It was maybe already a year ago when my friend Fede suggested an idea that we should try to do an analysis of punk lyrics. Because this was a side project for the both of us, things dragged on and it took a while before we could gather the lyrics (from www.plyrics.com -- an awesome website, which has done a wonderful job of collecting and posting thousands of lyrics of punk songs), organise the data and do some preliminary analyses. This poster shows the first results or our analyses -- a slightly updated version of the one we prepared for the Central European University's annual exhibition of data visualizations (for more info on that, see here).
We used the R package phrasemachine to also look at the phrases in addition to the words in songs and we used structural topic modeling to extract a set of time varying topics, which would be large enough not to miss any meaningful topic and small enough to not include topics that seem uninterpretable. A topic in this context is a set of words and phrases that occur together in songs. It turned out that this magic number was about 12 and thus we present here twelve such topics, the words and phrases that define them (the R package wordcould was used), their changing prevalence over time, a sentiment analysis of the lyrics of that topic showing how much more or less frequently than average certain key sentiments are expressed in the topics and a set of five bands and five sub-genres that stand out in that topic. The sentiment analysis was done with the tidytext package in R using the NRC Emotion Lexicon from Saif Mohammad and Peter Turney. All plots were done with ggplot (duh!) and the poster with Inkscape.
Notice that all of the software used is FREE software. And so our gratitude goes to all the magnificent people who have made this software available and who have had the decency to provide a public good instead of exploiting our wallets.
This is a work in progress, so all thoughts and comments are welcome. We will be tinkering with this further, updating the data, doing some analyses that we have not done yet and hopefully writing a longer story about this.
A higher resolution version of the poster is available here and a long format version, which is better to look at on a computer screen, is available here.
And remember: Punk's not dead!
Anybody familiar with the process of academic publishing should know that there are a range of quirks in the whole process, which make publishing often a frustrating game of luck that can take years from submission to publication or eventual rejection. Journals are overburdened and get much more submissions than they can handle; editors and reviewers are shamelessly exploited by publishing companies, who take our work for free and sell it back to us for ridiculous amounts of money; you get many reviewers that are great even if they tell you to go packing, but also some who have no reservations against being ignorant and superficial, yet convinced that your work is crap and who will get away with it, because nobody will know who they are; etc.
Here are a few thoughts that perhaps make the whole process a bit more modern and reasonable:
I am sure most people would be uncomfortable with many of these things, but why? Own your work with all its merits and its mistakes.
The change in the leadership of the Estonian Centre Party on November 5th 2016 that led to the rapid formation of a new coalition between the Centre Party (CP) as the new party of the Prime Minister, the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (PPRU) and the Social Democrats (SD) was not just another government change, but indicative of broader tensions and silent malaise that had been building up in the political system. When the dam finally burst, it became obvious how long the cracks had been there and the flooding was swift. The new coalition was the result of several dynamics and to understand the situation, we need to have a short look into the past of the parties and their position on the party landscape.
The Centre Party had been under the control of Edgar Savisaar almost without interruption since 1991. He had been the leader of the Popular Front, a precursor to the party, which was an alternative strand in the otherwise nationalist independence movement during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although it had been among the most popular parties since the late 1990s and had been in government several times, most recently with the Reform Party in 2007, it was increasingly marginalized by its competitors over the last decade. The leadership of Savisaar, both in the party and in the capital Tallinn, where he was the mayor (2001-2004 and from 2007), was perceived by his opponents and critics as corrupt, clientelistic and authoritarian.
Being the only party since the April 2007 Bronze Soldier riots in Tallinn that did not alienate the Russian-speaking electorate, it was easy for its rivals to over-exaggerate the Russian connection and portray it as a threat of sorts. This seemed to work well in the ethnically paranoid atmosphere of the country. The decline in the public image of the party was intimately related to the decline of its former leader. The last two nails in the coffin of Savisaar were serious health problems that befell him in 2015, as well as a corruption investigation against him. The latter saw him removed from the office of the mayor of Tallinn by court order pending the investigation.
While the overall position of the Centre Party was deteriorating along with its leader, the Reform Party was enjoying a pivotal position on the political landscape. It had been a member of every coalition since 1999, the party of the Prime Minister since 2005 and the largest party in parliament since 2007. It thus occupied a privileged position in the party system in which it was virtually impossible to form a coalition without them. Especially if the other major party - the Centre Party - was declared unwelcome in the coalition game.
However, the elongated resting on the laurels began taking its toll on the Reform Party, its image and perceived capacity slowly fading. Over the previous years there were several corruption scandals and allegations that happened under the watch of the party or involved its senior members. Several of the party elite, including the then Minister of Justice and the current outgoing Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure, Kristen Michal, were implicated in an illegal donations scandal in 2012. Even though the case did not reach court and the party suffered no official negative consequences, the image of the party was damaged. A few years later another government minister of the Reform Party, Keit Pentus-Rosimannus and a Reform Party MP as well as the latter's husband, Rain Rosimannus, were implicated in a court case over business malpractice. Having gone through several court levels, the case was eventually dismissed, but again the damage was done. Furthermore, the uncovering in 2015 of top level corruption in the Port of Tallinn, one of the major state owned companies, with allegations of connections to the Reform Party, did not have a positive impact on the image of how things were run in the country.
The Reform Party also had its own change in leadership. The young full-time party member Taavi Rõivas replaced Andrus Ansip as the leader of the party and as the Prime Minister in 2014. But instead of reinvigorating the party, it eventually just showed how a new generation of the same kind of party elite was rising within, a generation that had been in politics for their entire life and who, even though being good at micro managing the state, were perceived to lack the resolve and the imagination to take the country forward in any meaningful way. Nor did the older generations within simply step aside. Tensions between the "have been" and the "want to be" sides were displayed to the public most recently when the party failed to be unified over a candidate for the presidential elections in 2016. It seemed that Rõivas was not even able to manage the internal dissent within the party, which obviously cast doubt on his ability to run the state.
Soon after the Centre Party was ostracised from the party system in the late 2000s, it was clear that a change in its leadership was a matter of time. There were too many capable and ambitious politicians within who were not willing to slowly go down with the ship and its doomed captain. The first serious challenge to Savisaar came in 2011 when the one time Mayor of Tallinn (2005-2007) and MP (2007-2016) Jüri Ratas ran against Savisaar, but lost back then. In 2015, Kadri Simson, member of parliament since 2007, unsuccessfully attempted to challenge the leadership of Savisaar, although it was evident already then that the latter was struggling to maintain its position. Finally, in November 2016, as the internal party support for their fading leader and his followers had been evaporating enough, the time was ripe for the party to have a new face. And when it finally happened, the other parties in government did not hesitate to abandon the Reform Party and its dominance in favour of a new partner.
There has been a fair amount of misunderstanding about the nature of the new coalition, both within the country and among the reports that have reached the outside world. It is true that in the early 2000s the Centre Party signed a cooperation agreement with Putin's United Russia, but as far as the overall political outlook of the party and its loyalty to the Western direction of the country is concerned, this agreement is inconsequential. Mostly it has been a scarecrow used by other parties to spook the voters and to consolidate their own support. The Centre Party of Jüri Ratas is not pro-Russian in any negative sense. However, it is and also was before "pro-Russian" in one essential positive aspect in which all of the other parties in the country, even the least nationalist Social Democrats, have failed. It is the only party that has not dismissed and marginalized Russian-speaking Estonians and has provided them with a party that they can vote for and that at least to some extent stands for their interests. In this way, the Centre Party has been a symbolic link between a large proportion of semi-forgotten Estonians and the national political arena. Despite its marginalized status and the reviled leadership of Savisaar and his circle, the party has done Estonian politics a much bigger service than its opponents and competitors have ever admitted.
No doubt, the new coalition will have tensions to resolve and dilemmas to overcome, as it reaches across many of the divides on the Estonian political landscape. On the lesser axis of competition, the legacy left-right dimension, the Social Democrats and the Centre Party are in broad terms centre-left and the PPRU is centre-right. From this perspective, it will no doubt be easier for the former two to cooperate. But one should not underestimate the opportunism of the PPRU. After the surprise election of the populist far-right anti-establishment Estonian Conservative People's Party and the national-conservative anti-establishment Estonian Free Party to parliament in 2015, the PPRU has been losing out in the competition over the nationalist electorate and is in dire need to reinvent itself.
Much more important than reaching across the trivial left-right aisle is the fact that this coalition perhaps not only overcomes, but vanquishes the main political division in the country that in some form stretches back to gaining independence. The Popular Front, the precursor to the Centre Party, had been in favour of establishing the Estonian state tabula rasa, while the other movements and parties of the time and thereafter were in favour of a more nationalist approach that emphasised the legal and ideational continuity of the new state with inter-war Estonia. The continuationists prevailed and the Centre Party and Savisaar found themselves on the wrong side of history. This division was exacerbated in the 2000s when the other parties began to play up the Russian connection of the Centre Party. In this sense the main dividing line in the party system was not left and right, but Centre Party led by Savisaar, which was symbolising the Russian threat on the wrong side of history, and the rest. This has been evident not only in coalition patterns, but also the voting behaviour of the electorate. The extent to which this was related to the figure of Savisaar was revealed in full only now. The instant the leadership changed, the alignment of the other parties also changed.
How will this shape the future of the party system? For one, it seems that now there is a chance for actual political competition, as the possibilities for coalitions have greatly expanded. When before the Reform Party was able to dominate and dictate due to its privileged position, then now this is no longer true and it is unlikely to be true again in the near future.
What will the structure party competition be? Perhaps we saw a hint of that in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Two new parties were elected to parliament - the far-right populist Conservative People’s Party and the conservative populist Estonian Free Party. Both of them draw their support from a growing general disenchantment with the political establishment. The former seemingly more from marginalised rural areas, the latter from among more well-off urban voters. Taking into consideration the impossibility of left-wing politics in the Estonian mind-set deeply soaked in neoliberalism, this is the closest we can get to the structure we see emerging in so many European countries. The structure where the political establishment is opposed by anti-establishment parties from both the left and the right. Or in the Estonian case, from the right and the far right.
If it is so, one can only hope that this reshuffle among the establishment, and we can consider the Centre Party as having been an integral part of the establishment just like a coin has two sides, can breathe enough new life into the politics of the country so that the potentially reactionary fringe does not become more extreme and more popular. And even though they have been left out of the game for now by the Centre Party, the Reform Party should forever be in debt to Savisaar, as in the end it was him more that anything else that ensured them the place in power for such a long time. Long enough perhaps for them to forget that in a democracy the place of power should be empty.
For the composition of the Ratas cabinet, see here.
See also the Party Systems and Governments Observatory Blog, where this piece appeared.
While looking for recent science fiction books to fill my evenings, I ended up ordering Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (yes, I have decided to go back to reading books on paper). With the amount of recognition it has received, it is rather hard to not notice it. When I finally received it and started to read, however, I had a very strange sense of deja vu after a dozen or so pages. Turned out I had started to read the book before, but quit after a dozen pages, because it was just way too confusing and hard to follow in a rather hard to explain way. I deleted the book and completely forgot about its existence. But now I accepted my fate and decided to finish it no matter what, and despite the fact that the reasons I did not like it the first time were still there as much as before.
The storyline alternates between different time-points, the main character is an artificial intelligence of a ship, which is spread out in some parts of the story across different bodies. As we learn towards the end, the main antagonist is also a multi-body character, who on top of everything else is developing a split personality. And in most contexts the book does not differentiate between the genders of its characters, which just ends up highlighting your habits of thinking about people in terms of certain gender images, and makes the reading (justifiably) a bit difficult to the extent that you would want to reconstruct the characters visually in your mind while going through the story.
But in the end the second attempt (or actually third, because I ended up reading the first 100 pages twice on the second attempt) was successful and the book was quite enjoyable. A lot of it revolves around how an artificial intelligence that can control or inhabit several bodies would look like, how it would think and operate. And that on its own is an interesting subject that makes Ancillary Justice worth a read.
The concept of a sequel usually means that a story and/or characters that are related to the previous movie appear in what is essentially a new film with a distinct plot. The original Star Wars movies were that, as well as the horrible disasters that George Lucas created later under that name. Indeed, this is the trivial format that all sequels normally follow. At least I thought so.
The new Star Wars is something different. Abrams has shamelessly recycled (awakened?) so many central story line elements from the original movies that it is really hard to say that it is a new movie: the main character, who lives in the middle of the desert and comes across a beeping droid carrying vital information to the rebellion soon becoming the next best Jedi; handing over of a lightsaber of an old Jedi master, which has been in some kind of a box for ages; a handful of X-Wings destroying a huge spherical space station that can destroy planets; father and son issues; a bad guy with a black helmet and low voice; an old Jedi master living in the middle of nowhere; one of the main characters in some kind of a "coma" at the end of the movie. I am sure there are more that I do not recall now. And countless small details and elements to make sure that those who liked the original movies would feel comfortable.
Is Abrams the next stage in this sequel making business -- you do not even have to make a new movie anymore, just wait when enough time has passed and then you make the old movie again, using much of the original story?
I did enjoy it, though. But probably because I liked the old ones so much and not because this new movie added anything. The most notable things that it did change in comparison to the original three was that it doubled the amount of female characters (from 1 to 2) and more than infinitely increased the number of black people (from 0 to 1). Maybe there will be three women in the next movie. And hopefully they are able to pump Mark Hamill enough into shape by the next one so that they can actually trust him to say a word.
Although the idea that psychopathy is a black and white kind of a mental disorder will probably not go away anywhere, there has been quite a bit of chatter on the Internet recently about a different kind of a perspective on this topic. About the fact that it is not a condition, but a spectrum, which is dysfunctional only at the very extreme and which along more moderate ranges can come with several personal characteristics, about which it is hard to say that they are not in some ways desirable or valuable. A good overview of this perspective is given in a book called The Wisdom of the Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton.
Psychopaths are all around us, often in positions which require remarkable focus and endurance of stress and pressure. An immunity against anxiety and stress, and the ability to live in the flow -- that magical state of functioning where time stops and we just completely immerse ourselves in whatever we do, which we all sometimes experience -- makes such people uniquely suited for tasks, under which most of us would crumble. A lack of fear makes them more determined, a unique charisma gives them the ability to navigate social situations with effortless ease. They have a keen eye for detecting emotional or mental states of others and contrary to widespread beliefs, might actually be more benevolent and helpful under some social conditions than "normal" people. You find such people working in management, in the trading halls of stock markets and operating halls of hospitals, in court rooms, the police and the military. And although the book does not touch upon that specific topic, I am sure politics is full of people with psychopathic qualities as well.
Of course there can also be undesirable flavours. These are the psychopaths we usually associate with the term, the irreparable and extreme criminals and social deviants, who can kill you without a second of thought, steal your clothes and go wear them in a bar the same evening, trying to score. For such people, the qualities of a lack of impulse control and conscience, manipulativeness and lying make them extremely dangerous. But as the book tries to make clear, they are the rather rare exception, the extreme of the scale, which is not that common.
So it turns out that at the end of the day, both our heroes and our villains are psychos. Just with different flavours. Which is not that surprising -- Hollywood films have captured this rather well over the years.
Especially the recent series Hanniblal. Of course, being Hollywood (in a broad sense of this word), it is disappointing in several respects, not least among them the fact that it wastes the potential of being a truly magnificent psychological mind-fuck (which to some extent it of course it is) and trades it for cheap zombie-style splatter in some moments. Still it is worth watching, especially for the aesthetics. Explicit and brutal violence was mainstreamed already some time ago, and Hannibal saves it from being so yesterday by merging it with style and elegance. Blood, flesh and death becomes art, but also food, which you would normally eat in a super-hipster high-class restaurant.
So have a nice meal, a good watch and a good read.
A few days ago I watched two surprisingly good movies on a similar topic -- how human future might be entangled with artificially intelligent robots. The first, Ex Machina, has a typically Hollywoodian feel to it -- a totally implausible general setting and story-line, which reeks of idiocy. A genius programmer with a major hipster beard and a sweet tooth for booze living alone in a futuristic mansion in the middle of a vast wilderness invents and builds, apparently all by himself, artificially intelligent super human like and sexy robots (of course they would be female -- he has to use them as sex dolls as well), one of which eventually rocks the show. Yet it is still watchable and raises some interesting questions about the nature and intentions of artificial intelligence and how it could relate to humans. The second, Automata, is surprisingly good and believable both in terms of setting and story-line. It is set a couple of decades into the future, when most of our planet has become uninhabitable, human population has dramatically shrunk and is still deteriorating and there are rather simple and clumsy, but good intentioned robots everywhere that were created to help humans out in all sorts of ways. And then some of them start to develop consciousness and the ability to improve themselves.
I do not want to mention the story-lines more, just some of the thoughts that these movies invoked, especially Automata.
What appeals to me about science fiction are the worlds and societies that authors can imagine; the kinds of future they are able to conjure for humanity; the issues and problems these new and strange times and worlds can give rise to. Themes that are bigger than specific characters and their stories and relationships. And indeed for me it is a shame when a science fiction book puts too much emphases on the latter and leaves the bigger picture unpainted - it then kind of misses the point of science fiction. And of course it takes a learned and scientific mind in addition to the ability to write in order to produce good proper science fiction - something which is coherent and believable and makes you think in new and exciting ways.
A book that I recently and quite by accident came across - Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder - comes pretty close to being an excellent sci-fi book of the proper kind. Set some 20 thousand years in the future, it focuses around the problem of dealing with a viciously expanding new kind of a vacuum, accidentally created by an experiment, that is destroying our universe with its laws and principles in its path. Even though this is the central axis of the book, many interesting details are revolving around it. Space travel through your identity being transmitted as a signal from one point to the other; human and non-human bodies, which this identity can inhabit and swap; completely bodyless existence; slowing down and speeding up of perceived time to alter the experience of events; and so on. It really is a treat to the mind, regardless of some of its weaker sides and despite the fact that at some points it goes onto territory which is quite incomprehensible and unimaginable.
I recently finished, in terms genre, quite a classical self-help book for smokers to help quitting - Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking. I had heard some good things about the book, so my expectations were probably higher than they should have been - it did have some good and valuable points, but these were coated in a very thick layer of bullshit and one had to maintain a high level of benefit of the doubt and good will to keep reading it. It was like trying to get drunk through your anus - it can be done, but it is not the best idea.
But as I said, I did like some of the core points of the book. The idea that quitting smoking ultimately depends on how we think of smoking and the whole process of quitting. If we think that quitting is very hard and that smoking is something really valuable to us - much of which is an illusion - then not smoking indeed will be hard and one probably will not succeed in that. But if we think of it as something fairly easy - which it just as well can be - and as something through which we are not giving up something too valuable (which indeed can be true), then it will be a piece of cake. It also helps a lot to be more aware of how the impulse to smoke, the addiction, works within us, what triggers it and how we rationalize it to ourselves. So, convince yourself that not smoking is easy and that you do not lose absolutely anything. It is like a self-fulfilling prophecy - reinterpret smoking for yourself and so it will be.
However, in addition to the rancid style of self-help books (not very intelligently written, appealing to your desperation and willingness to believe whatever kind of crap as long as there is a chance that it might help you), there are some other, more deeper issues I also have with the book. It paints you the picture that smoking is pure evil and not smoking is pure good, that the only choice that any person could ever make is to do everything in his or her power (and that includes not smoking) to live as long and as healthy a life as possible. Its message is that smoking is never a legitimate choice. Why not?
I believe that any person should have the choice to introduce a bit of misery into their lives and it is nobody's business to be judgmental about it. Maybe the idea of smoking and everything that is or can be associated with that, even the things that are normally considered 'bad', goes better together with a sense of being in this world for some people than the sterile 'let's live happily forever after' bullshit. Maybe there is something to be gained in the fairly mild struggle with addiction, some experiences that are worth having and that most smokers go through. Life and our existence, let alone the society and culture we live in, can be rather surreal, pathetic and delusional - maybe for some smoking with all its 'evils' is one of the ways to go through it, to fit in better, to be in sync with the world around them.
So the bottom line for me still is that smoking and non-smoking should both be legitimate choices. If you want to smoke, smoke, but do it with a sense of awareness. Or quit, if you want to, because having that awareness can be much harder than quitting and not smoking. And whatever you do in this regard - don't whine about how hard or bad or good it is. Just keep to you choices.
Ah, and another thing - how the hell can I take this guy seriously in general when he has built a whole EASYWAY business around this and when much of the book to quit smoking is the promotion of that business. Apparently there is an EASYWAY to do anything (gambling, alcohol, eating...) and what he wants from you is to buy his books and visit his 'clinics' (a 'seminar' in a clinic in Estonia would cost EUR 220). It seems that he wants to make money more than he wants you to stop smoking.
A few months ago I had the pleasure to (re)read some of the classics in the literature on political parties - Robert Michels, Moisei Ostrogorski (and yes, I did not read his mammoth two volume masterpiece in full, I skimmed through most and read just the more important parts) and some of the texts that were collected by Susan Scarrow. Comparing to what people seem to have been thinking and writing about then, the party literature of the last half a century seems to have lost a lot of its critical insight and willingness to debate the nature and function of parties.
One of the more pressing questions then was whether and to what extent political parties are compatible with the ideal of democracy in the sense of a meaningful form of bottom-up self government. And the conclusions of both Michels and Ostrogorski (and many other authors at that time) were that they are not and that to the contrary, political parties are an obstacle to a meaningful democratic government and a free, open society. Many of the arguments that were brought out (for example by Michels) are, not surprisingly one should add, relevant today as well, albeit they have almost completely fallen out of political (science) discourse. For example:
I would like to see anybody today seriously arguing that these issues, with some variation of course across political systems, are not endemic problems of our current political systems, systems which inherit their basic structure from the time that these authors were writing.
Unfortunately some time around the middle of the 20th century we in the Western political world agreed that the political institutions and structures which we have, together with all of their fundamentally anti-democratic tendencies, must be called democracies without much qualification. Or at least that their undemocratic tendencies must not be problematised. Thus, except for a few hints and whispers here and there, we have lost the ability to call what we see with the appropriate words. A detour to the debates of a century ago might help us regain what was lost already too long ago for anybody to remember.
From the Great Library of Alexandria, where among other things much of the knowledge of Antiquity, rediscovered only a thousand years later, was concentrated to the Voyager spacecraft, the furthest from our plant that human artifacts have reached, the Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, nearly 35 years after it aired, is still an inspiring masterpiece of Carl Sagan. It tells us a passionate story about the history of science and knowledge, about the origins of life and the Cosmos (the Greek word for order in the Universe), about what makes humanity special and precious as well as utterly small and insignificant in the vastness of time and space. Its 13 episodes, full of both hope and concern for humanity, are surely worth watching, even if one already has an overview of science and the history of science. Sagan is a magnificent storyteller, with a personality and charisma that are certainly unique. Perhaps only Richard Dawkins rivals him in his ability (in writing, but not on screen) to bring scientific topics to the masses, open them up and turn them into inspiration. His uniqueness is also why I am a bit skeptical about Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, a sort of a sequel to Sagan's Cosmos that will air in a couple of weeks and that will be narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson. To be honest I have never read anything from him, but it seems that he has also not written anything that would be comparable to Sagan or Dawkins in terms of popularizing science. And although I appreciate his enthusiasm, his television appearances thus far have seemed a bit 'artificial' to me. But I am waiting for it anyway and will certainly give it a try.
The original series is also noteworthy in that it is one of the few instances that something on screen is better than something on paper. The story of the series was written into a book and published in 1980, which unlike the series was quite a boring experience. (Perhaps because I had watched the series already twice before getting to the book.) Something that is told on film just simply has a very difference pace and appeals to different things, has a different nature, than something that is told on paper. And if you transfer the former to the latter (much of the narrative of the series was written word by word into the book), you end up with something that seems empty, slow and not engaging. I started the book, but did not quite finish. Sorry, Carl.
Although I had seen the movie several times, it took me unjustifiably long to get to reading the book. I enjoyed the movie and especially in this case one could expect that the Hollywood machine would only ruin the original and that the book as always would be much better. Which indeed was so. Carl Sagan is a brilliant storyteller whose imagination and scientific character combine to create at once thought provoking and awe inspiring accounts of what might be some subtle steps towards the most unanswerable question of all - what could the fundamental nature of the Universe be? Being quite beyond the realm of any scientific answer, science fiction is the perfect medium to explore and fantasize about this. And of course this does not mean that we have to stray too far from what we know about the world to be true.
We tend to think that we as forms of life or life more generally is something that is separate from the Universe. That living things are beings that inhabit or have entered the the world, but are somehow apart. Most of the time we do not feel sameness with even the members of our own species, let alone other animals, plants, rocks, water, air, and in the broadest sense all matter and space in the Cosmos. But in a very basic sense this is not true. We are part of the Universe in the same way as the planets, stars and galaxies are. We are made from the same things, we function according to the same laws. The only thing that is different is that on our planet as most likely on innumerable worlds across the Cosmos the laws of the Universe happened to combine in a way, which resulted in matter taking rather special and complex forms, forms that are able to reflect on themselves and their surroundings. We as life are parts of the Universe where the latter has become aware of itself.
In Contact Sagan explores, among other things, quite an interesting form of this basic unity of life or intelligence and the Cosmos. Through an event by which humanity first becomes aware of intelligent life in the galaxy vastly surpassing our level of development, he explores some basic questions concerning the nature of life and intelligence and its 'place' in the Universe. As far as we know now, the Universe will cease to exist at one point - hundreds of billions of years to the the future, space will have expanded so much and matter dispersed across that space to an extent that there will be literally nothing left. This is the second law of thermodynamics. Can life or intelligence eventually engineer and change the Cosmos to an extent that this will not happen? Or perhaps something has been engineered already?
A while ago I finished a late night project that had been ongoing for about half a year - reading all the 15 books in Isaac Asimov's so-called Foundation Universe. This includes his collections of robot short stories, the four robot novels, the three empire novels and the seven foundation novels. All the 15 books take place in the same universe starting with mankind's invention of robots, its expansion to colonization of the nearby stars with the help of robots, its subsequent establishment of a galactic empire, its fall and finally a glimpse of what might arise out of the rubble. And if one is already at it, it would also do no harm to read his End of Eternity as a sort of a prelude to the whole series - it is not directly related, but explores interesting topics with regard to time travel, which also give a hint of how the Foundation Universe might have become what it was to begin with.
I do have to admit that Asimov might not be the best writer in some respects. While reading, you do not necessarily always feel immersed in the characters and their local environment or problematics. Certain structures of storyline seem to repeat themselves from book to book. Often the immediate stories he tells might not seem too interesting and are rather simplistic. And he uses the word 'sardonic' way to often. But this is not what is most important or interesting about his works. It is the big picture that matters. Imagining the development of human kind from the not too distant future through tens of thousands of years into the future. Thinking about this and going through that imagination is something quite rewarding and inspiring. And it is for this reason that one should pick up the series. If you like this kind of stuff, it is really worth the time!
Ever since a friend of mine encouraged me to read a few excellent books on genes and evolution during high school, I have found this topic rather fascinating and have kept half an eye open for what some of the broad currents in that domain are. And so I came across this article, that introduces one debate that seems to be somewhat unfolding. Is it genes that drive everything or are we dealing with a more complex system where the environment, gene expression and actual genetic change have a much more intricate relationship?
An interesting thing about the article is also how at one point it transfers the evolutionary logic of selection to explaining the proliferation of ideas. It seems to make total sense to suppose that people are more prone to adopt ideas that are simpler and that resonate more with their cultural background. An idea is put out there and the simpler it is, the more likely it is that people will adopt it and reproduce it, spread it. And the more it is in line with what we already believe, the easier it is for it to spread.
It was not too long ago, when almost all the knowledge that people needed to live, was contained within the household or the village. People grew their own food, built their own houses, made their own clothes and all that knowledge was present in their life-worlds. Today there is scarcely a person who would know how to make the simplest thing we use in our daily lives from start to finish. All processes as split into the smallest possible components and spread across thousands of people all over the world. Here is an example of that in the form of a story of a t-shirt.
How is it possible to have any kind of trust in day-to-day politics or politicians when it seems that lying or what perhaps should more precisely be called bullshitting has become (or always has been?) endemic to the game? A competition for the chief editor for the only decent cultural newspaper in Estonia failed, then suddenly a guy with notable political ties and not too high credentials for the job emerged, was appointed temporary editor, and cleared the newspaper of its previous editorial staff. The minister of culture denied that there was any political involvement, but by now there are strong reasons to believe that the whole purge was politically backed and approved by the party of the PM and the minister of culture. WTF? Something in English about this is available here.
The autumn is almost perfect here in Budapest and so it is easy for me to forget the few pleasures of the cold, gray and rainy Estonian autumn. But this article definitely captures one of them. Exploring known and unknown forests, hunting for mushroom to later cook them or preserve them -- that is a damn good thing one can do in autumn!
One thing that all animals do is sleep, yet there is still no clear idea of why we do it and why it is so necessary. Many of the possible explanations that I have heard before have had something to do with memory formation or something similar to that. Thus, it was quite interesting to read about another suggestion, which is something completely different. Apparently, there is a possibility that sleep, i.e. shutting the mind down to some extent, might be necessary to physically clean the brain of certain chemicals that build up there during it normal operations. Assuming, of course, that mouse brains are not special.
The scope of scientific inquiry sometimes leaves you amazed. We can study the origins of the universe, what makes matter and energy, how our brains function to give rise to our consciousness... and how mammals pee. And this is quite distant from how far you can go. The top of the WTF list for me in what scientists can make their living form is studying homosexual necrophiliac ducks. Yes, science comes in many shapes and colors.
It seems that there is a gene for almost everything, so it is not surprising that further evidence for a relationship between genes and how people emotionally relate to each other has been found as reported in this article. I guess the most interesting thing about all of this is that in some years time we could probably say that much of what we do and are and think has some kind of a genetic correlate. I hope something useful will be done with such knowledge. And I do not mean the people who study this, but everybody else...
An article in the Guardian gives us a glimpse of where we might be going, after having realized that the 'chemical imbalance' metaphor for treating psychological problems was full of crap and that many psychoactive drugs work not much better than placebos. Intervening directly in the brain certainly sounds more 'promising' than flooding it with chemicals for which we never had a solid understanding of how they work.