Monday, May 30, 2011

A path from here to Utopia*

Utopia means "no place" in Greek. The guy who invented the word, Thomas Moore, was beheaded by his government. This gives you a sense of how things went for the idea. Every time humans tried to socially engineer a "heaven on earth", things went terribly wrong.

But technology can do much better at bringing about revolution. For example, the birth control pill freed women. I don't mean it physically freed them: that revolution happened the old fashioned way, much earlier. But it freed their minds from the tyranny of unplanned families and allowed them to demand equality.

The pill freed women from the prison of biology.

What if there was a pill that could change your race?

You pop in it one night, and the next morning (or in a few weeks) you experience life as a red-haired Irish person. Or a blonde Pacific Islander. Or a tall Ethiopian.

You'd still look similar: your face would appear the same I mean. But you'd have some difficulty recognizing friends who switched ethnicity without telling you..."I totally missed my friend Ali as he walked past me the other day. I guess he picked Korean for this week."

If the racepill came out, it would be expensive at first. The rich and famous everywhere would get to look different all the time. In parts of the world with serious colonial hangovers (like my country), the well-off would turn as white as the trees in Cambridge in January.

Eventually, middle-classes in rich countries would get the pill, and race would cease to have meaning in those societies.

Maybe a big philanthropic foundation would use their millions to make tons of these pills available to the world's poorest.

In food aid bags.

TV images of starving children in Africa and burning war fields in Asia would look less like far removed tragedies of strangers and more like tangible nightmares for the kids on our street.

Maybe the coffers of the world would open up. Immigration rules might change, since the only way to differentiate people from around the world would be their skill-set. Their resume. Their minds.

Hows that for a path between here and Utopia?

* PS: If you google "a pill to change your race" you get tons of hits. I think a lot of people have had the same idea, but I haven't seen any books or articles on this.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

An airline whine

I had the ambiguous fortune to visit Phoenix, AZ for a talk. The talk went well (thanks for asking) but this rant is about how I got to Phoenix and back.

Of course, I flew. I took a major airline and things proceeded fairly smoothly on my outbound flights.

This was not true of my return journey. I flew Phoenix to SF, and SF to Boston.

On my Phoenix-SF flight, a part of the plane fell off from the cabin roof. We were lucky that this happened (a) While the plane was on the ground and (b) for a relatively unimportant component of the roof. The pilot came back into the cabin, and pushed the part into its place and it sort of "clicked" back in.

Little did I know this would not be the last time I saw such complex mechanical engineering in action that day.

In SFO, I just managed to catch my Boston flight. I sat in my seat, relieved, and read my Kindle till it was time to turn off digital devices. As the plane taxied I suddenly noticed, to my horror, that the entire frame of my window was detached.

It was hanging, literally by the skin of its clamping teeth. What I'm talking about was a whole window frame and a layer of clear window plastic. It was an inch thick. It did not seem like a trivial issue.

I immediately contacted the airline staff. The plane parked itself near the runway while the pilot announced on the intercom that a passenger had made a "cosmetic" complaint and we'd be delayed. Groans filled the cabin as a few passengers gave me the evil eye.

One of the staff sat in my seat and sort of prodded and pushed the window frame. Sure enough, it "clicked" into position. The entire fleet must be made of Lego.

They made a note of where the damaged part was, and we flew off.

I safely made it back home.

I did a little research, and the aircraft I flew in were first released in the late 80s, and most are reliable workhorses of the sky. I wonder if the airlines are cutting costs and wholly depending on the "robustness margins" built into these old machines. These margins are basically how much the aircraft can fly with "missed" maintenance. Its the sort of thing that keeps your car working when you skip 10k checkups.

I hope that is not true. Anyways, next time you get in an aircraft, scan around and make sure its all in one piece.