the future – Open Source Mechanic blog cat /dev/random | strings | grep "For being ignorant to whom it goes I writ at random, very doubtfully" Tue, 10 May 2016 21:50:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 VR Empathy Machine links UN dignitaries with Syrian Refugees Sat, 28 Nov 2015 10:47:06 +0000 “My name is Sidra. I am 12 years old… I have lived here in the Zaatari camp in Jordan for the last year and a half.” Filmmaker Chris Milk took his empathy machine to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan to help us see and feel more about the lives of these vulnerable people.

Originally published in Green Prophet

The Statistics of Disaster

Each day, something terrible happens somewhere in this world. Families and communities are torn apart and thrown together in unfamiliar ways. Strangers who had found one another just barely tolerable become fellow humans, grieving needing and helping one another to survive.

The mechanical details of each tragedy are broadcast to the world via live satellite. While survivors are still struggling to breath, observers are consumed with the statistics of disaster. A category 5 hurricane, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake, the killers were quiet men who kept to themselves. The death toll was 404.

Do we need more emotional bandwith?

These facts spark our most primitive emotions first because these require the fewest bits of information. We fear that this tragedy might happen to us or we grow angry and seek to punish the real or imagined cause. Our despair grows as these darker motions consume us.

Empathy is a more complex emotion. According to a Princeton and Dukemigrant_mother_1936_syrian_refugee_2015 University study entitled, “Brain’s Social Network Implicated in Dehumanizing Others,” by Rick Nauert, MRI scans show that there is a part of the human brain associated with empathy. But prejudice, racism and socioeconomic status can turn off this empathic part of a person’s brain and enable one associated with disgust. Might this empathy gap explain why people tend to shun war refugees at the same time as they spend millions of dollars per day on wars?

Empathy seems to require more communication bandwidth. Sometimes it requires direct contact with loved-ones in the faraway land or a memories of a time when we ourselves also lived through such a tragedy. Music, photography and visual arts can also trigger empathy. Functional MRI studies have found that literature literally helps us get inside the minds of others by activating the same regions in our brain that tell us the story of who we are.

Whatever the cause for the connection, some people are able to feel deeply for the victims of disaster. Their empathy expands to with the scale of the disaster. The may lose sleep, grow physically sick or fall into a depression. Or they might feel compelled to do something, anything to try to fix whatever it is that is broken with the world, with the focus on the needs of the victims rather than the punishment of the cause.

Film and Virtual Reality as empathy machines

clouds_finalThe late film critic Roger Ebert considered empathy to be the most essential quality of a civilization, “We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

Filmmaker Chris Milk is using Virtual Reality(VR) technology to increase our emotional bandwidth beyond what was possible in movies. VR technology has been with us for decades but it has been refined and its cost has dropped dramatically. Occulus rift, Google Cardboard and other VR devices will be hot sellers in the coming year. But Chris Milk didn’t wait. He shot “Clouds over Sidra” at Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp.


This was the first Virtual reality film ever made for the United Nations. Chris explains that unlike film where the viewer is looking through a window frame, this technology takes the viewer through the frame so that they experience what it is like to be in the room with Sidra and sitting next to her in her school. The project gave UN dignitaries in Geneva Switzerland and it did seem to make a difference in their perceptions. Maybe it will for each of us. Try it yourself by downloading Google Play, VRSE and viewing “Clouds over Sidra” on VRSE, Google Cardboard or other virtual reality devices. Otherwise click like and share for a bit of virtual empathy.

Photos from Chris Milk’s “Clouds over Sidra” at VRSE.

Photo of Migrant mother (1936) by Dorthy Lange.

Photo of Syrian refugee woman(2015) by Washington Post

Thanks also to my Lebanese-American cousin Mud for her thoughtful piece on emotional responses to disasters, Laurie Balbo who works with Studio Syria and Collateral Repair; Gael at Dar al Yasmin for giving my family some non-virtual reality experience with Syrian refugees to help us imagine them not as anonymous faraway strangers, but as human beings.

$800 Billion burning a hole in your pocket? Spending idea Thu, 13 Nov 2014 22:29:00 +0000 moonshot

Against the better judgment of hundreds of economists as well as the vast majority of the voting public (those annoying constituents), Congress approved Henry Paulson’s bailout plan. Now Paulson’s appointed “bailout czar”, Neel Kashkari has $800 billion tax dollars burning a hole in his pocket and he is trying to figure out how to spend it. My wife was a loan officer and defacto credit counselor way back in the late 1900s when most banks and credit unions still carefully considered credit ratings, debt/income and debt/asset ratios. She often helped people understand how to prioritize their spending. Sometimes little changes such as forgoing the daily cappuccino were enough to lift people out of debt and improve their credit rating. Our bailout czar’s job is slightly different. In order to efficiently bail out failing financial institutions, he must invest taxpayer’s money on assets that no one in their right mind would buy with their own hard-earned money. I personally don’t think this is a good plan. At best it is a temporary patch to a deflating asset bubble. If the bailout czar really wishes to use tax money to improve long term American economic growth and competitiveness, he should consider the following options for spending 800 billion dollars:

  • Bailout Chrysler 800 times (in 1979 dollars). This cash flow diagram indicates that, not so long ago, Detroit fueled a huge portion of the U.S. economy.
  • Repeat the Apollo moon lander program (including R&D from 1961-1969) 32 times (8 times in 2008 dollars).
  • Install photovoltaic solar roofs on 32 million homes (1/5th of all homes in the U.S.)
  • Pay full (unadjusted) tuition for their first year of Yale for 70% of 18-25 year old Americans. (Quoted tuition is for Yale medical school, but Yale has other specialties which could prepare students to become business leaders, presidents, senators, economists…)
  • Fund the National Cancer Institute for 165 years.
  • Provide microcredit loans for the world’s $1 billion working poor.
  • Fund UNICEF for 266 years.
  • Buy every possible ticket combination in the Florida Lotto for 57142 weeks, which means Paulson could hold a winning Florida lottery ticket every week for 1098 years.
  • SETI. Wisconsin’s former Senator and spendthrift William Proxmire once awarded his famous “Golden Fleece Award” to project SETI. Paulson’s bailout money could fund project SETI for 160,000 years.

I’m confident that any of the items on my shopping list would give U.S. taxpayers more bang for their buck than the current plan to reinflate the property bubble, an asset bubble which caused a massive misallocation of financial and intellectual resources and actually works against U.S. global competitiveness.

Incidentally, $800 billion is a lot of money, but it isn’t an infinite amount. Unfortunately it isn’t enough for the following:

  • $800 billion won’t buy enough Starbucks cappuccino to fill Lake Erie, the smallest great lake. However, if you combine all of the recent Fed and treasury bailouts, you could buy enough instant coffee to flavor the Great Salt Lake. You could also buy enough cheap off-brand root beer or Kool-Aid to fill Lake Okeechobee. Wouldn’t this be a nice modern variation on the Boston tea party?
  • $800 billion could easily fulfill Herbert Hoover’s promise of “a chicken in every pot” (in fact everyone’s pot could contain 666 $4 chickens), but to put “a car in every garage” as he also promised, you’d want slightly more money unless we’re willing to settle for a used or economy car in every garage.
  • $800 billion would fill a bag with about 80 billion decent ACE hardware hammers but apparently only 1.3 Billion military grade hammers.
  • If you sent $800 billion to the International Star Registry, they would only name 22 Billion stars after a loved one in their “official” book. But the Milky Way galaxy contains at least 200 billion stars and there are billions of other galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of nameless stars. So at best, only about one in every 10 stars in our galaxy could be named “Henry Paulson”.Billions and Billions of stars
  • By bnitz on Oct 30, 2008
Introduction to “Divided we fall” Sat, 07 Dec 2013 12:54:47 +0000 #REGION CODE:SOLEARTH 7 #SECTOR: EUROIBERNIA 45 #TRIBE:TECHREADER A7KV2 #UID: 412789512M0

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“…(My) greatest fear is that as we drifted towards this blandly amorphous generic world view not only would we see the entire range of the human imagination reduced to a more narrow modality of thought, but that we would wake from a dream one day having forgotten there were even other possibilities.”
— Margarate Mead