Monday, October 05, 2015

Mars and the Great Stagnation

By now a lot of you may have heard that the director of the new space recruitment film The Martian* was told of the "discovery" of liquid ice on the Red Planet while he was in preproduction for the film. 

This is par for the course; NASA has a prevailing interest in Mars and has been using Hollywood over the years as a propaganda wing to drum up support for a major colonization push (see Mission to Mars, Red Planet, Total Recall, etc). 
Seminal sci-fi director Ridley Scott - the man behind Matt Damon's The Martian - wasn't surprised by NASA's recent findings of water on Mars.
Speaking to Yahoo Movies, the Alien and Blade Runner veteran said that he knew about the discovery "months ago". 
"When I first talked to NASA, we got into all kinds of stuff," he continued. "And I said, 'So I know you've got down there [these] massive glaciers'. 
"And [the NASA representative] said, 'Yeah, that the massive white thing [on the surface of Mars] that gets covered with dust, we think that's ice'. 
"And I said, 'Wow! Does that mean there was an ocean?' Are we right now what Mars was 750 million years ago?' And they went, 'Uh, good question'. So they want to go up there and find out."
Those of us who followed the Enterprise Mission from back in the day weren't surprised by the announcement. I'm sure a lot of us- myself included- already believed the existence of liquid water there was common knowledge. It's hard to sort through all of the nonsense NASA foists on the public, but here again is yet another topic on which Hoagland and crew get bragging rights for being way ahead of the curve. From Newsweek:
Richard Hoagland, co-author of the 2007 New York Times best-seller Dark Mission: The Secret History of NASA and a former NASA consultant, reported in 2000 that his research team had found present-day water on Mars in satellite imagery. 
“It's pretty unambiguous,” he said at the time. “We can see the crack in the crater wall where the liquid started to flow from, and follow a clear flow path down the slope of the crater mound. The flow patch is dark and wet, indicating it may have been only hours old when [Mars Global Surveyor] photographed it.” 
Hoagland and his colleagues have been reviewing NASA’s newly announced findings. “They’re dripping the information out to us very slowly,” says Robin Falkov, Hoagland’s longtime professional and romantic partner. “I truly wonder how fast things will go or can go.”
The water announcement got an enormous amount of preshow hype, leading me to wonder if they were going to announce something that was in fact news. But as it stands, all we get are these agonizingly slow releases of already established information, leading me to wonder if NASA is trying to bore the general public away from the topic.
Whatever else is going on down here- chaos, war, economic upheaval--there are those with the money and clout to make a Mars mission happen. One of these is PayPal-billionaire-turned-21st-Century-Howard-Hughes Elon Musk. He's been talking up Mars to anyone who'll listen. Only problem is that Mars is no place to raise your kids, in fact it's cold as hell. Musk has a plan to change all that:
Musk, a proponent of traveling to Mars, noted that the Red Planet is currently a "fixer-upper" but could be made habitable for humans. 
"First, you're going to have to live in transparent domes, but eventually, you can transform Mars into an Earth-like planet. You can warm it up," he said. 
The warming could happen quickly or slowly, he added. The quick way?"Drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles," Musk said.
Been there, done that. 
But it may finally be the economic chaos and social disorder on this planet that determines the fate of the Mars mission. Despite what some might lead you to believe, the superrich are not invulnerable. In fact they're getting increasingly nervous in the face of the economic chaos they unleashed in their quest for fiscal godhood. Many are buying large scale versions of panic rooms in corners of New Zealand and other remote areas, some are even mulling escaping into orbit when or if the shit truly hits the fan. 
One of the biggest problems they have is that the often very well-armed American middle class is feeling the ground melt away beneath its feet. This isn't a new phenomenon, it's just that all of the illusions thrown up to divert attention from this reality are losing their potency:
The mainstream is finally waking up to the future of the American Dream: downward mobility for all but the top 10% of households. A recent Atlantic article fleshed out the zeitgeist with survey data that suggests the Great Middle Class/Nouveau Proletariat is also waking up to a future of downward mobility: The Downsizing of the American Dream
People used to believe they would someday move on up in the world. Now they’re more concerned with just holding on to what they have. 
The reality is that the middle class has been reduced to the sliver just below the top 5%--if we use the standards of the prosperous 1960s as baseline. 
The downward mobility isn't just financial--it's a decline in political power, control of one's work and income-producing assets.  
The think tanks and NGOs have unleashed all of the divide-and-rule tactics used to keep people constantly fighting one another among ideological/religious/racial/ ethnic/gender/etc lines-- identity politics, political correctness, etc-- but the .01%  know all too well that one of these days some charismatic Spartacus figure will rise up from the mob and unite all of the bickering identity groups against them. It's the prerogative of History. Hence the escape hatches. But some elitists are looking for another solution…

People who bought into the utopian variety of Futurism are all wondering what the hell happened and spend a lot of time looking for scapegoats. But many sociologists will place the blame on the shoulders of "The Great Stagnation," the inevitable return to the mean after a period of technology-driven hyper-growth. 

Moderns take technological growth for granted, but the plain fact is that most of human history was essentially stagnant. 1776 AD wasn't all that fired different technology-wise than 1776 BC. In fact a lot of people would argue it was considerably less advanced in certain quarters. Philosophers throughout the Enlightenment pined for the comfort and splendor of Rome, forgetting that it was unknowable for all but the rich. But still.

Tyler Cowen is the guy who's been out front on this whole Great Stagnation business, and in his view it's responsible for the stagnation in real wages for the American middle class since the 1970s:
The main thesis is that economic growth has slowed in the United States, and in advanced economies more generally, as a result of falling rates of innovation  In Chapter one, Cowen describes the three major forms of "low-hanging fruit": the ease of cultivating free and unused land, rapid invention from 1880 to 1940 which capitalized on the scientific breakthroughs of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the large returns from sending intelligent but uneducated children to school and university. There are potentially two further minor forms: cheap fossil fuels and the strength of the American constitution. 
Cowen concludes, "You could say, 'The modern United States was built at five forms of low-hanging fruit, and at most only two of those are still with us.' Fair enough." While these produced extremely large returns, future advances will be much more incremental. He offers anecdotal and statistical illustrations for this slowdown. In the first, he compares the changes witnessed by his Grandmother with those of his own generation. In the second he cites median income statistics: the rate of growth drastically slowed from 1973 onwards.  
There are those who take the Great Stagnation even further, declaring that we are in fact at the end of the age of scientific breakthroughs. That we are seeing so much fraud and so much phony science hype exactly because Science has hit the wall and no longer has any showstoppers up its sleeve, any rabbits left in the hat:
This is the secret fear that Horgan pursues throughout this remarkable book: Have the big questions all been answered? Has all the knowledge worth pursuing become known? Will there be a final "theory of everything" that signals the end? Is the age of great discoveries behind us? Is science today reduced to mere puzzle solving and adding details to existing theories? Scientists have always set themselves apart from other scholars in the belief that they do not construct the truth, they discover it. 
Their work is not interpretation but simple revelation of what exists in the empirical universe. But science itself keeps imposing limits on its own power... As Horgan makes clear, perhaps the greatest threat to science may come from losing its special place in the hierarchy of disciplines, being reduced to something more akin to literary criticism as more and more theoreticians engage in the theory twiddling he calls "ironic science." 
It could well be that all of that wild quantum stuff that the hippies out of Stanford brought into the mainstream was in fact a false dawn. We've seen little in the way of practical application with it, so much so in fact that so more hard-headed science types dismiss it all as "woo." We saw the whole Higgs Boson thing out of CERN, but I'm not alone in nursing some serious doubts over that alleged discovery. 
I may not understand the science, but I know bullshit when I see it. And those cats have been acting like everything but a bunch of scientists who discovered the secret to all of existence. They seem to want us to forget the whole thing ever happened.
Scientific fraud isn't just for sophomores anymore either- it's gone mainstream. The past few years have seen an epidemic of retractions and peer review scandals, which is probably why you're also seeing the various propaganda efforts (I Fucking Love Science and the rest) as attempts to counter all of the bad press.
But as it happens scientists are beginning to wonder if anyone ever reads their papers, never mind tests their results. The rot has become so pronounced that Richard Horton wrote in the esteemed medical journal The Lancet:
The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get poor results."
But the problem could simply be that Science is spinning its wheels, marking time without great shores to sail to. What may be needed now is a massive public works program in which science would be applied in the field and not just trapped in the lab. Mars would provide generations of scientists all the challenges they could ever ask for, literally forever. Not only scientists but engineers and architects and adventurers as well.

Now, to be clear there is considerable skepticism in some quarters that manned missions to Mars are even possible. That the human body would simply fall apart in the void of space in the long, long weeks it took to get to the Red Planet. And if they did get there, astronauts might well wonder if they died and went to Hell. Well, those are all problems and problems that are going to need fixing.

I think all you need do is look at how the social fabric is faring around you to see how human beings fare in captivity. Because more and more every day the world seems like a nightmare we can't wake up from. And the more urbanized we become the more depressed we become. 

And like small animals in a glass box many of us also seem to cease reproducing. The wonderful sci-fi metropolises in Asia all seem to have devastatingly low birth rates. We need room to roam, frontiers. We're dying in these concrete Habitrails.

And as Stephen Hawking has said, it might be a good idea to start thinking of a backup drive for the human program. 

New Agers may see Earth as a Greek mother goddess but if that prospect doesn't scare the living shit out of them then they don't know their Greek mythology very well. 

Gaia does indeed behave according to form, periodically killing off most of her children in periodic rages. Outside Earth may be currently inhospitable but seeing as how we're overdue for a sixth mass extinction, it might not be a bad idea to try to use some of that science stuff to figure out how we're going to survive that eventuality.

I don't know which faction of the ruling class(es) is going to win out, those who profess enlightened self-interest or those who are just plain selfish. The Cold War is starting up again, only with NATO playing the Andropov-era Soviets. I doubt the USA will continue to exist within its present contours in 20 years from now so who exactly will lead the Martian charge is an open question at the moment.

Some people even believe this new cold war is simply a prelude to a hot war, the kind predicted by Roddenberry and Gibson right around this time. The question becomes if the back end of those predictions will come to pass.

POSTSCRIPT: I had my own battle with Gaia and my continuing lesson in the impotence of science in the face of the "rabid dog" of chronic pain conditions as the passing hurricane and the torrential rains and crushing barometric pressure that trailed in its wake kicked my ass in a major way for several days. I was planning to post this last week but I was almost completely out of commission until, well, today. The thing that gets me though is the mold that seems to bloom everywhere these days. I can't help but laugh at the pollen reports- a walk to the woods at end of my street will show how useless they are. The meek may inherit the Earth but it looks like the mold is challenging the terms of the will.

* That all puts this piece in a new light.