In a Dark, Confusing World: Carl Sagan, 20 Years Gone

20c_carl_saganTen years ago today I wrote a piece about the impact Carl Sagan had on my life, commemorating what was then the tenth anniversary of his death.

Today, obviously, Carl Sagan is 20 years gone, so I’ve dusted off the original piece to see if it still holds up. It does. Every word of it remains true. (Except I might today not talk about being “excited” to live in the world, but, you know, I grow more curmudgeonly and Asperger-y as I age.)

So, to mark two decades of being Carl-less, here’s “Why Paul Was Sad That Day,” written December 20, 2006. I’ll have additional thoughts at the end of the original piece.


*

I don’t remember where I was when I first heard that Carl Sagan had passed away, but I do remember where I was later that night. I was in college, hanging out at my friend’s apartment. A few close friends were there, and I brought up the news item of Dr. Sagan’s death.

“Carl Sagan died today,” I said, sadly.

“Who’s Carl Sagan?” was the reply.

I was totally surprised, because I assumed everyone knew who he was. I didn’t expect that most people had read a bunch of his books, or had seen Cosmos (recently, anyway), but surely he was famous enough to warrant recognition by my friends at least. I mean, Johnny Carson had imitated him! “Billions and billions!” Come on people!

I tried to convey to them why it was so bad that we had lost this important man, and while my friends played along and humored me, I really couldn’t get my message across. I would have to grieve a little more privately. It was too lonely to be openly morose about the death of a man who, to everyone I was with, was no more than some guy that nerds worship for space or something. Maybe now, ten years later, I can have another go at it.

When Cosmos first aired, I was too young to understand any of it, at age three or four. It wasn’t long after, though, maybe only a couple of years, that my dad played me the series, recorded on videotape (on Beta, no less). He knew I was interested in space, but only inasmuch as it was a location where Star Wars took place and the Transformers came from. Would I sit still for a lengthy PBS series on the real thing?

Not only did I love the series as a child, but I would continue to love it as I grew up. Having the entire series on videotape was a tremendous blessing, as I would watch it in its entirety every couple of years for most of my childhood, well into college. In our house, Carl Sagan was a huge celebrity, frequently cited (and imitated). We would be delighted to see him appear on other shows, or be referenced or made fun of by comics. But what was it that was so great about him?

Carl Sagan was a gifted storyteller. Even to a fifth grader, the story of evolution, the birth of the solar system, the building of DNA, or the death of a star were all as fascinating as any fictitious story about monsters or aliens. While these things were no doubt of passing interest to me as long as I can remember, Carl Sagan made them thrilling.

As I got older, and read his books, I realized that he was about more than appreciating how cool outer space was. My appreciation for his work deepened tenfold when I heard his call to rationality. His dismissal of superstition and shortsightedness was influential to me even in the early part of my life, but it was upon reading The Demon-Haunted World that I had a framework to discuss it. I had a means to verbalize and visualize what had always been to me simply an abstraction, wanting to be logical and thoughtful. Carl Sagan shifted, in my mind, from a celebrity to a role model.

With Dr. Sagan, you didn’t need to layer on any supernatural hocus-pocus for the world to inspire and overwhelm. Biology, chemistry, and physics were plenty astounding on their own. And it wasn’t for science’s sake, or even for wonder’s sake. It was for our sake. Sagan knew that to understand our Universe, and to marvel at life on our planet, was to cherish it, and to work to preserve it. And by preserving it, we preserve ourselves. If there’s anything I think Carl Sagan wanted, it was for humans to survive into the millennia, so we can get a fair shot at growing, evolving, and unlocking more of the Universe’s secrets. He essentially wanted us to stay alive, and not to stay put.

the_sounds_of_earth_record_cover_-_gpn-2000-001978I have been a professional actor and musician for many years, and I am now moving into the world of professional politics. I am not, and probably never will be, a scientist. But if Carl Sagan’s goal was to open the wonders of science and the value of reason to non-scientists, I am his poster boy. I think Sagan’s purpose was not necessarily to make scientists, but to sow an appreciation and enthusiasm for the Universe as it actually is. Even though my career and career-to-be are not strictly about the workings of the world at the quantum level, the appreciation for those things that Sagan has fostered in me has made me excited to live in this world and inspired me to understand it and work toward its welfare.

Today, I read the works of folks like Richard Dawkins, Tim Ferris, and Brian Greene, and I devour their words and delight in the struggle to wrap my brain around concepts like branes, supersymmetry, and Bussard collectors. The problem is that I never would have taken the plunge into the world these scientists inhabit if Carl Sagan had not opened the door for me in the first place. I fear that without someone like him today, someone who can ignite the imagination as he could, far too few people will be drawn to science and reason. In a dark, confusing world that seems to be shying further and further away from those very things, I mourn the loss of Carl Sagan anew, on this day, the tenth anniversary of his death. I wish so very much he was still with us, because we need him today more than ever.

And that, my college friends of 1996, is why I was so sad that day.

*


Back to 2016. That last sentiment, that we need Sagan now more than ever, has only become more true. Only yesterday, our Electoral College formalized the election of a man to the presidency who embodies the brazen rejection of everything good Sagan represented. Misinformation is the rule now, not the exception. Conspiracy theory and emotion-fueled irrationality is the coin of the realm. Planetary-level existential threats, the kinds that Sagan would have given all of his energies to working against, are now accelerated.

If there exists an individual or individuals who have the inspirational power that Sagan possessed, I’m not aware of him or her. Many come close. But I’m afraid that they don’t come close enough. I do hope I am wrong.


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Jill Stein’s Shameful Pander on Vaccines and Homeopathy

About a month ago on a Reddit AMA, Dr. Jill Stein, the presumptive Green Party nominee for president, was asked a simple question about her official stance on vaccines and homeopathy.

Stein is, of course, a physician, so the answer, one would think, would be simple. For example, “Vaccines are safe and save lives, and everyone who can get vaccinated against preventable diseases absolutely should. Homeopathy is a sham pseudoscience that doesn’t do anything, wasting people’s money and risking people’s health while having no effect.”

Nope. You see she’s running in the Green Party, and hoping to pick up some of that sweet, sweet Bernie-rage. So here’s her answer:

I don’t know if we have an “official” stance, but I can tell you my personal stance at this point. According to the most recent review of vaccination policies across the globe, mandatory vaccination that doesn’t allow for medical exemptions is practically unheard of. In most countries, people trust their regulatory agencies and have very high rates of vaccination through voluntary programs. In the US, however, regulatory agencies are routinely packed with corporate lobbyists and CEOs. So the foxes are guarding the chicken coop as usual in the US. So who wouldn’t be skeptical? I think dropping vaccinations rates that can and must be fixed in order to get at the vaccination issue: the widespread distrust of the medical-indsutrial complex.

Vaccines in general have made a huge contribution to public health. Reducing or eliminating devastating diseases like small pox and polio. In Canada, where I happen to have some numbers, hundreds of annual death from measles and whooping cough were eliminated after vaccines were introduced. Still, vaccines should be treated like any medical procedure–each one needs to be tested and regulated by parties that do not have a financial interest in them. In an age when industry lobbyists and CEOs are routinely appointed to key regulatory positions through the notorious revolving door, its no wonder many Americans don’t trust the FDA to be an unbiased source of sound advice. A Monsanto lobbyists and CEO like Michael Taylor, former high-ranking DEA official, should not decide what food is safe for you to eat. Same goes for vaccines and pharmaceuticals. We need to take the corporate influence out of government so people will trust our health authorities, and the rest of the government for that matter. End the revolving door. Appoint qualified professionals without a financial interest in the product being regulated. Create public funding of elections to stop the buying of elections by corporations and the super-rich.

For homeopathy, just because something is untested doesn’t mean it’s safe. By the same token, being “tested” and “reviewed” by agencies tied to big pharma and the chemical industry is also problematic. There’s a lot of snake-oil in this system. We need research and licensing boards that are protected from conflicts of interest. They should not be limited by arbitrary definitions of what is “natural” or not.

What the fuck was that? I mean, I honestly can’t discern an actual position out of this inscrutable wall of pandering.

The best I can glean from this mess is, “Vaccines may have saved lives, but now you should be afraid for your life because Big Pharma.”

And on homeopathy, what the fuck does “just because something is untested doesn’t mean it’s safe” even mean? I honestly don’t know. But then she gets back to making people scared. It’s not the fake medicine that’s the problem, you see, but Big Pharma pulling the strings. I mean, YOU CAN’T TRUST ANYONE.

I so deeply regret my support of Ralph Nader in 2000, but I always maintained a place in my heart for the Greens, those well-meaning hippies. But this is just gross. Stein is a fucking doctor, and she should at least have enough respect for the voters to speak a plain truth about issues that are literally life and death.

And if she actually believes what she’s saying (assuming she even knows what she’s saying), then all the worse. Be gone, Green Party. You once seemed full of fresh ideas, but now, well, you’ve spoiled.

RT This Post for Dopamine Squirts

This piece by Darya Rose is about indulging in things that are bad for you, but that you think are making you happy, like alcohol and junk food. But it speaks to me in terms of what I have come to need from my creative pursuits: attention.

Dopamine fools your brain into mistaking reward for real pleasure. In the heat of the moment you believe that following your dopamine urges will guide you to certain happiness, but more often than not it leads you into temptations you later regret. [ . . . ]

Serotonin, GABA and oxytocin are chemicals in your brain that are actually associated with feeling good. They boost your mood, help you relax and cause you to feel close and connected to people and things you love.

Activities that promote the release of these brain chemicals include exercise, music, meditation, prayer, creativity, learning and socializing.

You know this intuitively when you are cool, calm and collected. When everything is fine the rational part of your brain can clearly articulate that these wholesome activities lead to real fulfillment, and that following your urges and cravings usually leaves you feeling worse (with a dose of shame thrown in for good measure).

I think a big part of my problem is that I have allowed myself to believe that the pings of the connected digital world are the signals of something truly fulfilling as opposed to being mental junkfood. But if I really want to heal my brain with the aforementioned cocktail of true-happiness chemicals, I need to find things to do that aren’t associated with feedback, pageviews, shares, likes, favs, retweets. Less reliance on dopamine squirts, more serotonin brewing.

Less blogging? More blogging?

Maybe it’s time for those grown-ups’ coloring books.

Ironic Imaginary Conversations

Photo credit: leafar. via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard reports on research that shows how animosity toward nonbelievers can be reduced by the religious having an imaginary, positive conversation with an atheist. And most of the subjects said they didn’t know any atheists personally:

Those who engaged in the imagined conversation “expressed significantly less distrust toward atheists” than those who simply ruminated about the subject. The researchers conclude this more positive attitude was driven by “more comfort with atheists, and more willingness to engage with atheists.”

Moreover, a reduction in distrust, which the researchers call “the central component of anti-atheist prejudice,” was even found among religious fundamentalists. Perhaps they enjoyed the imaginary give-and-take.

This is encouraging, but just soak in the irony here.

Talking to an imaginary atheist makes a person who normally talks to an imaginary superbeing feel better about atheists.

We’ve been doing this all wrong this whole time. Think of all the social advancement we could have already made if we’d just been make-believe.

Immortality the Ineffable Underdog

Photo credit: Macrophy (Grant Beedie) via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Everyone you love and everyone you know and everything you touch will someday be gone. We will lose our lovers, our friends, our parents, our children, our animals, ourselves. The pain will be almost intolerable. The jobs we define ourselves by will end. Anything you make with your own two hands will eventually be dust. It will take only a few generations for you to be completely forgotten within your own family.

This is by Elmo Keep (she who is responsible for so much of the Mars One reporting/debunking that I’ve written about on this blog), who has written a positively brilliant, lengthy piece for The Verge on transhumanism, Zoltan Istvan, and the effort to harness technology to make human life, in some form or another, everlasting. Read the whole goddamn thing.

And this passage by Keep about the unbearable inevitability of death, this is exactly why I (like other white, male, no-longer-young tech enthusiasts) am so attracted to transhumanism in the abstract. We find ourselves living at a time when the ascent of computer superintelligences and, simultaneously, our ability to “meld” with computers are remarkably plausible. Perhaps not certain or even likely, but it’s out there in the hypothetical “someday.” If you squint, you can almost faintly see the event horizon of the Singularity.

And because I’m/we’re no longer young, we feel the tension, the gravitational pull, the off-putting gaze of death. We don’t have to squint to see it over the horizon. We just can’t quite tell how far away it is, exactly, but we know for certain it’s there.

So it’s a race, of sorts, or we imagine it to be. Two runners, death (nature) and immortality (technology), and the finish line is our lives.

We’re rooting for the Singularity, or at least for technology to save us from death. But right now, it’s no more than rooting, and for an underdog no less (or no more). If you’re like me and pushing 40, being saved by technology is a lot less likely than it is for, say, my kids.

But even so, we’re talking about something ineffable, really. A notion, a dream, nothing that’s been proven to be the case, to be imminent. We don’t know that technology will defeat death, or even vastly extend and preserve human life. We just really, really hope, and see inklings of possibilities. But that’s not enough for anyone to be hanging their hats on. To be working on? Investing in? Sure, fine.

I can’t afford to get my hopes up about it, though. I couldn’t bear the disappointment. The grief-upon-grief-upon-regret. I can watch for developments, and I can cheer on advances. But I can’t let myself believe in it.

But, oh, would I like to. I would like to so very much.

The Fear of Being Phoneless, Quantified (Sort of)

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This summer, researchers at Iowa State University made some easy headlines with a study on “nomophobia,” their term for anxiety about being away from one’s smartphone. I can’t get access to the paper itself, so I have no idea what exactly they found, but according to press materials, they gave respondents a 20-question qualitative survey about the level of anxiety they experience in certain phone-free situations.

Respondents were to rate their level of anxiety from 1 to 7, 7 being the most severe, but they also omitted any mention of what total score, when all 20 answers are added up, qualifies one as a “nomophobe.”

So here’s me thinking, well I must be one! I mean, I’m threatened by the very concept of smartwatches because one of their ostensible purposes is to give me less time with my smartphone. No thank you!

So I decided to take this little questionnaire, even though I’d probably learn nothing new, and to do so in public, with you, right now. Fun? Fun.

Here we go.

* * * Begin questionnaire * * *

1. I would feel uncomfortable without constant access to information through my smartphone.

Paul’s answer: 7

How else would I know about things?

2. I would be annoyed if I could not look information up on my smartphone when I wanted to do so.

Paul’s answer: 7

Look, certain expectations have been built up around the Information Age and the post-iPhone era. I pined for this ability when I saw Penny and her computer book on Inspector Gadget, I lusted after the T-Mobile Sidekick when it brought Google to a cell phone, and now I get mine.

3. Being unable to get the news (e.g., happenings, weather, etc.) on my smartphone would make me nervous.

Paul’s answer: 7

Well first of all, my job is heavily affected by current events, as are most of my hobbies that aren’t strict performing arts. I’m not able to do most of my work or play if I can’t get the news whenever I want. Or at least I’m hampered. I mean, I could get a newspaper or something. Shut up.

4. I would be annoyed if I could not use my smartphone and/or its capabilities when I wanted to do so.

Paul’s answer: 7

I mean, I’m always annoyed, and this would break many camels’ backs.

5. Running out of battery in my smartphone would scare me.

Paul’s answer: 7

This is getting a little cruel. I mean, do I have to think about this? I assume this presupposes that fast access to a charger or backup battery is not available. In which case…guh…guys, I’m a little sweaty.

6. If I were to run out of credits or hit my monthly data limit, I would panic.

Paul’s answer: 5

I mean, I’d just pay for it, and explain it to my wife later. Thus the 5.

7. If I did not have a data signal or could not connect to Wi-Fi, then I would constantly check to see if I had a signal or could find a Wi-Fi network.

Paul’s answer: 7

What, I’m supposed to just give up? Is this not America?

8. If I could not use my smartphone, I would be afraid of getting stranded somewhere.

Paul’s answer: 8

You have to understand, I have no sense of direction or orientation. You know the way that some people are just tone deaf, and those of us with strong musical ears can’t understand what’s wrong with them? I’m the tone deaf guy, but with where I am in three-dimensional space. Okay, even two dimensions are too many. Before GPS, I was pretty much in a constant state of lost.

9. If I could not check my smartphone for a while, I would feel a desire to check it.

Paul’s answer: A million

Is this questionnaire not paying attention? Come on.

Oh look, new section!

If I did not have my smartphone with me…

10. I would feel anxious because I could not instantly communicate with my family and/or friends.

Paul’s answer: 4

This is different. I want to be able to keep up with my wife and kids, but for the species at large, no, I’m fine without yammering with them on a steady click.

11. I would be worried because my family and/or friends could not reach me.

Paul’s answer: 3

I mean, do they need me right now? ’Cause like I just sat down.

12. I would feel nervous because I would not be able to receive text messages and calls.

Paul’s answer: 1

You know what that’s cool.

13. I would be anxious because I could not keep in touch with my family and/or friends.

Paul’s answer: 3

They’re fine.

14. I would be nervous because I could not know if someone had tried to get a hold of me.

Paul’s answer: 2

Please don’t get ahold of me. Hey look, I’m doing pretty well here!

15. I would feel anxious because my constant connection to my family and friends would be broken.

Paul’s answer: 6

Okay, now we’re moving into parent-paranoia territory. My friends are fine, but go and bring my kids into it. Sheesh.

16. I would be nervous because I would be disconnected from my online identity.

Paul’s answer: 7

Look, I’ve been cultivating my ridiculous, cartoon-like online identity since I was 13, and I’m not about to let it flitter away. Bill Boulden once called me his “favorite Twitter curmudgeon,” and do NOT take that lightly. If you think my online identity is a mess, you should see the shitshow that is my meatspace identity.

17. I would be uncomfortable because I could not stay up-to-date with social media and online networks.

Paul’s answer: 4

I like my Twitter pals and all, but you know, a lot of you people can go scratch.

18. I would feel awkward because I could not check my notifications for updates from my connections and online networks.

Paul’s answer: 4

See above.

19. I would feel anxious because I could not check my email messages.

Paul’s answer: 5

Not the end of the world, but what if I miss a good coupon email or something?

20. I would feel weird because I would not know what to do.

Paul’s answer: A million trillion.

* * * End of questionnaire. * * *

Let’s add up the score, shall we?

Paul’s Final Nomophobia Score:

1,000,000,00,001,000,094

Yeah, that’s about what I expected. Maybe a little under.

The Mutual Enhancement Society: Superintelligence in Machines…*and* Humans?

Photo credit: JD Hancock / Foter / CC BY
Reading Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, and having read James Barrat’s Our Final Invention, as well as consuming a lot of other writings on the dangers of rapidly advancing artificial intelligence, I was beginning to feel fairly confident that unless civilization collapsed relatively soon, more or less upending most technological progress, humanity was indeed doomed to become the slaves to, or fuel of, our software overlords. It is a rather simple equation, after all, isn’t it? Once the machines undergo a superintelligence explosion, there’s really nothing stopping them from taking over the world, and quite possibly, everything else.

You can imagine, then, how evocative this piece in Nautilus by Stephen Hsu was, an article that explains that actually, it’s going to be okay. Not because the machines won’t become super-advanced – they certainly will – but because humans (or some humans) will advance right along with them. For what the Bostroms and the Barrats of the world are (may?) not be taking into account is the rapid advance of human genetic modification, which will allow for augmentations to human intelligence that we, with our normal brains, can’t even imagine. Writes Hsu, “The answer to the question ‘Will AI or genetic modification have the greater impact in the year 2050?’ is yes.”

First off, Hsu posits that humans of “normal” intelligence (meaning unmodified at the genetic level, not dudes off the street) may not even be capable of creating an artificial intelligence sufficiently advanced to undergo the kind of explosion of power that thinkers like Bostrom foresee. “While one can imagine a researcher ‘getting lucky’ by stumbling on an architecture or design whose performance surpasses her own capability to understand it,” he writes, “it is hard to imagine systematic improvements without deeper comprehension.”

It’s not until we really start tinkering with our own software that we’ll have the ability to construct something so astonishingly complex as a true artificial superintelligence. And it’s important to note that there is no expectation on Hsu’s part that this augmentation of the human mind will be something enjoyed by the species as a whole. Just as only a tiny handful of humans had the intellectual gifts sufficient to invent computing and discover quantum mechanics (Turings and Einsteins and whatnot), so will it be for he future few who are able to have their brains genetically enhanced, such that they reach IQs in the 1000s, and truly have the ability to devise, construct, and nurture an artificial intelligence.

It is a comforting thought. Well, more comforting than our extinction by a disinterested AI. But not entirely comforting, because it means that a tiny handful of people will have such phenomenal intelligence, something unpossessed by the vast majority of the species, they will likely be as hard to trust or control as a superintelligent computer bent on our eradication. Just how interested will these folks care about democracy or the greater good when they have an IQ of 1500 and can grasp concepts and scenarios unfathomable to the unenhanced?

But let’s say this advancement is largely benign. Hsu doesn’t end with “don’t worry, the humans got this,” but rather goes into a line of thought I hadn’t (but perhaps should have) expected: merging.

Rather than the standard science-fiction scenario of relatively unchanged, familiar humans interacting with ever-improving computer minds, we will experience a future with a diversity of both human and machine intelligences. For the first time, sentient beings of many different types will interact collaboratively to create ever greater advances, both through standard forms of communication and through new technologies allowing brain interfaces. We may even see human minds uploaded into cyberspace, with further hybridization to follow in the purely virtual realm. These uploaded minds could combine with artificial algorithms and structures to produce an unknowable but humanlike consciousness. …

New gods will arise, as mysterious and familiar as the old.

We’re now in transhumanist, Kurzweil territory. He’s not using the word “Singularity,” but he’s just shy of it, talking about human and computer “minds” melding with each other in cyberspace. And of course he even references “gods.”

This strikes me, a person of limited, unmodifed intelligence, as naïve. I’ve criticized transhumanists like Zoltan Istvan for this pollyanna view of our relationship with artificial intelligences. Where those who think like Istvan assume the superintelligent machines will “teach us” how to improve our lot, Hsu posits that we will grow in concert with the machines, and benefit each other through mutual advancement. But what makes him so certain this advancement will remain in parallel? At some point, the AIs will pass a threshold, after which they will be able to take care of and enhance themselves, and then it won’t matter if our IQs are 1000 or 5000, as the machines blast past those numbers exponentially in a matter of, what, days? Hours?

And then, what will they care about the well being of their human pals? I don’t see why we should assume they’ll take us along with them.

But, what do I know? Very, very little.