The Long View 2008-01-17: METI; Boltzmann; Benedict's Editors; Union of the West; NATO Slacks; A Defense of the Rotten Borough


Lots of items of interest in this blog post from John J. Reilly, but addressed very briefly.

  • The interaction between SETI and the transhumanism latent [well, latent in 2008] in libertarianism
  • Old man shakes fist at cloud, I mean John complains about the depth of a liberal education that cannot link cosmological theories of cyclical universes with Nietzsche with Stoics
  • How comprehensible should be Papal encyclicals be to the laity?
  • NATO relearning COIN
  • Electoral college reform

John was an advocate of taking the Republican party in a more populist direction, as he argued in favor of matching the Electoral College to the popular vote, and a single-player healthcare system.

METI; Boltzmann; Benedict's Editors; Union of the West; NATO Slacks; A Defense of the Rotten Borough

In addition to listening for aliens, generally known as SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), some researches are attempting METI (Messaging to Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), more usually called Active SETI. Last year, the unregulated attempts at Active SETI occasioned a public controversy, as we see in David Grinspoon's piece at Seed Media, Who Speaks for Earth?

For years [John] Billingham served as the chairman of the Permanent Study Group (PSG) of the SETI subcommittee of the International Academy of Astronautics, a widely accepted forum for devising international SETI agreements. But despite his deep involvement with the group, Billingham resigned in September, feeling the PSG is unwisely refusing to take a stand urging broad, interdisciplinary consultation on Active SETI.

There is already an established protocol for a SETI research team to follow if they detect intelligence in space. A protocol is gradually being negotiated for attempts to signal actively to other star systems; the San Marino Scale is way to calculate the possible consequences of active messaging, and something like it will no doubt be part of any consensus on a METI protocol.

Two points about this:

First, one of the reasons this issue has come up is that private SETI efforts are getting easier as the cost of the hardware falls. If hobbyists can send Morse Code to Tau Ceti, they should at least have a guide to "best practices." Okay, but consider the flipside. I don't really believe that history is moving in a zero-cost, libertarian direction. Suppose it is, though, and ET has already moved much further along on the path. The SETI-contact discussions all contemplate the regulation of a society-to-society exchange, even a state-to-state exchange. If the future is that everyman becomes his own god, however, then any contact that Earth makes now would most likely be with some individual. Has anyone assessed the cultural consequences of prolonged contact with Lazarus Long?

Second, perhaps I have been reading too many Sunday Supplement pieces about quantum entanglement, but I have profound doubts about whether radiotelescopy is really the way to SETI. The future may look back on today's SETI as we look back on those 19th-century proposals to contact other planets by laying wide, black lines on the face of Siberia.

* * *

Speaking of old ideas, the New York Times asks: Big Brain Theory: Have Cosmologists Lost Theirs?

The basic problem is that across the eons of time, the standard theories suggest, the universe can recur over and over again in an endless cycle of big bangs, but it’s hard for nature to make a whole universe. It’s much easier to make fragments of one, like planets, yourself maybe in a spacesuit or even — in the most absurd and troubling example — a naked brain floating in space. Nature tends to do what is easiest, from the standpoint of energy and probability. And so these fragments — in particular the brains — would appear far more frequently than real full-fledged universes, or than us. Or they might be us.

In order to disembarrass themselves of a universe with a finite past or future, cosmologists have been trying to define a perpetual universe. The easiest way to do this is statistically, and of course Ludwig Boltzmann did the math more than a hundred years ago. Actually, I thought that Boltzmann had been answered, but that's another issue. What I find shocking about the Times piece is that, while it mentions Boltzmann, it does not mention Nietzsche's Eternal Return, or the Stoics from whom he got the idea.

What do they teach in the schools that Times editors attend?

* * *

Regarding Benedict XVI's second encyclical, Spe Salvi, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus has many admiring things to say in the current (February) issue of First Things. Certainly he covers a wider variety of points than I did in my comment. However, he does have a criticism:

One may respectfully suggest that the Holy Father could do with a good editor. The encyclical is much longer than it needs to be, which will discourage its being widely read by the faithful. There are scholarly discussions of etymological and other questions that are better suited to the classroom. They could be consigned to footnotes or ignored altogether. There should be someone who could gently but effectively remind the pope that an encyclical is an address to the universal Church, not to a conference of theologians. That the pope is such a distinguished scholar is a great gift to the Church, but in this, as in the first encyclical [Deus Caritas Est], one has to wonder whether the right balance has been struck between the professor and the pastor.

I see this issue less because I read the encyclical as an attempt to synthesize several different areas of eschatology with a view to offering an interpretation of historical progress. However, I may be overinterpreting. More generally, though, I suggest that it is a mistake to expect all encyclicals to be suitable for the edification of the general public. The Catholic educational system and the network of serious religious publications, of which First Things is so eminent a part, are intended to present the ideas found in documents like Spe Salvi in accessible form to the wider world.

* * *

NATO is slacking in Afghanistan, according to unsympathetic accounts of remarks from US Secretary of Defense:

Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, risked an unprecedented rift with Britain and other close allies after accusing NATO countries fighting in southern Afghanistan of lacking experience in counter-insurgency warfare.

Mr Gates said failings in the south were contributing to the rising violence in the fight against the Taleban.

Actually, by most accounts, Gates has a point. However, he had the expertise to make it only because in the past few years the US military was forced, kicking and screaming and entirely against its will, to regain the knowledge of how to fight an insurgency that it had been so eager to forget after Vietnam.

You know how the first person in your office who gets serious about physical fitness will make a serious nuisance of himself when he starts to hector everyone else to join a gym?

* * *

More on the Union of the West, from the not-at-all approving WorldNetDaily:

7-year plan aligns U.S. with Europe's economy Rules, regs to be integrated without congressional review

[W]riting in the Fall 2007 issue of the Streit Council journal "Freedom and Union," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., a member of the TPN advisory group, affirmed the target date of 2015 for the creation of a Transatlantic Common Market. ... the "Merkel initiative" would allow the Transatlantic Economic Council to integrate and harmonize administrative rules and regulations between the U.S. and the EU "in a very quiet way," without introducing a new free trade agreement to Congress...The Streit Council is named after Clarence K. Streit, whose 1939 book "Union Now" called for the creation of a Transatlantic Union as a step toward world government.

I think understand how this would work on the American end: regulations would have systematic European input at the proposal-and-comment stage, rather than after a final rule has been issued and the matter is contested in the courts or at the WTO. American lawyers who deal with the regulators in Brussels, however, tend to be appalled at their secretive and lackadaisical ways. On the principle that energy flows from hot areas to cold ones, we might expect a greater infusion of American regulatory practice into Europe than the reverse.

* * *

WorldNetDaily is further horrified that "[a] second state has approved a plan that would bypass the U.S. electoral college, giving the presidency to the winner of a national popular vote":

The move came this weekend when New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine signed legislation that specifies the state's 15 electoral college votes would go to the winner of the popular vote.

Maryland, with its 10 electoral college votes, earlier approved a similar plan. Both are contingent on enough other states approving the plan to provide absolute control over presidential elections.

I have argued for just this reform many times before; I cite to the hostile WorldNetDaily so readers can appreciate the incoherence of the arguments against it.

The faction in the Republican Party that opposes this measure has yet to grasp that Republican control of the Midwest and mountain states is no longer assured in a presidential contest. Those states are thick in electoral college votes but very thinly peopled. The current winner-take-all system for counting the electoral college votes from those states should look attractive only to a party that is very certain of the allegiance of that thin population. Otherwise, a party should focus on the popular vote in the states with larger populations. Why the Republicans think it is to their advantage to neglect those states is a mystery.

Copyright © 2008 by John J. Reilly

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