Where’s the XXIst century?

News are bleak right now. Hatred, ignorance and stupidity seem rampant everywhere we look. From brilliant, kind journalists being assassinated in my country to journalists and aid workers (probably equally kind and brilliant) being beheaded in the Middle East, or imprisoned for what they stand for, it seems like the Dark Ages aren’t that far.
Sure, we live in the safest era of mankind, and the one that most respects human rights. But looking back, it’s not very difficult to have a better track record than previous generations.

Stupid people are everywhere, and it’s always been the case. The problem is they’re oppressing “our” people. By “our people” I mean people who have passions, who care about freedom, human rights, knowledge, reason, stuff like that. It is difficult to define, but I would say there are two good criteria to judge on which side you are: you 1)Read a lot and 2)Are interested in a lot of things, including “deep subjects” (philosophy, geopolitics, astrophysics, you name it). Otherwise, chances are you’re in the “stupid” camp. “Our people” is still a minority, despite the fact that we imagined the XXIst century as being the century of reason, where people would be freed from tedious labor and could spend their time pursuing the pleasures of the mind.
And as most minorities, it is, or rather, we are, being oppressed.

Two examples of this: how science is treated; and in a broader context, how human rights are attacked basically everywhere on Earth.
Scientific research’s independence and funding are perpetually targeted by the morons who govern us. There is so much short-term thinking that doing research as a paid professional is becoming harder and harder. To have freedom, and soon, funding, you’ll have to become an amateur researcher, a researcher who isn’t tied to an institution where bureaucracy is everywhere and funding absent. In some disciplines, this is already the case.
Scientific progress is being slowed by conservative, short-term thinking, as an article in The Baffler brilliantly observed. This is nothing new, as Bacon observed 400 years ago: “For the rewarding of scientific achievement and the performing of it are not in the same hands. The growth of the sciences comes from high intelligence, while the prizes and rewards of them are in the hands of the common people, or of ‘great’ persons who are nearly all quite ignorant.” But we could expect a better situation four centuries after Bacon’s Novum Organum (from which this quote was taken) was published…
Do we want researchers to be relegated to the margins of society? To be hobos, like in Fahrenheit 451?

If we look at human rights, it ain’t pretty either. I can’t think of any country that really, really respects human rights. So called “free countries” of which the US and France are supposed to be a part of, are suffocating liberty with regulations, mass surveillance, intimidation… A few examples? The drug war, the NSA/GCHQ and DGSE surveillance states, the CIA, etc… And as more and more of our lives “move” online, governments have way too much power over them with their massive, criminal surveillance apparatus. And we in the West are lucky compared to the rest of the world. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live in China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Mexico, (the list could go on with most of the countries of the world) where your basic human rights are regularly denied by state or criminal entities.
Settling this broader context of human rights violations would allow us to finally act as a species rather than as religious or nationalist sects.
A quote from Zoltan Istvan’s book The Transhumanist Wager sums up both the human rights and scientific research issues quite nicely: “Why any nation would spend 500 times the money on its military over its science was not only asinine, it was also tyrannical.”

We should fight to improve this situation. Heck, to radically change it.

The basic prerequisite to be able to live in a “knowledge society” is universal and total respect for human rights. This implies global peace and education. Peace is achievable only when people have access to a secular, neutral education. Thus we need to fight for education to be accessible, but more importantly, unbiased and not manipulated by governments or churches to create nationalist or religious youths. Russia is an example of an affordable education system where endoctrinement is rampant. Education needs to be humanist and secular.
A knowledge society, where, as a species, we’re focusing on pushing the human race forward, obviously requires peace.

It may also benefit from having a kind of World Government (an efficient and minimal one, more Star Trek than the United Nations…), which is only possible if we fight nationalisms and ethnic and religious sectarianism. A World Government would only be useful under certain conditions though:
First, it would need to be a minimal, secular government, focused on science and exploration (as well as the usual things; like environmental protection and human rights). In other words, instead of wasting trillions of dollars on the DoD, most of this money would be poured into NASA, or rather, IASA (for International instead of National), and on other scientific institutions. We have lots of ressources, but we keep spending them on the corrupt militaro industrial complex, surveillance industrial complex, etc… while we could also be absolutely safe and redirect this money toward interesting things, like science and exploration… (Many people don’t consider these “interesting things”, but as I’ve said above, you know, essentially, fuck them).
Second, the World Government should be a kind of libertarian-ish gov, not getting involved in the economy, (many libertarians will argue government shouldn’t get involved in environmental protection or science; I disagree with that) and not restricting individual rights. Free trade and human rights should be the basis of the World Government.

It’s a pretty simple vision but a terribly difficult one to achieve. Mass education is necessary and we’re very, very far from getting there. But that’s the kind of world I think we should fight for if we want peace, justice, and thus have a lot more freedom and ressources to be able to push the human race forward, to explore the universe, etc…
The problem is… people are generally not very interested in that. Either for a lack of interest or education, or just because they disagree with this vision. Just look at what’s happening in the world right now and it’s not difficult to see that people who share this vision are a minority.
So sure, we should keep fighting for peace, justice and education, as well as for more science budget and independence (and against bureaucracy). But the truth is, it’ll take an enormous amount of time before our voices are heard and acted upon.

OR, people who care about freedom, reason, innovation, progress, science, could unite and tell governments and the rest of the world to fuck off.

Scientists, but also human rights campaigners, educated people, – basically, “our people” – have always felt like citizens of the world. Scientists since the Renaissance and the advent of international correspondance have disregarded national boundaries and considered themselves part of the “Scientific Community”, an international community of like minded individuals: philosophers, naturalists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians…
The Internet has made it even easier to feel like a citizen of the world. We can communicate in real-time with like-minded people from around the globe and form virtual communities with them.
However, as we’re all living in heavily regulated environments, if not in dictatorships, “virtual” communities aren’t enough anymore. Scientists used to enjoy, even under authoritarian governments, a certain amount of freedom inside their institutions, but these institutions are now infiltrated by bureaucrats who restrict academic freedom tremendously.
So we’re maybe the biggest community on Earth without a country?

As some Silicon Valley CEOs have suggested, setting aside a part of the world where like minded people could gather and experiment freely would be nice. Google CEO Larry Page compared such a place to Burning Man, where you are free to join and leave when you want. Balaji Srinivasan of Y Combinator (the startup incubator) described it as an “inverse Amish” community, where people are technophiles rather than technophobes, and where they are free from the regulations imposed by the US government.
Add to these idealized communities scientists (not just computer scientists), freedom lovers, etc… and you get the kind of place I’d like to live in.
There is no such community on Earth. The closest places we have to this kind of utopia are Silicon Valley and scientific institutions, where innovation and open-mindedness are encouraged, where the focus is on pushing the human race forward. (Okay, there are also a lot of stupid startups in Silicon Valley as well as a significant number of assholes, but overall it’s pretty great).

How can we create this utopian place? By definition, it’ll be pretty hard – utopias are naturally unachievable -, but it’s worth trying.
Buying an island, as some have suggested (or even tried), isn’t a very good idea, since every piece of land is claimed by one or multiple states. You can set up shop there, but it won’t be pretty when they SWAT you because you’re infringing one of their stupid laws (like, say, drug prohibition).
There’s seasteading, too. Building floating city-states looks kinda cool, but again, not being harassed by other states would be tough (what keeps the US from raiding your floating city?). However it seems like the only possibility (apart from space colonies, but these are a bit more into the future) we have to secede from states and governments we do not recognize.
The founder of the Seasteading Institute, which researches the technological and legal implications of seasteading, Patri Friedman, described the concept in an interview with Reason Magazine as follows: “We just want to create a laboratory for experimenting with social contracts, and a world in which people are free to create societies with groups of like-minded compatriots. The details of those societies are up to you.” It sounds really nice to me. That’s freedom. And if seasteads are possible, maybe some people will be willing to start a community like the one I describe in this essay?
In the same article, the business side of seasteads was also addressed: “seasteading isn’t just based in libertarian theorizing and hopes. Friedman knows that seasteds will need to have some business hook, and he’s busy working those angles. There’s SurgiCruise, a nascent floating medical tourism company that is seeking venture funding. If americans will fly to Mexico, India, or Thailand for cheaper medical care free of US regulatory costs, the idea goes, why wouldn’t they sail 12 miles [into International waters] for it? Among the other first-tier business ideas being bruited about with varying levels of intensity are vacation resorts, sin industries, aquaculture, deep sea marina services, and universal data libraries free of national copyright laws [a personal favorite].” Being recognized as sovereign by the international community will be tough! However, seasteads offer us the opportunity to create physical communities, or even states, defined by an “ideology” (a gathering of like-minded people), rather than by a territory, and that is worth a try.

Our seastead would have an anti-religion, secular state, governed by reason. Everyone would be provided with a Basic Income so that they are free to follow their passions rather than try to survive doing jobs they don’t like.
Our government would be libertarian-ish. Not absent, but kept to a minimum, and involved in science as a backer, but not as a bureaucratic manager.
It would be responsible for our security (heavily controlled and kept to a minimum army and police forces) and justice (protecting individuals from each other, enforcing contracts).
Regarding the economy, our government would be very discreet, since without overregulation, monopolies and other issues shouldn’t be a problem.
Our government would fund science without being a bureaucratic burden.
It would protect the environment. That’s a point where I disagree with most libertarians, who think environmental issues are a private matter the state has no reason to get involved in. I think it misses the point. Constructing and operating a coal plant on your private property is not a private matter, since it’s not only affecting yourself!
If you pollute the air, or a river, it’s not a private matter. People are going to be affected by your actions. That’s why I think environmental protection is definitely something that should fall into the “justice” category of things our government would do.
Just to clarify, animal rights: not a private matter. Animals aren’t objects. They need some kind of statute so you can’t harm sentient creatures (mammals, mostly, but that’s for science to decide). Saying you can torture a cat because it’s yours is just dumb. The cat can’t hire a lawyer, sure, but it has feelings and some intelligence, so you should consider it as some kind of individual. But I digress.

A minimal government, a truly free society which focuses on innovation and science, on pushing the human race forward. Basically, a XXIst century state. A physical incarnation of the Cyberspace for which Barlow drafted a Declaration of Independence?

It’s either that, or we keep tolerating tyrants making Aaron Swartz, Edward Snowden, Ross Ulbricht-style examples out of us, we keep tolerating our tax money being wasted on corrupt companies to buy things we objectively don’t need, we keep tolerating our governments ignoring human rights and oppressing us.

Fuck them, let’s build this thing.

Science is not a political tool

Yesterday, NASA announced it would cease works and even communications with its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, except for their work on the International Space Station.

Although I agree Russia’s moves in Ukraine are totally wrong, and that Russia is an authoritarian country, the United States and especially Obama’s administration are in no place to criticize Putin, since American imperialism is alive and well, and also because extremely violent dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia are strongly supported by the US. So Obama taking any measure against Russia is ridiculous. And this one is simply wrong, outrageous, terrible. Even during the Cold War, some kind of collaboration between NASA and Roscosmos was possible. It greatly helped to reconcile the two great powers to have common manned missions, or at least it helped both countries with Press Relations. Astronauts and cosmonauts have always, even during the Cold War had great relationships -The Verge quoted Frans von der Dunk, a space law professor, saying “the astronauts and cosmonauts were always appreciative of each other’s achievements” – the Space Race was more political than scientific, and still Russian and American scientists were excited by their achievements but also by the other camp’s.
Oh, and if I were Russia I’d totally threaten the US to refuse to bring American astronauts back on Earth from the ISS, as the US is totally dependent on Russia for manned missions. That would be funny.

If the US wants to take sanctions on Russia, so be it. But the last sanction possible is stoping science and technology collaboration. And that’s the first one the Obama Administration has taken!

Charles Bolden, NASA’s administrator, is probably supportive of this measure (more on that in a minute), but of course such a decision needs the approval of the President, so it was probably Obama’s idea; Bolden and Obama are pushing Congress to fund and extend NASA manned-missions budget so that it can bring back manned launches to American soil by 2017 with United Launch Alliance (a Boeing-Lockheed co-venture), Space X and Orbital Sciences. Stopping collaborations between NASA and Roscosmos is a way for Bolden and Obama to remind Congress of the US’ dependence on Russia for manned missions to the ISS.
It’s interesting to bring back manned launches to the US for one reason: cost. ULA, Space X and Orbital Sciences will eventually propose cheaper prices than Russia’s Soyuz, and it will save NASA money. But if the cheapest way to send astronauts to the ISS were with a russian company, NASA should work with it; space exploration should be above politics and international cooperation should be the norm (or, in case of tense situations, a necessary evil). So the cheaper we can make space exploration the better, whether the launchers are american, russian, japanese, indian, european, or chinese. This is not what NASA’s move reflects at all. It sends a message of scientific collaboration being conditioned by politics: essentially, no matter how it affects scientific research and space exploration, we want NASA to not be dependent on Roscosmos because it’s a russian agency. This very “House of Cards” kind of attitude to pressure Congress is disgusting, because it impedes scientific collaboration.

We never stop science. When we stop collaborating on scientific research with a country, we completely deny the existence of scientists there. We deny the fact that there exists people who, despite being from different countries that may be in very complicated terms with ours, want to advance the human species as a whole, who want to advance science, to make discoveries. A scientist is a scientist, whether he’s from the US, Russia, China, Cuba, the UK, etc. All scientists can work together because what unites them is the drive to push humankind forward. This goal is well beyond any kinds of politics.
NASA asks its employes to not even email their russian colleagues. How outrageous is that. Does it imply that all russian scientists agree with Vladimir Putin? Does it imply that they all support their government? Does it imply that russian scientists are ennemies? If scientists as individuals have different opinions, science is politically neutral. There isn’t an American science and a Russian science. There’s just Science.
This decision to cease work with Roscosmos could seriously delay future robotic missions to explore our solar system – for example a mission to Europa. If we want to discover more things about our Universe, we need everybody’s contribution, especially Russia’s.

I hope NASA’s employees won’t follow their orders. Guys, continue working, you are doing an outstanding job, but your Russian colleagues are, too,  so don’t stop talking to them. Perhaps use your personal email adresses to reach them, but don’t let politics get in the way of your fantastic work.

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Voyager 1 has left the Solar System. And it’s awesome.

Today NASA announced that data from Voyager 1 likely (and finally) indicate that it has left our Solar System and entered interstellar space.

This is a deep, inspiring, emotional video

Voyager is the greatest ambassador of humanity in the cosmos, carrying a few sounds, pictures, in its Golden Record. A time capsule of mankind. As Suzanne Dodd, Project Manager of the mission, said beautifully “we are traveling along with Voyager as it continues on this journey of discovery”. Even if it’s a baby step toward launching our knowledge in space as a message to other civilizations, it’s amazing.

The 36 years old probe is on its way to the stars ! One day, we can hope another civilization finds this little, scratched probe and wonders what kind of species we are/were.

The Project Managers of the Voyager Mission, Ed Stone and Suzanne Dodd, Carl Sagan, deserve a Nobel Peace Prize, as they sent a message of peace and unity for all mankind to the vastness of the Universe, for any other civilization to read.

Ed Stone
Ed Stone
suzanne_dodd-full
Suzanne Dodd. See the passion in their eyes?

We should celebrate the fact that our species is capable of creating such things and we should launch new missions to explore our Universe and send messages to the stars. We should celebrate the fact that this spacecraft has been doing science for 36 years and counting (even if it’s kind of an obsolete device now, it’s still providing immensely valuable data, enriching our Knowledge).

Finally, I have to say Voyager is everything I love about space exploration: a time capsule of our civilization, and a beautiful, awesome tool to augment our knowledge of the cosmos.

When looking at the sky on a clear night, we should be thinking: woah, there’s actually a piece of our culture this far. There’s actually a piece of us traveling to the stars.

The next time you look at the stars, give Voyager 1 a wave of the hand, a wink, whatever. Pay respect to this little guy!

And now, seat back, relax, and enjoy the flight to the next star (it’ll last 40 000 years)!

Have a safe trip V'ger
Have a safe trip V’ger