Thursday, September 04, 2014

History vs truth: Unrequited love

To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.
(Federico Garcia Lorca)

Syria is not for the Syrians and Iraq is not for the Iraquis. The Earth is Allah's.
(Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of IS, the Islamic State )

We like our history as is

Here in the United States another battle is taking place in the ever hardening cultural divide. This time it's over the College Board's revised “curriculum framework” for the Advanced Placement test in U.S. History. The New HistoryWars.

Most of us over a certain age remember high school history courses as little more than memorizing names, dates and facts, all in all pretty boring. In reality, we American know virtually nothing about our own history let alone the history of the world.

Now, it's not that the U.S. is unique in creating historical fairy tales or slanting the truth. We are pretty much amateurs compared with the dismal police states and theocracies dotting the planet. What is different is that our American “exceptionalism”has never been really challenged or forced to confront the reality, and ignorance is most certainly harmful to our health and well being

Afraid and fearful and so fearfully afraid.

Observing humankind across the planet at the present brings to mind the lines from Yeats' The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” Human evolution lurches and weaves along in some indeterminate direction, while our technological prowess disappears over some unknown horizon.

Meanwhile, the small collection of monsters that make up IS may be the latest example of human malevolence but it will likely not be the last. Monsters have certainly crossed the land called Iraq and Syria in the past.

The Mongol invasions from Central and North Asia in the 12th and 13th century may have been one of the most destructive in human history, and terror was certainly used as an effective weapon. The Mongol armies conquered China, the Turkic tribes and attacked Russia and Eastern Europe. In the mid-13th century they destroyed Baghdad, which in the 9th century was the greatest center of learning in the world. The monsters have always been with us; the goal is to keep them in the caves as long as possible.

Sand beneath our shifting feet

Why should we be so surprised today that cave dwellers like the Islamic State have suddenly appeared in the light of day? Again from William Butler Yeats: Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Yes, things do fall apart. Excluding for the time being such issues as a global population of more than 7 billion people, climate change that can be denied only by the delusional and a global economic system dressed in a top hat and tails, we simply have to look around us, especially at some of the major nation-states:

For example, China, a police state fearful of its own people, seems to have as a guiding star a determination to turn the planet into its own plantation, regardless of the destruction it will likely cause along the way; Russia, an environmental disaster in the making, with President Putin apparently imagining himself a 21st century czar; America, an increasingly dysfunctional society with a decaying 18th century Constitution, and who single-handedly destabilized a significant part of the Middle East. And the rest? Pick a continent. For an interesting article on ad hoc violence at the local level read In times of regional violence, local rules apply. (See below.)

It doesn't seemed far fetched to envision more regional and local conflicts with nation-states exerting increasing repression against its own citizens as well as nearby smaller states, until the more powerful state itself begins to implode. Loyalty to what and to whom may become the overarching question. No, the Earth doesn't belong to Allah but to all the visible—and not so visible—life inhabiting the planet--equally. Will the “best” regain conviction?

Additional Reading

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Extinction: A terrible inconvenience

Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.
(Carl Sagan)

Worth reading. Supertelligence by Bostrom. We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.
(Tweet by Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla)

The ultimate risk

The Atlantic several months ago published an interview with Nick Bostrom, the director of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institution. Bostrom's contention is that human extinction risks are not well understood. (You can click onto the complete article We're Underestimating the Risk of Human Extinction below.)

While Bostrom talks about present threats to humanity, he is clearly more concerned with longer-term potential existential threats, which he thinks is where our focus ought to be. Among those at the top of his list would be artificial intelligence, while in the nearer term it could be what we might do in the areas of biotechnology and synthetic biology.

As well, it's Bostrom's contention that one of the very worst things humanity could do is to slow down or halt technological evolution because that in and of itself would “constitute an existential risk.”

In short, according to Bostrom, our “avoidable” misery will only get much worse if we can't improve the quality of life, and for him technology is the key, or at least, a central priority we can't afford to reduce. Bostrom, however, goes on to say that it would be difficult to slow down technology very much, let alone bring it to a halt because of the constituencies pushing scientific and technological priorities, along with economic interests and assorted individual and institutional priorities. Well possibly, yet....

Considering the finite then and now

In Thomas Cahill's wonderful book How the Irish Saved Civilization, he recounts a winter day in 406 A.D. Roman soldiers stood on one side of the frozen river Rhine, while on the other side were the barbari, thousands upon thousands of hungry and determined barbarians from assorted Germanic tribes determined to cross over to where the Roman legions now stood, the defenders of the “civilized” world.

Let it be said that virtually no one on the side of the Rhine where Roman soldiers now guarded the culture and the glory of antiquity and possessed the most advanced technology in the world—even at this late date—would you find people able to imagine that the Eternal City of Rome and its legacy would crumble and vanish. It would have been incomprehensible.

The late Kenneth Clark in his book Civilization asks the question, why did the Greek and Roman civilization collapse. His answer is that it was exhausted. Antiquity had run out of steam. It had become a static world as Cahill points out.

Doing the expected had become the highest value. Fear of war, fear of invasion, fear of plague—fear of everything was the norm. Why bother to do anything? Late antiquity had become a world of empty rituals, obscure religions and the wholesale disappearance of self-confidence.

The barbarians? The disappearance of self-confidence? The Islamic State currently ravaging parts of Iraq and Syria, a determined collection of murderers and psychopaths, with their longing for the Middle Ages, would have been a familiar sight to the citizens of the Roman Empire by the second decade of the fifth century.

The latest discoveries regarding our cousins the Neandertals, no longer thought to be ignorant brutes, suggest that the interactions between them and humans may have lasted considerably longer than we once thought. There is also speculation now that the Neandertals may have gone extinct because, unlike Homo sapiens, they were unable to adapt quickly enough to climate change. But of course we can't draw exact comparisons and we don't know what the future will be.

Will technology be our salvation as some believe or is there something else required? Will the elephant and the rhino survive the slaughter caused by China? Will humankind somehow stop doing the expected and rediscover a new self-confidence?

Saturday, August 02, 2014

The petabyte children

Chris Anderson the former editor of Wired Magazine, several years ago, published an article entitled The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. He believed that the age of “big” data would be “the end of science as we know it.”

We've had kilobytes, megabytes and terabytes, in other words, floppy disks, hard disks and disk arrays. In the Petabyte Age the “stuff” is stored in the cloud. Knowledge now begins with massive amounts of data. And can we deny in 2014 that those under thirty years of age are not constantly gazing into the virtual cloud?

Anderson said back in 2008 that data will be viewed mathematically first and a context for it established later. Correlations are the future young man. Causal analysis be damned! He ended his article by asking, “What can science learn from Google?”

Predicting the future

Regarding the future, I think a major challenge of the 21st century is acquiring a better understanding of the brain—and the mind, if any future is to become a reality. In the spirit of speculating I shall shamelessly promote my own ebook novel A Genetic Abnormality, which will be coming out on September 1, 2014. For more information go to

The modern scientific process began in the 17th century, and viewed against the thousands of years of human existence, science developed only yesterday. It's also “difficult” in that it goes against how we humans traditionally think.

If scientific thinking can be called analytic and objective, traditional thinking is more subjective and
associative, associative meaning we humans can see causal relationships between actions and events and sometimes indulge in quasi-magical thinking. Of course, at the same time, we appear to be the only species that can meditate on ourselves in ways other animals cannot.

The history of science has focused on ideas rather than methods. Theories are constructed based on observations and measurement of natural phenomena. It is a world of both inductive and deductive reasoning and creating hypotheses requiring testing, and in the best case can be repeated and replicated. Science likely has a lot more to teach all of us. The question still is what can Google learn from science?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A recent, personal history of capitalism and the global depression

While David Harvey is a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, he is relatively unknown in the United States. His fields are in the area of geography, social theory and political economy, yet, his views have had considerable influence on the study of capitalism, both positive and negative.

This video, created in 2010, offers a Marxist view of capitalism. Since the posting of this video, global capitalism has demonstrated even less reason to keep it around. Of course the question ultimately comes down to how we dismantle the current structure and begin to replace it with something that reflects a 21st century reality, a system that is capable of benefiting the vast majority of people on a changing planet.


Thursday, May 08, 2014

Part 2: The consequences

No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country
(President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933)

The story may be apocryphal but it caught my attention. A few nights ago in a television interview with Strobe Talbott, former U.S. diplomat and now president of the Brookings Institute, Talbott told a story about President Vladimir Putin of Russia when he was a young KGB officer in the 1980s. Seemingly Mr. Putin received a less than glowing performance review from his superiors because he was too much of a “risk taker.”

Take a psychopath to lunch

Well, but maybe you ought not to go to lunch with one, even though they can be charming and understanding, like Hannibal Lecter for instance. For that matter the person could be a relatively “normal” hedge fund manager or high government official. It's your decision. According to some scientists that study the “condition,” these folks may make up 2 to 5 percent of the human population.

For some experts the differentiation between psychopathy and sociopathy is important. Whereas the behavior of the psychopath may be more erratic and noticeable, the sociopath is more controlled. The psychopath may tend to act on impulse, while the sociopath usually wants to minimize exposure.

Psychopaths are oftentimes not able to maintain normal relationships, while sociopaths are generally well organized, normal in social relationships and are frequently quite successful in their profession. Risk taking may be a common characteristic, the psychopath being more impulsive and the sociopath more deliberate. As well, sociopaths can be very good at manipulating human emotions. At the extreme end of the spectrum, however, they are violent and dangerous. Probably best not to pursue a deep friendship with one.

Key components of what is referred to as Antisocial Personality Disorder might include a lack of guilt or remorse, a diminished capacity for empathy, abuse of others in various forms and “malignant narcissism.” These qualities are of course found throughout society today, in almost every profession, but it's likely that some professions are more attractive than others for those who have APD.

On the other hand, courageousness and the willingness to commit unremitting and continuous violence were valued qualities among our ancestors at one time, be they within the clan, the village or even the nation. These characteristics were likely important factors in the survival of our species, at least in our early days. Based on the number of television shows and movies we have about serial killers and assorted psychopaths, we clearly have a morbid curiosity about these people.

Speaking of Vladimir Putin, FP has a very interesting article entitled How Putin Is Reinventing Warfare. An entire region of Eastern Europe is a laboratory for Antisocial Personality Disorder, helped along by almost everyone including the U.S. 

What makes us human

While we know that our genes have been passed down through billions of years, from the very beginning of life, evolutionary biologists, geneticists and neuroscientists are now learning that some genes are much younger, in some cases only a few million years old. Some came from the common ancestor of both humans and apes and the very youngest emerged when we diverged from our cousins the apes some 6 to 7 million years ago. We're only just starting to understand genetic influences and the impact on humankind and what in fact shapes our behavior and makes us human.

What is referred to as the “big 5” classes of personality traits are (1) openness, (2) conscientiousness, (3) extraversion, (4) agreeableness and (5) neuroticism. It is thought that approximately 50 % are related to genetics and 50 % related to environmental factors. For example, there are genes associated with impetuosity and risk taking,. which could lead in the right environmental circumstances to some form of addiction. Yes, who are you?

It's story time

They were women “operatives” for the Republican party in the United States. These women were sitting around a table on some news show discussing how they would get the female vote in the next election, considering how the Republican men have done a terrible job attracting women voters and have demonstrated that they have not left the 1950s … or they long to go back.

This discussion was largely about selling a better message and not about whether or not the message itself was any good. It seemed to me to be more about manipulation and a lack of empathy, at least for anyone but the comfortable. Above all, it appears to be, among these operatives, that it was self-evident that a large portion of the women voters could be manipulated by clever messaging.

Agnotology is the study of the cultural production of ignorance. The term was first coined by Robert N. Proctor, a professor specializing in the history of science and technology. The gold standard for many years was the tobacco industry, little more than a criminal enterprise selling poison, aided and abetted by politicians, the media and certainly the citizens themselves.

Agnotology is very much about the “publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.” It's meant to confuse. The overriding goal of the tobacco industry for many years was to sow doubt between the connection of smoking to cancer, long after there was any scientific doubt. Today it's a full blown industry in America and across the globe. Climate denial, “trickle-down” economics, the “job creators,” weapons-of-mass-destruction in Iraq and hydraulic fracking are only a few examples. The idea is to confuse the public, protect the status quo and maintain the comforts of the comfortable.

Thomas Piketty, the enemy within

Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a best seller and has moved beyond the academic community and Washington policy wonks. The book may actually stir some serious debate about global capitalism, which is way, way overdue. It has upset the privileged, not merely the usual collection of bottom feeders but those who have built their careers on praising and perpetuating the glorious myth of the “free” market.

Some articles to better understand Thomas Piketty and his book Capital in the Twenty First Century:

And from the critics:

Alfie, what's it all about

It's about Revolution, let's not pretend it isn't. Ideally, revolution of the mind and quite possibly a little of the “soul.” A lot of critics will say that humankind is not capable—they haven't evolved sufficiently. In that case revolution will come the old fashion way, through carnage and violence—war of the psychopaths, and we know that story line. But more and more likely it will come down finally to climate change and its enormous consequences and we'll end up with, if humanity is “lucky,” with maybe a billion humans reliving the 19th century, give or take.

At least for those of us in America, it's a matter of finally making the decision to get rid of the status quo. We're not going back to some fanciful, bucolic past no matter how desperately some of us want to, nor is it a matter of some weekend protest, sending a check to our favorite organization, tweaking the tax code or even building some silly little libertarian village in the middle of a dying ocean. We don't really need everyone in order to get this going. It's a matter of recognizing that there is no alternative.

Finally, some data

On the climate:

Good article on language and climate confusion:

           *                                                *                                       *                                *

Where does your country stand:

Psychopathic behavior: A terrific interview with Dr. James Fallon, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and what he learned about himself in the course of his research

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Part 1: Consequences of low information citizenry—most everywhere

Born fictioneers, all of us, we quest for causes and explanations, and if they don't come readily to hand, we make them up, because a wrong answer is better than no answer. Also, a fast good-enough answer is better than a slow perfect answer
(An Alchemy of Mind, by Diane Ackerman)

Global corporate enlightenment in the 21st century

Inequality is becoming a 'wicked' problem like climate change—one in which a solution must not only overcome powerful entrenched interests, in individual countries but must be global in scope to be effective
(Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson, American Prospect, commenting on Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 3/10/14)

For the last few months, the Kochs and other big polluters have been spending heavily to fight renewable energy, which as been adopted by most states
(New York Times, 4/26/14)

The truth-quest is always the same; the unwavering search for signs to match reality

(Truth, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Emancipating the American serf

The whole world is festering with unhappy souls
(from 'The Merry Minuet,' sung by Kingston Trio 1959)


Loosely translated, the word “maskirovka” means masked warfare. It could refer to Putin's use of local thugs, volunteers and disguised Russian Special Operations troops in eastern Ukraine to destabilize the region, thus avoiding the use of traditional forces crossing the border as an invading army.

Of course, we Americans know quite a bit about “special operations” across the globe; however, we know a good deal less about masked warfare inside our own country, partly because we're largely unaware of what is is but, more importantly, the idea is not to know it's actually happening. There are no men dressed in uniforms carrying automatic weapons and speaking in halting English. But our own unique masked warfare has been going on for a very long time, from the very beginning of the republic actually.

The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth
(H.L. Mencken)

It's all mine

The confirmations continue to pile up on the expanding dung heap. Following rapidly on the heels of Thomas Piketty's “best seller” Capital in the Twenty-First Century (see previous article), detailing the level of American inequality, we now have Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens (see Additional Reading below).

Getting beyond the political science jargon and supporting data, all of which is revealing, the report pretty much demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of the American public has very little influence regarding the policies our government adopts. The full report will be available in the Fall.

Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in ancient Greek republics: Freedom for slave owners
(Vladimir Lenin)

The sound of black helicopters

Special operations at its very best are good at deliberate misdirection, pitting various groups against one another, stirring up old fears and superstitions, manipulating ignorance, creating new historical “facts,” which oftentimes includes nostalgic myths about the "good old days." The final act of the very best special operations is instilling fear in the dominant culture, be it at the local level or even throughout a nation-state. “My god, 'they' might take it from us.”

Picking on white America

There's something to be said for a national upheaval, even revolution in some cases. It can clear out the accumulated rot and fanciful misconceptions, as well as rid the nation of a corrupt and useless status quo. But, there is also a downside. In the U.S. in the 1930s it took a worldwide economic Depression and an extraordinary political leader like Franklin D. Roosevelt to create serious political, economic and social change.

In Europe the same Depression led to Fascism and WWII.. The 1918 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, by the 1930s, had turned into a reign of terror and the leadership of the sociopath Joseph Stalin. The world is full of similar dismal examples.

White America has been fortunate, in that it has not had a foreign army in its country since the British invaded the U.S. in the War of 1812. The same certainly can not be said of the Indian nation occupying the same territory as European-Americans but for a longer period of time. As for African-Americans, well, they were considered property until the 1860s and were subjected to second class citizenship until well into the 20th century. No, the American Civil War was not about state rights.

Louis Hartz, in his classic The Liberal Tradition in America, said in the mid-1950s, “that instead of recapturing our past, we have got to transcend it. As for a child leaving adolescence, there is no going home again for America.”

Your 'people', sir, is nothing but a great beast
(Alexander Hamilton, June 18, 1787, Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia)

Our Founding Fathers, while an extraordinary group of men, were not gods from Mount Olympus, and they certainly never put “democracy” on some elevated platform as we tend to do today. They were, understandably, fearful of excessive concentration of power. For our Founders, democracy meant preventing “mob rule and the triumph of passion over reason to serve the ambition of the demagogue.” They created a government which ended up over time serving the needs of the status quo. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a television interview during a visit to Egypt said, “I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012.”

I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country.... Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow....
(Abraham Lincoln, 1864)

Had Lincoln not been assassinated, might the history of the United States been far different? Historians will likely be debating this question for years to come. Regardless, white America did not choose the high ground after Lincoln was killed. Four million former slaves were emancipated in 1865. At the same time some 8 million whites, largely illiterate, never owned slaves, but ended up regarding the freed African-Americans as competitors. The whites were easily manipulated, usually by the same people that were in control before the Civil War. By 1874 the white power structure had regained control and the former Confederacy descended into a “heart of darkness.”

The death of Sitting Bull removes one of the obstacles to civilization. He was a greasy savage, who rarely bathed and was liable at anytime to become infected with vermin. During the whole of his life he entertained the remarkable delusion that he was a free-born American with some rights in the country of his ancestors
(St. Louis Republic newspaper, December 17, 1890)

Abraham Lincoln wanted the West opened for all Americans after the Civil War ended and for the average American to own some land and be a citizen and a full participant in a democratic country. Well, once again white America did not choose the high ground. The opening of the West became the on-going story of genocide, violence, environmental destruction, class warfare and corporate predation and corruption. (For an excellent understanding of the role of the railroads in the West and the rise of the Gilded Age in the late 19th century, read Railroaded by Richard White.)

Wealth, as Mr. Hobbes says, is power
(Adam Smith)

Cow billy liberty, freedom and farmer Bundy

Today, in 2014, mythical American exceptionalism is all pervasive, reinforced by info-entertainers on cable news, politicians, corporations and certainly the many oligarchs with their own anti-democratic agenda. We Americans are somehow special and different we are advised and, if truth be told, a little better than all the rest. The glow, however, is wearing off the glorious fable, rather quickly. But remember what masked warfare is all about.

Cliven Bundy, a millionaire cattle rancher in Nevada may be an apt metaphor for a certain delusional albeit influential segment of America, wallowing in white entitlement and demanding its proprietary welfare capitalism in perpetuity.

Farmer Bundy has been grazing his cattle on “public” lands and has not paid the range fee, hardly onerous by any rational standard, to the Bureau of Land Management in some twenty years, which clearly begs the question: What the hell has the BLM been doing all this time?

Part of the land that Bundy grazes his cattle on has been reserved for the endangered desert tortoise. The land does not belong to Cliven but is held in trust for all Americans, thanks to the intelligence and foresight of the Republican president Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century. Supposedly the fee Mr. Bundy now owes to the citizens of the United States is approximately a million dollars.

Recently, like a tired cowboy fable, when the BLM decided it was about time to enforce the law and round up Bundy's cattle, this odious freeloader claimed he didn't “recognize” the Federal government and started yapping on cue about his freedom and liberty, which naturally brought out the various “patriot” groups and the lunatic militia movement, who were armed to the teeth and threatened violence against BLM officials. This dreary “range war”story is not yet over.

A judicious hanging in Wall Street would be a good measure with which to begin the reformation
(Ignatius Donnelly, in The Representative, August 29, 1894)

No fairy tales to believe in anymore

The population of the United States is over 300 million people. The total number of eligible voters is approximately 206 million people. The number of registered voters in the U.S. are approximately 169 million, with some 86 million registered Democrats, 55 million registered Republicans and some 28 million falling into various categories. Now consider one to five percent of the population.

Oligarchy, for all practical purposes, is the government we now have in the United States. Masked warfare has been quite successful. The obvious question is what will be done about it? Who will do it?
How many people constitute a serious movement with the discipline, the knowledge and the ability to sweep out the accumulated rot and toss out a corrupt and useless status quo? There will be in the near future no national uprising, no college students successfully confronting para-military police forces on a part-time basis, and most definitely no “glorious” revolution. It will, however, not be pain free.

Five percent of 86 million registered Democrats is some 4 million people; three percent of 169 million registered voters is 5 million people; two percent of 300 million residents of the U.S. is 6 million people. The numbers are there.

Credit must be given where credit is due. The current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, and his majority of reactionaries could be dressed in top hats and tails and sent back to the late 19th century. They'd fit right in. Antonin Scalia could ponder his doctrine of “original intent” until the cows come home.

From voting rights to unlimited money in politics, the Roberts court has done its duty well. It was a television comedian that said of the Chief Justice that he was either a liar or too naïve to be serving on the highest court in the land, if he believed that large sums of money did not corrupt the political system.

The U.S. Congress, a corrupt, pompous debating society for millionaires, is merely irrelevant. The Executive branch—who knows? Certainly having a political system allowing for a wider pool of talent to run for the presidency would be a good beginning.

Our 18th century Constitution, a remarkable document for its time, is now a relic of a distant past and needs to be rewritten for the 21st century.

Who will rid this country of the oligarchs?

Additional Reading: