Talking to the Future

I just finished watching the documentary Into Eternity on the final repository for nuclear waste that is currently being built in Finland, the first of its kind in the world. Construction on the project, called Onkalo, began in 2000 (the search for a suitable location began in 1983) and it is projected to be completed in 2020. Over the following 100 years, so the plan goes, it will be filled with Finland’s nuclear waste until finally, in 2120, the complex will be sealed forever, or at least 100,000 years. Because that’s how long nuclear waste remains dangerous for.

One hundred thousand years! That is an almost impossible timeframe for us to think in. Any discussion of such spans of time must inevitable become a philosophical discussion beyond all technical details of this immense project. Who can say what the Earth will even be like in 100,000 years? Certainly nothing like our world today. Looking back on human history, the first ever nuclear detonation took place only 73 years ago. Both World Wars (not to mention countless other armed conflicts) took place in the last 100 years. The industrial revolution only began 250 years ago. Christianity has only been around for 2000 years. Even the pyramids of Ancient Egypt are only 5000 years old. How much has the world changed in that “short” time, technologically, politically, even morally?

Then there’s the even more fascinating problem (for me and the documentary maker) of communication, of how to warn future generations of the dangers buried at Onkalo, of, so to speak, what to put on the “door”. Certainly, lacking understanding of the dangers buried there, it is unlikely that future explorers would heed our warnings even if they could understand them. No curses kept us out of the pyramids. At the same time, any attempt to pass down knowledge over such a timespan is almost certainly doomed to failure.

What languages will be spoken in 100,000 years? Certainly not any language existing today. Even symbols or pictures need a common frame of reference that will most likely be lacking. Spikes, skulls and radioactive ‘rays’ could all mean something completely different to them or mean nothing at all. And who are ‘they’ anyway? Assuming intelligent life still exists in 100,000 years, will it even be “human”?

Perhaps it will be better, as some suggest, to bury the project and lose the records, to try to forget it was ever there. Perhaps all that will remain in 100,000 years is a story, a myth, a cautionary tale passed down from parent to child, from philosopher to student, from storyteller to storyteller. In the words of Michael Madsen, the writer and director of Into Eternity:

Did your parents tell you stories about the fire in the burial chamber deep in the bowels of the earth, the chamber you must always remember to forget?



Palace Intrigue: Where Have You Gone?

If the super-rich are supposedly the royalty of today, whatever has happened to the drama? Where is the selfishness and pride? Where the jealousy and rivalry? Where, if I may be so blunt, is the treachery and murder? If they have to rule us, let’s at least have some palace intrigue!

Don’t tell me today’s half-brothers and stepmothers and third cousins twice removed have outgrown the base–I mean, basic–no, I mean, base–human drives of ambition and greed! Don’t tell me the children of the super-rich today are more loyal and content than their blah-blah-divine-right frères! Maybe they think they’re guaranteed their slice of the pie one day, they only need to bide their time, but if there’s one thing your parents taught you, and it’s likely the only thing, it’s that, one, it must be the whole pie, and, two, the pie has to be had now!

And besides, irrespective of the promised life expectancy in your generation, you know–you know–your parents are going to outlive you anyway, and even if they don’t, they’re still going to give more to your snivelling, butt-kissing little brother and your oh-so-innocent-let-me-sit-on-your-lap daddy’s-little-princess sister. They’ve ignored you your whole life, parcelling out affection like dog treats. ARE YOU A DOG? Remember the cards you made that they never opened, the cake untouched on the restaurant table? They didn’t even show for the state finals, your big day, just made certain that your dad’s lawyer was umpiring and double-faulted Johnny Goodspeed thus crowning you champion. Ahhh, who else in your life–your life of strength and power and perfect control!–can make champion sound so much like loser?

So where was he? Yeah, you know exactly where he was. Blowing your rightful inheritance on the Côte d’Azur, that’s where, with his hands, leg and feet model of a third wife. It’s not okay. All of it is just not okay. Something must be done. And it’s so easy, it doesn’t even have to be a thing. He’s old and on too many pills for this heart and liver, and you can certainly make sure that she won’t get a cent. Your brother races powerboats which is the most dangerous sport in the world, and of course you’d still look after your sister, as long as she does what she’s told.

Why not, right? Why not?


New Years Despair

The week around New Years is one of the saddest times of the year for me in Berlin, not because yet another year is ending, thinking of all the projects I didn’t finish, or the friends I haven’t kept in touch with as well as I would have liked. Not because of the pressure to really make something of it, meet up with people, celebrate, the stress of getting the right friends together at the right parties. No, it’s none of that.

What makes me so sad at this time of year is being again surrounded by the stupidity of humanity, seeing how far we haven’t come, our primitive selves, our smallness of mind. And the trigger for this: DIY fireworks. Shop fronts filled with firecrackers, banners unfurled over sidewalks. Otherwise sensible people reduced to troglodytes. Less sensible people, so much the worse: Adults and children firing rockets at each other and strangers. Firecrackers tossed into traffic. Everywhere rubbish and cardboard burning in the street. The irresponsibility, if not outright harassment. As a friend of mine said, It’s not New Years, it’s war. Yes, war without the killing and dying, but war nonetheless. I ask myself, Is there any hope for a humanity that, when there is peace, plays at war?

Think of the waste. Think of the rubbish. Think of the pollution. Every year Germans spend over 130 million euros on fireworks over just 4 days. Think of all the good that can be done with that money. Think of all the people we can help. But, hey, who’s thinking?

Loud noise. Bright light. They look forward to this every year. This makes them feel alive, makes their lives interesting, makes them happy. It really makes me despair that this is what humanity wants, this is all humanity needs. No deeper truths, no higher goal. Just  loud noise, bright light.



Guardian: We know how to solve homelessness. So why aren’t we doing it?

We know how to solve homelessness. We know how to reduce poverty. We know how to eliminate starvation. We know how to reduce violence, and discrimination, and mental illness. Why aren’t we doing any of these things?

I wish more people would start asking themselves these questions. I wish more people would start asking themselves these questions and acting on them. But I’ll settle for more people just asking themselves these questions.

Don’t be put off by answers such as: Because people are greedy. Because people are mean. Because people are stupid. These are real, valid answers but they should not be the end of the discussion, rather the beginning of change. Once enough people recognise this, then we can start making things better.


Not a Book Review: It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

“I think I’ll indulge in the luxury of being independent, for once, and vote Prohibition or the Battle Creek bran-and-spinach ticket, or anything that makes some sense!”

Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here is an alternative history novel about fascism coming to the United States of America. It’s not so much prescience. The book was written in 1935 as the Nazis were ratcheting up their good works in Germany, and a lot of the story was more or less a direct transfer of Nazi tactics to a North American sensibility. But there are some fascinating parallels, not with 1930s Germany, but with the 2016 US Presidential Election, particularly in the early chapters, before the election of Senator Benzedrine “Buzz” Windrip [sic]. No, it’s not prescience. These are timeless Americanisms. Almost a century later, politics in America has gotten better, has gotten worse, has stayed exactly the same.

Trump supporters aren’t called the League of Forgotten Men but they could just as easily have been. There isn’t a Reverend Paul Peter Prang, whose “weekly radio address … was to millions the very oracle of God”; there are dozens of them, though there certainly have been competitors for the title of Lee Sarason. And men, it seems, have never stopped paying lip service to “draining the swamp”.

“[E]ven if our Buzzy maybe has got a few faults, he’s on the side of the plain people, and against all the tight old political machines …”

Windrip was a clown, a liar, and a charlatan, “ascending from the vulgar fraud of selling bogus medicine, standing in front of a megaphone, to the dignity of selling bogus economics, standing … in front of a microphone.” He was “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. … [He] would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts–figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”

When approached by supplicants vis a vis the moral defense/condemnation of a burlesque show, he “called the clergymen “Doctor” or “Brother” or both; he called the promoters “Buddy” and “Pal”; he gave equally ringing promises to both; and for both he loyally did nothing whatever.” Similarly, “it was known that, though he drank a lot, Senator Windrip also praised teetotalism a lot, while his rival, Walt Trowbridge, though he drank but little, said nothing at all in support of the Messiahs of Prohibition.”

So, at the tragic end of the tragic day, the people saw in him, “for all his clownish swindlerism, a free vigor which promised a rejuvenation of the crippled and senile capitalistic system.”

Coincidentally, Windrip is a Democrat, but then so was Trump once. In the end, it makes no difference. America is a two-party country, both of them for the rich, and the poor are just pawns kicked around the chess board.

Windrip’s opponent in the presidential election, Walter Trowbridge, “quietly, steadfastly, speaking on the radio and in a few great halls, explained that he did advocate an enormously improved distribution of wealth, but that it must be achieved by steady digging and not by dynamite that would destroy more than it excavated.” Windrip flatly promises $5000 to every “real American family”.

As Lewis writes, the “conspicuous fault of [the opposition] was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for … all the primitive emotions they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.” It didn’t matter that “one tenth of 1 per cent of the population at the top have an aggregate income equal to 42 per cent at the bottom. Figures like that are too astronomical. Don’t mean a thing in the world to a fellow with his eyes–and nose–down in a transmission box …”

It’s an obvious observation (though not obvious enough for the country to have done anything about it) which Lewis puts keenly when he writes that “Windrip’s just something nasty that’s been vomited up. Plenty others still left fermenting in the stomach … No, Buzz isn’t important–it’s the sickness that made us throw him up that we’ve got to attend to”. At another spot, he adds that “Windrip is only the lightest cork on the whirlpool. He didn’t plot all this thing. With all the justified discontent there is against the smart politicians and the Plush Horses of Plutocracy–oh, if it hadn’t been one Windrip, it’d been another.” Of course this is also where life outstrips the greatest imagination. Who did 2016 America elect to defend this “justified discontent” but the plushest of the Plush Horses!

Dark times follow, which we are not here to discuss. A good history book of Nazi Germany will suffice. Instead, Lewis offers up a prayer for all of us:

Blessed be they who are not Patriots and Idealists, and who do not feel they must dash right in and Do Something About It, something so immediately important that all doubters must be liquidated–tortured–slaughtered!

With respect to this, Trump’s America is both better and worse. Trump has not built an overt state-run terror machine to violently suppress minorities, the press and political opponents, but that is not to say that every one of these groups has been terrorised in myriad ways more insidious and thereby more difficult to combat and resist.

Lewis astutely observes that “the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism, but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism. But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word “Fascism” and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty.”

But the book does end, there is an ‘end’ to the trials of Doremus Jessup–yes, he’s the hero of the story, the editor of a small local paper called The Informer, and sure it’s quite a late introduction for the main character, but this is not a book review so what does it matter, here he is anyway–and approaching the final chapters, I couldn’t help being nervous about the potential resolution. Was everyone going to die? Does he love Big Brother? Part of me wished for a happy ending but as Lewis himself reminds us (referencing Romain Rolland), “a country that tolerates evil means–evil manners, standards of ethics–for a generation, will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end.” How does a country recover from totalitarianism?

Let’s not forget that It can’t Happen Here was written and published in 1935, before the outbreak of the second World War, nor had a world war precipitated in the book by the time the story ends in 1939. But yes, spoilers ahead, I’m going to tell you how it ends. Like I said, there is no easy road away from totalitarianism. The dictator Windrip is deposed by his second-in-command Sarason, who is soon after removed by the Secretary of War and head of the military Colonel Dewey Haik, and things, which up until that point had been atrocious and irredeemable, get even worse. War is declared on Mexico, less for any substantial reason than in the hopes of uniting the country against an outside enemy. Fortunately, the move backfires and instead plunges the country into civil war, which, very soon thereafter, in one final dig at America and perhaps highlighting the root cause of all the aforementioned and -quoted evils, “halted, because in the America which had so warmly praised itself for its “widespread popular free education,” there had been so very little education; widespread, popular, free, or anything else, that most people did not know what they wanted–indeed knew about so few things to want at all.”


ICTY: Mladic guilty of genocide

Don’t think humans can’t do such things. And it wasn’t just the Nazis. This happened in our lifetime. We watched it on television while eating our Sunday roasts. We went to school, got haircuts, played soccer in the park while these people suffered and died. This isn’t history. This is today. Go to Sarajevo, learn about the war, the murders, the genocide. It can happen again. Unfortunately, it likely will.


BBC: Mladic jailed for life for Bosnia war genocide
Guardian: Ratko Mladic convicted of war crimes and genocide at UN tribunal

Anthropogenic Evolution

Another day, another article highlighting studies into the differences between the brains of conservatives and liberals. Read for yourself but there seems to be good evidence that differences in political orientation is specific, marked, and more than casually influenced by our genes.[1] Add to this the increasing isolation, both intellectual and in real geographic terms, between conservatives and liberals, plus the revelation that politics[2] are causing people to walk out on dates, relationships (including friendships) and marriages,[3][4] and we have the prerequisite conditions for our next evolutionary stumble.

We stand at a fork in the road of humanity, where in the future two species may stand where today only one. Think H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. And just like the Eloi and the Morlocks, our evolution will be decidedly anthropogenic. We are the creators of the conditions to which we now need to adapt. And not only that, but the diverging paths that we have chosen we have chosen for ourselves.

And so only one question remains: Who will be the small, effete surface-dwellers, and who the toiling, subterranean primitives?


[1] The Atlantic: Can your genes predict whether you’ll be a conservative or a liberal?; Slate: Why are conservatives more susceptible to believing lies?
[2] Specifically, in the US, the question of whether someone is a Trump supporter, as the perfect crystallisation of their political and social views.
[3] Like all the best revelations, it surprises nobody yet nevertheless changes everything.[4] Politico: How Donald Trump changed the dating world; Harper’s Bazaar: If you are married to a Trump supporter, divorce them

BBC: Why cake mix lacks one essential ingredient

This is fascinating. So people were too busy/lazy/other to bake at home and flour companies were worried, so they invented ready cake mix. But people didn’t like ready cake mix because it was too easy. Supposedly a cake should be something that ‘comes from the heart … a love poem, an act of faith’, something just adding water and pushing into a not-quite-yet pre-heated oven failed to satisfy. So, after talking to some experts and conducting some surveys, the manufacturers decide to leave out the eggs. Now people had to crack and whisk the eggs themselves. This, astoundingly, was enough to provide the necessary emotional connection. People felt vindicated. It’s like the Matrix.

There, between adding water to ready cake mix and adding water and eggs to ready cake mix, in that sliver of distinction, that’s where you’ll find our humanity.

Read the article, here.


A House Built on Biblical Sand

It’s true: the God of the Old Testament, the Abrahamic God, Yahweh, Allah, one third of the indivisible Christian Trinity, has always preferred his women young and virginal, has always sought the ruthless destruction of his enemies, and has always punished disobedience in his own followers without mercy or remorse. He is a vengeful, jealous, unforgiving god. So has He always been. Amen.

For centuries now (dare I say for over six  millennia) many among his faithful followers and cowed adherents have struggled with the ugly humanity central to many of the best-known Bible stories: the intolerance and hate, the violence and murder, the rape and incest–the whole, pervasive, foundational bigotry of God’s message.[1] For the most part they have chosen to ignore the unpalatable aspects, to focus instead on the more positive teachings in the New Testament (though similarly and conveniently ignoring the messages they dislike[2]). But this position was always unstable, one could say like a house built on biblical sand, a house that must, sooner or later, collapse.

And now, finally, Christians are being forced to reconcile their beliefs–finally to choose between the justifications for murder and rape and genocide in the Bible, and rejecting the bigotry, violence and harmful posturing of a primitive people. They choose the Bible.


[1] Not to mention the inconsistencies.
[2] Admonishments against greed, for example, or teachings on compassion.

Read: All the Appalling Ways Republicans are Defending Roy Moore


Vox: America is facing an epistemic crisis

If I wanted to sound trite, I could say there are two types of people in the world: those who understand epistemology, and those who don’t care.

Growing up, I was always taught not to argue with stupid people. But what no one ever taught me was what I’m supposed to do instead, if you have to live with them, work with them, be governed by them, as we all invariably do.

It’s like back in school when the class bully calls you a stupid, nasty name, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Ignore them, get angry, even defend yourself with fisticuffs, the damage is still done. Now the bully is in the Oval Office and the Boardroom, and they’re your neighbours and your family, and the schoolyard is everywhere.

Have you ever had an argument with a friend where one person says what is true, and the other person says what they want, and you both carry on and on and talk at cross-purposes until you’re both blue in the face and neither of you are any closer to understanding?

This article is a brilliantly depressing analysis of all these things in the context of America’s current political climate, which can only be described, meteorologically, as a shitstorm, and specifically the question: What if Special Counsel Mueller proves Trump’s wrongdoing, and we just can’t do anything about it?

Some highlights:

“It is quite simply impossible for most people to imagine believing all the things that would be required to also believe that DC Democrats are into organized child trafficking. … And yet millions of Americans fervently believe these things.”

“Mainstream scientists and journalists see themselves as … neutral arbiters, even if they do not always uphold that ideal in practice. … But the right did not want better neutral arbiters. The institutions it built scarcely made any pretense of transcending faction; they are of and for the right. … They are prosecuting its interests; that is the ur-goal. … That mindset leads to what I call “tribal epistemology” — the systematic conflation of what is true with what is good for the tribe.”

“[The reason] why Jeff Flake and Bob Corker are leaving the Senate [is that t]hey no longer have any control over what their constituents believe or want, and their constituents believe and want increasingly ugly things.”

“There is no longer any settling such arguments. The only way to settle any argument is for both sides to be committed, at least to some degree, to shared standards of evidence and accuracy … If one side rejects the epistemic authority of society’s core institutions and practices, there’s just nothing left to be done. Truth cannot speak for itself, like the voice of God from above.”

I highly recommend you read the article in full, here. And the best thing is, this commentator doesn’t seem inordinately beholden to that soporific, all-too-human need for ‘hope’–he’s not afraid of turning over the bodies.