Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Outside Looking In

How far away do we need to go before we disappear?   How grounded are we in the context of our own viewpoints?  Being stuck in a small space it is easy to forget our special place.  With larger and larger contexts we gain the viewpoints that allow us to understand ourselves better.

Our Dwellings
My house from a couple of hundred meters up

Our eyes are mostly focused on what is only a few meters in front of us.  Very rarely do we look farther away. Most of our lives are spent looking on the plane of the earth's surface.  

Even going up a few hundred meters changes our perspective on where we are.  

It's oddness and rarity challenge our contextual view.

From this viewpoint, it is fairly easy to discern much about what goes on.  Cars on roads, the shape and size of houses, trees positioned for effect, and little tubes sticking up from roofs for heating all give clues to the lives visible here.

Humans have seen views from mountains and hills that gave them this perspective for millennia.  Our cultures developed allowing us to see this view of ourselves.

Our minds can easily make this context shift as it remains within our daily understanding of our existence.

Our Communities

Moving upward to a thousand meters gives us a broader perspective on human existence.  The context of our lives becomes more apparent.  We can see the places where we work and play.  

My town from a couple kilometers up
The infrastructure that supports our lives, the highways we travel upon, the shopping centers we accumulate from, and the parks we play in are easily understood.

Our individuality begins to disappear at this level.  The community that was here before us and will be after us begins to become dominate.  

While we can see the structure our lives exist in, our self identity is merged into thousands of others.  Persons become peoples.

It is easy to pick out the markers around us that give us our identity at this elevation.  The groups of people we classify ourselves with can be determined.  My neighborhood, their neighborhood, that 'other' neighborhood can be divided in our brains.  

This perspective of human lives became possible with development of balloons.  We have had this view of ourselves for only a few generations, a couple of lifespans at most.

Our Areas

Going farther upward we begin to lose sight of lives as individuals at all.  Our communities are still apparent, but hard to tell apart.  

My  area from a dozen of kilometers up
Our eyes are attracted to the changes in color and straight lines. Roads allow us to differentiate between things, even our governmental structures are still apparent looking down from here.

Where our food is grown, where our water comes from, and the transportation network we use to move our goods about show us how our society is organized.

Those things we identify with closely are hard to delimit.  Which high school sports team we root for, our daily commutes, even the places we were born or go after death are merged until we can not perceive them at all.

Viewing our areas of habitation from this altitude began with airplanes.  My grandparents knew a time when such a perspective was a new idea.

My region from around 20 kilometers up
Our Regions

Going higher yet, our communities disappear, merging into a blur of geographic features. 

With some attention to detail we can still tell that organized beings exist in these places.  Large plantings by farmers, dams on rivers, even bigger towns can be noted.

It would be easy to deduce that life and even intelligent life existed on the surface far below.  The effects of their actions can be determined;  the level of technological progress even estimated.

Looking down upon a region became possible with the Space Race.  When I was a child, mankind first became able to envision an entire region in a single glance.

Europe from 50 kilometers up
Our Nations

Moving farther up again national borders vanish.  Our training from maps may allow us to pick out where one nation begins and another ends, but to an alien visitor, these divisions of land would not exist.

It is still possible to make out that intelligent beings thrive on the surface of this planet, farming, pollution, and other large scale environmental effects of humans can be made out.

Europe at night
A technological civilization is clear in the light spectrum during night time still.

Concentrations of energy use show how the beings on the planet gather in centers and along coast lines.  

A visitor could figure out that  these beings use water and land both.  

Some kind of organizational structure must exist for the creatures inhabiting this place in order for such massive use of energy.  

Before we even reach a hundred kilometers in the sky, our nation states disappear from view.

Our planet by day and night

Our Planet

When we move up far enough to take in the whole planet, it is still possible to see that our human species exists.  The lights of civilization burn bright in some spectra at night.

Individuals, communities, cities, and nations all fuse together.  Any sense of identity beyond 'humanity' has no real meaning from this distance.

The weather patterns of the globe are much more dominate visually.  Vast expanses of mountain, desert and ocean divide the planet's surface.

The first images of the entire planet came to us in startling rush.  As the Apollo astronauts rocketed towards the moon, a large chunk of the humanity watched these initial views of our shared globe on their televisions together.

Earth and moon in a single image
Our Earth/Moon

As space craft move away from earth and moon to distant planets in the solar system, we saw images giving us a context of our largest familiar identity.

Land masses, oceans and feint weather patterns are all that can be seen.  

The lights of our cities fade from view at this distance.  It is no longer possible to tell if intelligent life exists on the little balls floating in space.

Individuals and nations seem to have no meaning from this height.  The most important things in our daily lives do not register even faintly.

Earth seen from Saturn
Our Solar System

As the Cassini spacecraft orbits Saturn, we see the earth and moon as a single, remote dot.

The very existence of the planet comes to our awareness only if we observe keenly.

If we were to listen to the radio waves, only faint traces of human activity can be heard.  

At this height, all that we ever were and all that we are barely registers in the universe.

Voyager Beyond

Our most remote spacecraft is Voyager 1, launched in the late 1970's. It sent this image of earth from the very edge of the solar system.  

From six billion kilometers away, the earth is not even visible anymore.  Two magnifications are embedded into the photograph.  One is of the region of Venus.  The other is of the region of earth.  Neither planet is visible even when zoomed into to the highest amount possible.

Our light giving and life sustaining star, the sun, appears tiny, its features indistinguishable.

Unique, Special and Valuable

As far as we know, there is no other intelligent life in the universe.  Even if there are beings who are like us, such beings are very, very rare.

"Up there in the immensity of the Cosmos, an inescapable perception awaits us. National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic, religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars." --Carl Sagan
The struggles in our lives seem so puny and insignificant in the context of just our own solar system.  Our focus on toys, teams, treats, tests, and those other things we occupy our minds with are truly trivial.

I often close my eyes and try to imagine this greater context.  Stepping up and away from that which is immediately visible allows a sense of humility to fill me.  The awesome uniqueness of my existence makes it more precious than I am able to imagine.  My frustrations and even my joys dissipate at the wonder of it all.

Monday, March 25, 2013

I Got My Freedom, Bugger Off!

We claim to believe in ideals that transcend nations.  Freedom, equality, liberty, kindness, and cleanliness are values we hold dear. 

There are many details that divide us.  The proper role of government, the degree to which freedom should be allowed, and the amount of kindness our relationships require are all values up for debate.

The core values remain.  We speak of them with pride.  We claim to be willing to defend them with our actions and even our lives.

Ideals Un-extended

Yet, we exclude those who are not in our nation states from these very values.  We do not act as if we believe that all humans, in all places deserve these ideals. 

Where are our values here?
When a crazed shooter kills our children in a school we react with shock and horror.  When our drones kill as many children in a foreign land we look the other way.

We hold elections and expect them to be fair and open.  When those in other lands elections are corrupted and the will of the people there subverted we look the other way.

Before the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, millions died around the world in a struggle against tyranny.  Most of us thought we should not get involved in their conflict and passed Neutrality Acts believing that isolationism was good for us.  Largely Republican, conservatives claimed we should take care of our own and let the others die or live of their own doing.  As late as March of 1941, we made illegal the selling of arms to the British.

What obligation do we have here?
Over a billion human beings live in poverty and destitution around the world.  Lacking food, water, sanitation, clothing, shelter and education, they have no chance at obtaining the freedoms we find so precious.  The modern industrial democracies do little to aid them unless ‘national interests’ are threatened.

The evidence is clear, we at best pay lip-service for extending our ideals beyond our own national borders. Not just the United States, but virtually all modern nation states.  The world of the haves looks away from the have-nots.  

That others do not have freedom, equality, liberty, kindness and cleanliness is not our problem. Our deeds tell the world "I got my freedom. Bugger off."

Spare No Cost

In our ‘War on Terror’ we have invaded other countries, sent out assassination squads, tortured human beings and engaged in other inhumane acts in order to defend our freedoms.  As George W. Bush said in his 2002 State of the Union address, “We are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom.” He continued “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.

We have succeeded in defeating al Qaeda.  No repeat attacks have occurred on our soil.  The mafia like organization that attacked us essentially exists no more.  

Our tactics and methods have taken over 10 years and cost over a $1,400,000,000,000 ($1.4 trillion) dollars to achieve this end.  We have spared no cost in finding and stopping the people who brutally killed a few thousand citizens.

Of course we should have found and brought those who did such heinous acts to justice.  That is clearly a necessary course of action.  

Safety and justice require we find and hold accountable those who commit acts of great evil.  Often evil acts are required in order to overcome other, greater evils.

In the same time frame, we have spent less than $150,000,000,000 ($150 billion) on all our foreign aid, military and economic, to all other needs in the world.  If you subtract the economic aid to Afghanistan and Iraq where the damage of war and nation building are occurring based on our War on Terror, only $112,000,000,000 ($112 billion) was spent.


Suggesting that we only invest in our own security flies in the face of our stated ideals.  We become more secure as other nations prosper.  Spreading our ideals is the best defense against aggression. 

Seeking what we have
If Latin America had more freedom, less corruption, more liberty, and the other things we cherish, we would not have an immigration problem.  Only because there is such a huge imbalance in the values we hold so precious is the United States worth moving to illegally. 

The United States is not the only country that has an immigration problem.  Europe and other developed nations also experience this migration rush from lands where freedoms are not allowed to lands where they are precious.

Many are advocating that we cannot afford to help others now.  Claiming we are borrowing on our future, they wish to cut what little aid we do provide.  This is a short sighted view of our own best interest. 

By not engaging in spreading our values to the world we risk our future more.  The consequences of not making investments that spread our values are dire.  Without our assistance less free cultures will allow things we do not want to thrive and grow.  Hate, lack of opportunity, dependence, and restrictions flourish in places where we do not engage.

Afghanistan is an example where lack of engagement led to disaster. After the Soviet Union withdrew, the land spiraled into lawlessness.  The freedoms we love disappeared.  A drug trade prospered.  Warlords and corrupt men ruled the land.  Our lack of involvement led to calamitous results for the United States.  Had we kept trying to spread our values in a peaceful manner we may have avoided all the evils that came about.  
The cost of doing nothing is always higher than the cost of spreading our values.

Putting our Money Where Our Mouth Is

If we truly believe in our freedoms and ideals, we should be helping the rest of humanity to achieve them.

There are many non-violent means of spreading our values.  Teaching people to read, job skills, and hygiene seem great places to start.  Helping to build infrastructure like roads, wells, and power stations seems positive also.

As we debate where to cut spending in this time of economic contraction, spreading our values is one place we cannot cut.

The developed nations of the planet have a moral obligation to do more.  It is not sufficient to think we are safe because we have these values.

To turn away is hypocritical.  To suggest that only the wealthy deserve freedom, equality, liberty, kindness, and cleanliness is to live a lie.  

It is in our own best interest to help lift all humans into those things we claim to hold dear.

Note: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights might be a good place to start.  It was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 as a result of the world's experiences from the Second World War.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Light & Learning Limit Liberty

Do you believe in liberty and free will?  Perhaps you think everything is pre-determined to a plan?  Maybe you think there is a mixture of the two?  No matter your views, we have limits to our actions, chosen or fated.  If we CAN choose, then liberty demands we choose well.

One way to think about time is as a line.  We are on a point on the line in the time we call Now.

Our now is constantly moving toward the Future and away from the Past.  This kind of describes our everyday of experience of time.

The distance between things is space.

We can collapse space into a map of east/west and north/south and put it on the time line as our shared experience of Space Now.

With this imagined view, space looks like a map moving through time.

Some argue that the future and past are is fixed and we move from the past into the future with no choices.

A determined existence suggests that time and free will are but illusions experienced as we move down the line of time.


Many accept that there is free will; that we have some ability to make choices.  We can say we have the liberty of our choices.

Free will means that of all the possible pasts, our choices collapsed into the now that we have.

 A cone is used to represent our collective choices that bring us to this moment.

Each choice made by each individual limits the possible now we can experience.

Once the now moves on from the past, we are unable to go back and change it.

Our experience past is gone.  The choices that collapsed into the now are no longer available to us.

Free will also implies we have a range of possible futures.

Each choice we make in the now limits the possibilities of the future.

This would make the free will time line and its possibilities look more like two cones, one of past and one of future, connected to the now.

Our past collapses into the now limiting the potential of our futures.

Light Limits Liberty

Nothing has ever been detected that moves faster than the speed of light.

The best we know the speed of light places hard and fast limits on what we can do.  

Light speed places a plausible limit onto the future we can choose.

There are still choices we can make that take us to the limits of the possible, but they may not lead to the future we prefer.

When we fail to make choices about our actions in the now, we limit ourselves as if there is no choice at all.   Without choices being made in the now, the future is limited to the probable.

Setting goals, imagining possible futures, and acting in the now, we can move from the probable to the preferable.

This is harder to do and often takes repeated changes as there is a tendency to return to the probable rather than the preferable.

Knowledge Limits Liberty

Our knowledge also places a plausible limit on what we can become.  The more we as a species know, the great the range of opportunities we have for our future.

When we decide not to learn, we decide to limit our possible futures.

Each choice we make limits what is learn-able by us as individuals and as a group.

There are something’s we will never know.  Our brains are small and the universe so large.

Choose Learning

The choices made by our ancestors have brought us to where we are now.

If we believe in liberty, then there is an awesome responsibility on our shoulders.

The more we learn, the greater our potential futures can be.

When we fail to learn, we limit our children’s possibilities.   We even limit all future generation’s possibilities.

There are some potential futures we can already never realize.

Within our ability we should stretch for the edges of the possible to find a preferable future for our species.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Is the US Becoming Despotic?

"Avoid the comfortable idea that the mere form of government can of itself safeguard a nation against despotism." ~ Harold Laswell, PHD of Yale University in 1946

Democracy and Despotism

At the end of World War II, Encyclopedia Britannica's film division produced a film exploring how societies and nations rank on the spectrum from democracy to despotism.

Having fought such a violent struggle against fascism, there was much thought given to what had happened and how it might be avoided in future.

Reflecting upon their experience, the warning signs of despotism were noted:

  1. Concentration of power into a few hands
  2. Fewer people considered worthy of respect

These cautions operate in our current era.  They also suggest we should keep power divided and respect other's right to hold different viewpoints.

Concentration of Government Power

We have divided government today.  The supreme court and congress are not concentrations of power at this time.
Divided power

The supreme court is often divided in its decisions with none getting their way all the time.  Most decisions are split and few unanimous. Debate and dissension seems standard operating procedure.

Congress is divided between the left and right; the Senate is Democrat controlled and the House Republican.  Divisions within parties even constantly struggle to gain tactical advantage.  A push and pull between competing ideas is a daily battle which unfolds before us.

Many individual states trend toward one ideology or another.  Many other states have divided ideologies.  There is no clear concentration of political power across the states, although a few states may not be divided.

Distribution of U.S. wealth
Concentration of Economic Power

There appear to be business, individuals or other interests that have concentrated power.

Economic power has become very concentrated.  Fewer and fewer people control the wealth of the land.  This slanting of the distribution of wealth allows hidden political power to accumulate.  While voting may continue, the laws are drafted by those with money to influence more often than the those who represent the electorate.

Over the past 50 years, economic power has become concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.

A strong middle class would be a good counter balance to coalescing economic interests.  Taxes, law and purchasing power can be used to counter balance those whose economic interests attempt to control the people.

The idea that only a few of us should have earned the wealth of the land is warning sign that despots could be near.  I do think there is some secret plot, rather fear a trend that puts our democracy at risk.

I am also not advocating socialism as a solution.  An equal playing field for all citizens to compete fairly will allow wealth and incomes to remain unconcentrated.  Capitalism must be regulated, greed should not be the means for political power.

Worthy of Respect

In the arena of respect however, our society may be at a higher risk of becoming despotic.  People of strong views are often not listening to one another.  We tend to group together in insulated bubbles of ideology.

With many options in media, people flock to political identity groups.  In doing so, we have begun to regularly disrespect one another.

Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh would be examples of voices that frequently show disdain for their opponents on the right.  How they speak to others illustrates incivility.  Using disdain,  interruption, and ridicule as tactics; their lack of esteem for others as human beings is easily heard.

On the left we have examples in Steven Colbert and Huffington Post.  Frequent coarseness, flippancy, and impiety are used to present their political opponents as being less than human.  Often cloaked in humor, the negative impacts can be devastating to persons rather than ideas.

Of course all humans are within their rights to be biased.  It is not the bias that leads to despotism.  It is the lack of respect for others that can do so.

Casting political stones
Mental Violence

While it may be fun to use Ad Hominem (to the person) attacks, they are dangerous when they become the standard means of communicating with each other.

Ridicule, dismissal, disdain, interruption, rudeness, and impoliteness are not tactics that mature, reasoned adults should use in discourse.  Verbal abuse is a form of mental violence.  Allowing constant and frequent verbal abuse leads to devaluing human beings.

Despots thrive in an environment of hate.

What Not To Do

One should not question the moral character of a person who disagrees with us.  Actions  and opinions can be found immoral by one or many of us.  Holding an idea by itself is not immoral.  It is our duty to help others become moral, not dismiss or persecute them as unworthy of morality.  

When a person's circumstances are used to define their views by others, it is a sign of lack of respect. Saying "They only passed that law to gain votes" or "only the uneducated listen to that idea" are disrespectful means of attacking a person rather than an idea.

Guilt by association is another frequent way of disrespecting other people.  This fallacy says "This person thinks a thing and another person we all know is evil thinks the same thing, therefore they both must be evil."  These arguments devalue the person rather than the idea.

Disagreement is Normal

No one has perfect morality, circumstance or association.  We all fail at somethings.  People who claim perfection are acting dishonestly.

Every man is a sinner
When we are all made to agree with one opinion, we risk despotism.  Disagreement is healthy for all of us to learn better ways of thinking and being.  Dissent is healthy and required for a democracy to thrive.

Divided political power is a strength of democracy.  Dictators can not control divided power.  Kings do not prosper when people contend for different views.  It may not be a pretty form of government, it is the best we have found so far.

Divided economic power is also a strength that keeps away despotism.  A strong, vibrant middle class is necessary in order to not allow one or a few to control the land and its laws.

Ridiculing people rather than ideas demeans us all.  Disagree, debate, and vote.
Do not demean people for their ideas, good or bad.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

War on Death

Declaring a ‘War on Death’ may be more productive than declaring a war on taxes.  It may even be technologically possible.  Why then don’t we declare a war on death?

In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote:

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in the world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” 

Death and taxes
He wrote this letter in French to his friend within a few weeks after the founding structural document had been adopted.

In recent times, many have spoken out that we need to reduce taxes.  Some, like Grover Norquist, have even declared an informal ‘war on taxes’.  The basic idea is to reduce the percentage of taxes paid by citizens.

What if, instead of taxes, we declared a “war on death”?

The battlefield of such a war would be to push the length of productive life for humans to as long as we can make it.  Not just healthy habits to live longer, but technologies to extend life-spans dramatically.

Why We Struggle

Assume for a moment that it is technologically feasible to double the length of a person’s life.  What would be the result?

Longer lives give each person more time.  More time to learn, more time to work and more time to play. 

Longer childhoods
With longer time to learn we could become smarter and wiser before we begin to impact society.  Extending childhood by ten years or more would give parents more time to build character and values into their children.  Education could be extended to cover more information allowing a better educated electorate.

With longer time to work, each life would be more productive.   As time goes by, people become better at their vocations, so skills would have more time to be practiced and used.  A longer working life would also allow more time to save for retirement and old age, reducing individual’s burdens upon society.

With longer time to play, the quality of our lives could be increased.  Investing effort into our families, communities and culture could improve the quality of our lives.

Progress So Far

As fantastic as the idea may seem, we have already more than doubled the average life-span in developed countries. 

In medieval Britain, the average length of life was about 30 years.  By the 1600’s the average age of death had been pushed up to 35 years.  By the 1900, the average jumped to over 50 years.  Now it is typical to live until our mid-70s.

Much of the historical improvement in length of life has been due to nutrition, hygiene, and reduced infant mortality.  Science and cultural practice worked together to allow doubling of years lived.

Assuming one made it through childhood, had healthy habits, and disease or dangerous conditions did not kill a person early, the maximum length of life has stayed fairly stable. 

Our progress so far has been about eliminating the causes of death rather than extending the length of life.

Cells degrade
Technology and Habit

To achieve long life-spans, we need to make progress on the causes of aging.  We would have to increase the longevity of each individual to make new gains in life-span.

If we view our bodies as a process, we can work on extending the functioning of the components that make the process work.

Aging and eventual death are caused by accumulative changes to the complex molecules and cells that we are made of.  Several factors contribute to aging and death. 

Most cells only divide about 50 times before toxins, irradiation, and errors break down DNA so it is no longer viable. 

Some plants and animals have genetic repair capabilities that could be researched in order to build technologies in order to overcome DNA breakdown.  Learning how the regenerative capacity of these creatures work would be one place to start looking.

There are other technologies that could be developed to extend life-spans. 

Current sources of
pluripotent stem cells
Pluripotent stem cells can be induced to become other types of cells.  Although previously controversial because of embryonic stem cells, it is now possible to induce adult skin cells to become other cells.   We may soon be able to use our own cells as building blocks.

Researchers have recently discovered technology that allows a mouse skin cell to become a brain cell.  Extending these tools could allow us to grow our own, custom built replacement parts.

Each individual would have to improve their own habits in order to minimize cell and DNA damage.  Bad practices already can lead to shortened lives. 

We could choose as a society to institute cultural institutions that would promote better behavior.  Parents, teachers, churches and other influencers could help instill the virtues of healthy habits.

Dangers Overcome

With current birth rates, more people would place more demand on resources.   We may have to adjust our rates of consumption or improve our technologies in order to not deplete some limited resources.

With more time and education, we may be able to overcome these kinds of challenges.  With more at stake in a longer future, individuals could be motivated to be more prudent in their choices and habits.

If a revolutionary technology were to appear that suddenly and drastically increased life-spans, there would be social upheaval to deal with.

Those unable to afford the technology could become quite jealous.  Those who control the technology could become quite powerful.

I will not pretend that the consequences of life extending technologies will not present difficult challenges.  However to turn away from the technology because of the challenges seems a foolish reason not to try.  As a parent, I find it a moral imperative to give my children the opportunity for long, healthy productive lives.

Cost Benefit

Each year the U.S. economy is about $15,800,000,000,000 (almost $16 trillion).  This only represents about a quarter of the world’s economic output in a given year.

Even if it costs $16 trillion to develop and roll out a technology that would double life-spans, the payoff in productivity would greatly outweigh the costs. 

On average each person works over 30 years of their life now,  doubling working time to 60 years of productivity is one payoff. 

The labor return on capital investment for such a technology could be as high as 3000% on the one year investment. 

Even taking the ultra-conservative approach that the benefit would cover the costs is still a wise move.  Who would not want to live twice as long if the costs to do so were covered?

The extra years of labor a person could have are added on to the end of their current careers meaning their expertise would be greater.  The payoff to society for each person who gains a doubling of lifespan would be more than a quantity of dollars, but also be a qualitative improvement in labor.

With life expectancy in the mid-70’s a person is employed over 90,000 hours in their lives.   Even improving this number by half would be an enormous gain in professional output.

Who Should Fund it?

Like with the Atom Bomb, life extending technology would have to be controlled by society to ensure power was not concentrated in the hands of the few. 

If at some future time a private institution were to fund and discover technologies that dramatically expand life, they would be in a position of vast power.  With current patent law, this could upset cultural and societal structures beyond repair. 

Currently, no institution but government has the capability to focus and fund such large scale research. 

Allowing government funding could make the research publicly available and keep the power of such technologies focused on the whole of society rather than just a few people.

Baby's future in the balance
The nation that achieves this technology first will be at great advantage to those nations that do not have it.  The first mover advantage of longer life-spans could be enormous. For this reason, peaceful nations may even want to share the burden of costs and the benefits of discovery.

The research would not have to be funded all at once.  Given the potential outcome, even some public debt would be warranted as payoffs could easily overcome its risks and costs.

Even if the effort were to fail, the knowledge that it is not possible to future generations would be a boon.  Knowing that a war on death is not winnable is information that can effect how future generations would live our lives.

How long can we delay?
Dream On

It is easy to dismiss such ideas “out of hand”. 

Some will think their religious doctrines threatened.  Others will doubt it is even possible.

It seems reasonable that Aristotle, Isaac Newton, or even Madam Curie would have seen the idea of putting a man on the moon as fanciful science fiction. 

Consider for a moment the alternative.  If we could make life longer and do not, are we not acting immorally to future generations?

Perhaps extending life-spans is fanciful. 

We must however ask ourselves; what if it is not?  What if it could be?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Prioritizing Freedoms

Illusion of Freedom

Are we free?  Can we be free?  Is freedom a given?  Or perhaps freedom is only an illusion?  Can any freedom not come at a cost to another?

One view of freedom
High above a police drone flies, camera pointing down upon a young couple as they skinny dip in a secluded park.

Buying a pack of cigarettes at the local gas station, purchase data is analyzed for poor health choices and insurance coverage denied.

Attending the start of school, a child’s hand is placed on heart and pledge recited while peers and teacher watch, ensuring compliance to accepted behavior.

Pushing a broom on Saturday, the Jewish laborer knows there will be no future employment for him if he does not.

Another view of freedom
Blowing his nose, the old man wishes he was free from the pain of allergy.

We use the word “freedom” frequently in our culture to mean that we are able to act on our will.  Our expectation of deeds without restraint leads us to believe we are at liberty to live our lives.

The reality is we are only free in part.  Actions have consequence.  Freedoms are not equal. 

Each thinking person finds their own view of how to live their lives.  Each living person is driven by causes beyond their control.  Freedom is a goal that may never be fully reached by all people, all the time.

Assumed Freedom

Our culture assumes we have some degree of free action.  Custom holds us responsible for deciding what we do.  Fate and destiny are assumed to be generated, at least in part, by each person.

We expect economic freedom to make contracts, buy and sell, and keep the money we earn.

We desire the freedom to worship or not as we choose.

We want to move freely about without interference.

We expect privacy in our persons and homes.

We demand freedom from harm; to protect ourselves, loved ones, and property.

We aspire to freely choose government and laws it creates and enforces.

We wish to make free choices for ourselves so long as no one else is hurt.

We insist upon speaking freely, to express our views, and join the public debate.

In all these cases, the independence of action, the ability to express our individual will is taken for granted.

Freedoms Conflict

Freedom during war is different
Each freedom does not exist alone.  They are co-dependent and conflict with each other.  The price of one freedom is often the limit upon another.

Our desire for protection causes us to desire police.  Giving police the tools they need to protect us limits our freedom of movement, our freedom of choice, and cost part of our economic freedom.

Our desire for pleasure has consequences on others. Smoking, gambling or drinking have a cost in resources beyond our own persons.  We limit our movement and privacy to ensure our pleasures do not harm others.

Our desire for lawful governance costs money taking away our economic freedom.  We give up our free movement to ensure regulated transport.  Our desire for protection from government means giving up privacy.  We limit our choices in order to allow the whole to prosper.

Our desire for freedom of speech allows bad ideas to be aired.  People with foolish thought or hostile intent can harm us all.  We limit our speech when it causes the society to suffer. 

Freedom in the Balance

Our balances of freedoms are the result of choices we make as a society.

We prioritize one freedom over another. 

Freedom during peace is different
Screaming “FIRE” in a crowded theater when there is none is forbidden.  Such speech is prohibited so that fear does not cause a stampede of injury.  Freedom of speech is sometimes limited for freedom of protection.

Unwarranted searches of our homes are not allowed so that we can maintain the privacy of our lives.  We sometimes value freedom of privacy more than freedom of security.

Not paying transportation tax is prohibited so that we can move more freely.  Moving about freely has a cost we sometimes value more than economic freedom.

We choose freedoms differently with circumstance. 

At one time we thought limiting the vice of alcohol was necessary for other freedoms to endure. 

Feeling our security was threatened in time of war, we limited economic freedom so that money and material could be directed to the soldiers and battles.

Freedom Struggles

Any one freedom can trump the others.  Each of us has a different view of how we prioritize freedom at any time.  When enough of us want one freedom to override another we can collectively make it so. 

Struggling to define the next freedom balance
The balance between freedoms is under constant change.  First one type of freedom will dominate then another.  Later a different freedom will become more important to us.  War, disaster, or even our dreams of the future change our perspectives and thereby our priorities of freedom.

At no time will freedoms be equal.  Trade-offs are searched for in each time and place. 
We use our politics and government to move the balance between freedoms.

Freedom is not an absolute.  Freedom is a balance between competing desires and needs.

Next time you say you are “free”, stop and consider what you mean by it.  Is “free” what you meant before?  Is “free” what you will mean again?  What new balance of “free” are you willing to make?

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Humans Scaling the Universe

We exist on the tip-point of the large and small.  

There seems to be a limit to how big or tiny life can be.  

We can only exist at a special scale where the universe interacts with itself.  

Life happens in the narrow band between the extremes of galactic super-structures and Planckian indeterminacy.

We can only impact the universe in scales near to our own.

It leaves one with awe to consider we exist in the special range where reality comes to know itself.

From Huge

The biggest organization of matter and energy we know of are galactic super-structures.

Galactic super structures as detected and described
Formed by a newly discovered, but not understood “dark energy”, these collections of galaxies are at 3,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles long (21 zeros) and 90,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles thick (19 zeros).

At this largest known scale, the galaxies appear grouped together like the skin of soap bubbles in the kitchen sink. 

Great voids of cold, empty darkness fill space between films of galaxies.  These voids are not truly empty, rather sparse compared to the concentration of galactic bubble skins.

There may be larger structures than these; we are still in the process of discovery. 

There are physical limits to how far we will be able to sense because of the speed of light.  We may never be able know the true formation beyond a certain scale.

Two imaginings of  Planck Scale quantum foam

To Tiny

The smallest organization of matter and energy we know is at the Planck Length.

Sometimes called space-time foam, the Planck length is where energy and matter can be no smaller.

The rules we know through math suggest the Planck Length is the very fabric of reality.

Only 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000636 inches across (34 zeros), these size scales are so small we can not even measure its existence, rather only guess using formula.

Here matter and energy also vibrate in a foamy like way.  

Some suggest that this is the scale were bits of matter and energy form.  Others speculate the universe vibrates at this level giving rise to matter and energy. 

There may be smaller structures than the Planck Length.

Beyond Planck scales, reality as we know it makes no sense.  It appears as if the essence of reality itself is bubbling in and out of existence at this tiniest of scales.

Humans in the
middle of scale
The Great In-between

Almost exactly in the middle of the scale, life exist. 

Larger structures are too separated by space to have enough effect on each other to develop complex systems like life.

Smaller structures are also too separated to be able to have the intricacy needed in order for life to exist.

Only from the largest of whales to tiniest of microbes does there exists enough interaction of matter and energy for life to form.

A hundred pennies

Measuring Scale by Hundreds

Before we can understand how is big and how small is small, lets review some simple math.

Think about a hundred pennies.  

A hundred pennies is something most people count at one time or another.  A hundred is number we know. 
Scaling in hundreds

Using units of one hundred is something our minds can grasp.  We can see a hundred items and have a sense of just how many that is.

Going from one to a hundred pennies is the same scale as going from a hundred to ten thousand pennies ($100).  

Going from ten thousand to a million pennies ($10,000) is another simple jump in scale.

The same kind of scaling works in the opposite direction.  Imagining a hundredth of a meter is not so hard to visualize.  

Imagining another step down to ten thousands of a meter is a similar leap of mind.

We will use this scale of 100’s to help us understand our scale in the universe.

Each of the dotted lines will represents a jump in a hundred times of size. Going to the left we get bigger, going to the right we get smaller.

Our Place

The scale between a human and a pyramid is similar to a mosquito to a human.  These jumps of up one hundred and down one hundred can be used as a reference point for how big each leap we will make.

Going Big

As we go up the scale, a mountain is to a pyramid as a pyramid is to a human.  Each dotted line represents a hundred times bigger.

Going up from human to moon, from moon to the solar system and beyond, we can begin to understand the enormity of it all.

The planets and stars interact with one another.  They are too far apart to form life in any way that we could understand.  

The forces are so far apart and the time taken to interact so long that highly complex structures simply can not form.

As long as humans only used their eyes, they could not even know how the solar system was formed.  Only when they began to use telescopes did it shape start to be understood.

With larger and more powerful telescopes like the Hubble and others we have begun to probe far beyond what we knew before. 

Amazing structures that slowly form and fade at large scale surprise us and inform us.  Several different measurements indicate that the largest structures have taken about 16,000,000,000 (9 zeros) years to form.

Going Small

 As we go down the scale, a hair width is to a mosquito as a mosquito is to a human.  Each dotted line represents a hundred times smaller.

Going down from human to DNA, life exists on four steps on our scale.  DNA is .000000001 (seven zeros) smaller than us.

Beyond this point, the universe again becomes sparse.  

The matter and energy that make up atoms are so far apart that their interactions do not permit complex things like life to form.

The smallest thing we can see is about the diameter of a hair.  Beyond that scale our naked eyes fail to discern.

With microscopes we began to see the smaller.  Moving from light to electrons we seek to understand the tiniest of things. 

Even these tools have limits to how small we can see.  Indirect evidence and experiment lead us to theories about what actually is below smaller scales.

Human Scaling

As recently as 1900, humankind only interacted with scales between mountains and hairs.  Things a thousand times bigger or smaller than us were only imagined or indirectly sensed.

Atom bombs and atoms moved
Einstein, Goddard, and Crick invented ideas and tools that extended our knowledge to the larger and the smaller. By 1970 humans had reached the moon and begun to understand the structure of DNA.

Our tools have only recently in human history had the ability to move mountains.  With the advent of the atom bomb, we have just now been able to effect reality on the 10,000 scale.

Our tools have only just allowed us to move individual atoms around.  We now manipulate DNA and other small molecules regularly.

Tools that change the universe on larger scales require enormous energy, often out of control. There may be limits to how much energy we can control.

Tools that change the universe on smaller scales require precise control and much less energy.  There may be limits on how accurate we can be.

Comparing Scales

If we think about the scaling of things in the universe, it helps to understand the enormity and tininess of it all:

Galaxies are to stars as stars are to earth.
The moon is to a mountain as a mountain is to an human.
A human is to a hair as a cell is to DNA.
Cells are to atoms as atoms are to electrons.

At each scale, different structures, different organizations of the universe exist.  The relationships between the scales give rise to the structure itself.   The largest galactic cluster is composed of reality on the Planck level.

Limits of Scale

Perhaps someday in the not too distant future, humans will move regularly through our solar system.  It does not seem impossible that we may even manipulate the parts of the atom.

There do appear to be physical limits in both directions, large and small, that will slow down our understanding and our impact on the universe.

It is wonderful to live in times of great discovery.  It may be tragic to not have lived after them.  

Note: If you want to explore the scale of humans to the universe, there is a wonderful online program developed by Cary and Michael Huang.  This tool allows you zoom in and out at different scales, seeing graphically the relationships between Planck length and observable universe.  I encourage you to spend time with this tool and learn just where humans fit in the scale of the universe.