Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Ghosts of 2020. And the Ghosts of 2021



The devil scene from Walt Disney's 1940 "Fantasia" movie. A fitting representation of the nightmare that 2020 has been. 

This clip is especially fitting because you may notice how the devil doesn't really do anything bad during the whole scene. He summons ghosts and demons, they scream, they fly, they dance, but they don't touch anything, don't harm anyone. Evil is a characteristic of our mind: we create evil and we suffer its consequences because we believe in our own creation.

Perhaps we could hear bells dispelling evil in 2021, as it happens in the movie at 5:40? Maybe, but it is also possible that we'll create even worse ghosts than anything seen in 2020. Whatever the case, as always, we'll remain dominated by the ghost that we ourselves create.




Monday, December 28, 2020

A New Year's Tale: And the Years of His Life Were 900



A story from the old Soviet Union, written by the Russian writer Vladimir Dudintsev, still teaching us things today. And here is a written version from a 2013 post.

Some 50 years ago, I received as a Christmas present a book titled "Russian Science Fiction." All the stories in that book made a deep impression on me, but there was one that has remained in my mind more than the others; a curious story titled "A New Year's Tale".

I was, maybe, 12 at that time and, of course, I couldn't understand everything of that story and I didn't pay attention to the name of the author. But, as time went by, I didn't forget it; rather, it became entrenched in my mind, progressively acquiring more meaning and more importance. I reread it not long ago, and it came back to my mind during a recent trip to Russia. So, let me tell you this story as I remember it.

"A New Year's Tale" tells of one year of life of the protagonist, a researcher in a scientific laboratory somewhere in the Soviet Union. Dudintsev manages to tell the story without ever giving specific details about anything: no place names, no names of the characters, not even of the protagonist. It is a feat of literary virtuosity; it gives the story an atmosphere of a fairy tale but, at the same time, it is very, very specific.

It took me time before I could understand the hints that Dudintsev gives all over the text, but after many trips to Russia, everything fell in place. It is curious how Dudintsev managed to catch so well the atmosphere of a research lab in the Soviet Union; he was not a scientific researcher. But that's what makes a great storyteller, after all: understanding what one is describing - and feeling something for it.

The story starts with a debate - rather, a quarrel - that the protagonist has with someone termed "a provincial academic" (we are not told his name). This provincial academic should be nothing more than a nuisance, but the protagonist can't avoid engaging in the debate. He understands that he is losing time, that he should be doing something more useful, more important. But he just can't sit down and do his job.

While the protagonist is entangled in this useless quarrel, the chief of the laboratory (again, we are not told his name) dabbles in archeology and one day he tells his coworkers of some work of his somewhere in the Caucasus, where they found an ancient tomb. There was an owl engraved on the tombstone and an inscription that they could decipher. It says "...and the years of his life were 900...."

Now, what could that mean? Could the man buried there have lived 900 years? No, of course not. But then, what does the inscription mean? Well, someone says, that must mean that this man spent his life so well and so fully that it was like his years had been 900.

The discussion goes on. What does it mean to live such a full life? The researchers try to find an answer but, at some moment, they hear the voice of someone who usually keeps silent at these reunions. We are told that he is from far away, not Russian, that is. We can imagine that this man doesn't have a Russian name, but we are not told names. So, he is an outsider and he comes with a completely different viewpoint; he is "the foreign scientist" even though in the old Soviet Union, theoretically, there was no such distinction. "You see, comrades," he says, "it is very simple. To live a full life, you must always choose the greatest satisfactions, the highest joys you can find."

At this point, we hear the voice of the political commissioner of the lab. Apparently, there was usually someone in the scientific academies in the Soviet Union who was in charge of making sure that Soviet Scientists would not fall into doing decadent capitalist science. So, he stands up and he tells the foreign scientist, "Well, comrade, don't you think one should also work for the people or something like that?" And the foreign scientist answers, "You are so backward, comrade. Don't you understand? The greatest satisfaction, the highest joy one can have in life is exactly that: working for the people!"

After that the discussion is over, the protagonist of the story reflects on the words of the foreign scientist and he resolves to start doing something serious in his life. He decides to start doing experiments, advance his theory. We are not told exactly what he is doing, but we understand that he is working on something important; research that has to do with capturing and storing solar light. And he manages to work on that for some time. Then, his colleagues bring to him another paper written by his provincial antagonist. So, he feels he has to answer that, and then the provincial academician writes a response.... and the protagonist finds himself entangled again into this argument.

Things are back to the silly normalcy of before, but then something happens. The protagonist finds that he is being stalked. Someone, or something, is following him all the time. When he sees it in full he discovers that it is an owl. A giant owl, almost as big as a man, looking at him. He thinks it is a hallucination, which of course it must be. But he keeps seeing this owl over and over.

So, the protagonist goes to see a doctor and he tells him of the owl. The doctor pales. After a thorough physical examination, the doctor tells him: "you have one year to live, more or less." We are not told of what specific sickness the protagonist suffers. He asks, "but why the owl?" And the doctor answers, "we are studying that. You are not the only one. The owl is a symptom." Then, the doctor looks at the protagonist straight in his eyes and he says, "I can tell you something. Those who see the owl, have a chance to be saved."

In the meantime, there had been a long discussion between the protagonist and the foreign scientist, the one who had so well silenced the political commissioner. So, the foreign scientist had told to the protagonist his story, obliquely, yes, but clearly understandable. His fellow countrymen had not liked the idea that he had left the country to become a scientist. They are described as gangsters and criminals, but we have a feeling that there was something more at stake than just petty crimes. This man had made a choice and that had meant to make a clean break from his country and his culture; it had meant to accept the new Soviet Communist society. Now, he was spending his time in this new world trying to get his "greatest satisfactions and highest joys" by working for the people. And, because of that, his former countrymen had condemned him to death. So, he had changed his name and his identity, and he had even surgically changed his face to become unrecognizable. But he knew that "they" were looking for him and they would find him at some moment.

So, the destiny of the protagonist and of the foreign scientist are somehow parallel, they both have a limited time. After having seen the doctor, the protagonist understands the situation and he rushes to search for the foreign scientist. They can work together, they can join forces, in this way, maybe they can....  but in horror, he discovers that the foreign scientist has been killed. 

In panic, the protagonist desperately looks for the notes he had collected over the years. But the cleaning lady tells him that she had used them to start the fire in the stove. She had no idea that they could have been important. The protagonist feels like he is walking in a nightmare. Just one year and he has lost his notes. He starts from scratch.... his great discovery.... how can he do? Yet, he decides to try.

He becomes absorbed in his work. He works harder and harder. Staying in the lab night and day and, when he goes home, he keeps working. His colleagues note the change; they are surprised that he doesn't react anymore to the attacks of the provincial academician, but he doesn't care (which is, by the way, a good lesson on how to handle our modern Internet flames). He still sees the owl; always bigger and coming closer to him, the owl has become something of a familiar creature, almost a friend.

Then, someone appears. It is a woman, described as having "well-formed shoulders" (of course, we are not told her name!). The protagonist recognizes her. It is not the first time he has seen her. He remembers having seen her with the now dead foreign Scientist.

The protagonist has no time for a love story. He has to work. He tries to ignore the woman but he is also attracted to her. He can concede her just a few words. Ten minutes, maybe. So they talk and the woman tells him. "It is you, I recognize you! You can't fool me!" The protagonist remembers something that the foreign scientist had told him; that he had his face surgically changed to escape from his enemies. Now, this woman thinks that the protagonist is really her former lover, who changed again face and appearance and didn't tell that not even to her.

The protagonist tries to deny that he is the former lover of the woman but, curiously, he doesn't succeed, not even to himself. In a way, he becomes the other, acting like him in his complete immersion in his work. The protagonist discovers that the foreign scientist had assembled a complete laboratory at home, much better than the lab at the academy. So he moves there, with the woman with the well-formed shoulders (and the owl comes, too, perching on a branch just outside the window). Then, the protagonist even discovers that the foreign scientist was secretly copying his notes and he gave them to the woman, who has kept them for him. With these notes, he can gain months of work. Maybe he can make it in one year, maybe.....

The last part of the story goes on at a feverish pace. The protagonist becomes sicker and sicker; to the point that he has to stay in bed and it is the woman with the well-formed shoulders who takes up the work in the lab. And the owl perches on the bed head. But they manage to get some important results and that's enough to catch the attention of the lab boss. He orders everyone in the lab to come there and help the protagonist (and the woman with the well-formed shoulders) to move on with the experiments.

In the final scene, the year has ended and we see the protagonist in bed, dying. But his colleagues show him the results of the experiment: something so bright, so beautiful, unbelievably bright and beautiful. We are not told exactly what it is, anyway it is a way to catch sunlight in a compact form: a new form of energy, a new understanding of the working of the sun - we don't know, but it is something fantastic. Even the owl looks at that thing, curious. The protagonist hears the sound of bells from the window. A new year is starting. We are not told whether he lives or not, but in any case, it is a new beginning and, whatever it happens, they'll tell of him that the years of his life had been 900.

And here we are. You see, it is a magic story. It keeps your attention; you want to know if the protagonist lives or not and you want to know if he manages to make his great discovery. But it is also the story of the life and of the mind of scientists that I think is not easy to find in novels or short stories. It is curious that Dudintsev did so well because, as I said, he wasn't a scientist, he was a novelist. But he managed to catch so incredibly well the life of a scientist - of a scientist working in the Soviet Union, yes, but not just that. Dudintsev's portrait of science and scientists goes beyond the quirks of the old Soviet world.

Yes, in Soviet science there were things that look strange for us, such as having a political commissioner in the lab to watch what scientists are doing. But that's just a minor feature and today in the West we have plenty of different -- and heavier  -- constraints on what we do that don't involve a dumb political commissioner. The point is that scientists often work as if their life were to last just one year; at least during the productive time of their life; when they are trying to compress each year as if it were to be 900 years long. It is their lot: the search for the discovery, being so deeply absorbed in their work, being remote from everyone else; obsessed with owls that they alone can see.

And yet, Dudintsev's story is so universal that it goes beyond the peculiar mind of scientists. It is the story of all men, all over the world, of what we do and how we spend our life. And the key of the story is the woman with the well-formed shoulders. She recognizes her former lover in the protagonist, or she feigns to recognize him. It is him or it is not him - we are not told, but it doesn't matter. What matter is her devotion to her man. It is so touching: you perceive true love in this attitude. In the end, that's the key to the whole story: whatever we do in life, we do it for those we love.

Some of us are scientists, some aren't. But it is not a piece of bad advice to live your life as if you wanted each year to be 900 years long. And every new year is a new beginning.


Friday, December 25, 2020

2020: The Collapse of the Christian Church


Christmas of 1914: soldiers from opposite sides met in a friendly manner across the front line. For a short time, the Christian message of love managed to overcome the message of hate that came from national governments. It was just a brief moment for a good deed that surely didn't go unpunished. But it was highlighting a deep contradiction that was prefiguring the final collapse of the church, but that would take another century or so. It is coming now. 


Sometimes, life is like watching the long needle of an old mechanical watch. No matter how carefully you look at it, it doesn't seem to move -- time is frozen. Then, you look at something else, and when your glance is back to the watch, the needle has moved. Time has passed, and that moment will never come back. 

Sometimes, you have the same sensation with history. For a long time, everything seems to be frozen and nothing changes then, suddenly, everything has changed and the world is a different one. It has happened in this 2020 that, suddenly, changed everything, and the world of one year ago will never come back.

I already noted how some institutions have been shattered at their foundations by the COVID crisis of 2020. One was the university, destroyed by the sudden discovery that it is an expensive machine that produces nothing useful for the state. Another illustrious victim is starting to crumble: it is the Church. Primarily, the Catholic Church in its claims of universality, but all Christian Churches have been affected by a crisis that left them stunned, suddenly realizing that they had nothing to say and nothing to do about a disaster that seemed to affect everybody. 

The collapse of the university and of the Church is all the more remarkable considering how old they are. The University has about one thousand years of history in Europe, more if we consider the Islamic world. The Christian Church is even older than that. Yet, nothing is eternal in human history. Everything moves, changes, crumbles, disappears, is reborn, and disappears again. It is true for empires, and also for institutions that seem to be stronger even than empires: churches, temples, religions, and ideologies. Even the Gods die and are reborn, it is one of their characteristics. 

And so, look at the Christian Church in Europe. It was born as the reaction to a state, the Roman one, that was crumbling, starting around the 3rd century AD. The Roman state was based on military might, but that was too expensive for the new times. Gradually, the Church replaced the Roman state, mirroring the older institutions in new forms, more compatible with an age when the available resources didn't allow the kind of military power that had been the rule in earlier times. The Church delegated force to local warlords while governing on the basis of prestige and on a shared set of beliefs and rituals. As all human constructions, the system was far from being perfect, but it generated an age of relative peace and the end of the worst flaws of the older Roman world: the slavery of millions, the oppression of women, the emphasis on military power, the inequality of the few versus the many, the cruelty of the arena games. 

The reign of the Christian Church lasted for several centuries, nearly a millennium. Then, the giant wheel of history made one of its turns. The printing press appeared in the 15th century, the brainchild of a man named Gutenberg who probably never imagined what he was creating: nation-states, new creatures that had never existed before. Their organization was not anymore based on money, as in the Roman state. And not even on a shared religion and a sacred language (Latin), as it was the case for the Christian Church. Nation-states were based on their national language: an invention of the printing press that created bonds among the people who could understand each other. It was a re-edition of the old Greek concept of the barbarophonoi, those who speak bar-bar, the barbarians. But the new barbarians were not anymore the inhabitants of remote lands, bad-smelling and dressed in animal skins. They were your neighbors who happened to live just on the other side of an imaginary line called "national border." Those same neighbors whom the Church had been telling you to love as yourself, but whom now the state instructed you to hate and despise.

And so there started a conflict that's lasting to this day. As for many features of history, things move slowly, but surely. First, there came the great convulsions of the age we call "Renaissance." It truly started with a bang, the extermination of hundreds of thousands of European women, accused of being witches. Not only the nation-states succeeded in enlisting the Church top help in the task, but with the so-called "enlightenment," we saw one of the greatest successes of propaganda in history. The Church was accused of a mass extermination that had instead been performed by the state. Even people's perception was modified: in their memory, the age of witch-hunting was pushed back to the Middle Ages, turned by propaganda into a "dark age" of superstition and violence. But the Church was not a woman-killing machine. It was the state who wanted more cannon fodder for its armies and so it needed to enslave women and turn them into child-bearing machines. But the force of propaganda is enormous, it is one of the wheels that push history forward. 

The witch-hunting age, mostly the 16th and 17th centuries, was one of the factors that shattered the unity of the Christian Church. Then, there came the reformation, and then the age of colonization when, again, the states managed another master stroke of propaganda. They were able to convince everyone that it had been the Church pushing for enslaving and exterminating non-European people.

Then, there came the 20th century and the age of the world wars where, again, the Church found no role and nothing to say on an event that was shattering its very foundations of a universal institution. I wrote an entire book on how people's faith was affected by this tremendous contradiction: Christians were fighting each other all over Europe and, on both sides of the front line, Christian priests were blessing young men to go killing other young men on the other side (you see, in the figure, an Italian military chaplain blessing Italian soldiers before going to battle). 

The Church barely survived this tremendous blow, but more were to come. Once, a Japanese friend of mine told me something like "I always found it weird how every week Europeans get together in churches to eat God." A flash of how strange some things appear when seen from another viewpoint. But this Japanese man was right: eating God is one of the elements of the Church rituals. A Church is like a state in many ways: it has rituals just like the state does. The state has military parades, the church has religious processions. The state enlists young men as soldiers, the Church enlists them as choirboys. The state vaccinates children, the Church baptizes them. The state taxes people, the Church asks them for alms. And much more. The Church may ask you to eat the body of the son of God who sacrificed himself for his love for humankind, just like the state may ask you to send your son to die on some remote mountains to show his love for that section of humankind that you call the "nation."

You may see all this as a symmetric battle, but the two sides are not equivalent in power. As I said, the Church had started as an alternative to the crumbling Roman state, but it was to be expected that the wheel would turn around. The State is now much more powerful than the Church and the sermons of the priest had no way to compete with the state news services. It was all going to happen and it happened. 

It is curious that such an old and resilient institution was demolished by such a humble creature as a virus labeled SARS-Covid2. But that was how it happened. Faced with the virus threat, the Church found nothing to say, nothing to object, nothing to propose. It meekly submitted to the superior power of the state. 

So, in Italy, this Christmas the state ruled that the traditional midnight mass was to be held at 8 pm. Of course, it is hard to believe that a virus could infect people at midnight but not at 8 pm. One could also say that, while nobody can say at what time Jesus Christ was born (probably not even on the day we call "Christmas"), it was the job of the Church and not of the state to decide on this point. But the Church was totally silent and it bowed down to the state. It had already bowed down on many other things. The images of Italian police stopping the celebration of a mass during the lockdown of March was seen by everybody and condemned by almost nobody. On visiting a church, you would find someone at the entrance pointing a laser gun at your forehead. You saw the benches with places crossed with red tape. Instead of holy water fountains, you would find bottles with disinfecting solutions. People hiding their faces in front of God just like Adam had been hiding from God in the Garden of Eden.  And, finally, the final insult was the virtual mass, with the priest turned into a 2D image confined in a little square on a screen, virtually blessing virtual believers. 

It was a sacrilege, it was the desecration of a place that, so far, had managed to resist, at least in part, the state's power. And it was, basically, the end of an age. Anything you believe in must be eventually be kept alive by practice. Practice is based on rituals, the Christian church has been existed for so many centuries because among other things, as my Japanese friend said, people would collect every week to eat God together. It may have been silly from a Far-Eastern viewpoint, but it was a ritual. And all rituals are collective -- they have them also in the Far East, even though they don't eat their Gods in the form of wafers. 

Without the rituals, or with the rituals compressed on a screen, the structure ceases to exist. It is just like the university: it is no more a university when teachers and students are reduced to 2-dimensional creatures inhabiting a small square of a screen. Without the ritual of classroom teaching, the university cannot exist. Without the ritual of the meetings of people whom we call the "congregation" and that in earlier times was called the "ecclesia," the Church is mute, the faith is gone, the faithful are disbanded, the holy places are desecrated.  And that's what's happening and everything that happens happens because it had to happen.

And now? History will keep going in circles as it has always done. The new state-sponsored rituals to fight the pandemic are triumphant, but there will be new cycles. The Gutenberg machine is being replaced by the much more powerful Google machine and we don't know what effects that will have on the entities that dominate the world, nowadays. Will the triumphant nation-states will see their doom, soon? We cannot say. We can only say that the great wheel of history is turning. It will keep turning.



Note added after publication

An interesting article appeared on the "Tablet Magazine" on how the members of the Jewish Satmar community of New York decided to defy the COVID regulations and held a funeral celebration for one of their members.
This story matches very well my considerations in this post on how most religions worldwide are unable to provide an independent answer to the COVID issue and are being squeezed out of the debate, and perhaps out of existence.
In the article, the author bends over backwards to justify the position of the Satmar Jews. Right now, the idea that there is something more important than fighting the Covid epidemic looks incomprehensible, monstrous, even straight evil, to the great majority in the West. 
Yet, I believe that the Satmar understand very well that if they are to survive as a religious community they have to uphold the belief that God is more important than a virus. Actually that God is more important than anything else. And they are acting consistently. Something that the Christian Church, and the Catholic Church in particular, is not doing at al



Monday, December 21, 2020

The Hydrogen Hoax: Confessions of a Former Hydrogenist

The "hydrogen economy" is like a zombie: no matter how many times it is slain, it keeps coming at you. Like a Hollywood zombie movie, hydrogen seems to exert a tremendous fascination because it is being sold to people as a way to keep doing everything we have been doing without any need for sacrifices or for changing our ways. Unfortunately, reality is not a movie, and the reverse is also true. Hydrogen is a pie in the sky that delays the real innovation that would make it possible to phase out fossil fuels from the world's energy mix.  (image source)


This is a re-worked and updated version of a post that I published in 2007, in Italian, during one more of the periodic returns of the "hydrogen economy," a fashionable idea that leads nowhere. For more technical information on the hydrogen scam, see the exhaustive treatment by Antonio Turiel in three posts on his blog "Crash Oil", in Spanish, "The Hydrogen Fever" One, two, and Three, all written by "Beamspot."

Confessions of a Former Hydrogenist

I think it was in 2004 when an Italian company based in Tuscany developed a hydrogen car and organized a presentation for the president of the Tuscan regional government. I was invited to attend as the local fuel cell expert. 

So, I showed up in the courtyard of the Tuscan government building where a truck had unloaded the car. It turned out to be a modified Fiat Multipla that you may know as having been awarded the 2014 prize for the ugliest car ever made. Of course, that was not the problem. It was that it was not a fuel cell car. It was just an ordinary car fitted with two compressed hydrogen cylinders under the body. The hydrogen went directly into the internal combustion engine.   
Before the President appeared, I had a chance to drive that car. I managed to make a full tour of the courtyard of the building, but it was like riding an asthmatic horse. The technician of the company told me that, yes, the regulation of the carburetor was not so easy. I could only agree on that. 
When the President showed up, he clearly had no idea of what was going on and what he was supposed to do. He sat at the wheel, drove the car for a few meters in heavy bumps, then he gave up and just sat there in order to be photographed by the journalists. The day after, the local newspapers showed the photos of the president driving the "hydrogen car," a prodigy of the Tuscan inventive.  Then the car disappeared forever into the dustbin of history, together with the long list of hydrogen-powered prototypes that were made, shown, and scrapped over the years.
1980, when I arrived in Berkeley, in California, to do a post-doc stage at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. At that time, the worst of the first oil crisis was over but the shock was still felt, and everywhere in the US and in the world it was a flourishing of research projects dedicated to new forms of energy.

In Berkeley, I worked for two years on fuel cells; the technology that was to be used to transform hydrogen into electricity and that was - and still is - essential to the concept of "hydrogen-based economy" (The idea was already well known in the 1980s, Rifkin didn't invent anything with his 2002 book). It was an interesting field, even fascinating, but very difficult. We were studying the "core" of the device, the catalyst. How it worked and what could be done to improve its performance. I think we did some good research work, although we found nothing revolutionary.

With the end of my contract at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab approaching, I started looking for a job. I remember that I was told that there was someone in Canada who had set up a company dedicated to developing fuel cells. I vaguely thought about sending them a resume but, eventually, I didn't. For what I was told, that company was little more than a garage staffed with a few enthusiasts. Not the kind of thing that promised a bright future for a researcher. 

It was a mistake on my part. Later on, the company grew and its leader, Geoffrey Ballard, became famous. They improved a fuel cell design that had been developed earlier on by NASA and the result was a major advance. It made possible the first fuel-cell bus in the world (1993). That led to Ballard being nominated "hero of the planet" in 1999. 

In the 1990s it occurred to me several times that if in 1982 I had sent that resume to Ballard, maybe I could have been one of the developers of what seemed to be the revolution of the century. The polymer membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) was the device that would have made possible the hydrogen-based economy: clean prosperity for everyone. I would have made a lot of money, too!

But, as it has often happened to me in my life, I found myself in the wrong place and out of sync with the rest of the world. In 1982, when I was looking for a job, the oil crisis seemed to be over and oil prices had fallen sharply. The interest in alternative energies was waning and, with the foresight typical of human beings, research programs on energy were being abandoned. There was little room, as a result, for a fuel cell expert. The best I could find in the US was an offer to work in a research center in Montana. It did not attract me so much and, in the end, I decided to return to my university, in Italy. There, I tried to set up a research program on fuel cells, but nobody was interested (again, the typical foresight of human beings). So after a few years, I moved to different subjects.

In the meantime, the interest in new forms of energy waxed and waned with the vagaries of oil prices. In 1991, the first gulf war was already an alarm bell, but the 9/11 attacks of 2001 made it clear to everyone that the supply of crude oil to the West was not guaranteed. Perhaps as a consequence, in 2002 there came Jeremy Rifkin's book "The Hydrogen Based Economy." Promoted by a high-profile campaign, it was a huge success and the idea became rapidly popular. It was understood as the way to solve all energy problems in a single sweep: not only hydrogen was clean and renewable, but it required no changes in people's lifestyle or habits. It was just a question of filling up your car's tank with something that was not gasoline, all the rest would remain unchanged. It was in perfect agreement with what George W. Bush had said, "The American lifestyle is not up for negotiation."

Even though I had not been working on fuel cells in Italy, Rifkin's success caused me to be shining of reflected light. It turned out that I was one of the few researchers in Italy having some hands-on experience with fuel cells. I was invited to speak at conferences and public presentations and some people even started calling me "Professor Hydrogen."(!)

I must admit that, in the beginning, I spoke as if I believed in the idea of the hydrogen-based economy, and maybe I did. But, gradually, I started having serious doubts. I even had a chance to meet Rifkin in person in 2006 at a conference that I had organized in Tuscany. His talk was all hype and no substance. When he was asked technical questions, all he could answer was something like "have faith," and then he would change subject.

As I started being more and more bothered by the hype on hydrogen, soon I saw what the real problem was. Back in the 1980s, in Berkeley, we already knew that the critical feature of fuel cells of the kind that can work near room temperature (called PEM, polymer electrode membrane cells) is the need for a catalyst at the electrodes. Without a catalyst, the cell just doesn't work at room temperature and the only catalyst that can make the cell work is platinum. 

Of course, platinum is expensive, but that's not the main problem, as I discovered when I started getting involved in studies on mineral depletion. If you were to replace the current vehicles with fuel cells, there would be no way to produce enough platinum from mines (for details, you can see this 2014 article of mine). Indeed, the two years I had spent at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab were dedicated to finding ways to use less platinum, or something else in place of platinum. It wasn't just me working on it, it was a whole research group, one of the several engaged on the subject.

There are several tricks you can play to reduce the platinum loading in fuel cells. You can use small particles and exploit their large surface/volume ratio. But small particles are highly active, they move, react with each other to form larger particles, and, eventually, your electrode no longer works. Of course, there are tricks to stabilize small particles: one of the things I worked on was platinum alloys. At times, some of these alloys seemed to work little miracles. But the problem was that the miracle worked only for a while, then something happened, the alloy "de-alloyed" and the catalyst didn't work anymore. Not the right kind of behavior for something that you expect to work on a commercial vehicle for at least ten years. 

Today, the problem has not been solved. I looked at a recent review on this subject and I saw that people are still struggling with the same problems I had when I worked as a young postdoc in Berkeley: reducing the platinum loading on the electrode by using alloys. I am sure that good progress has been made in nearly 40 years, but technological progress is subjected to diminishing returns, just like many human activities. You can move forward, but the farther you go, the more expensive it becomes -- to say nothing of the reliability problems of highly sophisticated technologies that deal with dispersed nanoparticles. And no way has been found, so far, to replace platinum with some other metal in low temperature fuel cells. Without a substitute for platinum, the hydrogen-based economy remains a pie in the sky. 

Note also that the platinum supply is just one of the problems plaguing the idea of the "hydrogen economy." There are many others: storage, safety, durability, efficiency, energy return, and probably more. No surprise that I stopped believing in the idea. I became a "former hydrogenist," one of those people who had approached the hydrogen idea with plenty of hopes, but who soon became disillusioned.

That doesn't mean there don't exist niche markets for hydrogen as an energy storage technology, but fuel cells are still mainly used for prototypes or toys. There is one commercial hydrogen car, the Toyota Mirai, an expensive and exotic car in a world where lithium batteries provide the same performance at a much lower cost. Hydrogen powered planes are a possibility, but there are none flying today, likely because they are an engineering nightmare. Perhaps a good use for hydrogen could be powering marine vessels, although fuel cells may be too expensive for this purpose. As energy storage systems, coupling electrolysis and fuel cell systems may do the job, but they are more expensive than batteries and their efficiency is also much smaller.

So, what's left of the grand idea of a "Hydrogen Based Economy," the promise of a world both prosperous and clean? Very little, it seems to me. Nevertheless, nowadays, the idea seems to be enjoying a renaissance, at least in terms of the surrounding hype, this time with the label of "blue hydrogen."  This is hydrogen that should be created from fossil fuels, while the carbon generated in the process should be captured and stored underground. Clearly, it is just a trick to make it possible for the fossil fuel industry to keep going for a while longer. 

And why "blue" hydrogen? Ah.... well, that's the miracle of our times: propaganda. Just as we can have "colored revolutions" it seems that we can invent "colored technologies." We have also "green hydrogen" and "grey hydrogen" and the latest fad seems to be "green kerosene." Karl Rove had understood it so well when  he said that "nowadays we create our own reality." It is so powerful that it can turn hydrogen blue and you can read here how this miracle was performed. But it will be harder to create platinum that is just not there. In the meantime, the hydrogen zombie keeps marching on!

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Secret of the Human Eyes: How Evolution Shapes our Perceptions


This post is reproduced from my blog "The Proud Holobionts" where I explore how the new concept of "Holobiont" can find applications not only in biology, but in many fields dealing with complex systems, including the human economy, memetics, and ecosystems
The short movie abov, Vikaari, has recently appeared on the "Dust" site and I think has several interesting features, relevant to the concept of holobionts. 
It is very well done as a movie, although it is deeply contradictory in many aspects. For one thing, it is a narrative disaster. First, the movie tells you that the "Vikaari", children born without a visible iris in the eyes, are good people, while being the target of Nazi-like bad guys. Then, we see the Vikaari killing their pursuers using their psychokinetic powers in bloody and cruel ways, apparently without any regret. Needless to say, this completely destroys the narrative tension of the movie and leaves you totally baffled about what the filmmakers wanted to say.

Indeed, I think the filmmakers were badly confused on several planes. First of all, in their decision of presenting this "new race" of children as something that will replace current human beings, engaged in destroying their own planet. Is this a hope or a fear? Difficult to say, but surely evolution doesn't work in that way. 

And then, why the choice of iris-less eyes as a defining mark? It is rare that people consciously perceive the characteristics of the irises of their fellow human beings. But the shape of the iris tells us much of the genetic inheritance of a person. On this point, the film-makers got it right, although in reverse. A human being without a visible iris is not a modern human.
The iris is an easily modified, highly visible human trait. There is a whole genetic story in the human iris. From what we can say, light-colored eyes have been rare in the remote past, although DNA studies indicate that they already existed in the Mesolithic period. Curiously, Europe is the continent where, nowadays, light-colored eyes are most common. But it is only a few centuries ago that light-colored irises start to appear in paintings. If they had existed before, surely painters would have noted them and shown them in their paintings. Green eyes are a modern trait in Europe, they seem to come from Northern Asia. They do spread easily because they are a typical "epigamic" trait. They give a certain advantage in the sexual competition for mates. 
And then, there are limbal rings. The dark ring that surrounds the iris. Also a typical epigamic signal, they are likely to be a feature of the modern main organism of the human holobionts. Here you see the eyes of Sarah Brightman, a modern human specimen. Note the light green color and well detectable limbal rings. As epigamic signals go, Ms. Brightman is surely beaming them out loud and clear!

Note the difference from other mammalian eyes. Most animals, even our close relatives, the apes, have dark eyes, no limbal rings, and not even a large and well detectable sclera. You see it in the image: this (probably) female bonobo doesn't look at all like Sarah Brightman, although she also surely sends powerful epigamic signals to the males of her species. 
So, why do the Vikaari of the movie have no irises and no pupil? They are, actually, the specular version of the "black eyed people," characters of a recent horror movie. In both cases, filmmakers understood that the lack of sclera or of the iris is a characteristic of a creature that is not fully human. A new species (as in Vikaari) or an otherworldly evil creature (as in "Black Eyed Creatures"). No wonder that regular humans react with great perplexity and sometimes violently to these alien-looking creatures. And this violence is reciprocated in Vikaari
The existence of these films shows our limited understanding, and also limited tolerance, of what makes humans human. A small difference in the extent of the sclera or in the color of the iris is sufficient to turn otherwise fully human creatures into enemies, at least in these fiction pieces. But we all know very well that it happens also in the real world for other, no more important genetic traits, such as skin color. 
There is a thin line that separates the horrible from the attractive: nobody would be killed for having green eyes, but the white-eyed Vikaari could be if they existed for real. But that's the way evolution works. Sometimes gradually, sometimes in bumps. The human holobiont of the future will not be the same as it is now and it was in the past. It is the giant holobiont that we call the ecosphere that changes all the time. Onward, fellow holobionts!

Finally, for your curiosity, the "Statue of a Standing Nude Goddess," presently at the Louvre Museum and coming from excavations in the Middle East. Note the eyes without irises. It is not clear if that was a bug or a feature: once they had decided to use rubies for the eyes of this statuette, there was no way they could have shown irises and pupils. But maybe it was intentional: this figure may have been supposed to be somewhat otherworldly or even threatening. Note the horns on her head, a typical attribute of the Moon Goddess. Already at the time when it was made, probably the 2nd century CE, goddesses were rather unpopular and suspicious, not unlike our modern witches. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Fall of the Citadels of Science: the Pandemic and the End of Universities


Far from being ivory towers, nowadays universities look more and more like battered citadels besieged by armies of Orcs. The Covid-19 pandemic may have given the final blow to a structure that was falling anyway. (image credit "crossbow and catapults")


A couple of weeks ago, I saw the end of the University as I knew it. It was a line of students standing in the main hall of our department. All of them were masked, all of them had to stand on one of the marks drawn on the floor -- at exactly 1 meter of distance from each other. A teaching assistant was watching them, least they could stray of a few inches away from their assigned position. The only thing that was missing was iron chains and balls and the cadence gang march

That was not the only humiliation imposed on our students because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, it is all done with the best of intentions, but it is a heavy burden. Students can't get close to each other, they have to reserve in advance a seat if they want to attend a class, when they enter a building they have to show their ID and to stand in front of a camera that records their face and takes their body temperature. The diabolical machine can also check if they are wearing their masks right. Then, of course, the university personnel is supposed to check that the rules are respected and to report those students who don't respect them. Symmetrically, I suppose the students are expected to report a teacher who doesn't comply with the rules.

Transforming the university into a jail and the teachers into prison guards took just a few months and you may imagine that the students are not happy. Not that they are protesting loudly, they just react with passive forms of resistance. The data show that fewer and fewer of them attend their classes, even when it is possible for them to do that in person. Then, the virtual lessons are turning into an exercise of futility. Bored teachers speaking into their microphones and bored students looking into their cameras. But sometimes they flatly refuse to show their face online and you can't force them to. It doesn't matter whether you can see their faces or not, you can't know if they are listening. Are they watching movies, playing games, or chatting online among themselves? 

Just to tell you what kind of atmosphere we are living in, one of my colleagues told me that a student of his refused to attend her laboratory class saying that she didn't feel safe from infection. But she insisted that she should be graded as if she had attended. I don't think it was a trick to avoid attending a boring lab class, although it is not impossible. More likely, she was genuinely scared. She can't be faulted for feeling in that way, after having received the massive bombardment of scaring news that the TV is pouring out every day. But the effect on the morale of the other students must have been devastating. It sounded to me like the start of a rout in battle. Once a soldier starts running away, all of them will.

Next year we may have a good vaccine or, perhaps, the virus will simply go away by itself. But the virus has simply accelerated a trend that was already ongoing, forcing people to ask themselves a question that few had dared to ask before. What are universities for, exactly

Of course, universities have a long history. Almost a thousand years in Europe, even more in the Islamic world. There was a time, up to no long ago, when it made sense to concentrate books and scholars in a single physical location: a "campus". Universities were citadels of science where you could both maximize the interactions among scientists and the availability of books. Then, students could be in touch with their teachers almost every day. It was the concept of "cross-fertilization" of ideas and of minds.

But then, gradually, things changed. For the students, attending a university has become not unlike having dental work performed. Nobody likes that, but when it is needed you pay for it and you are happy when it is over. So, college was three years of boredom (maybe five) in crowded classrooms where students had to suffer hours and hours of incomprehensible lectures derived in a droning tone by someone who couldn't care less about them. The boredom was punctuated with humiliation at those silly rituals called "exams." 

Fraternities and sororities became nothing more than exclusive clubs for wealthy students. The professors, on their side, gradually lost their job security and their academic freedom. They found themselves in a rat race where they had to run to survive, competing with their colleagues for salaries and research grants. The worst was the deadly mechanism of "academic incest" that consists of academics grading each other in a baroque procedure known as the "h-index." It is loved by bureaucrats, but it rewards conformity and lack of innovation.

Worst of all was how universities were taken over by bureaucrats who managed them as cash cows. The profits of universities went mainly to administrators while teachers were paid well only if they were superstars, supposed to be able to attract paying students. The rank and file were paid low to moderate salaries while the bulk of the research work and the teaching was carried out by non-permanent staff on starvation salaries on positions that could be revoked at any time. 

No wonder that the whole contraption was starting to fall apart at the seams and, perhaps, it is good that now it is apparently to everyone. The last hit was the pandemic. Once the students discovered that they don't need to be physically present in class, they are going to realize that they don't need to attend the low-quality lessons of the staff of their local university. Why shouldn't they enroll with the best ones?

In Europe, there are about 2700 universities and in the whole world the count is at about 25,000. Most of them provide the same array of basic curricula. There follows that for most subjects there are tens of thousands of teachers who teach more or less the same things. Think of basic chemistry: I can't imagine that in Bangalore they teach chemistry differently than they do in Florence. Do we really need so many teachers? And most of them are amateurs at their job. Just read a site as "rate my professor" and you'll see that not all teachers are appreciated by their students. No wonder that it is so: there is no quality control on the way university professors teach.

If we go to online teaching, instead, for each subject we can have just a few high-quality courses prepared by teams of professional instructors. And we can keep the best teachers while getting rid of the band of useless loafers who staff universities nowadays. What a saving for the economy

It is funny how some professors are praising the new concept of "e-learning" as if it was a good thing for them. It is as if horses were praising the internal combustion engines that were to replace them. Horses didn't realize that they were going to be slaughtered and rendered for their fat. A similar destiny may be awaiting most university professors, although not literally (hopefully, at least). 

Maybe it is not going to happen so soon, but the writing is on the blackboard. Universities may well be replaced by some kind of Google service. Just like we have Google Translate and Google Groups, there will be something like "Google Teach" or "Google School" and I am sure it will do a much better job than that done by those amateurs who have been in charge up to now. And those hateful bureaucrats will have to go packing, too.

The sad thing is that for what we gain in terms of the quality of the teaching, we are going to lose a lot more in other areas. Universities were not just scientific centers. They were places where young people had a sort of "initiation," often being their first experience of living outside their families. The students were the citizens of the village of science, it was a duty and a privilege at the same time. But that seems to be gone.

And our youth? Maybe they are going to become larvae sitting in front of their screens all day long. Or maybe we'll find some way to teach them how to be good human beings. Maybe.


See also 

"On the demise of universities"

"R.I.P The University

"Colleges do the Unthinkable"


Friday, December 11, 2020

The Unbearable Lightness of Blogging: How to Save Your Posts from Catastrophe.


 Sumerian clay tablet with the text of the poem Inanna and Ebih by the priestess Enheduanna, Writing in cuneiform characters on clay tablets is a little laborious, but it ensures that your text is not vulnerable to accidental erasure: these tablets have survived for more than 5000 years. It is hard to think that the posts of our blogs will survive for so long. But, at least, we should try to protect them from accidental loss or direct attacks. Image from Wikipedia.


I don't know if it ever happened to you, but a few days ago I lost two post drafts in a row, the same day. Then I discovered something that I should have known: that Google's Blogger gives you zero chances to recover your text when you erase it by mistake. No way, impossible, I could have thrown those drafts into a black hole. 

No tragedy, but a few hours of work wasted. And that set my mind in motion: why is it that Google, the world's most powerful Internet company, can't provide even a minimal file recovery facility in their blogging platform? Call me paranoid, but I think they had something in mind when they structured Blogger the way it is. That is, prone to data loss. Just think of a few characteristics of the shiny new version of Blogger: there is no way to make an automatic backup. There is no trash can from which you can recover erased data. There is no way to disable the automatic saving that operates every two seconds or so, and that virtually guarantees that any mistake you make can't be reversed. I can't believe that these are bugs: they have to be features.

Google is not the only Internet company to be evil. You know how things are with Facebook, which you can see as a form of "micro-blogging." Since their service is free, you can't complain if they decide to erase one of your posts just because they don't like it. And they do that all the time. Of course it is not politically correct to use the term "censorship." They do that all in the name of fighting "fake news" to protect us. But, you know, sometimes the definition of "fake news" seems to be a little wide. 

Blogs aren't actively subjected to on-line censorship, at least not up to now and officially. But if you pause for a moment to think about the situation, you note how fragile blogs are. Suppose that Google just decided to stop its blogging service. They can do that, they have did that with other services they had been offering. Do you remember Google+ and Google Reader? They are gone forever because Google decided to pull the plug on them, despite the protests of their users. 

Of course, Google would give you some time to migrate to another platform (would they?), but just imagine that, suddenly, you find that your blog has disappeared. What do you do? Whom do you complain to? You paid nothing for the service, so you can't complain if that service suddenly doesn't exist anymore. 

One possible solution would be to hard-copy my post using cuneiform characters on clay tablets that could survive the worst: we still have the work by the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna that survived for some 5 thousand years! But I understand that this method is a little labor-intensive. So, what could you do, in practice? 

I think there are several methods feasible once you understand that there is a problem. Here is what I did. Suggestions in the comments are welcome. 

1. Switch platform. I have been blogging for several years, I tried WordPress, Joomla, Medium, and others. Yes, they do have text recovery facilities but, apart from that, I found that Google's "Blogger," is the simplest and most effective platform. It doesn't have the bells and whistles of WordPress, but it gives you good flexibility and control, much better than Medium. Besides, are your data really safe with another platform? You know that you just can't stand against a determined professional attack by someone who wants to destroy or hijack your data. No more than the Armenian soldiers could survive against the Azeri drones in Nagorno-Karabach.

2. Make backups. Once you realize how weak and exposed you are, the obvious solution is to backup your data. Note that Blogger gives you limited backup possibilities. Once you manage to find the hidden backup button (not so easy), it will produce an "eml" file that you cannot read off-line (at least I found no way to do that). All you can do with the file is to restore your whole blog from scratch, but your layout will not return alive. Besides, it won't allow you to recover just one of your posts or one of your drafts. Finally, there is no way to set up an automatic backup schedule. You have to remember to do that manually. That guarantees to lose a good chunk of your recent work if something goes wrong. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to remember to backup your blog every month or so. If you are truly paranoid, you can copy your eml files to an external USB memory that you keep in a drawer (I did). If they can destroy that, I give up: I can't win. 

3. Backup your files in HTM. I found a utility for "Firefox" called "WebScrapBook" that will download your entire blog in a form readable by any browser offline. There are other apps that claim to be able to do that, but I found that they just don't work with blogger (again, a bug or a feature? Who knows?). With WebScrapBook you can recover a single post, complete with images, by cutting and pasting it into Blogger or another platform. The problem is that you can't automate the saving process and not even customize where WebScrapBook saves your files. You have to manually transfer them to where you want to store them, including that USB memory I was mentioning before. Nevertheless, it is a good thing to have. 

4. Use a form saver. It would be nice be good to have something that automatically saves and stores what you type online, and not just for your blog posts. There was once a utility called "Lazarus" that worked very well but has now disappeared from the Web (I know that I am paranoid, but I can't avoid asking the question "why?"). After several tests I found an equivalent program called "Form History Control" that works as an extension for Firefox and, it seems, for other browsers. It will protect you from losing hours of work just because you pressed the wrong button. Of course, it is one of those fleeting apps that appear and disappear from the Web for unclear reason. But, as long as it exists, it seems to be working. 

And that's how things stand. The unbearable lightness of blogger remains a problem. Maybe we should really think about going back to cuneiform writing on clay tablets. 

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Drones are Coming! The Drones are Coming! The Twilight of the Global Empire?


This clip looks like a videogame, but it is not (caution, disturbing images). You are seeing Azeri drones destroying Armenian military units during the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Is this the harbinger of the collapse of the Global Empire?


Many things have been happening in 2020 that will reverberate for many years in the future. While the West is busy with its "great reset," a small war was fought in a region of the world that you probably had never heard about before: the Nagorno-Karabakh. There, the army of Azerbaijan soundly defeated the Armenian army. 

What made this campaign peculiar is that it was the first time in history that a military confrontation was decided by drones. After that the Azeris (the people of Azerbaijan) had gained control of the sky, their drones could pick the Armenian military units one by one and destroy them at ease. There are video clips all over the Web showing vehicles and other installations being destroyed, and people being shredded to pieces and tossed around like ragdolls.

No surprise: the writing was on the rotor blades. Already in 2012, I had started thinking about the consequences of the development of military robots in a chapter that I wrote for Jorgen Randers' "2052" book. I returned to the subject in 2019, noting how cheap drones would change the rules of war because they could be managed by small organizations, possibly by private military contractors. 

We don't know exactly who managed the drones used by the Azerbaijan forces, but we know that they were made in Turkey, not a major player in the world's power game. Azerbaijan, then, could afford to deploy a number of drones sufficient to overwhelm the Armenian forces even though it is a small country with a GDP of just about 44 billion dollars per year. If Bill Gates, alone, had decided to fight Azerbaijan, he could won the war just using his private financial assets, estimated at more than $100B. 

Surely, the Azeri could never dream to be able to afford even a single carrier strike group of the kind that the Western empire deploys: each group costs about 30 billion dollars and the US has 9 of them. We don't know if the Azeri drones would be able to defeat an American carrier group. But we may be reasonably sure that, in terms of kills/cost, drones greatly outperform aircraft carriers. 

So, we know that drones can fight wars and win them. And now what? Are drones going to make all other weapon systems obsolete, just like tanks did to horses? Maybe, but things are not so simple. They never are. 

At the end of the story, war is simply about control, it is not about pulverizing people to atoms. You may want to use weapons to attain control over others, but that means you have to control the weapons you use. And not all weapons are easy to control. During the 20th century, we saw the development of new weapon systems that were incredibly powerful, but difficult to control. Chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons, all have a high kills/cost ratio, so much that they are called "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD). But they are difficult to aim at specific targets and the very fact that they are so cheap invites retaliation even from a weaker opponent. 

For example, chemical weapons were used several times in war, but they were decisive only in one case: during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. In that case, the Italians could happily go on gassing the Ethiopians without fear of retaliation since Ethiopia had no air force. It was a different canister of chlorine when Italy decided to go bombing Britain a few years later, in 1940. In that case, the Italians didn't even dream to use chemical weapons, knowing all too well that Britain could have retaliated in kind. 

Drones are cheap enough that, if manufactured in great numbers, they can kill a sufficient number of people that you can define them as weapons of mass destruction. But they look much better than the classic WMDs in terms of control: they can be aimed at very specific targets, even single persons. That's nice (in a certain sense), but things are not so simple. They never are.

Let me state this again: wars are not about pulverizing enemies, they are about controlling them. That brings the question, who controls drones? Behind this question, there is a deeper one: who controls the people who control drones? 

And we are at the core question: the human society is a complex system, and complex systems are never easy to control. The peculiar kind of complex system that we call a "national state" is normally able to reach a condition in which it engages in a common effort, a "war," against another state. But who decides that it is a good idea to go to war? It is rarely (if ever) the result of logic and reason. 

The minds of adult human beings are hard-wired in terms of likes and dislikes and that can hardly be changed except by means of drastic and unreliable actions, torture, electroshock, de-programming, and the like. Instead, it is relatively easy is to trigger aggressive reactions which are pre-programmed inside human brains. It can be done using the technology that we call "propaganda."

We can see propaganda as another kind of WMD: it has a very high kills/cost ratio, but it has control problems, too. It is relatively easy to use it to convince people to hate someone, much more difficult to convince them to stop. That's why most modern wars, dominated by propaganda, are wars of extermination. As usual, control is everything.

Of course, drones, unlike human brains, can be programmed to do exactly what their users want them to do. But that's a boon and a problem at the same time. If someone can hack into the drone's control system, the drone might well be re-programmed to attack its former owners or, simply, to fly harmlessly toward the horizon. Of course, there are ways to harden drones against this kind of attack, but no defensive system is ever perfect. At the limit, drones could be hard-wired in such a way that they would act in complete autonomy, without anyone being able to affect their behavior once they are activated. It was the way the first drones in history, the German V1s of WW2, worked: once fired, their trajectory couldn't be altered anymore. Their strength was in their stupidity: they had no "brain" whatsoever. But modern drones are supposed to be smart weapons: turning them into dumb ones would bring the same problems of the other WMDs. With this kind of drones, we would return to the "MAD" strategy, mutually assured destruction. No control, no way to win a war.

So, we return to the original point: wars are about controlling humans. Then, how do you control the people who control the drones? Would you be able to use standard propaganda techniques for that purpose? Maybe, but there is a big problem here. Modern propaganda was developed to control large masses of people and to convince them to line up on the battlefield to kill each other for the profit of people who would comfortably stay at home. Drone operators (let's call them "droners") are a different breed. They are specialists who might well decide that they won't be so easily tricked into killing people for the profit of others. It was the point I was making in my post where I compared modern droners to the European condottieri of the Renaissance, the leaders of troops of mercenaries specialized in the use of the newly developed firearms.

Controlling the condottieri was notoriously difficult: they tended to be unruly and easily switch sides. Droners might show the same tendencies. Mercenaries are like professional killers: you can hire one to kill someone you don't like, but there is no guarantee that the intended victim won't be able to pay the killer more than you do. One possible way to control droners might be returning to communication technologies developed during the Middle Ages, when the problem was how to control the most sophisticated weapon of the time: armored knights. For droners, it may be possible to develop something similar to the idea of the noble knight who fights for justice. You may object that there is nothing noble in pressing a button to kill a person, which is the job of droners. But, on the other hand, it was the same for an armored knight when he sliced in half a peasant, his main job. So, could we see in the future something like an epic of "Sir Lancelot and the droners of the round table"? Who knows? It might happen. 

A simpler solution to the drone problem would be to limit or even abolish drones by means of international treaties and straight threats to the smaller players. It was done, with a certain degree of success, with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. There are good reasons to do the same with drones: it is very much in the interest of the big powers to avoid that cheap drone technology could spread to smaller states and then challenge the top dogs of the game. So, people seem to be getting the message and there are ongoing efforts in this sense. Abolishing military drones would allow the Western Empire to keep the expensive toys its military like so much, carrier strike groups and others, at least for a while. 

Unfortunately, that would just hasten the speed at which the Empire is rushing toward disintegration. This is the way empires fall: they tend to bankrupt themselves by excessive military expenses. It is a deadly mechanism that sees empires gradually running out of resources while pollution does its damage, too. As a result, Empires become poorer but their leaders don't understand that they should cut down on military expenses. They do exactly the opposite, trying to maintain a military power they can't afford anymore. The result is well known: collapse, often in the rapid form called "Seneca Collapse"

But, no matter how rapid collapse is, during the twilight phase that precedes it there is a phase of mayhem when the blackberry jam hits the fan. Then, the game of war follows no rules. It happened when economic decline forced the Roman Empire to abandon its expensive heavy infantry units, together with its even more expensive static defense systems: the great walls built along the Empire's borders. The old cumbersome system was replaced with nimble cavalry units, patterned on the Barbarian forces they had once despised. It was a much cheaper army, but the Empire had lost its advantage over its enemies and the result was that it lost control over much of its territory. The result was a period of continuous small scale wars that further hastened the collapse of the Empire.

In our age, the Global Empire may soon become too weak to be able to outlaw drones or any other weapon system -- maybe it is already too weak. So, maybe drones are really coming and they will become the main tool for war, while the mighty carrier groups fall prey to rust. Think of something like the Armenia vs. Azerbaijan war that spreads all over the world (and do watch the clip above to see what it would look like, not good for humans, to say the least).

Bad times for human beings but, as usual, history marches onward and you can't stop it just by hoping things wont' change. And, who knows? Drones might turn out to be smarter than us and decide by themselves whom they want, or don't want, to kill. Pacifist drones?(*) You never know what AI could lead us to! 

(*) When we discuss these matters, we often go back to Isaac Asimov and his "three laws of robotics" which, among other things, forbid robots from harming human beings. Implementing these laws with modern AI technologies would be far from easy, as Asimov himself understood very well. Eventually, he arrived to consider the three laws as a moral code for robots that made them superior to human beings as being who could never be evil. Unfortunately, we are far away from such a thing. But, who knows?

Friday, December 4, 2020

War and Censorship -- Difficult Times in Italy

A post by Miguel Martinez, originally published in Italian on his blog on  Italy was the first European country to be struck by the COVID-19 pandemic and the first to implement a national lockdown. At that time, Italians would display the flag on their balconies and sing aloud in a show of national unity. That time is past and gone. 

The media gives the alarm: news of danger and a call to arms, together. When the message is inseparable from mobilization, it becomes propaganda. Since "propaganda" today has a bad name, let us immediately specify: propaganda can say absolutely true things and defend right causes, but it remains always propaganda.

The state of mobilization puts an end to disputes: in war, everyone must be in solidarity around a human figure, the leader, able to embody all passions.

Young people run to enlist volunteers. Fear, excitement, optimism. It's Gonna Be Okay!

We grit our teeth, citizens cleanse themselves gel and unmask the traitors, actually mask them – but we will win soon!

People who, until the night before were ready to file a complaint because they were not served the cocktail they had requested, or because the plane left five minutes late, meekly lock themselves in their homes, place the tricolor flag out of the window, and prepares to see the enemy fall to the ground.
Above: "I stay home -- checkmate to the coronavirus"
The first deaths are celebrated: both as innocent victims of the wickedness of the enemy, and as brave fighters.

"A nurse dies of coronavirus refuses to see her husband for the last time and saves his life"

But there are also the first victories, a united people, let's open the windows, it's spring!

Our leader is leading us to triumph and we will dance in Sardinia all summer!
The image shows Giuseppe Conte, prime minister of Italy. The text says, "Let's stay away from each other today to embrace each other tomorrow. Let's stop today to run faster tomorrow."

Phase Two.

Autumn and darkness arrive, and it turns out that we didn't win the war at all and that, after a few months, living in air raid shelters loses its charm.

Image: Air raid shelters in Italy during WWII.

Suddenly we understand the real cost of war. It is not so much the casualties, but the destruction of an entire social class – the majority discovers the uncomfortable truth, that is, they are not essential.

Suddenly, the society that seemed so united begins to split according to new lines, not those of the previous political play.

The euphoria is over for everyone, but the majority still trust the leader.

Many even begin to doubt the cause. The ubiquitous propaganda begins to sound strangely empty, almost ridiculous.

Doubt arises in a thousand different ways, but above all because everything in which people had invested their lives seems lost forever.

Then all it takes is a true or an alleged abuse, a leaflet, a well-made reasoning, the suspicion- -- God forbid! – that someone is cheating. The secret of every war are the arms dealers, and when the arms merchants are also the owners of the communications system (not just of the media, of the system), they are also those who decide what you must see as the truth, then suspects are unleashed.

It is a moment of visions: everyone knows Our Lady of Fatima who complained about the Portuguese volunteers who went to war during WW1, but the historian Cesare Bermani discovered a proliferation of pacifist Madonnas also in Italy, guarded by the military police and kept secret.

Trade collapses, businesses close, the Great Leader begins to print money and throw it at the crowd, which at first applauds, grateful.

Phase Three

Society splits, largely according to the perspective that everyone has for their own future. Those who feel guaranteed generally stay with the Great Leader.

More and more people are beginning to rebel because they have nothing to lose, but they have to invent an explanation for the world of why they rebel. The Great Leader has a monopoly on academics and those who do not align themselves take great risks.

People not accustomed to indulging in the luxury of theoretical thought are called upon to provide a reason themselves.

And people without political precedent take up arms, in the ways our generation can.
"everything will be well"

Those who have remained faithful react with anger: the rebels, they say, are opening the door to the Enemy, who will massacre us all.

At first, the Traitors are only mocked, or accused of belonging to some evil sect: the Journal of American Medical Association seriously explains that those who do not align themselves are probably suffering from front-temporal dementia.

And at first, the conformists may even be somewhat right. We are beings selected for social conformism; and the first ones to break ranks may well be a little crazy. 

Then, when it turns out that they are many, we try to divide them: the good ones are only victims of the Manipulators. They are simpletons, who are convinced by the first thing they hear.

It's a bit strange that they don't let themselves be convinced by television, school, notices posted on the street, and doctors. In reality, the rebels are shocked by statements (no matter whether they are factually true or false) that respond to something they already feel inside: that is, that those in power do not count the numbers right, and that behind a war that demands enormous sacrifices, there may be even more enormous interests.

Or that governments that introduce emergency laws are not necessarily just well-intentioned.

This is the beginning of the internal war against the Traitors: they must be censored, beaten, and the chronicles are searched to find in the words of the rebels their most absurd and confused phrases, which obviously are not lacking.

Debate in Berlin
But the Traitors are potentially a whole society in disintegration.

The Great Leader doubles the money thrown from the windows of his palace and announces that the Wunderwaffe is almost ready.

The Great Leader is still followed by the majority, but he knows that even those who incite him today to hang the traitors from the light poles, may tomorrow ask for his head.

Because just as people erroneously attribute victories to an individual, they are ready to attribute defeats to him.

The leader governs by decree, he can impose things that were thought impossible, but - like the Dictator in Ancient Rome - then he still has to justify himself to an entire political system, and he knows that one day he may be dismissed.

Phase Four

Does the Wunderwaffe really exist? And if so, will it bring Victory?


Will the uprising be crushed by fines, mockery, media coverage, censorship, or will it spread everywhere before the Victory?

The majority of the people usually stay at their windows until almost the last moment, supporting in words the strongest, but with their antennas ready to perceive any weakness in the Great Leader's position. Things can change in an instant.

Let's give it a date, in spring, to see how it is going. Let's say around April 25 would you be okay with that? (*)


Obviously here we are talking about what happens inside a closed system. The Italy of today is part of a global system, from which it cannot prescind. But also the global system is involved in this war, and probably these reasonings are valid also for several other countries.

Translated with (free version)

(*) In Italy, April 25 is the anniversary of Italy's Liberation, also called the anniversary of the Resistance


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)