Monthly Archives: December 2014

ghosts of Christmas future

As Christmas nears for my three grandchildren, I wondered what the next 25 years will hold in store for them. 

Obviously the idea of a train set around the base of the tree is no longer valid. 


Railroads Seek One-Person Crews for Freight Trains



What do we expose our toddlers to in hopes that they will seize upon an interest that will serve them and fuel an educational inquiry and make them broadly more intelligent in a way that will result in a successful life’s engagement? 

I consulted the great oracle of the day (the search engine) and turned up this now-three-year-old UK article with 20 predictions for the next 25 years. 

You can read it through for yourself. I’ve zeroed in on the several of the ghosts of Christmas future, and added some emphasis and notes:


6 Neuroscience: ‘We’ll be able to plug information streams directly into the cortex’

By 2030, we are likely to have developed no-frills brain-machine interfaces, allowing the paralysed to dance in their thought-controlled exoskeleton suits. I sincerely hope we will not still be interfacing with computers via keyboards, one forlorn letter at a time.

I’d like to imagine we’ll have robots to do our bidding. But I predicted that 20 years ago, when I was a sanguine boy leaving Star Wars, and the smartest robot we have now is the Roomba vacuum cleaner. So I won’t be surprised if I’m wrong in another 25 years. Artificial intelligence has proved itself an unexpectedly difficult problem.

Maybe we will understand what’s happening when we immerse our heads into the colourful night blender of dreams. We will have cracked the secret of human memory by realising that it was never about storing things, but about the relationships between things.

Will we have reached the singularity – the point at which computers surpass human intelligence and perhaps give us our comeuppance? We’ll probably be able to plug information streams directly into the cortex for those who want it badly enough to risk the surgery. There will be smart drugs to enhance learning and memory and a flourishing black market among ambitious students to obtain them.

Having lain to rest the nature-nurture dichotomy at that point, we will have a molecular understanding of the way in which cultural narratives work their way into brain tissue and of individual susceptibility to those stories.  [Ed.: Very interesting, Will Robinson… undoubtedly the propaganda machine —and its master the national security state —are already on the way to mastering these.]

Then there’s the mystery of consciousness. Will we finally have a framework that allows us to translate the mechanical pieces and parts into private, subjective experience? As it stands now, we don’t even know what such a framework could look like (“carry the two here and that equals the experience of tasting cinnamon”).

That line of research will lead us to confront the question of whether we can reproduce consciousness by replicating the exact structure of the brain – say, with zeros and ones, or beer cans and tennis balls. If this theory of materialism turns out to be correct, then we will be well on our way to downloading our brains into computers, allowing us to live forever in The Matrix.

But if materialism is incorrect, that would be equally interesting: perhaps brains are more like radios that receive an as-yet-undiscovered force. [Ed.: The Emerging Mind, ed. by Karen Nesbitt Shanor, PhD, (based on the Smithsonian Institution lecture series on new research into consciousness), Renaissance Books, Los Angeles, CA 1999 is a book that mentioned the finding that there are crystalline receivers among the neurons and synapses in the brain.]

The one thing we can be sure of is this: no matter how wacky the predictions we make today, they will look tame in the strange light of the future.

David Eagleman, neuroscientist and writer 


10 Gaming: ‘We’ll play games to solve problems’

In the last decade, in the US and Europe but particularly in south-east Asia, we have witnessed a flight into virtual worlds, with people playing games such as Second Life. But over the course of the next 25 years, that flight will be successfully reversed, not because we’re going to spend less time playing games, but because games and virtual worlds are going to become more closely connected to reality.

There will be games where the action is influenced by what happens in reality; and there will be games that use sensors so that we can play them out in the real world – a game in which your avatar is your dog, which wears a game collar that measures how fast it’s running and whether or not it’s wagging its tail, for example, where you play with your dog to advance the narrative, as opposed to playing with a virtual character. I can imagine more physical activity games, too, and these might be used to harness energy – peripherals like a dance pad that actually captures energy from your dancing on top of it.

Then there will be problem-solving games: there are already a lot of games in which scientists try to teach gamers real science – how to build proteins to cure cancer, for example. One surprising trend in gaming is that gamers today prefer, on average, three to one to play co-operative games rather than competitive games. Now, this is really interesting; if you think about the history of games, there really weren’t co-operative games until this latest generation of video games. In every game you can think of – card games, chess, sport – everybody plays to win. But now we’ll see increasing collaboration, people playing games together to solve problems while they’re enjoying themselves.

There are also studies on how games work on our minds and our cognitive capabilities, and a lot of science suggests you can use games to treat depression, anxiety and attention-deficit disorder. Making games that are both fun and serve a social purpose isn’t easy – a lot of innovation will be required – but gaming will become increasingly integrated into society.

Jane McGonigal, director of games research & development at the Institute for the Future in California and author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Happy and How They Can Help Us Change the World (Penguin)

[Ed.: I cited McGonigal in this nine-year-old paper on using games to teach communities how to react effectively and efficiently to disaster. ]  


16 Transport: ‘There will be more automated cars’

It’s not difficult to predict how our transport infrastructure will look in 25 years’ time – it can take decades to construct a high-speed rail line or a motorway, so we know now what’s in store. But there will be radical changes in how we think about transport. The technology of information and communication networks is changing rapidly and internet and mobile developments are helping make our journeys more seamless. Queues at St Pancras station or Heathrow airport when the infrastructure can’t cope for whatever reason should become a thing of the past, but these challenges, while they might appear trivial, are significant because it’s not easy to organise large-scale information systems.

The instinct to travel is innate within us, but we will have to do it in a more carbon-efficient way. It’s hard to be precise, but I think we’ll be cycling and walking more; in crowded urban areas we may see travelators – which we see in airports already – and more scooters. There will be more automated cars, like the ones Google has recently been testing. These driverless cars will be safer, but when accidents do happen, they may be on the scale of airline disasters. Personal jetpacks will, I think, remain a niche choice.

Frank Kelly, professor of the mathematics of systems at Cambridge University, and former chief scientific adviser to the DfT


Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas 

and a evolving New Year (4:06) 

Aussie Chocolate Ballad (updated)

Source of image:

Updated at bottom


Musical artists and satirical pundits out there in the world should get busy writing their versions of the Ballad of the Aussie Chocolate Shoppe, perhaps in the genre of the old “talking blues”   . .

[ is available if you need some samples, but maybe Jim Morrison’s model from The Doors is more your style.]

Lots of people are already working on the lyrics  to the Battle of the Aussie Chocolate Shoppe for you.

Aside from the usual mainstream media reports (and this seems to have been made for the media — hell, it was across the street from the TV studio), lots of folks have already chimed in.  “Sydney Siege: Hostage Situation Highlights Islamist Extremism in Australia”, says one, and there are lots of stories about police storming the cafe, and hostages running out with their hands up, and one mentions EMS vehicles. The same stories were available eight hours ago, one of which said the crisis was over then, but maybe these were false reports from a false flag, slip-ups in the media script, or someone decided that it needed to be extended for the morning commute shows in America.

cryptogon broke as I went to bed. was serially updated. is not a jump to a conclusion; it’s only a hop and a skip from one sound observation to another in terms of — and I’m borrowing on Rumsfeld here — known knowns.

Tony Cartelucci chimes in with linked by

Kevin Barrett continues in the satirical frame: has had ongoing coverage, as well as, both of which have the story … surprise, surprise … that counter-rerrorism drills had been run at the same location.

But the lyricists among us should be able to work with the five syllables in Man Haron Monis. He’s the sheik who made women shriek: 22 counts of aggravated sexual assault and 14 counts of aggravated indecent assault.

Sounds like we got us a patsy here.

“Police said the woman, who was 27 at the time, allegedly saw an advertisement for “spiritual consultation” in a local newspaper and contacted Monis. He told her he was an expert in astrology, numerology, meditation and black magic and advised her to visit his clinic.” [That’s gotta be good for at least four verses alone.]

It’s entirely likely that the next Bernaysian ballad will be filmed right in the TV studio…  oh, wait.



Update: Headlines at Google News


Reports: Two dead in fiery end to Sydney siege

Breaking News: Sydney hostage taker among two people killed after cafe siege …


– 10 minutes ago

(Reuters) – The families of nine people killed in an attack on a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school in 2012 filed a wrongful-death lawsuit on Monday against the company that manufactured the gun used in the attack.



Commentary by Sullen Bell:

In a momentary “snapshot” taken at Google News, we catch a glimpse of the conflation of interests, stories and media involvement.  Reuters, whose interests and allegiances are probably well-understood by most, has linked the Australian event with the Newtown event, which this weekend is undergoing a renewed push by the anti-gun crowd amidst a renewed look by many [Fetzer, for example, has a new article, and there was that 2.75-hour documentary…]. I’m sure this is a temporary junior editor’s move that is probably meaningless and will have disappeared, but nevertheless is telling.

Putting The Question

Putting the question

With all the brouhaha about the recent revelations about torture, I thought it might be instructive to reflect on a chunk of the book The Friar of Carcassonne: Revolt against the Inquisition in the last days of the Cathars, written by Stephen O’Shea, and published by Profile Books Ltd. in 2011.

Here’s the overview of the book from the Barnes and Noble listing:

In 1300, the French region of Languedoc had been cowed under the authority of both Rome and France since Pope Innocent III ‘s Albigensian Crusade nearly a century earlier. That crusade almost wiped out the Cathars, a group of heretical Christians whose beliefs threatened the authority of the Catholic Church. But decades of harrowing repression-enforced by the ruthless Pope Boniface VIII , the Machiavellian French King Philip the Fair of France, and the pitiless grand inquisitor of Toulouse, Bernard Gui (the villain in The Name of the Rose)-had bred resentment. In the city of Carcassonne, anger at the abuses of the Inquisition reached a boiling point and a great orator and fearless rebel emerged to unite the resistance among Cathar and Catholic alike. The people rose up, led by the charismatic Franciscan friar Bernard Délicieux and for a time reclaimed control of their lives and communities. Having written the acclaimed chronicle of the Cathars The Perfect Heresy, Stephen O’Shea returns to the medieval world to chronicle a rare and remarkable story of personal courage and principle standing up to power, amidst the last vestiges of the endlessly fascinating Cathar world.

Here’s the author’s biography.

An index on his website has a list of his books as well as links to other articles and reviews he has written. And he has a blog:

Remember when your parents used to pile you and your siblings into the car for a long trip and hand you a stack of MadLibs?

The excerpt I’ll give you is similar in nature.

Call it a MadLib for grown-ups about our national madness.

There won’t be any blanks, of course, but you can play along by substituting words as you think suitable.

Much is been imagined about inquisitorial practice as a sort of malevolent and centralized medieval Department of Homeland Security. In reality, there was no unified inquisition, just individual appointments in certain jurisdictions for varying periods of time. The phantasmagoric “Inquisition” was much of its existence to 19th-century liberal historians whose ideological repugnance toward the practice also informed the work of history painter Jean-Paul Laurens. That inquisition subsequently bleached memorably into popular culture– for example, as both foolish broad comedy (Monty Python) or literary villainy (The Name of the Rose)–only makes clarification more necessary.

At the outset, the rise of heresies in the 11th and 12th centuries– or, rather, the detection then definition of these heresies–put the men of the Church in a quandary as to how to handle forming its own opinion about man’s relation to the divine. When persuasion proved in effective in bringing people back to orthodoxy, which itself was constantly undergoing modification and renovation, Rome looked back to old Rome, to the Empire and institutions of which the Catholic Church came to feel itself the inheritor. Perusal of this authoritarian past focused on the inquisitio, a procedure by which the empires legists hunted down those who were thought treasonous, disloyal, or guilty of some form of classical lese-majeste. The investigator in old Imperial Rome– the inquisitor – searched for evidence, collected testimony, extracted (or didn’t) confession, passed judgment, and in some cases carried out the sentence. There were no adversarial proceedings, no real opportunity for mounting an effective defense or bringing down a prosecutorial argument. In effect, the plaintiff was the imperial state and now, a millennium later, it would be the Imperial Church. A streamlined, rationalized method of repression hereto for far into the medieval mind, an inquisition, or the Holy Office as it came to be called by its supporters, held out many attractions in the changing circumstances of the late 12th century.

The times called for the lawyerly, given the explosive growth of different and competing bureaucracies and courts in the High Middle Ages. States and institutions were aborning, needing to define themselves and their place in the world. The sheer number of heretics had become a major problem, A threat to the worldview of a Christian commonwealth ruled from Rome. And the times were turning toward persecution, not only by the Church but also by agents of kings and their barons. This “formation of a persecuting society” was a deliberate, conscious choice driven by social change and the entry of new actors, particularly literate lay bureaucrats, into the arena of power. The church was far from immune to those currents of thought. A “Christianity of fear” pervaded the period. As one example, the notion of Purgatory, perfected in the 13th century, changed from a sort of benign cotton-cloudy waiting room for souls still sullied by minor sins to a place of unspeakable physical and spiritual torment rivaled only by Hell itself. As a French historian writes: “burdened with the weight of oriental apocalyptic literature, a literature full of fires, tortures, sound and fury; defined by Augustine as the size of punishments more painful than any earthly pain; and given its finishing touches by a church that dispensed salvation but only in fear and trembling, Purgatory had already veered in the direction of Hell.” The thought experiment of Hell itself had been heightened during the same period into a horror show so vivid and terrifying as to stand as impressive testament to the demons resident in the human psyche. Humbert of Romans, whose biography of Dominic became the officially sanctioned life story of the saint, also penned a work in praise of the utility of hell, entitled On The Gift of Fear.

The time was propitious for inquisition, which is not at all to say that papal fiat could make it arise full-blown. A late 12-century Pope issued a bull enjoining bishops to become inquistors, but many lacked the expertise, willingness, revenue, or stomach to launch open-throated campaigns of heretic termination. Further, the idea was a novelty, so it can hardly be expected that these episcopal inquisitions could suddenly Christianize what was a practice from antiquity. Time was needed to make the adjustment, to lay this sacerdotal groundwork, to find the necessary rationalizations.

Some of these last arose from the belief in the Pope’s firm hand on the tiller of Christendom. In the first 15 years of the 13th-century, with the pontificate of Innocent III, a brilliant man inbued with a sense of papal supremacy and capable of organization on a grand scale– as shown in the legislative overdrive of the Fourth Lutheran Council of 1215 – heresy at first proved resistant to argument. The Church’s second rejoinder came as a brutal recourse to arms, as the unfortunates of Lavaur and other Languedoc towns were to learn to their sorrow.  Innocent approved of the innovative founders of the mendicant orders: He dreamed Francis would rejuvenate the Church, and he appointed Dominic to debate the Cathars prior to launching the Albigensian Crusade. While the latter’s mission bore little fruit in the short term, the long-term bequest of Dominic’s actions provided the Church, and future popes, with a cadre of Dominican friars ideally suited to undertake the third, and final, response to heresy; systematic, painstaking inquisition. It was from the Dominicans rather than the Franciscans that the greater number of inquisitors came. Through them and their police work the Church would prevail. The word had been tried first, then the sword– it was now to turn of the law.

The Dominicans were the Order of Friar Preachers, and they melded that location into their new assignment as inquisitors. At the onset of an inquisitio generalis (or fact-finding inquisition) in the early days after Gregory IX’s letter, the inquisitor and his scribes, notaries, and servants would leave the Cite of Carcassonne and descend on the village they had targeted. First a sermon would be delivered to the assembled populace, in which the inquisitor took care to explain through exempla — parables about animals were a medieval favorite – why Cathars were wolves in sheep’s clothing, why heresy was the worst crime of all, and how tolerating heretics of any description, whether Cathars or Waldenses, in the midst of a community endangered everyone’s eternal soul. For the problem, especially recognized in Dominican literature, lay precisely in perception. The people of Languedoc, whether orthodox or not, could plainly perceive that the Cathar clergy, the ascetic, gentle, pacific (or perfected heretics – the Perfect, as they were termed by their enemies) had all the trappings of holiness. The preacher/inquistor faced an uphill battle in what amounted to convincing people not to believe what they could see with their own eyes. He had to establish the idea of a counterfeit holiness, condemning all who tolerated it to the fire and brimstone that often came as the stem-winding finale of these initial sermon.

The villagers were informed that they enjoyed a grace period of a few days before they or any of their neighbors, kinsman, or other acquaintances had ever given material or spiritual support of any kind whatsoever to the Good Men and Women. It was a crime to withhold any information germane to the eradication of heresy. And if they, or any people they knew, were Cathar believers, they had to recant their heresy and endure penance before being welcomed back into the bosom of the Church. Depositions were taken confidentially– no one but the inquisitor ever knew who said what about whom. Further, should the inquisitor receive at least two credible depositions about someone believing in, supporting, or giving comfort to the Good Men and Women, charges could be laid. They created mala fama, the infamy necessary for investigation. Derived from old Rome, the notion held that a person’s own reputation (fama) functioned as his accuser, exempting him from normal legal protection. A powerful and pliable tool of coercion, inquisitors came to use just general public notoriety, rather than denunciations or confessions, to start a proceeding against someone. In all cases, the accused never knew who his accusers were.

One can imagine how these sermon’s listeners felt on returning home for whispered discussions over whether to cooperate. Would they be denounced, and by whom? By one of their enemies, with whom they had had a land or livestock dispute years back? If innocent, would they be falsely accused? Should they settle old scores by accusing someone falsely before he accuse them? Did they really have to squeal on heretical neighbors and kin whom they liked? The inquisitor’s sermon, in short, contained a recipe for tearing village life apart, the customary friction of antipathy and affinity within a living community giving way to a deadening, dread-filled atmosphere of revenge and betrayal. This indeed was a Christianity of fear, in practice as well as an theory.

The inquisitor, for his part, gauged if the town was going to be a tough nut to crack. The first collaborators might arrive quickly, under the cover of night and to avoid neighborly scrutiny; some brave villages observed an omertà that took years to grind it down. Further on in the 13th century, the inquisitor or was able to examine records of past inquisitions held in the locality. These were carefully guarded and bound registers, containing scores of transcripts of interrogations and sentences handed down. Fairly uncharacteristically for document-keeping practice of the era, the registers were systematically organized, cross-referencing individuals and allowing archival retrieval of damning detail that might otherwise have been lost or forgotten. They giving years earlier. Not unsurprisingly, an inquisition register first brought la rage Carconnaise to a boil.

Further reading for the visiting Dominican investigator were materials concerning in itself. At the Council of Tarragona in 1242, the assembled pellets spelled out an entire taxonomy of dissent, yet another testament to psychology, this time to the minds capability to create neat hierarchical mountains out of complex human molehills.  One can almost see the lips of the novice inquisitor mouthing the different categories as he  rehearsed the checklist:”heretics,””believers,””suspects” – acting “simply,””vehemently,” or “most vehemently”– along with”concealers,””hiders,””receivers,””defenders,” and “favorers.”

The Dominican likely also would have possessed an example of a supremely peculiar self-help genre, the inquisitor’s manual. The first was written in Carcassonne in 1248. These manuals compiled admonitions, tip sheets, descriptions of different forms of heresy, and tactics of interrogation. Years of questioning people with something to hide had given the authors of these manuals insights into the dodging and weaving tactics developed by heretics and their sympathizers. Nicholas Eymerich, a Dominican of the 14th century, listed 10 different techniques of evasiveness that the exasperated inquisitors should be on the lookout for when questioning heretics. They ranged from artful casuistry to blatant excuse making:

The third wave of evading a question or misleading a questioner is through redirecting the question. For example, if it is asked: “Do you believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the father and the son?” He replies,”And what do you believe?””…

The eight way of evading a question as to feign illness. For example, if someone is interrogated concerning his faith, and the questions having multiplied to the point that he perceives he cannot avoid being caught out in his heresy and error, he says: “I am very weak in the head and I cannot endure any more. In the name of God, please let me go now.” Or he says,”Pain has overcome me. Please, for the sake of God, let me lie down.”  Thus they conduct themselves with respect to another feigned illness. They frequently use this mode of conduct when they see that they are to be tortured, saying that they are sick, and that they will die if they are tortured, and women frequently say that they’re suffering from their female troubles, so that they can escape torture for a time.”

There were heretical Christians, particularly the Waldenses, who believed that capital punishment was prohibited under any circumstance, no matter what the claim of legitimacy might be. Any qualms that Dominican inquisitors, as followers of Jesus Christ, might feel in condemning people to death were countered in Dominican literature. The orders saintly founder, Dominic, came to be seen above all else as an inquisitor, even though he died a full decade before Gregory IX declared judicial war on heresy.

Many saints, particularly those who founded orders, were subject to what might be termed sedimentary hagiography– layers of successful biographies ascribing miracles or modes of exemplary conduct to the subject long after his or her death. These are often added with a specific agenda in mind. The technique was by no means confined to Christianity: For instance, the hadith, or tales of Mohammad’s life appearing nowhere in the Quran, have guided and shaped Islamic piety and practice for centuries. The student Dominic is reputed to have said on his deathbed that he would be far more useful to the brothers dead than alive.

Dominic’s transformation from compassionate preacher to merciless inquisitor was affected within a few generations of his death in 1222. The Miracle of Fire at Fanjeaux became in later biographies a judicial proceeding in a neighboring town called Montréal, and, in this telling, the document that refused to burn was in all probability an inquisition register. The humane and flawed holy man that Dominic must have been in reality (his first biographer had him admitting to preferring to conversation of younger women to that of older ones) became idealized as a persecutor.

At the hands of Inquisition apologists, God received the same treatment. In one of the more unusual roles assigned to Jesus Christ by his flock, the protean preacher of peace in the New Testament came garbed in the robes of an avenger. He had arrived on earth to persecute. Much use was made of the many violent, vengeful passages in the Old Testament, with their far fewer counterparts in the Christian scriptures also deployed for full homiletic effect. And God was not only cruel, he was sadistic. The greatest torment of Hell was not the boundless and eternal physical agony but the sound of God’s spiteful mockery and malicious cackling at the sight of such suffering.

A radical Dominican thinker of the mid 13th-century, Moneta of  Cremona, went so far as to say that a true way to imitate God was to kill. His logic, based on the behavior of God in the Old Testament, ran something like this: God does not sin, God kills, therefore killing is not a sin. In some ways, this bald reversal of the Sixth of the Ten Commandments was nothing new, for churchmen throughout the 12th and 13th centuries–the heyday of the Crusades– had meandered far into sophistry in their attempts to reconcile their Savior’s message of nonviolence and the notion of holy war. The great 12th-century Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux had famously opined that the killing of an infidel was not the killing of a man but the killing of evil. What was new in Moneta’s formulation was that God, far from forgiving the regrettably necessary recourse to violence, instead stood cheering on the sidelines, seeing his own image in the tortures and killers. Moneta’s inquisitor differs from Dostoevsky’s, whose Grand Inquisitor has no need of — indeed, despises — Jesus Christ; but the Dominicans’ may be more pernicious in that Jesus is fully in favor of persecution. The poor wretch moldering in the dank cell of an inquisition prison thus has no higher authority to him for for succor. He was utterly alone, damned by God who was laughing at him.

Thus the inquisitor visiting a village in Languedoc went to work armed with a clear conscience, a good deal of practical advice from his predecessors, and the certitude that he was performing a sacred duty. After days, perhaps weeks, of taking depositions from all and sundry, those fingered as heretics would be haled before him for detailed and robust questioning.

By the middle of the 13th century, the use of torture had been papally approved. Torture in its many forms, what today’s boosters of the practice call “enhanced interrogation techniques” and what their medieval counterparts called

“putting the question,” began to play a greater role in eliciting information from those under a cloud of suspicion….élicieux.jpg

Who is our modern day Bernard Délicieux?