Friday, March 27, 2015

Maybe we shouldn't worry so much about marijuana advertising

One of the most common arguments against marijuana legalization revolves around fears that a so-called “Big Marijuana” industry driven by greed will use extremely clever and persuasive advertising campaigns to turn us into a nation of potheads. A new study published in the International Journal of Advertising should provide some skepticism about these concerns. It found despite a dramatic increase in spending on alcohol advertising over the past 40 years, overall consumption remain mostly unchanged. From the abstract:

Even though per capita alcohol consumption has not changed much throughout this period, alcohol advertising media expenditures for all alcohol beverages have increased almost 400% since 1971. This study has provided evidence of consumption changes across categories of alcohol beverages over the past 40-plus years with the preponderance of those changes significantly correlated to fluctuations in demography, taxation and income levels – not advertising. Despite other macro-level studies with consistent findings, the perception that advertising increases consumption exists. The findings here indicate that there is either no relationship or a weak one between advertising and aggregate category sales.

Obviously there are several big caveats to keep in mind when trying to apply these results to the new legal marijuana industry. This is one study about one country with countless factors which might have affected the result. Most importantly, alcohol was already a mature industry in 1971. So it is far from a perfect analogy, but at the moment the alcohol industry still provides us with the best source of actual real-world data for trying to predict the long-term impact of a legal marijuana industry.

I have no doubt that legalization will result in some increase in use, because some people are currently abstaining out of employment concerns or not wanting to deal with the black market. I won’t be surprised, though, if any impact on overall use rates from commercial advertising is small compared to those other factors, especially because the lessons policy makers learned about restricting alcohol and tobacco advertising will almost certainly be applied to legal marijuana.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Five Keys to a Good Prediction

Mars Excursion Module

When trying to make accurate predictions about the future, there are five key points I try to keep in mind:

  1. Physics - The laws of physics must be obeyed. While breaking the laws of physics as we currently understand them can create exciting new story opportunities in science fiction, it makes for poor predictions about the future. Technology can and will get dramatically better, but it will always be subject the the laws of physics. If you are going to predict everyone will own jetpacks, you need to take into account the energy required to produce enough thrust to move a person and the theoretical limit of different energy storage methods. Is a travel method really practical if you can only use it for 15 minutes at a time?
  2. Perfect is impossible - When dealing with an incredibly complex system and a large number of actors, expecting perfection is simply not reasonable. Mistakes might be rare, but they will happen, so they must be factored in. If your prediction depends on something working perfectly, it is not a good prediction. If you are claiming society will adopt giant fleets of flying delivery drones, you need to determine how many people killed by faulty drones falling from the sky society will accept so we can get a 12-pack of razor blades delivered to our doors in less than an hour. People seem to be willing to accept a surprisingly high level of accidental death and human suffering in the name of convenience, but there are limits.
  3. People will always be people - If you expect everyone to behave completely reasonably, rationally, and honestly, you are going to have a bad time. Some people are always going to be jealous, delusional, egotistical, sadistic, self-destructive, or just plain mean or stupid. While only a small number of people will fit any of these descriptions at any given time, they tend to have a disproportionately big impact. Many good systems were ruined because a few jerks refused to follow the rules. A good prediction must make allowances for these groups.
  4. The past is precedent but not inevitable - History has a remarkable way of repeating itself. Looking for historic parallels can both help shape a prediction and give it validity. The great thing about the future and technology is that truly new, unique things will happen, so it is still possible a prediction without any historical precedent will come true. However,  if after an extensive search you can’t find any historical analogies, you should seriously examine all the logic and assumptions behind the prediction.
  5. If it can be done someone will try to do it - The human race is full of enough eccentrics, visionaries, thrill seekers, freaks, trolls, geniuses, and idiots that if something technically can be done, someone will eventually try to do it. They are not guaranteed to succeed, but they will try. Sometimes the results will be wonderful and other times they will be disastrous, but if it is possible it will be tried. 

*By Aeronutronic Divison of Philco Corp, under contract by NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

You won't trust a human to do that

In the future it will be effectively impossible to find a human to pay to drive you in a car, pick vegetables, or diagnose a disease. It might seem hard to believe but radiologist, cab driver, fruit picker, MRI technician, truck driver, and phlebotomist could easily join the list of jobs that effectively don’t exist thanks to technology.

Computers/robotics won’t simply be able to do these current jobs cheaper and faster than humans, they will be able to do these jobs dramatically better. It would be seen as stupid or even dangerous to let a person perform these tasks. Doing these jobs might be illegal or at least leave one open to huge legal liability.

We already have several examples of jobs that were fully replaced because machines are so clearly better in every possible way. There used to be people employed as “knocker-uppers,” who would physically go around waking people up in the morning, but the job disappeared thanks to alarm clocks. Human telephone switchboard operators aren’t just slower and more expensive than automatic systems, they are also more prone to error. The best example is the job “computer.” The name originally referred to people who would do rather basic calculations by hand. Machines are so much better and faster at this task, that not only has the job basically disappeared but so did its original meaning.

There are two big reasons to suspect that medical, truck driving, and farming professions are all primed for dramatic replacement by automation. The first is that numerous companies are already working on automation in these fields. The second is that up to now, we have been forced by necessity to accept what should be a shocking level of dangerous human mistakes from these industries.

There were over 33,000 motor vehicle deaths in the United States last year. Almost all were caused by driver error. We accept this incredible number of deaths because cars are a necessity, but once self-driving cars reach their potential, letting an error-prone human control two tons of fast-moving steel will be viewed as an act of madness.

Similarly, some estimates put the number of premature deaths associated with preventable harm to patients at over 400,000 a year. The simple truth is that doctors, nurses, and hospital staff can be terrible at their job of keeping people alive and well. Providing health care is an extremely complex task, and it is impossible for humans to do perfectly. We go to these humans because they are still better than no treatment, but there is vast room for improvement by removing humans (and human error) via the increased use smart technology, diagnostic programs, and automation.

According to the CDC, every year an estimated 1 in 6  Americans (48 million) are sickened by foodborne disease. Part of the problem is how our fruits and vegetables are picked by hand. Humans are naturally covered in bacteria, so a quality system that removes humans from the equation could reap serious public health gains.

These current advancement though will have huge economic and sociological impact. Truck driving is the most common job in much of America at the moment and the healthcare industry makes up about 17.4 percent of the entire economy. In a few decades we may not trust millions of Americans to do the jobs they are currently employed in. It won’t just be cheaper to replace them with machines but dramatically safer.

Monday, March 16, 2015

We May See Aliens Before We Ever Hear Them

When popular stories reference the SETI project, they normally focus on the search for alien radio signals, but that particular aspect of the search for intelligent life is subject to several technical limitations and big assumptions. One of the biggest is that it requires aliens to use high power radio signals in a spectrum we could pick up on.

There are numerous reasons why this might not be the case; for instance, radio may be impractical for communication in other environments, or it may even be biologically incompatible with other life forms. It is possible life forms in other environments use a broad section of the radio spectrum for biological functions, making it unpleasant or even dangerous to create artificial radio waves.

Another major problem is that powerful radio transmitters may already be outdated to other forms of life. Radio may only be a transitional technology used for roughly a few hundred years, which is a blink of the eye compared to the age of the universe. It could quickly be replaced by fiber optics, lasers, multiple low-power relays or some advanced technology we have yet to discover. Aliens could of course go out of their way to build a giant radio station to randomly blast a signal, out of the slim hope some extremely primitive species very far away might possibly hear it, but it is easy to imagine many reasons why aliens would consider that wasteful or stupid.

What potentially will prove more fruitful is actually “looking” for the engineering projects of alien civilizations instead of trying to listen for them. Structures like a ring world or Dyson sphere that would be built to encircle an entire star could be detected with our current telescope technology. Such structures are almost unimaginable with our current level of technology, but they would potentially make sense for an advanced civilization to build for their own use. It would allow them to make use of a large percentage of a star’s massive energy output. 

In other words, there's no need to count on aliens trying to randomly communicate.

While theoretically only a fraction of alien civilizations that are advanced enough to build a radio would ever eventually reach the point that they could engage in massive celestial engineering, anything they did build would likely be built to last. A very long-lived alien civilization may only use powerful radio signals for a few centuries early in its history on a single planet, but there is the possibility they would engage in massive engineering projects across several star systems that would last for millions of years. It is longevity over quantity.

We may literally “see” an alien civilization before we ever hear from one. It would, though, be a shocking way to find out we are not alone in the universe. It would mean there is a species out there with powers beyond our comprehension and technology at least thousands of years more advanced than our own. Compared to such a structure, modern Tokyo and a Bronze Age farming village would appear to be equally advanced

(Image credit: NASA/CXC/JPL-Caltech/STScI/NSF/NRAO/VLA)

Friday, March 13, 2015

God and Video Games

If you accept the conclusion that there is a real chance our universe is actually a computer simulation, or even possibly a super-advanced video game, it puts an interesting and sometimes disturbing new spin on many of the world’s religions and myths.

The major eastern religions (Hinduism and Buddhism) used one of the most advanced technologies from the time of their origins -- the wheel -- as a metaphor to help people understand reincarnation and the cycle of death/rebirth. Video games like Super Mario Brothers now provide us with a much more direct allegory. Mario is destined to keep dying and being reincarnated until he achieves the next level. To take it even one step further, from a Buddhist perspective, the only way to help Mario escape this cycle of death, stress, and pain is to eliminate the desire to win and just turn off the game.

The idea that the universe might be just an elaborate computer game can also resolve a big conceptual problem some people have with the Christian holy trilogy. If you look the game World of Warcraft, it becomes easy to understand how someone could be both the absolute creator and an individual within the creation. The programmers of the game also chose to make characters for themselves to become part of the game. These avatars are more limited expressions of themselves but still arguably them.

I think, though, that the eeriest aspect of world religions to reexamine from this unusual perspective is the book of the Genesis.

Try reading it from the point of view of someone playing a game like Civilization or Sim City for the first time. They spend a few days building a world. They decide to start off simple and in easy mode. They start with only two characters in a nice, safe garden with just one rule. Yet things still manage to go bad. Despite several attempts to fix things, the game continues to deteriorate as the number of characters grow. Eventually, out of frustration there is a decision to make a complete backup file of the important data (the Ark) and delete the game (flood) to do a hard reset. I’ve personally played several games just like that.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Star Trek was Hope

Star trek title letters

Star Trek was about the society we wish were encountering the imperfect society we currently are.

In honor of Leonard Nimoy, I wanted to say a few words about why Star Trek was so important.

Many of the science fiction works that have most influenced our society, like 1984, have been about warning society to avoid potential pitfalls in our future. While often compelling and hugely significant, these dystopian stories can also be very depressing. I believe, though, that most science fiction writers are at their core optimists. That is why they choose to dream of the future instead of writing about the past.

Part of why great science fiction tends toward the dystopic is that utopian societies can be boring. There is a reason why “may you live in interesting times” was considered a curse. Conflict, murder, war, conspiracies, etc., are often terrible for the real people who have to experience them, but they make great story lines.

The genius of Star Trek was that it found a way to give a broad segment of our society a glimpse of the better future we could have with technology, education, compassion and reason while still making its storylines compelling. It did this by taking our current failings and making them the failings of “aliens” encountered by the Federation.

The audience connected with the crew, which experienced these “alien” issues as outside observers. From this vantage point it was easy to see how foolish and destructive things like war and racism are. The audience would shake their heads wondering why these aliens, having been shown a better alternative in the Federation, would still let their stupid issues prevent them from becoming a more peaceful and prosperous society. Of course, it is our own struggle with these same issues that prevents contemporary society from becoming like the Federation.

Star Trek was hope. It didn’t just show us that the future can be better but showed us how to make it better.

*Photo By Paramount Television [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Incredibly High Probability of the Almighty

6sided dice.jpg
"6sided dice" by Diacritica - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Logic strongly implies that our universe is, in fact, the result of actions by an incredibly powerful creator or set of creators.

There are two basic explanations for the existence of our universe. The first is that our universe randomly came into being without any directing hand. The second is that our universe was created by something incredibly powerful.

Let’s begin by assuming that option one is true. The universe came about randomly and just happened to have all the properties that allowed for the spontaneous development of intelligent life. After all, we exist.  It is also safe to assume that the intelligent life would likely use its technology to created new realities. As a species, we have only been using computers for less than a century, and we have already started doing something along these lines. Think of games like the Sims, World of Warcraft, or Civilization.

While I can’t even begin to comprehend what an intelligent species could do with an extra 100,000 years of technological development, I highly suspect they would use this technology to create numerous extremely elaborate simulations for purposes of science, sociology, or even just entertainment. Just one intelligent species could potentially make millions of elaborate universe simulations over the course of their existence.

So the question is, what is the probability that we would be so lucky as to be living in a randomly created universe instead of one of the extremely numerous of the actively-created simulations that such a universe would likely spur? One in million? One in a billion?

The creator/s of our universe might potentially bear more of a resemblance to a team of highly advanced scientists working in a research lab than to any of the most popular deities, but that doesn’t change the basic logic.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Look to Hops for Marijuana's Future

If you want a possible glimpse of marijuana’s future after it has been fully legal for decades, I would suggest looking at the hops industry. There is a surprising number of similarities between the two products, ranging from genetics to consumption patterns.

  1. Genetics - Research has found that Cannabis and Humulus (hops) are very closely related and belong to a single plant family.
  2. Biology - Both have been selectively bred for the production of many of the same (or similar) flavor chemicals. In addition, while marijuana can be grown in many places, it does well in the same locations that most of the world’s hops are produced.
  3. Production and product - The goal in both industries is to produce unfertilized female flowers. The “buds” of marijuana and the hops of the hop plant are what you want. On both types of farms, the male plants are culled to prevent the fertilization of the female flowers, which would degrade the final product.
  4. Use - The overwhelming primary use for both is in the production of a recreational intoxicant. This excludes industrial hemp, which has been selectively bred to be very different from marijuana.
  5. Consumption patterns - Both have similar patterns in their customer base. A large share of the population doesn’t consume any hops (beer) or marijuana. There are many that consume these products but do so infrequently, and a disproportionate share of both products are consumed by a relatively small number of customers. This is unlike, say, toilet paper, which is used by basically everyone at similar rates.
  6. Quantity - Even the amount that a person would consume of either is fairly similar. Annual consumption for a heavy consumer of hops (beer drinker) or marijuana can both be measured in ounces.

The analogy is not perfect. The two plants are grown and harvested somewhat differently. There are more beer drinkers than pot smokers. Frequent beer drinkers probably consume the equivalent of more ounces of hops annually than frequent cannabis consumers do marijuana. Most importantly, the government will probably always subject legal marijuana to more regulations and higher taxes than they do hops, artificially increasing production costs and prices. That said, the large number of similarities means the hops industry is a useful point of reference for marijuana.

With that in mind, here are a few important facts about the hops industry: The United States is the second biggest hops producer in the world behind Germany. Almost all of America’s hops are grown in a relatively small part of Washington State, Oregon, and Idaho. The wholesale value of the world's annual hop production is less than a billion dollars. A regular person can order hops online for around $2-4 per ounce, about 1% of what marijuana currently costs at legal dispensaries.

It is conceivable that in the future, the overwhelming majority of fully legal marijuana consumed in the United States will come from just a few small farming regions in two or three states where the climate is ideal for the crop. In addition, the annual wholesale value of the entire harvest (before taxes and fees are added) might be only in the hundreds of millions, not billions. Of course, it all depends heavily on what future regulations and taxes are adopted.