On Eternal Life

Gulliver065For those of you do not know, Ray Kurzweil is an American author, computer, scientist, and inventor. He pioneered many different devices—not that I understand what all of them actually do—and is currently director of engineering at Google. The list of awards and prizes he has received would fill an article in itself.

Another thing this obviously highly gifted, enormously dynamic man has done is bring into vogue the term “singularity.” The way I understand it, a singularity is a change so great that it will usher in a completely new world while simultaneously rendering all previous history irrelevant. As will happen when computer technologies start exceeding human intelligence many, many times over—an event, Kurzweil says, which cannot more than a few decades away.

Personally I am not even sure what intelligence means. Nor, as far as I know, does anybody else. Hardly a day passes when some psychologist does not proudly announce his or her discovery of some new kind of intelligence. Wikipedia, admittedly not the most profound source, lists the following: the capacity for logical thought; abstract thought; understanding (whatever that may mean); self-awareness; communication; emotional knowledge (what is that?); memory; planning; creativity; and problem-solving. I can think of a few others: such as musical intelligence and the ability to recognize visual patterns (which, in my case, is terribly underdeveloped). Will computers really be able to do all these things as well as, let alone much better, than we can? And what does “better” self-awareness mean?

Furthermore, I am a historian. We historians often speak of revolutions: the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, and so forth. All of these were comparatively brief, cataclysmic, usually very violent, upheavals which changed the world. Or at least that was what most of us felt when they happened. As time goes on and research probes deeper, though, we always find two things. One is that the supposed revolution has roots going deep into history, sometimes decades if not more. The other is that even the greatest revolutions leave as many things unchanged as they generate new ones. As the French saying goes, plus que ça change

Here I want to focus on just one kind of singularity/revolution Kurzweil is promising us: to wit, a victory over death that will give us eternal life. Eternal in the sense that all our experiences, feelings and thoughts will be recorded on some kind of electronic device and implanted into some kind of robots who, in this way, will become “us.” Thank you very much, Ray. The last thing I need is to “live” in such a way, presumably with hackers stealing the information and spreading it over the Net so anyone, but anyone, can become me just as I can become him or her.

Kurzweil himself hopes to live enough to see the “singularity,” which he thinks is 30-40 years away (he was born in 1948, two years later than me), with his own eyes. To do so he is taking as many as 150 pills a day. Will he succeed? I do not know. Nor, as long as I do not have to become a robot, do I care. What I do want to do is to briefly discuss two books that describe a world in which death has been not just postponed but abolished.

Proceeding in reverse chronological order, the first is Death with Interruptions by the late Portuguese Nobel-Prize winning author Jose Saramago (1922-2010). One day, the people of a certain unnamed country stop dying. The immediate outcome is great joy and celebration. However, neither the celebration nor the joy last for very long. The first outcome, obviously, is to bring about the collapse of the funeral industry. It is quickly followed by the collapse of other services such as hospitals—which get filled up—as well as the Church. That is because, the afterlife having been abolished, it is no longer needed. With the fall of the Church much of the social order, too, collapses. The country is filled to overflowing with criminals who collude with the government. Also, and more important to our purpose, with incoherent, helpless, stinking, bags of skin and bone, bringing about a government crisis.

Saramago could have added, but does not, other problems. Surely the end of death would quickly lead to overpopulation. It would block the young and prevent them from ever taking over; and force them to spend their remaining lives looking after the old. Not, I would say a very enticing prospect for our children and grandchildren. Instead, the novel ends with death feeling sympathy for one man, a terminally ill cellist. Death puts on the guise of a thirty-eight year old woman. For it/her he plays as never in his entire life. Then they go on to make love. A more beautiful description of a lovers’ tryst I have never read. And then, at the end of the novel, death, thank goodness, takes back its normal place in human affairs.

The other book is even more famous. I am, of course, referring to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). One of the places Gulliver visited was Luggnagg, located southeast of Japan. Most of the inhabitants of Luggnagg are quite ordinary. There are among them, though, certain individuals known as struldbrugs. They seem normal, but in fact they are immortal. You can recognize them by the red dot on their foreheads.

Until the age of thirty or so they are like all others. At that time they begin to realize the terrible fate that is in store for them. Namely, never to be released from this life. They become dejected and morose. The more so because, as in the Greek mythological story about Eos (Dawn’s) lover Tithonus, in Luggnagg eternal life does not mean eternal youth. Their hair turns white and falls out. Their teeth drop, and their senses and minds dim.

That is why, once they reach the age of eighty, they are declared legally dead. Any offices they may hold, and any assets they may have, are taken away. They live on a pittance without honor, without profit, and, above all, without being of any use to anybody. Basically, as in Saramago’s novel, they are nothing but incoherent, helpless, stinking, bags of skin and bone.

Isn’t this, in many cases, just the way it already is today? And do we really want to have our lifespan extended even more than it already has been?


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And Everything Else be Damned

netanyahu-speaks-at-un-about-iranian-bomb-2Most people think that the recent fracas between Jerusalem and Washington is about Iran. They are wrong. Should Israel and Iran engage in a nuclear exchange, says U.S Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman, then it is the latter and not the former that will be wiped off the map. Nor are the mullahs unaware of that fact. That has not prevented Israel from talking about destroying Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Both Netanyahu and his predecessors have been doing so for over a decade. Since success depends on surprise—as when it bombed the Iraqi reactor in 1981 and the Syrian one in 2007—this talk itself proves it has no serious intention of carrying out its threats. Nor is Netanyahu the man to do it. For all his frequent posturing, he does not have the guts.

The threat a nuclear Iran would pose to the United States is much smaller still. In fact it would be comparable to the one mounted by North Korea since it detonated its first device nine years ago; meaning, close to zero. Arguably, indeed, possession of the bomb would compel Tehran to become more cautious than, by most measures, it already is. Thus the bomb would contribute to stability in the Middle East, not detract from it. That, at any rate, is what, to-date, nuclear weapons have done in every single region where they have been introduced.

Amidst these questions, whether Netanyahu is or is not supported by his own security service is small potatoes. As former U.S Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said, Israel does not really have a foreign policy. All it has are internal politics of which foreign policy is a third-rate extension. It is mainly internal politics that have driven Netanyahu to emphasize the Iranian “threat.” Not without success. Only yesterday a neighbor of mine, a highly-educated lawyer, told me that, much as he disliked Netanyahu, he was going to vote for him because of the threat in question.

Which reminds us that, in Israel, it is elections time. The last two elections were held in 2009 and 2013. In neither of them was there any question but that Likud would win and Netanyahu hold on to his dearly-beloved job. This time things are different. One reason for this is that, economically speaking, things are not going as well as they should. The outcome is high prices—for a couple of years now, not a day has passed without the media publishing comparisons with other countries, almost all of them unfavorable to Israel. In particular, the burden on young couples out to purchase their first flat has become all but intolerable.

The other reason is the creation of a new left-center party under the joint leadership of Yitzhak Herzog and former foreign minister Tziporah (“Tzippi”) Livni. Both Herzog and Livni have the charisma of earthworms. Many people, though, see them as preferable to Netanyahu who is regarded as glib and untrustworthy.

Netanyahu needs a boost. There is not much he can do about prices. Nor do people really believe him when he says, as he has been doing for some years, that he will do something. But he can try to strike poses in foreign relations. The murder a couple of weeks ago of four Jews in a French kosher supermarket seemed to present him with a great opportunity to do just that. What could be better than to be photographed while marching arm in arm with other heads of state, acting not merely as the Prime Minister of Israel but as the head of the Jewish people world-wide?

Unfortunately for him, it all went wrong. President Hollande of France, it turned out, did not really want him there. To be sure, he could hardly prohibit Netanyahu from coming. But he did take the opportunity to humiliate him by failing to receive him at the Elysée Palace. Worse still, when Netanyahu arrived there was no proper reception-party waiting to take him from the airport to town. Israel TV showed him standing in the rain, umbrella over his head, waiting for a bus and looking forlorn. Elections or not, that is not the kind of image a prime minister wants or needs.

So what to do? Unlike former Prime Ministers Menahem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu cannot claim credit for any important foreign policy deed. Like his one-time mentor, former Prime-Minister Yitzhak Shamir, all he can do is try and maintain the status quo. Partly that is because he does not have the necessary authority over his own party and the Israeli right in general. Partly because, as I said, he just doesn’t have the guts. But maintaining the status quo does not yield many votes. At any rate not enough to make him feels secure.

So use your Jewish-American card. Get yourself invited to the U.S. If not to the White House, with whose occupant Netanyahu has long been at loggerheads, then to address both Houses of Congress. The procedure is somewhat unusual, but that does not bother the prime minister too much. After all, the U.S, too, is facing elections in less than two years. Consequently the pressure it can bring to bear on Israel is limited. It is even possible that, by seeming to twist President Barak Obama’s arm, Netanyahu will actually gain some points with parts of the electorate.

And so it goes. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will huff and puff. Presumably more so behind closed doors than in public. They may even threaten to “reconsider” America’s relationship with Israel. As, for example, Gerald Ford and Kissinger did in 1975 when Rabin did not agree to a proposed interim agreement with Egypt. However, real change will only happen, if it does, after the next American elections.

By that time Netanyahu will be safely back in the saddle, or so he hopes. And everything else be damned.


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More Bull—-

“Surely it is obvious enough, if one looks at the whole world, that it is becoming daily better cultivated and more fully peopled than anciently… What most frequently meets our view and occasions complaint is our teeming population: our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements; our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance.”


Is this Al Gore’s acceptance speech of yet another award for saving the world? Wrong guess. Is this some other “environ” trying to make us feel guilty for existing? Wrong again. It is Quintus Septimius Florens Tertulianus, AKA Tertullian. He was a Christian author who flourished at the time of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius around 160 A.D. As best we can estimate, the number of humans on earth probably stood at about 200 million. That is approximately 4 percent of today’s figure. Paolo Malanima, a historian who specializes in ancient Roman technology, estimates that per capita consumption of energy was probably 15-20 percent of what it is now. Assuming the figures are more or less correct, the reader is invited to calculate by how much the total use of energy has increased since then.

Fast forward to 1880. At that time Britain was still the world’s largest manufacturing country, though the U.S and Germany were catching up. But how long could the mineral energy sources that had fueled the industrial revolution since the eighteenth century last? Enter William Thomson, AKA Lord Kelvin, one of the nineteenth century greatest scientists. No mere academic, he had a hand in almost every major technological enterprise from the laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable down. Today he is remembered above all for formulating the first and second laws of thermodynamics. From his post at Glasgow he sounded a warning. “The subterranean coal-stores of the world,” he said, were “becoming exhausted.” As a result, the day was approaching when “little of [them] is left.” The answer, he thought, lay in windmills.

Since then, probably not a generation has passed when assorted experts did not claim that the resources of “spaceship earth”—as one author called it—were being depleted at a rapid pace and that, unless things changed, disaster was inevitable. Here I shall focus on the most-talked about single resource, i.e. oil. My guide in doing so is Daniel Yergin’s The Quest, an 820-page tome on the search for energy that got under way in earnest around 1880 and has lasted to the present day.

The name John Davison Rockefeller (1839-1937) remains familiar to millions the world over as one of the richest people who ever lived. Not so that of his one-time partner John Dustin Archbold (1848-1916). In 1885, alarmed by a geologist’s warning that the flow of oil in Pennsylvania was but a “temporary and vanishing phenomenon,” he sold his Standard Oil shares at a discount. Not that he was ruined. He still remained a director of the company and sufficiently rich to donate $ 6,000,000 to the University of Syracuse. But it was not the same.

Lord (George Nathaniel) Curzon (1859-1925) was a highly successful British statesman who served first as viceroy of India and then as foreign secretary. In the latter capacity he drew the border between Poland and the Soviet Union named after him. Reflecting the common wisdom of the time, at the end of World War I he declared that “the Allied cause [had] floated to victory upon a wave of oil.” In fact it had been oil which, while only available to the Central Powers in very limited quantities, propelled Allied navies, armies, and air forces all over the world. As so often, dependence led to fear. “There seem[s] to be,” said President Wilson at almost exactly the same time, “no method by which we [can] assure ourselves of the necessary supply at home and abroad.”

A similar warning was sounded by Marion King Hubbert (1903-1989). One of the most preeminent earth-scientists of his time, in 1956 Hubbert shook the world with his idea of “peak oil.” Its subsequent career may be judged from the fact that it has almost three million hits on Google.com. Peak oil, Hubbert explained, meant that American oil production would peak between about 1965 and 1970. At that point it would start declining without anybody being able to do anything about the matter. Totally wrong. In 2012 U.S production was four times greater than Hubbert thought it could be. In his favor it must be said that he also pioneered another concept, “hydraulic fracturing,” which formed part of the title of a seminal paper he wrote in 1957. It was partly the development of this technique that has led to the decline in the price of oil over the last few years.

Since then we have gone through two more scares, one—probably the best known of all—during the 1970s and one in 2008-12. Each time prices, driven by tremendous demand as well as sheer speculation, rose to what had previously been considered unimaginable heights. Each time, as the representatives of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Producing Countries) met in Vienna, the world shuddered in anticipation of their fateful decisions.

I am old enough to remember a lecture, held soon after the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The speaker, a highly-respected Israeli economist, assured his listeners that it was not all our, meaning Israel’s, fault. Even if the number of barrels being produced each day were doubled, he said, a shortage would prevail and prices would continue to go up. It took a few years, but he proved to be totally wrong. During this cycle, as during all previous and subsequent ones, a combination of new extraction technologies, conservation and substitution brought about a glut followed by a price collapse.

And—this is the real point of the story—driven by low prices, lack of investment, and growing demand, each time the price recovered.

The Lord of Battles

jesus_is_almightyNormally quoting oneself is a bad idea. An excellent case in point is former Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin. Twice he said that “peace is the beauty of life. It is sunshine. It is the smile of a child, the love of a mother, the joy of a father, the togetherness of a family, it is the advancement of man, the victory of a just cause, the triumph of truth. Peace is all of these and more and more.”

The first occasion was in Oslo on 10 December 1978 when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace. The second was in Washington on 26 March 1979 when he signed the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. The first time he was going through what he himself used to call one of his “Shakespearean Moments.” The second, though identical, was pure kitsch.

51sWnZN4nPLI cannot compete with Begin as an orator. Nevertheless, given what has happened in France last week, I feel justified in quoting form my best-known work, The Transformation of War (1991). Not because I like my own voice; normally I do not care to look at my published books. But because the following passage still provides the best description of what I consider the future is going to be like.

“From the vantage point of the present, there appears every prospect that religious attitudes, beliefs, and fanaticisms will play a larger role in the motivation of armed conflict than it has, in the West at any rate, for the last 300 years. Already as these lines are being written the fastest growing religion in the world is Islam. While there are many reasons for this, perhaps it would not be so far-fetched to say that this very militancy is one factor behind its spread. By this I do not merely mean to say that Islam seeks to achieve is aims by fighting; rather, that people in many parts of the world—including downtrodden groups in the developed world—are finding Islam attractive precisely because it is prepared to fight…

If the growing militancy of one religion continues, it almost certainly will compel others to follow suit. People will be driven to defend their ideals and way of life, and their physical existence, and this they will be able to do only under the banner of some great and powerful idea. That idea may be secular by origin; however, the very fact that it is fought for will cause it to acquire religious overtones and be adhered to with something like religious fervor. Thus Muhammad’s recent revival may yet bring on that of the Christian Lord, and He will not be the Lord of love but that of battles.”

Need anything be added?