Finding the Right VR Platform, Part 2

In this post, I will update the assignment given in the previous post, with the new questions after evaluating AR technology and what comes next in VR.

How would Augmented Reality better help teach your experience?

AR would allow students to learn about the physics without needing a solar system. They could throw something and the headset could project a line tracing the object’s arc. It could also display airtime, how much force the student used throwing the object, and let the student see how changes affect the arc. Throwing things is fun, especially if you have a HUD giving you technical data like in a big budget science fiction movie. That’ll get them interested in physics.

How could eye tracking help you better tailor your experience to your students?

It should reduce eye fatigue, at the very least making it a more comfortable experience.

How would better Haptics better teach your experience?

If you could have different kind of textures and feels for objects made of different materials (rock, ice, gas, plasma), you could explain relative densities and more advanced solar system topics.

How important is graphical fidelity to your experience?

Better graphics will always make the experience more enjoyable (at least, up until the uncanny valley effect comes into play). However, there’s definitely a point beyond which increases in fidelity will generate little functional return for this type of program. Indeed, that point is probably where the Vive is right now (or perhaps over the next year or two, at most.)

How critical is it that your target student receives this training within the next two years?

For the student in the persona, Harvey, it might be somewhat critical as he is growing bored with his studies and needs something to keep him engaged. However, both for that persona specifically and for students in general, I don’t think it’s very critical that they get this kind of training in the next two years. If they go into space travel, whether joining NASA or SpaceX, these would be important topics to understand, but not having this VR app would not be crippling.


Finding the Right Platform Thought Experiment

In this thought experiment, to help find the right platform for me to study, I’m going to evaluate various options in the context of an educational VR app. The purpose of the app will be to help high school students learn about physics, orbital mechanics, and the solar system. It would allow students to modify orbits, planetary properties, and send missions from Earth to Mars and elsewhere.

I’ve already pretty much set my mind on taking the Unity Immersion course and working on the Vive, because I have one and because I really want to build deeply immersive worlds, not so much mobile type apps. However, it would be shortsighted to not explore other platforms, so I look forward to having my preconceptions challenged.


Age: 16
Occupation: Student
Name: Harvey Pruitt
Quote: “School is so boring, you just sit and listen to people talk for hours, but don’t actually do anything.”
VR Experience Level: Intermediate
Motivation: Harvey is a smart student, but is bored just listening to lectures. He wants to build and make things — to do something other than just sit there.


Price of platforms:

How accessible would each VR platform be to your target student in terms of price? Take into account location, age, and income.

  • Cardboard: Cost $400-600 for the phone, + $15 for headset if not DIY
  • Daydream: Cost $400-600 for the phone, $80 for headset (possibly much less if a standalone headset comes out soon)
  • Oculus VR: $500 for headset; probably need a computer around $300-400
  • Vive: $600 for headset; probably need $600 in the PC

Cardboard & Daydream would be the most accessible, as most people already have a smartphone; even if a parent would not let their kid have a smartphone, they will likely own one themselves and if it’s for educational purposes would gladly let their child use their phone. When the standalone Daydream headsets come out, parents might buy one for their children. Schools would be more likely to invest in multiple Daydream headsets as opposed to the Oculus and Vive, since they will be cheaper, lack cables, and not require complicated setup and teardown procedures, making them more versatile.

Oculus and Vive would be more expensive, and likely would only be owned by middle-class families. This could mean that lower income families and those that live in inner cities might not be able to take advantage. Schools might buy the headsets, but at those prices, they’re not going to buy a terrible number of them, limiting how many can use it at one time.


How interactive does your lesson need to be? For example, do I need to pick things up or could I get away with just looking at objects?

To understand how orbital mechanics work, you’re going to need to be able to move objects and see how their paths change. You might also want to edit the properties of planets and moons, such as their density and mass, to see how that affects gravity. Being able to make denser, more massive objects “feel” heavy to the student can drive the point home. This would likely require some sort of controller, at a minimum the Daydream one, which can simulate this (as per the Daydream Elements demo.) A Cardboard headset would probably be unable to simulate it.

However, one could do an app where the student just uses the sight reticle and work with a menu. Though cumbersome and probably annoying, it is stil possible.


How realistic do your visuals need to be in order to teach? For example, could I use 2D images and videos in a 3D Environment or do you need high poly 3D models.

The graphics would not have to be too advanced for this sort of app. High resolution textures for planets, moon, and the Sun would be preferable, but as the student would likely be positioned in the virtual solar system as a colossal godlike being, that would make up for having less-than-cutting-edge graphics and particle effects. In fact, if you’re doing pure physics, you can even leave out solar system entirely, and make a completely made up one using low poly models.

Active vs Passive:

Does my student need to feel like a participant in the experience or can they be a passive viewer? Could they be both?

The student should be as active as possible in the app. Although observation will be required at times, to try and learn how things work, the student should be able to quickly modify and play around with the settings as soon as possible. The entire point is to get the student more involved, less bored, and doing something rather than just sitting there.


Given the answers above, what are potential platforms you could use for your experience?

Based on the above considerations, potential platforms would be the Daydream, Oculus, and Vive. Both the Oculus and Vive would be able to process the app ably. Daydream would also be able to do so, and while it would have less capabilities, it should still be able to handle it fine. Cardboard would be too annoying for the student to use, not having a separate controller and being too limited.

I’m still focused on building for the Vive, but I was unaware of the capabilities of the Daydream system. The standalone headsets that are coming surprised me; they could do quite a lot for building VR worlds. I would like to explore Daydream in the future, as it looks like an affordable yet capable alternative to the Vive, thus having a much larger potential audience for applications. However, as I do not have a true Daydream capable device, I will stick to taking the Unity Immersion course and working with my Vive.

Project Summary: Puzzler

  1. Introduction

  2. Outcomes

  3. Process History

  4. User Testing and Iteration

  5. Breakdown of Final Product

  6. Conclusion

I.) Introduction

Project Puzzler is both a game and an educational opportunity. Built as a class project in the Udacity VR Nanodegree Program, Puzzler’s creation was a framework towards learning the fundamentals of VR design. It is also, as the name indicates, a VR puzzle game that introduces people to the new experience that is VR. Using feedback, it guides users in understanding how VR interfaces work, and what to do when you don’t have a controller in front of you.

(Audio may be out of sync in the video.)

II.) OUtcomes

Puzzler is built for the Android OS and Google VR experience. You can download and try the .apk with this link. The experience is deliberately not too complex, consisting of a room with the puzzle, an entry corridor, an exit corridor, some light ambient sound, and a few scenery pieces. Too much would overload the user, but having too little would create a bland, uninteresting experience that would turn people off of VR in general.

The puzzle itself is a “Simon Says” type, where the player must follow the pattern of the flashing orbs in order to proceed. The orbs are arranged in a five point array that takes advantage of the 3D space, spreading out over the X, Y, and Z axes. Simple tones and textures provide feedback to the user, making it easy to follow the pattern without using too many complicated assets that could be distracting.

III.) Process history

The first step in creating Puzzler was writing a mission statement, to lay out a goal and an early stab at the scope of this project. The mission statement is:

Puzzler is a mobile VR application for new VR users which challenges them to solve a familiar type of puzzle in a new way.

Using that as my basis for the project, I then proceeded to write up a persona of a possible user. Who would want to play this game? It would likely not be someone familiar with VR, as they would want something far more in-depth, so this would be oriented towards someone who lacked VR experience. I figured that the most likely user is someone who wants an easy introduction to VR, but it fascinated by its possibilities and wants to dip his or her toe in it. As such, I created the following persona:

Veronica, 24

Online Marketing Manager

“There’s always a way to reach someone, sometimes it just takes awhile to find it.”

Veronica specializes in online marketing, a field that is constantly changing and adapting. Many days are exhausting with seemingly no progress made, but Veronica keeps at it. She needs something to take her mind off of work, but at the same time she’s always looking for inspiration in new ways of outreach. VR could kill two birds with one stone – exactly what she needs.

VR Experience: None

Then, I moved forward with sketching out a basic picture of what I wanted the environment to look like. Although the class used a fantasy environment, I wanted to develop a sci-fi look instead, both to challenge myself as a designer and to explore other aesthetic possibilities.

Initial sketch for an orbiting satellite environment, which I later rejected.

After drawing the sketch, however, I realized that this posed a problem. Originally, I wanted it to be a station in space, with the idea being that interconnected modules would each hold an individual puzzle (in some far future iteration of this project.) I thought that space would be an ideal environment for a VR experience, as very few have been in space. However, examining what resources I had on me, I realized that creating such an environment that would meet my own standards and the user’s would be infeasible. It would take too much time and effort to develop my own models for the station, as I’m not a modeler myself. At this point, I decided to switch gears and rely on a free “starter kit” from the Unity Asset Store to build an indoor scifi environment.

An example of the corner prefab I made to speed up development.

The next step was building the environment itself. I started by focusing on the room, getting everything level and making sure all the polygons lined up. I created prefabs for the corner pieces and the ends of the hallways, as they were the most problematic. I also turned off the default directional light, being unsure if that would work for an indoor scene. I added in some ceiling lights to compensate. Then I put in the data orbs, that were the core of the puzzle experience. Initially I went with nine, as I liked the diamond aesthetics. I also wrote a small script to make them rotate, instead of just being still.

Yes, I like baseball, how did you know?

With the environment created, I made a build of just the scene, with the camera in the middle of the room, to use as a testing tool. Due to time constraints and miscommunication, I was unable to get user testing initially, so I kept the build and brought into work later.

I moved on to implementing the mechanics. First I sketched out some designs for the UI, which I decided would be very simple.







I then created the UI in the environment itself. Placing the UI panels side by side, I created a build of this for further testing. I initially had some trouble as I had misplaced my Udacity Cardboard viewer, and was using another viewer I had purchased previously, which lacked a button. Since I (based on my own experiences) expected the button trigger to be a time based gaze, I was puzzled, until I realized it required an actual click and found the original Cardboard viewer.

Moving on from that, I imported the movement code and tested it. I had already chosen a rails-type system for my design, as there were only three points to move to. The default speed seemed fine, though I was a bit worried that it might be because I already had VR experience. Fortunately, user testing (in the next section) dispelled my doubts.

With the movement in place, I then imported audio assets. I purchased a sound effects library from that had great scifi tones, and put them into the environment. To make the room less bland, I also put in a holographic monitor model, and attached the ambient noise to that to give the user a sense of place. Now that the audio assets were there, I put in the puzzle mechanics, and wired in feedback. At this point, I also realized that nine orbs was probably too much. So I dialed it back to five. I had also seen, while perusing the forums for the answer to a bug, that another student had arranged the orbs so as to approach the player. I thought that was genius, as it fully utilized the 3D space that VR offers. I didn’t go as far as the other student did, and I also took greater advantage of the Y-axis.

This layout worked better in the final version than the diamonds.

With the audio finally in place, the project was complete. The only thing left were to add some more set pieces, namely adding crates and another console to the corners. I really enjoyed making the crates; they reminded me of playing sci-fi adventure games as a child, and where I always wondered: just what the hell are in those crates?

iv.) user testing and iteration

User testing did not proceed as ideally as I wanted it to, due to some miscommunication between my testers and I. However, I was able to do user testing at my office. I used the separate builds to focus my testers on each of the elements of the app: environment, UI, motion, and finally the audio and completed game.

Jason takes his first steps into a larger world.

Having my coworker Jason use the app on my phone, I asked him questions about the various elements of the app. He noted that the height felt exactly as he was in real life (then, perhaps, maybe just a tad shorter). He described the environment as clean, clinical, even industrial. He also said it was like “on Star Trek,” which matched up with other testers who said it was “like a room on a Mass Effect ship.” Since that is pure scifi, it was the right atmosphere I wanted to engender.

The movement test was the best. Asking my tester how he felt with the motion, he said it was perfectly fine, and then added:

I could be drunk and this would be perfectly okay.

One of the problems that appeared in user testing was that the orbs were difficult to place in the scene, depth-wise. They also were quite close to the camera, so I moved the point for the camera to play the puzzle back a bit, and also went from the 9 orb diamond to the 5 orb arc.

Interestingly, height was never a real problem. Although Jason and I are both over 6′, I also gave the game to a coworker who is about 5’0″, and she thought it was fine as well (except for the UI, which had to be tweaked just a little.)

Finally, testers thought it was just a smidgen too dark, so in the final version, I reactivated the directional light to make it just a tad brighter.

Puzzler without the directional light game object.
Puzzler using the directional light game object.

Further testing also indicated that I had to be much more explicit in my instructions. I had said “follow the orbs with your eyes,” naively assuming people would understand to click. I rewrote those instructions to be more clear.

v.) breakdown of final product

Puzzler is simple. The player begins in a hallway, with a panel in front of them introducing them to the project and warning them that motion is involved. The player clicks on the Start button, and they are moved forward into the room. The orbs begin to light up in sequence, emitting a small tone as they do so. The same tone plays as the player hovers over and clicks on the orbs. If the player fails, a warning sound emits and the sequence begins again. If the player succeeds, they are sent forward into the next corridor, where they are greeted by another panel that asks if they want to play it again.

vi. conclusion

In developing Puzzler, I learned a great deal about VR design and programming. Looking at both the Udacity and the Google VR code has shown me how to think about solving problems in VR space. Iterating through user testing highlighted blind spots in my thinking and made my work better as a result. As a bonus, my friends and coworkers who used the Puzzler app were impressed and amazed at what I had created.

Next Steps

If I were to continue developing Puzzler, it would grow to more rooms with more puzzles, each one highlighting a new way of thinking in VR. I would likely switch to a raycast form of travel, giving the user more choice so they could utilize the space more effectively. It would also have a greater variety of environments to be more visually appealing, which would necessitate either purchasing more model sets on the Unity Asset Store, partnering (or outright hiring) someone to develop them for me, or trying to do so myself.

Star Wars 7 Is An Amazing Movie. There, I Said It.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is an amazing movie.

There, I said it.

Most publications agree with me, but several of my friends on social media and elsewhere disagree. Many have called The Force Awakens “recycled”, “too derivative”, having “zero creative ambition”, and basically being terrible, largely because they think it cribs too much from A New Hope and that it’s uninspiring. Many don’t like the characters. Many think the plot is stale. And at least one has actually said that it’s worse than the prequels.

This is all utterly bunk.

I am not going to say that The Force Awakens is some marvelous exemplar of serious cinematic quality and technique. Well, actually, it kinda is, but just not like a serious, Cannes Festival, critic type quality. That’s because Star Wars itself, while imaginative and creative, speaking to our inner children, it’s still a schlocky comic book story. Yes, it relies on deep mythological themes, but just how deep is Star Wars, really?

In other words, people have seriously missed the point about this movie, and perhaps, the series in general.

I’ve now seen The Force Awakens three times (all in 3D, I might add, and twice at the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum, which has a six story tall IMAX 3D screen powered by laser beams and radness.) Now that’s it been out for two weeks, I think it’s okay to mention spoilers, so there will be some in here. To be courteous to those who haven’t seen it, I’m going to use a snippet cut here, but beyond there, spoilers abound. Tread carefully.
Continue reading Star Wars 7 Is An Amazing Movie. There, I Said It.

A Compromise in the Ad Wars

Begun, the Ad Wars have.

Long have web users been frustrated with advertisements on the web. They’re intrusive, both on the screen and in your data; annoying; obnoxiously loud; and frequently don’t offer anything we’re interested in. (And when they do, we find the tracking pretty damn creepy.) The annoyance has gone so far that Apple has baked in ad-blocking into the new version of Safari for iOS, which has sent everyone in the advertising and web content businesses into a panic. For instance:

The article linked in the tweet is a good one by Nilay Patel of The Verge, where he explains why ads are important to web producers (as well as how this is really just another salvo in the endless Apple vs. Google match.) There’s also this article in Advertising Age which displays a stunning amount of ignorance from advertisers, though I suppose it isn’t that stunning when this is literally how they put food on the table.

In short, we need to keep the ads there in order to fund the content we want to read. As Patel puts it (emphasis in original):

Those huge chunks — the ads! — are almost certainly the part you don’t want. What you want is the content, hot sticky content, snaking its way around your body and mainlining itself directly into your brain. Plug that RSS firehose straight into your optic nerve and surf surf surf ’til you die.

Unfortunately, the ads pay for all that content, an uneasy compromise between the real cost of media production and the prices consumers are willing to pay that has existed since the first human scratched the first antelope on a wall somewhere. Media has always compromised user experience for advertising: that’s why magazine stories are abruptly continued on page 96, and why 30-minute sitcoms are really just 22 minutes long. Media companies put advertising in the path of your attention, and those interruptions are a valuable product. Your attention is a valuable product.

For better or worse, he’s right. The ads pay, and not well, but they pay enough to keep a lot of publishers in business giving you great content. The problem, though, is that many of these ads are horribly invasive. You first have the ads that completely block the screen and won’t let you continue for ten seconds. Now that doesn’t seem like a long time, but it is when you’re just trying to browse a news story; why wait ten seconds? Just close the tab and go elsewhere. Then there autoplaying video ads, which not only intrude into your music if you’re on Spotify or listening to VLC Player, but can also bother other people; imagine you just got your kid to sleep, you’re looking at something on the laptop, and a video ad plays and wakes the baby up. Or you’re at work, and once just starts playing in the office, going up and down the hall while people are on phone calls or working. It doesn’t even have to be offensive or vulgar; the very act of intruding into the environment beyond your screen is already offensive. Those ads work on TV because that’s the whole point of TV and we’re expecting it; the same expectations do not hold up to the web. And then there are those ads that aren’t there at first, which then appear, expand, and totally move everything around on screen. You know what I’m talking about, whether they’re the expanding banners above the navigation menu or videos that open up in the middle of the story itself. What if you’re going to click on a link, the video moves it all around and you end up clicking something completely different. That’s just frustrating, and the last thing anyone should be doing is making a dirt simple task like browsing the web frustrating. It defeats the entire purpose.

Naturally, this is before we get the part about data tracking and taking up more bandwidth from people’s accounts. Especially for those with slow and not terribly great Internet connections, that’s just downright rude.

I think that’s the really bad part of ads. We’re not terribly concerned (I think; I could be wrong) about simple silent visual ads on the side, or even one at the top that loads in with everything else and doesn’t move around DOM elements as you’re reading. All of us who’ve used the Internet over the past 10 years have dealt with those, and haven’t minded them at all. So in the spirit of goodwill and making the Internet a better place, I propose a compromise.

  1. Advertising will be permitted on websites, EXCEPT FOR THE FOLLOWING:
  2. Any ad that overlays the website and blocks viewing of the content for any length of time
  3. Any ad that plays audio and video without being selected to do so by the conscious effort of the user
  4. Any ad that manipulates the Document Object Model (aka the page or the DOM) to move elements after the page has loaded

Naturally, advertisers and publishers will likely scream bloody murder, as these do a wonderful job capturing our attention — our negative attention — and getting our eyeballs. Taking them away will probably result in a drop in revenue, and will likely result in the industry undergoing a bit of a shift. We’ll be cutting out a lot of advertising for this. Patel notes this at the end of his piece:

And the collateral damage of that war — of Apple going after Google’s revenue platform — is going to include the web, and in particular any small publisher on the web that can’t invest in proprietary platform distribution, native advertising, and the type of media wining-and-dining it takes to secure favorable distribution deals on proprietary platforms. It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.


But taking money and attention away from the web means that the pace of web innovation will slow to a crawl. Innovation tends to follow the money, after all! And asking most small- to medium-sized sites to weather that change without dramatic consequences is utterly foolish. Just look at the number of small sites that have shut down this year: GigaOm. The Dissolve. Casey Johnston wrote a great piece for The Awl about ad blockers, in which The Awl’s publisher noted that “seventy-five to eighty-five percent” of the site’s ads could be blocked. What happens to a small company when you take away 75 to 85 percent of its revenue opportunities in the name of user experience? Who’s going to make all that content we love so much, and what will it look like if it only makes money on proprietary platforms?

There are numerous problems with Patel’s analysis. The first is the implicit notion that small sites are entitled to be alive, entitled to getting ad money out of you, and entitled to your eyeballs. This is most certainly not the case. Yes, it’s true that with a lesser amount of ads, many sites might go under. But my response to that is:

So what?

Most of the stuff on the Internet is pure dreck. Lots of sites regurgitate other websites’ stories without adding any actual value or new information; others just churn out nonsense articles that make you ask yourself if you wasted the five minutes reading them. For an example of the latter, check out this “story” from a site called “Neurogadget” on the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. There is literally no substance to the story; it’s 310 ten words basically say, “The first Surface wasn’t great, the second was a little better, the third was really awesome, and the fourth is probably going to be really super awesome.” That’s it; no specs, no data, just a lot of empty fluff.

For an example of the former, take any story from Mediaite (perhaps not fair, as they do cover the media), HuffPo, or any other big or even medium sized website. I’ve seen them, the stories that quote liberally from another story, and basically add nothing more than another way to rephrase the story, and maybe a few links (as this story by HuffPo, which is far from the worst, does.)

This is not content. This is not information. It’s just noise. I would say that about 80% of the stuff on the internet is just junk, and it deserves to go away permanently. Tell me, what did GigaOm provide that sites like CNET and PCMag did not? We don’t need this noise, and frankly, nobody ultimately cares. It will not be a huge loss to humanity, we will simply move on. (Plus, there is a legitimate question over whether The Awl is short for The Awful.)

Another problem is that GigaOm and The Dissolve went out before the ad blocking controversy began. That means that the current ad environment could not save them anyways, so that part is pretty much moot. Whether or not Apple comes up baked in ad blocking is utterly irrelevant, as they failed anyways. So that tells me that ad blocking, at least the institutionalized form everyone is arguing over now, doesn’t really matter.

But then finally, the last nail in the coffin is that for years, we’ve had great content provided sans ads, and you know what? We still get great content today. The best websites are those that don’t have ads, or a minimal amount. Orion’s Arm is one of my favorite websites, and it doesn’t have ads. Neither does my friend’s blog. Reddit keeps a close handle on ads, and doesn’t let them pop up. Wait But Why does have pop-ups, but they’re easily dismissable, and none of the play any noise.

The best content is usually unpaid, for the precise reason that it isn’t rushed to make some deadline, isn’t done to just be clickbait and get ad money, and instead has passion and thoughtfulness infusing it. If you’re writing something without being paid or compensated by ads, you’re doing it because you really have something to say, something you care about. That makes these things far better, and makes the ad-supported content look kinda terrible in comparison.

So I won’t weep for a loss of these sites. It’ll be the market and consumer demand weeding them out, and that’s a good thing. The clickbait headlines and stories rushed out immediately in order to get advertising clicks have, probably, made our society much dumber. We no longer take the time to think, we must spew something forth immediately, damn the truth! So maybe blocking these kinds of ads will also lead us to slow down, think, actually make decisions and not just blindly throw something, anything, on a page to get those ad clicks.

On the other hand, viewers will probably hate me because there are two things I didn’t block in the compromise: tracking and bandwidth. The latter because every web developer should be minimizing bandwidth usage by default; it’s been a terrible, hateful trend lately to absorb as much bandwidth as possible with cool animations and whatnot, but developers should be designing the most efficient sites possible. As for tracking…well, I’m convinced that by and large, privacy as we know it is dead. The next generation will know nothing of it, and in the long run it’s a lost cause. Big data is here and it will stay. Sure, you can use extensions to block that stuff if you want, but there will always be data flowing around. I don’t consider it something stoppable.

But terrible ads can be stopped. And so can these stupid ad wars, which just illustrate that a huge sector of the web provider industry knows next to nothing about its users.

To save humanity, let’s colonize space

A long time ago, I tried to write an essay — hopefully to be published in a magazine — on why humanity should practice space colonization. Not for the usual reasons, either, which was my problem: trying to put what I was thinking into words became more and more difficult the more I thought about it! The actual reason was fine; but defending and explaining that reason was difficult.

After witnessing the incredible changes over the past few weeks, though, I wanted to try and sketch out a basic idea again. I was moved first by the incredible ignorance that was a response to the anti-Confederate flag movement, then by the King v. Burwell decision, which alarmed me, and then the joyous Supreme Court decision that finally allowed same-sex marriage across the nation. In short, I think there are three basic reasons for colonizing space — one obvious, the other two may or may not be so much — and moreover, I think we should be working on colonizing space now.

Reason 1: Avoiding Natural Disasters

Let’s get the lowest hanging fruit out of the way: a primary reason for colonizing space is to have a backup for humanity in case anything happens to the Earth.

I’m not tremendously worried by human induced climate change, nuclear war (despite what Vox says), or human caused existential crises. While we’ve demonstrated our tremendous appetite and capability for destruction, we humans also have an even more tremendous appetite and capability for adaptation, problem-solving, and creation. I am certain that, even if climate change was a problem, we would devise technology to mitigate and perhaps even nullify it, such as completely renewable energy or weather maintenance systems.

I’m also not deeply worried about an asteroid or cometary impact, but at least unlike the human ones, those seem more plausible. Then you add in other possibilities: magnetic field reversal, the Yellowstone caldera exploding, a natural pandemic like an antibiotic resistant superbug wiping out humanity, etc. There are a few. And there are a couple of human caused events that would make me worry, namely creating artificial superintelligence (even though I think that scenario is unlikely), “grey goo”, or a human created superbug.

In any case, should any one of these come to pass on Earth, humanity could be doomed. I don’t know if we’d survive an asteroid impact. Civilization, at the very least, would be utterly gone. In order to ensure humanity would survive these events, we need to begin colonizing space. It’s a pretty straightforward reason. Some may argue why humanity should fight so hard to continue, but to be honest, isn’t that a silly question?

Reason 2: Preserving Liberalism

Here’s where I started to stumble.

On the one hand, I’m actually fairly optimistic for the future of liberty, at least in the Western world (and also the Third World, but it will take longer.) I see the rise of technology as being mostly beneficial. Things like Uber, AirBnB, the Internet of Things, iPhones, Tor, blockchain technology, fusion, advanced computing, etc. are all great at decentralizing society down to the level of the individual, in addition to utilizing capital more efficiently and making things cheaper (as long as government stops manipulating prices and currency.) Looking at the public opinion trends, I think we’re in for a period of dramatic decentralization as people “cut out the middleman”, so to speak. I think this will also lead to a resurgence in individualism and (classical) liberalism, naturally, as people don’t need government or coercive methods in order to get things done.

But on the other hand, I could be very well wrong. I see evidence of this all the time. The NSA spying is one big piece of evidence in favor of this: government will simply harness technology to spy, manipulate, and control us. Then you see the luddite idiocy against Uber and other advancing technologies, such as GMOs (which, I’ll have you know, have saved the lives of tens of millions of people and gone a long way towards ending hunger.) There’s the people who have been victimized by poorly run public education systems, who have no sense of history or how the physical world even works. And after the mythical frontier was more or less closed up a century ago, we’ve seen governments close inward on themselves and become more and more controlling, manipulative, and authoritarian. In the United States, the federal, state, and local governments have wormed their way into nearly every aspect of our lives. Business and government are now tightly interwoven, which makes it difficult to pinpoint problems while simultaneously keeping us down. When you need to ask for permission and navigate a maze of regulations designed to protect big business in order to make your own business, all of society suffers as a result. When you need to ask for permission and comply with regulations to speak, all of our liberty is harmed.

There are two parts to this argument: for starters, I think that opening up an entirely new frontier — a frontier completely devoid of indigenous aliens, so we need not worry about Manifest Destiny causing such horrors — will naturally build an ethos of independence and freedom. It will first attract people who are already like that, but even those who aren’t so deeply independent will become that way, as you must be in order to survive. Colonists will be operating from large distances from government authorities — even if they were just colonizing Lagrange Points and not other star systems — and coercion, while a tool, probably won’t even be needed to get people to work together. We need that sense of a frontier again, I think, in order to rekindle that sense of freedom.

We also need it as an exit valve so people can leave bad institutional designs. This is the more organized part: libertarians and classical liberals can work to colonize the cosmos, while Earth descends into more authoritarianism. Statists have been saying for ages “If you don’t like it, then leave,” and while we’ve always derided that response as meaningless since nobody really has the means to leave…what if we did? And not just leave the country, but the entire planet? As much as I like the beauty of Earth, why not take them up on that offer? If we could create our own island in space, an environment customized to our needs, we could create something close to a technoutopia. And why not? I’m not talking about terraforming; I’m talking about building O’Neill and McKendree cylinders, or even a Bishop Ring (if we could figure that out.)

I really do think the liberal tradition of Locke, Smith, Kant, Bastiat, Emerson, Mill, Hayek, Friedman, Nozick, McCloskey, Powell, Gurri, Kuznicki, Boaz, Zwolinski, and many, many others, is the best way for humanity to thrive and prosper. Respecting each other as individuals and basing society on voluntary transactions not only is right in a moral sense, as it respects our natural rights as sophont beings, but also leads to the best material and social outcomes. Of course, if socialists, greens, corporatists, and what-have-you also want to leave Earth to create new colonies to preserve their political philosophies, they have that option too. I just find it very doubtful they will do that (well, maybe some socialists would.)

I could be wrong here, and I probably have not explained this very well. It’s difficult for me to put into words, but, as simply as I can manage: I think the causes of human freedom, independence, innovation, and liberalism need to be saved, and colonizing space will save them.

Reason 3: Human Transcendence

The last one is also tricky, though for other reasons. While colonizing space to preserve liberalism is hard for me to put into words, colonizing space to make way for human transcendence is hard because I have no idea what that entails.

It may seem odd that I would advocate for something that I don’t know the basic parameters about, but this ties into a core theme of libertarian writers: the freedom to experiment and innovate. One of the best parts of the free market system is the wild experimentation that comes about, finding new ways to fulfill people’s needs. It’s the engine that has driven much of the progress of the last two centuries, giving us electricity and the Internet and modern medicine and holographic technology and even giant piloted robots. However, it’s hard to say what is coming next (except, perhaps, driverless cars and 3D printing organ tissue), because someone has to think it up and try to market it.

In much the same way, I think space colonization would go far in helping humanity overcome it’s physical limitations and reach new heights. No, I’m not saying we’re going to ascend to a higher plane of existence once we’re beyond the Earth’s gravitational field — though, you know, anything is possible. Rather, I think that having colonies in space will provide us with places to experiment and devise new technologies. Who knows what wonders zero-gee manufacturing will bring us? Perhaps in space we’ll start genetic engineering humans to be adapted to space, a sort of homo sapiens cosmoi — and what other technologies will that bring? What sort of social and religious structures would develop and evolve in space? And finally, in space, once we have a sizeable population free of Earth, what will think of the little blue marble from where we came?

It’s not that I think that humanity will become staid and conservative staying on Earth — the recent changes in American society, and the rapid pace of that change — has demonstrated that we can still develop down here at the bottom of the gravity well. But you have to wonder if there isn’t something else we can learn and develop from being in space. I think there is something. I just don’t know what. But I think it would be exciting to find out.

Conclusion: We can and we should

I’m not going into the how of space colonization, but it is clearly not beyond our abilities. And if it is clearly not beyond our abilities, and there are very good reasons to establish human populations beyond Earth’s atmosphere, then why not do it?

I’m not going to pretend I’ve articulated the best argument for this, but I think it’s a good start.I welcome criticism, so I can refine it. But most importantly, I want people to start thinking about this in real life terms, and not science fiction. If we want humanity to advance and develop, and moreover, to just survive, we’re going to have to take the idea seriously. Not just the plaything of science fiction authors or rich billionaries like Elon Musk and Robert Zubrin, we all need to consider it.

Our future depends on it.

A Plethora of Links to End 2014

2014 is just about gone, and for the large part, I say: Good riddance. In many ways, 2014 was an awful year for civil liberties, freedom, and for people in general. Yet on the other hand, there are some positive things to report.

One of my 2015 resolutions is to stop posting so much political stuff. I know, I know – I say this almost every month, and yet it never happens. I'm going to try, though, this year, especially since I'm making the effort to make some resolutions. (I'm even going to print them out and put them up on my wall in my bedroom and in my office.) So in honor of that, I wanted to post some last political and semi-political links before the year ended, links that have been sitting on my mind:


2014 was a really rotten year for privacy, civil liberties, and in particular for public-police relations. For a long time I thought of writing up a list of all the issues of police overreach and brutality, but I don't have to. Radley Balko, one of the best journalists on the planet, rounded up 2014's civil liberties violations as a "Let me give some predictions for 2015" post. It's chilling to think that, in the nation that is supposedly the leader of the free world, we have so many horrible things going on – most, but not all, being conducted by state and local governments.

I mean, seizing someone's assets, then charging them with a crime, so they can't pay for their own defense? Arresting parents for letting their kids play without supervision? Claiming that your SWAT team is a private corporation and is thus immune to open records laws? Push for extrajudicial tribunals for people who may or may not commit crimes against a certain class of individuals, tribunals where "innocent until proven guilty" and the rule of law are thrown out the airlock? Punishing people who haven't been convicted of a crime?

These are not the signs of a healthy liberal democracy, they're the signs of a damaged one that needs repair, fast.

One story in particular has stood out to me. As many have defended the police in the recent incidents and stories, one thing they may have failed to notice is that even black police officers feel threatened by the "boys in blue". I think once cops are fearful of other cops, then we have indisputable proof that there is a serious problem. And yet people still ignore it. Read the link above for a maddening, frustrating look at what is wrong with policing today. (That one really grinds my gourd, because I think it will be ignored by most.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, in 2014 progressives became nattering nabobs of negativity – or, in other words, conservatives. reason magazine highlights how 2014 heralded the return of "Neo-Victorianism", and I'm thankful that Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote that article because I've been struggling to find the right word for this new trend. It's the trend of using coercion and bullying to enforce a set of social norms, mostly deployed by feminists, it seems. The four major areas are increasing art censorship, a hysteria over sex-trafficking (that trampled over individual rights while simultaneously punishing sex workers, many of whom don't think they're victims and like their jobs, thank you very much), a dragging out of hate speech to absurd lengths that means you shouldn't say anything that could potentially offend anyone at any time, and a trend of treating women as dainty little flowers that need to be coddled and protected rather than being allowed to develop into strong and independent individuals.

It's all rather sickening. It too, is not a sign of a healthy democracy.

And let's not get me started on the various abuses by the NSA. Let's just not go there for once.

The Good

There are, however, some great things to look forward to in 2015 that continue from 2014.

The first is in terms of war and crime. Steven Pinker, a wonderful academic, details in a great article for Slate that planet Earth is actually becoming a very peaceful world. I found the article particularly interesting for the following tidbit:

But the red curve in the graph shows a recent development that is less benign: The number of wars jumped from four in 2010—the lowest total since the end of World War II—to seven in 2013. These wars were fought in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Syria. Conflict data for 2014 will not be available until next year, but we already know that four new wars broke out in the past 12 months, for a total of 11. The jump from 2010 to 2014, the steepest since the end of the Cold War, has brought us to the highest number of wars since 2000.
The 2010–2014 upsurge is circumscribed in a second way. In seven of the 11 wars that flared during this period, radical Islamist groups were one of the warring parties: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Gaza, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen. (Indeed, absent the Islamist conflicts, there would have been no increase in wars in the last few years, with just two in 2013 and three in 2014.) This reflects a broader trend.

That "broader trend" being religious hostilities, with "all but two of these countries" having those hostilities being "associated with extremist Islamist groups." I always find myself on a narrow tightrope when it comes to Islamism; on the one hand, I always find conservatives are far too hostile and kneejerk when they want to just fight Muslims and bomb them; on the other hand, I think that many libertarians and leftists slide Islam's problems under the rug and prefer not to notice. Don't kid yourselves, guys: although Christianity has issues, it has largely been tamed and neutered by modernity. Islam hasn't. And Islam has got loads of problems.

But even despite that, the world is far more peaceful than the news reports make it out to be. Outside of the Middle East, we have the conflict in Ukraine – and that has basically been frozen. The drop in oil prices has crushed the Russian economy, so I don't know if Putin will continue to help his "allies" in Donetsk and Lugansk. There are conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, but to be honest I know very little about them.

Meanwhile, Fraser Nelson in The Spectator (UK) reports on how we're winning the war on disease. In 1990, diseases claimed roughly 37,500 years of life per 100,000 people; now they claim only about 26,000 (judging by my eyes on that chart.) Starvation has dropped by over ten percentage points. Infant mortality has plummeted. These are all extremely good news to hear.

The last one is a story on upcoming disruptive technologies, many of which are going to build on 2014 discoveries. I post this one because I have a bit of a quibble with the author, Vivek Wadhwa. Although I think most of his points are relatively sound, inasmuch as I, not being an expert in these areas, could judge them, his section on energy has problems. First, he leads off by saying that fracking is a harmful technology – newsflash, it isn't. Second, he says that solar power will hit grid parity by 2020, which I think is unlikely considering how expensive solar power is. (Seriously, the people I know who study energy saw a similar story by Wadwha and they claimed it hurt their brains.) Third, Wadwha claims that if we have unlimited energy,

we can have unlimited clean water, because we can simply boil as much ocean water as we want. We can afford to grow food locally in vertical farms. This can be 100 percent organic, because we won’t need insecticides in the sealed farm buildings. Imagine also being able to 3D print meat and not having to slaughter animals. This will transform and disrupt agriculture and the entire food-production industry.

Wadwha might be right about unlimited energy and unlimited clean water, but even if he is, the rest doesn't follow. Water isn't the only resource. Why would we grow food locally? It's not necessarily more efficient than growing food on larger farms elsewhere. Secondly, what about the time involved? When Wadwha says "locally," I see the localist woo argument about people growing food in their backyards. But that takes time, and who wants to waste time growing your own food when you can buy it at the store and instead spend your time going to sports events, watching TV, writing blog posts, or going on romantic getaways? Wadwha ignores that, and it hurts, both his piece and my head.

I'm also a little miffed he didn't mentioned Lockheed Martin's new fusion reactor project (more on that later), but I totally agree with him on synthetic meat – which I think will be a huge advance – and he makes good points about 3D printing, finance, and healthcare. In all areas, we're talking about some radical decentralization.

The Awesome

Okay, the last bit. The really cool stuff.

Scientists did some really cool things in 2014. I mean, some really scifi things. Quantum teleportation for instaneous communication, blood based nanites to repair your body, 3D food printers, hoverboards – 2014 was a really cool year for tech.

Meanwhile, the one news item that really made me jump was Lockheed Martin's announcement that in five years they'll have a prototype for a commercial fusion reactor. There are a lot of questions and criticisms of this, with many having doubts – but if anyone is going to deliver a power source that is clean and nearly limitless, it's going to be Lockheed Martin. And I hope it turns out correct, because I think that:

  1. It would provide enough energy to avoid the coming energy shortfalls as our iCivilization keeps getting bigger
  2. It would go a long way towards making climate change a nonissue
  3. It would go a long way towards getting the US out of the Middle East as we wouldn't have to worry about the oil reserves there
  4. It would weaken OPEC, Venezuela, and Russia (yes that's a cheap geopolitical shot but I think it's valid)
  5. A fusion rocket could get us from Earth to Mars in 30 days rather than six months
  6. It could power the warp drive that NASA is working on
  7. As energy is one of the largest input costs, this could make everything cheaper across the board by a considerable factor
  8. Bonus – Gundams.

I'm really hoping that 2015 will turn out to be even cooler.

And finally, for one last speculative item, there's a guy in Nebraska building a warp drive in his garage. Okay, okay, it's pretty far out there, man, but when you read stuff like this:

He turns around and points to the back of his garage door, where a red laser — beamed at the weight and reflected back against the door to demonstrate the movement happening in the case — drifts from its original spot. Slowly, in incremental amounts, the weight is drawn toward the V-shape motor.

You gotta wonder.

People Should Stop Pontificating

My mother has a funny quote: “Opinions are like armpits. Everybody has two, and they usually stink.”

I can’t argue with that. Over the past few years I’ve lived in the DC area and become more involved in public policy debates, philosophical discussions, and politics, I’ve seen this ring true dozens and dozens of time over. Everybody has an opinion. And, with few exceptions, these opinions are generally awful.

I don’t mean they’re awful in that I disagree with them. I don’t mean they’re awful in that they come to the wrong conclusions. I mean that they’re awful because of shoddy reasoning, faulty premises, and often just kneejerk, instinctive responses rather than anything genuinely intelligent. You can be a smart person whom I respect even if we fundamentally disagree on certain points. But I won’t respect you if your logic is rubbish, you resort to fallacies, and you demand others do the research for you.

Why am I saying this? I guess it’s because I’ve been looking at myself in the mirror lately. I have a few posts in my drafts folder about a few high octane topics. One – which I will still likely publish soon – is over the whole “climate march” BS and the “Flood Wall Street” nonsense that went on last week. Let me be clear: I think climate change is happening. I don’t think it is anything to be worried about, and I most certainly do not want the government trying to “fix” it. But do I really have the grounds to be pontificating about climate change, on my personal blog? At most, I think what I can do is point out the absurdities and contradictions in the arguments and actions of the climate protestors, note the evidence we really have, and then just point out the potential consequences of undoing capitalism and trying to embrace some form of eco-socialism (which I personally think would be disastrous.)

But then that raises another question: even if we are not an expert in field X, does that preclude us from giving our opinions on field X? Must we refrain all the time?

I used to look at it as “Well, you can offer your opinion, but it will be weighted less than an expert in field X.” That seemed to make sense. But now, I’m starting to think that people outside a field might, in some circumstances, actually have a more valuable or intelligent viewpoint. But only in some cases. One case was when, for a group political blog, I wrote about an article where a college professor recommended that we get rid of the United States Air Force and roll it’s operations into the Army and Navy. I added on to that with some musing about whether or not we still needed the Marine Corps. Cue tons of angry commentators who said that I had obviously never been in the military and had no idea what I was talking about, but they had been in the Corps for years and knew exactly why the Corps was a necessity in this day and age. Yet, despite this, none of them presented a cogent argument for why it needed to be around. I look at the Corps, and what I see these days is a second Army, albeit one with more aviation assets and supposedly tied to the Navy. It looks redundant, and there is no reason that it’s “unique” features (namely, fast assault) can’t be rolled into the Army and redone there. (Wrong culture was one reason given; okay, then, change the Army culture.) Basically, their arguments were emotional appeals to tradition and patriotism, not logic.

I think that’s a problem when looking from the inside on any issue. You need people who are looking from the outside, who don’t necessarily have “expertise,” both to bring you back down to earth and to bring up things you may not have thought of. How many times have experts been so caught up in the weeds of their profession that they’ve missed the pasture, the river, and the neighboring forest? It happens all the time when I start programming, then I realize that nobody else knows how the heck I’m doing something, so I have to go back and make it easier for them to use. I also see it with scientists, who say “The data is saying X, ergo we must do Y” but they completely ignore A-W and probably Z, then get all pissy when people who aren’t scientists say “No, we shouldn’t.” “But you’re not scientists, you don’t understand!” Well, actually, we do, we just understand a broader context.

But overall, I’m not so confident that people should be voicing their opinions all the time. I’m not calling for restrictions on the First Amendment here; this has nothing to do with laws and regulation. I’m just talking about individual practices. Many look at Twitter and Facebook as “democratizing” the Internet, and think this is a good thing; what I see these days is that a lot of rather stupid, lowbrow people whose ill-thought opinions were restricted to themselves and a few others in their close social circles now have a platform to fling them out there into the world. Worse, a lot of these people have found others who are like them, and have banded together to promote this kind of content. Look at the calls for anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, and populism. Not necessarily good things. The lowest common denominator now drives our discourse. Rather than actually research the topic at hand, be humble about what you’re putting forward (i.e., open to being proven wrong), and then present an argument based on the evidence, it’s all kneejerk opinionating with very little to back it up but more and more decibels. I mean hell if you can’t even be bothered to look up the basic facts of the subject at hand, you shouldn’t really be talking, just as a courtesy to everyone else.

Was there really a point to this blog post? I don’t know. It is awfully rambling. I guess what I’m trying to say is:

  • I don’t publish things immediately because I like to stop, think about them, and come back to them later…which other people usually do not;
  • There are an awful lot of people out there who really have no idea what on Earth they are talking about but pontificate as if they are serious philosophers;
  • Social media has turned me from a somewhat egalitarian “voice of the people” dude into an almost aristocratic conservative who thinks the peasants should really shut up now because they have no idea what they’re doing;
  • I am not above being one of the idiotic peasants.

So, basically, can everyone just shut the hell up for a little while? You’re all idiots. Myself included.

I’m With Elon: Let’s Colonize Mars

So Elon Musk wants to screw Earth and colonize Mars. Excellent, I completely agree. Let’s get started.

The interview Musk gave to Ross Anderson of Aeon Magazine is fantastic. It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a forceful advocacy for space colonization, which is refreshing. It seems like the cause of space has languished over the past couple of decades while people want to focus on more down to Earth matters. I think they’re forgetting that many of our down to Earth matters could probably be solved by going outward and exploring new frontiers – and settling them!

My reasons are different than Musk’s, are, though. Musk seems to be afraid that, since we haven’t discovered any interstellar aliens in our searches of the night sky, something bad must have happened to all of them:

Musk has a more sinister theory [to the Fermi Paradox, basically –Jeremy]. ‘The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’ he told me. ‘Like when you’re playing an adventure game, and you can see the stars in the background, but you can’t ever get there. If it’s not a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilisation that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mould in a petri dish.’ Musk flipped through a few more possibilities, each packing a deeper existential chill than the last, until finally he came around to the import of it all. ‘If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,’ he said. ‘And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilisations.’

Personally, I’m more in favor of the Great Filter being life itself. Wait But Why has a great blog post on the Fermi Paradox and all of its implications, and count me as a guy who thinks that life is much harder to happen than Ross Anderson seems to think (going off what he writes in Aeon; it might be he’s just summarizing what others think and that’s not his own opinion.) I don’t look at this as a bad thing; instead, we now have the entire cosmos open to ourselves. We are the Ancients, the Precursors, the Progenitors of life in a barren and empty universe.

But not if we screw it up before we get out there.

I’m not talking about the existential fears that most people talk about. I’m not worried about nuclear war or plague or global warming killing us. To be sure, we have some problems for this century: we need to stamp out religious and ideological extremism that leads to violence; find new and renewable sources of energy to keep powering our civilization; and maybe not build artificial superintelligences in our basements. But I think these (well, to one extent or another) are all manageable. The problem I fear is one of philosophy, political science, and sociology. We need space colonization to overcome the dimming of the (classical) liberal vision.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long, long time. Well, over a year, to be more exact, but it’s been fluttering in my head for longer. The problem is that I’m finding it very hard to put it into words why we must colonize Mars – and the rest of space – to preserve classical liberalism and by extension civilization, freedom, and all those good things.

I look at the growth of government over the past century and I see it as expansion turning inwards. There is less for us to go out and explore, now. We no longer have a frontier, a Wild West where the government’s arm is distant and individuals rely on themselves. It seems very romantic, because it is very romantic – and of course, there were problems. Colonization uprooted and destroyed indigenous cultures all over the world, caused pain and suffering by bringing diseases, bloodshed, and slavery. The Wild West was not as dangerous as the Western movie genre made it out to be, but there was racism, crime, and an eye for an eye mentality in some parts. My point, being, though, was that as there was a frontier, there was an argument for freedom. Government could not expand inwards on people because there was somewhere to expand outwards.

But then the 20th century came. By now, there was nowhere left to expand to. The only uncolonized parts of our world are the Artic, the Antartic, and the bottom of the oceans – the first two being extremely inhospitable and undesirable, the latter uninhabitable until somebody decides to invent SeaQuest in the real world. (Get on that, Musk.) Now, the expanding mass of government ran up against a solid wall, and as it hit this wall it folded back in on itself and expanded back towards its center. Now it was expanding on top of itself, layering itself upon itself, burying beneath itself the seeds of liberalism and freedom. Where else could it go now but onto its own people?

We lost the frontier. On top of that, we continued to multiply. I hate thinking in this manner, but the law of supply and demand comes back to haunt me. We have all these people now, and we keeping having more, and I wonder, as supply goes up, does demand go down? It used to be you could know everyone in your community. Now, do we just look at others as statistics? Not even fully autonomous human beings? Do we think everyone around us is a p-zombie? It seems very crass on one hand – how can we apply supply and demand to people – and yet very conservative on the other – here I am talking about community and how the modern era has increased the distance between us and yadda yadda yadda. Not being that sort of conservative – or really, any conservative at all – it’s hard for me to put this into words.

Unfortunately, I don’t have to. From China, we have a couple of videos and stories of how low human life is valued:

Then there was the toddler who was run over by two vehicles and ignored by scores of passersby before finally receiving help. Again, this is from China.

These are just the two things that come to the top of my mind. I don’t know if it’s because there are a lot of people in China, if there’s something deeper in Chinese culture, or if these are really bad examples. But that is what I think of when I see rising population. Is this something we can overcome? Is it bound to happen?

Then there is the issue of running out of work for people. I know many scoff at the idea, but there is some concern of “technological unemployment”. My friend Travis Thornton has blogged about this subject before. Now personally I am all in favor of a post-scarcity economy, and I think it’s absolutely delightful that we’re heading towards one…but are we going to need a new thing to give us meaning? Why can’t that thing be a settled, terraformed Mars?

The moon terraformed, covered in blue seas, green forests, and whispy white clouds.
I have to admit, a terraformed Luna would look cool.
TerraformedMoonFromEarth“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I realize these thoughts are not entirely coherent or cogent. Like I said, I’m having difficulty putting what I’m thinking and feeling into words. That’s why I’m doing this blog post, to solicit feedback and comments and see if I’m on the right track. But essentially, what I see is that, to preserve classical liberalism, individual freedom, and a culture of the same, we need to start colonizing planets. We need to go with Musk and start doing this right now. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Mars. We should also colonize the Moon (though terraforming it would be a waste of time I think, since it doesn’t have enough gravity to hold on to an atmosphere, unless you paraterraform), and we should probably also build O’Neill and McKendree Cylinders. Eventually, we might even terraform Venus, build Banks Orbitals and a Ringworld (okay, fine, we can have one Halo off in the corner for all the first person shooter types) and then from there…

The galaxy will be our oyster.

But not if we get stuck here. It’s not the asteroids that will kill us, or the threat of alien invasion, or potential nuclear war or grey goo or artificial superintelligence. If anything does us in, it will be the banal overlayering of bureaucratic, authoritarian government, run by busybodies and people of little vision. Humanity needs a new frontier, and there are many out there: uninhabited, barren, lifeless, ready for us to come. We need that frontier to rekindle our spirit of freedom, and get us moving again. Take the germ of liberalism, and spread it across the stars.

That’s my vision for the future. And that means I’m right there with Elon Musk. Let’s go to Mars.

#ClimateMarch: A Campaign of Hypocrites And Fearmongers

So over a week ago, a large number of people went marching in New York City with the hashtag #climatemarch. The idea was to raise awareness of the dangers of global warming – excuse me, climate change – and get people, specifically politicians, to act on it. How? To be honest I’m not sure of the specifics, but it always seems to come back to higher taxes, more government control over the economy, and doing away with capitalism.

Nevermind that capitalism is why they even had a New York City to have the climate change march in.

I want to lay out a few disclaimers before I continue, to outline my views on climate change. These will take the form of a Q&A.

  1. Is climate change happening?
    Yeah. I mean, everything changes, so it would be silly to say that the climate doesn’t change. Nothing is truly static except death and taxes, and we may be getting close to getting rid of one of those.
  2. Is it anything to be worried about?
    Not really. Sure, there will be things here and there that climate change will affect that we’ll have to adapt to, and it may lead to some minor detrimental affects in some parts of the world, but overall it’s not something to get your panties in a twist over. It isn’t going to lead us to extinction, it’s not going to be the end of the world. Humanity has adapted for several thousand years, and I think it will adapt for several thousand more (unless superintelligent AI get us.)
  3. Are humans the primary cause of climate change?
    I don’t find this plausible. I can accept that we’re a tertiary or even secondary cause of climate change, because we definitely have an affect on the environment. But even if the planet is warming, can we really blame it on us? What other natural processes are out there? Have you ever looked up and saw that giant ball of exploding gas in the sky and wondered, “Hmm, could the sun have anything to do with it?” Earth is far larger, far more resilient, and far more complex than I think most people give it credit for.
  4. Should the government do anything about climate change?
    Absolutely not! This is the government, mind you, that screwed up the Middle East, spent over $600 million on a website, can’t keep track of billions of dollars of its budget, regularly violates civil liberties around the world, and is deeply in bed with large corporations in a cronyist scam that has gone back for decades. The last thing anybody should want is giving this incompetent bloated organization any more power than it already has – especially over such important things as the energy and the environment.

There, now that I have that off my chest…

The Hypocrisy

The first thing that really gets me about the climate march types is just how hypocritical they are. Pray tell, how many carbon dioxide tons did they spew into the air in order to get to New York City? They took planes, trains, and automobiles – diesel, gasoline, and other fuel sources emitting gases into the air. How much cleaner would the world be if all those hundreds of thousands of people, instead of taking this trip, just stayed home? Oh, yes, they care about the environment. They care about it so much they helped pollute it even more.

And then there are the images of the trash they left behind. How many Starbucks cups did they throw out? How much plastic did they use? It’s disgusting. Care about the environment, do they? Yeah right.

There’s also this image of a climate march interview going on above a sleeping homeless woman. Now I can’t actually verify if that body in the background is a sleeping homeless woman, but still, the imagery. That’s powerful. Here are some upper middle class white folks having an interview about how they must do something to save the environment because it’s oh so important, and yet there is a person on the ground right behind them that they’re ignoring who doesn’t even have a proper place to sleep. It sort of encapsulates the entire movement, in a way.

The Absurdity

One of the big reasons I personally can’t take climate change and the #climatemarch seriously is how it’s being blamed as the cause of everything. Open up any newspaper and you will see an article saying that “climate change” is the reason for the political instability in the Middle East. (Subtitle: “Why are deserts hot?”) Hurricane Sandy and local weather patterns have all been blamed on climate change and global warming. The bees are being blamed on it too, even though it strikes me as yet another media panic. Even the European Space Agency is now saying that global warming is affecting Earth’s gravitational field.

I can’t even.

And now the New Scientist magazine is saying that we’re on track for the “worst case” scenario. One Tweeter made the case that we’re headed towards extinction because of this. The problem with the article and the evidence, in my view, is that it isn’t really based on empirical data. It’s based on models:

The bleak image is brought home when emissions over the last few decades are plotted against projections for the future. Models predict how much the world will warm depending on how much we emit in future. Scientists typically look at four different possible futures, ranging from an uber-green society to a worst-case scenario, in which no action is taken to combat global warming. Le Quéré and her colleagues show how today’s emissions are near-perfectly in line with the worst-case scenario. This means that, according to scientists’ best estimates, the world will be as much as 5.4 °C warmer in 2100 than it was before the industrial revolution.

The chart in the article begins in 1980 and ends in 2100. Here’s a massive problem with this:

There’s no way you can predict what the world will be like in 2100!

Look at predictions from 90 years ago. How many were somewhat on track, and how far off were the rest? Could anyone have predicted the rise of the Internet, of Twitter, of the smartphone and now the “smart house,” of Dropbox and Spotify and global air travel and drone cargo ships and the private attempts to colonize Mars? In some places they may have gotten the basic gist of things – although, even in the case of Mars, they screwed up badly – but in the vast majority of cases they hadn’t a clue what the world would be like in a century.

That’s the same thing here. You can point to your models, but they’re just that: models. You can play around with models all day long, change them, tweak them, etc. German reporter and podcaster Fabian Scherschel made this point when he brought up his skepticism of climate change alarmism on his podcastLinux Outlaws (which, as you can imagine, doesn’t usually wade into this subject.) The data we have really only goes back two hundred years or so, not long enough to judge how the climate is being affected, which has been going on here for millions and millions of years.

And yet #climatemarch activists want to parade around and demand we end capitalism and the modern world because some model someone dreamt up said that we’re all going to die. Well, I have a model that we’re all going to die, but I can save us – if you just give me $5,000. Will you march for me then?

Oh, and by the way: sea ice has been increasing lately.

This isn’t activism. This is pure fearmongering.

The Insanity

One picture sums up a lot of insanity surrounding #climatemarch and what this is really all about:

This isn’t really about environmentalism. It’s about attacking the free market and trying to reinstate socialism. They’re watermelons – environmentally green on the outside, socialist red on the inside.

Let’s not forget what capitalism has brought us:

What has socialism given us?

  • Mass starvation
  • Authoritarian regimes
  • Gulags
  • Economic depression
  • Widespread violence
  • 100 million dead
  • Widespread environmental damage
  • Peasant conditions for many, especially in pre-modernized China

Capitalism isan economic order — any economic order — that emerges from voluntary exchanges of property and labor without government intervention (or any other form of systemic coercion).” By that, it means that individual people are allowed to control their lives, make their own decisions, and fulfill their dreams.

Socialism is “a centrally planned economy in which the government controls all means of production”.  And by that, what it really means is that the state becomes a dictator, takes away all the decisions from you, and uses you as a tool whose human worth is little.

What the protestors in that image are saying is that they hate people and want to inflict misery and suffering on them. Being an adult human who can make his or her own decisions, be autonomous, and enjoy one’s life is apparently a disease. That just shows you how nutty these folks are.

The Alternative to #climatemarch

Ronald Bailey of reason has done a much better job than I could ever do knocking these guys off their pedestal. See his story on #climatemarch here and his story on #FloodWallStreet here. He takes aim at their assertions and blows holes in them rather efficiently. They don’t even know the best strategies to address their own problem. The whole thing is just ridiculous.

What’s the alternative? I’m honestly not sure. I think, for starters, we can continue to utilize capitalism to experiment with new technologies in the energy sector, as well as lab-grown meat that would cut emissions by 96%. There are plenty of free market environmental alternatives out there that could be explored, but one thing that is important is having private property rights. Nothing halts environmental degradation better than by avoiding the tragedy of the commons. But I don’t really know what will fix the environment, if it truly needs saving. But you know what? That’s okay. The beauty of being a capitalist is that you don’t have to know everything; you just have to know that you have a system that is designed to discover and find things out, that champions experimentation and innovation.

That’s the alternative. It doesn’t rely on fearmongering. It isn’t based in hypocrisy. It’s not absurd. And it’s not insane. It’s just dealing with human beings as individuals. You don’t need to march for that. You don’t have to do anything special. All you have to do is respect other people as individuals, and live your life.

Featured photo licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC. Photo Credit: John Minchillo, via the Climate Change Network International Flickr page.