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Where Now?

Two years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a blog, The Bird of Dawn, full of hope for the indomitable human spirit which can transcend and erode all repression, whether religious or political. A year ago, in The Way We Were, I connected the liberal Western Civilization, where my soul and body reside, to its ancient Greek roots. Both pieces have been wildly popular with the readers around the world, because they spelled out hope for humanity and its future.

Today we are in Cefalù in Sicily, immersed again in a simpler world of the past, the world which graces us only occasionally when we leave our thoroughly modern, connected academic cocoon, powered by a high-rate throughput of fossil fuels that appear mostly as research funding, electricity, computers, and airplane tickets. Compared with Cefalù’s Arab fortress of 1063, and the Norman cathedral with the magnificent twelfth century mosaics our world is truly ephemeral. It cannot last for longer than a few more decades. Yet, this realization never bothered me, because another successful civilization would likely replace, I thought, what we have now. So far so good, were it not for the year 2016, which delivered a powerful jolt to the millions of people like me.
This Arab castle in Cefalù was built in 1063, renovated by the Normans, and burned three centuries later. Photo by Patzek, 12/24/2016.

For me the biggest shock was realization that we are not in full control of our complex brains. While I warned about it a year ago, I really thought that the primitive reptilian brain can dominate only relatively few people and others will compensate. Boy, was I wrong! I call 2016 the year of erupting primitivism, powered and assisted by modern technology that now unites the creepy reptilians around the world and feeds their hallucinations. With modern communication networks, hardware like the smart phone, and software like Facebook and Twitter we have created a myriad of mutually-abetting tribes out of the scared, confused, and angry people everywhere. These people are lashing out at anything they perceive as being not them. All this is deadly for civilization and democracy everywhere.

A year ago, I did not believe that the European Union project that united arguably the most sophisticated societies in human history, might be a thing of the past in another year or so. I did not believe that an ominous sociopath would be elected president of my country, the most powerful nation on the earth. And I did not believe that so many psychopaths would be dominating other places, including my old country, Poland. The feeling is truly sickening, but what are we to do?

One way, familiar to all scientists of the world, is to understand and analyze the problem. Indeed, many of my close friends have been pursuing this approach with gusto. Yesterday, one of them, a famous ecologist from Canada, wrote:
 …The human brain evolved in stages with each new neural component becoming integrated with pre-existing structures. The cerebral cortex—the seat of reason, self-awareness, analytic prowess, language and voluntary movement in humans—is the most recent major ‘add-on’. It comprises the bulk of the cerebral hemispheres in humans but was essentially layered-over the evolutionarily older limbic system (complex emotions, motivation, relationships) and the truly ancient (reptilian) brain stem (basic emotions, autonomic functions, survival instincts [including lying and cheating]). While each of these ‘sub-brains’ and related components are structurally distinct, the brain functions as an integrated whole; expressed human behavior generally reflects a complex interplay of rational, emotional and instinctive impulses.  
 …Two major points follow from these behavioral realities. First, most expressed human behavior, from routine one-on-one interaction to international political posturing, is shaped, in part, by innate subconscious mental processes and their associated chemical/hormonal agents. Second, everyone will eventually encounter circumstances in which high intelligence founders absolutely. When physically attacked, or when hard-won socio-political status or political or economic power are under threat, people’s defensive emotions may combine with sheer survival instinct to override more rational thought in shaping their response. Passion often trumps reason…
He is spot on. But my question is, so what?! What changes if we understand these psychological subtleties? Aren’t we better off looking carefully around when we walk down a street or buy a last-minute present at a Christmas market? Otherwise, we might end up like Pythagoras who, according to one story, calmly warned an intruding Syracusan soldier against disturbing his mental concentration. Undeterred, the Syracusan pierced the old man with his sword. And that was that. One of the greatest philosophers and mathematicians of all times was slaughtered and the soldier marched on. Talk about situation unawareness.

My advice to myself and others goes like this: I never try to completely understand and control the circumstances in which I find myself. Instead, I try to learn and estimate, and adapt and act. I call this approach adaptive, open-loop, process-based control. Thus far, thinking-and-acting have served me well and prevented from stumbling into many objectively inevitable disasters, including the martial law in Poland in 1981; the disintegration of Shell’s research in 1990; the post-2007, self-inflicted decline of the University of California at Berkeley; and the precipitous fall of oil price in 2015. Each time, an ounce thinking and a pound of action have prevented me from falling flat on my face and dragging my family down. I have also avoided making the morally dubious compromises I abhor. And this I wish you all. Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!
This beautiful, fearless young woman in Rafael's last painting, The Transfiguration (1619), is hope for humanity. Photo by Patzek, the Vatican Museum, 12/22/2016.
P.S.  Of course, Mr. Trump was helped not only by the Russians, but also by the disconnected, delusional Democrats.  Here is my rejected reader's comment I sent to the New York Times in early November. I was reacting to yet another light-on-reality editorial:
Yesterday, I watched on Al Jazeera International the "Fault Lines" program about rural West Virginia. AJI is virtually unknown in the U.S. and likely the best source of in-depth, heart-wrenching reporting in the world. The reporters interviewed several destitute, mostly jobless people in the run-down, desperately poor mining counties there. These people made an incredible emotional investment in Mr. Trump, who will betray them infinitely more than us. One woman, a volunteer from Mr. Trump, said crying that she would kill herself if Mr. Trump does not win. Think about it. I have been doing a lot of thinking lately, especially when I listen to the empty talk by Mrs. Clinton, for whom I already voted.


  1. 1. I was in WI on a contract job. Saw the signs ahead of everyone else. Media definitely missed the pulse of middle America. Even if Middle America is stupid or evil (and I don't say they are), the media and Hilary sure missed the boat. Poor analysis.

    2. Retail industry (shopping, car buying) is best in 15 years. Lot more consumer confidence. Especially in Midwest. Stock market up too. Record levels.

    3. US is now a natural gas exporter (per Platts, November 2016). Shale gale! Kicked some Peak Gas ass. No? Whodathunkit in 2006 when all the talk was that we couldn't build LNG IMPORT fast enough to ward off destruction.

    4. It's gonna be alright.

    5. Must be nice hanging out in the Mediterranean writing about how evil the Republicans are. Like some sort of Eloi from the Time Machine. Or the intelligent but eaten cabbages of Stanley Weinbaum's The Lotus Eaters. (Look him up, the American Lem.)

    6. I wish I had learned more math as a young man. Was good at it. Could have done more. Got distracted by being a Cold Warrior in submarines. And then not marrying the Navy nurse who loved me and regretting it. Now, I order Dover paperbacks full of Bessel functions and pet them and look at them in a semisexual manner. Too lazy to actually work the problems. But boy they seem smart to look at and just skim the pages.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      I read your comments with a warm smile.

      Not all Republicans are evil. I used to be an enthusiastic pro-Republican Independent. This was before the year 2000.

      I could never join either party. I guess I am not a party animal. In addition, Democrats too often behave like deer caught in the headlights. I am more of a hunter.

  2. I am looking for advice on how to deal with the current inevitable disaster, Trump. Currently the best advise I have read is the following:

    I heard a story from some acquaintances about their yoga session a day or so after the U.S. election of Donald Trump. The teacher was trying to find a way to help people cope and said something along the lines of: “Now, close your eyes and imagine a calm and healing place. Now, take a deep, deep breathe. Good…. Now hold it for four years.”

    I have tried this and I failed.

    You listed how you have avoided “stumbling into many objectively inevitable disasters”. But in an article entitled “Where Now” you don’t tell where you are going or how you are going to avoid the coming disasters! Come on share your plan. We won’t tell anyone.

  3. Dear Richard,

    My choice is simple. I will continue my stay in Saudi Arabia, where I am building a new program at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which is a singular educational and research experiment on a global scale. I am sticking with it.

    1. Tad,

      Just been watching:-

      The drivers for BREXIT are very similar.

      As a UK resident I wonder if Trump will meet the same level of internal resistance as BREXIT.

      I subscribe to non-reductive physicalism with top-down causation, but I agree that thought & action is the required mode for humans, but where do we get reliable data to think with?

      And when you listen to Guy McPherson and the growing number of climate scientists that say they are leaning more towards his thinking is it going to matter?

    2. Duncan,
      Humanity is very diverse and resilient. We are also prolific baby-makers to our general detriment. The sudden collapse of all humans simply cannot happen, unless there is a major nuclear war.

      The developed countries are very susceptible to the interruptions of electricity and local transport that could have major implications for food, water and fuel supply. Most other countries are far less sensitive to such interruptions.

      Therefore, I am quite optimistic about the near-future fate of humanity if we stop reproducing like rabbits. Fibonacci gave us the first example of what happens when you allow for exponential growth of a population.
      This was 800 years ago and we learned nothing.

      Having said that, our incredibly lavish life styles in the developed countries will soon be a thing of the past. In this respect, we will develop to something closer to a medieval society. The Emperor-elect Trump will set us off in this direction. I am afraid that the U.K. will fare much worse than the U.S.

    3. This video gives some of the scenario:-

      I think all of these are on the coast a sea level.

    4. Another Experts Take:-

  4. Why a nuclear war? It's just a case of the power grids going down and we have 400+ nuclear power-stations going in to melt down. How many of these exist a sea level.

    I just do not think that the past prepares us for the future but human nature is to make this kind of comparison.

    1. Duncan,
      The current global pyramid scheme must collapse for the reasons I have been writing about for the last 15 years.

      I do what I can, but it is never enough. At the age of 65, I know that death is inevitable. I just want to help my children.


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