Sunday, November 29, 2020

Beyond Heavens

Orion Belt

by Davide De Martin, Digitized Sky Survey, ESA/ESO/NASA FITS Liberator. 

This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-USGov-NASA}}

Growing up with astronomy as an interest was some preparation for dealing with current fantasies in public communications. Although astronomers see very little of the oblivion they relentlessly probe, they often develop remarkable theories to understand the unexplained and what might feel unexplainable.

Gazing into the heavens is serious business though. These generally-trusted scientists don't confuse theory and myth. For example, shining brightly in the night sky is the welcome constancy of the planet Venus. Named for the goddess of love, a tangible value of Venus is to help navigators by pointing to the constellation Orion, the hunter. 

Orion, as we know, is also something of a bright light in mythology who has attracted varying interpretations. He had what could be called an encounter with Artemis during his quest for one of the seven nymphs sent by Zeus to guard her. Now, Artemis is the Greek equivalent of the Romans' Diana, and both were goddesses of the hunt (your choice on who to follow, I guess).

This was fascinating to the Ancients and apparently also got the interest of some astronomers with dual devotion to mythology and science. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed the gods played with we mere mortals. In subsequent centuries, apart from the withering vine of astrology and the never-say-die occultists, mostly astronomers and other mere mortals have agreed that the gods and their colluder representations in the sky above us are illusions. 

Astronomers see that the forces and matter of the real universe are massive, observable, magnificent, and often beyond our grasp. At first glance, the scale might feel similar when viewing the fantasies of stoked fears, greed, and even apathy that perpetuate populist politics.

The myths are large, the outrage of conspiracy theories are galactic in size, both colorful and gaseous in composition. Just looking at and recording their aberration sure doesn't help. 

At human scale, comedy can be a usefully quick comeback. More enduring is to build systematic education in both values and analytic ability. 

Regardless of whether or not what our leaders say is truthful, lawful, and just, apparently "voters are increasingly drawn to leaders who can make difficult, complex problems easier to understand with intuitive, confident answers." This is according to a 2019 worldwide study of long-term trends in politics and culture, cited in Proceedings National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 116, No. 9, pp. 3476-81) edited by Stephen Pinker. This study further notes that a decline in analytical communication style began around 1980.

Do I need to mention again that this was noted to be a worldwide trend (at least, in English-speaking nations)? So, the time for action is yesterday.

Of course, if the world wants to keep waiting out the passing of the equivalent of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, that's an option, just not a good one in these precipitous times.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Catnip Curse

Black and white cat
by Rosendahl, This image is in the Public Domain.

Germaine Greer described herself during an Address to the National Press Club of Washington DC, on 18 May 1971, as a "media freak." Her comments were certainly catnip for the media. She was promoting her just released book The Female Eunuch. Yes, now about half a century ago.

She urged women to invent new ways to deal with the truly violent man. Rather than learning karate, she pointed out that karate or other rule-based reactions don't work against the genuinely violent. 

Greer shrewdly observed that the genuinely violent doesn't muck about with Marquess of Queensberry rules; rather he uses "a broken bottle, a wheel brace, a tire lever or an axe. He does not see the fight through, but seeks to end it quickly by doing as much harm as he can as soon as he can," she said.

Any of us observing the genuinely amoral might get the analogy. Whether you are dealing with an amoral person physically or otherwise, it's best to know that the norms of karate or boxing or equivalent conventional rule-based schema don't apply.

When your opponent lacks stability and is obsessed with self-preservation, these character flaws function like catnip. You might get opportunity for just one response. And, you better hit the right spot so to speak; per another sporting analogy, you better not be counting on a "Hail Mary." 

To reframe this as a fable: A cat will lay in wait sometimes for days observing the patterns of one scurrying mouse. Put catnip into the mix and all semblance of rules leave the scene. So maybe it will help to think of your genuinely amoral, not stable opponent as being about as predictable as a big cat on catnip. How will you deal with this, without being able to count on the equivalent of Animal Control?

As Aesop might say: The true leader proves him/herself by his/her qualities.