Is Elon Musk Rasputin or Cosmo Kramer?


How many of us thought we would not live long enough to see the mind-blowing innovations displayed in countless sci-fi movies? How many of us thought we’d live to see portable communication devices that we could put in our pocket? How many of us considered self-driving cars and vision phones where we could see the person on the other end of the line? How many of us thought we’d have a computer in just about every home? How many of us thought with all these wild innovations that defied boundaries that we would all be wearing silver suits while watching TV, mowing the lawn, or doing the dishes in the distant year 2000? If you watched movies or TV during the bygone era, you knew these were the visions of life on Earth in the future.

Photo courtesy of American Conservative

How many of us now laugh when we picture our deceased relatives trying to figure out how to use our current innovative gadgets? Our generation now knows that these sci-fi movies portrayed life in the 2000s correctly in some ways and incorrectly in others, but one thing they were right about is we know more technological innovation than our forebears did. Even the generation below us is more accustomed to life with such innovation than we were. Walk into any junior high in the country and you’ll witness work in robotics that is no longer speculative. You’ll also witness the work they do with computers that belies the fact that they are so accustomed to computers being a facet of human life that they’ve worked through any intimidation they might have had with the machines a decade before junior high. The question now is are we so accustomed to technological innovation that we’re more open to wild, crazy ideas than every generation before us, and are we so open to it that we leave ourselves susceptible to the possibilities of more from an ingenious charlatan?

The early 1900’s were another period of great innovation. Individuals such as Nikola Tesla and Henry Ford were at the forefront of innovations that intimidated most of their populations. How many of them had a difficult time initially conceiving of the extent of man’s capabilities? How many people thought the advancements made in medicine alone bordered on the heretical? How many of them feared that “modern medicine” was coming close to messing with God’s plan when it came to prolonging life? As the people of that era attempted to come to grips with the advancements man was making in the fields of automation and medicine, the image of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam must’ve danced in their head. Over time, the people of this era became more open to mankind’s ability to make life easier and better for their fellow man through advancement, but were they so open to these ideas that they became more susceptible to proclamations of a charlatan?

Some say the time Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin spent on farms in small, obscure parts of Russia may have helped him understand the healing properties of some natural medicines better than most. Some say that he might have learned hypnosis techniques elsewhere in life, and he understood how to employ it before most understood it. Others suggest he may have learned autosuggestion techniques that some farmers used to calm their horses, and that Rasputin may have used one or all of these techniques to calm the nerves of the mother of the young heir to the Russian Empire. Whatever the case was, his ability to alieve the young heir of some of the symptoms of bad case of hemophilia was a cause célèbre in the nation of Russia. Some honored the great achievement, and others were in awe of the possibilities of what Rasputin could achieve. Some also fear him with that rationale. The largely ostracized Russians believed Rasputin displayed mystical powers, God-given powers. They thought he was a chosen one, and the Russian Empire gave him an influential role in the empire as a result. Some say that this precipitated the decline of the Russian Empire, but others say that implosion was inevitable.

Is Elon Musk our nation’s modern day Rasputin? Rasputin cloaked his rise in mystical wonderment, and Musk drapes himself in the speculative questions of what a genius in the field of technological innovation can achieve. Both men also used their newfound status to make wildly ambitious claims to cause the citizens of their nation to hold them in speculative wonder.

Columnist Norm Singleton paints a far less provocative portrait of Musk in his, Elon Musk is the Cosmo Kramer of Crony Capitalism” column. In it, Mr. Singleton details the wildly ambitious ideas Elon Musk and his fictional counterpart relayed to their respective audience. The difference between the two, of course, is that Cosmo Kramer never received the federal grants the taxpayer has given Mr. Musk to pursue his wildly ambitious ideas. Another difference, and one Mr. Singleton does not explore, is that Mr. Musk has achieved some results that have established him as a certified genius. He founded X.com, which later became PayPal. He has an admirable record of accomplishment at SpaceX and Tesla, and he has a list of accomplishments that no one can deny. Singleton’s column does not focus on that list of accomplishment, but it does challenge the current resume of Elon Musk in a manner that no politician dare explore by asking if Musk’s current accomplishments align with the continued, all too generous federal and state grants he receives. Some might argue that Musk is not a charlatan, because of those accomplishments, and because he actually believes in all of his ideas, but Cosmo Kramer believed his ideas too, and so did Rasputin.

Somewhere on the road to technological innovation, someone (likely a politician) convinced us that if our nation is fortunate enough to house a certifiable genius, we’re going to have to pay for the innovations he creates to make our lives easier and better. We’re not talking about paying for the final product of ingenuity at the proverbial cash register either, though there are some on the consumer end who don’t understand that concept. (They think the corporate responsibility suggests that all online innovation should be free.) We’re talking about taxpayers funding the creative process of the bona fide genius. For those who haven’t read as much as I have about the creative process, artists love to talk about it almost as much as they love creating. They love to talk about their influences, the structured method they used to bring their product to life, and the future projects they have in store for us. If someone were to pay these artists for such talk alone, I think most artists would give up the painstaking process of actual creation and opt for the life of describing their process instead.

Filing for government grants has been around for as long as I’ve been alive, and as one who has never filed for a grant, I will admit ignorance on this topic, but I would think that success in field of receiving successive grants requires constant proof of success on the part of the artist. Enter the technological genius. Many consider Elon Musk the rare innovative genius who should not have to worry about pesky concerns like money. Politicians, specifically, appear to believe that Musk should not have to provide continued results for continued money, apparently, for demanding as much from a technological innovator that promises breakthroughs in science, would be tantamount to career suicide for them.

Norm Singleton concludes his piece by saying that the best thing we could do for Elon Musk is to cut off all government funding for his ventures. Those who believe the concept that if we want technological innovation, we’re going to have to pay for the process, have never heard the quote, “The best we’ll ever see from an individual often occurs shortly after they’ve been backed into a corner.” Those who think the removal of financial support damages the creative process might want to go back and read that quote again. The politician who sticks their neck out to remove federal funding from Elon Musk would risk insulting Elon Musk, and Musk’s lobbying group might mortally wound that politician, but that insult might inspire Musk to prove the politician wrong, and that motivation might drive him to pursue greater profits as a result. Cutting him off from all state and federal funding might also force him to be a more traditional CEO, in that he would be more accountable to disgruntled shareholders, more cognizant of his companies’ profit margins, and it might force him to be more of a results-oriented man and less of a theoretical idea man.

I think Mr. Singleton has a great idea, but in order for his idea to work, he would need to find a significant number of politicians who have the fortitude to say no to an established genius in the field of technological innovation. That politician would also have to fight Musk’s powerful lobbying groups and the stigma of the “against science” label. No, Elon Musk carved out an enviable place by being an established genius. He has also developed an enviable formula for all artistic geniuses to follow. Once a person has established themselves as a bona fide genius (no easy feat to be sure) all that genius has to do is develop some ideas for wildly ambitious projects on a semi-annual basis to achieve headlines in major newspapers that no politician can ignore. Their projects may never see the light of day, but they will secure nonstop funding from easily intimidated politicians.

It may be a gross exaggeration to insinuate that the brilliant, innovative Elon Musk might be a charlatan, but when it comes to securing such regular, enormous chunk of the taxpayer’s hard-earned dollars, we the people, and our representatives, should hold the prospective recipient guilty until proven innocent.

I may be alone in this regard now, as those in charge of allocating our tax dollars appear unafraid of defying logic, but I hold an achievement devoid government funding in higher regard. As former president, Calvin Coolidge said shortly before his demise, “I feel I no longer fit in with these times.” Perhaps I no longer fit in with these times, but if an entrepreneur states that his or her project made it to the marketplace based on individual ingenuity and sheer grit, I respect that accomplishment more. I also appreciate the effort it takes to pound the pavement and secure private funding, but the Elon Musk methods of convincing a bunch of politicians to part ways with other people’s money seems far too beneficial to all parties involved and way too easy.

Advertisements

Octopus Nuggets II


Octopus Nuggets I discussed some unusual characteristics of our favorite cephalopod, including the idea that two thirds of the octopuses brain are in their arms, the manner in which the three hearts of an octopus operate, some stories of their reproductive process, and the near-unprecedented loyalty a mother octopus extends to her offspring. We also discussed the ink cloud defense, and the fascinating pseudomorph the octopus creates when, presumably, a simple ink cloud doesn’t confuse the predator enough. If any of these characteristics fascinate the reader, I suggest they read that post first, as this second installment is more of an extension on the more elementary discussion on the characteristics of the octopus.

Image courtesy of Cool Facts for Kids

With the recent and largely refuted click-bait story that the octopus may have originated on another planet, my interest in the octopus was reborn. A word of caution here, the information in this second installment may blow your mind. I’m not going suggest that the reader take a seat, as I am biologically predisposed to avoiding clichés of this stripe, but if anything happens to anyone while reading the final third of this piece, I hereby absolve myself of all responsibility if you’re not already seated.

Most who love stories regarding the surprisingly complex brain of the octopus have heard the myriad of stories regarding the ability the octopus has to figure puzzles out and escape the best, most secure aquariums, and the tales of SCUBA divers playing hide and seek with an octopus. A writer for Wired, Katherine Harmon Courage, has presumably heard the same stories, and she has an interesting, provocative idea for why we should continue to explore the octopus for more stories though more research, as they might prove instrumental in developing a greater understanding of the human mind.

“If we can figure out how the octopus manages its complex feats of cognition, we might be closer to discovering some of the fundamental elements of thought –and to developing new ideas about how mental capacity evolved.”

As stated in the first installment, the octopus has more neurons in its arms than it does in its brain. I assume the arms and brain work in unison for some sort of prime directive, but what if one of the arms disagrees? As Scientific American states, “Like a starfish, an octopus can regrow lost arms. Unlike a starfish, a severed octopus arm does not regrow another octopus.” So, if the brain directs an arm to perform a dangerous task, does an arm ever exhibit self-preservation qualities? Does an arm ever say something equivalent to, “I saw what you did to arm number four last week, and I witnessed you grow another arm, good as new, in a short time. I do not consider myself as expendable as arm number four was. I am a quality arm who has served you well over the years,” the sixth arm says to brain. “Why don’t you ask arm number seven to perform what I consider a dangerous task? We all know that he is far less productive.” I am sure that no arm has such a consciousness of its own existence in this sense, and that they largely function to serve the greater need, but how much autonomy do the arms have?

Blue Blood: How many of us believed the tale that humans have blue blood, and that it only turns red when introduced to oxygen. The octopus actually does have blue blood, and as Laurie L. Dove writes in How Stuff Works, it’s crucial to their survival.

“The same pigment that gives the octopus blood its blue color, hemocyanin, is responsible for keeping the species alive at extreme temperatures. Hemocyanin is a blood-borne protein containing copper atoms that bind to an equal number of oxygen atoms. It’s part of the blood plasma in invertebrates.” She also cites a National Geographic piece by Stephan Sirucek when she writes, “[Blue blood] also ensures that they survive in temperatures that would be deadly for many creatures, ranging from temperatures as low as 28 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 1.8 degrees Celsius) to superheated temperatures near the ocean’s thermal vents.”

On the planning front, the Katherine Harmon Courage piece in Wired states that researchers have discovered that octopuses in Indonesia will gather coconut shell halves in preparation for stormy weather, then take shelter by going inside the two pieces of shell and holding it shut.

Courage’s Wired piece also suggested, “If you asked Jean Boal, a behavioral researcher at Millersville University about the inner life of octopuses, she might tell you that they are cognitive, communicative creatures. Boal attempted to feed stale squid to the octopuses in her lab and one cephalopod sent her a clear message: It made eye contact and used one of its arms to shove the squid down a nearby drain, effectively telling her that the stale food would be discarded rather than being eaten.”

The freaky almost unnerving elements of this story, for me, lay in the details of the Jean Boal’s story. The idea that an animal might exhibit a food preference suggests a certain level of intelligence, but I’m not sure if that level of intelligence surpasses that of the dog or the cat. The eerie part for me occurred in contemplating how the octopus relayed that message. Boal suggested that she fed the stale squid to a number of her octopus subjects, and when she returned to the first octopus in that line, that first octopus waited for her to return. It looked her in the eye when she did and shoved the stale squid down the drain, maintaining eye contact throughout the act. I wasn’t there, of course, and I can only speculate based on what Boal said occurred during this incident, but she made it sound like the octopus made a pointed effort to suggest that not only didn’t want to eat what Boal served it, but it was insulted by her effort to pass this stale squid off as quality food, and it wanted to correct her of such notions in the future.

We all characterize our pets, and other animals with human emotions and statements, but how many dogs and cats will do something more than sniff at the food and move along? How many will wait for a human to return, so they can be assured that the message will be received that they don’t care for the food, and how many will look the humans in the eye before discarding the food in such an exclamatory manner? I don’t know if you’re anything like me, but the thought creeps me out in the sense that I thought I had a decent frame for how intelligent these beings were, and this frame was a generous one.

The characteristics we’ve discussed thus far in part I and in the portion you’ve read thus far in part II are fascinating to me, illuminating, and as I say unsettling to those of us that find comfort in the idea that humans are heads and shoulders more intelligent than the other species. This next part may be where the reader reconsiders whether they should set up some reinforcements behind them.

Recent scientific discoveries are suggesting that the octopus can edit their Ribonucleic acid (RNA). Boom! How are you doing? Did you forget to remove all sharp objects behind you? If the only thing keeping you upright is the idea that you kind of, sort of don’t know what RNA is? Don’t worry, I had to look it up too, and the Google dictionary defines RNA as an enzyme that works with deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in that it “carries instructions from DNA for controlling the synthesis of proteins, although in some viruses RNA rather than DNA carries the genetic information.”

For those who don’t consider this a “Holy stuff!” fact, think about this. The next time you’re in your man cave engaged in a spider solitaire marathon, some octopus somewhere is in their cave re-configuring their molecular structure to redefine their characteristics in a manner that will help it escape a shark attack better. One example might be the pseudomorph. One octopus may have sat in their cave one day realizing that sharks were adapting to the shot of ink that they send out, and sharks were no longer as confused by it as they once were. To adapt to that adaptation, the octopus reconfigured its typical ink cloud shooting abilities to produce a self-portrait of itself that might confuse sharks more. As we will discuss later, octopus researchers aren’t sure why they edit their RNA, but we have to assume it has something to do with predation, either surviving it or finding nuanced ways to perfect their own. If you’re nowhere near as fascinated with this idea as I am, at this point, you will have to excuse my crush with these cephalopods in the ensuing paragraphs.

An article from Business Insider further describes the difference between DNA and RNA as it applies to editing them, by stating, “Editing DNA allows a species to evolve in a manner that is more permanent for future generations. This is how most species evolve and survive. When a being edits their RNA, however, they can essentially “try out” an adaptation” to see if it works. One other note the authors of this piece make on this subject is that “Unlike a DNA adaptation, RNA adaptations are not hereditary.” Therefore, one can only guess that if an octopus discovers an RNA rewrite that is successful for survival or predation, they can presumably teach it to their offspring, or pass it along information by whatever means an octopus passes along such information. (Octopuses are notorious loners who don’t communicate with one another well.)

A quote from within the article, from a Professor Eli Eisenberg, puts it this way: “You can think of [RNA editing] as spell checking. If you have a word document. If you want to change the information, you take one letter and you replace it with another.”

Research suggests that while humans only have about ten RNA editing sites, octopuses have tens of thousands. Current science is unable to explain why an octopus edits their RNA, or when it started in the species. I must also add here that I don’t know how they can determine with any certitude that an octopus can edit their RNA. I’m sure that they examine the corpses of octopuses and compare them to others, but how can they tell that the octopus edits their RNA themselves? How do they know, with this degree of certitude, that there aren’t so many different strains of octopus who all have wide variables in their RNA strands? I’m sure someone will tell me that the process is far more elementary than I’m making it, and I’m revealing my ignorance on this topic in this paragraph, but I’ve read numerous attempts to study the octopus, and almost all of them suggest that the live octopus is notoriously difficult to study. Some have described their rebellious attempts to thwart brain study as obnoxious. If that’s the case, then I have to ask if the conclusions they reach are largely theoretical based on the studies of octopus corpses.

If it’s an embarrassing display of ignorance on my part to ask how we know if octopuses edit their RNA, is it more embarrassing to ask if we know how they do it? For those who consider this a futile task, I again ask how do we know that they do it in the first place? The answer to that question circles back to Katherine Harmon Courage’s provocative notion that “If we can figure out how the octopus manages its complex feats of cognition, we might be closer to discovering some of the fundamental elements of thought –and to developing new ideas about how mental capacity evolved.”

If we are able to do that, Gizmodo.com quotes scientists who suggest we might be able to root out a mutant RNA in our own strands to see if we can edit them in a manner that helps us cure a number of ailments heretofore considered incurable.

For those scientists who seek guidance on how to edit human RNA the authors of the Business Insider, David Anderson and Abby Tang piece cited above suggest that if these scientists, “Have recently proven ways of using the [genome editing tool] CRISPR-Cas9 to edit RNA, perhaps they can learn a thing or two from these cephalopod experts.”