Sunday, November 28, 2021

Small Communities: How to avoid being exterminated

 


In the "Simpsons" series, Shelbyville Manhattan is the mythical founder of the town of Shelbyville. He split from his companion, Jebediah Springfield, who had refused to found a town where cousin marriage was legal. So, they founded two separate cities: Shelbyville and Springfield. Both cities went their own ways, without interacting very much with each other except in terms of occasional raids performed by local hotheads. In a more realistic tale, however, we might have expected that the Shelbyvillians and the Springfielders would have considered each other as abominations to be stamped out and that they would have engaged in doing exactly that.


Sometimes, you really feel like leaving this madness to the people who watch the news on tv every day or keep harassing you on social media. You feel like joining a separate community, like the Amish. They don't watch TV, don't use the Internet: wonderful life. Yet, you have a nagging feeling that it might not be so easy.....

 

As things stand, many of us are starting to think about the possibility of quitting. Yes, quitting the debate on social media, quitting the insults on TV, quitting the attempt to extract a drop of rationality from people whose brain was washed away by a tsunami of folly. They think they are the majority and maybe they are. Or maybe not but, in any case, why can't you just do your thing in peace, without bothering anyone? 

Not so easy. Theoretically, democracy is about protecting the rights of minorities. But, in practice, the Western propaganda system has evolved into something that thrives on demonizing minorities, in some cases pushing for, and obtaining, their extermination. The case of the Jews in Europe remains paradigmatic: it came after decades of demonization carried out in a society that was basically democratic in terms of its political structure. 

So, if you want to be a minority, you are at risk. At a very serious risk. 

In earlier times, it was possible for non-standard groups to leave their countries of origin and simply move to other places. That's becoming more and more difficult: not only the world is full of people, but the global propaganda machine seems to be linking governments all over the world. Countries that at some moment seemed to be friendly, suddenly become heavily engaged in stamping out the abomination represented by the minority of people who think like you. 

There follows that if you really want to be different, you have to accept that you are a separate group in a potentially hostile larger community. It is a dangerous condition, but history tells us that there have been examples of minority groups surviving for centuries or even millennia. Think of the Jews, the Dhimmi (non-Islamic communities in Islamic countries), the Roma (the "Gypsies"), and the Amish as possibly the oldest example of the many minority religious communities in the United States.

The Jews are the most ancient example. Their dispersion is known as the "Diaspora." It started with the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD. From then on, most Jews have been living in scattered communities in Asia, Europe, and Africa. In recent times, they switched their strategy by returning to a full-fledged state. Their population is estimated at about 15 million (ca. 0.2% of the total world population).

The Dhimmi, أهل الذمة Ahl aḏ-dhimmah "the people of the covenant" are the non-Muslims living in an Islamic state. They are mostly Middle Eastern and African communities that maintained their Christian identity during the expansion of Islam, starting with the 7th century AD.  But they are also non-Christian groups such as the Jews and the Zoroastrians in Iran. Their number is hard to estimate, but it may be large: for instance from 10% to 15% of the Egyptian population is estimated to be Christian Copts nowadays. 

The Roma, also known as the Gypsies, are not so ancient as the Jews and the Dhimmi, but their existence may go back to the early middle ages as migrants from India, so quite possibly more than one thousand years. Very little is known about them until relatively recent times and even their total population is hard to estimate: it may be as small as 2 million, or perhaps as large as 20 million. 

The Amish are the most recent of the list, but still count at least three centuries of existence, having originated in Switzerland in the late 17th century, as a sect of Christian "anabaptists." In time, most of them moved to North America. They are now estimated to be about 350,000. 

All these groups didn't have an easy life and they were often subjected to various kinds of vexations and persecutions. Of the three, the Jews went through a full-fledged extermination attempt during the 20th century, after a history of local exterminations called "pogroms". The Dhimmi fared somewhat better: they are protected by the Sharia law and there are no reports of extermination campaigns specifically directed against them. But they have to pay a special tax and there are many reports of vexations and harassment against them. The Roma were repeatedly mistreated all over history and explicitly targeted for extermination during the 20th century by the German Nazis. The Amish were never under an actual threat of extermination in modern times, especially in the US where the legislation traditionally favors religious groups. But they had their troubles in the past and nobody can know what the future has in store for them. 

You may think that the hard life of Jews, Dhimmi, Roma, and Amish has been difficult enough that it is not to be taken as an example. But they are, actually, exceptions to the rule that in most human societies, anyone different is exterminated. The list is long: just take a look at the Wikipedia entry for "genocides," you'll see what I mean. 

So, how could the Jews, Dhimmi, Roma, and Amish manage to survive? There are several points in common in their strategies, the main one being to offer a low profile target to would-be exterminators. It means being not just a minority, but a very small minority that keeps to itself. That is, little or no proselytizing is allowed. It is possible to convert to Judaism for someone not born as a Jew, but it is not easy. The Dhimmi, wisely, refrain from trying to recruit Muslims. The Roma are close-knit family groups: you have to be born a Romani to be one. As for the Amish, they are more open to new recruits, but they do not make much of an effort at proselytizing, either.

The non-threatening image is helped by the rules that discourage mixed marriages. A rule sometimes expressed as "I don't marry your sister, you don't marry my sister." Then, the idea is to be poor -- even abjectly poor and also to avoid all forms of violence. 

The Roma have honed this strategy to perfection, they are often extremely poor and do not use and do not carry weapons. The Amish do the same, although they are known as gun lovers -- but they use guns only for hunting. The Jews are somewhat an exception, but their modern fame of a rich elite and of being effective warriors is recent. The condition of the Christian Dhimmi in the Middle East is similar: only recently have they developed effective militias, but they never tried an all-out clash against the Muslim majority. 

The main strategic position of these surviving minorities involves laying all their cards on the table. The way they dress, their language, their physical aspect, clearly identify them for what they are. (again the Jews are an exception, but that's modern. In earlier times, they were clearly identifiable). Deception by the minority would be seen as a threat by the majority -- it is to be avoided at all costs. 

Finally, these minorities tend to live in enclaves or traveling colonies of limited size, but not just as single families. It is probably a compromise between being too vulnerable (single families) and threatening (large groups). 

These rules have kept these separate communities alive for several centuries. But tolerance is always just one step away from genocide. It typically starts with the accusation of mistreating babies, then it moves one step up toward the accusation of eating them. It was commonly used against the Jews (and one may wonder how difficult it must have been for them to find kosher babies for their evil dinners). The Roma are commonly accused of stealing non-Roma's children (just as unlikely, considering that they have many of their own). And, finally, the Amish have been recently accused of pedophilia. (it is enough to say that it came from the "Daily Mail" to be sure that it is false, but just in case, take a look at this

After the "baby eating" phase, accusations may climb up to higher levels of depravity in a positive feedback mechanism well known in these matters. It does not necessarily lead to a full-fledged genocide, but it may happen if there are economic gains to be made in the extermination. A typical case is that of the Cathars, a European religious group that was common in Southern France during the Middle Ages. Their problem may have been that they owned lands in a specific region of Europe, where they also kept cattle and, probably, money and valuable items. When a papal decree allowed the confiscation of their possessions (and those of their supporters, or presumed to be), that opened up a specific interest in exterminating them. And it happened. 

Another example of a group that chose the wrong strategy were the followers of Jim Jones, who retreated to a remote jungle commune that they called "Jonestown," in Guyana. We will never know exactly what happened, but the whole community was wiped out in 1978. It is normally reported that it was the result of mass suicide, but some say they were exterminated by someone who wanted to get at the community's treasure. Like the Cathars, they had isolated themselves in a specific region, they had accumulated a certain wealth, and when they were attacked (if that's what happened), nobody could intervene to help them. 

As you see, forming your own community within a larger society is not easy -- especially in a democracy. You would have to develop a special language, live separately from the others and, most of all, be abjectly poor. And even that won't save you from the occasional pogrom. Then, if you make a mistake, you may expect the worst: not just a pogrom, but a full-fledged attempt of genocide. Not great as a prospect. 

Can you think of a different strategy? How about NOT laying your cards on the table and, instead, forming some kind of secret society? As you may imagine, this idea brings a different set of problems. We'll discuss that in a future post. 

 

Monday, November 22, 2021

The Mousetrap Experiment: Modeling the Memesphere

 Reposted with some modifications from "The Proud Holobionts"

 Ilaria Perissi with our mousetrap-based mechanical model of a fully connected network. You can find a detailed description of our experiment on ArXiv


You may have seen the "mousetrap experiment" performed as a way to demonstrate the mechanism of the chain reaction that takes place in nuclear explosions. One of its earliest versions appeared in Walt Disney movie "Our Friend, the Atom" of 1956. 


We (myself and Ilaria Perissi) recently redid the experiment with 50 mousetraps and 100 wooden balls. And here it is. It was fun, except when (and not so rarely) one of the traps snapped on our fingers while we were loading it.

But why bother redoing this old experiment (proposed for the first time in1947)? One reason was that nobody had ever tried a quantitative measurement. That is, measuring the number of triggered traps and flying balls as a function of time. So, we did exactly that. We used cell-phone slow motion cameras to measure the parameters of the experiment and we  a system dynamics model to fit the data. It worked beautifully. You can find a pre-print of the article that we are going to publish on ArXiv. As you can see in the figure, below, the experimental data and the model go reasonably well together. It is not a sophisticated experiment, but it is the first time that it was attempted.



But the main reason why we engaged in this experiment is that it is not just about nuclear reactions. It is much more general and it describes a kind of network that's called "fully connected," that is where all nodes are connected to all other nodes. In the set-up, the traps are nodes of the network, the balls are elements that trigger the connection between nodes. It is a kind of communication based on "enhanced" or "positive" feedback.

This experiment can describe a variety of systems. Imagine that the traps oil wells. Then, the balls are the energy created by extracting the oil. And you can use that energy to dig and exploit more wells. The result is the "bell shaped" Hubbert curve, nothing less!  You can see it in the figure above: it is the number of flying balls "produced" by the traps.

We found this kind of curve for a variety of socioeconomic system, from mineral extraction to fisheries (for the latter, you can see our (mine and Ilaria's) book "The Empty Sea." So, the mousetraps can describe also the behavior of fisheries and have something to do with the story of Moby Dick as told by Melville.

You could also say the mousetrap network is a holobiont because holobionts are non-hierarchical networks of entities that communicate with each other. It is a kind of holobiont that exists in nature, but it is not common. Think of a flock of birds foraging in a field. One bird sees something suspicious, it flies up, and in a moment all the birds are flying away. We didn't have birds to try this experiment, but we found a clip on the Web that shows exactly this phenomenon.

It is a chain reaction. The flock is endowed with a certain degree of intelligence. It can process a signal and act on it. You can see in the figure our measurement of the number of flying birds. It is a logistic function, the integral of the bell-shaped curve that describes the flying balls in the mousetrap experiments



In Nature, holobionts are not normally fully connected. Their connections are short-range, and signals travel more slowly through the network. It is often called "swarm intelligence" and it can be used to optimize systems. Swarm intelligence does transmit a signal, but it doesn't amplify it out of control, as a fully connected network does, at least normally. It is a good control system: bacterial colonies and ant colonies use it. Our brains much more complicated: they have short range connections but also long range ones and probably also collective electromagnetic connections. 

One system that is nearly fully connected is the world wide web. Imagine that traps are people while the balls are memes. Then what you are seeing with the mousetrap experiment is a model of a meme going viral in the Web. Ideas (also called memes) flare up in the Web when they are stimulated it is the power of propaganda that affects everybody.

It is an intelligent system because it can amplify a signal. That is that's the way it reacts to an external perturbation. You could see the mousetraps as an elaborate detection system for stray balls. But it can only flare up and then decline. It can't be controlled. 

That's the problem with our modern propaganda system: it is dominated by memes flaring up out of control. The main actors in this flaring are those "supernodes" (the Media) that have a huge number of long-range connections. That can do a lot of damage: if the meme that goes out of control is an evil meme and it implies, say, going to war against someone, or exterminating someone. It happened and keeps happening again as long as the memesphere is organized the way it is, as a fully connected network. Memes just go out of control.

All that means we are stuck with a memesphere that's completely unable to manage complex systems. And yet, that's the way the system works. It depends on these waves of out-of-control signals that sweep the web and then become accepted truths. Those who manage the propaganda system are very good at pushing the system to develop this kind of memetic waves, usually for the benefit of their employers. 

Can the memesphere be re-arranged in a more effective way -- turning it into a good holobiont? Probably yes. Holobionts are evolutionary entities that nobody ever designed. They have been designed by trial and error as a result of the disappearance of the unfit. Holobionts do not strive for the best, they strive for the less bad. It may happen that the same evolutionary pressure will act on the human memesphere. 

The trick should consist in isolating the supernodes (the media) in such a way to reduce their evil influence on the Web. And, lo and behold, it may be happening: the great memesphere may be rearranging itself in the form of a more efficient, locally connected holobiont.  Haven't you heard of how many people say that they don't watch TV anymore? Nor they open the links to the media on the Web. That's exactly the idea. Do that, maybe you will start a chain reaction in which everyone will get rid of their TV. And the world will be much better. 




Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Coming Global Food Crisis: Learning from the Great Irish Famine

A 19th century "soup kitchen" providing emergency relief for people without food. These kitchens could have saved millions in Ireland during the great famine of 1945-1850, but the British government refused to keep them open long enough. The main lesson we can learn from the Irish experience is how fragile is a food supply based mainly on a single crop, potato in the case of Ireland. In our case, the fragility is the result of basing our food supply system on a single energy source: fossil fuels.


Below, you'll find a post by Jesús Pagán about the food supply situation in the world. Pagán understands the basic concept that could cause a food crisis in the near future. It is a problem of food supply, not a problem of food production. In a previous post on "Cassandra's Legacy, " I wrote:
The world's food supply system is a devilishly complex system and it involves a series of cross linked subsystems interacting with each other. Food production is one thing, but food supply is a completely different story, involving transportation, distribution, storage, refrigeration, financial factors, cultural factors and is affected by climate change, soil conservation, population, cultural factors..... and more, including the fact that people don't just eat "calories", they need to eat food; that is a balanced mix of nutrients. In such a system, everything you touch reverberates on everything else. It is a classic case of the concept known in biology as "you can't do just one thing."
Pagán's ideas are consistent with the concept that the world could see a major food crisis if the system collapses, even just in part. Transporting food from a region to another requires a complex technological network able to transport, process, refrigerate, package, and do more things to the food we eat: it is an energy-intensive system. If there is an energy shortage, then we are in trouble, but we may not even be able to recognize a problem that will appear in the form of a financial crisis that will make it impossible for people in poor countries to purchase the food they need. 

We have already made a mistake similar to the one that led to the Ireland famine in mid 19th century: that of relying completely on a single technology: the potato for the Irish, fossil fuels in our case. Then if things get truly bad, we may need to learn from Ireland how to manage in an emergency situation.

During the famine, the British government did at least one good thing: they set up a number of "soup kitchens" that could have saved hundreds of thousands of Irish people from starvation. One of the basic problems with the famine was that the Irish families were only equipped to cook potatoes at home using peat as fuel. But it was not just potatoes that were cultivated in Ireland, some grain was also cultivated. But the Irish had no capability to process grains at home because peat is a poor fuel and, besides, grains need to be milled and turned into wheat before they can become edible in the form of bread or soup. Milling is an energy intensive process, and so it was expensive for the Irish who had no way to turn the local cereals into food. Soup kitchens solved the problem having sufficient financial resources to buy grains, also importing it, and then using a better fuel (coal) and better equipment to produce food that could be distributed to everybody, even the poorest. 

Unfortunately, the Irish soup kitchens were dismantled by the government just when they were most needed. We cannot say whether that was done with the specific intent of exterminating the Irish, or just because of incompetence. But as long as the kitchens were operating, people could stay alive. Would we find ourselves in the same situation, in our times? That is, would we need an equivalent of the 19th century soup kitchens in order to survive? 

Jesus Pagán has been reasoning along these lines after having examined the situation with the world's food supply. He proposes an emergency solution to a possible food shortage consisting in part in growing food locally but also processing it locally using a technology that he calls "Foodtopia Termopolios" which has several points in common with the old soup kitchens of mid 19th century. The idea is to cut the really expensive costs of the current food supply system: processing, refrigeration, packaging, and transportation. It means producing and treating food locally, using as little energy as possible. Is it a viable idea? The future will tell us, 


WHY WE NEED A RADICAL CHANGE IN OUR FOOD SYSTEM

By Jesús Pagán

Introduction

In the introduction to his 1979 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Prof. Theodore Schultz stated:
“Most of the people in the world are poor, so if we knew the economics of poverty, we would understand a lot about economics that really matters. Most of the poor people in the world subsist on agriculture, so if we knew the economics of agriculture, we would understand a lot about the economics of poverty”
Our society, "thermodynamically blind and deaf", is suddenly discovering a new reality that questions its immediate future. It sees and hears things that it had never seen or heard or understood: Agricultural vulnerability, food insecurity, supply failures, peak oil, melting, droughts, fires, floods, inequity, energy transition, price rises….

Maybe you would like to flee, but where to go? You can leave the urban centres for rural areas, but nothing is certain anymore. The root cause is too much energy consumption:



1 kW energy consumption per capita is now the aim of IEA in the face of the dubious energy transition. It has been talked about for decades: “Basic needs and much more with one kilowatt per capita” was proposed in 1985 by José Goldemberg. But this idea was never put into practive. The reason is simple: in Europe, the energy inefficiency in food system already consumes 1 kW per capita. It leaves no room for other energy uses. Our food system consumes 1/3 of the world's energy and 70% of the planet's fresh water and produces up to 57% of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, it is the root cause of more than 60% of illness cases. In summary, it poses a deadly risk to humanity.

Years ago, I prepared this image to visualize how the world's population grew with oil. Oil has guaranteed food for the world's population and allowed its devastating growth.





Today, the food system generates consumption equivalent to the entire world oil production. However, the International Energy Agency (IEA, World Energy Outlook 2020) foresees a 50% reduction in oil production in 2025. 

The threat at this time is not the very serious climate change; the great threat is the lack of oil in a global food system that depends vitally on it.



https://css.umich.edu/factsheets/us-food-system-factsheet



Consequently, the survival of 8 billion people depends on oil. The following graph expresses how oil is the main ingredient in the diet since there is an evident correlation between the price of oil and that of food:





How will we feed ourselves?


Background.

What background do we have of this little-debated question in society? We were already seriously warned on the decline in oil (Peak-oil) by Admiral Hyman Rickover's report "Energy resources and our future" in 1957, but never before has the IEA proposed a probable scenario of a 50% lack of supply in production.

In his appearance before the Senate of Spain, Antonio Turiel, a researcher at the CSIC said: “We should equip ourselves, as soon as possible, with the ability to be self-sufficient in food production. We should ensure the supply of water, in drinkable conditions, and the ability to purify wastewater”.

Would it be possible to define the energetic homo? How much energy do we need to be alive and how much energy do we actually consume? All our vital activity, thinking, inventing, loving, getting excited, etc. it is covered from the energy of our diet; On average, this is approximately 2,500 Kcal/day, that is approximately 100 W .

Of this energy, our basal metabolism, and being a warm-blooded mammal, consume 70 W. We only have 30 W left for activity. But on a social level, to maintain our status, in Europe we consume an average of 6,000 w per capita, that is, 60 times more than the energy to be alive: we maintain airports, we travel to the other side of the planet, we drive, we have Formula 1, international sports leagues, we buy what we do not need, eat meat, cruises, Olympics, etc.


The Current Situation


As Juan Bordera Romà says:

“We are before a black elephant in the room. A problem that we all see, or at least most of us, but we hardly talk about it, or how to approach it, especially because of its enormity and its overwhelming nature. Ignoring it makes it gain even more weight, grow by the hour. The indifference and lies we tell ourselves to move on will inevitably end up crushing those in the room” (in this case the planet).

We must avoid the scenario "Who can save himself" described by the International Energy Agency when it contemplates a halving in oil production in 2025. "Who can save himself" is the impression that remains after reading the TEEB report of the UN that says our food systems are broken; "Who can save themselves" is the impression given by the SCIENCE publication arguing that "with this food system, whatever we do, we lose", since by itself, the current food system will increase the temperature above 1.5ºC, if there is no change in strategy.

So, what happens when we go to the supermarket? The source of the problem is that today, in the EU, a High Tech territory without oil production, we consume more than 25,000 kcal to produce a simple average daily diet of 2,500 kcal, that is, EROI (Energy Returned in relation to Energy Invested) = 0.1. Much of those 25,000 kcal comes from oil, the "life energy" of the global food system. That is, of the 25,000 kcal: 7,000 kcal are consumed and processed at home, 3,250 kcal in restaurants and catering, 4,500 kcal in the supermarket, 4,750 kcal in industry, 1,500 kcal in transport, and 4,000 kcal in agriculture (see table below).





This is the evidence for "technology as a systemic destroyer of habitat." When we go to the supermarket and see, for example, a milk carton package (which was packed in a high-speed filler under aseptic conditions from a reel of paper), we don't believe what we see, it's magic! We proudly call that R + D + i. We go crazy with the holy grail of today's society: "TECHNOLOGY." This wonder does not allow our minds to see what is behind it. Scientific progress and technological development hide reality to forget about the by-products (CO2, plastics, etc.) that it produces and the energy inefficiency with which it is processed. What happens when that machine starts filling at 7,000 containers per hour is hidden.


It is not only in the food sector, it is the trend in any industrial activity; we live among the songs of sirens. When we are shopping in the supermarket, where everything is digitized and mechanized, we are not informed that behind our simple diet, there are hidden about 3 kg of oil, which emitted more than 8 m3 of dirty CO2 into the atmosphere, in addition to Nitrous oxide, methane, plastic, paints, glass containers, aluminum, and hundreds of toxic materials, some of which, like microplastics, are already in our bloodstream We use technology in a way that defeats its purpose, which should be to ensure a sustainable and comfortable environment to live in. On the other hand, it has helped to generate on our planet about 8,000 million individuals, an overload in the energy / environmental impact where three-quarters of them live under threat, in eco-social misery, walking towards the Seneca cliff.

In 2008, in an interview with James Lovelock in The Guardian, he was asked what could be done in the face of the climate threat. The reply was: “Enjoy life while you can: in 20 years global warming will hit the fan.” James Lovelock described the eco-social collapse from the climatic perspective but he forgot the invisible enemy that was extraordinarily described in 1906, by Alfred Henry Lewis when he declared: “There are only nine meals between humanity and anarchy”. Climate change becomes secondary when our food depends on oil shortages. Lovelock's phrase should have been: "Enjoy life as much as you can before the decline in oil production causes the collapse of the food system."

The discourse today is the circular economy, urban gardens. It is undoubtedly educational for young people. However, in Leningrad besieged by Germans (and by the Spanish "Blue Division" as well), vegetables were cultivated in public parks, but when winter came there even were cases of cannibalism. The amount of food that can be obtained through traditional farming techniques would inevitably cause a mass exodus to nowhere.

How did we get here?
In 1972, with the report of ("The the Limits of Growth") we should have reacted, now it may be too late.




Today our society suffers the consequences of a poor and common view that food is calories, neglecting its biological functions. Currently we have gone from blessing food on the table to throwing it to the garbage container; and we have forgotten about nutritional balance.

"We are what we eat". Before we did not eat based on calories, we followed a traditional recipe book of formulations and mixtures made from the imagination that gave the famine or the bonanza of the moment, and that moment was impregnated with the energy, environmental, health, cultural, social, economic situation, religious, etc.

The daily practices of feeding ourselves transcend beyond being biological energy, nutrients, pleasures, sensations and are the main cause of the worldwide energy waste, tremendous environmental pathologies, hunger, social exclusion, relocation of resources, an unbearable healthcare expense, identities, individual lifestyles, etc.

Why don't we ask ourselves about these things, which put our lives at risk? Philosophizing is asking, philosophy has shown no real commitment to the implications of diet. We should have given a “philosophical approach to food” that goes beyond a scientific understanding of nutrition, but also beyond a purely cultural, aesthetic vision ... insofar as it takes into account all the various economic, political, animal-ethical, agricultural, industrial, environmental, energy, health, practical and aesthetic daily worldviews of food. In other words, it is necessary to nurture a food philosophical conscience that really studies all the factors about "how we humans eat in the world."

The "great acceleration" that began in the 1960s, produced an enormous expansion of wealth in society, for the first, and perhaps last time in the history of mankind, allowed, thanks to false abundance, a large number As consumers in rich countries, to eat whatever they wanted. Today almost no food practice is prescribed by cultural tradition, religion, class or gender.

The result was a food system that generates up to 57% of greenhouse gases, consumes 1/3 of the world's energy, 70% of fresh water and causes 70% of premature deaths, among others.

Is there information at the institutional level about this food dystopia? 
The most complete study on our way of eating was carried out by the TEEB initiative (Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) promoted by Germany and the European Commission in response to a proposal from the G8 + 5 Ministers of the Environment meeting in Potsdam, Germany, in 2007, which resulted in the report: “MEASURING WHAT MATTERS IN AGRICULTURE AND FOOD SYSTEMS”, synthesis of the results and recommendations of the TEEB Report on the Scientific and Economic Foundations for Food and Agriculture.

It says: “There is more and more evidence that current agri-food systems are broken; "And adds:" If you take into account the food value chain as a whole, including deforestation to clear land, processing, packaging, transport and waste, our food systems represent approximately 43% and 57% of greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans”.

And even more: “The eco-agri-food value chain significantly affects the SDGs, sustainable development goals, and endangers half of these goals: climate (SDG 13), fresh water (SDG 6), biodiversity and ecosystems (SDG 14 and 15), human health (SDG 3), social equity (SDG 5 and 10) and livelihoods (SDG 1 and 8).

If this is so, how is it that nobody puts his or her finger on the food sore?

Food and health.

Different sources highlight a high percentage of premature deaths due to specific foods (at levels of 60% or more). A meta-analysis carried out by the American Academy of Sciences, a true work of art, shows in two diagrams: one radar and the other Cartesian, the impact of diet from a health and environmental perspective:




Nine of the top 15 global morbidity risk factors are the result of poor diet quality, while associated diseases, including coronary artery disease (coronary heart disease), type II diabetes, stroke, and colorectal cancers, they represent almost 40% of world mortality.

This second graph shows the death rate versus the environmental impact.





The Future

If these figures for our food system are true, do they threaten the existence of the human species on the planet? In fact, it is right. The magnitude of ratio of the energy consumption / greenhouse gas emissions is such that a new report in SCIENCE carried out by researchers from the universities of Oxford (UK), Minnesota, California and Stanford (USA), says: “even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, emissions from the global food system alone would make it impossible to limit warming to 1.5°”. They have it clear: “with this food system; Whatever you do, you lose”.

What is really going to happen and when?

We are facing a unusual event, a frontal train crash, The first train: the exponential demographic growth that reached around 8 billion in just 150 years and continues to grow at more than 8,000 individuals/hour. The second train: the exponential decrease in oil and other fossil fuels.

But if the origin of the problem is the food system and at the same time the solution, is it possible to quantify the problem, to put numbers on it? From the energy perspective, when an American, for example, goes to buy his diet at the supermarket, he pays 15 times the energy contained in that diet. For a diet of 2,500 kcal that is equivalent to 4.9 kg of oil. In the EU, it is about 10 times, the world average is 6 times.

These figures include the fuel required by the agricultural sector, transportation costs, retail costs and household energy consumption related to food. Unfortunately, the numbers may be grossly underestimated because the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) study does not consider the cost associated with waste disposal, water supply, and the governance of the food system from related organizations, or the increasing health expenditure induced by food.

If we look back, at the beginning of the 20th century, more calories were delivered than the expense of preparing the land and planting the seed cost (We went from an average EROI of 3 to 5, to the current EROI of 0.1 to 0,06). Nothing can survive those EROIs, life on earth evolved from energy return rates greater than 1.


Foodtopia: a proposal for a solution


FOODTOPIA TERMOPOLIOS is a new local, community food preparation system in the (almost total) absence of oil or other fossil energy sources. The goal is to cook locally produced resources in "Dumbar" groups of prosumers, no more than 150 people, using little energy and bypassing the need for transportation, refrigeration, processing, and so on. It is an urban food system much more sober and less spectacular than the one promoted from the uninformed elitist techno-optimism or the apocalyptic catastrophism of popular culture, but the result is  much more pleasant, fair and less risky than continuing with the status quo. You can learn about this idea at the Foodtopia site







Monday, November 15, 2021

Limitarians and Cornucopians: what Surprises from Technological Progress?

 


Resource depletion, ecosystem disruption, population growth, and technological change are interacting with each other in a tsunami of changes that always take us by surprise. The surprises that technological progress may be bringing are among the most unpredictable drivers of change. Yet, it is not impossible to reason about how our society could be transformed by some disruptive technological innovations. Here, Luca Pardi discusses the most recent report by "RethinkX," a group of remarkably sharp and creative people. They are hard to define as "pessimists" or "optimists," but they surely understand that change is unavoidable. 

by Luca Pardi

The debate among limitarians (Robeyns, 2017) and cornucopians is periodically morphing into that among doomsters and optimist-utopians. The limitarians have a generally gloomy view about the future availability of resources while the cornucopians tend to believe that shortages, always possible for many reasons in the short run, were proved not to be a problem in the past, so will not be in the future, at least in the long run. Doomsters-limitarians are also pessimistic about the environmental crisis and its paradigmatic representation: the climate change predicament. Optimists retort that the problem is amplified by anti-capitalistic ideological views and that a combination of technology and local and global policies will draw us, as has always been the case in history, out of dire straits. And the debate goes on forever!

There is a Think Tank named RethinkX that tries to be above or, better, ahead of this ideological deadlock. They are both: doomsters and optimists with a strong slant toward technological disruptive innovations. In a crescendo of techno-optimistic hypes they reach a climax in their last document Rethinking Humanity where they envisage that:

The prevailing production system will shift away from a model of centralized extraction and the breakdown of scarce resources that requires vast physical scale and reach, to a model of localized creation from limitless, ubiquitous building blocks – a world built not on coal, oil, steel, livestock, and concrete but on photons, electrons, DNA, molecules and (q)bits. [page 5]

This amazing statement summarizes and amplifies the outcomes of their previous documents about food, energy, and mobility. According to RethinkX each of the main five producing sectors of our global civilization: food and energy production, materials extraction, mobility, and communication/information, will witness a jump of at least one order of magnitude in efficiency, thanks to a combination of Schumpeterian (disruptive) innovation and cultural change within local communities. All of this in the span of time between now and 2035. Pretty good!

And here it comes the doomsters side.

The intervening decade will be turbulent, destabilized both by technology disruptions that upend the foundations of the global economy and by system shocks from pandemics, geopolitical conflict, natural disasters, financial crises, and social unrest that could lead to dramatic tipping points for humanity including mass migrations and even war. In the face of each new crisis we will be tempted to look backward rather than forward, to mistake ideology and dogma for reason and wisdom, to turn on each other instead of trusting one another. If we hold strong, we can emerge together to create the wealthiest, healthiest, most extraordinary civilization in history. If we do not, we will join the ranks of every other failed civilization for future historians to puzzle over. Our children will either thank us for bringing them an Age of Freedom, or curse us for condemning them to another dark age. The choice is ours. [page 6]

A new dark age is not ruled out, the apparently tragic outcome of an unrealized transition, should press us to act now. And “us” is not a general “us” it is exactly us, you that are reading this post as well as me writing it and those who generally in the last few decades showed to be concerned about the destiny of humanity and civilization. Incumbent leading classes are not included in the “us” they are simply unable to help much:

Dark ages do not occur for lack of sunshine, but for lack of leadership. The established centers of power, the U.S., Europe, or China, handicapped by incumbent mindsets, beliefs, interests, and institutions, are unlikely to lead. In a globally competitive world, smaller, hungrier, more adaptable communities, cities, or states such as Israel, Mumbai, Dubai, Singapore, Lagos, Shanghai, California, or Seattle are more likely to develop a winning Organizing System.[page 6]

They do not say that there will be salvation, but that we have the technical means and the human resources, to get there. It is a question of finding the social and political means.

The fact that technology is always a source of new problems is a useless truth and useless is to complain about it. Taking technology away from humans would be like removing fangs from lions or stings from wasps. We have been like this since before we were Homo sapiens. Five million years ago Homo habilis was already doing things our chimpanzee cousins ​​can't. Humans must follow their path to the end because it is theirs. Fortunately, the path is not unique and our intelligence must apply to understand which paths appear to be less traumatic. The bad news is that nobody will come to save us from outside leading the cavalry, we are alone.

Is this actually bad news?

 

Robeyns, I., 2017. Wellbeing, freedom and social justice: the capability approach re-examined. OpenBook Publishers, Cambridge, UK.

 

Luca Pardi is a senior researcher in chemistry at the Italian Research Council (CNR), former president of the Italian section of the association for the study of peak oil (ASPO). He is the author of the recent book "Picco per Capre" dedicated to peak oil

Friday, November 12, 2021

When Science Speaks in Tongues: The Unstoppable Rise of Gibberish

  

I have no objections to the idea that God (or the Goddess) can speak to people. And maybe the Lord really spoke to the apostles the day of Pentecost. But if you plan to fool other people, then "speaking in tongues" (known also as "glossolalia" in modern terms) can be a good idea. You start with uttering something that vaguely sounds like a language. Then you "translate" it into something that you report as the word of God. An easy trick that sometimes works. Even in science, some researchers seem to use this trick to gain academic points by publishing articles that contain mostly gibberish, or even only gibberish. We could call it "scientific glossolalia". 


You may have heard the recent news of 44 scientific papers being retracted from a scientific journal after they were discovered to be nothing but gibberish. The usual reaction in these cases is to speak of "a few bad apples." But this fraud exposes a problem that goes deep, very deep, in science. Science suffers from "glossolalia" -- a syndrome that makes people utter meaningless sounds as if they were speaking a real language. 

To start, "papers" are the main output of a scientist's work. It is the harsh law of "publish or perish," meaning that for a scientist publishing something -- anything -- in an academic journal is the first line of defense against being fired.  Even if a scientist has no money, no grants, no instrumentation, no ideas, they have to show that they are doing something. Woe betide the scientist who does not publish at least one paper every year! Anathema! Abomination! Horror! May you be eaten by the h-index bugbear who punishes those who sin so hideously against the sacred rules of science! 

But publishing papers has a problem. When scientists publish something, in a certain way they are showing their hand. Readers will be able to understand how good they are, how well they master their field, how much money they have to perform their research, and more. They may not want others to know that, especially if they have something to hide (almost everyone does, in this world). So, many scientists practice obfuscation in order to defend their turf.

So, scientists want to publish papers, but they may not want others to read them. A way to do that is to use purposefully convoluted language, eliminating all elements that would make a text interesting, turning it into the most boring possible kind of prose. The use of the passive form is a typical example ("it has been found that") instead of the simpler "we found that....". But there is more: for instance, why do scientists often sign their papers only with the initials of their first and middle names? ("J. I. Smith" -- does it mean "Jolly Idiot Smith," or what?). The idea is the same: to remove all hints of human interest for the text. 

By far the most effective strategy is to use obscure terms. Uncommon and archaic ones can do a good job of repelling readers. An example noted by Malcolm Kendrick in his "The Clot Thickens" (2021): why in the world would anyone write "pultaceous" instead of "pulpy" if not with the specific purpose of being obscure? But what makes a paper truly unreadable is the proliferation of acronyms. If you stumble on "GDAP," you have to decide which one of the 9 known meanings it can take (here, it is "Growing Danger of Acronym Proliferation").

So, you start understanding how the mechanism works. First of all, an obscure paper makes it difficult for the reviewers to wade through the text and, surely, they don't want to appear ignorant by asking what a particular term or acronym, or whatever means. Then, the paper may be full of mistakes, inconsistencies, shortcomings, and plain lies but, if it is really obscure, there is a chance that neither the reviewers nor anybody else will read it through and notice its shortcomings. It may even be cited, thus providing some extra points for the authors, by those who just read the title. Of course, it won't make the authors candidates for the Nobel prize, but it means some respite from the wrath of the scientific PTB (obscure acronym for the "powers that be").

From this point onward, it is just a small step for a desperate scientist to jump from simple obfuscation to straight fraud (and a big step backward for science as a whole). You have papers based on invented data, on shaky statistical methods, on groundless assumptions, and more. 

At this point, we should not be surprised that someone used one of those AI (obscure acronym for artificial intelligence) text generating programs to create from scratch completely meaningless papers. These programs are already impressive in their generic versions, but someone must have developed a specific version for creating fake scientific papers. Take a look at some of the 44 retracted papers, and you'll see how sophisticated the program that created them was. For instance, this one: you need to know at least something of geology to understand that it is a pure glossolalia piece. The author (the AI) is speaking in tongues. It is only because there are people who know these matters that the scam was detected. 

But how many scams of the same kind were NOT detected? Do you know that 2.5 million scientific papers are published every year in the world? Detecting those which are pure assemblies of random sentences may not be so difficult (AI may fight AI). But the truly horrible thought is how many papers are NOT glossolalia pieces, but are nevertheless unreadable, poorly done, wrong in their basic assumptions, using massaged data, arriving to unjustified conclusions, and more. In short, papers that are at best a useless waste of money, at worst scams engineered to support the dark purposes of some lobby acting behind the scene. 

Of course, not all science is like this. There is a fraction of scientists who are competent, sufficiently financed, safe in their positions, who create good science that advances human knowledge. How many? Difficult to say. Maybe there holds Pareto's law in the form of "80% of good science is done by 20% of the scientists." Or maybe we can apply Sturgeon's law ("99% of everything is crap") also in its strong form (99.9% is). 

The problem is that with less and less money available, science is more and more in the hands of underpaid and blatantly exploited people who have no perspectives for a decent career. Some of them may well be desperate enough to recur to fraud. Note also that it is a scientific law that entropy always increases, so how long will it take to transform science into a pultaceous mass of meaningless sentencesIn a previous post, I wrote that science may already have expanded itself beyond existence. 

Can this situation be remedied? Maybe, but that would need truly drastic actions to change at its basis the perverse mechanism of publish or perish. It is unlikely that the task will ever be undertaken by universities or by governments, or by the scientists themselves. Fortunately, the Seneca Cliff takes care of eliminating the EPCS (obscure acronym for the Entropy Produced in Complex Systems). It will do that for science, too. It won't be painless for scientists but another form of the principle of entropy is that everybody gets what they deserve. 

 


Monday, November 8, 2021

The Coming Age of Illiteracy: What Future for Science?

   One of the 16th century reliefs still existing at the monastery of "San Vivaldo," in Tuscany. It is an early example of a purely image-based communication: an attempt to tell complex concepts, the stories of the gospels, to people who couldn't read. It was a failure, but also a remarkably innovative approach. The time for image-based communication may return with the rapid loss of literacy affecting our times. The problem with this evolution is huge in science, with fewer and fewer people able to read the scientific literature. We are now depending on professional interpreters to tell us what "Science" is, just like long ago illiterate Christians were forced to rely on professional interpreters ("priests") to tell them what the scriptures said. The result is that Science is becoming whatever these scientific priests say Science is. And this is bad, although perhaps not beyond redemption. 


Let me start this post by citing a fascinating article written by "Marty Mac's and Cheese" I don't know who Mr. Marty Mac is, but he clearly has a remarkable cultural vision. He notes how Catholicism and Protestantism evolved along separate lines of thought. Protestantism was born as a literature-based religion: Protestants were "people of the book." Conversely, Catholicism catered more to the illiterate. 

You can see the difference in the respective churches: Protestant churches are normally austere, while Catholic churches are highly decorated and full of images. The image below is from Marty Mac's post. 


The idea of using a visual language was exploited in full by the Catholic Church. The multi-colored reliefs of the San Vivaldo monastery, in Italy, are one of the few remaining examples of the attempt to create a completely new visual language that would bypass the Babel of spoken languages that Europe was in the late Middle Ages. It did not work because of the development of the printing press and the gradual expansion of literacy in Europe. Universal literacy would not arrive before the 20th century, but already during the Renaissance, the European elites were able to read and write in their national languages. A text was a much more sophisticated and flexible tool than the reliefs of San Vivaldo, no matter how impressive they looked. 

But literacy is not a fixed concept. It evolves. Marty Mac makes some very interesting points about the transformation of literacy in our age. Even those who are still able to read, no longer have the ability to follow an articulate and complex discourse as one might find in a book of hundreds of pages, to say nothing of the 1400+ pages of the English version of the Christian Bible. The Protestant Church, nowadays, is changing as the result of this evolution. The Pentecostals are a manifestation of this trend with their spectacular services, people singing, "talking in tongues" and the like. They are no more "people of the book." 


I think it is worth reporting an extended excerpt of Marty Mac's considerations: remarkably sharp.

A mind trained with the written word is different from a mind without it. The organization of thought required for reading is very different from that in an oral environment. The differences come entirely from communicative form.

Oral communication is nearly always discursive. Even when someone gives a monologue, it is to an audience, which reacts (perhaps silently) and participates. But monologues are rare and nearly always have a particular social purpose: relating important cultural narratives, or persuading people or expounding to them from a position of authority (what the ancients called rhetoric). But discourse is more typical of oral communication.

Discourse is by its nature unstructured. When you speak with someone, the other person can disagree, change the subject, extend your thoughts in a new direction, or bring up something new. Discourse is extremely unlikely to follow a set of logical presuppositions and explore them all the way to their end. By its nature it jumps around, assembling different ideas from multiple people in a back-and-forth which may or may not represent a coherent whole.

None of this is bad. It is just the nature of having multiple minds in real-time communication with one another through the medium of linear speech. Valuable knowledge can be imparted and also discovered in this process. A single mind following a single set of logical presuppositions cannot arrive at complete knowledge. But oral communication is by nature unstructured.

Not so the written word. Writing forces communication to be continuous and follow some particular path. There is no interlocutor to correct, derail, or add to the argumentation. If discourse is by nature a hodge-podge, with different thoughts from different minds combining to make a gestalt, writing has the ability to unmask whether the thought itself, expressed in language, has internal coherence. The act of writing forces the writer to pay attention to this. The act of reading brings to the attention of the reader whether what is being said has structure and consistency. Literacy is an avenue to greater coherence and precision of thought.

Literacy changes the way people think, or rather it opens up a new manner of thinking. It doesn’t necessarily supplant the discursive oral communication (elite Ancient Greek society, existing on the bleeding edge of the novel technology of writing, considered both oral and written language, in their proper uses, to be learned forms of culture). However, literate cultures have different qualities from illiterate ones. This kind of research is inevitably controversial, but it appears to be the case that written languages (even when they are spoken) more frequently use conjunctions and have more types of conjunctions. Many languages around the world lack a word for ‘or’, not to speak of ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’, or ‘yet.’ You can get on just fine with no conjunctions, or with a smaller number of conjunctions, or just a single generic conjunction that means ‘mostly and.’ This should not be surprising. If language occurs mostly in a context of unstructured discourse, there is less need for lots of connectives that link one set of thoughts to the next (contrariwise, there is more need for discourse elements acknowledging and addressing the interlocutor!). The increased attention to internal coherence in writing seeps back into the oral language here it is in an unexpected way: a multiplication of conjunctions.

Complex mathematics do not arise in oral cultures. This is not to say oral cultures cannot do math — you can find oral cultures comfortable with surprisingly high multiplication baked into their number systems. However, no purely oral culture has developed algebra or complex geometry. This kind of lengthy, step-by-step algorithmic process is something our brains are not naturally very good at. We seem to require an external aid for structuring, in the form of writing, to jump-start higher mathematics. After people are taught step-by-step mathematical processes, they can become quite adept at doing (some limited amount of) math in their heads. It just seems to be true that to take that first step requires writing the mathematical formulae.

Literacy is not just a communicative tool, although it is that too. Literacy causes a shift in how people think. It enables and enforces certain kinds of structured thought and is a step away from the gestalt, ad hoc compositional thought of discursive or oral communication. We all begin our linguistic lives with only oral1 communication, and only later learn to be literate. Literacy is not a replacement for oral language: it is built on top of it, both historically and in each person’s personal development.

The loss of literacy skills has been impressive during the past few decades. I note that from my students. They can repeat what they read, or the notes they took in class. But in terms of understanding a complex matter, well, it is a disaster. I note the same trend with my colleagues. When I was a student, I was impressed by the ability of my teachers to go through complex mathematical calculations with just pencil and paper. Nobody does that anymore: when successful scientists need to make a complex calculation, they pay someone to do it for them

That may be just an impression of mine, but there is clear evidence that literacy is declining everywhere. We are losing what Marty Mac defines as "The kind of lengthy, step-by-step algorithmic process." In religion, it is the defeat of Martin Luther's approach, who had been maintaining that everyone should be able to read the Bible by him/herself. There follows that today in a sense we are all Catholic (or maybe Pentecostals). You may argue that this is nothing bad in itself. Indeed, it is not: it is just that things are different than they used to be, and that's the normal way the world works. 

The problem -- the very big problem -- is with science. Science normally used the Catholic approach, in the sense that ordinary people were not supposed to read the original sources in the scientific literature. That may have been the reason why scientific "papers" are normally written in an obscure and hyperspecialized language -- understandable only by those who work in the same field as the authors. Not just that, but scientific papers are inaccessible to the public, hidden behind paywalls for the profit of publishers. 

So, you need an interpreter, a scientific "priest" to tell you what "Science" (with a capital "S") says (Tony Fauci has reached the status of "Scientific Pope"). This is a disaster because the "scientific literature" is so huge that any scientific priest with a veneer of expertise in a certain field can claim more or less anything without too much fear of being contradicted, just because so few people can really understand that field. 

That does not normally happen with religions: Imagine that your local pastor tells you at the Sunday service that Jesus Christ recommended human sacrifices. You may not be a theologian but you know enough to suspect that something is wrong. That makes Martin Luther's approach viable: the Bible is a huge book, but its main points are understandable more or less by anybody. 

But when the director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Rochelle Walensky, tells you that "Masks can help reduce your chance of Covid19 infection by more than 80%" how do you react? Would you believe that she invented this number from whole cloth? 

Yes, she did. 

There is not a shred of evidence in the literature that face masks of any kind can attain that level of protection, surely not the kind of masks that people buy and wear. I can tell you that from my own analysis of the literature. You may also check the opinion of Vinay Prasad (Epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco) and of many commenters to Walensky's tweet.

Fine, but why should you trust me or Prof. Prasad instead of Dr. Walensky? In the Protestant approach, you would check the literature yourself. But do you have the capability to look up the relevant papers? Do you have access to the literature without having to pay the exorbitant prices charged by scientific publishers? And even if you have the relevant papers, can you understand them, written in the kind of heavy, involved, purposefully obscure style, typical of scientific papers? And do you have the capability of filtering away the evident frauds resulting from corrupt scientists publishing to please their sponsors?

You see what is the problem. Science has become so huge that it has gone beyond the human capability to understand it. Outside one's hyperspecialized field, scientific truth has become little more than what you read in the slip of paper you find inside a fortune cookie in the Chinese restaurant. Maybe you read, "You have a secret admirer.” Oh, yes? And where does that come from? You are not supposed to know. It is the same problem you have when listening to your TV scientist appearing on the screen to tell you "wear a mask," or whatever. Where do those statements come from? You are not supposed to know that.  Science has expanded itself beyond existence. 

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Now, pause for a moment to breathe after realizing that more than two centuries of scientific research have led us to a dead-end street. It has been said that a scientist is someone who knows a lot about very little and who aims at knowing everything about nothing. If we keep going like this, it is a prophecy that's going to come true. 

And now what? 

At this stage, the normal proposal is that we should do something to improve our schools and, in turn, that is supposed to improve the average literacy, scientific and otherwise. But the loss of literacy, in the sense of the capability of understanding complex texts, is probably irreversible. The idea of public schools financed by the state is modern: those schools have existed only for less than two centuries, from mid 19th century. They came into existence as tools for the linguistic and cultural homogenization of the newly formed nation-states. But, with the coming of image-based communication, mainly TV, they became obsolete. 

Things change fast in our world: in little more than one year, we saw schools turned from a central element of our society into dungeons inhabited by little plague-spreading monsters to be kept masked all the time. How our society could turn so nasty, so fast against its children was an unexpected confirmation of Seneca's observation that "ruin is rapid." But it is also true that ruin occurs when evil meets opportunity and there is no doubt that the powers that be were bound to discover, sooner or later, that schools were not needed anymore. Why spend money to teach people how to read and write? Just let them sit in front of the TV. 

History moves always onward and if this is what is happening, there is a reason for it to happen. Think that for most of humankind's history, spanning at least a few hundred thousand years, there was no such a thing as "written text." It appeared some 5000 years ago and up to very recent times, it was a skill of a tiny minority of people. We tend to see "universal literacy" as an achievement of our civilization. But it is not obvious that knowing how to read and write makes people better. You could argue for exactly the opposite (Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:3). So, we are simply returning to something that was the normal way to be in earlier times, except that, by now, the exchange of ideas is done over the Web rather than physically face to face. Maybe it is an important difference, maybe not. We'll have to see that. 

In any case, Visual languages made a comeback, pushed by the new tool of Internet-based communication. We are not anymore limited to exchanging translated text: we have a wide variety of image-based communication tools, starting from the simplest "emoticons," smiling faces, and the like, to the capability of making elaborate video clips at low cost. This new range of communication tools was going to have a profound effect on the ways people speak to each other. And it is happening.  

And how about Science? Well, science has been an offshoot of our text-based civilization. As it is now, it does not serve a useful purpose anymore, having become mostly a money-making tool for corrupted people and corporations. It will change, too, not because we want it to change, but because it has to. Science will use a different kind of language, it will aim at different purposes, seeking different kinds of knowledge. But we will still recognize it for what it is, we humans were born to seek for the truth. And we'll keep doing that. 






Monday, November 1, 2021

The Propaganda Trap: How to get out of it?

 You probably saw the Hitler clip from the 2004 movie "Downfall." And you may have noticed the detail of Hitler's left hand trembling out of control. It is based on historical data: Hitler's hand was really trembling in that way, a typical symptom of Parkinson's disease. And he was also subjected to fits of rage, just as shown in the movie. Surely, many people must have noted his erratic behavior and thought he had mental problems. Yet, nobody could find a way to remove him from power, ensuring that maximum damage was done to everybody. It was the result of German propaganda: a giant machine that fed on itself and that could not be stopped before it was too late.

 

The story of the 20th century includes several "mad dictators" who did great damage to the people they ruled, and not just to them. Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany are the best-known examples. I wrote several posts on Mussolini (here), who clearly suffered of an extreme case of the Dunning-Kruger syndrome, but was not mentally impaired, just a run of the mill psychopath who cared nothing about the suffering of the people he ruled. 

Hitler, like Mussolini, was convinced to be a military genius and he often overrode the suggestions of his competent military staff. And he was a psychopath, too, with all the typical traits of cruelty and indifference that characterize psychopaths. But, unlike Mussolini, there were evident problems with Hitler's brain, especially during the last years of his rule. He had clear symptoms of Parkinson's, and he was subjected to fits of rage that rapidly went out of control. He regularly consumed methamphetamine, barbiturates, opiates, and cocaine, as well as potassium bromide and Atropa belladonna. His symptoms worsened after the assassination attempt against him in 1944. 

I already wrote about how dictatorships are born. What is surprising in this story is not so much that there exist people who are at the same time stupid and evil, in addition to being mentally unstable. It is not even so surprising that Italy and Germany, two European countries inhabited mostly by normal and decent people, fell into the hands of two of these madmen. In the beginning, they didn't look like madmen: they looked like the right person at the right moment. What is truly weird is that these countries could not get rid of the madman in charge, not even when it became clear that he was a madman. 

You know that Adolf Hitler ruled Germany until he killed himself in 1945. But, already in 1943, it must have been clear to everyone with at least a few neurons in their brain that the war was lost and, worse, there was a madman in charge. But nothing was done. Nothing could be done. 

If you want to get some idea of the situation in Germany during the last year of the war, you may read the book by Florian Huber "Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself." It is a book that tells you of something not normally discussed: what did ordinary Germans think of the situation and how it was that they couldn't free themselves from the evil spell that their own propaganda had generated. To the point that a large, although unknown, number of them committed suicide. Choosing death was the ultimate strategy to avoid facing reality. 

In a sense, it was unavoidable: the Germans had chosen a path that led them exactly where they arrived.  Propaganda is a wondrous machine that feeds on itself: once you start it, there is no way to stop it. It can make some things unspeakable, and if they are unspeakable they cannot be spoken. The story of the "White Rose" is especially tragic: a group of students of the University of Munich who tried to say the things that could not be said. As a result, they were sentenced to death and executed by beheading in 1943. Surprisingly (but perhaps not so surprisingly) the executions didn't seem to generate any outrage with the German public. An even starker evidence of how deeply the Germans were beguiled by their propaganda.

So far, we are not (yet) in the hands of an evil psychopath, but many things seem to be moving in that direction. So, the question of how to get rid of a dictatorship seems to be equivalent to asking how to get rid of propaganda. But the Western propaganda machine, today, is enormously more sophisticated, effective, and pervasive than the German propaganda was at the time of the Nazis. Fortunately, if we speak against the government's truth, we do not face execution by beheading (so far). But we are simply ignored, and if not ignored we are demonized and ridiculed. 

Is there any hope to stop the evil machine? It looks difficult, even impossible. So far, propaganda has been stopped only by the complete collapse of the governments that created it, as it happened in Italy and in Germany. Are there better ways? Maybe. Propaganda has been with us for more than a century: it has changed, it has morphed into different forms. But one thing remains central: propaganda exists because there exists a centralized control of the information flow in society (we call it the "media"). As long as this control exists, propaganda will remain with us, all-powerful as it is. 

But, right now, the Internet has created a gigantic system of information flow that escapes central control -- so far, at least. As long as we can bypass the media we are immune (within limits) from propaganda. Otherwise, the only way to get rid of it is collapse. 

So, what we are seeing is a gigantic struggle for the control of the Internet. Will the center win? Or will it be the periphery? Our future hangs on this question. 

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Sophie Scholl, a member of the "White Rose" group who was sentenced to death and executed in 1943 at 21, for having spoken against the government propaganda of the time. Her story shows how harsh the information war can be. And her example remains a source of inspiration for us.