Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Newest Jerusalem


In my salad days, I used several episodes of the original series COSMOS (hereinafter all caps to distinguish it from the New, Improved Cosmos) in Biology class to help orient 9th graders to the basics of Evolution. Over time, I became uncomfortable with the tone of the series, which moved far beyond Science as a methodology  or a collection of techniques, and devolved into to pronouncements, always beginning with the capitalized "Science Says." Carl Sagan came to seem to me more and more as the high priest of a new dispensation that went far beyond the acquisition and application of knowledge about measurable reality. My view of this was confirmed when I came across a book by Sagan, something about a "demon-haunted world," that fundamentally identifies mental illness as all that is not Science. COSMOS came to assert -as does all materialism- that the reality of Science -what is defined as and duly refereed by Scientists- is the only reality there is, and everything else, far from being merely beyond the purview of scientific investigation, was and is irrelevant superstition,  representative only of ignorance, reaction, oppression, and darkness. And how is this different from the role of the priests of the temple in Ancient Egypt, or the Inquisition of the Catholic Church, which is so roundly condemned by COSMOS? In essence, not at all, and there's a lot of truth in the classic line "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition," because it can take many forms.

The current 2014 Cosmos series, far from being an improvement on COSMOS (except, presumably in special effects) immediately jumps on this bandwagon with the overarching statement, and within the first ten minutes, that "the Cosmos is everything that there is." I would reply with the Tagalog  "akka," or  for you only. Cosmos 2014, to an even greater extent than the original COSMOS, is Science become completely didactic.

There is more in heaven and on earth that can be reached with either the electron microscopes or the telescopes of Science, but that's on their agenda to become "politically incorrect." Taking a very important page from Stalin's takeover of Russia as Party Secretary, the insidious practice that's been readopted is that if it's not on the public agenda, it never gets discussed. And the mass media have been proven compliant with this goal. Science has become the dutiful servant of those who see control as the main goal of human society, pursued to the n-th degree. What previous attempts at totalitarianism got wrong was their ethnocentrism, violence, and brutality. The new totalitarianism will not discriminate on ethnic, racial, sexual, or any of the historic grounds, it instead will be directed with a suffocating benevolence directly at the individual, all individuals, in a totally non-discriminatory manner.

The New Cosmos will of course proceed to the Cosmos' self-invention in the Big Bang from an immeasurably small point (which no one can explain, but they're not going there). While stating that Science banishes us from the tyranny of mere imagination, the producer of the show, through Dr. Tyson, will relentlessly go there whenever they've reached some point that Science cannot address.
Science has begun to wax fundamentally mendacious. Current Science, for example, speaks of "Dark Matter" and "Dark Energy" with complete assurance, as though these things have already been measured and are known. In fact, they are only placeholders marking the inability of contemporary Science to reconcile its own metrics, exactly as the concept of "Ether" was employed in the 19th Century. The High Priests of what has become an institutionally captive Science must always act as though they know, lest the Great Green River of Grants dry up.

Modern science started with people who were very limited in many respects compare to present-day researchers, but in one thing they were immeasurably richer: independence. The advantage of the earlier system of patronage lay in the patron's ignorance of and consequent indifference toward their clients. As long as the client could be presumed to glorify or enrich the patron at some point, the client was free to pursue their goals with a complete lack of interference. Do contemporary scientists enjoy the same freedom? I would submit that many have lost it, and those who have not are in the process of losing it. The actual researcher is now being driven by forces that have nothing whatever to do with the actual practice of Science. More scientists labor at the equivalent of devising a better remote control for televisions than are exploring any Brave New Worlds.

A far too lengthy segment in the initial episode of Cosmos concerns the fate of Giordano Bruno. This segment is portrayed in a strangely crude, not even animated set of pictures, in stark contrast to the slick graphics of the galaxy shown earlier. One presumes this is somehow meant to convey the crudeness and brutality of those times....although, I suspect, all it did was put a contemporary viewing audience off. It's rather like getting kids nowadays to watch Rocky and Bullwinkle. The message of the fate of Giordano Bruno was in line with the rest of the message of Cosmos: that which is not Science is now very likely (soon = almost certainly) Bad. There is neither freedom of belief or opinion outside of the pronouncements of Science in Cosmos, only being Wrong.

Next on the agenda is the ongoing attack on free will. Once it can be firmly established (probably by the Center for Disease Control) that free will is just another superstition, all human liberties become irrelevant. I look forward to seeing this in future episodes....which, as of this date, I have no plan to watch. The litmus test for those who do choose to watch
COSMOS is to keep track of how much actual discussion of scientific method there is, as opposed to scientific pronouncements.....because method, and not statements of Truth, is all science really is.

A Meditation Upon the Sphingidæ

To get it out of the way, the Sphingidæ are the sphinx moths, aka hawk moths, hummingbird moths, etc. When I recently encountered my first one, it was of the genus Macroglossum, the "hummingbird" variety, doing what hummingbirds do, dipping its proboscis into clumps of pink flowers. It moved about in a way at first indistinguishable from hummingbirds: rapid wing beats, quick, darting flight, capable of backward movement. Since I was in unfamiliar territory (Colorado), I assumed that what I was looking at was, in fact, a hummingbird. Then, after a minute or so of observation, I noticed the antennæ, which of course no bird possesses. On reflection, what is amazing is my mental tendency to assume that because I thought it was a different species of hummingbird that "-well, perhaps it has some kind of structures that resemble antennae."
It was only later, after looking up "hummingbirds of Colorado," that an associated item delivered information about the sphinx moth. Then, after being corrected about the identity of the insect I had been observing, I began to think about our tendency to push individual entities we encounter into some pre-existing mold that is already in our heads. As much as I value the notion, e.g., of considering human beings on their own terms, as individuals apart from any sort of classifying characteristic - wearing jeans, blond hair, brown eyes, green skin, etc., it was somewhat disturbing to me in retrospect how automatically I had categorized an insect as a bird. Closer examination, of course, reveals many characteristics that differentiate hummingbirds from sphinx moths, but somehow my brain preferred to place the insect in a known, familiar category, rather than consider it as something new and unique.
What we value, or claim to value, is always working upstream against whatever mechanism in our heads relentlessly works to generalize. While generalizing (or stereotyping, to use the dirtier word) is and always will be valuable mental shorthand, it requires situational awareness, an actual mental effort and acuity to reject it when that is needful.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Bell Has Donne Tolled Me Deaf

It is reported as an historical fact that F.W. Nietzsche became as crazy as a bedbug; few argue with that. Before he did, like most bright people, he said a few things which one would wish to remember. Here is one:

"I want, once and for all, not to know many things. - Wisdom sets limits to knowledge too."

I am not familiar with the context used by Nietzsche, nor do I particularly care. Aphorisms do not always hold up when fit back in the mold from which they came. But I read it, and it has stuck with me.....although not particularly at first. I was somewhat younger when I read it, and although it was one of those things I suspected may be important, the full subjective import of it had to mature in me for some years. But I am there.

We live in a world in which the affairs, enormities, and travail of millions -if not billions- of, as one thinker puts it, "distant others" are dinned constantly into our ears or dangled before our jaded vision, and every minute of every day were it not for the blessings of sleep.

In his Meditation XVII, John Donne espoused what has become a classic line, but a part of a larger quote, and important enough to be remembered in full:

"No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

And all in the lovely English of the 17th century, full of a sweep and power that may finally be fading. A great humanistic statement, an appeal to the importance of human society at large rather than one's particular nation or tribe. It is a quote borne along on the tide of events that emerged from history in the Renaissance, and has been a flood engulfing the world. And yet, for all that, here we are.

In the aftermath of not only the Age of Genius but the Industrial Revolution, we live immured in a global network of technology that brings, in the words of a somewhat lower philosopher, "-the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat." We watch people at the trivia of their daily lives, and we watch the extremes of thousands washed away by a tsunami like dust before the wind, and the pinnacle of our time as men walk on another world.

And unless we refuse to participate, it is very difficult to escape for anyone in the developed world, where both traditional and electronic media are ubiquitous. But escape is, in the modern world, as near a sin as some can imagine. We must "be involved," we are thoroughly Emersonized into believing that "A man who does not share in the action and passion of his times may be judged never to have lived." But that was then, in a nineteenth century wherein the full impact of sharing the lives of anonymous billions had not yet become so personal. And this is now, where it requires considerable effort to escape it.

We have arrived at a time where it becomes necessary to advance an actual apologia limiting one's sphere of legitimate attention, interest, and concern. It has been demonstrated that most human beings are incapable of having any meaningful personal interaction with more than 150 people. I would submit that for most of those, it's significantly less, and in no case is it very much more.

This then poses the very important question of how we can possibly feel actual concern, sympathy, or empathy for people for whom, in reality, we cannot relate. I submit that we cannot. We are therefore claiming some sort of subjective, personal involvement with symbols abstracted from the people we know, and claiming by that tenuous connection to have genuine affect for them. And I submit that this is impossible, belief to the contrary notwithstanding.

The connections therefore proposed by some, that we have not only to pay attention to global humanity, but that we also have moral obligations to these distant others, is an illusion. The issue is not whether we want to; it's that we're incapable. And this may explain that the greater the leader, the more likely they are to represent a power that will be used irresponsibly and brutally. Not that this will be done out of some calculated viciousness (although this has been done, most notably in the past century by the Nazi government of Germany, the Soviet Union, and Maoist China, as well as other places). It's just that ultimately power is implemented on millions via impersonal policies that must needs grind up some of those people in the gears of bureaucracy. The American Indian was never viewed as some great enemy, nor was that ever the case. The Native American was simply an inconvenience in the way of those same statutes and procedures, and again like dust they were swept away.

There is universal distrust of the system of "spokespersons" and "experts" who appear in suits and skirts and chatter away in the hermetic universe of set-piece political discussions or press conferences. We now perceive that we are only told a crafted, deeply invidious version of a particular story or issue, and the "what" of things is hardly addressed at all, except in passing. No one cares whether the audience understands or not, one must only lend credence as demanded by the man or woman on the screen or behind the podium.

This anomie stems perhaps from our deepest human sense that we can't possibly relate personally to what's being discussed, and yet we are supposed to believe that those who prate so convincingly have somehow managed to do so. Absent a belief in magical powers, I submit they have not.

To revert to the opening statement, I am past pretending that I want to be force-fed any more of the grief of Germany, the trials of Thailand, the idiocies of India or Iran, the paranoia of Paraguay or the arrogance of Argentina. Stereotyping is generally decried among educated persons, and yet it is still almost a given when applied to presenting stories on a global level. The French are reported to think thus-and-so, and the South Africans this, the few people in the Yukon another thing. And if it is presented as a poll, and 56% of Laotians are opposed to the use of the Western toothbrush, what am I to make of these figures? Outside of context, how am I supposed to know whether or not 56% of Laotians even know what a toothbrush is? Or whether they use a magic bubblegum to clean their teeth that is far superior to my Pix-o-Dent? I cannot make sense of this, and unless I grant a special dispensation to the various pundits, gurus, politicians, and experts (which I have previously indicated that I don't), I do not believe they do either. At least they no longer sing to me.

What Violent Mentality?

It was mentioned by someone recently that the solution to the massacre at Newtown, CT is to "change the mentality." Evidently such hope for change rests largely with another push to emulate failed gun control bills of days gone by, so let's examine the national "mentality," which one can only assume involves the social acceptance of violent acts.

Since everyone else is focused on guns, I'd like to offer some other items for consideration that make up that "mentality."

Let's start with the number of TV shows focused solely on mayhem of various kinds, but most generally, week in and week out, with murders, either singly, serially, or en masse. Just some examples, by no means exhaustive, would include everything in the "CSI" franchise, everything in the "Law and Order" franchise, Bones, Rizzoli and Isles, Criminal Minds. The Mentalist deals with the recurring theme of a serial killer, nemesis of the protagonist, who has now killed, singly or in groups, and with evident impunity, throughout every season of the show. But the crowning glory of contemporary TV has to be Dexter, now renewed for a SEVENTH season, billed by Showtime as "America's Favorite Serial Killer," in which the protagonist of the show, with whom we putatively identify, is both a law enforcement agent and a murderer. Res ipse loquitur.


I don't go to the movies a lot, but there's enough of a Grand Guignol there, too. Violence is as alive and well in the cinema as on the tube. Since I don't watch a whole lot of movies, I'll leave it at that, because I know that the First Rule of Fight Club is "Don't talk about Fight Club."

Shifting (only slightly) from entertainment billed as such to the increasingly entertaining "news" and "weather," we find not a complete preoccupation with all things violent, but a quite deliberate attempt to portray them in the most lurid and distressing possible light, by the use of the most extreme adjectives in Webster's. Everything is "devastating" now, my friends. And things most people have never heard of, and which are often unproven, are damned as threats to health and safety. Last year it was high fructose corn syrup, before that it was thimerosol and the whole vaccination hysteria, now it's the evils of gluten. How does this tie into the culture of violence? Because it is most often portrayed as the (assumed) intent of someone else to put this stuff into our bodies. Back in the 1950's it was shadowy forces trying to fluoridate our precious bodily fluids, but what was put down to the lunatic fringe then sixty years later has become a neverending series of assumptions: accusation is proof of guilt.

A large theme in that portion of television devoted to the weather and "reality" is the various sorts of catastrophes that, however remote the possibility, still could occur. And we're always left with the impression that these things are just around the corner. Mega-this-and-that, from hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, another ice age, large-scale desertification. And the recent trend is to move the paranoia off Earth entirely, and go on about all the things coming to get us from elsewhere in the cosmos: asteroids, comets, rogue planets, gamma and cosmic ray bursts, objects moving through the solar system at close to light speed, and, of course, the perennial favorite of some type of alien invasion.

Video games have been under scrutiny before, largely to no effect. But there is no denying that  many thousands of copies are sold of any number of video games devoted solely to killing or being killed by an amazing variety of anthropomorphic figures, ranging from the completely human through zombies, monsters, etc....but it's just nonstop mayhem, and it's not supposed to have anything to do with "reality," so the assumption is that it has no effect on people's behavior.

Well, if nothing has pissed anyone off yet, let's move on to.....SPORTS. How about sports that, completely within the rules and with the sanction of law and society, result in the absolutely unavoidable debilitating injury of the participants, often at a young age. I suppose the most extreme trend is in "ultimate fighting," but boxing has been controversial for years, with not much ever having been done about it. Then there's football, a pastime where Isaac Newton's laws of motion produce a neverending litany of injury. There hasn't been much serious talk about the consequences of playing football since it was up for being banned in 1906, but facts have finally accumulated that are difficult to ignore, and current lawsuits by former players against the NFL mean they aren't likely to go away. And because these sports may be the worst don't mean there aren't others.

When it comes to violence, we can hardly omit the increasingly questionable world of America since September 11, 2001. Even the question of someone  wishing the U.S. ill is now likely to provoke the most drastic sort of response, and the  dismantling of the Bill of Rights, unthinkable before, is now under way. The Fourth Amendment is falling by the wayside, and the Fifth is threatened. We are now told by some people that the Second must go, based up on the acts of a madman. How long before the First Amendment, however important, can no longer be tolerated- in the name of public safety, of course. It has become "necessary." As William Pitt remarked, "'Necessity' is the plea for every infringement of human liberty; it is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves."

I submit, based upon what I have stated in this brief essay, that there is a mentality in this society that transcends whatever may be employed to commit the violence. I would think any reasonable approach to change this state of mind would be welcome.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Back to the future

As I recounted in a previous post, it was a bit too soon to be drawing such ironclad conclusions from the Japanese earthquake / tsunami of 2011. Yes, Virginia, they're starting the reactors back up. Apparently the sons and daughters of Nippon have no more desire than we to start turning off the lights.

Yes, there were protesters. Yes, in this New World of Continuous Complaint, there are always protesters. My question is specific and to the point. How many of those protesters went home and terminated their electric service?

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Salem Syndrome

Television drama, insofar as much of it is confined to cop / lawyer shows, has adopted a theme that is familiar to anyone who has knowledge of the events in Salem Village, Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692.

In a television series, it is the obsession of a given character in a series, although the character in the ensemble who takes this role may or may not change from one episode to the next. It is the obsession of these characters that justify whatever procedures (or failure to follow procedures) lead to the conclusion of the case. This accounts for the myriad episodes where any normal police officer would be fired or face charges themselves, or a lawyer be disbarred and/or charged with a crime. The obsession (although this would be called "commitment") then provides a putative suspension of disbelief where the viewer can then provide justification for acts on the part of the protagonists that are basically unjustified, even where the law is violated

In 1692, it was the obsession and hysteria of several teenage girls that provided sufficient suspension of disbelief in the court to send 19 men and women to the gallows. We have conveniently labeled the acts of those who lived over three centuries ago as stemming from ignorance, hysteria, and a host of vague hypotheses. In our day, however, we have become no less susceptible to the belief that commitment in and of itself can not only move mountains, but should supersede even law if only one feels strongly enough.

"I would give the devil himself the benefit of law, for my own safety's sake."- A Man For All Seasons, Robert Bolt

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Numbers for the New Century Revisited

I'd like to turn in the direction of innovative solutions to the ever-burgeoning numbers of people. How about Birthright Lotteries? This is a concept originated by Larry Niven, in his Known Space universe, and you'll find some discussion of it on the Internet, although the term has been highjacked and turned to unrelated discussions by some.

I'm not going to discuss it at length. Even convicted criminals can't be excluded from the Birthright Lottery. What's the penalty if you circumvent getting your birth control implants? Well, then the ARMs go on a Mother Hunt....and the parents are executed, their child lives, thus maintaining zero growth. Have you a license to breed in the Lottery, and want more than one kid? Put your ticket in the pot and go in the arena and fight for it. The losers do the subtraction for the extra kid you have.

Grim? Not nearly as grim as where we're headed......the figures say world population will top out at 10+ billion. How long does anyone think that can be sustained? No one took Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) very seriously in 1968 when his timeline proved to be far too short, but that book has always stuck with me, and it seems more relevant than ever in 2012. Population control by coercion has always been shunned as politically unacceptable. More acceptable than the inexorable depletion of irreplaceable resourcs and mass starvation?