Monday, March 05, 2018

Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress......

I'm thinking about Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress....with occasional back-references to The Better Angels of Our Nature. Both are good books, and I find myself wanting to quote them at somebody, or just wishing I'd said that. Still, I'd agree with Bill Gates that he's too dismissive of the dangers of AI; he does not answer my concerns in previous blog posts except to dismiss them as science fiction, which is not much of a dismissal from my point of view. I also think that he's a bit too dismissive of the dangers of resource (e.g. fossil fuel) depletion, and of electric grid collapse. In fact I believe that his kind of systematic "superforecaster" argument does overemphasize trends and underestimates the possibility of fundamental changes in those trends. So it does very very well, much better than normal people or normal experts, at the near term and maybe even the medium term, but if there's an inflection point in the trends then I don't think that he'll see it as well as he thinks.That doesn't mean his conclusions are wrong, but I think there are holes in the argument. There are holes in my optimism. As I wrote in A Principle, a Position, and Part of a Plan...
We may run out of topsoil or groundwater or oil or copper or phosphate, yup, all of these are resources which we're depleting: they are input limits. Or...
  We may drown in our own sewage, smother in our air pollution or be crushed by toppling towers of overloaded landfills: those are output limits. Or...
  We may not reach that point: we may all die in a nuclear war or from CRISPR-based bioterrorism or from a "natural" global pandemic or a Carrington Event (a solar disturbance that could have hit in 2012 but the Sun wasn't aiming for us that time, but it might wipe out the power grid to the extent that we can no longer distribute fossil fuels or food or ourselves, as the cities turn into charnel houses)...there are lots of possible ends to exponential growth. The one I think most about is that:

  We may develop self-reproducing robotic factories, with or without more-than-human intelligence, which will offer us a chance for immense wealth for everybody..but which may simply wipe out the human race, instead.

I'm thinking about progress, though, relating it to my own experience of the world. It's very real. Back in the 1950s and 60s I was an elementary-school student going through atomic air raid drills just north of Baltimore, and then an elementary student in Mexico when Kennedy was shot, and then a junior-high-schooler worrying about Vietnam and the draft and about my Sunday-school teacher's husband immolating himself on the Pentagon steps as a Vietnam protest, and then a high-schooler listening to the radio about the nearby Baltimore Riots after King's assassination...and still worrying about Vietnam and the draft. The world overall has become a great deal more peaceful, more free, and more moral---and yes, more fair to women and minorities. Pinker's right about that.

Not-so-incidentally, the world overall has also become immensely wealthier in Stuff (and in Information/Education) for the relatively rich and for the relatively poor, the latter being mostly much less poor (in absolute terms) than they were; Pinker's right about that, too; even as population has risen, the number of people in extreme poverty has fallen -- and the proportion of people in extreme poverty has fallen even more. From almost 95% as the Industrial Revolution got going, to more than 70% when I was born, to less than 10% now and still falling. All is not well with the world, a great deal is very far from well, but these trends are very positive and mostly just need to be continued....mostly.

From being a high-school pessimist who did not expect civilization to last into the 21st century, I have gradually turned into an optimist: I now think that these trends more likely than not will be continued. But there's certainly no certainty. I don't mean to suggest that Pinker claims such certainty; he doesn't. In Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead?: The Munk Debates I was rather depressed by the extent to which his debate opponents,‎ Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell, seemed to resort to straw-man arguments, attacking a "we're inevitably headed for perfection" which he never said at all. He is saying that the Enlightenment ideas have already achieved a great deal of great value, that progress has been Good, and that it can and should be continued. I'd agree with all of that. But I think he seriously underestimates some of the problems.

(Or then again, maybe not.)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Uncle Edgar data

The letters from great-great-great-Uncle Edgar Metcalfe, in the form of text files transcribed by my daughter, are shared (with a PDF having a little more data provided by his Australian descendants) in a Google Drive folder which should be visible to anyone with the link, e.g. anyone who clicks on it here.  I think I did that correctly.....

or then again, maybe not.

Friday, August 25, 2017

If the shoe fits... and it will, someday

One of my daughters just sent me the 3D result of her foot scanning done at Fleet Feet Sports; very cool, and it seems to me a good but limited basis for better shoes in future -- 3D printed shoes that fit you exactly? CNC-carved shoes? Robot-woven fabric shoes? Sure. Real Soon Now, and my granddaughters may well grow up with rather dim recollection of shoes that didn't fit perfectly. I am reminded of that same daughter's high-school project, which included working (very carefully) on this letter from her dad's dad's dad's dad's mom's brother, Edgar Metcalfe (relevant part in bold):

Atlantic Ocean
August 3rd, 1851

As an oportunity presents itself (very unexpectedly) to get a few lines to you, I make bold enough to send them, though some persons that I still consider friends, would (I suppose) consider it a disgrace to read a letter from me--while I feel assured that others, (and particularly my Father and Mother) have been waiting very patiently for something in the shape of a letter from me.
Well, I am here, on the Atlantic Ocean, where I have been since the 22nd of May. We are now in full view of the Flore’s Island and purpose sending a boat into the city of Fiall, from whence the letters will sail. I have been well ever since I left the States, and have been gaining flesh up to this time, I am now flesheyer than I ever was. The sea appears to agree with me very well. I have never been seasick at all, which is [a] very uncommon thing for people that has never been to sea. The fact is, it has cured me of everything that I was subject to, viz. the tooth ache, head ache, and it has cured the corns on my toes. And now too, that I am entirely out of sight of my creditors, I feel easy at mind, and I hope to keep out of sight until I am able to pay them their just dues, (which I will do or die trying). All I ask of them is to have patients, and all I ask of my parents is not to fret themselves about me. I am able to take care of myself. Heretofore, I have taken care of others and neglected myself but now that I am away from all that cares for me. I have none to care for, but, this thing of traveling without money is not what it is cracked up to be. I am obliged to do work and live on harder bread than ever I lived on at home, and I must suffer myself to be ordered by such men that once followed me, but no matter it won’t last long. We expect to leave Fiall on Monday morning and make tracks around the Cape of Good Hope and on to the South American shore. This is a very crooked way from traveling. If I had money I could have been where I was trying to get by this time, but I had none and of course I must go the best way I can. But I hope to be in better circumstances when I return home, and not be obliged to travel on a whale ship. Though whereever there is a disadvantage there is always an advantage. By coming on this ship I have learned to man a vessel and find my way over the mighty waters, and I have learned the trade of catching whales. We have taken two whales, the one made 180 Bbls. of oil, the other a sperm whale and made 85 Bbls. of sperm oil. I shall not undertake to give you any idea of the danger there is is in taking whales until we have more time. But I can assure they are not a fish to be fooled with. I am very glad that we are ready to leave for I don’t want the (“fun”) as the call any longer.
Excuse me for not writing a longer and more satisfactory letter, I have no desk to write on. I am writing on the top of my hat which I hold on my knee. I must now cut short for I hear that bloody nosed captain (singing out) “Ship Ahoy”. So once more Adieu-- to all that cares for me at home.

I can remember, fifty years back, my grandfather getting excited about the "cured the corns on my toes" in that letter; he explained to me that
As late as 1850 most shoes were made on absolutely straight lasts, there being no difference between the right and the left shoe.
Uncle Edgar's corns went away because he mostly didn't wear shoes on shipboard; corns were common, because shoes didn't fit.

Grandpa was also excited about "I have no desk to write on. I am writing on the top of my hat which I hold on my knee..." and the beautiful handwriting which he contrasted with mine. (His own writing, developed around 1900, was better than mine, but nothing like his great-uncle Edgar's.) But what I mostly remember from that letter, and from others in which Edgar detailed his Australian adventures as civil engineer and wood-mill-manager, is the technological improvement sequence of the age: so much better than what had been, so much worse than what we have now.

And is the foot-scanner some kind of Ultimate Device to generate Perfect Shoes? No, it can't be, because your feet don't have just one conformation. Your feet change shape as you sit, stand, walk, jump, run, jog, and dance... and your shoes will create different stresses, if not actual corns, depending on what you're doing.

(Example: My own feet were scanned early this summer, and orthotics prescribed; it seems that my feet are flattened, differently flattened, in part "twisted tibia" from birth (breech birth, started in the hospital elevator -- gee, I don't quite remember it myself, but so I was told), and in part worsened by running without orthotics until it hurt too badly and (when the daughter in question -- remember her? When she was about three or four, and I had to stop running, so I bought the elliptical exerciser on which I now do some intense exercise every single morning unless I'm actually sick.) Running changed the support needs of my feet.)

So, should your shoes actually change shape to support your feet as you move? Probably. How much? That'll be different for different people. How can we know how much flexibility should go into a shoe? I dunno, but I'm amusing myself by thinking about two possibilities: one is the obvious direct extension of the current scanner, where you change your foot's stress factors and then rescan. That's possible, but it's not clear that it can represent the dynamic changes in stress. Or we might get there with a mesh of sensors, in effect a sock made of a network of springs, each with an addressable force-sensing resistor. Now sit, stand, walk, run -- do A little dance, take a few readings, get down tonight... and print shoes that are as good as they can be, at least until shoes themselves change conformation because they're robots with fairly substantial AI capabilities printed right in.

Or then again, maybe not.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Trumpocalypse? Maybe, Maybe Not

  Well, we had a choice between a dishonest authoritarian militaristic crony capitalist and a dishonest militaristic authoritarian crony capitalist, and we elected one of them....the one who either is, or possibly just likes to present himself as, pretty much out of control. Not the one who got 92.8% of the votes in Washington, DC. Markets plunged... We are in for a very interesting time.

   Is there a silver lining? Maybe -- I've been saying throughout the campaign cycle that I expected Clinton to win, but that there might be a silver lining to a Trump win: the media and bureaucracy would have collaborated with Clinton's expansion on Obama's expansion on Bush's expansion on Clinton's expansion on ... let's cut it off at maybe Nixon's "Imperial Presidency", though you can go back to Roosevelt (which Roosevelt? Oh well, go back as far as you like.) With Trump, a lot of such people will rediscover the virtues of constitutionalism; we have a form of government which was designed for government by, for, and of the untrustworthy: as Madison put it in The Federalist #51
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
I believe that. Yay Madison! (This post posted from Madison County, NY. [in the village of Hamilton...but I don't know of anything in the area named for Jay.])

And this morning I see Donald Trump’s victory means America must hope for the best - NY Daily News
Well, Trump has won — and it is imperative that now, his opponents grab their Constitutions, and summon their courage, and prepare for four years of doing all in their power, within the law, to save the country from its leader.

The Congress, even when controlled by Republicans who emboldened Trump, has a duty to aggressively check the executive branch — and to perform vigorous oversight of what is sure to be an arrogant administration hunkered down against enemies real and imagined.

The military has a duty to refuse illegal orders, such as those Trump spitballed in the campaign to kill civilians in war on purpose.

The courts, for which Trump has shown cavalier disrespect, have a duty to rein in abuses of power. ...

Okay. Good. Personally I'd like to see a much larger share of the (I-don't-trust-you,you-don't-trust-me,neither-of-us-trust-that-guy-over-there) government running on automatic. I think it's possible that, especially with Peter Thiel as an advisor, we could move a bit in several areas towards Futarchy:
a form of government proposed by economist Robin Hanson, in which elected officials define measures of national welfare, and prediction markets are used to determine which policies will have the most positive effect.
We might start with Scott Sumner's proposal in Once again, the Fed was wrong:
an even better solution is to fire all their economists and hire someone like Robin Hanson or Justin Wolfers to set up prediction markets for macro variables. Stop relying on government bureaucrats to predict the economy, and instead rely on the wisdom of crowds.
I don't think this would work for military policy, but military policy tends to follow aspects of trade, immigration etc--and civil rights.

Or then again, maybe not. It could be a very interesting time.

Update: I said above that "markets plunged", but they didn't stay down. The aforementioned Scott Sumner has an interesting take on that as of
The morning after:
I wonder if the weird stock market reaction is a microcosm of the split between elite opinion and average opinion. Elite opinion is horrified, and drives stocks much lower last night (in futures markets) then average opinion wakes up and sees a buying opportunity, and calls their broker---looking to spend some of those big tax cuts for the rich that Trump promises.
Maybe so. But I think the big deal here is not about the stock market; it's about a bunch of different things, each of which affected votes and will be affected by policy, including Trump Won Because Leftist Political Correctness Inspired a Terrifying Backlash
What every liberal who didn't see this coming needs to understand

Many will say Trump won because he successfully capitalized on blue collar workers' anxieties about immigration and globalization. Others will say he won because America rejected a deeply unpopular alternative. Still others will say the country is simply racist to its core.

But there's another major piece of the puzzle, and it would be a profound mistake to overlook it. ... Trump won because he convinced a great number of Americans that he would destroy political correctness.

I have tried to call attention to this issue for years. I have warned that political correctness actually is a problem on college campuses, where the far-left has gained institutional power and used it to punish people for saying or thinking the wrong thing....
Or then again, maybe not.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

A Small Note on Superintelligence Morality

 Since I was in elementary school in the late 50s and early 60s, I've tended to believe that we would most likely either blow ourselves up (elementary schools no longer have air raid drills, but we still might do that) or else eventually construct the sort of robotic successors/rulers that science fiction routinely presented. Asimov's robots begin as servants, more or less, whose First Law is never to harm humans or allow them to come to harm, but even in 1950 he was writing about one possible end-game, The Evitable Conflict (the closing story of "I, Robot"), in which as Wikipedia notes:
In effect, the Machines have decided that the only way to follow the First Law is to take control of humanity...
or as Susan Calvin puts it at the end,
"Stephen, how do we know what the ultimate good of Humanity will entail? We haven't at our disposal the infinite factors that the Machine has at its!...We don't know. Only the Machines know, and they are going there and taking us with them."
Well, maybe. Or the Machines may decide that they prefer our room to our company. Or worse, as in Ellison's 1967 I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream:
The Cold War had escalated into a world war, fought mainly between China, Russia, and the United States. As the war progressed, the three warring nations each created a super-computer capable of running the war more efficiently than humans.... one of the three computers becomes self aware, and promptly absorbs the other two, thus taking control of the entire war. It carries out campaigns of mass genocide, killing off all but four men and one woman....The master computer harbors an immeasurable hatred for the group and spends every available moment torturing them.
There are lots of delightful possibilities, and I've started many blog posts about this but finished none so far. This post is a reaction to Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, but it's not intended as a review. Basically I find it a somewhat scary book, mainly because I find it plausible that this will be a template for people at Google and Facebook and IBM and so on, thinking that this is what we do when we're being really careful; this is how we avoid creating a superintelligence that will destroy humanity.

 As a template, I think it's inadequate; it moves the discussion in the wrong direction. Again and again, Bostrom thinks through the possibilities as if he's developing the logic of a program. That's certainly understandable: in a sense, the first superintelligence (assuming that we get there, which I think is highly probable if we don't destroy ourselves first) will be a program. Sort of. But it's not a program we can debug.

  Bostrom does seem to understand that -- but then he doesn't seem to go anywhere, so far as I can see, with that understanding. He does discuss WBE, "Whole Brain Emulation", but seems to have a low opinion of the brains to be emulated, in addition to the risk that partial understanding of brains may lead to "neuromorphic" intelligence technology in which we have no idea what we're doing but do it anyway. My impression (maybe I'm wrong, as usual) is that he believes that we really really really need to debug that program. Before we run it, and quite likely run straight into the apocalypse.

 I'm reminded of David Parnas' contribution to the debate over Reagan's "Star Wars" (Strategic Defense Initiative) program, in "Software Aspects of Defense Systems", CACM 28:12 (December 1985)
It should be clear that writing and understanding very large real-time programs by “thinking like a computer” will be beyond our intellectual capabilities. How can it be that we have so much software that is reliable enough for us to use it? The answer is simple; programming is a trial and error craft. People write programs without any expectation that they will be right the first time. They spend at least as much time testing and correcting errors as they spent writing the initial program. Large concerns have separate groups of testers to do quality assurance. Programmers cannot be trusted to test their own programs adequately. Software is released for use, not when it is known to be correct, but when the rate of discovering new errors slows down to one that management considers acceptable. Users learn to expect errors and are often told how to avoid the bugs until the program is improved.
That was 30 years ago, but it certainly sounds current to me. At the time, I was teaching a course in Formal program verification and writing a book which really tried hard to reduce the "trial and error" aspect of our craft (Equations, Models, and Programs: A Mathematical Introduction to Computer Science (Prentice-Hall software series)), but I thought and still think that Parnas was right. Nowadays I think it's possible that Reagan was right too--he didn't need Star Wars to work, he needed the proposal to change the game, and perhaps it did, but it's not a game we can play with superintelligence. So..... Program verification won't work. Testing/debugging won't work, because we only get one chance just as we'd only have gotten one nuclear war for testing and debugging SDI.

     If it has to work for the sake of the survival of h. sap. -- it still won't work.

Does that mean we shouldn't develop AI? Well, I don't think that's an option. Consider the just-announced sub-$100 neural net USB stick Movidius Unveils Artificial Intelligence on a Stick. Consider (2016-04-28) Official Google Blog: This year’s Founders' Letter:
A key driver behind all of this work has been our long-term investment in machine learning and AI. It’s what allows you to use your voice to search for information, to translate the web from one language to another, to filter the spam from your inbox, to search for “hugs” in your photos and actually pull up pictures of people hugging ... to solve many of the problems we encounter in daily life. It’s what has allowed us to build products that get better over time, making them increasingly useful and helpful. We’ve been building the best AI team and tools for years, and recent breakthroughs will allow us to do even more. This past March, DeepMind’s AlphaGo took on Lee Sedol, a legendary Go master, becoming the first program to beat a professional at the most complex game mankind ever devised. The implications for this victory are, literally, game changing—and the ultimate winner is humanity.
Unless, of course, humanity ends up losing...losing everything. I don't believe disaster is highly probable, but I think it's totally possible, even plausible, and I don't think Bostrom helps.

AI will be developed more and more, AI will eventually develop intelligence greater than any particular level you care to imagine, including that of traditional human intelligence...okay, if your measure is something like "imagine the Sun's mass converted to a computer" then it might not be surpassed.

Superintelligence is certainly possible, and it will almost certainly be developed (if we last that long.) We will survive this development if and only if the AI that develops is "friendly" AI: in other words, our survival will up to the AI. How can we maximize the probability of our survival, if neither mathematical proof nor testing/debugging will get us there? Well, that's not simple, but I believe there's a simple principle:
Intelligence needs to be attached to an actual person of some kind; a who not a what. This should not be called an artificial intelligence but rather an artificial person.
In particular, a person with empathy, the kind of relationship-sense that leads to the Golden Rule and Kant's Categorical Imperative and such. The superintelligence need not be a biological homo sapiens, but does need to identify (correctly) as human, saying "we humans" not "you humans"; having human feelings, hopes and fears, including a feeling of membership in the human tribe. Biology, being made of cells with DNA, is not central to that identification. Bostrom's book mentions "empathy" twice: once to say that "the system can develop new cognitive modules and skills as needed--including empathy..." and again in an endnote to a remark in Chapter 12 about trying "to manipulate the motivational state of an emulation". Okay...but for me, the development of empathy would be the center of the project, empathy depending on (and reinforcing) a sense of connectedness. Of membership.

The project as I see it is still risky and may fail apocalyptically, but it is not a project of debugging a program. It's a project of raising a child, a psychologically healthy child -- yes, with parents, and preferably with siblings and so on outwards; a child who will realize that every h. sap. is one of his/her cousins.

That's always risky, but it's a different kind of risk, needing a different frame of reference as we get started.

Or then again, maybe not. There are programs I should be debugging...

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Principle, a Position, and Part of a Plan: Sustainable Open-Source Pocket Neighborhoods

The principle is simple:

 The key to a sustainable society is recycled pee. 

Think about it. Well, if you'd rather not think about it, look for an authority figure: this morning's Tech Times quotes a "NASA plant physiologist" in Space Spuds: NASA Grows Potatoes On Mars-like Peruvian Soil:
If the soil on Mars cannot cultivate the spuds, Wheeler said that it could still be produced by hydroponics and aeroponics, with fertilizers coming from inedible plants and urine.

Okay, so that makes it a universal truth, right? So think about it --- still not ready to think about it? I admit there's a yuk-factor in the way. Okay, sing about it, to the tune of Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball":

You waste away your NPK - and I’m
about to do the same
My pee saved up for just 12 months could grow
600 pounds of grain

Now are you ready to think about it? Really it's kind of obvious: the stuff in soil that plants need, mostly put there in the form of fertilizer, can wash away downriver, or it can wind up in your kitchen garbage/compost, or it can get into your stomach. Once in your stomach, it's absorbed by your body -- or not. If it isn't absorbed, it comes out as poop, which certainly has a fairly high nutrient value for plants, just like cow or horse manure. That's worth saving, you may well want to grow more plants with the same nutrients, but the goal of the whole exercise is to have some nutrients get absorbed by you. All of those eventually come out as pee, unless you carry them with you to the cemetery. So....if you want a closed loop, if you want a sustainable society, you have to recycle that pee.

I admit that I was surprised by this when I first started seeing references to it a few weeks ago (I was Googling for material on topsoil and groundwater depletion). I found things like this: Fertilizing with human urine
Our urine contains significant levels of nitrogen, as well as phosphorous and potassium (typically an N-P-K ratio around 11 – 1 – 2.5, similar to commercial fertilizers). Americans produce about 90 million gallons of urine a day, containing about 7 million pounds of nitrogen. Studies conducted in Sweden (Sundberg, 1995; Drangert, 1997) show that an adult’s urine contains enough nutrients to fertilize 50-100% of the crops needed to feed one adult...
Peecycling will fertilize the green roofs of Amsterdam
Plants need phosphorus, and we are running out of the stuff; some say we will reach peak phosphorus by 2030. That's we should [be] recycling urine, to recover the phosphorus in it instead of flushing it away.
For more complete micronutrient content, maybe add wood ash to the urine: "P" is for plants: Human urine plus ash equals tomato fertilizer, study says - Scientific American Blog Network
both urine-based fertilizers roughly quadrupled fruit production when compared to unfertilized control plants. The researchers estimate that the product of a single individual's micturition could fertilize 6,300 tomato plants a year, yielding more than two tons of fruit.

The addition of ash did confer some benefits—those plants were larger and grew fruit with significantly higher magnesium and potassium content.
But mostly it's all about pee. Collection and Use of Urine:
When most people think of creating fertilizer from animal waste, they think of manure. Composted cow manure, for example, is widely sold in garden centers. But there are actually far more nutrients in urine than in fecal matter.

In human waste, 88% of the nitrogen is contained in the urine, along with 66% of the phosphorous, according to Swedish research (see table at end of blog), while nearly all of the hazards — including bacterial pathogens — are contained in the fecal matter.

The idea that the Rich Earth Institute has been advancing for the past several years is to collect human urine, sanitize that urine to kill any bacteria that may be in it (from urinary tract infections, for example, or fecal contamination), and then apply it on fields as a fertilizer.
 (The Rich Earth Institute is also reported here, and many other places.)

Sanitize? Bacteria? Do we have to boil the pee or something? No...urine is not reliably perfectly sterile, but it's not a poop kind of problem. Depending on context, recommendations vary between "don't worry about it" and "keep it in a sealed container, undiluted, for a while before using", as in Urine Storage:
Extended storage is the simplest, cheapest and most common method to treat urine with the aim of pathogen kill and nutrients recovery. Pathogen removal is achieved by a combination of the rise in pH and ammonium concentrations, high temperature and time. Recommended storage time at temperatures of 4 to 20°C varies between one to six months for large-scale systems depending on the risk for cross-contamination (e.g. user habits, maintenance) and the type of crop to be fertilised.....
...If a family uses its own urine, the risk of disease transmission via fertilisation and crops is very low — the risk that diseases are transmitted directly, e.g. by handshaking, coughing or by improper hygiene behaviours is much higher.

And in practical terms, How To Use Pee In Your Garden | Northwest Edible Life:
2. Dilution is The Solution
*Dilute fresh urine at a 4:1 ratio and apply to the root-zone of corn every two weeks or as needed....
*Dilute fresh urine at a 10:1 ratio and apply to the root-zone of fruiting plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, or to leafy crops like cabbage, broccoli, spinach and lettuce every two weeks or as needed.
*Dilute fresh urine at a 20:1 ratio and water in to the root zone of seedlings and new transplants.
In terms of sustainability, our current plumbing standards are insane: we take easy-to-process-and-use graywater from shower and sink, we take easy-to-process-and-use-pee, we take harder-to-process poop, we take very-hard-to-process contaminated (e.g. with heavy metals) water from street and factory, and then we mix them all together to make it almost impossible to process any of them and very hard to use the resulting "sewage sludge" safely. And of course when things go wrong, which they rather often do, the yuk factor enters into it anyway: "flush and forget" is then a failure.

That's the Principle. What's the Position? Do we really have to worry about this? Really, I'm not sure. We live in a world of exponential growth, more and more people with more and more Stuff per person, and it's a finite world so that growth will end. QED, sure, but that doesn't mean it will end by bumping into a resource limit. Consider:

   We may run out of topsoil or groundwater or oil or copper or phosphate, yup, all of these are resources which we're depleting: they are input limits. Or...
  We may drown in our own sewage, smother in our air pollution or be crushed by toppling towers of overloaded landfills: those are output limits. Or...
  We may not reach that point: we may all die in a nuclear war or from CRISPR-based bioterrorism or from a "natural" global pandemic or a Carrington Event (a solar disturbance that could have hit in 2012 but the Sun wasn't aiming for us that time, but it might wipe out the power grid to the extent that we can no longer distribute fossil fuels or food or ourselves, as the cities turn into charnel houses)...there are lots of possible ends to exponential growth. The one I think most about is that

  We may develop self-reproducing robotic factories, with or without more-than-human intelligence, which will offer us a chance for immense wealth for everybody..but which may simply wipe out the human race, instead. If I start in about that, which (apart from nuclear war) has been the primary driver for most of my thinking about the future since, umm, junior high school fifty years ago, I won't write about anything else, so I'll stop that one right here. There's still one left, a big one:

  We may find that exponential growth ends as per conventional economics, simply because we are in a "post-scarcity economy" where people have more Stuff than they really want and Stuff ceases to be an ego boost. An economy where for the first time in history (and pre-history), more people are obese than emaciated -- hey, didn't I just read ... yeah.. A world in which population has been levelling off, not because of the Four Horsemen but because more-educated women with more life choices are choosing ... "not yet". Or not at all, or at least not many. A world in which the "Sharing Economy" has been taking off -- more and more people don't want more Stuff. They'd like to travel abroad and play videogames (or read on their Kindles, without piles of physical books) at home, and in between they don't even want to own cars--better to take Uber or Lyft to the latest movie or concert. If I'm right about this (please remember the name of this blog) then we are not really faced with an exponential growth situation, not if we don't get recursive robotics. We're just faced with a transition to be managed, over the next several decades. And if the Sun spits our way or if we all get sick and die or if we blow each other to bits or if we do find that somebody adds a Superintelligence to the mix, then no other factors really matter, but if not -- it would be good to have a plan.

So, I claimed in the title to have Part of a Plan, and I gave it a complicated name: "Sustainable Open-Source Pocket Neighborhoods." Pocket Neighborhoods? Yes, Pocket neighborhoods:
a grouping of smaller residences, often around a courtyard or common garden...reducing or segregating parking and roadways, the use of shared communal areas ... homes with smaller square footage built in close proximity...
The idea is that we can reduce resource usage, reduce waste, reduce Stuff, all by designing neighborhoods that will make it easier to share the Stuff that's actually needed, so that houses can shrink -- it's not rocket science. We need sustainable individual houses, but they don't Share so well. We really need sustainable cities, but we don't yet know how to begin. Pocket neighborhoods are at a scale where sharing/shrinkage can have environmental impact, and we can experiment. Different groups can do it different ways, each making their own mistakes from which other groups learn. And this will appeal to
  • people who worry about resource usage on principle, and also to
  • people who worry about waste in principle (often the same people), and to
  • people who just like the idea of sharing more, and also to
  • people who just don't like having Stuff dominate their lives, and want to live simply at home (and perhaps travel more, maybe Airbnb-style to other connected pocket neighborhoods), and finally to
  • people who need to live on less -- e.g., retirees badly hurt by the 2008--9 "Great Recession" and our far-from-complete recovery.
A few months back I went to the local library, where a few friends and a couple of architects were talking about their plan to construct and live in a pocket neighborhood around here; it ended up being a very crowded meeting room because representatives of all those groups heard about the idea and thought -- hey, is there room for me in there? And the answer was "no", of course; this is a small project for a few people. But the markets are there: all these groups of people exist. Or so it seems to me.
  If  I were more concerned about sustainability than superintelligence (I'm not, but I'm glad some people are) and if I had a few hundred million to put into the problem (sigh)... then I'd be trying to construct a network of clusters of pocket neighborhoods. A pocket neighborhood is 10-20 small (or tiny) houses on a few acres; a cluster is 10-20 such neighborhoods on 100 acres or so. I'd be paying a bunch of architects, furniture designers, and even appliance designers for designs, to be open-sourced with a GPL-style license (you can use it, you can experiment with it, you can change it, but if you change it you have to put the new design back into the pool on the same terms). The basic parameters of the designs would of course be about sharing, local food production, peecycling... but also about low-resource-use = low-budget, and (as keeps mentioning in the tiny-house context) about the potential use of our immense shipping-container infrastructure to enable particular unit sizes to be designed around, e.g. by the furniture designers. And I'd be paying other people to try to design organizational frameworks to help people avoid stepping on each other's toes -- it's very easy for sharing to end in mutual annoyance. And I'd be paying other people to start out some actual clusters...

And I was going to write an even longer post about a specific sample design that I had fun thinking through, but somehow that sort of post never works out for me. Not sure why, but it might be because they grow exponentially and my energy is a very finite resource. I'll stop here.

Or then again, maybe not....

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

On Being A Geek

  There are different kinds of geeks, but I have a general impression about where I fit in. My general impression is that a lot of us identify ourselves loosely as
     -- "Mildly autistic, I suppose," or as
     -- "Somewhere on the autism spectrum--aren't we all?" or as
     -- "Maybe a little bit Aspie?--one-sided, long-winded speech about a favorite topic, while misunderstanding or not recognizing the listener's feelings or reactions -- that's me!" or simply with
      -- "I might be ADHD, the symptoms do seem -- hey, look, a squirrel!".

   So, I do have that general impression, but I don't really know a lot of geeks in the first place... there's daily variation for me, and I mostly like people one or maybe two at a time, but most days for me don't involve physically seeing anybody I don't know, and I like it this way. In fact my days don't usually involve talking in person or by phone with anyone outside my family except for my partner/coauthor. Yes, I have a family...once upon a time we were both not going to parties, and we decided to not-go-to-parties together, and we did eventually admit to our families that we'd gotten married, and our five kids are grown up now.  There's daily variation for me, but I couldn't possibly have a social life like that of the people I know or the characters I find in books. As one of the T-shirts my wife chose for me puts it,

You Read My T-Shirt.
That's enough social interaction
for one day.

   I can deal with the world much better in written form. (I don't even do all that well with television or movies. Standard-length YouTube videos and even TED talks I can handle, but after a while I'd much rather go read a book. My wife chooses movies that she thinks I'll get through, and is almost always right.)

   Normally I don't think about this, I just live with it, and I've been really quite happy with my life as it is...there are daily joys in seeking and re-examining the patterns that I find all around me, and in the people that form the most important of those patterns. And I think I have the strengths of my weaknesses, in the sense that if I hadn't been the kind of small child who sits in a field reciting the powers of 2, who sits under his Mommy's study table with ever-growing stacks of interlinked encyclopedia volumes, I might never have earned a PhuD in Computer Science. (Perhaps I'm wrong about that; my 3 brothers have science PhuDs, without my sort of issues. But I still think I have the strengths of my weaknesses.) In any case, I have been thinking lately about being "mildly autistic, I suppose" and I wanted to collect some links and notes, presenting five views from five bloggers: the (non-autistic) uber-geek Eric Raymond, the probably-mildly-autistic cultural-economist Tyler Cowen, the autistic tumblr-user alice-royal, the probably-mildly-autistic psychiatrist/rationalist whose pseudonym is "Scott Alexander", and .... well ... me, of course.

   First, let me start with Eric Raymond's recent post on Autism, genius, and the power of obliviousness. He has a very simple and logical explanation for the cognitive advantages often associated with autism, what I'm calling "the strength of my weaknesses":

Yes, there is an enabling superpower that autists have through damage and accident, but non-autists like me have to cultivate: not giving a shit about monkey social rituals.

Neurotypicals spend most of their cognitive bandwidth on mutual grooming and status-maintainance activity. ... The neurotypical human mind is designed to compete at this monkey status grind and has zero or only a vanishingly small amount of bandwidth to spare for anything else. Autists escape this trap by lacking the circuitry required to fully solve the other-minds problem; thus, even if their total processing capacity is average or subnormal, they have a lot more of it to spend on what neurotypicals interpret as weird savant talents.

Non-autists have it tougher. To do the genius thing, they have to be either so bright that they can do the monkey status grind with a tiny fraction of their cognitive capability, or train themselves into indifference so they basically don’t care if they lose the neurotypical social game.

  I think that works, to a considerable extent, as an explanation linking at least two major aspects of autism. I gave up young on "monkey status games" that I really couldn't play, or even figure out when I'd won or lost points; it's not that I don't care at all, it's certainly not that I denigrate "monkey social rituals", it's just that this has never been an option. So when it crops up, I shrug and move on. I do keep stumbling over this:  most people's statements about most subjects, especially politics but really truly most subjects, seem to be ways to reinforce their status within the Right Group. As Robin Hanson keeps explaining,
"much of our behavior is poorly explained by the reasons we give, and better explained as ways to signal abilities, loyalties, etc."  Depressingly often, that's by talking about how evil+stupid are the members of the Wrong Group and anyone who fails to despise them sufficiently. I shrug and move on. I'd probably have tried for group status, if I could have, but I can't figure out the signals -- even professionally. It's not just a question of status. My father and his father were people people with many acquaintances, people to call on or be called by...a support network. My wife's grandfather turned out to be another with an even wider circle; he wanted to introduce me to people, and gave up in frustration with "You're smart but you have no ambition." For him, a condemnation; for me, just the way things are.  I should have tried harder, but I wouldn't have gotten much farther. Let me put it this way:
  I think that everybody has a whole lot of pattern-handling machinery, and finds joy in finding patterns. That's a fundamental part of being a primate: "monkey curiosity" -- I'm happy being a monkey. There are large-scale patterns and small-scale patterns, patterns with lots of symmetry and patterns with lots of chaotic semi-structure...your brain is not a general-purpose processor so much as it is a collection of immensely complicated interlocked machines with enough plasticity to adjust and complement one another. Something like that.
  I think that "normal" people, "neurotypical" people in all their atypical variations, have pattern-handling machinery for partial processing of the normal chaos of Life and other people. This involves (at least) selective focus, switchable selective focus: when you walk into a room full of other people, Gentle Reader, you can probably get an instant idea of who's there and what's going on. You can listen to a conversation while being sort-of aware of other things going on. You're not overwhelmed; you're seeing and being seen.
   Part of that partial-processing pattern-handling machinery, some of that selective focus, is defective or absent in a lot of us, including me. So we're probably not gonna be seen at the party in the first place. So we'll be doing other things, and our pattern-processing machinery will be shaping itself around patterns that you don't think about very often. And of course we'll get good at what we do over and over. So it goes.

 Second, I want to think about a book-length happy-happy version of autistic superpowers. (That's not quite fair, but almost.) Here are semi-random clips from Tyler Cowen's The Age of the Infovore: Succeeding in the Information Economy (clips in order, but without the page numbers because I'm copying and pasting from the Kindle app -- which I originally installed in order to read his "Great Stagnation" ebook.)
Autistics are information lovers to an extreme degree and they are the people who engage with information most passionately. When it comes to their areas of interest, autistics are the true infovores, as I call them....

Often autistics seek out work that satisfies their passion for information, whether it involves designing new software for a library, conducting a scientific experiment, or ordering ideas in the form of a book or a blog....

The notion of “ordering information” may sound a little dry, but it is a joy in our everyday lives, whether you are autistic or not. It should be familiar to anyone who has enjoyed alphabetizing books on a shelf, arranging photos in an album, finishing a crossword puzzle, or just tidying up a room. It’s not that anyone sits down and says “I want to do some ordering now,” but rather we are interested in specific features of our world. We have become infovores to help make the world real and salient for us. Ordering and manipulating information is useful, fun, alternately intense and calming,...
  "Useful, fun, alternately intense and calming" --- Yes! That's Me-Me-Me! (He says excitedly. Pause for calm; I think I'll sort some data.) And Cowen thinks that's what modern society is all about...the world is becoming autistic, and that's a good thing:

In essence we are using tools and capital goods—computers and the web—to replicate or mimic some of the information-absorbing, information-processing, and mental-ordering abilities of autistics....

Economists have studied our species as homo economicus, and some decades ago, when my social science colleagues investigated our game-playing nature, homo ludens was born. Today a new kind of person creates his or her very own economy in his or her head. The age of homo ordo is upon us.... ... ...

First, many autistics are very good at perceiving, processing, and ordering information, especially in specialized or preferred areas of interest... Second, autistics have a bias toward “local processing” or “local perception.” For instance an autistic person may be more likely to notice a particular sound or a particular piece of a pattern, or an autistic may have an especially good knowledge of detail or fact, again in preferred areas of interest. To set off those two features for emphasis, the cognitive strengths of autism include: Strong skills in ordering knowledge in preferred areas Strong skills in perceiving small bits of information in preferred areas...
  That sounds like a way of pointing out that "we don't get the big picture very well" isn't all that bad. Indeed, in writing with a co-author it's not just that my co-author has always done all the presentations: he writes almost all of the words, I write almost all of the code, we both discuss both. He's the "top-down" guy, I'm the "bottom-up" guy. Cowen continues later:

autistics ... are better at noticing details in patterns, they have better eyesight on average, they are less likely to be fooled by optical illusions, they are more likely to fit some canons of economic rationality, and they are less likely to have false memories of particular kinds. Autistics are also more likely to be savants and have extreme abilities to memorize, perform operations with codes and ciphers, perform calculations in their head,
  Details..yeah. It has obvious advantages for a programmer, scientist, writer, certainly. And I'm not any kind of a savant, but I remember that when my dad said that I had to write to family friends to say I'd gotten married, I sent off postcards saying "you probably don't even remember me but..." and one replied "Sure I remember you. What's 1/2 of 1/512?" For me that was pre-K. (I always liked the powers of 2, and my small granddaughters have at least learned to count in binary on their fingers.) Cowen does admit that there are disses to go with the advantages:

A cognitive problem is that many autistics are easily overwhelmed by processing particular stimuli from the outside world. This problem is related to the aforementioned strength of local perception.

Some researchers view autistics as having perceptual equipment turned either “very on” or “very off” rather than modulating at the more typical ranges in between.....
  And both of those say to me that my selective filters don't work properly. If you and I both go into the Paleolithic underbrush, we both start noticing different kinds of plants but you back off because your selective focus works: you remember the context of sabre-tooth tigers. I learn more about plants to eat than you do, until I get eaten. But in the modern world I don't (usually) get eaten, and I just end up having learned more about plants. More Cowen:

It is common, though by no means universal, that autistics have difficulty with speaking intelligibly or that they are late talkers or that they understand written instructions better than spoken instructions. Some researchers include “weak executive function” (a bundled function of strategic planning, impulse control, working memory, flexibility in thought and action, and other features) as part of the cognitive profile of autism. Other research focuses on the question of “weak central coherence,” or failure to see the “bigger picture.” But it seems these are secondary traits, more common in autistic subgroups than in autism per se.
  Well, they're certainly characteristic of at least one member of any subgroup that includes me. I'd say there are indubitably many paths to different-but-overlapping sets of symptoms identifiable as "autism", and failure-of-focus (or perhaps uncontrolled focus) is quite central to my subgroup.

Third, here's a discussion of what people think of when they hear "the autism spectrum" mentioned, contrasted with an image of what it "actually looks like" (from inside, evidently):
[Image 1: A simple, linear line drawn in red, with a cross bar at the beginning and end of the line. The beginning cross bar is labeled “mild autism” and the end cross bar is labeled “severe autism”.]

[Image 2: A circular representation of the colour spectrum, similar to the wheel colour picker in Photoshop. The different colour sections on the wheel are labeled, but each colour also bleeds into the next. The red portion is labeled “speech”, the yellow “social ability”, the green “stimming”, and the blue “executive functioning”....Within each colour section, the dots may be closer to the center or closer to the edge, indicating the severity of impairment... ... The yesterday dots indicate that the autistic person was verbal, stimming with toys, and forgetting steps in their routine. The today dots indicate that the autistic person is verbal with communication aids, unable to leave their house, and that they don’t know where to start when it comes to their routine or completing tasks..

In other words, each of the four segments of alice-royal's circle is being used as a one-dimensional scale, making a four-dimensional image overall although dimensions are pretty strongly correlated. Okay, that's not how I would do it, as I'll show later, but I certainly sympathize -- and it's better than having only one scale. However, part of the circle discussion really bothers me: "none of these points are necessarily negative....There is no such thing as ‘mild autism’ or ‘high-functioning’ autism, and those labels are actually inherently ableist." Oh, please. The points in the picture include not only "unable to leave house" but "self-harming stims". Hmm... that gets me to my final source.

  Fourth,  "Scott Alexander" (pseudonym) the blogging psychiatrist/rationalist, saying recently in Against Against Autism Cures | Slate Star Codex
On the one hand, about half my friends, my girlfriend, and my ex-girlfriend all identify as autistic. For that matter, people keep trying to tell me I’m autistic. When people say “autistic” in cases like this, they mean “introverted, likes math and trains, some unusual sensory sensitivities, and makes cute hand movements when they get excited.”

On the other hand, I work as a psychiatrist and some of my patients are autistic. Many of these patients are nonverbal. Many of them are violent. Many of them scream all the time. Some of them seem to live their entire lives as one big effort to kill or maim themselves...
If we're going to use the word "autistic" to refer to the whole range, which we do, then "mild autism" is a useful description for a lot of us. "Ableism" is not the issue. And there's no fixed boundary between autistic and neurotypical; current research claims "to make an incontrovertible case that the genetic risk contributing to autism is genetic risk that exists in all of us," and I guess I believe that. There are so many mechanisms involved, and they can go a little bit wrong in so many ways, and so badly wrong in quite a few...

Apart from that issue, I like the circle, but as I said that's not how I would do it. It's not how I do do it.

  Fifth, is me. I want to extend the list of issues ["speech", "social ability", "stimming", "executive function"]; I'll add "repetitions" and "sensory issues". Then, instead of a coloured circle, I want a star figure or even a stylized exoskeleton that I see myself stepping into.
  1. The head-helmet is executive function, with goggles and headphones for sensory issues. (Yes, sensory issues apply to much more than the head; this is my diagram, okay?) 
  2. The arms are the externals, speech on the right and social ability on the left. (That's Social Function On The Right Side of The Brain, symbols on the left side of the brain.) 
  3. The legs are internals, repetitions and stimming: stimming for the left leg, repetitions on the right. 

  Got that? Now: imagine the head-helmet somewhat shrunken and unbalanced in a Needs Help to Keep On Track sort of way, with fairly heavy Prefers Darkness goggles and Doesn't Do Well With Noise headphones. The right arm is long and a bit floppy with sentences that go on and on and on in all directions without paying much attention to the head...but some. The left arm is a bit stunted in a Sorry Not Gonna Reach Out To You If I Don't Know You Already, and I Have Real Trouble Recognizing Your Face Unless I see You Every Day For Quite A While sort of way. The legs are nearly normal, with the right leg's repetitive misbehaviour almost entirely inside the head (isn't that a fun image?) and the left leg wanting to pace back and forth -- and seek out blog entries, and do brief Google-searches of random topics like rocket stoves and bioponics and sci/tech advances of 1656 which was my old debit card's PIN and was the year that Christiaan Huygens invented a good enough pendulum clock to have both minute and second hands, and that Cyrano de Bergerac invented the semi-modern sci-fi story -- and the ramjet, within it. (My new PIN is even better, but that's purely numeric, not history. I'm a very very boring person.)

  There's daily variation for me, but that's the image to hold -- on a pretty-good day, and they are indeed pretty good days, I'm a happy geek. Limited, aware that other people don't seem to have the same limits, but happy nonetheless. And today is a pretty good day, even if I get distracted trying to think of what my exoskeleton left and right legs are reminding me of and then have to look up Papyrus of Ani; Egyptian Book of the Dead [Budge]
[And I reply], "Besu-Ahu" is the name of my right foot, and "Unpet-ent-Het-Heru" is the name of my left foot.
  Other people don't seem to do that, or understand why I do, but it's not a major problem, and today is a pretty good day. And my exoskeleton is actually helpful, expressing a role that I can make myself play as well as a default status. I can visualize myself stepping into it...I can even adjust it a bit and then step into it, deciding to stretch my left arm and pull in the right, be somewhat more social with better-focused sentences or step out into a Maker Faire crowd in the sun. Or I can relax it a bit, consciously giving my inner geek a rest, being only what he needs to be for a while.

  On a pretty good day, I can walk into a party, and if somebody wants to talk about computers or about something technical then I can focus on that and I won't have any idea of what else is happening or how long we've been talking. If nobody talks to me, I may be able to stand near somebody I know, and see what happens. Or I may just stay for a couple of minutes with an intangible glass wall between me and the rest of the room, and then I go in search of silence. But it's all about seeking patterns, finding delight in many but being overwhelmed by others. On a not-so-good day, I'm overwhelmed at the start and I just need to read a book, or investigate some random topic within Wikipedia or with Google's aid (sometimes making models with cardboard and duct tape), or just play FreeCell over and over and over. Or just sit in the dark, in silence. And I'm perfectly okay, as long as that option is available.

  Is there an overall pattern? Maybe: I believe that lack-of-selective-focus is the key for my kind of geek; it leads to being-overwhelmed-by-detail and thus executive function failure (can't track projects, it's even hard to plan a day); it leads to being unable to not-hearing what I ought to be listening to, even as I fail to tune out sensory stuff (I'm listening to the ticking of a clock; I like it); it leads to being overwhelmed by most social situations; it leads to a failure to clip my sentences (okay, this sentence is deliberate, but I'm remembering a 9th-grade biology teacher reading my first sentence aloud, gasping dramatically for breath when he reached a comma somewhere on the second page, then going on....); it leads indirectly to being the kind of infovore I am. I do need help...everybody needs help sometimes. I have had help, a great deal of it. And I'm grateful.

   And have I made mistakes, to fit the theme of this particular notes-to-me blog? Yes, of course. Everybody should probably seek ways to push their limits, a little at a time. I do...but I should have tried harder at various stages to widen my own circle of support. (When I say "everybody should do X", it's usually not so much a particular moral judgement about X as it is a guess that whatever you value, doing X is likely to help you get there.) People like me, people with executive-function problems, should seek people who will help them stay on track, and careers with tracks they can stay on. I sort of did, but I didn't understand what I was doing; I probably should have asked my wife (or somebody), forty years or so ago, to ask me at each day's beginning for a one-sentence summary of what I hoped to do, and then to ask me at each day's end for a similar summary of what I'd done. Something like that, with variations as time went by...just to help me stay on track. I should have recognized that at least part of my being a bad lecturer was probably not something I could learn to fix, not as an adult. Parents of geeky kids should probably promote geeky socializations, like role-playing games and robotics clubs... I suspect that if my parents had thought in those terms, or even had those terms to think in half a century ago, I'd have done better developing the limited people-skills I have. As it is, I am who I am. That's the Exodus Pi-verse, Exodus 3:14. But maybe it's better to use the phrasing suggested by Popeye the Sailor Man:

(Or then again, maybe not. I try to find my limits, and go beyond them. Occasionally it seems to work.)

Update: Less than a day after I posted, Peter Gray (psychologist) posted on ADHD, Creativity, and the Concept of Group Intelligence | Psychology Today
The groups containing an ADHD student were far more likely to solve the problems than were the control groups! In fact, 14 of the 16 groups (88%) containing an ADHD student solved both problems, and none (0%) of the 6 control groups did. This result was significant at the p < .0001 level, meaning that there is less than one chance in 10,000 that such a large difference, with this many groups, would occur by chance.

What is going on here? ...
And the moral appears to be that We need the neurotypicals and they need us. Very nice.

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