Thursday, April 23, 2015

guns don't kill, people do

           We've heard that old tired refrain from gun nuts and reactionaries for many years. But the libertarian baffle gab conceals many issues. Let's look at a few..

             The registration and control of firearms in North America turns out to be a tricky business. This suggests that it is not as straightforward an issue as one might at first think. 

              Firstly, why - exactly - do we have so many guns in the hands of civilians? Polls indicate that something like 40% of US households possess one or more firearms. "In the beginning", Americans, it is argued, lived on the land and guns were a means of self-defense for isolated families and a means of obtaining food. Also their political tradition gives the People the right to change their government if it serves them badly. (One could argue that this is the right of every People, so why so many guns in N. America?)

            Today, though, most of us live in cities and obtain our meat from the store. Even the argument about the right to change government is a bit weak on at least two points:

1- Though the People may indeed possess the right to change their government if it represents them badly, is arming the average household the most efficient way to obtain good government? We are no longer living in the 18th century with a weak central State. Modern military weaponry is highly specialized, modern standing armies large, well trained and equipped. Are citizens' militias a match for these modern fighting machines? Sure, one can argue that technology is not everything. Did not the Vietnamese pull off the impossible: beat the American behemoth, the mightiest military power that ever existed? (The Americans could, of course, have dropped the Bomb on Nam but would that could have been political suicide, hindering, rather than facilitating their future access to relatively undepleted 3rd world reserves of non-renewable resources like petroleum.) And look at the trouble the West is having today controlling ISIS! Their technology is relatively primitive compared to the resources of the West and we are having a gawdawful time controlling them. 

        So while it is true that human willpower is a wonderful and powerful thing, do we really want to govern ourselves by facing off poorly trained and equipped citizens' militias against modern armies in our city streets? It seems there should be better ways to implement democracy in the 21st century.

2- Another, practical, problem arises when one starts to examine the views and goals of militiamen. While posing as citizen "patriots" and opponents of tyranny, they often promote reactionary, racist even (proto-)fascist worldviews. The links below present a fairly balanced (moderate) view of the affair, I think. 

          In the present context I can't help but think that our violent, militaristic culture accords a high status symbolic value to the gun and the cult which has grown around it: I have a Big Gun that can kill a lot of people in a short time; that makes ME a Real Big Man.

The gun is the Great Equalizer. It makes the small man equal to the tall man.
                                                               - anonymous (American)

         The need for the Big Gun and the cult grown around it may, in fact, be more psychological than political or material. The role the gun plays in the urban gang culture may be reinforced by our collective social values. Perhaps, at the beginning of the third millennium we need to ask ourselves: if we want to survive as a civilization, perhaps we need a new set of value to live by?

The background: December 6, 1989, avowed anti-feminist Marc Lépine walked into the École Polytechnique, Montréal and cold-bloodedly murdered 14 female engineering students with a rifle because "you're all feminists!" To do his dirty work, he separated males from females, then gunned down the women. Afterwards, as so often in these cases, Lépine took his own life..

           Québec society was heavily traumatised. This type of thing was only "supposed" to happen south of the Canada / US border, and most certainly not in peace loving, tolerant Québec! We lost whatever semblance we had of (false) innocence in the months following the massacre.

            Families were broken, scarred, destroyed in complex and ramifying ways. Ripples of violence spread out from the Polytechnique massacre for years afterwards. Some  of the men present were crushed by feelings of guilt: "We should have done something! We should have rushed him en masse even if he did kill a couple of us.." A few of those directly connected with the tragedy or members of their families committed suicide: "post-traumatic stress". No man is an island, they say..

            The pro-gun regulation movement in Québec was mobilized (or born?) in those days and years following the massacre. Some of the survivors, their families and the families of the victims started a popular movement which led to the Canadian Firearms Registry  of 1993 under the Federal Liberal government of Jean Chrétien. The original cost of the registry was set to be a modest $2 million. But implementation costs inexplicably ballooned to a (possible) $2 billion: a mind-shattering 1,000 fold cost overrun! (Does this make the Guiness Book of Records? It should.) 

             This was also the time of the downfall of the Chrétien government, plagued by corruption scandals, broken promises such as failure to live up to the Kyoto Accord on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, budgetary muckups in military spending resulting from the government's attempts to pander to neoconservative pennypinching ideology and severe (and probably unpopular) cuts to the armed forces.

           The successive revelations of cost overrun and redtape, combined with rise of the New Right, eventually spelled the death of Registry. I believe it served as a convenient scapegoat around which to mobilize the forces of the resurgent Right. Harper and his crowd never tired of attacking the Registry for both good reason (overruns, redtape, missed deadlines, incompetence..) and bad ones (inconvenience for traditional - rural - gunowners or the idea that "urban criminals don't register their weapons"). It is interesting to note that police departments were among the biggest defenders of the Registry, claiming that it was a valuable tool in assessing the danger of a potentially violent confrontation: domestic violence with or without seizure of hostages, arrest of a citizen on their property..

            The Chrétien government are the real villains of the piece. They have, in effect, dishonored the memory of the slain through their incompetent destruction of a piece of potentially valuable legislation. 

The final chapter"On October 25, 2011, the government introduced Bill C-19, legislation to scrap the Canadian Firearms Registry. The bill would repeal the requirement to register non-restricted firearms (long-guns) and mandate the destruction of all records pertaining to the registration of long-guns currently contained in the Canadian Firearms Registry and under the control of the chief firearms officers.The bill passed second reading in the House of Commons (156 to 123). On February 15, 2012, Bill C-19 was passed in the House of Commons (159 to 130) with support from the Conservatives and two NDP MPs. On April 4, 2012, Bill C-19 passed third reading in the Senate by a vote of 50-27 and received royal assent from the Governor General on April 5. The Province of Québec protested, appealing to the Supreme Court to save that portion of the database relating to the Province. "On March 27, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the destruction of long-gun registry records was within the constitutional power of Parliament to make criminal law, denying the Quebec government's legal challenge and allowing for those records to be destroyed." (Wikipedia) 

            Thus the Registry became history, in the grave 18 years after its passage (or 22 years if you consider the Province of Québec where it continued to be used by police until the court ordered the destruction of the database for Québec in 2015).

              Québec is debating whether to invest in its own, provincial, Gun Resgistry.

             But what does this pathetic "debate" over gun control say about our society? That our political parties are vacuous? (And if they are, why?) That they have no real positions on anything of importance and so are forced to appeal to the lowest common denominator (division, scapegoating, spreading fear and hate)?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

extraterrestrial life in our solar system?

link to paper: Schulze-Makuche, Grinspoon (Astrobiology vol 5, number 4, page 560-5)

video of Huygens's lander approaching Saturn's mysterious moon Titan: 

Is there extraterrestrial life in our solar system?
         Titan, a giant moon of the planet Saturn, formed at about the same time as Earth. Like Earth, Titan was hot at birth due to the kinetic energy (energy due to movement) of the infalling matter that formed it. Heat is a measure of the average velocity of the particles of a body. As planets and moons coalesced from gravitational attraction, a lot of fast moving matter got squished into small volumes, making those bodies quite hot. This is why Earth's core is molten. Thus, even though Titan formed far from the sun, life could have evolved on Titan after it cooled to the point where water and earthlike biochemistry became possible. Plant life would have been possible since Titan lies just on the outer limit of the zone of photosynthesis in our solar system (at ground level on the equator at noon, it is bright enough to read a newspaper on Titan).
         Today, however, Titan is cold (-180 C or -290 deg F) so, as it cooled, life would have had to develop alternative metabolic pathways and discover new liquid biosolvents (such as a saturated mixture of ammonia and water or liquid methane and ethane). Whether such an ad hoc conversion from one biosolvent (water) to another, low temperature biosolvent, is even possible is debatable. We just don't know.

          Titan is interesting for several reasons. It is the only moon in the solar system with a real (dense) atmosphere, weather and seasons. At sea level, Titan's atmospheric pressure is superior to Earth's! Like Earth, nitrogen is the major component of Titan's atmosphere. There are sizeable quantities of methane and hydrogen. There is no oxygen, however, and water exists only as a hard rock ice (or when finely divided, as sand).

         Titan's atmosphere is believed to photosynthesize the biochemical precursors to life (whether this process implicates life is, at this point in time, anyone's guess..) On Earth, those biochemicals led to life. But Titan may be too cold for life (or the life may be marginal and primitive). However, biochemists would like to study Titan's organic chemistry for clues to the origin of life on Earth. They believe that primitive biochemicals have been effectively stored at low temperatures for eons, possibly preserving the earliest stages of the evolution of life. 

            Precipitation, as snows or rains of hydrocarbons like methane, ethane or benzene, occurs. Small shallow seas or lakes of these cold, liquefied gases ring the polar regions. In some places depths of 170 meters (over 500 feet) are attained. The equatorial regions are quite "arid", in contrast.

 Saturn seen from its moon Titan (artist's rendition!)
The clouds and the rivers are of liquid methane and ethane, not water..

               If Titan were to possess life, it would have to meet the Four Requirements:

1- Adequate energy flux. Life requires energy for the biological work of self organization, repair and maintenance of internal structure: "autopoeisis".

2- (at least for "earthlike" life), an adequate biosolvent, available in sufficient quantities. For cellular, "earthlike" life, such solvents provide a medium for mobile biomolecules to achieve sufficient concentrations for effective interactions. Other properties may be important like the capacity to rapidly dissipate the heat of bioreactions to avoid damage to delicate structures or unstable molecules. What really constitutes a good biosolvent, under which conditions, is still in the early stages of investigation..

3- chemical cycling: auto-catalytic reactions in which the products are also employed as inputs to the reaction. The reaction effectively "makes more of itself"! In its globality, life may be seen as a bewilderingly complex self-organizing system of chemical cycling. Thus the human race regenerates its DNA anew each generation. Chemical cycling may be seen as the "first step toward life". It is occuring on Titan, indicating only that life might be there..

4- polymeric chemistry. Polymers string together similar molecular bits like the beads of a rosary or links in a chain. Variable bits - containing information (like the genetic code) - may be attached as side links to the chain. The result is long information bearing molecules which can be used as an "instruction set" to generate essential biochemicals (like proteins) or to fabricate a whole new organism (reproduction). Polymeric chemistry permits the storage and transmission of essential organizing / structuring information from one generation to the next. Thus life overcomes, transcends the mortality of individual organisms.

             If life were to exist on Titan it would need to assure an adequate energy flow. This could come from photosynthesis although using a different biochemistry than that of water based Earth life. 

Terrestrial photosynthesis, generic formula:

6 CO2 + 6 H2O + energy (sunlight) + Enzymes --->  C6H12O6 (glucose, sugar) + 6 O2

Six carbon dioxide molecule are combined with six water molecules using the energy of sunlight to create an energy rich sugar molecule and six oxygen molecules. The sugar, like a battery, stores the energy of the sun for later use. During such "controlled burning" the sugar is recombined with oxygen, releasing energy for biological work, and returning to the "initial point": 6 carbon dioxide and 6 water molecules. 

C6H12O6 + 6 O2 ---> 6 CO2 + 6 H20 + energy (used for biological work)

The cyclic nature of life could not be more clear - chemical cycling!

             In their "hypothesis paper" (pdf in first link above), the authors propose several plausible energy capturing cycles involving photosynthesis. One generic reaction is 

C2H2 + 3H2 --> 2CH4 + energy

This reaction involves in reality several steps, mediated by enzymes: the "generic" formula, shown here, merely shows the end result (which is all that interests us at this stage). In this plausible Titanian "respiration" reaction, one molecule of acetylene is combined with 3 molecules of hydrogen to produce 2 methanes and liberate biologically useful energy. Acetylene is an energy containing molecule created by inorganic (non-living) processes in Titan's upper atmosphere. It is created from the interaction of sunlight and hydrocarbons and, in effect, stores solar energy in the unstable acetylene molecule. At the temperatures prevalent on Titan, acetylene freezes out of the atmosphere after it forms and rains down on the surface, providing an accessible energy source for any enterprising organism to exploit. The above plausible generic "respiration" reaction would liberate the energy stored in acetylene by converting it into methane.

Does such a reaction occur on Titan? Interestingly, methane is unstable under the chemical conditions on the surface of Titan. Theoretically, it should occur only in trace amounts. But, instead, it makes up 5% of the lower atmosphere. Could this excess methane constitute a "biomarker" indicating that life if present? At present, we simply don't have enough information to answer this question. However, living processes tend to separate isotopes of a given element, favoring the lighter isotopes. The methane found on Titan is, in fact, isotopically "light" (elevated carbon 12 to carbon 13 ratio), suggesting that life might be responsible..

             But, once again, we just don't know! Our probes to Titan have not had sufficient resolution to answer the pertinent questions. In fact, we are still at the stage of generating plausible questions to be answered by future space missions..

             For example, would we know what to look for? One of the curious features of Titan's surface is its "freshness". Why is it so smooth? One possibility is that some of the energy flux through Titan's surface is of biological origin. Natural selection may have selected for organisms that liberate a lot of heat to melt ammonia / water mixtures, liberating a biosolvent thus allowing for more biological activity. Such organisms could employ the solar energy trapped in downfalling acetylene to produce heat to melt ammonia / water mixtures. The constant churning of semi-liquified areas by the liberated heat could explain the relatively smooth, fresh surface features of the moon.

               In sum, the probability of life on Titan is low but not demonstrably zero..

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Towards a New Citizenship?

          This article is the follow up to,

          Psychologists, studying the factors implicated in happiness, have concluded that 50% of the variation in happiness from individual to individual is due to genetics. Either you are born with genes that predispose (but do not condemn!) you to depression or you are not born with such genes. Thus half of our happiness or unhappiness is simply due to "Fate", "Karma" or "the hand we were dealt at birth". Another 40% of the inter-individual variation in happiness is due to our own good or bad choices in life. We may not be masters of our fate but we still have quite a bit to say about how the "hand we dealt" is played! Finally - and shockingly to those raised on the American social darwinist "Self Made Man" ideology - only a pitiable 10% of our happiness with life is due to our socio-economic status. (Yet another piece of evidence from the Real World suggesting that neoconservative ideologues have been selling us pipe dreams..)

           If I take responsibility for myself I must also take responsibility for the society I live in. As a social animal, I cannot be logically dissociated from my social milieu. I am created by the society I live in (it's values, school system, opportunities..) but I also, in a small way, create that society. Taking responsibility has a down side. It removes a convenient excuse for non-action: "Society is to blame for everything. I'm just a victim.." 

            Ironical reflection since such a position is usually associated with the conservative end of the political spectrum! I suspect, though, that the interpretation is a bit different where you stand on that spectrum..

           Traditionally, "responsibilization" is used by reactionaries as a justification for lack of compassion and social consciousness. The losers deserve their lot in life: they are either morally degenerate (lazy) or genetically inferior (Social Darwinism). By the way, Darwin himself had the brains to pre-emptively reject Social Darwinism, even before the term was invented. He believed that human evolution had, in fact, fostered co-operation among humans. See note 1.

           On the Left, "de-responsibilization" is used to justify inaction and political apathy (and their ultimate paradoxical outcome: anarchic violence including, as it ultimate form, self-immolative mass murder)

internal blog links:

            It's not obvious how the Left became the party of de-responsibilization. Part of the answer lies in reactionary propaganda, of course. In reality, sane Leftists do not deny moral responsibility, they simply point out that the playing field is not level, that some players are born with an unfair advantage and that this imbalance prevents us from achieving our full potentials as human beings and socieites. Marx and Engels probably hold a share of the blame in the "disempowerment" of the masses and the citizen. They believed that social and economic evolution were deterministic affairs, that the bourgeois capitalist society contained within itself the inevitable seeds of its own destruction. Today, we understand better. Despite deterministic laws (physics, chemistry..), their interaction in real world situations is highly unpredictable. This is why meteorologists cannot predict with accuracy what the weather will be more than 3 to 5 days ahead.

             Perhaps when folks - like classical Marxists - who believe that history is on their side discover that history is not on their side, their morale collapses. They had been conditioned to thinking in all or nothing terms. EITHER history is on or side OR it against us. In reality, of course, "History" couldn't give a fig. (The very notion of "History" is a human cultural phenomenon, it represents nothing "out there" in the real world).

            Whether emanating from the Right or the Left, de-responsibilization is used to justify social disengagement and moral idiocy. An extreme example I heard as I kid during the Soviet - American Cold War for geopolitical domination:

The (naughty) Scientists invented the A-bomb. Since I did not invent the bomb, I can blithely advocate tossing it around everywhere at the slightest provocation (real or imagined).

            One sees the insanity of the "argument" as soon as one applies it to guns: I didn't invent guns so I have the right to go around blowing away anyone I want, whenever I want, under any pretext that strikes my fancy. 

               The problem of what can only be called "existential disempowerment" - seeing oneself as cornered and under attack - is at the root of our current civilizational impasse. Tonight, not for the first time, I realized why the 20th and 21st centuries are so odious.

Odium: intense hatred combined with a sentiment of loathing, disgust or contempt

               These times are odious because of our failure to actualize our (enormous!) human potentials at exactly the point in history when their optimized deployment is most needed! More succinctly: our civilization is morally and spiritually bankrupt.

                Our dereliction, this failure to mobilize needed potential when it is most needed is obvious from the study of social insects like ants, bees and termites. These creatures have tiny brains with a few hundred neurons. Their behavioral repertoire is fairly limited as a result yet their collectivities - ant hill or bee hive - are behaviorally much, much richer than the individuals which comprise them. In the tropics where social insect evolution reaches its zenith, ant hills collectively engage in problem solving behaviors that would challenge mammals with much larger brains. Students of Self-Organization say that insect collectivities display "emergent intelligence" or "meta-intelligence": the collectivity is functionally much brighter than the individuals that make it up. With humans, today, we have exactly the opposite situation: meta-stupidity! Our collectivities are functionally much stupider than the individuals that make up those collectivities. Worse, contemporary human collectivities manage to exploit the intelligence of individuals (inventors, scientists, engineers..) to do incredibly stupid things at the collective level: global warming, overpopulation, industrial warfare, resource over-exploitation..

                 For our sins, we will pay deeply and tragically. I only hope that the survivors will have the wisdom to learn from error.

                 In an upcoming article, I will attempt to give an overview of the challenges we face and what newly empowered citizens and communities can do to increase their resiliency and capacity to adapt - even to thrive! - in the face of the wave of destructuring change we are living through..


1- That Darwin had the wits to see through the use of natural selection as a rationalization for social injustice is to his personal credit. Modern science has confirmed his insight that, compared to the "lower" (smaller brained) primates, humans are, in fact, very co-operative. But not all the news is good. Social animals tend to be the most destructive and aggressive. Exactly because social animals do combine and coordinate their efforts, they can do more damage!