Thinking About the Future

Lately, Diane and I have been following a series of videos called the Crash Course. Be warned -- the future that Chris paints in these videos is more than a little disturbing. While primarily focused on the United States, many of the things he talks about also apply to most of the world's economic systems. One of the things it has done is challenge my base assumption that the world will continue to get better as we live our lives. Now that's a pretty general statement, but I think a lot of us can say that our standard of living has gotten better over the last several years. But the crash course brings up some facts that disturb this rosy picture, and make me wonder just how bad the future could get. One of the things that's driven home to me about the watching Chris' videos is that the nature of exponential growth is very difficult for the human mind to get its head around in an intuitive fashion. You've got to spend some time figuring out good examples to help show you how difficult it is to deal with problems that are escalating exponentially. There's an excellent series of youtube videos that a professor at the University of Colorado did concerning the problems of exponential growth here. It's long, but worth watching.

In those videos, the professor presents an extremely interesting example. Suppose you have a test tube full of food and put one bacteria in it at 11:00. The bacteria doubles every minute, and the life cycle of the system is one hour so when the clock strikes 12:00, there is no food left. So at 11:01 there are 2 bacteria, and at 11:02 there are 4 bacteria, and so on. One question to ask is: when is the bottle half full? The answer is 11:59, because in that last step there needs to be enough room for the bacteria to double to make the bottle full. To drive the point home further -- when is the bottle 1/4 or 1/8 full? Well just 11:58 and 11:57 respectively!

You can add on one additional piece to that. Suppose that the bacteria somehow are able to find 3 more test tubes full of food. This represents a HUGE discovery of resources - fully 3 times the initial supply! If the bacteria move into the new test tubes, how much time has this bought them? Just two minutes. The first to use one new test tube, and the second to use the remaining two test tubes. Wow. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to make the connection that the earth is kind of like a test tube -- a finite area with finite resources, and human kind is growing in numbers ... exponentially.

I remember being taught in elementary school that population growth was one of the humankind's biggest challenges. How did this get lost from the public eye?

Humankind has made a habit of ignoring problems until they become annoying enough to solve. The problem with this approach is the problems we're going to be facing are of the exponential nature -- and when we notice it enough to be annoying, it'll probably be too late. I might even be too late now ... I don't know if anyone can say for sure. But it sure seems like a good idea to try and do something about it!

After watching these videos, I've started to get a real urge to go buy some gold and keep it close for the years to come. I wonder how far humankind will fall when we run out of easily exploitable fossil fuels? It's a little scary to think about just how much of our daily lives is dependent on energy. Oh it's not just hot water in taps and power for our lights and all that. It's the energy required to get us the food we need and to build the many things that make our lives easier so we have time to do more than just survive. Every time I see or read about earlier times, my most common recurring thought is "wow, people worked hard then".

I'm not saying we're headed back in time necessarily. Humans have progressed to be able to do some pretty amazing things -- and some of the things we've learned to do may help us adapt to the difficult time ahead. But one thing is pretty sure: the next couple decades are going to be ... interesting.


The Best Time to Move

Morgan and I have always had it comparatively easy, and this move is no exception. It turns out that Irish summers are lovely – it’s been rainy and cool and cloudy and sunny without going much above a comfortable “room” temperature. All this temperate goodness while the folks at home have been cooking in those bouts of +30-35C we’ve been getting in sunny Alberta these last few years.

The winters here are supposed to be windy and rainy and generally grey and miserable so I’ve heard, which means that the middle of summer is probably the best time to begin/end a year lease (the norm here nowadays) so you can move your stuff in comfort if you so choose. It’s certainly the best time to move stuff in Canada anyway.

Once we took up tenancy in our rented suite, we had to figure out how to turn the thermostat high enough to heat up our boiler and get hot water (we actually thought there had been an oversight at the gas company for a little while before our neighbours told us the secret), and we were without the convenience of readily heated water for a day or two. Nothing that can’t be satisfactorily overcome with an electric kettle of course, but say it were the power instead of the gas, or both. (And don’t even talk to me about the crash course.) I am much better equipped to deal with that sort of thing in the summer, when natural heat and light abound (though here in Ireland they only abound so much) and I’m in a happier state because of it.

Not only in the smaller details has the timing been right but on a bigger scale as well. Both Morgan and I were able to get up and move very easily: we have no children, our parents are in good health, our siblings are doing well. In fact, Morgan’s sister was able to move into Morgan’s apartment and their parents were willing to store stuff for us, making moving even easier. Morgan had finished his contract with the U of A and managed to stay until the Second Man v. Machine match, which was certainly a defining moment in the history of the U of A CPRG (Computer Poker Research Group), and a high note on which to leave… at least officially. For my part I feel I could have contributed long term at the U of A (my team was the Canola Research Group), but I think it was good to leave while I was more replaceable. `Cause really, who can argue with seeing the world while one has the life and health to do it!

The last reason (okay, next-to-last) this transition has been so smooth is that scores of folks have done this before us. Many through the ages have traveled and settled in leaner circumstances than this, and of course there are the friendly, accessible ones who very recently made the exact same trip. There is one couple in our building, newlywed like us, another couple down the road, who’ve been so encouraging, and, in particular, Darse and Alexandra have been there for us every step of the way. We probably wouldn’t be here now if not for them.

And the last reason (I promise) is that we’ve got each other. We may disagree and do a little squabbling and squawking, but in the end it’s nice to have a partner with whom to share and recall the experiences. It’s nice to have Morgan to point things out to and share the stories of the day with and have him show me stuff and help me… and cuddle me when the day is done.


Hangin' With Howard Lederer

One thing Diane didn't mention about the games party last Saturday that one of the guests was none other than Howard Lederer. Howard is one of the Full Tilt poker pros. His poker nickname is "the Professor of poker", in part because of his thoughtful approach to the game. He's appeared on television not only as a poker player, but also as a poker analyst on a couple of different shows. My research position at the UofA, and now my job here has put me into a position to meet some pretty big name poker players. With the CPRG, I met Phil Laak, Ali Eslami, Matt Hawrilenko, Bryce Paradis, Ed Miller, and a few others. Now working at Pocket Kings, I've met Howard Lederer, and I understand that several of the Full Tilt pros stop by the office every so often.

Anyways, on Wednesday night, Diane and I headed out to company trivia night at a local pub. People who know me know that I'm not a trivia person, but I wanted to go hang out with fellow company people so that I could get to know people a little more. So we went and had some food and some drinks. Before the trivia started, Howard joined the group. He presented us with several logic problems that were quite interesting and that stumped several of us for quite awhile. Here they are if you'd like to take a crack at them.

  • One hundred people are allowed to come up with a strategy before this scenario. They are then assembled in a line, and each person is given either a red or a blue hat. The person at the back of the line can see all the coloured hats in front of him, but cannot see his own hat. The second last person in the line can see the 98 hats in front of him, but not his own hat nor the hat of the person behind him. Each person, starting with the person at the back of the line, can only say "red" or "blue". If they get the colour of their hat wrong, they will be killed off. If they get it right, they'll survive. Come up with a strategy that will maximize the guaranteed number of survivors.
  • One hundred people are let into a room one at a time, and they are given a hat with a random number on it in the range 1-100. People could potentially get assigned the same number. The players are allowed to walk around the room looking at all the numbers everyone has on their hats, but cannot see the number on their own hat. When everyone is ready, they must simultaneously call out a number. Come up with a strategy for the players such that at least one person is guaranteed to correctly guess the number on their hat.
  • One hundred prisoners are held in a room. One at a time, they are randomly selected and brought into a second room where there are 100 boxes. Each box contains a number that is uniquely attached to one of the prisoners (each prisoner has a unique number, and it is contained in one of the boxes in the room). The person must now choose up to 50 of the boxes to open and check if their number is inside. If they find their number, they get to walk free. If not, they are executed. Come up with a strategy for the prisoners to maximize the likelihood that they ALL walk free.

I've always kind of been interested in these problems, but I've been really bad at them in the past. I've only come up with a solution to the first problem, and haven't managed to figure out and prove solutions to the other two, but I think I shall ponder them for awhile. I'm quite enjoying the mental exercise so far, and I felt pretty proud of myself when I finally solved the first problem this morning.

Can you solve them?