17 February 2015

Meta-adaptation as a categorical imperative

Having read some stuff recently on evolutionary biology and human nature (Edward O. Wilson, for example), I'm more convinced than ever that humanity really is just at the point where a critical binary decision point is upon us. Either we adapt to our own (in-progress) technological adaptation (sort of meta-adaptation), and learn to control it, so that it permits our continued existence as a planetary species in a stable, life-sustaining environment, or we spiral downward into extinction. It's the existential imperative of sophont life forms everywhere they may exist in the Universe. Everything else, including the unchecked aggression that could prevent the level of intraspecific cooperation necessary to achieve such meta-adaptation, is subsumed within this imperative.

16 February 2015

Bionic biofuels and molecular synthesis from sunlight: implications for the big picture

There's an article in Scientific American about how "bionic" systems are going to be better than plants at producing biofuels and other useful molecules using the energy of sunlight. I think this is a milestone, and extremely interesting. It's inevitable, I would argue, that as human understanding of chemistry and energetics increases, the time must come when artificial systems outperform natural ones at the particular purpose for which they are designed (since, after all, evolution results in adaptation to natural environments, not particular human purposes). There is no reason at all to be resistant to this kind of technology. In the future, the extent to which we are able to consciously and deliberately minimize our adverse impact on the Earth's natural environments will be precisely the extent to which those environments are able to continue to exist.

Human "interference" with nature cannot be avoided. If one group of people altruistically control their behavior in this regard, another will not. The only option is to understand nature fully, serve human purposes in such a way as to avoid destruction of natural environments, and thereby create positive synergy. The alternative is the opposite: downward spiral and extinction.

13 February 2015

Ron Dermer should be asked to leave the US

Said before and I'll say it again, short of actually declaring him persona non grata, the Administration should inform the Israeli government that Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador, has become someone with whom the US government can no longer work productively, and if they want to maintain cordial and more-than-cordial relations with our country, they should withdraw him tout de suite and appoint someone else. Dermer has shown himself all too willing to act as virtually a Republican operative, which it TOTALLY inappropriate for a diplomat.

Fact is, Netanyahu himself is acting as virtually a Republican operative, but this is how it works. The Ambassador is the surrogate for the head of state. If the head of state does something that crosses the line, it's the Ambassador who is expelled. In this case, the ambassador is also acting totally out of line, but the more nuanced response would be to say, "Look, we've noticed. So pull him out and cut it out. Or things will get worse for you, not better." This is the kind of message that bullies like Netanyahu understand.

11 February 2015

"Geo-engineering" to address climate change ?

See this

I agree, in general, that poorly thought out "geo-engineering" is a bad idea, but I have come to believe that the time to PREVENT climate change is probably already past, and serious, risky, probably even desperate MITIGATION measures (which will inevitably include this kind of 'geo-engineering') will probably be necessary. And if such efforts are possible, and the situation gets as bad as it likely will, someone in the World will do them, whether the big Liberal Democracies do it or not. Just the facts, ma'm.

That being the case, we had better make sure the science is there, and sound, so I actually think that research into what may work and what definitely doesn't should not be suppressed, but encouraged. What's important is to UNDERSTAND the possible dangers, as well as the possible benefits, and figure out how to control for them, now, while there's still time to do carefully limited and controlled experiments.

09 February 2015

Turning CO-2 into rock?

Count me among the severe skeptics of "carbon sequestration," which I believe is, for the most part, a fraud perpetrated by a fossil fuel industry desperate to pull the wool over the public's eyes on the effects of their pollution. But we have to look at every possible solution, and mitigation, to the world's climate crisis. Including researching the possibility of extracting greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and processing it into the Earth. After all, this IS how the Earth itself maintains an isostasy of CO2 long term in the atmosphere, so there is no reason, in principle, that intentional artificial processes can't have the same effect.

See this.  

Artificial Intelligence the current greatest existential threat to humanity? (!)


I'm in the camp of the ostriches on this one (somewhat), because I disbelieve, for philosophical reasons, in artificial consciousness, and because I tend to think that people will have enough instinct for self-preservation to avoid giving real power and control over human life to machines. (Note an important distinction between artificial intelligence, which can be mindless algorithm, and
artificial consciousness. And I admit I may be very, very wrong). Anyway, these are the big quotes from the piece.

Bill Gates:

“I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence,” Gates wrote. “First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”

Here’s what Elon Musk had to say:

"I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess like what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful with the artificial intelligence. Increasingly scientists think there should be some regulatory oversight maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out."

07 February 2015

What to do about corrupt special interest influence in government

I posted this as a comment on Facebook (slightly edited), but it represents my long-held opinion. I think this problem is so pervasive, and so destructive, that only a "root and branch" approach has any possibility of working:

I concluded long ago that not only do we need public financing of (short) political campaigns, but it should be illegal to take any good or service from anyone for any reason while campaigning or in public office, with severe penalties. If you can't live with that, don't run for office. (OK, there would have to be exceptions for presents from immediate family members... but that's it). And any quid pro quo that shows up after the official leaves office (such as job offers from regulated industries, lobbying jobs, etc.), also should be illegal. Officials should learn to err on the side of caution, lest they spend a few years eating prison fare. Unenforceable? I think not... it's no worse than, in fact in many ways similar to, laws against insider trading, which don't work perfectly but which do work to some degree to "keep 'em honest."

20 January 2015

Low Sat Fat Myth

Interesting article in WaMo about how the govamint has bought into a "low saturated fat" diet myth. Here.

Climate Change as a test of civilization's surivability

Some may have seen the interesting article by Adam Frank in the Sunday NYT, Is Climate Disaster Inevitable?
The article is more about the astrobiology of civilizations than Climate Change on Earth, but it asks the question how likely is it for a planetary civilization to 'break through' to real sustainability?   
And he posits that the relative degree of unlikelihood of that process' succeeding may account for the Fermi Paradox. If not familiar with the idea of the Fermi Paradox, may I gratuitously recommend my own essays on the subject, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The gist is that the Galaxy (and, for that matter all galaxies, since they're all about the same age) have existed for nearly as long as the universe itself, and have evolved slowly, such that the universe has everywhere been more or less as it is now for at least a few billion years. So in all the Galaxy, if civilizations are common, all, or surely nearly all, that exist right now must be older than ours, unless we are the only one (which is possible). And if you imagine that in 10,000 years time we might figure out how to send robots or ourselves to visit the nearest, say, 50 star systems.... the math comes out that if there are more than a tiny number of civilizations, and each one exists for at least 50,000 years (very roughly), then every single star in the Galaxy, including the Sun, would have been visited by an alien civilization by now. (If you doubt this, e-mail me and I'll explain the numbers). And since that doesn't appear to be the case here, Fermi's famous question in 1950 was «Where are they? » Good question.   
Tim Ferris in a 15 year old documentary called "Life Beyond Planet Earth" said it was false logic; it was like wondering why a lobster doesn't come to the door and climb up onto your plate. But I think that's a false analogy. Civilizations will, by biological imperative, seek to discover new potential habitats for life. Any that survive and have the capacity to develop technology will develop space travel, at least to some level. It is a real and serious issue, to answer why, if the supposition that life, and in particular intelligent life, is common, then why is not evident? (Other than here, of course, and jokes about no intelligent life on Earth are a bit old, thank you).

It took life to go from origin to complex, multicellular forms nearly 3¼ billion years on Earth, then another 600 million before intelligent life arose. There is no reason to believe that the emergence of intelligent life was inevitable in that time. (Cf. Stephen Jay Gould, and his speculation that if you re-ran the "tape," there would likely be no intelligent life a second time around). With an example of one, we can't know whether this was typical, remarkable in that intelligent life emerged quickly (or at all), or that Earth was a bit retarded (in comparison to the rapid emergence of intelligence on average). Statistically meaningful estimates could be made if we had even two examples. But with only one, as with the likelihood of life originating at all given the availability of certain requisites, we really can't say anything meaningful. All we have is our intuition that life should be common in so vast a universe; and if we can have arisen in the only known example of a living world (Earth), why not elsewhere? Why not, indeed. But the Fermi phenomenon is an important data point. We know, whether we like to admit it or not, that the "Star Trek" universe, where the Galaxy is teeming with advanced civilizations zipping to and fro, visiting and colonizing hundreds of planets, and inexorably expanding in space... almost certainly does not exist in our Galaxy, and probably does not exist anywhere.   
But the Fermi paradox can be quite easily explained by the supposition that life requires some rather rare (not exceedingly rare, just rather rare) conditions, and that intelligent civilizations are really quite rare, such as only one or two... or ten... but not 100... existent in a galaxy like ours at at any given time during the current epoch (say ± 2 billion years). And that only some fraction, say 1/10 of them, survive long term, such as over 10,000 years. With those kinds of numbers, if they're anything like reality, it is not at all surprising, in fact is exactly what would be expected, that we see no evidence that the Earth has ever been visited by extraterrestrials, and we see no vast Galactic network of communicating civilizations.

Which is not to say that tomorrow, we will not find a signal or some evidence that others are out there somewhere. 
And if sustainability is perhaps an unlikely achievement, for any given form of intelligent life, we must take it as our challenge. To become one of the ones that succeeds.

End profiteering in health and education now... Defense next?

I am not opposed to private property and industry as an organizing principle of the economy as a whole, but there are two large areas of American life where, I would argue, there should be no place for profit-oriented organizations. 1). Health care, including health insurance. What we have today is more an "illness profit industry" than a health care industry. 2). Education, including higher education and vocational training. Ditto, mutatis mutandis.

Ultimately, the profit motive in these endeavors creates an inherent conflict of interest, which makes the effective accomplishment of the obvious goals impossible. I'm not saying no private organizations. Private non-profits can work well. But no for-profit corporations.
And the first order of business would be to end the obscenity of the government making a profit from student loans.

And then we can think about mandating that the defense industry be non-profit, to remove that obvious and ongoing conflict of interest, that has very nearly wrecked our constitutional system of government already.

19 January 2015

We need Municipal Broadband NOW and then....

I just called AT&T to ask them what the best available "broadband" speed they offered at my address, which is located in a densely populated close-in suburb of Los Angeles, America's second largest city. The best speed they offer is 6 MB/sec. on DSL. There's no fiber optic and no HD television available. Verizon FIOS is not available either (thanks to the vestiges of past telecom monopolies). And thanks to corporate lobbying, the City and State have failed to provide any municipal broadband option. The alternative, which is cable, is supposed to be 50 MB/sec. but my actual measured speed is more like 17 MB/sec. This compares to 1 Gigabyte/sec. routinely available in Cedar Falls, IA where Obama gave a speech recently in favor of removing barriers to municipal broadband. (Similar speed is available in Chattanooga, TN, which also pioneered a municipal system, and, for businesses, in Santa Monica, CA). This speed is also routinely available in France, South Korea, and Japan.

America "invented" the internet, but we're falling behind the rest of the world in internet infrastructure, and the reason is that the short term profit model of for-profit media companies does not achieve the necessary infrastructure investment. Public internet infrastructure must be introduced to create the necessary competition to force the whole system to advance... just as happened in the past with electrification, natural gas supplies, and even to a degree radio and television (which aren't entirely comparable because there's no "last mile" infrastructure that has to be built).

I urge everyone to demand that your local municipality work to create municipal broadband, and if your state (like California, in part) has impediments to it, demand that they be lifted.

And then, once that's achieved, maybe the USA could regain the initiative and commit to building a worldwide satellite based secure worldwide network... that would bring true secure interconnectivity to the entire world. The technology to do this is already understood; there is simply a lack of willingness to make the investment. Time was the US would make such investments as a matter of course, but no more. If we really care about regaining and maintaining our role as a world technology leader, this would be just the sort of thing that would do it. 

15 January 2015

Pope Gets One Wrong

I've been pretty complimentary to Pope Francis lately, but here, he is showing a deep misunderstanding (or at least failing to express an understanding) of the difference between what may be good manners and what is the proper province of law. (From TPM).
«... Francis spoke about the Paris terror attacks while en route to the Philippines, defending free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one's mind for the sake of the common good.
But he said there were limits.
By way of example, he referred to Alberto Gasparri, who organizes papal trips and was standing by his side aboard the papal plane.
"If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch," Francis said, throwing a pretend punch his way. "It's normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others."

If he'd said, "it is wrong to make fun of the faith of others," that would be one thing. But we have learned through long and bitter struggle over centuries that the only reasonable limitation on freedom of expression is where it crosses the line into direct incitement to violence or deliberate creation of panic. Truly, the right of free expression IS THE RIGHT TO OFFEND, and it is a keystone of real civilization.

13 January 2015

Francis Fukuyama right this time: our government is not sufficient

Historian and Toynbee wannabe Francis Fukuyama made a bit of a fool of himself in the 90s with his "End of History" meme, but this time, in arguing that our occluded government has become not TOO powerful, but not powerful enough, I believe he is right on.


Where is Progressive unity on REAL Social Security Reform?

With the Republicans trying their damndest to gin up a totally phony Social Security funding crisis, there is real fear that Obama and some Democrats in Congress will not be there to defend the Program's integrity. WHERE, I ask, is the simple and sensible Progressive proposal to increase the FICA ceiling, in order to fund the Disability portion of Social Security well into the next generation by increasing revenue, sourced entirely from higher income Americans, rather than cutting benefits?

WHY is this not a major policy agenda of the Senate and House Democrats and the Administration? Then, at least, the American people could compare simple, straightforward proposals of the two parties side by side. And, if presented in such a straightforward manner, I will venture to say that way over half the people will support the Democratic position. 

This, then, could set the stage, for when we next have control of the Legislature, to EXPAND, rather than contract, Social Security, something that polling shows a majority of Americans support. 

12 January 2015

Republicans as servants of the Oligarchy

I admit I sometimes conflate "Republicans" with Republican politicians," which is probably unfair and lazy. I certainly agree that we need to get past "us vs. them" and focus on what unites us as Americans. But it is an undeniable fact that while at least some Democrats in Congress, and certainly pres. Obama, have bent over backwards to try to find accommodations with the GOP, Republicans in Congress have been almost completely obstructionist, and by and large have been nearly of one voice in supporting the oligarchic agenda of their Wall Street paymasters. Not all Dems are much better, but it's high time the interests of the people, and not just the very wealthy few, were the watchwords for our representatives. 

It's also undeniable that once upon a time there was a great overlap between the most rightward Democrats in Congress and the more liberal among the Republicans. Even in the Reagan Era you had maybe the most liberal 1/4 Dems, the most conservative 1/4 Republican, and the 1/2 in the middle a mixture. This had some drawbacks, but at least coalitions could be formed and worthwhile actions taken. Unless you adhre to the atavistic notion that government is unnecessary and incapable of doing anything worthwhile at all, you have to deplore the current state where the most conservative Democrat is to the left of the most liberal Republican, and both camps are in implacable opposition so that almost nothing gets done for the people.

10 January 2015

Wake Up Call for Democrats

I think it's time Democrats woke up and realized fully a fundamental political truth in this country. And that is that the demographics of the House, and to a lesser extent the Senate, are likely to make the presidential race in 2016 all but irrelevant. Clinton, or Warren, or whoever ends up running, may well get elected, but she (or he) will be unable to govern in the FDR or Johnson-in-1964 manner, with real policy progress, because there is almost no way we can win back the House (and possibly not even the Senate), without the most massive popular movement and organization in more than a generation. And every day that goes by that this isn't happening means that Democratic policies are less likely to become national policy any time soon. Where is the leadership? Where are the street demonstrations for economic justice, endorsed and even joined in by Democratic pols? Where, even, is the clear and coherent Progressive platform, that declares once and for all that the era of coddling Wall Street and being no better than Republican lite, is OVER?

08 January 2015

Nous sommes tous Charlie Hebdo

The targeted assassination in Paris yesterday by Jihadist Fundamentalists of journalists and, in particular, political cartoonists, has of course shocked the World. While it is important to remember that for all its awfulness and terrible symbolism, this kind of terrorism is not an existential threat to Western societies, and should not be overreacted to in the way that the US, it is now clear, overreacted to 9/11. 

Having said that, there is a serious issue here. We wink and nod at Saudi Arabia, because of its huge oil reserves, despite the fact that it is a nation that fosters and harbors violent fundamentalists, arising from its foundation in the extremist Wahabi cult. We falsely compare the violence of these terrorists to Fundamentalists of other religions, when, in fact, while some Bible Thumpers in the US may literally believe in the Bible, for the most part they do not raid the homes of people who disagree with them, and drag out and stone their non-virginal daughters. 

The fact is that radical Islamist cults are fostered and harbored by Muslim communities both in the Middle East and in Europe (less in the USA). Islam never underwent a Reformation, and consequently, Muslim cultures are, it is a simple fact, far more misogynist and repressive than Western societies. But if so-called moderate Muslims, as people like Reza Aslan are always telling us are the majority, seriously want to be treated with respect and not be lumped together with the violent intolerance of people like these assassins, they need to do more than wring their hands. They need to make clear, in their mosques, in their newspapers and media, in the actions of their supposedly moderate governments, that these people will not be tolerated. That when someone's relative is making bombs and attending meetings of extremist cells... and you can't tell me people in these communities don't often know that this is going on... they must report it just as they would report anyone contemplating murder. And the sad truth is, out of misplaced loyalty to their supposed co-religionists, there is all too much looking the other way.

There will be a reaction to this awful terrorism. Marie LePen's Nationalist party will benefit. French people will tend to regard even ordinary Muslims with suspicion. This is just the way it is. And if moderate Muslims, who want to live in peace as part of a pluralistic society, want to avoid being tarred with the same brush as is applied to the Jihadists, they must stand against them, clearly and forthrightly, and declare their support for freedom of expression, even when it is directed against their sacred cows. Muslim societies must eradicate this violent intolerance root and branch, or it will parasitize their entire culture and destroy them.

Every time a Jihadist steals the life of someone for the "crime" of disagreeing with their Medieval attitude towards faith and freedom, the violence is confined in space and time, but the response, the "meme" of revulsion and such acts, grows and spreads. 12 are killed, and a few Jihadist extremists celebrate, but 10,000 gather in the Place de la Republique and chant "Je suis Charlie," and the world condemns the terrorists. In the long run, the reality is that they weaken their religion; people inevitably negatively associate their professed religion with them and their evil acts. Rather than avenging their "prophet," they are besmirching his name and lessening his influence in the future.

04 January 2015

Musing on the Ultimate

I think the pendulum that, early in the 20th cent. led to Social Darwinism (summed up in the idiotic phrase "might makes right"), had swung so far in the direction of man's animal nature, may now be well into its swing back to the concept that the evolution of the symbolic processing mind of human beings really is "so like an angel," i.e., qualitatively different from the minds even of our close relatives, such as chimps and bonobos. Precisely because we can make the unlimited mental chains and networks of concept, idea, image, emotion... and escape the bonds of the merely biologically imperative. 

We are the Earth's great experiment. Either we will survive our troubled youth and become Old Ones, who dwell among the stars and foster life and love far and wide, or we will surely die out, dust on the husk of our formerly living world (because we now know that life has perhaps 500 million years or so to go before the Earth exits stage hot). It's up to us, and we may very well be living in the cusp time when the future will be decided.

01 January 2015

New Year's Resolutions

What are New Year's Resolutions if not glimmers from the depths of our own minds of the need for mindfulness? For a little reality check? For a chance to develop some good habits to supplant some of our bad ones? For, after all, mindfulness is nothing other than examination of our own minds. The unexamined life not worth living and all that. I've never been much for resolutions, but here goes, anyway. I resolve to keep it simple. I have been fortunate enough to have received some mind training from Buddhist teachers (most of which, I'm sorry to say, failed to 'take'), but I really believe that these simple ideas are true, irrespective of what spiritual tradition or lack thereof they may bubble up from. These are resolutions for people like me; ordinary people whose minds are conflicted and agitated most of the time, but who have a desire, and some means to hand, to do a little something about it. I realized some time ago that I'm not quite cut out to be a Spiritual Warrior, which is what Buddhism is really all about, but as an ordinary person who wants to be happy, like all living beings, I recognize that there are some simple techniques that help.


1.  I will resolve to, at least once each day, intentionally practice mindfulness for a brief period. Something as simple as calming the mind and focusing the attention on the breath. Being aware of the present moment, even for just a few moments, has a very strong positive effect on your mental outlook all the rest of the time. Whether you call this meditation or not, that's what it is, and countless generations of human beings have found that it works best sitting upright, without distractions such as noise or activity around you, to whatever extent possible. Eyes closed or slightly open. 10 minutes is enough to make a difference.

2.  I will resolve to spend each day at least a few moments deliberately and consciously practicing what Buddhists call the Four Sublime Virtues, or "immeasurables" (Brahma-Viharas), with specific reference to other people in my life, or just in general. (Again, this is hardly unique to Buddhism; it's just common sense, and something very like it is taught in all significant spiritual traditions). If you form a habit of thinking of others with these as templates, your attitudes will change. These "immeasurables" are: Lovingkindness (Maitri). (Think how you wish for another or others to be happy). Compassion (Karuna) (Think how you wish that the causes of suffering in others will stop). Those two are directed towards the present moment and actions affecting the future. The other two are directed towards what has led to the present moment: Empathetic Joy (Mudita). Give your mind a tiny push (that's what's referred to as "Free Will")-- to feel joy at another's or others' happiness, and their achievements. It is actually possible to induce joy in your mind, just by deciding to do it. The last is Equanimity (Upeksha) This one is a little more subtle. You realize that your own mind cannot govern the whole world; others will have their happiness and suffering (according to their own karma, if you prefer to think of it that way), but you can maintain an outlook encompassing kindness and compassion, and remain unperturbed. There is no value in mental agitation, grasping, obsessiveness, regret, etc. These mental states cause suffering, in yourself and others. Keep a calm and happy mind. Forming the intention to do this helps make it so; and when you are calm, others are likely to pick up on that and also be calmer and happier. Try to extend mindfulness to the point where before you speak or act, these "immeasurable" habits of mind inform what you say or do. I've been lousy at this, but it can work: you just stop for a fraction of a second before you say that mean thing, and say something else or nothing. You examine, just for a moment, your motives before taking actions, and try to let the immeasurables in. It can become a habit.

3.  I resolve to spend at least a few moments each day intentionally cultivating wisdom. When you look out over the surface of the sea with the sun low in the sky, and see a complicated pattern of reflected light, you have the certain knowledge that the patterns are no more than just that: they are not intrinsic to the water; soon they will be as nothing. Wisdom comes from realizing that on different scales and in different media, all reality is like that: it is just the play of pattern, and our experience of it is not inherently real, it is merely the motions of our mind. Our lives, and even things like the form of the mountains we see out our window, are just shifting and impermanent patterns in the vast energies of which all reality consists; they have no intrinsic reality, and nothing is permanent. Even our perception that we are the same person we were yesterday is mostly illusory. This pattern of mental awareness is the first glimmer of realization of Emptiness, in its simplest approximation, and it helps us to let go of our self-importance. Even on this simplest level, realizing this, and absorbing its truth, will make it easier to live a life that causes less suffering in yourself and others, and comes a little closer to the spiritual ideal we all would prefer for ourselves and others.

So that's it, and Happy New Year one and all.

28 December 2014

Space Opera, with some restrictions

When younger I was a major fan of Space Opera type science fiction. Jack Vance (died in 2014) was my favorite in this genre, but I read Asimov (of course), Niven, Clarke, Heinlein, Herbert, Fred Pohl, even somewhat lesser (IMO) lights like Poul Anderson, Fred Saberhagen (who, like Vance, also wrote "Fantasy"), Greg Bear, David Brin, and Greg Benford (the latter still writing). To name a few. I really liked, more recently, Iain Banks, who also died in 2014, at 60, of ravaging cancer. Banks also wrote middling-interest mainstream novels, and was part of a little school of Scottish writers, including Charles Stross and Ken McLeod, although, in my estimation, he was far and away the best of them. George RR Martin, Ursula Leguin, Anne McCaffrey, C. J. Cherryh... well, not so much. For the most part, this kind of fiction requires you to suspend incredulousness a bit... most call for adopting the view that FTL (Faster than Light travel) will be possible, or at least that you have to assume its possibility for purposes of the story.

I admire the kind of Science Fiction that makes no assumptions about reality that don't make physical sense (for reasons I've tried to explain on here, FTL does NOT make physical sense; search for "FTL."). Benford, for example, as tried to write in this vein, and there was some fiction in the "golden age" that stuck to those kinds of strictures. But, in truth, science fiction without galaxy spanning spaceships tends to be a little dull, especially since the genre as a whole has always been a little weak in the vivid character and compelling dramatic situation department.

But I admit there is always a nagging annoyance in the back of my mind. For reasons I've also tried to explore on the Gyromantic, if some version of the "Star Trek" or "Star Wars" universes were real, or really possible, it is highly unlikely that we, here on Planet Earth, would have remained unmolested by galactic visitors for lo these billions of years. Which every indication is that our planet has been. Unmolested, that is. There is no evidence at all, still less credible evidence, that the Earth has ever been visited by extraterrestrials. (It isn't impossible, but there is no evidence for it).

So fiction where there are dozens or hundreds of spacefaring civilizations invading, trading, colonizing, etc. all over the Galaxy is actually totally preposterous, even if it is entertaining. Let me be clear on this point. The Galaxy is big, but not Vast, in the sense of the Vastness of Borges's Great Library. There are billions of worlds. Maybe even billions of life bearing worlds. But if you had the ability to travel arbitrarily faster than light, and a desire to explore, a civilization would take no more than a few hundred thousand, at most a few million, years to visit every single star in the Galaxy. And the same would be true of every other Galaxy in the universe, which are all roughly the same age, over ten billion years old. So the notion that for some appreciable fraction of the last few hundred million years, during which the universe has, by and large, looked much the same as it does now, there have been Galaxy Spanning supercivilizations arising, warring with one another, trading with one another, exploring, searching for suitable stars for colonizing, etc.... is just not plausible. (Not to mention that if you really think about it it makes no economic or any other kind of sense to go around searching for planets to live on... if you had that kind of technology you could just use resources to construct habitats in space, as many science fiction writers, notably Banks and Niven, have explored in considerable detail).

But the reality that the universe if most likely full of life, that other worlds do in fact exist and most likely intelligent life as well, even if very far away, remains speculative (except for the other worlds part, which is now fact), but the whole picture seems more and more likely as time goes on. So there really is a fantastic reality which may eventually be the stage for the next chapters of human history, including, very possibly, the story of contact with other intelligent beings.

So that's the real challenge for science fiction: to tell stories set in a plausible universe, where strange and wonderful things that actually are, or at least could conceivably be, possible,  occur. Writers may posit new physics and strange structures to the universe to make seemingly miraculous things happen, but, to satisfy this niggling objection of mine, they need to somehow account for what is: namely we live on a world where there has been no space visitation (that we know of) for billions of years, and when we look out into the Great Dark, we see no evidence of others or their constructions. Where are they? And how might they exist and yet so far have left no sign?

I would like to try my hand at a story line that attempts to plot a course through this narrow strait, and still tell a story of wonders, including civilizations who have also arisen in this vast universe, and with whom now unknown means may be found to make contact, for better or worse.

25 December 2014

Dennett addresses fundamentalists of all stripes

Perhaps not the most Christmasy message I could come up with, but I just finished Daniel Dennett's now over 20 year old book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, and I was struck by this really quite eloquent quote, the second half of which is actually addressed to fundamentalists of whatever kind:

“We should not expect … respect to be satisfactory to those who wholeheartedly embody the memes we honor with our attentive — but not worshipful — scholarship. On the contrary, many of them will view anything other than enthusiastic conversion to their own views as a threat, even an intolerable threat. We must not underestimate the suffering such confrontations cause. To watch, to have to participate in, the contraction or evaporation of beloved features of one’s heritage is a pain only our species can experience, and surely few pains could be more terrible. But we have no reasonable alternative, and those whose vision dictates that they cannot peacefully coexist with the rest of us we will have to quarantine as best we can, minimizing the pain and damage, trying always to leave open a path to that may come to seem acceptable.

“If you want to teach your children that they are the tools of God, you had better not teach them that they are God’s rifles, or we will have to stand firmly opposed to you: your doctrine has no glory, no special rights, no intrinsic and inalienable merit. If you insist on teaching your children falsehoods — that the Earth is flat, that ‘Man’ is not the product of evolution by natural selection — then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity. Our future well-being — the well-being of all of us on this planet — depends on the education of our descendants.”
This, I think, is the crux of the matter. Traditional beliefs, cultural institutions, societal traditionswhatever —are not valueless, and must be afforded the respect we afford any human being and his or her legitimacy as such. But where they interfere with the ability of others to have their own self-determination, and to live in a society where some reasonable consensus of the common good is seen as the pilot for policy, well then, they simply must give way.
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