Thursday, August 2, 2012

When Smart Becomes Dumb

I enjoy the Syfy show, "Eureka."

Not-quite-random aside: remember when the channel's name was "Sci-Fi?"  They're leaning away from the name so they can run stuff that isn't SF.  Too bad.  SF shows work hard to get their story across, and generally they're pretty smart fare.  But moving on!

"Eureka" is set in a fictional town, called Eureka (no state specified, but you get the feeling they're implying that it's in Oregon), that is entirely a government think tank and skunk works.  Filled chockablock with geniuses and gee-whiz scientific gimcrackery, it's a special effects and visual effects director's dream/nightmare.  Things fly or hover that shouldn't, cars drive themselves (or at least comment on your driving), the sheriff's gun shoots plasma bolts, et cetera.

Actually, the sheriff's gun doesn't shoot plasma bolts.  The deputy's gun does.

The sheriff is Jack Carter (please note the tip o' the cap to Burroughs' famous character John Carter), an otherwise ordinary guy who, through a few happy accidents, becomes the head lawman in this unusual town.  One of the defining characteristics of Jack Carter is that in Eureka, he's not just average.  In the regular world where his 111 IQ would be merely average, he is in fact at the very bottom of Eureka's barrel.  His own daughter's 157 IQ places her squarely in the middle of the pack among Eureka's brainy populace.

You would think that, lacking as much mental horsepower as the rest of the folks, Jack would be sorely outgunned at just about everything that goes on in Eureka.  This being a fictional TV show of course, that isn't the case, but it brings to light many truths in the real world, too.

Very often in the show Jack is faced with a stupefying array of jargon and concepts that go way beyond his experience, and which stress his ability to even understand the problem at hand.  But you don't get to be a US Marshal, and then recommended to be a sheriff for such a place as highly advanced as Eureka, by being stupid.  He has an innate ability to cut directly to the underlying foundations of the problems at hand.  The technologies and concepts are actually secondary - address the problem itself, using whatever technology and concept necessary while disregarding the complexities of those elements themselves, and the problem is fixed.  It's a highly pragmatic, very effective approach to problem solving.  I think any cop in the world could see the basic truth of this, and it stands to reason that, as a cop, Jack does exactly that.

I was watching video earlier today of the crewmen aboard the ISS entering the Spacex Dragon capsule once it had been mated to the Station.  Flight Engineer Pettit can be seen, in the video, clicking a pen and writing (he's a lefty) on a pad, and it reminded me of the old "Space Pens."

Note: as a lefty, Space Pens are my kryptonite.  The ink rubs right off the paper, directly onto my hand as it drags along the page behind the pen.  This was a much greater problem with the so-called "erasable pens," and it's a truism of pens and indeed pencils in any case with lefties, but as a direct result of my handedness I never consider Space Pens to be much of a muchness.

The legend that NASA spent a huge sum of money to develop a pen for use in space is false.  It was independently developed and the inventor invited NASA to try it out.  They tried it, and used several.

Where does Eureka and Jack Carter's practicality come into this?  Another show - I forget which - portrayed a disgusted Russian engineer pooh-poohing the Space Pen.  "You spend meeelions of American dollars inventing fancy pen.  We fly with pencil.  Ten cents!"

NASA stuck with the pen - and Russia adopted it too - because of the assorted and demonstrable dangers associated with wood shavings aloft in a pure oxygen atmosphere aboard the spacecraft, dust and graphite bits from broken leads getting into electronics and machinery (not to mention lungs).  The pen is actually a much better solution in a free fall environment.  But on the face of it, if there weren't a free fall environment, the pencil would be even better.

What other places is there such a thing as being too smart?  I recently watched a video of a 12-year-old Canadian girl holding the banking industry to task for running her country's debt into the billions of dollars for no demonstrable purpose other than to generate profits.  She appears to be right, and her solution is not only simple but doable.  Regardless of how old the kid is, when she lays it all out it's so simple it appears to be a crime, how the country's debt is handled.  If she can figure it out, why couldn't somebody else, somebody ostensibly smarter, more experienced, better informed?

It would appear that they're too smart.  This also starts to get into the neighborhood of "sacred cows," elements that have been in place for so long that nobody knows exactly why they're there, but they're treated as if they cannot be altered for any reason.

This is like when we were stuck with a disabled car on vacation.  We rented a car to get around while we waited for our van to be repaired, but dismayed at how much time we were losing.  Finally Son #2 said, "I wish we could just keep the rental, and keep going."  Wish, indeed.  We proceeded on our vacation with the rental car, having lost only a day.  We got it back by paring off a long sightseeing leg of the trip.

How much of our economy's inflation is generated by activity that doesn't really have to be there?  What are, exactly, commodities futures?  When an investor buys commodities futures, he does so knowing that he has no use for the commodities themselves.  He's purchasing their value, gambling on the possibility of being able to sell them at a profit.  He does this by buying them now at a low price and hoping to sell them at a high price in the future, or he does it by guaranteeing to buy in the future while paying now, hoping that their value in the future will have increased against his original purchase price.  Some of it is valid, like farmers buying insurance against their own harvests...but some is just capitalists gambling on the market, trying to make money out of thin air.

How productive is that?  Not a bit.  All it is, is shuffling numbers back and forth.  I fail to see how commodities futures does anything useful for the economy, except drive up prices.  Driving up prices doesn't necessarily drive up value, it only means that somebody has somehow managed to make the pie bigger so he can cut an extra slice out for himself...and we, the actual consumers, have to pay for this new, bigger pie that doesn't have any extra food in it.  Eliminate artificial pie inflation and you eliminate a portion of inflation in general.

Is inflation necessary for a healthy economy?  I don't think so.  But I'm not that good at economics so I don't have many bullets in my gun where that's concerned.  But I think the world's producer economy is rapidly approaching a cliff.  There are only so many material goods you can have before you have enough and don't want any more.  I have enough cars, enough houses, enough refrigerators and MP3 players.  I buy food and that's about all.  Other things I buy tend to be used or old - which is to say, they're already made and the only way they add to the economic machine is that I pay the person who found it for selling it to me.  No wages, no taxes, no production.

We're looking for new ways to house the world's burgeoning population, new ways to power their many many cars and homes and feed their teeming masses.  The new ways are brilliant, just staggering concepts vividly imagined and carefully considered.  It's the work of geniuses.

Wouldn't it be better to stop having so many babies?  Then we don't need gigantic cities that can house 20 million people in a space no larger than Manhattan.  We don't have to come up with ways to feed a world population of 12 billion people.

I know it sounds kind of a simplistic answer.  That doesn't mean it isn't a smart answer.  It cuts to the foundation of the problem at hand.  It doesn't gamble.

More on this later.

No comments:

Post a Comment