Am I completely insane?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

I’ve reached a point in my life where I think only two possibilities can explain my relationship to the world:

1.) Over the last 25 years, I’ve gone completely insane.

2.) The world is insane, and over the last 25 years, I’ve become more aware of this.

I worry about the sheer number of things that seem painfully obvious to me, and yet which are met with widespread resistance from many groups, often the overwhelming majority of all people who care about the issue. I hate feeling like I am some contrarian crank who simply disagrees with people, yet I find myself in the minority on a striking number of important issues.

I can’t possibly list all of the issues, but here are a few of the really obvious ones that I don’t think sane people can argue with, organized into 3 sections (culture, politics, technology)

Culture

1.) Watching professional sports has become less fun over the last 50 years, due to athletes improving while the rules of most games have gone largely unchanged. Basketball players are taller, on average, than 60 years ago, yet the height of the basket has not been raised. Tennis players have learned to optimize techniques for smashing serves, which often leads to boring games where everything is decided by the strength of a player’s serve — obviously tennis is more fun to watch when there is a long and dramatic volley. American football has seen a relative improvement in defense, such that some games are just 3 attempts at 10 yards, then punt, followed by 3 attempts at 10 yards, then punt, followed 3 attempts at 10 yards, then punt. I’m not exaggerating, I actually saw a game in December where there was something like 5 punts in 5 minutes of play action. Who wants to watch that? In the specific case of American football, an obvious change that could be made is to allow 5 or 6 attempts to get 10 yards, instead of 4. That would be fun, I love watching the pass or run plays, much more than the punts. I learned to love football when I was a little kid, because my older brother loved football and I liked to watch the games with him. Back then I remember many long, dramatic passes, of a type that have become rare as defense has gotten relatively better at stopping exactly that strategy. But whenever I explain to people that the rules of sports need to be often updated to keep up with changes in equipment and training regimes, I’m told that any change would render historical comparisons invalid. Obviously that is true, but what is more important, that we are able to compare today’s game to a game in 1956, or that the game is fun?

2. Some people, especially women, are pressured to have children when they don’t want to. Other people want to have large families, yet they lack the economic means to do so. We could clearly increase everyone’s happiness if we both emphasized that it is socially acceptable not to have children, while increasing financial aid to any family where the parents actually want to have a large family. Obviously.

3. There are too many commercials on television. Nowadays I only watch television when I visit my mom and stay the night, and find myself all alone, and awake, and not sure what to do. I can’t stand watching commercials, so I change the channel when a commercial comes on, then I forget what I was watching and I get involved in the new thing, till the next commercial, then I go on to some new thing, and forget whatever the previous thing was. Several years ago I read an English translation of Italo Calvino’s novel “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” where each chapter is the opening chapter of a different book, which has supposedly been misprinted by the publisher, so one chapter is the beginning of a murder mystery, and the next chapter is the beginning of a comedy, and the next chapter is the beginning of a romance novel. A very avant garde book, but in fact, the only show now on television is Calvino’s novel — I watch the opening of one show, then go to another, then another, then another, growing more and more annoyed, just like the Reader that Calvino wrote of. I can’t recall the last time I actually bought a product that I’ve seen advertised. Surely these companies could boost profits if they simply advertised less? Or if they redirected the money towards the creation of new products? Obviously John Wanamaker was being wildly optimistic when he said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Politics

4. The USA needs to invest more in infrastructure. When I think in my head what cool cities of near-term science fiction novels are suppose to be like, I smile, then become sad, since there seems so little movement to turn vision into reality, even regarding those technologies that we already have. When I think of what would make the New York City region better, I can easily imagine a trillion of spending. The whole nation needs at least $20 trillion in spending. We continue to enact tax cuts when our focus should be on building the infrastructure necessary to support fantastic living conditions for everyone. Obviously.

5. The purpose of government is to maximize the chances that all people will be able to experience intense joy during their lives. I’m uncertain why some people disagree with this. Why would anyone object to the notion of the government fostering joy? Obviously selfishness plays some role, but in recent years I’ve come to suspect that straightforward sadism also plays a larger role than is widely understood.

6. The unspecialized legislature has reached the end of its life. We are indebted to Montesquieu for giving us the notion of “checks and balances” but that was in 1748. At the time, it seemed enough to have an independent judiciary and a somewhat independent executive. The economy was mostly agricultural, and most of those elected to the legislature were themselves landholders, so they were also, automatically, experts in the economy. That era is long gone. Even as early as 1776, Adam Smith was trying to convince us that specialization was an important way to increase productivity, and he gave a rather detailed account of workers in a pin shop, each with one small task, and together producing more pins in a day than they could produce in a week if each of them tried to create a whole pin on their own. The economy has continued to specialize, and so has the legislature. Nowadays, all real work is done in small committees, and individual legislators devote themselves to one or two topics, which they get to know well, leaving all other subjects to the other legislators, who specialize in various other topics. And yet, though this trend is more than a hundred years old, none of the Western governments have re-written their constitutions to reflect the new reality. In recent years most Western countries have set up their central bank as an independent branch of government, but this is the only improvement we’ve seen in this regard. The lack of constitutional change has brought a long era of political stagnation and paralysis. It is clear what the next step is: the end of the single, unspecialized legislature, and its replacement with a meta-legislature whose only task is to appoint talented individuals to the various committees, with each committee being granted the same level of independence that we now grant to the judiciary. That would be a system of checks and balances designed for the 21st century. And even as that strengthens the system of checks and balances in many respects, older forms of checks and balances are now obsolete, in particular, the bicameral legislature. The meta-legislature of tomorrow will be unicameral. That this level of specialization in the legislature is necessary to keep up with the other forms of specialization that have transformed our society is obvious.

7. Dealing with global warming will be cheap if we start right now. The world has already warmed considerably and we have managed to adjust easily. “Between 1309 and 1814, the Thames froze at least 23 times and on five of these occasions -1683-4, 1716, 1739-40, 1789 and 1814 – the ice was thick enough to hold a fair.” The Thames has not frozen since 1814. Likewise, in the USA, it used to be that each winter a person could skate from Manhattan to New Jersey, but this hasn’t been possible in a century. We now face a worsening condition, with the pace of change accelerating. And yet, even in 2050, the world will still mostly resemble the world that my grandfather knew. The worst effects of global warming will hit during the second half of the current century. So how much will that cost? Assume it will cost $2 trillion to improve the system of dykes and pumps and breakwaters around all the port cities in the USA. Given 100 years, that is $20 billion a year, which is less than half of one percent of what we spend on the military. Even if defending the whole coast line from erosion costs several trillion, amortized over a century the cost is not that expensive. The important thing is that we begin work right now. Obviously.

8. The public wants big breakthroughs in medical science, yet there is no mass movement, on either the Left or the Right, to advocate for such breakthroughs. In the USA funding for science has been declining as a percentage of the USA federal budget for most of the era since 1970. When people are healthy they often focus on fishing or reading books or watching movies or riding motorcycles or gardening or knitting or any of a thousand other pleasant activities, all of which are perfectly valid, yet the moment any person finds out they have cancer, they suddenly wish that the last 50 years had seen more effort made to find treatments for cancer. In the USA, funding for cancer research amounts to less than half of one percent of what we spend on the military, which is to say that we could triple our spending on cancer research if we cut the military budget by 1% and spent it on cancer research instead. Few Americans die from terrorist attacks and the USA faces no realistic military threat from any of the other Great Powers, yet 25% of Americans die of cancer, so where is the real threat? There is also the real question of when we might learn to renew stem cells so as to live longer. When do people start living to be 150 years old? At what point does it become normal to live for 300 years? Which nation will develop these technologies, and how much wealth and power will they derive from these technologies? Obviously the people of the USA, and the people of the world, would be better off if more money was spent on medical research.

Technology

9. Math notation inhibits people’s ability to learn math, and therefore inhibits the advance of science. Over the centuries, math notation has been developed by a small elite, which often prides itself on its ability to memorize an extremely terse and abstract notation. Note how many difficult math papers feel the need to use the words “trivial” and “obviously” (see the essay “I no longer understand my PhD dissertation“) about subjects that are neither trivial nor obvious — this is the competitive pressure that mathematicians feel from other mathematicians. There is also the problem of mathematicians inventing their own syntax. The social pressures within this elite, the competitive pride of learning such a terse and non-descriptive language, are in exact opposition to the needs of society. Maximizing the number of people who feel comfortable going into science would have obvious benefits for the technical progress of the current era, yet the culture of math tends to be forbidding. This has nothing to do with a student’s raw IQ, it has everything to do with bad pedagogy. A reform of math notation would benefit the whole world. Obviously.

10. The Internet (by which I mean the IP and TCP and UDP protocols) is obsolete and should have been replaced by RINA some decades ago. I have a huge admiration for the work that Jon Postel and the others did during the 1970s, but version 4 of IP/TCP was released in May of 1978. Version 5 was a complete failure. In 2018, less than 10% of Internet traffic uses Version 6 of the IP/TCP protocol, mostly because it failed to bring any of the needed improvements. The new versions, since 1978, have been too conservative and too limited. More than 90% of world wide online traffic continues to use version 4, which is now exactly 40 years old. By the 1980s, the flaws of IP/TCP were well known, and researchers were advocating for RINA. Very early on, engineers were aware that IP was stupidly wasteful in some circumstances, as when a person in a building in New York City sends a message to a person in a different building in New York City but the digital packets go first to Chicago, then back to New York City, perhaps because Chicago is where the two Internet Access providers keep their hubs for peering. But mere efficiency is not the best argument for RINA, rather, simplicity and security of publishing to local networks is, and that is a large use case. The fact that these technologies have been allowed to stagnate for 40 years leaves me in absolute despair over whether anything in this world can ever be improved. RINA and IP/TCP have different use cases for which they are ideal, but for most of the use cases that I think people actually want, RINA would be preferable. Yes, it’s been possible to get the “microservices” architecture to work over HTTP, but when we do so we are clearly going against the grain. RINA is microservices in a fundamental way, whereas IP/TCP/HTTP can only simulate microservices, and at a cost of great complexity. Intriguingly, if you re-read the Licklider memo of April 25th, 1963, it seems that he was asking for RINA, not the Internet. I wouldn’t be exaggerating much if I said that the vision of a world wide network peaked in 1963, as that seems to be the last time that someone at the highest levels of government had a clear vision of what was needed and had the political will to fight for it. The victory of IP/TCP versus RINA is a heartbreaking and extreme case of path dependent development. Obviously.

11. HTML is a terrible technology, and it should be abandoned. The world will be a better place when all Web browsers have been abandoned and replaced by RINA browsers, which will allow for more flexible programming models, and a greater diversity of approaches to graphical interfaces. Obviously.

12. Object Oriented Programming is an expensive disaster which must end. As that is the title of my best known essay, I suppose it is pointless to add anything else on the subject.

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In summary, the world is full of areas where the need for reform is obvious, the benefits of reform will be substantial, and what needs to be done is clear. Yet we live in an era of stagnation, where there is no political will to make progress in any of these areas. I know this current era will end someday, and it will be replaced by an era of action, innovation and movement. The question is, how long do we have to wait till we arrive at that future era?

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