Stock Bubbles, Tulips, and Toilet Paper

“There’s only two things I hate in this world:  people who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the Dutch.” – Austin Powers in Goldmember

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Read this blog or this man will shoot that car.

People can be stupid.

People in groups are almost always stupid, and they can remain stupid until they do quite a lot of damage.

Let’s take a trip off to Europe (unless you already live in Europe) and back in time to 1636 A.D. (unless you already live in 1636 A.D.) and review the price of . . . flowers???

The Dutch (at least I think that’s what they call the people from the Netherlands, but you can call them Sven or Maria or whatever suits you) in 1636 were a  seafaring bunch, who made money trading all over the world and had colonies in North America, South America, South Africa, India and all those islands between Asia and Australia.  One thing that a Dutch guy brought back (and I don’t think this one was lost) in addition to the most efficient way to remove hair and lint from your bellybutton was the tulip.

In a parallel development, the Dutch were big on trading stocks in companies, like the Dutch East India Company, or in commodities like sugar or pancake mix.  The markets were sophisticated.  In 1632, you could buy sugar for delivery in 1633.  This was nice if you wanted to guarantee your sweet tooth, but you could also trade that contract to somebody else for a higher price if they decided they needed the sugar to make PEZ® or Fruit Pies.   Nowadays we call those “futures” contracts.  Yup, the Dutch were doing this 400 years ago.

But a slight change in laws made those contracts different.  The buyer could buy the right to buy sugar.  The seller had to fulfill the contract, but the buyer had no obligation to buy it.  It was his or her (yup, plenty of Dutch female speculators) option to buy the sugar.  This is what is now known as “futures options.”  And you could buy them on . . . anything.

Even tulips.

In November of 1636 something must have broken in the minds of a batch of silly dead (now, not then) Dutchmen and women.  They started bidding up the futures options contracts on . . . tulips.  And various colors and varieties became more valuable, especially one that that had a virus that changed and made a tiger-striped pattern.  They looked awesome.  But one tulip bulb went for the same price as ten years’ worth of a typical laborer’s wages.  That’s $250,000 or $300,000 today.  For a tulip bulb.

There appears to be little record of people going broke in big numbers when the bubble burst, but certainly there were some people who came out a bit poorer, and the entire reputation of traders was ruined.  Not that it was that great in the beginning, but Jan Brueghel the Younger painted the fine painting below, Satire on Tulip Mania, depicting the traders as monkeys.  If you look closely you can see the nifty tiger-striped tulip in the left corner.  Myself?  I’d pay much more for a monkey that traded futures options contracts, even if he did a lousy job.

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Yes, it’s public domain, being nearly 400 years old, unless Disney® wants to try to make a movie about it….

This was the first recorded financial insanity of this type, and it was fairly benign.

What other manias occurred during history?  Well, lots.  But researching them all would take quite a lot of work, and far more wine than I have in the house right now.  So, let’s just look at the ones that I want to talk about:

  • Salem Witch Trials – 1692 to 1693. Twenty people executed when a bunch of kids played a prank.  Or there were real witches.    This is still a bubble, but it was just teen angst magnified a zillion times.  Fortunately, they had awesome wood floors, like in the picture below.  Are those oak?  I’m so jealous!

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  • The South Sea Bubble – in 1720, the price of shares in the British South Sea Corporation went from £100 to £1,000 (the £ is the funny symbol that British people use for money). Sounds like a great deal, right?  Well, the records seem to indicate that the South Sea Corporation spent most of their time issuing stock and very little time on actually, you know, making money.  So why did so many people (including Isaac Newton himself) shove all of their spare £ into a company that just made stock?  Isaac Newton is reported to have said:  “I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.”  Apparently Newton couldn’t manage £1,000-£100=£  Below is a public domain picture by dead artist Godfrey Kneller of Isaac Newton when he was in his “looking like the guitarist from Queen” phase.

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  • Radium – 1920’s to late 1930’s. Everything had radium in it or was named after radium.    Drinking water.  Watches with glow in the dark faces.  My college mathematics classroom (yeah, after I took Calculus I, Calc II, Calc III and Differential Equations in the same room?  Enough radioactivity to power all of North Korea and a lot of corpses that are technically nuclear waste.  I have a straight razor case from the era.  You guessed it:  “Radium Straight Razor Company.”
  • 1920’s Stock Bubble – The classic. Fueled by post World War I enthusiasm and the rise of new technology (radio, the automobile, phones, and PEZ®) people went . . . insane.  Everybody was investing in the stock market, including a shoeshine boy, who famously gave Joe Kennedy (father of President John F. Kennedy) a stock tip.  Kennedy then decided if shoe shine boys were involved in the stock market, too many people were in the stock market.  He then proceeded to smuggle a bunch of liquor and manipulate a senator or two, then lunch.
  • Hula Hoops™ – Watch The Hudsucker Proxy to see exactly how this was invented. Okay, I kid.  But the Hula Hoop® hit when Hawaii was just becoming a state, and there was a large mania about the place, even though it had been a part of the US for nearly a century.  100 million were sold within two years, despite the US population being only 180 million at the time.  Sales fell off when people were finally told that there wasn’t a limit on the number of times a hoop could be hooped prior to it wearing out.
  • Johnny Carson’s Toilet Paper Run – in 1973, Johnny Carson (a late night television host back when there were only three channels and who was very popular) noted that there was a toilet paper shortage, but was referencing commercial grade toilet paper. He used that to make a few jokes.  (Toilet paper is just plain funny).  People took him seriously, and pretty soon there were shortages and rationing of consumer grade TP in several cities.  Shortly after the commotion, Carson told his audience he was joking.  People in the US could again poop without fear.
  • Pet Rocks® – A rock. As a pet.  For money.  Broke sales records, until people figured out that they’d paid $3.95 (plus tax) for a rock.
  • Cabbage Patch Kids© – A really ugly doll, but middle-aged women jumped out in droves to fight each other in a series of battles that would have made the gladiators of the Colosseum in Rome proud, if they had been middle-aged women with purses the size of four year old children fighting each other for dolls in the aisles of K-Mart®, Montgomery Ward™ and Sears©.
  • Beanie Babies™ – A really cute doll that spiked in popularity in the late 1990’s. The creator of the company decided to make special “limited runs” of a cheap, plush doll that looks like a dog’s chew toy.  Middle-aged women fought each other in the aisles for these as well, but it was the 1990’s so they all had greasy ham-hair like Kurt Cobain.  After a brief spike of popularity, most Beanie Babies are worth . . . dog chew-toy value.  There are a very few that might be worth some change, but don’t hold your breath.
  • Dotcom Bubble – The thing I wrote about Beanie Babies™ above? Just replace “Beanie Babies®” with “stocks” and “Middle-aged women” with “greedy but stupid baby boomers.”
  • Tasers© – At one point in 2004, Taser™ the company would have had to sell three Tasers® to every person in the United States to make the profit the stock $150 stock price implied. We didn’t buy the Tasers®, and neither did you, so you can buy the stock for $20 or so.
  • Housing Bubble –House prices never go down. It’s a fact!  Except when it’s not and imperils the entire economy of the world.
  • Tesla® – I’m not saying it’s a bubble (LINK), but it’s a bubble. Tesla© is not worth more than Ford™.

Most of the bubbles or manias I’ve listed above share a similar pattern –

  • Start – The guy started making Beanie Babies®. They only sold a few.
  • Spark – A reviewer mention in an article that some are “valuable” and “rare”.
  • Information Spread – Engage middle-age lady network.
  • Publicity – News stories show up in newspapers, television.
  • Mania – Nobody wants to be left behind, so everybody buys all the Beanie Babies®.
  • Market Collapse – Somebody writes an article questioning paying $10,381 for a dog chew toy. “Bubbles burst when fools run out of money.”
  • Regret – Closets of Beanie Babies© sit in closets, since one day they’ll be valuable.
  • Next Mania – Well, maybe next time I’ll be in first and make all the money…

And financial markets work exactly the same way, but with less dog chew toys.  People want to seek a return on their money, and when there’s enough money just lying around, stupid investments get made.  And some of those investments pay off in a huge way, especially for those that got out early.  The Dotcom crash?  Plenty of people sold as it was on its way up, and made huge amounts of money.  The housing crash?  One guy predicted it and put in place investments so that he made hundreds of millions off of the crash.

But sometimes what looks like a bubble . . . isn’t a bubble.  It’s a trend, and a real trend based on sound, rational economics.  The guy who was sure that the smart phone was a fad (me), the guy who thought that credit cards would never catch on with a rational public (my dad), and the guy who thought that Europe would be plunged into a horrific war (my great, great grandfather).  Oh, wait, the last guy was right.

And sometimes there are bubbles, and sometimes there are trends.  One person working to figure out the difference is a geophysicist named Didier Sornette, who has an amazing Wikipedia page (LINK), and looked at the mathematics that surrounded earthquakes and compared it to stocks or other financial assets in a bubble.  Turns out that the bubble was analogous to a really stressed mass of rock.  He made some predictions after the Dotcom bubble, and was right enough that he got hired to just study financial crises in Zurich (LINK).  Tough duty.

When you think a deal is too good to be true, or you see a group of people jumping on a bandwagon, think twice (cough Tesla® cough).  You want to avoid the Hula Hoop® Witches™ without Toilet Paper.

This blog is NOT stock advice, I don’t own any positions in anything mentioned, and don’t plan on any for the next month or so.  

Deals: How George Lucas, Bill Gates, and Almost Every Other Rich Person Got Rich

“I guess the only other fair way to go about this would be that one of us deals with the body situation while the other one of us deal with the Krazy 8 situation.  In a scenario like this I don’t suppose it is bad form to just flip a coin. Heads or tails?” – Breaking Bad

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Who would have guessed that George Lucas would have his own Lego™?

Some small group of people become wealthy due to savings.  Some other small groups of people get wealthy by growing their business slowly over time.  Besides being born rich (which is the easiest and surest way to get rich), what do the majority do?

The Deal.

There are good Deals, and there are bad Deals, and I’ve been involved with both kinds.  So have you.  Anyone who has done a Deal (and, really, that’s everyone – two year olds start bargaining for candy and to stay up late as soon as they can speak) has likewise done good and bad Deals.

Let’s start with bad Deals.  One of the worst Deals I ever did was when I traded in my first car at a car dealership.  I traded for a pickup that was older than the car.  Six years older than the car.  Plus I gave them a big wad of cash to do the deal.  After that Deal was signed, the store manager played a recorded sound of a bomb dropping and exploding over the store intercom.

I innocently asked why they had played the explosion sound.  The car salesman said it was, “just a thing the manager does.”  Of course, it was in honor of the horrible Deal I’d just done.  I suppose it was fair.  Several years earlier I had sold them my used car.  After several hours of negotiation, they offered me a pretty good price.  I asked, “Do you need to know if there’s anything wrong with it mechanically?”

The salesman said, “Nah.  Just the body.  They can fix any mechanical problems.”

The car had a cracked engine block.  Hint:  seeing steam coming out of your tailpipe is never a good sign.

Well, I did ask.  Actually, several times.  I’m not sure they really liked that Deal . . . I guess I wish I had a little bomb sound that I could have made . . . “oh, no, that’s nothing.  Just something I like to do.”

But they got the last laugh with the pickup.  A year later it threw a rod (this is very bad) through the engine block and oil pan while I was driving seventy miles per hour.  Pretty impressive, actually.

What are some examples of other famous Deals/decisions?

  • George Lucas got the merchandise rights for a little film he did called “Star Wars®” for $20,000. I think that one little afterthought deal earned him over a billion dollars – and that’s after taxes.  Nerds who live in Mom’s basement can afford a LOT of Boba Fett® figurines, since they can avoid that whole “dating” money sink.
  • Bill Gates bought DOS® for $50,000. It formed the basis of MicroSoft™.  It became really valuable because IBM® said, “Who wants to own software, am I right, Brandon?  The money is in the hardware.  Let’s go get some martinis, cigarettes and blow dry our feathered hair, maybe play some Pac-Man™.”  Or whatever IBM© dudes said at lunch when Reagan was president.
  • Peter Thiel bought 10% of Facebook® for $500,000. He now only owns 2-3% of Facebook© due to dilution and share sales.  Don’t cry, he can still afford to buy lunch out once a week.
  • The Internet Bubble was probably the greatest mass insanity since the Dutch sold tulip bulbs for the price of a house (yes, this really happened, and I’ll talk about it in a post somewhere during the next week or two). I had a friend who got caught up in a website during the Bubble.  He ended up selling a company (he owned about 20% of it) to Alta-Vista©.  Who?  Alta-Vista™!  They were the Google™ before Google®.  How much did they sell the company for?  Fifty Million Dollars.  Immediately, my friend was worth Ten Million Dollars.  Unfortunately it was in Alta-Vista stock, which, by agreement he couldn’t sell for six months.  Six months later?  His Ten Million in stock was worth Two Million.  He got out, but he was a 36 year old with $2,000,000, which I guess is a pretty cool consolation prize.  Why did Alta-Vista™ want his company?  It had huge growth – heck, it made $2,000 a month!
  • AOL®-Time™ Warner©. Investors lost $8 billion on this merger.  Who could have predicted that dial up internet wasn’t the wave of the future?
  • Invading Russia or Afghanistan. Repeat after me:  no land wars in Asia.  Oh, we’re involved in two of them right now?  Yikes!
  • Nathan Rothschild had early information on the result of the Battle of Waterloo where Wellington defeated Napoleon in “Friday the Thirteenth Part 4: Napoleon Strikes Back.”  Even from the Rothschild archives we find:  “I am informed by Commissary White you have done well by the early information which you had of the victory gained at Waterloo.”  So, knowing the outcome of the battle, it seems certain that Rothschild made some money as the markets were agitated with the uncertainty of the war.  How much did Rothschild make that day?  History does not record, but Rothschild built a fortune that is estimated at $450 billion dollars in today’s money.  That’s five Mark Zuckerbergs.  Nathan didn’t make many bad Deals . . . .

What characterizes a Bad Deal?

  • Missing information: When I made my stupid truck deal, I had no idea how to get car value information.  This was pre-Internet.  Mismatched information leads to one-sided Deals.
  • Failure to understand potential: Star Wars® merchandise might have been a few posters and t-shirts.    Biggest movie merchandising Deal ever.  This is similar to what Bill Gates saw.  He figured that DOS® was worth much more than the owner did, and used it to leverage into everything MicroSoft™.
  • Taking advantage of circumstances. Thiel originally lent money to Facebook® that they needed badly.  He ended up with the 10% equity stake in the company.  Nice timing, good Deal.
  • Stoned-Level Euphoria: The Internet Bubble was characterized by wisdom of a mob all high on PEZ® and thinking that a website that was clearing $2,000 a month was worth $50,000,000.  Like toddlers with checkbooks making Deals.  Trade a Bugatti® for Cadbury Cream Eggs®?
  • Invading Russia or Afghanistan just shows that you have no ability to learn from either history or The Princess Bride®.
  • Rothschild bet on bad Deals made in a hurry under pressing circumstances. Never make a Deal under pressure, unless you have to.  Really have to.

Nature of the Deal

I’ve seen company take long, agonizing looks at acquisitions and mergers that amounted to far less than 1% of the company’s value.  I’ve also heard that Warren Buffett has bought many a company on a one page contract.  He says his lawyers make them longer now, but the Deals that made him rich (well, richer) could be written on a single page.  And nobody argues that Buffett does bad Deals.

But are there really Win-Win Deals?

Whenever I hear “win-win” I think of those zombie adult over-enthusiastic motivational speakers.  You know the ones I mean – the ones that are always insufferably happy?  Them.  They talk about win-win.  But win-win deals can be real, and here’s an example:

I was working at a multi-billion dollar company when a multi-billionaire decided he wanted to buy it.  He offered 30% above the current stock price, which was six times what I had gotten my shares for.  I took his offer (for my shares, not the company) in a second.  The billionaire then structured his payments from the profits so that his original purchase was paid off in about three years.  Plus he still owns the company.

So, I got more money out of the stock than I ever expected, the billionaire got more billions, and he still employs thousands of people daily to make products that millions of people use.

That’s a win-win-win-win.  Yay capitalism!

What was my personal best Deal?

When taking a job at a company, I requested as part of my offer that if they ever asked me to move, they’d pay me at least what I’d paid for my house.  Since house prices always go up, this was an easy calculation for the company, right?  Sure!  They agreed, and I said, “yes.”

Eleven months later when they asked me to move, the housing bust was in full swing.  Thankfully, they cut me a check for the difference between the appraised value of the house versus my original purchase price.  Had I not asked for that simple clause, I would have been out $45,000.  The upside?  The company also paid the mortgage, insurance, and property taxes until the house sold, a year and a half later.

Don’t feel bad for the company . . . they still got the better end of the deal.

They got me!

The Future of Employment, or, Almost All of Government is a Jobs Program

All right, listen closely.  I was at the unemployment office and I told them I was very close to getting a job with Vandelay Industries, and I gave them your phone number.  So now, when the phone rings you have to answer “Vandelay Industries.” – Seinfeld

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Notice it doesn’t say Texas Pain RELIEF Institute?

What are we going to do with everyone?

I’ve been (throughout my life) a proponent of the human race.  I like it.  I may not like certain individuals, but I’ve got a great degree of hope when it comes down to humanity.  And up to now, the equation has been that more people equals more Einsteins, more Isaac Newtons, more Nikola Teslas, and more Stephen Hawkings.  These are shining examples of humanity – folks who helped the human race achieve much more than we would have or could have without their knowledge.  I read an article recently (I am not making this up) about rising obesity rates in Ghana due to KFC® becoming the restaurant of status and choice.  And we know how much Einstein contributed to the secret government project that led to KFC™’s fried, greasy goodness.

There are seven billion of us, and 2.1 billion have the problem of being obese or overweight.  Less than 800 million are suffering from hunger or malnutrition.  This is a victory of the greatest magnitude.  Yes, obesity is bad, but I would much rather have people having heart attacks in their fifties after having a tasty chicken wing versus starvation at fifteen.  Everyone who has that choice would make the same choice, and raise their greasy hands up if asked.

In general, the world is getting better as we as a society create more wealth, as I talked about in previous posts (LINK).  But I’m really concerned as I look forward with simple questions:

How much does the future need us for continued prosperity?  How many people do we really need?  How many can be actively employed in productive work?

There are various reasons that I’m wondering:  Increasing Productivity, AI, Smart Machines, Robots to name a few, though there are other issues as well that we’ll skip today.

I’ve written before that trucking is a sure bet for replacement once self-driving trucks are approved by the Department of Transportation and the various states and a self-driving unit costs less than (about) $400,000 per unit.  After those conditions are met, at least a million jobs (and likely more) will be gone as fast as the autonomous trucks can be produced.  But it’s not just truckers.  It will be fast food workers.  It will be janitors.  It will be an increasing number of lower and mid-skilled jobs throughout industry.  If it can be described by an algorithm or computer program, it will be automated.  A large number of sports articles and financial news articles are now produced with no human intervention.  Journalists would worry, if there were enough of them left to worry.

And jobs that aren’t eliminated will be minimized.  An example:  a structural engineer nowadays runs calculations for a new bridge or skyscraper through a computer program that analyzes the stresses in the structure and optimizes the design for code and seismic conditions.  It then chooses the beams and columns and other structural members based on tens of thousands of calculations and three dimensional finite element analysis, and then pops out design drawings. Sproink.  (That’s the noise the drawings make when they come out of the machine.)

Fewer engineers are required, and the engineers don’t need to be as proficient since the engineering knowledge is built into the program.  Both the number of people and the quality of people goes down.

Another example:  I just bought (for $30) a device the will give me the data I need to order glasses online.  No prescription, no optometrist, no waiting.  Also, no glaucoma check, but I don’t have to take off time from work to visit the doctor.  And the glasses I ordered online cost less than I would pay, even at Wal-Mart®.  I may describe it in Friday’s blog.

Another example:  I had a cold that I was pretty worried was heading into my lungs and I was worried that I’d get pneumonia.   For $60 I got online from my basement (where I was in a cold sweat despite my 101˚F, got antibiotics, and got better.  Otherwise?  A $120 doctor visit where my copay would have been at least $100.  Yes, a real doctor was involved in the visit, but it was incredibly efficient for them – I’d imagine they make $300 an hour.  No office, no actual contact with icky sick people.  It was a great transaction for both of us.

But . . . it means we need fewer Doctors.  And fewer waiting rooms.  And fewer nurses.  Et cetera.

Efficiency is awesome.  It lowers costs, and does that while quality is increased, in most cases.

When economists study inflation, they study the price of the item.  I have a color TV in my house.  When my dad bought his first color TV, he spent (on an inflation adjusted basis) over $3,000 in today’s dollars.  With that kind of money today?  You could buy a 75” Sony® Ultra HD that also has a popcorn maker and margarita blender built in.  So, economists measure how much better a thing has gotten as well as what the thing costs.  They call this measurement “hedonics” because it’s way more confusing than “measuring how stuff got better.”

So, we live in a world where getting sufficient food to eat is easier than at any point in history.  We also live in a world where getting information is easier than at any time?  Want to listen to a song?  Unless it’s the Beatles™, it’s pretty much on YouTube®.  And we can make more things, better, faster and cheaper, than at any time in history.

But why hasn’t efficiency hit, oh, say the Department of Motor Vehicles?  Or the local County office where I go to get license plates?  At both places, you have to stand in line.  At both places, hours are limited, and you’d better get done before quitting time, because they’re serious about closing up at 4:30pm.

In a typical business, the best parking spaces are reserved for the customers.  In government?  The best parking places are reserved for the employees.  And I think government is giving us a hint:  the most important consumers of government are its employees.  You and I are the product.

And why, in a world where I can apply for $100,000 credit at midnight can I only get my driver’s license between 9AM and 4:15PM (closed for lunch hour)?  Why is it harder each year to deal with government?  Why do their budgets keep going up, faster than inflation?

Because nothing the government does is intended to help you, the consumer.  The bright folks that are hired to make wonder weapons?  Jobs program.  We do NOT want people that smart on the street.  The people who work for NASA®?  Jobs program.  They don’t even have to make rockets anymore, and Elon Musk has clearly shown that if he had NASA’s budget he’d be building Burger Kings® on Mars, because he’s have a million people living there in the next decade.  NASA spent money putting together braille books on the solar eclipse in August.  That might explain why we have to piggy back a ride with the Russians to get to the International Space Station.  NASA is a jobs program.  Originally it had a job to get people to the moon.  Now?  It produces new classes of astronauts with no vehicle to fly.  Thankfully they have a budget for cardboard boxes to sit inside and make rocket noises.  There’s even a budget for markers to write “ROKET” and “USA” on the side of the boxes!

The Department of Education, which has taught no classes?  Jobs program.  The Department of Energy, which has never produced a Watt?  Jobs program.  The military?  Parts of it are a jobs program, but most if it is real.  But you better pay attention to what congressional district and state the new weapons will be built in . . .

Your liberal-arts college professor?  Given a job so that they wouldn’t agitate for revolution in the streets, rather, they can agitate for revolution to rich kids who would much rather play Playstation® and X-Box©.

Ever wonder why they rip up a section of street that looks pretty good, and then work it for months?  Yup.  Jobs program.  Not to say that the original Interstate Highway System wasn’t real.  It was.  But now what do we build?  What infrastructure is left?  Dams are awesome for hydroelectric power, but just try to build one nowadays . . . it’s easier to declare war on Ghana.

It really took me by surprises that this was the case – that most government spending is based on the concept of giving people money so that they don’t riot in the streets (dumb people) or so they won’t plot and plan a revolution (liberal arts professors) or build wonder-weapons in a James Bond worthy plot for foreign governments (government scientists)?

Why is government inefficient?  It’s not.  It’s a very efficient jobs machine.  You’re just the product, not the consumer.

But what about the jobs that are already out there?  A recent study says that the average worker works less than four hours a day.

Think of the creativity that creates!  How to look busy for eight or nine hours a day when you’re done working after four?  And how long will a business stand for this?  Eventually, in private business, all of the “four hour a day” jobs will be eliminated – the business has to pay taxes, remain competitive.

But government will respond.  New regulations will be created and enforced that require new employees to compile data and report it to the government.  This is done mainly so that the government has excuses to hire more employees, but has the side effect to requiring more private sector compliance workers.

I actually had a job once where, on my start date, my office wasn’t yet ready.  They told me . . . come back in two weeks from now.  Did they pay me for the two weeks?  Yes.  And, who did this?  Yup.  It was a government job.  And, although I saved them several million dollars, they were kinda disappointed.  They wanted to spend their full budget.

But there will be in the next decade millions of people becoming unemployed as their jobs are minimized or eliminated due to clever business disruption, probably faster than the government can create jobs (hint: the government is broke (LINK)).  I’d love to suggest a minimum basic income, but we can’t pay for it.  We can’t even afford PEZ®.

What do we do?

There are millions of people in the United States right now that would love to work.  And millions more in made-up jobs that produce nothing that would love to work in productive jobs.  Around the world, this number is surely in the hundreds of millions.

And we need fewer of them every day.

How about . . . we let someone smart pay them to work on something really important . . . like going to Mars?

Paging Elon Musk . . . .

Unless someone else has a better idea?  Raise your greasy hand and sing out!

Reality: Does it exist? And if it does, are there cookies?

“It’s been six hours.  Dreams move one one-hundredth the speed of reality, and dog time is one-seventh human time.  So, you know, every day here is like a minute.  It’s like Inception, Morty, so if it’s confusing and stupid, then so is everyone’s favorite movie.” – Rick and Morty

Pugsley after trying to figure out quantum mechanics on his Quantum Mechanics Lego® set.

Phillip K. Dick wrote multiple stories about reality being fluid, or, in many cases, entirely misleading.  The tricks that memory can play were multiplied, and often the memories you recalled weren’t yours at all.  You can see that in titles of his stories, such as “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” and “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”  You might recall the movie versions of these:  Blade Runner® and Total Recall™.

Dick had a certain sense of paranoia that pervaded him, with a nearly constant theme of an eroding reality falling apart around him in both his life and in the characters that he wrote about.  In The Man In The High Castle, Mr. Dick alludes to this reality being a different one, and that there are nearby realities that were close enough to impact ours in real and permanent ways.

So, if you’ve ever felt this reality was just a little bit off, remember, that sometimes even paranoids are right . . .

The Boy and I went to go see Blade Runner: 2049 today.  He didn’t like it.  Too long, music was overpoweringly loud.  I agree it was too long – it probably would have been an awesome 90 minute or 100 minute movie.  And, as a dude getting older, louder things don’t bother me too much.  I liked this movie better than the original and would recommend 2049, though I must admit to not being a big fan of the original.  The Thing®, Fast Times at Ridgemont High™ and even First Blood (Rambo)© were better films, I thought.  (Odds are you won’t remember the film that won Best Picture® that year:  Chariots of Fire.  I’ll save you the time.  Booooooring.  Ben Kingsley plays Gandhi, who starts a film production company with Burt Reynolds where they concentrate on creating movies about quality footwear from India.  Again, my mini-review:  Boooooooring.)

But Mr. Dick brought the question forward:  what’s real?

I know that there’s a pretty big consensus that this universe that we inhabit is real, it has substance, objects are made of matter, your senses tell you the objective truth, your memories are reliable, and that the whole thing follows a set of understandable logical rules.  Time is linear, and goes just one way.  You can understand the things that are local, that are near you, but you have no perception of things that are very far away, unless you have a cell phone or a radio.  If a tree falls in the forest, well, it falls in the forest, whether you heard it or not.

This is the best way to get through a day.  Guessing that a train has mass and that mass times velocity will turn you into a fine mist if you ignore it is probably the safest way to consider reality.  Ignoring that one is pretty much an “at your own risk” sort of thing, though there’s anecdotal evidence that none other than George Washington had two horses shot out from under him, and four bullet holes in his jacket during the French and Indian War.  So, did reality change around Washington (LINK)?  Scott Adams thinks that reality might be very malleable (LINK) and he is a millionaire cartoonist, so I’d take whatever he says seriously (seriously).

 

But we all agree that baking bread smells good, and poo doesn’t.  So our senses are right on track.  But flies . . . seem to like the smell we don’t?  Are our senses lying to us on what is good or bad, or are they finely tuned to present a picture of reality to us that is most advantageous for us our long term survival?  All evidence is that sugar tastes sweet and good to us, not because it is good for us, but because it has a high energy content.  A sucrose or dextrose or lactose or maltose or fructose (note the trend) molecule all taste (more or less) sweet.  That would tell a primate to eat more of the sweet stuff, and much less of his own poo.  Flies?  Not so much, I’m sure poo smells like fresh-baked bread to them.  In no way does your sense of smell tell you the objective truth, though it’s got some pretty good programming built in for your survival.

But surely, your sense of sight doesn’t lie?  Well . . . why is a rose pretty?  Why is a pretty girl pretty?  While much of the reality you see might be (at least somewhat) accurate, even the filters your sense of sight puts the world through are far from objective.  Plus, a big portion of what you see during a day is just your brain filling in details for you.  Your effective actual visual area is much smaller.  HD camcorders now pull in far more data than the human eye.

I am generally sure my memories are good, though.  But one night while watching a television special on stupid game-show moments, The Mrs. and I were wondering when it had been narrated, since the narrator was Richard Dawson.  I remembered vividly reading about him dying in 1990 or 1991.  The Mrs. recalled the same thing, from the same timeframe.  Even the cause of death was the same: cancer.  We hit up Alta-Vista® or some other search engine.  Yahoo® maybe? It showed clearly that Richard Dawson was alive, and had not died the way we both remembered he had.  (He has since passed on.)

We’ve since come on to a few more things that we both remember that were counter to what Google® says when we ask.  So are our memories what changed, or was it reality?  Are The Mrs. and I slowly slipping through a myriad of potential John Wilder and The Mrs. personas throughout multiple, closely related universes?  Could it be that every time we part from one another, we don’t come home to exactly the same person we left?  I slipped left, The Mrs. slipped right?  I’m one step closer to a universe where the Kardashians are poor, unknown grifters operating out of Wal-Mart® parking lots, and The Mrs. I left this morning slipped towards a universe where the Kardashians have solidified control of a world government?

Let’s pretend there’s only one reality.  Does it follow rules that we can understand?  In the famous double-slit experiment, the answer really is:  No.  It doesn’t.  Let me give a description of the experiment:  There are two slits on a piece of paper.  A photon, or particle of light, can go through either one.  But if light is a wave, it will go through both, and create a diffraction pattern on the back.  Sure enough, we can prove that light is a wave!  It creates a diffraction pattern on the back, as shown below (source: Wikimedia, Jordgette, CC By SA3.0)

It does it because waves of light behave like this (source, Wikimedia, Lookang, CC By SA3.0):

But if you look to see where if a photon goes through a particular slit?  The diffraction pattern disappears.  You know enough about the photon that it no longer behaves as a probability wave, but now has to be a particle.  It forms a boring old line.  Diffraction disappears due to knowledge.

Whose knowledge?  Your knowledge.  If you observe it, you make the photon choose where it is.  Observation changes the nature of the phenomenon, and, in this case, determines reality.  No, reality has rules that conform to your observation.

So, is time a linear one-way street?  This (LINK) experiment shows that there just might be reactions to stimuli . . . before the stimuli occurs.  Beyond that, there’s more than anecdotal evidence that just shortly before his death, Lincoln had a dream that detailed his body lying in state.  So, there’s that.

And being able to understand only things that occur locally?  Here is a study (LINK) that admittedly is more on the fun side – this lady’s dog knew when she was coming home.  At a random time.  When she was at least 8 miles away.

As far as superpowers go, these would be awesome.  I mean, seeing is way better, but seeing the future would be awesome.  Especially seeing into the future for the next thirty seconds or so.  Imagine the saber-tooth tigers you could avoid by halting before you cross just that spot on the way to the watering hole.

Oh, and the tree falling in the forest?  It hasn’t.  And it has.  Until it’s observed, it exists only in a state of quantum superposition – it hasn’t fallen/has fallen but it won’t until it’s observed, and that observation in the future triggers the quantum collapse of the superposition state into a fallen tree or an upright tree.  Just like the dual slit experiment, the very nature of the reality we observe on a day-to-day basis is dependent upon the observer.

So, reality, when viewed a little closer, maybe conforms more to Philip K. Dick than we’d normally, comfortably like to see.  I mean, we like the comfort of assuming that everything is as it seems, but it may be that we develop more of our own reality than we think we do, as both actor and observer in our life.

And when it comes to observers, The Boy says skip Blade Runner: 2049 and instead go read The Man in the High Castle . . . .

Tom Petty, AM Radio, Heavy Metal, and Motivation

“If you ask me, you are both off the mark.  Last night was about two people ruled by very powerful superegos, tortured by them, who found a chance, however misguided, to break through and rediscover their ids together.  Call me an old softy, but that’s how I see it.” – Frasier

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The Boy and Pugsley dancing in the rain, which makes my id sing.

I’m not sure exactly when I first heard a Tom Petty song.  Where I grew up was media vacuum.  On TV, we had three channels, plus PBS® (Who watched PBS©?  Nobody.).  Unless it was nighttime, we only got two radio stations, and both of them were AM stations.  One played country music, so, for me it might as well not have exisited.  The other played a complicated mix of top 40 from four years previously, news, and an hour of mariachi music at lunchtime.  It signed off (shut down) at 11PM.

But at night . . . at night the mighty KOMA blasted out 50,000 watts of rock and roll at 1520 on the AM dial, the ionosphere conducted the signal hundreds of miles and back toward earth and over the mountains to my house.  It’s probable that I first heard Tom Petty on some cool summer night (down to 50 ˚F most summer nights).  Maybe it was “Don’t Do Me Like That.”

But Tom was always a bit older than I was, both in age and in the issues he raised in his musical themes.  Me?  I gravitated toward metal, mainly hairy metal, Ozzy™.  Mötley Crüe®.  The Scorpions©.  Despite the previous list, what I liked wasn’t all hair metal.  I liked “normal” music, too.

I ended up on a strange quest:  I’d heard a song, once, and I’d try to tell people what it sounded like, and say intelligent things like “it goes Da Da Dadum dadum de-da dum Ohh-Aiii-Uh . . . Uh.”  The record store clerk would nod knowingly, and point to a cassette or album.  It would turn out to be Judas Priest™.  Which I really, really liked.  Or Molly Hatchet©, which was kinda okay.   I would dutifully buy the tape or album, zip home (first on my ten speed, later in my pickup) and then listen to the album.  Normally, in the first song I would know if it was the same singer.  Always the answer was it wasn’t.  But these mistakes were beautiful – I can still remember sitting on the couch on a dim, overcast day, the clouds pregnant with snow that had yet to fall, blasting “The Hellion” and thinking . . . “okay, life is really cool.”

Imagine that this song played every time you entered a room.  I imagine Google® is working on that.

Again, none of them were the band I was looking for.  I think I spent $300 or so on every single album that featured leather, scantily clad females, and Spandex® that I could find.  For reference, I had all of these as either cassettes or albums.  Album cover copyrights belong to their respective corporate overlords.

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Funky font?   Check.  Picture that looks like something the disturbed kid drew in art class?  Check.

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Satan?  Check.  Priest in glasses being thrown into a pit of fire?  Check.

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Hmmm.  I don’t know about you, but something screams, John Wilder, BUY THIS ALBUM NOW!

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Spandex®?  Check.  Leather?  Check.  Canadian?  Check.  But . . . they’re dudes.  I bought this on cassette, so, thankfully, the picture was tiny.

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Swords?  Check.  Giant flying leathery chicken?  Check?  Leather . . . on a girl this time?  Check.

AliceCooper

Wow.  Just . . . wow.

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I never could figure out what sort of naughty thing they were supposed to be doing.  In the day.  At a drive in.  With both feet out the window.  Probably ripping the labels off of pillows?

Until . . . like Columbus I discovered what was already there (and broken up by the time I found them): Led Zeppelin.  True Fact:  Christopher Columbus first discovered Robert Plant picking onions in a Nevada prison camp, and introduced him to Jimmy Page at a ballet class, but would take no credit because he wanted Led Zeppelin to do disco music.

So, I listened again to Zeppelin. “Yeah, it might be that guy singing?”

It was.  It was this song:

This was the song.  Yay! 

But I’d have to special order the album, since they didn’t have Led Zeppelin III in stock.

Nope.  Too much commitment.

As you might have been able to tell by the artists and album covers above, my musical tastes were driven by my id.

If you don’t remember your Freud, he broke the brain into three bits:

  1. The Super Ego, which, like your dad, is for criticism and moralizing.
  2. The Ego, which is the organized human who lives on the main floor and deals with society in a realistic manner, and
  3. The Id, where all base instincts (Sex, PEZ® and Rock and Roll) live in the basement of your brain.

I listened to a lot of rock that was id driven.  And why not, I was working on a multi-decade winning streak.  Sad songs were for people who occasionally lost stuff.  But Tom Petty’s music was deeper.  It spoke to the conflict between the Super Ego and Ego, an intellectual and emotional conflict I really didn’t have.  I was riding high on year after year of success, slaying dragons and charging the castle.  Why would I question anything?  Party on, dudes!!

It wasn’t that Tom and I didn’t get along – he was no Bruce Springsteen or Johnny Depp, who are both dead to me.  They know why.

Really, it took life kicking me in the teeth more than once to move me from the normal reckless abandon that I attacked life with to a person who asks the kinds of questions that Tom Petty discusses in his songs.  I still recall having a conversation with The Mrs. when I began to realize that I liked Tom Petty:

Me:  “You know, the older I get, the more I understand Tom Petty.”

The Mrs., shaking her head, raising her voice a little:  “Can’t hear you . . . blow dryer on.”

But now Mr. Petty is speaking to me again – he died.

It’s not unusual for rock stars to die young – it’s like we pick an unstable, talented personality and then shove massive amounts of cash at them.  I’m just surprised that 90% of them aren’t dead by 30.  Just my luck that after the apocalypse the Twinkie®, the cockroach, and Johnny Depp will still be around.

But Tom Petty won’t be around, even though The Postman (movie) promised me that he would be.  His death hit me (oddly) harder than I’d anticipated.  He hadn’t been my life’s soundtrack, though I’d clearly been listening to him more recently.

He made it to 66.  According to the CDC, 83% of white non-Hispanics will make it to 67.  Only 1% of 66 year olds die.  If you make it to 66, your mean life expectancy is to make it to 86.  So, from this data, he died early.  But he didn’t look out of shape.  Far from it – he’d just finished a part of a concert tour comprised of 50 dates in five months, which can take a toll on 26 year olds, though I presume at 26 it’s the Jack Daniels® and late nights and not the (presumed) warm tea, oatmeal cookies and obligatory cellophane wrapped butterscotch hard candies that old people like that filled the Heartbreaker’s dressing room.

Though Mr. Petty was quite a bit older than me, I guess his death hit me like it did, because even at 66 it seemed he should be too young to die, just as his voice entered my soundtrack with a greater frequency and volume.  It makes me feel that much more mortal, and therefore more committed to getting into the best shape possible now so I can be in the 50% that make it to 82 years.

Tom Petty inspired millions in many ways – through emotional ups and downs.  He inspired artists everywhere that they could pick up a guitar and play and that their music would, like his, give them a slice of immortality.  And guys like me who want to keep runnin’ down our dreams.  I think this is the part where I get the dragon, right?

Thanks, Tom.

A Short Guide to Transhumanism and The Future of Society

“So it says here that you’re proficient in C++, code assembly for multiple processor architectures, and . . . that you are a cyborg?” – Silicon Valley

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What a Transhuman might see?  Or way too many filters?

Friday’s discussion of Ray Kurzweil’s (LINK) work on immortality was just part of a bigger picture:  it is one of the foundational principles of Transhumanism.  One definition of Transhumanism is the use of biology, information technology, nanotechnology, and cognitive enhancements to consciously and dramatically evolve humanity in a short period of time.  I know, I know, it sounds like a villain’s plot out of James Bond, but there are a dedicated group of people who are working to bring this about right now.

Transhumanists even have a magazine (LINK) called H+.  H+, for humanity plus, is also the abbreviation that is used by some for the movement to indicate Transhumanity.  And they’re working on achieving H+ now.  One of the more recent articles was referencing a study showing that planarian worms keep their memory after being frozen – something that might be important if you are researching how to bring yourself back after being frozen, like Kurzweil plans for after he dies, if he’s not immortal by then.

We talked about biology on Friday, and getting people to live forever (or a really long time) is part of the movement.  But it’s not just living longer, it’s also increasing life quality.  Inevitably, the idea of uploading a human consciousness (maybe after getting thawed out?) into a machine comes up, since human life is frail and we could build a robot body that’s tougher than a refrigerator, and faster than one of those shaky little Chihuahua dogs.  Having a cool steel body would allow you to be either a Prius® or a Corvette©, depending on if you liked the metric system or not.

But if you had your brain already uploaded into a machine, why bother at all with an actual body?

That’s a second possibility – just upload your consciousness and live in a hard drive.  Some folks, like me and Elon Musk consider it more than a little likely that we live inside a simulation right now.  My first post to discuss this idea was here (LINK) where it becomes the explanation for why we haven’t been contacted by aliens.  We’re either living in a simulation or we’re non-player characters in a very detailed video game.  At least you might be a non-player character, I know I’m real (not as sure about you).  Maybe it’s a multiplayer game?

The other frontier of study that is impacting Transhumanism is nanotechnology.  For about a year, everything was “nano” in every magazine, every news story.  It think that’s been replaced (for now) with “sustainable.”  But, outside of a cool techno band name, what does nano mean?  Roughly it speaks to structures between 0.000000001 meters and 0.0000001 meters in size.

“Nano” had its start when Dr. Richard Feynman put together a lecture that was titled, “There’s Plenty of Room at The Bottom.”  You can find it here (LINK).  In it, Feynman sets the stage for manipulation and eventual mechanization of really, really small machines.  In it he referenced biology as a template – we know that these small machines can exist at that scale, because cells exist and are functional at that scale.

Another place that H+ folks are working on is cognitive improvement – concepts on how to better improve the functioning of the human brain and make us smarter, either biologically, chemically, or through fusion with technology.  And not smart like “vodka Saturday night,” but really smart.  Chemical enhancement has gotten a majority of the attention when discussing the subject, but I would suggest that Google® has already provided a significant cognitive enhancement.  I recall having conversation in 1998 when The Mrs. and I were having an argument about something so important I don’t even recall the subject now.  My friend Matt looked at us and said, “Why are you arguing about a fact.  Look it up.”  After booting up the computer and connecting to the internet via a modem, one Hotbot.com search later, and we had a factual answer (this was before Google™ took the world by storm).  We haven’t had an argument over a searchable fact in years.

I argue that the most significant cognitive enhancement in human history so far has already occurred.  The Internet provides a massive amount of factual knowledge and computing power.  This power makes us all smarter, and gives as a much more of information far faster than at any point in history.

By nature, this vast variety of views makes us drift further apart as a nation.  When I was a kid, there were three networks, plus PBS.  Everybody in the seventh grade talked about the same show – we were all watching it – after all, Fonzie.  Cable existed, but it was mainly a way to get The Three Stooges©.  Now, it’s very rare to go in to work and be able to talk about a television show – I’ve got 200 channels, and I’m certain that nobody I work with is watching Escape from New York right now.  Given DVRs and on-demand, people might not even watch the same show in the same year as you.

On Friday I said that I thought that, even though the several aspects of immortality seemed to be pretty far off from a technical standpoint, I thought that there might be a way that some of the more crazy-sounding things might happen sooner than we’d think.

And there is – it’s called increasing returns.  Outside of standard medical science, which I think we can all agree is pretty stunted (LINK), there is a massive increase in technical knowledge going on.  If I can use an analogy – if you’ve ever done a really big jigsaw puzzle, it’s very slow to start with.  All the pieces fit with other pieces, but there are so many other pieces it’s difficult to find the connections.  But once a few connections start to go in, the picture starts to make more sense.  Eventually, as there are only a few pieces of puzzle left, they go very quickly.

And it’s been that way with technology throughout history.  Our knowledge as a species keeps growing over time – more links are made, and finally we solve one puzzle quickly.  We do run into physical and thermodynamic limits, like the total amount of energy one can get from a gallon of gasoline, or the amount of flavor that can be packed into a piece of Juicy Fruit®.

As we have more smart people on the planet now than ever before in history that can now pull information from the entire history of the world working on information system problems, we end up with far more than Uber – we’re near to having AI systems that that will be able to replicate most of the things that most thinking people do at work.  From truck drivers to managers to accountants.  A few key decision makers and people who do actual physical work that robots can’t do will be all that’s necessary to run a major corporation.  One corporation I was working at around 1999 got rid of hundreds of accountants – floors of a skyscraper were empty – not because business was bad, but because those people had all been replaced with accounting software, and purchasing software.

And this will increase with time, too.

The big idea of Transhumanism isn’t that we replace a bunch of accountants and purchasing managers – the big idea of Transhumanism is that we replace humanity with newly evolved Transhumans.  And there’s no fixed version of what the final, evolved version of us will be like.  It almost certainly will not look like us.  Beyond that, I’m not even sure what the viewpoint would be of 200+ IQ immortal cyborgs – what projects would they work on – how would they vote?  Would we even be able to communicate with them?  The final form of Transhumanity might be one where they instantly communicate, one to another.  They might look much more like Borg® than Boy Scouts.

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Bought a t-shirt with this on it for The Mrs. – she still wears it.  No one wants to be late for the Singularity!  (H+ Magazine)

Greg Bear wrote a great story (that he eventually turned into a novel) about combining intelligence plus cells using nanotech – the original short story can be found here (LINK).  The story describes increasing returns in a pretty unusual and chilling way.

We can’t know what the final form of Transhumanity will look like.  There is a mathematical definition that describes when mathematics and logic break down – like one divided by zero, or a black hole where gravity overpowers all other forces.  We call this a Singularity – and it’s clear that we cannot imagine what an all-powerful humanity would look like.  I just hope that they don’t get me in the freezer too late during the Singularity – I would hate to still be in the microwave when the Singularity hits.  That’s just bad form.

Who Wants to Live Forever? Ray Kurzweil, for one.

“No one lives forever.  No one.  But with advances in modern science and my high level of income, it’s not crazy to think I can live to be 245, maybe 300.  Heck, I just read in the newspaper that they put a pig heart in some guy from Russia.  Do you know what that means?” – Talladega Nights, the Ballad of Ricky Bobby

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This might be my best shot at living forever (that’s Pugsley and The Boy) – the apple isn’t too far from the tree.  And the tree has roots.  And those roots are me, and I need nourishment.  As in a glass of wine.  Hmmm, I’ll stop this metaphor right here.  And, yes, Alia S. MacWilder, and Zelda Wilder, you count, too.  I’ll be looking to all of you when I need organ transplants so I can live forever.

The past week had two posts about the debt:  (LINK) and (LINK).  The reason that I put those on Wednesday was that’s the day that we post about Wealth and finance related stuff.  Those posts were intended to work with this post and Monday’s post, since all of them serve to illustrate the aspects of the future that’s arriving quickly and will absolutely impact you, perhaps in most everything you do, and sooner than you might think.  You were expecting flying cars, but the future is much, much stranger than that.  Pig hearts!  Do you know what that means?

I think that one of the things that differentiates humans from animals is that from an early age we know we are going to die.  This shadow looms over us our entire lives, and there are constant reminders of mortality around us, from the seasonal shedding of the trees, to the passing of loved relatives – reminding us that we too are mortal.

And, in one sense, this mortality might be one of the greatest gifts to mankind:  it changes out the old for the new.  Imagine where our current and past politicians are the best we’re ever gonna see.  Regardless of where you sit politically, I know you barfed just a little in your mouth when you read that.  Death forces us to innovate, and to try to create a legacy that’s a capstone to our lives, because we all know that we only have so many days and, like a mayfly, we must do our work quickly lest it forever remain undone.  In the end, our lives are made up only of that precious, limited time.

But Ray Kurzweil wants to change all of that.  One of his obsessions (there appear to be many:  inventor, author, programmer, Sith Lord, PEZ® dispenser collector) is figuring out a way to extend human life.  And by “extend” he means “live longer,” but he’s attempting to change “live longer” to “live forever.”  As he’s about 70 right now, he has a vested interest in working as fast as he can to get progress . . . right now.

Right now one thing he is attempting to do is reprogram his biochemistry.  Kurzweil is attempting to do this by taking supplements.  Sure, like a multivitamin or two?  No.  At one point he was up to 200 pills a day.  Rumor is that he’s now down to under 150 supplements a day (LINK).  At that level of supplementation, do you even need to eat anymore??

I think I had the green pattern shirt that the goatee guy is wearing when I was in kindergarten.  It was a hand me down (back in the before-time, we wore crap our brother who was seven years older than us wore seven years before, because that shirt wasn’t worn out).

One of Kurzweil’s obsessions appears to be his company (LINK) (note:  I get NO compensation for any link on my site as of this writing, but Ray certainly does from his site) that sells his vitamins and his book.  And I have no problem with the man making a few bucks, and Ray seems to be committed to his lifestyle, so, be an informed consumer if you decide you want to buy some of his stuff, though I will warn you that his anti-aging multi-pack will set you back about $90 a month.  Which is not bad if it works.  I just ordered like $80 worth of stuff.  I’ll let you know what I think after I try it out.  Ray, if you’re reading this, take the $20 you just earned and buy yourself something pretty.

Going back to the list of supplements Kurzweil takes, one of them caught my eye:  metformin.  Metformin is a diabetes drug that appears to be gaining ground as a . . . wonder drug, but by accident.  The diabetics that take it get cancer only 40% of the time as their diabetic counterparts that don’t take it.  Additionally, they seem to stay well longer . . . they’re not as sick as the people not taking metformin.  They die of the same stuff (proportionately) but when they get cancer or heart disease, they’re older.

But, metformin only costs a nickel a pill since it comes from some French weed or something, but you have to have a prescription to get it.  There are a few dedicated doctors working to document the longevity benefits of metformin, but the FDA doesn’t consider aging a disease that you can cure with a pill . . . even though this one appears to have some pretty substantial positive effects.  My cynical mind says that this therapy faces headwinds – it’s cheap, it reduces very lucrative medical conditions (how much does chemotherapy cost???), medical research is not very good (LINK) and there’s nearly zero profit in bringing this off-patent drug to market.

But the promise of metformin is just one example of the breakthroughs that Kurzweil is anticipating.

His theory is that, right now, longevity treatments/knowledge/medicine are adding about a year of life for every year that goes by.  His goal is simple, live long enough to live forever.  And there has been interest in treatments like blood transfusions from young donors (I wrote about that here (LINK)) and a host of tech billionaires, like Peter Theil, are now treating longevity as a personal mission for their investments.  And to me that makes sense – if you’ve got billions of dollars that you made from making the world (and yourself!) wealthier, what better legacy to leave the world than longer life?  If you’re Mark Cuban, I’m not sure if you can spell any of that, but, hey, maybe his kids will invest well.  I’m hoping they can read better than him.

Kurzweil also has a contract to have his head frozen (or his body, my Magic 8-Ball® is unclear) after he dies.  No, not for fun, even though I hear that’s all the rage in Canada.  The theory is that, should they get to you fast enough and freeze you completely enough (and manage to minimize cell damage) that you’re still somehow in there.  Kurzweil was fairly optimistic in an interview about 20 years ago that we’d be able to bring back people from Popsicle™ Land© in 40 or 50 years, if they can peel the foil off and deal with the freezer burn.  And remember to pull the foil completely off the apple-cherry dessert thing.

If you translate that timeline to today, that would be only 20 or 30 years into the future, which seems optimistic to me, but just might be on time for reasons that we’ll go into on Monday (promise).

Why does Kurzweil want to go to all of this effort?  He preaches not only the gospel of living a long time, he wants to combine life extension with life enhancement.  Not only will your life be longer, it will be better.  I think this mainly involves being healthier, but one personal fear of mine is living on because I’m just too afraid to die.  To me, a life should be worthy of living.  If you’re not doing that?  You’re dead already, and no amount of Bookface© or Grand Piano Theft VII® will make up for it – you’re living a programmed life.  If it involves meaning, helping others grow, and killing alien invaders, dying gallantly like Randy Quaid in Independence Day® as we secure our victory against them?  Count me totes in.

But on the other hand?  Living because you’re afraid to die?  One case that I saw was someone who lived on for years merely because they were afraid of death – they liked pizza but wouldn’t eat it.  They like bourbon but wouldn’t drink it.  They like smoking but wouldn’t smoke.  It wasn’t pleasant to watch.  Me?  I’ll quote an earlier post (where I ripped off someone else’s line – it might be Stephen Wright):  I don’t ask for much – I just want to go out of this life like I came into it – screaming and covered in someone else’s blood.

And where does all of this end?  With, ultimately, uploading your mind, your consciousness into a machine.

Would that be you?  Would you still have feelings if your body was made of metal, your circuits gleamed?  Would a rose still look like a rose through tearless retina that could store exact HD memories forever?  Will Judas Priest sue me for paraphrasing “Electric Eye”?

True story:  I emailed Wozniak (who funded the US Festival, which is the featured concert venue above) and told him we needed to do it again, since I was too young to go.  As I understand it, the US Festival lost money.  I’ll give Woz credit, his folks responded:  “Ummm, thanks.  We’ll get back to you on that.  If we don’t, please understand that we did hear you, but just found your idea profoundly stupid.”  Actually they were polite.  But my idea was stupid.  Unless Woz really wants to do it again . . . .

I can’t really answer if machine you would even be you.  All the episodes of Star Trek® I watched when I was a kid would say, “No.”  Roger Korby created a machine to house his consciousness, but he wasn’t Roger Korby anymore.  Ray Kurzweil . . . is it a coincidence your initials are the same as Roger Korby?

Man, Shatner could tear up the screen.  And Korby’s hand.

There’s a lot more coming on Monday.  Stay tuned!!