Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
December 2017

The Way of Transparency

“Those who claim to speak for Jesus
are precisely the kind of people that Jesus fought against.”
-Reza Aslan

Historically, science fiction as a field has often been hostile to organized religion, though not necessarily to spirituality. Ironically, at least three 20th century cults directly sourced their ideas and scriptures from SF. Although Babylon 5 regularly featured priests of various faiths as guest characters, I can only think of one recent book hero who is embedded in a religious hierarchy, that being Father Emilio Sandoz, the Jesuit linguist from The Sparrow. Unless they are holding up specific dogmas for ridicule, most SF depictions of religion focus on the broader philosophical question of theodicy, or “why is life not fair?” In one episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation where the android Commander Data is on trial, Picard admits that he doesn't know whether Data has a soul—or he himself, for that matter—and doesn't seem all that concerned about the answer one way or another, as long as Data is treated fairly.

The problem of fairness, of cooperation vs. competition, is one that biology has been working on from the very beginning, with mostly the same answer over and over. Cells started as an oily boundary to keep “my” genes in and all other genes out. Bodies only work as cooperative systems because the bones and muscles and organs are essentially slaves, or maybe uncles. Only the gonads get to make sperm and eggs; only the gonads get to decide what genes the next generation will carry. Social insects like ants and bees and termites made the same bargain at the next level of organization, the superorganism—only the queen lays eggs, and the rest of the daughters work themselves to death for the hive. It's OK, though, because genetic similarity prevents these hierarchies from being purely exploitive. If every cell in the body, or every worker in the hive, is interchangeable, then it really doesn't matter who reproduces.

Over and over again, humans have built societies that strive to balance cooperation (sameness) and competition (diversity). Cooperation makes a society faster and more efficient. Diversity makes a society more robust to catastrophes. Biology's old strategy of hierarchy is good at cooperation but really bad at diversity. The temptation to try to monopolize resources for our own group is just too great for most of us. It doesn't matter whether the group is defined through genes or language or ideology. The competitive dynamics are the same.

I was just reading a specific and modern example of the failure of hierarchy in the Catholic Church, which has for centuries required its priests to forgo having children, as a simple and intuitive way to remove that temptation towards genetic selfishness. In Merchants in the Temple, Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi details the efforts of the newest Pope to reform the Vatican's finances. Corruption is not a small problem. According to Nuzzi, only 20% of the roughly 50 million euros of “Peter's Pence” donations actually go to the poor. The rest disappears into the Curia. Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, apparently funneled some of that money into secretly fighting the Nazis during World War 2. Nowadays, Nuzzi writes, it seems to line the pockets of the cardinals (assuming those robes have pockets?).

Francis takes a hierarchical approach, simply demanding as the boss that the cardinals of the Curia follow his rules for spending, from not hiring their blood relatives to awarding contracts fairly. Now, if he gets rid of all the cardinals who disagree with him, he might get his way, temporarily, and it will be fine drama. But it's not a long-term solution. Nuzzi suggests that a subsequent pope, after Francis, could use exactly the same methods to corrupt the power structure all over again. Or he could just stop paying attention, and exactly the same thing would happen, more slowly.

Diversity is a great hedge against monopoly and corruption, but how to insert diversity into an organization's finances, especially a really big and rich organization like the Catholic Church, one that has, from its very beginnings, been founded on Disciplina Arcani, the Way of Secrecy?

“The way proceeded from the practice of Christ himself. He formed his apostles into clandestine cells . . . The 'Sons of Thunder' . . . met in safe houses, which Jesus accessed by separate hidden entrances, and whose locations they revealed to each other through coded signals, such as following a man with a jug of water through Jerusalem.”
-- Church of Spies, p. 40

Here's a thought. What if their roughly 1.25 billion worshipers placed their tithes and donations directly into a completely public and transparent ledger, where every transaction could be audited at any time? Sounds like a story to me.

That ledger is called a blockchain. It is a type of database that underlies BitCoin and other online cryptocurrencies. The computational details of how it works are a bit complicated, but here are the basics. Our current Internet relies on centralized servers to store the addresses of all the pages on the web. Not the content, just the addresses that tell you where the content is. Those domain name servers are a point of vulnerability where a hacker (or a government, or a corporation) can manipulate web traffic, or just spy on us.

A blockchain is different. As I currently understand it, every computer on the peer-to-peer “miner” network (analogous to the single name server, but spread across many random computers) contains a constantly updating version of the entire database, including the complete edit history. Updating that history requires two steps: an unbreakably encrypted request from a single anonymous user to update the blockchain, and consensus of a large percentage of those computers that this new request is the only change at this moment. This makes hackery difficult.

I find it hilarious that encryption can be used to ensure transparency. Even funnier, there's a precedent for the Catholic Church being an early adopter of encryption technologies, though usually for the opposite purpose.

“To send and receive messages, the Vatican had long resorted to ingenious devices. In the Renaissance, it pioneered coded communications, inventing a mnemonic key to mix a cipher alphabet, a practice that secular powers later copied.”
-- Church of Spies, p. 44

The benefits of a blockchain approach for the parishioners are fairly obvious, and the church hierarchy certainly needs to polish up its credibility, on multiple fronts, but why should the miners do all that work? Well, the first miner on the network to confirm the new entry, or block, gets a crypto-coin. From my favorite I-triple-E blog post on the topic:

“In old security models, you tried to lock out all of the greedy, dishonest people. Bitcoin, on the other hand, welcomes everyone, fully expecting them to act in their own self-interest, and then it uses their greed to secure the network.”

Recall that this old lock out model was biology's strategy, as well. In a body, cancer cells that start dividing selfishly are killed by the immune system for the good of the entire body. Insect queens generally kill their rivals while they are still larvae, or else they split the hive in two. And the history of politics and religion have (so far) been one long series of coups, wars, and secret plots. According to Reza Aslan and most other religious scholars, Jesus himself was crucified not for blasphemy in declaring himself a god, but for sedition, in declaring himself a king. They reserved the cross for the specific crime of rebellion against the Roman Empire—in other words, for wanting the Jewish homeland to be an independent kingdom.

Given that bloody and difficult history, a kind of mathematically guaranteed cooperation would be something truly new under the sun.

Randall Hayes, Ph.D., also blogs as @PlotBot2015 on the blockchain-powered community called Steemit, a sort of hybrid between Reddit and BitCoin, where authors are paid according to the votes of their readers. Drop by for reviews of SF and popular science.




This being the smallest and most recent.


Based on Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.








Evolutionary biologists are now explicitly studying religion as an example of human behavior.



There are quite a few of these documentaries on YouTube.


In this radio interview, author Riebling declares Pius XII to be a “man of science” for his technological innovations like Vatican Radio.



Of JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon: “His utter faith in the US dollar sounds rather like the boss of a major record label talking up CDs a year before the iPod was brought to market.”



Nick Szabo writes about these fast-developing technologies



As has been recognized by numerous historians, the Vatican boasts a superb intelligence organization.” Way cooler than the Hudson Hawk version.


Currency is only one of MANY applications of these technologies. Smart contracts, voting, etc.


Doestoevsky’s alt-history parable about the Inquisition threatening to burn a returned Jesus. Coincidentally translated by Helena Blavatsky, the spirit medium and Theosophist.


Which I happened to find through Reza Aslan.


But possibly obsolete almost immediately. Ah, technology.


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