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Career Advice – Short Story by Gennady Stolyarov II

Career Advice – Short Story by Gennady Stolyarov II

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The short story below was authored by Gennady Stolyarov II, FSA, ACAS, MAAA, CPCU, ARe, ARC, API, AIS, AIE, AIAF, Chairman of the U.S. Transhumanist Party and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, and is one of the entries in the Society of Actuaries 14th Speculative Fiction Contest. It was published as one of the contest entries here.

You can read all of the entries here and vote for your choice of three of them here, until April 15, 2021. You are encouraged to read all of the entries, and also to consider supporting Mr. Stolyarov’s story, which contributes to the realm of non-dystopian science fiction. Remember only to vote one time!

Wuhan Center – Photograph by Baycrest

On December 8, 2008, the overhead projector in the classroom glowed blue and white from the Skype interface as the Professor established the connection with the caller on the other end. “Mr. Yoo, can you hear me?” the Professor inquired. “Yes, I can,” came the somewhat static-laced response.

“Welcome, Mr. Yoo. I apologize for any technical difficulties in advance. We are still quite new to this technology. In fact, I had to jump through hoops to get the Mathematics Department to allow me to install it on a college computer. But it is quite remarkable that we can get a remote speaker to address the students now. I know that Skype can sustain video as well, but our Internet connection speed is still insufficient for that.”

“That is not a problem,” replied Mr. Yoo. “I am happy to speak to your students, and to show them some career possibilities they had not considered before. Hopefully my remarks will resonate with them even if they cannot see me.”

“Absolutely, this is why we invited you.  Students, this is your opportunity to learn from a truly outstanding actuary,” proclaimed the Professor. “Just a year ago in 2007 Mr. Yoo became a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries, which means he had to pass a sequence of some of the most rigorous exams in the world. But what is especially impressive is that Mr. Yoo passed every single actuarial exam with a perfect score – the only person to ever do so. Normally the Society of Actuaries would not publish the exam results at this level of detail, but they made an exception for Mr. Yoo. What is more, he specifically requested to be closely monitored by the exam proctors at every moment that he was writing his exams. Multiple people confirmed that he absolutely did his own work and provided unique, thoughtful answers to the essay questions. I was so astonished when I learned about this, but even more astonished that Mr. Yoo reached out to our college and our department and actually suggested this presentation himself. Unfortunately, I urgently have to grade papers before the end-of-semester deadline, so I will be unable to stay, but you are in excellent hands for this class session. Since you will graduate next semester, this is an opportune occasion to explore what careers are possible with a mathematics degree.”

“Thank you, Professor, for this introduction. I am honored by your good words,” began Mr. Yoo. “I understand that you have a student here who has passed several actuarial exams already.”

The Actuarial Student sat up in his chair, a bit surprised at the direct mention. “Yes, that would be me,” he replied.

“And quite a dedicated student also,” the Professor noted. “It seems to me he spent all of his time outside of class – evenings, weekends, lunch breaks – studying for the actuarial exams, and he has already passed four of them.”

“A formidable effort,” acknowledged Mr. Yoo. “So you know that the actuarial exams are not the sort that one can just study for and be assured of passage. Being knowledgeable and competent regarding the subject matter will not suffice; one needs to be ultra-competent, and ultra-swift, and even then success is not guaranteed – and some will be blindsided by a completely new type of question, or follow a promising but false lead, or simply run out of time. Many will fail, and not for lack of trying. This, however, is true not just about actuarial exams; it is true about the world in general, and certainly about the kind of world you will be stepping into when you graduate. But I do not mean to discourage you; while you cannot avoid the difficulties of the actuarial exams if you wish to have a successful actuarial career, you can avoid many of the broader difficulties of life through a prudent and creative career choice.”

“Fascinating,” remarked the Professor. “I am quite sorry that I cannot be present for the rest of your remarks, but such are the rigors of the academic workload.”

“Perfectly understandable,” Mr. Yoo reassured the Professor, who then walked out with a stack of student papers. “I am sure you have been following the news recently,” Mr. Yoo continued to address the seated students. “No one could miss the bursting of the housing bubble,
the precipitous stock-market crash, the scramble by the federal government to bail out large banks. Yet nobody will bail out ordinary people, particularly young students such as yourselves, about to graduate into the deepest recession for the past 75 years. Even though you had no hand in causing this crisis, you will bear its greatest burdens. Even a few years ago, when I was still studying for my actuarial exams, it used to be that if you passed one exam, you were a prime candidate for an entry-level job, and then you could earn while you learn and work your way up. No longer! Now, even if you passed four actuarial exams, you are far from guaranteed to have even one job offer; if you do get one, it will be due to a combination of luck and determination. Job openings are scarce these days; companies are in panic mode and reluctant to hire. You might apply to a hundred of the job openings that remain, and you will start cherishing the rejections you get, because at least the employers will have communicated with you; you will be most fortunate if you get a single interview and a single offer after months of searching.”

The Actuarial Student listened to these words with a sense of validation for some of his prior misgivings about the job-search process – validation that gave him no satisfaction. Virtually everyone he had spoken to – professors, career counselors, friends of family – told him that he should have no trouble finding a job. And yet already he felt that his initial applications had disappeared into the void. Something about this entire situation did not reconcile with the facts; contrary to the common narrative about the actions that could assure a prosperous future, it seemed that the entire world was about to slide inexorably toward calamity. Almost nobody else had shared this hunch of his, and certainly no official source of information had expressed it – until he heard Mr. Yoo’s remarks.

“So, in light of this situation, you might be wondering, ‘Is it even worthwhile to pursue an actuarial career?’ Do not give up on it so quickly,” Mr. Yoo continued. “This is a systemic, macroeconomic crisis, and every previously lucrative profession is going to have similar shortages of openings. If you try becoming a lawyer or a doctor, you will likely have immense debt from your schooling and no job waiting for you at the end. At least the actuarial exam fees are affordable enough that you will not need to take on debt – but the work you do while you study for them will need to change. I know of a way to bypass the job-search abyss, but it will require an especially creative approach toward the identification and management of risk – skills that actuaries need to excel at.”

Now the Actuarial Student was laser-focused on Mr. Yoo’s every word. Previously, in his academic studies, a clear path toward success was always laid out before him. That path could be quite challenging on occasion, but he could always expect that rewards would be commensurate to effort. Here Mr. Yoo was suggesting a similar possibility – some way to bypass the indeterminacy of the job-search process and find a set path of progress once again.

“You may find what I am about to say difficult to believe, especially if you have always followed the conventional expectations of you because it seemed to be the easier way toward good grades, respect, or simply being allowed to be left to your own devices during what little spare time you could engineer for yourself.” How had Mr. Yoo so accurately pinpointed the Actuarial Student’s true underlying motivation with that latter mention? The Actuarial Student saw largely blank, indifferent looks on his classmates’ faces; they did not seem to identify with Mr. Yoo’s characterizations – but he already knew that he was different, and it seemed that Mr. Yoo had found a way to relate to his way of thinking. “What if I told you that following your personal ideas precisely when they are unconventional is the key to success? This is the case not just for your personal values and worldview, but also even your idiosyncratic tastes and preferences. For example, who among you is a vegetarian? Raise your hands; I can see you even though you cannot see me.”

No hands were raised; this was a predominantly conservative college where traditional ideas about food consumption prevailed.

“For the meat-eaters among you, then, how many of you believe in only eating from among a limited subset of animals – cows, pigs, chickens, fish – but not exotic or unusual animals that are not bred for consumption in the Western world?”

Several of the students exchanged quizzical looks. “What in the world does this have to do with actuaries?” whispered one of them. However, a few hands went up in response to this question, and the Actuarial Student’s hand was among them.

“There is an important wider benefit to humanity arising from this avoidance of consumption of exotic animals,” Mr. Yoo continued. “You should keep in mind that the study of risk is foundational to actuarial science, and actuaries look to other scientific disciplines to identify key contributing factors to various risks. Epidemiologists have known for a long time that most devastating infectious diseases originate through unusual contact between humans and animals – although this is not commonly recognized by the general public, yet. Eating animals which have not been raised for food over the course of millennia is the practice which poses the greatest risk of causing a novel pathogen to jump from animals to humans. People’s immune systems are unprepared for such new pathogens, and they can spread rapidly and trigger a worldwide pandemic before our public-health measures have the opportunity to respond. If you remember SARS from 2002, it was caused in this way as well.”

“But SARS caused relatively few deaths, virtually all of them in Asia, and petered out before reaching the Western world,” another student interjected. “Surely this is a minor risk compared to the others that people encounter every day!”

“So it may seem, until one finds oneself amid a pandemic!” Mr. Yoo replied. “I am sure that many people ninety years ago, prior to the Spanish influenza’s onset, considered it a similarly improbable and minor risk. Yet just because a particular peril has not affected people for a long time, does not mean it will not return! The next deadly flu season may even happen during the late winter a few months from now! Likely it will not be anywhere as deadly as the 1918 influenza, but it should motivate people to put their guard up – if they are rational, that is.”

“But what does all this have to do with searching for actuarial jobs?” asked another student impatiently. “I don’t know much about what actuaries do, but I’m pretty sure that epidemiology is not it.”

“I am not suggesting that actuaries become epidemiologists. What I am suggesting is that the students of today create their own jobs that would address this risk of a global pandemic that could kill millions of people,” Mr. Yoo replied.

“Are there opportunities to do this already?” inquired the Actuarial Student.

“Not officially. No insurance company is interested in this risk yet. Indeed, after the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, many insurers introduced policy provisions excluding coverage for business income losses arising from viruses and bacteria. So the traditional insurers mostly wish to protect themselves against having to pay for this risk. What they do not realize, however, is that if a worldwide pandemic occurs, then major business disruptions for every company are inevitable. Governments will go so far as shutting down places of business or any other venues where people could gather and spread the virus. No company will be spared major turmoil and costs of dramatic, immediate adjustments. Moreover, millions of people forced out of work and hundreds of thousands of businesses forced to shut down would mean many fewer clients for insurance companies and many fewer people able to afford insurance altogether. Thus, preventing the pandemic makes far more sense even from a purely economic standpoint than just trying to shield one’s own business from the consequences. As Ludwig von Mises put it, ‘No  one  can  find  a  safe  way  out  for  himself  if  society  is sweeping towards destruction.’”

Now Mr. Yoo was quoting Mises, who was the Actuarial Student’s favorite economist. It was as if this speech were tailored to speak directly to him!

“So no insurance company is currently focused on this pandemic risk. But this is where the opportunity exists for you to make a difference,” Mr. Yoo continued. “To prevent the devastation caused by such a novel infection, one needs to address its source and avert the animal-to-human transmission that renders the virus a problem in the first place. I can think of no better way to stop such transmission than discouraging people from eating exotic animals. This is not a major problem in the Western world, but it is an immense problem in the country where most pandemics have historically and recently originated – China.”

The Actuarial Student happened to think that consumption of exotic animals was repugnant. He had been called closed-minded before for only eating meat from a specified and limited list of animals, but he felt validated that the aversion had a rational basis behind it.

“If you are disgusted at the thought of people consuming bats or snakes, this is your opportunity to do something about it,” urged Mr. Yoo. “Do not search for jobs in the United States. Go to China and advocate against such behavior! You will find an assortment of allies, not just among epidemiologists, but also among animal-rights and anti-poaching groups, and perhaps even the Chinese Communist Party itself, if you present your effort as helping China to modernize and turn away from harmful old traditions. Collaborate with anyone you have to, regardless of what you think of them otherwise, because stopping the consumption of exotic animals would save humankind from a greater tragedy than you could possibly expect.”

“This is so weird!” one of the students exclaimed. “You are asking us to abandon our job search to do that? Couldn’t we join the Peace Corps if we want to do humanitarian work? And I can’t imagine that such a job would pay particularly well.”

“I happen to have a small pool of money that could pay stipends for living expenses to those who relocate,” Mr. Yoo replied. “In fact, I know some inexpensive hotels in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei Province, which offered discounted rates if I can persuade American students to stay there. Wuhan is a large city with all the amenities one can desire, and I believe it offers the best base of operations for combating pandemic risk. I also have enough funds to pay for actuarial exam fees, so you can study and continue to advance toward your credentials while you do this valuable work of reducing global pandemic risk.”

“Still, that seems to be more like graduate school than an actuarial career,” the Actuarial Student noted. “I know it is not uncommon to earn $60,000 per year for an entry-level actuarial job.”

“It is true,” Mr. Yoo replied, “that even in this economy you could probably eventually land a $60,000-per-year job if you try exceptionally hard or are exceptionally lucky in your search. It is also true that humanitarian advocacy in Wuhan would not pay nearly so much. However, looking to the future, I can see a way for one to earn much more money than a conventional actuarial salary. For those of you who are interested, just a bit over a month ago on October 31, a certain Satoshi Nakamoto published a paper that I can share with you about a new concept for a decentralized digital currency using a distributed ledger system called a blockchain. This digital currency will be an alternative to government-issued fiat currencies and a hedge against inflation. Rumor has it that in less than a month, the first such digital currency will be released. I strongly suggest that you be on the lookout for the term ‘bitcoin’ – the name of this currency, and that you acquire as many units of bitcoin as possible, and if you can sell any goods or services in exchange for bitcoin, so much the better. I anticipate that there will be tremendous speculative demand for blockchain-based currencies in the future. If you own any from the beginning and simply hold them for, say, nine to twelve years, you will then be able to sell them and never worry about money again.”

Most of the students’ eyes were glazed over. It was clear that they had no idea what Mr. Yoo was referring to. “Why in the world would anyone value mere pieces of computer code that anyone else can create or replicate?” one of the students asserted skeptically.

“The supply of the digital currency will be algorithmically limited to increase at a decreasing rate, removing the possibility of discretionary inflation. Also, the technology of a decentralized ledger where everyone can access the entire transaction history can ensure trust among users and remove the role of banks as intermediaries. This is especially important since our centralized banking system is the major source of monetary inflation, and blockchain-based currencies can be designed to be impervious to that risk, though not to the risk of speculation driving prices to fluctuate far more than the purchasing power of government-issued currencies ever could,” Mr. Yoo explained, taking a nuanced position on this novel concept. “Well, one might not mind the fluctuations if they occasionally result in massive increases to the number of dollars one can obtain for each unit of digital currency sold! But obtaining the currency early is the key to benefitting from the growth in the market value later on.”

“So are you proposing that we give up on getting a steady salary, because the job market is too tough, and instead settle for a stipend for living expenses while we rely on being able to sell this… bitcoin many years from now in order earn our money?” the skeptical student asked, still unconvinced. The Actuarial Student, however, had a different reaction: “Logically, there ought to be some value to the bitcoin if it is indeed designed to resist inflation – especially now with the ‘quantitative easing’ that the Federal Reserve is undertaking, which will likely boost dollar price levels soon.”

“Well, perhaps not as soon as one might fear, since some complex factors are at play actually restraining the inflationary pressures,” Mr. Yoo reassured him, “but eventually dollar inflation will indeed erode one’s purchasing power – and one will be happy to have some digital currencies to sell when that happens. In fact, selling digital currencies will be our way of financing our operations in Wuhan. If you value sound money and stable purchasing power, you are likely worried about hyperinflation right now.” Indeed, the Actuarial Student was worried precisely about that. “I would like to emphasize that the threat of a global pandemic is far more salient and proximate than that of hyperinflation. It is difficult to envision just how little purchasing power one begins to have, no matter what amount of money one has saved, if one is confined to one’s home by government order or if stores lack essential goods, even toilet paper!”

Now the Actuarial Student had to wonder whether Mr. Yoo was engaging in rhetorical scare tactics. Instead, however, he inquired, “I am still not clear on how you propose that actuaries use their skill set to reduce pandemic risk. Is this not a task for more conventional activists – people who hold demonstrations, give speeches, distribute leaflets, and try to persuade politicians?”

“But the actuarial skill set is perfect for addressing this problem,” Mr. Yoo countered. “The key is to design the appropriate incentive structure for people to stop consuming exotic animals. Laws prohibiting such consumption are not going to suffice, because such laws often already exist and are ignored. Public shaming might help deter some, but not all, or else such practices would have disappeared long ago. We need to give people an incentive to voluntarily avoid the risk – and for that we can create an arrangement that is essentially the reverse of an insurance company. An insurance company collects premiums from many individuals in the expectation of paying much larger losses for a few. However, if losses are likely to affect many people at once and to have colossal severity, this mechanism cannot function. Instead, we can pay people a premium so that they take the steps needed to avoid the risk, but also inform them that they will receive no payment if anyone in their community is discovered to be consuming an exotic animal. We set the premium sufficiently high that the recipients will be disappointed by its absence and so will take steps to prevent their neighbors from violating the terms of the agreement.”

“The privacy concerns here are huge,” one student remarked.

“You may be surprised to learn that the Chinese government will be seeking to institute a

‘social credit’ system soon, which will monitor most of its citizens’ activities in person and online,” Mr. Yoo replied. “The incentive system I describe will be quite mild and limited by comparison. Everyone in the community will be paid a premium and asked to report any information they can get about consumption of exotic animals. Each month, if nobody consumes an exotic animal, everyone gets paid again. If, however, anyone consumes an exotic animal, then the entire community will not receive the premium next month. All that people will need to do for this money is to avoid a particular action, provided they remain vigilant in preventing a narrow set of undesirable activities; indeed, perhaps some will start to see it as a kind of universal basic income. I would not be surprised if, to ensure that their premium revenues keep flowing, some citizens will form their own volunteer groups to patrol the nearby wilderness areas and ensure that no poaching of animals occurs there. We will need actuaries to calculate the premium amounts sufficient to actually have the desired effects, and determine whether the premiums need to vary based on any characteristics of the recipient, such as proximity to the areas where people are likelier to encounter wild animals.”

“Yet it seems that paying a premium to the entire population at levels that would affect their behavior can become quite expensive, quite quickly,” the Actuarial Student pointed out.

“That is correct,” replied Mr. Yoo, “and it is one reason why I cannot offer a generous salary to entry-level actuaries. However, I estimate we will have enough bitcoin to sell to cover the costs of the premiums for all of Wuhan’s citizens. We can even take our time in designing the incentive system; it does not need to be launched right away – around the mid-2010s would suffice to have the desired effect. By that time I hope that one could sell one bitcoin for several hundred dollars, after having bought it for pennies or even ‘mined’ it for free on our personal computers, which it will be possible to do during the first two years of bitcoin’s existence or so.”

Some students were shaking their heads. “This is all so improbable!” one of them exclaimed, “And even if you could sell these strange… bitcoins for a profit every time, how do you expand this system to the rest of the world? You wouldn’t be able to pay everyone, after all!”

“We would not need to pay everyone,” Mr. Yoo replied. “Just covering the at-risk areas of Wuhan would suffice. Another area where I would need actuarial analysts’ help will be constructing predictive models to determine where in Wuhan people are most likely to consume unusual animals.”

“But is it not the case that exotic animals are eaten outside of Wuhan as well?” the Actuarial Student inquired.

“Yes, unfortunately,” Mr. Yoo responded. “But…” he seemed to pause a bit, as if he were trying to carefully construct his response. “What we truly need is to create a viable proof of concept, and Wuhan will more than suffice for that. If it works for us in Wuhan, others will emulate us, and this incentive model will spread throughout China, particularly if we can convince Chinese officials that this is a good idea for doing away with superstitious old practices and driving forward the modernization of social customs in the 21st century. Yes… that is what will happen if we succeed in Wuhan.”

“And yet what leads you to be confident in the likelihood of success?” the Actuarial Student inquired. “Is there not considerable political risk in working in China?”

“Yes, there is,” Mr. Yoo acknowledged.

“And is it possible that the next pandemic would arise somewhere else while we focus on Wuhan?”

“Yes, but I think it is most likely to arise near Wuhan… Perhaps my reasons for thinking this will become more apparent to you after you complete your studies and become a Fellow.”

“And is it possible that people might not uniformly sign up for the incentive structure or –find ways to cheat and conceal the consumption of exotic animals from view?”

“Yes and yes – but we only need enough people to comply and start putting obstacles in the way of those who wish to consume exotic animals. We need to reduce such consumption enough to greatly lower the probability of virus transmission – which does not happen every time. All actuarial science deals with probabilities, not certainties. We cannot prevent all pandemics, but if we can lower the probability of the next big one by, say, 90 percent, I would consider that a job well worth dedicating the next twelve years of one’s life to!”

“Twelve years?” the Actuarial Student inquired.

“Did I mention that this is a guaranteed twelve-year opportunity? No other employer will offer this assurance, even though the starting salary may be much higher. My question for you is, if you agree with my assessment of the risk and what can be done about it, and if I have suggested a course of action that resonates with your personal preferences, then why not at least try it and see what happens?”

The Actuarial Student knew exactly why not to try it; he knew that everyone in his life would be aghast if he, after a straight-A academic record, after passing four actuarial exams, decided not even to apply for any job with a decent starting salary – and instead abandoned any notion of a conventional career path to go to China to work on a completely unproven concept with no historical precedent or indication of success, other than Mr. Yoo’s word for it, as heard from his disembodied voice over the static-ridden Skype connection. And yet Mr. Yoo made exactly the arguments that spoke to the Actuarial Student’s personal convictions – his view that technological innovation was necessary to transcend the status quo that brought about the present recession, his hope that decentralized market-driven currencies might protect against inflation, his aversion toward eating exotic meat products. At the very least, the extensive discussion of these topics by a fully credentialed actuary suggested to him that he had picked the right career field. Most other people would consider such views to be weird if not reprehensible, but here was a person suggesting that these inclinations not merely be embraced but committed to as a way of trying to… save the world from a deadly disease? As eccentric as this opportunity seemed, it was also quite appealing – but only to the Actuarial Student. It was evident that none of his classmates demonstrated any response that could remotely qualify as enthusiasm.

The classroom door opened and the Professor returned. “Well, I trust that you learned something about actuarial career possibilities today. Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Yoo. Our class is coming to an end, but is there a way for the students to contact you if they have further questions?”

“Of course,” Mr. Yoo replied. “I am happy to share my e-mail address, and if anyone wishes to follow up on the opportunity I mentioned, I will happily provide details about next steps.”

“Thank you, Mr. Yoo,” the Professor said just as the bell rang.

The Actuarial Student remained in his chair for a moment, immersed in thought, as the Skype connection terminated. He overheard several students bantering as they left the classroom, “Well, that was a waste of time,” said one. “I think a snake-oil salesman could give better career advice,” another replied. “Hey, does your dad’s auto dealership still have that receptionist opening? I need to earn some spare change,” yet another whispered. “No, I think they stopped hiring after dad’s stock portfolio took a dip. Maybe you should go to Wuhan…” They chuckled as they left.

Whatever uncertainty previously pervaded the Actuarial Student’s mind had receded upon hearing that kind of derision. How could the others treat this accomplished Fellow actuary, a man who had attained perfect exam scores, in such a dismissive manner? Nothing was quite as effective as this kind of casual social injustice at motivating the Actuarial Student to do the exact opposite. He was determined to write to Mr. Yoo that same evening.

***

On March 15, 2020, the former Actuarial Student entered the coffee shop in downtown Wuhan and ordered a small piece of cake with his beverage, to celebrate becoming a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries – at last, and after considerable delay. In truth, his studies had taken a second priority to implementing Mr. Yoo’s design all these years – not to mention learning to speak Mandarin semi-fluently. The work had not been easy, and indeed he never seemed to have any permanent colleagues, just temporary contractors whom Mr. Yoo had hired to carry out routine tasks from time to time. Mr. Yoo himself turned out to be a recluse who spent all of his time in his office on the top floor of the Wuhan Center, where he did not permit visitors. Mr. Yoo only ever communicated via e-mail or the same old audio-only Skype connection where the static never seemed to improve. Why his boss never bothered to upgrade his technology despite having vast amounts of money, the former Actuarial Student could not say. Life in Wuhan could be comfortable, yet it was mostly solitary and consumed by work – vitally important and life-saving work, as Mr. Yoo never hesitated to point out. And thus, day by day, the work went on. Occasionally the opportunity arose to celebrate moments such as passing an actuarial exam or attaining a major designation – and a little bit of cake here and there did not hurt. “Go enjoy your cake,” Mr. Yoo told him in their last Skype conversation. “Believe me, this is the good timeline,” he had said, a bit cryptically as usual, but always in a strangely relatable way, as if no context needed to be explained, and so that the former Actuarial Student was not tempted to ask too many follow-up questions.

And yet, as his 12-year position was approaching its conclusion, the new Actuarial Fellow was not altogether disappointed at how it all turned out. As the crowds of local residents bustled around him, he took his place in line and spotted a minor functionary of the city government, also waiting for his coffee. “Ah, good day, and congratulations on your efforts in advancing the social progress of our city!” the official greeted him. As astonishing as it seemed even in retrospect, Wuhan now indeed had regular citizen patrols in the surrounding wilderness areas, which reduced the poaching of wildlife to nearly zero. The Citizens’ Basic Premium, originally seen as quite an oddity given its tie to non-consumption of exotic animals, became a widely relied-upon source of income for residents. Government officials, after several years of initial reluctance, were persuaded to cooperate with this arrangement and even ordered the police to thoroughly inspect all of the produce at the animal and seafood market in the Jianghan District. The police presence could seem a bit draconian at times, but Mr. Yoo assured him it was all for the best.

Somehow Mr. Yoo had managed to liquidate his holdings of bitcoin, and now many other cryptocurrencies as well, at just the right times all these years to ensure that there was always more than enough to pay Wuhan’s 11 million citizens. Building that kind of payment stream from nothing was truly mind-boggling – but it seemed a product of Mr. Yoo’s extremely good luck at having noticed Satoshi Nakamoto’s paper and taken action on its ideas before virtually anyone else.

The new Actuarial Fellow had done quite well financially himself after liquidating his cryptocurrency holdings back during the short-lived boom of 2017; he did not feel that he needed to revisit that volatile market, but at least his capital gains far exceeded any conventional cumulative actuarial salary for the same time period. He truly had the financial freedom to pursue any course in life once the term of his contract with Mr. Yoo expired.

Whether or not there would have ever been a pandemic, the Actuarial Fellow still could not be sure. However, whatever the initial motivation for it, the enterprise developed by Mr. Yoo with his help had taken on a life of its own, and the culture of China had been forever altered by it – seemingly in a reasonably good way.

As he sat down at his table and ate the first spoonful of cake, a mail carrier half-jogged into the coffee shop and approached the Actuarial Fellow’s table with a small, sealed envelope. “Special delivery from Mr. Yoo,” the carrier said and dropped the envelope. Odd, thought the Actuarial Fellow, as Mr. Yoo had never sent a paper letter before.

As he opened the letter, the Actuarial Fellow’s mouth dropped. He saw his own handwriting upon the piece of paper inside.

Congratulations to me? Perhaps not yet. I thought my actuarial studies would finally be complete after all these years, but I am only halfway through. This evening I need to go to SOA.org and download all of the past exams and solutions. I need to find all of the historical price charts of Bitcoin, Litecoin, Dogecoin, and Ethereum. I need to download all this on my thumb drive and then check my e-mail for a link to a set of documents that will describe a history I have never seen before. Then I will need to go to the Wuhan Center, to the office I was told was off-limits these past twelve years. Thereafter, the next steps – and the stakes – will be clear. Now to move forward I will need to go back.

Sincerely,

Mr. You – or, rather, I

P.S. But of course, I should have known that it is just my sense of humor to do this!

P.P.S. 2004 is not a bad time to live as an adult in my mid-thirties. The only question is, how can I persuade my younger self to act according to his preferences, however unusual, rather than what others expect of him? How can I make the strange but principled path more appealing than the obvious and conventional path? What can persuade a young person that by following one’s conscience, one can truly save the world in more ways than one will ever know?

Gennady Stolyarov II Speaks with Steele Archer of Debt Nation on Transhumanism and Emerging Technologies

Gennady Stolyarov II Speaks with Steele Archer of Debt Nation on Transhumanism and Emerging Technologies

Gennady Stolyarov II
Steele Archer


Watch this wide-ranging discussion between U.S. Transhumanist Party Chairman Gennady Stolyarov II and Steele Archer of the Debt Nation show, addressing a broad array of emerging technologies, the aspirations of transhumanism, and aspects of both broader and more personal economic matters – from the impact of technology on the labor market to how Mr. Stolyarov paid off his mortgage in 6.5 years. This conversation delved into Austrian economics, techno-optimism, cultural obstacles to progress, the work and ideals of the U.S. Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party, life extension and the “Death is Wrong” children’s book, science fiction, and space colonization – among many other topics.
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Join the U.S. Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party for free here.
The Wales Technique – Short Story by Gennady Stolyarov II

The Wales Technique – Short Story by Gennady Stolyarov II

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The short story below was authored by Gennady Stolyarov II, FSA, ACAS, MAAA, CPCU, ARe, ARC, API, AIS, AIE, AIAF, Chairman of the U.S. Transhumanist Party and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, and is one of the entries in the Society of Actuaries 13th Speculative Fiction Contest. It was published as one of the contest entries here.

You can read all of the entries here and vote for your choice of three of them here, until March 15, 2019. You are encouraged to read all of the entries, and also to consider supporting Mr. Stolyarov’s story, which contributes to the realm of non-dystopian science fiction. Remember only to vote one time!


Photograph by Kenny Louie – Originally Published on Wikimedia Commons

Lloyd Franklin, CEO of The Remarkable Insurance Company, surveyed the full auditorium as journalists, financial analysts, and employees focused attentively on his every word. A presentation of the company’s Annual Statement had never been so well-attended.  “During 2021, it would be an understatement to say that The Remarkable has indeed lived up to its name,” Franklin proclaimed. “I realize that a 5-percent loss ratio for the entire year is considered… surprising.” His comment drew a chuckle from the audience. “It is probably even more surprising to achieve a 5-percent loss ratio while having the lowest premiums among all of our competitors. But what is most surprising for us is that we attribute our success over the past year to the work of a single individual – our Chief Actuary, Hugo Wales. Hugo, would you please come up to the stage?”

Hugo Wales approached the podium, where a smiling Lloyd Franklin shook his hand and presented him with a large, ornate plaque. “Hugo, I speak for all of us at The Remarkable when I say that no one deserves this Employee of the Year award more than you do. The Wales Technique has revolutionized our automobile book of business. It is the first, comprehensive combination of ratemaking, reserving, and claim modeling in one approach. It segments our policyholders in the most granular way possible, predicting the risk of loss down to the individual level. It lets us offer the vast majority of our policyholders – the safe drivers – premiums so low, they cannot refuse. Practically everyone whom we charge high premiums actually causes an accident later on! They quickly learn that The Remarkable is perhaps not for them… and choose one of our competitors instead!  Not only that – the Wales Technique predicts with near-pinpoint precision where individual claims are likely to settle and enables us to offer amounts that claimants accept almost every time, without fighting us in court. Because of this we now have the lowest expense ratio among the entire industry, despite the… significant investment we put into your predictive analytics tools. Of course, our competitors have noticed and have expended no small effort trying to replicate the Wales Technique. But despite every conceivable reverse-engineering gambit, they have not even come close. Apart from The Remarkable, the average industry loss ratio remains where it was one year ago! Even in safeguarding our competitive advantage, you have gone above and beyond. Congratulations, Hugo!”

Hugo Wales smiled at his boss and then at the audience. He was exhausted, but pleased to be there. “Thank you for this honor, Lloyd. Whatever people might consider to be the secrets of the Wales Technique, they are actually out in plain sight. It is a matter of algebra: for every individual risk, there is a unique nth-degree polynomial that models the amount of expected loss, where both the degree and the value of the variable in the polynomial depend on the risk’s attributes. I have even published the list of attributes I consider and how they are weighted! All the polynomials for our book of business are publicly filed every month in the jurisdictions where we operate. Our competitors see all our variables and polynomials – and yet they have been unable to replicate this approach for their own books of business. At least, it seems that their polynomials produce entirely random results. But the Wales Technique is quite simple, really!”

“Simple for an actuary, perhaps!” Lloyd exclaimed. “I’m sure that, for most people, when they hear about nth-degree polynomials and risk attributes, their eyes glaze over. But what gets them to pay attention is this: this stuff works! It makes money, it saves money, and it does so better than any other method that has ever been tried before. We no longer have to guess at who will experience a loss; we can know.”

“We can certainly know far more precisely than prior methods could enable. There is still some low asymptotic amount of losses toward which my models generally converge,” Hugo clarified. “Some insureds, even if we classify them as high-risk and charge them high premiums, will remain with The Remarkable for a variety of reasons. I would also like to note, for transparency and disclosure of relevant facts, that, while I generally strive for 5-percent loss ratios using the Wales Technique, I am still refining my method. This year we hope to implement some improvements and discover even more predictive insights. However, until then, I think that a 30-percent loss ratio would be reasonable to expect from us.”

Hugo phrased his caveat as diplomatically as he could. As he scanned the auditorium, it seemed the audience’s mood was a general satisfied acceptance; a consistent 30-percent loss ratio without any rate increases would be a remarkable achievement for any other insurer. In Hugo’s mind, however, this was caused by a problem that required a solution – a phenomenon he had dubbed “the Black Hole”. The Black Hole was a time period into which he could barely see; during April through June of 2022, he anticipated that his predictive abilities would wane; he could discern far too little regarding both aggregate and individual losses during this perplexing timeframe. During the second half of the year, nonetheless, the Wales Technique gave clear indications, and Hugo was confident he could return The Remarkable to 5-percent loss ratios then – if his reputation could only withstand the enigmatic Black Hole in the months to come.

“Thank you for all of your attendance today; it really is a great honor for me,” Hugo concluded his remarks and was relieved to hear applause. Lloyd accompanied him as he headed backstage.

“Great work, Hugo, and thank you for your remarks – well-spoken,” Lloyd praised him. Then he lowered his voice to a near-whisper, “But I do worry about you. It may not be obvious to that group, but I can see you look exhausted. Is something keeping you awake at night? We need you at your best!”

“Actually, I fairly reliably get eight hours of sleep per night, Lloyd – something I plan to continue going forward,” Hugo responded. He was technically correct.

“Great. Good to know. Then I hope you’re not overworking while awake! I appreciate all the time you spend with your computers, crunching the data and creating your… polynomials. But this must be hard work! Perhaps you would like a bigger team? As Chief Actuary, you have every right to one. I could arrange so that you have many other actuaries working under you! Right now, you still only have your one assistant… correct?”

“Yes, but Jim knows more about the Wales Technique than any actuary I could hope to manage,” Hugo replied. “He may not be an actuary, but he is a savant – and he has been working with me ever since I began this project. Also, Jim is fascinated by polynomials. He could sit and generate polynomials all day and be completely fulfilled!”

“Then at least you should consider adding a secretary to your team – to handle the routine logistics. We can certainly find someone to fill that role!”

“Thank you for your thoughtfulness, Lloyd. I really appreciate having a boss who values my well-being.  I will take a little time to consider your suggestion,” Hugo replied tactfully. He felt his phone buzz. “Ah, Jim just sent me a text. He found something he thinks I will want to see.”

“All right, I’ll see you later around the office,” Lloyd seemed satisfied. “Again, thank you for all your great work!”

***

As the doors slid open, admitting Hugo into The Remarkable’s Actuarial Department, he entertained the thought that perhaps hiring a secretary might be worthwhile after all. Far too many paper envelopes were piled atop the front desk, and James Morlock certainly was not going to organize them. Jim was immersed in the figures on his computer screen, aptly fitting polynomials to the data. Hugo remembered the instruction he gave when Jim was fresh out of college: “Remember, every polynomial you fit has to go through every data point.” Jim had taken that instruction to heart – indeed, he had built an entire elaborate rule set, perhaps even a sense of personal meaning, upon that principle. Finding the precise fit for any data set was a skill at which Jim was a master. Also, Hugo appreciated that Jim asked just enough questions – but not too many – regarding the origins of the data points to which the polynomials were fitted.

“What do you have for me today, Jim?” Hugo inquired.

Jim was still somewhat engrossed in the polynomials he was formulating, but pointed to a second monitor beside him. On it was a scatterplot of points above a timeline. “The Black Hole… I can see it clearly in the region with fewer data points.”

“These are data points by expected date of loss,” Hugo noted.

“Yes; we have nothing predicted for May 5, 2022,” Jim confirmed.

“Indeed, it seems May 5, 2022, is the Black Hole’s center,” Hugo remarked. “As we move along the timeline in either direction, the number of data points increases symmetrically. Today is March 3, so the data available to us for the near-term expected losses will soon become thinner. By early July, though, we will have about as many points as usual to feed into our models. I still have no idea why… But good work, Jim. Thank you for identifying the center of the gap.” This was all in accord with what Hugo already anticipated – but he was no closer to understanding why.

Jim quickly resumed curve-fitting. Meanwhile, Hugo opened several envelopes and extracted ordered lists of dates and numbers with the header “Risk Data” on each page. He handed them to Jim. “Some more data points for you.” Jim nodded and resumed his intense focus.

Hugo walked toward the back office, past several specially configured workstations and rows of supercomputers. Lloyd had accurately characterized the extent of spending on Hugo’s equipment. The sparse, darkened space in the back office provided quite a contrast, however. Hugo shut the door behind him and sat down at a plain wooden desk, on one side of which stood an always-on portable water heater beside packets of instant coffee. Hugo quickly poured himself a cup; it was only 6 p.m., and he felt a clear need for additional energy. He descended into his chair for a moment’s respite, but after a few sips of coffee decided that work must continue. Quickly, he extracted his mobile phone from his suit-jacket pocket and opened his Calendar and Maps apps. Immediately the phone emitted an iridescent glow; Hugo wished it would not do that, but some bugs still needed to be worked out from this system. He scrolled along the calendar until he fixed a day in his mind: October 30, 2023 – over 18 months hence. As his finger pressed upon the day, he felt his energy slip away, and his eyes closed involuntarily…

***

Hugo awoke with a jolt as the caffeine’s effects must have finally manifested. He was sitting on a comfortable couch in a coffee shop, with newspapers piled on a low table in front. He quickly glanced around; the other patrons seemed to be minding their own business, and nothing about Hugo’s situation drew any particular attention. He approached the counter, where there was no line, and matter-of-factly ordered a large espresso with cash in hand. “Be as efficient and unobtrusive as possible; trigger no unintended disturbances,” Hugo reminded himself as he returned to his seat and picked up one of the newspapers, drinking the espresso as he browsed. The headlines did not really interest him, except for the date: “October 30, 2023”. Yes, this was where he previously left off. He quickly turned the paper’s pages until he reached the section titled “Motor Vehicle Accident Report”. This was a somewhat sparser section than even a year prior. As the proportion of autonomous vehicles on the roads increased, the accident frequency dropped precipitously. But as long as any manually driven cars remained, the Wales Technique would remain predictive for them. Hugo, who was paid a bonus based on The Remarkable’s profitability, figured he could simply retire once the vehicle fleet became predominantly autonomous – provided he could manage a good, profitable run for several more years.

Using his phone’s camera, Hugo snapped pictures of the Motor Vehicle Accident Reports from as many papers as he could find. This was a sizable cross-section of losses from all over the country. October 30, 2023, yielded as credible a data set as Hugo generally aimed for, and now it was time to process the information. Hugo again glanced at his phone and scrolled back on the calendar to March 3, 2022. He pressed there and concealed the iridescently glowing phone in his inside jacket pocket, gulping down the remainder of his espresso as he closed his eyes to enjoy its flavor…

Hugo was now in an office-supply store – just where he needed to be. He took a stack of bright, white envelopes and walked expeditiously toward the large printers. On his phone, he opened a document editor and quickly imported into it just the numbers from the Motor Vehicle Accident Reports; above them he typed the header “Risk Data”, saved the file, and connected his phone to one of the printers. He printed the document, stuffed it into an envelope, and affixed a stamp along with a pre-printed label addressed to “The Remarkable Insurance Company, c/o James Morlock”. There was no need to specify the sender.  Jim would receive the new data in a few days, and Hugo would open the envelope and hand him the lists, as he did virtually every day. Jim would not ask where the envelopes originated; he would just be happy to have more data points to which to fit some polynomials. The Wales Technique would be extended a little bit further into the future. Hugo was somewhat inconvenienced by “snail mail” – but it was the best option to prevent the original data from being traced to one of his devices.  If only the Black Hole could be addressed in the same manner…

As Hugo approached the nearby mailbox and dropped the envelope into it, he looked around for confirmation that the street was empty. He glanced down at his phone and decided to give the Black Hole another try. Scrolling on the calendar to May 5, 2022, he pressed on that date, and… nothing. The phone, as usual, was completely non-responsive to this gesture – no iridescent glow, not even any recognition of an action. Had a passer-by seen Hugo at that moment, Hugo would merely have appeared as a frustrated phone user. “Well, it was at least worth another try,” Hugo thought to himself. He began a swift walk, pondering the conundrum of the Black Hole. “Perhaps if I appear in a library next time I visit the future, I might find some records from April-June 2022 that would furnish more data points. If I cannot travel there directly, at least looking back at that time period from a later day might yield something.” This seemed a worthwhile attempt to Hugo – although perhaps mainly of academic interest since most policies that would experience losses during the Black Hole months had already been issued. The ideal time to gather the data would have been 18 months in advance, long before current in-force policies were issued or last renewed. But perhaps if Hugo tried the lookback-from-the-future approach, he could at least remove a few percentage points from the loss ratios of the yet-to-be-issued policies: certainly still worthwhile – but possible to defer until after Hugo managed to get a bit more sleep. Besides, he was otherwise occupied during the remainder of this evening.

***

Hugo was pleased that Eloise had accepted his dinner invitation. He knew almost nothing about her prior to this evening, but as they spoke he found her to be intelligent, charming, and a good conversationalist. Most importantly, though, she knew what an actuary was. Indeed, she had even heard of the Wales Technique and could discuss it competently with him – its publicly known aspects, of course. Interestingly, she did not ask the question that Hugo commonly encountered, regarding why the polynomials for specific risks actually predicted their future losses. Hugo was somewhat relieved that she simply seemed to accept that they did. A promising beginning…

After they finished their main course, the waiter approached them. “Might you be interested in dessert?”

They did not need long to decide. “Coffee and coffee ice cream,” they spoke almost in unison, and then looked at one another in mild astonishment at this coincidence.

“Well, here is something else we have in common!” Hugo exclaimed. “It seems we late-evening coffee drinkers require the energy to remain alert long after others are able to rest! If I may ask, what work do you do?”

“I am a… historian – of sorts,” Eloise replied after a pause. “Or perhaps ‘student of history’ would be a better description. My goal is to learn from history and help avoid the mistakes that were made in the past.”

“A worthwhile goal indeed,” Hugo acknowledged.

“Say, Hugo, have you ever wondered if it might be possible to undo a prior mistake – for example, a wrong decision that altered the course of history for the worse? Do you sometimes wish you had a time machine to return to the past, just to tweak a few things and produce a radically different outcome today?”

She had asked him a time-travel question! Hugo realized that he needed to be careful in formulating his answer.

“I prefer to think most mistakes can be prevented if one accurately anticipates the future and chooses the best actions going forward,” Hugo replied – the safe answer for an actuary with a reputation for doing just that.

“Some mistakes, though, are not that easy to avoid. In a split second, one might make the wrong choice, and deeply regret it and yet never be able to fix the damage caused.”

“That reminds me of most losses I analyze in my line of work!” Hugo responded. “Most drivers who cause accidents indeed have that split-second lapse in judgment, which they would avoid if they could relive those circumstances.”

“Yet you actuaries focus on predicting who is likely to have that lapse, rather than what might prevent it to begin with.”

“Autonomous vehicles might solve that problem for us in a few years,” Hugo suggested. “I see my job as more accurately evaluating the propensities of drivers in the meantime, so that those who are less prone to error will indeed be rewarded for their good behavior through lower premiums.”

“But I wonder… if you were able to prevent an accident that had already occurred, would you? It seems that doing so would even save your company money; it would, after all, need to pay out less in claims!”

“True,” Hugo acknowledged. “Prevention, however, is not always easy.” His mind immediately thought of how difficult it would be for him to attempt to stop all of the accidents mentioned in the future newspapers – and how would he do it? Visit the drivers involved and suggest they not enter their vehicles on that day? Illegally block off the streets where the accidents would have occurred or redirect vehicles onto different routes? Clearly, the practical challenges were far too numerous for Hugo to attempt this. He decided it would be best to steer clear from discussing a time-traveler’s real limitations and instead entertain the hypothetical fiction. Indeed, Hugo could truthfully discuss time travel to the past as a fictional concept, since his phone did not permit him to visit any time prior to the present; he could only return to the present from most of the future days displayed on his Calendar app – but traveling back to already-elapsed days was not technically feasible with this device.

“A time-travel paradox arises when one alters a past event that was one’s motivation for having traveled back in the first place,” Hugo observed. “If the problem were fixed in the past, then would the time traveler from the present have the notion to travel back in time at all?”

“Hmmm…” Eloise paused to think about it. “But many changes that the time traveler brings about might not affect the initial motivation at all. Suppose that the initial travel is motivated by one problem, but the time traveler solves other problems along the way, incidentally. If the time travel would have occurred whether or not those incidental problems were also solved, why would altering the past necessarily lead to a paradox? Also, if motivation is the issue, then is it not enough for the time traveler simply to believe that the problem exists at the time of the trip – whether or not the problem still actually exists?” She had clearly thought about this for quite some time.

“You make valid points,” Hugo conceded. “This is an interesting twist on learning from history so that we do not repeat it; instead, you propose to learn the lessons while undoing the historical damage itself.”

Eloise nodded. “I am sure we each find certain past events to be regrettable, and we would undo them, if only we could.”

“If only…” Hugo acknowledged, underscoring the fictional context of the discussion. “Well, this has been a fascinating conversation, and I enjoyed it.” He quickly paid their bill. “I hope that there will be a possibility for us to meet again.”

Eloise smiled at him, “Oh, it will be a certainty.”

A fine conclusion to the evening, Hugo decided. Now it was time to return home and get the eight hours of sleep he had promised to Lloyd. He estimated that, with the time travels interspersed within this chronological day, his biological waking time had been 28 hours.

***

Hugo sat in the public library on October 31, 2023, surreptitiously sipping on a cup of coffee he had managed to sneak in. He had already taken phone pictures of the computer screen showing that day’s loss data. Unfortunately, data files from the future would disappear upon his return to 2022 if he simply copied them onto the phone; only actions taken with directly the phone – such as photographs – would be preserved. The technical nuances of time travel! However, Hugo could take pictures of any online articles regarding prior days’ losses. Curiously, as he browsed newspaper archives and other public records in the April-June 2022 timeframe, he largely saw confirmations of the data points he had previously harvested – a few losses here and there that were previously unknown to him, but nothing to dramatically illuminate that period. The data were simply… absent. “Was there a journalists’ strike during the Black Hole?” Hugo wondered. Yet nothing from his own time even hinted at such developments. “Ah, well… Time to mail another envelope, I suppose.”

***

Hugo acquiesced to the secretarial recruitment process after some more encouragement from Lloyd, though Hugo insisted on interviewing the candidates personally. By March 25, 2022, all resumes had been reviewed, and Hugo set aside most of the day for interviews. Perhaps, Hugo considered, there would be some benefit from this in keeping the Actuarial Department organized and containing distractions that were irrelevant to Hugo’s core work.

Hugo was surprised to see Eloise among the applicants. “I thought that history was more your line of work,” he told her.

“I am much more versatile than just one line of work,” Eloise responded. “I pride myself on my organizational skills, which extend to historical records – like the data that your Actuarial Department processes.” A good answer – and a reasonable assumption regarding the data, given that most actuaries did, indeed, work with data from the past.

“Very well, then,” Hugo said. “The next part of our interview will be a practical test of data-entry skills. My assistant Jim likes to spend as much of his time as possible fitting polynomials to data; if he can be spared the manual data entry, this would expedite our processes tremendously. So,” he handed Eloise an envelope, “I will give you this data set. I showed you our computer systems earlier. Now I would ask you to input the data into a format Jim can immediately apply. Please feel free to take the time you need and follow whatever approach you consider most effective.”

“Just one request,” Eloise spoke. “Might there be a cup of coffee around here?”

Hugo briefly ventured into his office and emerged with two cups of coffee. In his haste, he realized he had left his phone face-down on the table, but it looked like a typical mobile phone when the Calendar app was not activated. “I must be more careful!” Hugo mentally chided himself. As Eloise walked toward one of the computers, Hugo quickly placed the phone into his jacket pocket and retreated into his office to drink his own coffee and check e-mails. Most of his correspondence was routine, but one short message stood out.

Dear Mr. Wales:

This is to inform you that the Snowlandia Insurance Department has approved The Remarkable Insurance Company filing of rating values and polynomials for the month of April 2022. However, I am interested in pursuing a conceptual discussion with you regarding the ratemaking methodology involved and the assumptions entailed therein.

Please contact me at your earliest convenience to arrange an in-person meeting. I am willing to visit you at your offices if necessary.

Sincerely,

Eugene Carpenter,
Lead Actuary, Snowlandia Insurance Department

Meeting with his main actuarial regulator would require great circumspection, especially because Eugene Carpenter had a reputation for asking incisive questions. Hugo wondered how he could arrange the appearance of complete transparency without disclosing the core of the Wales Technique – which nobody would particularly believe in any event. In the meantime, though, Hugo heard a knock. “Please come in.”

It was Eloise. “All the data are ready to use,” she announced, smiling. Hugo had expected her to take about an hour longer, as the other applicants had. He walked by Jim Morlock’s workstation to see that Jim already had the imported figures at his disposal and was busily formulating new polynomials from them.

“Impressive!” Hugo exclaimed. “It seems, based on the results of this test, that you are clearly the most qualified applicant for the job. Consider yourself hired.”

***

As Hugo drove into the office on April 18, 2022, gradually sipping coffee from the mug in his cupholder, he noted contentedly that traffic had become considerably lighter over the past several weeks for some reason. His commute became easier, and his mood was upbeat, as, to his great surprise, well into the Black Hole period, the loss ratios of The Remarkable had not deteriorated yet. Some losses continued to be reported, but, remarkably, they were in accord with the sparser data points he had previously gathered. The Remarkable’s profitability was exceeding Hugo’s prior projections spectacularly. Jim continued to diligently produce polynomials for late 2023, and Eloise turned out to be an excellent secretary, accelerating the workflow considerably. Hugo remembered today’s forthcoming meeting with Eugene Carpenter – perhaps somewhat of a challenge, but Hugo hoped that The Remarkable’s recent performance would give a favorable impression.

***

Eloise knocked on Hugo’s door. “Eugene Carpenter is here to see you.” Hugo’s attention was interrupted. He had been scrolling through his Calendar app and happened to notice that the screen area around the May 5, 2022, date began to pulsate as he swiped near it. Previously it was completely non-responsive. In flustered haste, Hugo left the phone on his table and walked out to the front-desk area.

Eugene Carpenter stood up from his seat and shook Hugo’s hand. “Mr. Wales, it is a pleasure to finally meet you in person.” Hugo nodded. “Likewise.”

As they walked to a conference table near one of the supercomputers, Hugo remarked, “I will gladly answer any of your questions. As you know, our polynomials are all publicly available, and all of our equipment for modeling them is here.”

“The Wales Technique fascinates me,” Carpenter said. “Some regulators may have been more critical just because it is new and unfamiliar, but I approved your filings because I see a real opportunity here to eliminate some of the circumstantial proxy rating attributes that have long raised concerns. Your rating model contains nothing about demographics or lifestyle choices of the insureds – and indeed we have had no consumer complaints or allegations of unfairly discriminatory rating. Even though you indicate extremely high premiums for some individuals, it so happens that these people do, in fact, experience losses – virtually every time.”

Hugo nodded. “We pride ourselves on our precision, so we need not make generalizations about groups anymore.”

“That may well be, yet from a statistical standpoint it is truly astounding. Insurance conceptually is supposed to be based on the law of large numbers, yet what happens when you can price down to the level of the individual? Is it risk pooling anymore, or something else? I am not criticizing your approach at all, but this is a challenge we must increasingly wrestle with.”

“Yet it is clear that the individually calculated rates provide a social benefit; the vast majority of insureds get lower premiums due to more accurate predictions,” Hugo retorted.

“Perhaps – but strangely enough your competitors have not been able to achieve such improved accuracy. I see their polynomials as well, and clearly, they are simply overfitting curves to the historical loss data. Structurally, their experimental rating plans are indistinguishable from yours, but you happen to be right all the time, while they never outperform their old techniques. I would have said that you are overfitting as well, except that you are always correct… It still puzzles me why your approach works.”

“Perhaps a tour of our state-of-the-art supercomputers will show you why The Remarkable stands apart,” Hugo invited Carpenter to accompany him.

After an hour-long technical overview of the systems, Carpenter told him, “Thank you for all you have shared today. I shall have to continue pondering these questions – but I hope we can maintain an open line of communication.” Hugo nodded, thinking the meeting transpired as well as it could have.

As Carpenter left the building, Hugo returned to his office. He picked up his phone and again chided himself for the oversight. Returning to the Calendar app, he saw an unmistakable iridescent glow around May 5, 2022, and could no longer restrain himself from pressing there.

***

Hugo stood on a hill overlooking the highway – a nearly empty road despite clear weather during a late Thursday morning. Although he had not set a destination using his Maps app, this was where he arrived by default. He wondered how, all of a sudden, he was able to actually access May 5, 2022. This seemed to be a good overlook; he could see, but would not be seen.

Hugo spotted an unassuming sedan cruising along at the speed limit. He jumped slightly at the realization that the car was his own. “Why would I be driving here in at this time?” Hugo was too far away to see inside the vehicle, but it seemed to proceed steadily.

Then, without warning, the sedan veered into the barrier, and Hugo was shocked to see an extraordinary contraption – more akin to a miniature spaceship than a car – sweep down from the sky and ram into the sedan from the rear. The spaceship seemed impervious to the collision, but the sedan was utterly crushed in a rather ugly way. Out of the spaceship emerged… Eloise, wearing an outfit from materials Hugo had never before encountered and had no words to describe. She seemed as mortified as Hugo himself at that moment. As she approached the sedan and glanced at it, she screamed in horror and then collapsed into tears. After five minutes, she hastily dashed into the spaceship and emerged with an iridescently glowing tiny rectangular cube. She pressed some panel on the cube and disappeared from view.

Hugo needed no coffee to remain awake upon his return.

***

On the morning of May 5, 2022, Hugo was still alive and in good health. He had told no one – certainly not Eloise – of his observation of his own impending demise, but Hugo Wales was no fatalist. He would not permit the accident he had glimpsed to transpire! The key to avoiding it was to ensure Eloise was at his side the entire day and would have no opportunity to find her… spaceship. Fortunately, Hugo had a fitting occasion to facilitate this. He had just received an e-mail from Eugene Carpenter:

Dear Mr. Wales:

After considerable deliberation, I believe I understand your method much more accurately than you might expect. I am perplexed, however, by the meager use to which you have put it, considering that it might benefit humankind’s future to a far greater extent than a mere actuarial technique could do. Please visit me at my office urgently, as this really is a matter of the utmost importance.

Hugo greeted Eloise and informed her, “I would like you to accompany me to visit Mr. Carpenter. We should venture out early. I think Jim will have enough work for one day.”

“Gladly,” Eloise replied with a smile. They walked toward Hugo’s sedan in the parking lot.

Once they were underway on the largely clear road, Eloise spoke: “Have you ever wondered if it might be possible to undo a prior mistake? I could not stop at just one.” Hugo’s jaw dropped. He also saw that his Maps app was navigating them toward the exact stretch of highway he had glimpsed earlier, and that this was the unavoidable route.

Not another vehicle was in sight. “I think I convinced everyone to take a day off today – no more accidents,” Eloise remarked matter-of-factly. “You don’t use social media, but that trending #StayHome hashtag is one of mine.”

“And the rest of the recent decline?”

“A lot of work and many… subtler adjustments. Tweak just a few details at the accident scene, or nudge the driver to be a bit more alert, and a disaster can be averted – not always, but often. Thank you for all of the risk data, though!”

“But there were no data for losses that did not occur!”

“I’m from the far future, remember? And I know that you know – because I enabled it! My techniques of data extrapolation would probably fascinate you.”

“But there remains one glaring problem. You are about to collide into me – into us!” Hugo reminded her. They were far too close to the scene in his memory.

“And this is where I fix it. Set your car to cruise control, please.” Hugo complied. Eloise showed him a dazzlingly luminous miniature iridescent cube. “Now hold out your phone.” With the phone’s screen still showing a pulsating date of May 5, 2022, Eloise pressed on it with the cube. Hugo felt exhaustion overwhelm him and released the steering wheel.

***

When Hugo’s eyes opened, he realized that he was flying high above the city and its empty streets. Eloise sat beside him, piloting the spaceship. She took a moment to point to the receding crumpled sedan on the highway below. “Is it not enough for the time traveler simply to believe that the problem exists at the time of the trip – whether or not the problem still actually exists? It all had to be engineered this way. The Eloise down there still most emphatically believes you to be dead!”

“But she has enough free rein to time-travel that, if I were to return tomorrow, that belief could easily be disconfirmed.”

“And this is why her only encounters with you must be prior to today. Come with me! Mr. Morlock and the Wales Technique will be fine for a while – and we can leave Mr. Carpenter to try and make sense of it all. Perhaps you can view this as an early retirement, and I can show you how history actually turned out.”


Vote for this story, “The Wales Technique”, here.

Children Should be Encouraged to Read Fantasy Fiction – Article by Jon Miltimore

Children Should be Encouraged to Read Fantasy Fiction – Article by Jon Miltimore

The New Renaissance HatJon Miltimore
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Recently I spoke with a friend who expressed some angst that his 12-year-old son was primarily interested in reading fantasy novels. Efforts to introduce the lad to higher forms of literature were proving more difficult than he’d expected.

Not to worry. Fantasy novels and science fiction yarns, I said, are often gateways to the higher forms of literature. This was not just my opinion, I added, it was my experience.

When I was 12, I was not yet much of a fan of reading. I had enjoyed some young adult fiction writers (S.E. Hinton, R.L. Stein, Christopher Pike, etc.) and enjoyed the histories of NFL football teams, but I didn’t have a passion for books. That changed when my father gave me J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

For years my father had tried to get me interested in the classics and his favorite histories to no avail. Then he tried a new tactic. Perhaps taking a tip from Montaigne, he gave me Tolken’s epic trilogy, which I devoured in a couple weeks. Terry Brooks’ Shannara books followed, and then the first few books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Then a new book came out with a cool title — A Game of Thrones — that blew them all away.

I bring all this up not to demonstrate how big of a fantasy dork I am. (I also occasionally played real-time strategy computer games. Sue me.) I share it to make a point: these books taught me to love reading.

Fantasy fiction is often pooh-poohed by academics and intellectuals, but it can whet the appetite learning. In my case, the great historical fictions of James Clavell, Gary Jennings, and Ken Follet followed Lord of the Rings. Tolstoy, Nabokov, and Dostoevsky came not long after; then the histories of Foote, Barzun, and Michener.

But the case for fantasy fiction goes beyond my personal experience. Scientific research shows there are clear positive neural affects to novel reading. For example, Emory University researchers found that students experienced heightened activity in the left temporal lobe of the brain, the area associated with semantics, for days after reading novels.

It should go without saying that reading nothing but fantasy fiction, even good fantasy fiction, is not a path to a well-rounded education or intellectual maturity. But fantasy novels can awaken imaginations, inspire creativity, and create a passion for story-telling.

So if you’re a little worried that your teenage daughter seems a little too obsessed with, say, Hunger Games, relax. She’ll likely be reading George Eliot and Byron in a year or two.

Jon Miltimore is the Senior Editor of Intellectual Takeout. Follow him on Facebook.

This article was originally published on Intellectual Takeout.

Does Star Trek Boldly Go Beyond Scarcity? – Article by Frederik Cyrus Roeder

Does Star Trek Boldly Go Beyond Scarcity? – Article by Frederik Cyrus Roeder

The New Renaissance HatFrederik Cyrus Roeder
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As a long-time Trekkie (with several conventions and selfies with William Shatner) and an economist, I was more than delighted when a good friend of mine gave me the recently published book Trekonomics: The Economics Behind Star Trek by Manu Saadia.

Saadia’s highly exciting book attempts to explain the economy of Star Trek and describes the Federation of United Planets (which includes Earth) as a post-scarcity society that no longer uses money because everyone maximizes their utility by just doing what they want to do. The main driving force behind people’s behavior is vanity, not profit. He calls this economic system “Trekonomics.”

Economics Is an Intergalactic Concept

While describing a post-scarcity society, Saadia admits that there are some resources that are scarce. He mainly focuses on dilithium crystals that are the source of energy in the Star Trek universe:

Logic would dictate that near-absolute abundance has driven prices to zero on all but few strategic goods. These strategic goods are of limited use for most people anyway. I do not need a big chunk of dilithium crystals in the course of my everyday life. Matter-antimatter power plants require it, whether on board starships or on the ground, but not me. I am not in the market for it, society as a whole is.

While Saadia praises the replicator (Star Trek’s version of the universal 3D printer) as the driving force behind post-scarcity, he omits the fact that replicators (and holodecks, and warp drives needed in delivery shuttles bringing the latest vintage of Chateau Picard to your cottage on Mars) require energy in order to create food out of nothing.

If there’s a shortage of dilithium, there needs to be a market in order to efficiently allocate energy. Therefore, every individual is interested in a sufficient supply of dilithium crystals. An analogy to our world can be seen in oil dwells or nuclear power plants. While individuals rarely explore oil fields or build power plants, they do purchase their product (energy) on a daily basis.

Even if every one of the tens of billions of citizens of the Federation would act altruistically, it would be impossible to allocate energy to the projects with the highest priority. Only central planning or a market for energy can solve this.

The 24th century’s technological progress has reduced all physical resources to one: energy. Humans and aliens can nearly produce everything out of energy. This is great and probably significantly cuts down value/supply-chains, but there is still scarcity.

Price Controls in the Trek Universe

The value chain of the Federation’s economy most likely includes the following few stakeholders: dilithium explorers and miners, dilithium transporters/shippers, dilithium power plant operators, power grid operators, B2B replicator manufacturers (those replicators that replicate replicators), replicator owners, and replicator maintenance providers. 

Assuming there’s a natural monopoly in running these services, one company or institution running all of this might also be thinkable (though given our experiences with centrally managed energy supply, I would highly doubt that there’s a natural monopoly in the dilithium value chain).

Without a price for the resource energy, a single individual could deplete the Federation’s dilithium supplies by merely replicating a galaxy full of larger-than-life Seven of Nine action figures. Thus a price system for energy is crucial in order to allow consumer choice in the Federation. The only other way to solve this issue would be the creation of the United Socialist Republics of the Galaxy (USRG) and centrally plan the energy distribution. Good luck with queuing for holodeck time in that USRG!

Light-Speed, Among Other Things, Isn’t Immune to Scarcity

Dilithium seems to perfectly qualify as a private good because both rivalry (it is scarce and you need to find it somewhere in deep and hostile space) and exclusivity (it’s pretty easy to cut someone off the energy grid) apply.

While Saadia acknowledges the scarcity of dilithium, he misses several other scarce goods:

Private Property: rivalry also exists when it comes to the use of land. Imagine a beautiful cliff in Europe that gives you a perfect view of Saturn during sunset. The cliff has space for exactly one cottage. Who decides who can build and live there? Galactic homesteading is probably a feasible means of solving this problem in times of early inter-planetary exploration, but the moment the galaxy gets more crowded, a land-registry proving property rights will be necessary in order to prevent and solve disputes and facilitate the transfer of ownership.

Unique locations and goods: Saadia admits that there’s a scarcity of seats at Sisko’s restaurant or bottles of the famous Chateau Picard, but as people have overcome the idea of enjoying status, they are not interested in over-consuming such gems in the galaxy.

In trekonomics, the absence of money implies that status is not tied to economic wealth or discretionary spending. Conspicuous consumption and luxury have lost their grip on people’s imaginations. The opposition between plenty and scarcity, which under our current conditions determines a large cross section of prices and purchasing behaviors, is no longer relevant.

This reasoning comes short in explaining how people demand dinner at Sisko’s or a good bottle of wine at all, and what happens if the demand is higher than the supply. Would first customers start hoarding? Are there black markets for these non-replicated goods and experiences?

Incentives: a Terran settler on Mars craves the 2309 vintage of Chateau Picard and wants to get it delivered in light speed from the South of France. How do we incentivize the shuttle pilot (beaming wine spoils the tannins) to stop soaking in the sun in the Mediterranean and swing his body behind the helm of a shuttle? How do we compensate him for the time and energy he spent delivering the wine to the Red Planet? If vanity is the major driving force in trekonomics, one can just hope that someone sees more vanity in the delivery of this excellent wine instead of chugging it day-in day-out himself. A more realistic way of getting people to do (annoying) things is to create incentives (e.g. to pay in dilithium units).

Live long and prosper as long the central planners allow it?

Star Trek Federation is a great thought experiment on what a post-scarcity society could look like. However, there are major shortcomings such as the allocation of property rights, a price system for energy, incentivization of services, and the existence of rivalry.

A free, prosperous, and open society such as the Federation can only function with a price system in place in order to deal with the scarcity of energy. If trekonomics would really be applied in the Federation, we would see a much more repressive version of this interplanetary union forcing its citizens to work in certain professions and rationing energy.

frederik-roeder


Frederik Cyrus Roeder

Fred Roeder is the Vice President of Students for Liberty and member of the Executive Board at Young Voices. He is based in Germany.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

Sci-Fi City – Art by Maxime Delcambre

Sci-Fi City – Art by Maxime Delcambre

maxime-delcambre-sci-fi-city-md-bannerjpgNote: Left-click on this image to get a full view of this digital work of art.

Created by digital artist Maxime Delcambre, this futuristic matte painting portrays a flourishing science fiction cityscape.

Visit Maxime Delcambre’s portfolio for more of his matte paintings and illustrations.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License and was originally posted on DeviantArt.

Science Fiction and Communist Reality – Article by Lawrence W. Reed

Science Fiction and Communist Reality – Article by Lawrence W. Reed

The New Renaissance HatLawrence W. Reed
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Real Heroes: Stanislaw Lem

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.


Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (1921–2006) “skillfully dissected the 20th century’s foolhardy efforts to create utopias by stifling individuality and economic freedoms.” So said cultural critic Bruce Edward Walker. Lem was best known internationally as author of the classic Solaris — twice adapted for the silver screen — but the majority of his fiction featured damning allegories against the suppression of the human spirit.

Lem ranks high in the Polish pantheon of independent thinkers and dissidents, any list of which would be long and distinguished. Poland’s role in the historic unraveling of the Soviet empire was pivotal by any measure. And while world leaders from Pope John Paul II to Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher played a part, the audacity of the homegrown resistance is a story that is still underemphasized to this day.

In November 1986, I spent nearly two weeks in Poland with the anticommunist underground. This was five years after the Warsaw government declared martial law and threw many pro-freedom activists in jail. It was still many months before the big changes of 1989 that would liberate Eastern Europe from the communist yoke. One night during my visit, I met in a private home with a half-dozen underground printers. They were eager to impress me with examples of many great pro-freedom books they had illegally translated, printed, and distributed throughout the country.

I asked, “Where did you get the paper to publish all this stuff?”

“From two places,” replied a young man named Pavel. “One, we smuggle it in from the West. Two, we steal it from communists.”

When I asked him to explain the second source, he revealed that many of the workers in the communist government’s publishing houses were sympathetic to the resistance. When those workers saw the opportunity, they smuggled the paper out or even printed resistance literature on the government’s own printing presses.

The impressive stack of illegally printed books those printers showed me included works by great scholars of liberty from the West — Freeman writers F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray N. Rothbard, to name just three. I later raised $5,000 for the underground to translate, publish, and distribute Milton Friedman’s classic Free to Choose, a copy of which I proudly display today in a glass case in my study. But there were books, essays, and ideas by native Poles that the underground took risks to disseminate as well. Stanislaw Lem was one of them.

Born in 1921, Lem survived both Nazi occupation and Soviet rule in the town of his birth, which was known alternately as Lwów in free Poland, Lvov in the Soviet Union, and Lviv in modern Ukraine. His father was a doctor, and Lem was poised to follow in his footsteps until Hitler’s invasion in 1939. He was forced to work as a mechanic but became a crack saboteur: “I learnt to damage German vehicles in such a way that it wouldn’t be discovered,” he said.

Lem resumed his medical studies following the war, eventually finishing his degree in Cracow in 1946. He intended to pursue a career in theoretical biology, but abandoned his plans rather than adhere to the since-discredited practices of Soviet geneticist Trofim Lysenko. He turned to writing, only to have his first novel, The Hospital of the Transfiguration, banned by communist censors for nearly a decade.

By 1951, Lem realized that his only hope of publishing was to mask his views as allegorical works of science fiction. State apparatchiks in charge of expunging subversive works from the public square were too stupid to appreciate his subtlety, but Polish intellectuals and many ordinary readers knew full well what the underlying message was. What Lem did with a wrench to German vehicles, he later did with pen and ink to the communist state.

Lem used his considerable intellect (he reportedly had an IQ of 180) and writing skills to parody Soviet and Polish leaders and subtly convey the torments of communist life. He is seen as in the same mold as satirical fantasists Jonathan Swift, George Orwell, and Franz Kafka. In the estimation of many who took great risks to criticize the Soviet and allied Eastern European regimes, his work sits comfortably alongside such anti-totalitarian classics as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.

Lem’s writings have been translated into at least 40 languages, have sold nearly 30 million copies, and span a wide range from screenplays, short stories, and mystery novels to more serious matters of philosophy, cybernetics, and the nature of intelligence itself.

The Astronauts, published in 1951, was followed by Time Not Lost, a fictionalized account of Nazi occupation of Poland. Return from the Stars, published in 1961, presented a world devoid of “the hell of passion, and then it turned out that in the same sweep, heaven, too, had ceased to be. Everything now is lukewarm.” This bland reality, noted reviewer Marilyn Jurich, “reduces the possibility of individuals accepting personal risks,” resulting in “a monotone, denatured safe world at the cost of direct experience in a nature that is open, unknown, risky; a world where wild animals have disappeared along with human emotion and initiative. Individuals have few means left to test physical capacity or mental endurance.”

Nightmarish Conformity

The short story “The Thirteenth Voyage,” in the collection The Star Diaries, depicts the totalitarian urge at its most invasive. In that story, the Angelicans, a group of social engineers, determine that all human foibles can be solved by collectivization, producing a nightmarish, stagnant conformity. Having lived through collectivism of both the national socialist and communist varieties, Lem knew his subject well.

Lem published his last collection of fiction in 1988, before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union. He told interviewer Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. in 1985,

The literature of the 20th century has lost its battle, or at least finds itself in retreat.… The tales of refugees from totalitarian countries reduce themselves to an exhaustive catalogue of social and psychological suffering that such systems treat their citizens to. These books cannot pick their readers up, and the lessons they teach are not pleasant. One could say that the job of literature is not primarily to entertain, move, and cheer us up, but as [Joseph] Conrad said, to ‘bring the visible world to justice.’ Well, in order to bring this world to justice, it is first necessary to understand it with one’s intellect, to appreciate the wealth of its diversity.

Another Polish dissident, Stefan Kisielewski, was once jailed for an eloquent three-word sentence: “Socialism is stupidism.”

As a rule, dictators understand the power of ideas better than most people, which is why they often make it illegal to simply harbor a certain thought or give that thought expression in ink on paper.

Thankfully, courageous men and women like Stanislaw Lem found creative ways around evil regimes — a key reason those very regimes now exist, with a few exceptions, only in the history books.

For further information, see:

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Zero-Gravity Orbital Habitation Causes Changes That Are at Least Superficially Similar to Accelerated Aging – Article by Reason

Zero-Gravity Orbital Habitation Causes Changes That Are at Least Superficially Similar to Accelerated Aging – Article by Reason

The New Renaissance HatReason
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That old people will go into orbit to escape the rigors of gravity and thus live longer in their declining years was a staple of golden age and later science fiction. These works were written at a time in which our knowledge of human biochemistry – and the application of that knowledge to medicine – was crude in comparison to today. It is fascinating that we can say that for such a short span of years, a mere short lifetime past, but the differences between the medicine of the 1950s and the medicine of today are profound indeed. The writers of that time largely envisaged a future incorporating great gains in energy generation, and a consequent diaspora from Earth, while computation, medicine and the human condition remained much unchanged; older spacemen in the outer reaches struggling with heart disease in their fifties. Instead we found that expanding the generation, storage, transmission, and application of energy is very hard, and the largely unanticipated information revolution occurred instead. We lost the near future of cheap heavy lift to orbit and the solar system at our beck and call, but gained Moore’s Law, biotechnology, nanotechnology, a pervasive internet, and medical progress that is in the early stages of conquering heart disease and may yet save us from all of degenerative aging.

As it turns out, retreating from the rigors of gravity may well have the opposite effect to that imagined by the authors of the last century. Among the alterations produced by orbital habitation in zero gravity are those that appear, at least superficially, much like accelerated aging of the cardiovascular system. The root causes have yet to be pinned down, since very few people are actually researching this topic, but since the onset of these symptoms is fairly rapid, I’d guess at the cause being more a matter of regulatory dysfunction than increased tissue damage, such as the presence of cross-links related to arterial stiffening in aging. Here I’ll point out a few links to the work of one research group on this topic in recent years:

Waterloo to lead new experiment aboard International Space Station

Quote:

The experiment will link changes in astronauts’ hearts and blood vessels with specific molecules in the blood to determine why astronauts experience conditions that mimic aging-related problems and chronic diseases on earth. The findings will help identify important indicators for chronic disease and assist with the development of early interventions for people on earth. “We know that astronauts return from space with stiffer arteries and resistance to insulin, conditions affecting many adults as they age. For the first time, we will be able to track exactly how – and why – the body’s blood vessels change, and use these findings to potentially improve quality of life and the burden of chronic disease.” “In space, astronauts’ bodies show aging-like changes much faster than on Earth. The International Space Station provides a unique platform to study aging-related conditions providing insights that can be used to help understand some of the biggest health issues affecting society. Our research to date suggests that even though astronauts exercise every day, the actual physical demands of tasks of daily living are greatly reduced due to the lack of gravity. This lifestyle seems to cause changes in the vascular system and in the body’s ability to regulate blood glucose that would normally take years to develop on earth.”

U.Waterloo – Vascular Aging and Space Research Program

Quote:

We study factors related to cardiovascular health with aging. One focus is on blood pressure regulation and its impact on brain blood flow to help us understand some of the factors that could contribute to falls in the elderly, especially those that occur on rising from bed. Another focus is on aging blood vessels. We have reported a strong link between peripheral arterial stiffness and a reduction in brain blood flow. Our space research program is very active. We recently completed the study Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Control on Return from the International Space Station (CCISS). We are currently collecting data for the project Cardiovascular Health Consequences of Long-Duration Space Flight (Vascular).

Cardiovascular Health Consequences of Long-Duration Space Flight (Vascular)

Quote:

Cardiovascular Health Consequences of Long-Duration Space Flight (Vascular) investigates the impact of long-duration space flight on the blood vessels of astronauts. Space flight accelerates the aging process, and it is important to understand this process to develop specific countermeasures. Data is collected before, during, and after space flight to assess inflammation of the artery walls, changes in blood vessel properties, and cardiovascular fitness. Spaceflight can cause stiffening of the arteries, affecting the body’s ability to control blood pressure. This investigation assessed the blood vessels of astronauts and found decreased flexibility of the carotid artery during flight. Researchers found no relationship between the level of physical fitness and this decrease. The experiment also provided data on the mechanisms behind increased arterial stiffness from spaceflight. Further research is needed to establish effective ways to counter the cardiovascular consequences of spaceflight and ultimately help treat increased arterial stiffness from aging on Earth, which can cause high blood pressure and organ damage.

Impaired cerebrovascular autoregulation and reduced CO2 reactivity after long duration spaceflight

Quote:

Long duration habitation on the International Space Station (ISS) is associated with chronic elevations in arterial blood pressure in the brain compared with normal upright posture on Earth and elevated inspired carbon dioxide. Although results from short-duration spaceflights suggested possibly improved cerebrovascular autoregulation, animal models provided evidence of structural and functional changes in cerebral vessels that might negatively impact autoregulation with longer periods in microgravity. Seven astronauts (1 woman) spent 147 ± 49 days on ISS. Preflight testing (30-60 days before launch) was compared with postflight testing on landing day or the morning 1 or 2 days after return to Earth. The results indicate that long duration missions on the ISS impaired dynamic cerebrovascular autoregulation and reduced cerebrovascular carbon dioxide reactivity.

Recent findings in cardiovascular physiology with space travel

Quote:

The cardiovascular system undergoes major changes in stress with space flight primarily related to the elimination of the head-to-foot gravitational force. A major observation has been that the central venous pressure is not elevated early in space flight yet stroke volume is increased at least early in flight. Recent observations demonstrate that heart rate remains lower during the normal daily activities of space flight compared to Earth-based conditions. Structural and functional adaptations occur in the vascular system that could result in impaired response with demands of physical exertion and return to Earth. Cardiac muscle mass is reduced after flight and contractile function may be altered. Regular and specific countermeasures are essential to maintain cardiovascular health during long-duration space flight.

Reason is the founder of The Longevity Meme (now Fight Aging!). He saw the need for The Longevity Meme in late 2000, after spending a number of years searching for the most useful contribution he could make to the future of healthy life extension. When not advancing the Longevity Meme or Fight Aging!, Reason works as a technologist in a variety of industries.
This work is reproduced here in accord with a Creative Commons Attribution license. It was originally published on FightAging.org.
The Martian – Movie Review by Edward Hudgins

The Martian – Movie Review by Edward Hudgins

The New Renaissance HatEdward Hudgins
October 13, 2015
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The Martian, from director Ridley Scott, is an exciting film about an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet. It celebrates the heroism that comes from human reason. And it points to what it will take for humans in coming decades to make Mars a new home for humanity. With the film coming on the heels of NASA’s confirmation of liquid water on the Martian surface, that home could be closer than you think!

“I’m not gonna die!”

The Martian is based on a novel that author Andy Weir originally published himself online and offered as a free download. The author and the film take care to be as scientifically accurate as possible in the context of a fictional offering.

Martian_1The movie opens with the third crew to land on Mars rushing back to their landing craft ahead of a sudden sandstorm that threatens to destroy it and them. (In reality, Mars’s thin atmosphere would mean such a storm would annoy rather than kill. But then there’d be no story!)

Unfortunately, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris from some destroyed communications equipment and blown away. Sensors indicate his suit’s seal has been breached, meaning his oxygen has escaped and he’s likely dead. The rest of the crew takes off without searching for his body to avoid being killed themselves.

They begin their sad, year-long journey home after informing the world of the tragedy.

But Watney is alive! The breach in his suit was sealed by blood and the debris lodged in his side. He gets back to the habitat the astronauts had used as their base. But his future still looks grim. He is out of contact with Earth and his shipmates. The next Mars mission is not scheduled to arrive for four years and will land 3,000 kilometers from where he is. He has nowhere nearly enough food rations to survive that long. But he declares, “I’m not gonna die,” and we see his mind at work in the video logs he makes of his efforts.

Intelligence for survival

“Let’s do the math!” he says as he figures out that he must grow three years’ worth of potatoes on a frozen planet where nothing grows and find some way to water and fertilize his crops. But he’s a botanist and he declares, “Mars will come to fear my botany power!” He converts part of the hab into a makeshift greenhouse. Human waste—what the crew left in its short visit and what he will produce in the years ahead—will be his fertilizer. The water will come from a jury-rigged setup that extracts it from other substances at hand in the hab.

Martian_2

Watney contemplates how to get his tractor, which needs batteries recharged every 35 kilometers, to trek a hundred times that distance, how to carry enough supplies for that journey, how to contact Earth, and many other challenges. And he declares, “I’m gonna have to science the s**t out of this!”

Director Scott does not give us wishful thinking, mere muscles, unconvincing machismo, or deus-ex-machina miracles. He gives us intelligence as the key to survival.

Will they succeed?

Meanwhile, back at NASA, satellite photos show activity at the hab, meaning Watney is alive. Scientists on Earth observe him trekking out into the desert and guess, correctly, that he’s searching for a decades-old Pathfinder probe to try to revive its old radio system, which he does. Now they can communicate.

But Watney’s farming efforts are cut short by an accident, and NASA’s plan to send an unmanned resupply ship does not go as planned. The one slim hope, which NASA opposes, is for his shipmates to swing around Earth rather than land as they’re supposed to and return to Mars to rescue him. Will they do so? Will they succeed?

Optimism, intelligence, ingenuity

Many elements of The Martian are familiar from other movies. Gravity (2013) gave us drifting in space, trying to return to a ship. Apollo 13 (1995) was a film version of real-life astronauts with a disabled spacecraft trying to get home safely from an aborted lunar mission. The Martian, like Apollo 13, gives us a vision of the heroic that comes from the same source that allows humans to travel to other worlds to begin with: the human mind.

Some might think that a film about the how hostile Mars is to human life would discourage people from ever wanting to go there, much less live there. I disagree. Humans are explorers and achievers.

In 1996 Robert Zubrin published The Case for Mars, outlining an innovative plan for getting to the Red Planet for a fraction of the cost of a NASA mission. He founded the Mars Society, which runs conferences and simulations of Mars missions in the arctic, in preparation for the real thing. Other groups such as Explore Mars have sprung up in recent years. Other innovative mission models have been proposed, including one from Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. And Mars One proposes to send settlers to the Red Planet on one-way trips, to be permanent occupants. Private entrepreneur Elon Musk founded his rocket company SpaceX with the goal of establishing permanent settlements on the Red Planet. And NASA’s confirmation of water on the surface of Mars opens further possibilities for future colonies.

The Martian is an uplifting film that does not minimize the challenges of life; indeed, Watney explains that he knew going in that space travel was dangerous and that he could be killed. But he says that once you acknowledge that you might die, you deal with the problem at hand and the next and the next. This is humanity at its best. Damon as Watney gives a fine performance. His character must keep up his optimism—without maudlin emotionalism or self-deceiving bravado. He must demonstrate intelligence and ingenuity. In all this we see the best of the human spirit!

Dr. Edward Hudgins directs advocacy and is a senior scholar for The Atlas Society, the center for Objectivism in Washington, D.C.

Copyright, The Atlas Society. For more information, please visit www.atlassociety.org.

The Science Fiction of Scarcity – Article by Sarah Skwire

The Science Fiction of Scarcity – Article by Sarah Skwire

The New Renaissance HatSarah Skwire
October 6, 2015
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We Have Such Abundance That We Fantasize about Having Less.

***

We all know the scene. The urbane starship captain steps up to the console and requests, “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” He waits a second or two until a steaming, perfectly brewed cup shimmers into existence.

From medieval dreams of the Land of Cockaigne, where roofs are shingled with pastries and roasted chickens fly into our waiting mouths, to the Big Rock Candy Mountain’s “cigarette trees” and “lemonade springs,” to Star Trek’s replicator, we have imagined the bright futures and the glorious new worlds that would give us instant abundance.

The “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” type of scene is such a standby it even has its own parodies, where instant preference satisfaction is not exactly … satisfying.

He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism, and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. (Douglas Adams, Restaurant at the End of the Universe)

If we didn’t know what was supposed to happen, and if we didn’t fully expect the future to fulfill our fantasies, and if we didn’t have a certain amount of frustrated experience with modern machines that promise wonders but deliver things that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike them, the scene wouldn’t be funny.

But I find science fiction most compelling when it goes in the other direction — when instead of imagining the end of scarcity, it imagines the end of abundance. The movie Total Recall imagines life on Mars, where even the air is rationed. The gritty reboot of the television series Battlestar Galactica puts us in world where fewer than 50,000 humans have survived and escaped from an enemy attack. The survivors spend much of their time trying to subsist in space amid constant and growing shortages of food, water, fuel, ammunition, and pretty much everything else.

In works like these — and yes, I know their imaginings are as romantic as the imaginings of Star Trek — we get to watch human beings pushed to their limits, using every bit of their ingenuity in order to survive. It was no accident, after all, that Gene Roddenberry called space “the final frontier.”

The latest iteration of this kind of scarcity science fiction is Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, the movie version of which premiered October 2. I first learned about The Martian through the XKCD webcomic strip describing the plot as made out of “the scene in Apollo 13 where the guy says ‘we have to figure out how to connect this thing to this thing using this table of parts or the astronauts will all die.’”

I was sold.

And it’s no spoiler to say that this is precisely the plot of The Martian. Astronaut Mark Watney is one of the first people to visit Mars. When the mission goes awry, his crew has to evacuate, and Mark is left behind. Everyone thinks he’s dead.

He’s not, though, and the remainder of the book is caught up in the details of the scarcities he faces, his creative attempts to overcome them, and our nail-biting suspense over whether he can survive one more hour, one more day, and maybe long enough to be rescued. Mark describes his situation like this:

I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab [the atmosphere-controlled habitat in which astronauts from his mission could live without wearing spacesuits] designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

Mark’s assessment of his situation, which ends with, “I’m f—ed,” appears on page 7 of the novel. We spend 360 more pages following his solitary attempts to science his way out of the problem. And if you’re at all like me, you won’t be able to put the book down until you find out what happens. Done well, the movie should convey that same nail-biting suspense.

The Martian, and scarcity science fiction in general, is a good reminder to all of us that the real miracle of the market is not the great individual with the great idea, bringing it to fruition and selling it to all of us. The real miracle of the market is that it reliably supplies us, every day, with all the necessities that Mark Watney has to work for so desperately. And it does that by allowing us to cooperate, and to broaden that cooperation beyond our immediate context, to the extended and anonymous world. That long-distance cooperation allows us to access so many different human skills, strengths, and abilities.

With only himself to rely on, Mark (who is primarily a botanist) is painfully aware of the skills he lacks, skills he relied on in his crewmembers who specialize in chemistry, or engineering, or other sciences. While it becomes clear that his botany skills will be a crucial part of his survival, so are all these others, and without any possibility of cooperating, he has to go it alone. He’s in the position of the folks who try to build a toaster entirely from scratch, or make a sandwich all on their own.

I loved reading The Martian, and I can’t wait to see the movie. Stories like this, and like Battlestar Galactica and others, allow me to explore the limits of the human ability to survive. I’m happy to visit those worlds and to entertain myself with their emotional and suspenseful visions of life on the narrowest of possible margins.

But the world I want to live in is the one where cooperation, through the mechanisms of the market, brings us movies about scarcity and survival, while outside the movie theater we enjoy real-life abundance. And also, maybe one day, a replicator that will allow my own cup of “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” to shimmer miraculously into being.

Sarah Skwire is a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.