Heiser Christmas Letter 2018

Sustainable Development Goals

Dick has organized two awesome courses at PLATO, a retirement learning group. One course was physics lectures by Richard Feynman, the other on Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature. The Pinker course was so successful that it had to happen a second time.

Now, Dick is excited about Sustainable Development Goals (from the United Nations.) The 17 goals form an agenda for the planet for 2015–2030. They will transform our world. The earlier Millennium Development Goals for 2000–2015 saw a billion people raised from poverty and millions of lives saved. Bill Gates says we will do even better in the next fifteen years.

These goals would make an ideal PLATO study/discussion course. We use voting to choose course offerings; Dick’s proposed topic came in fortieth out of forty candidates☹️. Either Dick has to upgrade his salesmanship, or we need to start thinking globally.

Brian Lomborg says his goals are even more efficient than the Sustainable Development Goals; his Copenhagen Consensus claims twice the bang for each buck.

Cash Bail Reform

We are thrilled that California has passed a law completely eliminating cash bail. This was an amazing victory over the lucrative California bail bond industry. Cash bail is punishment for poor people. Pennsylvania, Colorado, Washington and Virginia have improved their bail systems, but California would be the first state to completely eliminate cash bail. Unfortunately, the bail bondsmen have qualified a repeal referendum for the 2020 ballot, so the new law will be deferred until then. Dick wants to participate in the planning for new pre–trial policies. He is convinced that evidence–based tools can release more people while simultaneously increasing public safety.

Alpha Zero

That’s the name of an amazing computer program. It can play games at championship level, but not because it has been loaded with human wisdom. Instead, it has learned on its own, from scratch (from zero), by practicing against itself. This is not a new idea; Arthur Samuel used this technique to write a checker-playing program in 1959. Today’s faster computers can make this machine learning effect vastly more powerful. Alpha Zero plays world-class chess, go and shogi. It has learned things we don’t know how to teach, but it cannot explain its decisions. Like gene–editing with CRISPR, you’ll soon be able do to machine learning at home.

Rule of Law

We finally figured out how to complain about Donald Trump; it’s his violations of the rule of law. This is something we have overlooked so far, but Steven Pinker explained in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that without the rule of law, we would have to be looking over our shoulders all the time. The rule of law protects law–abiding people. Instead, Trump wanted to punish GM for closing some auto plants by taking away their electric vehicle rebates. He tried to block the Time Warner-AT&T merger because he doesn’t like CNN. He wants to raise postal rates for Amazon because he doesn’t like his coverage in the Washington Post which is owned by Jeff Bezos. Rule of law is fundamental, so it deserves bipartisan support.

In Like Flynn

No, not Errol Flynn, nor Michael Flynn. James R. Flynn said we’re getting smarter. The Flynn Effect claims IQ seems to increase by 3 points every decade. It just isn’t fast enough!

Pilotless Commercial Flights

To entice reluctant passengers, airlines might bring back free pretzels. – from the Ironic Times

🏆 Book Recommendations

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan describes the revival of scientific study of psychedelics. They often are associated with life–changing experiences, and were used therapeutically in the 1950s and into the 1960s.

Enlightenment Now! by Steven Pinker reiterates his optimistic view of progress and of reason, science and humanism.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling is a related message of optimism. The world is fast becoming a much better place: safer, healthier and wealthier. News drama makes it seem not so. Recent progress is actually dramatic.

☮ Family News

We are grateful for good health, leisure and friends, and hope you will have the same good luck!

☯ Peace & Love! Best wishes for 2019!