Saturday, June 30, 2018

Pondering Human Intelligence

That dot is Earth!

One of the ideas that I have toyed around with for years is the philosophical question as to whether Homo sapiens are a true intelligent species. My overall point being that most animals have enough sense not to crap in their homes, fight to the death, or practice fanatical or fantastical beliefs when there is no evidence to support them. Yes, I know some exceptions exist, such as chimps who have shown disturbing human-like behavior such as organized group warfare and murder.

If humans were truly intelligent it seems to me that we wouldn't totally trash the planet for resources nor destroy whole ecosystems for short term gain. But yet we are still doing both of those things all in the name of capitalistic profit even though we have ample information that those practices cannot go on for much longer. For Americans, water shortages are a relative minor pain in the ass that stop us from washing our cars or filling the backyard pools. In many regions of the world there is a real possibility that countries might have to go to war in the decades ahead to secure enough water for basic existence. And as for ecosystems, the world's oceans were once thought to be inexhaustible, but some species of fish are now commercially extinct because of decades of industrial scale fishing.

Nor would humans instinctively divide the planet into competing ant hills. Yes, world government is foolish wish given that our species can't really shed our primitive tribalist tendencies. That being my whole point, evolution has forced us to cooperate for the benefit of our individual groups but we can't seem to connect the dots and realize our species is just one big tribe. We gleefully divide each other into countless groups for the benefit of economic exploitation or outright genocide. If a starship full of intrepid alien explorers discovered our planet and after some observations realized we had divided the planet into over two-hundred omnipotent, self-serving nation-states the best thing they could do would be to quietly get the hell out of Dodge before we notice them.

On the matters of faith, while numerous religions have promoted the ideas of serving the greater good and that all men and women are brothers and sisters, you can't ignore the fact that many people believe that only they know the will of God. That delusion has brought about some of the bloodiest wars in history. Even now fanatical and self-serving devotion to various invisible friends causes otherwise decent people to commit monstrous actions. You would think that an intelligent species might be able to realize that if some A-hole religious leader commands his followers to kill their neighbors because that is what God commands, they wound just find a new holy man. 

I was raised Christian, but the idea that God would only let the followers of Jesus into heaven while truly saint-like Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and countless others have to burn in Hell because they practice a different faith is ridiculous. While officially agnostic, I still follow what I was taught in Sunday School as a young kid. As long as people treat each other decency and respect and don't trash the planet, they should get their Heavenly ticket punched. Yes, I believe that would even allows atheists and sorry ass agnostics like me through the Pearly Gates. Screw it, not to insult anyone but given the hypocritical and even monstrous behaviors of supposed “holy” men and women in all faiths, if all they have to do to wipe the slate clean is whisper a halfhearted prayer of forgiveness to get into Heaven, otherwise decent idjits like myself should be in like Flint.

Given my criteria on what it means to be an intelligent species Homo sapiens pretty much fails across the board. Yes, there are personal exceptions, but overall I tend to agree with a character from a science fiction movie, humans are more like viruses than mammals. No, this isn't some John Lennon-like lament over an imagined Utopian society, our species will never achieve such perfection.

On a personal level, what supports my idea is that we live in a wondrous universe filled with mysteries and intriguing possibilities but can't stop our squabbling for very long to explore it. There are questions that beg to be answered but we seem content to continue to crap in our home, fight to the death over stupid shit like who has the better ant hill, and obey the commands of delude psychopaths who believe they and God have one-on-one conversations. 

Mudskippers, humans are little removed from their behavior

This is sad to write, but my one of my few hopes is that Elon Musk succeeds in getting his dream of a permanent human colony on Mars established. I firmly believe that in such an alien and hostile environment where survival is the primary concern the age-old human sins that have kept us bickering like little mudskippers will be burned away. That over time humans would evolve into an intelligent species, not gods by any means, but a species that could look beyond their primitive desires and delusions and find a worthy purpose for our existence.

Well shit, after rereading this it did get a little John Lennon-like. Frak it, I'm getting a beer.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Resisting Oblivion

The only human desire that rivals the ancient wish for eternal life is to be remembered. In fact since researchers had shown other animals can cooperate in groups, use tools, and even have a type of culture, the desire to be remembered by those that come after us might be something that defines what it is to be human. I say “might be” because given what we have already learned from highly social animals like chimps and some cetaceans, it wouldn't surprise me that they too have some innate wish to be remembered by their descendants. How we would find evidence of that, I have absolutely no idea.

Some of the most poignant and hopeful pictures I have seen involve hand paintings on the walls of caves that can be dated to have being made tens of thousands of years ago. What goes beyond mind blowing is that such behavior was once thought limited to just our paleolithic Homo sapien kinfolk. An extremely recent discover in Spain has found cave artwork and a hand print produced by Neanderthals that dates back to sixty-four thousand years ago. The earliest evidence of Homo sapiens living in Europe doesn't appear until twenty-thousand years later.

Interpretations vary, but to me cave hand paintings are at least a partial declaration that “I existed.” That in a time long before writing, hand paintings on the walls of caves transcended the limitations inherent to intelligent creatures who know they will eventual die and be forgotten. Of course as humans progressed we created written languages that were often carved into the sides monuments to declare our triumphs and achievements so that the memories of great exploits would live on, hopefully forever. Years ago while reading about the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, I found it somewhat humorous to learn that the hieroglyphic these ancient kings had carved on the side of their vanity-driven monuments never really mentioned any defeats they suffered in their lives or military campaigns. One Egyptologist on a television documentary half-jokingly suggested that any failures or defeats were carefully spun by the pharaohs' scribes to seem positive by the clever use of careful wording.

As the centuries passed humans made sure anything they created had their name attached to it. Whether it be books, paintings, or any number of other creations or discoveries. It's just human nature for a person to want everyone to know that their hard work or inspiration produced something that will live on after they are gone.

This gets to the reason I am writing this self-reflective crap. A few months ago I got into a conversation with someone about our respective hobbies. Normally, I absolutely do not reveal my blogging to anyone, my politics alone makes me an outsider here in South Carolina but when your hobby can be considered rather abstract and even slightly cerebral, well that just makes you a total weirdo in the eyes of these sophisticated and nuanced folks. But since the individual I was talking with seemed a little obsessive over his model train collection, a fine hobby no doubt, I thought what the Hell.

The question this person finally asked what was the point to all my efforts? I had already told him that it has been years since I made a serious effort to have anything professionally published. He knew enough about blogging to understand that the vast majority of these websites go completely unnoticed by the wider world. My usual, and largely true answer is that I use blogging as a way to blow off steam and frustration. But there is a deeper answer that you can probably guess.

At some point I intend begin recording all my rants and various attempts at fiction onto some sort of permanent storage. The idea being that when I finally head off into oblivion my kids and their kids will have a record of my thoughts. While in no way comparable to the massive ancient Egyptian monuments left by the pharaohs, there is more than a little bit of vanity associated with my intentions. Then again, I like the idea of imagining what one of my descendants one-hundred years or more from now would make of my ravings. This is assuming humans do not bring about a planetary environmental collapse in the next several decades, civilization destroying pandemic, or just go out with a good old fashioned nuclear war.

This train of thought naturally leads me to speculate on the ultimate way to be remembered. As our technology has advanced the ways to recording our existence has become more numerous and sophisticated. Making a video recording of ourselves is so easy these days we're on the other end of Clarke's Law that says, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Just image Joe and Jane Smith from the early twentieth century seeing a commonplace video recording of a kid's birthday party. They may not run away in fear from the magic picture box, but they would have absolutely no idea what to make of it.

While the technology is still decades, if not centuries away, I can see people making recordings of their consciousness that would be fully interactive with anyone accessing them. This brings to mind the question would such consciousness snapshots be sentient beings deserving of human rights and protections? Or would our descendants consider them nothing but more sophisticated versions of home movies no one wants to see?

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Waiting is the Worst Part

Several months ago, a Canadian guy I know from Facebook posted a question wanting to know which American president was worse, George W. Bush or Trump. His personal assumption was that George W. could still claim the title since he had spent a trillion dollars on the Iraq War and had approved the practices of torture to obtain information from suspected terrorists and mass Orwell-like surveillance on the general public. Being Canadian safely ensconced in the bosom of top rate government healthcare and a far more rational and intelligent population, he is totally cutoff from the facts here in this cauldron of seething fear and rage that is the United States.

True, the current occupant of the White House hasn't gotten around to launching a totally needless but self-serving war that wrecked the political stability of the good chunk of the planet and destroyed literally millions of lives both overseas and here at home. Well, at least not yet, and I mean every word of that short statement. Trump's need for adulation and glory is a dangerous combination and when joined with his saber rattling on Iran, a favorite boogeyman for the clash of civilizations types and the Israeli government, anything is possible. Despite the recent love fest meeting between the narcissistic wonder and the little squirt from North Korea, we are in no way out of the woods in that region.

What Trump has done that in my opinion makes him so dangerous as to change my perceptions of George W. to the point he is almost acceptable is to eat away at the basic foundations of constitutional government and the very stability of the country. Trump is desperate to begin persecution of his political enemies and anyone else that doesn't measure up to his definition of loyalty. Personally, I despise the racist Kebbler elf now running the Justice Department, his policies on marijuana and immigrants are at the very minimum backwards and self defeating for the former and criminal on the latter. The only thing good I can say about Jeff Sessions is that he recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference on the election and has resisted Trump's insistence that he do something to get rid of Mueller.

Civility, a tough concept for Americans in the best of times, has taken a huge hit since Trump has risen to national political prominence. The modern Republican Party, never a bastion of progressive thought when it comes to promoting equality now has admitted neo-Nazis and white supremacists running for elected office. There is only one reason why such individuals haven't been expunged on national television by the Republicans. And if you didn't automatically think of the name of the person who is letting the party of Lincoln slip into fascism you really need to get a grip.

Equally disturbing is how numerous Republicans on social media are saying things worthy of not just the propaganda arm of an authoritarian country, but outright totalitarian police-states. Trump recently said to a Fox and Friends moron that he wanted Americans to sit up for him the same way the North Koreans do for the Kim Jong-un. Another instance involves a Republican party official that recently tweeted we should all get with the Trump program, or else. Not an exact quote by any means but close enough to express her sentiment. What exactly the “or else” means is anyone's guess but I have heard it repeated many times by other Trump supporting morons.

The situation that has sent me into spasms of anger and bewilderment is how Trump is now separating children from their parents or guardians at the border. Yes, these people are trying to enter the country illegally but they are still human beings and should be treated with respect and compassion.

In just over a month almost two-thousand children have been separated from their parents and housed in conditions that at best approach that of dog-kennels or even something far worse. If you've read a little history think back to the Japanese interment camps of WW2 and how they were just thinly disguised concentration camps. Adding another dose of inhumanity is how Trump is using these kids as bargaining chips to get his wall along the Mexican border. He blames the Democrats for his own racist and xenophobic actions. Pretty much the same thing as an abusive husband blaming his wife and kids for the beatings he gives them.

Frankly, I'm ashamed of being an American right now. Far more than during the Bush years when you had Cheney prowling the halls of government with his Sauron-like smirk. If the United States hasn't fallen into the abyss we're damn near the tipping point. Now if my words upset any super patriotic dipshits, start a crowd sourced fundraiser and buy me and my family a Canadian, Australian, or New Zealand citizenship. I'll gladly unass this shithole and watch as you all go into societal nuclear meltdown from a safe distance.

As for Democrats be they “liberal” or “progressive”, I honestly blame you lazy and petty fuckers for the overall situation. I'm talking about the apathetic shits who couldn't be bothered to vote despite the fact that they realized Trump was a monster. And I have a special anger-borderline hatred- for the “voting for the lesser of two evils is still voting for evil” crowd. God help me, I think more of the right-wing fanatics than you guys and gals. At least the right-wingers have enough sense not to cut their own throats.

As of this writing, summer hasn't even begun yet and I feel myself longing for November. Either the assorted Democrats will pull their heads out of their asses and take back at least the House of Representatives, or Trump will be given another blank check to remold the government and break the Republic. At least the waiting and uncertainty will be over.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Oceanic Close Encounters

For most Americans, things don't get more patrician than standing on the lido deck of the Disney Magic cruise ship as it sails through Caribbean waters. There are far more elite cruise lines, some so expensive that the brochures do not list the prices for their little fifteen to twenty day jaunts around the south Pacific or leisurely Mediterranean voyages. The idea being that if you have to know the prices of such trips before hand, you certainly can't afford them.

Don't get me wrong, while my family and I have been on three Disney cruises, the price for those vacations were nearly beyond our means. Fully knowing my following statement will sound like a blatant advertisement for what largely amounts to a soulless corporation, but Disney cruises are worth every penny.

On each of our three trips, when my family and I finally retired to our cabin for the night it was because of exhaustion from the activities. Yes, there were days devoted to relaxing, and if that is your main purpose, a person can easily find secluded and quiet places on the ship to read a book or listen to music for the entire trip. When my wife and I finally do another Disney cruise, that is exactly my plan. By that time the kids will be mostly on their own, and we have no intention of bringing the crumb snatchers.

Back when the kids were younger they were the main reason for the trips to begin with. But each morning I made a point of getting up before my wife and them and grabbing a cup of coffee to enjoy some alone time. Strolling the decks right before sunrise you almost have the ship to yourself. Sure, there are others up and about like the fitness types and the odd late night strangler but you mostly see folks like myself just wanting a bit of solitude before the energetic hordes emerge.

It was on our last Disney cruise in January of 2011 that I had one of those special moments that I hope never to forget. It was the second or third day of the cruise, and as usual I sneaked out of the cabin leaving my wife and daughter still fast asleep. The sun had just begun to break the horizon as I walked on the lido deck heading towards the gigantic coffee pots situated close to the restaurant where the buffet breakfast would be served a couple of hours later.

After getting my cup of coffee, I found a nearby seat looking out over the ocean to enjoy the beginning of a new day. As the minutes ticked by the rising sun created an orange hue across the water. While the overall weather was calm and clear, the ocean seemed a bit choppy with countless small waves colliding together sending up small splashes of water that twinkled as they caught the sunlight going down. The scene by itself was one of those picturesque moments true photographers would have twisted themselves and their cameras into pretzels to catch ever visible nuance.

I did attempt to reach for my camera, which should have been in the right side cargo pocket of my shorts, only to realize that in my haste to leave the cabin as quickly and quietly as possible, I had left it behind. Going back for it would have been futile, by the time I returned to my spot the conditions would have changed so I just sat back and enjoyed the subtle play of light across the water. Hindsight always being more perceptive than the present, it wasn't ten minutes later that another circumstance appeared that caused me to wish I had gone after my camera.

The buffet-style restaurant and the adjoining beverage station were at the ship's stern. And the spot I was sitting allowed me a decent view of the latter half of the port side of the ship. Right before I was about to get my second cup of coffee, I noticed a section of the ocean that was far more choppy than the rest. It didn't take long for me to realize that it was a pod of dolphins on what amounted to an intercept course for the cruise ship.

Of course, I was enthralled watching the pod catch up with the ship and then swim alongside. That wasn't all, as the dolphin leaped through the air, I saw them tilting the side of their bodies facing the ship upward. Anthropomorphizing the behavior of animals is bad practice, but it appeared as if the pod as a whole was inspecting the ship.

No big deal, it's well recorded that cetaceans are curious animals who interact with humans on occasion while in the wild. So it was no stretch to think that this pod, being open ocean swimmers in well trafficked waters, had encountered human ships in the past. What I still wonder about though is were there any inter-dolphin communications going on between the members of that pod as they swam alongside the Disney Magic? Were there any dolphin discussions on what they thought the purpose of the Disney Magic, since I imagine people riding around on a big ship for pleasure is a completely alien concept to them.

While the scientific reports I have read strongly suggest dolphins are not sentient, they are still incredibly intelligent animals with sophisticated communications abilities among themselves. I'm the type of person who freaks out at the idea of understanding what other intelligent species, both terrestrial and the hypothetical extraterrestrial type, think of humans and their creations. Truthfully, I realize their opinions of us is probably quite low since humans tend to screw up things and destroy far more than we preserve and build.

For several minutes the dolphins kept pace with the ship, but just as suddenly as they appeared some group decision was made and they veered off almost perpendicular to the direction we were going. That's the thing that still causes me to wonder in amazement, did some pod leader suddenly announce to the group the side trip was over or was there the equivalent of a vote? Because while I have no evidence the pod had an ultimate destination they were trying to reach, the way the group just changed direction makes me think they had a particular place they wanted to be.

It wasn't long before the dolphin pod was gone from sight once again leaving me to my thoughts. While my encounter with them was tenuous at best, I count it as one of the best parts of that trip.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Sailing off the World Stage

Wikipedia defines the “American Century” as the period since the middle of the twentieth century when the United States rose to global dominance based on its economic, military, and cultural power. No where near an official hundred-year period but when you figure the European nations could still be considered major powers up until the 1960's, I see that unknown Wikipedia editor's point.

One of my college history teachers defined the American century from our active participation into the First World War, roughly 1916. His idea being that had the United States not entered the European conflict on the side of the Allied powers of Britain and France circumstances would have been much better for Germany. With Russia out of the war and dissolving into Bolshevik-inspired chaos, the German kaiser could have redirected all his forces to the western front. In short, we saved the butts of Britain and France forcing them to realize the growing power of the United States could not be ignored.

Whatever the case, up until George W. Bush plunged the United States into a trillion-dollar Iraqi quagmire, we Americans were riding high on the global hog. Our system of post-WW2 alliances around the world had at first contained an expansionist Soviet Union and then insured its constructive demise as it imploded. The American policy of international free trade allowed an unprecedented expansion of wealth that allowed possibly billions of human beings to rise above a poverty level existence. The same goes for science and technology, the human race has gained more knowledge in the last fifty years than any time in our history. We've walked the surface of the moon, sent unmanned rovers and probes to Mars and the planets of the outer solar system. Medical knowledge has grown so fast we now casually tinker with DNA, the foundation of all life. And as far as computers are concerned, the exponential growth in that technology means we may live to see an actual sentient artificial intelligence supersede humans in a couple of decades.

Yeah, huge mistakes have been made over the decades, but we're talking humans here not all perfect and wise gods. Hell, if you want to know the truth, I'm still surprised that we got through the Cold War without nuking ourselves into a new stone age, if not extinction itself. All good news, although I'm still not sure about a recent supposition I read about that suggests that while humans have polluted the hell out of the planet, we're still ahead of the game since that knowledge will eventually force us to clean up the place. The idea being that other, less aware alien civilizations in the galaxy have gone extinct because they couldn't connect the dots as to why polluted water, air, and soil was bad for them. Frankly, given the forces of human greed and total willful ignorance, I'm not sure if we will decide to clean up the planet it time.

With the “American Empire” roughly keeping the peace and allowing most everyone on the planet to prosper you would think politicians would work extremely hard not to frak it up, which might cause a disastrous regional conflict, if not another world war. Well George W. already screwed the pooch with his stupid war to bring democracy to the Middle East. No, I have not forgotten about his ravings over nonexistent Iraqi WMD's, but that's a whole other piece of bullshit not important to my central point.

The success of American global leadership since the end of WW2 has rested on the twin pillars of free trade and military alliances. NO! It's not a perfect system, especially since the vast majority of the newly created wealth is controlled by an incredibly small percentage of rich elites that do not hesitate to throw their weight around. But when the alternative was a planetary scale nuclear wasteland, I'll go with what we have and try to reform it.

Well if George W. wasn't bad enough we now have a narcissistic A-hole occupying the White House hell bent on not only wrecking the relatively successful global trading system but totally alienating our long time allies. Right from the get-go Trump said during the 2016 presidential campaign that he was going to throw out all the trade deals that have been made. His reasoning was that the United States was being taken advantage of by our allies. That the poor hapless Americans were the fools of the world. A really hard thing for anyone with any knowledge of modern history and a smidgen of economics to believe since the United States created the game and wrote the rules.

True, a lot of old technology jobs went overseas causing a great deal of economic troubles for those working in the affected industries here in the United States. But anyone with just a few extra grams of intelligence and ability to look beyond self imposed blinders would understand millions of American jobs depend on selling products to the wider world. Yes, free trade hurts but in the long run that is how you continue to promote overall economic growth. Yes, trade treaties can be structured better on a number of fronts like supporting organized labor and protecting the environment.

All Trump supporters hear is that bastard promising to bring back all the nifty lifetime factory jobs their granddaddies and fathers worked. The trouble though is if you want to worship the religion of capitalism you have to follow its tenets. Which in this case means businesses are going to search out the cheapest labor to maximize their profits. The funny thing above all the empty promises of bring back those factory jobs is that automation will eventually remove most if not all human labor from the equation.

Unbeknownst to Trump supporters, and the bastard himself, economic issues translates directly into security considerations. Namely that no single nation can secure international peace all by itself, no matter how much egotistical nonsense permeates right-wing media. This is where overturning the international system wiser men and women created becomes a form of suicide.

China, the rising superpower out to remake the world in its image, just launched its first home built aircraft carrier. Its first carrier, a piece of Russian made junk that they bought from Ukraine and totally rebuilt gives them a fleet of two. No big deal you might say, Britain has two aircraft carriers as does India. And several other countries all possess single aircraft carriers, with most of them nothing more than token symbols of national sovereignty. And honestly, if you combined all those different aircraft carriers from those other nations they probably couldn't scratch the paint of the U.S. Navy.

But China is different, their ultimate goal is to take control of Asia and the western Pacific. The current Chinese government is an often brutal authoritarian regime still carrying a grudge over how the Western powers abused them from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. China is already a great power with the will and ability to become a superpower. And no superpower wants the navy of another country cruising around in what the perceive as their backyard. So they will continue to build and refine their aircraft carrier program to achieve that goal. Now the Chinese don't necessarily want a giant rerun of the Battle of Midway, in this day and age that would cause more problems than it solves.

No, the Chinese have come to believe that they will inherit Asia and the Pacific as the United States withdraws because we can't hack the cost anymore. One recent report on economic growth has that by 2030 the Chinese economy will be worth $42 trillion while the United States will be at the $24 trillion level. So keeping up with the Chinese will become impossible for the United States to do alone. What's worse is that wrecking the international trade system for stupid and destructive reasons will only make it harder for long term economic growth that will enable the West in general and the United States specifically to keep up with China. That doesn't even begin to take into consideration how damaged economic ties will make it difficult to get the Western nations to rally together militarily should China decide to use their growing navy to forcibly take control of the regions they want.

This is where aircraft carriers are the most useful. See first of all they are offensive weapons of the highest order. You do not maintain a such a fleet to defend coastal waters. You possess carriers to project military power and national influence far from home.

Despite all the moronic level rhetoric about “Making America Great Again” the Republican party and Trump are on the verge of gravely damaging the long term future of the United States. Since the end of WW2, every member of the United States government, both Democrat and Republican, has understood our own national security is tied to that of our allies. Remember the great Ben Franklin is quoted to have said to the other Founding Fathers that would either all hang together or we will hang separately. Pissing on your allies and economic partners just to score cheap points with the MAGA Marching Morons is not the actions of a nation with a future.

Measuring the beginning of the American Century is subject of historical debate. However it is quite possible that future generations will measure the end of our global dominance as Election Day November 2016.

Source material: Foreign Policy-April 25, 2018 “China's New Aircraft Carrier is Already Obsolete”