A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, October 16, 2020

Anti-social Media

 Here is a Blast From the Past. Remember the Cambridge Analytical scandal?

H. sociopatheticus
The estimable Joseph Moore points out the key role of sociopaths in today's society, one of whom he tags as Mr. Zuckerberg, founder of the Book of Faces. Really, sports fans, can anyone suppose that this device was ever intended as anything other than a vehicle for delivering personal information to various advertisers, commercial and political? How do we suppose they made their billions? Remember, the product is that for which someone pays cash money; and where Facebook is concerned, advertisers pay cash money for the eyeballs of the users. You, mi amigo, are the product.

Some advertising guru once noted way back in the days of Mad Men, in between sleeping with their secretaries and each others wives, that only about half of all advertising was effective. The problem was that no one knew which half. And so the public was spattered with twice as many ads as necessary in the hopes that half of them would stick. In the Fifties, it was believed that the sight of a man in a white lab coat using approval-words like "scientific" would entice people to purchase the desired shampoo or toothpaste; but this has changed to images of alluring models clinging to the product and using the approval-word "sexy," thus signalling a new mode of processing sales pitches.

The Lost Generation discovers
sex right in their back yard
A hundred years ago, advertising contained thick blocks of text with complete product specifications. Ho ho. How naive our great grandfathers were! Or else they were more hard-headed and no-nonsense and preferred their sexy babes live and in person rather than in magazines. (There were no televisions.)

The genius of the Book of Faces was to replace broadcast with narrowcast. People hated getting flyers and brochures for crap they didn't care about. So by carefully sorting through people's interests as expressed by themselves, advertisers could ensure sending adverts pretty much to people who had some interest in the material to begin with. So far, so good. No need for Big Brother to spy on us when we could spy on ourselves for free.

Well, you can't expect politicians to pass that up. After all, they are also in the advertising business, and this would enable them to spend their campaign money sending flyers, info, robocalls, and all the rest of that welcome and heartwarming outreach to people who might actually be inclined to listen. (TOF pauses to clean up the hot-beverage-snarfed-out-the-nose from your keyboards.)

So the Great Scandal of Cambridge Analytica was not that they scraped Facebook Data, but that they did so for the purpose of helping the Devil Incarnate, i.e., Donald Trumphiltler and/or Brexit. Had they done so to benefit Hilary Clintonstalin, we would never have heard squeak about it, for then it would have been in aid of Heaven's Purpose, i.e., the Worker's Paradise, or Venezuela. (We know this because no one had a cow about the Obama campaign scraping customer data back in the 2008 election, indeed they were lauded for being "tech-savvy.")

The one thing we have not heard is whether anyone paid the slightest attention to any of the ads that were intended to move them to get out for Trump. Indeed, the fact that people's eyeballs cruise over nasty (or nice) ads seems to have very little influence at all, despite either the boasts of providers of these services or the apocalyptic warnings of the fear-mongers. We are only told that folks were "exposed" to them, as if people were particles devoid of will, moved by mechanical forces. But since the whole purpose of the exercise was to identify those who were inclined to Trump in the first place, it's hard to see the horror of it all. Unless there is Something we're not being told beyond the "boo words" of our information being "weaponized."

Of course, the real danger of the giant rumor mill/echo chamber known as "social" media is that it is simply a set of bubbles and not very social at all. It's a way of sealing ourselves off under the illusion of being "connected." At least, in the old "broadcasting" paradigm you ran the occasional risk of a chance encounter with something that you were not already interested in. A point of view that was not already your own. A product or book or movie that was not already on your radar screen -- and you might, might, decide to give it a shot and find that it wasn't half bad. Or that what the Other Side said about itself was not the same as what Your Side told you that They had said. And your bubble might expand, even if just the tiniest bit.

Sunday, September 20, 2020


"[M]en are always powerfully affected by the immediate past:
one might say that they are blinded by it."
-- Hilaire Belloc

Unless you are fractal, scale matters.  Percival Lowell thought he saw canals on Mars.  Partly, this was because he wanted to see canals on Mars; but partly too it was because at the scale his telescopes could resolve a bunch of otherwise unconnected dots seemed to form lines.  

Consider Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It is no coincidence that quantum mechanics developed not too long afterwards. Quanta were in the air, so to speak and artists often intuit before scientists think.

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
(Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte),
Georges Seurat, 1884-1886.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

A Sense of Perspective

This was a post I made in 2016, so some of the data are out of date.

Hot Times in the Old Town

Speaking of forest fires:
The 1930s were the banner years for forest fires. In 1937, there was one forest fire every three minutes per the NY Times.

But in 1910, a few years after the Forest Service was formed and not on the above graph, "a devastating series of forest fires swept over Idaho, Montana, and Washington, culminating on August 20–21 in what is known as the "Big Blowup." Coming only five years after the U.S. Forest Service’s establishment, this seminal event made a deep and lasting impact on the agency. ... [T]he young agency was undermanned, underfunded, and underprepared for what was to come. ...  On August 20 hurricane-force winds swept through the region and fanned embers and low flames back to life all across the Northern Rockies. There was no stopping or containing the fire; one could only hope to avoid it. Trains raced to evacuate towns just ahead of the flames." 

Thus began the Forest Service's Smokey the Bear campaign to prevent forest fires. Unlike most federal programs, it seems to have been successful and involved among other things a program of "controlled burns" in Forest Service lands to clear out inflammable underbrush. About 30 years ago, TOF read an article about the end of the controlled burn program because it was non-environmental: Nature should be allowed to take its course, even if that meant occasional wildfires. Hey, it's Nature!

Lo and Behold! As the underbrush and deadwood once more accumulated, the number of burned acres began to increase slightly, starting roughly ten years ago. 

Flood and Mud

Fires were not the only thing going on.


Terrible Duststorm Rages In West


NEW YORK. Thursday.
A quarter of the area of the United States was
under flood waters today. It is a disaster ranking
with the worst calamities from natural causes that
have occurred in the history of the nation. Property
damage is so great that it is almost incalculable. Loss
of life may exceed 1000 for already 160 fatalities are
known and 40 people are missing.
As Eastern American States became almost
covered with water, terrible dust-storms raged across
the central and western States, tearing the crops out
by the roots and laying waste thousands of square
miles of country. Where the dust struck snow
storms, it rained mud.
So reported the Perth (Western Australia) Daily News on Friday, March 20, 1936
An extraordinarily dramatic
touch was given to the Presi-
dent's appeal to the nation for
Red Cross fund for, even as he
signed the proclamation, thous-
ands of Works Progress Admin-
istration workers were strug-
gling desperately to erect bul-
warks against the waters of the
Potomac River which rapidly
are approaching within a few
squares of White House itself.
Just in case you've been getting a-skeered by weather coverage lately.

Hot Enough Yet?

Speaking of heat waves, in 1936 a heat wave caused 12,183 deaths in the US, the NY Times reported (July 7, 1936)
The Chicago Tribune reported a week later (July 14, 1936) that hundreds had died in Detroit from the heat wave and that Chicago itself was also baking.Meanwhile, over in Ohio, the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune in Ohio (July 25, 1936) tells us:
with a sub-head that
Ach, du Lieber! TOF hears you ask, How many days went over 105°F?

Hard to say, but here is the graph of the percentage of US HCN temperature stations that hit that level sometime during the year:
So the 1930s peaked pretty dang hot compared to today's less extreme climate. Of course, Alert Reader will note that there will always be a few weather stations hitting the 105 point, roughly 15% of them.

The 1930s also featured worries about global warming

Warming Arctic Climate Melting Glaciers Faster, Raising Ocean Level, Scientist Says 
“A mysterious warming of the climate is slowly manifesting itself in the Arctic, engendering a "serious international problem," Dr. Hans Ahlmann, noted Swedish geophysicist, said today.
New York Times, May 30, 1937

So, the world rallied and did nothing and before you could say Jack Robinson, the Times was reporting:

“After a week of discussions on the causes of climate change, an assembly of specialists from several continents seems to have reached unanimous agreement on only one point: it is getting colder.

New York Times, Jan. 30, 1961

 And just to emphasize the everything old is new again theme, 1938 was also the year Hilaire Belloc wrote his warming that Islam, though then quiescent could easily revive and threaten once more the cities of the West

The common root to all this is short term memory.
"[M]en are always powerfully affected by the immediate past:
one might say that they are blinded by it." -- Hilaire Belloc

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Henchmen and Oligarchs

Over on the Book of Faces, Dr David Brin has been railing over the role of "oligarchs" in human history (6000 yrs), blaming them almost exclusively (99%) for various ills. While in the past I have found much to value in his writings -- for example, the "Dogma of Otherness" and the "Transparent Society" -- his anthropology in this case seemed to me a bit simplistic and overwrought. And he seemed unwilling to express it without adding personal attacks and invective at anyone who dared disagree.

The gist of his thesis, as I understand it, is this. For 6000 years, 99% of human societies have been ruled by "cheating male oligarchs" who have "collaborated" to ensure their sons would inherit that power without "earning" it, and who used that power to impede "flat-fair competition" and "progress."

Some features of this thesis are unclear. In order to "cheat," there must be rules a priori. Who set these rules? What were they? What competition is being quashed? Economic? Political? What progress is being stymied? Technological? Social? Like all Grand Theories, it gets a little fuzzy in the details.

 Now, there is no doubt that human societies have often been dominated by the Men with Swords or [more recently] the Men with Bucks. It is also clear that in most times and places there has been very little Progress [in the Modern sense]. But we should not too quickly conclude that the one caused the other any more than stagnation is due to Men who Breathe Oxygen. If 'oligarchies' are as overwhelmingly prevalent as contended, then most periods of stagnation would have taken place under them. But then, too, so would most periods of progress.

OTOH, Dr Brin is far from stupid, so our first task is to discover in what way he is correct.

There are examples of oligarchies that have smothered progress or competition, from the mandarinate of Ming China to the red tape of the modern Regulatory State. Indeed, although the mandarinate held examinations to promote Other People's Children into the elite, the children of  mandarins could secure yin privilege and bypass the exams. The Grand Mufti of the Ottomans ruled that printing presses were haram. A single press operated sporadically in Istanbul and put out a few hundred titles over a span of several decades. Meanwhile, Spain was producing thousands of titles per year, Similarly, the mechanical clock was prohibited in Ming China because announcing the hours was reserved to the emperor. (An early mechanical clock was built in Sung times, it was abandoned and forgotten.)

But one can also find examples in which the ruling class has encouraged 'progress,' such as the numerous technological innovations that blossomed under feudalism in the European Middle Ages or the artistic flowering under the tyrants of Renaissance Italy. The modern oligarch Bezos can hardly be accused of stifling progress. In 6000 years of human history, across all the cultures that have ever existed, you can find examples for nearly anything.

But unlike professional historians and anthropologists, Dr Brin cites no research or examples. It cannot be denied that much of human history has featured a lack of intellectual curiosity. China is an example. The telescope, which revolutionized the West in multiple fields, made barely a ripple in China after the Jesuits introduced it there.Westerners seem to assume that intellectual curiosity and technological progress is the default. But it may be the exception rather than the rule.

There is simply no record or observational fieldwork to support a 'collaboration' by 'oligarchs' to 'cheat' by warping 'the 'rules.' In "Cultural Materialism," Marvin Harri proposed that cultural structures come about due to adaptation to circumstances.  His book, "Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches," provides multiple examples. In "Cannibals and Kings," he describes how primitive kingship arose, using anthropological data from numerous societies across the world.

Further insight can be gleaned from Paul A. Colinvaux, The Fates of Nations: A Biological Theory of History. In this, he treats professions and classes as 'species' in an ecological web with the evolutionary impulse is to leave children who will flourish in their niche. It does no good to claim that the children of knights had a leg-up to knighthood, because the skill required of knights required long and difficult training. The children of peasants could no more become knights than they could become astrophysicists today. This likewise requires a long and dedicated course of training and apprenticeship.

 If Brin's "oligarchs" cover 6000 years of human history, then we have to look to prehistory to find their origins. For about 98 percent of our existence as a species, our ancestors lived in small, egalitarian hunter/gatherer bands. The Band would typically have about 30-50 people and a headman and that's where it all starts.

The Coming of the Kings

1. Headmen did not have imperium. They were admired and respected for their skills, and their advice was often followed, but they did not give orders. Whatever the band gathered was pooled and distributed equally. People were naturally grateful for the share-out. (And the band had ways of dealing with freeloaders.) Details and references can be found in "Life without Chiefs" from which what follows quotes freely.

2 Big men. "People turn over food and other valuables to the headman, to be pooled, divided into separate portions, and given out again.... Headmen-redistributors not only work harder than their followers but also give more generously and reserve smaller and less desirable portions for themselves." ... If it is a good thing to have a headman give feasts, why not have several headmen give feasts? Or, better yet,why not let success in organizing and giving feasts be the measure of one’s legitimacy as a headman?" So we shortly get the competitive potlach or other redistributive contest. The would-be big man inspires others to work for him, since they will share his reflected glory. 

3. Chiefs. The more concentrated and abundant the harvest and the less perishable the crop, the greater the scope for the Big Man. Extra food could  be  stored to await potlatches. While others would possess some stored-up foods of their own, the  Big Man’s stores [having been amassed for a pending potlach] would be the largest. In times of scarcity, people would come to him, expecting to be fed. In return, he could call upon those with special skills to make cloth, pots, canoes, or a fine  house for his own use. Eventually, the redistributor no longer needed to work in the fields to gain and  surpass big-man status.

Increasingly, people viewed this status as an office,  a sacred trust, passed on from one generation to the next according to the rules of hereditary succession. His dominion was no longer a small, autonomous village but a large political community. The  big  man  had become a chief. A council of chiefs would form and one of them would be chosen as "paramount chief," as for example, Powhatan of Virginia.

Chiefdoms could mobilize resources for communal projects like trade expeditions or wars. They could raise elaborate monuments as at Stonehenge or Easter Island or the temple mounds of the Mississippi valley. The chief, in reward for his organizing efforts, became entitled to certain perks, such as the right to wear certain shells or feathers. At harvest time a large crib, identified as the “chief’s  granary,” was erected  in each field. “To this,” explained Bartram, “each family carries and deposits a certain  quantity  according to his ability or inclination, or none at all if he   so chooses.” [The birth of progressive taxation] The  chief’s granaries functioned as a public treasury in case of crop failure, a source of food for strangers or travelers, and as military store. Although every citizen  enjoyed free access to the store, commoners had to acknowledge that it really belonged to the supreme chief, who had “an exclusive right and ability... to distribute comfort and blessings to the necessitous.”
Supported by voluntary donations, [Harris continues[, chiefs could now enjoy lifestyles that set them increasingly apart from their followers. They could build bigger and finer houses for themselves, eat and dress more sumptuously, and enjoy the sexual favors and personal services of several wives. Despite these harbingers,people in chiefdoms voluntarily invested unprecedented amounts of labor on behalf of communal projects. They dug moats, threw up defensive earthen embankments, and erected great log palisades around their villages.

Before they quite knew it, they had a King (see 1 Sam 9.)

Ruling the State.

At this point, we turn from anthropology to history. Aristotle produced a detailed analysis of how the city-states of his time were governed. He wrote that there were three ways: rule by one, by a few, and by the many. Each of these can provide good rule, and each can degenerate into a debased form. And they can transition from one to another. What follows should be considered as much a scale as a progression. A State can shift from one to another. The following narrative is "typical."

4. Kings. stem from prehistoric paramount chiefs. Rex, ri, rajah, are the same term. The chief's followers have become the king's henchmen and they no longer get the smallest portions. The chief's granary becomes the royal treasury. The Chiefdom has become the State, complete with symbology [flags, etc.], regalia, and specialization. [There were specialists in chiefdoms (e.g., the Smith) but now they are full-time.] The major drawback to kingship was that kings were the commanders-in-chief of the war band and were expected to lay their sorry butts on the line whenever the kingdom went to war. The earliest kings in the rainwater lands of NW Europe were sacral: when the harvest went bad, they were sacrificed to appease the gods. So to sit on the throne was not all rainbows and fluffy bunnies.

Late into the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Emperor of the German People was still an elected office. The Electoral College,consisted of seven votes: the three archbishops of metropolitan Germany and the four marcher lords of the eastern frontier (although the vagaries of inheritance had shifted the Elector Palatine to the Rhenish Palatinate. The King in Connaught was also elected, the electors including inter alia The O'Flynn of Sil Maelruain. The King of Goths, the King of Bohemia, and so on were chosen by their vassals or nobles. 

5. Tyrants. But over time, the king begins to pursue his own interests instead of the kingdom's. He no longer persuades and inspires, but dominates and enforces. The Italian Renaissance took place under the rule of competing tyrants like the Medici, Sforza, Borgia, et al. But the Twelfth Century Renaissance took place during a feudal age and the Carolingian Renaissance, during a royal age. [And so we go from renaissance to renaissance, wrote Regine Pernod, which cannot help but seem suspicious.] Thomas Aquinas wrote, "If to provide itself with a king belongs to the right of a given multitude, it is not unjust that the king be deposed or have his power reduced by that same multitude if, becoming a tyrant, he abuses his royal power." -- On Kingship, I:6. This sentiment, picked up later by a different Thomas proved fruitful.

6. Aristocrats. The tyrant eventually gets "magna carted," by the nobles, who set up rule by the few. Machiavelli wrote that there were two kinds of States: Turkish and Frankish. In a Turkish-style state, all offices were in the gift of the Sultan. That is, everything is centralized, In a Frankish-style state, there were various power centers, each with powers and authorities of its own that had to be accommodated. The King of England had to take account of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, as well as sundry dukes and earls. [But not the Duke of Earl.] The Holy Roman Empire was famously decentralized into hundreds of quasi-independent kings, princes, cardinals, margraves, et al., usually ridiculed by those accustomed to the rigorously centralized Absolute Monarchies of the Enlightenment.

7. Oligarchs. The "few"  begin to game the system until they have degenerated into an self-contained group looking out for their individual Numbers One. These are Brin's bete noir, but they are only one of six possible State-level governance. In modern times, a bureaucracy acts as an oligarchy albeit a non-hereditary one.

8. Polity. The oligarchs in turn are overthrown by people of moderate wealth, who replace the rule of the few with the rule of [almost] the many. Aristotle called this a polity, but we can call it a Republic. Aristotle believed that men who were wealthy enough to be able to devote their lives to study the issues, but not so wealthy that they become oligarchs were the best stratum for government.

9. Democrats. But the polity degenerates through the usual rent-seeking into a democracy, in which the rule passes to the many, who attempt to use government to enrich themselves at the expense of the better-off. Since the poor do not have the leisure to familiarize themselves with complex issues, they are victims of whatever demagogue is most persuasive.

Aristotle equated this with Anarchy because the masses were typically ill-informed on the management of the state and would follow their own appetites, just as kings and aristocrats eventually did.

Finally, a "man on horseback" emerges, a "savior" promising to restore order and "make the trains run on time." He embodies in his person the aspirations of the Nation. Rulers start to call themselves "Leaders" and we are effectively back to Kings.

The People often welcome these new kings because they promise relief from the anarchy of the People or the civil wars of the Barons.

There are many variations on this sequence. A State can skip a step or slide backward. In extreme cases, like collapse of the pristine states in Crete and the Near East, they might get the Band back together. In Europe, the Absolute Monarchs [Tyrants] of the soi-disant Enlightenment followed the Aristocracy, not the Kings.

Recommended Reading

  1. Bacon, Francis.  The Masculine Birth of Time.
  2. Barzun, Jacques.  The House of Intellect.  (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2002)
  3. Brown, Peter.  The World of Late Antiquity.  (W.W. Norton, 1989)
  4. Carcopino, Jerome. Daily Life in Ancient Rome: The People and the City at the Height of the Empire. 
  5. Colinvaux, Paul A. The Fates of Nations: A Biological Theory of History. (Simon & Schuster, 1980)
  6. Dodds, E.R. The Greeks and the Irrational. (University of California Press, 2004)
  7. Duhem, Pierre.  Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science, tr. Roger Ariew and Peter Barker.  (Hackett, 1996).  
  8. Gies, Frances & Joseph Gies.  Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel.  (HarperPerennial, 1995).  
  9. Gimpel, Jean.  The Medieval Machine.  (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976)  
  10. Grant, Edward.  The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages.  (Cambridge University Press, 1996).  
  11. Grant, Edward. Science and Religion, 400 B.C. to A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006)
  12. Grant, Edward.  God and Reason in the Middle Ages.  (Cambridge University Press, 2001)
  13. Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. (Hutchinson, 1975). 
  14. Harris, Marvin. Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures  (1977)
  15. Harris, Marvin. Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture. (AltaMira Press, 1979)
  16. Huizinga, Johan.  The Autumn of the Middle Ages, tran. Rodney Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Univ. of Chicago, 1996)
  17. Huff, Toby E. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West. (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  18. Jacobs, Jane.  Dark Age Ahead.  (Vintage Books, 2005)  
  19. Lukacs, John.  The Passing of the Modern Age.  (Harper & Row, 1970)) 
  20. Kibre, Pearl & Nancy Siraisi.  “The Institutional Setting: The Universities,” contained in Lindberg (ed.),  Science in the Middle Ages. (1978)
  21. Lindberg, David C., ed.  Science in the Middle Ages.  (University of Chicago Press, 1978).  
  22. Lindberg, David C.  The Beginnings of Western Science.  (University of Chicago Press, 1992).  
  23. Pernoud, Regine.  Those Terrible Middle Ages! tran. Anne Englund Nash (Ignatius Press, 2000) 
  24. Plutarch. Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans
  25. Power, Eileen. Medieval People. (Dover Publications; Reprint Edition, 2000)
  26. Randers-Pehrson, Justine Davis. Barbarians and Romans : The Birth Struggle of Europe A. D. 400-700 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1993)
  27. Renfrew, A.C. and Kenneth L. Cooke, eds. Transformations: Mathematical Approaches to Culture Change. (Academic Press, 1979)
  28. Shank, Michael H. "Myth 2. That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science," contained in Numbers (ed.), Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science. (2010)
  29. Sivin, Nathan.  “Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China – Or Didn't It?” 
  30. Stock, Brian.  “Science, Technology, and Economic Progress in the Early Middle Ages,” contained in Lindberg (ed.),  Science in the Middle Ages. (1978).  
  31.  C. Suetonius Tranquillus. Lives of the Twelve Caesars.
  32. Wallace, William.  “The Philosophical Setting of Medieval Science,” contained in Lindberg (ed.),  Science in the Middle Ages. (1978).
  33. Wallace, William.  The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis.  (Scholarly Book Services, 1997) 
  34. White, Lynne.  Medieval Technology and Social Change.  (Oxford University Press, 1964).

Friday, August 28, 2020


Inertia is the tendency of a Thing to maintain its current state. As Buridan wrote in Quaestiones super caelo et mundo (14th cent.)

"When God created the celestial spheres, He gave them an impetus [i.e., momentum] and this impetus is not corrupted or diminished unless there is resistance."

Centuries later, Newton used this as one of his three axioms

In biology, inertia is called "the struggle for survival." The efforts of a living Thing to go on living is simply a more animated version of the "efforts' of a boulder to remain stubbornly in place.

However, a Thing subject only to its own Inertia would remain... well, inert. Nevertheless, we see around us that some things are changing. A green apple changes to red; an acorn grows into an oak. A kitten crosses the room. Uranium decays to lead; sodium and chlorine combine into salt. A boulder tumbles down a hillside. Inertia would prevent all this from happening.

The potential redness of apples

Therefore, anything that is changing is being changed by something else, or as Newton put it "by an outside force." A green apple is potentially red but is made actually red by sunlight in the 3,600 to 4,500 Å range (which causes the anthocyanin in the skin to absorb the near-ultraviolet, violet, blue and green regions of the spectrum, thus reflecting red). A boulder tumbles down the hillside because wind and rain have undermined its support. It didn't make a break for it on its own initiative. 

Actualizers must already be actual. Since something that is merely potential can't do diddly-squat, a Thing that is potentially X cannot be made actually X, except by something which is already actually X, either in itself or in a higher sense. Paint cannot make a wall red unless the paint is already red itself. But the light that makes an apple ripen to red contains red only in a higher sense. 

The boulder moves down the hillside because the ground supporting it has moved, and this happens because the wind that moved [eroded] the dirt was itself actually in motion. [The air in turn is moved by a difference in air pressure, which contains the motion in a higher sense.] In either case, nothing that is only potentially so can make something actually to happen.

An important distinction. Among actualizers of potentials, some are like toppling dominoes. The capacity of domino #2 to topple #3 does not depend on Domino #1 still existing. If an email sent by Adam to Betsy to Chuck, the power of Betsy to forward the email to Chuck does not depend on Adam hanging around. Such actualizers are "sequential."

Other actualizers must continue to act or the result ceases. For example, the sunlight must continue to act on the apple for it to redden. If the sunlight is blocked, the apple will cease to redden. A clarinet has the potential to make music but will only actually do  so if a clarinetist actually plays on it. If she stops playing, the music-making will cease.

Turtles all the way down. A golf club swings because the hand grips it and the arms swing. These in turn actually happen only insofar as the muscles contract. The muscles contract due to the nerve impulses. The nerves signal only because certain motor neurons are firing. And these in turn depend upon the intentions of the golfer. If any of these actualizers cease -- e.g., if the golfer changes his mind or relaxes his grip -- the golf swing does not take place.

A chain of continual actualizers, which drills down in the present moment, cannot proceed backward indefinitely. It must be finite. If the sequence does not begin, if there is no primary actualizer, then none of the instrumental actualizers depending on it will act. The clarinet, the golf club, et al. would remain inert. 
The primary actualizer must be entirely actual, since if it were not, it would be in potential for something and thus not the primary actualizer. It changes without being itself changed, an unchanged changer. But everything natural is subject to change; e.g., evolution of species, radioactive decay, orogeny in geology, stellar evolution, et al. So the primary actualizer cannot be natural. But that which is "above" nature is what "all people call God."

Friday, August 14, 2020

After VJ Day

 On 15 Aug 1945, after two atomic bombs, the Japanese militarists agreed to surrender. One atomic bomb was insufficient persuasion, and it was only the personal intervention of the Emperor after the second that broke the deadlock. Even so, there was an aborted coup to overthrow the Emperor just to keep the militarists in power. 

The surrender had the happy result of mooting the invasion of Japan, in the forefront of which would have been Pfc. Joseph F. Flynn, USMC, who once told TOF that LST stood for "Large Slow Target." (Officially, it means Landing Ship, Tank) Private Flynn had been aboard such a vessel on his all-expense, government-paid vacation on the lovely Pacific island of Iwo Jima. (Years later, when a reunion was to take place on the island, Joe declined to attend. "But it's free," bro Sean said, "the government is paying."

"The last time they did that," said Pere, "I did not have a good time.")

At one time on the island, his platoon was sheltered in a foxhole and directly in front of them was a dead Japanese soldier. He had been killed by an explosive blast which had whipped all his clothing from him, and decay had swollen his body, including his masculine member. The other marines dealt with the sight in the usual macabre fashion. "Looks like he died happy." But, Pere told TOF, "all I could think of was that this had been some mother's child, and she would never hear from him again." Of course, you can't have such thoughts, he explained, when people are trying to kill you. But afterward, when they are not, it was worth bearing in mind.

Instead of invading the Home Islands, Flynn was assigned to the Occupation Forces. He landed in Nagasaki, on Kyushu Island, and walked with his platoon through that city. The devastation was terrible. Everywhere they encountered Japanese policemen who turned their backs on the marines. He was told later that it was a mark of respect: they trusted them not to shoot them in the back. 

He and some other marines were assigned as a guard-escort to an Army cartography team mapping the island of Kyushu. Their was still a suspicion of die-hard resistance, a la Okinawa, and the marines were to be on the ready at all times. Under no circumstances were they to eat any food offered them, as it might be poisoned. They were based in Sasebo and traveled its environs. In one village, they were proudly shown the village fire engine. "It was like something Ben Franklin would have known," he told me. "A hand cart with pump bars on each side." These were the people who had built a powerful Navy and fought the US, UK, Australia, and China across the Pacific for three years. And this was their idea of modern firefighting equipment. Just think what they could do if they put their talent into civilian goods!

The marines were billeted in the local clinic, which was partitioned to give them some privacy. As they were undressing for bed, they heard sounds like mice or tittering. They traced it to a hole in the partition. The clinic nurses had wondered if these strangers were white all the way down and had taken steps to check it out. 

The mayor of the village came to them offering a tray of food, They started to demur, but the translator interrupted to tell them "It would be a great insult to refuse." The mayor might have to commit suicide to expunge the shame. The lieutenant thought it over. There had been no sign of hostility so far. So he said he would try the food and if it proved safe, the rest of them could eat it, too. And of course, it proved so. They knew how to fight, Pere said, but they knew how to surrender, too, and he knew then that Japan and America would become allies. 

Later that same day, the vice-mayor visited and offered the liberties of the geisha house to the Americans. The marines looked at one another and with one accord, they said, "It would be a great insult to refuse!"

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

34 Solutions to the Paradox of Fermi

Undocumented Aliens

One of the major tropes of science fiction is the Alien. Recall Lummox, the Rull; the People; Tweel; and so on. These alien folk have served admirably as metaphors for various aspects of humanity or human societies; but as one mainstream critic supposedly noted with surprise, in SF a trip to Mars is not only a metaphor for the human condition, but is also supposed to represent on some deep level an actual trip to Mars. If this is so, then we have a problem.
Where are the aliens?

Aliens qua alien

Of course, by alien life we do not really mean a layer of lichen floating on the torpid seas of some far-off world. That would be Way Kool, but it sure ain't why we're looking.
When Fermi famously asked the question, "Where are they?" he didn’t mean where are the mud worms of Yuts'ga? By all accounts, they aren't going anywhere. But according to incantations – I mean, calculations – there has been plenty of time for Others to make it here. So why haven't they shown up? Where are the flying saucers, or at least the messages from Mars?
The basic incantation is something called the Drake Equation, which is disguised to look like a real equation, perhaps in the hope that no one will notice that most of the terms in it are not even remotely measurable. The equation runs:
N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;
R* is the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
f is the fraction of the above that actually develop life at some point
fi is the fraction of the above that develop intelligent life
fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space
The fraction of stars with planets is looking good. We've already detected a fair number of exoplanets. However, most of those planets are Hot Jupiters whirling like centrifuges way too close to their home-stars. This does not bode well for ne. Of course, that’s an artifact of the detection method, which is biased toward large planets and proximity to their stars. It wouldn’t know Mars from a hole in the ground. Nor is the on-going failure of SETI encouraging f and other factors. But it only has to cry Bingo! once.
There are three basic answers to Fermi's Paradox:
                                I.            They’re not there
                             II.            They're there, but not here
                          III.            They're here, but we don't know it
Let’s look at these in detail.

I. They’re not there.  

1. We're it. Unique in the universe.
What a waste! All that great big honkin' universe out there and we're all there is? But, why should there be anyone else in the universe, regardless of its size? How many dandelion seeds are scattered to make a single dandelion? How many stone chips litter the workshop to make one statue? Why should it not take a universe to make a world? If the mass of the universe were much less, it would have expanded into vichyssoise long ago. If it were much greater, it would have collapsed back on itself before anything could get started. This is how big a universe must be to make galaxies, stars and petunias, whether one world or a gazillion be inhabited.
2. We're first. We are the "elder race" of the universe.
Well, someone had to be first. Why not us? Life is hard and maybe the start-up costs are too high. As far as we can tell, life only happened once here on earth. If it's so easy and automatic, why did it not happen here twice, perhaps in different deep sea thermal vents?
Hydrogen, helium, and lithium are easy to come by, but life seems to need some heavier elements, like carbon and oxygen or silicon and chlorine, and that requires several generations of stars, not only to forge the elements, but for supernovae to spread them across vast distances and gravity concentrate them in planets.
Besides, out there is also back then. All those gazillions of distant galaxies? Those were gazillions of years ago. Any signals coming from them would have had to have been sent when the universe was young, before any life-soup had cooked up. The universe might be teeming with species right now busily putting out daytime soap operas and other indications of intelligence; but we don't hear the universe right now. We hear the universe that was way back then.
3. We're last. They were there, but not anymore.
C'est le vive. That L factor in the Drake equation is really, really short.
  • They wiped themselves out in wars of annihilation.
  •  The plague got 'em.
  • Famine got 'em 
  • The glaciers got 'em.
  • The von Neumans got 'em (and are coming our way). 
  • They all became dependent on government handouts and then the government went bankrupt. 
  • They mucked up their environment a bit too much and choked on their own pollution.
  • They genetically modified themselves and screwed up, bad.
  •  They downloaded themselves into computers and there was this power bump…
  • They adopted an existentialist, materialist philosophy, saw no reason for going on, and drank the Kool-Aid.

II. They're out there, but not here.  

4. Their Cambria never exploded. They got to prokaryotes but prokaryotes are unlikely ever to make interstellar contact. To step up to eukaryotes, with their highly structured cellular composition, competing prokaryotes would have to combine into a single entity. This requires 
a) cooperation in a “network of mutual dependencies,” 
b) the emergence of a functional unit comprising all individuals involved in the network, and 
c) the development of a boundary to bar or expel stragglers. 
This results in a higher-level of competing replicators. This is more than “descent with modification” and may be a correspondingly more rare process.
5. They’re all wet. They never got out of the water to see the stars.
No one will try to contact us if they have no idea there is any 'us' to contact. Life may need water chemistry to originate, but it needs dry land to get good telescopic views of the rest of the universe. Technology seems to have started with Fire, and it’s hard to conceive of fish discovering fire. But this only matters if there is land onto which to crawl. Water worlds need not apply.
6. They were never mooned. No one else has a moon/planet ratio large enough to create tidal pool escalators onto the land. That may not be the only way for fish to transition to amphibians, but it is the way it seems to have happened here. Nowhere else we know of is there a sufficiently-sized planet with such a relatively large moon. It required, so theory says, a Mars-sized body striking the proto-earth in just the right way to slice off a moon-sized divot into the proper orbit. Of all the unlikely things that led to life on Earth, this may have been the unlikeliest, and there is no term in the Drake Equation for it.
7. They’re sessile. Aliens are plants and fungi and don't get around much.
Don't expect the flying saucers to land, lower a ramp, and weeds or mold to start growing down the ramp to meet us. Waiting dignitaries won't wait that long. Plants and fungi don’t move, they grow, and you can't grow your way from α-Centauri to here. Fungi probably won't build powerful radios, either. In fact, sessiles are unlikely even to be sentient. After all, what’s the point of sensation if you can’t do anything about it? If grass senses thirst, it can’t exactly pull up roots, pack up the wagon, and set off for the other side of the fence, where it is proverbially greener. All it can do is dry up, wither, and wait for rain. So, there is nothing upon which Darwinian selection can operate.
8. They’ve got brains, but not a brain. The aliens are of two minds about things because their two brain hemispheres never knitted into one. More broadly, their sundry sensory inputs are not melded into a single ymago. Thus, they lack imagination and hence memory, so they cannot “see” a petunia that was present even moments ago.
9. They don’t have much to say. The aliens get along fine with imagination. Like every other animal species on Earth, they can learn and remember in response to sensation. They have personalities, can use tools, can sometimes even make tools. But in the past billion years or so, none have come up with disco or daytime soaps, let alone art, speculative philosophy, systems of mathematics, or physics. These require intellect, the capacity to abstract [lit. “pull out”] universals from particulars. They can grasp this petunia and that petunia and the other petunia; but they do not grasp “petunia.” Hence, they lack language.
10 The Endless Sumer. Aliens achieved Sumerian-level civilization and never broke out. Velocity needs no cause; inertia is the norm. It's change that requires a mover. Once there was a breakthrough to civilization, the aliens chilled. Looking back on the Eden that was their pre-intellective, pre-civilizational existence and comparing it to the Vale of Tears in which they ate by the sweat of their brows [or brow-equivant], the aliens figured why take any more chances? The same goes for other rest-points along the way. For example:
  • Humanism triumphs. The aliens are excellent artists and literary critics. But they are not ham radio operators and do not form amateur rocket clubs
  • Bureaucracies triumph and new technology is not covered by any of the procedures.
  • God-kings triumph. The aliens spend their lives preparing the king for his afterlife. If you’re good, he’ll save you a spot.
  • Oligarchies triumph. Everything is geared toward the maintenance of power. New technology may shift the power balance. Can’t have that.
  • Democracies triumph. They got to their moon, then quit and spent the money on themselves.
11. They're not into science. The aliens never cared about the natural world. They tinker, but rules of thumb can get your technology only so far. Further development requires a serious study of nature qua nature. There are many reasons why the aliens do not develop a natural science.
  •  They're not curious. Most Terran cultures were markedly incurious about the natural world, even while they devised many practical and useful rules of thumb. [e.g., If you beat the drums during a solar eclipse, the sun will eventually return. What if you don’t beat the drums? Why take such a crazy chance? You may sense the limitations of such an approach.]
  • Circular reasoning. The hypnotizing circular motion of the heavens convinced them that the world is a series of repetitive cycles. Everything that has happened will happen again. Natural laws are transient.
  • They believe there is no God, so chaos and unreason are at the root of everything. Natural laws are illusions or coincidences.
  • They believe there is a host of competing and contradictory gods. Natural laws represent temporary compromises among these gods.
  • They believe there are dryads in the trees, nymphs in the springs, and the stars are alive, divine, and influential in daily life. If nature has minds of her own, she must be placated, not studied.
  •  They worship the phallus. This interferes with thinking straight.
  • They believe there is a creator God, but he is not rational. Therefore, the created world is not rationally ordered.
  • They believe there is a creator God, but he does not act through nature. Apparent natural laws are simply “the habits of God.” He might change his mind.
12. They are stoopid. Sure, the world is ordered, but they do not believe their reasoning powers are competent to grasp it.
13. Aristotle? Who he? They never invented a systematic science of nature. They collect curious facts about nature but that’s it. But a curio cabinet doesn’t lead to interstellar contact.
14. They’re empiricists. Newton’s laws never occurred to them because they’ve never seen an astronomical situation consisting of only two bodies. The same goes for perfect vacuums, frictionless surfaces, new species, etc. Believing only in what they can sense, they never mathematized their natural science.
15. They’re chemists. Their scientific interests led them into chemistry (and biology) and not physics. They popped off some chemical rockets, but they have no radios or anything like them. Interstellar communication by lighting off flares is not likely to be very effective.
16. They all went fiber-op. They’re out there. But they gave up on E/M broadcasts. We'll never hear from them unless they run cable out our way.
17. They stink. They communicate by odor or other means unsuited to long-distance transmission. It’s hard to read sign language from α-Centauri, even if they have very big hands.
18. It’s a really long way to Tipperary. The distances between intelligent species are too daunting. The senders will be long gone by the time the receivers get the message. So why bother?
19. Missed call. They did send a message; and it reached Earth already, but the Devonian fishes lacked proper receivers.
20. Wrong way, Corrigan. They developed interstellar travel, but they went the other direction.
21. They're en route. We live at just that cusp between the launch of their interstellar probe and/or radio signals and their arrival here.

III. They're here, but we don't know it

22. We're quarantined. They don't come or talk to us because we have cooties.
23. We're quarantined. They don't come or talk to us because they have cooties.
24. We're boring. They made it here but don't come or talk to us because they don't find us interesting. They detected our TV shows and fled in horror.
25. They’re boring. They're here but don't come or talk to us because they have nothing to say.
26. They're quiet. They're here but observing only.
27. They're incognito. They're here but disguised as humans.
28. They're really incognito. They're here but disguised as cats.
28. They're really really incognito. They're here but hiding in plain sight as Real Housewives.
29. They're practical jokesters. They're here but they only contact people driving on deserted country roads whom they probe and release.
30. They're gods. They were here. Long ago. And they over-awed the natives, who called them gods.
31. We missed them. They were here. Long ago. Dinosaurs ate them. Then they smashed all the dinosaurs with a comet.
32. They were here, recently. ICE rounded them up, put them in detention camps, then deported them on buses as illegals. They were last seen in the Oort Cloud fiddling with some comets.
33. They love us. They're here, but they don't want to interfere with our natural development.
34 They hate us. They're here, but they don't want to interfere with our natural development.
More careful study may fine tune this taxonomy. Faithful Readers will naturally try to subvert each and every one of these scenarios. Perhaps aliens who operate by instinct alone may indeed contact us; or a ship piloted by fungi may land Real Soon Now. An alien living in secret on Earth may even run for President of the US of A and, depending on one’s taste in aliens, either win or almost win. Perhaps there is a loophole by which aliens limited to the water may yet develop an astronomy and learn of the stars and try to contact putative beings who live there.
Of course, that makes the Fermi Paradox even more difficult to explain.

Whoa, What's This?

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