Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Where Are All the Aliens?

I came across this webpage about the Fermi Paradox, which is the question why we still have no contact with beings from other planets, although statistically speaking there should be loads of them. Here is the article about the Fermi Paradox on Wikipedia.

And now, Stephen Hawking declares that there will be a ten year initiative to search for aliens by scanning the sky for intelligent radio signals, much like the old SETI project – but with a USD 100 million investment by a Russian entrepreneur to improve things. Here is a BBC article about it: Venture to listen for aliens.

Are there others out there in space? We don't know, because we have no signs of it – either because we can't read such signs or because nothing that may be out there is able to reach us with any kind of evidence of its existence.

The problem has these two aspects, provided there is intelligent life out there: Can we detect it, and can it reach us?

Probability Support

First of all, though, the question is if there are others out there. Probability calculations on the vast number of planets in the universe indicate that there must be lots of them with the conditions needed for life to emerge and evolve.

As we understand life – and that's far from completely – nothing suggests it could not happen elsewhere. Considering the quantity of planets out there, it is most likely to have happened numerous times. It probably keeps on happening.

How about intelligent life? Again, the odds are for it, because of the high number of planets likely to produce living creatures. Even if life is rare, the universe is big enough to have plenty of it outside earth. And even if it's much more rare for life to evolve into intelligent beings, it should have happened a lot of times – in some cases so long ago, their civilizations have developed far beyond ours.

Universal Darwin

As for how life develops, Darwin's theory of evolution would apply to any other planet as readily as on ours. Strictly speaking, it applies to any system of continued change, whether it happens randomly or not.

The theory of evolution increases by time the chance of highly advanced life forms anywhere life has started. The more time passes, the more advanced creatures will emerge.

A word of caution, though: Survival of the fittest doesn't necessarily mean the most intelligent ones. We don't know that intelligence is a major asset for survival, at length. We have only had this big brain of ours for a fraction of the time other life forms on earth have survived fine without it. And it seems our minds play lethal tricks on us, sometimes surpassing the benefits we have achieved by them.

In other words – our intelligence may be our doom, and not our blessing. So far, it's working well, allowing us to spread over most of the globe, increasing both our life expectancy and population impressively. But it comes at a high cost, and the future may show that we've walked right into a cul-de-sac of self-extinction.

Increased intelligence may be comparable to bodily size: it is beneficial up to a point. Most really big animals that have walked the earth are gone. That could be the rule for intelligence as well. More than enough might be detrimental.

What's Intelligent?

As for intelligence, we tend to measure it with ourselves as  the scale. We like to see ourselves as the peak of intelligence on earth, but that sure depends on how we define it.

We are not the only animals with big brains. Ours is not even the biggest or the most advanced by any standard of which we are aware. So, we have no reason to assume that our brains are the most intelligent ones.

There's not much that makes us unique. Many animals form complex societies, many use tools and know how to modify them to their advantage. Most of them have sophisticated ways of communicating with each other. Strictly speaking, except for walking on the moon, what have we done that is completely beyond every other animal's ability?

We have science, the ability to understand how the world works and use it to our advantage (sometimes also to our disadvantage). What has made us achieve this is the combination of our brains and our hands. Judging from what other animals succeed or fail to master, the hand may be even more important than the brain.

Without our hands, we would have to settle for having very fancy dreams.

Now, this combination in all its splendor is yet to be found in any other species, although there are millions of them on earth and they've all had plenty of time to evolve. Only one species, our own, is at all able to travel and communicate beyond our planet – and we only developed that ability recently.

So, it took earth five billion years to produce one species able to communicate and travel beyond the planet.

One in millions of species. That's not much. And it took as much as about half the time our sun remains stable enough not to expand and consume our planet. Had the process taken twice as long, it would be too late.

We don't know how to calculate the probability of life to appear and evolve on other planets, but present estimates (the Drake equation and such) hint on it being much more likely than one in millions. But the “give and take” of it is tremendous.

According to Wikipedia the original 1961 estimate by Frank Drake and his colleagues was between 1,000 and 100,000,000 civilizations in our galaxy. Current estimates broaden the scope even more – from just two up to 280,000,000 civilizations, again in the Milky Way only. The total number of galaxies in the universe is estimated to be between 100 billion and 200 billion. It could as many as 500 billion, but most of them are significantly smaller than ours.

So, although life is very likely to have emerged on countless planets in the universe and intelligent life on quite a lot of them, creatures able to explore space are much less likely to appear. Judging from earth statistics alone, that's another one in a million chance.

Evolution is not heading for space.

Very Scarce

Although evolution is no guarantee for space exploration, it happened to us so it could happen elsewhere. Given the very high number of planets in our universe where life is possible, we are probably not the only ones reaching for the sky. But the others may be very scarce and extremely distant.

Do they want to reach us? If they are space explorers, they should be curious enough to search for creatures like us. Some may already have discovered us, even reached us in some way or other. If so, the problem is that we can't spot them.


How to discover aliens? If they are somewhat like us, the SETI search for intelligent radio signals from space would be one way – provided they are close enough for radio signals to reach us (now that we search for them) before they change to other modes of communication that we can't read. And provided they ever used that method.

Any mode of communication below the speed of light would be very primitive and unlikely to traverse space. Methods of light speed communication used by those who want to explore space must work at interstellar distance, for the sake of their own use of them.

So the signals should reach us, which doesn't mean we can receive them today. But SETI thinking might get us there. It has not done so yet, although this search started, albeit modestly, already in 1960. SETI has detected no sign of intelligent communication out there.

Civilizations on other planets don't even have to aim for interstellar communication for us to pick up their signals. We have sent radio waves into space for over a hundred years, although mostly we just wanted to communicate on our own planet. That means we've announced our existence more than a hundred light-years out from our own modest location in the Milky Way.

Extraterrestrial civilizations would have done the same, once they developed that technology. That's what the SETI project hopes for. But we've only been scanning space for such signals during mere decades.

If radio wave communication is the lasting modus operandi of any technically advanced society, then some of them must have been around long enough for those signals to reach us by now. But if they switched to something else as they continued to advance their science, we might have missed them. Their radio waves passed us before we were able to discover them.

For example, if they shifted to some kind of laser beam communication, it would be unreadable outside of its intended target.

What we can hope to catch are signals from extraterrestrials who used radio waves in time periods fitting these few years we have listened for them. That may bring the number of possible hits down substantially.

In case there actually are civilizations communicating with radio signals that reach us now, we just don't interpret them as such. Is the SETI algorithm for deciding intelligent signals insufficient?

Maybe that type of communication is either rare in itself among advanced civilizations, or something they soon abandon for other methods. We should ponder what other ways there may be to spot technically advanced societies at interstellar distance.

The Time It Takes

Although probability allows for plenty of beings out there able to contact us, it also says that they are not likely to be in the immediate vicinity of our solar system. Even the nearest star is four light-years away. That's four years, one way, at the speed of light.

Within a 20 light-years distance, there are only 59 star systems. Not many enough to cause a high probability of a civilization from this radius reaching us, one way or other.

Just sending radio signals in the hope of our response demands a lot of patience. They would have to wait for tens or even hundreds of years for a response. Would we have that patience?

Due to the relativity of time, manned interstellar travel approaching the speed of light – if that's at all possible – would not take too long for the crew to manage. But that would not apply for an unmanned vessel, being scanned from home by its maker. Those sending it out would just have to wait for very long.

So, interstellar reach makes more sense when manned than when not. The travelers themselves get something out of it, though the price is that when they return to their home, generations have passed.

Unmanned vessels, on the other hand, would be too much of a strain on anybody's patience to be pursued with any vigor.

The space traveler is not an unlikely creature to pay us a visit, even from a star system not in our immediate vicinity – provided the mode of transportation allows for a speed not too far from that of light. Not only will the speed slow down time for the traveler, so that the voyage doesn't take ages. But also, since it demands beings with a life expectancy surpassing ours, they would not be as bothered by the time the trip takes.

Any creature anywhere can't perceive time without relating to the personal experience. The longer you live, the faster the years seem to go. That's simply because our minds mainly measure time according to how much of it we have had so far. It is also quite likely that life expectancy has an influence. The longer we expect to live, the more patience we have with things taking time.

Prolonging life is not that difficult, our science has already revealed to us. We can still only do it to a point, not that much above a hundred years, but it's not at all unlikely for conscious beings to exceed that barrier multifold. Even here on earth, there are creatures living substantially longer than we do – not to mention plants.

The ideal space traveler, then, is someone living for very long and correspondingly patient. Not an unlikely creature at all. More likely than a bunch of civilizations sending unmanned probes and keeping their curiosity through all the years they have to wait.

Plausible Space Travelers

How likely are such space travelers to reach us? That depends on how close to light speed it is possible to travel. The faster the travelers can go, the wider a radius from their home they can explore within a time reasonable to them.

The spacecraft we have sent the farthest so far is Voyager 1, launched in 1977. It reached interstellar space (left the solar system) in 2012. Voyager 1 travels with a velocity of 61,000 km/hour, which isn't much compared to the light speed of 300,000 km/second. That means it would take the spacecraft something like 70,000 years to reach the nearest star. Don't hold your breath.

Also, at that modest speed, a passenger would not experience  much less of a time.

For space travel starting to be meaningful, the speed should at least be something like 1/10 of light speed. That means Voyager 1 would have to travel more than 17,000 times faster than it does. So we're very far away from accomplishing it.

But that would make a trip to the nearest star take 40 years. A lot, but doable. The relative time on that vessel would be less, but not by more than around 1%. It's not a linear relation.

Significant change of time starts above 70% of light speed, where time is around 25% slower. At 95% the traveler's time will be 1/3 of an outside observer. At this phenomenal speed, the traveler will have reached our nearest star in a little more than a year (but at home, 4 years will have passed). That speed, though, is very much to hope for...

At the very speed of light, time has stopped. For light, there simply is no time, no matter how long it takes to reach some outskirt planet of the Milky Way. Travel at that speed would be instant anywhere, were it possible. As far as we know, it's not.

So, the important thing with speed (as long as it's not very near that of light) is not how much it shortens the time for the voyager, but how quickly the vessel reaches its destination. Therefore, visitors from other star systems are more likely the closer they are to us – much more likely  if they are within, say, 20 light-years, and very unlikely if they are much farther away than that. Most star systems sure are.

Beam Me Out

Theoretically, it is possible to travel in light speed without upsetting the order of the universe. A kind of Star Trek beaming device would do the trick. If we can deconstruct ourselves completely into code that can be sent by radio signals to a destination, where we are reconstructed, we would relocate by light speed.

But we would have to know that the code creates complete replicas of us, with personality, awareness, memories and all.

If we can do that, then of course we can also create infinite copies of ourselves – at the moment of copying. Once the copies are made, their following experiences will set them apart. If they are to update one another, again light speed is the limit to how fast that can be done. At interstellar distances, this can be very tedious indeed.

Travel by such code cloning would mainly create an identity crisis. Who is the real me?

Still, such a solution would not challenge science's knowledge of natural law one bit, nor its present understanding of what constitutes a human being. We would just have to rethink what individual life is.

A way of recreating ourselves completely might prove so spectacular that space travel is trivial, even pointless, in comparison. And light speed is still the limit, making most of space unreachable over foreseeable time.

Beyond the Speed of Light

The above suggests that those able to reach us are so far away that they would be unlikely to even bother, without a method of communication surpassing the speed of light.

If there is communication beyond the speed of light, can we receive and read the signals? Potentially, yes, if we make that breakthrough.

But we are far from there, not even (as far as I know) clear of the natural laws involved. What universal law would allow for communication beyond the speed of light, and what would be the nature of that communication?

Einstein's laws of relativity don't deny the possibility of a speed beyond that of light. They just state that nothing below that speed can accelerate beyond it, or the other way around.

So far, there has been no firm proof of faster-than-light objects. But theoretically, if there is something traveling at such speed, it might be used to transfer information. Some suggest that it would be information backwards in time, though, as in the idea of the tachyonic antitelephone – but that is regarded as impossible by present physics.

Actual space travel beyond the speed of light would be utterly impossible, as we understand physics, but some kind of communication by making use of things constantly moving beyond the speed of light might not be completely out of the question. Tricky, though, to say the least.

Since it still can't be ruled out, there may be very advanced civilizations out there doing it. But we are unable to recognize such communication, not even knowing where to search for it. Aliens using it would do so without any risk of us finding out – at least not until we get the hang of it.

Nearby Wormholes

For space travel, something like a wormhole might do the trick, quickly or even instantly taking the traveler from one spot in space-time to another. It may be possible, but surviving the transition is quite another matter. Not to mention controlling where and when the destination will be.

Still, space travel through wormholes or similar space-time absurdities can't be completely ruled out. But we are yet to find a wormhole and to make use of it. That's not likely to happen any day soon.

If wormholes do exist and there is some way of traveling through them, there may be an alien civilization mastering it. Then they could come knocking on our door at any time. We would have trouble understanding how they got here, but other than that we would be perfectly able to perceive them and relate to them.

For interstellar contact in person, this seems to be the least unlikely solution that we are aware of, yet. But the wormhole to be used must be rather near the home planet of the traveler at one end, and earth at the other. If not, we are back to the problem of lengthy space travel. That's the catch with the wormhole solution.

In other words, wormholes have to be in abundance all over the place for space travel through them to be meaningful.

Should wormholes allow for time-travel as well, we may even be visited by future generations of our own species. But that's a matter of dispute among scientists. Going forward in time is no problem at all. That's what we all do, and it can be done at different speeds. But backwards, that's quite another thing.

Not That Easy

Summing the above up, meeting or even communicating with our interstellar neighbors is not that easy. The Fermi paradox claims that the probability for other intelligent life out there to be so abundant, it's a mystery we haven't heard from them yet. But the equation used seems to underestimate some obstacles:

It's more than likely that there is life on other planets, also intelligent life due to evolution. But evolution is all about survival, so the ability and ambition to explore space is not necessarily a result of it. On our planet, only our species out of millions has reached it – and that only very recently, after half the expected lifetime of our planetary system has passed (before the sun grows to a red giant).

So, even if life is commonplace in the universe, other space exploring civilizations are very unlikely in our vicinity of the galaxy. They would be so rare that we must expect them to be very far away from us, even by astronomical standards.

The speed of light limit on any information makes efforts of interstellar communication extremely time-consuming. Even radio signals would take tens or hundreds or even thousands of years. Manned spaceships would take close to forever. What species advanced enough to calculate the time it takes would bother? With technical advancement comes impatience.

A popular idea is to traverse vast distances in the universe through wormholes, if that's at all possible and if they do at all exist. But they have to be commonplace, or it would still take space travelers far too long to reach them, and to reach the destination after exiting one of them.

So, even though there may be others like us out there, it would be foolish not to give up the idea of meeting – or even communicating meaningfully. It would simply take far too long.

Science Speculates

As mentioned above, wormholes are not enough if they're not just about everywhere and lead everywhere we want to go. The problem remains even if we learn how to build them – we need to do so at both places they link, before we can use them to travel between those places.

There are some other speculations, such as traveling by warping space-time in some fantastic way. That might get around the problem of the light speed limit. It's an interesting thought, expressed by Miguel Alcubierre – sort of moving space instead of the space vessel.

If the universe allows for it, it might one day be doable. The question is what it does to the universe, though. Who knows at what space and time the traveler would end up?

Also, it may be very tricky for the vessel to stop a process taking place completely isolated from it. And a separate control from outside of the vessel is out of the question, since it would have to manage the same speed.

Using tachyons or other objects moving faster than light (if they exist), without needing to catch up with them, might solve the problem of interstellar communication. But hardly travel. Accelerating beyond the speed of light is a definite physical no-no.

A Different Universe

Although visits from space are plausible in several ways, the vast distances involved and the time they consume by any  means of communication is the recurring obstacle. At least if our understanding of the universe is the correct one.

Is it, surely? Can we definitely exclude a universe where traveling way beyond the speed of light is possible in some strange, yet unknown way?

For the sake of speculation: What kind of unknown laws of nature – not rejecting what we have observed with certainty about it – would give the means of convenient interstellar travel?

Well, the universe we study has its laws and they bind us, simply because they are based on the definitions we use to study this universe. The laws by which we understand the universe must be kept, or we don't understand the universe at all.

The history of science has several examples of this paradox. We can only find what we search for, and we can only search for what we think is possible to find. So, we tend to find what we expected to find, and little else.

Until not many centuries ago, European dogma was geocentric, putting the earth fixed in the middle of the universe. The church was eager to keep this view, because it was supported by the Bible.

It made astronomical calculations rather complicated, especially due to the planets' retrograde movements – but they managed with a theory that made sense to them. Ptolemy's  geocentric model from the 2nd century did fine until Copernicus presented his heliocentric alternative in 1543.

While laughing at the ignorance of Ptolemy, we may be making a similar mistake, explaining the universe with a model that works for us but is still far from the truth. It is very difficult to shift the perspective from how we are used to see things, in order to try something completely different. But that's what is needed for any major scientific breakthrough.

So, we should always start any daring speculation by trying to step out of our own box. Only if we question our perception of reality can we reveal what might be behind the mirage. In other words, we need to understand ourselves to understand the world around us.

So, what kind of universe would allow convenient interstellar contact and travel? If we come up with a decent hypothesis and then search for that universe, we might find it. And aliens, too.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

When the Bearded Lady Sings

The winner of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest was the Austrian singer Tom Neuwirth in his alter ego of the bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst. We know drag, but millions of TV viewers wondered: what's with the beard?

It's not that Tom Neuwirth wouldn't manage to be just as seductive as the next drag queen with a clean shaven face and a makeup enhancing its feminine features. That also goes for his slender body and its language. Nor is his voice a dead give-away. So, he would do splendidly as a strict female impersonator, easily fooling us all.

But he chooses to add a distinct dark beard to the Conchita Wurst attributes. It's quite provocative to the eye. A drag queen insisting on being a king as well. Not a man turned woman, but a raving hermaphrodite, combining the sexes into one character.

There is an internet buzz about this figure, often descending into raging intolerance, even hatred. And they focus on the beard, as if its addition would be a most sinister case of blasphemy. As if changing from one gender to another might be Ok, but stopping in between them is an abomination.

In our society, we foster all kinds of absurd ideas about the necessity of normality and illusions about deviating from the norm leading to mayhem. Nature just doesn't care, so why should we? A man dresses like a woman – so what? Nobody gets hurt. She grows a beard. How could that ever cause any damage to anyone or anything?

Most of us know that, fortunately. But there are still many who react with aggression, even hatred, although they have a very hard time explaining why in any way that makes sense.

They need to be provoked. Their prejudice must be revealed, or all sorts of really bad things happen. That's what Conchita Wurst is doing, very consciously.

She is a drag queen reminding us blatantly of the fact that she is also a man. She refuses to be one or the other. And still she can sing us to tears.

She makes it additionally obvious by having a beard that is very much like theatrical makeup. Her dress, her mascara and lipstick are joined by a beard that is to some extent as much fake – and not hiding it. The beard as well as the rest is a conscious choice. Part of the costume.

And that hits the core of intolerance. Prejudiced people can accept deviation from the norm if it's involuntary. You are forgiven if you are unable to fit, but if you choose to be different there is no excuse.

Our modern world has learned to accept gender bending as an expression of deep personal need, such as a man in a woman's body and vice versa. But Conchita Wurst's theatrical beard makes it obvious that this is a question of free will, a choice, even a statement. In our odd society, with its tendency to regard completely irrelevant things as vital, that statement is revolutionary.

The beard is a particularly mighty symbol of masculinity. More so than the male genitals, since they are hidden whereas the beard is flaunted for all to see. I've written about the mythological significance of the beard on this blog: What'sWith the Beard?

Carl G. Jung would not have hesitated to regard the beard as a symbol of archetypical importance. Every society on earth associates it with masculinity and the male gender, and nothing else. A bearded woman is regarded as a freak, and a drag queen growing a beard around the glossy lips is a rebel, refusing to give one thing up for another.

Conchita Wurst implies something that scares so many – that there is a man in every woman and a woman in every man. Otherwise, how could we learn empathy?

By the way, the stage name Conchita Wurst, which has very much of a drag show flare to it, was not taken randomly by Tom Neuwirth. Wurst is used in the German language as an expression meaning something like “I don't care” and Conchita is a Latino name of a woman that everybody would love to... date. But also, Conchita is sort of a nickname for the female genitals – and wurst is, as can be guessed, the male counterpart. See this explained in an interview made by none other than the prestigious Wall Street Journal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUgPpxMX9-0

Friday, May 9, 2014

Life in the Shadows

I like to work with themes when I go around and take random photos with my smartphone. The paradox of a glimpse of order in chaos is inspiring. Here is a bunch of photos on the theme of shadows.

Shadows are intriguing. They form sort of mirror images, rather obscure ones, as if reluctantly revealing something essential about the objects causing them. The chaos hiding behind order, if you will. The yin accompanying every yang (the Chinese duality originally refers to the shady and the sunny side of an object).

Shadows also remind us that the universe is a dynamic relation between what is and what isn't. As Plato pointed out in the cave, sometimes we mix up the two. We come and we go, casting lots of shadows in between, tracks of the fact that we once were. But these tracks are as evanescent as we are. It all slips away into the void.

I started taking shadow photos in 2007, but the additions were scarce. A couple of weeks, though, I took a stroll in Berlin when the city bathed in splendid sunlight, creating lots of sharp shadows. So, I had a go on my theme again. After that, I thought I had enough for this little exhibition.

Click on the images to see them enlarged.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Chapter One, Two, Three...

Right now, I'm working on a new novel. For fun, and to trigger me, I post every chapter of it on my website, one after the other as they are completed (well, their first draft, anyway). Here is Chapter One:

 If you read it, please give me suggestions on any editing it might need.

I will not tell you what the novel is about. It's much better that you find out gradually, and probably more fun for you. At this point, I'ver reached Chapter Nine, and that's where things really start to unfold... ;)

English is not my native tongue, so it's not easy to write a book in this language - especially not a novel, where every nuance is so important. But the challenge is irresistible. Better to fail utterly than never to try.

I will tell you this much:
Actually, this story started as a screenplay, years ago. I completed it and it might be swimming around somewhere in Hollywood, if it hasn't sunk to the bottom of oblivion.

Anyway, I decided to make it a novel, but I want to keep as much as possible of the kind of straightforward storytelling of a screenplay. You may notice this in the style of the text and in the perspective of how the story is told.

I also found that I need to change the plot quite a lot from the screenplay version. There are some loose ends, to say the least. I'm in the process of that and expect to have several serious complications to sort out on the way. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Mind over Matter

Sometimes science comes up with stuff that's weirder than religion. It seems we can influence our DNA in order to teach our offspring what we have learned, as if we're able to reprogram our genes by will-power. Like magic.

A US neuroscience study found that rats conditioned to fear a certain smell (to avoid pain), changed the DNA of their sperm so that their offspring got the same fear – although completely lacking the painful experiences. BBC writes about it here, and here is the scientific report in Nature.

It seems too absurd to be true, as the paradigm of genetics now stands. Generally, genetic change is supposed to happen only by chance, through the time consuming process of mutations, rarely leading to something lasting, even less so to something improving the species. So, we should wait for confirmation from other research, before accepting the above mentioned discovery. Still, it opens for interesting speculation.

The researchers have not yet been able to decide how this reprogramming of the DNA is done in the bodies of the rats, but I'm reminded of a pet theory of mine since many years: the idea that DNA can be altered by will-power.

That would indeed be a tremendous resource in the Darwinistic rat-race of the survival of the fittest, the evolution of the species by natural selection. Being able to stimulate genetic adaptation based on experience, from one generation to the next, would be a wonderful resource for survival of the species. So why would it not have evolved sometime during the billions of years that life has existed and regenerated itself?

It's a bit like the question of life elsewhere in the universe. With so many planets out there, why not?

Maybe evolution has many such surprises in store for us. We've barely more than scratched its surface. Considering the time it's been around, and the countless creatures it has created for countless generations, there's no telling what it has accomplished.

Maybe first of all we need to change the paradigm of Darwinism that states it as a partly passive thing: we may choose with whom we procreate, but we have no way of influencing the traits we duplicate in our offspring. Perhaps we do. Perhaps there's no end to what we can accomplish for the sake of the survival of our species.

And perhaps the very source of that capacity is in the greatest mystery of our being: the conscious mind. Anyway, it's great material for all kinds of fiction.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Pornography Reduces Sex Crime

British Prime Minister David Cameron wants to block Internet pornography and make it less accessible, especially to minors. But research shows that if he succeeds, sex crimes are likely to increase – especially those involving minors as victims or offenders.

Cameron is far from alone in this ambition. Plenty of debaters and organizations express moral indignation regarding Internet pornography and insist that it promotes sex crime as well as brutal sexual behavior. They have no proof at all. Instead, their far-fetched conclusions are simply based on the same old prejudice against sexuality, as if it's a sin to make love and lust is something disgusting.

The rabid war against pornography and any explicit sexuality only reflects the distorted view on sex upheld by those self-righteous warriors. They don't care about what research concludes and what the real effects on society may be – to them, sex is basically a crime, at least when enjoyed by others.

Research proves clearly that when pornography is increasingly accessible, sex crimes decrease. That's particularly true for sex crimes against minors or committed by minors – the ones that Cameron and like-minded agitators claim they want to protect. If they succeed in making pornography less accessible, minors in particular will suffer from the consequences.

That is the sad case also if pornography is made less accessible to minors. It may be hard for many adults to face, since they tend to regard sexuality as something from which they need to protect the young.

The adult world at large has a strange attitude towards our sexuality. It's often spoken about as something unnatural and perverted, especially if done outside of wedlock or at young age. But nature is indifferent to human civil institutions, as is our own biology, and our sexuality emerges at a younger age than that of consent in most countries.

Children start to explore their sexuality already before puberty, but most definitely their bodies shout at them to do so when puberty commences. Complete abstinence and denial are no options. If teenagers are hindered to explore this aspect of their lives, it leads to frustration and complication. Only a world that regards sexuality as something basically evil would demand it of them. And that's a world gone mad.

Another argument constantly repeated is that minors should not be introduced to their sexuality by pornography, because of its often malicious and vulgarized form of sex. That argument would be much more credible if the people expressing it also advocated sex education relevant to the needs of the teens. But they rarely do. Their alternative is mainly to “spare” minors from sex, possibly with the exception of warnings against sexually transmitted disease.

It would indeed be nice if pornography could incorporate all the finer aspects of our sexuality and the joy it can bring, and some of it definitely does. When pornography turns ugly, it's mostly a consequence of its expulsion from decent society, the taboo of it. That leaves it in the hands of a hardened minority and the whole business becomes overly indecent. Beauty leaves the room, as talented artists go elsewhere to express themselves.

The low standard of most pornography is a consequence of the lacking talent of its producers. Also, the fact that pornography is largely condemned by society makes its producers fall into the trap of making it condemnable, as if that is what's called for. Not to mention its proximity to the world of crime, again because of it being regarded as a social outcast. We have thrown pornography into the hands of people lacking business moral.

In spite of its quality deficiencies, pornography has a healthy influence on society, simply because we're all so fascinated by sex that we need to explore it more than just by marital coitus. It meets parts of our desires. Nothing harmful in that. The harm comes from condemning it.

Conclusive Research

Already in 1970, the Danish Professor of Criminology Berl Kutchinsky reported that increased pornography did not lead to an increase of sex crimes, but the contrary: most of those crimes decreased.

Denmark had recently legalized pornography, so he had the statistics of a whole country to analyze. Soon also Sweden and West Germany did it. His continued research showed that the effect was the same there. Here is a report of his from 1973: The Effect of Easy Availability of Pornography on the Incidence of Sex Crimes: The Danish Experience.

Later, Kutchinsky could include the USA is his studies, where the laws on pornography had also changed. Here is a study from 1991, dismissing the myth that pornography causes rape: Pornography and rape: theory and practice? Evidence from crime data in four countries where pornography is easily available.

Another nationwide example is Japan, which became increasingly lenient towards pornography over time. Statistics showed significant drops of sex crimes, in particular those with minors as either victims or perpetrators. Here is a 1999 report by the US Professor of Reproductive Biology Milton Diamond, where he also discusses previous research about the effects of pornography, and the drop in rape crimes in the USA: The Effects of Pornography: An International Perspective.

In the above report, Diamond also discusses the evidence that US statistics on sex offenders show them less exposed to sexually explicit material (SEM) than others, especially in young years, and their upbringing being more sexually restrictive:

This lack of early exposure to pornography seems to be a crucial consideration. Most frequently, as it was found in the 1960s before the influx of sexually explicit materials in the United States, those who committed sex crimes typically had less exposure to SEM in their background than others and the offenders generally were individuals usually deeply religious and socially and politically conservative (Gebhard, Gagnon, Pomeroy, & Christenson, 1965). Since then, most researchers have found similarly (e.g., Ward & Kruttschnitt, 1983). The upbringing of sex offenders was usually sexually repressive, often they had an overtly religious background and held rigid conservative attitudes toward sexuality (Conyers & Harvey, 1996; Dougher, 1988); their upbringing had usually been ritualistically moralistic and conservative rather than permissive. During adolescence and adulthood, sex offenders were generally found not to have used erotic or pornographic materials any more than any other groups of individuals or even less so (Goldstein & Kant, 1973; Propper, 1972). Among sex offenders, violent rapists had seen no more pornography than had sex peepers or flashers (Abel, Becker, Murphy & Flanagan, 1980). Walker (1970) reported that sex criminals were several years older than non-criminals before they first saw pictures of intercourse. Thirty-nine percent of convicts surveyed by Walker agreed that pornography "provides a safety valve for antisocial impulses." It thus seems that early exposure to sex, rather than late exposure, is socially more beneficial.

Permissive Is the Key

There is no evidence at all to the myth that pornography leads to sex crimes, but lots of proof to the contrary: wide access to pornography leads to a decline in sex crimes. Still, I seriously doubt that the access to pornography alone can explain significant drops in sex offenses. There are more things involved.

A society being more permissive regarding pornography is surely also a society with a more permissive attitude towards sexuality. Sex crimes are closely related to sexual oppression and prejudice, as indicated by the Diamond quote above. A liberal mentality in society diminishes that oppression and the frustration it causes, maybe not in every household but in most of them. And that's what lowers the sex crime rates.

Another closely related issue is that of education. A permissive society is not restrictive when it comes to sex education, whereas typically societies with less tolerance tend to minimize or completely ban it. That may very well have a greater effect on sex crime statistics than pornography. They just happen to coincide. So, what we really need to guard is a positive and permissive attitude towards sex in general, including pornography, and the rest will follow.

The Internet Boom

Since the mid-1990's, there has been a tremendous boom of worldwide accessible information of any kind on the Internet. Pornography, too, has become more easily accessible than ever before in history – also to minors. So, how has that influenced the frequency and nature of sex crimes?

From the previous research presented above, it makes sense to assume that increased pornography accessibility will continue to decrease sex crimes. Findings seem to be consistent with this. Here's a no-nonsense Slate article discussing it briefly: How the Web Prevents Rape. And here's the research by Todd Kendall quoted on the issue: Pornography, Rape, and the Internet.

A quick search on the Internet seems to confirm it, but what strikes me the most is that such research seems to be rare or marginalized, even on the Internet. Why so? Now we have the chance to do a worldwide study on the effect of pornography access – so why is this not already an established fact? Instead, there are lots of texts speculating with little facts to confirm it about how Internet pornography might change people's attitudes towards sex. But that's just speculation.

If rapes decline they decline, and they do so – especially among the young, who are the greatest consumers of anything Internet. This source specifies a 72% decrease of rape in the USA since 1993, right before the Internet boom started: Sexual Images and Sex Crimes. The US Justice Department confirms the sharp decline: Female Victims Of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010. So why not shout it out?

It doesn't fit with the conservative prejudiced attitude towards sexuality, which regards it primarily as something filthy and deplorable. But that's just prejudice. It should not be allowed to make the rules of our society.

Monday, July 8, 2013

War Is Not About Aggression

I saw a TV documentary about the origin of war: is it inherent in our species or did it come with civilization? There's no consensus within the sciences, so I allow myself to speculate.

I have pondered it since childhood years. Before things got complicated with accumulated knowledge, I took for granted that war was a consequence of aggression within our species. I witnessed it daily in myself, my classmates and other people, from the youngest to the oldest. Even infants can show rage and have violent outbursts.

I didn't like it. As far as I could see, nor did anyone else, really. Well, maybe there were some few exceptions among the worst of the bullies, but also in their eyes I saw glimpses of regret, even grief, immediately following their outbursts. Actually during them. Violence was something that erupted, quicker in some than in others, an irresistible force that satisfied none.

It was as if we had demons inside, occasionally taking control of our bodies. The eruption of rage was as unpredictable as that of volcanoes. And anyone could see that what it left behind was nothing but destruction.

I figured that this uncontrollable aggression was something animalistic. After all, our species belongs to the animal kingdom and we share ancestors, going far enough back in time. Any animal has the ability to be triggered into rage and violence.

I could see it in the cutest of pets. It was just as sudden as with humans. An outburst, and then stillness without any sign of satisfaction. Surely, the root of the aggression was the fight for survival – either to defend oneself when hunted by a predator or when the roles were reversed.

Aggression is the primary weapon in killing. I dreamed of a universe where the survival of one wouldn't demand the death of another. Still do.

So, I suspected that war was that demon let lose in grand scale. The same thing, simply involving lots of people at the same time.

But after just a brief introduction to history it was evident to me that war is a completely different thing. It may use the aggression latent in man, but that's never what starts it. War is a planned action, having its cause and aiming at a certain effect. It's started by reason, not the instincts.

Usually, war is initiated by other people than those who have to fight it. The rulers. They seduce or force their subjects to march into battle for one or other reason. Rarely do the soldiers march in rage, but in battle they need it in the desperate effort to survive. Like on the school yard, when boys clash in a fight.

If mankind had no aggression, there would certainly be no war. No one would fight it – at least not before technology made it a thing for the machines. And without a history of man to man combat, how would weapons for that purpose at all be invented?

The basic reason for war is always the same: someone wants what someone else doesn't want. The collision of wills. Therefore, the very first wars back in primordial times must have been in competition over limited resources. Food, water, women, whatever essential to us before the dawn of civilization. Basically, the essentials are still the same, albeit in fancy costume and grand scale.

It may have started as theft, leading to robbery and then plundering. Groups of people discovered that they could take from others what they didn't find or produce themselves. Again, that's pretty much what war is still about.

Soon enough, the most skilled or ruthless thieves had the resources to parasite their victims by becoming their constant rulers, like a farmer and his cattle. Hierarchy emerged, with an increasing level of oppression. Then the greed of rulers turned them against each other. As the rulers grew in power, so did their wars.

Simply put: The root to violence between individuals is the aggression we all have inside and can't always control. But the root to war is greed.

To my experience, what triggers aggression is frustration. If we are pleased, our inner volcanoes sleep. If violence increases among people in society, it's because they are increasingly frustrated. Society can do that to you, especially when it's ruled without compassion. Sadly, that's often the case. But it can be changed.

What seems to trigger greed the most is not poverty but plenty. The more people have, the more they want. Strange thing. There's just so much Russian caviar one can eat.

When some have more than others, they want to protect as well as increase it. If it's power, and it usually is, they will use force. Thereby they quickly gain more power, so they can escalate the force. They seem unable to restrain themselves.

It has nothing to do with aggression. When rulers start wars, they do so coldly, not for fighting but for winning.

So, the more evenly power is distributed, the less risk there is for war. History shows this clearly. Democracy, with all its fallacies, tends to avoid war as a solution. When the conflict is between two democracies, then, chances are great that peace remains.

In the case of both aggression and war, the problem seems to be the rulers. How about that?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Don't Wanna Stay Alive When You're 25

What's with the withering of rock stars, when they become adults? Is rock'n'roll an art form reserved for those in touch with their adolescence? Or could it be that its artists have a limited time of creativity, whatever their age at the outset?

I've been watching YouTube clips of some of the old pop and rock giants. What keeps picking like a woodpecker on my brain is how their artistic poignance dims at a certain time in their career, as if someone blew out their candle. They get comfortably well-to-do, they lean back with confidence, and their new material is anesthesia.

After a couple of decades struggling with this depressing fate, they surrender and resort to shows where they do karaoke versions of their old hits.

It happens to the best of them. Why so? What is it they lose when the frenzy of their adolescence wears out? Well, probably just that. Without the anguish of the adolescent, there's no rock'n'roll. It's just songs. Songs with an anxious naiveté, soon lost to those who actually survived it. They can repeat the melody and words, but not the sound and feel of it.

Art is salvation, but also a deadly trap. You can be its martyr, and numerous following generations will praise you, or you can be its survivor, by which the dust from the battle settles on you. You become a relic, forever a servant of memorabilia.

I was never surprised that so many rock legends died before reaching this stage. What continues to surprise me is how many survived it and keep on living, although not finding a way out of it – unable to completely change their path to where past feats lose their gravitational pull.

The analogy of celestial mechanics might hold the key. You can land on the moon and take off with the same vessel, but how to escape a black hole? When your mark on history exceeded a certain value, there's no way to go on and do other stuff.

Art is salvation, but also a deadly trap. We live in a time when pop and rock songs are regarded as gospels, magical potions by which life is both expressed and saved. It sure feels like that at certain concerts, momentarily. But they're songs.

Already when I was an adolescent, I was often struck by ambiguity regarding the majestic qualities attached to songs of this or that moment of time. When my inebriation faded away, I had to conclude that most of those celebrated hymns had next to pointless lyrics, no matter what was done with drums and electric guitars to enhance them.

Sure, there were fragments of poetic ingenuity at times, as well as an occasional kōan. But mostly they were surrounded by self-evident rhymes. Well, drowned in them. Not much compared to the monologues of Shakespeare, or for that matter the dialogues of Plato.

The music had its merits, thought seldom to the extent that it was equally satisfying without the original performer in his or her state of adolescent anguish. Karaoke, as mentioned earlier, revealed that with non-compromising cruelty. How many of those pop and rock anthems will really stand the test of time? Few, I bet, compared to the hundreds of years that Mozart and Beethoven have already managed splendidly.

Also the stage shows struggle to survive revisits, as time progresses. What once seemed earthshakingly spectacular soon becomes awkward, if not to say ridiculous.

In some few cases, the frenzy of the original performances keep on striking cords within us – but surely not when those artists have ripened. When the desperation is gone, so is the sensation.

Art should not be too occupied by speaking to the present. No fundamental truths are to be found in the illusion of the now. Art should speak to the timeless, to the aeons gone and those coming, alike. That's where the essence hides. We're all essentially the same, as is the world we live in. What's not eternally recurring is not that vital to us.

When our idols grow old, they think that they still have some kind of precedence over their songs, because they once gave birth to them. But if they're not the same as when that happened, they are doing the same karaoke as everyone else. A piece of art ceases to be the property of the artist as soon as an audience has started to relate to it.

So, the mistake made by our pop and rock icons is not that they keep singing their old songs, but that they do it without trying to recreate the desperation they once felt.

It can be done. There are gifted actors who can play any role intensely, regardless of their age or gender or any other circumstance. So could some of our fallen rock stars, if they tried.

If they don't want to, maybe they should do something completely different and refrain from desecrating their past glories by holding on to them half-heartedly?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

No Rule Can Substitute Compassion

I happened to come across a few episodes of The World's Strictest Parents, a TV show where troublemaker teens are “shown the way.” The message is as conservative and moralistic as can be expected, narrowmindedly blaming the teenagers for just about everything. Still, upon closer inspection, it can't be brushed off all that easily.

The usual adult reflex, especially among people who pride themselves of high moral standards, is to claim complete innocence when their children don't behave exactly as they want them to. In most cases, that attitude is actually what started the problem.

It's not easy to be a teenager. The adult world, though, tends to demand of them to show none of it – as if leaving childhood is illegal. It's even so that they are treated with increasing intolerance and expected to show more self-restrain than ever before. That's detrimental. Often it is really cruel, in a way that no adult would ever accept to be treated.

The World's Strictest Parents doesn't differ from that pattern, not at all. The homes that the teens are sent to all have the same rules – no smoking, no alcohol, no profanity, no sex. They expect unquestioning obedience of the adults and complete adaption to their demands, no matter what. Very often the temporary foster homes are devoted to one or other religion, which doesn't exactly promote tolerance.

If the teens are unable to behave as demanded, the whole blame is on them – as if that proves their inferiority and delinquency. How many adults would pass such a test?

In addition, most of these teens have a deeply troubled past, for which they can't be blamed. Several of them experienced parental divorce when they were children, some of them had even been struck by tragic death within the family. More than once, these events are reported as coinciding with the start of the obtrusive behavior. Well, do the math...

It's nothing but inhuman to demand of the teenagers to be restrained and obedient to an extent that is not humanly possible.

So, I picked one of the shows to examine closer, in order to expose the absurdities I mention above. It happened to be the very first episode of the series, where the kids were sent to a conservative Christian family in Alabama. No Einstein needed to figure out what must follow.

The World's Strictest Parents - s01e01 - Alabama by theworldstrictestparents

Sure enough, the strictness and the rules were what could be expected, as was the initial clash with the teens when complete obedience was demanded. As if they could be expected to reprogram themselves inside out in mere seconds.

But another image emerged, soon into the show. The Alabama parents were non-compromising in their moral beliefs, but they proved to be very sensitive to the simple fact that the teens had another life to try to manage, and their own background stories making all the difference in the world.

So the adults were repeatedly forgiving, a paradigm of Christianity often neglected by those confessing loudly to it. Also, they were genuinely showing hope and commitment to actually help the teens – even when it meant bending the rules.

I was reminded about what Jesus said when the priests accused him for letting his disciples ignore the rules of the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”

The Alabama family was aware of this distinction, simply because they really cared about the two teens in their temporary care.

At one point, the father became angry and spoke heated words. It was when the teens had smoked contrary to their promise to him. It was not the smoking that upset him, but their breaking of a promise: “If we can't trust you, if we can't have faith in you, there's just nothing here.”

He was obviously saddened more than enraged, although expressing it in the latter way at first. He was disappointed, because he had genuinely hoped for a different outcome. That was evidence of how much he cared, which is just about all that matters and the only way by which serious problems in human relations can be solved.

That's also why they could put the incident behind them and move on, quickly from that point deepening their bond and mutual respect. That's a cure for just about everything.

I had to look at a bunch of other episodes of the show. Some were indeed dreadful in regard to what I've stated above about disrespect for the human heart beating inside the porcupine surface of teen attitude. When such encounters ended well, it was totally because of the compassionate yielding of the teens, in spite of adult rigidity.

But several other shows had that surprising quality of “the strictest parents in the world” reaching the teens and helping them to cure themselves. There was even one Utah Mormon family proving able to do that (season 2, episode 4) – much to my amazement. Mormons have their share of children emotionally crippled in their care.

What was always evident was the recipe for success: It came when the strict adults were moved enough to soften that strictness, really reaching out to the needs of the teens. Compassion is the key. No rule can replace it.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Weakness of Rhetoric

President Obama defended the massive NSA monitoring of digital information, which was revealed a couple of days ago. It was not an easy task, not even with his rhetoric skills. There are limits to the power of rhetoric.

The major limit of rhetoric is its inability of hiding something without revealing something else. It might even be possible to express in algebra. We're familiar with the expression “If you have said A, you must also say B.” It's also true that if you don't want to say A, you must instead say B, which is usually not better. Simply put: rhetoric is for saying things, not for concealing them.

It's evident already in Barack Obama's opening remark, as can be seen in the video above:

“When I came into this office, I made two commitments that are more important than any commitment I make: number one to keep the American people safe, and number two to uphold the constitution.”

That's a terrible example of accidentally saying much more than intended. What he really states by the given order of his priorities, is that he will ignore the constitution when he deems that the safety of the American people demands it. Actually, it's pretty much a confession that it has been done in this case.

Later in his speech he says:
“You can't have a 100% security, and also then have a 100% privacy, and zero inconvenience. We're gonna have to make some choices as a society.”

Well, you can't have a 100% security. No one is safe. The universe itself doesn't allow for it. Hey, we all die at some point. The whole idea of the Constitution is that the fundamental rights of the people should triumph, even at the cost of their own safety.

That's why we're innocent until proven guilty. That's why we have the right to our privacy. That's why the Constitution limits the power of the government. Theoretically speaking, maximum safety can only be accomplished by maximum confinement.

Any US government official who regards something – anything – as more important than the Constitution, is abusing the office. The question is how much, but the choice has been made.

Obama moves on in his speech with a nonsense definition:
“The programs that have been discussed over the last couple of days in the press are secret in the sense that they are classified.”

Well, that's secret. Or are there things classified which are not secret? Again, we approach math. In this case set theory. Secret always means some get to know, and some don't. The only significance is who – and most importantly: who gets to decide what's to be kept secret from whom?

Democracy depends on keeping secrets to a minimum, for the simple reason that if the people is to govern itself, it needs to have the information relevant to do so.

Sadly, most governments have a tendency to classify things that they believe would meet with the disapproval of the people. That means the governments actively sabotage the basis of democracy, by acting against the will of the people and hiding it.

“Nobody is listening to your phone calls,” Obama stated firmly in his speech. But later he confessed this to be untrue, when there's a court order to the contrary. Phones are listened to. We all know that. The question is to what extent and with how much of a real legal process in control.

Regarding monitoring of the Internet and emails, Obama stated:
“This does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States.”

But what has been revealed about the NSA system indicates the opposite. The monitoring is done on all electronic information exchanged on the Internet and emails passing through accessed media, such as Google, Microsoft, and Apple.

If all this information is gathered and accessible on an individual level, and the use of it is concealed – then this does mean that all of it is monitored. Most of it may be ignored, but it is accessible and by computer handling anything can be extracted from it – by anyone with access to the system.

President Obama tries to assure his listeners, by stating about his initial attitude as a newly elected President:
“I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs.”

Apart from the fact that it's rhetorically weak to claim a competence instead of proving it by examples and reasoning, he really diluted the word skepticism by adding healthy in front of it. Skepticism is the ability to question – anything and always. But “healthy skepticism” means being skeptic up to a point. It means questioning some things and not other things.

Since the word healthy is non-descriptive in any context other than medicine, he gives no clue as to what he deemed unnecessary to question. For all we know, it might have been just about everything.

The most important questions about the NSA monitoring are two: firstly, is the measure in proportion to the threat it's supposed to counter, and secondly, what are the risks and consequences of misuse? If Obama regards it as healthy not to ask these questions, there is not much to his skepticism.

Unfortunately, it seems he all but ignores those aspects, calling this enormous NSA monitoring a “modest encroachments on privacy.” At least he used the word encroachment, though not without hesitation. In present society, there's nothing modest about concealed government access to all the electronic communication of all its citizens, as well as hundreds of millions of people in other countries.

“Some other folks may have a different assessment of that,” he added. You bet. And by admitting this, he made the most important statement in his speech. The whole thing is indeed questionable.

When he ended his speech by welcoming the congress to consider and debate the issue, he confessed to its controversy – maybe even hoped for a change that he is himself unable to openly propagate.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


When I was a kid, we got a cat. Then another. Soon enough kittens, as well. That was also the time I started taking photos for more than souvenirs, so I took a lot of cat photos. Here are some of them, from the 1970's.

(Click on the images to see them enlarged.)

You also find those images on my personal website: stenudd.com