Television has attracted and distracted me my entire life. These days it seems as though there is so much content available that it is impossible to keep up. people are always asking me “Did you watch ______?  (fill in the blank) and most of the time my answer is No.

I actually keep a list of shows to watch. This is part of this era of streaming options, on-demand and binge watching.

And then there is cutting the cord that tethers you to cable and paid services. I have Netflix and Amazon Video and have some free offer access to HBO and Showtime, and just those offer way too much to consume.

I tend to stick with only a few series at a time. Too many and I can’t keep track of what episodes I already watched or what happened in them. Too many times my wife and I have returned to a series after a week or two and watch the “previously on” clips at the beginning and asked each other “Did we see that already?”

If you really want to cut the bills for content there are plenty of sources for free movies and TV shows. YouTube has a lot of free stuff (and now has low cost content too), and there are mostly free older movies and shows in the public domain in various places.

I can always watch old comedies like His Girl Friday , My Man Godfrey or My Favorite Brunette for free on a slow and lazy day.

There are channels designed to provide free content. Crackle (now owned by Sony) was a channel I discovered a few years ago when it popped up on y smart TV and was showing the first seasons of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I have since watched all those episodes and now the series has moved to the paid land of Netflix.  Crackle has movies, TV shows and some original series.

The big networks have taken note of the free and the cord cutters and now offer some free online content and have been moving into their own streaming networks.

AT&T recently merged with Time Warner and launched a new low-cost streaming service, WatchTV. You can stream through the WatchTV app or on some browsers at no extra cost with AT&T’s two latest unlimited wireless plans. For everyone else, you can purchase WatchTV for $15 per month. It has  over 30 live channels and 15,000 TV shows and movies on demand. It’s like a mini-cable subscription with A&E, AMC, CNN, Food Network, TBS, TNT, BET and Comedy Central.

But back to free…  Have you seen Tubi TV? It offers some popular shows and films without a subscription. The selections are updated weekly. You can get the app for your Apple devices and Android. That points to two trends: entertainment at zero cost, and watching TV (or should I just call it video?) on smaller devices like your phone.

Of course, we are still buying big TV screens and throwing content up there too. This week I was showing friends a slideshow of my son’s wedding photos by plugging a USB flashdrive into the side of the big TV.

No lack of alternative entertainment.

golden moon

Tonight’s July Full Moon is usually called the Buck Moon. I saw on the calendar that there is a Night Hike under the Full Buck Moon at the Sandy Hook National Recreation Area near me in New Jersey. That is a beautiful natural beach area and if all the rain of his week clears out for the evening there, it should be a great setting to observe the ecosystem below that Full Moon.

That Buck Moon name comes at a time of year when a buck’s antlers are in full growth mode. This is known as when the antlers are in velvet. They will do their bloody scraping of those antler and prepare for rutting season closer to autumn.

Both American Indians and colonists used the Buck Moon name, but there are many other American Indian tribal names that use notable nature signs from their geographic region. For example, the Cree noted this as the Moon When Ducks Begin to Molt.

The Lakota called this the Moon When The Chokecherries Are Black and other tribes noted this as the time for huckleberries. Several tribes referenced the corn which was an important crop that they planted and relied upon. This gives us names such as the Corn Moon, Young Corn Moon or Ripe Corn Moon (Cherokee). For the Choctaw this was the Little Harvest Moon or Crane Moon.  depending on your location. The Algonquin called this the Squash Are Ripe Moon.

I used this year the more general Mohawk name of the Time of Much Ripening because wherever you are in the Northern Hemisphere some things are ripening.

And yes, today is also the “century’s longest lunar eclipse” is also today BUT this lunar eclipse is primarily visible from the world’s Eastern Hemisphere (Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand). In South America, you can watch the final stages of the eclipse just after sunset July 27, whereas New Zealand will catch the beginning stages of the eclipse before sunrise July 28. For those of us in North America, most of the Arctic and much of the Pacific Ocean, we will miss out entirely.

singularity

“Naked Singularity” by new 1lluminati

I got to thinking again about “The Singularity” when I read this week about robots teaching other robots as part of some research at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

The technological singularity, often just simply called the singularity, is the idea that the invention of artificial superintelligence (ASI, a step beyond AI) will result in very rapid technological growth and then dramatic changes to human civilization.

The term was popularized by sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge in his 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity” but goes back earlier to the mathematician John von Neumann, who spoke of “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”

Futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology in 2005 as a sequel and extension to his previous books, The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) and The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999). Kurzweil predicts an exponential increase in technologies like computers, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence, and then once the Singularity has been reached, machine intelligence will be infinitely more powerful than all human intelligence combined.

Kurzweil and others see the next phase to be when intelligence moves beyond Earth until it saturates the universe. Some people say that the true Singularity is the point at which machines intelligence and humans merge.

In the past decade, some famous folks like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk expressed concern that full artificial intelligence could result in human extinction.

The Singularity’s potential benefit or harm to the human race is being debated.

But my current interest is this idea of the machines using “social learning.” In your lifetime, you have probably learned more by observing or interacting with others than you learned in any formal “school” setting. This kind of socially acquired knowledge is different from what we learn on our own, or in a classroom.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that robots would some day also learn this way. The robots at MIT are learning from one another. A robot is programmed with a knowledge base so it has information about how to interact with objects such as door handles. This knowledge base helps the robot navigate the constraints of the world, such as the physical necessity of having to turn a handle before pulling a door open. A human “teacher” only needs to demonstrate the action once. Then, the robot can pass its knowledge on to other robots.

Maybe that doesn’t fit you definition of teaching. True. This transfer of skills between robots still needs  intervention from a human. For now…

What they are working on at MIT is demonstrating tasks to one robot that can then transfer its skills to other robots that are different. Others with different body shapes and strengths can use the skills in other ways. Their goal is independent social learning in robots – cultured robots.

If we reach the singularity – or is it that the machines reach it? – they will no longer need us. Does that make you feel hopeful or hopeless about the future?

Novelist Sinclair Lewis is known for a number of novels he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. Main Street (1920) gave him wide recognition and he followed it with Babbitt (1922) and Arrowsmith (1925). The latter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, but Lewis declined the award. After Elmer Gantry (1927) and Dodsworth (1929), Sinclair Lewis became the first American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

One of his lesser known novels is It Can’t Happen Here, published in 1935.  He was writing during the Great Depression and during a time when most Americans were oblivious to Hitler’s rise to power. Certainly Lewis had Hitler in mind and was warning Americans of the possibility of such a leader rising to power in the United States – even though most Americans would have said “it can’t happen here.”

Lewis was also connecting his character Buzz Windrip with the Louisiana politician Huey Long, who was preparing to run for president in the 1936 election. Huey Long was assassinated in 1935 just prior to the novel’s publication.

Lewis’ novel has gotten some attention again now because people are seeing parallels to Donald Trump’s campaign and administration. Take a look at the novel’s description on the back cover of Lewis’ book and you can see why.

It Can’t Happen Here is being viewed as a prescient novel that seems more like contemporary commentary on our current political climate.

During the 2016 Presidential campaign, I spent some time in Europe and a number of people I met in Eastern Europe asked about Donald Trump. I said that I didn’t think, at that point, that he had much of a chance of getting the nomination or winning. I was there during the week of the Brexit vote and a number of Brits told us that would not be passed. When it was, they were shocked, and told us that don’t be surprised if the same feelings aren’t present in America and would help Trump’s campaign. “Don’t think it couldn’t happen in America too, ” they warned me.

I did some reading about Sinclair Lewis, who I have not read since my undergraduate days. He graduated from Yale University in 1908, but had an interrupted college career as he worked at several part-time jobs. One of those that caught my attention was a period he spent working at the Helicon Home Colony.

The Colony was novelist Upton Sinclair’s socialist experiment in New Jersey. Upton Sinclair Jr. was also an American writer who is best known for his classic muckraking novel The Jungle. Helicon Home Colony was an experimental community he formed in Englewood, New Jersey using the proceeds from The Jungle. It was short-lived. It was established in October 1906, but the home burned down in March 1907 and the experiment ended.

After graduating Yale, Lewis worked as an editor and journalist, and published several novels that gained little attention. But Main Street in 1920 gave him recognition.

I only discovered It Can’t Happen Here recently via a tweet – which seems appropriate if you are making a Trump connection.

I think I will have to give Lewis’ novel a read.

From the summary I read, Lewis was clearly portraying a genuine U.S. dictator. But Lewis’s character of Windrip is not so much an American Hitler as he is a con-man – a good one who knows how to appeal to people’s desperation, but he has no overarching ideology or desire for world domination.

I’m behind on picking up on the novel because I can see online that since the 2016 United States presidential election, sales of It Can’t Happen Here shot up and this old novel made it to Amazon.com’s list of bestselling books, as did Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. As with Orwell, Sinclair Lewis wrote what he considered a warning about something dangerous he saw beginning in America and portrayed in fiction how that might eventually play out in reality.

Tonight, July 20, that bright “star” near the moon is no star. It is Jupiter.

Jupiter is shining more brightly than any star now (though Mars is even brighter). The moon and Jupiter are particularly close tonight and during this weekend.

Venus and Mars are the other starlike objects that outshine Jupiter in the evening sky, but you can tell the difference. Venus is in the western sky as darkness falls. Mars is in the southeast horizon at nightfall.  Jupiter will be near the moon for this weekend.

I read about two studies that were done concerning IQ and the more general sense of just how smart we think we are.

Your IQ (intelligence quotient) was probably tested and measured in school, though you probably were never told your magic IQ number. Think you might be a genius?

Genius IQ is generally considered to begin around 140 to 145. That’s about ~.25% of the population or 1 in 400 people. There are varying guides to how the geniuses are divided up. One guide shows:
115-124 – Above average (e.g., university students)
125-134 – Gifted (e.g., post-graduate students)
135-144 – Highly gifted (e.g., intellectuals)
145-154 – Genius (e.g., professors)
155-164 – Genius (e.g., Nobel Prize winners)
165-179 – High genius
180-200 – Highest genius
>200 – “Unmeasurable genius”

Einstein was considered to “only” have an IQ of about 160.

Since the early 20th century, IQ scores were increasing at 10 points per generation, but in the last twenty or thirty years, humans have started getting dumber – if dropping IQ scores are to be believed.

The trend that IQ increased throughout the 20th century is known as the Flynn effect, named after intelligence researcher James Flynn after he observed the rises in IQs for every decade in the 20th century. But in recent years there has been a slowdown or reversal of this upward trend, at least in some countries.

The Flynn Effect is attributed to a variety of societal improvements during the 20th century, including prenatal and early post-natal care, reduced exposure to lead, reduction of pathogens, improved nutrition, better education and improved social environment.

But from the 1970’s onwards, our intelligence has started falling. Are we getting dumber?

One theory concerns dividing our intelligence into two types: fluid and crystallized. Blame is thrown at schools that value and judge you on your ability to recall information for tests and exams. That is crystallized intelligence. It is a type of intelligence that is fine for many service class jobs.  An increasing number of people are going into these kinds of service jobs, and many of those jobs are being dumbed down. You don’t need to add or subtract or even put in amounts when the iconized cash register shows you a picture of a soda or a burger or fries and does it all for you.

But fluid intelligence is what we use for problem solving, critical thinking and higher order skills. It’s not that fluid is better; it’s that both kinds are needed for higher intelligence.

Let me bring in here a second effect: the Dunning Kruger Effect. This was developed by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University who found a cognitive bias that occurs when people fail to adequately assess their level of competence (or incompetence) at a task. They consider themselves to be more competent than they actually are.

The theory has a far less academic name, according to the Urban Dictionary, as “Mount Stupid.” This is a mountain you climb until you get to the place where “you have enough knowledge of a subject to be vocal about it, without the wisdom to gather the full facts or read around the topic.”

It sounds like pop psychology, but there have been serious studies done on the effect. People with low ability do not have the necessary critical ability and self-awareness to recognize how low their ability actually is, and that leads them to have an inflated view of their own competence and knowledge.

In much cruder terms, this effect occurs when people are “too stupid to know how stupid they are.” Have you ever noticed this effect?

Dunning and Kruger tested developed their theory with tests of humor, logic, science and grammar. They found that those who performed best consistently underestimated their ability. But those who performed worst believed that they had in fact done well. As cognitive ability worsens, so does the ability for the participant to accurately assess their ability.

Again, in simpler terms, those with only a little knowledge were more dangerous than those that knew they had no knowledge about a subject. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing“ said Alexander Pope way back in 1709.

The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know. You have heard that, right? It is a commonly said idea, but it is actually a different cognitive bias known as “Imposter Syndrome.”

When Nicholas Carr published The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains in 2011 (and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) people kept quoting his earlier Atlantic Monthly article “Is Google making us stupid?” He hit a nerve at the time – we enjoy the Internet a lot, but are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply by using it too much?

Carr references earlier thinkers from Plato to McLuhan and notes that the idea that every information technology (printed books to the Net) also changes our nature of knowledge and intelligence.

Thinking people feared that the printed book would erode our use of memory. But it actually served to focus our attention and promoted deep and creative thought.

Carr doesn’t think the Internet is doing good things. It encourages rapid, distracted dipping into bits of information from many sources. His theory is that what it is making us better at is scanning and skimming – not concentration, contemplation, and reflection.

But you’re reading this article and you’re thinking about it. Did it make you feel a bit stupider or a bit smarter to read it? Will you comment on it, or share it, or read more about it, or talk to someone else about it?

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