The Long View 2007-12-21: Alternative Futures; Bombadil; New Greenhouse Model; Huckabee & Political Physics

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There is a great deal of 2007 political controversy in this post by John J. Reilly that doesn’t matter much anymore, but his passing aside on Tom Bombadil reminded me of a series of tweets by Misha Burnett earlier this month.

While it isn’t true that Tolkien invented fantasy, he was doing something different than the authors that came before him, and Tom Bombadil can help illustrate why.

Alternative Futures; Bombadil; New Greenhouse Model; Huckabee & Political Physics

A characteristic of Alternative History is the "point of divergence," the incident where the story stops paralleling real history and becomes more or less different; a battle turns out differently, or the consensus of an important cabinet meeting takes a different turn. There is nothing wrong with this device, but Olaf Stapledon demonstrated that it is not the only way to go if we want to describe alternative timelines. I recently came across an online archive of Stapledon's work, including the complete text of some novels. Here is a snippet from Darkness and the Light [previous link long dead switched to Project Gutenberg Australia BIE] (1942):

At some date within the age that we call modern, some date not precisely known to me, for I looked back towards it from the distant futures as though searching in my remote past, the single torrent of terrestrial events is split, as though by a projecting promontory, so that it becomes thenceforth two wholly distinct and mutually exclusive surging floods of intricate existence, each one a coherent and actual history, in which the lives of countless generations succeed one another along separate ravines of time....Moreover the twin streams of history are in their upper reaches so similar as to be indistinguishable, like the almost identical views which a man has through his two eyes. Not till the two futures begin to differ strikingly can they be distinguished and known to be inconsistent themes.

This sounds a bit like a quantum wave expanding before an observation collapses it, but the text does not mention it.

* * *

Speaking of alternative futures, no less a person than Vernor Vinge has been speculating on the topic What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen?

[H]umanity's chances for surviving the century might become more dubious: Environmental and resource threats would still exist.
Warfare threats would still exist... A return to MAD is very plausible...

Coming out of the Age of Failed Dreams, what would be the prospects for a long human era?

Scenario 1: A Return to MADness...Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell...TTAPS Nuclear Winter claims
I'm skeptical about the two preceding references. On the other hand...The subtle logic of MAD planning constantly ...engages very smart people and enormous resources in assuring that ever greater levels of destruction can be attained.

Scenario 2: The Golden Age This scenario is similar to Gunther Stent's vision in The Coming of the Golden Age, a View of the End of Progress
So what happens at the far end of this Long Now (20000 years from now, 50000)? Even without the Singularity, it seems reasonable that at some point the species would become something greater.

Scenario 3: The Wheel of Time
Sooner or later, even with the best planning, megadisasters happen, and civilization falls (or staggers). Hence, in this diagram we see cycles of disasters and recovery.

Self-sufficient, off-Earth settlements as humanity's best hope for long-term survival

[Among the objections:] "Chasing after safety in space would just distract from the life-and-death priority of cleaning up the mess we have made of Earth." I suspect that this point of view is beyond logical debate.

Let me suggest a point of apologetics to anyone who is confronted with the objection that spaceflight would be a distraction from saving Gaia. The exchange should then go:

"But we have to escape."

"Escape from what?"

"From ecofascists like you."

Again, in the 1970s and'80s I was boring everyone I knew with the Singularity, sometimes even using that term. I still have a few asymptotic graphs on the backs of envelopes around here somewhere. I by no means repudiate the concept, though I think it's a mistake to conflate the idea with progress in cybernetics. Be that as it may, what I chiefly notice about this kind of speculation, including my own examples, is its principled refusal to be informed by history.

* * *

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil is the name of a poem by Tolkien. It is also the title an anthology in which the poem was included, published in the 1960s. I can just barely remember reading the anthology. However, the poem may be relevant to the upcoming sequel to The Hobbit. Here are a few notes on the anthology:

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, originally published in Oxford Magazine in 1934. Tolkien later offered to his publishers the idea that Bombadil's story could be expanded into a sequel to The Hobbit, but they didn't bite, so Tom appeared anyway in The Lord of the Rings. Tom makes his debut in the form found in this collection....Only in the title poem does Tom find Goldberry and in "Perry-the-Winkle" does the Lonely Troll find Perry. In Tom's Adventures and in The Shadow- Bride the suitors actually seize their wives. This would be disturbing but for the larger context; sometimes one must go to extraordinary lengths even to communicate one's existence and one's desire for friendship and community; one must walk into another person and not look back. And the poems seem to be saying, as in "Bombadil Goes Boating" and "Perry-the-Winkle," that one must take responsibility for the journey.

Okay, but the story needs Hobbits. I note that Aragorn and Arwen became engaged during the period between The Hobbit and the Trilogy (in 2980 TA, to be precise), so perhaps we can expect to see those characters, too. But where's the MacGuffin?

* * *

Meanwhile, the ingenious Mike Alexander has created a simple climate model that attempts to sort out the effect of CO2 from solar forcing. One notes that it is better at predicting the temperature of Venus than that of early 20th-century Earth, but maybe the point is that CO2, above a certain level, drowns out other factors.

* * *

The Reagan-gluons that once bound the particles of the Republican nucleus have decayed into a shower of attack pieces. The particles have now broken free, as the Standard Model has long predicted. At any rate, George Will has denounced Republican presidential primary candidate Mike Huckabee for neglecting pro-business economics in favor of prolife issues. To that Mark Steyn says this:

What bothers me about Huckabee, and to a certain extent, McCain, is that there seems to be no breaks on any of their inclinations, other than how they happen, personally, to feel about it. So to me, they seem philosophically unmoored. But I thought the Will piece, you know, in presupposing that somehow being pro-life is an optional extra on the Republican side, whereas, you know, a commitment to free trade isn’t, I’m not, that smelled like a bogus argument to me.

It is not clear that Huckabee is philosophically unmoored. At any rate, Michael Gerson was peddling a suitable philosophy in the Bush White House for several years, and it is not a coincidence that he just published a polemical memoir to promote it.

In any case, other people are chiming in about the Will-Huckabee kerfluffle. Peggy Noonan's Christmas cookie for Governor Huckabee in to day's Opinion Journal has a measure of venom in the sugar: she refer's to Huckabee's "Christianism," for one thing; a word coined to rhyme with "Islamism." Nonetheless, she does put the matter in perspective:

Mr. Huckabee is clever. He puts forth his policies, such as they are, based on a faith-based understanding of public policy, and if you disagree with his policies, or take a hard shot at them, or at him, he suggests the reason is that you look down on evangelicals. This creates a new fissure in a party already riven by fissures. He has been accused by some in the conservative press of tearing the party apart, but it was being torn apart before he got on the scene. His rise is not a cause of collapse but an expression of it.

As an aside, let me note these remarks in the infamous Will piece:

"Despicable" and "appalling" evidence of a "gutter campaign" -- that is how The Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Mass., characterized this from Sunday's New York Times Magazine profile of Huckabee: "'Don't Mormons,' he asked in an innocent voice, 'believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?'"

Imagine someone asking "in an innocent voice" this: "Don't Jews use the blood of gentile children to make matzoth for Passover?"

It is indeed pretty creepy that Huckabee made a campaign issue of a point of Mormon theology. (He had a right to do so, but we have a right to do many things that we ought not to do.) However, surely the blood-libel analogy is inapposite? I gather that the fraternity of Jesus and Satan is an opinion within Mormonism, though I do not know whether it is dogma. I first ran across the notion in the writings of C.G. Jung, by the way, though I don't recall what tradition he was discussing; not Mormonism, I'm pretty sure.

Be this all as it may, we might reflect that, though the Republican Party is turning into a shower of particles, at least they are charged particles. The Democratic candidates, in contrast, seem to have turned into a Koss-MoveOn condensate, which is unlikely to be stable outside laboratory conditions.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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