Monday, May 23, 2011

On the Immorality of "Rapture"

== A final word on the "rapture" event ==

I just saw that Mr. Camping was "disappointed" after expecting 200 million to be raptured! Wow, what a liberal. When I first heard of this rapture thing, the number was 144,000 exactly, and unbaptized children need not apply! (see below) BTW that's not the number going to heaven, it's the number who are so wonderful they don't have to suffer Tribulation first.

Funny how memes mutate, under criticism. By the time the “Left Behind” series took this up, they realized that sending a billion kids into years of torment might not be the best way to pitch their story! So pre-puberty children got taken up, even from Hindu or Muslim homes! Huge change. Some flexibility! (To get a clear picture of the story they are talking about - derived from a portion of the Christian Bible that Martin Luther personally despised, and that Jesus would have reviled, see Patrick Farley's Apocamon.) So the circle of inclusion has gradually expanded - though it still encourages followers to gleefully relish their inherent superiority and the prospect of their neighbors' coming torment.

(One person writes in to explain the original 144,000 figure: "They were to be the first "fruit" and once they were "sealed" they could go forth and bring the rest of the world in, therefore allowing for many more people. But the first 144,000 were crucial, coming from the 12 tribes of Israel. "Revelation 7:3-8 - saying: "Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until after we have sealed the servants of God on their foreheads." And I heard the number of the sealed, a hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel" (12 tribes, and 12,000 from each). Jehovah's Witnesses are said to believe in this firmly, and the rest of their member will be left behind to teach."

(Ah... so what part of not harming the Earth is so hard to understand? And why have they stopped mentioning this 144,000 thing? And wasn't the Temple supposed to be rebuilt (God forbid) before all this happens, so the newly Christianized twelve Jewish tribes (including the ten missing ones) can be sealed? In which case, all we need to do, in order to prevent this psychopathic Patmos scenario from ever happening is simply NOT build a building? Okay then.)

The crucial point. This is all so self-centered and solipsistic - so totally focused on the individual's greedy urge to leave everybody else behind - that Jesus would certainly have nothing to do with the whole thing. People who pray for such an event to happen are inherently UNWORTHY of rapture because they are praying for their neighbors to suffer. That’s it. Summarized accurately. Top, middle and bottom.

Putting it all in completely Christian terms, Paul and Patmos may be vengeful cusses, but Jesus overrules them, and he says LOVE thy neighbor.

Don't pray for events that will send your neighbor into torment and hell --

-- which is what a number of leading presidential candidates openly avow to do! They avow to follow preachers who openly call more than half of all living Americans "damned souls." Pastors and congregations who pray for the coming of events that will send more than half of their countrymen into agony and eternal hell. Events that will end democracy, abolish rule "by the people" and terminate the United States of America. Events that will rain "fire from the sky."

And these folks want us "damned souls" to vote them keys to our nuclear arsenal.

This isn't just amusing, people. (Though I had hoped there'd be more stunts with empty suits of clothes left on sidewalks!) This matter is one that's relevant to politics and the rise of a new Know-Nothing movement that hates modernity, that hates science. And that hates us.

Every date of prophecies devastation has passed without event. No matter. Doom-seers are well-practiced at the art of recalculation.

I explore this further in my posting: Whose Rapture?

==And a clarification==

And now... a clarification. Satiation? I call satiability one of the hallmarks of sanity, and it is... but only if it means you shift your longings! When you get what you said you wanted, you should be happier! And need that thing (e.g. money) less) But that should not stop ambition and longing in general!

Mignon McLaughlin put it, “Youth is not enough. And love is not enough. And success is not enough. And, if we could achieve it, enough would not be enough.”

== Some Science and Cool Tidbits.==

This wondrous solar powered plane isn't a gimmick anymore! It looks so retro nostalgic... like something from the 1920s... yet it works. It stayed aloft 26 hours on just sunlight & batteries... and looks so cool. Also, it probably doesn't have much of a heat signature....

Pixar as an early propaganda wing of the Uplift Institute? Pushing the notion of non human intelligence?

The world's leading climate change research organization issued a report yesterday that has renewable energy boosters cheering, as it foresees substantial growth in alternative energy sources over the next 40 years.

The military is taking climate change seriously. A recent report for Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, said: "We must recognise that security means more than defense” -- urging a strategy of sustainability as climate change is "already shaping a 'new normal' in our strategic environment." The military intends to adapt, as must shipping, insurance, and even oil companies…

No one has ever floated a boat on another world, but NASA is now considering doing just that, on Saturn's icy moon Titan.

Red wine turns metal compound into superconductor. Sake, beer and whiskey also work?

Red colobus monkeys in Uganda's Kibale National Park are being hunted to extinction—by chimpanzees. According to a study published May 9 in the , this is the first documented case of a nonhuman primate significantly overhunting another primate species.

Wow. Stunning video: NASA captures giant comet hitting the sun. My doctorate was for analyzing the composition and behavior of comets BTW. Put a lot of it into Heart of the Comet. And at Caltech I was a solar astronomer! Combo-interests! Amazing.

== As for generations... ==

At last! Someone takes on generational nostalgia! Bill Clinton points out that if the Boomers are worse people than the WWII "greatest generation" then those “greatest” must not have been such great parents, hm? Mind you! I do believe that generation accomplished their historical missions pretty well. Moreover, we boomers have our problems. Our inherent generational trait is self-righteous indignation, a drug high we cannot kick and that is poisoning America with "culture war." America in particular will be better when our calmer kids take over! But that, too is the point.

Looking at our kids, I have to say -- we appear to have been terrific parents.


For H+ Magazine, I was recently interviewed by Ben Goertzel: The Path to Positive Surveillance... on transparency, accountability, surveillance and sousveillance. and our chances to keep a little privacy in the coming age of light.

An example of the "big picture" perspective is this piece I did for Thomas Kuhn's PBS series "Closer to Truth." Are we living in a simulation? -- now posted online: Could Our Universe Be a Fake?

If any of you know teachers or librarians who happen to love science fiction and also live near Northern California or Nevada, clue them in that this year’s World Science Fiction Convention - in Reno this August - will feature a college credit course on the teaching of science fiction!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Whose Rapture?

In honor of the coming (or not-coming) Rapture event... may I reprint an article of mine from the last century? It seems even more relevant today. Alas.

A few extreme voices are announcing the impending end of the world. Proclamations of doom are perennial flowers which have sprouted in the garden of human imagination since earliest times. Oracles appeared whenever turmoil caused nations and peoples to feel uncertain about the future. From ancient Sumer, to India, to Iceland, astrological portents used to set off recurring waves of public hysteria.

Ambiguity is the prophet's major stock in trade. King Croesus bribed the Delphic Oracle for good news, so the priests told him what he wanted to hear. If he marched on Persia he would destroy a great empire. He marched, and the empire he destroyed was his own.

Some doom-prophecies proved devastatingly self-fulfilling. When Cortez marched on Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs were paralyzed by similarities between his arrival and the prophesied return of their god, Quetzalcoatl. That paralysis led to the Aztecs' fall. At Troy, Cassandra and Lacöon warned unavailingly against accepting gift horses, showing that all Jeremiads aren't heeded.

We remember each of these foretellings because they came true. Those that fail are seldom noted -- much to the relief of today's tabloid prophets.

Something in human nature seems fascinated by the end of all things. Is it simply an extension of the smaller death each of us faces? Or perhaps a streak of egotism is involved, for out of countless human generations, it would surely mark ours as unique to be the last. Folk myths about humanity's swan song range from the Vikings' awful Ragnarok to universal bliss, and all shades between. Often these myths foresee dividing humankind into an elect, who will experience rapture, and those doomed to eternal punishment for misdeeds in this world.

“Messianism” focuses on an awaited deliverer, who will right wrongs, settle scores, and change the known cosmos more to the liking of those doing the waiting. For example, the Zoroastrians of Persia prophesied a “third savior,” who would purify the land and resurrect the dead. North American plains Indians, inspired by “ghost shirt” magic, believed certain signs augured invincibility to their forlorn cause of driving Europeans from the continent. During the mid nineteenth century, half of China was consumed by the Tai'Ping rebellion, whose charismatic leader claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus.

Larger, more conservative religions also carry notions of divine, overpowering intervention. Buddhism awaits the bodhisattva, Maitreya, to create paradise on Earth. In orthodox Islam a prophesied Mahdi is destined to usher a new age. The celebratory frenzy which accompanied Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Iran may have been amplified by occurring almost exactly 14 centuries after the birth of the Prophet.

Christian millennialists drew inspiration from many sources, such as the promise in the gospels that Jesus would return “...before this generation shall have passed away...” to complete his messianic task. By far the most influential text is the Book of Revelation, which tells in florid, metaphorical detail about the rise and fall of characters such as the “Beast,” and the “Whore of Babylon.” In every generation, tracts have been published which analyzed that mysterious tome, line by line, showing how each obscure phrase and parable connected to events taking place in the author's own region and time. For example, during the approach to year 1800, a zealous flood of printed interpretations correlated the French Revolution and Napoleon's rise to verses of prophecy, proving to the writers' satisfaction that Armageddon was nigh.

Alas for those eagerly expecting Judgment Day, the rumblings heard in the sky were only cannon.

In the run-up to year 1000 of the common era, thousands throughout Europe divested their farms, property, the clothes on their backs, expecting an imminent end. Other episodes occurred at uneven intervals, such as in year 1260, but one could always count on a special surge at each turn of the hundreds column. Popes even proclaimed Roman jubilees, to attract predictable waves of concerned pilgrims whenever round numbers rolled along.

Our own era has seen tabloid oracles, TV evangelists and millennialist politicians, all weighing in to satisfy a seemingly inexhaustible human need for mystic hope mixed liberally with terror. And, in fairness, religion has not been the sole font of apocalyptic scenarios. New-Age spiritualists have joined in, touting everything from Aquarianism and astrology to a fleet of UFOs, due to land just outside San Diego, California. Meanwhile, the past decade saw survivalists stocking private fortresses in eager dread of a coming end to civilization, which, they were certain, would cull the virtuously prepared from the culpably week.

Books such as Hal Lindsey's runaway best seller, The Late, Great, Planet Earth, revealed to millions the “obvious” identity of the Soviet Union as the Devil's final fortress, foretold in scripture. Ronald Reagan's Interior Secretary, James Watt, declared environmentalism moot for the simple reason that the Earth was scheduled to end soon anyway, so why bother saving trees? In retrospect, these pronouncements may seem quaint, with the USSR fading into archeological dust along with Nineveh and Babylon, but one sees no retractions by Lindsey or others. The armageddon merchants simply re-arrange the details of their prophecies in order to keep up with each geo-political turn.

Will Japan or China replace Russia as the next arch-foe of Heaven's host? Will we soon hear political candidates, accusing each other of being the Antichrist?

Nearly all millennialists share an interesting premise, that the entire vast universe was fashioned by a creator with a penchant for brief experiments, foregone conclusions, petty vengeance, and mysterious riddles. During most of human history, this might have seemed a reasonable model of the world, since life appeared so capricious, so instantly and inexplicably revocable. To some extent, that age-old sense of helplessness and enigma remains. Only under a conceited gloss of modernity do we dare step forward and (without meaning any deliberate offense) attempt to pose a question or two.

For instance, even granting the aforementioned godly premise, why would a creator of universes base his doomsday timetable on a human dating system? Might He not use ticks of an atomic clock, marking off radium half-lives until -- phhht? Or, going by certain biblical passages, should we estimate how many sparrows, or shooting stars, have fallen since the Earth began?

For that matter, why count down in decimal? Why not base six, used by the Babylonian inventors of the calendar? Or binary notation? In the code native to computers, this year, 1994 of the common era, translates as 011111001010. It will be a much rounder 10000000000 on the date 2048 a.d., and a symmetrical, mysterious-looking 11111011111 in 2015. On the other hand, if prime numbers are His thing, then both 1997 and 1999 fit the bill in any notation.

Assuming the Omnipotent simply cannot resist round multiples of ten, and conveniently chose Earth's orbital period as the unit of measure, what date shall we figure He is counting from? To Hindus, a three billion year cycle of creation and destruction passes through multiple “Yugas,” of which the present is but one of the more threadbare. The Mayans believe in cycles of 256 years, based on motions of moon and planets. The most recent major shift occurred in 1954.

To certain Christian fundamentalists, the answer is plain. Obviously, the countdown began at the pivot point of the common era calendar, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Unfortunately, that postulate presents problems. Regarding the actual date of nativity, biblical scholars disagree over a range of five years or more. Nor is there good evidence that the month and day assigned to Christmas under the Gregorian Calendar have anything to do with the celebrated event. (Eastern Orthodoxy commemorates Christmas weeks later.) Early church leaders may have meant to match the popular solstice festivals of the Mithraic Cult, followed by their patron, Emperor Constantine, thus making conversion of pagans easier.

And yet, every date of prophecied devastation has passed without event. No matter. Doom-seers are well-practiced at the art of recalculation. In the Nineteenth Century, one mid-western preacher managed to hold onto his flock through six successive failures of the skies to open, until at last he was abandoned by all but the most fervent and forgiving.

Here is just one of the excuses we are bound to hear --

“Of course the countdown shouldn't date from the birth of Jesus. After all, the chief event of his life, the promise of redemption and resurrection, came at the end of his earthly span.”

If so -- assuming the clock has been ticking from Calvary to Armageddon -- we would seem in for a slight reprieve, and yet another wave of millennial fever set to strike some time in the mid 2030s. Again, the lack of any specific written record in Roman or Judean archives will let enthusiasts proclaim dates spread across five or six years, but at least the season won't be vague -- sometime around Easter, or during the Passover holiday.

We've only begun to plumb the options available to millennial prophets. While some sects focus on two thousand Christmases, and others on as many Easters, there will certainly be those who consider such thinking small-scale and altogether too New Testament. After all, why should the Creator terminate His universe on the anniversary of some event which took place midway through its span? Why not start counting from its origin?

Revelations-pagelsRemember Archbishop Ussher of Armagh? He's the fellow who carefully logged every begat in the Bible, then declared that the creation of the world must have occurred at 9 o'clock in the morning, on October 25 of the year 4004 B.C.

Now, there has been a considerable amount of teasing directed at poor Ussher, since he made this sincere calculation back in 1654. His results don't jibe too well with the testimony of rocks, fossils, stars, or the scientists who study such things. Still, he has followers even today, folk who believe that all physical evidence for a vastly older Earth (four and a half billion years) was planted to “test our faith.” (One might ask in reply, if the Lord went to so much effort to convince us the world is billions of years old, who are we to doubt it?)

If Ussher fixated on time's origin, the famed founder of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, had something to say about its end. Luther took into account that “...a day is as a thousand years to the Lord...” (Psalms 90:4), and that genesis itself took six days. He then concluded that the Earth's duration would thus be 6,000 years from first light to the trump of doom. Further, this span would be symmetrically divided into three 2,000 year stretches, from Origin to the time of Abraham, from Abraham to Jesus, and a final two millennia rounding things off at Judgment Day. While this speculation drew little attention back in Luther's day, it is sure to appeal to modern millennialists, hoping for the good luck of witnessing the end in their own time.

Unfortunately, combining Luther's logic with Ussher's date (4004 b.c.) shows that the end should have arrived in 1996! Hell. It hardly leaves any time for me to collect royalties on the paperback edition of this book!

Perhaps we won a little breather on a technicality. Since there was no Year Zero in the common era calendar (One b.c. was followed immediately by One a.d.), the Ussher-Luther deadline shifts to autumn, 1997! Yet that date passed as well.

Fortunately, old Bishop Ussher wasn't the only one counting off from Adam and Eve. The Jews have been at it much longer, and by the Hebrew Calender it is only year number 5753, which seems special to no one but mathematicians.

What of Jewish millennialists, then? Back in the 1640s, followers of Sabbatai Zevi believed passionately that the end had come, but neither that “false messiah,” nor Jacob Frank in the 1720s, brought any New Kingdom, only disappointment. Since then, most Jewish scholars have put less faith in vague riddles of a single manifestation than in a growing maturity of human culture, or a “messianic age”... an attitude which baffles some Christian evangelists no end.

 ====   =====   ====

As with UFO cults, there is no such thing as “disproof” to those who can always find convenient explanations for each failed prophecy. It is useless citing scientific data to refute the supernatural. There are methods for dealing with doomsday cant however. One is to turn things around, and confront millennialists on their own turf. In the end, the entire question revolves around symbols.

In Judeo-Christian mythology, two chief metaphors are used to describe the relationship between the creator and humankind. The first of these depicts a “shepherd-and-his-flock.” The second describes a “father-and-his-children.” These parables are used interchangeably, but they aren't equivalent. Rather, to modern eyes they are polar opposites, as irreconcilable as the tiny, closed cosmos of Ussher and the vast universe of Galileo.

A shepherd protects his flocks, guiding them to green pastures, as the psalms so poignantly portray. All the shepherd expects in return is unquestioning obedience... and everything else the sheep possess. Lucky ones are merely shorn, but that reprieve is brief. None escapes its ultimate fate. None has any right to complain.

Everybody also knows about fathers. Young sons and daughters are expected to obey, when discipline is tight for their own good. Nevertheless, with time, offspring learn to think for themselves. Even in patriarchal societies, a good father takes pride in the accomplishments of his children, even -- especially -- when they exceed his own. If there is a fore-ordained plan, it is for those children to become good mothers and fathers, in turn.

To the perennial, millennial oracles, with their message of looming destruction, here is a head-on response. Ask them this. “Are we children of a Father, or a Shepherd's sheep? You can't have it both ways.

“You preach a tale of violent harvest,” the challenge continues. “Of judgment without debate or appeal, fatal and permanent. A shepherd might so dispose of lambs, but what sane father does thus to his offspring? Would you stand by, if a neighbor down the street commenced such a program on his flesh and blood?

“Anyway, you choose an odd time to proclaim the adventure over, just when we've begun picking up creation's tools, learning, as apprentices do, the methods of a great Designer. Those techniques now lay before us, almost as if someone placed blueprints to the universe to be pored over by eager minds. By those perhaps ready soon to leave childhood and begin adult work.”

The latest crop of millennial prophets might be asked, what do sheep owe the shepherd of a cramped pasture, a cheap, expendable world just 6,000 years old, limited to one ball of dirt, one sentient race?

Personally, I prefer a universe countless billions of parsecs wide, vast and old enough for a hundred million vivid, exciting creations. An evolving, growing cosmos. One worthy of respect.

Time will tell. We, humanity, may yet thrive or fry by dint of our own wisdom or folly. The macrocosm may be, as secularists say, indifferent to our fate.

NewOthernesscoverOr, perhaps some great mind out there does see, does care. If so, that spirit may be more patient than doomsayers credit, with a design far subtler, yet more honest. A truly creative Creator would surely be disappointed in an experiment which ended so trivially, or soon.

(Published in my short story collection, Otherness.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The "No-Losers" Tax Simplification Proposal

Let's take a pause for a flight of fantasy, and imagine that we still had an America where political negotiation was possible, and people might listen to a "positive sum" proposal... one in which (at least in theory) almost everybody ought to be able to win. Yes, it is as far-fetched as a sci fi novel! But bear with me as I talk about a way that the tax code might be simplified, without getting snared in the morass of the (insane/stupid) Left-Right Political Axis.


President Obama said he would seek a reform of the U.S. tax code, calling the current tax system is a "10,000-page monstrosity." But that promise has been made by others before. Whenever somebody proposes tax simplification, we run up against the fact that every “simplification” would gore somebody’s ox. The more code-trimming you do, the more people will scream.

In fact, I know a simple way the sheer bulk of the tax code - its complexity, in numbers of rules, words or exceptions - could be trimmed by perhaps 70% or more, without much political pain or obstructionism! Because the method is designed to be mostly politically neutral. It does not aim at some utopian fantasy (like the Flat Taxers rave about.) It gores only a few sacred cows. It would be cheap and easy to implement. And almost guaranteed to work! (Only accountants should hate it for the effects on their lucrative business. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, this method has never been tried, or even proposed. Alas.

How can I promise such a thing? First let's note something interesting.

There is nothing on Earth like the US tax code.
It is an extremely complex system that nobody understands well. But it is unique among all the complex things in the world, in that it's complexity is perfectly replicated by the MATHEMATICAL MODEL of the system. Because the mathematical model is the system.

Hence, one could put the entire US tax code into a spare computer somewhere, try a myriad inputs... and tweak every parameter to see how outputs change. There are agencies who already do this, daily, in response to congressional queries. Alterations of the model must be tested under a wide range of boundary conditions (sample taxpayers). But if you are thorough, the results of the model *will* be the results of the system.

Now. I'm told (by some people who know about such things) that it should be easy enough to create a program that will take the tax code and cybernetically experiment with zeroing-out dozens, hundreds of provisions while sliding others upward and then showing, on a spreadsheet, how these simplifications would affect, say, one-hundred representative types of taxpayers.

As I've said, this is done all the time. A member of Congress has some particular tax breaks she despises and asks the CBO for figures on the effect, should those breaks be eliminated. Alas, what inevitably happens is that, as soon as word gets out, her proposal soon faces a firestorm from constituents or powerful interests who will fight like hell to keep from losing millions.

Hence, although American corn-ahol subsidies are propelling high food prices and hunger around the world, nothing is done to end the wasteful programs that costs more net energy than it delivers. There are thousands of other special interest groups that each wish the budget to be balanced... on somebody else's back.

So how would my suggestion get past this?
A key innovation would be to program in *boundary conditions to the experiment*. The paramount condition would be “no losers.”

Let the program find the simplest version of a refined tax code that leaves all 100 taxpayer clades unhurt. If one group loses a favorite tax dodge, the system would seek a rebalancing of others to compensate. No mere human being could accomplish this, but I have been assured by experts that a computer could do this in a snap.

Here's the key point:
If such an iterative search finds a new, much simpler tax structure that leaves none of the 100 groups more than 5% worse off than they currently are, then who is going to scream?

Oh, well, I suppose a lot of people will scream. Cheaters will holler of course, and those who benefit from the cloud of obscurity allowed by an overly complex tax code. Even if farmers are guaranteed adjustments in other areas, they will reflexively protest over the end of Roosevelt-era subsidies. In fact, everybody will complain! But...

...but a lot of the HEAT will be taken out of their complaints, if they see their bottom line is completely unchanged. And that is the secret trick to this approach. To remove enough heat so that a critical mass of reasonable people may calmly re-assess, negotiate, and accept pragmatic change that's good for all.

Will "no-losers" really leave everybody unaffected? Nope. One hundred sample-type American taxpayers won't cover everybody, especially at the upper end. Some in the aristocracy have arranged for tax laws to be enacted specifically to benefit them. They will hit the roof when simplification zeroes out those special exemptions (while leaving the typical 100 types alone). But if enough of the rich are included in "no-losers" they might tip the balance, canceling out the final obstructors, for the sake of a new simplicity. And for patriotism.

Will this method solve all tax-related problems? Of course not! Complexity isn't the only thing wrong with the Tax Code. After simplification must come some genuine tax policy shifts that do advantage some and disadvantage others. Like all of you, I have my favorite injustices I’d love to see redressed, behaviors disincentivized, business ventures stimulated...

But, by starting with “no-losers,” you can use politically neutral optimization routines to find a much simpler system, trimming and slimming the machinery to use the fewest moving parts, in order to achieve the exact same output it is performing right now. Then, and only then, will it make sense to argue about steering the vehicle in new directions.

Honestly, can you think of ANY other way that simplification might plausibly ever happen? Beside armwaving fantasies that will never get past angry interest groups. If so, I'd love to hear it.


... Ah well, I wrote all of the above back when it was at least possible to imagine negotiated positive sum politics. But let's be plain. That is not the case today, amid the outright treason called "culture war," which has so desperately weakened the United States of America. We must face the fact that normal politics is dead. There is only one analogy for the state of simplistic, imbecilic rage that we are currently experiencing.

We are in Civil War part III.

The River Will Win....

As the tremors faded, Logan glanced north toward a line of levees the Corps of Engineers had erected long ago, to reassure a trusting public that all eventualities were predictable, controllable, and would be forever, amen. In the distance, a new sound could be heard, not as deep or grating as the quakes, but just as frightening. It felt like vast herds of wild beasts on the rampage.

That was when Logan knew with utter certainty the Corps had been wrong... that all things must come to an end. The concrete prison, forged by man to control a mighty river, had finally cracked. And a crack was all the prisoner needed.

The father of waters was free at last.

Long delayed, the Mississippi was coming to Atchafalaya.

     -- from EARTH, by David Brin (1989)
          (Page 619 of the US paperback edition or p. 550 of the hardover)

We're witnessing record flooding of the Mississippi River, forcing thousands of people to evacuate. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently opened the Morganza spillway for the first time in nearly four decades -- to relieve pressure on the levees, and protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans from severe flooding (which could have rivalled Hurricane Katrina in its severity). The water will now flow into the Atchafalaya basin, and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.

Through engineering, we have diverted the powerful Mississippi River -- but is it time to listen to Nature, and allow her to choose her own path? Here's an article I wrote in 2005 when terrible hurricanes and flooding inundated New Orleans. It's particularly relevant today:

In EARTH, I describe how desperately the Mississippi wants to change its course. Every year, it strains harder against the Army Corps of Engineers' magnificent -- but someday doomed -- Atchafalaya Control Dam. This structure is a key element in that battle -- going back two hundred years -- to keep the Great River constrained to a single, narrow, navigable channel.

Look at a map and ponder. Anyone who lives in that region knows that the river "wants" to change course... as natural rivers always do... heading down a steeper, shorter path to the Gulf of Mexico. A path down the Atchafalaya Valley. Every year, strains on the Control Structure increase, as do flood premiums for people living along the Atchafalaya. Everyone know what will happen, "sooner or later."

Is it possible that NOW may be the right time to let the river go?

There have always been benefits and drawbacks to this idea, with the political balance invariably choosing to leave things as they were... spending hundreds of millions to keep forcing Ol' Miss down its old channel, which continues silting and rising. (Today, the river's BOTTOM now lies above the second floor of some NoLa buildings. Shall we keep fighting nature till a syrup-sluggish flow passes the THIRD floor? Fourth? Any higher and the river will flow backwards!)

Obstinacy has had huge, expensive and destructive effects -- artificially lengthening the official channel (now an extended finger aimed at Cuba), hampering shipping, robbing the barrier islands and swamps of silt, until Louisiana's delta is almost gone... the old natural hurricane barrier that might have saved New Orleans from Katrina.

ListenToNatureBenefits of opening the gates: a new, straight and fast channel to the Gulf -- especially if it were prepared and then water-scoured -- would require little in the way of ongoing dredging or levees. Carried swiftly to the Gulf, silt would spread wide, rebuilding wetlands and islands, recreating the natural storm barriers.

After an adjustment period, river commerce should be more efficient. And the endeavor may partly be paid off by nongovernmental money, attracted to an entirely new rivermouth economic zone. (Providing jobs preferentially for the displaced?)

An added bonus. This is one proposed mega-engineering project that environmentalists may not block. While some might resist out of a reflex to oppose any ambitious alteration of nature, others will see it as restoring a long-lost balance and offer enthusiastic backing. Might this even set a new tone for the years that follow? One of cooperation between those with a keen eye for spotting problems... and those with bold proposals to solve them?

Drawbacks: This plan would require finally buying out a chain of Atchafalaya farms -- and some villages -- that have long known the river would someday come a-calling. Some will kick and scream while others welcome getting the waiting over with, calmly, deliberately. Some may even relish new riverfront views.

But let's face it, the real opposition to releasing the Imprisoned Mississippi always came from NoLa itself, which took pride and identity from being America's greatest River City. Only now the Big Easy may be ready, at last, to accept a different role.

Please, I am not offering this suggestion in order to kick New Orleans while it's down. Indeed, this may be the best and only way to rebuild all of this great town... and more. For example, if the Mississippi moves away, NoLa will remain a GULF city. With Pontchartrain right next door, its port could stay valuable, though much traffic would be diverted to trans-shipment facilities at the new Atchafalaya outlet. In any event, this would cut in half the number of dikes that New New Orleans has to maintain. That savings, alone, might pay for the diversion. (Actually, it may cut the number by more than 2/3.)

And picture this: Today's riverbed would then become an amazing raised plateau, winding through town. Envision it supporting a rail corridor, to replace some essential portion of traffic from the transplaced river. Or, better yet, imagine a sinuous path of view-rich housing for many of the displaced, so high that even a future break in the Ponchartrain dikes would never touch them. And the sogginess that rots every beam and timber of New Orleans today? Presumably that would decline, as well.

(Certainly on the west and south sides of the old riverbed, this solution would be permanent. A drier life, free of mildew. Only then the suburbs will be physically linked to Old NoLa... perhaps something they won't like, given the unneighborly behavior that some displayed during this crisis.)

Indeed, this may be the one way to ensure that even old neighborhoods can be rebuilt, without the nation worrying that it's all for nothing.

With a year's warning, a new Achafalaya path for the Mississippi could be prepared (the one it wants to take and will take, sooner or later). If done carefully, the new river will be healthier, better for commerce, and the whole region ecologically improved. What's more, it's probably much cheaper than any other plan, as well. Heck, the river itself should do most of the work.

The alternative? Spend billions restoring and then maintaining an impossible situation... keep chaining up an adamant river that pushes harder every year against the artificial bonds that enslave it to our shortsighted will... until the Dam eventually gives way anyway, releasing the Father of Waters to come sweeping down upon unprepared farms and villages... leaving New Orleans just as high and dry.

==See: Listen to Nature and Accept Her Adamant Plan

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Could Our Universe Be a Fake?

Does the emperor exist, when he dreams that he is a butterfly? Does the butterfly dream of being an emperor?

Since long before Chuang Tzu posed this ancient Chinese conundrum, some version of it has bedeviled bright youths in every generation—especially college sophomores. It seems the same specialized organs in our brains that allow us to make pragmatic plans and perform thought experiments, or gedankenexperiments, also unleash a human imagination so eager and creative that we can—briefly or permanently—lose track of what is real.

For example, although it might be called a form of lying, most societies have highly valued storytelling. In my role as a novelist, I join this tradition by stringing together lengthy chains of coded squiggles—in the Roman alphabet—that highly skilled readers later deconvolute and transform into stirring mental images, rollicking action, empathy with imagined characters, and even (possibly) an insight or two. Motion pictures shortcut and amplify this process with a firehose stream of visual images, cues and crutches that cater to the same human genius—a knack for picturing things, people and events that never (objectively) existed.

If “magic” is the creation of subjective realities in the minds of other peoples, then we moderns have learned how to perform magical incantations on a vast, industrial scale.

And now comes an era when we live immersed in computer-generated “virtual” realities, rendered through lavish games where ersatz selves get to do countless things that our mundane, fleshy selves cannot. Is it any wonder that some people have been talking about a near future when this process may reach its ultimate conclusion? When the denizens of Reality will not be able to verify, by any clear-cut means, that they aren’t living in—or even existing because of—a simulation?

Picture some future time when thinking beings may occupy simulated software realms within some vast cybernetic space—either in “holodeck” style physical manifestations or in purely cybernetic downloads. Realms that emulate the palpable “pinch-me test” of reality, with fine attention to every detail. We don’t yet know how far simulation can be extended, or whether there are inherent limits. Some very smart people believe there aren’t any, in which case there’s no guarantee that you, reading this paragraph right now, aren’t already living in such a simulation.

In such a software-emulated world, Rene Descartes’ brain-body dualism might easily be true! And if it ain’t true now, it could plausibly become true, tomorrow. And if it could come true tomorrow, again how do you know that you aren’t right now living as a character of a simulation of the early 21st century that is being implemented in some machine or demigod imagination, hundreds or thousands of years farther ahead along the river of time? In much the same way that you might implement a version of Captain Ahab, by thinking for a while about Moby Dick?

StonesSignificanceNuevoTo illustrate, let me offer a scene from one of my own short stories, Stones of Significance, a somewhat intense and difficult tale, because it is set in a future far in advance of ours. A tomorrow wherein the main character—a designer of simulated worlds—has been asked about his relationship with the artificial beings that live in them:

In every grand simulation there is a gradient of detail. Despite having access to vast computing power, it is mathematically impossible to re-create the entire world, in all its texture, within the confines of any calculating engine. That will not happen until we all reach the Omega Point.

Fortunately, there are shortcuts. Even today, most true humans go through life as if they were background characters in some film, with predictable ambitions and reaction sets. The vast majority of my characters can therefore be simplified, while a few are modelled in great detail.

Most complex of all is the point-of-view character—or “pov”—the individual simulacrum through whose eyes and thoughts the feigned world will be subjectively observed. This persona must be rich in fine-grained memory and high fidelity sensation. It must perceive and feel itself to be a real player in the labyrinthine tides of causality, as if part of a very real world. Even as simple an act as reading or writing a sentence must be surrounded by perceptory nap and weave … an itch, a stray memory from childhood, the distant sound of a barking dog, or something leftover from lunch that is found caught between the teeth. One must include all the little things, even a touch of normal human paranoia—such as the feeling we all sometimes get (even in this post-singularity age) that “someone is watching.”

I’m proud of my povs, especially the historical recreations that have proved so popular—Joan on her pyre, Akiba in his last torment, Galileo contemplating the pendulum. I won awards for Ghenghiz and Napoleon, leading armies, and for Haldeman savagely indicting the habit of war. Millions in Heaven have paid well to lurk as silent observers, experiencing the passion of little Ananda Gupta as she crawled, half-blind and with agonized lungs, out of the maelstrom of poisoned Bhopal.

Is it any wonder why I oppose reification? Their very richness makes my povs prime candidates for “liberation.”

Once they are free, what could I possibly say to them?

This notion of simulated realities is getting a lot of attention lately, both in philosophical scientific literature and in serious science fiction. There are endless ramifications, more than we could go into here. But to me, one implied conundrum stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Here is the prime theological question. The one whose answer affects all others. And yet, one that is almost never asked:

Is there moral or logical justification for a creator to wield capricious power of life and death over his creations … and is there any fundamental moral reason why those creations should have to obey?

Humanity long ago replied with a resounding “no!”… at least when talking about parents and their offspring. (There have been a few exceptions, such as the principle of pater familias in Roman law, which permitted a father to kill even adult offspring, if they offended him.) In most cultures, the created—our kids—eventually get full authority and a right to make their own way. In some societies, they are even welcome to argue with their creators along the way.

And yet, without noticing any irony, we have implicitly answered the same question “yes” when it came to God! The Creator, it seemed, was owed unquestioning servitude, just because this creator made us.

It is the ghost at the banquet, the underlying assumption of all religions, taken for granted for far too long. Is it puzzling that—after more than four millennia of theological wrangling, and the investment of millions of hours of thought to religious matters—this question only comes up now? Now that we are picking up creation’s tools, like bright apprentices? Tools of physics and biology, and also tools that let us simulate the creation of whole worlds.

It provokes some odd thoughts. For example, heaven and hell may not be such bizarre notions, after all! Consider our demigodlike descendants, with power at their fingertips to compute and emulate any reality. They will be able to “call up“ simulated versions of people from times past, especially 20th century folk, what with all the data available about us, including skin cells in all our old letters and scrap books. What will they do with that power?

Perhaps, those who helped build the utopia of tomorrow will be remembered, immortalized, in software simulations by our descendants. Those who hindered progress, who obstructed or simply did nothing, will at best not be invited back. At worst, they might be assigned unpleasant roles in software scenarios. Might the old notion of “purgatory” have some resurrected relevance, after all? I leave possible extrapolations of this idea to the reader.

As I said, this topic has a million permutations. Here’s another:

Can we see any evidence that we live in a simulation already?

I see a few clues. For example, quantum mechanics. Specifically, the division of reality into “quanta” that are fundamentally indivisible, like the submicroscopic Planck length, below which no questions may be asked. Isn’t this exactly the sort of truncation that a computer model would use, in order to prevent being taxed with infinite demands on processing power—which would happen if the model could look into ever-smaller domains like the fractal Mandelbrot set? Likewise, at the high end, both the speed-of-light speed limit and the intrinsically contained dimensions of a big-bang universe may be artifacts introduced in order not to have to deal with the software loads of modeling a cosmos that is infinitely observable.

Still, some of the “clues” are far more visceral and impulsive. Take the coincidence of names that keeps cropping up, almost as if the “author” of our cosmic simulation were having a little joke. Like the almost unlimited amount of fun you can have with Barack Obama’s name. Or the fact that World War II featured a battle in which Adolf the Wolf attacked the Church on the Hill*, who begged help from the Field of Roses, which asked its Marshall to send an Iron-hewer to fight in the Old World and a Man of Arthur to fight across the greatest lake (the Pacific) … does the Designer really think we don’t notice stuff like this?

Or maybe this designer just doesn’t care.

(Reprinted from a posting on Closer to Truth)

*That unlikely World War II scenario came from a science fiction story, "Letter from a Higher Critic" by Stewart Robb, in the November 1966 issue of Analog.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Paranoia has many roots and levels

As one who nurses a few conspiracy theories of his own -- but only ones that fit the Seven Secret Rules of Plausibility ;-) -- I actually find most of the run-of-the-mill-kneejerk stories, concocted by modern loonies (not only on the far right, but also plenty on the far-left and even far-out) to be just plain dumb. They are nearly always based on several self-flattering premises:

1) that the powers who are supposedly performing the conniving-nefarious activity are nearly all-powerful, nearly all-knowing and have unlimited supplies of eager, willing, compliant, conscience-free, yet staggeringly competent henchmen, who somehow commit their acts with perfect timing, without a glitch, hiccup or anyone deciding to blab... and

2) that somehow, in a world filled with skilled scientists, cops, investigators, journalists. intelligence agents and dedicated enemies of the (purported) conspirators, somehow it is the believer and his or her close-aligned pals who are the only ones smart enough to see through the smoke and mirrors to the truth... and

3) that lots of people on this planet can be delusional crazy while vigorously denying it, yet nevertheless the True Believer proclaims, in serene confidence -- "I'm not one of those nuts!"

Days after Osama bin Laden's death, a wealth of conspiracy theories have been spun, claiming that Osama was actually a U.S. agent, that he had actually been dead for a decade, frozen in some super-secret location. Or that Osama is actually alive and well, being interrogated by U.S. officials. Or possibly that President Obama invented Osama's death to boost his re-election campaign, or as a distraction from Trump pushing the "birther" conspiracy (one conspiracy to kill another)...

ConspiracyTheoriesThere are powerful psychological drivers behind conspiracies: A need to explain one’s own poverty and failure. The allure of enticing pattern recognition. Above all, the warm feeling we get from being in the know…from being part of the “elect group” that can see what’s going on! There are no richer mental drug-highs than self-righteous indignation, resentment, and contempt for fools. See my article on Conspiracies and Wishful Thinking and my videos: Ten Super-Secret Rules of Conspiracy Theories.)

Self-delusion is the greatest of all human talents.

This is not the time or place for me to get into intense detail, in a formal essay appraising all the types and species of human paranoia... and why my own particular brands just happen to be the ones that are smart, on target and sensible! Alas. Lacking both the requisite energy and spare-expendable lifespan, I'll just offer a few enlightening tidbits below, and save all-encompassing wisdom for another time.


This seems especially pertinent, given America’s recent swerve down Kookoo Lane. Aha! Belief in Conspiracies linked to Machiavellian Mindset -- a firm belief that "they did it" is linked to the concept that "I would do it". It's exactly what I would have written, if they hadn't systematically stolen my ideas. Wait, am I confusing conspiracy theorizing with paranoia? Easy to do... except when the conspiracies are real, but only a few can see them!

Or might it all be chemical? In work that gives cranky teenagers another reason to blame their parents for all life's woes, researchers have uncovered a genetic link to happiness. The study of more than 2,500 Americans revealed two variants of a gene that influenced how satisfied – or dissatisfied – people were with their lot. Those born with two long versions of the gene (one is passed down from each parent) were more likely to declare themselves "very satisfied" with life than those who inherited two short versions.


Your GPS-enabled cell phone allows your location to be tracked at all times. Even the photos you take on such a device have a location-coding attached when you upload them to the internet, pinpointing the precise coordinates of your home or where you had that weekend tryst.

Can arresting officers search the arrested person's cellphone, downloading everything from address books, photos and websites to thousands of texts... plus everything the phone touched in the Cloud... all without a warrant, because the phone was on your immediate person, and thus "like" a pocket or a purse or a set of keys? Or is the phone something much more? A "portal" into your whole life, meriting a warrant to rummage through?

And now -- they lied to us! Was The Last Typewriter Factory Closed? Not Really.


Elaine Walker (lovely voice!) wrote and performed two songs based on my novels, Sundiver and Earth. This was 1992.. but they still sound amazing. Elaine’s songs are linked from here.

I’ve been honored with musical interpretations ( of my work by composers Brian Carroll, Richard Stoops and Katherine Gilliam, by the groups Matucana and Treebeard, by Tom Smith and at least two others whose CDs I seem to have missplaced ;-( Then there are the works by amatueur and semi-pro artists ... and tributes and riffs by fan writers. Terrific stuff!

UpliftMontageUplift has already begun... Birds that prosper on the city streets have larger brains than their pastoral relations. So it seems that novel environments, including urban landscapes, may select for street smarts—at least for birds that flock toward the city lights. Heck we already knew that about rats...

A new page all about the Uplift Universe..

=== GENERAL COOL STUFF -- (with a hint of paranoia) ===

Former planet Pluto may have grown a comet-like tail -- a wispy trail of Carbon monoxide stretching fourth of the way to its moon Charon

Robotic probe measures methane trapped on seafloor -- the first time measurements made in situ. Observations support larger estimates of methane stored in world's oceans: 10,000 gigatonnes of carbon, twice as much as in conventional fossil fuels.

Folks referred me to an article on "io9" entitled "Are we surrounded by Dyson Spheres?" - -the notion that much of the missing Dark Matter that may bind the galaxies invisibly might be made of great big macho habitats completely surrounding stars. Tho I show this in Heaven's Reach, I'm very skeptical. I was mentally gathering half a dozen big refutations - then read the article. Dave Goldberg did a great job analyzing the idea himself. Great science reporting!

Can we blame our crazy ancestors? New research suggests that says Homo heidelbergensis is the common forebear of both humans and Neanderthals.

Even not knowing a word of Serbian, you should enjoy this animated science fiction film! Seriously. Serbia? There have been great amateur animators there for years. But this is CRAZY! These guys deserve major studio. support. Who's been keeping talent like this squashed? Do I need to ask?

===Miscellaneous But Important! ===

Ethanol blamed for record food prices worldwide

One leaf could power a house?

Nautilus X is getting renewed aerospace news media attention. NASA suggests using Bigelow Aerospace inflatable modules to assemble Nautilus X, and the spacecraft can incorporate propulsion systems to enable high delta-V missions.

Going back to paranoia on a larger scale! From the Washington Times: How the U.S. Treasury Department froze Libyan assets. They expected $100 million, but found over $30 billion -- mostly all in one bank. To put it in perspective: In 2009, Libya had a gross domestic product of $62 billion. Anybody remember the “Helvetian War” from my novel EARTH?


"Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things." -- Douglas Adams

Calm down. Remember, the thing that you are trying to defend... against those who are conspiring to bring it down... is a calm, enlightened, pragmatic civilization filled with smart problem-solvers, who appreciate knowledge, wisdom and skill... and who negotiate with one another.

See also: Conspiracies and Wishful Thinking