Expanding Spheres

Believe it or not, this is not about ‘Replicas’ even though it may seem to be at first.  It isn’t even about science fiction, although it does illustrate the value of the genre.  Bear with me.  I’ll get to the likes of Trump and sexism in the end, so it’s worth it.

Transwaffle is getting an annoying large amount of attention.  It isn’t that it’s getting a huge number of page impressions compared to, say, Sarada’s blog , (that’s her offering today by the way, this being the link to the blog itself) so much as that it’s getting more attention than this blog when it shouldn’t.

As I mentioned on the other blog, there is currently an issue with MumsNet which I am also concerned extends way beyond it into general opinion forming on feminism more widely.  Please permit me this digression, as I am going somewhere.  The sections on feminism are in fact dominated by the trans issue.  It doesn’t even particularly matter whether the discussion is primarily gender-critical or dominated by pro-trans stuff, or even balanced between the two.  The problem is that the discussion has pushed every other women’s issue out of the conversation, and whereas it may be important, it really isn’t that important.  The attention paid to transwaffle is similar.  There are other things going on, such as climate change, Universal Credit, benefit sanctions, FGM, anti-abortionists in the US, and I feel uncomfortable that my blog is feeding the fixation people seem to have on this issue.  Consequently it’s quite annoying that the small number of views on there is bigger than the small number of views on here.

The act of blogging has brought to mind the word “blogosphere”.  This is presumably a biosphere-like concept, where the point is not so much the geometrical or topological shape of the “sphere” so much as the hyperlinks joining it all together or perhaps the gravitational or magnetic-style force it brings to bear on opinion and knowledge, or perhaps more accurately belief.  It doesn’t seem to be literally spherical so much as a sphere of influence.  But then the question arises:  what actually is spherical in this respect?  In fact, what is even round?  What is even a filled-in geometrical shape?

France is famously a hexagon.  Anything outside that hexagon is not considered properly French, so for instance the Basques, Bretons, Catalonians and Flemings are not French because they are not part of the hexagon.  It’s this hexagonal hypothesis which has partly contributed to my aversion of the French language, in which I am more fluent than I wish to be, because on visiting Dunkirk on a school French exchange many of the families tried to stop us speaking French and used to say things like “Can you speak English please?” in an annoyed tone of voice when we spoke it.  That resentment arose from the French state’s insistence on supporting only French French as the official language of the hexagon.  Nonetheless, the idea of a hexagon does appeal to me, partly because it’s like the carefully surveyed lines of political territories in North America and Australia and brings to mind their attempt at rationally organising a nation, with the exception of West Virginia.

I’m not sure it’s possible to have headcanon for one’s own work, but if it is, part of my headcanon for Earth in ‘Replicas’ is that the former nations of the British Isles, Low Countries and France are all divided up into provinces, the planet having now unified politically under one government, separated using straight lines.  Hence there are the provinces of Highland and Lowland in Great Britain, separated by the Tees-Exe Line, then Lowland extends into the former Benelux countries, being separated from an almost perfectly hexagonal province covering most of early 21st century France.

This is going somewhere, honestly.  I have to keep my views down you see.

Although a political entity may claim a territory on the surface of the roughly spherical object we call Earth as a polygon or less clearly defined enclosed “plane”, it doesn’t follow that anyone in that territory has been to all of it, or in fact any of it.  It’s not like you dab a country with your foot when you enter it and it becomes “it” all over.  What actually happens is you make a foray into the territory along a wiggly line, in a vehicle or on foot, or perhaps flying over it, and maybe you can claim to have seen that bit of the country to the horizon of where you’ve been, but you can only literally claim to have seen all of a country if it’s quite small, like the Vatican, Andorra, San Marino or Liechtenstein.  Consequently, although people loosely say they have “seen” Italy or France, unless they’ve orbited over them they usually haven’t seen all of them.  A map of their actual viewing area would be a thin, straggly affair probably only ranging over a small part of the territory, and it would essentially have a non-integral Hausdorff dimension different than the countries’ Hausdorff dimension.  Those territories with well-surveyed imposed borders consisting largely of apparently straight lines would, though, have Hausdorff dimensions close to two on a map, although in reality all countries are three dimensional and tend to follow the curvature of the planet they’re on, at least on Earth.  Strictly speaking they’re all wedges extending to the centre of the planet, where there’s an amazing international border between every single country in the world.

Topologically, rather than taking the view to the horizon into consideration it makes more sense to think of one’s path through a country to consist of a wiggly line, probably overlapping with itself, and as such it could be said that our experience of a country is in fact a lot closer to a blogosphere than a sphere, in that it is in reality a tangle of lines representing our relationships with each other and various locations in the territory.  It isn’t usually any more filled in than the blogosphere.  The blogosphere itself is in fact only fairly trivially geometrical, although considered as a geographical network of servers linked to each other, it probably is somewhat spherical, although with large voids in it and staying near the surface of the planet.  Topologically, however, the blogosphere is a network, presumably most easily depicted in a space with a particular number of dimensions, which may not be three.  In order to minimise the tangle, one might have to increase the number of dimensions.  This is in fact true of most human mind maps or cerebral neural networks, which are allegedly best depicted as eleven-dimensional graphs.  For all I know, the blogosphere is the same.  It could be that graphs reflecting human activity generally require eleven dimensions.

I’ve previously mentioned the enormous political significance Iain M Banks gave to the fact that space travel is in three dimensions and has very remote nodes. The remoteness entails a high degree of self-sufficiency and the three dimensions make it harder for a political entity to surround or dominate than a topologically two-dimensional space such as the land surface of a planet.  Banks goes on to argue that a culture with the degrees of freedom in three-dimensional space is necessarily a post-scarcity society, unless it’s unsustainable.  I find his argument compelling. probably because I want to believe a society based on abundance is inevitable and part of the nature of reality, although it may also be part of that nature that nobody ever gets there because the species destroy themselves first.

Much of the way I think about these things has long been dominated by the Galactic Association universe, which in a sense deserves a capital U because it stretches hundreds of light years into space from the Solar System although it is of course fiction.  Although it is fiction, it does provide an opportunity to think about the expansion of humans into three-dimensional space and our interaction with other possible extraterrestrial intelligences in a fairly methodical way.  It’s a model.

This link shows a map of GAILE-explored space as of 2376, the “now” of the GAIL universe.  There’s some difficulty in representing this space in two dimensions, but it’s possible to work out where everything shown is using this flat surface from the data on it, and even to work out whereabouts in our sky the home worlds of the other technological species are.  Another notable thing about that map is, unsurprisingly, the irregular nature of the contours depicting the limits of human-explored space.  Although it stretches about ninety light years from Earth, giving a theoretical volume of around three million cubic light years, thoroughly explored human space does not occupy a sphere but is more like a three-dimensional version of West Virginia in that it’s irregular.  Nonetheless, as the volume of explored space expands, the frontier of that space also increases in area, and a doubling, for example, of its radius is an eightfold increase in volume.

Topologically, GAILE space is still a graph whose nodes represent visited star systems and whose edges (i.e. lines) are space lanes and exploratory routes.  It isn’t literally three-dimensional and it doesn’t fill its space.  Nonetheless it should probably be assumed that since we can even now detect fairly small planets in nearby star systems on occasion, GAILE does know about other planets than simply the ones humans or even automatic probes have visited.  Nonetheless it still seems possible that there are uncharted regions within human space and therefore unknown phenomena, perhaps even including hostile aliens who are, though, apparently confined to their own star systems.  This is possible but unlikely.

There is already a fairly well-established Galactic Association timeline.  Averaging these three hundred and forty years of history, a new planet is settled every 42.5 years, although due to First Contact there is a gap of seventy years between the third and fourth settlements while humanity came to adjust to the knowledge that we were not alone in the Universe.  Moreover, at the beginning of the period only sublight travel was possible and even after the development of warp drive there was a period during which starships had to spend a long time accelerating and jerking (the first derivative of acceleration) to a velocity at which hyperspace jumps became possible, limited by primitive gravity control.  By 2376 a starship is able to accelerate at sixteen gees without harming its passengers or crew, making interstellar travel much less time-consuming.  Hence there are technological advances which accelerate human settlement of other star systems, and presumably also discovery although these are not specifically mentioned.  The whole of human-settled space occupies an approximate sphere eighty light years in radius at the approximate plane of the Galactic equator, and the width of the Arm is about five thousand light years at this distance according to the text.  There are also six intelligent technological species known to humankind including humans themselves.

A number of facts can be gleaned from this:

  • There are ten habitable planets in a volume one hundred and sixty light years in diameter centred on the Solar System.  Two are known to be inhabited by native intelligent species – Earth and Remus – so this puts them out of bounds for colonisation by other species.  This is an average of one habitable planet per two million cubic light years, meaning that the average distance between them should be about thirty.
  • There are a total of six technology-using intelligent species known to humanity.  One of them is extremely advanced and has probably spread through a much larger volume of the Galaxy than the others, meaning that its apparent homeworld is in all probability a settled planet rather than the one they originated from.  It’s also further away than the other homeworlds, at a distance of 1340 light years, and seems to have a serial number rather than a name.  Ignoring this planet, the most distant homeworld so far known to humans is 764 light years from Earth.  Therefore, assuming the sphere with a radius of 764 light years centred on the Solar System is a representative sample of the distribution of intelligent life forms in the Galaxy and that they are all known to humans, this means that this volume of getting on for two thousand million cubic light years contains one intelligent species homeworld per three hundred million cubic light years and an average separation of three hundred and forty light years between their points of origin.

The interval between settlements of planets should therefore shorten as human space expands.  There ought to be something like ten thousand planets habitable by humans in Galactic Association space, not necessarily known to the species living within it.  However, since GAIL involves cooperation and resource-sharing, the fact that we are not alone helps us find other planets for the other species and makes it possible for them to inform us of planets suitable for humans.  Left to ourselves, though, assuming that another three hundred and forty years would lead to a doubling of the radius of explored space from Earth, there could be expected to be seventy additional planets in that sphere we could live on, and therefore a settlement on average of about one every five years, although less frequently at the beginning and more at the end.  Given that other species will be helping, that rate will in fact increase even assuming no technological progress during this period, which won’t be the case because some of that shared information will cover technological advances and scientific discoveries made by those species, and so on.  New species will also be encountered.

Hence the Galactic Association timeline down past the twenty-fourth century becomes increasingly crowded and eventful.

Now consider MumsNet and other such online sites again.  If the spread of opinion and information is anything like this, it will be exponential rather than linear, and the mere fact that there are a few people on MumsNet who are gender critical doesn’t mean those opinions will stay on Mumsnet.  They may in fact do something like double every few months.  There are other opinions of course, but the problem with this fixation on trans issues is that sooner or later, whether or not this is valid, it’s in danger of dominating feminism and turning it into something fairly useless.  While that’s happening, other people, for instance those in the manosphere, will be able to take advantage of this preoccupation to push back the advances in women’s rights, and this is likely to happen regardless of the views held on the trans issue.  The problem is that the preoccupation is proselytised.

And that’s feminism, ignoring other ideas, such as neoliberalism, racism and the like. These also spread in a similar way, and ideas within them spread similarly.  The likely result, if we’re not careful, and we may already be there, is a random assortment of popular ideas not based on evidence.  And while we have to deal with the likes of climate change and other environmental catastrophe, we can’t afford for this to happen.


Reason and Politics

What do you know about reality tunnels?  This question used to greet me every day in the form of a poster I stuck at the bottom of my stairs, in order to remind me and my housemates of the urgency of finding out what the heck they were.  At the time I had no idea what the term “reality tunnel” referred to.  I have, however, mentioned it on here before.

A reality tunnel is what we now call an “echo chamber”.  The idea is that you spend your life pursuing your own thing, surrounded by people, media and an environment which supports your views while keeping contrary views from you and protecting you in what might seem to be a nice safe environment.  Other people are burrowing through their own reality tunnels and ne’er shall the twain meet.  Well, more than two in fact.  Possible examples of these tunnels include pro- and anti-vaccination people, Trump supporters and opposers and Corbyn supporters and opposers.  We all seem to do this, and the people we oppose we are easily able to stereotype and convert into straw people.  We seek to refute arguments which are not in fact the arguments our opponents present but simplified versions.  Sometimes we also think of our own arguments and ideas in oversimplified forms.  A personal example of this is that I tend to define fascism as that ideology for which the only or supreme duty is to the nation state.  This is convenient for me because it makes it easier to remember and I can oppose it easily to anarchism, which is the claim that there is no political obligation at all, that is, that governments can have no ethical legitimacy.  However, there are more sophisticated definitions of fascism, notably the very restrictive one which sees it as solely the ideology of an inter-war Italian political movement, which is rather inconvenient for someone who wishes to apply such a word to various political movements which are not, by this definition, fascist at all.  It’s also notable that Nazism is not fascism according to this and several other views.

When I wrote the above list, referring to Trump, Corbyn and vaccination, I felt a sense of disorientation.  Clearly I’m on Corbyn’s side, opposed to Trump and am in the middle with vaccination, a position which has been described by others as similar to the journalistic position of false balance.  I would of course deny this.  My actual view on vaccination is that they are usually best given as nebulisers, nasal sprays or inhalers rather than injected, with the exception of tetanus which should be injected, and polio which should be taken orally.  There is some other stuff in there as well.  My views on this have no connection to the autism question, and it’s unclear to most people what I in fact believe about vaccination because they tend to think I’m against them entirely for the same reason as other people seem to be.  What I’m actually trying to do is reach an evidence-based conclusion based on immunology, and of course I could be wrong.

Whether or not I’m right about vaccines, the main problem with them is not their efficacy or danger, although this is a big, real world problem, but the tone of the disagreement.  It might seem to be an outrageous claim that this is more important than whether they work or not but it’s clear that the kind of conversation that goes on about vaccines is merely a particularly clear example of a broader “discussion” style which affects most issues and the disagreement about them, where there is little hope either of successful compromise or arriving at a rational position rather than one guided by the need to feel one has something in common with a particular community or perhaps simply wants certainty.  This is often seen in people who have traditionally been described as paranoid, where their poorly supported beliefs are important enough to them for them to be reluctant to abandon them even though they would be better off without them.  This is in a psychopathological setting, but there is substantial overlap between ways of thinking and feeling in the realm of psychiatry and that of what passes for “normality”.

Assuming the polarised pro-vaccination position is correct, it’s a tactical error to be hostile towards anti-vaccination people because this will fail to persuade them and will not get them into a position where they would support vaccination.  It may be scientifically well-informed but on an interpersonal level it’s crass and insensitive, and not likely to protect the population from the infections about which they claim to be concerned.  The same applies the other way round.  Proceeding from the assumption that vaccines necessarily do more harm than good, that damage will continue to be perpetrated because the approach taken by those opposed to it is not good propaganda for their cause.  Both sides have a failure of rhetoric in  a way which is found generally, far beyond the issue of vaccination, and the damage likely to be done if either pole of the viewpoints is correct is, I think, less than the damage done by the more general failure of mutual respect and dialogue.  This is why I think the issue of vaccination is misconceived.

We all naturally think our opinions are true and we support them using arguments which seem reasonable.  We often choose the arguments as a way to support what we already believe, or we may want to believe the conclusions following from a particular argument, or we may use the conclusion of the argument as a means to make emotional connection with other people.  On the whole we feel fairly reluctant to anchor our views in reality if that means we end up with a minority opinion, and it’s difficult to maintain that opinion if everyone else disagrees with it.  Or, we may gravitate to such an opinion precisely because it’s bizarre, extreme or unpopular because it enables us to be part of an in-crowd.

Broadening this out, it’s notable that a number of opinions are not well-supported by evidence, and it’s sometimes proven necessary for evidence to be manufactured in order to support these views.  The point may come, or perhaps is already here, when the majority of such opinions is poorly supported.  One way of understanding mental health is that people can be diagnosed with such a condition when their behaviour or mental state is very unusual, although this is not a sufficient condition.  The question then arises of whether a whole society can “go mad” if madness is merely defined as such.  It would, though, be easy in some ways if it turned out that there was a way to prove that a particular set of political opinions was delusional.  Incidentally, we all have delusions – beliefs which persist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary – and therefore this shouldn’t be taken as a means of “othering” those whose opinions differ from our own.

One particularly clear example of where this may have happened is in the realm of climate change denial, and of course I went into this some time ago on here.  An interesting development in this area which illustrates where it would come undone is this report.  A report which claimed that sea level in North Carolina could be a metre higher by 2100 was rejected by lawmakers because it was seen as likely to damage real estate prices.  A somewhat similar set of circumstances obtains in southern England, where owners of homes recently built on the floodplain of rivers had to sign an insurance waiver for flood damage.  Many people have already been affected by this.

Other possible examples of clashing rationality and politics include the teaching of creationism in schools and tobacco lobbying.  The sensible response to all this would appear to be evidence-based policy – policy based on research conducted in a way which resembles the scientific method.  What in fact happens quite frequently is that surveys  and consultations are undertaken of opinion in areas considered to consist largely of well-informed people with direct experience of the issues, and this is then taken up with varying degrees of faith to decide government policy.  There are, though, two overarching issues here:  is there a “most rational” polity, and is it feasible or appropriate to apply rationality to the social system itself?

I make no excuses for lapsing into science fiction at this point because that genre often involves an attempt at social thought experiments.  Nonetheless I recognise you might not all be as keen on it as I am, so bear with me because I will be coming back to the real world after making a few observations.

Many years ago, I came across an interesting idea in Handbook For Space Pioneers, the basis of the universe in which my novel ‘Replicas’ is set.  By contrast with my prevailing political views, human civilisation in the Galactic Association universe is primarily capitalist in nature, although there are several examples of socialist societies.  The relevant bit to this post is Herman Zweig’s intriguing social theory, mathematically demonstrated, that an equal and free society requires a controlled environment.  Genesis is a planet with no land life and only primitive marine life which can therefore be given a planned ecosystem.  This regularity, as I understand it, is seen as providing sufficient environmental stability for a socialist society to succeed.

An example of the reverse happening is found in the history of the first planet settled by humans, Wyzdom.  This has an extreme climate due to its high gravity and therefore high atmospheric pressure, and although the early settlers organised themselves socialistically, this led to the deaths from starvation of many of the people.  This is partly attributable to similar factors to the settlement of the real world lost American colony Jamestown, which is thought to have failed due to the fact that it didn’t include enough people with practical experience of farming and other practical skills.  However, the fierce climate of Wyzdom meant that crops could easily fail and livestock become ill or die.  Even in the late twenty-fourth century, large cattle cannot thrive on the planet due to its high gravity.  As a result of the crisis, a benevolent capitalist dictator arose who was able to rescue the settlers from what would otherwise have been an inevitable demise.  Another factor in this is the internal machinations of the administration, which made society unwieldy and impossible to manage, partly due to too much time being taken up in discussing what to do rather than actually doing anything.

These are effectively two fictional case studies of the prospects of a society in different environments.  In the case of Genesis, the control it’s possible to exert over the biomes of the planet are taken to mean that, for example, known quantities of food will result from the input of known quantities of work, and that this enables society to plan on a large scale without anyone missing out.  In Wyzdom’s case the extremes of climate and other conditions meant that an agile society would be needed to adapt to changing conditions and people would need to take the initiative, in the form of free enterprise.  Bureaucracy is seen as stifling this, and in any case a small society cannot afford to have much of that because it would take people away from providing its immediate physical needs.

Although I see this as flawed, it does have an interesting corollary which blends into Iain M. Banks’s Culture stories.  Most people in the Culture live in ring worlds – artificial environments consisting of strips of material occupying the entire orbit of a star.  Such an environment is completely planned and controllable, and as such would, according to Herman Zweig, be suitable as a socialist utopia, and in fact that’s exactly what they are, or at least appear to be.  Arguably, the Culture is in fact run by the Minds, artificial intelligences so far beyond human capabilities that they can psychologically manipulate people perfectly into living “happy” lives.  Nonetheless Zweig’s social theory works for the Culture.

However, there’s a flaw in Zweig’s theory from my perspective.  The planet Genesis, whereas it doesn’t suffer from fluctuations caused by a complex evolved ecosystem because that ecosystem is designed from the ground up, is nevertheless not that stable an environment.  Apart from its state of biological development, Genesis is in fact the most Earth-like of the eight settled exoplanets after Athena, so it can generally be expected to share quakes, volcanoes and tsunamis with Earth to about the same degree.  In fact, because it’s much younger than Earth, it has more volcanic activity, and because its atmosphere is thinner there’s greater temperature variation between the tropics and the polar region, and it’s easy to imagine that these factors will still provide sufficiently disturbed conditions to upset the applecart of a carefully planned socialist society if Zweig is correct.

This brings me back to the question of climate change.  Much of the hostility directed at climate change seems to be based on the idea that governmental planned intervention is seen as necessary to address the problems, and therefore that big government is needed which will intervene in industry.  In other words, it looks very much like the very unpredictability of the environment is going to require large-scale public planning, and rational planning at that, in the sense that scientific research needs to inform the approach needed to minimise the threat to humanity.  Having said that, the social model expressed in the Galactic Association universe does seem to have some merit, in that individuals need to take the initiative, and there doesn’t at first seem to be anything stopping us from doing that.  Whether we live under a neoliberal capitalist regime or a libertarian socialist one, the capacity for people to make a positive difference still exists, and the problem is knowing which system, if either, best facilitates that.  Idealistic socialism needs to have some degree of faith that people can be good, but crucially not as much as capitalism does, because capitalism requires its individuals to make rational economic choices and to be altruistic rather than selfish.  This is less problematic in a socialist society because there is a safety net and possibly also because power is more evenly distributed.  Although power might be distributed equally at first in a capitalist society, it drifts towards concentrations and inequality quite quickly because people and organisations win or lose in it, and whoever or victors can proceed to reduce choice.  Therefore the idea that we aren’t good enough to live in a socialist society isn’t really true.  What seems to be true is that we aren’t good enough to live in a capitalist one.

A possible response to that is to ensure that the members of a capitalist society are sufficiently good to run it, and this is in fact attempted via the provision of the likes of organised religion and the emphasis on a sense of duty.  Having said that, due to the concentration of power it doesn’t take much to disturb that, and the actual approach of much organised religion doesn’t seem to end up very selfless.  This is quite an unfair observation though, and since I’m trying to be “scientific” here I don’t want to pursue that too far.

The existence of organic institutions is an important part of much conservative thought.  The situation in this country, with an established church, House of Lords and a constitutional monarchy, could be seen as a good example of this.  In other areas of life, planning often seems to come unstuck.  For instance, it’s proven to be very difficult to introduce new words to language or to take them out of it.  A relevant case in point is the coinage of gender-neutral personal pronouns, which seem doomed to failure from the start.  It’s also sometimes asserted that the free market arises without conscious intervention and is a kind of self-organising system, and there are other examples.  One which springs to mind is that healthcare which is consciously paid for has been shown to have a placebo effect beyond its basic efficacy, which leads to an ethical problem with a public healthcare system free at the point of use, although of course most people have in fact also paid for that – they just aren’t conscious of having done so.  However, just as high technology provides better solutions than artisan-based approaches, in that it can go places technology of the older kind never would have, it seems equally feasible that planning on a higher level would also be able to solve problems which the market, Church of England, House of Lords and the monarchy, among other things, wouldn’t be able to achieve.

There is, however, a potential problem with all this:  something I’m going to call the “liberal feminism problem”.  Liberal feminism involves the belief that individual women can make choices which will address inequality, which can otherwise be relatively easily overcome by legislation rather than a general reform of society.  One of the issues some feminists have with this view is that it’s possible that men are not, as a rule, in fact essentially able to treat women fairly.  This is an essentialist view, which may or may not extend to women, but if men are in fact iredeemable as a gender this suggests that liberal feminism can’t work.

If it turns out either that humans, or perhaps men again, are essentially unable to behave altruistically, or that they are in principle able to do so but cannot change en masse from their current social position, then socialism would seem to be doomed.  However, it’s not more doomed than capitalism, since one flaw with capitalism, and probably also any totalitarian or authoritarian system, is that it enables people with antisocial personalities to dominate.  It doesn’t follow from the premise that capitalism doesn’t work that socialism will, and nor does it follow from the premise that socialism doesn’t work that capitalism does.  We might just be doomed anyway.  Maybe nothing works.

 It’s recently come to light that a number of people have very poorly-supported belief systems.  Outside the obviously political realm are flat earthers and those who believe in gangstalking.  Gangstalking is the belief that groups of people are secretly organised to harass targeted individuals.  These individuals may be aware of their insignificance but justify it by claiming that they’re being used for training purposes.  Since this is a typical paranoid belief, it lacks the bizarreness of schizophrenic delusion and may be reflected in the occasional real incident, but is very unlikely.  The internet has, however, acted as a means for people who believe they’re being targeted to get together and confirm each others’ beliefs.  Flat earthers presumably need no explanation, and have similarly recalcitrant beliefs not amenable to reasoning.

It’s not a stretch to extrapolate this to other, more obviously political, belief systems, Holocaust denial being a particularly disturbing example.  Others would be the manosphere, incels and this can extend easily into the political mainstream with supporters of Trump.  And here I feel myself pausing, because although support for Corbyn is the same phenomenon I am actually in this case part of that group.

A common explanation for all of these would seem to be poor education and easy access to information, accurate or otherwise, along with the ability to communicate that information and draw possibly ill-founded conclusions based upon it leading to political activism.  Even so, I feel compelled to exclude the Corbyn phenomenon from that.  Coming up with reasons why it’s not the same is left as an exercise for the reader!

Given enough irrational opinions, where they add up to a complete irrational world view which is likely to have negative consequences either for the believer or those over whom she has sway, it seems to make sense to call the holder of those beliefs mentally ill.  But this is a problem, because it amounts to a reality tunnel outside which are people who disagree with one.  The Soviets had an answer to this of course.  They pathologised dissidents.  Since the internet is liable to generate irony-free zones, I’m going to have to clodhop in here and say the following is not meant literally.  However, if there is a social system clearly based on rational principles, it’s not much of a stretch to conclude that those who disagree with it must be mentally ill and should probably be put away in a special hospital.  This has been referred to as “Вялотекущая шизофрения” – “Sluggish schizophrenia” – or “delusion of reformism”.  Since I used to be Stalinist, I have a probably disturbing degree of sympathy with this idea which I do however recognise as quite undesirable.  That said, clearly you cannot go that way and simply decide that everyone who disagrees with your politics is mentally ill.  But I don’t know what you should actually do, because I have to admit that much of what certain people believe does seem frankly delusional.  This probably reflects a lack of empathy on my part.

Whatever else is true, it occurs to me that part of the problem appears to be that this is what you get when people are only educated to the extent that they are able to keep society going rather than to question that society.  When they actually do come to question established beliefs, such as the one that people visited Cynthia (the Moon), the one that Earth is round, the one that evolution has taken place over countless millions of years and the assumption that they are not being followed around and gaslighted by gangs of stalkers organised by the CIA, they unfortunately seem to choose a fairly well-established and politically inconsequential set of beliefs.  Then again, considering that they also draw conclusions that Michelle Obama is trans, Barack Obama is a secret Muslim or that it’s a good idea to vote for Donald Trump, maybe that’s just as well.


I’m gradually working towards typing an entire blog post on a Commodore 64.  What you see here, if you do end up seeing it at all, was initially composed on a Commodore emulator running on the laptop. If all goes according to plan, it will be completed on a C64 Mini and saved to what we in this house probably erroneously call a “pendrive”, that is, a memory stick. This might at first sound like a pointless game of a project. Why would I use a computer which was discontinued almost a quarter of a century ago to blog?  Surely the most straightforward way of doing it would be simply to type it on a modern PC or Android device of some description? Well, perhaps not. Given the history of methods of producing text up until today (2018), we have various mechanical techniques such as pen and paper, quill and parchment, chisel and stone and clay and cuneus, and going forward, the printing press, typewriter, word processor and various incarnations of desktop, laptop and notebook computer along with others of that ilk. Pen and paper has various advantages. It allows you to think. It provides resistance to composition, giving time for ideas to develop before being set down on paper.There can also be numerous crossings-out, scribbles, things written in margins and above and below the line, forcing a first draft, and it leaves a record of the creative process for one’s own perusal. Rewriting in a neater form is then a second, or perhaps later, draft. Possibly the worst of all words is to be found in the typewriter. Although these machines have an appealing tactile quality, they suffer from a major problem. They regiment the production of text in such a way that it isn’t really feasible to continue after an error without using whiteout and perhaps ultimately sacrificing an entire piece of paper. It could be argued that this is merely another form of embodied energy than word processor use, and that the constant whining of the fan, chugging of the discs (I don’t have a twenty-first century machine in mind here) and the raw data processing that’s involved, along with the production of the physical device in the first place, is at least equally wasteful as a few sheets of paper covered in Snopake. Consequently the adoption of a word processor for such purposes is arguably a mere fetishisation. There’s no real need to include the device or prefer it to a typewriter.Maybe. At the start of the 1990s, when I was pursuing a Masters in continental philosophy, I was one of the few people to present my dissertation in typewritten form, on unbound A4 sheets in a tatty brown paper envelope. My supervisor’s reaction to this was to utter the words “Good gracious”. At this time, the philosophy department was considering making word processed documents the only accepted form of submission for MA dissertations. In printed form the said manuscripts were expected to be neatly formatted and bound. To me, these requirements were merely window dressing. The text should speak for itself and the writer should have faith that the reader could see past these accoutrements and the value or otherwise of one’s work should shine through. This attitude did seem to succeed for me, as the rather low quality of my piece was nonetheless insufficient to insure its rejection, but this was at the cost of choosing not to write on another topic: whether word processed documents and typed documents had any tendencies to be different. I still don’t have an answer to this question. Nowadays many more factors have been appended to the equation. I won’t enumerate them all, but perhaps the most relevant of these for the purposes of this post is that of internet access. If your device allows you to “research”endlessly, chat to friends, play music, watch videos and the like, depending on your personality it can completely stem your creative flow by placing endless dams and barriers in its way. The work you will eventually produce will not have been composed with focussed attention over a continuous interval, and this will show. Of course I might be judging all others by my own standards here, so I will restrict my thesis to this: the best writing is done on a word processor without internet access. The situations either side of this on the technological timeline are other than ideal, at least for me, because creative flow is interrupted, on the one hand by a little bottle of white fluid with a brush and on the other by vlogs about bipolar disorder. But there is a happy medium. As I must have mentioned before, Aristotle described virtue as a happy medium between two polar vices. Moral qualities occur for him in threes. There is,for example, the virtue of courage, flanked by cowardice and recklessness.However, the medium is not a midway point but always closer to one vice than the other. Hence courage is closer to recklessness than it is to cowardice.With writing, this makes the virtuous position the use of word processing software on a device without easy access to the internet, which to my mind places it closer to the high tech vice than the low tech one. I need to be able to transfer my text to the blog, so I have to be able to save the text in ASCII format on a medium which is accessible to a more recent device. I do not know yet whether I’ve achieved this because I’m still typing and have yet to save this document and retrieve it on a PC. Incidentally, it now looks like I’m going to stick with the emulator for the time being. It is perhaps appropriate that the emulator I’m using to produce this blog post is in fact called VICE – the VersatIle Commodore Emulator. It’s currently doing a passable job of pretending to be a Commodore 64, but I could just as well have been doing this on the PET setting. In terms of system software, PETs and what I’ve become accustomed to calling CBM-64s are remarkably close to each other because the version of BASIC used on both is the same, except that later models of the PET actually used a more advanced version. This particular word processor, TASWORD, I first came across on the ZX81 and it’s therefore not written in BASIC, and in fact very little of this kind of productivity  application would be written in BASIC on any machine of any specification or  vintage. Consequently the rather questionable quality of the language is not particularly relevant. Since I’m rather anxious that I may lose this entire document, I’m going to end this here and try to get it saved into a form which will be easily convertible to a readable form on my blog, which is where the laptop comes in. So, bye for now!


In fact this proved to be quite tricky to get into a readable form because although I followed the help for TASWORD, it seemed to refuse to save my document.  I eventually resorted to using VICE’s snapshot feature, which since it was a Commodore 64 emulation, gave me sixty-four kilobytes of text exactly complete with ROM, TASWORD’s object code itself and various other bits, plus lines which spilt into each other without any spaces where consecutive lines ended and began with printable characters.  This is therefore a work in progress.  Nevertheless I plan to get there soon, on a real eight-bit computer.  I just need to wrestle with the SAVE function.

Why I’ve Gone Quiet

A week or so ago, I posted what was supposed to be the first two of a series of entries about climate change, logical fallacies in arguments, the psychology of climate change denial, other areas of politics where similar denials and obfuscations take place and so on.  It was actually proving to be quite therapeutic to do this, because it’s what I’m currently studying and it proved to be a distraction from my usual internal musings and probably quite negative behaviour elsewhere.  Why not continue in this vein then?

This could be seen as yet another example of something which belongs on transwaffle, which if I’m honest to myself I consider moribund by this point but would allow me to witter on unobserved, as would a notepad.  The reason it’s not on there is that it can be re-stated in a gender-neutral way, but before I do that I’ll state it in terms of gendered relationships because it serves as a good illustration of stereotypically feminine and masculine language use.

I usually apply a rule to myself that in a meeting I will only start to contribute when at least six cis women, as I perceive them, have spoken.  A common result of this is that I never actually get to say anything, which is fine by me.  However, this tends to get messed up if I actually give an introductory address of some kind, as I did last week.  It’s then difficult to know what my position is, as I have already contributed to the discussion and people are then likely to ask me questions, to which of course I should respond.  This makes me feel I’m building up a deficit which I need to remedy later.  However, there is a problem when I don’t contribute because there often ensues what feels to me like a baffling and uncomfortable silence with people failing to make contributions to the conversation, and whereas I don’t want to speak just to fill the silence, there are often a load of things I’m burning to say, which I imagine are in other people’s minds but which they are unaccountably not saying, assuming their reasons are unlike mine.

Often my contributions are further delayed by men contributing to the discussion, because this means I have to wait even longer for six women to have said something.  The thing about this is that to some extent the onus is on the other people either to speak or refrain from speaking in order that I can speak.  At first this looks like a gender-based issue, but there are reasons for supposing that it isn’t.  Two women I know pretty well have themselves said that they often find themselves in situations where other people are quiet and not contributing noticeably to a conversation, and they speak and end up feeling that they’ve said too much compared to others.  The fact that this may not even be a gender issue is one reason this is here.

Also, in practicing this rule I have to presume the gender identity of the other people present.  Among the six women and the various numbers of men who say something, not all of them may be cis, and not all of them may be gender “euphoric” as it were.  There might be trans men, trans women who pass well and closeted gender dysphoric people.  Given the current incidence of gender and sexual minority people coming out of the closet, and the nature of the meetings that I go to, this is a bigger problem than it might otherwise be.  Consequently I feel even less like contributing.

Getting back to this blog, this post is more or less the text of my introduction to the subject.  Putting this through Gender Guesser yields the following result:


(This will probably turn out to be the featured image, which is a bit annoying).

Gender Guesser is not marvellously accurate of course.  However, its algorithm is based on the features of language which I focus on myself, and in fact my dysphoria is substantially focussed on psychological aspects of my assigned gender rather than aspects of physical appearance.  Consequently, claims that I am on the autistic spectrum depress me because of Baron-Cohen’s “extreme male brain” view of the nature of autism, for instance.

Analyses of female and male authorship of texts and speech have tended to throw up the same kinds of differences in use of language, but different interpretations have been made of these differences.  For instance, Otto Jespersen, the male Danish linguist who fluorished at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and might therefore be expected to have attitudes typical of the time regarding sex and gender, claimed that the differences betrayed women’s inferior intelligence.  One example of this was that women use coördinating conjunctions such as “and”, “or” and “but” more than men do, and use subordinating conjunctions such as “therefore”, “although” and “because” less than men do, which Jespersen interpreted as meaning that women use language in a less intelligent way.  Later feminist commentators acknowledged these differences but attributed the cause to men being conditioned to be more confident in their use of language than women.

Deborah Tannen is probably the most important influence on me in this respect.  My understanding of stereotypically feminine and masculine use of language is that women are more emotionally involved and engaging, try to build empathy, share and put the reader at ease, and that their language is closer to the language of fiction even when they are writing factually, whereas men use language to hoard information, establish their superiority, write to inform and draw attention to themselves, and that their language is closer to factual text even when writing fiction.  Of course these are stereotypes and there is a big overlap, and other factors come into consideration such as copy-editing by people whose gender is different than the writer, attempts to adopt personas in fictional writing and the adoption of a particular style considered appropriate for a given passage.  However, the description I’ve just offered is of course very much wedded to traditional gender roles and caricatures of femininity and masculinity.  Therefore, at this point I choose to remove gender-based labels from these features and simply call them different styles of language use.

My claim is that a style of language that doesn’t hoard information but shares it is more positive and progressive than one which does the opposite.  This means, among other things, clarity and brevity, and efforts to avoid jargon, which is anti-language.  Anti-language is language created to exclude outsiders from understanding.  It can have positive uses, for instance Polari, the GSM argot, was effective in preventing homophobic persecution in Britain in the mid-twentieth century and possibly before.  As someone who is very interested in language, I have a strong affection for jargon and anti-language which is possibly unhelpful if I actually mean to communicate.  Knowledge is power.  That means that power-sharing involves effective communication of practically applicable information.  There are limits to this, for instance avoiding jargon can interfere with memory and strain attention span because more words may be needed to get the same point across and a jargon word which aims to lasso a bit of reality and refer to it can be a very helpful shortcut here.  I realise I don’t communicate well, and that if I was signing, I’d be signing towards myself a lot of the time.  It’s less obvious that I’m doing this in writing, but it’s still going on.  This is in a sense all mirror-writing, because I’m holding the page up and writing for my own sake, and it’s reversed for the reader.  Nonetheless I do want to communicate effectively.

People who didn’t know me before the 1990s probably don’t realise this, but it wasn’t always this bad.  It was mainly postgraduate work which led me to use language in this way.  Before that, I was even able to edit other people’s work for clarity and brevity.  The kind of language used in particular by French-language philosophers amounts to an anti-language.  Jacques Lacan is a notorious example of this.  “The less you understand, the more you listen” was one of his dicta.  His aim was apparently to generate a mystical-like meaning in the listener or reader rather than to be understood.  I wouldn’t say this attitude is unconnected to his emotionally abusive approach to “therapy”, and it’s not to be emulated.  It’s a disease, an attempt to fiddle while Rome burns which is rife in critical theory, and it needs to stop.  Anyway, this is the source of my own obscurantism, and I wish it would go away.

When I’ve written on such subjects as Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, climate change denial or climate change itself, it’s an attempt at factual writing, but the question arises in my mind as to whether this is in fact the best approach.  Although knowledge is indeed power, it feels like there’s a sense in which using information in this way is playing the same game as one’s opponents.  I still feel there’s a place for it.  The question is whether it’s my place.  I’m expressing all this stuff, communicating all this information, but that’s informative rather than engaging writing and something I constantly struggle unsuccessfully against doing.  It’s informative rather than engaging, which I struggle endlessly but unsuccessfully against doing.  I would much prefer to engage my readers’ feelings than tell them about stuff, or show them stuff.

This brings me to the thorny issue of women-only shortlists.  I am now a member of the Labour Party, and of course I’m trans.  I believe it’s vital that Labour win the next election, and also that politics become “feminised”.  The quotes around that word are about the fact that it needn’t be labelled that way.  I want political debate, such as goes on to decide law in Parliament and elsewhere, to be a different kind of conversation, using a different approach to language, and I believe that in order for this to happen, trans women need to be excluded from women-only shortlists unless they’re using language in a less typically masculine way.  But they’re not.  I’ve taken extensive passages authored by trans women and put them through the Gender Guesser algorithm.  Every one showed up as having male authorship.  Likewise, I’ve taken ten passages by non-gender conformist cis women such as Germaine Greer and done the same.  They all came out as female.  Whereas the accuracy is only sixty percent, the chances of this being a mistake multiply each time, thereby reducing the probability of this being so.  By the time it’s happened ten times in a row, the probability of each being by chance is about one in a thousand, on each side.  Multiplied together, it’s one in a million.

To defuse this from a debate about trans issues, look at it this way.  We desperately need politics to be based on a different kind of interaction and communication than it is, and to have people with diverse experience in Parliament.  Assuming that trans women on women-only shortlists got elected, which is an unwarranted assumption, the fact that we tend to use language in the same way as a typical man strongly suggests to me that this would lead to it being politics as usual.  For this reason, unless you’re right wing in which case it serves your needs well that non-Labour candidates are likely to win in elections with trans women as Labour candidates, it’s a politically conservative move to allow people who use language in that way onto women-only shortlists.  There are several other good reasons for doing so too.  However, rather than basing it on gender identity, it could be based on analysis of language use.  It would be a politically expedient move to dodge the gender issue, but it would still have the same result.

Getting back to the subject of this blog, the reason I’ve gone quiet is similar to the incident, which you may remember, of when I started a home ed wiki, put a lot of effort into producing material, then realised nobody else had contributed and deleted everything.  There needs to be diversity in such things.  I say stuff, but other people are remaining silent.  Maybe they should start saying things, because then I will have permission to express myself, but as it stands I’m very reluctant to do so, which is a shame because I still believe that what I want to communicate is important.  Recent experience has shown me that a heck of a lot of people are poorly-informed and have opinions which are quite clearly spurious, but continue under the impression that they know stuff in a manner which endangers the survival of the species and the well-being of themselves and others.  But I don’t feel right about communicating this unless other people are also making a contribution.  So for now, I’m saying nothing.


I’m taking a break from the series of posts around the politics of denial, fallacies and so forth today, because it’s the seventy-third anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, and this shouldn’t be forgotten. It killed something like 100 000 people in one go, and after all this time it might be thought that nothing remains to be said about it, but if we’re going to remember the First World War we should also remember this.

One unfortunate person was involved in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 山口 彊, Yamaguchi Tsutomu, Nagasaki native and Mitsubishi employee, visited Hiroshima and was affected by the explosion. He then returned to Nagasaki, returned to work despite his injuries and was affected by the second explosion. Although he alone was recognised by the Japanese government as having been affected by both, there were around seventy others. He died of stomach cancer in 2010. As such, he was one of the 被爆者, hibakusha, people affected by the radiation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The hibakusha get a monthly allowance and free medical care, and there have been 650 000 of them, some not born at the time of the attacks. Around 170 000 survive today. There were also 20 000 Korean slaves in Hiroshima at the time and 2 000 in Nagasaki, and also prisoners of war, one of whom I’ve met.

At the time, the bombing of Hiroshima was considered epoch-making, and Asimov, for example, used it as a zero point for a dating system in some of his SF (works set further in the future use Galactic Era and Foundation Era instead). Likewise, Salvador Dali was inspired to begin his Nuclear Mysticism phase by these events. I feel quite strongly that Dali’s playfulness is in fairly poor taste in this context, rather similar to his use of Hitler a few years earlier.

It has been maintained, and personally I believe this, that the Japanese government was suing for peace shortly before the bombs were dropped, but that the US wanted to use them as a demonstration to the Soviets that they had a dangerous weapon which could be used against the USSR and the later Warsaw Pact countries. Also, there’s controversy over the translation of the Japanese term 黙殺, mokusatsu, “kill by silence” in a response to the diplomatic overtures from America demanding surrender. This could have been translated as “no comment” but was taken to mean “treat with silent contempt” by the Allies, and it’s suggested that Truman’s decision to have the cities bombed was swung by this interpretation. It may also have been an attempt by the Japanese to appease the military. At this point it would be easy to get into a discussion about Japanese customs and culture which plays into the Japanese exceptionalism agenda, but although it’s not clear when cultural considerations should be taken into consideration and when they should be ignored, Orientalism doesn’t seem appropriate here. Just as Aokigahara is in a strong sense just the Japanese Beachy Head, so is speculation about Japanese etiquette in this situation in danger of being racist.

Speaking of racism, the response of Gaijin (外人) to the bombings often shocks me. One person told me that he thought the problem was not that we had bombed the Japanese twice but that we hadn’t bombed the entire country with nuclear weapons. Another person, a friend of mine, was most unkeen on my attempt to introduce aspects of Japanese culture to our home ed group because of the way the nation had behaved towards us during the War. There is of course no excuse for any of that behaviour. However, I note that the mainly white people of Nazi Germany are not now, nor should they be, conflated with the Nazis, and I’m more than a little suspicious of the fact that the Japanese still have this stigma in people’s minds after all this time and just happen to be non-white and decidedly non-European.

A similar racism also affects the claim that the Japanese are the only nation to have suffered a nuclear attack. This is simply untrue. The tests on Bikini atoll in the 1940s and ’50s, carried out by the US, involved the removal of the Marshallese people from their homeland to a place which could not sustain their lives, causing starvation. Incidentally, the tests at Bikini are tangentially related to yesterday’s post as just as the presence of fossil fuel carbon 13 and absent carbon 14 skews radiocarbon dating for artefacts from the eighteenth century onwards, the radiation from Castle Bravo has likewise changed the accuracy of radiocarbon dating for more recent objects. It also led to fallout on the people living on Rongelap, Rongerik and Utrik Atolls, many of whom came down with acute radiation sickness afterwards.

Better known is the plight of the Western Shoshone whose land in Nevada has also been used to test nuclear weapons. This has led to many cases of cancer among them. The water table was, unsurprisingly, poisoned. The Western Shoshone claim that the US government is illegally trespassing on their land, and there is also a nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain which was built without their permission.

I haven’t looked into it, but I presume the Soviet Union and China also carried out similar tests and the fact that I’ve only mentioned the US, and by extension NATO, in this post doesn’t mean I consider that any better. There’s no excuse for any of it.

To conclude then, Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably didn’t bring the Second World War to an end but slightly extended it, the reasons for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki were pretty dubious even given that there could be an excuse for doing so, and Japan is not the only nation to have been affected by nuclear weapons. It’s just that the other ones are indigenous people and therefore “don’t count”.

The Smoking Gun Of Climate Change

dangerous crime safety security
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Suppose there were two types of gun.  One of them is automatic.  Not just automatic automatic, but actually automatic.  It’s a roving gun “robot” which works on its own and aims and shoots people without human intervention, and it evolved without humans.  It also mimics human guns, so at first glance it’s indistinguishable from a gun manufactured by human beings.  The other type is a hand-held manufactured human gun.  Maybe the natural guns are too dangerous to approach, so humans ended up making their own.  The only difference is that human guns emit smoke with less nitrogen 15 in them than the natural guns.  And you arrive on a scene with a dead body which has recently been shot in the head, with a smoking gun lying next to it.  Measuring the smoke, it would be straightforward to work out whether it was homicide or an attack by a natural gun.

There are several lines of evidence which indicate that climate change is caused by human activity, mainly the release of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion.  One of these is the isotopic composition of the carbon in the environment, and another is the pattern of warming in the atmosphere.  There is also the claim that fluctuations in solar activity drive climate change.  In today’s entry I’m going to look at all of these and possibly some others, starting with solar activity.


Early in the history of solar observation, astronomers discovered that the visible surface of the Sun wasn’t immaculate but suffered from occasional spots.  I presume that at the time certain religious people would have regarded this as a problem since it suggested that the Sun wasn’t perfect and that it had features invisible to the naked eye which therefore served no human purpose.  This kind of thinking is also sometimes associated with climate change denial, but I won’t veer off-topic.

It’s clearly not feasible to look directly at the Sun through a telescope with no protection, but it so happens that I have done this through wads of overexposed photographic negatives and by projecting the image onto paper, only the latter whereof I could recommend, but I do recommend it because if you have a pair of binoculars, this is one of the easiest pieces of astronomy you can ever do.  I can therefore confirm that sunspots do exist.  I’ve personally seen them.

Sunspots are planet-sized vortices on the photosphere (visible surface) of the Sun.  They are somewhat cooler than their surroundings and therefore look dark, but in isolation they would glow pretty brightly.  They follow an eleven-year cycle where they begin about half way up or down from the poles and gradually migrate towards the equator.  I can also confirm that this happens because I’ve seen it when observing the Sun in the ways I’ve described over that period of time.  Sunspots are associated with intense magnetic activity.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=969067Sunspot_Numbers

One of the oddities found during the centuries over which sunspots have been observed is the Maunder Minimum.  Between the years of 1645 and 1715, only very few sunspots were observed.  This was also the time of the peak of the Little Ice Age, and consequently an association is often made between this period of time and the cold period in Europe during which frost fairs on the Thames happened, and the phrase “eighteen hundred and frozen stiff” originated.  It lasted from about 1200 to 1850 with a respite in the sixteenth century, and was at its worst during the same period as the Maunder Minimum.

Other stars also have spots, called in this case “starspots”.  In some cases they have so many that they make a substantial observable difference to the brightness of those stars.  The maximum coverage is about 30%, which is of course far more than the Sun.  If our star was covered in thirty percent sunspots, it would reduce its luminosity by around 15%, which if this planet relied simply on heat and light from it for maintaining its temperature would give it an average surface temperature of -21 degrees C, which would quickly drop as the ice covering it reflected sunlight back into space and we’d be looking at a Snowball Earth scenario, as occurred back in the Cryogenian period before complex life evolved.  Hence a planet orbiting a star with wild sunspot fluctuations would be difficult for us to live on, although the Cryogenian is thought by some to have kick-started the evolution of more advanced organisms here.

Such stars are not sun-like.  However, extensive observations of more apparently sun-like stars have been made, which led astronomers to the conclusion that intervals like the Maunder Minimum were occurring in a substantial fraction of stars like ours, meaning that it could be expected to happen every few centuries.  Climate change scientists therefore previously thought it was possible that fluctuations in solar activity were a significant factor in climate change, and therefore that the cycles in this planet’s orbit mentioned yesterday could be offset by a more active Sun, thereby warming the planet.

The Hipparcos mission changed all that in the late ’80s and early ’90s.  This satellite measured more precisely the distances to a large number of stars, thereby messing up a number of SF stories.  I don’t know how they can forgive themselves.  Seriously though, the mission is a good example of how apparently purely scientific missions in space can prove to be of enormous practical use.  It emerged that a large number of the stars with very low starspot activity were further away than previously calculated and therefore much more luminous than once thought, meaning that they were also much older than the Sun.  The magnetic field of stars is mainly generated by their rotation, which acts as a dynamo, and as they age, stars spin more slowly and therefore have weaker magnetic fields and therefore fewer sunspots.  These were not, as it turned out, sun-like stars at all, or rather, they were on the main sequence like the Sun, but considerably closer to becoming red giants, and now had permanently lower activity than it.  Starspots were a sign of stellar adolescence.  This means that the current rise in the mean temperature of this planet could not be accounted for by fluctuations in the activity of our Sun, and that the Milankovitch cycles I mentioned yesterday are in fact mitigating the warming.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46626565_Myr_Climate_Change

Looking back over the history of this planet reveals substantial fluctuations in global climate, such as the Cryogenian period mentioned earlier.  In the late Eocene, for example, the planet was so warm that the Arctic Ocean would’ve felt tepid and it would’ve been fine to swim in it naked.  Such major changes in climate are often used to argue that since Earth has been a lot hotter than it is today in the past, there won’t be a problem with it getting hotter again.  It is true that all the carbon stored in fossil fuels was previously in the atmosphere, oceans and living things, and that the carbon released on two occasions during the Eocene led to much warmer temperatures than the change today.  There are, though, a number of things wrong with this line of reasoning.

Whereas life did survive previous global warming events, they were usually associated with mass extinctions.  Moreover, humans are particularly sensitive to sea level rises because most of us live in low-lying ground near bodies of water.  Additionally, the speed of change is not on a geological time scale but an historical one, and the previous global warming events took many millennia to happen.  Finally, there’s the problem of induction.  That life survived is a given, but that doesn’t mean it will survive another one, particularly an unusually rapid one like today’s.

It’s been established, then, that today’s climate change is occurring, is not due to Milankovitch cycles or fluctuations in the energy of the Sun, but why blame human beings for it?  Previous global warming events associated with the release of carbon dioxide have been linked to volcanism, and the amount of carbon released by volcanoes and other processes is greater than the release from fossil fuels.  This is in fact so.  Annual fossil fuel use emits 29 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, whereas land vegetation releases 439 gigatonnes and the ocean is responsible for an additional 332 gigatonnes.  However, the non-human emissions are more than balanced by absorption.  Volcanism is balanced by the reaction of acidified rain and other water with rock, and although some of that acid is from sulphur compounds in the atmosphere and is responsible for damage to forests and the like, is also formed from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Likewise, the oceans and forests absorb carbon via photosynthesis, meaning that there is reabsorption of 450 gigatonnes by the land and 338 gigatonnes by the ocean each year.  This has in the past generally achieved a balance with the considerable carbon dioxide releases by non-human processes.  However, these absorption processes are linked to the emission processes, for instance more photosynthesis occurs from life which is associated with more carbon dioxide exhalation and the production of new rock from volcanic eruptions helps to absorb the carbon dioxide they produce.  If this wasn’t so, there would’ve been snowball earth scenarios before humans evolved, because the complete absence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would lead to an average temperature below freezing.  The balance also takes place over a very long period of time, as does the carbon dioxide emission.  The change which has occurred in the last couple of centuries would usually have taken at least five thousand years, and the last time atmospheric carbon dioxide was as high as it is now was during the Miocene Epoch.

It’s also possible to establish that the carbon present in atmospheric carbon dioxide and the oceans is from human sources because of the ratio of carbon 13 to carbon 12 in it.  Carbon from living sources has less carbon 13 than carbon from non-living sources, for example igneous rocks, because photosynthesis absorbs proportionately more carbon 12 than carbon 13.  Carbon 14, which is used for dating fairly recent formerly living matter, has more or less completely decayed in fossil fuels because they are hundreds of times longer than its half life, whereas carbon 12 and 13 are stable.  Consequently, material which includes substantial amounts of carbon from fossil fuels appears to be a different age according to carbon dating.  This fact was discovered without reference to climate science and cannot therefore be part of a conspiracy.  There is also less carbon 13 in the ocean and living matter than there would be if it was from volcanism, which dredges carbon up from the mantle where there is no organic life or photosynthesis.  It can therefore be shown that the carbon in the oceans and the atmosphere is from fossil fuels, not volcanism.

A couple more claims:

  • Good climate records don’t go back very far because thermometers used to be less accurate.

Whereas it’s true that thermometers were less accurate, climate records are based on non-technological processes such as the ratio of oxygen 16 to oxygen 18 in bubbles in ice cores from glaciers, tree rings and the direction of spiral shells in certain protozoa.  Bristlecone pine debris, for example, goes back around 9000 years.  This provides a more accurate measure of climate change than old thermometers, so there is no need to rely upon them.

  • The urban heat island effect.  Weather stations in urban areas are warmer than those in rural areas and climate change reflects urbanisation.

This is so.  The presence of more industrial activity leads to a local greenhouse effect and the absence of biological material on the ground, with the likes of concrete and asphalt replacing it, does mean that towns are warmer than the country.  Heat is also generated more in cities by industrial processes and heating.  However, the fastest-warming areas are places like Mongolia and the Amazon, and there is also rapid warming in ocean areas where there are no people or cities.  Meanwhile, places where there’s a lot of urban development sometimes warm more slowly, such as parts of the US and China.  There is also an upward trend in temperature in rural and urban weather stations.

  • Water vapour is a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Whereas this is true, the release of carbon dioxide increases evaporation of water and leads to more being stored in the atmosphere.  There are only 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere whereas water vapour can be as high as one percent.  The rising level of water vapour is initially triggered by the rising level of carbon dioxide, resulting in a feedback effect where the higher level of water vapour increases atmospheric temperature further and increases humidity, thereby trapping more heat.

Incidentally, ozone is also a greenhouse gas, but the loss of ozone from the upper atmosphere, which is now thankfully reversing, is not relevant to global warming.  This is because the stratosphere is cooling, which is again a sign of global warming via the greenhouse effect and further evidence that it’s nothing to do with the Sun.

The greenhouse effect in detail works as follows.  The Sun’s radiation is absorbed by gases which re-emit it as infrared.  This emission occurs in all directions, including up, but since the air gets thinner higher up it doesn’t continue to get re-absorbed and emitted up there because there are fewer atoms and molecules to do it.  Therefore, heat gets trapped in the troposphere, the lowest level of the atmosphere, and the stratosphere cools.  In the nineteenth century it was predicted that carbon dioxide would lead to greater increases in temperature at night and during winters because less heat would be lost, and this is in fact what is happening.  Hence it’s not so much heat waves and hot summers which indicate global warming as unusually warm spells in the winter, and unusually warm mean winter temperatures.

To sum up:

  • Global warming is taking place.  This can be seen by oxygen isotope ratios in ice cores, a general upward trend in frequency of temperature records and melting glaciers where the moisture of the air does not result in heavy snowfall.  All of these provide accurate measures of average global temperature going back thousands of years.
  • Global warming is not due to Milankovitch cycles or fluctuations in solar activity.
  • The greenhouse effect is not the result of volcanism because the ratios of carbon isotopes mean the carbon is from formerly living sources such as fossil fuels.
  • Climate change is a hazard because warming events in the past were slower and in any case resulted in mass extinctions.
  • Human beings are particularly sensitive to climate change because we tend to live near bodies of water.

Consequently, something should be done about it, don’t you think?

Human-Caused Climate Change

This may just be the first of several posts about climate change. My post on Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt referred to it several times and since I’m studying it right now, it seemed apt to talk about the actual climate science involved rather than the processes involved in denial, although at some point I’ll also go into various prominent areas in which this strategy is taken as well as talking about its details. There also seems to be room for other related matters such as the question of logical fallacies in arguments. But for now, I want to talk about climate change and why it is almost certainly human activity which is currently driving it.

The immediate impetus for this arises from two sources. One is this photograph:

Copyright unknown, will be removed on request.

This is Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle a couple of weeks ago, when the temperature was a record-breaking 32 degrees C. It’s a dramatic illustration, but also perhaps one which suggests we should all be using text-only browsers on the web, because it may not be as powerful evidence for global warming as it appears to be. It was this picture which persuaded me I ought to look into this more. Certain pressure groups have a history of bad science behind them, and if they’re supporting what I might think of as the good guys, it’s unhelpful to use bad science to argue for the position, even if the position is true. Having said that, I’ve talked about logos, ethos and pathos before, and when I campaigned for the Peace Movement I was always careful to use pathos rather than logos to attempt to persuade people. There is a place for pathos and ethos, but there can also be a place for logos, and in this case the place is this post.

32 degrees C is in fact a record-breaking temperature for Rovaniemi and is in fact proportionately higher than all over record-breaking highs per month for the city. It’s also further from the mean temperature for any month on the hot side than cold records are on the cold side whether considered in terms of absolute temperature or degrees C or Fahrenheit. Such an observation might form the beginning of a stronger case for the validity of this temperature as evidence, but it still isn’t enough. I can recall seeing a video of Tromsø in June 1989 where it was clearly warm and sunny. Tromsø is several hundred kilometres northwest of Rovaniemi, although again comparisons are not necessarily useful because unlike the latter, it’s on the coast.

The image works well as rhetoric but should there be a failure in some way, runs the risk of discrediting the opinion it lends itself most easily to support, and as such is comparable to similar cherry-picking by climate change denialists. Climatology tends to deal in probabilities and weather is not climate. Thus the probability of heat waves might increase over the years as humans burn more fossil fuels and release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but specific events such as this heat wave are not helpful as evidence. What might be helpful is to look at the frequency of heatwaves decade by decade in a particular place. However, the problem with this is that the term “heat wave” is not scientific. It’s more likely to turn up in journalism or everyday conversation and because it isn’t rigorously defined, it’s hard to point to specific events and call them heat waves, and therefore count them up and make a graph out of them. I have to admit I find it frustrating that climate science deals in probabilities because the inability to make a definite statement about weather conditions in Rovaniemi being connected to climate change, for example, makes it harder to persuade people that it’s real. Nonetheless we’re stuck with this and there are some definite things which can be said about the situation.

Although there are no firm definitions of heat waves, and while I’m on the subject I should mention in passing that droughts are also hampered in a similar way, this time by having too many definitions, record weather conditions just are what they are, and these can be employed usefully in arguments for climate change. Industrialisation correlates well with the practice of keeping accurate quantitative records of climate, meaning that at first it may seem difficult to track links between industrialisation, the use of fossil fuels and climate change because, for example, instruments become more accurate and human-based records taken before the Industrial Revolution were less reliable. There are, though, various ways round this problem. If climate change is not taking place, record high and low temperatures would be expected to keep pace with one another. Imagine temperature records started to be kept in 1850. This would mean that the summer of 1850 is almost certainly going to have the hottest weather recorded since records began. This would then presumably be followed by a winter with the coldest recorded weather since records began. If there is no overall change in climate, at a cursory estimate the next year then has a 50% chance of including the hottest and an equal probability of the coldest weather since records began, then the year after a one in three chance of each and so on. As time goes by, the likelihood of each record being broken would decline, and one would sometimes pull ahead of the other slightly and the situation would then reverse. This, though, is not what happens. What in fact takes place is that as the years roll on, record high temperatures pull ahead constantly of record low temperatures, and the ratio between the two sets of records is now about two hot records to each cold record. Hence this year in Rovaniemi is still useful as a data point but needs to be seen in historical context. I don’t know what it did last summer.

There are other aspects of heat waves which can be observed and recorded in this manner, in spite of the vagueness of the notion, in particular how early they begin in the summer, and again there is a trend here. It’s also possible to hypothesise about what causes heat waves in the Northern temperate zone. Rovaniemi is six kilometres south of the Arctic Circle and is therefore technically in a temperate rather than polar region. As such, it falls under the Jet Stream hypothesis of heat wave causation, and this is where things get more recognisably “sciency”, although the idea of a list of historical statistics is no less scientific than this is.

The Jet Stream is a meandering current of fast air eight to eleven kilometres above sea level where wind blows constantly at about 300 kilometres an hour. It’s used by jet aircraft to travel more efficiently between locations in the northern hemisphere. Other planets also have jet streams. For instance, Jupiter’s banded appearance is due to a large number of jet streams, although in its case they operate between a warmer lower level and a colder upper one. This temperature gradient is also what drives our own jet stream. Polar air is cold, tropical air warm. Since warm fluids such as air expand and cold fluids contract, with a few exceptions, tropical air expands towards the North Pole, displacing polar air towards the equator. This gives the jet stream a wavy course fluctuating between north and south. However, the difference between the temperatures of the polar and tropical air is reducing because the Arctic is warming faster than the tropics. This is because the ice cover, which previously reflected light and heat back into space, is reducing, exposing darker surfaces which absorb more heat and therefore heat the air. This reduction in temperature gradient leads to the meanderings becoming wider, because there is less contrast. According to the hypothesis, this means that warm conditions will tend to hang around longer over larger areas. It also means the same for colder conditions. This seems to have been partly confirmed by conditions in the Lower 48 US states in the winter of 2014. On the cold side of the jet stream, in the eastern states, the winter was unusually icy and harsh, and on the warm side, in the Southwest, there was one of the mildest winters on record. Hence if this hypothesis is corroborated, the fact of global warming, however caused, has led to a cold snap as well as an unusually mild winter. It occurs to me to wonder what consequences those locations might have for decisions to vote Democrat or Republican, and therefore for the acceptance or rejection of anthropogenic climate change.

So far, nothing I’ve said is a clinching argument for climate change being caused by human activity, and if you’re expecting that today I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed because although there is strong evidence, all I’ve managed to describe so far is a correlation between the use of fossil fuels and the rise in mean global temperatures. This could conceivably be mere coincidence, and unfortunately the other source of the impetus for my post doesn’t yet provide it either. It’s certainly interesting that the Arctic ice is melting just as we’re adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but based on what I’ve said so far there could easily be another explanation. One thing it does illustrate, though, is the fickleness of opinion. A single cold spell can be enough to persuade some people that global warming is a myth, and likewise a single heat wave would often convince the same people that it isn’t. The issue is therefore how to make a convincing connection between the larger scale and longer term processes involved. What’s been said already, though, should be enough to demolish the myth that global warming isn’t taking place.

The second source was a conversation about why Earth is furthest from the Sun in June and closest to it in December. This is more puzzling for someone living in the northern temperate belt than someone in the south, because for the latter the summer happens when the Sun is closer. The answer is suggested by Geoffrey Chaucer’s reference to Aries in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:

the yonge sonne hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne.

This is a reference to the Vernal Equinox, written in the late fourteenth century, when it occurred half way through Aries, or around 2nd April rather than 20th or 21st March as it currently does. It’s a little confusing for us nowadays that the solstices occur so close to the time of our closest and furthest points from the Sun, the perihelion and aphelion respectively, because this is in fact a coincidence. As Chaucer’s line indicates, the equinox was a fortnight later six hundred years ago. This is because the elliptical orbit of the planet we’re on gradually shuffles round, one of several other things which happens to her movement over a moderately long period of time.

Assuming Earth to be a simple ocean-covered planet with no dry land at all, which is in fact a model used by climate simulation software to simplify things, although not in earnest to predict the actual climate on the real Earth, this situation would mean that there was an alternating pattern of milder seasons in one hemisphere and more extreme ones in the other which would swap over every few thousand years, because for a while the summer north of the equator would occur when it was closest to the Sun and therefore be hotter along with the winter being colder, followed by a period during which it happened when it was furthest away, giving it a cooler summer and a warmer winter. In fact, because the Earth’s orbit is nearly circular, it currently makes little difference as there is a 6% difference in the amount of light and heat we get from the Sun in summer and winter at the same latitude and same time of day and year, and the biggest difference is caused by the angle of the surface to sunlight, which varies a lot more than that.

The courses through which Earth goes are known as Milankovitch Cycles, and there are three of them. One has been hinted at already. The orbit around the Sun becomes more and less elliptical over a period of about ten thousand years. It’s currently near its most circular and we have a 6% variation in global sunlight per year because of the 3% deviation from a perfectly circular orbit. At its maximum, the eccentricity is 5%, which leads to an annual variation of up to thirty percent. Incidentally this is because a light source at twice the distance is only a quarter as bright because its light is spread over a larger area, so it isn’t 5% because that could only happen in a two-dimensional space.

The second and third variations are in axial tilt with respect to the Sun. Planets are generally giant gyroscopes. They have enormous momenta in their spins which keeps their geographical poles pointing the same way, but like smaller gyroscopes they do wobble, which Earth takes twenty-odd thousand years to do, and also how steep the tilt is. This only varies between 21.5 and 24.5 degrees, over a period of 41 000 years. A less pronounced tilt leads to milder winters because the sunlight is less spread out over the planet’s surface, giving more heat to the same area. This warms the atmosphere and enables it to store more moisture, which near the poles freezes and falls as snow. This snow reflects more sunlight back into space and cools down the planet, and there’s a feedback loop due to the spread of snow. The interaction of these three cycles leads to climate variation over a period of millennia, and is probably responsible for the alternating ice ages and interglacials we experience over the past 800 000 years or so.

Given that the planet is currently in a state where these cycles are combining to provide relatively cold winters, it would normally be expected that a new ice age would start in about the thirty-fifth century. This also means that the explanation suggested by some climate change deniers that the warmer climate is due to these cycles is incorrect. If anything, they’re making climate change less severe than it would otherwise be. There is a further point regarding sunspot activity, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Therefore, although the information I’ve given so far today isn’t enough to say for sure that human activity is responsible for climate change, it is enough to rule out the possibility that variations in orbit and axial tilt are the cause. They are in fact mitigating factors.

Again, this is unfortunately confusing to explain because it looks at first that milder winters result from these orbital and axial shifts, but there is a bonus fact which also works against the claims of climate change deniers: growth and shrinkage of glaciers.

It’s sometimes claimed that Earth is not warming because whereas many glaciers are shrinking, some are growing. The growing glaciers are a small minority, but this is in fact true. The reason it’s true is the same as the reason why milder winters can lead to ice buildup and long-term cooling. Some glaciers grow because they’re in parts of the world where moisture in the air becomes snow rather than rain. Because there’s more evaporation from the sea, and the warmer air has more capacity to hold the water, when it does precipitate, snowfalls are heavier in these places and the glaciers grow. Unlike the more general build up of ice which leads to ice ages, though, there’s still a general decrease in ice cover, which means less sunlight reflected back into space. Hence although some glaciers are indeed growing, it’s not enough to prevent global warming.

Furthermore, most glaciers are shrinking more than they have in the last ice age. Frozen plants such as mosses and lichen are now being exposed by melting glaciers which can be dated to before the last ice age, about 80 000 years ago. This means that those glaciers are now smaller than at any time since there were hippos living in the Thames, because the climate was that much warmer.

The mention of dating brings me to the question of isotopes, which can be used to construct a pretty clinching argument that climate change is human in origin. I’ll come to that in the next post.