Exploring possible societies: Childhood’s End

I recently reread a science fiction classic:

Clarke, Arthur C. 1953. Childhood’s end. New York: Ballantine Books.

If you haven’t read the book, Wikipedia has a good synopsis. Part of the book describes a golden age of humanity prior to a leap in human evolution. Here is an excerpt from the book that probably would have led to its banning in 1950s America if it had been nonfiction (Apologies for non-gender neutral language. Childhood’s End was a product of its time.:

People could indulge in such whims, because they had both the time and the money. The abolition of armed forces had at once almost doubled the world’s effective wealth, and increased [robotic] production had done the rest. As a result, it was difficult to compare the standard of living of twenty-first century Man with that of any of his predecessors. Everything was so cheap that the necessities of life were free, provided by a public service by the community, as roads, water, street lighting and drainage had once been. A man could travel wherever pleased, eat whatever food he fancied – without handing over any money. He had earned the right to do this by being a productive member of the community.

There were, of course, some drones, but the number of people sufficiently strong-willed to indulge in a life of complete idleness is much smaller than is generally supposed. Supporting such parasites was considerably less of a burden than providing for the armies of ticket collectors, shop assistants, bank clerk, stockbrokers and so forth, whose main function, when one took the global point of view, was to transfer items from one ledger to another.

One of the special powers of science fiction is that it can explore subjects otherwise off the table of normal discussion. In some ways this is as true now as it was in 1953.

With technological unemployment growing, I think it might be time to dust off these paragraphs and really consider the sort of society we might have if human work for pay becomes rare.

If you are aware of books with non-standard economic systems, whether liberal or conservative, please feel free to comment.

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Review (sort of) Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

I recently experienced Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End in two media:


Clarke, Arthur C. 1953. Childhood’s end. New York: Ballantine Books.


Hurran, Nick, Matthew Graham, Paul M. Leonard, John G. Lenic, Mike Vogel, Osy Ikhile, Daisy Betts, et al. 2017. Childhood’s end: the mini series.

Both stories were good, just different. My purpose here, other than to mention that I thought the book held up well despite being 50 years old, is to highlight choices that the miniseries made to change elements of the book and to offer some short commentary on those choices. If you haven’t read Childhood’s End, it’s best you either read the book or its Wikipedia entry before going further.

How the Overlords arrival is treated:

The book treats the initial arrival of the Overlords in a few pages, through the eyes of characters we never see again. Then it jumps ahead five years to a time that the Overlord’s rule is largely accepted by humanity.

The miniseries, by contrast, devotes a lot of time to Earth’s reaction to the Overlords’ arrival. It also focuses a lot of time to the reaction of characters who will be important later. Karellen, the Overlord Supervisor for Earth, goes to the trouble of speaking through whomever is the most important, yet dead person, of everyone’s life.



The “Key Event” that brings the Overlords to Earth

In the book, the US and Soviet Union are on the verge of building an “atomic drive” that will send a spacecraft to the Moon.

The miniseries updates this to Earth being on the verge of inventing a Faster Than Light (FTL) drive. This is sensible since we reached the Moon in 1969 and have sent robot explorers to all known planets in our solar system. In both the book and the DVD, the Overlords arrive to ensure that humanity does not leave its cradle prior to its next stage of evolution.


Overlords’ choice of spokesperson

Here we find a major divergence between the worlds of 1953 and 2015 (the original miniseries date).

In the 1953 book, the Overlords work through the United Nations, with  Rikki Stormgren, the existing UN Secretary General being the prime liaison between the Overlords and the rest of humanity.

In the 2015 miniseries, after decades of distrust sown about government, the Overlords go to great lengths to find an “everyman” to speak for them. Ricky Stormgren, a farmer from Missouri, becomes the “Blue Collar Prophet” of the Overlords. If he had been unwilling to perform the role, an 82 year old woman from South Korea would have been chosen.


The portrayal of “New Athens”, the Island of “Real Humanity”

In both the book and the miniseries there are people who reject the order that the Overlords have imposed on Earth. In both cases, a number of these people create a refuge on an island known as “New Athens.” But in my view the motivation and type of people on New Athens are portrayed VERY differently between the book and the miniseries.

The book treats New Athens as something that arose over several decades, the subject of intense planning and management using social psychology. The number of people on the island was limited to 100,000 to ensure meaningful social interaction and in hopes of rebooting creativity in the arts and sciences. There were strict psychological tests for adult would be residents. The residents of New Athens accepted much of Overlord technology in energy and labor saving devices, but rejected what they regarded as distractions.

The miniseries treats New Athens as an island of misfits who reject things like clean energy or any technology introduced by the Overloads. The island is open to all without psychological screening. Creativity is hoped for, but not planned.

While New Athens self destructs in both the book and the miniseries as a result of the worldwide loss of all children, how it is carried out could not be more different. In the book, island suicide by nuclear weapon is a community decision. Those who would rather live out the human race’s last days are allowed ample time to safely leave the island. In the miniseries, the destruction is carried out by a whack job who decides that his personal pain is so important he can destroy his whole community. People in his immediate vicinity try to dissuade him, but to no avail. Most residents had no idea what hit them.


Funny moments from the book

I’d like to close with a few quotes from the book that amused me. Perhaps you’ll find them chilling. These lines come from a scene where a couple new to New Athens is getting an orientation from an unnamed man. He provides the examples below (page 141 in 1953 Book Club Edition) to explain why humanity lost its creativity:

  • “Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels?” (In 2017, one source estimates 300 hours of video are added to YouTube EVERY MINUTE).
  • “Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won’t be living their own lives any more.”  (In 2016, CNN cited a Nielsen study indicating that the average American spent TEN HOURS a day in front of various screens, much of it for entertainment.)


I’m not knocking Clarke here. A global computer network with mobile devices to allow this level of consumption was scarcely imaginable in 1953. I think even cable television wasn’t really on the radar yet. But still amuses me that the worse case scenario of smothering through entertainment in 1953 does not even begin to approach the scale of what we actually experience in the 21st Century.

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Still alive

In case anyone was curious. I’ve gotten stuck in too much political reading and very busy at work. But still intend to write things from time to time.

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Visualizing Blood Pressure Data

At the risk of getting TMI with you, I’m being treated for high blood pressure. As a result, I track my blood pressure with an app called BP Watch. This allows me to print logs of my blood pressure to give to my doctor. He’s been finding it helpful in seeing whether my combination of medications and exercise is keeping my blood pressure within healthy limits.

Six months ago or so, I started adding my weight to my logs. I only weigh myself once a week. I’ve been up and down, but mostly up in weight. This fact and the existence of my blood pressure data made me curious — did my heavier times correspond to higher blood pressure? While I caution against drawing any significant conclusions from a sample of one, my personal data suggest no.


I imported my data into Excel 2013. I eliminated all the columns except: Date, Systolic, Diastolic and Weight. I didn’t really need the date column for my charts, but I left it in to document the date range the data was collected.

Then I added two worksheets – to one I added the Weight and Systolic columns, the other I added the Weight and Diastolic columns. Then in each work sheet I highlighted my two columns and clicked on “recommended charts” under the “insert” tab and accepted the scatter chart.

After that, I adjusted the vertical axis (Blood Pressure) so that it was near the bottom of my measured range instead of zero. I did this to better define the varying pressure at various weights. For Systolic, I started the vertical access at 80 and for Diastolic, used 50.

During my six months I gained roughly 14 pounds. My guess was that my measurements at the high-end of my weight ought to be noticeably higher than at the low-end of my weight. Here’s what I actually found:

Blood Pressure Chart

Systolic blood pressure plotted against weight.


Blood Pressure Chart

Diastolic pressure plotted against weight



Using the goals of 12o for Systolic BP and 80 for Diastolic BP, I think I see that while my blood pressure is mostly under control, there is room for improvement.

It appears that for any given weight in the range that I’ve been in for the past six months, I can have a range of blood pressure. Further, there is no obvious trend line pointing towards higher blood pressure at higher weights.


While this data suggest to me that there is no real relationship between blood pressure and weight, there are a number of reasons why I might be being fooled:

  1. I’m looking at the data the wrong way. Maybe if I was more sophisticated in data analysis, I’d find a trend that’s escaping me.
  2. Maybe I haven’t collected data long enough. Perhaps it takes longer for higher blood pressure to take hold at higher weights.
  3. Maybe I haven’t gained enough weight for the rise in blood pressure to emerge from the noise of variations. This is NOT an idea I plan to consciously test.
  4. Maybe my medications are swamping any effect I might get from weight gain.

If I had gathered data from hundreds of people over a wide range of weights, I’d have more confidence in either accepting or rejecting the lack of relationship that I found from a sample of one.


As I was mostly through this blog post, it occurred to me that it would be very helpful to run a histogram of my blood pressure numbers. While this would not shed any new light on the relationship between weight and blood pressure, it could give information on whether my blood pressure was as much under control as I think it is.

Excel does not do histograms out of the box, but I do know how to do histograms in Python and I might try to run some this weekend.

Getting back to the weight vs BP relationship, it might be helpful to calculate average blood pressures at each measured weight, then plot the average. There’s also a correlations tool in Python that I don’t fully understand but could learn more about.


If you’d like to run my data through your own analysis tools, download bpandweightdata. Or download and analyze your own data if you’re collecting it. Does Fitbit do exports?

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Craftsman’s Approach to Tool Selection / Deep Work

I recently finished the book:

Newport, Cal. 2016. Deep work. Find in a Library

There’s a lot I could say about this book and how it has potential to help people develop, but I think my coworker has already done a good job of explaining how that can work.

I’d like to use this blog post to highlight a domain-neutral framework for choosing one’s tools that Cal Newport offers on page 191 of Deep Work. He calls it “The craftsman’s approach to choosing tools”:

Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive effects on those factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

While I’m still at work identifying all of those core factors, I realized that two of them were: 1) Staying present to my family and friends when I’m with them and 2) Staying on task when I start something.

I starting thinking about the times where I’ve been at gatherings and I’ve gotten bored and started browsing Facebook in a corner instead of listening to what’s being said. I’ve also thought about many times when I’ve started to use my phone to look up a specific thing, use it as a calculator or message someone – only to notice unread notifications on Facebook or Twitter. I look those up and forget what I was going to do.

There’s been usefulness to having Facebook and Twitter on my phone – especially when I want to post a quick picture or see what a particular person has been up to. But using the Craftsman’s approach above, I realized that this utility was being swamped by the negative effects of social withdrawal and distraction when trying to use my phone as a tool. So off my phone they went. I still have the accounts for now, though I really need to do more of an analysis on Twitter.

I don’t see the Craftsman’s approach as a Luddite one. Any tool whose pluses outweigh their minuses in terms of contributing to your goals ought to be adopted. But I find it a welcome corrective to the idea if we find any usefulness in a new thing at all, we’re committed to using it.

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Python and Data Science: Update

It’s been a month since I finished my edX class and I wanted to provide a quick(ish) update. Since I completed the course I’ve:

  1. Installed the Anaconda python package on my laptop. It includes a very nice editor called Spyder
  2. Worked at cleaning up my data spreadsheet of library data
  3. Realized that rather than hard coding specific columns to analyze, I ultimately want to be able to have a menu driven program where a user could ask to data items of their choice analyzed

The last item means I have more work to do with loops and working with headers from my spreadsheet. To get this work done, I am tacking back to learning more Python programming, this time from a book:

Matthes, Eric. 2016. Python crash course: a hands-on, project-based introduction to programming. Find in a Library

This book is in two parts. Part 1 is a general overview of Python, clearly explained with lots of hands on examples. Part 2 is devoted to using knowledge gained in part 1 in three different programming projects. Fortunately for me, the second project is all about data visualization, which is my primary interest in learning Python to begin with.

I’ve only been working with this book for a few days and I’ve worked through the first three chapters. Actually chapters two and three because chapter one was a step by step to getting your own programming environment which I already had. Chapters two and three were mostly review for me, but showed me a few new things about print() and working with lists. The hands-on examples gave me good practice. The author is really encouraging about getting you to play with your code — something missing from the edX course, useful as it was.

I’m looking forward to working on chapter four because it will cover using loops with lists. While I’ll be ultimately working with arrays and panda data structures, I expect some of this material to be relevant.

While the other Part 2 projects look fun, I will likely only do the data visualization project at this time.

I’ll try to write more once I get into the data visualization project in this book. I just wanted to let you know that despite a pretty busy life and the fluid political situation in this country, I’m still working on lifelong learning and hope you’ll find some time as well.


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What Do I Know? (External Blog): Data Journalism In The Alternative Fact Era

Data Journalism seems to be a hot topic these days as large data bases are increasingly becoming available.  For me the issue is figuring out how to download them, clean them up, and then play with them to find interesting patterns.   That’s what I’m hoping to get out of the class.

Source: What Do I Know?: Data Journalism In The Alternative Fact Era


Quick post from another Alaskan who is in a different course on data science, this one seeming to be specific to journalism. His full post gives some examples of how data was used in his city’s government and a speculation of what data journalism might be able to accomplish.

As far as my own efforts, I need to put a blog post together. The short version is I found a development environment, had a false start due to space names in rows and now I have working (if very simple) code. More later.

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