30 November 2018

Stephan Schwartz's The Awakening

 I just finished reading Stephan Schwartz's The Awakening. He's a neuroscientist and sort of latter day Alvin Toffleresqe futurist, who obviously believes, as many of us now do, that human civilization is at a major crossroads as a result of the Climate Catastrophe. Many roads lead to very dire outcomes; a few may lead to a more sustainable world. 

Anyway, there are certain points of congruence in this novel with the science fiction ideas I've been thinking about, although his theories about universal consciousness being eternal and separate from matter and energy are, I think, either a fictional device or (more likely) systematic new agey wishful thinking on his part. As is the mostly tacit assumption that the Saganian view of the prevalence of extraterrestrial intelligence (and even humanoid form) is correct. I am about as sure, speculatively speaking, that this is not the way the world really is, as I am about anything. In my view, complex life is pretty rare, maybe even extremely rare, in the universe (so far; its prevalence has great potential to grow exponentially in the future); contemporaneously existing intelligent civilizations are at least two orders of magnitude rarer still; really long range space travel is essentially impossible; and even long range communication is hobbled by the speed of light, which means that civilizations' intercommunication, when it is even practical at all, is so slow that it can only amount to exchange of histories and broad perspectives. Science, apart from esoterica, is likely to be more a shared background than a frontier. And consciousness arises from, and is limited by, matter and energy, it does not exist apart from and without reference to the limitations of, matter, energy, or, for that matter, spacetime. I know, puritanism in space, not fun at all, etc. But I'm pretty sure these broad points are accurate.

Schwartz's novel is readable, but it's not great literature. One thing that is similar to what I've been thinking about is that it's more or less utopian, a type of literature that has been out of fashion for quite a while. 

Apropos, although you cannot rule out absolutely the possibility that extraterrestrials at some point in the 4,000 million year history of life on Earth have physically visited this planet, Sagan's dictum that "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" at some point has to be squared with Occam's razor. I believe that if anything even remotely like the idea were true that there were some thousands of spacefaring civilizations in our galaxy, and they were for whatever zoo hypothesis/prime directive/Galactic primitives non-interference protocol or whatever essentially quarantining our planet, it would amount to the greatest conspiracy theory ever. And thing about conspiracies, is that they are only ever real when they're small scale. Think about it. Large scale secret cabals to keep the truth from the masses are always paranoid fantasies. I can think of no single exception. The fact is that it just isn't possible to keep those kinds of secrets. People tell tales. Things get out. And even on the scale of the cosmic, it's just not believable to me that stealth technology and unity of purpose among the ETs could keep the presence of ET technology perfectly secret for years or centuries. By the same token, if spacefaring cultures really were prevalent, even within my postulated constraints of slower-than-light travel only, within less than a very few million years, it would have been quite feasible for them to have visited and cataloged every single living planet in the galaxy and be working on the Clouds of Magellan and thinking about nearby galaxies M31 and M33. So my conclusion is that, so far, in our still relatively young universe, such technology remains really quite rare.  (In fact, we have no actual evidence that it exists at all, anywhere). Because I just don't see any reason to believe that our planet has been or is being visited by ETs, and I think we've already reached the point in the various SETI strategies that the absence of any evidence has set some quite real constraints on just how common, and how advanced, the technologies of any contemporaneous denizens of our galaxy may be. Notnecessarily none, but few; and none of them have had real spacefaring technology for really long periods of time. Yet

I rest my case, I believe it to be what the evidence (including lack thereof) shows. And while Schwartz's book is interesting for its perspective on our current global predicament, if it is intended to be a plausible scenario for something that could actually happen, well, not so much. 

27 November 2018

Topsy Turvy World

We live in Topsy Turvy world. The Guardian reports that one of the things Manafort lied about is his repeated meetings from 2013 to 2016 with Julian Assange. Look, whatever you may think about the NSA and Snowden and all that, it's pretty clear that Assange is a virtual Russian agent. So this latest revelation means one thing pretty damn clearly: Trump's campaign did indeed collude with Russians and Russian cutouts. (Not that we didn't already have quite a bit of more circumstantial evidence of that). And what is the news out of the WH? Trump says Mueller is doing "tremendous damage to the country." And the press corps acts like it's just the usual case of he-said, they-said. Our government is headed by an arch criminal and traitor, and our Congress and media mostly act like it's Reality TV.  


26 November 2018

Stephan Schwartz, Four Mega-trends

Stephan Schwartz is a neuroscientist, popular science and science fiction writer, and "trendspotter". Excellent interview with him on Thanksgiving's Ian Masters program [ https://www.backgroundbriefing.org/ ]. He identifies four major trends predominant in today's America and the World:

1. Being born white no longer confers economic and social privilege and power;
2. Being born male no longer confers dominance (for the first time in about 5000 years);
3. Western cultural and political values are no longer determinative in the World;
4. The rise of a sort of neofeudal aristocracy of wealth and technology, that is separating the world's population into a miniscule elite of corporate quasi-state owners and a small managerial elite, on the one hand, and a serfdom of workers and underclass on the other.

Me editorializing: The first three can be positives, long term, but the fourth, coupled with the literal existential challenge we face with the Climate Catastrophe, will be the test of whether human civilization can endure, or NOT.


He makes the case, incidentally, that the rise of Trump and Trumpism, which is a symptom, not a thing in itself, can be mostly attributed to FEAR, and that primarily derived from trends 1 and 2, and to some extent the other two as well. White males, in particular, fear the loss of their perceived status and power in the context of these large scale trends.

He also makes a convincing case that one of the causes of the pervasive fear that is fueling right wing populism worldwide is an inchoate, even unconscious sense of dread arising from the threat of the Climate Catastrophe. People know, on some level, that we are in for a rough time over the next however many decades; that it's real, and that there's no escape from some really serious consequences. Yet rather than reacting rationally, and demanding mitigation and remediation, which is what a rational actor would do, many people react out of fear and even panic, and lash out with hatred, vilification of the other, and all the usual nationalist and fascist trends, not because they make any sense, but just because people are scared shitless, whether consciously or not, and have no idea what to do.

This is a huge challenge, but also an opportunity, for progressive leadership.

22 November 2018

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all. Brad and I will be in the Bay Area (Marin). Give me a call if you're in the area! And may we all have a peaceful and hopeful holiday. 

David & Brad 

13 November 2018

Democratic Gains Grown Stronger

Could we have, nay, DID we, hope for a more overwhelming national repudiation of Trump than the 2018 MidTerm? Of course! There is almost no scenario in which we wouldn't have said that! But you gotta admit, there's something kinda sweet about today's NYT headline: "A Week After the Election, Democratic Gains Grow Stronger."

Most of the late counted votes have broken our way, for a variety of demographic reasons (and not because of nonexistent voter fraud, as screamed by Repubs with no evidence at all).

Nelson in a recount in FL remains unlikely, but Sinema and Tester were far from sure things on election night, but now their victories are beyond doubt. And there are several House seats of which the same can be said.  

07 November 2018

State Legislatures

State Legislatures are important, too, and that news is reasonably good. At least there's little chance of a Koch sponsored Constitutional Convention being forced by 3/4 of the states to end democracy forever. Which was a real threat before last night.


Josh Marshall's overall sum up on the election results

Well worth a read, and for what it's worth, I agree with Josh Marshall pretty much entirely here. 

02 November 2018

Abigail Spanberger and the New National Security Democrats

See this.

I heard a long form interview with her on Dick Clark's podcast, "Future State." She is of a mold of new Democrat, call them "national security" Democrats, who are fairly but not slavishly gung ho on national security but reliably Democratic mainstream on domestic issues. And I happen to think that, at least among the more creative and smarter ones, they are the future leadership of our party. Here's why. 

Listening to the likes of Susan Rice and Dick Clark himself, and several other people who are or have become vehemently anti Trump Democrats but who come from a national security background, I've become convinced that they are right about a number of things, and the more forward looking ones realize that it isn't a question of supporting the defense establishment as it currently exists, but looking at a whole new approach. 

We again live in dangerous world. Francis Fukuyama's fantasy of the triumph of liberal democracy everywhere is a distant memory. Instead we have a global resurgence of authoritarianism and militarism. Not everywhere, but too many places. Trump, and dictators he admires like Erdogan, Putin, Duterte, Bolsonaro, bin Salman, Orban, Strache (Austria), Kim Jong Un;... the resurgence of far right parties in Germany and Sweden (!),... might as well include Xi and his "premier for life" gambit, and there are any number of countries that have essentially always been dictatorships. Democracy has essentially failed in Ukraine and the former Soviet countries in Central Asia. The Persian Gulf and "AfPac" (they actually use that term in the Pentagon) are an unmitigated disaster, with the situation in Iran largely an unforced error on the US' part under this idiot king Trump. 

Russia and China have demonstrated quite clearly that we are terribly, even terrifyingly, vulnerable to cyber attacks. And other countries, notably China and Russia, are way ahead of us in conceiving advanced technology that will make big weapons systems like the F-35 and hugely expensive nuclear submarines dinosaurs. Future weapons systems will be cheaper, automated, and multiply redundant. Instead of modernizing the nuclear triad at huge expense, we should be thinking about the strategic landscape of the 2030s and how we can make sure that we have the technology and means to regain our diplomatic prestige, to try to tamp all this down before it gets entirely out of hand. Thinking that real shooting wars can be contained and limited to places like Yemen, where the humanitarian catastrophe has barely raised a blip on American public consciousness or conscience, will just not be possible. We need to regain the diplomatic initiative, really rethink stupid outmoded policies like the Carter doctrine and the concept of global containment through projection of sea power. America should lead the world in convincing everyone that the real threat is Climate catastrophe, not each other, and that only by working together can a peaceful balance of power emerge and hold throughout this century. But we are doing essentially all the wrong things under the Tantrum Tyrant. 

That's where these smart national security Democrats come in. They've learned the lesson of the catastrophe of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the emerging tragedy of Yemen and the foolish isolation of Iran. They understand the dangers of failing to counter the cyberattacks of Russia, and China. They even realize that knee jerk support for the dangerous policies of Israel's current right wing government is a foolish policy, as is continued support and weapons sales to Saudi... a policy that will cost us many dollars, and worse much loss of life, for every dollar in arms profit as the whole region deteriorates into a major regional war many see as inevitable. But nothing is inevitable when very smart, very skillful people get the reins and start working on the issues. 

This is why although I am as socially liberal as anyone, I do favor a smart but very robust approach to global security. And I think Democrats like Spanberger are just what we need.