What did Return from the Stars get right?

I’ve been listening to Return from the Stars, which Stanisław Lem wrote in 1961. The book is set in approximately 2088 when a 40-year-old astronaut returns to Earth after 127 years of high-speed travel with consequent time dilation.

Lem’s vision of economics is pure Marx. Despite a proliferation of humans, there is no scarcity. Not only is electricity too cheap to meter, but also apartments, food, clothing, and transportation. It is unclear how this happened, but perhaps it is due to robots, which are the workers in restaurants and hotels (also free). On the third hand, the novel describes a “real” star who lives in a fabulous suburban villa. So there are some people who live way more luxuriously than others, but there is no mechanism for dealing with scarcity for lifestyle items.

Lem envisions the Kindle (on which Return from the Stars is now available), but not a public computer network to fill it up with content. (Computer networking existed in 1961, but the packet-switched wide-area networks with which we’re familiar weren’t conceived of for another few years.)

I spent the afternoon in a bookstore. There were no books in it. None had been printed for nearly half a century. … No longer was it possible to browse among shelves, to weigh volumes in the hand, to feel their heft, the promise of ponderous reading. The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded contents. They could be read with the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it. But optons were little used, the sales-robot told me. The public preferred lectons—lectons read out loud, they could be set to any voice, tempo, and modulation. Only scientific publications having a very limited distribution were still printed, on a plastic imitation paper. Thus all my purchases fitted into one pocket, though there must have been almost three hundred titles. A handful of crystal corn—my books. I selected a number of works on history and sociology, a few on statistics and demography, and what the girl from Adapt had recommended on psychology. A couple of the larger mathematical textbooks—larger, of course, in the sense of their content, not of their physical size. The robot that served me was itself an encyclopedia, in that—as it told me—it was linked directly, through electronic catalogues, to templates of every book on Earth. As a rule, a bookstore had only single “copies” of books, and when someone needed a particular book, the content of the work was recorded in a crystal.

The originals—crystomatrices—were not to be seen; they were kept behind pale blue enameled steel plates. So a book was printed, as it were, every time someone needed it. The question of printings, of their quantity, of their running out, had ceased to exist. Actually, a great achievement, and yet I regretted the passing of books. On learning that there were secondhand bookshops that had paper books, I went and found one. I was disappointed; there were practically no scientific works. Light reading, a few children’s books, some sets of old periodicals.

So the bookstore is somehow linked via a network, but the network can’t reach into homes or pockets. Speaking of pockets, Lem did not anticipate wearable or pocketable technology. There are no smartphones. There is no email. People send telegrams at “the post office” (Lem didn’t imagine that Bad Orange Man would dismantle this institution in 2020!).

Lem envisions a world of fantastically advanced construction technology. Although the city of 1961 looked a lot like the city of the 1830s, he expected the cities of the 2080s to be spectacularly different. I.e., the very field that has been most stagnant he expected to undergo the most dramatic changes and the very field that has seen skyrocketing costs he expected to become almost free. (Again, maybe the prediction is based on the fact that Lem has envisioned a world in which there are 18 robots for every human.)

Lem correctedly predicted the end of monogamy (some real life history). There are still marriages, but they are brief and easy for one partner to dissolve unilaterally (not too many couples have children, so litigation over profitable child support isn’t possible). An old doctor advises the returned astronaut:

Once, success used to attract a woman. A man could impress her with his salary, his professional qualifications, his social position. In an egalitarian society that is not possible. … Take in a couple of melodramas and you will understand what the criteria for sexual selection are today. The most important thing is youth. That is why everyone struggles for it so much. Wrinkles and gray hair, especially when premature, evoke the same kind of feelings as leprosy did, centuries ago . . .

In other words, it is just like Burning Man!

Marriages, to the extent people bother with them, last about seven years before people move on to new/additional sex partners. Perhaps more commonly, marriages end automatically after a one-year trial period.

Lem completely misses the LGBTQIA+ rainbow wave. Nobody in the novel changes gender ID. Everyone identifies as a “man” or a “woman”. Cisgender heterosexuality now, cisgender heterosexuality tomorrow, cisgender heterosexuality forever!

On the other hand, the OLED section at Costco would not have surprised Lem:

I realized that what I had in front of me was a wall-sized television screen. The volume was off. Now, from a sitting position, I saw an enormous female face, exactly as if a dark-skinned giantess were peering through a window into the room; her lips moved, she was speaking, and gems as big as shields covered her ears, glittered like diamonds.

Big TVs are used as ceilings with video feeds so that everyone in this heavily populated Earth can see the sky.

Lem completely missed coronaplague and the terrified flight to the suburbs and exurbs. The multi-level cities he created would be the perfect breeding ground for an enterprising virus. On the other hand, he foresaw that humans would become dramatically more risk-averse and therefore it is fair to say that he foresaw cower-in-place as a response to the novel coronavirus. On the third hand, in trying to understand how an astronaut died, a character asks “Could he have had a corona?” (maybe we need to adopt this coinage?)

Lem is stuck in the European perspective that children are products of marriage (US vs. Europe stats). There are no “single parents” in the novel. But children are also essentially products of eugenics. Those who can’t pass an exam can’t breed:

It was considered a natural thing that having children and raising them during the first years of their life should require high qualifications and extensive preparation, in other words, a special course of study; in order to obtain permission to have offspring, a married couple had to pass a kind of examination; at first this seemed incredible to me, but on thinking it over I had to admit that we, of the past, and not they, should be charged with having paradoxical customs: in the old society one was not allowed to build a house or a bridge, treat an illness, perform the simplest administrative function, without specialized education, whereas the matter of utmost responsibility, bearing children, shaping their minds, was left to blind chance and momentary desires, and the community intervened only when mistakes had been made and it was too late to correct them. So, then, obtaining the right to a child was now a distinction not awarded to just anyone.

What’s the technology by which risk has been eliminated from this timid society?

Every vehicle, every craft on water or in the air, had to have its little black box; it was a guarantee of “salvation now,” as Mitke jokingly put it toward the end of his life; at the moment of danger—a plane crash, a collision of cars or trains—the little black box released a “gravitational antifield” charge that combined with the inertia produced by the impact (more generally, by the sudden braking, the loss of speed) and gave a resultant of zero. This mathematical zero was a concrete reality; it absorbed all the shock and all of the energy of the accident, and in this way saved not only the passengers of the vehicle but also those whom the mass of the vehicle would otherwise have crushed. The black boxes were to be found everywhere: in elevators, in hoists, in the belts of parachutists, in ocean-going vessels and motorcycles.

The other core technology is modifying humans in early childhood via “betrization,” which renders them incapable of perpetrating violence.

So… the big misses for this futurist were (1) Internet, (2) battery-powered personal electronics, (3) portable communication, and (4) stagnation, not innovation, in architecture and construction.

(Lem also failed to predict a world obsessed with politics. There are no materially comfortable people protesting BLM or anything similar in Return from the Stars. Material comfort has apparently made people content with whatever the government is. Lem didn’t anticipate that the richer a society got the more pissed everyone would be!)

More: read Return from the Stars.

As close as we’ve gotten in the pre-Musk/Bezos era… (from the Kennedy Space Center’s visitor center)

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When someone complains about wearing a mask…

… show them this post from a Facebook breed group:

I am extremely allergic to my golden too. Three or four times a year I was getting sinus infections that turned into pneumonia and kept me sick for MONTHS. We made these changes:

We bought a dyson vacuum and religiously vacuum every other day.

I pull the bed out and vacuum under and behind it because I found her fur actually quickly builds up in those areas “hides” behind places like that and the sofa.

I use a swifter wet jet under the bed and under other surfaces help a LOT because it picks up those micro dust hair particles which affects allergies.

We deep brush her twice a week.

We change the AC filters monthly to the strongest allergic kind.

I’ve not been sick for over a year since we started this routine. (I do still take singulair, levocetrizine and Flonase daily). But this has all really worked. Good luck.

(The gal who posted the above followed up with “I absolutely love love love my dog so much. She’s worth every minute.”)

I feel that this is a contender in the topping competition that one sees regarding coronaplague masks. “Our First Responders do X, Y, and Z, and you can’t simply wear a mask all day?”

Readers: Agree?

Also from this golden retriever group, an owner with a 6-month-old golden and a 2-month old Chihuahua asked how to prevent the two from breeding. I responded

Every Chihuahua should be neutered! No dog should be smaller than a big rat.

The comment attracted 10 positive reactions (like/laugh). I dug into these. All but one reaction was from a Facebook user with a female-associated first name.

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What can we appreciate about Trump?

Now that Donald Trump appears to be definitively headed for retirement from politics, maybe it is worth revisiting a question that a negotiation expert asked a group of Harvard alumni: What can we appreciate about Donald Trump? (the guy was trying to teach these folks that you will be a more effective negotiator if you can find some common ground)

The assembled righteous, of course, answered that there was absolutely not a shred of goodness in the Bad Orange Man and certainly he had never done anything that they could possibly appreciate.

Readers: What about you? (no need to highlight or dissect the failures; every U.S. president has been limited by Congress, the states, and/or the American people)

(My personal list:

  1. started no wars
  2. aligned corporate tax rates with Europe so that it no longer made obvious sense for corporations to flee
  3. limited the unfair subsidization of inefficient states by residents of efficient states (SALT deduction limit; note that this increased my personal tax payments)
  4. motivated the FAA to be a little less inefficient and a little less unresponsive
  5. a couple of peace/trade deals between Israel and the Arabs
  6. appointed a fellow Honda minivan driver to the Supreme Court



  • https://www.whitehouse.gov/trump-administration-accomplishments/ (does not seem to have been updated in a couple of years, as Kavanaugh is listed as a nominee only)

Serving suggestion if you’re hosting a Trump Appreciation party (Goya-brand olive oil):

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American health insurance as understood by a licensed health insurance broker

From an email exchange with our aviation insurance broker, regarding why he uses an agent for his own small business’s health insurance plan, rather than going direct to an insurer:

I would say exposure to more markets (United Health is probably going to be more cost effective than Blue Cross) as well as someone to turn to when you have questions about the different options. I have my health insurance brokers license and the intricate differences between plan offerings still confuse me sometimes.

What hope is there for the rest of us?

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Alexa and Google Home have proved that home automation is useless?

Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, a pioneer in minicomputers, disparaged microprocessors for controlling houses back in 1977:

In 1977, referring to computers used in home automation at the dawn of the home computer era, Olsen is quoted as saying “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” Olsen admitted to making the remark, even though he says his words were taken out of context and he was referring to computers set up to control houses, not PCs. According to Snopes.com, “the out-of-context misinterpretation of Olsen’s comments is considered much more amusing and entertaining than what he really meant, so that is the version that has been promulgated for decades now”.

We’ve had 43 years of progress since then. The functions that he said were useless to accomplish by touching a switch are now useless to accomplish with our voices (are we truly so fat and lazy that we can’t get off the sofa to flick a light switch and need to ask Alexa to activate a light?).

I’m still kind of an enthusiast for a computer-controlled home, especially if we could have electrochromic windows and skylights everywhere around the house and/or motorized shades and brise soleil. But even in technologically advanced societies, such as Korea and Taiwan, the typical component of a house continues to be dumb, right?

Bonus… a picture of Ken Olsen’s former house, past peak foliage:

For folks who believe in the magic of American real estate as an investment: the Zillow link above says that the house was sold in 2007 for $1.9 million and is now worth $2 million, 13 years later. Up 5 percent, right? (actually 0 percent if it costs 5 percent in real estate commissions to sell) But let’s not forget that it is attracting $28,832 per year in property tax even before the ground has been broken on the nation’s most expensive (per student) school ever constructed.) The S&P 500, by contrast, was at 1,455 at the time of the sale. On October 26, 2020 it was 3,465 (up 138 percent). Instead of requiring the payment of property tax, the S&P 500 has been paying a dividend every year during this period.

What if we adjust for inflation? The house cost $2.4 million in today’s mini dollars. So it has actually lost more than 20 percent in value when you consider the broker fees that will need to be paid to unload it. (Adding insult to injury: U.S. capital gains tax does not adjust for inflation, so the unlucky owner might have to pay capital gains tax on the increase in nominal value despite the fact that there was a loss. in real (inflation-adjusted) terms.)

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Optimum COVID-19 American lifestyle: Florida in winter; Maine in summer?

covidexitstrategy.org is the web site that our governor uses to adjust his travel order as to which states are so plague-ridden that a quarantine is required on arrival in our righteous disease-free midst (New York and New Jersey had a higher death rate than #3 Maskachusetts).

Can we use the same map to plan an optimum American lifestyle in the face of coronaplague? My casual inspection of the map reveals that Florida and Texas both have fairly low rates of “cases” (positive tests, potentially from those who actually are not even infected, much less sick), especially given that they didn’t have raging Wave #1 plagues and therefore wouldn’t have the immunity that at least some populations in MA, NJ, NY, CT, etc. would have.

Would the optimum lifestyle right now therefore be to live in a single-family home in a low-density part of Florida during the winter and in a single-family home in a low-density part of Maine during the summer? If 183 days are spent in Florida (for the excellent schools, according to NYT), the optimizer escapes state income and estate tax.

Why not walk unmasked on a wide Atlantic beach in the winter and then walk in the Maine woods (don’t forget a gallon of 100% DEET bug spray!) in the summer while paying only property tax in both locations? Play outdoor tennis and eat in outdoor restaurants all year in both locations.

Who has a better idea for a family of at least moderate wealth?

Atlantic Beach, Florida (near Jacksonville), January 2019:

Jacksonville Beach, also January 2019:

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Californians vote against government sorting by victimhood status

In How are Californians doing in restoring their race-based university admissions scheme? I predicted that Proposition 16 would get 45 percent of the vote from people in victimhood categories (Black and Hispanic) and then 15 percent of the remaining vote, thus resulting in a 53-47 overall vote.

The actual vote was 44-56.

Aside from general stupidity, how did I get this wrong? One problem with my simplistic analysis is that a lot of Hispanics are under 18 and therefore ineligible to vote. So I should have looked at the size of these victimhood groups relative to the overall population, but with under-18s excluded. (Median age for Hispanics in California is 29; median age for whites nationwide is 43.6; Black Americans also have a lower-than-white median age, by about 5 years)

Also, not everyone votes his/her/zir/their self-interest. Even a proposition intended to help Blacks and Hispanics might not get 100 percent of the vote from Blacks and Hispanics. Seven percent of Blacks identified as Republicans in 2016 (Pew), for example, despite the party’s Equal Opportunity (as opposed to Affirmative Action) tendencies.

So… chalk this up to another one of my election predictions that failed.

(See also Elite coastal Jews advocate discrimination against white and Asian males on the NYT’s efforts to sway Californians into believing in government-organized sorting by race.)

Let’s also check in with Mark Zuckerberg uses his $110+ billion wealth to lobby for a tax increase on people other than Mark Zuckerberg. The goal of the crazy rich was to soak the not-all-that-rich by increasing commercial property tax rates. This failed 48.3/51.7.

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Win or lose, should Trump hand over everything COVID-19-related to Biden and Harris?

“With Winter Coming and Trump Still in Charge, Virus Experts Fear the Worst” (New York Times):

Regardless of the election’s outcome this week, President Trump will be the one steering the country through what is likely to be the darkest and potentially deadliest period of the coronavirus pandemic, and he has largely excluded the nation’s leading health experts from his inner circle.

Mr. Trump will still have control of the nation’s health apparatus and the bully pulpit that comes with the Oval Office until Jan. 20, as infections approach 100,000 a day and death rates begin to rise as hospitals are strained to their breaking points.

The article goes on to note Donald Trump’s many deficiencies when it comes to coronapanic and listening to scientists (listening to the Swedish MD/PhDs or the heretics who wrote and signed the Great Barrington Declaration does not count!).

Why is it obvious, though, that Trump needs to deal with this at all? Whether truth, justice, love, and #science win the election or not, Trump has the power to appoint Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to executive positions tomorrow, right? Since Biden and Harris say that they know how to keep Americans safe from coronavirus, why not let them start keeping us safe tomorrow? Trump and the courts, perhaps, can limit Biden and Harris to doing stuff that is within the bounds of the Constitution, but otherwise let them do whatever they want. (Example: Biden and Harris wouldn’t be able to order a state shut down or reopened because those powers are thought to belong to states (though maybe not! If the First Amendment doesn’t prevent governors from locking down a state, maybe the Constitution does not prevent a president from locking down the country?))

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Blame Libertarians for election confusion?

We’re celebrating here in Massachusetts because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib have been reelected by the wise American people (USA Today). Regarding the folks who were actually on my Massachusetts ballot, most candidates ran unopposed so it isn’t worth discussing the typical “race”. Question 1 passed (about 75/25), which means we can pay state workers to monitor what car manufacturers are doing with their telematics interfaces. Question 2, ranked choice voting, failed (55/45).

The issue of ranked choice and minor parties leads me to wonder whether Jo Jorgensen and the Libertarians are responsible for the fact that we can’t be sure right now how much ridicule should be heaped on me for my failed prediction that Biden-Harris would win. Let’s check out the NYT Results Map:

The NYT hates Libertarians so much that it takes at least three clicks to learn about any Libertarian votes. But if we click down into Wisconsin, which Biden-Harris leads by 1.1 percent, we learn that 1.2 percent of voters chose Ms. Jorgensen. Biden-Harris lead by 0.6 percent in Nevada, with 86 percent of the vote tallied. The Libertarian vote, 0.9 percent, is larger than the difference between mainstream candidates.

Biden-Harris has a 0.2 percent lead in Michigan and 1.1 percent of voters there chose Libertarian. Trump is leading by 1.8 percent in Georgia, but it would be 3 percent if all of the Libertarians had voted for Trump rather than for Shutdown Joe. It’s a similar story in North Carolina. He Who Must Not Be Named leads 1.4 percent with 95 percent of the vote tallied, which is apparently not sufficient to predict the outcome. In NC, 0.9 percent voted Libertarian. If they’d voted against the promised bigger government of President Harris, the spread would be 2.3 percent.

(I’m a small-L libertarian, but it is difficult for me to get behind Joe Jorgensen. She has come out in favor of legalized prostitution, for example. Sex work has traditionally been regulated by state governments, not the federal. So a Calvin Coolidge-style president wouldn’t express an opinion on the subject. It is also unclear how prostitution could ever work in the typical U.S. state, in which it is more profitable to have sex with a high-income customer and harvest the child support than to go to college (or even medical school) and work. See “Child Support Litigation without a Marriage” or just look at the entrepreneur who successfully mined out the Biden family via Hunter Biden. An exception to this rule is Nevada, in which child support profits are capped at about $13,000 per year per child and, as it happens, prostitution is legal in some counties.)

Readers: What do we think? Fair to call the Libertarians the spoilers of 2020? In a country where most voters want a bigger government, higher taxes, and more regulation, should the Libertarians recognize that by running their own candidates they are simply helping Democrats?

Alternatively, if the Republicans were smart, would they try to appease the Libertarians into not running in swing states? Maybe agree to add a Libertarian-themed goal or two into the Republican platform (Rand Paul can draft! (note that “Rand” is short for “Randy”, not a reference to Ayn Rand)). Share some funding with Libertarians in the non-swing states to get the message out. Basically do whatever it takes to stop Libertarians from running in Nevada and the rest of the states described above.

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