Iran appears to be acquiring nuclear weaponry. So far, or rather since Nagasaki, the leaders of the nuclear powers have been, just, rational enough not to use their weapons. If Middle Eastern nations acquire them, perhaps their leaders also will be so rational — indeed, I would expect so. But what if paramilitary forces get them?… the kind of people often called (and sometimes rightly) fanatics? Such people are not always deterrable in the same way as the leaders of nations, for their identities are not bound to actualities, but rather to potentialities that nuclear retaliation cannot so easily destroy.

The documented behavior of Pakistan is very alarming. No doubt the leaders of Pakistan would not like their weapons to fall, uncontrolled at any rate, into the hands of paramilitaries. The same can (probably) be said of the leaders of Iran. But both nations have diligently fostered paramilitary forces that, quite possibly, are not thoroughly under control by their masters. It is not nearly as unlikely as one would wish that nuclear weapons will never fall into the hands of people who will not and can not be deterred.

What is more, it is obvious that nuclear weapons are far from the last word in weapons of mass destruction. It is very probable that, with the continued development of science and technology, weapons of mass destruction will become easier and easier to make, to hide, and to use. At some point one imagines it possible to make them in a decently equipped university or even high school.

So, it seems that in the future paramilitary forces will be increasingly likely to acquire, and to use, true weapons of mass destruction. Each use will terrorize people into a hard reaction. Each hard reaction will embolden the terrorists and create more of them. A hard reaction that is hard enough to actually stop this cycle will first reduce to ashes nations hosting terrorists, and then set up a regime of universal spying and intimidation.

It seems we are headed for a time of harrowing, in which the paranoia that has created weapons of mass destruction either triumphs in a very repressive regime, or fanaticism has been selected out of people — either by nature, or by artifice.

I think the best we can hope for here is to deliberately breed fanaticism out of people, which will require creating a new basis for human identity that is not fixated on nation states or other such entities that have a duty to fight. I am not a pacifist. I could and would fight under some circumstances.

The Black Hole Engine — And Consequences

By a strange coincidence, only a few days after I read the proposal for a dark matter engine, I find on the arXiv another, probably even more significant proposal by Louis Crane and Shawn Westmoreland of Kansas State University: Are Black Hole Starships Possible? (

The gist of Crane and Westmoreland’s paper is that physics appears to permit the construction of small black holes that function as power generators and rocket engines of the highest possible efficiency. The technology required to construct and manage such an engine is impressive, but does not appear to be beyond the capabilities of the near to medium future. Our current understanding of the physics is not complete, so better understanding could rule out the construction of such engines, or make them even more difficult to make — or make them easier to make!

A black hole engine can perhaps be fed with mass to keep it going, it can be contained and steered with particle beams, and the energy it radiates can be used to manufacture more black hole engines. If possible, then, the black hole engine appears to be an ultimate technology. You build an army of robots near the Sun, they collect and channel solar energy to a sphere of gamma-ray lasers that implodes radiation to form a small black hole, you feed it and steer it, and then you use the first black hole to make as many more as you like. Each black hole produces enough energy to drive a heavy, shielded, human-crewed starship to relativistic speeds.

Although I am not competent to rule on the feasibility of black hole engines, I am competent to make the following observation. We are living in the critical decades that will determine the long-term future of the human race. In this and the next generation or so, we will probably know if dark matter engines, or black hole engines, or some other ultimate technology is possible for us — or not. We will certainly know if there are other water-bearing planets near us — or not. And we will certainly know if other technological civilizations are traveling in space near us (a black hole rocket creates a rather spectacular high-frequency gravitational contrail), or trying to signal us — or not.

These staggering questions can be arranged into a simple table that determines the alternative futures of the human race.

  1. If black hole engines are not possible and there are no neighboring technological civilizations, then it is up to us try to keep ourselves going in this one solar system. We have no choice, we must go into ourselves rather than out into interstellar space.
  2. If black hole engines are not possible but there are neighboring technological civilizations, then we try to keep going in this one solar system, but we also must deal with the consequences of unknown messages (possibly including detailed instructions for building aliens and a town for them from scratch) from beyond. It is our choice how we respond.
  3. If black hole engines are possible and there are no neighboring technological civilizations, then we have no enemies or competitors, and it is our choice to expand into interstellar space in a movement that makes all past frontiers paltry and produces a human civilization of hitherto unimaginable size and glory.
  4. If black hole engines are possible and we do have neighbors, then everything is up for grabs. The stakes are so vast we can’t even imagine them. We are instantly exterminated as dangerous vermin (black hole warhead approaching Earth at 99% c can’t be detected in time to stop it from literally shattering the planet); we find ourselves in a desperate war for survival with planets splattering left and right; we are enslaved or exploited by hucksters will millions of years of experience; we join a commonwealth with the wisdom to protect and nurture all members; starfarers are sparse enough to co-exist without war or politics; who knows!…. What happens may be our choice — or not.

By the way, I view the posting by reputable researchers of a paper such as arXiv:0908.1803 as an extremely encouraging sign of the times.


I am reading Rene Guenon’s The Crisis of the Modern World.

Guenon has a reasoned prejudice against science that is however quite mistaken. He is rhetorical rather than cogent, has a number of outright crank views… and yet is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

What is right about Guenon, what is wrong, and what do I fail to grasp?

What is right is that there is a transcendental dimension to human life. It is universal. It is ultimate. It is authoritative. Indeed, it is authority in its native form. And I agree with Guenon (and Leo Strauss, and Eric Vogelin) that a civilization that flees from it or denies it is likely to destroy itself, or be destroyed.

What is wrong is that science, contra Guenon, does have an intrinsic transcendental value (it is true, not one often well stated or understood by scientists, but it is clear enough in that most real scientists are primarily motivated not by utility, but rather by the beauty of the world and of the order of the world). I detect an angry, dismissive, unconscious, defensive tone or attitude in Guenon with respect to science and technology.

What is is probably wrong is Guenon’s implication that tradition, in some sense, was politically formative or normative for civilizations before the 6th century BCE. As far as I can tell the wanderings and conquests of tribes and peoples was, is, and has always been depressingly and familiarly biological. But I may not grasp what he is trying to say, I may be reading too much into it.

I suspect, though I cannot well argue, that the move towards missionary religions (Buddhism, contemporary reactions in Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam) is well motivated, not wrongly motivated.

Perhaps a clue lies in Judaism. It is a missionary religion in that it views itself as holding revealed truth and in the end receiving all the world in the Moshiach’s Kingdom, and yet it is tolerant in that it fully acknowledges the righteousness of gentiles, and does not aspire to on its own hook immediately to convert the world.

What is wrong is that initiation by some preceding initiate is necessary in all cases. It was not necessary for the founders of the traditions. And it is certain that there were founders, because at one time there were not even any human beings.

I may fail to grasp that traditions were mutually tolerant. This may be the case (before the 6th century BCE). Or it may not, I do not know the history well enough. I am reasonably confident that it used to be a lot harder to travel this globe, and that may have a lot to do with tolerance — perhaps it was not possible to think about conversion.

What is wrong is absolutely crank theories such as Hyperborea, which historically have lead on naturally (e.g., Julius Evola or the Ahnenerbe SS) to anti-Semitism, racism, and all manner of truly vicious follies.

What I fail to grasp (perhaps I will grasp it later) is how Guenon deals with people like Second Isaiah or St. John of the Cross, who are, it is transparently obvious, initiated in the only important sense and who are yet committed to a missionary religion. One could say the same of the historical Buddha (or the perhaps several original founders of Buddhism).

The question for me is, why does a liberal such as myself, completely committed to the scientific world-view, find himself so eager to hear wild birds like Guenon, Strauss, Vogelin, Eliade?

A lamp: Thomas Merton?

I must keep working on my perception that fundamentalism is a contemporary form of idolatry, the characteristic sin of our age. The  “revelation” is the idol, however, not the God of revelation. Interestingly, Guenon seems to scorn such reactions.

Mirror idolatries? – Everything in Nature is computable. Truth is revealed in some book.

Jews versus Arabs is a reductio to some sort of absurdam.

Parametric Composition

Parametric composition is the art of composing music by means of an algorithm whose output can be more or less continuously varied by adjusting a few numerical parameters. If changes in the pieces depend continuously upon changes in the parameters, then related pieces must lie next to each other in the parameter space. Such a parameter space is intelligible. It can be explored interactively, for example by zooming in and out, to discover certain classes of pieces, and more interesting pieces in each class. The parameter space becomes a sort of Mandelbrot set, and each parameter point in the space represents a piece, which is a sort of Julia set.

So, one would like there to be an algorithm that can generate any possible piece of music, and one would like to be able to compose by interactively exploring this space. I have informally proved that such an algorithm and such a parameter space exists. The proof goes like this. Any piece of music can be represented by a set of coefficients for the duplex Gabor transform over a subset of time and frequency. These coefficients form a finite 2-dimensional array of real numbers. Any such array can be approximated as closely as desired by computing the measure on a complex-valued iterated function system (IFS). From Michael Barnsley’s Collage Theorem, it follows that the measure changes continuously with changes in the coefficients of the IFS. Finally, although the IFS parameters can vary in number, any subset of IFS parameters can be mapped onto the unit square by identifying the upper corner of the square with the largest IFS in the subset, and the lower corner with the smallest IFS in the subset. Linear interpolation then suffices to identify each point in the unit square with a unique set of IFS coefficients, and each set of IFS coefficients in the subset can be interpolated from some point in the unit square. Thus, the unit square becomes a parameter map for generating any piece of music in the specified subset of time and frequency and the specified subset of IFS parameters. By making the subset of IFS parameters sufficiently large — perhaps a few hundred or a few thousand coefficients — the procedure becomes musically fruitful. Probably most pieces of music of moderate duration can be approximated by at most a few tens of thousands coefficients. After all, Barnsley showed that most digital images could be approximated by at most a few thousand IFS coefficients, and a digitized piece of music contains no more than about ten times as much data as a digitized image.

What I have not done is to create a musically useful implementation of this algorithm. It is too compute-intensive. On current personal computers, computing a single IFS and rendering the generated duplex Gabor transform (I have performed the experiment) takes several minutes at least. To be musically useful, the algorithm would have to be able to generate thousands of these points in less than a minute, and even then it would take hours of exploration to discover interesting pieces. It might be possible to send each parameter point out to a di fferent computer on the World Wide Web, using a system like that of SETI@Home, so this brute-force approach should still be investigated. After all, the algorithm lends itself to computing each IFS, or indeed each coefficient in any one Gabor transform, in parallel.

However, on a single computer, computing so many sounds in this way is much too slow and takes much too much memory. Of course, instead of using Gabor transforms to represent the complete sound of each piece, it might also work to represent only the score for each piece. Scores contains millions of times less data than sounds. However, then the representation of the scores becomes an issue — there are many, many ways of representing scores. Ideally, one would like to be able to specify an orchestra of N voices over some subset of time, frequency, and loudness, and then be able to generate any subset of points in this set. Even better, one would like the representation to be close to how composers hear and imagine music. We know that the Gabor transform (sonograms, more or less) or, even better, various wavelet transforms are indeed close to at least some basic aspects of how composers hear and imagine sounds. What concise, compressed representation of scores is similarly close to at least some basic aspects of how composers hear and imagine scores?