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My biggest worry? All this will end in war.

When people lose their senses and descend into conspiratorial thinking, when it’s all heat and little light, when the other side is the enemy, when people can agree on nothing, pushing through their agenda, irrespective of the consequences and the harm caused, when peacemakers are ridiculed and populists lauded, it seems the only way our species manages such situations is with violence. Terrible violence.

A few weeks before 1914, few would have imagined that the world would descend into total war. If the American Civil War had not broken out, few lives would have been threatened. People killed each other by the hundreds of thousands, because of different ideas of freedom, and not fear of annihilation.

We simply don’t seem to have the structures or faculties to pull ourselves away from the brink. No way of calming the fires or seeing the bigger picture. When it comes to fear, paranoia and hatred, our institutional frameworks are found sadly wanting.

I hope I’m wrong about all this. I really hope I’m totally mistaken.

I have hazy memories of the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979. The early morning start, the huge lines of traffic on the road to Dublin, the long walk to Chapelizod, the corrals, the Papal stage in the far distance, the great tents, the popemobile and the vast, vast crowd. It’s the crowd that I remember the most. There were periscopes on sale that helped me get an idea of the vastness of it all. As a ten year old, I was only allowed on my dad’s shoulders for a moment, but what I saw has stayed with me.

It’s different this time. A different pope. A different age. I’m a different person. I don’t have many thoughts on his trip. I’m not travelling to see him. There is no message he can give that will have any effect on me or my family. He represents a corrupt, arch-conservative organisation that has held back progress – particularly for women and gay people – for decades; an organisation that still refuses to take proper responsibility for the abuse scandal unleashed on children around the world; an organisation whose involvement in health and education comes with a high price tag. It’s long past the day when health, education and social welfare should be the prerogative of non-governmental organisations pursuing their own narrow agendas.

So, no. I’m staying put, like many of my fellow Irish people. If he reminds people to be better humans to each other, all the well. If he asks them to be better Catholics, well, there’s better ways to spend your time.

If someone was born in Jan 1, 1900 they would have been around for the first plane flight, the first commercial radio broadcasts, votes for women, the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War, the rise of communism, the end of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the rise of the motor car, jazz music, antibiotics, Hollywood, plastics, the Wall Street Crash, fascism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, atomic weapons, the Cold War, the welfare state, television, the end of colonialism, American hegemony, domestic equipment, rock and roll, jet liners, satellites, the death of JFK, the contraceptive pill, men on the moon, the oil crises, terrorism, the killing fields of Cambodia, closeup photos of the gas giants, personal computers, IVF, the transformation of the office, the end of communism, mobile phones, and the internet.

We’re only 18 years into the 21st Century and we’re shocked by Brexit and Trump. If the last century is anything to go by, we’ve seen nothing yet.

I’ve been following a discussion on Meetup.com where a guy is alleging that we are not true sceptics. I think his point is that we are far too pro-establishment and that a real sceptic has to be anti-establishment, almost by definition.I think this comment gets straight to a core difference between science-based sceptics (us lot) and conspiracy based sceptics. Conspiracy based sceptics seem to me to distrust claims from official sources, or at least the official sources that they have an ideological bent against. They take it as given that “the establishment” is lying to us, and therefore it is important to be sceptical of everything they say. Science-based sceptics are distrustful of any claim where there is no evidence to back it up. These are very different starting positions.The conspiracy position seems tempting. Official sources lying to us might seem quite reasonable at times. There are plenty of examples where that has indeed been the case. However it seems to me to be a very flawed position. They indicate that because someone is from a particular group, then they must be lying, irrespective of the content of what they are trying to say. Apart from this being a classic ad hominem attack, I can think of many situations where official sources have told the truth. I can also think of plenty of situations where anti-establishment folks have told bald-faced lies. So, being establishment or anti-establishment is no real indicator of whether you are speaking to reality, or telling pork pies. You have to assess the evidence as it exists.If conspiracy based sceptics will agree that official sources sometimes tell the truth, then what is their barometer for distinguishing between truth and lies? It doesn’t seem to me they have any real way to do this. The tendency is to look for an even bigger lie, so that their initial position can be preserved. This creates an enormous rat hole – and a vastly irrational rat hole at that – lies upon lies upon lies: a vast edifice built on nothing but suspicion and distrust.Conspiracy based scepticism is seductive, to be sure, but ultimately, it’s an irrational ideological position, and a dangerously misleading one at that.I want to contrast this with science based scepticism, which is about discovering the truth of a claim based on available evidence. Whether that evidence comes from official sources is neither here nor there. What matters is whether the evidence is good. Science based sceptics will accept official sources when the evidence is there, and reject it when it’s not. Sometimes, official bodies can be quite good with evidence: particularly when reputation and integrity are important, and concerns about public repercussions are high. Sometimes, determining the truth in a situation requires specialist skills and detailed scientific knowledge, something only professional bodies may have access to.One thing that science based scepticism has, that conspiracy based scepticism does not have, is a proper barometer. If evidence arises that supports a position previously dismissed, then the science based sceptic must assess it on its merits. If supporting evidence is shown to be wrong or fraudulent, then the sceptic must assess this too, potentially changing their minds based on it. Science based sceptics have to be willing to change their positions based on changes in the evidence base. They have to be able to admit that they might sometimes get things wrong.As a science based sceptic, I am ok with official bodies making claims, so long as those claims are based on good science and good evidence. I an also ok with non-official groups making claims, when those claims are based on good science and evidence. I am not ok with official bodies making claims when those claims are made up. I am also not ok with non-official groups doing likewise. Even if an official organisation is involved with something I might disagree with, I still must listen when they make properly supported claims. For me, it’s all about the claim and its supporting evidence, and less about the people making it – and that’s where science based sceptics are very different to conspiracy based sceptics.

Tambura

Based on the wonderful Monty Python Cheese Shop Sketch. Script whipped from MontyPython.net   (then devilishly adjusted).

(a customer walks in the door.)
Customer: Good Morning.
Owner: Good morning, Sir. Welcome to the National Brexit Emporium!
Customer: Ah thank you my good man.
Owner: What can I do for you, Sir?
C: Well, I was, uh, sitting in the public library on Thurmon Street just now, skimming through ‘Rogue Herrys’ by Horace Walpole, and I suddenly came over all British.
O: British, sir?
C: Perfidious.
O: Eh?
C: ‘Ee I were all ‘angry-like!
O: Ah, angry!
C: In a nutshell. And I thought to myself, ‘a little fermented Brexit will do the trick’, so, I curtailed my Walpoling activites, sallied forth, and infiltrated your place of purveyance to negotiate the vending of some Brexity comestibles!
O: Come again?
C: I Want To Leave The EU.
O: Oh, I thought you were complaining about the Bulgarian tambura player!
C: Oh, heaven forbid: I am one who delights in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse!
O: Sorry?
C: ‘Ooo, Ah lahk a nice tune, ‘yer forced to!
O: So he can go on playing, can he?
C: Most certainly! At least until 2019. Now then, some Brexit please, my good man.
O: (lustily) Certainly, sir. What would you like?
C: Well, eh, how about a little 350 Million a Week.
O: I’m, a-fraid we’re fresh out of 350 Million, sir.
C: Oh, never mind, how are you on Negotiating Free Trade Agreements with the rest of the world?
O: I’m afraid we never have that at the end of the week, sir, we get it fresh on Monday.
C: Tish tish. No matter. Well, stout yeoman, four ounces of British Empire 2.0, if you please.
O: Ah! It’s beeeen on order, sir, for two weeks. Was expecting it this morning.
C: ‘T’s Not my lucky day, is it? Aah, Have you some Impact Assessments?
O: Sorry, sir?
C: Financial Viability, Strategic Studies, that sort of thing?
O: Normally, sir, yes. Today the van broke down.
C: Ah. Agricultural assessments?
O: Sorry.
C: Regional assessments? Disadvantaged Areas?
O: No.
C: Any Supply Chain impacts, per chance?
O: No.
C: Military? Aerospace?
O: No.
C: Academic cooperation?
O: No.
C: Banking Sector? Insurance? Capital Markets?
O: No.
C: Fishing?
O: No.
C: Medicines and Biotech?
O: (pause) No.
C: Automotive?
O: No.
C: Extractive and Mining?
O: No.
C: Telecommunications, IT Sector, Information Security, Machine Learning, Media, Parcel and Bulk Transportation, Microelectronics, Nano-engineering, Quantum Computing?
O: No.
C: Horticultural, perhaps?
O: Ah! We have Horticultural, yessir.
C: (suprised) You do! Excellent.
O: Yessir. It’s ah… it’s a bit runny.
C: Oh, I like it runny.
O: Well,.. It’s very runny, actually, sir.
C: No matter. Fetch hither la Brexite de la Belle Bruxelles! Mmmwah!
O: I…think it’s a bit runnier than you’ll like it, sir.
C: I don’t care how fucking runny it is. Hand it over with all speed.
O: Oooooooooohhh……..! (pause)
C: What now?
O: The cat’s eaten it.
C: (pause) Has he?
O: She, sir.
(pause)
C: Open Skies Agreements?
O: No.
C: Access to High Skills Labour Pools?
O: No.
C: Gibraltar?
O: No.
C: Scottish Independence Referendums?
O: No.
C: European Cities of Culture?
O: No sir.
C: You… do have some Brexit, don’t you?
O: (brightly) Of course, sir. It’s a Brexit shop, sir. We’ve got-
C: No no… don’t tell me. I’m keen to guess.
O: Fair enough.
C: Uuuuuh, Enhanced Border Controls.
O: Yes?
C: Ah, well, I’ll have some of that!
O: Oh! I thought you were talking to me, sir. Mister David Enhanced Border Controls Davis, that’s my name.
(pause)
C: Security Co-operation?
O: Uh, not as such.
C: Uuh, Extradition Agreements?
O: No
C: Environmental Standards?
O: No
C: Pharmaceutical Testing?
O: No
C: Children’s Soothers?
O: No
C: Gastric Flushes?
O: No
C: Anal Fissures?
O: No
C: Transylvanian Botulism Brexits?
O: Not -today-, sir, no.
(pause)
C: Aah, how about Customs Agreements?
O: Well, we don’t get much call for it around here, sir.
C: Not much ca–It’s the single most popular Brexit in the world!
O: Not ’round here, sir.
C: (slight pause) and what IS the most popular Brexit ’round hyah?
O: ‘Illchester, sir.
C: IS it.
O: Oh, yes, it’s staggeringly popular in this district, squire.
C: Is it.
O: It’s our number one best seller, sir!
C: I see. Uuh… ‘Illchester, eh?
O: Right, sir.
C: All right. Okay. ‘Have you got any?’ He asked, expecting the answer ‘no’.
O: I’ll have a look, sir.. nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnno.
C: It’s not much of a Brexit shop, is it?
O: Finest in the district sir!
C: (annoyed) Explain the logic underlying that conclusion, please.
O: Well, it’s so clean, sir!
C: It’s certainly uncontaminated by Brexits.
O: (brightly) You haven’t asked me about the Irish Border, sir.
C: Would it be worth it?
O: Could be.
C: Have you –SHUT THAT BLOODY TAMBURA OFF!
O: Told you sir…
C: (slowly) Have you got any Irish Border Agreements?
O: No.
C: Figures. Predictable, really I suppose. It was an act of purest optimism to have posed the question in the first place……. Tell me:
O: Yessir?
C: (deliberately) Have you in fact got any Brexit here at all?
O: Yes,sir. Brexit means Brexit.
C: Really?
(pause)
O: No. Not really, sir.
C: You haven’t.
O: Nosir. Not a scrap. I was deliberately wasting your time, sir.
C: Well I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to sack you.
O: Right-0, sir.
(The customer takes out a ballot and votes out the shopkeeper)
C: What a senseless waste of human life.

Inspired by this senseless waste of human life.

My daughter and I went to Alt-J in Trinity College yesterday. We got there early and managed to get right up to the barrier. An hour and a half of sheer bliss.

I think we have a convert!

Attached is a gallery of images from the concert last night.

I think about death a lot. My death. It’s probably an age thing. I’ve noticed people my age getting ill, dying. I realise that I’m nearing the age when my father became ill. It’s no longer something I can avoid, nor stay oblivious to. One day, I will cease to be. 

It’s such a difficult thing, to consider one’s nonexistence. To me, life is a constant flow, interrupted by sleep and the rare hospital operation, but these are just instantaneous leaps, rather than gaps. It’s always it’s one thing after the next. I can’t imagine the flow ending, but some day it has to. One moment awake, the next, gone.

I think sometimes about sudden death. Being hit by a train, a gunshot or a bolt from the sky. An abrupt transition, where death visits perhaps without you even knowing it. No struggle, no fight, just permanent closure. How strange that seems to me.

I think about slow death, the brain losing its faculties bit by bit, consciousness falling apart. Heart still beating, eyes open, but nothing happening inside. Night announcing itself early. How strange that is too.

I think about living forever. The thought scared me so much when I was little. It frightens me less, now because I don’t think it’s possible. Even if you could live forever, you would eventually crave death. Coming to an end is less scary than continuing on and on, past all things and people familiar to you, past the extinction of our species, past the swallowing of the Earth by the Sun, past the heat death of the Universe. And yet on forever from there, as if all that time was nothing? Sooner or later it would all be too much. Death simply makes sense compared to the alternative. 

I think about how mundane death is. How it’s there every day. On our roadsides, in the trees, beneath the waves – the constant background shuffle of somethingness into nothingness. Such a natural part of existence.

The meaning of everything I have and will encounter. The experiences I have, the people I know, the places I have been to, the joys and the devastations. How it all will mean nothing someday. I think about that a lot.

I love my life. I do not want it to end for a long time yet. Being alive is such a wonderful thing. Having death as a backdrop, the ordinary becomes precious, the casual contacts important, the friendships priceless. One day I will die, but I’m not sure I would have it any other way.

New advances in Artificial Stupidity (AS) are going to change life forever, announced the World Technology Forum (WTF) yesterday. “In the last half century, we have witnessed computers take over all aspects of life, to the point that we can now make monumentally stupid machines”, declared Paul Brokering of the University of Seattle and Chair of the WTF. “Profound idiocy, unimaginable ten years ago, is now available at our fingertips”.

Using techniques such as Derp Learning and Peurile Nets, we can all now gain access to the kind of insights once reserved for an elite class of moron. Many of the developments are in the trial stage, but here’s a sampler of what’s ahead of us.

  • A device that likes all sorts of bullshit stories on Facebook, based purely on half-formed notions it already agrees with. Extra points where the news source website is called “ezclicksfrcash.ru” or “instantsexmoneylove.tv”. This device will even add a helpful comment like “They shud b strung up” where a stock photo from 2010 is used showing a happy couple who allegedly went on to spit in their kids’ ice creams or something equally appalling and imaginary. 
  • An activist device that rejects all scientific findings when they go against their instinctive prejudices about the way the world should work. “These devices reject all vaccines and antibiotics, in fact to them, all medicine is one big conspiracy and doctors know far less than they do compared to their Google based research over the last 3 weeks” announced Kim Dian and Gunther Parmeister of the University of Uppsala. 
  • A device that observes everything in the world as if it was 6,000 years old. “Version 2 of this device is already making theme parks and setting up TV stations”, says Anton Leclerc, chief scientist with the Machine Ignorance group in the Sorbonne.
  • A device that can make incredibly sweeping generalisations from a small data set. “It’s truly amazing in its stupidity.” says Vincent Okbanda of Rome University, “If it sees snow, it will declare that climate change is a hoax. If it hears about a broken solar panel, it will declare coal to be non-polluting. If it hears of a 90 year old granny who smoked 40 cigarettes a day, it will declare tobacco to be healthy. The lack of thinking involved has surprised us all”.
  • A device that declares everybody it disagrees with to be part of a conspiracy. “In studies, these devices have also discovered flat earth chemtrails from the Planet Nibiru, powered by Bigfoot” – that’s an impressively powerful amount of bullshit from such a small device”, says Ian Proctor of the Institute of Virtual Neuroscience in MIT.
  • An iPresident of the United States. Attempts to make a device this resistant to logic and common sense are still a long way off, as the solution being offered up by nature appears vastly more stupid than anything they have been able to create in the laboratory thus far.

How such technologies will change the world is the subject of intense debate among scientists, but rough estimates suggest that hundreds of billions of Internet days could be saved immediately. “Think of it this way”, says Brokering. “Instead of people spending hours expressing profound ignorance on multiple topics, they could simply wake up, press a button on their device, and go back to bed again. We could then all be spared their wisdom. Now how could this be seen as a bad thing?”

We shouldn’t be alone. 

It should have been the case, that when astronomers first pointed their listening devices into the stars, they would have heard sounds, blips, buzzes and screams from all corners of the universe. An unintelligible cacophony, akin to leaving a tape recorder in a rainforest. A universe alive with civilisations, some much older than us, more wise, more knowledgeable. 

Instead, we heard nothing. We continue to hear nothing. 

The signals we receive are repetitive, inorganic, mechanical. Products of immense forces, for sure, but not intelligent. No rainforest. More an arctic wasteland, stretching to infinity.

This, I think, is strange. Nobody doubts that intelligent life, capable of communicating across the galaxy, is a rarity. It took billions of years to emerge on our planet, but there are multiple trillions – quintillions – of stars out there, many with their own multi-billion year stories. These numbers overwhelm the improbability of our existence. Yet all we hear is silence.

Maybe we are listening to the wrong frequencies. Maybe our devices are not sensitive enough, or fast enough. Maybe they are using physical phenomena well beyond the reach of our technologies. Maybe advanced civilisations have no need for broadcast signals. Maybe civilisation is too short lived to get its sounds out there. Maybe you learn Maxwell’s Equations, then you learn to split the atom, then you die. 

Or maybe we are just this one time cosmic fluke. A brief flash of awareness, before the cosmic dark once again envelopes the universe. A fortuitous event in one planet, at one time, never to be repeated.

In the absence of knowing for sure, we become immensely significant. We are nothing in this vast amphitheatre of stars, yet what we know, what we represent, is precious beyond all imagination.

63 million Americans voted for him. 63 million people deciding that a racist, TV addicted sex pest should rule their country. A man with autocratic instincts to his very core. A man who fawns over dictators, seeks enrichment, cares little for the media or the courts and sees his family as next in line.

The only problem: he’s an incompetent ass. All bluster and show. He possesses neither the wit nor the guile to take on the mantle of sole ruler and saviour of a fractured nation. To him, the presidency is a part-time job; a distraction from his golf outings. No governing on weekends thank you very much. 100 days in, and still no sign that he has what it takes to run the White House, let alone the wider nation.

But, 63 million Americans voted for him. If not for the man, what he represented. They were looking for someone who could change the country to the way they wanted it to be. Full of cruelty and horror, but who cares when you are on the winning side? This ideal appears undiminished. If anything, it has been given legitimacy and a strong voice in recent times.

Out there, standing in the wings, another person may be waiting. Biding his time, learning from the missteps of his predecessor. A more intelligent person, more manipulative, more strategic. The Caesar to Trump’s Sulla.

And at the right time, when he gets his chance, he will start his campaign, using the same ticket that Trump used. The same exploitation of fear and nurturing of hatred. He will come to power some day and soon afterwards, American democracy will finally end. 

This is my worry.

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