Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Extinction for fun and profit

The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven, not man's
(Mark Twain)

The approaching silence

It's a remarkable picture making the rounds on the internet: More than 30,000 walruses have come ashore in Alaska because of disappearing sea ice in the Chukchi Sea, an area where the oil and gas industry want to drill. This is the feeding area for the walruses and where the females give birth. A similar phenomenon is occurring along the Russian coast as well. Climate change is so inconvenient.

The depressing numbers

The World Wildlife Fund recently updated its Living Planet Report. In just two human generations half the animals are gone (10,000 representative population sampling of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish), which represents a 50 percent decline over the past 40 years.

The major causes are familiar. In addition to climate change, there is habitat destruction and loss, devastation caused by unsustainable levels of hunting and fishing—for whatever reasons—and exploitation in general. Right now between 23 percent and 36 percent of all birds mammals, and amphibians used for food or medicine are now threatened with extinction.

A house of death eaters

While the industrial slaughter of iconic animals like the elephant and the rhino is frequently in the news, less well known creature have many scientists far more worried and could have a direct and disastrous impact on Homo sapiens.

Some of us, for example, may know that the world's food production (possibly more than 60 percent) is dependent on bees and other pollinators, but how many know about the importance of the lowly worm, which turns waste into soil nutrients or that bats keep malaria rates down. It is the small, not so cuddly creatures, that may ultimately change everything for humankind, possibly much sooner than we might imagine.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Bring me the storyteller

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
(Tertullian, 2nd century Christian author and zealot from Carthage)

Those who tell the story rule the world.
(Hopi Indian proverb)

The times, they are so interesting

The speaker was Shane Snow, CEO of Contently, a media/branding company. By chance I happened to see him on one of the familiar TED presentations. Snow's talk centered on telling stories that make us care. His presentation is at the end of this article.

I suspect part of the reason I viewed this particular presentation is because we've had unceasing news coverage regarding the Islamic State terrorizing the Middle East. As well, at the same time, we have all seen the pictures from West Africa and the global community's inability, to date, to contain the Ebola outbreak—and finally, the climate summit, which began with the march in New York this past Sunday. What will we do this time? What is the story and who is telling it? It actually does matter to all of us across the globe, whether we understand it or not.

Recently, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham hysterically proclaimed that we'll all (“all,” meaning Americans) be murdered in our beds if President Obama doesn't destroy the Islamic State. Graham is one of the more contemptible bottom feeders in a corrupt and essentially useless United States Congress. He can best be thought of as Senator John McCain's pet rock, another confused American politician that needs to retire to one of his six or seven homes.

Flickering shadows around the camp fire

Some twenty-five years ago Joseph Campbell, the author of The Power of Myth, brought to public television his remarkable series about mythology and storytelling throughout human history. We Homo sapiens have been telling tales from the very beginning. It's a central part of what makes us human.

Anthropologists have discovered human grave sites more than 100,000 years old, which clearly indicate rituals for the dead, with the bodies oftentimes laid out in particular positions and jewelry and various belongings placed in the graves. The sky gods, the dragons and the demons have always been with us whispering in our ears, soothing us one moment and terrifying us the next.

The secret of the process by which consciousness invests history with meaning resides in the 'content of the form,' in the way our narrative capacities transform the present into a fulfillment of a past from which we would wish to have descended.
(Hayden White, historian)

Believing what I say

While the Islamic State and its numerous fellow-travelers may be the latest example of how monstrous humankind can be, and who deserve no tolerance whatsoever, they are not Hitler's Wehrmacht, except perhaps in the minds of the usual political suspects and of course those who have a vested interest in embarking on another military crusade.

The retired general and admirals with their war maps and lucrative consulting fees are being wheeled out to advise us, in somber voices, that we must confront this global evil to preserve civilization or some variation of the story.

The American kleptocracy can sit back in their chairs for the moment, knowing that the public is frightened once again, easily manipulated and distracted and remains as uninformed as ever. Now how many citizens were murdered by guns on American streets this past week? Does anyone actually care?

The spreading Ebola epidemic in West Africa has many fathers, from illiteracy and cultural practices to civil war, poverty and indifference. Some health organizations have estimated that some 1.4 million people could be infected with the Ebola virus by this winter. See Ebola Virus Cases May Hit 1.4Million. If ever a compelling story was needed, it is now.

Several days ago Senator James Inhoff of Oklahoma stumbled out onto the stage to advise reporters that IS terrorists were already in the U.S. ready to strike. Inhoff’s claim to fame is that he said a number of years ago that global warming was a “hoax.” It was all those scientists seeking grants from the public trough that created the global warming fairy tale. For an interesting piece on “creating” the story and climate change see Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change and what to doabout it.

The ultimate story for all of us is yet to be written. Now would be a good time to gather together the genuine storytellers.

Reading about terrorism and the middle east:

The Ebola virus:

Climate change:

Depressing comic relief:

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:

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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