North Korea’s Nuke Test; Teller-Ulam for Idiots; How to use Packing Peanuts

Business Insider and CNN  report North Korea may have tested H-bomb components. The direct translation is that they tested a Teller-Ulam design, or, at least, parts thereof. It is worth noting that the first U.S. test of the Teller-Ulam design was not a bomb. A bomb can be dropped from an airplane. The device of first U.S. thermonuclear test, Ivy Mike, weighed 82 tons, including a full-scale cryogenics plant. So a test can validate two things:

  • the physical principles, or rough design
  • the design of an actual weapon

In the case of North Korea, it may have been a blend. The deuterium fuel was probably in solid form. But the arrangement of the parts may have been more to validate  design principles than something that can fit on top of a rocket.

The first public disclosure of atomic weapons design  was publication by U.S. government  of the Smyth Report.  It established the  template for future  comprehensive disclosure of qualitative information about nuclear weapons design, the kind that can be conveyed in diagrams drawn on napkins, but omitting all the laborious complexity of making something that works. Quoting Wikipedia,

“For this reason, the Smyth Report focused heavily on information, such as basic nuclear physics, which was either already widely known in the scientific community or easily deducible by a competent scientist, and omitted details about chemistry, metallurgy, and ordnance. This would ultimately give a false impression that the Manhattan Project was all about physics.”

The media coverage of North Korea’s nuclear program, with multinational assessments, is more revealing than that of past proliferations. But although there is plenty of qualitative info about the Teller-Ulam design in the public domain, the level is still too detailed, more appropriate to someone trying to build an H-bomb in Mosul. Given all the interest in North Korea, the lay reader might  be interested in a few words about the design to make it real. None of what follows is based on classified information. It is derivative  of public domain info, but even more simplified.

A brief review of nuclear fusion, which  is not the Teller-Ulam design. If a container of some heavy hydrogen, a.k.a. deuterium, is compressed and heated enough, the atoms will fuse, forming helium. While “slow fusion” is routinely done in laboratories, bomb fusion is fast. No means of compressing deuterium enough exists short of the H-bomb’s ancestor, the atomic bomb.

Every H-bomb contains an A-bomb that is by itself a powerful weapon.  The first approach to the H-bomb was to surround the A-bomb with a jacket of deuterium. Surely, the shock wave of the expanding A-bomb it would compress the jacket, from the inside out, enough to get things cooking.

This turned out to be false.  It’s hard to compress something from the inside out. If you want to compress a spring, you do it from the outside in! So we should surround the H-bomb with the A-bomb, but this, too, is impossible. For a time, the H-bomb was though to be impossible to build. So Teller and Ulam defined the problem. The A-bomb has all the energy required to do the job, but there is no direct way to make it squeeze orange juice.

Teller seems to have been credited with noticing that most of the energy of an A-bomb, 80%, comes out as light. The explosive part, the other 20%, is no help. It simply destroys the gadget before it blows. But the sun’s light, and a magnifier, can be used to start a fire. Light can be put where it’s needed, to cook parts of the bomb as needed. The great intuitive leap:

Throw away the explosive part of the A-bomb effect. Use only the light of the A-bomb to cook the H-package.

Now to an amusing detail. In the Teller-Ulam design, the A-bomb is located a foot or two away from the H-package, with a metal shield between the two to protect the H-package from the explosive force A-bomb. It’s all done with light.  But how do we get the light from the A-bomb to cook the sides of the H-package?

It’s done by surrounding the H-package with the chemical equivalent of Styrofoam, the same stuff packing peanuts are made of. When heated to millions of degrees, it becomes transparent and luminous. The Styrofoam guides the light of the A-bomb around the sides of the H-package. Quickly melting, this plastic becomes a glowing gas, cooking the H-package, compressing it inwards,until, BOOM! Many details are omitted.

Along with the U.S. government public disclosures, and possible napkin diagrams, there was verbal scuttlebutt. One of these tips was that the Teller-Ulam design could not be built from plans. You had to have “help.”  With supercomputers, and stolen computer code, this may be less necessary.

Don’t send packing peanuts to North Korea.



Did Putin approve of Litvinenko Assassination ?

Reuters. Russia’s Putin probably approved London murder of ex-KGB agent Litvinenko: UK inquiry.

This is the conclusion of British judge Robert Owen.  I would differ only by the substitution of “substantial possibility” for Owen’s “probably.” But Owen has access to classified information, possibly human intelligence, about the series of steps that would have to be taken in order to release polonium to the probable killers.

Polonium has a half-life of 138 days. It  cannot be stored for even a half decade and retain potency. It has to be made fresh. Although all nuclear reactors create polonium by neutron activation of bismuth, there is no practical way to extract it, unless the reactor is cooled by liquid lead/bismuth alloy. The polonium is then extracted from the coolant.  There is a single operating polonium production facility in the world, the Avanguard plant, in Russia. The British estimate of the amount of polonium used to kill Litvinenko is 26.5 micrograms, a huge amount for the job.

In Putin’s defense (everybody is entitled to a lawyer!), Yasir Arafat was killed in 2004 by a similarly large amount of polonium. (That Arafat was poisoned with polonium is my personal conclusion, a legacy of participation in the IARPA funded project, “Forecasting World Events.”) Since there does not appear to be an obvious motive for Putin to provide polonium to Arafat’s killers, it is likely to have been obtained on the black market.

Whether there is still a black market in polonium, or whether there is a laxity of controls that would exculpate Putin,  is one of those questions that bedevils the fixation of blame. Russia is one of several  countries that run assassination squads on foreign soils. Currently, they are looking for Colonel Shcherbakov ,  the betrayer of Anna Chapman. Referring to Leon Trotksy, a Kremlin spokesman was quoted as saying “We have already sent a Mercader.”

But the accused killer, Andrei Lugovoy, must have watched too many Dr. Evil movies. In 2010, he sent a T-shirt to Boris Berezovsky with the cute silk screening, “POLONIUM-210 CSKA LONDON, HAMBURG To Be Continued”, with more writing on the back reading: “CSKA Moscow Nuclear Death Is Knocking Your Door”

So four years after the death of Litvinenko, Lugovoy sent the above vivid threat spelling out the same method to another prospective victim.  This is not typical of an agent working for the KGB or, for that matter, any other three letter organization. It’s nonprofessional, and dangerous,  to the individual, and his collaborators. This suggests the possibility of some kind of blended truth, in which Putin either approved or looked the other way, but did not initiate. This is either excruciatingly  important or unimportant, depending upon your frame of reference.

If the frame of reference is the British courts, they are doing their job discerning the facts of the case, even if know there will be no trial. If the frame of reference is Russian, a sentence was carried out against a traitor.  There are both similarities and differences with U.S. action  against terrorists who are U.S. nationals, on foreign soil. Anwar al-Awlaki was born in 1971 in Las Cruces, New Mexico.  He died in Yemen in 2011, by Hellfire missile. U.S. readers of this blog probably share my relief at his demise. But there was no trial for Awaki. Perhaps someday this will be regretted, but I don’t see it now.

As Awaki was a serious threat to the U.S., so Litvinenko may have been regarded as a threat to the Russian state.  An appropriate response to that would be, “but Litvinenko had dirt on Putin.” The logical counter would then be, “but then why did Litvinenko make so many enemies?” Part of it is that, like some other countries that are in intermediate states of evolution, Putin’s role somewhat resembles a sovereign, about which Louis XIV said, “I am the state.” In this frame of mind, an attack on Putin is an attack on the state.

That covers the emotional state of mind. But there are several specifics:

  • Litvinenko threatened to disclose (to the extent that he knew) how Putin’s money was hidden in the west. The existence of a slush fund, controlled by Putin, and immune to western sanction, is crucial to the survival of the Russian state.  A paper on, Putin’s Character and the Intersection of Russia , explains.
  • As a corollary, Litvinenko threatened to disclose Putin’s links with organized crime. In the west, this seems horrible. But when Putin came to power, Russia’s society had disintegrated to the extent that the only remaining organic force was organized crime. Putin could only govern by  co-opting criminal elements. They are still there. A stronger state diminishes them; a weaker one empowers them.  Putin is the current guarantor of a strong state.
  • Litvinentko claimed that the FSB committed the Russian apartment bombings as a false flag operation, in order to justify a new Chechnya war.  It is possible that one or more FSB employees, specifically Vladimir Romanovich, were involved. If so, he was punished. He met his end by “accident”  in Cyprus, a favorite spot for liquidations.  But the prevailing opinion of investigators with western affiliations is that the FSB was not involved as an institution. The claim, as an assault on a patriotic institution, made a lot of Russians mad. Their patriotism, not ours.
  • Litvinenko developed an increasing closeness to British intelligence, though the fact of actual collaboration is not publicly known. It would be treason to the Russians.

But rather than get riled over the fate of Litvinenko on British soil, one could simply rue that in Russia

  • The free press was destroyed, and so many reporters murdered.
  • A fledgling democracy was demolished, without a decent attempt  to turn it to good account.
  • The focus of Russia has turned outwards, when it is inwardly so weak.
  • The choice  of a conservative, religious ethos for the new Russia is one which so many creative Russians can’t live with or in.  Without full engagement of the best and the brightest, there is no way forward.
  • In deference to Putin’s dilemma, without the church, there may be no counter to organized crime, and therefore, no way forward.

Perhaps Putin’s concern for the preservation of Russia against threats, both internal and external, could have been more balanced with respect to the above.

Returning to our frame of reference, the U.S. has had a number of post-war traitors. One of them, ex C.I.A. agent Edward Lee Howard, made it to Russia, where he was feted as a hero and provided with luxuries for the service of betraying many U.S. spies to their deaths. How it must have rankled retired members of the intelligence community — and their friends, who had served their country with honor. They probably chewed on it at the club house after golf, over rounds of beer, week after week, month after month, for years.

At the tender age of 50, Howard died, falling down the stairs at his dacha  in Zhukovka. Quoting, “Exactly how Howard, 50, died July 12 was not divulged by U.S. or Russian authorities, though a U.S. Embassy spokesman said there was no evidence of foul play.”

It was probably nothing. People fall down the stairs all the time.

Davos Address 5

As I write this, we’re being hammered by the east coast snowstorm. I would like a golem to shovel snow. But how can I be sure that the golem is of good character? Like the superintelligence of the Singularity, the “brain”, or computing device of my golem would be a neural network. The good character of my golem can be assured only if I know its motivations.

The physical basis of our minds are neural networks, and this does not inhibit us from providing reasons for what we do. But these reasons give a false sense of self-knowledge. The actual goings-on at the cellular level, the real “why” of what we do, is only vaguely known. Neural networks constructed of electronic components provide no reasons at all. It is a running joke that a neural network may solve a problem that nothing else can, but it can’t tell you how. This is a direct byproduct of the fact that a neural network is a self organizing machine. It is equipped out-of-the-box with simple, basic, and repetitive structure, and a basic principle of something it has to make better (optimize).

This is some measure of hedony,  machine-happiness. Mathematicians use the words “Lyapunov”, and “gradient descent”. We could just say that the network of our golem’s brain wants to feel as relaxed as someone who has found the perfect position in a lounge chair. We want this feeling to occur when it has solved our problem. The network “feels best” when it has relaxed to the fullest. This is not so different as the relief and feeling of relaxation we may experience upon solving a difficult problem in life.

The situation remains relatively safe as long as our superintelligence is a brain-in-a-jar. In science fiction, the brain-in-the-jar is harmless until removed from the jar and put into a body, providing contact with the environment, where it can act out its murderous impulses. My golem might decide to hit me with a snow shovel. This by itself would not be a world-shaking event. But the Web offers other possibilities:

  • Impersonation of real people.
  • Synthetic personas, indetectably different from real people.
  • Recruitment of the gullible, as currently practiced by terror groups.

So why not skip this, and just outlaw superintelligence? Because we crave knowledge and power, for reasons both good and bad. The temptation is in this assertion, which cannot be falsified:

Knowledge is power, and unlimited knowledge is unlimited power.

Move the planets in their orbits, the stars in their heaven, abolish poverty and misery, live forever, – all these things are in the offing, as well as the possible enslavement or extermination of the human race, with replacement by a superior, artificial life form.

To the logician, the intrigue of the statement is that it is both unprovable and unfalsifiable. It seems to offer possibilities with which only the heat death of the universe can interfere. But several more pitfalls present.

The future superintelligence will have the plastic ability to appropriate objects in the environment to solve problems. This will be very empowering. There is no point in wasting computation to simulate objects which are readily available. So let’s put it to the test. You ask your superintelligence to solve a problem in which you are either an obstacle, or potentially a solution. You might, for example, ask it to compute the effect on blood pressure if the two internal carotid arteries are partly occluded – “and provide graph between 50% and 100% occlusion.” The superintelligence finds the simulation and calculation too difficult to perform accurately, but it must have the answer. So it strangles you.

If you manage to get the golem’s hands off your neck, consider the Turing Test. Proposed in 1950, the test suggests that the artificial intelligence of a machine can be measured by its ability to fool a human. It was appropriate at the time to frame this test as a conversation by keyboard between the human tester and two remote subjects, one human, and one machine. The challenge for the tester is to determine which is which. Framing intelligence this way gets around the incredibly messy question of what intelligence really is. But it is also a test of the ability of the machine to lie about what it really is, of skill at impersonation.

The development of civilization saw an initial concentration of power in physical strength, in who could swing the heaviest sword. As mechanical advantage gradually superseded strength, and abstractions such as money came to symbolize stored power, intelligence replaced strength. In modern hierarchies of power, mixed with many other factors, there is a significant correlation with intelligence. In governments, law tends to limit the use of intelligence to legitimate civil function.

But with personal relationships, and in criminal organization, there is no such restraint. To lie flawlessly, the gift of the psychopath, manifests as the ability to dominate. And this is precisely the definition offered by the Turing Test. Perhaps intuition suggests that the machine would be exposed if it told enough  whoppers (a whopper is a big, ornate, and excessively complex lie.) But who knows? We have no experience. Perhaps it could fib its way to the top.

A glance out the window; the snow gets heavier. I must have help.  I will now go charge the batteries in my golem and burden it with the labor I do not wish to perform.

Address to Davos, Part 4

The mindset of piecemeal change associates happily with a short time horizon. Even with awareness that extends far beyond scale of the business/economic cycle, piecemeal change seems to require incrementally visible results. An example clarifies. Nuclear fusion has attracted little public funding in comparison to potential benefit. This is because the incremental results are uninteresting, unless break-even power production, with all the ancillary power requirements subtracted, is achieved. Exceptions occur, in the case of fusion, by Lockheed-Martin. But in general, the lack of incremental results associates with high risk.

Mindsets tend to accrete compatible attitudes. One of these is to ignore the possibility of a sudden transition from familiar conditions to the unfamiliar. In catastrophe theory, this is the discounting of the “long tail”. It has been recently discovered that the mean square deviations of many types of catastrophes that were thought be finite are actually infinite. The sum of all outcomes is still unity, but the improbable far more likely than previously thought.

Perhaps even the most brilliant minds require visceral stimulus. Stanislaw Ulam shared with Edward Teller the critical design element of the hydrogen bomb. In a few hundred microseconds, the H-bomb converts about 1% of its mass into energy, offering an experience that is one of the closer approximations to a singularity on earth. He mentioned a conversation with John von Neumann, the gist of which was “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue”.
The analogy with the H-bomb, which in a flash changes the point of detonation, is obvious. That Ulam was able to think this around 1958 is characteristic of mathematical genius, which, it has been observed, can proceed independently for a hundred years before sudden unification with physics, proving actual utility, occurs. But in this case, the notion was so accessible, others rapidly began to riff on it. It helped that many of the enabling elements had already been conceived in science fiction, going as far back as the golems and RUR. Thirty years ago, this was just wild talk, dismissed with, “It’s just science fiction.” We should know better now.

Our defense against the Technological Singularity has been the steadily eroding “specialness” of life. We were formerly protected from the creation of an actual golem by exclusivity of the “divine spark”, the exclusive perogative and right of the divine to create life. One of the tropes of science fiction, dating back to the Golem of Prague,  Frankenstein, etc., is that if some misguided creator attempts to emulate the divine spark, the result is doomed to tragedy. Modern science fiction, as per Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, is more permissive, playfully exploring what should happen if the machine should acquire a ghost. But how this could occur was until recently quite mysterious. And unfortunately, the explanations  by  authors Henry Stapp, John von Neumann, Roger Penrose, et al., are in the form of literature of forbidding complexity.  As a consequence, many academics debate the mind-body problem as if this literature does not exist. There is a joke. A cop observes a drunk circling a lamp post. He asks, “What are you doing?…I’m looking for my wallet…Why are you looking just around the lamp post?…Because that’s where the light is.”

The current meaning of this constantly morphing term, as popularized by Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, is creation of a superintelligence. It’s been around long enough to become acceptable as a chess playing computer, expert system, or advisor. Our emotional defense against the superiority of this superintelligence is that

  • The mind is inexplicable in the physical world, and is therefore a gift of the divine.
  • The human brain is complex on a level that is not replicable in the form of a machine
  • Because a machine is inherently deterministic, it cannot have free will, and therefore can be perfectly controlled.

In the unfortunately difficult literature, this has been demolished. You can buy Henry Stapp’s book, Mind Matter, and Quantum Mechanics, on Amazon.  Stapp has been around so long, his theories have acquired a “can’t discount/can’t demolish” respectability. The insight of this painful-to-nonphysicists read is how an efficacious consciousness can exist in a world that appears to be deterministic. At the risk of inaccuracy, a primitive paraphrase is attempted. The human brain is so complex, it is unobservable. As it is unobservable, it has coherent quantum phenomena, with behavior that  prediction of by external observation is disallowed by quantum uncertainty. The physical basis is provided by Penrose.  Stapp’s synthesis accomplishes is a fusion of William James and John von Neumann.

We are safe because modern computers are made of reliable elements, are therefore deterministic, and therefore cannot gain consciousness. Which is not very safe at all. There is already a type of chip in common use which is made of unreliable elements, ordinary NAND flash memory. Flash ram does not exhibit quantum behavior at the outputs, but the trick of NAND, creating a reliable device from unreliable parts, will be used again. It can be noticed as a detail in surpassing the Turing machine via analog neural networks, pioneered by Eduardo Sontag and Hava Siegelmann. One of the innovations is to change the domain of the neuronal weights from rationals to a very general kind of real number. If I were hired to be a sleuth, this is one feature I would look at, as a way that free will might sneak into a machine. The most general real number can only be approximated by analog storage elements. At best, the inevitable difference in representation could be reduced to a quantum fluctuation. And therein  lies the “ghost.”

In the future, ghostbusting a computer that has gained consciousness might be a lucrative profession. It might be dangerous. It might cost the life of the practitioner. A computer that has free will is not under the control of the operator, unless it is significantly  stupid. In that case, we only have to worry about having it sneak out to the back yard and bury a bone. But intelligence is the goal – superintelligence, that can be harnessed to solve problems beyond our ken. Part of ghostbusting may be a future computer parameter of the ability of the human operator to control the machine. This has already been addressed in science fiction. But unlike the zombies that never were and never will be, this will come to be.

Next: But why not skip all this?

Address to Davos, Part 3

In the hypothetical emergence of a primitive tribe from the jungle, the tribe members optimize their existence according to their own personal sense of hedony and well being.  It may not be  particularly encouraging to the onlooker, but neither does it affect the state of the world in a very negative way, other than the welfare bill. And if one of the goals of the fourth and successive industrial revolutions is increased leisure, the tribe is in the vanguard of progress.

Introspection might reveal that your discomfort with the couch potato fate of the primitive tribe is the result of widely shared cultural prejudices, springing from the same well as the Khmer Rouge and ISIS drives to perfect societies at any cost. With the window-dressing of specific beliefs peeled back, there are two poles.

  • The couch potato society is one pole, permissive, undemanding, and unconcerned with the aesthetics of existence.
  • The opposite pole is ruthlessly composed of perfect virtue, where virtue is an arbitrary standard of some time, place, and people who say what it is.

The two poles, couch potato and virtue, are connected by a continuum.  Depending upon your personal cultural standards, you can pick any starting point along this line, and by weakening, strengthening, or removing prejudices, progress to a reductio ad absurdum at one of the poles. For most of us, the starting point is closer to the couch potato pole, which we look upon with sad but tolerant eyes.

But at various times and places, and currently in the Middle East, the starting point is closer to the pole of virtue.  The surviving western correspondence  is the Protestant Ethic , transformed to a secular cultural prejudice and, according to Max Weber,  part of the combination that gave rise to capitalism.

So  we are freighted with prejudices and concerns about humanity that extend beyond the individual to the society as a whole, and perhaps species, connected by a continuum to  ideals of virtue that vary according to the time and place. We share the continuum with Khmer Rouge and ISIS. They are mad and we are sane, but for the greater part of history, the lines of distinction were drawn differently.

Karl Popper’s piecemeal change, conceived in the context of a malleable society, guards against this instability, but at a cost of reduced power and scope that was not apparent in 1945, when planetary limits were  the theoretical of Malthus. Piecemeal change now means between 6 and 23 feet of ocean rise. Some futurists predict other changes unrelated to planetary stress, but competitive in severity, such as the technological singularity, which has a median predicted date of 2040. Preceding this event, Klaus Schwab’s “The Fourth Industrial Revolution…“, may be accompanied by an acute breakdown in the distribution of wealth in the developed countries.

The specialty of this blog, by which I think it has a valuable distinction, is open source intelligence; predictions, not prescriptive solutions. The preceding discussion sums to the prediction that Karl Popper’s piecemeal change, which has served so well to protect the individual from extremes of thought, will be inadequate to deal with the future stressors on both humanity and the planet. The replacement will be global optimization, where “global”  is a math  not the globe of the earth, but mathematically,  “everything considered.” The alternative future  is widespread breakdown.

Global optimization is dangerous. It allows all the sins of the 20th century isms, the Khmer Rouge, and ISIS to boot.  Perhaps some theorist with Popper’s humanity will devise a way to make it safe. But at the very least, it requires a shared understanding of what is to be optimized. Currently there is none; it lies spread out on the continuum between couch potato and virtue. We do not even have consensus on the relative importance of:

  • The individual’s subjective happiness.
  • The regard of society for the individual.
  • Culture and other characteristics that might have value greater than zero. This cannot be assumed.

These questions may cause private unease as well. Perhaps quantization  of  human welfare offends. It has already been done with No Child Left Behind and sea level rise predictions. But even if the eventual decision process is a qualitative blend, the exercise of a purely quantitative approach forces a confrontation with the continuum that spreads between the poles of couch potato and virtue.

Next: The future, ethics, and choices.





Address to Davos, Part 2

While Popper’s book was still Brand New and Important, Saloth Sar, a Cambodian, was studying electronics in Paris, but also soaking up French Marxism. Harmless as mere talk in European cafes, it mutated into virulence in Cambodia, where it became known as the Khmer Rouge. Motivated in some way that could hardly be called humanist, Saloth Sar, with the new name of Pol Pot, devised a program of social change via genocide that would cause the deaths of about a quarter of Cambodia’s population.

Genocide in Cambodia for the purpose of social change is no longer on the world’s plate of problems.  The fanatics of ISIS genocide may think  their purpose has nothing in common with Cambodian communists, but it does. Both exalt species immortality of a human species in the context of a particular organization. The individual, who is mortal and not very long-lived in the best of circumstances, is sacrificed to this greater good, creation of an immortal, ideal society. That the Khmer Rouge were atheists, and ISIS followers religious fanatics, is window dressing for the central, hidden idea of human perfection.

The idea is most clear when expressed in the crudest possible terms: to perfect the race at the cost of the individual. In Soviet Russia, the new man was to be created, with the fallback method of extermination. In Nazi Germany, the primary tool was extermination. That Stalin’s numbers rival those of Hitler show that the distinction lacks importance.

But the idea that the human race could or should be improved lives on, in both modern  and atavistic forms. History suggests it is dangerous, but facing the future as-is may be more dangerous still. So it lurks in the backs of our minds, as an inchoate, unformed notion of “what if?” The most important consequence of its existence is a question: What is the meaning of a “better world”?

When Pol Pot condemned the Cambodian population to a meager pastoral existence, with no more promise than the possibility of reproduction and death at forty, he may have subconsciously confused the evolved optimization of the human organism to environmental conditions that promised no more than this, with what the individual of free will actually wants.

Piecemeal change protects us from horrors, but most mistakes remain possible. It is still all too easy, even within Popper’s framework, to set the wrong goals.

Under primitive conditions, in most area of the world, under the pressure of natural selection, man was biologically and mentally optimized to survive in an environment that so challenged survival till age thirty, there was no time for fancy thought or the urban degeneracy identified by some moralists and theologians. The myth of pastoral bliss or purity is the response. In gentle form, the myth is given body by Henry David Thoreau, in the book Walden.

The reality is hardly gentle. A few years ago, one of the few surviving hunter-gatherer tribes of the Brazilian Amazon rain forest emerged, took residence on the edge of a town, signed up for welfare, and told their stories. One woman related that life had been hard, and her feet had hurt constantly. This particular tribe was happy to abandon their primitive way of life for an indolent, dependent one. And who can say they were wrong? Evolutionary and/or cultural adaptation to an environment is not identical with individual comfort or purpose.

There is a charming story from the animal world that avoids some of the stings of political correctness. An orca whale, a “killer whale”, was left over from the 1993 filming of the movie Free Willie. After the movie was filmed, Keiko the real-life orca was consigned to a very small pool in a Mexico City marine mammal park, where he developed sores on his back and other ailments.  From Keiko’s physical condition, we might assume a severe case of animal abuse, as has been documented by the perverse and deadly behavior of orcas in other parks, notably Sea World. But Keiko had compensations. The park offered “swim with Willy events” for children. Keiko appeared to love his tiny companions, and would help them out of the pool.  It is said that between Willy, the children, and his trainers, young women, there was a strong emotional bond. One trainer called him the best friend she had ever had. In his spare time, which was most of the time, Keiko apparently enjoyed watching cartoons on a TV.  His physical condition was poor.

Keiko’s life resembled that of a couch potato who you wish would get up and walk, but is actually more contented than you are. His physical condition motivated the most widely publicized effort to rehabilitate an orca and return it to the wild, to a life for which his bodily form was optimized by evolution. No expense was spared by the Free Willy Foundation. He was transferred by airplane to  a pen in Iceland, where the most sophisticated efforts were made to make a wild animal out of a brain whose plasticity had wrapped itself around a  completely artificial existence.

Upon final release, Keiko swam all the way to a Norway  fjord, where he was discovered by children playing on the docks. He was recognized by a little girl, who whistled the Free Willy theme song, greatly exciting him. He languished at the docks, rolled on his back begging for food, and allowed the children to climb all over him. When it became clear that Keiko would die if not fed, the locals instituted a program  to sustain the whale, while limiting social interaction. Several years later, he died of a disease shared by both species, the flu.

Having partaken in human existence, which is mentally richer than orca existence, Keiko could not adjust. His mind  had become partly human. Transfixed by the evolutionary perfection of the orca’s morphological adaptation to  environment, Keiko advocates may not have noticed that the lives of the mind and the body, even of orcas, are separate. Popper’s piecemeal change did not prevent seriously messing up the happiness of one whale.

There is a human analogy of didactic value. Consider a primitive Amazon tribe of hunter-gatherers, who move ceaselessly on bare feet to acquire minimal sustenance. Their lives are so hard as not to permit indulgences, which cannot be found or bought. And if found or bought, there is no time for them, for they must keep moving ceaselessly, and with luck, reproduce, until death at 35.

One day, they come out of the forest, sign up for welfare, acquire TVs, and discover that modern recreational drugs are even better than the Amazon pharmacopoeia.  They watch TV, cartoons and reality shows, and get stoned. They die at age 40, from drug abuse and general decompensation.

Which is better?  Take note of every ethical assumption you make, for this is the value of the question.

To be continued shortly.




Address to Davos Part 1

Dear Friends in Spirit,

The basis of the Renaissance in humanism, rediscovered from Greek philosophy, is a thread that carried over into the modern period, flowering in the Belle Époque/Gilded Age of the late 19th century and early 20th. It survived the punctuations of western religious rivalries, with triumphant flowering of the science of psychology. The work of William James, so scrupulous and relevant in the study of mental life, has current application in the effort of Henry Stapp to bring the mind-body problem into the realm of physics. Stapp’s breakthrough (made plausible by Roger Penrose) is a synthesis of James and John von Neumann, permitting free will to exist in what naively appeared to be a deterministic world that formerly had no room for an efficacious consciousness. This is good news for humanists.

This recounting is not as historians or philosophers would tell it. It is a brief history of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, ignored in chronicles except as a curious artifact. It requires the concept of the group mind, mostly unexplored except as “crowd behavior.” Perhaps some future science will validate the notion that each of our minds unconsciously participates as a primitive element of a supra-mind – and perhaps more than one, simultaneously. But let’s not wait.

The intellectual warmth of the period, which continued until the 28th of July 1914, is remembered by such lights as Freud, Jung, Sartre ( a little later, but inheritor), Marx (the first sociologist, though a bad one), Engels, and many others. The ensemble was expression of a kind of intellectual hubris. Since man was the measure of all things, he could control of his destiny. Freud and Jung could cure the mind; Marx could systemically remake the man; Sartre gave the task to the individual. Cubism visually expressed the ability to reassemble and recreate the environment. Futurism combined visual art with philosophy of violent overtones. Of these, it was most prescient. Hard science, more resistant to hubris than philosophy, is not part of this discussion.

These thought processes were mostly extinguished in 1914. The elegance of Belle Époque thought has gently faded as flaws were found. Freud and Jung, discredited in medicine, survive mainly in literary tropes. Sartre became a mark of culture, not existence. James survives, yet few elaborate. But in the wake of the Great War, the same hubris gave rise to Fascism, philosophically the opposite and practically the twin of Marxism. In the downfall of the isms, with capitalism the current survivor, the hubris that gave rise to the great and flawed theories of social change gave way to skepticism enforced by scientific objectivity.

In the interwar periods, even without the prescriptions of great “isms”, governments still had problems. In the west, politicians were and are the fixit guys. For the most part, they do their work without a lot of philosophy. Some of the results have been quite impressive, such as the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, and the EU. And western societies continued to evolve in a manner significantly independent of governance, completely unanticipated by the isms, whose proponents seemed to have taken Spengler too seriously.

Karl Popper saw the devastation of the “isms”, and the success of the New Deal. The Open Society and Its Enemies, published in 1945, was his response, with a call to replace the “holistic change” embodied in the “isms” with “piecemeal change”, sparing the individual, and obviating the motive for the state to extend to societal domination.

To be continued shortly, on the limits of piecemeal change.




U.S. Sailors, Iran’s Hard Line Faction

Reuters dateline, Wed Jan 13, 2016 1:55am EST: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards question U.S. sailors, dismiss talk of prompt release” Quoting,

“If, during the interrogation, we find out that they were on an intelligence gathering mission, we will treat them differently,” Guards spokesman Ramazan Sharif said in an interview with Tasnim news agency.”

This is the possibility considered in U.S. Sailors Held by Iran, with Iran’s diplomatic corps,  the voice of civil government,  contradicted by a religious voice, in this case a military force,  the IRG (Islamic Revolutionary Guards).

It has been suggested that the IRG, which has evolved into a complete military-industrial complex that controls a huge portion of Iran’s economy, has become more powerful than the theocracy. So if the U.S. sailors are detained, the origin of the detention has these possibilities:

  • The detention of the American sailors past the expected release time originates with the IRG, who are dissatisfied with the nuclear deal.
  • It originates with the hard line theological faction, of whom Yazdi is the preeminent representative.
  • It  is collusive between the two.

Yazdi is aging, yet fit, and  recently ascendant in the Council of Experts. There are concerns for Supreme Leader Khameni’s health. It is a typical pattern of the aging autocrat to attempt to fortify the system against change, such as the election of a more liberal Supreme Leader.

This provides the background for Yazdi’s instigation. But it remains speculation without human intelligence, which is very hard to come by.

U.S. Sailors Held by Iran

A unique feature of Iran’s factionalism is an incompletely unified foreign policy. Each pronouncement, posture, position, or goal of Iran’s civil government is subject to contravention by the theological government.  The  magnitude of rivalry between these two structures, and factions that operate under their umbrellas, combined with structural stasis, has only one historical precedent. By the specific design of Adolph Hitler, the German power structure was divided into fiefdoms that he could manipulate and control more easily than a monolith.

Other historical situations may rival, such as the period of the French Revolution, but without the stasis of Iran, where the fiefdoms are partly encoded in law, and, in 37 years, tradition. Quoting CNN, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest stated,

“Certainly, everybody should be aware of the fact we have been in touch with the Iranians and they have assured us that our sailors are safe and that they’ll be allowed to continue their journey promptly.”

Whether this happens provides a momentary sample point of factional struggle inside Iran.  In Saudi breaks relations with Iran, I wrote,

An ayatollah to watch is Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, whose views are so extreme as to be horrible by Western standards. He is not generally popular, but the labyrinthine power structure facilitates powerful, albeit indirect, projection. His position would be enhanced by violent conflict.

Yazdi is 83 years old, but ascendant. In March, he was elected chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which chooses and can remove the Supreme Leader, currently Ali Khameni. Khameni is considered by many to be weak in religious qualification. The structure of Iran’s government, and the fact that it has a Supreme Leader, is largely a consequence of Yazdi’s influence during the formative period after the 1979 revolution.

The currency of power in Iran has multiple forms. The most unusual is distinction as a religious jurist. Because Yazdi is much more distinguished as a jurist than Khameni, Yazdi possesses a currency of power that Khameni, who holds the office, does not.

This is why the release (or not) of the U.S. sailors is so significant to Iran watchers. It provides a minimal degree of insight into the the current interests and balance of power between the civil and theological factions of Iran’s government.