Sunday, October 18, 2020

Too Many Superheroes

Superhero

It’s no secret that our movies, television, and to some extent also our popular fiction are inundated with superheroes.1 The main characters, or the essential focus of the story, is on people with some physical or mental enhancement: super strength, x-ray vision, ability to fly, increased lifespan, or genius-level perception. And I would include here people who are otherwise separated from the human race by exceptional circumstances: vampires, witches, fallen angels, and the victims of medical experimentation.

These movies, television shows—series, I guess you call them now, with extended story arcs—and books are aimed at the young adult, the middling young, and the young at heart. The trouble is that, in my view, they tend to arrest the normal human development from child to functioning adult.

Life’s problems, which all of us must deal with, cannot be solved by punching through walls, seeing through doors, outsmarting your enemies with a genius IQ, or becoming immortal. A functioning adult has to use the skills and knowledge developed through hard work, proper choices, and good use of time in order to gain confidence, capability, and self-esteem. These things cannot be granted by birth on another planet, a medical advance, or a fortuitous afterlife. There are no shortcuts to growing up.

One of my favorite science-fiction series is Frank Herbert’s Dune books, telling the fantastic far-future history of the accomplished Atreides family. The series actually climaxes in the fourth book, The God-Emperor of Dune. The main character there is Leto II, who is the ultimate superhero: emperor of the known universe, served and protected by fiercely loyal people, commanding a superb fighting force, as well as being virtually immortal, physically invulnerable, able to predict the future, and able to access the living memory of every one of his ancestors and so the entire history and example of all humanity. And yet, in Herbert’s brilliant style, he is brought down by two skilled but not super-powered human beings who resist being his slaves. The book is really the anti-superhero story.

To be an adult is to possess hard-won knowledge, to develop skills that cannot be acquired magically or through a pill or genetic manipulation, to have endured experiences that are both constructive and destructive and enable you to know and understand the difference, and to become adept at foreseeing and dealing with the consequences of your actions. All of this must be learned. It must be acquired by having hopes and dreams, working toward them, and sometimes—maybe often—seeing them dashed. It is acquired through working through your problems, paying attention to what happens and when, remembering those consequences, and formulating rules of living both for yourself and your children, if you have any. This is the process that every child, every young adult, and every post-adolescent goes through. If you are lucky to survive, you keep learning and updating your internal database through adulthood and into middle and old age. Perfecting who you are should never stop until you draw your last breath.

And that is the final lesson. To be an adult includes the sober knowledge and acceptance of the fact that you, personally, in your own self, will one day die.2 This is not a cause for grief, fear, rage, or despair. Humans die, animals and plants die, bacteria and funguses can be destroyed, cell lines come to an end. Even rocks and whole mountains wear away to dust and silt, then break down into their component atoms, and rejoin the cycle of life on this planet. In my view, this is the key understanding of the human condition. We are not immortal. We have no lasting power over death, only good fortune and small victories. We only have the strength of our bodies, the power of our intelligence, and the focus of our wills. That is all we human beings can command.

When you know that you will eventually die, then you know how to value your life, your time, and your effort here on Earth. To be willing to sacrifice your life for something you believe is greater than yourself, you have to know how to value your remaining time. This is a rational decision that our brains were designed to make—if they are not clouded by the veil of hope that we, in our own bodies, just might be immortal. That hope protects us when we are young and stupid and have little experience of death. It is a foolish thing to carry into adulthood and middle age, when we are supposed to know the truth and act accordingly.

Oh, and in addition to what we can command and accomplish as individuals, we can also work together, pooling our achievements and our knowledge over time. We can raise vast cathedrals, each person adding his own carved stone or piece of colored glass. We can build a body of scientific knowledge by researching and writing down our findings in a discipline that we share with others. We can join a company—in the oldest sense of that word, whether an economic enterprise, a body of troops, or a group of travelers—to attempt and achieve more than a single human can do. And if we cannot do any of these things directly, then we can support the efforts of others by mixing mortar for their cathedral, serving as an archivist of their scientific endeavors, or becoming the financier, accountant, or quartermaster to that company in whatever form it takes.

Any of these tasks shared with other humans requires a knowledge of self and your limitations, a willingness to hold your own dreams and desires in check and subvert them to the common will, and to take and give orders for the good of the common effort. And this is another aspect of becoming an adult: to put aside the me-me-me of childhood and adopt the us of a collaborative group.

Superheroes, in fiction and on the screen, leap over these everyday problems and concerns. If they experience disappointment and existential angst at all, it is usually focused inward, on their supposed powers and their failure when they meet a foe who exhibits a greater power. But it’s all a conception of, and played out in the mind of, the graphic artist, the writer, or the film director: the presumed power, the challenges, and the intended result. And, curiously enough, the superhero always manages to win in the end. That is the way of fiction.

Real life involves dashed expectations, failed attempts, physical and mental limits, rejection by loved ones, and sometimes rejection by society itself. It is what a person does with these situations, using only the strength and wits, skills and knowledge, that he or she has acquired through conscientious development, that marks a successful human being. And ultimately the extinction of body and mind comes for us all. If you’re not dealing soberly with these things—and superheroes don’t—then you remain a species of child.

Those developing-adult stories, dealing with growth and change, are really the ones worth telling.

1. In fact, about fifteen years ago, when I was still trying to find an agent for my science-fiction writing, one potential candidate asked, “Who is your superhero?” That was the literary mindset: the main character had to have extraordinary powers for any book that could hope to be optioned for a movie—and back then selling a million copies and making it to the big screen had become the sole purpose of publishing. Maybe it still it, for all I know. But Covid-19 and the closing of the theaters might change all that.

2. I believe I first read this in a Heinlein story—perhaps Stranger in a Strange Land, although I can’t find the reference—that the difference between a child and an adult is the personal acceptance of death. To that, one of the characters in the conversation replies, “Then I know some pretty tall children.”

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Modeling Nature

Mandelbrot fractal

A saying favored by military strategists—although coined by Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski—holds that “the map is not the territory.”1 This is a reminder that maps are made by human beings, who always interpret what they see. Like the reports of spies and postcards from vacationing tourists, the observer tends to emphasize some things and neglect or ignore others. Human bias is always a consideration.

And with maps there is the special consideration of timing. While the work of a surveyor, depending on major geographic features like mountain peaks and other benchmarks that tend to stand for thousands of years, may be reliable within a human lifespan, mapmakers are taking a snapshot in time. From one year to the next, a road may become blocked, a bridge collapse, a river change course, or a forest burn—all changing the terrain and its application to a forced march or a battle. If you doubt this, try using a decades-old gas station map to plan your next trip.

This understanding should apply doubly these days to the current penchant for computer modeling in climatology, environmental biology, and political polling. Too often, models are accepted as new data and as an accurate representation—and more often a prediction, which is worse—of a real-world situation. Unless the modeler is presenting or verifying actual new data, the model is simply manipulating existing data sources, which may themselves be subject to interpretation and verification.

But that is not the whole problem. Any computer model, unless it becomes fiendishly complex, exists by selecting certain facts and trends over others and by making or highlighting certain assumptions while downplaying or discarding others. Model making, like drawing lines for topological contours, roads, and rivers on a map, is a matter of selection for the sake of simplicity. The only way to model the real world with complete accuracy would be to understand the situation and motion of every component, the direction and strength of every force, and the interaction and result of every encounter. The computer doesn’t exist that can do this on a worldwide scale for anything so complex and variable as weather systems; predator/prey relationships and species variation and mutation; or political preferences among a diverse population of voters and non-voters.

Computer modeling, these days—and especially in relation to climate change and its effects, or concerning political outcomes—is an effort of prediction. The goal is not so much to describe what is going on now but to foretell what will happen in the future, sometimes by a certain date in November, sometimes by the beginning of the next century. Predicting the future is an age-old dream of mankind, especially when you can be the one to know what will happen while those around you have to grope forward blindly in the dark. Think of oracles spoken only for the powerful or the practice of reading tea leaves and Tarot cards for a paying patron.

But complex systems, as history has shown, sometimes revolve around trivial and ephemeral incidents. A single volcanic eruption can change the weather over an entire hemisphere for one or several years. A surprise event in October can change or sour the views of swing voters and so affect the course of an election. The loss of a horseshoe nail can decide the fate of a king, a dynasty, and a country’s history. Small effects can have great consequences, and none of them can be predicted or modeled accurately.

When climate scientists first published the results of their models showing an average global temperature rise of about two degrees Celsius by the year 2100, the counterclaims were that they focused on carbon dioxide, a weak greenhouse gas; that the models required this gas to produce a “forcing,” or positive feedback loop, that would put more water vapor—a more potent greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere; and that the models did not consider negative feedback loops that would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide or water vapor over time. The climate scientists, as I remember, replied that their models were proprietary and could not be made public, for fear they would be copied or altered. But this defense also rendered them and their work free from inspection. Also, as I remember, no one has since attempted to measure the increase, if any, in global water vapor—not just measured in cloud cover, but also by the vapor loading or average humidity in the atmosphere as a whole—since the debate started. And you don’t hear much anymore about either the models themselves or the water vapor, just the supposed effects of the predicted warming that is supposed to be happening years ahead of its time.2

Add models that, for whatever reason, cannot be evaluated and verified to the general trend of results from scientific studies that cannot be reproduced according to the methodology and equipment cited in the published paper. Irreproducibility of results is a growing problem in the scientific world, according to the editorials I read in magazines like Science and Nature. If claims cannot be verified by people with the best will and good intentions, that does not make the originally published scientist either a liar or a villain. And there is always a bit of “noise”—static you can’t distinguish or interpret that interferes with the basic signal—in any system as vast and complex as the modern scientific enterprise taking place in academia, public and private laboratories, and industrial research facilities. Still, the issue of irreproducibility is troubling.

And, for me, it is even more troubling that reliance on computer models and projections are now accepted as basic research and scientific verification of a researcher’s hypothesis about what’s going on. At least with Tarot cards, we can examine the symbols and draw our own conclusions.

1. To which Korzybski added, “the word is not the thing”—a warning not to confuse models of reality with reality itself.

2. We also have a measured warming over the past decade or so, with peaks that supposedly exceed all previous records. But then, many of those records have since been adjusted—not only the current statement of past temperatures but also the raw data, rendering the actual record unrecoverable—to reflect changing conditions such as relocations of monitoring stations at airports and the urban “heat island” effects from asphalt parking lots and dark rooftops.
    As a personal anecdote, I remember a trip we made to Phoenix back in October 2012. I was standing in the parking lot of our hotel, next to the outlet for the building’s air-conditioning system. The recorded temperature in the city that day was something over 110 degrees, but the air coming out of that huge vent was a lot hotter, more like the blast from an oven. It occurred to me that a city like Phoenix attempts to lower the temperature of almost every living and commercial space under cover by twenty or thirty degrees, which means that most of the acreage in town is spewing the same extremely hot air into the atmosphere. And I wondered how much that added load must increase the ambient temperature in the city itself.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Clever Words

Dissected man

Our politics is—and, I guess, has always been—susceptible to clever word combinations, puns, and rhymes that appear to tidily sum up a grievance, intended consequence, or course of action. For most of us, they are mere curiosities. But in my view they are treacherous if taken as a philosophy or a substitute for rational thought.

I’m sure there were chants and slogans that caught on during the American War of Independence, probably something to do with Indians and the tea shipments arriving in Boston Harbor. The slogan that comes readily to mind is from slightly later, the dispute with Canada in the mid-19th century about the Oregon border: “Fifty-four Forty or Fight,” relative to the latitude line that would define the hoped-for demarcation. I suppose it was just fortuitous that the map offered the preponderance of all those F’s and the opportunity for a stirring alliteration. If the border had been along the twentieth or thirtieth parallel, I guess the proponents would have had to come up with something else.

And then there is the modern-day all-purpose chant: “Hey-hey! Ho-ho! Fill in the Blank has got to go!” This one is particularly useful when a group of organizers want to stir up and direct a crowd. It’s got a rhythm that gets your arms and legs moving almost like a dance or a march step.1

To me, one of the worst substitutes for rational thought also comes from the 19th century, although a bit later. It is attributed to the journalist Finley Peter Dunne and his fictitious alter ego Mr. Dooley. In its shortened form it says: “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This formula, clever in its reversal—almost a palindrome—of verbs and objects, has been taken up by generations of progressives ever since. For some, it’s an exquisite summation of how they should heal social ills.

But this combination is, of course, nonsense. Clever, but still nonsense. It depends on a false equivalency: that the sufferings of the afflicted—the poor, the weak, the disabled, the denied and discriminated against—are directly attributable to the smug satisfactions of the people not so burdened. It presumes that those who have worked, saved, invested, and planned for the future of both themselves and their families—all of those middle-class virtues—have created conditions of poverty and injustice for those not so fortunate. And this is not so. Those who have taken up the virtues have simply removed themselves from the class of the destitute and the desperate, not caused their condition.

By all means, one should “comfort the afflicted.” Heal their hurts where it is possible. Work to change their current situation and their opportunities where you can.2 But at best, “afflicting the comfortable” serves only to remind them that an underclass exists in their society and that one should spend some portion of one’s day, one’s mind, and one’s charity—if not just their taxes—to alleviating the situation. “Afflicting the comfortable” is intended to be fighting words, suggesting that by reducing their comforts a society can somehow magically improve the lot of the afflicted. And that magical thinking is just pure Marxism: Been tried; didn’t work.

Another set of fighting words, intended to stir up the complacent and draw them into a social battle, are the various formulas intended to fight social apathy: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,”3 and more recently “Silence is violence.” Again, the false equivalency that those who are not actively joining the fight—and on the side of, under the terms of, the sloganeers—are causing the wrong, are in fact wrong-doers themselves, that is the unspoken purpose of the chant.

These clever slogans are meant to give the great mass of people no choice. Join us or die—or worse, gain our everlasting contempt. They raise the issue in contention to the level of an existential crisis, a civilizational catastrophe, or a cause for civil war. However, for some of us, for many of us, perhaps for most of us in the middle of the political spectrum, who are spending our days doing all of that working, saving, investing, and planning for our own futures, in order not to be counted on the public rolls, the issue is not existential or catastrophic and does not merit a civil war. Yes, perhaps, the issue may demand our notice and concern. We might even add the deserving recipients to our list of charities or our list of considerations in the voting booth. But many of us, most of us, know that there’s nothing we can personally do about a lot of these social problems. We are not prepared to climb on the barricades, bare our breasts, and offer “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor”4 to the project.

And no amount of clever words and scornful chants is likely to change that reality.

1. And in terms of serving multiple purposes, there is also: “No justice, no peace!” Simply pick your object of “justice,” and fill in your action for withholding “peace.”

2. But you have to be realistic about this approach. You can work to improve other people’s conditions sometimes, but that should not include a free ride or a lifetime’s residency on the dole. A taut safety net, not a soft and cushy safety hammock. Human beings are designed by a hundred thousand years of heredity to have personal goals and to seek satisfaction and self-worth through attaining them. No one—not children, not the mentally or physically disabled, nor the socially or economically disadvantaged—benefits from having their personal agency removed by a benevolent parent’s or government’s lifting and carrying them through all the vicissitudes of life.

3. Speaking of clever, I have always favored the chemist’s version: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.” In other words, if you don’t join in this fight, you’ll be part of the fallout. Chuckle, smirk.

4. To quote from the last line of the Declaration of Independence, which for the signers did involve an existential crisis and, right quickly, a civil war.