Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gender Homogenization

I guess this blog fits in thematically with some recent blogs (1 2 3). Funny how themes tend to develop and thread themselves through what otherwise might just be random musings...

I found this article in the WSJ:

Why Women Don't Want Macho Men

New research suggests that women from
countries with healthier populations prefer more feminine-looking men...

how masculine a woman likes her men based on her nation's World Health Organization statistics for mortality rates, life expectancy and the impact of communicable disease. In countries where poor health is particularly a threat to survival, women leaned toward "manlier" men. That is, they preferred their males to have shorter, broader faces and stronger eyebrows, cheekbones and jaw lines.
The answer begins with the theory of sexual selection. It goes that women are the choosier sex because they take on most of the risk and burden of reproduction and child rearing. While a man can sleep around with 100 women in a year's time and have 100 kids, a woman who sleeps with 100 men in a year will only have one baby (barring multiples). She has more at stake in each pregnancy. Therefore, it is in her best interest to at least choose a high-quality mate. And one of the hallmarks of a quality male is good health.
But what does health have to do with masculinity? The link is testosterone, the hormone behind manly muscles,
strong jaws, prominent eyebrow ridges, facial hair and deep voices. Testosterone is immunosuppressive. This means a man must be healthy and in good condition to withstand its effects on his development. Testosterone is also linked to other traits related to strength: fitness, fertility and dominance. From an evolutionary perspective, masculinity is basically man's way of advertising good genes, dominance and likelihood to father healthier kids. When disease is a real threat, as it had been—and arguably still is—heritable health is invaluable.

Masculinity, however, can come at a high price. Women often think of high-testosterone types as uncooperative, unsympathetic, philandering, aggressive and disinterested in parenting. In fact, there is evidence that they really do have more relationship problems than other men.

...if you're a woman living in a country with a decent health-care system and few harmful pathogens [...] while a masculine father's "good genes" may confer health advantages to children, so do good medical attention and aclean environment. [...] women with the weakest masculinity preferences tended to live in some of the healthiest countries: Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Austria. Other countries in the study with low masculinity preferences are Romania, Greece and New Zealand. Women with the weakest masculinity preferences of all lived in Belgium, a country considered to have one of the best publicly funded health-care systems in Europe (alongside Denmark and the Netherlands in the health-care index).

And so on. Read the article if you're interested

First of all, there's nothing new about this, though it points to a problem compounding, possibly to a point where it'll be hard to imagine how it could be fixed.

Why isn't it new? Well, it's just another variant on what happens when hunter-gatherer, nomadic, or warrior-like societies become agricultural. The adaptation required from a farmer-type is quite different to those on a hunter or warrior. Also, farming societies tend to be more gender-homogenized than the hunter/warrior ones; a feature that, with the wisdom of hindsight, should have alerted aspiring futurologists to what would happen when urbanization overtook ruralization as a major social development. Actually, it really just needed a bit of study of history and the 'great' civilizations that have come and gone. Rocket science it is not.

'Gender-homogenization' is a kind of measure of how much men and women share activities, roles and, above all, personal goals, in a given group or society. It has nothing to with equality or the lack thereof, equal opportunity or not, equal pay, dominance by one sex over the other, and so on. A society can be quite highly gender-homogenized and still have gender inequalities. In the case of farming societies, past and present, it's indeed quite obvious that men and women were and are unequal in many ways; but they still will share a lot of activities associated with the farm, and they will probably differ much less in their life goals—make the farm work, bring up the family, and so on—than, say, men and women in hunter or warrior societies. The reasons for this are simple: the less people have to rely on gender-specific attributes and requirements to perform their social roles, the more both genders will occupy those roles to which this applies. This may not happen immediately, but it will happen, as evidenced by history again and again. In a society whose role-requirements and made progressively more gender-neutral, this will obviously lead to exactly what we are seeing.

By the way, I'm not passing positive or negative judgment on this—just presenting the facts.

Gender-homogenization results in the feminization of men and the masculinization of women. Those terms aren't meant to be emotionally loaded either. It just means that the difference between 'traditional' gender roles becomes progressively more blurred. And—and here I'm going to be so un-PC that it'll probably raise quite a few hackles—it means that the 'masculine' male and the 'feminine' female, of what you might call the 'traditional' kind, will become progressively restricted to those social groups who have have a tendency to reproduce with the greatest efficiency. And these aren't exactly the people whom I consider to be prime examples of the positive aspects of evolution.

Is all of this a problem for us? Isn't the world becoming a better place with all that? After all, the less 'difference' the less cause for fighting. Or so you would think. Just like at one time, as the song went, let's all work to produce "coffee-colored people", to get rid of the 'race' thing. That way it'll be all make-love-not-war and so on.

What it amounts to is a reduction in diversity, of course—which is something that, in the context of biology, is generally considered to be a bad thing. In fact, I can't think of any instance where a decrease in the level of diversity, despite occasionally lowering conflict levels, has, in the long term, shown to have had beneficial effects. The experience in ecology is that decreasing diversity also decreases the robustness of ecosystems and lowers the survival probability of the system itself, as well as the species living in it. Given that we are now living in a world that is far from stable and may indeed be soon confronted with high levels of threats to planetary and human survival, it may not be such a good idea to sit back and congratulate ourselves on all our social achievements, such as there are, and to think that our haphazardly out-together societies and their infrastructures are really going to ensure that he conditions that make, inter alia, women in certain societies choose progressively more non-male males, are going to remain in force.

In the West we are, by and large, so far removed from an understanding that we, as a species, are actually still in a battle for our very survival—maybe more so than ever—that such thoughts will at best cause a few raised eyebrows, followed by a dismissal of the issue.

Still, the truth is stark and clear: The price we pay for being able to survive as a species is the existence of conflict, which is a direct consequence of diversity. And while it is true that we are woefully unprepared by evolution for the demands placed on us today that will enable us to survive as a species, it is also true that, as usual, we are over-correcting and missing the target again. It remains to be seen whether the 'new' ways—which, by the way, are just a paper-thin veneer—are going to work better than the old ones. I certainly hope so.

Still, what I said many blogs ago, does it really have to mean that we have to extinguish the fire? For fire destroys, this is true. But it also warms and energizes, and in its destruction of certain things lies the source of creation for others.

The price we have to pay. The choices we have to make.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Why the SIngularity is Probably Nonsense

I've been catching up on my futurist web-reading as of recent, just to keep me in the loop. Prolongevists, transhumanists, Singularity adherents, doomsday sayers, Earth savers, and so on.

Don't know what prompted it; I guess it must have been the unread list-emails relating to such subjects, and especially to the issue of human longevity, that have been accumulating unread in my various dedicated mailboxes.

Anyway, I came across the whole 'Singularity' thing again. I don't know if you're familiar with the subject, but it boils down to this (taken from here, to save me typing):

"Imagine a curve that represents the technological progress of human beings throughout history. Most people would agree that we have come a long way in only a century; we've invented new technology, learned new things and developed as a race. Thus the curve slopes upward. We can examine this curve and extrapolate to create a function that describes the level of progress for any given point in time.

Many have done this, including Ray Kurzweil, the renowned inventor of synthesisers and text-to-speech machines and also author of The Age of Intelligent Machines, a book that won the Association of American Publishers' Award for the Most Outstanding Computer Science Book of 1990. Kurzweil has shown that the doubling period of the speed of computers is diminishing, i.e. it used to take us three years to double the speed and memory capacity of computers in the beginning of the 20th Century, and now the same kind of progress is achieved in only one year. He claims that these trends will continue, and that computers will be able to emulate human brains in the year 2020.

When and if computers become intelligent, computers themselves could construct new computers, causing a massive acceleration in technological progress. One way to visualise this acceleration is to consider the following rather trivial function.

f(t) = -1 / t

Readers with working knowledge of mathematics can see that this function gives us very large values for very small negative values of t. As t approaches zero (from the negative side), the value of the function approaches infinity. This is called hyperbolic growth. A hyperbolic function grows much faster than an exponential function, as the reader can easily see in the following table. Note that t takes on negative values; think of it as a countdown to the Singularity.

Yeah, very mathematical and scary for some—but what it boils down to is that we're going to have some point in history, probably soon-ish, where technological progress will run away from us and either completely annihilate us or else solve all our problems. It's represented by the function labeled 'hyperbolic' on this picture:

Those promoting the concept of a Singularity tend to get very enthusiastic about it, as fervents do—and especially about topics they know nothing about, which is anything related to what the future will bring. And, being woolly thinkers, they tend to forget one of the most fundamental lessons from physics: there's always friction.

That's like one of the most fundamental laws of the universe. That, and Newton's 2nd and 3rd Laws, of course, are what's putting the kibosh on the whole Singularity nonsense. The thing is, you might notice, that in the initial parts of the three curves in the picture above, they are hard to tell apart—and just how far that 'initial part' goes is a question of the exact equations governing the processes described. Right now there's nothing to suggest right now that we're talking about a hyperbola, instead of an exponential and maybe even a sigmoid function. Nothing, that is, except people's overheated imaginations.

Indeed, it seems to me that what you might call 'progress friction'—which expresses itself in all sorts of ways, from the purely physical to the conceptually achievable—is already showing its effects, and will do so increasingly as we continue moving along the curve.

And, yes, I may be wrong about that, and the Singularity Believers may be right. But at least I remember the importance of friction; one of the first and most important topics even in the most elementary of physics classes. For friction is the nemesis of singularities.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Those Who Might Have Been But Never Were

Every now and then I 'click through' to one of those links on a web page and end up in some never-never-land of weird-dom. In this instance it was on the Radioman's Kansas City website, which, judging by its contents, is basically politically 'left', as you can probably notice from the sample screen content on your right. (Yeah, pun intended.)

Well, actually, I know it doesn't look 'left', does it; what with having an anti-abortion T-shirt displayed there, draped over the shapely bosom of an attractive young woman—who is either a model or a Christian or both. Certainly, she ain't no Obama fan; I can tell you that for nothing.

I was confused, too. I mean, what was an ad like that doing on a left-wing and implicitly pro-abortionist website? Until I read the parenthetical caption underneath, which fit in perfectly with the basic crudity and tastelessness that characterizes not only the layout of this website—designer's worst nightmare!—but much of its content as well. Loudmouthed juvies; probably all male.

Anyway, the sheer contrast piqued me, and I clicked the picture link and, after some more clicking—because not even the links were quite right, and why should they be?—I ended up on a site that does T-shirts with a gazillion of imprints, among which there are many variants on the "I survived Roe vs Wade" theme, e.g....

...and so on. There are T-shirts on men/boys as well, but I chose females. So sue me. Anyway, it looks like a thriving industry.

I'd like to ask dear readers to pause at this point, take a deep breath and get over their knee-jerk reaction to the whole issue tackled here. Said reactions may be personal, political, philosophical or religious. I don't really care one whit. Just get over them and try to do some thinking instead.

First of all, there's an interesting statistic here. It may or may not be exact—in any case it'll be 90- million-and-counting—, but the order of magnitude is probably correct. So, in a parallel universe, where RvW had come out the opposite way, there would have been an extra 90 million—probably unwanted, unloved, economically challenged, insufficiently schooled, [insert other undesirable attributes here]—people in the world that aren't in ours. That's a good thing, right? 90 million—that like three times the current population of Australia!—that aren't clogging up our economic and social security systems, adding to crime and drug use and all that stuff. They really wouldn't have liked to have been alive anyway, because of the low quality-of-life they would have ended up having. Many would probably have died young. Maybe there were even a lot of potential terrorists in there, because we all know that terrorists are bred by economic disadvantage. Intelligent people don't get involved in terrorism. Right?

Also, just to put those anti-abortionist religioids right, let's remember that, since we're talking parallel universes here, there are many many more people that aren't around because of contraceptive measures taken at the time people got together to have some serious fun. As Roger Zelazny once put it in one of his novels (I paraphrase slightly): Ready, willing and able to help propagate the species, but not right now.

So, looking at our and that parallel universe in question—or a multitude of them—we can see that sure we're better off in the one where a bunch of Christians, Rightwingers, Anti-intellectuals and Rednecks wear I survived Roe vs Wade T-shirts.

It's a pity though that we can't—just for curiosity's sake—have a peek into those alternate universes to see what they look like. Because, of course, while there might have been terrorists in the 90+ million, there also could have been the odd genius who rose above his or her miserable fate of being born and ended up making the world a truly better place. But again, that goes for the alternate universes unrealized because of contraception as well. It's just as things are. We make choices and thereby limit the universe we live in to...well, the universe we live in.

Having, at least I hope so, represented the pro-abortionist viewpoint up to now, I would now like to switch sides. This is because I happen to be very ambivalent about the issue. My reason tells me that one side makes sense. My heart tells me something else.

Let's consider why someone—usually someone young—might choose to wear such a T-shirt. I can think of three main reasons:
  • Brainwashing.
  • Religion.
  • Conviction motivated by other promptings.
I know, I know! What's the difference between being brainwashed and being religious? Well, a great deal actually, because the two are not necessarily related. You can be brainwashed into believing anything at all! Religion has no special place here. Like you could be brainwashed, as many people are these days, into believing in what the Brights try to make you believe. Q.E.D.

It occurs to me though that, despite the potential 'brainwashing' aspects of the first two of the threesome of reason-types above, that actually need not negate the general point I'd like to make about what might be going on in the mind of someone who actually wears such a declarative T-shirt. Like what is such a wearer actually likely to 'understand' about their own understanding and grasp of what these five words mean?

Well, what does it mean? Expanding the pithy five words we end up with a declaration that, in essence—and stripping out the religious, philosophical or political—says something like:

My mother could have legally aborted me.
She chose not to.
Therefore I am alive today.
(Subtext: And I'm glad I am.)

This in a non-judgmental way of expanding this, and when you see it like that, doesn't it sound just a tad different to the way it sounded to you it when your knees were jerking and twitching?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cold Fusion and Biology

In a comment to a recent blog of mine, a friend from New Zealand pointed me at some interesting observations. One of them was a URL to an article on a recent conference on 'cold fusion', a field of science that has long suffered from being seriously maligned by those in scientific power and their supporters. And no wonder: how dare chemistry invade the domain of physics and tell them what's what, right? How dare these upstarts, who work in labs with test tubes and comparatively small-scale electronics compete for truth with those who waste untold gigawatts in the LHC—which probably won't give them the answers they so eagerly seek, but may also endanger the very future of our planet.†

One of the fascinating snippets in the article was a throwaway clause in a sentence which read like this:

The presentations [at the conference] describe invention of an inexpensive new measuring device that could enable more labs to begin cold fusion research; indications that cold fusion may occur naturally in certain bacteria; progress toward a battery based on cold fusion; and a range of other topics.

That reminded me of the French scientist, Louis Kervran, who many years ago wrote a book called Biological Transmutation, of which I have had a copy for many years and which is now available, minus the figures, on the internet. In it, he reported on his experiments, painstakingly performed with the passion of a true experimental scientist, which appear to demonstrate that not only 'cold fusion' may occur in living systems, but a lot of other elemental changes. Since these are obviously performed at energies far too low to be compatible with the models of physics, which require energies far in excess of what biochemical systems can muster, these results have been mocked at length. Kervran was thus relegated to the scientific fringe, and nowadays is hailed mostly by alternative-medicine advocates, new agers and the like.

I'm wondering if maybe one day soon, he may end up having the last laugh—and, despite my physics training I'll definitely laugh with him. The metaphor that leaps to mind is that of opening a door. You can smash it in or you can use a key. And just because it seem like nature by and large tends to open subatomic doors by smashing, that doesn't mean that they don't have locks that can be picked with the appropriate keys.

And here's a little snippet that might be of interest: the US Navy is actually taking these things seriously enough to fund cold fusion studies.

Yes, I am definitely in the 'alarmist' anti-LHC camp. The idea that the thing's running right now at full blast gives me occasional nightmares and causes acute attacks of anxiety and nausea. And they spent 9 billion dollars on this monstrosity...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


I'm sure you've seen this Monty Python classic, yes?

Well, how's this for an encore?

Woman spends £50,000 on sick parrot which finally loses fight for life

Anne Lowery spent the money on chemotherapy for her 42 year-old pet Areba after the bird was diagnosed with cancer.

However, the Wagler's Conure parakeet died after 13 months of treatment.

Ms Lowery, a tax expert from Florida who has 11 other parrots, said she was glad for the extra months with Areba who she had raised for 30 years.

She said: "When they said she had cancer, they gave her two months to live. It seemed such an aggressive time frame, so I thought nothing of putting her into the vets' care."

The parrot passed away on Wednesday.

Dr Teresa Lightfoot, the vet who cared for Areba, said: "It was tough for Areba. But we improved her quality of life and gave her and her mom more time together."

This actually isn't funny at all. The same money would probably have been able, to think of just one possibility, to get some child a badly-needed life-saving operation. Not that either Ms. Lowery or her vet cared a damn. And why should they, right? It's Ms. Lowery's money after all. And if she considers her pets' welfare to be more important than that of some human being she doesn't even know and basically doesn't give a shit about, that's her business, is it not?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Further to the last blog...

Relating to my comments from the last blog, here's an article in the Guardian (from 2009). For a change, it's one that makes sense.

It's also depressing, and appropriately so:

...The universe is still waiting. There has been no great leap. Indeed, the United States, which next month celebrates Apollo 11's 40th anniversary, will soon have no way of putting men and women into space at all....

....The moon landings marked not the beginning, but the end, of our space dreams...

The point I was trying to make, about the loss of spirit, comes through with some fascinating observations:

"A great many Americans suffered premature heart attacks and strokes from their efforts in making the Apollo project succeed. More than 400,000 workers were employed by private contractors to build capsules, rocket engines, space suits, and computers for Apollo and the vast majority worked flat out, over weekends and holidays, much of the time for free, for several years to make sure the programme succeeded."

For example, at the Grumman factory in New Jersey, where the lunar module was built, staff would clock off at 5pm, leave by the front door, walk round to the back and work for free until midnight. Similarly, employees at the International Latex Corporation - which made the suits worn by the Apollo astronauts - worked with equally obsessive intensity. In a recent documentary, the company's senior seamstress, Eleanor Foraker, recalled working 80-hour weeks without days off or holidays for three continuous years, suffering two nervous breakdowns in the process. "I would leave the plant at five o'clock in the morning and be back by seven. But it was worth it, it really was."

Imagine anything like that happening today. In your dreams!

I know, it sounds terrible, all those heart attacks and stressed-out people. But see what they accomplished, with a technology that by today's standards is less than pitiful:

Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins - who would pilot Apollo 11's command module while his two crewmates descended to the lunar surface - guided their craft using sextants, slide-rules and a computer that had less power than a modern mobile phone.

The things we can do, if only we have the spirit to—as individuals and together. But who still has that spirit? It's been leached out of us by a combination of factors, too numerous—and contentious, controversial and probably offensive to the ears of most—for me to actually spell out. The only remnant of such a spirit nowadays resides in religious movements that aim to conquer the world with their insanities.

We have fallen a long way. We've turned mottled green instead of a clear-sky blue. Our fears and insecurities are blotting out whatever pathetic remnants of courage we appear to have left. And if we survive, it will be because of sheer dumb, and utterly undeserved, luck.

Meanwhile R.I.U.P. space programme.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Losing Heart. Losing the Future of the Species.

I'm just finished re-reading, after something like 10 years, Voyagers, a 'hard SF' novel by Ben Bova. Right now I'm into Voyagers II: The Alien Within, also after a similarly long time, and that will be follows sometime soon, when it's back in print, Voyagers III, which I've never read. I think I might pass up Voyagers IV, which Bova has recently written, and which, I suspect, will depress me too much—partially because from the synopses I've read it pretty much parallels, emerging from of the the Greats of science fiction, the malaise I'm about to discuss.

In Voyagers, I found the following quote from one of the greatest pioneers of rocket science:

The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

Yes, there was a time when the world was on the brink of nuclear annihilation—half an hour of big bangs and we're all goners...that kind of thing—but at the same time there was something worthy of being called a 'space programme'; instead of the abortion of one that we have right now, where we just put more and more of what eventually end up as 'space junk' into orbit, making the near-Earth 'space' a very dangerous place indeed.

A far cry from today, where missions, and especially manned ones, that go beyond the orbit of the next piece of orbiting space-junk are dead in the water—and they may indeed be dead forever, because something's gone out of us; and by the time it might come back, which may be when humanity's survival situation becomes terminal, it'll be too late to do anything about it. Ship's sailed for good. Forever. Certainly for this phase of what we think of as 'civilization'.

There is a segment of the populace that will actively cheer this trend. There were many, even in the heady pre-Moonlanding days, who were vociferously decrying the whole space-effort as a colossal and irresponsible waste of money. Better to feed the hungry, build hospitals, improve living conditions, etc. All noble goals, without a doubt. For a while the US and Soviet governments were able to forge ahead with their programmes despite this, mainly because it served to further 'national pride'. That was the bottom line—who has the biggest dick and the best technology—and all the 'science' stuff was just rationalization. And when the US landed men on the moon, the nation was ecstatic. Hell, the world was.

Motives have changed. The International Space Station was not built for reasons of national prestige, but because of the desire to create a concrete example of 'international cooperation in space', which presumably helps to further that greatest goal of them all: WORLD PEACE. That's like the desirable counterpart to the undesirable major issue: GLOBAL WARMING.

Again, nobody in their right mind would deny that it would be desirable if we all lived in peace with each other—or would it? Actually, the issue is by no means clear, and there are very cogent reasons to be acutely afraid of a situation of universal peace; mainly because the preconditions for such a state would seem to imply that we have to surrender so much of our 'humanity' that we would effectively cease to be human. We might also lose our desire to survive, as so grimly suggested in the movie Serenity. Some people would possibly welcome such a state of affairs, where nature can revert to its raw state; which, if I recall rightly, is just about as brutal and bloody as it gets. Nice job!

What's happened between the 60s and now, and why? It's complicated, of course. But the trend, at least in Western societies, was and is to tone down their national pride much more than was common, and so the motivation to spend on big-ticket items to glorify one's nation has decreased to the point where even, or maybe especially, the US, simply hasn't got the will anymore to spend significant amounts on 'space travel' efforts. Any party advocating it, any presidential candidate, would be finished the moment the suggestion was broached. It's all about 'the eehhcaunomy' and problems on the ground. And every dollar that's expended in 'space' needs to have a ground-based justification, be it military, communications related or having to do with monitoring weather, 'security' (meaning spying on people), and whatever pathetic remnants of 'scientific' reasons remain.

We've turned our faces away from the stars and toward the ground. We can't see the stars anymore—neither in our imaginations, nor in reality, in the light pollution of our cities. And, one could argue, why should it be different? Our problems are down here. If we want to survive, we need to clean up our environment and solve population and social problems, stop wars, feed the hungry, help those in need, make the world a better place—whatever 'better' happens to mean, depending on the current social paradigms. This is so reasonable that only lunatics would argue otherwise.

There is, of course, one excellent reason for looking up, and looking up in fear and with a sense of foreboding, and that's the possibility that some nasty big object will come along and wipe us out. Detecting something like that coming at you is just a prerequisite for even starting any action. And that's all we're doing today. But real 'action', a response to a threat that's considerably more unforgiving than creeping Global Warming, would require technological capability and hundreds of billions of dollars spent on something that's entirely a 'maybe'.

Does anybody really talk or think about this? Apart from a couple of movies, Deep Impact and Armageddon, nobody has recently really said much about it—and neither of the movies was considered anything more than entertainment. Well...they weren't. They weren't even 'great' movies, though I enjoyed both. But both at least tackled the notion that we might damn well do something about being annihilated; not just curl up into fetal ball and wait to be wiped out.

But in reality that's basically what we'll doing. That's all we can do, because we've got nothing to offer in terms of a defense. We don't because we're not willing to consider the significance of the 'maybe', which is not really a 'what if' kind of 'maybe' but 'what when'. We should be very, very afraid of this. Much more than we should ever be afraid of Global Warming. In fact, what the world has been unwilling to accept is that it's just as frightening as living under the shadow of likely nuclear annihilation. Just because it comes from space—and that means 'deep space'—doesn't mean it's not going to terminate our species and just about every other within less time that it would have taken to make us extinct in a world-wide nuclear war.

Thing is, if we're not going to look up in fear, as humans did once upon a time, what's the likelihood that we'll look up in hope and yearning? What's the chance that, though our cradle is being systematically destroyed by the infants inside it, we will take heed of Tsiolkovky's dictum, quoted near the beginning of this blog? If we exclude a tiny minority, one without any political or social clout, we're talking about a big fat ZERO. Null. Nada. Nix. Nothing.

Besides, how is one going to get billions of people enthusiastic about spending billions of dollars on a project that will not benefit them personally in any way, and never mind 'spin-offs'. Nobody really gets great motivation out of the prospect of those. But sending even a few thousands of astronauts, explorers, scientists or colonists into space—if we ever get to those kinds of numbers!—still means that only one in a million will ever leave the planet, while the rest are stuck here to choke in the species' cradle's progressively degrading environment. Why should anybody care? To preserve the species? Who gives a shit about the species if one's family can't be preserved? Seriously, would you?

But he have to go, with or, as it likely, without 'popular' support. And there's only one solution to this problem: make the enterprise independent of governments and taxpayers. Meaning find a reason to make space exploration attractive to private enterprise; and that means a reason must be found to make it profitable, despite the likely investment of billions and billions of dollars in R&D. Because R&D it will need, to develop, above all, suitable energy sources, propulsion and effective radiation protection measures. These three are the Achilles Heels of the whole enterprise. Solve them and you can build huge spaceships that will carry large numbers of the willing into 'deep' space, to the planets of our Solar System and beyond.

Motivating corporations or 'private' individuals—those who have obscene amounts of resources—into sinking the money into the enterprise would be difficult, of course. As far as private individuals are concerned, they're mostly trying to find a way into heaven after spending most of their lives accumulating wealth, usually to the detriment of others, and have found their social conscience, or at least try to convince the themselves, the world and their God that they have.

I think that good old greed is probably still the best motivator. That and power. Power derived from wealth and economic influence. The 'Vanguard' corporation in Bova's Voyager series is a good example: richer than many nations, even those in the 'developed' world, profiting immensely from 'alien' technology they managed to acquire from the visitor from far away, who happened to pass through our solar system. Snagging that alien vessel and its mummified occupant was an excellent motivation to launch a serious space-enterprise. Seems to me like we need something like that.

Either that or, of course, technology that makes it 'easy' to go up there and explore. Because right now the ratio of return over investment is so much smaller than unity that nobody'll want to look at it seriously. Meaning we'd have to rely on wealthy idealists. Not a reliable base on which to build one's hopes for the preservation of the species.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Avatar, Iraq and the Demise of the Value of Imagination

I'm sure there are many reasons why Avatar didn't win best film at the Oscars, being beaten by The Hurt Locker. Many of them have nothing to do with the value of the film(s) involved; and anyway, 'value' is pretty much in the eye of the valuer. And, yes, it is quite possible that in many ways it is a better and more worthy film than Avatar. I don't know; I haven't see it yet, and so I'm not judging it. But I'm not actually interested in the films' relative merits, but more in some other reasons, some of which have nothing to do with 'merit', that will also have been in play—and one in particular.

Some of the reasons were no doubt political and had to do with the current fashion in popular issues. Right now, politics and political ideology definitely trumps currently-less-sexy issues like the rights of indigenous peoples. Fashions come and fashions go, and right now 'international law' is a much more powerful buzzphrase than, say, 'right to a way of life'. And Iraq, where The Hurt Locker story is located, is prime territory for political jacking-off. The irony, by the way, is that, as I predict with some confidence, in the future, when historians look back at this period in time—if there is still a human civilization with historians who know about this period—they will probably note that, in terms of its effect on human history, the war in Iraq was far more important for the continuance of civilization than that in Afghanistan.

Other reasons for Avatar being given a less-than-flattering treatment by 'The Academy'—which, by the way, is a handy way for the members of said 'Academy' to absolve themselves from personal responsibility for their choices—include the fact that it was been the highest-grossing movie in cinema history. That alone disqualifies it from consideration. What the masses flock to in such droves surely must be inferior; this has always been the reasoning of the arty elite. The story surely has to be simplistic, so they actually 'get' it, because the masses have no taste and can't handle profound or deep stories.

Well, as I may have mentioned, I'm inclined to agree with the dim assessment of the capabilities of the vast body of humanity. But I disagree with the notion that 'profundity' is found where the intellectualigentsia thinks it's found. They think it's in the mind, when in truth it's in the heart. And, yes, I know, that view isn't exactly fashionable. Which brings me to the next, 'other' and main reason why Avatar didn't win the Oscar for best picture: it was sci-fi/fantasy.

To the best of my knowledge, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was the only movie in those genres that ever won an Oscar for best picture. And I'm certain—other universe, I know—that, if the trilogy hadn't been based on what's considered, rightly or not, one of the great works of literature, nothing Peter Jackson could have done would have gotten that Oscar.

Which brings me to the main topic of this blog. Sorry for the long intro.

Science fiction and fantasy are, of course, nothing but the most obvious of modern day incarnations of fairy tales. These in turn—while having certain social, political, satirical, cautionary, educational and demagogical components—are, by and large, stories of the imagination. They were the stories told to what might well be called 'simple' people—and children, of course. Which probably means that the likes of me, who love fairy tales are simple and childish. Well, so be it.

Many people—actually 'most', or so one would have thought until Avatar—just can't relate to sci-fi/fantasy/fairy-tales simply because, as they will tell you in various direct and oblique ways, "they can't really happen". Now, I don't know if you noticed, but young children, until they're brainwashed by well-meaning adults or life in general to think otherwise, don't actually care about that. But it appears that adults do—or at least the adults littering the societies of the West today.

Or is this true? Well, actually it isn't. Most people believe that religious texts, which are almost all patently fairy-tale, allegory and myth, are 'true'. But it appears that these kinds of tales have some special status, which they do because people believe in God and gods and all sorts of things that surely are, at best, highly speculative.

So what have we got here: People who will, usually dull-wittedly, accept religious fantasy—or the equally fantastic cosmology and metaphysics of the Brights for that matter!—but at the same time dismiss 'fantasy' stories that don't lay any claim to being real as somehow inferior and less relevant to life, or whatever they want them to be relevant to, than stories with content that "could actually happen". Am I really a member of a truly tiny minority who think that this is quite bizarre? ('Truly tiny', because I don't hear/read many others—well, none actually that I can recall offhand—talking/writing about it.)

Children do not look at things that way. I know this, because I have been a child and remember at least that much of it—possibly because there's such a lot of it left, too—and because I have children, and I have watched them closely for that aspect of their mental development. I have come to the conclusion that—unless there's a clear pathology of some sort, but it has to be serious and disabling—one of the worst crimes a parent can commit is to interfere in a child's relationship with the stories they are exposed to. Or, for that matter, to allow others to do so in your stead; which means of course, that one ends up battling our brain-washing educational systems, an army of basically arrogant bureaucrats and apparently well-intentioned teachers, and the damage they wreak on children's mental development; a process that nowadays extends, in places like Australia, from before the age of 5 to about 18!

Children should be allowed to figure out 'stuff' on their own. Teaching children 'critical thinking' should not consist of telling them what they should think critically about and how, but merely that they should use their intelligence, powers of observation, deduction, analysis, intuition—about themselves, the world and especially what people tell them!—to build up an image of the world that enables them to survive in it and to lead lives which they may actually find to have meaning, purpose and that kind of thing. Because, believe it or not, but all those things ( intelligence, powers of observation, deduction, analysis, intuition, etc) are actually intrinsic and require no 'educational' input. Education can provide tools, because the raw faculties need to be trained and provided with a framework of knowledge to make them work more effectively. But that knowledge itself must be allowed to be subject to critical inspection itself. That is the essence of what a proper education should be like.

Parental duty consists of educating by example and making available the facilities that will help children to develop their faculties. The education system, on the other hand, should be a mere servant in 'facility provision'. But that's in an ideal world, and it isn't ever going to become real, is it?

I've digressed, but that's nothing unusual. What I really wanted to point out is that we are living in a world where adults become progressively more conditioned not to relate to stories in the same way as they might have been able to as children. I don't know if it's overstating the case, but it seem sfairly obvious to me that stories about "things that could happen" are inherently less imaginative and less imagination-stimulating than stories about things that can't. And I, for one, think that adults whose imaginative capabilities are so stunted that they've come to that point should be considered...well, 'impoverished'. They don't know it, of course, and they never will.

Maybe all this amounts to a 'progressive' development, and certainly Richard Dawkins, in his Andrew Denton interview took such a position, and appeared to support progressive removal of all fairy-tale like stories from our cultures, because he considered them to be "lies" (sic). Needless to say, I find the fact that anybody, even a Bright like Dawkins, should entertain such thoughts, nauseating, abhorrent and quite frightening.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Faith is the Opposite of Evidence

Seriously, would you trust someone who uttered these words with anything else he might be saying about life, the universe and everything? Especially if you knew that he isn't just some unknown challenged-'thinker', but someone who has had extensive experience—and, dare I say this, earned a lot of money from it—of convincing people in talks, symposiums, interviews and books, that 1+1=3.

Before you say "Huh? WTF?", here's what's wrong with that statement: it's a classic example of someone committing what's known as a 'category mistake'. That's because 'faith' is a property, or manner of operation, of the human mind; while 'evidence' describes a wide range of processes or objects that are used by the human mind, but not of the psyche itself, to establish the truth or falsehood of some proposition or set of propositions about...well, whatever.

Category mistakes are common and usually forgiveable. But a statement like the one in the title of this blog, by someone like this guy... Well, just let me say that I would have been terminally embarrassed if someone had caught me out with a doozie like that. Statements preceding the one above included the assertion that (I paraphrase, but accurately) "knowledge cannot be gained through faith but only through evidence". There's so much wrong with that statement alone that it would warrant a 1000+ word rebuttal. Suffice to say here that a) the speaker obviously has no concept of what, if anything, is 'knowledge'; b) is even less aware that it is not evidence but our faith in our interpretation of the significance of said evidence and the validity of the paradigms we're using to perform the interpretation that leads to anything that might qualify as 'knowledge'; and c) utterly fails to comprehend the scope of the 'knowledge' he's talking about.

Such philosophical naïveté is forgiveable and indeed to be expected in John Doe, but not in one of the paragons of todays thinker-dom and one whom the ABC currently—in a tediously recurring sound-bite replay of a well-known interviewer's introduction—touts as "...the world's best-known natural scientist."

And, yes, we are of course talking about that founding member of the Brights Movement, paladin of atheism and reason—yeah, whatever—Richard Dawkins.

BTW, the Brights Movement's goals are the following:
  1. Promote public understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements.
  2. Gain public recognition that persons who hold such a worldview can bring principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance.
  3. Educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such people.
In other words—once you read between the cautious phrasing of their goals, which sound like something the Church of Scientology could have come up with in their public statements about their purpose and goals—it consists of a bunch of intellectual elitists, who think they know everything, but are dumb enough not to realize that they are just another religion, with all the humbug paraphernalia that go with it. Trying to educate the stupid religious masses into understanding that they are right—without a clue as to what they think they're 'right' about—and know better than the stupid plebs. Well, I am the first to admit that I agree the plebs is indeed not very bright—and I'm being polite—but at least they, by and large, dont' live under the delusion that they are. At least the plebs go in for religion en masse and they know and admit it. The Dims—my cheap shot at a pun on the Brights—don't even know that they're pretty dim, despite all their cleverness.

And if you have any doubt about their religious inclinations, just consider their faith's logo:

They should have been more careful choosing their designer, because that looks for all the world like a variation on the theme of "The sun shines out of my ass."

In another BTW—and just to preempt any plaints or accusations that I, too, have no notion of what that thing we term 'knowledge' can actually be said to 'be'—here's my two cents.

I view science much the same way as I do religion, and everything else we can say to 'think' or 'know', which is as a collection of narratives; in the case of science about the 'natural world'. Part of that narrative is that there's nothing but the 'natural' world covered by scientific narrative. Note how that sounds almost biblical. "You shall have no other God besides me", and all that kind of stuff. The narrative's validity is supported only be the faith of those who subscribe to it, as well as what's often called a 'body of knowledge', which is just a phrase to describe the collection of 'evidence' available to support the predictive capability of the scientific narrative. Saying that we 'know' means that we can use the logic of the scientific narrative and its language to make accurate predictions about what's going to happen in the natural world. This body of knowledge or evidence becomes a part of the narrative itself, and its continued descriptive and predictive success is what we call 'proof'. It's not actually anything 'real', of course, and it has no existence in itself, but is just a collection of narrative snippets.

But just what exactly is covered by 'natural world' is another component of the scientific narrative, as well as most others concerned with answering existential questions. Those who subscribe to it have confined themselves to addressing certain phenomena, which are declared to be 'real, and everything else therefore cannot be real, according to the narrative. If there is any 'evidence' that cannot be successfully incorporated into the narrative, it will be converted into evidence for something that can. This is accomplished through yet other narratives, which qualify as 'explanations' and sometimes 'debunking'.

I, too, subscribe to a significant portion of the scientific narrative, but I also know its limitations. That may be because I tell stories...consciously so; while the overwhelming majority of people, who also tell stories all the time because that's the essence of 'thought', have no idea that that's what they are doing. It's a somewhat odd kind of existence when you look at the world that way, because you start seeing all these interwoven narratives of all the people around you, close or distant; and it's like looking at this swirl of loops of energy in endless motion—and they all have in common that neither is completely 'right', not even in their most basic and primitive assumptions about their lives, their selves and the other selves they share the world with. And the 'science' narrative, by virtue of its self-imposed limitations—which, by the way, are also a part of its strength and a major reason for its success—has excluded much that is essential to what you might call a 'complete' understanding of what 'is'. Personally, I think that it would actually gain strength if it only extended itself far enough to allow itself to admit that this is so.

Not that I'm holding my breath. Indeed, it may not be possible to extend the narrative much beyond its current limits, while at the same time retaining its predictive potency. And so, the Richard Dawkinses of the world will continue to befuddle one subest of the plebs, while the rest muddles along in another version of religiosity.