Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

The plexiglass highway

Jerry Stratton, September 30, 2014

Airline accident survivability statistics

Complaining about pilots not having experienced emergencies after automation is a little like complaining about the drop in the number of airline accident survivors after 1999.

In the latest Weekly Standard, Mark Bauerlein reviews Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage, which complains, apparently, that mankind is forgetting how to perform simple tasks that machines do better; when the machines break down, we simple humans have no experience to fall back on.

The technophile’s solution is to augment the automation, thereby decreasing the very toil that keeps humans sharp. Better to think more about the human subject, Carr advises—whether it is a pilot flustered at a critical moment or a young cashier who can’t make change after punching the wrong key.

I’m not the traditional technophile. I’m the guy who warns people not to trust the technology. Back when I worked in IT I wore my philosophy on my signature, which was Douglas Adams’s satirical admonition to always make sure you have a backup plan:

The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at and repair. — Douglas Adams (Mostly Harmless)

But any plan that requires technology workers—whether airline pilots or checkout cashiers—to not use time-saving, labor-saving technology is doomed to fail. The solution must be to either augment the automation or augment the human operator’s emergency skills, because this automation that flustered the pilot suddenly thrust back into control is also the automation that has made airline travel so incredibly safe that some years now have no passenger fatalities.

The problem is not that automation has taken away these pilots’ skills by taking control of their planes. It is that automation has taken away the emergencies that require them to exercise emergency skills. Those pilots had flown their planes manually. What they had not done was have to extricate themselves from an emergency. We are not, I hope, going to trade that in as part of some Luddite blood sacrifice.

The problem is hidden in the description in his other examples, too. The “revolutionary” health records system from the Department of Health and Human Services is a prime example. It was meant to “deliver millions of dollars to physicians and hospitals for the digitization of medical records.” Later, “millions” became “billions”.

“A frenzy of investment ensued,” Carr writes, “as some three hundred thousand doctors and four thousand hospitals availed themselves of Washington’s largesse.”

Five years later, enthusiasm has waned. Systems were supposed to share information, but proprietary formats and conventions block it, leaving “critical patient data locked up in individual hospitals and doctors’ offices.” Advocates predicted that costs would drop, but they rose sharply… software that was designed to warn physicians against errors—for instance, signaling a dangerous combination of drugs—has proven to highlight so many false or irrelevant dangers that doctors suffer “alert fatigue” and ignore the function altogether.

That’s not an example of improved technology causing doctor skills to atrophy. The system didn’t work. Government agencies do not have the revolutionary pressures that practitioners in the field have, guiding them to innovation. The pressures on government agencies is the opposite: keep things the way they were, just more bureaucratic. And it is the bureaucracy that approves or denies applications for research funds.

Because government funds swamp any industry they get involved with, they suck all new research in the direction of the bureaucrats. Instead of spending their time charting new directions, researchers spend their time navigating the bureaucracies toward pre-approved solutions that solve yesterday’s problems, not tomorrow’s.

The other two examples in Bauerlein’s review are also heavily managed by government bureaucracies: government schools and aviation.

There are often multiple ways of formulating a problem, and the way it is formulated drives the solutions.

Bauerlein quotes Carr:

As we grow more reliant on applications and algorithms, we become less capable of acting without their aid—we experience skill tunneling as well as attentional tunneling. That makes the software more indispensable still. Automation breeds automation.

This is unquestionably true. However, “skill tunneling” could just as well be written as freeing us up to perform higher tasks. One of the problems Bauerlein mentions in the review is cashiers who can’t do simple math. I used to add up the prices of everything in my shopping cart at the grocery store. Almost every single trip I would discover an overcharge, sometimes significant. But in the late nineties the overcharges became less common; by the early to mid 2000s they had become nonexistent. I no longer keep a running total, because it is a waste of my time.

Here’s the thing: it was always a waste of my time. It was only relative to the overcharging that it was not a waste of time.

Now I even get to use cashier-less checkouts and waste even less time, except when the government gets involved and forces the grocer to waste it by requiring human interaction when I buy cold medicine.

David Goldhill’s complaints about government intervention driving up the costs of technology in medicine and driving down the quality—when everywhere else the costs of technology have been dropping while quality and ability have risen, can apply just about anywhere else the government gets involved.

Open schools to competition so that parents choose their schools, and schools will find solutions to the calculator problem and the spell-checker problem—rather than using calculators to solve pre-calculator teaching problems or word processors to solve pre-spellcheck teaching problems.

Teachers have been telling us for years that higher math has myriad everyday uses. If true, now is the time to show us: it has never been easier to do higher math on the fly and it will only get easier as our phones become better at understanding spoken language. But this sort of innovation will only happen when schools stop answering to government bureaucrats and start answering to the families they serve.

Free doctors and patients from government bureaucrats, so that hospitals can choose the technologies that cause patients to return, and patients can choose their doctors and hospitals, and the technology that works in medicine will be exploited to make health care safer, better, and less expensive.

October 12, 2016: Why government-funded cancer research is dangerously unlike the Manhattan Project
Nagasaki mushroom cloud

Congratulations! Your cancer has been destroyed.

One of the problems that came to light with the Epipen scandal is that companies are allowed to take taxpayer money for research without making the results of their research open and free for use by all.1 No government-funded research should be hidden from the public. If a researcher wants to hide their data sets, they should not take taxpayer money. And it isn’t just health care companies doing this—academic researchers do it all the time, too.

Maintaining a strong separation between public and private spheres is a very conservative idea, and a vitally important one for technological advancement, such as improving medicine. It’s part of what President Eisenhower meant when he warned us against the domination of the nation’s scholars by a scientific-technological elite:

A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government… Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity… The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

The massive amount of money that government can throw at a problem makes it very difficult for researchers to look at solutions that compete with what government bureaucrats think is the right path. It’s very difficult to follow an innovative path if it means foregoing hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in grants. The least we can do to overcome that tendency for government funding to encourage monopolies in both the market and in research is make sure that government funding does not result in government-created monopolies on the results of the research funded.

February 4, 2016: Did government funding help keep Flint’s water unsafe?

Among the people excluded from blame for not discovering the various government agencies were hiding Flint’s water problem are reporters. And for good reason: reporters don’t generally have access to the labs that could have told them the water was bad.

But there are a lot of people who do have access to labs, who regularly monitor health problems, who genuinely care about people’s health, and who understand the statistics necessary to know when a problem is a problem. This is a group of people well-versed in monitoring water supplies, public health issues, and who have often in the past shown light on government-caused health problems in developing countries.

That would be universities, colleges, and even private organizations with a public health focus. They have the tools and the expertise and the track record to find and publicize exactly these problems. But they also have one other thing in common: they rely heavily on funding from some of the very agencies at fault in Flint. Their jobs depend on favor from the government bureaucrats they’d be criticizing.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who tried to get the word out last fall, doesn’t blame them for keeping quiet:

The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill—pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index—and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.

In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem. What faculty person out there is going to take on their state, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?

I don’t blame anyone, because I know the culture of academia. You are your funding network as a professor. You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word. I’ve done it. When was the last time you heard anyone in academia publicly criticize a funding agency, no matter how outrageous their behavior? We just don’t do these things.

If an environmental injustice is occurring, someone in a government agency is not doing their job. Everyone we wanted to partner said, Well, this sounds really cool, but we want to work with the government.

At least this time it didn’t take thirty years for the news to get out. There are two obvious ways to fix the immediate problem in Flint. One is to privatize water delivery; if government agencies aren’t managing water delivery, both those government agencies and other watchdogs have no government-caused incentive to hide or ignore water problems.

October 28, 2015: Does government funding hold science back?
The Mad Scientists’ Club

Mad scientists who work in an abandoned shed after school definitely need not apply.

I can’t be sure, because I don’t normally keep track of crackpot theories (not since high school, anyway), but I seem to recall that the idea that adult stem cells, which are abundant, could be used in place of embryonic stem cells was crackpot science back in the late nineties. I do remember that we were told that adult stem cells had practically no use. But when government funding for embryonic stem cells stopped, we suddenly learned that adult stem cells did have uses, and they were easier to get.

I am not saying that we don’t need embryonic stem cell research at all; only that the massive amount of government funding certainly seemed to hold stem cell research back.

The same thing happened with anti-virus medicines. In 1961 after realizing that the polio vaccine was based off of monkeys who had had SV40, a cancer-causing virus:

In 1960 Bernice Eddy, a government researcher, discovered that when she injected hamsters with the kidney mixture on which the vaccine was cultured, they developed tumors. Eddy’s superiors tried to keep the discovery quiet, but Eddy presented her data at a cancer conference in New York. She was eventually demoted, and lost her laboratory. The cancer-causing virus was soon isolated by other scientists and dubbed SV40, because it was the fortieth simian virus discovered. Alarm spread through the scientific community as researchers realized that nearly every dose of the vaccine had been contaminated. In 1961 federal health officials ordered vaccine manufacturers to screen for the virus and eliminate it from the vaccine. Worried about creating a panic, they kept the discovery of SV40 under wraps and never recalled existing stocks. For two more years millions of additional people were needlessly exposed—bringing the total to 98 million Americans from 1955 to 1963. But after a flurry of quick studies, health officials decided that the virus, thankfully, did not cause cancer in human beings.

After that the story of SV40 ceased to be anything more than a medical curiosity. Even though the virus became a widely used cancer-research tool, because it caused a variety of tumors so easily in laboratory animals, for the better part of four decades there was virtually no research on what SV40 might do to people.

It would have been very embarrassing to find out that the government had been forcing dangerous vaccinations, and so the government wasn’t about to fund such research, and researchers weren’t about to risk losing funding by asking to have such research funded.

  1. <- Tale of two keyboards
  2. GU24 wastes energy ->