The World is an Obtuse Angle

My pal came up with that one. He was describing this blog. “You know,” he said, “when you’re writing that The-World-Is-An-Obtuse-Angle stuff.” I laughed. It’s a good description, I’m not sure I can say it better. I even thought about re-naming the blog, but TWIAOA is not as neat as HCN, even if it is closer to the mark.

I used to teach geometry, a beautiful subject, but one that school makes a mess of. Imagine learning about Beethoven and only having sheet music. No instruments, no recordings, just humming along (assuming you can read it) while the teacher talks about how beautiful it is. I’m sure you’ll feel it. Yup, you’ll be a fan of lovely, lovely Ludwig van all the rest of your days.

In geometry, an obtuse angle is greater than ninety degrees. An angle less than that is acute. In real life, obtuse means dense, and not in a good way like gold is dense, that is, substantial. No, dense in the sense of slow-witted, with acute being its antonym and meaning quick or clever. Partridge says obtuse is from a Latin verb meaning to beat against, to blunt or dull an edge for example, like on a weapon or other instrument.

And that suits me. I feel like I go through the world with a couple of oven mitts on. I don’t have the sharpest tools for making sense of things. I don’t know if it’s just me or if the rest of humanity is like this. I’m tempted to say that it’s the normal state of affairs for the entire race. My ham-fisted probing of the wonders of nature is on par with my fellow earthlings. We like to think we are clever, with our science and our technology, and we are, I can’t deny it, we are indeed clever. Electromagnetic theory alone, of all our inventions, will continue to keep us busy for generations. We are just like the sorcerer’s apprentice—we can tap into the magic and make it do groovy stuff but we really don’t have a fucking clue about why that shit is the way it is.

But who says you have to? Isn’t an operational definition enough? Why seek why? Isn’t how and what enough? That’s the best we can do, I imagine. We can bang away at the vast chthonic mess in front of us and figure a few things out. No need to get metaphysical about it all. Unless that helps, of course. But I’m suspicious of things that can’t be field-tested. I understand that people seem to need all sorts of celestial mumbo-jumbo to tie it all together and try to make it all mean something. Hey, whatever gets you through the night.

I’m too obtuse for that, though. The believing game is so much harder to play than the doubting game. It’s easy to poke holes. What’s hard is not seeing them in the first place. Maybe there’s a benefit to dulling the senses, one can overlook annoying details while looking for the big picture. It’s like brainstorming, when you ask for ideas from a group without any censoring or evaluation. Some people can’t do it. They say something and the objection comes tumbling out right after. Or they piggyback on another’s idea and shoot it down. It actually takes a lot of mental discipline to do it right, to be free and spontaneous, when it seems like it should be easier. It’s because we are trained to be critics, and the suspension of disbelief is equated with naivete or gullibility.

A critic’s job is not to criticize. It’s to point out something we are missing. Book and movie reviews are avenues for the critic to talk about their artistic criteria and whether or not said form lived up to it. Who cares? It’s just another goddamn opinion. I want a critic that says “hey, you haven’t heard/seen/read this, you ought to take a look, you are missing out on something you might like.” I don’t want “this thing stinks because blah-blah-blah.” I want to be led to something new that will enrich me. I don’t want to be steered away from things, I want to be invited toward them. Remember when you had a friend turn you on to some artist or music that you had no idea about? Remember how joyous that moment was when you got it and felt it and knew that creation would be part of your life? That’s what I want from a critic.

So you have to be sharp enough to avoid getting bamboozled, but dull enough to learn something new. Receptivity is the key, and that’s a function of the heart, not the head. You need a good head on your shoulders so you don’t fall victim to the world and all its asinine schemes. But you also have to embrace inconsistencies and contradictions and immerse yourself in the unknown, otherwise you’ll never be transformed. After all the world is a goddamn obtuse angle: broad, blunt, and hard to see around; you don’t know what you’ll need in your pocket for the next adventure.

All Hallows’

Hallowe’en is a cross-quarter day, that is it falls midway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. This is the northern hemispherical view of things, it’s the opposite Down Under, they are preparing for summer now and take their Christmas in swim togs. But here it is distinctly fall and the cold of winter greets us each morning. I love the winter, you can always bundle up against the wind and frost, you can barely escape the solar onslaught and the stifling air of the summer. Wedged as we are into a slice of the earth that’s not high enough to be alpine nor dry enough to be desert we’ve a unique climate; and winter, though brisk, is mild compared to Wyoming or North Dakota. I like to ski and mostly you have to drive to snow, it falls occasionally in town and a handful of times might it require shoveling.

We like to say that the Winter Solstice is the first day of that season but as you go further and further north (we are at 42 degrees) that day feels more like mid-winter. In fact the early Celts and Britons reckoned the start of the dark season from this time, the solstice told them the sun would start moving back north and the days would lengthen. The Feast of St. Brigid on the first of February, corresponding to Imbolc and Groundhog Day, is the next cross-quarter day after that. There are legends that Brigid could turn water to beer and that is truly an outstanding personal quality, we need more saints like that.

After the Vernal Equinox comes May Day or Beltane marking the start of summer. Thus the Summer Solstice becomes mid-summer. This is logical as the sun reaches its peak on its path across the sky and moves southward from that point. The final cross-quarter day happens on the first of August and acknowledges harvest time. It’s Lammas Day (Anglo-Saxon) or Lughnasa (Gaelic) to the old-timers. It’s halfway to the equinox by then and we are back where we started.

There was a time when the phase of the moon was known to every person as a matter of daily existence. Artificial lighting took care of that, and with our automobiles and airplanes we can carry that light around with us wherever we go. The Industrial Revolution did the rest, the calendar is a mere convenience now and is not wedded to our bones like it once was. So few of us need to farm that we can run our lives independent of the sunrises, sunsets, and seasons.

But we kept the lore. We still read our horoscopes and celebrate our holidays. I don’t know what to make of Hallowe’en, it seems to be a much bigger deal than it was when I was a kid. (God forbid I become one of those old cranks who whines about how things were better when he was little; stop me if I ever get there.) But everything seems that way now, probably because there are a hell of a lot more of us—about 100 million more since I left high school, 18 million in California alone! I remember dressing up and trick-or-treating as a kid, it was fun. I remember one year when the Zodiac killer was on the loose, I think it was 1969, the Chief of Police asked all the moms to keep their kids in for Hallowe’en. The Zodiac’s first victims were on Lake Herman Road, just within the city limits of Benicia where I grew up, and his next victims were in Vallejo at Blue Rock Springs Park where I had been many times. That case was never solved.

I’ll admit I’m not much for costuming and never liked having to dress up for Hallowe’en at work. I suppose it was because I already had on a costume, or rather a uniform, and would never dress for life outside of work in work garb. And going out in public requires dressing up as well. All these clothes we wear are already costumes, we just don’t think it so. Our corporate retail masters and their handmaidens, the TV advert people, have trained us to see certain things as clothing and other things as costumes.

The days continue to shorten and if you want to believe we have already started winter then be my guest, you’ve got a cultural precedent to follow on this cross-quarter day. The fall here has been spectacular and unusually long, I’ll hate to see it go despite my enthusiasm for winter. The shoulder seasons are never long enough, often the autumn that’s slipped in after the hot summer seems to last mere days and not weeks. As the sun marches away make a point to note its position on the horizon at rise or set. Keep an eye on that spot. Or note its place in the sky at noon and the length of the shadows. Check again around Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and by New Year’s Day you’ll be seeing it come back around. The ancients had to do these things to survive, but we can do it just to enjoy the celestial show.

AlphaGo Zero

I suppose it did not surprise people that a computer could be programmed to beat a human in chess. Chess has a finite set of pieces on a fixed board with strict rules of movement. There are only so many positions. There are a hell of a lot of positions, but still a finite number of them. Give a computer enough computing power as well as a database of chess games between grandmasters and it can figure out the optimum move for every situation. Ultimately even world chess champions succumbed to the machine.

The next challenge was more complex: the ancient Chinese game of Go. Go has more possibilities. It has a larger board, more pieces, and more alternative moves per turn than chess even if its rules are simpler. The game is primarily played in Asia and does not have much of a North American presence. Nonetheless computer programmers took up the challenge and, of course, created a program that could beat the world’s best players. That program was called AlphaGo. AlphaGo started with the rules of Go and 100,000 actual games from expert players and “learned” to imitate the tactics needed from that information. It also “learned” by playing against itself and developed its own schemes from those outcomes.

The next step was to see if the machine could learn all by itself. AlphaGo Zero was the next iteration of the project. This time the programmers gave it the rules of Go and nothing else. No database of games to “learn” from. AlphaGo Zero, using the rules, played against itself and discovered, by trial-and-error, the optimal strategies for winning. The idea was that if a machine only learned by imitating humans then it would be limited to concepts humans had already discovered. The computer would not come up with anything new, it would just be better at the game because it could master all the moves tirelessly and faultlessly.

But AlphaGo Zero “learned” new things and discovered new ways to win and in fact routed top-rated human players easily. AlphaGo Zero works by using a tree search to find the best move. It doesn’t play out every possible outcome, it instead prunes the branches by selecting the most promising ones. It “learned” this from all the previous games it played against itself. It then “remembers” the outcomes of all those pruned tree searches and can use that information again to make optimal “decisions” for the next set of moves.

When I want to draw a straight line I use a ruler. It’s a tool to help me complete a task. When I need to calculate something complex, I use a calculator. AlphaGo Zero is another such tool. Computers are better at data mining than people. They don’t get tired or make mistakes, and the mountains of data available today are beyond the scope of any purely human effort. Now it’s looking more and more that computers are better than people at making the best decision when many, many decisions are possible.

This isn’t scary. It’s exciting. Think about musical notation. A master musician can look at a sheet of music and hear the whole thing in his or her head at a glance. The notation actually frees the mind to see the larger pattern. It’s the same with algebra. The symbolism is powerful, it reduces complicated procedures to almost effortless manipulations. You don’t have to “understand” each step and that saves time and energy. So computers and thinking machines—what we call artificial intelligence or AI—can save time and energy and free humans to work on the things that humans are best at.

So what are humans best at? What can humans do that our technology can’t touch? I don’t know. I imagine most folks would say things like feel and express emotions. A computer could be programmed to simulate human emotional responses, and in fact I suspect that some existing AI systems could pass the Turing Test and fool a user into believing it was interacting with a real person. But that’s not the same thing.

People live in a subjective reality. We experience the world in our own particular way and since no two people are perfectly alike there are a hell of a lot of realities out there. Computers don’t have that problem. If they use the same algorithms to solve the same problems they ought to get the same results. But we aren’t wired like that. Our internal algorithms are fuzzy and inconsistent. We are easily confused, self-contradicting, and frequently irrational. Artificial intelligence is an obvious boon to humankind as it can take on tasks too big and too important (air traffic control, for example) that we mere mortals would eventually screw up. I say we get these machines in as many places as possible and free us from things we don’t need to do anymore (I can’t wait for self-driving cars!).

Then we can spend our time being silly, chaotic, and creative. We can love and laugh and goof off. The sooner this happens, the better, in my mind. I realize that Go and chess are mere games and thus not fully representative of the messy complexity of nature. But machines can do a lot to help us with the mess and I say let’s put ’em to work.

Friday the 13th

I’m not superstitious by nature, I’m too much of a rational materialist for that sort of thing.  Math and science have more impact on my mind than rabbit’s feet and black cats. I was born on a Friday the 13th (November 1959) so I tend to think of it as my lucky day. But luck is like beauty as it’s in the eye of the beholder. If wildfires wipe out your neighborhood but leave your house standing, that’s good luck for you and bad luck for your neighbors. So I prefer to think in terms of random variation.

If you hit .400 for a month you stand a good chance of hitting .200 in a different month. Guys don’t hit .400 for a season very often and they don’t hit .200 for a season very often, either. They tend to swing back-and-forth between those extremes and even out somewhere north or (mostly) south of .300 for the year. That’s random variation. If you bat ten times in any weekend series and hit five balls as hard as you can you might wind up with five hits or five outs. It’s not entirely up to you or your skill level. Once the ball leaves the bat you have no control over it and the baseball gods take over. That’s random variation.

We don’t like random variation. We like to think we make our own luck. That’s true to some degree. A batter has to practice and keep improving his skills, and he has to make good decisions in the games he plays. He has to swing at pitches he can hit and he has to make solid contact. But he can do all that and still go 0-for-10 and be the goat.

In America if you are down on your luck you don’t get much sympathy. Poor people are considered weak and foolish. Their lot is their own doing and has nothing to do with luck. If they were just smarter or worked harder they would see their lives improve. The American success ethic has no place for randomness. You are a winner or you are a loser and that’s that.

But nature is not like that. And we humans are as much a part of nature as the birds and the fishes and the trees. When a volcano erupts and spews gas and lava over the landscape some living things get buried and some escape. That’s mostly a random phenomenon. The village or forest that gets immolated is not lacking in courage, fortitude, brains, or heart. It’s just unlucky. Your genetic package is not under your control. The assortment you get from your parents is the result of random variation, the outcome is not anyone’s doing.

With so much randomness around you’d think we’d be more focused on process and less focused on outcomes. But we are an outcome-oriented people. We like to assign credit and blame for things even if those things are too big for any one person to get the credit or the blame. Presidents get credit for a good economy or blame for a poor one but they may have nothing to do with it either way. Economies are very big systems with a lot of inputs and despite all the Nobel Prizes folks really don’t understand them. It’s not science as you can’t run proper experiments and thus you can’t test your hypotheses. And when economists get tangled up with politicians all bets are off. Politics is about as irrational a business as humans can come up with and people who are good at it know that feelings and attitudes are way more important than facts.

Facts are over-rated anyway. We are believing and doubting creatures. We believe some things and doubt others and most of the time it has little to do with actual events. We are products of our upbringing and environment and it is really hard to see the world in any other way but the way we’ve always seen the world. Prejudice, or perhaps I should say bias, is more important than objectivity. In fact objectivity is impossible for humans, as no matter how hard we try at least some of our preconceived notions will be part of our world view.

So what is one to do? I think the key is to recognize our inability to see the facts in a situation and accept that we are opinionated as hell. What we can do is try on some of those other opinions and try to see where they come from. They come from somewhere, they are not entirely random or without foundation. If you put yourself in someone else’s shoes you might see the world a little differently than you did before and that is, in my mind, progress. I think the most beautiful thing in the world is empathy. When you can feel what another person might be feeling even if you’ve not had the experiences of that other person you become a larger version of yourself. You enrich your own humanity.

Empathy can only come about through humility. We have to recognize our own weaknesses and limitations. We have to accept that sometimes it is luck that gave us what we have and not our checklist of virtuous behavior. The mystic believes that god is in everyone and that anyone who accepts that fact cannot hate another person or be indifferent to their suffering because that would be an affront to god. I think that might be the hardest thing in the world, to see god in everyone. Too hard for most of us I expect.

For us ordinary mortals, those of us without the necessary spiritual equipment to see god everywhere, we could try something a little easier. How about seeing that the process is more important than the outcome? That random variation doesn’t discriminate and thus we are all subject to it. That bad luck could be just around the corner no matter who you are, and that most of us don’t “deserve” it when it happens. How about letting go of opinions? That’s all they are, opinions. They aren’t universal truths or bits of wisdom or guidelines for ethical living. They are just opinions. We love our opinions and think they define us. They don’t. They come and they go and we change our minds and then we rail at others for changing theirs. Seems pretty stupid, don’t you think?

One thing I know is true: we are all the same. Forty-six chromosomes made out of the same stuff, DNA. We are different, the DNA says that too, but the differences are not as great as the similarities. That’s one of those things worth keeping: what divides us is a lot less than what we have in common. That’s biology, man, and you can’t argue with that.

8 yards

That’s what the concrete truck—technically an in-transit mixer—brought today. We had three yards poured yesterday and we’ll get three more yards on Friday. Eight cubic yards is 216 cubic feet. That helps, doesn’t it? If you can imagine a block, a cube actually, two yards (six feet) on a side, you’ll get the idea. (Two cubed is eight, six cubed is 216.) I don’t want a cube of course, I want a driveway. Yesterday we got our new sidewalk, curb, and gutter. (You have to pay for these things even though they are used by the public. Your tax dollars NOT at work!) Friday we’ll get the walkway that connects to the porch. That’s the last of the concrete projects.

Bare ground doesn’t stay bare long. The plants come in whether you want them to or not. So you have to do something with the ground. Decorative gravel and stepping stones. Drought-tolerant ground cover. Perhaps a garden.  Or maybe a lawn. But you have to manage the space or you’ll have dust, mud, and thickets of hardy weeds. A weed is just the name we give to a plant we don’t like. If we liked dandelions and wanted them around they wouldn’t be weeds.

Around my neighborhood we have lots of cats. Not the kind of cats that live inside but the kind of cats that roam. They like my big back yard because I don’t have a dog. They see my open space and think “now THAT’S a litter box!” They see my wife’s beautifully tended raised beds and think “LUXURY litter box!” If a dog craps in your yard you go talk to the owner and say “hey please keep your dog in your yard” and they (mostly) say “OK, sorry, will do.” But you can’t use that argument with cats. I used to have a bird feeder. Lots of finches, man. Very cool. But the neighborhood cats would all gather in my back yard watching the feeder, hoping one of the little fellows would fall. If one did they’d pounce on the poor bugger and make a sort of meal of it. Really they’d just kill the bird and maybe gnaw on it but these were well-fed cats. They didn’t do it out of hunger. I know a cat is natural-born killer so I didn’t hold it against them, they were just doing the cat-carnivore thing. Perfectly natural. But I did not put up the feeder to provide cats with recreational hunting opportunities so I got rid of it.

My neighbors, I’ve no doubt, are salivating over my new driveway. They need a place to turn around, after all. This big wide slab of new concrete will beckon them. They won’t use their own driveways and they won’t go the other way on the street. No, they have to turn around in front of my house. I don’t understand it. I can go west on my street and get to where I’m going or I can go east on my street and get to where I’m going. I can enter my property whether I’m going west on my street or I’m going east. That does not seem possible for my neighbors. They have to turn around in my driveway.

I don’t think the city will be happy if I put in one of those tire-puncture devices along the edge of my new driveway. You remember these things from the drive-in movie theaters. Fee-based parking lots have them, too. You can drive one way over them but not the other. Obviously I’d have to get a retractable one, and just my luck I’d forget and drive my vehicle over them and get four ugly flats in one fell swoop. So I guess that’s out. There’s always a gate. They have these cool remote-controlled solar-powered gates that will swing open for you and close behind you like a garage door. But I’ll be broke after this project and I can’t afford that. Plus it seems like a lot of expense and hassle just to express irritation at my neighbors. I’ll probably just park one of my vehicles in the driveway and that will discourage them. My fancy new concrete cost a lot of money—if they want to chip in I will change my tune.

Last night a couple of dogs nearly ran on to the still-wet freshly-poured sidewalk. I did not want dog prints in my sidewalk. It isn’t really my sidewalk, I have to let other people walk on it. But I paid for it so I wanted it free of rocks, initials, falling leaves, hoof prints, foot prints, or shoe prints. We had barriers and cones up to warn people but dogs don’t read. One of my neighbors lets her dog out to run around freely and he nearly left his mark. But we chased him away. The other dog was unknown to me. Someone on a nearby street also lets their dog out to run freely. Doesn’t seem like very responsible dog ownership, but what do I know? I was worried that the deer that march with impunity down our street on a regular basis might step in the pour. I sat outside at twilight but I didn’t see them come by. They have a much bigger target this evening, but they seem a little spooked by the barriers and the yellow caution tape.

My new driveway will cut down on a lot of mud, dust, and weeds. But I’ve still got lots of bare dirt. You can’t concrete everything, unfortunately. Some of it you have to manage. I don’t like lawns so those are out. The cats don’t like lava rocks, for some reason they are reluctant to walk on the small pumice stones, so I’m sure I’ll get some more of that stuff. We like rock gardens and xeriscapes and such. We’ll get to that at some point, but for now I’m going to watch my concrete cure. It beats watching paint dry.

 

Anomalous water

I live at the bottom of a hill on top of a big pile of gravel. They call it ‘alluvium’ on the geologic maps, but that’s just fancy-talk for rocks and sand that have been washed off the hillsides. A veneer of dirt sits on top. I hesitate to call it ‘soil’ because it’s barely that. If you want to grow anything besides juniper or star thistle you have to add nutrients and other organic matter. When you irrigate the water that doesn’t get retained by the soil percolates through the alluvium until it hits a clay layer. We call that clay layer ‘hardpan.’ It’s impermeable. It causes tree roots to turn sideways. When the rains come the water hits this layer and flows underground. We used to have a cellar that was below grade and it flooded every winter. In fact it would flood if my upstream neighbors watered their lawns.

It’s mostly desert around here. But there’s more water than you think. It’s just underground. I can dig a hole in my yard and a couple of feet down it’s saturated. Or not. It seems random. Dig a line of fence posts and there’s nothing. The next one over and you hit a pocket of water. When it really rains, and that happens sometimes, the hardpan will block the downward flow and the yard will fill with standing water. Over the next few days the water will soak into the ground and move on. I suppose it shows up in the creek beds below me, or joins an aquifer, or something. I don’t really know. It’s pretty damn dry around here, it’s not like this mysterious underground water is feeding a forest.

We had some digging done the other day for a concrete project. At one end of the dig there was standing water. Just a few inches, but it was there. Where did it come from? I don’t know. After spending all day panicking that I had another leak in my water line (we just had that fixed after much hassle and expense) I came to appreciate that it was perhaps just more of that anomalous water that regularly bedevils us.

I’d be willing to bet that if we could peel off the street and look beneath it we would see a web of rivulets. Capillaries of trickling water. Pockets of the stuff trapped in the aggregate sitting on top of the clay and just waiting to be freed. And a few feet one side or the other, not a drop. It’s vexing, this anomalous water. It’s not predictable. The gravel the town sits on is not uniform. It’s thick in some places and thin in other. Some spots are mostly big rocks and some spots are mostly pebbles and fine particles. It’s all jumbled up and mixed together. The hardpan varies as well. You can’t expect nature to erode mountains with any kind of regularity. It’s a big random conglomeration and that’s why we get this whack-a-mole water stuff.

My contractor is a very exacting fellow. He does not like surprises. When he forms up a concrete pour he does not want to worry that one end of it will be a soupy mess. And I’m writing the checks so I’m all for his careful approach. I want my concrete to last. So neither of us like this anomalous water. It appears here and there but not everywhere. It appears in odd places and at odd times. This is the first day of fall. That means we’ve just had summer. Why are there pockets of water under my feet after months of hot, dry weather? I don’t know.

Richard Feynman was quoted saying “I can live with doubt and uncertainty” and other stuff like “I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things.” He was usually talking about big problems in theoretical physics, not little problems like anomalous water in my yard. But I think the same attitude has to be applied here. I don’t understand what’s under the ground, but I guess can live with it.

 

Our Atomic Future

I remember well Our Atomic Future. After The Bomb, it was the promise of peaceful uses. Uranium would power our homes, factories, and business. No more smelly oil or coal, no more air pollution, just pellets of enriched earth silently and invisibly glowing, making steam from the heat and making electricity from the steam. Then shit happened. First came a probing jab with the left hand, easily fended off, but ominously named: Three Mile Island. The right cross that followed was a doozy: Chernobyl. Our Atomic Future, now staggered, was no match for the left hook: Fukushima. Down it went.

I miss Our Atomic Future. I wish I could still believe in it, but futures that never happened don’t seem belief-worthy. Our gigantic carbon experiment will continue even if we revolutionize ground transportation with electric cars and biofuels. Diesel engines running on heavy fuel oils power our shipping fleets; kerosene-based fuels power our commercial aircraft. We’ll be sucking on our hydrocarbon-rich basins for many years to come, don’t you worry, we love blasting the ancient reservoirs of fossilized life into the sky for all to enjoy.

The sun and wind make up our new dreams. It’s very cool to imagine such a thing: Our Renewable Future. That future crowded out Our Atomic Future to the point where only a handful of adherents remain. Yet the atom was split to save all mankind and no one is going to take that away. A new nuclear age is an easy one to envision thanks to that noted futurist, Steve Jobs. This fellow made everything pocket-sized, and slick to boot. Cool look and feel, solid performance, cutting-edge features. Design was paramount, tech became the new aesthetic. Our Atomic Age could never be revived in such a marketplace. Nuclear power plants are just slicker versions of the old-style power plants. They weren’t new so much as improved. And everyone knows that Americans expect new and improved.

Imagine Steve Jobs redesigning Our Atomic Future and setting in motion our new nuclear age. Palm-sized devices for extreme places. Suitcase-sized power plants for running a village. Generators the size of beer coolers giving communities off-the-grid energy. All of them smooth, silvery-surfaced, with simple and intuitive interfaces. Hell, a child could run one. Or perhaps that other mythologist— George Lucas—could chip in with atomic cars and boats and planes that have friendly personalities and colorful appearances. In fact I think we should build an AI of those two consciousnesses and have it spew out possible nuclear futures.

Everyone could have their own personal nuclear pile, like a key fob. It could run all sorts of things. You wouldn’t have to be tethered to the nearest AC plug to keep your phone or laptop charged. Just charge it up with the little atomic box. Forgot to pay the power bill? It will keep the fridge running and the water heater going until you can scratch the cash together. That’s real energy independence.

I suppose folks might be squeamish about all that fission. But big problems need big answers. When we are all living in vast beehives in the currently uninhabitable parts of our globe, or in enormous termite mounds in earth orbit or on the moon, we’ll need lots of energy. Something will have to supplement the sunshine. Maybe by then we’ll have unlocked the secret of the sun—fusion. It worked in Back to the Future, right?