I’ve Been Thinking About the End of the World


An image has haunted me since at least some time after my eleventh birthday when a school chum gave me a lovely one volume copy of The Time Machine and The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells:

A steady twilight brooded over the earth. And the band of light that had indicated the sun had, I now noticed, become fainter, had faded indeed to invisibility in the east, and in the west was increasingly broader and redder. The circling of the stars growing slower and slower had given place to creeping points of light. At last, some time before I stopped, the sun, red and very large, halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome glowing with a dull heat. The work of the tidal drag was accomplished. The earth had come to rest with one face to the sun even as in our own time the moon faces the earth.

The Time Machine (1895 version)

This image of the ancient sun, “a vast dome glowing with dull heat” rests forever on my mind and returns for me in readings as an instant image of the last days of a world, if not devoid of life, emptied of living humanity and, most likely, cleansed by time even of human artifact.

Wells, of course, as a man of science, grounded his description in rational predictive extrapolation from known geological and astrophysical principals. But even such a hopelessly unscientific fellow as C. S. Lewis (his Cosmic Trilogy notwithstanding) conjured this same bloated sun when he needed a bit of shorthand for a world on its death-bed. Consider Chapter V of the penultimate Chronicle of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew:

Much more light than they had yet seen in that country was pouring in through the now empty doorway, and when the Queen led them out through it they were not surprised to find themselves in the open air. The wind that blew in their faces was cold, yet somehow stale. They were looking from a high terrace and there was a great landscape spread out below them.

Low down and near the horizon hung a great red sun, far bigger than our sun. Digory felt at once that it was also older than ours: a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down upon that world. To the left of the sun, and higher up, there was a single star, big and bright. Those were the only two things to be seen in the dark sky; they made a dismal group. And on the earth, in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, there spread a vast city in which there was no living thing to be seen. And all the temples, towers, palaces, pyramids, and bridges cast long, disastrous-looking shadows in the light of the withered sun. Once a great river had flowed through the city, but the water had long since vanished, and it was now only a wide ditch of grey dust.

So many echoes of Wells. But here is added the dead, empty city. A world at its end, humanity and, indeed, life wiped away, but still humanity’s works stand mighty.

Almost a century before Well’s Time Machine and far in time from Lewis’ dead city under a swollen sun, the poet Shelley and his friend Horace Smith challenged each other to compose a sonnet on the subject of some newly discovered bits of Egyptian statuary. The result of the challenge was, on Smith’s side, a sadly overshadowed and forgotten poem, and on Shelley’s, Ozymandias, one of the world’s greatest elegies to humanity’s doomed striving against entropy. “Look upon my works ye mighty and despair!” Despair indeed, for these great works, intended and expected to last an eternity, have been reduced to dust in a few dozen lifetimes. One can almost see the red giant sun looming over Shelley’s antique land, as it looms over each of us, doomed to age and die on an aging Earth.

And Smith’s sonnet more explicitly tells us to consider our entropic future:

. . . some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London Stood, holding the wolf in Chace,
He meets some fragment huge and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

I think of an inversion of Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness sitting on the deck of the Nellie and intoning into the London night “This too [again will be] one of the dark places of the earth.” Smith’s hunter stands like John in New York, in Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon”, like Charlton Heston’s Taylor in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty in The Planet of the Apes. So many apocalypses.

Most often at the ends of these worlds there is a survivor to observe “the lone and level sands.” The Time Traveler sees the final snows of Earth’s condensing atmosphere; Polly and Digory look on the bloated sun and empty city of the Witch’s world; Matthew Arnold and his unnamed love stand at the window hearing the “long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith in “Dover Beach”. But there is one notable but little-noted work in which not a single human observer survives in the landscape of apocalypse. In 1920, the dark shadow of the trenches still brooding on Europe’s collective mind, Sara Teasdale gave us a beautiful and hopeless little poem usually titled “There will come Soft Rains”:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

The first septet (save the fence wire) is all wild nature. The wire in line 6 and the war in line 7 are the pivot of the piece. Most of the last three couplets is about absent humanity: “war”, “mankind”, “we”. But “we” are not in the landscape. We have left the landscape to nature, and nature is indifferent. Unlike so many other imaginings of human autumn and winter, Teasdale allows of no survivors in her vision. Where Horace Smith imagined a future hunter, Shelley a traveler from an antique land, Wells a traveler in time, Lewis children with world-jumping magic,, and Arnold a meaningless meaning of faithfulness to a companion in a faithless world, Teasdale does not shy away from a world with neither humanity nor human meaning.

Teasdale’s audacity is a rare thing. Think of Ray Bradbury’s post-nuclear-holocaust story titled after Teasdale’s poem. Bradbury’s 1950 “There will come soft rains”, part of his The Martian Chronicles, tells the story of the final days of an automated house, emptied of humanity by nuclear war. As in Teasdale’s poem, the landscape contains only nature and humanity’s artifacts, no humanity. But Bradbury does not allow himself to fully face humanity’s extinction. In the universe of The Martian Chronicles, humanity survives as a small colony on Mars, and , Bradbury expresses an extreme optimism in the title of the next and final story of the Chronicles: humanity’s stay on Mars will be “The Million Year Picnic”.

Evidently it is a difficult thing to imagine, as Teasdale somehow has, the absolute extinction of ourselves. As I’ve been considering this essay, I’ve looked back at a number of works and I found that complete pessimism is a rare thing. I made a little list of works, each with a flippant précis appended:

“Ozymandias” (Shelley/Smith, 1818) Fortune’s Wheel turns.

The Last Man (Mary Shelley, 1826) We are excruciatingly done!

The Time Machine (Wells, 1895) – It’ll be done a long, long, long time in the future and we’ll have an unimaginably long run.

“The Machine Stops” (E. M. Forster, 1909) There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“There will come soft rains” (Teasdale, 1920) – We’re done and the birds don’t care.

“Twilight” (John W. Campbell, 1934) We’ll be done eventually, but we’ll build android replacements for ourselves.

Against the Fall of Night/The City and the Stars (Arthur C. Clark, 1948/1956) Same tunnel as Forster’s, but a whole lot longer.

“There will come soft rains (Bradbury, 1950) – We’re done for on Earth, but we’re picnicking on Mars!

The Magician’s Nephew (Lewis, 1955) It’s done in that other place but we’re okay.

Wall-E (Disney/Pixar, 2008) – Everything’s going to be okay in the end!


I won’t draw any conclusions from the fact that the two totally pessimistic works on my list, the two utterly without the offer of hope, are the two written by women. I expect I could look through my library a moment and find something hopeless by a man and something hopeful by a woman. What I find more interesting is the apparent need to provide light at the end of the existential tunnel.

As I was pondering the end of the world, I came across philosopher John Leslie’s The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction (1996) which discusses at length the likelihood that a particular individual – you or I, for example – would be kicking around closer to the beginning or the end of humanity’s run on the planet. I won’t get into the argument in any detail at all, but basically Leslie demonstrates that we’re most likely living close to the end of our run on earth. But, interestingly, Leslie still seems to find hope for our future, that we will outwit probability. Even after a few hundred pages of careful argument of mathematical probabilities, the philosopher desperately clutches at the straws of optimism.

As I read Leslie’s book I came to realize that his probabilistic argument rests on a continued expansion of human population to 10 billion and it remaining there until 2250. I couldn’t help thinking of the closing pages of Colin Tudge’s The Time Before History (1996) in which he argues that if humanity could drastically reduce its numbers by a voluntary two-children-or-less policy, then humanity’s run on earth could last indefinitely and with a high standard of living for all. Such a future would offer far more individuals a happy life than would continued population increase to the point of crash and/or extinction. Again there is hope, if we can control our disastrous drive to spawn large numbers of children.

I also, sadly, found myself reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (2007), ostensibly a scientifically grounded speculation into what the world would be like if humanity disappeared as in Teasdale’s poem. What a hopeless piece of writing! As well as being rife with factual error and bad writing, this is a book with a social agenda that is not susceptible to argument. It pretends to be “What if?” but is actually, “This, Gentle Reader, is NOW, you selfish pig! You’re the problem! And when it really comes down to it, I don’t care about science!” A toxic Trojan horse of a book. And, to top it off, on page 272, in a typically ill-constructed (and cruelly compulsory) sentence, Weisman paraphrases Tudge, whom he never once cites:


“. . . henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.”

Compare Tudge’s hopeful argument, an optimistic argument based not simply upon a dread of Wells’ “huge red-hot dome of the sun” glowing over an empty future earth, but rather on humanity’s better angels:

In practice, common sense plus the experience of the past few decades shows that several preconditions must be met if the two-child family is to become the norm worldwide, all of which are difficult in practice, but are conceptually undramatic. First, all efforts must be made to minimize infant mortality. People must know that two children out of two are liable to survive. Second, everyone worldwide needs a pension, so that they do not need to rely upon their children when they stop working. Third, the trend in rich countries toward earlier and earlier retirement must be reversed, for if people retire earlier and the birth rate goes down, then within a couple of decades or less, we will find there are too few young recruits for the job market and indeed that only a small minority of the population is actually working. . . . As modern family planners say, the point is not to coerce but to empower. Coercion is obviously undesirable, but modern experience shows that it is also unnecessary.

The Time Before History, p. 320.

Tudge’s hopeful vision is awfully attractive: A world in which couples are happy with one or two or no children, where being single carries no stigma, where society smiles equally on all the small, happy, healthy, prosperous families, where humanity and nature both have a long life ahead of them on a green and pleasant Earth.

I hope there will come soft rains to that Earth, falling gently on both birds and humans. And I hope, in that fine future, and in this difficult present, every human will very much mind if any bird or tree perishes utterly, whatever the birds and trees might think about us.


On Gluten-Free Bread

Hoy, ayer y mañana se comen caminando,
consumimos un día como una vaca ardiente,
nuestro ganado espera con sus días contados,

pero en tu corazón el tiempo echó su harina,
mi amor construyó un horno con barro de Temuco:
tú eres el pan de cada día para mi alma.
— Neruda, Love Sonnet LXXVII

I never thought I’d be bothered with the gluten-free thing, but, when someone close has a number of food-sensitivities and the request is made to try one’s hand at a gluten-free baguette for a small family dinner, suddenly one is excited by the new challenge.  So, with about two days’ notice, I had to draw on all my experience and knowledge of bread baking and at the same time temporarily forget a lot of what I knew and ignore my expectations and instincts.

The big challenge of gluten-free yeast bread baking is the fact that gluten is the almost-magical ingredient that makes real bread possible. Nothing in the world has quite the properties of that mix of proteins called “wheat gluten”.  Wheat gluten has unparalleled ability to form airtight, extremely elastic little bubbles. Even rye gluten is not a match for the gluten of wheat.  If you try making a loaf of 100% rye bread, look closely at the dough as it rises, particularly if brushed with oil.  You will see — perhaps even hear — bubbles escaping to the surface of the dough.  This is why 100% rye bread is inevitably more dense than a good wheat bread.

What can possibly be added to non-gluten bearing flours that will help form and hold bubbles with something approaching the satisfactory?  Eggs, particularly egg whites, are often recommended. But, did I mention food sensitivities? Living with a mild nut allergy, I’ll not dismiss the concerns of the truly food sensitive. (The fashion/fad food sensitive I will happily dismiss.)

So. No gluten. No eggs. What’s left?

Well there’s this interesting product that is derived from what amounts to bacterial snot. Xanthan gum is a polysacchride, basically a charbohydrate polymer that is secreted by the bacterium Zanthomonas campestris. The gum was discovered by Allene Jeanes and her team in the mid-20th century and approved for use in foods in the U.S. in 1968. It’s a relatively new and very versatile food additive manufactured in a simple process not unlike brewing beer or, indeed, bread making.  A vat of feedstock is inoculated with the bacteria, the concoction is allowed to ferment for a few days, and then a load of isopropyl alcohol is dumped into the vat (that’s the part that makes me smile at the “natural” label on my package of xanthan gum).  The alcohol makes the fresh snot solidify and sink to the bottom of the vat. The gum in rinsed, dried, and ground up for sale in expensive little packets at your local Green, Organic, Whole, Vegan, Gluten-Free Health food store.

Without the xanthan gum, my project could never have risen much above terribly disappointing hardtack. And if I didn’t talk much about the isopropyl alcohol bit, I might be able to get away with it.

I skimmed a few recipes online and read the back of my sack of Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose Flour — mostly chickpea flour so watch our for gas if you eat a lot of this bread. Then I laid out my basic recipe, based mainly on my own real baguette recipe.  I used a cup of Bob’s flour, quick rise yeast, salt, two teaspoons of xanthan gum, half a cup of water and a splash of lime juice because it was handier than lemon.  I was aiming for something like the texture of real bread dough, but the result was a little crumbly and not at all elastic.  After a bit of time to rest and maybe rise, I threw it into a 450 degree oven for twenty minutes and pulled out — a bread stick! It was dense but tender and chewy with good flavour, but not a baguette by any measure.

For the second attempt, I used the same proportions except for the water. I used a full cup of water and made what I would call a batter rather than a dough.  I oiled the top of the loaf and left it to rise. I could see bubbles popping through the oil.  When it was close to double in size, I gave it 20 minutes at 450 degrees and this time I had something approaching an actual baguette! And it tasted good!  It wasn’t really what I would call bread, but it was a quite satisfying product in itself.

Now I had to produce the presentation loaf, the one that would be the accompaniment to a family chili dinner. A little bit of tinkering with ingredients and process and the following recipe is what I have to call an almost complete gluten-free success (it wasn’t so good for garlic bread, I’m told):

My Gluten-Free Baguette

1 cup Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose flour
2 generous teaspoons xanthan gum
1 tablespoon fast-rising yeast
1 scant tablespoon baking powder
1 cup water
a splash of vinegar
olive oil for coating the top of the loaf

Mix dry ingredients very well.
Mix water and vinegar.
Mix wet ingredients well into dry ingredients. The dough will be very wet, more like a batter, about the texture of a pound cake batter.

Spoon the batter into a parchment-lined baguette pan. Shape into a smooth loaf with the back of a wet spoon. Spread olive oil over top of loaf.

Let rise for half- to one hour until sort of doubled.

Bake 20 minutes in a pre-heated 450 degree oven. Spritz water onto the loaf in the oven every few minutes.

If you love bread but have a sensitivity to wheat or gluten, there is definitely hope, as long as you don’t have a problem with bacteria being doused in isopropyl alcohol so that bacterial snot solidifies and is collected for your bread. You’re already cooking the life out of yeast cells. Can it be so bad that millions of bacteria died for your baguette?

A Meditation on Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”, and a slight review of Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre’s production of same

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”
— T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Artist”

Tom Stoppard is a demanding dramatist.  He does not stoop to explain references in detail. He assumes that some in his audience will be left out — never more explicitly perhaps than in The Invention of Love in which a character tells the audience “if you can’t read Latin go home, you’ve missed it!”  In Rock ‘n’ Roll he expects the audience to remember Syd Barrett and know about The Plastic People of the Universe.  And, in Arcadia, Stoppard puts before us Byron and hangers-on of the Romantics, English landscape architecture, iterated algorithms and fractals, a joke dependent on an understanding of both Old and New Testament, and, yes, a bit of Latin.  Many will be left behind as are left behind by the references in Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech. Yet we all enjoy Romeo and Juliet.

The slight review of the Citadel Theatre’s production of Arcadia

. . . literature, ever since Theocritus, has been sophisticating nature  . . .
— Agnes Latham, introduction to the Arden Shakespeare (second series) edition of As You Like It, p. xliv.

Finally on Easter Sunday I had the opportunity to see Arcadia in a matinee performance of the appropriately pretty production directed by Tom Wood at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.  I’ve been waiting to see Arcadia since first reading a review of the play in, of all places, the July 1997 issue of Scientific American.  To be honest, I feel Stoppard’s tight script and careful stage directions leave little extra for the director to do, and, not meaning to sound like Septimus talking to Chater, Wood does a good job of it.  One particular touch I noticed was in the first scene of Act II, when non-verbal Gus (Luc Tellier) sits up straight and perks up his ears when Bernard (Jamie Williams) mentions Gus’ namesake predecessor, Augustus Coverly (also played by Tellier). This touching and meaningful tiny moment is not hinted at in Stoppard’s stage directions, and the gesture adds subtly but greatly to the cross-century connection.

The set is exquisite, the costumes beautiful (both by Leslie Frankish), the sound (Owen Hutchinson) and lighting design (Kevin Humphrey) are perfect.  Performances were spot on, with special mention going to Julia Guy’s totally charming and intimidatingly intelligent Thomasina Coverly, Kevin Klassen’s lovably foppish Ezra Chater, Claire Armstrong’s crustily vulnerable Hannah Jarvis, and Jamie Williams’ smarmily narcissistic Bernard Nightingale.

My criticisms of what went on on stage are so small as to barely need mention: Plautus the tortoise is a model rather than a live tortoise; Aaron Hursh gives a little too much shrillness to Septimus Hodge’s laughs in Act I; and the wig Luc Tellier wears as Augustus Coverly makes that character a little too distinguishable from Gus Coverly, the other character Tellier plays.  Stoppard is explicit that the two should be easily confusable.

But, picking nits.

Arcadia is a long and challenging play.  It became clear part way through the second act that many in the audience had lost track and were exhausted. At the end of each of the last few scenes, a good portion of the audience began to applaud, in mistaken relief that the play had ended, uncomprehended.  I see this incomprehension not as a criticism of the play, the direction, or the performances.  Arcadia demands much of the cast and much of the audience.  It is impressive that the cast rose to those demands, and not surprising — although sad — that some audience members weren’t up to it.  Arcadia is a play to be savoured.  Careful engagement richly repays the challenge.

Arcadia plays at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, on the Shocter Stage, until April 12, 2015.

Please check out Jenna Marynowski’s review of Arcadia at After the House Lights.

A Meditation on Arcadia

Life is a quest for a quarry we will never capture.  We reach for perfection in art and always fall short.  We investigate the universe ever more deeply through science and mathematics and every answer brings a thousand new questions.  We strive for Arcadia but find ourselves fumbling in a gazebo in an English formal garden.

On stage throughout Arcadia there is a tortoise, perhaps a very long lived tortoise, like the Galapagos tortoise named Harriet who was reputedly collected by Darwin in 1835 and died in 2006.  In the 19th century scenes in Arcadia the tortoise is named “Plautus” for the early Roman comic dramatist.  The Roman dramatist was a source of plots for young Shakespeare and I have no doubt Stoppard has chosen the name carefully, at the least as a reminder of Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus (The Braggart Soldier).  The action of Plautus’ play, like that of Arcadia, is triggered by a servant’s accidental witnessing of a carnal embrace.  Plautus’ Soldier, Pyrgopolynices, fumbles through life with the mistaken impression that he is in control when he is, in fact, slave to his own failings and the wiles of his own slaves.  Some of Stoppards characters, Chater particularly, have much of Plautus’ soldier in them. But the most important and interesting characters in Arcadia are very much aware of what ultimately controls things — the entropy which winds down every life. Et in Arcadia, ego.

In Classical Comedy, we laugh a lot and there is a generally happy ending.  Plautus’ plays are exceptionally light fare.  Arcadia, on the other hand, for all its glittering wit and English country sunshine, for all its joy of discovery running through, is a fundamentally tragic vision.  Stoppard shows us that not only do we each have a fatally tragic flaw, but that the flaw is the tragic flaw of the universe.  No matter our joys, our discoveries, our duels or our carnal embraces, we are all doomed with the universe itself to

. . . wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless . . .

as the second law of thermodynamics grinds its irresistible way to that far future when Darkness is the Universe.

In Stoppard’s play, Hannah recites the above lines of Lord Byron, using poetry as evidence that even before our thermodynamic doom was understood mathematically, it was possible to glimpse the cold, dark truth.  This dark truth hangs over all the characters in Arcadia.

But we are not alone, either in space or time.  Septimus says of the endless succession of human generations:

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.  The procession is very long and life is very short.  We die on the march.  But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.

I can’t help but hear an echo of T. S. Eliot here:

He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.

Indeed, I find much in Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” which illuminates Arcadia.  Consider:

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.

Arcadia is fundamentally about creativity in the face of the Second Law.  it is about life as a local reversal of entropy and what a marvellous gift that reversal is.  Arcadia is about the quest to find out, to learn. Hannah says:

Comparing what we’re looking for is missing the point.  It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.  Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.

Yes, Death is there, but, before all else, Even in Arcadia is Life.

Some, having little understanding of the Second Law, have tried to argue that Darwinian Evolution, for example, contravenes that law by increasing order when order must decrease.  But, of course, there is nothing in the Second Law which makes impossible localized, temporary increases accompanied by a greater decrease elsewhere or elsewhen.  Each pleasantly arranged dessert, each beautiful poem, every evening at the theatre, is made possible by the distant future cinder we now call The Sun.  These local eddies of increased order are what Stoppard offers us — not as consolation — as purpose and meaning.  “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow the universe will sink into a lightless heat-death.”

Eliot again:

….he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

Near the end of the play Gus, the non-verbal youth picks up what has been shed, as he had earlier picked up a trans-temporal apple for Hannah (a reference, I think, to Theocritus’ third Idyll). Gus gives Hannah the unexpected clue she needs to clinch her argument about the identity of the Hermit.  In that moment, Gus and Plautus the tortoise are linked through time.  The silent watchers hold the answer, but there is a melancholy.

Septimus and Thomasina dance. Gus silently invites Hannah to dance.

Hannah says,

“Oh, dear, I don’t really . . .”

But, really, she does.

As the couples orbit each other into the night at the end of the play, we and they know that the journey and our companions, including those who have preceded us, and what we make of them, are all we truly have.

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard is published by Faber & Faber.

On a lighter note

From page 38 of my 1993 copy of Arcadia:

Et in Arcadia Typo

Et in Arcadia, Typo.

Ever since I was little . . .

Every since I was little I figured a human being would want to strive for a certain level of cultural literacy. And, by “culture” I mean “the things that people do and think about. Their tools, games, work and works, their understandings and misunderstandings.”

I figured a person would want to have a certain level of mathematical literacy (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, etc.), a good understanding of science and the method of science, and a bit of a knowledge of at least a second language. I figured a person would want to have some understanding of the major world religions, of the remarkable fact that there are as many religions as there are believers, that there are more sects of Islam and Christianity and . . . than there are preachers on street corners in all the world.

I’ve figured that a person would want to have a pretty good familiarity with the great literary works of their language and some familiarity with the great works of other traditions. I figured a person would want to be able to at least plunk out a tune on a musical instrument, compose a sonnet, draw a picture, even if they produce pretty crappy art. I figured people would want to know a little about the history of Art.

I figured a person would want to have enough knowledge of the popular sports in their community that they could watch with understanding even if they never actually played the game.  I thought they’d want to know a few good jokes and maybe a card trick or two.

I figured a person would want to have a fairly good understanding of the workings of their country’s political system, would want to be able to manage money competently, do minor household repairs, grow food in a garden, understand the use of basic hand tools (knife, axe, hammer, saw, etc.). A grown-up would want to be able to sew on a button. As technology has “advanced” in my lifetime, I’ve figured people would want to keep up to some extent.

A grown up would want to be able to prepare a meal for guests, prepare their culture’s staple food (bake bread [without a machine], I guess, in my case).

And I’ve always sort of figured that grown ups would always want to learn new skills, find out new things about the universe and the people around them. Explore! Grow! Build!

But sometimes I look around at humanity, at the pride so many take in their ignorance, at the anti-intellectualism, at the mysterious and peculiar devotion to magical thinking, and particularly when some elected official holds up a snowball as a demonstration that the climate isn’t changing or blathers on twitter about evolution just being a theory and I think —

“They’re all nothing more than a bunch of monkeys throwing poop around.”

Then, I pause. And I look up at they sky and–

The Sky is Filled with Ships!


The sky of our Science Fiction world is filled with the robots that some of those monkeys built to explore. And I look around at the monkeys I know, in my neighbourhood, my city, my country, and all over my planet and I start to feel like maybe some of these monkeys are pretty impressive little monkeys doing exactly all that exploring, growing and building I always figured they all would want to be doing.

I wish all the other ones would want it, too.

Note: the initial version of this rant, which I posted to Facebook, read “should” in each place in which it now reads “would want to”. As I thought about it, I realized that I never really had a prescriptive feeling about this subject. Rather, I always had an expectation that people simply would desire to learn and grow, and as I grew older I was perplexed that some — many — people seemed to have no such desire.  I grew up in a world that I understood had moved beyond superstition. When I was a kid, Science was flying us to the Moon. Then, a few years later when I was about fifteen a schoolmate told me that she “didn’t believe in dinosaurs because they’re not in the Bible”. Of course, I thought she was joking. When I realized the truth, that she actually somehow didn’t “believe in” Reality, I was horrified. Much later l’esprit de l’escalier suggested I should have asked “What about trains? Do you believe in trains? They’re not in the Bible.” Since that day, I’ve never stopped being horrified.

“The Interstellar Age” by Jim Bell: to the highth of this great Argument

Taking advantage of a rare celestial alignment of the planets, those two robots, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, gave us all our first detailed, high-resolution, glorious views of the solar system beyond Mars, revealing the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and their panoply of rings and moons, in all their awesome wonder — not just for scientists, but also for poets, musicians, painters, novelists, moviemakers, historians, and even kids.

The Interstellar Age, p.2.

I’ve just finished reading Jim Bell’s The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty Year Voyager Mission, and, what a ride for an old space nerd like me!  The book is a bit of a hybrid, at once a biography of the ongoing Voyager mission and of Bell the Planetary scientist and President of the Planetary Society.  I’ll say right off, I didn’t learn a whole lot about the Voyager missions.  Bell and I are near contemporaries – I was born at the beginning of the 60s and Bell in the middle.  Certainly we took very different educational paths, though we apparently shared unexemplary dedication to our studies.  But what Bell and I do share is a passion for discovery and the very human idea of exploration.

Bell emulates our shared inspiration, Carl Sagan, emphasizing that Voyager isn’t about robots exploring the universe – it’s about humans, very real, next door neighbour, funny, quirky, artistic humans exploring the universe with tools they have made with their ingenuity and the creativity of generations of engineers, technicians, mathematicians, writers, artists, musicians and poets.  Bell met Sagan.  I only read his words and saw him on television.  Bell was at times in the thick of the Voyager excitement, was on the sidelines for the rest.  I was always up in the cheap seats with a pair of binoculars and one bad eye.  I watched Star Trek. Bell watched Star Trek, but for some reason doesn’t mention Voyager’s appearance in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Despite our different paths, Bell and I have watched the Voyager probes carefully for all our adult lives, so, there wasn’t much new to me about Voyager in The Interstellar Age.

But I couldn’t put it down!

The book opens with frequent references to the Arts and Sagan’s friend and collaborator, artist Jon Lomberg is mentioned and cited throughout.  The book is about the creativity of science, the joy of collaboration, and the sheer human exhilaration of being part of a huge, multi-generational creative process.  The Interstellar Age is an inspiring celebration of the human spirit, the spirit expressed in the Golden Records we all sent to the stars on the two Voyagers.

Bell’s book is not about robots, planets and orbital mechanics. It is about the wonder of being human in this infinitely discoverable but never fully knowable universe.  That’s a great Argument I’m glad to be a part of!

The Interstellar Age is published by Dutton.

Just after I finished writing and posting this review I learned of Leonard Nimoy’s departure. Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock, the Scientist-as-Hero-in-Space, I know inspired many of Bell’s and my generation to pursue careers or life-long interest in Space Science.    The One made such a difference to the Many.
Thank you, sir.

Passing the Turing Test

I don’t know when I first learned of ELIZA the primitive chatterbot written by Joseph Weizenbaum back in the 60s. I’ve known about her specifically in her manifestation as DOCTOR, the psychoanalyst computer, for as long as I can remember. ELIZA used simple pattern matching to produce responses to typed questions, responses which seemed startlingly human like at times in those early days of Artificial Intelligence research.

Looking back through my reading I suspect I first came across ELIZA either in Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden (1977), chapter 8, “The Future Evolution of the Brain”, or in Arthur C. Clarke’s Report on Planet Three (1972), chapter 12, “The Mind of the Machine”. I’m not sure which I read first, but I’m certain I read The Dragons of Eden shortly after it came out in paperback in April 1978. So, I probably learned of ELIZA a little more than a decade after she was developed. Within another decade, I had my own computer in my home! It was time for me to do some AI work of my own!

I still have that Tandy 1000sx down in the basement. It has trouble booting these days, sadly. But on that machine I conducted an experiment which I think shows that the Turing Test may cut both ways.

In my first year of university (1978-80) I took a Computer Science course. In those days a Computer was a Mainframe. I learned a version of Fortran and APL. I did a little programming. Somehow the Fortran actually stuck with me so when I sat down at my Tandy I was able to quickly puzzle out how to code in BASIC and I wrote the first version of a stupidly simple program I pretentiously called “DIOGENES”. Some time later I rewrote it in Qbasic and last night I dug up that version from an old hard drive and ran it.

It’s still stupidly simple. Maybe just stupid.

The idea I wanted to investigate was what a program would look like if it simply collected everything ever said to it and responded to each input statement by regurgitating a random line of its constantly growing file of old inputs. The program is absurdly simple. There’s the actual program, consisting of twenty-seven short lines of code, and a text file called “mind” which stores all inputs, appending line after line. Each time the user hits RETURN, the program appends the user’s input to “mind” and then picks a random line from “mind” and outputs it. In the old days, DIOGENES very quickly bogged down in slow processing which may have made the thing look like it was actually pausing to think.

What most surprised me about DIOGENES is that one evening when I had friends over I showed the program to them, explaining how it worked. One friend remained in front of the Tandy while the rest of us wandered away in conversation. About forty-five minutes later, Mike pulled himself away from the computer, came into the living room and shouted “That thing is amazing!”

I can’t help but think that DIOGENES hadn’t pass the Turing Test so much as Mike had failed it.

For the record, here’s the code of DIOGENES, my one and only, and perplexingly successful, attempt at creating artificial intelligence.

PRINT “Please type ‘goodbye’ when you are finished.”
OPEN “mind.txt” FOR APPEND AS #1
IF a$ = “goodbye” THEN PRINT ” “
IF a$ = “goodbye” THEN PRINT “see you”
IF a$ = “goodbye” THEN END
PRINT #1, a$
Numoflines = 0
OPEN “mind.txt” FOR INPUT AS #2
Numoflines = Numoflines + 1
LINE INPUT #2, lin$
OPEN “mind.txt” FOR INPUT AS #3
linenum = INT(RND * Numoflines) + 1
FOR i = 1 TO linenum
LINE INPUT #3, lin$
PRINT lin$

If you can find a machine to run it on, have at it!

Oilsands v Hydroelectric: a reality check on Site C

Yesterday (October 14, 2014) the British Columbian and Canadian Governments gave the Site C hydroelectric project on the Peace River environmental approval because “the benefits provided outweigh the risks of significant adverse environmental, social and heritage impacts.”  It seems the governments have gone back to odd dreams from 1978 of a world made more hospitable for its dominant species.  The Site C project is being touted as a “clean energy” project with clearly audible undertone of “not like the miserable tarsands!”

While I’m no particular friend of the strange things done under the midnight sun by the men who moil for oil, and while I’m no enemy of the hope of better living through technology, I have no illusions that hydroelectric megaprojects are a fine, clean, green power line to a happy future.  So, a quick reality check.

As of 2013, according to the Pembina Institute, the six active surface extraction projects in the Alberta Oilsands have disturbed about 715 km² of boreal forest.  The companies conducting the extraction are required by law to restore that land to “equivalent land capability” when they’ve finished the mining.  Whatever one may think of the possibility of such restoration, or of government’s ability to enforce such a requirement, the gesture has at least been made toward “leave it like you found it”.

In contrast, Site C will destroy through flooding a horizontal surface area of 93 km².  Because of the mountainous area involved, the actual ecological area destroyed will be much larger.  The governments have acknowledged in advance the “significant adverse environmental, social and heritage impacts.”  They even acknowledge that this “clean” project will result in greenhouse gas emmisions from the rotting vegetation – a carbon sink before the flooding – for years afterward.  There are no requirements to return the land to its previous state. The project is permanent, the destruction is forever.

So, with a single megaproject British Columbia intends to destroy forever an area 1/7 the size of all surface extraction projects in the Alberta oilsands.  Somehow this permanent destruction is claiming the “Clean Energy” label while confessing “significant environmental” impacts. By the way, B.C.’s W.A.C. Bennett dam, completed in 1968 in the spirit of utopian, nature-controlling High Modernity discussed in my earlier post, has already destroyed twenty times the area Site C would destroy. That’s almost three times as much natural area destroyed by one hydroelectric dam as has been strip mined – with the legislated requirement of restoration – in Alberta’s tar sands.

The oilsands companies and the Alberta Government, for all their flaws and self-interest, at least grudgingly acknowledge that when one makes a mess, one has the responsibility to clean things up as best one can.

I’m glad I have visited the beautiful valley of the upper Peace River. Before long, it will be gone forever.

Update, December 3, 2014: Yesterday an outfit called Clean Energy Canada made a lot of headlines with a report on “clean” jobs in Canada, specifically contrasting direct employment in the Alberta oilsands vs. direct employment in “clean” energy.  What got little coverage was that the report admits that 85% of the electricity they class as “clean” comes from Big Hydro mega-projects, specifically singling out Robert-Bourassa in Quebec, part of the once notorious James Bay Project. The Robert-Bourassa reservoir destroyed almost four times the area of Boreal Forest strip mined in the oilsands.  What is being ignored by Clean Energy Canada is that these Hydro mega projects they are praising have a far more disastrously direct destructive impact on Canada’s Boreal Forest than do the strip mines in the tar sands.  Sure, once the mountains have been mined for limestone, once the carbon has been belched in the production of concrete, once the initial destruction is completed, once the carbon sink is destroyed and its stored carbon released to the atmosphere, once the power lines are cut through the forests, the electricity from these  things is “renewable” for the life of the project.  But, at some point, silting, maintenance costs, changing demand, etc. will lead to the decommissioning of these projects.  What happens then?  Who cleans up the mess left by this “clean” energy?

As a further reality check, China’s much maligned Three Gorges Dam, directly destroyed by flooding 1,045 square kilometres. The first phase of the James Bay Project, which Clean Energy Canada touts as “Clean Energy”, directly destroyed well over ten times that area, 11,300 square kilometres of pristine Boreal Forest.

I think Clean Energy Canada does a tragic disservice to the very industries they are trying to help when they include such grandiose terraforming megaprojects in their definition of “clean” energy. Does anyone remember the shock and horror of the world when China’s Three Gorges Dam went ahead? The extinctions of river dolphins, the displacement of millions of people, the destruction of thousands of years of human heritage and millions of years of natural heritage with a single megaproject that Clean Energy Canada would seem to class as “clean.”  How many of the well-meaning, devoted environmentalists gleefully tweeting news of the “Clean” jobs report would be so excited if they realized that Site C is considered a “clean” project? It’s truly encouraging that low-impact energy sources are growing in importance, but fudging a report by including “It’s humanity’s planet, we’ll do what we want with it” mega-projects in the set of “clean” energy sources sullies the real successes of the workers in low-impact energy industries.

Update, July 7, 2015: Something I didn’t touch on in this post is the downstream effects of Big Hydro like Site C. These effects are now drawing the attention of UNESCO’s World Heritage Council because they threaten Canada’s largest National Park,  World Heritage Site Wood Buffalo NP.  As the Globe and Mail Editorial Board writes:

Our national parks do not exist in isolation. Air circulates, water flows, animals migrate and man-made pollution is indifferent to the boundaries it crosses, and the climate it alters, with effortless ease.

 It is long past time we all realize and accept this fact and acknowledge that it applies to all human activities. From solar panel manufacture to uranium mining, there’s no free lunch in our world. When we decide to build, we also have to decide what we are willing to destroy.

Update, September 8, 2015: Now this from Harvard – “Hydroelectric energy may be more damaging to northern ecosystems than climate change.” Anyone who says Hydro power is “clean” or “renewable” or “green” is either lying or igorant.