One day soon we will all be smart

29 Mar

Aliens

After scientists took control of the atom, weapons with the destructive power of hell were possible. Because they were possible, they were made.

Once we established a vast network of digital communications, it was possible to know almost everything that was said or written – and in some cases thought. Because it was possible, governments, corporations and marketers took possession of this information.

Teams of scientists are planning a one-way trip to Mars. They won’t be able to come back, but because they know they can at least get there, they will go.

If it can be done, it will get done. This is immutable.

Law, regulation, ethics and good sense always resist. It never matters.

Now, there is something new to consider.

We are in possession of a “God Hand” that allows us to alter and enhance the qualities and features that comprises Homo sapiens.

DNAFor years we’ve toyed with our genes, but two recent developments have brought this work to an advanced stage where even scientists are shouting, “Stop!”

The developments are:

  • Specific pieces of DNA can now be easily and accurately targeted and manipulated.
  • The changes made can now be inherited.

“I personally think we are just not smart enough — and won’t be for a very long time — to feel comfortable about the consequences of changing heredity, even in a single individual,” said David Baltimore, a former president of the California Institute of Technology and a member of a group of biologists calling for a moratorium on gene editing.

The group published a paper on the topic in the journal Science. A story on it appeared in the New York Times.

George Q. Daley, a stem cell expert and member of the group, said taking control of our genetic destiny “raises enormous peril for humanity.”

Controlling inherited DNA mean we can control, beauty, disease, intelligence and probably even behavior, maybe mortality.

I shudder at the thought of small armies of Frankenstein monsters roaming the cities and countryside. But I cannot displace the dreamy idea of our still barbaric species living in peace and harmony, with a focus not on the accumulation of capital but on the development of knowledge, betterment, the arts and sciences, altruism and the ability to provide everyone with the resources for living.

This, in effect, is a chance to rise above and beyond what our present species is capable of.

This is extraordinary, which is why it will be done.

Will it be done right and fair and with justice? Probably not at first.

In the beginning, people will prefer the inherited traits for beautiful rather than intelligence. For those who do choose intelligence, we’ll have to worry about them creating a superior class and lording over us.

But think of the potential.

Science is giving us a second chance. We can be like those big-headed movie aliens who visit Earth and know everything and look down on us as if we are quarreling children.

Future cityIf we were supreme and peace loving, we could do the impossible just with the money saved on weapons and warfare. For one, we could rebuild our cities. There would be high-speed rail lines running everywhere, self-driving cars and wide roads without potholes. Food, college and health care would be free.

And we could fund the Mars expedition so they’d be able to come back.

Best yet, when those explorers stepped off their spacecraft, they’d be the big-headed aliens.

Let’s see where this goes. It might be wise to invest in companies that make large-size hats. From a personal standpoint, those who are 10s and do nothing may be knocked down to a 5. Still, it is likely you’ll go the winter without the flu or even a sniffle. Getting into Harvard will be harder. When playing poker or games of chance, be sure those at the table haven’t been to the genetics lab.

For myself, I can see a self-help book in the works.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

No one checks, so go ahead and lie: “What Books Are On Your Nightstand?”

22 Mar

Bookshelf

A person I worked with years ago has since become a famous writer. He has a new book out and was interviewed recently by the New York Times. He did well, especially with the question, “What books are on your nightstand?”

Famous writers who are interviewed know this question is coming. From some of the interviews I’ve read, I’m inclined to think the interviewer should actually go out and check the nightstand.

As I read my former colleague’s interview, I thought about me, not him. He played it relatively straight, with just a touch of levity, and came off looking like the serious writer he is. Should I ever become famous and be the subject of an interview, I’m certain I would blow it with failed humor, misunderstood sarcasm and an attempt to show that seriousness is way overrated.

The worst of it would come with the “book on the nightstand” question.

Have you noticed they don’t ask the more precise, “What books are you reading?” In effect, the interviewer gives the serious writer a polite “out.” The books only have to be on the nightstand, not read.

I can hear myself taking advantage of this loophole and saying:

Mario-Vargas-Llosa“You know, prior to the interview I went to a consignment shop and bought this monstrous piece of furniture. I put it next to my bed and filled it with the great literature of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries –all the books Joyce Carol Oates has read. OK, now ask me that question again”

Even if I forced myself to answer the question properly, I’m sure I would ruin it by injecting too much honesty.

I’d probably say:

“Look, I get up early and really need eight hours sleep. When I go to bed, I’m tried. I pick up a book and in less than 10 minutes I’m out. Homer’s “Odyssey” is on the nightstand now. I plan to finish it by 2088.”

For me, the other troublesome questions are: “Who is your favorite author?” and “What is your favorite book?”

Most people can answer these questions. I cannot.

I don’t have a favorite color, favorite food or favorite movie, and I certainly don’t have a favorite author or book. The world contains so many varieties of great consumables that I just keep consuming and move on.

Memory also is a problem. I can’t remember which book I liked best. And even if I could, I can’t remember enough about a book to fully understand why I liked it.

I read Moby Dick in college and liked it very much – or so I recall. Yes, I can relate the general story, but I cannot recount specific structure or passages or style or the little stories that fell in between the big one.

When I read Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom” and Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The War of the End of the World,” I was convinced these monumental works could not have been written without the help of God or muse. Today, it would be impossible for me to go into detail.

Tolstoy_normalMy old colleague mentioned Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” as one of his favorite novels. I think I first heard about this book in a joke by Woody Allen, who said:

“I took one of those speed reading courses and read ‘War and Peace’ in one night. It was about Russia.”

After the joke, I decided to read the book – in considerably more time than one night. My recollection today is that I liked the war parts much better than the peace parts. But overall, for my taste, the book read too much like a soap opera (although I’m sure it was much better in Russian)

One doubts oneself when an opinion goes against the consensus of experts, and they consider “War and Peace” supreme. So I was relieved to learn Tolstoy didn’t think much of it.

This was documented in a journal kept by the founder of the college where I work. This founder, a humanist and early advocate of reformed Judaism, made a pilgrimage to Russian to meet Tolstoy, whom he greatly admired. At the time, Tolstoy was a messianic, cult figure trying to establish a new world order. He resided with his followers and acolytes on something resembling a hippie commune.

Tolstoy received the Jewish intellectual and asked if he had read his work. Of course, said the visitor, who mentioned “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.”

“No,” said Tolstoy. “Not that crap. I mean my serious work.”

The final difficult question in the standard interview with serious writers is:

“What books are you embarrassed NOT to have read?”

The serious writers save face and stay humble by mentioning one or two or sometimes a single author. I fear I would go on forever.

This is why I prefer the interviewer come to my home. When he asks that final question, I would just point to my monstrous nightstand and we’d be done with it.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Something I recently learned

3 Mar

Chinese-students

The reason Chinese students have the highest test scores in the world is because they cheat.

If that is not entirely true, it is at least partially true.

In the U.S., Asian and Asian-American students appear to work harder than their Caucasian classmates. Anyone who has observed this can easily believe the reports of China’s international dominance in reading, science and math. Test results say students from Shanghai lead the world, with the U.S. as a whole coming in 29th.

Why is it then that Americans always win an unusually high number of Nobel Prizes while the Chinese win very few?

Well, maybe we’ve rigged that system – which is something the Chinese seem to have done with the system of international test scores.

Book-Afraid of the DragonA new book has put a spotlight on the weaknesses of the Chinese education system and exposed fraud and cheating. It was written by Yong Zhao and is entitled, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.” A full discussion of the book can be found in a Nov. 20 article by Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books. (subscription required)

Here are three items plucked from the review:

  • It is not uncommon for Chinese test takers to use wireless cheating devices.
  • Sometimes the students just buy the test answers on the open market.
  • When there was a rare crackdown on cheating in Hubei Province, a riot broke out. Two thousand people reportedly smashed cars and chanted, “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”

This is not to deny that there is incredible test preparation in China. One famous test-prep school starts at 6:30 a.m., finishes at 10:30 p.m. and gives homework. But do these students actually learn anything? There is increasing legitimacy, in both America and China, in the argument that teaching to the test does not a genius make.

In the final analysis, creativity and innovation are sacrificed.

PISA-test-scoresZhao points out that the Chinese invented the compass but instead of using it to navigate the globe, they used it to find locations and burial sites with good fengshui. He said China – which had no Renaissance, no Enlightenment and no Industrial Revolution — was the first with gunpowder but never used it for modern weaponry.

Then there is this business of the Nobel Prize. A quick search of the Internet shows the Chinese have won six while the U.S. has won 353.

In his book, Zhao quotes a professor at Beijing University who says that since 1949 there has not been a single Nobel laureate among the 1 billion people educated in mainline China:

“No one, after 12 years of Chinese education, has any chance to receive a Nobel prize, even if he or she went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge for college. . . . This forcefully testifies [to] the power of education in destroying creativity on behalf of the [Chinese] society.”

It’s been said that Zhao wrote his book to convince the U.S. not to discard an education system that emphasizes fresh ideas and the spirit of individualism. It’s for certain he doesn’t want us to be suckered in by reports of China’s high test scores.

Standardized tests and teaching to those test is a growing America practice due to current government policy, but Zhao and Ravitch warn:

If the West is concerned about being overtaken by China, then the best solution is to avoid becoming China.

 

My own opinion is that the Chinese are a lot smarter than Zhao lets on. For one, I think Chinese mariners of old did a lot more global navigation than his statements suggest. And with respect to gunpowder, in some circles China might be considered highly moral and civilized for preferring firecrackers over canons.

I’ve been amazed by both the ancient and the modern Chinese mind. Its effectiveness should never be underestimated or said to lack creativity. If the American mind has dulled – and there really is no evidence of that – it is because it has become too comfortable. Fortunately, the Chinese economic miracle has given it some discomfort.

If it is napping, it will surely wake, and soon.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

A $1.5 million mistake! Do you just let it go?

15 Feb

Golden-nugget-dealer

I once made a painful mistake and was absolved. Recently, a much larger mistake was made by an Atlantic City casino. It, too, was absolved.

I considered my absolution reasonably fair. I’m not sure about the Golden Nugget’s.

It would be nice to know what others think, so please keep reading.

I was in college when I committed my blunder (neither my first nor my last). My classmates were finishing their final exam in political science when I realized I was supposed to be there. Upset and perplexed, I ran to the class and arrived as everyone was leaving. With exceptional humbleness I told the professor what happened and apologized, repeatedly.

His reaction stunned me: He laughed.

“You’ve had an ‘A’ all semester. Forget it.”

And so I wondered if the folk at the Golden Nugget were equally stunned – or more so — this week when their mistake was wiped clean by the State Superior Court of New Jersey.

golden-nugget-buildingAccording to the Associated Press, the case dates to 2012 and a game of mini-baccarat. Fourteen players who had been betting $10 a hand suddenly up their bets to $5,000 and won 41 straight hands. Their total winnings were $1.5 million.

The court, ruling in favor of the Golden Nugget, ordered them to give it back.

They didn’t cheat. They broke no rules.

What they did was notice that the cards being dealt had not been shuffled. As the cards came off the deck, they showed a consistent, predictable pattern. The players took advantage of this pattern to win.

The dealer was not shuffling the cards because the decks were supposed to have been pre-shuffled by the manufacturer. The cards came from a Kansas City company that admitted its error in court.

The judge’s ruling said New Jersey’s Casino Control Act requires that cards be shuffled. Since they were not, the mini-baccarat play was illegal, unauthorized and therefore void.

The court ordered the 14 players to return their winnings, minus their original bankrolls.

Years ago when I learned I had screwed up, I was willing to accept the consequences. Naturally, I felt that the Golden Nugget should accept its loss, or at least go get the $1.5 million from the company – Gemaco — that didn’t shuffle the cards. (They reached an undisclosed settlement.)

I changed my mind when I learned more about the case. Now I don’t know what to think.

The additional details and background came from the website Cardplayer.com.

It seems that back in 2012 a lower court actually ruled in favor of the gamblers. It was willing to award them their winnings – which they had not fully collected. The Golden Nugget suspected it was being scammed and paid out only $500,000. The 14 gamblers were forced to hold the rest in chips.

The gamblers, all of Asian descent, were not happy with this first ruling. They wanted more than their winnings. They wanted damages and made allegations of illegal detention and racial discrimination.

The owner of the casino, Texas billionaire Tillman Fertitta, said he would gladly pay the $1.5 million if all other charges were dropped. The 14 gamblers refused.

Now they have lost, and most likely will appeal.

Even for a guy who got As in political science, I’m not sure who is right or wrong; who is being fair or unfair. I’d like to hear from others on how they would rule.

The one resounding thought I’m left with is this: If I had been playing mini-baccarat and the cards started showing a pattern, would I have been smart enough to take advantage of this, or would I have been kicking myself for the rest of my life for missing the opportunity?

A final footnote: Gemaco, the company that didn’t shuffle the cards for the Golden Nugget, once manufactured cards for the Borgata that had flaws on the side. Ten-time World Series of Poker champion Phil Ivey was dealt those cards. He noticed the flaws and used them to win $9.6 million.

Lanny Morgnanesi

The Black Death, a killer of 20 million, had its good points

7 Feb

black-death

Being the progeny of immigrants, I’m sympathetic to their cause. Still, I’m convinced large-scale, legal immigration has hastened the withering of the middle class.

There have been other causes, including changes in tax policy and the global economy. But I was surprised to learn recently how significant an impact immigration had on the downward spiral of wages.

With thousands and thousands of Baby Boomers leaving the work force for retirement, wages should be going up. That’s the simple law of supply and demand. Immigration, however, has provided a counter balance and prevented this. Indeed, opening the borders sometimes seems like a purposeful antidote designed to help labor-intensive corporations. This is mostly likely why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a strong advocate of robust immigration.

Congress, perhaps responding to appeals by business, has frequently and consistently raised the level of legal immigration. In 1965 it was at 290,000 annually. Today it is about 1.1 million. This is legal immigration, and it is four times higher than any other country.

how-many-is-too-manyPhilip Cafaro, author of “How Many Is Too Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration Into the United States,” gives a thorough accounting of all this in a recent edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Cafaro sites studies by Harvard University economist George J. Borjas, a leading authority on the economic impact of immigration. Borjas found that in the 70s and 80s, a 10 percent increase in the number of workers in a given field decreased wages there by 3.5 percent. A more recent study showed that such an increase reduced wages of African-Americans by 4 percent, lowered their employment rate by 3.5 percent and increased their incarceration rate by almost one percent.

It’s good at least that today there is a great deal of talk about the withering middle class. Even Republicans now recognize it will be a critical issue in the 2016 presidential race. In an attempt to get in front of the issue, candidates like Jeb Bush are already saying they want to reverse the trend, although they provide few details.

If politics were not a factor, a solution could be easily found.

The strong post-war middle class in the U.S. was created primarily by tax policy. This policy was heavily graduated, meaning you paid a lot more if you made more a lot more. That policy no longer exists. Returning to it would easily restore the middle class, but it is unlikely the Republican Congress will choose this route.

Jeb-bushThere is, however, a consensus that a middle class, if one is desired, must be created, otherwise there will only be rich and poor. One was created in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. Unfortunately, the creative force was the Black Death — the bubonic plague that may have killed one out of every three Europeans (about 20 million). With the labor force devastated, there was upward pressure on wages and the ability of farmers to earn a much better living. Some reports say farm income increased by 50 percent.

In addition to creating the middle class, the plague often is credited with spawning the cultural rebirth known as the Renaissance.

The Black Death is a high price to pay for a middle class, even if it is accompanied by a renaissance. Changes in the tax and immigration policies might be a better way. But because government move in micro increments, this is unlikely. Any significant change probably will have to come through some unseen, forced hand.

If this is true, let’s hope it’s a kind one.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Falling arches and other cataclysmic changes

31 Jan

change

With sweat and angst, people struggle for years to change things, then suddenly the mighty fall simply because of changing tastes.

Powerful people and institutions use their power to create systems that sustain and protect them. But these systems always contain elements of their own destruction. They do not defend against the unexpected and the unlikely. So when that unforeseen wave rises, it crashes with the force of a tsunami.

Who could have anticipated that people would turn against McDonald’s hamburgers?

mcdonaldsIn 1994, the restaurant giant had sold 99 billion burgers – an unfathomable number. Then it stopped counting. The film Fast Food Nation cites a survey showing that 88 percent of people could identify the McDonald’s arches but only 54 percent could identify the Christian cross. Financially, the company is larger than the economies of many countries.

Yet the chaos has come.

Days ago, after only two years as McDonald’s CEO, Don Thompson announced he would step down. Profits in the last quarter dropped a precarious 21 percent. Sales have pretty much fallen or remained flat at all stores for 13 consecutive months.

McDonald’s didn’t change. We did.

“I don’t know a single person of my generation that eats at McDonald’s,” a man in his early 20s said. “When the older generations pass on, they’ll have no customers.”

People haven’t necessarily forsaken burgers. They just prefer the so-called “better burgers” at places like Five Guys and the Shake Shack, which this week had a highly successful public stock offering.

McDonald’s, with its top marketing pros, is trying to reverse the trend. Ads have changed to show that its food is actually real. Other changes must be in the works. It could turn things around and reinvent itself, but so far that hasn’t happened. If McDonald’s goes under it will leave a giant hole in the global economy. In its wake will be opportunity for others.

We are used to disruptive technologies destroying things like newspapers and video stores, but the technology related to burgers has not changed. Only taste and attitudes have changed.

Can you imagine if this happens in politics?

Political parties usually are quick to adapt. They are willing to give people what they want – or at least provide the appearance of this – in order to survive. Still, quick changes can alter much about the system.

Koch Brothers

Koch Brothers

In a political overhaul, what would happen to the conservative Koch brothers, who announced recently that their political network will spend about $900 million on the 2016 elections – more than the Republican and Democratic parties will spend.

If the political climate takes a dramatic shift, what will happen to this network, its money and its associated power, influence, special interest legislations and the intricate machinery that runs everything and keeps order? What will happen to all the other power networks? What will replace them? Will it be genuine or phony? Helpful or hurtful? Open or closeminded? Peaceful or warlike?

It was reported this week in the New York Times and elsewhere that a majority of the American public, including half of the Republicans, support government action to curb global warming. That news is bound to recast agendas in the 2016 congressional and presidential elections.

What else is coming? Lots, probably.

Young people aren’t buying homes; aren’t buying cars; aren’t living in the suburbs; aren’t using traditional banks. Maybe they will decide to stop using traditional politicians.

On a dark election night, a losing politician was heard to have said, “The people have spoken – the bastards!”

We may be hearing more of this. It’s something to think about as we eat a better burger in the back of a peer-to-peer driving service on the way to a friend’s apartment in the city.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Get me out of this prison!!!!

27 Jan

Another Day, Another Time the Music of "Inside Llewyn Davis" Another Day-Another Time

Mull over, if you will, these few lines from a Woody Guthrie song:

It takes a worried man, to sing a worried song

It takes a worried man, to sing a worried song

I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long

You’ll hear a bit of that tune in a documentary called, “Another Day, Another Time.” The film, embedded below, features mostly folk and old tyme American music. Producer T. Bone Burnett got a bunch of very fine musicians together to celebrate the traditional approach to music, and the movie gives us both on stage and off stage performances.

As I watched it, enjoying every note, I realized a preponderance of the songs were about imprisonment and the destruction of individuals by authority. There were songs like:

  • Hang me, Oh Hang me
  • The Midnight Special
  • The Auld Triangle
  • House of the Rising Sun
  • Worried Man Blues

Spanning decades, these songs continue to touch people, which is why they prevail. They reach something inside us. You don’t have to be a criminal or a con to appreciate them. As I listened to all these prison songs, it came to me that so many of us, whether we have been in a cell or not, must fell imprisoned.

I believe it’s these feelings that keep such songs with us and inspire new ones.

Johnny Cash is famous for his “Folsom Prison Blues,” where a man convicted of killing someone “just to watch him die” longs for freedom and is incensed every time a train filled with free people passes near his cell. The song is so convincing many believe Cash served time in Folsom. Not so. He wrote the song while in the Air Force, stuck at a base in Germany and longing to once again be his own man.

So the song was a metaphor for him, and for us.

Why do we feel this way? Where do our shackles come from? More important, how can we get rid of them?

Although Woody Guthrie wrote about the imprisoned Worried Man, he also wrote “This Land is Your Land” – which joyfully describes a vast, beautiful country and the unfettered right we have to travel it. In the documentary, Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Willie Watson do a number called “I Hear Them All,” and combine it with “This Land.”

They received the loudest applause when they sung this Guthrie verse:

There was a high wall there that tried to stop me

A sign was painted said “Private Property”

But on the backside it didn’t say nothin’


This land was made for you and me.

Maybe we’d all be happier if we, too, focused on the back of the sign. Our minds have put us in prison. It is up to our minds to get us out. The freedom and expression of music will help, as will the film, “Another Day, Another Time.”

By Lanny Morgnanesi

%d bloggers like this: