The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bridging Two Worlds

An excellent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review by Matt Mabe, a U.S. officer with two tours of duty in Iraq who went on to Columbia for grad school. The choice can seem strange but for Mabe 'journalism, like the military, isn’t just a profession; it’s a lifestyle and an invaluable American institution from which we derive our most cherished freedoms.' It makes for some bittersweet reading as he describes the incomprehension and disrespect for one another between the military on one hand and media and university professionals on the other.

He seems to have, in a small way, reconciled these two clashing worlds and determined to serve as a link between. Pen and sword, it seems, can meet, although, if you read till the end, you'll see how the latter won out in Mabe's case. Well worth reading.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Neurology > Philosophy

V.S. Ramachandran talks on Charlie Rose for half an hour. Watch it here.

Man vs. animals, the origins of empathy, cultural transmission vs. biological evolution (humans change/learn with each generation at lightning pace, evolution takes millions of years), the nature of consciousness (why does the color red look as it does?)... It seems no existential or philosophical question escapes Ramachandran's grasp.

And in the face of the armies of scientists today - with their case studies, experiments, brain scanners, drugs and the vast, growing body of knowledge they draw upon - it strikes me that philosophers never stood a chance.

Not that neurologists or other scientists have made all that much progress yet on the big questions, but when Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Descartes or as recent as Freud and Betrand Russell pondered the human mind and existence, they never seemed to get much further than little mind games. Shadows in a cave, a demon in my head, a barber who shaves everyone in the town except men who shave themselves ('does not compute!') and, last but not least, really it all boils down to 6 year-old you wanting to bang your mom...

I can't help but think it was about as futile as camp-lit tribesmen speculating on the nature of the spheres and dots of light scattered across their night sky.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Thirty-Four Years After South Vietnam...

...'America's abandonment of the moon'!

It's the moon! The moon I tell you!

For all my sympathy for exotic scientific endeavours (see my previous posts on 'Prometheus'), I think we can be a good deal less shrill about these things. But you have to love ol' KH's raw inhumanity:
So what, you say [to the abandonment of the Space Shuttle program]? Don't we have problems here on Earth? Oh, please. Poverty and disease and social ills will always be with us. If we'd waited for them to be rectified before venturing out, we'd still be living in caves.
Well I might point out two things:
1) If people spent lots of money in the past on exploration by land and sea, it is because they expected some kind of return (typically in the form of trade, land or booty). There is no foreseeable reason for space to ever be profitable given current technology. That might change in the future. And I guarantee you, as soon as soon as space exploration were to appear as useful an enterprise as that of overland pioneers and oceanic expeditions were in the past, you would see it occur.

2) Actually socially problems can and have been resolved, and at an exponential rate too. In the 19th Century, the average European (inhabitant of the wealthiest continent in the world) could look forward to pauperism, typhus, dysentery, smallpox, illiteracy, infant mortality, rotten teeth and an infinity of other ills, long considered 'incurable'. Well, notwithstanding certain persisting social problems of an altogether lesser magnitude, these issues have basically been eliminated in the wealthier countries. Meanwhile, the 'emerging markets' are beating back their own problems at an historically unheard of rate. Dealing with our own problems is less than futile, it has been working. And I have no apology for being anthropocentric - if human life should have a goal it should be that human lives should be good - that strikes me as a self-evident truth.

And I say this even as I think space exploration, CERN and other sciency stuff are good things. Practically speaking, it is cheaper and more useful to this stuff with robots. A live astronaut brings nothing to the table except the burden of air, food, water, and the fuel and rockets for a return ticket.. That, and the propaganda value that it be the boots of this or that nation leaving treads on extraterrestrial soil. I don't actually think space exploration driven by prestige and international rivalry - Americans, Russians, Chinese or what have you - is necessarily as conducive to genuine scientific progress than pragmatic and, when possible, international projects. One is for the acquisition of new knowledge for human advancement, the other is a pissing match.

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Sunday, July 05, 2009

The New Demographics

The World, 2050

A new study discussed in Le Monde argues that the peoples of the South will age much faster than the already comparably old peoples of the North. This would be primarily due to the spread of sanitary and health technologies at a far faster pace than that experienced in 19th Century Europe, the first region to undergo such a demographic shift. It claims that by 2050, while the world population will increase by a third, the number of over 65s will triple.

The article cites in particular the example of China in which infant mortality dropped from 200 per 1000 to 40 per 1000 over 1950-1990, and it took only 12 years (1974-1986) to halve birth rates. By way of comparison, it took France 150 years to achieve either feat. One might think China is an exception as it is developing rapidly and has a one child policy. But it is a trend occurring gradually across the world including the entire developed world, the post-Communist world and most of East/Southeast Asia.

To counter those inclined to cultural determinism, the CIA claims that several Muslim countries including Algeria, Tunisia and Iran have birth rates of 1.7-1.8, rather less than France's 1.98. Note that France probably (!) has the largest Muslim community in Europe, and it is largely of Algerian descent. It puts a rather awkward twist on the Eurabia thesis when the mother countries of the allegedly relentless hordes of Arab-Muslim immigrants begin having less children than Europeans..

Not all countries have reached the peak of their demographic transition however. Notwithstanding the above, South Asia (and in particular India), Africa and much of the Middle East will continue to grow massively, partly because of longer lifespans and sustained high birth rates. The population of Africa will probably triple in our lifetime. The Middle East, where in many countries people under 25 outnumber the rest, will in all likelihood for that among other reasons suffer from a degree of instability.

What does this mean? Who knows. Historically this is an absolutely unprecedented situation, a product of modern technical civilization. I am not however inclined to think it is an altogether bad thing. We don't need more human beings, especially at our current (and growing) rates of consumption. And we can only laud that the more technically and economically advanced countries of the world - that is those with the greatest latent destructive powers - should have more old people. Nations of pensioners have less money and less inclination to fight one another or revolutionary upheaval than nations teeming with frustrated, unemployed young men.

The study and in depth look at demographics, mostly in French, is available at the INED website. It includes a cool population pyramid predictor application a fascinating little faq which answers questions you've always pondered, like whether the French have most of their babies out of wedlock.