Saturday, August 01, 2015

Are we about to corner Fermi? The Paradox explained?

== Recent excitement ==

The best year for human space exploration since 1972 only keeps getting better.  For example…

Pluto is getting weirder. Smooth craterless plains. Regions cracked like drying mud on a giant scale. Atmosphere extends over 1000 miles from the surface. Visible wind-streaks on the surface, which may sites of current active cryo-venting.  And it's losing it's atmosphere to space at 500 tonnes/hr. Forming a dense ion tail trailing away from the sun.  Uh oh. Pluto may be demoted from Dwarf to Comet. (Thanks Pau451:)

And another coolness: The “Gore Sat” – a scientific spaceprobe proposed originally by Vice President Al Gore – is now positioned in a gravitationally metastable orbit about a million miles from Earth, closer to the Sun, allowing it to send home stunning images of the entire lit face of our planet, every single day or hour. Of course the money was spent for science. Discovr was launched in February of this year on a mission to monitor solar winds. Keeping tabs on space weather helps scientists issue accurate warnings ahead of solar storms that can potentially disrupt telecommunications or power infrastructure. But Gore (whose Senate bill around 1990 freed the internet into the wild and open thing we know) also dreamed that the perfect images of our world might inspire us.  Make it so.

= Your “Fermi” theory of the month ==

I’ve been asked to rebuild my catalogue of possible explanations for the Fermi Paradox… or the mystery of why we see no signs of technological civilization out there, despite extensive searches. Well well. I’ve been in this field for more than 30 years, both as an astronomer and an author of sf’nal thought experiments about alien life. (See a compilation of my writings here. Also see this animated introduction to the Fermi Paradox. A bit simplistic and off by a few factors. But interesting.)

That catalogue? Well, I started building it in 1981. I estimate close to a hundred hypotheses that are at least “not impossible,” with two dozen or so qualifying as “plausible” contributors to the observed scarcity of high-tech ETs… and maybe five or six that seem rather compelling. But let’s start with one that sits squarely in the mid-range.

They are out there, but sparse enough that we just haven’t spotted them yet!  We simply need to look a little harder.

And indeed.  It seems that is what we are about to do.

== SETI goes big in 2015 ==

Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking have just announced a $100 Million Breakthrough Initiative to reinvigorate the search for intelligent life in the universe over the next ten years. “Also present at the Royal Society in London for the project's announcement earlier today were Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, SETI Pioneer and UCSC Professor Emeritus Frank Drake, UC Berkeley Professor Geoff Marcy, Breakthrough Prize Foundation Chair Pete Worden, renowned author and producer Ann Druyan, and UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Andrew Siemion.” 

Notable, several of the members of this initiative, Geoff Marcy, Dan Werthimer and Andrew Siemion, have worked with me in endeavors to prevent METI or rash message beaming outward -- yoohoo shouting for attention from extraterrestrials.  

This new Breakthrough Initiative endeavor will include public engagement about messages! But there is no intent to actually send any, before the extensive discussions and examination-of-issues that many of us have long requested. I hope they will hold true to this promise.

This will be the biggest scientific search yet for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth. The Breakthrough Initiative includes significant access to two powerful radio telescopes – the 100-meter diameter Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, and the 64-meter Parkes Telescope in Australia. There will also be significant efforts in Optical SETI.  Lick Observatory's Automated Planet Finder (APF) Telescope above San Jose CA will undertake a new deep and broad search for optical laser transmissions from nearby civilizations, if any exist.

You can tell they want to move vigorously on this from the fact that they hired Pete Worden to run the enterprise. The funds provider is Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur and investor who has made a fortune in Silicon Valley. The program will include a survey of the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth. It will be 50 times more sensitive than previous SETI research, will cover 10 times more of the sky, and will scan at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum – and 100 times faster. I’m hoping they will collaboratively make use of lessons learned by Jill Tarter and others at California’s SETI Institute.  Here is a well-written appraisal in the Economist.

Happy hunting guys. Just follow the protocols, please.

== Another “Fermi” for the catalogue? ==

I keep hearing this one… that we see no evidence of alien civilizations because they are indifferent to us.  Their technologies and communication methods are so far beyond us that we mistake them for natural phenomena, and they have as little interest in us as we might have in a hive of termites.

It has a nice, round smoothness to it, and aggressive humbleness is very much in vogue, these days. Still, the indifference explanation strikes me as much less likely than it at first seems.  Might we be "like ants" to some super species?  Sure! 

But we assign experts to study ants with passionate interest.

The response to that? "There are millions of ant nests for every ant scientist. Hence we aren’t likely to be one of the nests getting attention!"

Clever. But that response fails on two counts:

1) Even if you crank every Drake Equation factor to maximum, the very highest number of new tech-races to emerge in the galaxy would be maybe one per year. One… per year… across the whole Milky Way. Hence, such each new tech race is a noteworthy event when it happens. It’s not comparable to the zillions of ant nests per human. The scaling is entirely different.

2) Super beings will be able to create and deputize sub-agents at any level of intelligence or programmed interest.  It would be both reasonable and very cheap for them to assign such deputies to investigate and communicate with each newborn "ant" tech race, like ourselves. 

Oh, you can pose dozens of reasons why they might not choose to do that! But now you are talking cultural motivations and notice this: that you assume all the super-duper advanced races will be similarly incurious and indifferent! That, in turn, relies upon the number of uber-civilizations being very small!  Because if such civilizations are both numerous and diverse, then one or another or many will be interested, after all, in "ants."

Can you see why this field is actually a whole lot more subtle than our surface impulses imply?  The temptation seems natural to shout "of course THIS is the answer!"... but it can be silly, when confronting a vast and complex/mysterious cosmos.

Indeed, it is the surest sign of an immature and intemperate mind, to declare that, based on almost not evidence: "I know the answer!"

And now... some cool space-related miscellany.

== We need rapid advancement in space… to save Earth! ==

Many people are aware that the Sun has an eleven (actually 22) year cycle of sunspot and magnetic field activity.  There appear also to be longer cycles having to do with deeper convection layers. Now an interesting hypothesis with a new model that “predicts that the pair of waves become increasingly offset during Cycle 25, which peaks in 2022. During Cycle 26, which covers the decade from 2030-2040, the two waves will become exactly out of synch and this will cause a significant reduction in solar activity.” And “When they are out of phase, we have solar minimums. When there is full phase separation, we have the conditions last seen during the Maunder minimum, 370 years ago."

Suggesting that the 2030s might feature an activity dip that could counter a bit of global warming. We had better have IQ boost pills by then, or the Fox-denialist cultists will have a field day. Oh, but by then the vested interest oligarchs will be Big Sustainables.

So how to verify any of this? Fund research back at levels almost a quarter as high as they were in the 1950s and 1960s, that’s how!

Alas, at present , scientists do not have any way to view the sun that is not facing earth. This capacity existing across some years in the past. (Especially when the denizens of Counter-Earth were willing to cooperate.) Now? Well, we make our other robots take on even greater workloads. Lately, the Curiosity rover’s Mastcam has captured images of the sunspots of the side of the sun that is pointed away from earth, offering more continuity of record for major suspot regions.  "One sunspot or cluster that rotated out of Curiosity's view over the July 4 weekend showed up by July 7 as a source area of a solar eruption observed by NASA's Earth-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory", said NASA.  

== Space Miscellany! ==

What If We Can Never Travel Faster than the Speed of Light? I don’t credit every part of this scenario but it is vivid and fun.  And it demonstrates a basic truth… that the speed of light only makes interstellar colonization difficult, not impossible.  

Astronomers discover a planetary system with three super-Earths that orbit a bright dwarf star, a 'mere' 21 light years away. 

This article on alien planetary systems misses the selection effect… that the Kepler probe’s method for discovering distant systems is extremely biased toward discovering planets orbiting close to their suns.  But bear that in mind and read it anyway.

One analysis shows the planet HIP11915b to be a close match to Jupiter both in mass and orbital period, and its host star is extraordinarily similar to the Sun. Beyond having fundamental physical properties close to the Sun, initial spectroscopic analysis suggests that HIP11915 is also a solar twin in the sense that its detailed abundance pattern matches the solar pattern (Melendez et al. 2015, in prep). The presence of a Jupiter twin and a solar-like composition both make HIP11915 an excellent prospect for future terrestrial planet searches."  
For those of you who still think we should make it a goal to “go back to the Moon,” instead of sensibly mining asteroids, this clear cartoon from SMBC.
The “dust” that is causing most of the absorption in interstellar space may be largely C60 buckeyballs.  Wow.   


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Black Lives Matter! So demand TECH!

Again and again, I try to point out that dogmas are seldom our friends.  Take the trend, in our civilization, toward expanding our horizons of worry, opportunity and (above all) inclusion. That moral arc has been historic and important and it must continue!  Indeed, passionate agitation for reform has its vital place. Though as I show, the advances we’ve made (and must keep making) have also happened because of economic and psychological and pragmatic reasons. 

This should make fans of progress happy! It means that our moral march forward, toward inclusiveness, tolerance and diversity, has strong support from traits other than just indignation. 

Shall we test it? I am about to say something about the “BlackLives Matter” movement -- something that is utterly friendly and supportive… and I hope this pragmatic suggestion will be well-received.

Yes! Absolutely, almost-weekly tales about tragic victims-of-racism like Eric Garner and Walter Scott (shot in the back), Samuel DuBose (shot in the face) and Sandra Bland have rocked America, revealing what black activists have been telling us for years.  About the danger they face – each day – from that percentage (even if it is small) of police officers who are thugs in uniform. It has to be frustrating for the righteous activists.

“Oh, now you’re finally starting to believe us?  Now that cameras are catching the bastards in the act?”

Well… um… yes?  Many of us believed you before the current wave of video revelation began with Rodney King. But of course the balance of credibility shifted dramatically when cameras spread even wider. And yes, visual proof is sure gonna help. Which raises the central question here –

Why aren’t you making the cameras themselves more of an issue in all this?

Think. What is making the biggest difference today? Technology! The phone-cam is turning into a Great Equalizer, even more than a Colt 45 was in the old west.  Every year cameras get faster, cheaper, better, more numerous and more mobile, at a rate faster than Moore’s Law. And so far, the chief result has not been Big Brother! It has been empowerment of average citizens. Cameras - and other tech - are helping people hold elites accountable.

== This was inevitable ==

All right, I predicted this way back, via a 1989 novel Earth, portraying ghetto youths and the elderly defending themselves this way, in the 2030s. It’s happening quicker in real life. 

Even closer was the forecast in my nonfiction book -- The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? (1997).  There I described a scene of the near future, when each cop would be wearing a recording device… and every person stopped for a traffic violation would step out of the car asking “what’s the problem, officer?”… with a blinking shoulder cam of his or her own.

Can you honestly doubt that day is far away, any longer? Which brings up again that core question.  In addition to hands up! and Black Lives Matter! Why aren’t you also shouting “We want more tech!”

Why aren’t you focusing on what has actually made the biggest difference, so far – getting more and more cameras out there, into the hands (better yet, onto the shoulders) of youths and others who are in danger?  Perhaps demanding pertinent tech classes in minority area high schools? Or asking your nerdier kids to help equip the others with tools they need to save their lives? 

Here’s where a couple of billionaires might be approached for grants, financing the development and distribution of hands-free (that’s important!) shoulder-cams that upload directly to free storage in the cloud. Flood some problematic city with these things, as a test… and watch how quickly the balance starts to change.

A balance between bad cops and the more numerous good ones, who now will feel empowered – and highly motivated, with active citizen help -- to rid their ranks of bullies and thugs.

Sure, "Black Lives Matter!"  But if you really want to leverage the trend that is practically changing everything, you will add another cry:

"Give us more tech!"

==You have the right to film ==

Following up. This Slate report gives detailed background to the growing legal consensus that you have a right to record your interactions with police, a right that has been declared "settled law" by both the Obama Justice Department and four federal circuit courts. This abstraction gained fiercely palpable pertinence in the case of the recent arrest of Sandra Bland, which was captured by the arresting officer's dash cam.

"Dashcam footage of Sandra Bland’s arrest is disturbing for a number of reasons—including trooper Brian Encinia’s apparent use of excessive force in subduing Bland. But for civil liberties advocates, a less dramatic moment of the footage is nearly as disquieting. When Bland attempts to film the encounter on her cellphone, Encinia demands that she “get off the phone.” When Bland insists that she has “a right to record,” Enchain repeatedly barks, “PUT YOUR PHONE DOWN!” Eventually, she does. It’s clear she had no choice."

And there you have the reason why we need special Shoulder Cams (as I portrayed in The Transparent Society). Autonomous and automatically uploading to the Cloud. So that you can emerge from the car with completely open hands.

Demand this tech. Work with a Good Billionaire. Choose a city and distribute these things en masse. Do the test now.

== An inexcusable omission ==

Sorry, but the point must be belabored. What activist or pundit seems willing to emphasize the role that technology has played in this ongoing revolution, transforming and shifting power on our streets? That omission is bizarre… and somewhat culpable… since our main goal should be a pragmatic one. The practical ending of these abuses! 

It is time to add a new slogan.  One that may offer less opportunity for righteous rage, but that promises a stronger chance to actually solve problems.

Give us more tech!


SINCE POSTING THIS:  From yesterday's NY Times on the Cincinnati case: "She (Dubose's mother) and other family members said that if it were not for the body camera worn by Officer Tensing, his story would have been accepted and he would have gone unpunished. Choking back tears, Terina Allen, a sister of Mr. Dubose, said, “Every day now, I’m going to be marching for video cams."

Right on.  Turn em on.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Worrisome Politics

Following the elevated and philosophical tone of our previous posting about our variable human HORIZONS of inclusion, worry and hope...

... this next new one may seem a melting pot of rants!  Still, it adds up.  First:

What's this?  What's this?  Talk of actually enforcing anti-trust and anti-collusion and competitiveness laws?  The Justice Department has sent subpoenas to several major airlines as part of an investigation into "possible unlawful coordination" to limit capacity increases, and thereby keeping ticket prices high. Huh.  How very 20th Century!  Even Rooseveltean!

== The manifesto of the (next) front runner ==

Remember 2012, when each week featured a different Republican surging to the front of the pack, only to fade when folks got a closer look?  Well, as of this writing, that GOP poll leader is Donald Trump.  But you can count on that fad to fade -- the Republican Party establishment has it in for him, and you can depend on his braggadocio to send him blundering into one trap or another. (Still, I'll post about Mr. Trump soon, with some surprising insights.)

Who's next? Well, we all know it will settle eventually on Jeb Bush, but along the way, the fashionistas are predicting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. And… wow… what an appropriate choice! Walker said at the Conservative Political Action Conference that his experience battling labor protesters in Wisconsin has prepared him to take on Islamic State terrorists.  Moreover "the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime" was then-President Ronald Reagan's move to bust a 1981 strike of air traffic controllers, firing some 11,000 of them.

Um, “foreign policy”? Still, he brings up an interesting point.  Even if you approve of the way Ronald Reagan handled the Air Controllers’ strike (and I mostly don’t), is it sapient of you to ignore the differences between 1981 and today? 

Let’s see.  In 1981, labor unions were still a force to be reckoned with, in American life. 

Today? Except for the dockworkers, unions are pallid, shrunken and withering away. Nothing proves confederates’ vacant minds more than the fact that they nod, when Fox rants about unions as great big boogeymen.  Organized labor is plummeting, while the power and influence of a Wall Street and Carbon oligarchy is skyrocketing. Yet fools screech at the former, to avoid noticing the latter.

Is “socialism” the excuse? American labor was the most fiercely anti-communist force in the world. (And if you doubt that, then you know zero history. I mean it. Look up a fellow named George Meany.) 

Moreover, the heyday of U.S. union power coincided with the very decades that conservatives themselves call the greatest period of American enterprise — the 1950s and 1960s.  The American “decline” that the right rails about commenced in perfect timing with the decline of labor, along with wave after wave of supply side tax cuts benefiting the rich.  A correlation that no one seems willing to point out.

Were there problems with unions? Sure! Even today, the unions representing some of our greatest heroes, school-teachers and police, need to be taken to the wood shed till they finally admit just one simple tenet: that “bad teachers and bad cops should be fired fairly quickly.”  Um…. duuuuh? Decide to accept that principle and watch how many problems for the majority of good cops and good teachers start to melt away.

Still, Elizabeth Warren recently got it right:  "If Scott Walker sees 100,000 teachers and firefighters as his enemies, maybe it's time we take a closer look at his friends." 

== Climate Change is Happening ==

2014 was the warmest year, worldwide, in recorded history. The third time the record has been broken in the last decade or so. And there are still denialist morons out there... but not  in the U.S. military, where they simply cannot afford to allow dogma to over-rule science.

"Military readiness is already being impacted by sea-level rise," says Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who mentions that with all the flooding, it's becoming difficult to sell a house in some parts of Norfolk. If the melting of Greenland and West Antarctica continues to accelerate at current rates, scientists say Norfolk Naval Base and dozens of other major installations could see more than seven feet of sea-level rise by 2100."

Let's be clear.  One reason that senior U.S. military officers have been dropping old affiliations with the Republican Party like a live grenade is the same reason that the fraction of U.S. scientists who register GOP has dropped from 40% to under 5% in the last 20 years. Brilliant and pragmatic - if inherently conservative - officers cannot afford the litany of delusion that has hijacked American conservatism. (See: How Climate Deniers Put National Security at Risk.)

(And watch that flood turn into a tsunami, as the mad right continues insulting men and women in uniform, with conspiracy-gonzo mania like the "Jade Helm" craziness.)

These soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines watch as the Russians develop twelve new bases in an Arctic that is increasingly ice free. They know climate change is real and they despise the denialist cult.... as they (most of them) despise the family that sent them into trillion dollar wars, costing thousands of American lives… wars whose sole winners were Bush-Cheney companies and ... Iran.

Enough Said?  "Limbaugh: Climate Change ‘One Of The Biggest Scams Ever Perpetrated On The People Of The World’ "  

Well, well. You who have backed these monsters, step back and see where that now leaves you.  Oops, you can't step back.  You are painted in a corner called crazy-town.

== The "Specificity Alarm ==

Before the 2014 data came in, Ted Cruz declared on TV that satellite data demonstrate for the last 17 years, there’s been zero warming.” And immediately my Specificity Alarm went off.  

What? You don’t have a specificity alarm? Well you need one, because it helps you to detect when damned liars are at least trying to weasel a way out of speaking direct falsehood. Like a kid proclaiming: “Who broke your window half an hour ago, Mrs. Smith? Well it can’t be me, 'cause I’ve been waaaay over here for 26 minutes!”

Seventeen years? Hm… why did Cruz specify 17 years?  And why “satellite data”?  Read this article. It proves this fellow to be far, far worse than a damned liar. He’s a damned, lying lawyer.

 Oh... by the way... ocean acidification... 

You cannot escape that one. It is blatantly happening.  You can measure it yourself. It can have zero possible causes other than human generated increases in atmospheric CO2, and it is killing fisheries and coral reefs and helping spread jellyfish everywhere. And it could trigger a catastrophic tipping point re: methane-hydrate ices...

Those who shrug that off, slipping their minds elsewhere to clutch denialist chants, are vastly worse than cynical liars like Cruz. They are simply loco.

== OTHER maters! ==

Swerving overseas… Interesting on the background of the Sunni-Shia-Kurdish mess.  

One for the Predictions Registry: remember when I claimed Terminator’s “Skynet” would not come from the military, but rather from high frequency stock trading systems that are designed from scratch to be pathological, parasitical, predatory and utterly secretive?  Proof comes at us from the News!  

Calling it a major breakthrough that will significantly expedite and streamline its daily operations, Wall Street financial firm Goldman Sachs revealed Thursday it has developed a new high-speed algorithm that is capable of performing more than 10,000 ethical violations per second. ‘With this new automated program, we’ll be able to systematically deceive investors, engage in conflicts of interest, and execute thousands of other blatantly unethical dealings in the time it takes to press a button.’” -- from The Onion!!  And satire can be dead-on true.

Why are republicans trying to gut their own “No Child Left Behind” Law?  Beneath all the jabber of “states rights,” etc, you can see the real reason that some states like Texas and Utah and North Carolina -- where the program is working well, with Common Core and other reforms -- seem to favor making mild adjustments, while retaining NCLB’s rigorous standards.  

But most red states despise the testing requirements that used to be the holy grail of Republican dogma. Why the sudden veer into hating testing?  

Simple.  Their schools are flunking. The solution, instead of paying for good teachers? "Stop testing us!"

And now that the ACA has passed another Supreme Court test?  “The fight against Obamacare isn't just political. Rather, it's become a cornerstone of conservative governance — and it's left red states poorer and residents of red states sicker.  The irony of all this is that Republicans warned that Obamacare would wreck health insurance markets, do little to help the uninsured, and leave everyone else paying hefty taxes to fund a rolling disaster. In fact, Obamacare has covered millions of people at a much lower cost than expected, with the rate of rise of insurance premiums and medical costs at their lowest levels in a generation. 

But as a byproduct of their tactics against Obamacare, Republicans are making their predictions come true, at least for their own residents.”  See: The Anti-Obamacare movement is making red states sicker and poorer.

Oh, some sophistries just leave one speechless.  “Gay marriage will lead to 900,000 abortions.”  Read this… it’s not an argument, or even an assertion… but a magical incantation.  Like “The Gostak distims the doshes.”  Seriously. You must decide now that 2016 will not bring Nehemiah Scudder to power.  

 == And Finally ==

OMG. America's perennial nominee for the world's worst person is at it again: Ann Coulter proposes bringing back literacy tests so voting will be more difficult.  But let's not revile.  Instead let us counter that scientific literacy is necessary, in an age such as ours. In which case, perhaps five Republicans would still have franchise.  

Oh, but it continues…. Karl Marx favored free public education for all… and therefore we must oppose free public education for all!  Yes, that is the notion being pushed in… guess where?  The Confederacy's rush to lobotomization continues to accelerate.

Okay... rant-mode off!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Altruistic Horizons: Our tribal natures, the 'fear effect' and the end of ideologies

Okay, this is one of my big ones... a major posting about some fundamentals of human nature and history.  I sometimes blog these before posting them as full essays, then chapters in a forthcoming book.  So cinch up your  saddle for a serious ride as we explore some basic drivers of our unique civilization!


Social thinkers long yearned for the kind of predictive power offered by universal laws of Galileo, Newton and Einstein -- reductionist rules that changed our relationship with the material world, from helplessness to manipulative skill.

If only similar patterns and laws were found for human nature! Might we construct an ideal society suited to decent living by all? 

Or else... might technologized sociology anchor in the tyranny that almost all our ancestors knew? Tyrannies that were amateurish, by comparison to the coming All-State.

Deep thinkers about human nature start with assumptions. Freud focused on sexual trauma and repression, Marx on the notion that humans combine rational self-interest with inter-class predation. Machiavelli offered scenarios about power relationships. Ayn Rand postulates that the sole legitimate human stance is solipsism. All are a priori suppositions based on limited and personally biased observations rather than any verified fundamental. Each writer "proved" his point with copious anecdotes. But, as Ronald Reagan showed, anecdotes prove nothing about generalities, only about possibilities.

In fact, while the models of Freud, Marx, and Machiavelli (also Madison, Keynes, Hayek, Gandhi etc.) attracted followers, I think a stronger case can be made for tribalism as a driver of history. 

Shouldn't any theory of our nature apply across the long span when that nature formed? Indeed, Freud, Marx and Rand shared cluelessness about Darwinian evolution, animal behavior, pre-agricultural anthropology, or ethology.

 Heckfire, shouldn't we be seeking patterns that held across all continents and almost all pre-metal tribes? That are not artifacts of later cultural imposition by contrived societies? The long epoch, when humans were few, but when a vast majority of human generations suffered darwinnowing pressures, thriving or dying according to their fitness to meet challenges in a harsh world, unprotected by the houses and markets and coddling states of the last 5,000 years? 

(And yes, I am qualified to speak here, as a peer-published author in the fields of evolution theory and sociobiology. And in psychology. Well, perhaps not a pro in these fields, but up one small notch. Though let me hurry to add that I will not be talking here about "sociobiology" in the sense that it has long been discussed -- e.g. sexual politics and such.)


So, what might tribalism tell us about human nature, that was missed by Marx and Freud and Rand etc., in their post-literacy myopia? What traits seem to be shared both by tribal and “civilized” societies?

Over and over, we see how devotion to a group, clan, or nation overwhelms individual self-interest. Indeed, for most of the last million years, any man or woman who lost the faith and confidence of his or her tribe was in great danger. Often effectively dead.

Ask any kid between the ages of ten and nineteen -- how urgently you needed approval of a small group of friends, coincidentally about the same size as a prototypical Cro-Magnon tribal band. And if that group turned on you, remember the pain? 

Sure, parents tell their kids -- "Don't worry, you'll make new friends." At one level, in the rational prefrontal lobes, we know this to be true. And yet, the gut still wrenches, as if life were on the line... which it would have been, back in olden days, if the tribe ejected you from its circle of comradeship. 

Oh, but humans can be very flexible defining what is "my tribe." More often than not, the major determining factor is fear


When the ambient fear level is high, as in civil war-riven Lebanon, loyalties are kept close to home. Me against my brother. My brother and me against our cousins. We and our cousins against the world. Alliances merge and are broken quickly, along a sliding scale that appears to be remarkably consistent.

The general trend seems to be this: the lower the ambient fear level declines, the more broadly a human being appears willing to define those tribal boundaries, and the more generous he or she is willing to be toward the stranger.

Anthropologically speaking, it is "murder" to kill that which is fellow tribesman or citizen (someone identified as inside the tribal horizon). In contrast, it is not murder to kill that which is inherently outside the tribal horizon. (For a cinematic allegory, recall the film "Little Big Man" in which the Cheyenne call themselves the "human beings". And that film was pro-Native American!)

My contention is simple, that there exists an inverse correlation between ambient fear levels and the distance -- in terms of space, time and kinship -- of the "horizons” maintained by average members of a given culture.

These horizons come in several varieties. 

1) There is a "Worry Horizon"... what threats concern you and your neighbors. Here we see that worry is quite a different thing than Fear! The average modern American probably worries as much or more than tribal peoples did! Worry will never go away since it seems embedded into our nature. If immediate needs and threats are dissipated, that only shifts the locus of worry somewhere else, depending to some extent on individual personality. 

But fear is another matter. Fear controls what it is that we are worrying about. And how far we'll look for it.

2) There is also a “Time Horizon” having to do with how far into the future you devote your attention – either in dealing with threats or seeking opportunities. If your children are starving, you are more concerned with the next meal than with the next harvest. 

If the harvest looks okay, you turn your thoughts to longer range matters. Storage, trade, capital improvements… or whether slow loss of topsoil may affect your heirs 200 years from now. The specific topic of your fretfulness may be so extended and abstract (e.g. climate change) that your starving ancestors would find it ludicrous...

...but they would well-understand the buckled brow and dour frowns of concern on your face. The better, more productive and secure civilization those ancestors bequeathed to you did not end all worrying. It simply empowers you to look farther, to more distant, dangerous horizons.

3) Another might be called the "Otherness Horizon” - where one looks not for danger but for opportunities, adventures, new allies, new mating partners. This is also, in anthropological circles, discussed under "exogamy". Clearly, this is one of the reasons early science fiction tales seemed so obsessed with sexy aliens! While the Threat Horizon has been filled with nasty ones. (See my book Otherness.)

This could also be called the “Horizon of Inclusion” since it is partly about deciding how many people you want to deal with as worthy fellow citizens and negotiating partners, and where you draw the line, calling others foes. 

What seems clear, examining historical records and a broad range of cultures, is that all of these horizons expand and contract in the manner described above. The amount of worry may remain relatively inelastic -- a trait of personality, rather than conditions. But the topic of worry changes dramatically and flexibly. Yes, the horizon distance can be affected partly by cultural memes and personality. But overall, these horizons seem to depend most upon the ambient level of fear


By these lights, most contemporary Americans live in an unprecedented society, where the vast majority of families have not known starvation or even significant want for so many generations that those kinds of worry are almost abstractions. 

This, in turn, has allowed traditional tribal bounds to relax and spread so far that "tolerance" and "diversity" and "otherness" are words of totemic power in this culture! Indeed, it is interesting to view the expanding circle of citizenship and inclusion as first the American colonies and then the Republic began experiencing unprecedented levels of prosperity and fear-reduction. The battles over inclusion that were fought in each generation (first against class division, then slavery, sexism, religious intolerance, racism…) tend to seem obvious to their children, who grow up within the newly-widened horizon set… then wrestle with the next stage. Continuing the process of widening the circle.

While horrific injustices remain, and substantial fractions of the population appear unwilling to let go of their prejudices, there is at least as large a portion of modern citizenry which seems eager to extend the trend of expanding inclusion and empowerment farther still.

I have some accompanying charts, showing a set of nested CYLINDERS, each holding the same volume of worry and optimistic hope. But some are tall and slim, representing societies in which fear levels are very high… and the resulting radius of horizons (threat, time, opportunity and inclusion) are therefore very short range. 

Other cylinders are low and fat, representing cultures wherein fear has been so low, for so long that the horizons of worry stretch very far from the individual worrier, who now obsesses over matters that lie years, or thousands of miles away, and matters of inclusion that involve people (even animals and ecosystems) that his or her ancestors would have simply considered prey. 

Ponder this allegory! You are in a crowd of people -- perhaps in a lecture hall or at a party -- and someone rushes in shouting that "there are whales stranded on the beach!"  (Assume you live near a beach.) 

What then is your reaction? While some might shrug at the news, I figure you and many of your friends would drop everything and hurry toward that beach, as fast as you can...

... which is exactly the same thing your ancestors would have done, upon hearing the same news.

Only consider. Your ancestors would be rushing to the beach with different intent. You are propelled by eagerness to help-the-included-other. 

Your forebears' race to the shore would be propelled by one word, foremost in their minds.


== Fluctuating boundaries ==

Ponder that allegory of the beached whales. You know it to be true. So? Were your ancestors cruelly benighted folk? Implying that you are a tremendously more elevated being than they were? 

Hm. Elevated, perhaps you are. But only because those ancestors strove to create conditions under which you cannot imagine needing whale meat to feed your starving kids.  Instead -- more relaxed -- you assign whales within the circle of inclusion. To your eyes, they are fellow citizens meriting generosity, protection and respect.

Today we discuss threats and opportunities in terms of a century or more, with asteroids and Mars colonies and melting icecaps open for serious discussion. Inclusion arguments now extend to legal rights for animals. Indeed, the process of inclusion expansion has been reinforced!  Not only with supportive propaganda (tolerance-diversity memes in every children's book and Hollywood flick), but also via the hard-won lesson of practical economics -- that it is simply stupid to waste talent. A waste that is the principal cost of prejudice.

Yes, fashionable horizon/inclusion issues can fluctuate at the boundaries. Note how nationalist patriotism was considered an archaic and rather quaint viewpoint in the 1990s, till an uptick in fear after 9/11 caused a partial contraction of horizons for many. Suddenly, flags were all the rage. (We'll get into how this process affects modern politics.)

And yet, it is a sign of this culture’s deeper confidence that our horizons of inclusion have not appreciably contracted. Today -- especially in certain western nations -- we give a kind of culturally-based honorary citizenship to dolphins and consider it murder to kill as alien a creature as a whale. 

Science fiction thrives in such a culture, since it brashly extends horizons in both time and space as far as human imagination can take us. 

The threat horizon is occupied by vicious invader-aliens and the exogamy horizon by beautiful ones... and the inclusion horizon finger-wags that non-murderous aliens merit nurturing protection from our own, freely-elected government! Heck, did you see District 9? They don't even have to be attractive anymore, to merit protective inclusion.

Of course the macro topic here could be oversimplified as “altruism,” since that, too, is about extending beneficence to the other. Altruism is receiving a fair amount of attention, of-late; see three new books on the topic reviewed here by Scientific American.  And the cogent volume Pathological Altruism, edited by Barbara Oakley et al., containing two papers by yours truly. Though our topic here -- horizon expansion -- is about much more, since altruism is just one of many zones across which we stare at the other. 

== Variation ==

It is important to note, of course, that our cylinder-charts only depict a rough average. Within any culture there will be many individuals whose fear levels - or personal ways of responding to fear - are quite different from the surrounding norm. Indeed, these variations are what we tend to notice from day to day. Certainly Timothy McVeigh had very different concepts of "inclusion horizons" than many of the fellow citizens he slew.

Indeed, might one diagnose some recent phenomena in these terms? Why is it that citizens of New York and Washington DC – direct victims of 9/11 terrorism – remain utterly “blue” in their fealty to expanded horizons – in time, threat and inclusion – while “red state” attitudes seem to draw closer in: e.g. higher enmity toward non-natives and immigrants, less concern about environmental degradation, more hostile ruminations over “war” on terror, less interest in science and more in a pending, biblically-ordained end of the world? 

Is this model the best one, yet, at explaining such differences? Certainly it is far better than any insipid “left-right political axis” or words such as “conservatism” and “liberalism.”

Also, different cultures will react to prosperity and peace in markedly different ways. I believe it will take many generations of tranquility and progress before the deeply ingrained Russian proclivity toward paranoia and pessimistic gloom will be forced to give way to a cheerier mien. Likewise, so long as most children in the Middle East are raised with fairy tales that preach revenge as a high human value, horizon-widening will at best be a jerky process. Skim 1001 Arabian Nights and tally the few tales that don't involve revenge. Indeed, much the same can be said of older western myths, collected in Grimm's Fairy Tales. The counter-push by tolerance messages - e.g. Hiawatha and Sesame Street - is recent! 

Indeed, cultural variation can be seen even within the U.S., as those with more "confederate" upbringing react with hackles toward diversity preachers. They deem those who push relentless horizon expansion to be sick persons... and vice-versa. Or else, look at the divide within the SF community, with fantasy writers and readers much more willing to dive into old-fashioned romanticism, in which whole classes of beings (orcs, zombies, clone-stormtroopers) deserve - by their very nature - to be annihilated. Are the relentlessly feudal settings, featuring states of bone-chilling fear, tools to resurrect that delicious us-versus-them feeling, letting fans enjoy intolerant slaughter guilt-free?

Peering in the opposite direction: what happens when fear goes to zero? Do we get infinite horizons? I suspect that there is more than a little religious writing on this subject. Indeed, might this be the purely detached compassion that is written about in Buddhism? Is it one of many traits we must achieve, before deserving to become members of an interstellar federation? 

Or else apprentices in the Workshop of Creation?


No mistake, I approve of this trend toward ever-widening horizons. (Which may be the deep underpinning of science fiction, by the way. Watch this TED talk where I explore in-depth.) 

Indeed, like millions of others, I am impatient for it to go much farther. It is ironic, though, how few seem to realize that the new era of Omni-Inclusion is based upon prosperity and lack of fear brought on by prosperity, and that our morality of universal tolerance would have been considered terminally sappy and dangerous by every other culture in human history.

This is – in my view – the deepest smug insanity of the "left."

 Yes, the “right” obviously suffers from shorter horizons. That is their dire craziness. But the doctrinaire left is just as loopy. Because they take expanded horizons as a deeply fundamental ‘given’ of human morality. Like Rousseau, they simply assume, as something basic, a value system that is actually extremely recent and entirely contingent. One that is based upon unprecedented levels of wealth and satiation. 

Indeed, were they to preach this doctrine of hyper-tolerance to any of the ancient “wise tribes” that they so revere, they would have been laughed out of camp! 

Can this process be pathological at some level? Jason Cawley wrote: "There is such a thing, comical as it sounds, as a Gaia Liberation Front. They have decided that mankind is dangerous to life on Earth. They have given up on warnings preventing eco-catastrophe, have passed the stage of welcoming die-backs to hunter-gatherer existence, have realized that capitalistic assaults on nature are a programmed possibility of man, revealing therefore man as a form of cancer within life, and have decided this applies even to "indigenous peoples" because they might develop technology someday. Because of that whole chain, they have decided that mankind must be wiped out before life is. They only debate how to do it. The public relations position is voluntary mass suicide, but among themselves they are more direct and pin their hopes on an engineered virus, airborne and lethal to humans, which they propose to make before anyone else learns and uses enough biotech to screw up the planet."  (See this point of view garishly illustrated in a very silly and occasionally outright offensive flick: "Kingsman.")

Summarizing: Today's political camps might be typified by how they feel about the process of ongoing horizon expansion.

 "Leftists" give the process itself their utter and devoted loyalty.  The next inclusion push is the be-all of obsession, and to hell with older loyalties.  

People on the "right" react with hackles: "I like my old loyalties, so stop nagging me!"

Liberals, the sole group who think positive-sum, like the horizon expansion process... but liberals also like many of their older loyalties, and see no reason why they should have to choose. 

Again, this has nothing to do with classic, Marxian "left-right". Rather, it posits that today's tussles are matters of personality! A suggestion borne out by the research of Jonathan Haidt.


And forget Marx, Freud and Rand, for that matter. If one takes history into account and cheerfully accepts the incremental progress that it portrays, then the Modernist Agenda of pragmatic improvement makes a great deal of sense. Face it. Rousseau was a sap and Hobbes was a suck-up grouch. All of this is about Locke. The sooner the “wide-horizons” people realize it, the more effective they will be at pursuing their agenda, of expanding inclusion ever farther!

In fact, this process of horizon-widening is not intrinsically a feature of the left… though it is intrinsic to liberalism in the older and truer meaning of the word. It is utterly compatible with the four accountability arenas, for example (science, markets, democracy, courts… and the candidate for becoming a fifth arena – the internet. (And a sixth -- Sports.)

For example, markets work best when competition is both encouraged and well-regulated… when it operates under rules of fair play that maximize creativity and minimize blood-on-the-floor. This can only happen when market participants must treat each other as competing teams, not deadly foes. 

Indeed, one of the major outgrowths of our unprecedented experiment in universal citizenship has been a fundamental change in the shape of the modern social structure.  Society as diamond, and not pyramid, is partly a product of technology (making a new class of slaves called "machines", to occupy the lowermost tier), but also a result of having trained several generations of children to think in terms of non-zero sum games. But more on that anon. 

Hence, once again, we see that this is not a matter best handled on a 'left-right' basis. Both dogmatic extremes ignore history and are effectively quite mad! One side resists the widening of horizons while the other would force it with a patronizing, oversimplifying sledge hammer.

Rather, this is about the true “liberal” notion of ever-increasing inclusion within the tent of human decency - motivated in part by the pragmatic need to stop wasting talent through prejudice - while allowing a lot of give and negotiation and bickering and creative competition inside the tent! 


There are many questions. For example - can the long process of expanding human horizons be studied in order to determine crucial narrow points and bottlenecks that inhibit horizon broadening, among both individuals and cultures? 

If such bottlenecks can be found and diagnosed, might a judicious application of philanthropic funding help unblock the process, here and overseas, so that both tolerance and far-seeing investment practices take greater hold?

Some societies on Earth have had plenty to eat for a while, yet have not taken as readily to horizon expansion... especially the horizon of inclusion. Hence, to what degree does culture play a significant role?  Might it be that humans only become satiated enough to extend those horizons, when they have been taught first to be at least somewhat satiable?

Is science fiction an artifact of horizon expansion? Certainly what you and I call the real stuff has to be. But recall that there were always tales of the fantastic, all the way back to tribal eras, and these helped reinforce horizon walls. Indeed, nothing could be more romantic and more savagely non-inclusive than most modern fantasy tales, in which the slaughter of every orc, or imperial clone trooper, is just fine, under the presumption that their type has no mothers to mourn them.

Do I deem my "horizons" model of human nature to be as valid as Marx and Freud and Rand declared theirs to be? Of course not. It is a model. Models are only memes and tools, not the things that they emulate!  I can only say that those other social theorists made no effort to span the tribal era that made us, nor to explain the pervasiveness of feudalism.

But the tradeoff between FEAR and the distance toward which we peer... that seems to be eternal.

There is no end to questions. That's a good thing! A feature of our process of horizon examination, not a flaw. 

And with that, I will now back away. Maybe put some of this into a story.

Though in fact, the core issues of "otherness" have been the central focus of my life.