive.

In this sense and taking Occam into account, I believe the fractal universe model makes much more sense than a model that claims everything is built out of basic elemental particles that cannot be further subdivided—a thought that was behind the name ‘atom’ for instance. The latter raises the question where those basic particles come from, what made them, how and why. Stating that everything is built out of something else ad infinitum eliminates this gap in the model. It is of course not an encouraging thought for some scientists, because it implies that it is impossible to ever know everything about the universe. I for one find this a much more exciting thought than the idea that someday there will be nothing left to investigate.
TODO: Example of fractal structure: society can be considered a living being, each human in a certain sense acts a bit like a ‘cell’ etc. This is more or less the idea behind the ‘Gaia’ theory.


What Is Love?

[REF:LOVE] Shortly before I started writing this very paragraph, there was a list of “top 10 unanswered questions” making furore in mainstream media, and it probably re-emerges from time to time. Aside from other questions that this text tries to answer and of which I think they are not as unanswerable as the general public believes, one of them was: what is love? I believe there is a perfectly sensible answer to that question, which is therefore not at all unanswerable. The point however is, in the end the question might better remain unanswered after all.

Just as group behaviour, love is another one of those amazing instinct-driven emotions that have evolved over millions of years. It works in very complex ways but the basic premise is very simple. A rather abstract definition of love could be: “a complicated set of mechanisms that will produce an incredible feeling of positive reward in someone's brain whenever they are acting in a way that increases their chances of reproduction.” A more down-to-earth definition is: “love is a mechanism that distorts someone's perception of reality in order to encourage them to stay together with a partner long enough to provide a good chance of procreation.” The ways in which this mechanism has evolved are pretty astounding, really. Most humans are able to act intelligently and make sane decisions. Love can sabotage these abilities in amazing ways: it will not just disable them but it will bend them to actually make it seem logical to be attracted to a certain person. The arsenal of problem-solving algorithms will be redirected to solve one single problem: “how can I keep convincing myself that this is the one true partner for me?” This makes perfect sense because at a certain point it becomes more important to just create offspring than to try to optimise that offspring to the maximum, and die without any offspring at all because the search process took too long [LINK:IDIOCRACY]. Love is pretty logical after all.

In fact, love is by far the purest example of my simple model of human thinking [LINK:HUMANTHOUGHT]. Love has only one goal that has been perfected by millions of years of evolution, and that is to bring two people together long enough for them to procreate. Anything that stands in the way of this will be blatantly ignored thanks to the stop thinking here step. Anyone who has fallen in love can probably remember how they almost consciously ignored every negative aspect about the person they were in love with, ranging from merely minor nuisances like bad odours or habits, down to perfectly sensible fundamental reasons not to engage with that other person. Some very strong instincts are at work here to basically shut down or corrupt the entire rational core of our brains, for the simple reason that it is essential for the species to survive.

Love does not last: eventually it fades away and then the partners start paying attention to all those ignored shortcomings (for the interested, there have been actual scientific studies on how long this takes on average). Quite often the shortcomings prove bad enough for the partners to separate. From an evolutionary point-of-view this is not too bad because the expiry period on love is long enough to produce one or two children. The disadvantage of the partners separating and potentially compromising the raising of their children, does not seem to be large enough to require love to be longer-lasting. Quite possibly, the opportunity to find another partner and produce more offspring might even offset this disadvantage, or at least so it did in our evolutional past when humanity wasn't yet pampered by all kinds of technology to protect itself from outside threats.

Something has struck me over the years when looking at many couples that did not obviously marry for artificial reasons like monetary benefits or external pressure—one could say, couples that married in a ‘natural way‘. The partners often look awfully similar, sometimes to the degree that I assumed they were brother and sister before I knew they were married or engaged. If their physical traits are not similar then at least their ideas, personalities and behaviour are. This makes perfect sense when considering the fact that when equalising boundary conditions everywhere, a species will most likely evolve to a situation where all of its members strive to be identical. Eventually the mechanism of love will evolve to encourage similar people to get together.

If one thinks about it, love is not trivial at all. For instance, a blind attraction towards everyone similar would have a high risk of incest, which is bad from a genetic point of view. Therefore it has to strike the right balance between difference and similarity. [LINK:SIMILARPARTNERS, this is actually the same, should merge the two explanations]

If you got the gist of this text, you should understand that from a purely logical point of view it is pointless to reproduce, because it is pointless to live in the first place. I believe someone has even made a scientific study that proves it is unprofitable to have children. Go look it up if you wish, but I believe you will be wasting time better spent, just as the person who did that research could have better spent their time than proving the futility of their own life in a roundabout way. Love, or the drive to live and procreate, is the only antidote against self-destruction. It is the only reason why we exist. This may all sound romantic but it follows from a strictly logical point-of-view. If we would eliminate all forms of romance and emotion, we will become extinct in due time because cold hard logic alone does not offer any reasons to keep on living.

All things considered, there is no need to know what love really is and how it works. It just works. If it did not, we would not be here, you would not be reading this because you would not exist. You can analyse the hell out of it but you will not gain anything from doing so that cannot also be derived from a bit of sound reasoning. Over-analysis will only risk the pitfalls of apparent smart ways to circumvent or ‘improve’ upon love, because our minds are too small to comprehend why such naïve tricks will only repeat something that has long ago already been rejected by millions of years of evolution because it was detrimental in the long run. Over-analysis also incurs a risk of choking on the simple hard fact that life on its own has no real purpose and we have to invent our own purpose. As I explain elsewhere [LINK:SEAL], we need to be a little bit crazy to survive, and love provides part of that craziness. Therefore the most meaningful answer to the question what is love, is: there is no need to know.



‘Science’ has become trendy nowadays. That should ring a big fat honking alarm bell in your head if you are getting the gist of what I want to explain in this text. The fact is that many think they are doing science while what they are actually doing is fitting their instincts and emotions into something that feels like science. They will follow some aspects of the scientific method in the hopes that this will suffice to make it truly rigorous, but they will deviate as soon as they do not get the results they want. It is scarily similar to cargo cults.

When people are truly bent on believing in some conclusion, they are really good at finding a path between a bunch of facts and this conclusion no matter how implausible and scientifically dodgy that path is. In the worst cases, the path is almost entirely scientifically sound, save for one single massive mistake that is easily overlooked somehow. For an example outside the field of science, look at discussions on the internet about flaws in films for instance. Fanboys of the film in question will take great lengths to prove that their revered director did not make a mistake. They will come up with a long chain of apparently plausible events that would turn the obvious flaw into a plausible plot element. When chaining all those events together, the combined probabilities of the entire chain equates to a chance of zero