Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Time and Politics 16: Death and Bitcoin's Children

A mural of Death and Children at Stift Altenberg, Lower Austria. Image Source: H. Hartmann via SAGEN.

There is an anti-statist political trend online - unconsciously mirroring the inherently anti-statist nature of the Internet - which views all government, corporate and long-standing institutions as prisons of mind and action. This is a naïve and sometimes arrogant attitude, inspired by the initial explosion of Internet power, not yet tested for its longevity. Internet pioneers break new ground, but they are wrong to think that they have found, and reside already, in the Promised Land. The best of them are challenged to embrace the very impulse they abhor: they personally need to operate under stable conditions; and they must configure structures and build communities which ensure that their efforts last. This challenge has brought Bitcoiners to a turning point at which the form of social and political behaviour simply does not mirror the innate function of their cryptocurrency. Bitcoin's administration is becoming a political problem, a philosophical challenge, and a moral and spiritual crisis.

Vinay Gupta, strategist for the cryptocurrency Ethereum and founder of the Hexayurt Project, discussed why Bitcoin is a testing ground for future political systems, and why the technical and political challenges of the cryptocurrency are not identical or symmetrical: Bitcoin Cannot Be Divorced from Pre-Existing Political Theory. (21 August 2015). Video Source: Youtube.

First, above, Vinay Gupta assesses and predicts the political problem at the heart of Bitcoin development. It is a problem of centralized authority, partly exercised by Bitcoin's miners, exercised in relation to a tool that decentralizes structures and decision-making:
"[Bitcoin] is anarchist. But to accept anarchy in a really fundamental way, you have to start challenging the meaning of property. And Bitcoin sits at this very uneasy juncture that it's a bunch of anarchists cooperating to create a libertarian micro-enclave, even though they don't agree about the fundamental meaning of the word, 'property.' And this is extremely problematic. If they can get through that political storm, they might finally succeed in producing a genuinely libertarian anarchism, and that would be an extremely powerful thing. But it's more likely that the anarchists will get suppressed by the libertarians and in the long run you'll wind up with an anarcho-capitalist enclave because the Bitcoin Foundation will wind up owning Bitcoin outright and that property right will be a monopoly, which is then used to enforce their policy decisions, including collaboration with the U.S. government. And this is the real distinction between anarchism and anarcho-capitalism ... under anarcho-capitalism, you can have a monopoly that winds up controlling everything; and then they make deals that you disagree with. In anarchism, nobody has enough wherewithal in the network to be able to make a deal for everybody, and if people disagree with you, they do something else. ... [This is] because anarchism is incompatible with monopolies. As soon as you have a monopoly, whether you like it or not, you're operating inside of a power structure. You have a 'king'; the king is the guy who owns the monopoly. You have a ruler. And anarchism is about operating without rulers."
Bitcoin idealists assumed that the open-source code and decentralized operational function of cryptocurrencies would dictate decentralized forms for its governance and applications. And they could, but the forms must be developed. One may as well ask, does the internal combustion engine of a car dictate the way traffic lights work? Or does the car motor fundamentally shape the thoughts of legislators who write traffic laws? Or does the basic mechanical nature of the automobile completely shape urban planning? For some, the answer is 'yes.' But over time, the further we get from the stunning initial invention, the less ensuing systems reflect the original form of the innovation. At that point of departure between the function of the technology to the form of its administration, we see the decentralized peer-to-peer technology, so radical and profound in its applications, confront the rigid authoritarian structures of human ages.

Therefore, I would add to Gupta's political assessment a philosophical challenge of how institutions capture and hold cultural and political ground in societies. When one considers the enduring value of any technology, no matter what its potential political 'flavour' or initial radical impact, one must factor in frail humanity: the finite span of one human life; the difficulty in grasping larger questions; the boundaries of economic and cultural imagination; and the physical limits around performance in one lifetime.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Fast Decline and Slow Rise of Freedom of the Press

Click here to see the full chart.

7 January 2016 marked the one-year anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo murders. The World Press Freedom Index just released its annual review. It is a study of press freedom worldwide, published by Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders), which found a "decline on all fronts" in 2014:
The 2015 World Press Freedom Index highlights the worldwide deterioration in freedom of information in 2014. Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents.

The indicators compiled by Reporters Without Borders are incontestable. There was a drastic decline in freedom of information in 2014. Two-thirds of the 180 countries surveyed for the 2015 World Press Freedom Index performed less well than in the previous year. The annual global indicator, which measures the overall level of violations of freedom of information in 180 countries year by year, has risen to 3,719, an 8 percent increase over 2014 and almost 10 percent compared with 2013. The decline affected all continents. ...

[The source of the decline is attributed to global conflicts, and non-state operators.] Non-state groups follow no laws and disregard basic rights in pursuit of their own ends. From Boko Haram to Islamic State, Latin American drug traffickers and the Italian mafia, motives may vary but their modus operandi is the same – the use of fear and reprisals to silence journalists and bloggers who dare to investigate them or refuse to act as their mouthpieces. ...

Can journalists be seen as the common enemy of protesters and police alike at some demonstrations? This is the sad conclusion of Reporters Without Borders this year. 2014 saw an increase in violence towards reporters and netizens covering demonstrations.
For the report's analyses of these themes, including arrests of and attacks on bloggers, go here. In most places, the boom in online communications has prompted crackdowns. Thus, in related news, Russia sentenced blogger Vadim Tyumentsev on 30 December 2015 to five years in a Siberian prison. This week, Turkey arrested or fired several academics for signing petitions to defend the Kurds; 1,200 scholars were investigated by the government. There are other recent stories of persecutions and killings of bloggers from RussiaChinaSaudi Arabia, Kenya, Vietnam, Brazil (in more than one incident), Oman, and Bangladesh. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists 71 killings of journalists in 2015 with motives confirmed. Their 2015 year-end report is here.

Between 2013 and 2015, Islamic fundamentalists have ferociously attacked and murdered secular bloggers in Bangladesh. International Business Times (23 September 2015): "Bangladeshi secular activists take part in a torchlit protest in Dhaka against the killing in August of blogger Niloy Chakrabarti, who used the pen-name Niloy Neel." Image Source: IB Times. Photos from the horrific machete killing of Avijit Roy, founder of Mukto-Mona (Free-mind) blog are here.

Crime scene photo from the murder of Avijit Roy (26 February 2015). Image Source: Yahoo.

Some of the biggest success stories, by contrast, come from Cuba, where blogger Yoani Sánchez founded a Gen Y-oriented Cuban news portal 14ymedio. Gamers in Cuba have developed their own off-government-grid Internet, StreetNet, in developments discussed at the NYT , Vox, and The Daily Decrypt below the jump. Havana's bootleg Internet now has over 10,000 users. According to The Daily Decrypt, Havana is hosting a new International Conference of Free Software from 25 to 27 April 2016, to explore the radical implications of open source code.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Chimeran Consciousness

Still from the dark sci-fi film, Splice (2009), which depicted a secret lab experiment with a human-animal chimera as the main character. Image Source: Collider. The trailer is here, and full film (while the link lasts) is here © Warner Bros., reproduced under Fair Use.

On 6 January 2016, MIT Technology Review published an article about US government monitoring of the bio-tech sector as labs create human-animal chimeras and farms grow human organs inside pigs and sheep. The National Institutes of Health expressed concern because embryonic chimeras are in danger of developing expanded human consciousness and tried to slow the rapid pace of scientific experimentation by cutting labs' funding. It didn't work; the labs immediately found money elsewhere:
The effort to incubate organs in farm animals is ethically charged because it involves adding human cells to animal embryos in ways that could blur the line between species.

Last September [2015], in a reversal of earlier policy, the National Institutes of Health announced it would not support studies involving such “human-animal chimeras” until it had reviewed the scientific and social implications more closely.

The agency, in a statement, said it was worried about the chance that animals’ “cognitive state” could be altered if they ended up with human brain cells.

The NIH action was triggered after it learned that scientists had begun such experiments with support from other funding sources, including from California’s state stem-cell agency. The human-animal mixtures are being created by injecting human stem cells into days-old animal embryos, then gestating these in female livestock.

Based on interviews with three teams, two in California and one in Minnesota, MIT Technology Review estimates that about 20 pregnancies of pig-human or sheep-human chimeras have been established during the last 12 months in the U.S., though so far no scientific paper describing the work has been published, and none of the animals were brought to term. ...

The experiments rely on a cutting-edge fusion of technologies, including recent breakthroughs in stem-cell biology and gene-editing techniques. By modifying genes, scientists can now easily change the DNA in pig or sheep embryos so that they are genetically incapable of forming a specific tissue. Then, by adding stem cells from a person, they hope the human cells will take over the job of forming the missing organ, which could then be harvested from the animal for use in a transplant operation.

“We can make an animal without a heart. We have engineered pigs that lack skeletal muscles and blood vessels,” says Daniel Garry, a cardiologist who leads a chimera project at the University of Minnesota. While such pigs aren’t viable, they can develop properly if a few cells are added from a normal pig embryo. Garry says he’s already melded two pigs in this way and recently won a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Army, which funds some biomedical research, to try to grow human hearts in swine. ...

The worry is that the animals might turn out to be a little too human for comfort, say ending up with human reproductive cells, patches of people hair, or just higher intelligence. “We are not near the island of Dr. Moreau, but science moves fast,” NIH ethicist David Resnik said during the agency’s November meeting. “The specter of an intelligent mouse stuck in a laboratory somewhere screaming ‘I want to get out’ would be very troubling to people.”

The chance of an animal gaining human consciousness is probably slim; their brains are just too different, and much smaller. Even so, as a precaution, researchers working with farm-animal chimeras haven’t yet permitted any to be born, but instead are collecting fetuses in order to gather preliminary information about how great the contribution of human cells is to the animals’ bodies. ...

[S]cientists will have to prove that human cells can really multiply and contribute effectively to the bodies of farm animals. That could be challenging since, unlike rats and mice, which are fairly close genetically, humans and pigs last shared an ancestor nearly 90 million years ago.

To find out, researchers in 2014 decided to begin impregnating farm animals with human-animal embryos, says Pablo Ross, a veterinarian and developmental biologist at the University of California, Davis, where some of the animals are being housed. Ross says at Davis he has transferred about six sets of pig-human embryos into sows in collaboration with the Salk Institute and established another eight or 10 pregnancies of sheep-human embryos with Nakauchi. Another three dozen pig transfers have taken place outside the U.S., he says.

These early efforts aren’t yet to make organs, says Ross, but more “to determine the ideal conditions for generating human-animal chimeras. ... My view is that the contribution of human cells is going to be minimal, maybe 3 percent, maybe 5 percent. But what if they contributed to 100 percent of the brain? What if the embryo that develops is mostly human? It’s something that we don’t expect, but no one has done this experiment, so we can’t rule it out.”
The US National Institutes of Health investigation is entitled, NIH Research Involving Introduction of Human Pluripotent Cells into Non-Human Vertebrate Animal Pre-Gastrulation Embryos. Researchers who brought their work up for scrutiny remain frustrated by its negative public image because they see the medical value of their contributions.

Nevertheless, this is why this blog has repeatedly defended the education and financial support of professionals and practitioners from the so-called useless or unprofitable arts and humanities, to comment upon moral and philosophical aspects of the approaching Singularity. For my 2013 post on the human-animal genetic experiments, go here. See the NIH public enquiry from November 2015 below the jump.

Time Moves Backwards and Other Space-Time Headlines

Image Source: New Scientist.

There are several notable, mind-bending and possibly related recent scientific headlines. Four new elements have been confirmed, completing the seventh row of the periodic table (ununtrium (Uut or element 113), ununpentium (Uup, element 115), ununseptium (Uus, element 117), and ununoctium (Uuo, element 118)). The Guardian confirms that these elements are synthetic, created by "slamming lighter ­nuclei into each other and tracking the following decay of the radioactive superheavy elements. Like other superheavy elements that populate the end of the periodic table, they only exist for fractions of a second before decaying into other elements."

Then there is a report that time arises organically and moves in different directions in adjacent multiverses. The idea rests on problems with the way we define time as a function of the behaviour of matter, with the parts we can't explain disappearing into universes we cannot see. The associated notion that time flows backwards comes from Sean Carroll at the California Institute of Technology at Pasadena and Alan Guth at MIT. On 13 January 2016, The New Scientist reported:
Guth and Carroll's work is motivated by a problem vexing physicists and philosophers: why it is that time's arrow points in just one direction. It's true we can only remember the past ... but the laws of physics don't much care which way time flows: any physical process run backwards still makes sense according to those laws.

There's no such thing, at a very deep level, that causes [must] precede effects, says Carroll.

In the absence of other laws to set the direction of time, physicists have settled on entropy – basically, a measure of messiness. As entropy grows, time ticks forward. For example, you can stir milk into coffee but you can't stir it back out again – so neatly separated black coffee and milk always comes first.

“We can't talk to beings in a time-reversed cosmos: they are in our past and we in their past.” Zooming out to the entire universe, we likewise define the future as that direction of time in which entropy increases. By studying the motion of faraway galaxies, we can predict how the cosmos will evolve. Or we can rewind time back to the big bang, when the universe must have had much less entropy.

Try to rewind further and we meet a cosmological conundrum. We can't proceed if the big bang was indeed the beginning of time, but in that case, why did it have such low entropy? And if it wasn't the beginning of time – as Guth suspects – we'd still want to know how an eternal universe could have reached such a low-entropy state that would allow for the arrow of time to form.

In an as yet unpublished model, Guth and Carroll explore the latter idea. They drop a finite cloud of particles, each zipping around with its own randomly assigned velocity, into an infinite universe. After a while, arrows of time emerge spontaneously.

The random starting conditions mean that half the particles initially spread outwards, increasing entropy, while the other half converge on the centre, decreasing entropy, then pass through and head outwards. Eventually the whole cloud is expanding, and entropy is rising in tandem. Crucially, this rise happens even if you reverse time by flipping the starting velocity of every particle: ultimately, all particles will end up travelling outwards. If entropy grows either way, who's to say which way the arrow of time should point?

We call it the two-headed arrow of time, Guth says. Because the laws of physics are invariant, we see exactly the same thing in the other direction.

The model shows that an arrow of time arises spontaneously in an infinite, eternal space. Since this allows entropy to grow without limit, time zero could simply be the moment where entropy happened to be at its lowest.

That could explain why the big bang, the earliest moment we can see, has so little entropy. But it also feels a little like a cheat: if entropy can be infinite, anything can have relatively low entropy by comparison.

The point that Alan and I are trying to make is that it's very natural in those circumstances that almost everywhere in the universe you get a noticeable arrow of time, Carroll says, though he admits the model still needs work. Then of course you do the work of making it realistic, making it look like our universe. That seems to be the hard part.

If the model matches reality, it would have implications for more than just our own observable universe. This is intended to describe the whole of existence, which would mean the multiverse, Guth says. In his view, the arrow of time may have arisen in a parent or grandparent universe of our own.
In the next headline, supermassive black holes might be hiding whole universes inside them. The New Scientist:
Black holes may be hiding other universes. A quirk of how space-time behaved in the early universe could have led to short-lived wormholes connecting us to a vast multiverse. If borne out, the theory may help explain how supermassive black holes at the centres of galaxies grew so big so fast. The idea that ours is just one of a staggering number of universes - what cosmologists call the multiverse - is a consequence of our leading theory of how the universe grows: eternal inflation.

The theory holds that during its early phase, space-time expanded exponentially, doubling in volume every fraction of a second before settling into a more sedate rate of growth. Eternal inflation was devised in the 1980s to explain some puzzling observations about our universe that standard big bang theory alone couldn't handle.

But cosmologists soon realised that the inflationary universe came with caveats. Quantum mechanical effects, which normally only influence the smallest particles, played an important role in how all of space-time evolved.

One of these effects was that a small patch of space-time within the larger universe could shift into a different quantum state, forming a bubble. Such bubbles could form at random throughout our inflating universe. [Thus:] “Our universe could even look like a black hole to physicists in some other universe”
In other news, the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) which has detectors in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, USA, may have discovered the existence of gravitational waves, which are ripples in the fabric of space-time. Wired:
Gravitational waves tell the story of the universe’s mass. Every object from black hole to supernova, everything from black hole collisions (the most likely explanation for this potential LIGO discovery) to superfast expansion of the universe has its own gravitational fingerprint. From those swirls, astronomers will be able to learn about spacetime, gravity, and the objects themselves. And no one knows what they’ll find out.
Critics urge caution about this report, which might have more to do with the internal workings of the cosmology profession than the workings of space-time. If true, it could be a huge discovery, proving the "last unproven prediction of Einstein's theory of general relativity." The Guardian:
According to the rumours, [LIGO] scientists on the team are in the process of writing up a paper that describes a gravitational wave signal. If such a signal exists and is verified, it would confirm one of the most dramatic predictions of Albert Einstein’s century-old theory of general relativity.

[Professor Lawrence] Krauss[, cosmologist at Arizona State University,] said he was 60% confident that the rumour was true, but said he would have to see the scientists’ data before drawing any conclusions about whether the signal was genuine or not.

Researchers on a large collaboration like Ligo will have any such paper internally vetted before sending it for publication and calling a press conference. In 2014, researchers on another US experiment, called BICEP2, called a press conference to announce the discovery of gravitational waves, but others have since pointed out that the signal could be due entirely to space dust.

Speaking about the LIGO team, Krauss said: “They will be extremely cautious. There’s no reason for them to make a claim they are not certain of.”

If gravitational waves have been discovered, astronomers could use them to observe the cosmos in a way that has been impossible to date. “We would have a new window on the universe,” Krauss said. “Gravitational waves are generated in the most exotic, strange locations in nature, such as at the edge of black holes at the beginning of time. We are pretty certain they exist, but we’ve not been able to use them to probe the universe.” Einstein predicted that the waves would be produced in extremely violent events, such as collisions between two black holes. As gravitational waves spread out, they compress and stretch spacetime.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Photo of the Day: Fresh Off the 3D Powder Press

"Sneak preview: Portrait of Chelsea Manning (one of a diptych) hot off the powder printing presses. Courtesy of Mariana Pestana." Image Source: Heather Dewey Hagbourg.

Thanks to artist Heather Dewey-Hagbourg, previously featured in this post, who just sent me a press release about her upcoming exhibition, featuring a genetically-sourced 3D printed portrait - also known as a forensic DNA phenotype - following the gender transformation of whistleblower Bradley Manning aka Chelsea Manning. Manning released information on the US military in 2010 to WikiLeaks. Manning, a former US Army soldier, was convicted in 2013 and then changed his gender to become a trans woman, joining a gnostic bandwagon previously discussed in this post and this post. Dewey-Hagbourg was interviewed about this project at Paper in September 2015, here.

The exhibition, Radical Love: Chelsea Manning,
"will premiere at the World Economic Forum in Davos [on 20-23 January 2016], as part of the Victoria and Albert exhibition This Time Tomorrow curated by Mariana Pestana. ... This is the first time the 3d prints of the DNA portraits generated from her hair and cheek swabs will be seen publicly." 
I think you've covered every last possible base from the Zeitgeist, Heather. The exhibition will explore the quest for self in the Millennial mish-mash: "Is it radical to seek justice? Is it radical to be rescued by love? Is it subversive to be sweet? Is it radical to be true to yourself?"

Monday, January 11, 2016

Major Tom, Coming Home

Gif Source: giphy.

David Robert Jones also known by his stage name, David Bowie, has died (8 January 1947-10 January 2016). In A Space Oddity (1969), Bowie introduced his astronaut character Major Tom, who appears in the later song Ashes to Ashes (1980), as well as songs by other artists: Peter Schilling (1983); Plastic Bertrand (1983) - his Schilling cover is here; the Pet Shop Boys (1996), in an adaptation of Bowie's Hallo Spaceboy (1995); At the Drive-In (2000); K.I.A. (2002), covered by Sheryl Crow in 2011; the Tea Party (2004); and Shiny Toy Guns (2009). Elton John's Rocket Man (1969) does not have a connection to Bowie's character although the themes are similar. The same can be said for Matthew Wilder's Bouncin' Off the Walls (1984). Wiki lists other artists and songs which refer to Bowie's astronaut:
Major Tom also has had and continues to have passing references in other popular songs, such as: Five Star's Rain or Shine (1986), Def Leppard's Rocket (1987), Marilyn Manson's Apple of Sodom (1997), Lorraine Bowen's Space (2002), The Mars Volta's live rendition of the song Cicatriz (2005) featuring a lengthy jam, which would evolve into the song Cassandra Gemini, Cold's Happens All The Time (also 2005), Alphabeat's Fantastic 6 (2007), The Cab's Angel with a Shotgun (2011) and Lana Del Rey's Terrence Loves You (2015).
In 2011, William Shatner produced an album, Seeking Major Tom, with tracks related to this evolving Bowie character. There are many Youtube playlists (like this one) with Major Tom tributes. The character has also been mentioned in video games, television shows, cartoons, novels, and online media, demonstrating how much of an influence just one of David Bowie's songs had on popular culture. A Space Oddity was previously mentioned in this post, and Dia Sobin's 2014 tribute with links to Mac Tonnies's posts on Bowie is here. Below the jump, see some of the main Major Tom videos.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Photo of the Day: Abandoned New York City Subway Station

The closed City Hall subway station on the Lexington Avenue Line, in New York City, USA (Hat tip: Paul Owen). It was open to the public from 1904 to 1945. Image Source: When on Earth. For more on New York City's abandoned subway stations, levels and platforms, go here.