Living Beyond the Planet’s Means.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 12/05/2019 - 12:22pm in

Or killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.

This is as much an attempt to explain the predicament humanity is facing right now to economists and politicians and journalists -- fixated as they are on Government budgets -- as it is to the wider public.

Our civilisation uses natural resources the Earth provides. Some of them, like coal and oil, exist in nature in finite quantities (technically, stocks) from which humans withdraw every year some quantities (outflows). As nature does not -- in human time-scale at least -- regenerate those stocks (that is, as there are no inflows) they constantly decrease with extraction. They are said to be non-renewable.

Other resources -- like air, water, foodstuff, and other raw materials, as fibre -- are renewable, meaning that nature replenishes their stocks. In principle, they -- steadily regenerated by nature -- could last as long as there is life on our planet.

Think of a chicken farm. The farmer may eat some eggs (outflow), but will need to leave enough eggs (inflow) so that the flock (stock) reproduces itself.

Beyond a certain rate of extraction nature cannot renew those resources any more: outflows overwhelm inflows. Ideally, then, yearly outflows should not exceed yearly inflows, or at least both should balance. That is the idea of an annual budget.

The European Union, to put an example, is home to approximately 7% of the Earth’s population. In this budget, then, the EU is allocated 7% of the Earth’s whole yearly biocapacity (capacity to renew itself). To put that differently, that allowance should provide for both human consumption and nature’s regeneration and last the EU for the whole of 2019.

A measure of the predicament civilisation is going through is that by May 10 the EU has already used up all its budget. At the current rate of usage, by Dec 31 it will have employed 20% of the Earth’s total biocapacity. In other words, it will have used up 2.8 times (= 20%/7%) its allowance. They are living beyond their means.

But so is capitalist civilisation in general. In fact, at the present rate by Dec 31 humankind will have used up 170% of the Earth’s biocapacity. Is not just that nothing is being left for natural renewal, is that even that part of the stock accumulated is being consumed. To put this crudely: capitalism is not only consuming all the eggs (even those set aside to produce egg-laying hens) is also consuming the chickens that lay the eggs.

If one thinks in terms of planets, civilisation is using the biocapacity of 1.7 planets. Except that there is no other planet. Climate change is only a part of the story. Ultimately, this is what is behind mass extinction.

Related reading: WWF Living Planet Report 2019 .

This is no mere theory. It’s reality: the Murray-Darling Basin is drying up, its rivers are dying because a larger fraction of the diminishing rainwater supply goes to farming, especially commercial crops that consume too much water, but are very profitable, like rice and cotton.

(source)Related reading: NSW State of the Environment 2019.

Time Travel Tale of Scientists Warning of Ecological Collapse: Gregory Benford’s ‘Timescape’

Gregory Benford, Timescape (London: Victor Gollancz 1980).

Julian, one of the great commenters on this blog, has asked me to do a review of Gregory Benford’s time machine book, Timescape. I read it a few years ago, having bought the 1996 edition, over a decade and a half after it was first published. It is just a bit dated now in its prediction of life in 1998, but still well-worth reading if you’re into physics and hard SF.

Benford, the ‘Galactic Centre’ Novels and Timescape

Gregory Benford is an American astronomer and hard SF writer. He’s probably best known for his ‘Galactic Centre’ series of novels. Set thousands of years in the future, this is about the last remnants of humanity battling for survival against a ruthless and almost overwhelmingly superior machine civilisation, the Mechs, at the centre of the Galaxy. Hard SF is the type of science fiction that tries as far as possible to keep to established scientific rules. Such as, for example, the inviolability of the rule of Relativity, so that there are no Faster Than Light drives taking humans to the stars in a matter of hours, days or months rather than years. But that doesn’t mean ruling out other scientific advances, like time travel. Several of the ‘Galactic Centre’ novels are set in an artificial environment within the Black Hole at the centre of our Galaxy, where careful engineering by alien creatures formed of pure magnetism have merged two Black Holes to form an artificial environment of warped space time, within which humans and organic aliens are able to seek sanctuary from the Mechs. The curvature of spacetime and stress cracks within it in this environment allow the inhabitants to travel backwards and forwards in time. One of the novels features the adventures of a modern human family, who are forced to flee forward in time as the Mechs invade, almost to the end of time itself.

Brief Synopsis

Timescape doesn’t go that far, and is very firmly set in the recent past, and near future according to the time it was written. It’s the tale of two scientists and their friends, Gordon Bernstein and his fellows at CalTech in 1963, and Gregory Markham, an American scientist and his friend Markham, at Cambridge Uni in 1998. Bernstein is a young graduate student, who detects strange signals from an experiment he and his fellows are running, signals that he gradually begins to realize cannot be explained as just random noise or the product of background radiation. In 1998 Markham and Renfrew are working on ways to generate tachyons, faster than light subatomic particles that will travel back in time through bombarding iridium with high energy particles. They hope that by creating such particles, they may be able to use them to send a warning to the past.

The Earth in this very near future is dying. The ecology is collapsing through a deadly bacteriological bloom that destroys vegetable and animal life. The result is global famine, poverty and social unrest, with food rationing and bands of hostile, violent beggars moving across England. Markham and Renfrew hope they can send a message to the past detailing how the disease can be fought and eradicated in order to save civilisation by preventing the catastrophe occurring in the first place.

Time Travelling Subatomic Particles from Space

The idea of using subatomic particles and quantum physics to contact the past is highly speculative, of course, but not unreasonable. Some interpretations of quantum physics suggest that information is able to move backwards through time, so that events in the future are able to determine the results of certain experiments, for example. There was also speculation in the 1990s that some subatomic particles reaching Earth from despite might be tachyons in origin. I can’t quite remember whether these were a type of neutrino or meson, but the theory was that they were produced by high energy events in space, such as supernovas. This produced tachyons, which traveled backwards in time until they decayed to become neutrinos or mesons or whatever, which were then able to be detected by scientists.

The Connecticutt College Professor’s Time Machine

Also in the 1990s came a plan by a Black professor at Connecticutt Community college to build a real, working time machine. This wouldn’t be able to transport people, just other subatomic particles back into the past. The idea was to create an Einstein-Rosen Condensate of iridium ions. An Einstein-Rosen Condensate is a strange state of matter where a plasma – an ionised gas is supercooled so that its component particles behave as a single particle. This plasma was to be whirled around in a chamber mimicking the spin of stars. Stars are so massive that as they spin, they pull the fabric of space time itself around after them. The effect has been observed around the Sun, providing confirmation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It has been suggested that this effect could be used in the case of extremely massive objects, like Black Holes, to travel back in time. You simply enter the region of space being dragged around by the Black Hole, and then travel in the opposite direction to the local movement of spacetime. This should make you go back in time, it is suggested, and so you should be able to leave that area of space some time in the past, before you entered it. The professors plan worked along similar lines. Electrons would be shot into the chamber in the opposite direction to the circulation of the condensate. This should allow them to travel back into the past. If the scientists running the experiment found a larger number of electrons in the condensate than normal or otherwise explained, before they had started shooting them into it, then it would mean that the electrons had traveled there from the future. Time travel, or at least that possibility of communication between past and future, would be possible.

This obviously got very many people very excited. H.G. Wells’ grandson, who directed the ’90s version of his grand-dad’s classic, The Time Machine, appeared in a documentary telling us that the age of time travel was almost upon us. The experiment was due to be run aboard one of the space shuttles, but I think it must have been cancelled when one exploded, thus grounding the fleet and finally endings its use.

Time and the Weird World of Quantum Physics

Benford warns in his acknowledgements that

Many scientific elements in this novel are true. Others are speculative, and thus may well prove false. My aim has been to illuminate some outstanding philosophical difficulties in physics. If the reader emerges with the conviction that time represents are fundamental riddle in modern physics, this book will have served its purpose.

Which must be one of the rare occasions when a scientist writes a book to show how mysterious and incomprehensible a scientific phenomenon is, rather than how it can be grasped and understood. This famously applies to quantum physics. As one prominent scientist said of this subject, you don’t understand it, you just get used it.

Science and Society in the ’60s and ’90s

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of physics in the book, though none of its so hard that only physics graduates, let alone the late Stephen Hawking, would be the only people that understand it. And the book does an excellent job of showing what it must have been like doing physics at an advanced level in the early 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s. Gordon Bernstein, the hero of the early years, is a New York Jew, whose girlfriend, Marjorie, is a Conservative gentile. As his investigations proceed, he first believes that the signals are messages from space before coming to understand they’re from the future instead. He faces scepticism and opposition from his colleagues and academic supervisors, and risks being failed and his academic career and research terminated. as he goes on and his theories become public, he suffers from the attentions of the press and a procession of cranks, who traipse through his office door offering their own weird theories. I think this is a common experience to many astronomers and cosmologists. I can remember reading a comment by one such scientist that hardly a week went by without him receiving in the mail letters from people explaining their ‘theory of the universe’. At the same time, Bernstein’s relationship with his girlfriend also comes under pressure. His family don’t approve, and would like him to marry a nice Jewish girl instead. There are also political disagreements. Penny and her friends fully support the Vietnam War, views that aren’t shared by the liberal Bernstein. But in a twist, it’s Penny who understands that the waiters at their favourite restaurant are gay, is comfortable with that fact.

Back in Blighty in 1998, Markham’s and Renfrew’s backgrounds are solidly middle class. This is still a world where women were expected to stay home and cook, and the aristocracy still wields power and influence. A society in which entitled public school boys shout their food and alcohol choices in the local pub in Latin. It’s a world in which Markham is an outsider, and resents the privilege and condescension of the upper class Brits among which he moves.

Timescape and ’70s Fears of the End of Civilisation

Like much near-future SF, the book’s now dated. 1998 is now twenty years ago, and fortunately civilisation has not collapsed. Not yet. The book was partly a product of the sense of crisis in the 1970s, when many people really did fear the end of civilisation through industrial and social unrest and ecological collapse. It was predicted that overpopulation would result in mass famine, while the resources would run out and the Earth itself become uninhabitable through massive pollution. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened. Not yet. But there is still a real danger of global civilisation collapsing through irreversible ecological damage from climate change and pollution, and algal blooms are poisoning the water in some parts of the world. Despite it’s age, the book thus remains acutely relevant.

Social Change and the Rise of Domestic Computers

In other respects, the book as a prediction of the future hasn’t worn quite as well. The advance of feminism in the 1980s and ’90s meant that traditional gender roles were breaking down as women sought careers outside the home. By 1998 there was the expectation that both partners in a relationship would be working, and the old domestic arrangement in which women looked after children and the home and were supported by their husbands was seen as anachronistic. At the same time, he also doesn’t predict the advances in information technology that has produced the home and personal computers or mobile phones. There is, however, a machine called the Sek, which is a type of answerphone and database, if I recall correctly.


These differences between the book’s expectation of what the ’90s would be like and the reality actually don’t make much difference to the enjoyment of the story. Science Fiction tends not to be very good at predicting the future. If it was, then humanoid robots with a comparable level of intelligence and genuine consciousness, like Star Wars’ C3PO, would be in every home and we would already have colonies on the Moon, Mars and Earth orbit. We don’t have any of that. But we do have personal computers, the internet and mobile phones, as well as a variety of industrial machines, which weren’t predicted. Many SF novels still remain worth reading even though their predictions of the future, or the contemporary present in which they were set, are dated. These include such classics as those of H.G. Wells’, Jules Verne, John Wyndham and so on. What matters in the story and the writer’s ability to create a convincing, fascinating world, which Timescape does.

While some of its details are inaccurate, this is still a readable, gripping story with a solid base in plausible science, and whose warning about environmental decline is, horrendously, just as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1980.


David Attenborough Announces Doco Series About Rats and Ibises After Biodiversity Loss

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 08/05/2019 - 8:16am in


The BBC Natural History Unit has announced that it will be producing an eight part documentary series on the life of rats and ibises in the wake of the United Nations report on biodiversity that predicts the earth is in danger of losing up to a million species in the upcoming decades.

“We might as well get ahead of the game and focus on the only animal species likely to be around in a few years time,” said BBC producer Jennifer Tapir. “Due to biodiversity loss we’re changing our name from the Natural History Unit to simply The History Unit.”

Several crews of film makers have already been dispatched to stake out rows of wheelie bins in remote Sydney suburbs hoping to shoot exclusive footage of ibis behaviour.

“We just shot some amazing scenes an ibis totally demolishing an entire Hungry Jacks Hungry Meal straight through the paper bag,” said gushing camera operator Beth Ocelot. “I’m really excited about our next series, which will be called “The Secret Life Of Labradoodles”.”

The United Nations report has been secretly welcomed by the guys who paint the labels on the cages at the zoo.

“A million species gone and good riddance to them,” said zoological calligrapher Herbert Capybara. “Now I’m free to just write “seagulls” instead of all that fiddly Latin crap when I’m doing the bird enclosure.”

Peter Green

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Yay! David R. Bunch’s ‘Moderan’ Now Back in Print

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/05/2019 - 9:46pm in

Bit of good news for fans of classic SF. Looking through the Cheltenham branch of Waterstone’s last week, I found that David R. Bunch’s Moderan was now in print. This was published in 1971, and is really a series of vignettes originally published in small magazines, as well as the big SF mags Amazing and Fantastic. These are set in a future in which organic humanity has decided that its reached the end of its natural evolution, and to evolve further it must transform itself into machines. This process is described as it affects the hero, Stronghold 10. The style is superficially sympathetic to heighten what the reality of what this new, cyborg humanity has become: immortal, but paranoid with each stronghold at war with their neighbours.

Brian Aldiss gives as sample paragraph of Bunch’s prose style, which explains the background to the novel, in his and David Wingrove’s history of SF, The Trillion Year Spree:

Now, to turn tedious for a time, this is what happened. Flesh-man had developed to that place on his random Earth-ball home where it was to be the quick slide down to oblivion. All the signs were up, the flags were out for change for man and GO was DOWN. To ENDING. Flesh-man was at the top, far as he could climb as flesh-man, and from there he was certain to tumble. But he had the luck to have these brave good white-maned men in the white smocks, the lab giants, the shoulders, and great-bulged thighs of our progress (what matter if they were weazened, probe-eyed, choleric scheming, little men sometimes – more often than not, REALLY?) authors of so much of man’s development and climb to that place where he was just due to die, expire, destroy himself and his home at this grand stage of development to make new-metal man and set him in the Strongholds upon the plasto-coated Earth that had been man’s random and inefficient home. New-metal replaced flesh (down to the few flesh-strips and those, we hope, may soon be gone) the bones were taken out and new metal rods, hinges and sheets put in (it was easy!) and the organs all became engines and marvellous tanks for scientifically controlled functional efficiency forever. YAY! Don’t you see?! Our Scientists made of life-man (the VERY-STRANGE-accident man) essentially a dead-elements man, one who could now cope with eternity, but he certainly was not a dead man. AH! Heavens no! He was alive! with all the wonderful scienc3e of the Earth ages, and just as functional as anyone could wish. YAY! science, take your plaudits now! You’ve shown what was meant from the beginning for the VERY-STRANGE-accident man. (p.324).

Aldiss states that it’s a technophobic piece in the SF tradition of questioning technological progress that began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Moderan was out of print for a long time, so I’m looking forward to reading it some time. Bunch also wrote poetry in an avant-garde style very much like his prose, though in verse. A collection of his pieces, of which only one or two were SF, The Heartacher and the Warehouseman, was published in the 1990s. The title poem is set in the Moderan world, and is about one of these cyborgs coming to a warehouse carrying his pump in his heart. He complains that he – and all the other cyborgs – have no heart. The cyborg warehouseman, suspicious, retreats behind his armoury of weapons, informing him of all the cyborg bits and pieces they have, like hearts and mechanical fingers. But he fails to understand the man’s real complaint – that their civilisation has no heart in the metaphorical sense. The warehouseman drives the Heartacher away, but wonders what will happen to him as he retreats back into his cubby-hole.

It’s one of those pieces that was acutely relevant in the 1990s, when there was much talk among the chattering classes of transhumanism and cyborgisation. It was the decade when Radio 3 broadcast the series Grave New Worlds examining these possibilities through interviews with writers, artists and scientists, including Paul J. McAuley, J.G. Ballard and the Australian performance artist, Stelarc, who really has tried to turn himself into a cyborg in performances in which he wired himself up to the net, so that images found online would work his body automatically through galvanic stimulators some Borg organic puppet, and by giving himself a third, cybernetic arm. It’s still relevant as prosthetic limbs continue to improve. While these are an immense benefit to those, who have lost their real limbs through accident or disease, it does raise the question of how far this process can go and humans become the cyborgs of SF. This was the central question David Whittaker was pondering when he created Dr. Who’s cybermen. Bunch’s novel also seems to have influenced one of the writers of Dr. Who Magazine way back in the ’70s. One of the comic strips, Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman, was about a cyberman, who had some how retained his emotions and compassion. The story was set on the planet ‘Moderan’. And in the 1980s the British space scientist, Duncan Lunan, expressed concerns that people, who were heavily reliant on medical machines suffered a loss of creativity when he explored the possibility of similar mergers between humans and machines in his class Man and the Planets.

I’m glad that this lost classic is back in print. But still more than a little annoyed that it, and other SF works like it, are overlooked by the literary crowd in favour of those by ‘literary’ authors like Ian McEwan. Sorry to ride this old hobby-horse again, but a few weeks ago there was an interview with McEwan in the I. The newspaper mentioned to him that Science Fiction fans were upset about him denying that his book was part of the genre. McEwan repeated his sentiment, saying it wasn’t SF, but was based on him considering real world issues. Well, so is much Science Fiction, all the way back to Frankenstein. Aldiss has praised it as the first real work of Science Fiction as it was based on science as it was known at the time. This was Galvani’s experiments making the severed legs of frogs twitch and move through electricity. McEwan’s attitude shows the basic contempt of many literary authors and critics for the genre. They’re keen to borrow its tropes, but sneer at it as essentially trivial fantasy, unlike the serious stuff they’re writing. Much SF is, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. But there is a very large amount which isn’t, and which deserves to be taken as seriously as so-called ‘serious’ literary works like McEwan’s.


This is the Situation.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/05/2019 - 7:31pm in

Those more circumspect may dislike what they are about to read. However, I don’t think it inaccurate to conclude that our planet is dying, capitalism is killing it and we have little time to do something to avoid that.

From that link:

“Fundamentally, we’re sleepwalking into an extinction crisis. We’re not talking about the biosphere in the way that we need to. Nature is getting eroded in a dramatic way and a loss of natural capital means that humans will suffer in the long run.”

Sir Robert Watson [head of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), equivalent to the IPCC] said there must be transformative change to human civilisation if we are to avoid the extinction crisis.

“By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors,” he said.

Further coverage:

Humanity must save insects to save ourselves, leading scientist warns

Insects are ‘the glue in nature’, says Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, underpinning the food and water we rely on

By Damian Carrington, May 7

Biodiversity: what the UN has found and what it means for humanity

The global assessment report paints a dire picture of our effect on the natural world

By Fiona Harvey, May 7

Original UN/IPBES press release

In the meantime, Scott Morrison, mediocrity incarnate, and his COALition gang not only cannot offer anything that remotely resembles an adequate answer to the much simpler problem of climate change, but proceeds in a relentless, mendacious, fearmongering campaign to abort Labor’s much more ambitious but still insufficient program to tackle climate change.

And what passes for Left cannot conceive of any “fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors”, because -- in their opinion -- insisting on that kind of comprehensive, radical change denies the needy of some little improvements. The fact that those little improvements will be insufficient is irrelevant to them.

As doctors have learned, there is a threshold beyond which garden-variety negligence and incompetence and cowardice turns into criminality. We better keep that in mind and hope we don’t cross that line. Our lives hang on that.


As is usual in her, the federal minister for the Environment, Melissa Price, is MIA if not AWOL.

As at July 2018, the base salary of an MP was $207K per annum (plus expenses and superannuation). Depending on their additional "responsibilities" MPs receive a supplement. The Prime Minister, for instance, receives a supplement of 160% above the base salary: altogether $538K (plus expenses and superannuation) a year.

Other ministers are paid between $326K and $357K.
What is that creature doing to justify her pay?

I Am More Than My Chromosomes

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/05/2019 - 5:00pm in

We’re all haunted by the gender sorting machine we’re passed through at birth.

Six tough institutional challenges this century

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 30/04/2019 - 2:06am in

In 1900, the modern nation states of Europe faced many challenges in terms of how they were run, with poverty and disease still prevalent. The largest problems were more or less successfully addressed by 2000. The road involved world wars and civil wars, but the essential recipe to the problems prevalent in 1900 has been found and implemented in most countries in Europe. In turn that recipe has been copied in many other places.

The problem of how to organise the economy has been addressed via the mixed-market system and the general organisation of a national bureaucracy in large semi-autonomous institutions with specific roles, such as national police systems and national water supply systems.

The problem of how to get legitimacy in the whole system and turnover amongst the elites has been largely solved by the universal democratic franchise, a non-religious non-ethnic story telling national identity, and a basic safety net for all.

The problems of low health and low productivity in the general population have largely been solved via national health services and free state-organised education.

The problem of over-militarisation and a highly disruptive nobility class oriented around land rents has been solved in Western Europe by having most of them killed or displaced by two World Wars. We have also outsourced the gravity point of the military to the Americans, greatly increased human capital investments, and been lucky to have had few natural resources. Combined, they have prevented the production of lots of new barons.

What are the main challenges facing European countries today in terms of how our societies are organised? How might these challenges be addressed? Let us not bother with small stuff like Brexit or fake news, which are basically historical blips and part of the ongoing theater of politics, but only talk about general challenges to our survival and quality of life.

One challenge is that of the internet to national identity, national taxation, and national truths. Our countries face the problem that the population in many ways lives and trades online in an international no-man’s land that is conducive to internationalism, tax avoidance, and the creation of truths on the basis of economic interests and religious ideologies rather than national interest.

I suspect that the route now explored in Russia and China is going to win out, which is the emergence in each large region of a bureaucracy that controls the important aspects of the internet as pertaining to that country or region. This partly involves a nationalisation of some of the key functions now performed by private companies (search functions, social networking, market places), as well as the establishment of a national internet police service and a national internet identification service. You see a lot of steps in this direction.

We cannot know how this nationalisation of the internet will go, but I suspect that we will end up with a system whereby anyone on the internet will have to wear a unique nationally-distributed device that identifies them and their activities. I am thinking of a biometric identification device that will unlock financial, democratic, and other functions on the internet, but that is of course also related to their taxes and propaganda behaviour.

A quite different challenge is that of climate change and other international environmental problems like too much plastic in the oceans and too few fish.The ‘old approach’ of letting someone own the common resource (the oceans or the climate) is unlikely to work. The ‘obvious approach’ of having a world empire in which a world bureaucracy enforces an international solution is unlikely to emerge because I think nation states will continue to win the political battle for hearts and minds, beating all international ideologies, as nation states have done in the previous 500 years.

I suspect that we will see coalition-of-the-willing engineering solutions to many of these problems. As a non-engineer I can only take a wild guess at just what the winning solutions will look like. The way the marine scientists in Australia are now planning to essentially (genetically) engineer a heat-resistant Great Barrier Reef ecosystem is a good example for how I think lots of other environmental challenges will actually be tackled.

I imagine autonomous vessels with artificial intelligence that roam around the oceans to collect the surplus plastic, organised by a UN-type organisation.

I imagine huge national marine ponds floating in the oceans to spawn fish and other marine life, with larger water territories emerging on the basis of regional cooperation, perhaps slowly converging on global cooperation.

I imagine groups of large countries combining to pump reflective aerosols into the higher atmosphere to cool down the planet, resisted by other countries who want it to be warmer.

I foresee both national and regional attempts to preserve and increase biodiversity, including the creation of new species (“how much diversity do you want? Labs can provide!”).

Hence I suspect we will get a patchwork of specific alliances that try engineering solutions to specific global environmental problems.

Another challenge is that of the disconnect between mobile international elites and the majority populations of the nation states. This problem has exacerbated elite tax evasion, attacks on the stories of national identity, widening inequality, and political corruption on a scale not seen after WWII.

I suspect that we will see broadly the same solution to this in the 21st century as we saw to a quite similar problem of elite-disconnect in the early 1900s: political strife resembling civil war culminating in the renewed supremacy of the national project as the dominant political organising force. I just cannot see any form of internationalism supplanting the nation states, though we might get large blocks of nation states becoming more and more like nation states.

The challenge for those who mean well is not how to stop the coming wave of nationalism, but rather how to channel it in a way that maximises it benefits and minimises its damage. It might be that we go the Swiss route to involve populations much more in their own national stories via much more participative democracy. We might go the Chinese social-shaming route wherein everyone, including the elites, have a running social score telling the others how well they are behaving. We might get fascist utopias wherein a small elite enforces a very narrow conception of scientific and genetic purity on a whole population. We might get wild experimentation of hybrid humanoids and AI systems given the responsibility to look after the rest of the country.

I think that there will be a great pull towards new systems that are seen to work in other countries, which at the moment means the systems in Northern and Central Europe. If they can show how to rope their elites back into the national fold, then I can see their examples getting a lot of traction elsewhere. The Dutch and German approach of mandating a limit to the incomes of the managers of state-connected institutions is an important example of new attempts to force the elites back into the fold.

Yet another challenge is the continued increase in the number of ways in which small groups can kill billions of people by design and by accident, via the proliferation of nuclear technology as well as cheaper biological and artificial intelligence systems.

I suspect we won’t do anything serious about this until at least one of these risks materialises in a big way, such as via a nuclear attack by an extremist group, a mistake, or a run-away AI experiment that manages to provoke a large-scale military conflict costing millions of lives. Even then, I suspect the solution will be very much hap-hazard and oriented towards the exact nature of the catastrophe, ie a band-aid.

It is hard to see a general solution to this general problem emerge because national sovereignty and the strong incentives for leaders to grand-stand will be in the way of any more permanent solution that would require countries and elites to give up their power. I thus suspect this problem will not be solved this century and will be part of the luggage of the next one.

My anticipated ‘solution’ in the long-long-run is the emergence of actual gods that will rule us and whom the human survivors will worship, ie the end of nation state supremacy and the emergence of a pluralist theocracy in which humans are no longer the dominant entities. However, that’s a highly uncertain future possibility and part of a larger and different conversation.

Another international challenge is that the areas of the world producing more children are those with the least well-run governments, leading to a massive and disruptive migration flow from poor to rich, threatening the social integrity of some destination countries. In turn, this migration takes away the pressure on the elites in the countries from which they come to really reform.

I see a combination of three factors that might solve this: i) dropping fertility rates even in the poorest and worse-run countries due to things like the increased presence of the internet and mobile technology, which in turn increases the returns to educational investment everywhere, which in turn makes kids expensive; ii) special economic zones in other continents set up by Western countries and China that effectively become well-run colonies that absorb most of the local migrants (pretty much like Hong Kong and Macau in previous centuries) ; iii) continued globalisation of languages and culture that will reduce the cultural distances which will reduce the disruption associated with migration flows making people in richer countries less bothered about in-bound migration.

Finally, there are the dangers to world peace emanating from flaws to the political institutions of the main super-powers, with two main sub-problems that I see as the biggest threats: America will have to get used to its lost dominance, and China is inherently politically unstable because it lacks a separation of powers. This is really tricky. Very few realise that both problems exist and are serious; neither the Americans or the Chinese want to acknowledge the problem, making a transparent solution to them impossible; and I do not see historical solutions to either type of problem that did not involve large-scale blood-letting. They are design flaws, one inherent to national pride, and the other to collectivist empires.

I am not aware of an historical instance where dominant nation states learned to get comfortable with being subservient without getting a bloody nose, or worse. The UK didn’t stop dreaming about its Empire till the Americans forced them to back down in the Suez crisis of the 1950s and even now some of the UK elites dream of the glory days at the expense of the present. French wounded pride was partially responsible for the Second World War via their insistence on German humiliation in the treaty of Versailles. It took a devastating defeat with millions of casualties to get the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires to get used to their lower status. Etc.

Similarly, the Chinese political system never learned in their more than 2,000 year history as an imperial bureaucracy to avoid major civil wars as the only way to have significant leadership change. The Chinese suffer from an inherent problem with collectivist winner-take-all decision making systems, which is the lack of a separation of powers that makes it impossible for a previous elite to be secure in some of their property rights when a new elite takes over, which in turn makes old elites fight to the death to hold on to power.

From 1945 till now there were three large internal Chinese conflicts directly caused by power-struggles at the top: the communist takeover of 1949; the Great Leap forward of 1960; and the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s.

Part of the problem is that the Chinese are not taught in school that they lost over 50 million people last century because of elite power struggles. For instance, instead of being told that the Great Leap forward was a Mao-induced disaster that cost 30 million people, they are told there was unusual weather in that period leading to famines. There is hence no open awareness of the flaws in their political system.

The tell-tale sign of increased pressure at the top is an ideological purity drive, invariably invoked by a threatened incumbent elite faction to marginalise another one. Mao in the late 1950s inflicted an ideology of a Great Leap Forward, and then in the Cultural Revolution inflicted the ideology of his little red booklet. Both heralded disasters.

The Chinese were lucky in the late 1970s to be led by Deng Xiaoping who managed to get the Chinese Communist Party to adopt a system of gradual elite renewal that worked from 1980 to 2010, but with his death the natural tendency of winner-takes-all politics has been re-established.

Xi Jiping has consolidated ultimate power in his hands and that of the group around him, just as Mao did in the 1950s. Mao needed a catastrophe every 10 years to fend off the opponents. With the death of Deng Xiaoping and his pragmatism, the Chinese leadership has now returned to ideological slogans of the Mao era.

Mao used purity drives to mobilise idealistic young people against political opponents. There are indications a new conflict is brewing right now, with a new ‘social virtue’ drive sweeping through China. It probably won’t get too bad whilst growth is easy, but the inherent instability is there.

So the odds are that the US problem will cost other countries a lot of lives and the Chinese will continue to have civil strife from time to time. I don’t think there is much we can do about either, so let us hope we are lucky and that both will be contained.

On the whole, I am optimistic about this century, with many indicators of humanity’s progress looking very healthy indeed. Our population levels are likely to stabilise; our ability to feed ourselves looks guaranteed; poverty rates are falling; the incentives to be nice to each other keeps increasing due to the increased connections between our economies; and we are likely to live much longer too. The main dangers come from the same place as the solutions: technology and politics.

Radio 4 Serialising Ian McEwan’s Robot Book Next Week

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 24/04/2019 - 1:47am in

I don’t belieeeve it! As the great Victor Meldrew used to say. Next week, according to the Radio Times for 27th April – 3rd May 2019, Radio 4 is serialising Ian McEwan’s latest literary offering, Machines Like Me, about a love triangle between a man, his wife and the android he has bought. It’s in ten parts, Monday to Fridays at 12.04 pm, and read by Anton Lesser.

I’ve already put up two posts about the book, which has only just been published. McEwan’s novel is one of a long-line of SF stories about humans falling in love, or pursuing sexual relationships with the humanoid robots they have built, such as Asimov’s ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’. Genre science fiction writers have explored the issues of machine consciousness and its philosophical and ethical issues, from highbrow authors like Poland’s Stanislaw Lem, to comic book writers like Pat Mills in 2000AD’s ‘ABC Warriors’. The issue I have with McEwan’s book, and other literary authors that are planning similar works of fiction, is that while genre science fiction is still looked down on somewhat by the literary elite, McEwan’s book is going to receive immediate acclaim as proper literature.

Now Radio 4 has serialised a number of great works of SF, including Robert Silverberg’s masterwork Dying Inside, and has, like some of the other channels, Radio 3 and Radio 4 Extra, put on SF plays. Not so long ago there was a series of these, with the title Dangerous Visions. SF buffs will recognise this as the title of the groundbreaking SF anthology edited by Harlan Ellison, that ushered in the SF New Wave over in America. But despite the achievements of genre SF authors, there is still this feeling that it hasn’t quite won critical respectability in the elevated literary circles that support McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Kazuo Ishiguro and the other regular literary award winners, who are writing or preparing to write books about robots and AI.

As I’ve said, I feel very strongly that if McEwan and co. win literary awards for their SF works, like Machines Like Me, then those awards should have the decency to drop some of the snobbishness and include genre SF authors. Whose latest works I hope the Beeb will also serialise the moment they come out.

Reviewing the ‘I’s’ Review of Ian McEwan’s ‘Machines Like Me’

George Barr’s cover illo for Lloyd Biggle’s The Metallic Muse. From David Kyle, the Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas & Dreams (London: Hamlyn 1977).

The book’s pages of last Friday’s I , for 19th April 2019, carried a review by Jude Cook of Ian McEwan’s latest literary offering, a tale of a love triangle between a man, the male robot he has purchased, and his wife, a plot summed up in the review’s title, ‘Boy meets robot, robot falls for girl’. I’d already written a piece in anticipation of its publication on Thursday, based on a little snippet in Private Eye’s literary column that McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro were all now turning to robots and AI for their subject matter, and the Eye expected other literary authors, like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, to follow. My objection to this is that it appeared to be another instance of the literary elite taking their ideas from Science Fiction, while looking down on the genre and its writers. The literary establishment has moved on considerably, but I can still remember the late, and very talented Terry Pratchett complaining at the Cheltenham Literary Festival that the organisers had looked at him as if he was about to talk to all his waiting fans crammed into the room about motorcycle maintenance.

Cook’s review gave an outline of the plot and some of the philosophical issues discussed in the novel. Like the Eye’s piece, it also noted the plot’s similarity to that of the Channel 4 series, Humans. The book is set in an alternative 1982 in which the Beatles are still around and recording, Tony Benn is Prime Minister, but Britain has lost the Falklands War. It’s a world where Alan Turing is still alive, and has perfected machine consciousness. The book’s hero, Charlie, purchases one of the only 25 androids that have been manufactured, Adam. This is not a sex robot, but described as ‘capable of sex’, and which has an affair with the hero’s wife, Miranda. Adam is an increasing threat to Charlie, refusing to all his master to power him down. There’s also a subplot about a criminal coming forward to avenge the rape Miranda has suffered in the past, and a four year old boy about to be placed in the care system.

Cook states that McEwan discusses the philosophical issue of the Cartesian duality between mind and brain when Charlie makes contact with Turing, and that Charlie has to decide whether Adam is too dangerous to be allowed to continue among his flesh and blood counterparts, because

A Manichean machine-mind that can’t distinguish between a white lie and a harmful lie, or understand that revenge can sometimes be justified, is potentially lethal.

Cook declares that while this passage threatens to turn the book into a dry cerebral exercise, its engagement with the big questions is its strength, concluding

The novel’s presiding Prospero is Turing himself, who observes that AI is fatally flawed because life is “an open system… full of tricks and feints and ambiguities”. His great hope is that by its existence “we might be shocked in doing something about ourselves.”

Robots and the Edisonade

It’s an interesting review, but what it does not do is mention the vast amount of genre Science Fiction that has used robots to explore the human condition, the limits or otherwise of machine intelligence and the relationship between such machines and their creators, since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. There clearly seems to be a nod to Shelley with the name of this android, as the monster in her work, I think, is also called Adam. But Eando Binder – the nom de plume of the brothers Earl and Otto Binder, also wrote a series of stories in the 1930s and ’40s about a robot, Adam Link, one of which was entitled I, Robot, which was later used as the title of one of Asimov’s stories. And although the term ‘robot’ was first used of such machines by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his 1920s play, RUR, or Rossum’s Universal Robots, they first appeared in the 19th century. One of these was Villier de l’Isle-Adam, L’Eve Futur of 1884. This was about a robot woman invented by Thomas Edison. As one of the 19th centuries foremost inventors, Edison was the subject of a series of proto-SF novels, the Edisonades, in which his genius allowed him to create all manner of advanced machines. In another such tale, Edison invents a spaceship and weapons that allow humanity to travel to the planets and conquer Mars. McEwan’s book with its inclusion of Alan Turing is basically a modern Edisonade, but with the great computer pioneer rather than the 19th century electrician as its presiding scientific genius. Possibly later generations will have novels set in an alternative late 20th century where Stephen Hawking has invented warp drive, time travel or a device to take us into alternative realities via artificial Black Holes.

Robot Romances

As I said in my original article, there are any number of SF books about humans having affairs with robots, like Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, Lester del Rey’s Helen O’Loy and Asimov’s Satisfaction Guaranteed. The genre literature has also explored the moral and philosophical issues raised by the creation of intelligent machines. In much of this literature, robots are a threat, eventually turning on their masters, from Capek’s R.U.R. through to The Terminator and beyond. But some writers, like Asimov, have had a more optimistic view. In his 1950 I, Robot, a robot psychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin, describes them in a news interview as ‘a cleaner, better breed than we are’.

Lem’s Robots and Descartes

As for the philosophical issues, the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem, explored them in some of his novels and short stories. One of these deals with the old problem, also dating back to Descartes, about whether we can truly know that there is an external world. The story’s hero, the space pilot Pirx, visits a leading cybernetician in his laboratory. This scientist has developed a series of computer minds. These exist, however, without robot bodies, but the minds themselves are being fed programmes which make them believe that they are real, embodied people living in the real world. One of these minds is of a beautiful woman with a scar on her shoulder from a previous love affair. Sometimes the recorded programmes jump a groove, creating instances of precognition or deja vu. But ultimately, all these minds are, no matter how human or how how real they believe themselves to be, are brains in vats. Just like Descartes speculated that a demon could stop people from believing in a real world by casting the illusion of a completely false one on the person they’ve possessed.

Morality and Tragedy in The ABC Warriors 

Some of these complex moral and personal issues have also been explored by comics, until recently viewed as one of the lowest forms of literature. In a 1980s ‘ABC Warriors’ story in 2000AD, Hammerstein, the leader of a band of heroic robot soldiers, remembers his earliest days. He was the third prototype of a series of robot soldiers. The first was an efficient killer, patriotically killing Communists, but exceeded its function. It couldn’t tell civilians from combatants, and so committed war crimes. The next was programmed with a set of morals, which causes it to become a pacifist. It is killed trying to persuade the enemy – the Volgans – to lay down their arms. Hammerstein is its successor. He has been given morals, but not to the depth that they impinge on his ability to kill. For example, enemy soldiers are ‘terrorists’. But those on our side are ‘freedom fighters’. When the enemy murders civilians, it’s an atrocity. When we kill civilians, it’s unavoidable casualties. As you can see, the writer and creator of the strip, Pat Mills, has very strong left-wing opinions.

Hammerstein’s programming is in conflict, so his female programmer takes him to a male robot psychiatrist, a man who definitely has romantic intentions towards her. They try to get Hammerstein to come out of his catatonic reverie by trying to provoke a genuine emotional reaction. So he’s exposed to all manner of stimuli, including great works of classical music, a documentary about Belsen, and the novels of Barbara Cartland. But the breakthrough finally comes when the psychiatrist tries to kiss his programmer. This provokes Hammerstein into a frenzied attack, in which he accidentally kills both. Trying to repair the damage he’s done, Hammerstein says plaintively ‘I tried to replace his head, but it wouldn’t screw back on.’

It’s a genuinely adult tale within the overall, action-oriented story in which the robots are sent to prevent a demon from Earth’s far future from destroying the Galaxy by destabilising the artificial Black and White Holes at the centre of Earth’s underground civilisation, which have been constructed as express routes to the stars. It’s an example of how the comics culture of the time was becoming more adult, and tackling rather more sophisticated themes.

Conclusion: Give Genre Authors Their Place at Literary Fiction Awards

It might seem a bit mean-spirited to compare McEwan’s latest book to its genre predecessors. After all, in most reviews of fiction all that is required is a brief description of the plot and the reviewer’s own feelings about the work, whether it’s done well or badly. But there is a point to this. As I’ve said, McEwan, Winterson, Ishiguro and the others, who may well follow their lead, are literary authors, whose work regularly wins the big literary prizes. They’re not genre authors, and the type of novels they write are arguably seen by the literary establishment as superior to that of genre Science Fiction. But here they’re taking over proper Science Fiction subjects – robots and parallel worlds – whose authors have extensively explored their moral and philosophical implications. This is a literature that can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed as trash, as Stanislaw Lem has done, and which the judges and critics of mainstream literary fiction still seem to do. McEwan’s work deserves to be put into the context of genre Science Fiction. The literary community may feel that it’s somehow superior, but it is very much of the same type as its genre predecessors, who did the themes first and, in my opinion, better.

There is absolutely no reason, given the quality of much SF literature, why this tale by McEwan should be entered for a literary award or reviewed by the kind of literary journals that wouldn’t touch genre science fiction with a barge pole, while genre SF writers are excluded. It’s high time that highbrow literary culture recognised and accepted works and writers of genre SF as equally worthy of respect and inclusion.

Oceania: Extinction.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 20/04/2019 - 6:23am in

Lake Gunn, New Zealand. [A]
Aotearoa New Zealand, much like Australia, is a rich country. Much more than Australia, NZ is world-famous for its astounding natural beauty and its blessed climate. Even if readers never visited it, film franchises like The Lord of the Rings have showcased its magnificent natural scenery.

That beauty, peacefulness (somewhat tainted now by the recent and regrettable Christchurch events), and geographical isolation have made of NZ attractive to many. Just a couple of years ago, even Silicon Valley billionaires -- most notably Peter Thiel -- “discovered” NZ as a kind of “apocalypse insurance” or, as I prefer to call it, up-market Doomsday prepping destination.

It is, therefore, with alarm that I read the official triennial report Environment Aotearoa 2019 -- jointly by the NZ Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ -- made public yesterday. Highlights from it:

  • 75 animal and plant species extinct after human settlement;
  • 90% seabirds and 80% shorebirds threatened or at risk of extinction;
  • heightened extinction risk for 86 species during the last 15 years;
  • risk of collapse for 2/3 of NZ ecosystems.

To make things worse, only 20% of species in NZ have been identified and recorded: if we don’t know what we have, we can’t even know what percentage we’ve lost, much less what the relationships between species are.

I want to share with readers something in particular from that report. The infographic below, I think, is very educative about the challenges humanity faces.

(right-click to open a larger image in a separate tab)
It, I think, is best read from top to bottom, starting by point 5 (“Our climate change”), sub-points 9 and 8. Note what the infographic says immediately after that: “Climate change intensifies the effects of all other issues”.

Contrary to widespread perception -- sadly fostered by well-meaning commentators, activists, the media, and even by some climate change scientists -- climate change isn’t the only cause of ecosystem collapse: it intensifies other causes. Those other causes, however, often remain unmentioned: out of sight, out of mind.

The truth is humanity won’t be automatically off the hook by solving the already daunting problem of climate change. Those other causes (namely, the destructive way how we use “our freshwater and marine resources” and “our lands”, the “pollution from our activities”) will still need to be addressed.

The views that report reflects seem coincident with those expressed in the recently published article “Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers”, by Francisco Sánchez-Bayo.

Speaking of extinctions:

If the population of the Yarra pygmy perch (Nannoperca obscura) went extinct in the wild, it wasn’t because of lack of trying. Attempts to “restock” the river were made after the population crashed precipitously during the millennium drought: industrial quantities of inbred fish, produced in nurseries, were released in the wild. The problem is that -- apparently to the surprise of the plan’s promoters -- the reintroduced fish didn’t survive in the wild. You see right there why the policy of David Littleproud reeks of cretinism: a wild population is not a farm population, Einstein.

If you -- like me -- thought Autumn could bring a pause in the avalanche of terrible Summer news, think again. It turns out that now there are reports of unusual crocodile and shark deaths in the Northern Territory:

­So far I could find only one media report, mentioning only a small number of dead animals. Which is good. Hopefully, there’s nothing to see here. The bad news is that the number of sightings of living crocodiles in reproductive age may be falling:

“Back in the day we used to have 16-foot crocs that would come up to the back of the boat every night, the clients used to love it and you got to see nature,” he [Anthony Bergamo, a recreational fishing business owner] said.

“We saw one crocodile yesterday which was about 2 feet long, you know, and that is just regular now that there are no crocs here.”

Image Credits:
[A] Lake Gunn, New Zealand. Author: Jocey K. Source: WikiMedia. File licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. My use of this file in no way implies the licensor endorses me or said use.