The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Detail of the cover art from the 2014 Chinese edition of The Dispossessed

This book was not what I expected but with science fiction that’s often a feature, not a bug.

The Dispossessed“, by Ursula K. Le Guin, was presented to me as a depiction of a “libertarian utopia”. When I think think of science fiction stories depicting libertarian utopias, I think of H. Beam Piper’s “Lone Star Planet” or Eric Frank Russell’s “…And Then There Were None“, the former a utopia of gun-loving Texan style libertarians and the latter a utopia of Gandhi-following, peace-loving thinkers who excel at passive resistance (Russell’s story also gave us the word “Myob!”). Both were fun reads and I highly recommend them. This book was nothing like either, it’s far more serious and a lot less fun.

This book tells the life story a physicist in a star system with two civilizations; one on the Planet Urras, a beautiful Earth-like planet with many countries of varying political types; the other civilization is on Anarres, the barren moon of Urras where a group of people sometimes described as libertarians, sometimes as anarchists founded a utopia based on their political views. Our hero, Shevek the physicist, lives on Anarres. The story follows him through a major turning point in his life as he decides to visit Urras to find better collaborators with which to finish his theoretical work. The author has folded the story in half such that chapter one begins with Shevek leaving Anarres for Urras and each odd numbered chapter continues his story on Urras, while the even numbered chapters fill in the back story leading up to his decision to make the visit.

My expectations led to some initial confusion as the text doesn’t depict anything remotely resembling a libertarian utopia on Anarres. It’s more like an authoritarian communist third-world country. Everyone is starving most of the time due to shortages and famines, they live in crummy assigned government dormitories, work in rotating shifts at whatever government assigned work they can get, no one is allowed to have private possessions, parents can’t even name their own children, trying to do your own thing will get you persecuted, run out of town, or even killed. Yet, the characters continue to talk about the place as if they think it’s a libertarian utopia with no government. As it turns out this is all intentional and it just takes the characters a bit longer than the reader to realize their utopia has gone horribly wrong without anyone really noticing.

To further add to the confusion, Shevek is visiting Urras in the apparent role of the reader’s surrogate, a standard role that occurs in all utopian books. But this would make Urras the utopia rather than Anarres. And, indeed, everyone does seem better off on Urras. But as our physicist explores the world, which is much like modern day Earth, he also experiences the inequality of it; the luxury and leisure of the rich as well as the unpleasant lives of those who have to do all the work and who are plotting a revolt. Ironically, the revolutionary workers are actually much better off in most ways than the citizens of Anarres they seek to emulate. Shevek gets caught up in the revolution and the big question is whether he’ll survive long enough to return home to Anarres. His experiences on Urras provide most of the political commentary of the book as Shevek re-evaluates his understanding of both worlds.

The book is part of the author’s “Hainish Cycle” series of books but you don’t need to read any of the others for this one to make sense. The Hains and Terrans only show up briefly and the only real connection of this book with the others is that Shevek the physicist is the character who creates the theory behind the FTL communications device known as the ansible (and potentially the theory behind some type of FTL drive for starships that may be used in later books).

The book is slow going, especially the first half and you’ll probably want to abandon it but if you stick with it, things eventually pick up and even start making sense. For me this happened when some of the characters on Anarres finally begin to wake up and notice they’re living under a suppressive regime rather than in a utopia. Once the characters started behaving believably everything else started falling into place for me. Overall it seems a bit over rated but I did find it enjoyable and worth a read.

DIY Logic Cookies

For the last two years, I’ve made Logic Cookies for the National Day of Reason. My first attempt in 2016 resulted in edible cookies but they had numerous problems including less than tasty cookies, soft icing that prevented stacking, and a sub-optimal cookie shape. I’ve patched up most of the issues for 2017 and succeeded well enough that it’s time to release the plans. The 2017 recipes are pretty standard sugar cookie and royal icing recipes with minor tweaks. I changed the cookie shape to hexagonal this year instead of circles. Hexagons are an ideal shape for Logic Cookies because the cookies can be cut with no wastage due to the ability to achieve a perfect 6.6.6 tessellation of the Euclidean cookie dough plane.

With the plans below, you’ll be ready to bake your own logic cookies for the next National Day of Reason, which is coming up on 3 May, 2018. If you make some, please comment below and maybe provide a link to your photos!

See more photos of my 2016 Logic Cookies and my 2017 Logic Cookies on Flickr.

Cookie recipe

8 Tbl (35 ml) (1 stick) butter
0.75 cup (177 ml) sugar
1 Tsp (5 ml) baking powder
1 Tsp (5 ml) true cinnamon (Ceylon cinnamon)
0.25 Tsp (1.23 ml) salt
1 egg
1 Tbl (35 ml) milk
1 Tsp (5 ml) Vanilla
2 Cups (474 ml) flour

Beat butter for 30 seconds. Add sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, beat until combined. Add milk, egg, vanilla, beat until combined. Add flour, beating in as much as possible, then finishing with a spoon if needed. Divide dough in half, flatten, cover with was paper and chill in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat over to 375℉. Roll dough on lightly floured surface to 1/4 inch (6.4mm) thick. Cut into 2.5 inch (63 mm) hexagonal shapes. I used Ateco 5251 Plain Edge Hexagon Cutters in Graduated Sizes. Place cookies on non-stick cookie sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes. Cool on wire racks before icing.

Royal Icing recipe

2 cups (226 grams) powdered sugar
1 Tbl (10 grams) meringue powder
1/8 Tsp (0.6 ml) Cream of Tartar
3.5 Tbl (35 ml) water
1 Tsp (5 ml) vanilla extract
1 Tsp (5 ml) light corn syrup (optional for shiny finish on hardened icing)
Food coloring

Combine powdered sugar, meringue powder, and Cream of Tartar with whisk. Add water and vanilla extract. Beat for 10 minutes or until very thick. Separate out a small portion of the icing (approximate 1/8 of it) into a different container for later use in creating the symbols. Add a few drops of your desired food color to the main portion of icing and beat until evenly colored.

Apply color background icing in a thin even coat to each cookie using any preferred icing application method. Let icing cure for at least 10 minutes. Apply the white icing set aside earlier to form logic symbols using your desired method. If you use a piping bag or icing syringe, you will need to thin the white icing with small amounts of water until it reaches a consistency that works with your device of choice.

Let completed iced cookies cure exposed to the air for 12 hours to allow icing to harden.

Symbol table

This is the current collection of symbols I’ve used on my 2016 and 2017 Logic Cookies. I’ve included a variety of symbols from the fields of symbolic logic, set theory, boolean algebra, algebraic logic, and other fields. I also included Gottfried Leibniz’s integral symbol and Leonhard Euler’s summation Sigma) Feel free to expand this list. The follow table uses Unicode values for the symbols so it may not display correctly on older or non-standard web browsers.

∞ Infinity
≔ Definition / Assignment
≡ Material Implication
⊃ Implication / Superset
∪ Union
∩ Intersection
∈ Element of a set
⊆ Subset equal
⊊ Subset not equal
⊂ Subset of
⊇ Superset of
⋑ Double Superset
⨯ Cartesian product
≏ Difference
∅ Empty set
⊖ Symmetric difference
∆ Difference (delta)
∴ Therefore
◇ Possibility
∨ Disjunction
∧ Logical and
⫮ Negation
⊕ Exclusive Disjunction
> Greater than
< Less than
= Equal
≠ Not equal
Σ Sigma (summation)
∫ Integral (Leibniz calculus)
∮ Integral – contour
⨙ Integral – intersection

Trekonomics by Manu Saadia

Star Trek TOS Replicator (AKA food synthesizer)

I’m always interested in the future of economics and, in particular, ways of adapting our world to deal with post scarcity economics. Nearly any book or paper on post scarcity economics, at one point or another, has to reference the most detailed known fictional example: Star Trek. So, when Manu Saadia’s new book, “Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek” was published, it went on my reading list immediately.

If you’re not familiar with post scarcity economics, it’s basically the future we’re headed towards, whether we like it or not. Industrialization, mass-production, 3D printing, nano-technology, automation, robots; all these things continually drive down the cost and scarcity of many goods and services. This is interesting because for the past few hundred years, all our economic models have been based around solving the so-called “economic problem” – that is, finding ways to allocate scarce resources to meet human needs and desires. The two favorite solutions to the economic problem, capitalism and communism/socialism, have developed religious-like ideological followings.

Pure capitalism relies on the collective action of everyone’s individual greed to allocate resources. Communism and socialism rely on central planning to allocate resources (the difference is that Communism is the result of a revolution from capitalism, while socialism is an evolution of capitalism). In the real world neither method has ever worked well in its pure form, though capitalism comes the closest. Attempts to rely solely on central planning have always failed unless some elements of individual freedom of action are incorporated. Likewise, attempts to rely solely on capitalism fail unless certain elements of central planning are incorporated (e.g. minimum wages, banking regulations, etc). But, however you mix the two, the goal is always to solve the economic problem of resource allocation. What would happen if that problem went away?

In the Star Trek universe the problem of resource allocation largely doesn’t exist. For the most part, anyone can obtain anything they want, any time they want, at no cost beyond the energy required to replicate it. Obviously the real world isn’t there yet but we’re headed that way. In economics, an externality is something that doesn’t come into play when calculating supply and demand – the cost of goods and services. For example, GPS is thought to be the first man-made service to be an economic externality. It exists all over the Earth and anyone can use it at no cost. No one has to worry about how to allocate GPS service as a resource because there is never a shortage of it and the very idea of supply vs demand is meaningless with regard to it. When many goods and services become as ubiquitous as GPS, what happens?

Obviously, the two primary systems we’ve relied on in the past, capitalism and communism/socialism, would also become meaningless at that point. Supply would tend toward infinity while cost, labor, and employment tend towards zero. Some kind of new economic system is needed to cope with a world like that, but what? Answering that question is what post scarcity economics is all about.

Economists are just beginning to speculate on this sort of thing but science fiction writers have pondered it for decades. Star Trek’s Federation of Planets is the most detailed and well-known example of a fictional post scarcity economy. There is no money. No one is paid to work. Goods have effectively zero cost because they can be replicated at will by anyone. This sounds crazy at first to many people. Why would people work if they’re not paid? How could anything get done with no money? Trying to understand how such an economic system could function is what economists are after. Studying Star Trek’s model has proven to be a good starting point.

Star Trek TNG Replicator

Many people mistakenly think Star Trek portrays a communist or socialist government. But there are many clear examples showing that this is not the case. There is no prohibition against private property. For example, the Picard family owns and operates a vinyard that produces fine wines. Anyone is as free to start any sort of business enterprise as they are under a modern capitalist system. For example, Joseph Sisko operates a restaurant in New Orleans. There is no prohibition against anyone having or using currency if they want to, it’s just unnecessary within the Federation itself. When dealing with alien races outside the Federation, for example, various types of currency have been used.

But who runs the Federation economy? Star Fleet itself relies on central planning in the same way any large organization does but the Federation of Planets appears to do very little Federation-wide economic planning as there is simply no need for it. However, there are a few things that can’t be replicated even in the Star Trek universe, such as dilithium crystals or certain medical compounds. There are upper limits on production such as the number of starships that can be built per year. So the government does have a few things to keep it busy. But, otherwise, little central planning or control seems to be needed.

This brings us to Trekonomics. Unfortunately, you aren’t likely to learn as much as you might wish from this book. Despite the promising title, it’s mostly written from the point of view of someone who doesn’t really “get” the show, or at least is only interested in one particular incarnation known as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The author goes to some lengths in the final chapters to point out that he really thinks Star Trek and all science fiction is ultimately a waste of time. The author believes space travel itself is pointless, and that even leaving the Earth to visit Mars is misguided. He’s really only interested in the economic principles. Sadly, he never really gets around to talking much about the economics.

The majority of the book is a collection of personal anecdotes and lengthy retellings and paraphrasings of various Star Trek episodes that had an impact on his economic thoughts. Other than an introduction in which he describes post scarcity in general and a description of how Star Trek’s replicator effectively reduces the cost of goods to zero, there’s very little useful information. At the end of the book, you’ll know his favorite Star Trek characters, his favorite episodes, what he thinks of Elon Musk, where he got his first Isaac Asimov book, and a dozen other bits of useless trivia. But you won’t know much more about the actual economics of Star Trek than when you started.

However, I didn’t write all this just to tell you the book sucked. Rather, I’d like to point you to an alternative to the book. Rick Webb has written a good sized document titled, “The Economics of Star Trek” that does an excellent job of looking at all the economic clues we can discover from Star Trek. He even speculates a bit on how such things could actually work in a realistic economic system, something Saadia doesn’t even attempt in Trekonomics.

And one last tidbit. You may want to check out one of the earliest predictions that the world is headed towards a post scarcity system. In 1930 economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a paper called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren“. Saadia mentions the paper in Trekonomics but doesn’t really go anywhere with it. Keynes notes in his paper that while scarcity has long been the fundamental assumption of economics, by 2030 we may be facing a world in which wealth and automation have rendered the economic problem solved. He predicts that capitalism will get us there but that it will be forced by technology to evolve into something else afterwards. He predicts that humans will have to adjust to a new lifestyle in which money is not important and the love of money will be viewed as a sickness. And finally he predicts that economics will become a mundane field as a result.

The one flaw in his vision is that he assumed capitalism would continue following the path of classic enlightenment liberalism, as it did in his time. If we allow economic inequality to grow rather than decline, his predictions will fail. It seems to me that capitalism has gone off the rails in that regard and is leading us toward disaster. We may still reach a utopian economic system like that of Star Trek but it may have to be by another route such as democratic socialism. Or, maybe it’s not too late to reform capitalism. It will be interesting to find out.

The Women’s March on Austin

Like most people, we were disheartened by the horrible results of the 2016 election. The old quote that is variously attributed to Edmund Burke or John Stuart Mill kept rolling around in my head; “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. The awful coalition of the Tea Party, alt-right, neo-Nazis, white nationalists and the religious right that over-powered the Republic Party and spawned the Trump administration is as evil as anything in American history that I can think of. The growing need to do something, even if only a symbolic gesture of resistance, coincided with a chance sighting on Facebook of some event info about a Women’s March in Washington, DC planned for January 21.

There was no way we could attend a march in Washington, DC but there appeared to be ancillary marches in the State capitols as well. Austin seemed possible, so we put it on the calendar. The event info also mentioned the Pussy Hat Project – a good-natured poke at Donald Trump’s hypocritical “Make America Great Again” hats. His hats promoted bringing jobs back to America while ironically being mass-produced by low income workers in China. Pussy Hats, in contrast, would be hand made by individual American makers everywhere. Neither Susan nor I are knitters but I am a member of Dallas Makerspace, the biggest collective of hackers and makers in Texas, so it was pretty easy to find a like-minded knitter there. The talented Devin Burnett knitted us a few hats in exchange for the pink yarn.

Early on the morning of Jan 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration, we set out for Austin. There was a beautiful sunrise but almost immediately a weird, dark haze began to settle over the landscape. There was no rain. It was more like a thick dark fog. We joked that perhaps as in Lord of the Rings, the rise of evil is always accompanied by a physical darkness settling over the land. The dark haze was with us most of the way down but finally began to break up as we approached Austin, revealing a beautiful, warm sunny day. Along the way to Austin we saw numerous buses and I noticed someone on Facebook saying they were taking a bus from Dallas to Austin. Had we known about them, we’d have taken a bus too. Our biggest worry was that it would be impossible to find parking close to the capitol. As it turned out, everything worked out perfectly.

We found the Cap Metro Howard Station Park & Ride on Google maps on the northern outskirts of Austin and decided to take a chance that there would be a way to get downtown on a Metro bus. We parked free and walked straight from the car to a waiting bus with Cap Metro employees waving us aboard. We tried to buy two day passes but it was an “exact change only” situation and the smallest bill we had was a ten that the cash scanner didn’t like. The driver asked if were going to the Women’s March. We said yes and she comp’ed us two day passes. The bus was full of other happy, pussy hat wearing marchers.

The bus arrived downtown and let us out a couple of blocks from the capitol. It was no problem finding the march. There were people from every direction converging on it and within moments we had merged into a stream of marchers. Originally, the plan was for everyone to meet at the capitol and then march a 1.5 mile path around downtown. As it turned out, there were so many people that the entire capitol grounds were filled as well as the entire 1.5 mile marching course. The Austin police estimated 50,000 marchers (and it’s now on record as the largest march in Texas history). So there was a continuous, endless loop of marchers on the 1.5 mile path for nearly four hours as well as the massive crowds on the capitol grounds. It was the largest crowd we’ve ever seen in person.

We marched for a while and then mingled with the crowds at the capitol. I shot lots of photos. I was amazed at the range of ages and the diversity. There were people of every race, old women in wheel chairs, children of all ages, I even saw one blind woman. There were lots of men as well and entire families marching together. There were lots of religious leaders marching too.

I was especially pleased to see the wide range of issues, well beyond just women’s rights being represented. I think this election may have awakened a widespread recognition that we have to stop taking things for granted, that we have to get out and work together or the forces of ignorance and superstition will overtake us all. I saw many signs advocating science and evidence based policy. There were a surprising number of signs bearing inside jokes of geeks, nerds, and science fiction fans. There was a general feeling of good-natured humor and fun among the marchers. Overall it was a great experience and I think it really encouraged everyone that maybe there is some hope after all. Maybe what we’re seeing is not the pendulum swinging back into the ignorance of the past but, rather, the last gasps of an ever shrinking minority who want to hold back the rest of the world and who may well die out in a generation.

We eventually headed back to the bus stop and made the drive back to Dallas. It was a long day but well worth it. Now we just need to get back to the everyday work of trying to make the world a better place.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Leaves beneath the ice of Walden Pond. Photo by Flickr user Bemep, CC BY-NC 2.0

Leaves beneath the ice of Walden Pond. Photo by Flickr user Bemep, CC BY-NC 2.0

I usually review pulp science fiction books, science books, even the occasional graphic novel, so a review of a classic like Walden may seem a bit out of place here. But I do try to read a little of everything including the classics and Walden has been on my reading list for a long time. The edition I chose is Walden and Other Writings, 2000, Modern Library Paperback Edition; partly because I also wanted to read Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience, which is in this volume, but also because I like the cover art depicting a winter scene near Walden Pond. I admit, I’ve bought more than one book based solely on the cover art.

I had vaguely thought that Walden was a work of philosophy resulting from Thoreau spending time alone pondering Life, The Universe, and Everything. It’s really nothing like that. It’s much more modern than I expected. Imagine reading a blog by someone who decides to give up television, WiFi, social media, modern technology and civilization in general as an experiment. Imagine this person finds some land by a lake and determines to live a DIY existence. They build their own tiny house from available materials, they eat only what they can find or grow, and make their own clothes. And they write weekly updates on their progress as they do all this. That’s basically what’s going on in Walden. It’s a DIY book mixed with some appreciation of nature.

Thoreau doesn’t completely leave the world behind. He walks to town periodically to give lectures, his writings are published, he has frequent visitors. A lot of the townsfolk think he’s a bit odd and keep their distance but he interacts with a wide range of other eccentric characters: hunters in the woods, fishermen on the pond, rail workers from the railroad that passes near his tiny house, transients who wander through. When he can, he invites these random people into his house and questions them about the nature of the human race and civilization. The bravest strangers even taste some of the weird foods Thoreau subsists on.

Some chapters are strictly DIY stuff like lists of materials used in building his tiny house and their costs. Or what he eats and how he obtains it. Other chapters are observations about nature – what animals he runs into, the sensory experience of the pond and woods in the different seasons. And there actually is a little bit of philosophy hidden away here and there; do humans really need to eat meat or would we be better off if we were all vegetarians? Should we be more self reliant? Why do we waste so much time and energy making money for things like clothes and homes that we could make ourselves much more simply?

The book is laid out chronologically by seasons and takes the reader through the first year at Walden Pond. The first few chapters are the most interesting as they contain the parameters of his experiment and most of the details on how he builds his shelter and gathers his supplies. Later chapters tend to be his observations of nature once things have settled into a routine. Amusingly, the descriptive part of the book ends after the first year with the sentence, “Thus was my first year’s life in the woods completed; and the second year was similar to it.” The book, while interesting and sometimes profound, is not a page-turner and you’ll probably be as glad as I was that he decides not to chronicle his second year as well.

Thoreau doesn’t think everyone should give up on civilization and live as he did at Walden, of course. He clearly thinks of his two year adventure there as nothing more than an experiment to see what the minimum lifestyle could consist of. Just like modern writers who give up The Internet or some other modern convenience for a year, Thoreau fully intends to return to civilization when his experiment is done. Despite finding it a slow read and difficult to slog through at times, particularly in the second half, I still recommend it. There are more than enough interesting and enjoyable bits to make up for it.

Morning After Dallas Sniper Attack

View from my office the morning after the Dallas sniper attack.

Wow, how to summarize the last 12 hours. Last night there was a peaceful protest march in downtown Dallas in response to the recent killings by police in other states. Towards the end of the march, snipers began shooting at police officers. The shooting was audible a half mile away at my office in Deep Ellum where I was working late. I thought at first it was fireworks, then I starting seeing events unfold on social media with posts from friends who were at the march. At least 14 people were shot, 12 of them officers. 5 officers died, 4 DPD and 1 DART officer. There appear to have been four suspects, 3 male and 1 female. (update: this is still in flux, latest reports are back to just one suspect again). One of the suspects holed up in a parking garage and was involved in a standoff with police that lasted for hours. When neogtiations with police broke down and the suspect started shooting again, the police killed the suspect using a bomb delivered by a DPD robot.

A lot of downtown was on lockdown most of the night, including the parking lot where most of the protesters parked. My friends in the march were unable to get back to their cars and had to spend most of the night in Union Station. Uber was providing complimentary rides to get some of them home. I stayed over night at my office in Deep Ellum. Everyone I know at the march and in downtown is safe. From early reports of what the deceased sniper said to police, the shooting was racially motivated but does not appear to be associated with the protest march aside from taking advantage of the police protection that DPD always offers to marches and protests downtown. The route of the march had been announced beforehand, so the shooters could easily have planned the best location for their attack.

It’s morning now and already the political spin is running full bore, trying to turn this terrorist attack into rating points for one side or the other. Either we have to support all police, who are universally good and we must believe everyone they shoot to be evil thugs; or we have to assume that all cops are bad and corrupt and that everyone they shoot is innocent. This political effort to force all issues to be black and white is intentionally divisive and needs to be rejected. Reality is never that black and white. We need to support good cops while still calling out bad ones and peacefully protesting against injustices. There’s nothing inconsistent about marching in a protest against unjust police killings while still supporting our local police who are risking their lives to protect our right to free speech.