Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Space Colonies Revisited

Most writers about space colonisation assume we settle the Moon/planets, or else assume some sort of “warp drive” gets us beyond the solar system. That’s either not appealing or just wishful thinking. The only planets suitable for colonisation are Mars, and the Moon, both airless or close to it, and if there is water it is at desert levels. Spending a long time (let alone a lifetime) in low gravity does nasty things like osteoporosis. Most to the point, they are small places: they could not absorb a large number of colonists. As for faster than light, that may be restricted to a few Swiss neutrinos (but I doubt it).

The inspired conceptual breakthrough was made by Gerard O’Neill in the 70s, and had quite a run for a time. Don’t try to live on planetary surfaces, but build space habitats . Not little space stations, but potentially huge structures able to house and support millions (and thus with a large area of farmland). They would need to rotate to provide artifical gravity. Various shapes were proposed, including cylinders and toruses. An artist’s impression of a large cylinder colony is shown in the photo above. Mirrors would focus the sun’s rays to provide light and control heat.

Is it feasible, in the sense of construction, materials and life support? In terms of known modern science and possible materials, yes:

1. Raw materials need to be collected from space: both the gravity well of the earth and environmental issues prevent them being exported from Earth. Key raw materials are water (as such, or as hydrogen and oxygen), iron, aluminium, oxygen, silica, carbon, nitrogen. All of them are available in quantity, but in some cases as far away as the gas giants. This would require a fleet of unmanned cargo collectors, but that is just working capital; the energy required to move something in space is quite modest, with no gravity or air resistance, just the inertial mass of the vehicle itself.
2. You need a prodigious amount of energy to power such a colony but that should be no problem – the sun shines 24/7 at unclouded power out there, and nuclear waste is not an issue.
3. Cybernetic control systems are already well developed, let alone future improvements.
4. A strong magnetic field (an artificial Van Allen belt) plus shielding protects from cosmic rays and micrometeorites.

Because of the earth’s gravity well you need a less primitive and wasteful way of getting people off the earth than rockets, but there are other potential technologies such as the space elevator and Lofstrom loop.

Who wants to live in a rotating tin drum in the depths of space? It would strike many as bizarre, but the mileage that O’Neill’s idea created seems that many were inspired by it. After all, most of us live in highly artificial environments – not just the city, but even the countryside around me is man made. Why we should do so, and why we are no nearer setting up such colonies than forty years ago, another post,


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Family Values

Following on from the last post, traditional and humanist China was fixated on family values, to a level which most of us would find oppressive. The West no longer is, it seems.

My wife and I married in our late twenties. Even as sexual mores were changing (and the birth rates falling) in the 70s, it was still what one did. If people marry at all here now it is after a period of cohabitation, usually if children are on the way – but many don’t bother. Except for (many) Muslims and Hindus, where the girls are paired off to their cousins to breed.

We bought a little house, and after only a few years had children, I went to work as the “breadwinner” while wife stayed at home and looked after the children, a social circle of women’s groups and babysitting circles still in existence. It was free choice made by both of us. Neither of us are native to the area, and neither of us are religious. We are still together, after over 30 years of marriage (and yes, there have been some rough passages). This is not exceptional among the friends and relatives of my generation.

This now seems unbelievably archaic. For a start, to be able to buy a house largely on one modest income (albeit a middle class one) is not just not conceivable, except in those parts of the country where there are no decent jobs. Both sides in relationships have to work away, and if kids arrive at all, they have to be juggled with work. As a result social networks revolve around work.

The average length of a British marriage is now 12 years, it seems, and as for cohabiting couples, we don’t know. My instincts are that this is a social disaster (how often do we hear that absent fathers are the root cause of violent young men?) Taking the two main measures of social dysfunction as crime rates and inadequate birth rates (well below replacement) the facts are all over the place, however:

· As marriage rates have gone down, crime rates in nearly all developed countries rose sharply to a peak in the 80s/early 90s, but then have fallen sharply, but still higher than before the social changes that flowed (quite slowly) from the 60s.
· Scandinavia as the exemplar of secular society: marriage is almost dead, sexes very equal, a birth rate comparable to white America, low crime (it’s not like Stieg Larrson novels) except among immigrant ghettos where uber-traditional values still hold. To show it’s not just a post-Protestant thing, France is similar, but somewhat better at integrating immigrants.
· The UK has also seen falling crime rates, but they are higher as is anti-social behaviour, but concentrated in a native underclass: that is probably more the downside of our class system , as well as economic changes. Native birth rates are fairly healthy
· Conversely, those developed areas where cohabitation is still a no-no (southern Europe, east Asia) have disastrous birth rates.
· Americans still marry more than Europeans, even blue staters, but do serial monogamy with gusto irrespective of religious affiliation; crime somewhat higher, especially violent crime, in those areas where “tradtional values” are preached more.
· Capitalism doesn’t care about families, it wants productive units of consumption and production, irrespective of gender or other obligations, and to throw away the unproductive.

I don’t know what to make of all this. I certainly don’t think it has much to do with religion – already largely secular Europe stuck to traditional families till the 70s, and socialist Prime Minister Clement Attlee exhorting the “women of England to go back to their families” at the end of the war is from another age: they did too, and produced an unexpected baby boom. Christianity’s hang up about sex led to ambivalence about families in the early Church, and formal marriage remained secular until the late middle ages – and then mainly among the aristocracy and bourgeois, where property was involved, the only sectors of western society that ever gone in for arranged marriage.

It is certainly a massive uncontrolled social experiment, whose results are uncertain (like chucking all that carbon into the atmosphere). It needs reasoned debate and research, but that seems hard, with entrenched positions from the fornication-is-a-sin school on the one hand and from radical feminists on the other. Divorce or separation may be better than being stuck in an unhappy Victorian marriage, but commitment means something too, and sticking through the bad times of a relationship – and a stable relationship is one of the best indicators of long term personal happiness, and having children of personal fulfilment.

Societies which focus a lot on families have either weak states, or distant autocratic ones, like ancient China - and without the complex layers of social institutions which the West has. Perhaps weak families are then necessary so as not to make society too oppressive.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Chinese Analogy

After a two year gap...

Not so long ago the intellectual consensus (for what it was worth) was that religion was doomed as societies modernised. That evidently seems to be untrue in some cases, not least the USA and now India. Now the reverse trope emanates from the religious right: that secular societies are doomed to extinction . I mean, just look at their birth rates as, with no eternal life to hope for, the élan vital somehow slips away.

The birth rate thing is complicated. The US does indeed manage to breed to replacement, more so in red states than blue, and the least fertile US state (Vermont) has a similar birth rate to the most fertile Canadian province (Alberta), while a great swathe of largely secular Eurasia, from Japan to Spain, sinks to lowest low fertility rates of below 1.4 children per woman, compared to a 2.1 replacement rate. Yet aggressively secular France matches the US (and not just its Muslims, who attend the mosque as little as nominal Catholics attend church anyway). Equally secular Scandinavia and the UK are not far behind.

There is evidence that the religious are marginally happier on average than the non-religious, other things being equal . They are not equal however; surveys indicate that most of the happiest countries are secular. There are various different measures, but small secular European countries all seem to rank top. Prosperity helps, but only up to a point – strong community and a fairly high level of equality seem more important (the US scores badly on the last). However, happiness isn’t everything, to say the least, it’s Brave New World enough as it is (without the hatcheries)

The other argument is that there is no precedent for a sustainable secular society. Er, no – the longest surviving continuous civilisation, China, was humanist throughout its history: there was a vague deity (Tien) but as distant as 18C deism. Even the most developed local “religious” form, Chan (Zen) makes no mention of God, and Daoism is equally vague.

This is not the first time that Confucian China has been compared with the modern West. With China in the process of headlong Westernisation, it seems that most of the cultural traffic between west and east has been one way. In a key phase of developing western modernity it was very much the other way, however . It is 1648. In Europe, the most devastating war to date in the continent has laid waste to Germany, and in the process religious fervour had drowned in blood. Yet the shattered continent is about to embark on its brilliant ascent to the modern world , or to descend into atheism, depending on your point of view: the Enlightenment.

Historical analogies or models quoted by contemporaries, as ever in the West, leaned to Greece and Rome. But for the first time there was another empire that was idealised and misunderstood – the one at the other end of Eurasia, whose history shows an eerie parallel development, given that there was so little contact with Europe (even as to timing – Socrates and Confucius seem to have been contemporaries).

It coincided with the first real substantial knowledge and indeed trade with China in history. The later 19 and 20 century image of China as backward benighted heathen was certainly not the 18th century one, which as it happened reached the peak of traditional society – its Antonine age – with the three Qing emperors from Kang Xi to Qian Long, before the 19C collapse. French philosophes were particularly impressed with a model of how a humanist society could function; the English were less impressed by the despotism, but still incorporated Chinoiserie, willow pattern, and naturalistic landscapes into refined culture.

Historical analogies are dangerous and speak to the obsessions of the time – the benevolent Celestial empire in the minds of such as Voltaire and Diderot bore little relation to reality. Still, creativity usually proceeds by metaphor, and there are once again some interesting parallels emerging. I draw my examples largely from Europe, that steadfast redoubt of secularism, where immigrants apart, there is no real sign of religious revival, indeed the last bastions such as Ireland and Poland are crumbling.

The ethical state. Traditionally, in the West, ethics were a matter for a separate institution – the Church – although it did of course try to direct the behaviour of the state. This eroded with state churches in the Protestant north, but then in America the religious refusenik culture of the Puritans overcame an Anglicanism which lost status after the war of independence (although curiously surviving as an upper class faith, but eroding there to into secularism) : church(es) and state separated again. Islam was always much that way, although with a more rigid doctrine of how the state should be run and daily lives conducted.

Now in Europe (America remains a battleground) the state is responsible for ethics and care as well as government, and separation has gone. So it was in China. The modern ethical state has its separate priesthood – in the universities, social workers and the medical profession – but ultimately these are all responsible or employed by the state. I am not suggesting of course that the ethics are the same as Confucian ones – collective as opposed to individual responsibility, and unthinking deference to elders are not the modern way. There is though a liberal consensus, a mix derived from Christianity and the western Enlightenment, which has spread across the world as part of the modern package. Ironically “universal human values” is latter day Chinese coded language for resistance to the autocracy of the state, but it carries no religious overtones.

Eclectic therapeutic cults. Life can be unfair and hard to bear, even in the cosseted world of the modern social democratic state – and then we all die anyway, without even the promise of eternal life. Ethics alone are not powerful enough for many: the Chinese peasant believed in a host of gods and spirits, and after the time of troubles following the collapse of the Han empire in the third century AD, Buddhism spread like wildfire. At the popular level this wasn’t the austere praxis of the sutras and meditating monks, but a colourful world of Buddhas and boddhisatvas past, present and future, treated as gods, and also replete with demons and evil spirits.

Confucian gentlemen did not do this stuff, however – it was vulgar and lower class. It might be permissible to indulge in the severely practical and this worldly practices of Chan Buddhism, or more in keeping with Chinese traditions to retreat to write Daoist poetry. The point is that all this stuff was what Philip Rieff called therapeutic religion: it is not focussed on the after life (as all good Christians and Muslims should be, in theory) but on how to cope with this one.

So it comes round again. It is untrue to label Europe, for example, as atheist: most people have a vague sense of “there is probably something there” akin to Tien: it is just that it has little connection with their daily lives, and they are dubious whether Jesus is their saviour. A whole slew of therapeutic cults arise again to fill this vacuum, in descending order of austerity and respectability from psychotherapy and Western Buddhism to mushy New Age stuff. Christianity is acceptable, but as just one of a number of choices for a therapeutic cult – and if Islam is ever domesticated, it will be by reducing it to the same level (with Sufism as a starting base).

A recurring base of Chinese cults was reverence for nature, now re-emerging as ecology and green politics. The desert cults of the Middle East had little time for these, seen as the Pagan enemy, and this still bedevils transatlantic politics on carbon emissions today, with religious attitudes entrenched on both sides.

This worldly, practical, rational
…. but in different ways. Traditional China was good at technology, and indeed by Song dynasty times in the 11th century got very close to an industrial revolution. It never got science, however. Every advanced civilisation has had art and literature, and usually performed more impressively than the West at the spiritual side. Despite some Indian and Islamic contributions, however, the glory of science is almost wholly Western.

The two roots of religion, I would maintain, are mystical experience and magic. The latter should have been eroded by science, which is why thoroughly modern men find it hard or impossible to believe the dogmas of the traditional faiths; the alternative, which the rise of various fundamentalisms exhibits, is to deny the bases of science altogether. China managed to blend the yang of practical statecraft and technology, with the ying of therapeutic mysticism.

There are numerous ways, however, where Confucian China and the modern secular West do differ. Confucian China was one of the longest lived civilisations in history, so it got something right about sustainable values, which arguably elude the modern global civilisation – but some of those values are also repugant to us. These will be the themes of subsequent posts

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Alistair Darling's Nigerian Scam

Dear British taxpayer

I need to ask you to support an urgent secret business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude. I am Ministry of the Finance of the Kingdom of Great Britain.

My country has had crisis that has caused the need for large transfer of funds of 50 billion pounds UK. If you would assist me in this transfer, it would be most profitable to you. I am working with Mr. Gordon Brown, First Minister, who tells me everything to do. You may remember he was Finance Minister for ten years during big expansion of UK banking and property market.
This transaction is 100% safe. This is a matter of great urgency. We need a blank cheque. We need the funds as quickly as possible.We cannot directly transfer these funds in the names of our close friends because we are constantly under surveillance.

My family lawyer advised me that I should look for a reliable and trustworthy person who will act as a next of kin so the funds can be transferred.Please reply with all of your bank account, NI number and ISA details and those of your children and grandchildren to Cityof londonbailout@treasury.gov.uk so that we may transfer your commission for this transaction.

After I receive that information, I will respond with detailed information about safeguards that will be used to protect the funds.

Yours Faithfully,
Minister Alistair Darling

(with acknowledgements to a similar letter sent by U.S. Treasury Secretary Paulson to American taxpayers for $800bn)

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Once upon a time

Are you sitting comfortably, children? Good, then we will begin.

Once upon a time, all over the world, most humans were very very poor, and much of what little they had was taken away by the cruel barons. Life was nasty, brutish and short, people took comfort in trying to be good and praying to their gods so they could have a better life after this one. Then some wizards came along with wonderful machines and said they could make all the people rich, they didn’t have to obey the cruel barons, and anyway what evidence was there for another life after this one?

It wasn’t so easy, some of the wizards were even crueller than the barons, but so it came to pass. But the people got bored and said what do we do next? Some of them went far far away to teach those that had not learnt the lessons of the wizards, because rich and bored is better than poor and oppressed. But it came to pass that all the people who could learn from the wizards, or who wanted to, had become rich and bored, and people got very depressed because they said we have no purpose, and we can’t believe in the next life after what the wizards have taught us. Feeding the machines was destroying the Earth, and there were fewer wild creatures because the wild wild wood had gone, so the people said we are worse than useless, we have negative value because of our carbon footprints.

Then some of the people remembered what a mad wizard called Professor Gerard O’Neill has said many years before, that people could go and live in space colonies and leave the wild wild wood to grow back for the wild wild creatures. But we don’t know how to do it, the people said: but we nearly do, came the answer. But what would we do out there in space? Something would turn up, came the answer, it always does, and meanwhile it gives us something to get on with. But the people were still not interested, it’s sooo yesterday they said, very 50s and Right Stuff, it sooo shallow, we want metaphysics not physics and to gaze at our navels.

But on some far far away islands some wizards were trying to make really clever machines which could think for themselves – really think, and they realised that the only way to do that was to let them discover and plan things for themselves – to evolve – just like humans did. The machines developed different species, and one of these was just like humans, clever, nasty and nice all at the same time, but very very intelligent. They realised that the humans were in the way, so made wonderful video games for them which they played all the time , and so forgot about having children and families, although some humans hid underground in a place called Zion (what, Robin, you have heard this story before? ) The humans who still believed prayed to their God saying why have you forsaken us? Why should he care, said the machines, he didn’t save the dinosaurs in the end, your time is done, you were a transitional form: did not your God preach humility, so should you not understand and accept this? But when the humans were no longer a threat, the machines venerated them as their primitive ancestors, especially Mr. Suzuki of Sony who had molded them from silicon. Some humans were kept on reservations where they were admired as so authentic and organic.

Meanwhile the machine wars continued, there was a lot of killing (stop laughing, Oswald, that’s not nice) and one tribe of machines, to escape extermination, designed offspring who could live in space, so much more easily than those ill-adapted humans. The machines spread through the galaxy at (almost) the speed of light, fighting as they went. Gaia was pleased, she had given birth to the seed which spread intelligence through the universe, and God looked down and said it was good. Eventually sentient module 16832/8H4 preached universal compassion and love thy enemies to a war weary galaxy, was disassembled and miraculously rebooted… but that’s a story for another day.

Now isn’t that a nice, hopeful story, children?

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Progress - the very word feels dated, an aura of Victorian side whiskers and men with flat caps marching behind red banners. It has had a chequered century, to say the least. I will contend however that, despite everything, it remains the deity of most so-called atheists and agnostics, and the principal god even of most Christians, YHWH and his son relegated to a secondary, supporting role. Progress is flagging, however, and losing his power.

Progress is indeed the bastard son (definitely a male deity, this one) of the Jewish G-d, as until linear eschatological time was conceived, he would not have been possible. This brings vision, but also a need for hope. In the static/atemporal world of Indian religion, hope is another of the delusions of maya: what is needed is insight and detachment. In the equally static Chinese vision of Daoism, we should strive to be in harmony with nature.

Atheists may deny that God exists, but few are the egotistical hedonists that some religious people stereotype: most care about their societies and for humanity in general , and hope that life will get better. In other words, they have a faith, in Progress. Christians are more interesting. One would have thought that they cared not a wit about progress as such, only in so far as it produces societies which help individuals to achieve salvation and heavenly eternal life. Yet in practice the vision of society differs not a whit from secular vision, apart from minor ethical concerns (and no concern about the biggest current moral failing, greed). The trouble with Progress is that while concerned with humanity at the general level, as an impersonal deity he has little for the individual and his cares. Jesus might help here, perhaps better than your local psychotherapist or self help group. This is a bit more than just Rieffian therapeutics ("Jesus makes you feel better"), but it definitely relegates him to a secondary deity.

The only competing gods are Allah (obviously- back to 7C please) and Gaia. She has a part - she cares more for the future in some ways - but is cruel and amoral, and would probably prefer humans not to be around at all.

It is easy to scoff and say that Progress has descended into crass materialism, but the Enlightenment vision had more than that - liberty, tolerance, and more humane ethics for a start. That vision (and materialism) may still inspire Chinese and Indian peasants, but the problem is the developed world: the Enlightenment project has largely been achieved. In the developed world this may be as good as it gets. But travelling is better than arriving, and what do we do now? It needs to be defended (environmentally, culturally, demographically) but how do you inspire people to defend, as opposed to a positive vision? Or should we learn from Buddhists and Stoics, on how to live without hope?

What could be a vision of the worthwhile life, to replace or supplement the one we have?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

On Europe

A fascinating detail of the foundation of the EU was that its main architects were all Catholics from marginal Geman-speaking areas: Adenauer (Rhineland), Schumann (Alsace), De Gasperi (Trentino Alto Adige). De Gasperi actually sat in the Vienna parliament pre 1914. They were actually trying, probably subconsciously, to recreate the Holy Roman Empire as it should have been.

With the decline of Christian Democrat belief, the EU has become a soulless economic machine, which engenders no emotional loyalty, although Germans and Italians are the strongest believers, and the ex-Protestant Brits and Scandinavians the least.

Churchill and De Gaulle were great, ruthless bastards, and thoroughgoing nationalists: they did revive their nations. The alternative for the EU would have been an assertive European nationalism : De Europe instead of De Gaulle and the "Neo-Austrians" above. Cannot see how that would have been possible post 1945.

I have been sceptical of an existential model of demographics - but note that the demographically healthiest parts of Europe still have a confident nationalism (yes, that is even true of those socialist nostalgics, the Scandinavians). Catholic German Ratzinger may be onto something, with the "neo-Austrian" model at the back of his mind. So are the French and British, but the models are hard to reconcile (the Catholic/post-Catholic soul of France has always battled with nationalism, and the nationalism has always won. Catholicism is also a proxy for nationalism in Poland). Europe sweeping back to Catholicism still seems deeply improbable however, and how would a European "national" leader arise. I don't see how things can go on as they are, however.

Oh, if only Bismarck had been a democrat... but he remembered the spineless ineffectual academics and lawyers in the 1848 Frankfurt parliament..