There is nothing you can do better than a computer. Even playing video games.

It’s normally a few times a week that I look around incredulously and say to myself  “Wow. I am in the future.” Perhaps its the increasing understanding of genes (and therefore control over life) that will do it. Or nanobots shaped like ninja stars that are going to replace traditional biopsies.

Also, make it much easier for a ninja to impersonate a doctor.

Also, make it much easier for a ninja to impersonate a doctor.

The thing that gets me to take notice can have a profound impact on how I perceive the future’s course in the coming decades. Sometimes, I’m left feeling very hopeful and drinking the transhumanist kool-aid and others I find my Luddite hackles raised. Usually, this is based off of a fear of some immediate and change to my life on a practical level. However, I don’t believe that anyone can argue for a practical application with the thing that shocked me into that zukunftgeist this morning. It’s often as these things become mundane and trivial that they begin to have the biggest impact.

There is a computer that can beat Super Mario Bros. By programming in all the rules and variables, the computer literally solves the game, by calculating all possible moves to minimize damage to Mario and maximize its score. This is a pretty minor accomplishment in the annals of computing.

However, it is pointing out a fact about computers: As long as we can model something correctly with mathematics, these silicon brains can do it perfectly. It’s not impossible to imagine that once a more full understanding of the human genome is reached and properly modeled, that the trial and error approach to pharmacology will be unnecessary. Finding a new drug would be as simple as putting all the rules and parameters of a disease into a computer and letting it generate an ideal drug or genetic therapy for each individual patient.

Futurism and the probable end of the pharmaceutical industry aside, there is really nothing new here.  But here’s why just because it’s nothing new, it’s still important: Because there are less things that I can do uniquely as a human being each decade.  It’s even harder to justify your aging information skill set when you can’t even play video games better than an inanimate piece of silicon and metal, running through an algorithm. Even surgeons are replaceable.

I’m not afraid of AI. I think it’s foolish to look at AI in any other way than as extensions of ourselves and our species. However, part of me is still feeling a little obsolete. Maybe it’s because I’m in an industry that has taken a huge shellacking at the hands of machines. Lawyers, especially entry level lawyers, are decreasingly necessary for practicing the law effectively. What used to take dozens of associates slaving through court reporters is now replicable with a WestLaw subscription. No need to train, mentor, or buy health insurance for an algorithm.

"Correction, human resources primate. My only 'pre-existing condition' is superiority."

“Correction, human resources primate. My only ‘pre-existing condition’ is superiority.”

Hopefully, when the machines are capable of thinking, we’ll imbue them with enough of a sense of compassion to let their parents think that we’re still relevant. That we’ll be equal partners in name, at least. Because otherwise, the feelings of species-wide inadequacy could take society to some weird places.

Human, Thy Name is Ecosystem

A little short background: I spend every hour of my shifts interacting with the elderly.  And while this work provides ample time to study for biology and bar exams, I am constantly using every available disinfectant that will not strip my skin off my flesh in an effort to transfer as few germs from my job into my body as possible. I clocked an average of 20 Purell squirts per shift last week. That’s probably not enough. However, the experience has taught me a few things. Not just the moment of laziness that taught me hand sanitizers make terrible surface cleaners (they contain moisturizers that turns into a sticky residue when the alcohol dries). But exposure to the constant threat of disease for the past 4 months has forced a little research, which revealed  a few things about bacteria and the staggering way that these simple little colonies are so important

Unless you are reading this in some bizarre circumstance, you are currently surrounded on all sides by bacteria. Right now, there are thousands of bacteria per square inch on the keyboard or mouse you are touching. You can wipe them down really quick if you’d like. You are basically rubbing your hands in the sweaty palms of everyone that shook the hand of the people who share the keyboard with you. While you have the cleaner, give a quick wipe down for your cell phone. It is statistically the filthiest thing you’ve rubbed against your face today.

Bad news, though. Because not only have scientists determined that our most trusted accoutrements are 100’s of times more inviting for bacteria than a public toilet seat, they’ve discovered a world that lives on you. For all these millions of invaders, you are pretty unlikely to get sick from these bacteria-ferrying totems of modernity, short of some catastrophic hygiene failure. (I’m looking at you, person reading this on a smartphone in a restroom stall.) Around 1 trillion  bacteria call your skin home. In fact, microbiologists from the Human Microbiome Project have created a helpful map of your skin bacteria’s various neighborhoods.

Your skin’s demographics.

The process by which these bacteria colonize the outer surface of pretty much everything on earth is routine enough that one might call it organized. Let’s use a friendly and useful example. Colonies of Staphylococcus Aureus (delightful little fellows that look like bunches of grapes under the microscope) lives in biological equilibrium on nearly every human’s skin and around nasal cavities from time to time, empires growing and dividing, in competition for the chemical energy stored in our skin cells’ refuse. 1 in 5 people has permanent colonies, but generally they’re quite transient. The reasons that some people carry permanent colonies and others do not is a question posed by microbiologists in the growing study of human flora, the symbiont bacteria that live with human beings. (No one is sure exactly why.)

Your friend with a permanent colony, being a human being and given to human behavior, just itched her nose. This scraped off a tiny piece of her S. Aureus colony and colonized under her fingernails with it. Many bacteria are very well-suited to living in this crevice, and there is reason to believe that the colonies of illness-causing bacteria around the claws and nails of predators are actually an evolutionary adaptation. Having colonies that cause even superficial injuries to become infected means that prey are going to be slowed down by illness. This makes for more successful hunts in the long term and more hosts for our pathogen colonies. For an example of a claw-borne biological weapon on an animal in many Western homes, you may want to do a little light research on Cat Scratch Disease (Bartonella). Be warned, some of the images that search yields may be a bit disturbing and make you want to put your cat up for adoption.

He knows what a monster he is.

In line with this S. Aureus-toting friend’s irresponsible nature, she forgot her cell phone and needs to borrow yours. As she drags her fingers across glass of your screen to unlock your phone, a few of her personal Aureus colony are transferred to your phone. Here’s the remarkable thing, because while your skin may be predisposed to raising up colonies of bacteria, the gaps between your buttons or main touch surface are not as nutritious and safe as the human body. So the bacteria bring about a more hospitable environment. All living things modify their habitat and bacteria are no exception. So these intrepid explorers colonize the alien surface the only way they can: by creating slime. Stringing together polysaccharides (sugars), lipids (oils), proteins, and glycoproteins (sugar attached to protein), they produce a layer of protective slime for themselves. Our example, Aureus adds its ingredients to the soup that makes up the sticky slime that forms in a screen smudge and invisibly all over the rest of your phone. Then, its environment secure, the colony multiplies in stiff competition with dozens of other colonies for the scant resources of your phone’s surface, until you wipe your phone down with bleach and begin the process anew tomorrow.

If Bacteria could develop eschatology, it would probably involve a lot of bleach-based allegory.

Here’s the problem with Aureus: It’s not always benign. Because, although its worst symptoms is usually just the above colony on your cell phone infecting your skin and forming a pimple, it can become dangerous if it is introduced to a nutrient rich environment with no limit on the colony’s growth. And even though the skin of 20% of humans are a permanent home to this bacteria, it’s also one of the largest killers in hospitals all over the world. Because a colony of Aureus that has colonized the interior of a person’s body, for instance by an unwashed surface making contact with a healing surgery incision, is disastrous. The slime and waste that Aureus produces to protect itself on the harsh environment of a mobile phone is toxic to many human cells and the colony can very easily kill the recovering patient with its toxic living arrangements.

Aereus and other bacteria like it are why doctors and nurses attend classes on how to wash their hands correctly. Because a nose scratch or a quick text can kill a patient. They’re why hospitals spend millions of dollars a year on either their internal laundry or outsource it to services that can properly sanitize that many dirty hospital sheets.  Because a small colony, protected by its slimy coating from improper laundering practices, is all it takes to end a human life. We live in a very delicate balance.

Never mind the things surgeons leave in patients.
There’s a growing awareness in the biology field that bacteria are an necessary component in the functioning of animals, like humans. And one of the most fascinating   The rough break down of the human body’s cell distribution goes something like this: There are 10 trillion cells of what we commonly consider to be ourselves, human cells that store your DNA. On our skin, in the thriving ecosystem of our outermost layers, we have about 1 trillion little hangers on. They spend most of their time growing and starving out, consuming waste. Wait a minute, you may be saying, that means for each ten of the cells in my whole body, there is one bacteria cell. That makes a person 10% bacteria!This is actually wrong, because going purely by the numbers, your body is actually about 90% bacteria cells.
You’re an ecosystem, Harry.
Humans teem with bacteria, inside and out, with 10 little one-celled organisms for each one of our human cells. The vast majority of these little tenants  are very helpful, in their unintentional bacterial way. Helping to digest food and maintaining the right acidic balance, for instance. Like most things in nature, we should be glad our bodies are not a democracy. Otherwise, we would be outvoted to only consume sugary slime and cover ourselves in nutrient rich feces. Actually, I am not entirely sure children and the elderly are not governed by their bacteria, in retrospect.
Reiterating:
Bacteria
It’s like a giant red Pac Man of bacteria is always about to eat you.

Bacteria are luckily pretty small and wimpy compared to your cells, which absolutely dwarf them. In fact, bacteria only make up about 1-3% of your body mass, depending on how many bacteria call you home. That is around 5 pounds (~2 kg.) of bacteria that just swims around in you, keeping you alive in lieu of paying rent. A creatively excellent way to go to jail is claiming 90 trillion dependent bacteria on your tax return.

Heh. Seasonal tax humor.

So maybe all these bacteria aren’t so bad after all. We’d certainly die without them, since we would basically incapable of digesting anything in their absence  Perhaps its time to grab our slimy partner’s by their flagella and work together for a bright future together. Or at least spend the next generation trying to make up for the lack of foresight that defined the 20th Century.

Tower Launch

Luckily, it's cloudy.

courtesy fineartamerica.com

After months of considering the time cost-benefit of starting a blog, I was finally stirred to action by a mixture of factors recently.

The first was the beginning and growth of my friend Justin Blanset’s emergent Rockets and Regs about the confluence of science and law. Seeing a mind I quite admire synthesizing two disparate fields of expertise in enjoyable articles was inspiring over the past few months. Ultimately, it gave me faith that I can even shallowly handle the topics that this site ambitiously hopes to contain.

The second was the excellent and inspiring Get Busy Living’s 10 Reasons to Start a Blog Today. It certainly brought up the most important element of writing something akin to this site that I had not considered, that is, the social aspect. The part of the activity that revolves around others sharing and re-synthesizing my ideas, just as I do with others.

Yet another factor even more recently was my rather coincidental stumbling on the whimsical but poignant Cult of Done Manifesto. While I’m hardly a manifesto-thumping adherent, I am something of a Cafeteria Done-ist. There is a great satisfaction to completion and this is going to be an ongoing thing getting done.

My creative partners have, on various occasions, told me to write a blog for  several reasons. Catherine E. Kovach, storyteller and literary agent, has been a major proponent of the philosophy of writing as a muscle that must be worked out or else atrophy. This is the first thing I have completed for public consumption that contained over 140 characters in a while and I feel the sinew creaking right now.

The final impetus was the martial mystagogue and fellow historian, Damien Wright who responded to my musing about starting this project that I should “Get on it. Pronto.”

And that leave us here, with the philosophy statement of this blog: I have a deep love for ideas and the words that express them. This blog is my exultation of those things that I love, with the hope that others might read and enjoy them with me.

Since this is basically credits for something still in its infancy, I am going to keep it brief. This is not so much a praising of what hasn’t happened yet, as much as a note left for myself and fellow flyers, to be looked back upon and reckon from whence I came.

The sea and sky in front me and the tower of not writing is getting more claustrophobic daily.

I’m kicking off now.

Liberation Theology, Fertility, and the Real Story of Easter

In light of the current holiday season and since this blog was midwifed by a discussion of the Easter/Ishtar connection, I thought that it would make an excellent first topic. But a lot of Easter’s celebrants are actually kind of unsure as to its specifics. When is it? What is with the eggs?


Exactly like this.

Easter has a distinction of being one of the few modern Western holidays that functions on a lunisolar basis. (Given there are a lot of holidays that use Easter as a determining date.) That is, it takes its cues from the phases of the moon as well as the dates of the seasonal solar calendar. This is because it matches up with Passover, the Jewish festival that Jesus Christ died during. This is one of the factors that all of the Christian accounts of Jesus’ ministry have in common. Easter falls on the Sunday following the first full moon following the Spring Equinox. This is why sometimes people refer to Easter as “early” or “late”; it isn’t. It’s just functioning on a mixture of Bronze Age, Iron Age, and contemporary calendars. But let’s go back to the festival that gave rise to Easter.

Passover is its own bag of fire and brimstone. As we all know, this fertility festival celebrates the continuation of the fecundity and traditions of the Jewish people. It’s one of the more uplifting narratives in the Pentateuch, where the god of the slaves of Egypt came to their aid in a trying time and led them to freedom. It commemorates that the covenant between Abraham and his God is unbroken with an eight day festival and Seder dinner as well as some of the most over-the-top acting possible by mortals.

We were going to use that to drink and water our crops. It's kind of the thing our entire society is based around.

(Paramount Pictures, 1956)

Passover is also deeply rooted in Bronze Age mythology, since the focus of its narrative relies on what is certainly an unhistorical account. The Ancient Egyptians did not keep slaves, though possibly the Hyksos occupiers of Egypt did. Exodus was composed during a period in the history of the Jewish people called the Babylonian Captivity. Because the Babylonians did keep slaves, much like the Egyptians in the story of Exodus. In fact, the people of Judea were enslaved en masse following their military defeat by the Babylonians. According to the biblical account, the Babylonians marched the entire country of Judea to Babylon with no pants on to keep them from escaping. Obviously, the Babylonians were not big on human dignity.

Taken in this historical context, the story of the “Egyptians” getting their comeuppance for enslaving the Jews is very clearly what the Jewish writers of the Pentateuch were hoping would happen to the Babylonians when God got around to it.

This captivity shaped most of the narrative of Exodus and it set up the narrative of the God of the Hebrews as a champion of the downtrodden. Exodus provides a fantastic development in humanity’s relationship to the divine. The god this story shows is not a god of the successful and powerful. It’s a revolutionary god that destroys the unjust slave-owners and brings them low. It’s not hard to see how this conception shaped a lot of early Christianity; a narrative that continued into the formation of Islam. According to Jesus, rich people can’t go to his kingdom and Mohammad ministered to slaves more than the status-quo. Exodus is also a portion of the story where this revolutionary omnipotent god kills a lot of people to make a political point. That’s fine, it’s not like any of his followers have taken that to heart and done the same.

Spanish Inquisition 1601 CE

Dammit.

King David Hotel Bombing 1946

Dammit.

Palestine protest.

HE SHOULD BE IN SCHOOL, DAMMIT.

I’m not saying that this tendency toward religious violence is the fault of the faithful or even the writers of Exodus. But when you live in an occupied nation (whether occupied by Fatamids, the British, or Israelis), there is a framework in the story of Exodus for what the only just outcome is. What would god do? Kill all of the occupiers until his demands are met.

There are a lot of good people that ignore the Bronze Age revolutionary theology (notably Jesus’ supposed ambivalence toward Roman occupation) that came about during the Babylonian Captivity, while still appreciating the compassion of the story. There are just way too many people that haven’t. Many books could be written about the story of the books of the Torah and their intimate connection to the historical period of their collection and recording, but this post is about what gave rise to Easter. But wait, what about this Ishtar?

Fun Fact: Telling a friend to watch this film violates the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Ishtar was a fertility goddess with several aspects, notably that of an underworld goddess and warrior. Variations of her tales can be seen throughout the ancient world. She just happens to be the first account we have of these stories. It is Ishtar who speaks out against the flood that destroys humanity in the pre-biblical account, it is she who commands the monstrous Bull of Heaven that the great hero Gilgamesh slays (The myths of Theseus and Mithras echo this event.), she who is tricked into descending into the underworld (Like Persephone in the Greek pantheon.), and she who rises again more powerful with dominion over life and death. (Like Christ.) At one point in the Epic of Gilgamesh, she threatens the king of the gods, Anu, with destroying the world with a zombie apocalypse and he takes the threat seriously enough to bend to her will. The story of her descent into the underworld is the basis from which the biblical Salome’s  dance of seven veils originates.

This is the Queen of Night relief from the British museum, depicted with the animal symbols of Ishtar, lionesses and owls.

What a resume.

She was associated with the planet Venus in the extremely complicated astrology of the Babylonian faith. The wandering star, she answered to none of the other gods in these early myths and had a reputation for autonomy and unpredictability.

Around the Vernal (Spring) Equinox in mesopotamian faith, like virtually every other civilization in the Northern Hemisphere, there was a fertility festival celebrating the growing season. In Babylon, it became a celebration of the ascendancy of the city hero god Marduk, who slayed the feminine serpent of chaos, Tiamat. During this festival, Marduk’s marriage to the powerful goddess Ishtar was also commemorated. This is a way of associating a fairly recent and local god with a more established and popular goddess. It also associates the death of a chaotic feminine goddess, Tiamat and the male supremacy over an independant goddess, Ishtar. The gender and power implications of this chapter of Ishtar’s mythology are staggering.

Ishtar was a popular deity that was herself probably an amalgam of  several earlier city goddesses in the fertile crescent. Among them certainly is the Sumerian equivalent, Inanna. It’s quite easy to imagine how similar goddesses with disparate domains of fertility, autonomy,  The large number of these deities resulted primarily from isolation. It’s not uncommon to read Bronze age accounts, like those that were edited into the Pentateuch, that treat certain cities belonging to certain gods.

And here, the weakness of our limited sources and distance in time is most important to remember. Ishtar and her component parts were worshipped by hundreds of generations of human beings. Over time, as trade expanded and empires formed in the region, they were combined and amalgamated into larger regional deities. This is a common process in polytheistic faiths, as cultures combine, trade, and unify in a world that has been steadily shrinking since the Agricultural Revolution. It’s called syncretism, or the combination of religious traditions over time. Ishtar, or Astarte as she was known to the Greeks, is the result of this process. Helenistic religion associated Astarte with fertility and warfare, breaking up her qualities into either Aphrodite, Athena, or Artemis when attempting to reconcile her worship with their own faith.

This trading of virtues, ideas, and the synthesis of new concepts among these faiths actually seems to follow a competition trajectory that would not surprise anyone whose heard of memetics. Since ideas are rather hard to measure except through their expression and the historical record is definitely an unscienfic sample, I would not go so far as to claim that sycretism is evidence of meme theory. They are consistent, however. I should note for those who haven’t heard of it that memetics is a theory of idea competition and reproduction with simple tenants but some controversial proponents. It’s an intriguing framework to treat ideas as living things that can reproduce, mutate, and go extinct, however this theory of idea competetion is sometimes taken by pseudoscience to irrational conclusions by those who don’t understand it, not unlike other scientific theories.

I can't be the only person that remembers these guys.

Pseudoscience.

 

The Roman Empire, with its unified language and trade systems, took sycretism to its logical conclusion, combining regional deities into the gods of the official Roman faith. It’s why we find Hebrew inscriptions in niches of temples to Jupiter throughout the Empire. The God of the Hebrews was just another paternal sky god that was, from the Roman perspective, just as entitled to use Jupiter’s temples as Helenes worshipping Zues or Egyptions worshipping Osiris. This culture of syncretism and its facilitation of the spread of Romanized Christianity certainly deserves its own post at some later point. The important thing to remember is that its during this era of pan-Mediterranean syncretism  that Easter was made a Christian holiday.

Five or six days after the Ides of March (Which isn’t just an auspicious day for a coup d’etat; the Ides is the name for the midpoint of every Roman solar month.) was a festival called Quinquatria. This holiday fell on the 20th or the 21st day of March, the vernal equinox for that particular year. It was sacred to Minerva, who was a goddess of warfare and the moon. Owls, night, autonomy, and fertility are all rather disparate aspects associated with Minerva, but common beliefs that echo Ishtar. However, it’s a small leap to directly correlate the two. Because if any correlation was there, it was almost entirely in the hearts of minds in believers. In any case, it was this holiday that was replaced with Easter in the late Empire as it Christianized.

Now, recently, there was an image circulated by the Richard Dawkins Foundation that found me via a muscian friend that gave rise to this article:

The text covered up her cool bird feet.

In doing the research necessary for this post, I was actually quite frustrated with how much oversimplification was necessary to make the leaps this image makes. The kind of leaps that ignore millennia of human history and some of the great evolution of human thought made before the European Enlightenment. Its main argument centers around the pronunctiation similarities. This is somewhat silly, as the languages that Ishtar’s name were written in are all quite dead. We know that the Greeks called her Astarte and roughly how to pronounce Ancient Greek, but any pronunctiation of the name of this name of this goddess as it was spoken is merely educated conjecture.

The RDF can certainly do better to advance understanding than pass along inaccurate and pithy memes. I don’t mean to attack the organization, but I hold those that purport to stand for reason and science to a higher standard than the Westboro Baptist Church.

The Venerable Bede, a Christian historian, claimed that there was another ingredient in this Easter holiday equation. Notably Eoster, a Germanic goddess of dawn and fertility. Much ink has been spilled over whether he was correct or if there even was an Eoster as he describes. Perhaps I’ll save that post for next Easter.

Something we often forget as modern observers of these ancient cultures is how much time everyone, from high priests to slaves, thought about these faiths everyday. Do you know how much space in your mind is taken up with cherished scenes and stories from films and books? Ancient popular religion held many of the same places in the hearts and minds of its followers.

People are not primitive, no matter their culture. They’re very good in the aggregate at dealing with problems in a pretty efficient manner. They are capable of observing and forming complex relationships and patterns, no matter what they set their mind to. And religions are incredibly good at making disparate concepts work very well together, in spite of their logical inconsistencies. So of course there’s only one virginal god of fertility and warfare, she just has many names. And of course she likes the spring-time and of course she likes owls and hold the keys to the gates of life and death. These all make sense because if you start invalidating pieces of this divine personage, then the entire idea of deities comes into question.

One thing is certain: By understanding the roots of these contemporary faiths and their celebration, we can shed the trappings that the people who believed these faiths once needed for survival. And when we no longer prize either ignorance or violence in the name of faith, we can cherish the rich history and excellent virtues these traditions have left us with.

All sources are available for free online as a matter of the Icarus philosophy.