Saturday, September 30, 2006

Poscards from a Post Human (pt 3)

I've been going over the notes from the future, trying to absorb not only the information, but the implications. What was I supposed to do with all this? Why tell me?

I hesitate to share most of what has been layed out before me, in such terse, stark emails. But I'm going to need help. It's too overwhelming.

Want an example? Ok, here's an extract from one...
Global warming was real. But then, so was the solar sunspot cycle which caused global cooling. Unfortunately, they came at the same time.

Turned out that the various factions squabbling over whether the earth was warming, and if it was whether or not it was caused by man or whether this is just part of a natural cycle...they were all partially correct. Each had a piece to the puzzle, but each was apparently more interested in proving the others wrong than to put enough of the pieces together to make out the emerging picture.

It appears that right about when the world finally started to wake up to the escalating problem of global warming, the normal cycle of Solar sun spot activity reached a lull and mitigated the effects.

But only for about ten years.

Once the solar activity started its climb again, the world had spent an additional ten years of not just ignoring the warming problem, but exacerbating it. With the contributions of global greenhouse gases and solar activity combining, global temperatures shot up. And reached a tipping point.

There used to be a tremendous amount of methane and carbon dioxide trapped deep in the sea and under the permafrost, kept locked in hydrate layers under low ocean temperatures and the pressure of the land and sea above. Did you know that methane is about 20 times stronger as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide?

At the poles, warming occured quickly - as the ice melted, the albedo of the ground was lowered (less refleced sunlight), and the ground absorbed even more heat, accelerating the effect. And the poles were where the hydrate deposits were concentrated.

The polar ocean blew its lid. Literally.

As the permafrost melted and the ocean temperatures rose, there were more and more frequent episodes of "methane burps," a hundred-fold expansion in volume of the methane, carbon dioxide, and other volatile gasses in what used to be the locked freezer box of the arctic circle. All over the polar region there were vast bubbles, water spouts, earth and sea crumbling and cracking open as geysers of volatile gasses spewed into the air.

As the methane started its immediate interaction with the oxygen in the air, the carbon dioxide, heavier than air, would flow back down and out from these burps, smothering all living things in its path. Millions died before we could evacuate everyone down away from the poles, which had become a fickle abatoir. And we moved them from the only temperate regions left on the planet into the lower latitudes and what had now become a tropical hurricane machine of epic proportion.

These massive releases of greenhouse gases caused further rapid warming, which in turn released more hydrates, in a feedback loop. We later understood that such events had happened before. The Permian extinction event, in which 70-90% of all plant and animal species went extinct, was one. That time it was basalt magma eruptions which tipped the balance.

This time, it was us.

You see? There are so many more little vignettes like that, touching on global ecology, economy, scientific developments, social change, and other areas, and I am failing to see how they all fit. And more importantly, why they're being sent to me. What I'm supposed to do about them.

I go back to the first emails that started all this, and have a glimmer of hope in what he (I?) said. "...this kick-ass post-human world in which I now live..." Despite the messages detailing all the craziness, the mass deaths, the wars, the mistakes of science that took even more lives...despite all this, that must mean that things got better, right? That mankind came out of it all ok. That even I, and others of my time, survived to see a better day dawn.

But then I read another missive of misfortune, and I wonder...was that instead just my tendency toward bitter sarcasm coming out in the end?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

I refute it thus!

I just reread "Paradigms Lost", by John Casti. Published in 1989 (17 years ago), it presents examinations of the progression of thought on six "Big Questions" around humanity and its place in the Universe: Origin of Life, Sources of Human Behavior, Language Acquisition, Artificial Intelligence, Extraterrestrial Life, and the Nature of Reality. Although some of the science is dated, these questions remain as unanswered today as they were a generation ago.

These are all topics that fascinate me, and the temptation is to blog a bit about each. But instead, I want to blog about a related topic that I've been thinking about a lot. The way we posit a problem, the very symbols we use to represent it and manipulate it, contain in them boundaries and obstacles that often can get in the way of finding clear solutions (or at least clear paths).

Although terribly oversimplified, I'd like to use math to make my point. The number 12 can be represented in (literally) countless ways: 12, sqrt(144), 3 times 4, 2 times 6, 2 times 2 times 3, six plus 6, 144/ get my point, right?

Now, say the problem you wanted to solve was to divide 12 eggs among three people. Some of the representations above make the problem trivial. And some make it very awkward to solve. If wrote the problem as "If the number of eggs is one gross divided by sqrt(2x2x2x2x3x3), how many eggs should go to each of (30 +3)/11 people", it would be a bit harder to see the solution at a glance - you might have to work your way through it a bit.

All problems are like this. The path we take to a solution (if we can find our way to one at all) depends on the way the problem is formed, and the symbols we use to manipulate the problem space.

For the Big Problems, we tend to get stuck in paradigms of our own making (and perpetuated by cultural transmission, like a disease). These paradigms guide and restrict our thinking about a problem, such that often we can never see what is right before us in Objective Reality.

In fact, the concept of Objective Reality itself has often come under attack. Many ideas that reality is only as much as we perceive, or even that it requires our perception for reality to even exist.

An Example. The elevation of the measurement function to special status by Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Physics should have been sliced to bits at birth by Occam's Razor. If quantum probabilities required an observer to collapse into a single "real" state, then who in the universe was doing the obligatory observing for the 13 billion years it took for man to arrive on the scene?

Even if you take some mish mash Creationhagen view that the universe sprang fully formed once viewed by the "first consciousness", then when along the continuum of nervous system evolution did this occur? Humans? Protohumans? Anthropoids? Mammals? Eukaryotes? Viruses? Proteins? Molecules? And since we can't even firmly define what we mean by consciousness to this day, using it as the foundation for another theory seems to be building on quicksand.

No, reality existed long before we came onto the stage, and will exist long after. (Maybe - depends whether or not we make it through the singularity awaiting the end of man's childhood. If we do, there's a chance we could stick around till the end). Critical thinking skills seem to be rarely taught, either via informal cultural transmission or formal education. And it should be. When we are able to question the tenets of our thoughts back to their very foundations in Descartes like fashion, such that we can identify and recognize the boundaries of our paradigms, we can make progress in true understanding of the Universe As It Is.

It seems to be recognizing the truth through the fog of our paradigms that is the tough part, even when you're about to trip over it.
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."
--Boswell: Life
Usually the path reveals itself by its very simplicity. But its not enough to ask the right questions (a tough enough proposition).

You have to ask them the right way.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

For The Love Of Terror

I read the text of President Bush's 9/11 (2006) speech, and was struck more by what he didn't say than what he did.

Still linking our invasion of Iraq with the terror attacks of 9/11 (2001). Which I've always found ironic, since Saddam Hussein - though not an advocate of democracy and freedom himself - was strongly against fundamentalist brands of Islam found in Al Qaida and Iran. It was Al Qaeda who attacked the U.S., not Iraq. And it is Iran (and Syria) funding the attacks against the U.S. troops today.

Terror is an extremely useful weapon. This is true if you're Osama bin Laden (still alive and well on this fifth anniversary of his terror coup). And it's just as true if you're the President. Because you can use the weapons of fear to achieve your political ends.

If you're the Republican Party, you can use terror to scare people into voting to keep you in office. Because if you talked about the economy, or healthcare, or global warming, or trade deficits and national debt, or the state of New Orleans, or any of a dozen other issues that have a larger impact on most Americans daily lives, then those Americans might not find a lot of reason to keep you in office.

And even if you're with the President on this issue and don't go for this Daily Kos type rant, think about this. What does it say about a person, or a party, who places the continuing threat of terrorism as the centerpiece of an election platform?

Should it worry you at all that if the continuation of a threat is indeed the primary road to reelection, that perhaps there might not be a lot of incentive to have that threat go away?

I do agree that the rise of fundamentalist Islam is a threat to our safety and way of life. But every congressional (controlled by Republicans for 6 years now), intelligence agency, and military report on the terrorist threat says that the "war" cannot be won via military might. It takes economic and political infrastructure changes, education and training, democracy and enlightenment to fight terrorism.

A party platform that benefits from increased terrorism and that is harmed by effective programs to eradicate a platform that no rational individual, even those in great fear for their lives and safety, should support.