Saturday, March 03, 2018

The Aliens beneath Our Feet

SETI looks outward. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence looks for signals from alien civilizations elsewhere in the universe. The odds are long and the cost is high, but the rewards for success will be great. That search must continue. However, I think we would profit from redirecting a small portion of SETI’s money and resources to a much closer and more accessible target: earthly dust. We should be looking down as well as up.

In my short non−fiction book Dust Net, I predicted the advent of nanoscale communication and information−gathering devices the size of dust motes, extremely powerful, and scattered across the earth. These will be developed in the fairly near future for a number of purposes, benign and not so benign. I also speculated that extremely advanced versions of such devices might already be present, deposited on Earth by alien races.

In this post, I want to expand upon the idea of those alien devices.

Let’s assume the existence of a great number of technologically advanced races within a few hundred light years of Earth. That’s a very reasonable assumption. Let’s further assume that faster−than−light travel isn’t possible; that’s very probably the case. I think that developing a technologically advanced civilization requires curiosity about the universe and how it works. That implies curiosity about the possibility of intelligent life existing elsewhere, so I think it’s reasonable to assume that those advanced races are as curious about life on other worlds as we are.

Those advanced races want to visit other worlds, but distance makes that unfeasible. However, they have the technological ability to send out unmanned interstellar vessels at a reasonable cost—or at least a cost they’re willing to pay. What form would those vessels take?

They could be large spacecraft filled with data−gathering sensors, recording devices, artificial intelligence computers, and communications equipment. Since no UFO sightings have been validated, we can assume that if there are such ships, they must not be both large and close, or we would have seen them.

Perhaps the ships have some sort of cloaking technology, or surfaces made of advanced metamaterials, so that we can’t see them. However, we watch the skies in numerous and increasing ways, and we watch the earth from above in numerous ways. Before long, we’ll be watching the earth constantly from the moon, with increasingly powerful instruments. Before much longer, we’ll be looking in all directions from the surface of Mars. No matter how advanced the camouflage of alien ships, the chance of them being detected is already high and will keep getting higher. If they exist, they have successfully avoided detection so far, so they can’t be spending more than very brief periods of time anywhere close to the earth. Even at our current stage of detection, they would have to be operating no closer to us than Mars—or at a distance of about 50 million miles (the closest that Mars approaches Earth).

That wouldn’t be a problem for them, in some respects. Being able to send complex unmanned probes over interstellar distances requires very highly advanced technology, perhaps advanced enough that it can collect all the data the aliens want even from 50 million miles away. Of course, this would prevent them from collecting physical samples, such as air, water, and bacteria. Even if that were acceptable to them, the data they collected would be fairly coarse. They would not be able to examine our world at a fine and detailed level. The restricted nature of their observations would be frustrating to human scientists and would surely be just as frustrating to alien ones. It would probably be unacceptable, given that they have a much better alternative.

That alternative is what I called Dust Net.

Human beings will create Dust Net in the near future. It will first take the form of simple, microscopic servers scattered around the world to create a communications network accessible to everyone and secure from interference by governments or malicious private interests. With time, these servers will increase in power and will be reduced to nanoscopic size. No bigger than specks of dust, these particles, these motes, will drift with the wind and float on the surface of oceans and lakes, becoming ubiquitous. Their social and political impact will be enormous even before they evolve, as they inevitably will, into instruments of surveillance and data gathering. There will be multiple separate nets, products of governments, corporations, and private groups both good and evil. Mingled among them will be the alien nets.

As I explained in the book, networks of such motes will be able to record immense quantities of data. The advantages for alien observers are obvious. Their motes will be safe from observation or interference. Even without propulsion systems, they will eventually spread everywhere on the surface of Earth. They will gather all the information a curious alien civilization could want.

We are already developing ways for swarms of autonomous drones to cooperate. The much more advanced alien motes are surely capable of cooperating in large enough numbers to, say, dissect an animal corpse for detailed analysis. With sufficient data storage capacity and sufficiently advanced recording devices, they can store a complete digital record of plants and animals, obviating the need for physical samples.

In order for such swarm cooperation to exist, the individual motes have to communicate with each other. Perhaps they use some method of communication that we haven’t discovered, meaning that we won’t be able to detect them by eavesdropping on their communications. It’s also possible that they coordinate their actions only by watching each other, avoiding the need to pass signals. However, if they do communicate, and if they use radio or light signals, that’s something we can try to detect. In addition, the swarming behavior itself would make the motes stand out from natural dust.
The advantages of exploration of alien planets by means of such dust motes applies to all advanced alien societies, so if there are such motes on Earth from one alien civilization, there are surely similar networks of motes from other alien societies also present on Earth.

In Dust Net, I speculated that some of the motes created by humans will be designed to destroy other motes. Corporations will do this as a form of industrial espionage. Governments trying to control what information their citizens have access to will try to destroy the motes that provide the access of which the governments disapprove. Eavesdropping motes will expose government secrets, so government motes will try to destroy those. Governments will try to limit observation of their territory by enemy motes, so they’ll produce motes capable of identifying and destroying motes from other countries.

All of this exposes the aliens’ motes to danger. The aliens must assume that hostile mote networks already exist on the planets they send their motes to investigate. Perhaps the alien motes have the ability to protect themselves, but it would be better if they evaded detection entirely. Therefore, they probably look like inanimate, naturally occurring local dust motes. We could microscopically examine untold numbers of specks of dust and never pick out the alien motes hiding among them.

How do motes from different alien cultures interact? Do they interact at all? I think it’s fair to assume that in general, alien civilizations don’t need or want to interfere with motes from other alien civilizations. If they can identify each other, they probably leave each other alone. Perhaps some of those civilizations are sufficiently pacific and socially advanced that their motes exchange information with each other. That increases the amount of observational data gathered without extra cost.

On the other hand, there’s a good chance that some alien civilizations are located close enough to each other to interact directly, with trade or war. If it’s trade, then their mote networks on other worlds, such as ours, are probably designed in advance to cooperate with each other. But if two civilizations are at war, then their mote networks probably are, too. Their motes are here and on other worlds, not for the purpose of gathering interesting data, but in hopes of finding something—science, engineering, weapons—that will give them the edge in the war back home. Their mission therefore includes keeping the other civilization’s motes from finding that dangerous information first, so they are designed to identify and destroy each other. As a precautionary tactic, their motes might well be designed to destroy other alien motes, even ones from peaceful civilizations too distant to be a threat. I think that would be our approach if we were those aliens, and it seems reasonable to assume that warring aliens are just as unpleasant as we are when we’re at war.

This suggests a way we could detect the alien motes: by looking for the aftermath of battles in the nanoscopic realm.

It’s not practical for aggressive alien motes to blast the enemy with destructive rays or cannon shells, so we wouldn’t be looking for explosions or tiny bursts of radiation. Such a war is more likely to be conducted at close quarters. Attacking motes act much like predatory insects—injecting the enemy mote with destructive acids or simply tearing it to pieces.

The dead motes should be the object of our search. Those injected with destructive fluids probably still look outwardly just like ordinary dust motes and so are not detectable. Remnants of motes that have been broken apart are a different matter. The attacking motes could take the time to disguise remnants of the enemy to look like just native dust motes, but that’s surely impractical just because of numbers. Therefore, if we looked at vast numbers of dust motes, we might be lucky enough to find some of those tiny chunks of disabled technology.

How do the alien motes get to earth? And how do they send their data back home?

One possible answer to both questions is that an alien civilization could produce vast numbers of such motes—say by cannibalizing entire planets to provide the materials—and sending streams of them out in all directions. Interstellar space could be filled with the devices, providing a chain of relay stations to send data back to the home planet. This is obviously excessive.

A far better approach is for the aliens to send out large interstellar ships packed to the brim with fabricators: microscopic factories whose function is to churn out nanoscopic motes. The big ships release fabricators as they pass by stars that have planets. The fabricators drift down to the surfaces of the planets and begin creating motes using materials found onsite. Such fabricators are obvious targets for our own search. They are larger than the motes—microscopic, rather than nanoscopic. And it’s hard to disguise them as anything but what they are, because they are emitting streams of newly fabricated motes.

How is the data returned to the aliens’ home planet? It seems highly unlikely that an individual mote can send a signal powerful enough to reach another star system. But a huge number of them working in concert can do so. We could detect that.

Perhaps a ship passes by to pick up the signal. That way the signal can be much weaker, possibly below our ability to detect it. However, the passing ship would be detectable. As I argued at the beginning, we can dismiss that idea based on the lack of verified sightings of such ships.

Perhaps small groups of motes, loaded with data and operating as one, can escape Earth’s gravity and be picked up by a passing ship at a great enough distance that we can’t detect it. We probably wouldn’t detect a small clump of motes leaving Earth, either.

Detecting motes through the method they use for returning data to the home planet doesn’t seem promising. The other ways I listed above offer a much better chance of detecting the alien motes.
Should we start the search now? It’s feasible with existing technology. It will be even more feasible when Dust Net exists. That’s probably 20 years away at most, and possibly closer to 10 years. Then we can design motes whose sole job is to examine the dust around them and look for alien motes. Obviously the number of dust specks that could be scanned by using Dust Net, and the number of locations on Earth where the scanning would be done, would far exceed what we can achieve today.
Nonetheless, I don’t think we should wait even another 10 or 20 years. The odds against finding alien motes are high with current technology, but the cost would be a fraction of the current outer−directed SETI, and the rewards for actually finding alien motes would be immense.

Unlike SETI, the discoverers won’t have to depend on information given to us by aliens, whether intentionally or as a byproduct of their detected broadcasts. With SETI, the information could be significant, or it could be fairly trivial. By contrast, alien motes will be highly advanced alien technology actually in our hands. Given the way the world now works, that alien technology will be the possession, not of the human race, but of the nation that discovered it. The nation that possesses it will leap ahead of the rest of the world in power and dominance even more than the Industrial Revolution vaulted Britain ahead of the pack centuries ago.

This could all be fantasy. The alien motes might not exist. But we can’t ignore the possibility that they do. Even now, searching for them would be relatively cheap compared to the cost of SETI and trivial compared to the military budget. The search should begin immediately.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

My book about self-publishing is finally available

I won’t claim it’s everything you need to know in order to self-publish, but I like to think it’s pretty close.

Lots of details here: http://www.dvorkin.com/selfpub/

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Tastons

We just came back from a local coffeeshop, The Rosemary Cafe, where we shared a yummy omelette -- sort of a preliminary birthday celebration for me.

The omelette was full of carbs and cholesterol and probably salt. Also taste. Lots and lots of taste. In other words, it was full of taste particles, or tastons.

Tastons are mostly found in fat and carbs and salt, etc. That's why food that's good for you is so low in tastons.

The production of healthy food involves the removal of tastons. Outside the factories where tasty food is converted to healthy food, giant piles of tastons are to be found. The factories make extra money by selling those tastons to the producers of junk food.

And that's why it's so hard to be healthy.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Problem with Biometric Login

I'm intrigued by the new ideas for biometric Web site logins that avoid using usernames and passwords. The idea I was reading about most recently would use the pattern of the user's heartbeat.

Biometric login is almost certainly coming, but it presents a problem.

Our editing/self-publishing business includes my formatting the client's edited files for print, converting them to e-book (ePub and MOBI), and uploading those files, plus the cover, to certain online sites. Which means that I have to log in to those sites as the client -- i.e., by using the client's username and password. That works now, but what happens if all those sites convert to biometric login?

The problem is much larger than our business. Many of our clients are blind, and they rely on sighted helpers to conduct a lot of their online business for them. They're okay with giving their login information to trusted sighted people. Biometrics will be a problem there.

In time, many more Web sites will be much more accessible to the blind or vision-impaired, but I doubt if they all will ever be. Even now, because I've become much more sensitive to this problem, I'm shocked at how inaccessible most major Web sites are.

But even if they all become accessible, or there's a cure for blindness -- bionic eyes, maybe -- there will always be people who want or need to have others access online sites for them by logging in as them. How will biometric login deal with this?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

I live in the American heartland, and you probably do, too

Unless you live in another country, but in that case, the odds are that you live in that country’s heartland. If that statement strikes you as odd, it’s probably because of the way the word heartland is deliberately misused.

On the surface, the word might seem to refer simply to a country’s geographical interior, but in America it has layers of meaning far beyond that. In America, the use of heartland escalates during election season. I say “escalates” rather than “increases” because the word is used as a weapon. It’s also a dog whistle and a push on a button, and it’s effective in both regards. The heartland is understood to mean America with the evil, degenerate coasts removed. The East and West Coasts, at any rate; the Gulf Coast is increasingly iffy. The heartland also excludes inland cities that are dominated by the same evil degenerates. Those are political liberals of all kinds, racial and ethnic minorities, and academics. Because of the latter, university towns are also not part of the heartland. Gulf Coast cities such as Houston and New Orleans are also excluded from the heartland.

What’s left is taken to represent the real America. The so−called heartland’s racial and ethnic makeup, its religiosity, social attitudes, presumed disdain for learning, even its preferences in music, sports, and movies—all of these are what the Founding Fathers intended America to be. Everything not part of the heartland is an aberration.

Of course, this is absurd in terms of both numbers and history.

By 2010, the United States had reached an urbanization level of 81%, and that number is still increasing. Even the South, the least urbanized section of the country, is 76% urbanized. Worldwide, the percentage of the population living in urban areas is almost 55%. That number is growing steadily. It will be two−thirds by 2030. By mid−century, almost two−thirds (64%) of the population of the developing world will be urbanized; in the developed world, the number will be 86%. The worldwide average will be 70%. Nearly all future population growth worldwide will occur in urbanized areas.

The word civilization derives ultimately from the Latin word civitas, meaning city. That’s not coincidence. Cities are the source of civilization and its driving engine. How do we discover an ancient civilization whose existence was previously unknown? We find signs of its cities. Cities have always been the home of culture, learning, science, technology, innovation, art, and liberation from social and religious shackles. From the ancient coastal cities of the Philistines to Rome to London to New York to Los Angeles, their lure is irresistible. “Come to us,” they say to the countryside, “and give your mind and soul free rein.”

Fewer than a fifth of Americans live in that countryside, and that percentage is shrinking. Their world is dying. Jobs are disappearing, their young are leaving for the jobs and lifestyle opportunities of the cities, and even their life expectancy is dropping. (They do produce much of our food, but even that is under the control of giant corporations with headquarters in major cities.) They resent the cities and believe comforting myths about their moral superiority to decadent urbanites—attitudes that politicians are quick to appeal to—but the world ignores them and leaves them ever further behind.

Occasionally, years later, one of those young people returns to the home town to retire. Nostalgia, cheap housing, aged family members who need help—there are numerous reasons for the move. For a time, they may well feel that they’ve finally come home again. That probably doesn’t last for long. It’s more likely that they’ll feel a powerful need to keep in touch with the city life they left. The Internet, cable television, and the Interstate Highway system give them access to that previous life. They haven’t really immured themselves again in the old home town—which is no longer the town they remember and perhaps never was. The town has changed; they’ve changed even more.

Politicians will keep using the image of the heartland as a rhetorical device to appeal to voters in non−urban, non−university−town America. They will pretend to be just like those voters. They will continue to address crowds while wearing painfully new blue jeans. They’ll arrive at rallies in rented pickup trucks. In time, those politicians will decrease in number and importance along with their constituency.

Cities create and control our culture, our wealth, our lifestyles—in America, everything but our politics. Even that will change. The disproportionate political influence of non−urban voters is due to voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the absurd Electoral College. The process might be slow and painful, but in time, urban population growth and demographic changes will finally eliminate even those injustices and aberrations. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, the supposed heartland, contributes little to American civilization and less every year.

The non−urban population is increasingly irrelevant and properly ignored. In what sense can this small and dwindling population be called the heartland? Clearly, the true heart of America beats in its cities. Cities are the heartland of America and increasingly of the world.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

God Must Exist Because Nature Is So Gosh Darn Wonderful

I came across a blog post in which the writer gushes about the beauty of the world and its profound effect on her. She concludes that it must be hard work to be an atheist because atheists have to actively deny the god whose existence is revealed by all of this gosh-darned wonderfulness. This isn’t a new argument. Psalm 19 says it this way: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” The blog post, however, tried to be very down to earth, focusing on insects and plants and the loveliness of the writer’s immediate surroundings. Above all, the piece lauded the writer’s emotional reaction to all of that as proof of God’s existence.

(The argument that the universe is a such a complex, remarkable machine that it could only have been designed by a gigantic intelligence—i.e., God—is known as the Argument from Design. I think we should call this minimized and highly subjective and emotional version of that argument the Argument from Gosh Darn Wonderfulness.)

It should go without saying that your emotional reaction to the universe is not data about the universe. It’s not a measurement of what’s outside you. It doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of the universe; it only tells us something about you. This should go without saying, but apparently it does need to be said. Unfortunately, emotional reactions are commonly regarded as a meaningful way to measure reality. The deliberate confusion of subjective impressions and objective data is the basis of bestselling books, not to mention successful political campaigns and religions with hundreds of millions of adherents.

So let’s pretend that your emotional reaction to the beauty of nature really does point to the existence of something powerful and supernatural behind the material reality surrounding you. That’s not a new idea, either. Primitive peoples have been imbuing nature with spirits of all sorts for ages. Perhaps that began even before our ancestors were recognizably human. Why do you conclude that the supernatural power you think you sense is the god you learned about as a child and not one of those spirits your primitive ancestors believed in? Perhaps you’re sensing the presence of the ancient Greek gods, or gods more ancient than those, or other supernatural beings none of our ancestors knew about. The possibilities are not limited to the god you were taught to believe in. Rather, the possibilities are literally limitless; the human imagination, as manifested in the creation of a multitude of religions, has only scratched the surface of supernatural silliness. Make up your own gods! They will serve to explain that feeling of something more than the material universe just as well as the single god the Jews, Christians, and Moslems worship.

But let’s pretend that the magical something behind reality can only be the god you’ve been indoctrinated to believe in. The pagan gods and primitive animism are foolish, and only your monotheistic god makes sense (because we’re pretending, after all).

Let’s look at this beautiful world that fills you with an awareness of a wonderful, astonishing, beautiful intelligence behind it. This lovely world is filled with fluffy clouds and chirping birds and hyperactive squirrels and placid, chewing rabbits—I mean, bunnies—and rustling leaves and dappled shade and butterflies and a blue sky above. Oooh! It’s like a Disney cartoon!

Am I being flip? No, I’m being snide. Do you think this represents only a superficial parody of the theist’s view of the gosh-darned wonderfulness of nature? No. It’s the theist’s view that’s superficial and silly. Look beneath the surface of the cartoon, and you see a horror show.

Those playful squirrels eat baby birds alive when they get the chance. The cute bunnies are likely to be torn to pieces by cats, dogs, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and hawks. Cats are killed by dogs, dogs by coyotes, and on an on. And that’s just at the level visible to the human eye. At a small level, the same is happening in the insect world. Beneath that, the same is true in the microscopic world. Nature red in tooth and claw, indeed. Behind the cartoon lies a constant struggle to eat but not get eaten. Horrible, agonizing death surrounds you.

The god that could create this and allow it to continue would be a monster. The cartoon version of reality may fill you with spiritual feelings. The reality behind it makes me glad that I don’t believe in—let alone worship—your evil god.

But let’s look up. Never mind the awfulness below. Instead, consider the beauty of the heavens. Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, “I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon the earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how a man could look up into the heavens and say there is no God.” I suspect that quote is apocryphal, but let’s assume it’s genuine.

Look up on a dark, clear night, and what do you see? Wonder, unless you’re dead inside. Indeed, the universe is far more beautiful and wonderful and amazing than we can see with our human eyes. Astronomy is constantly revealing new astonishments. Perhaps the wonder of all of this makes you praise God. It makes me praise the science and the scientists that reveal it to us.

If this astounding universe was created by a supernatural being of immense power and intelligence, then he put unbridgeable distances between civilizations. We are almost certain that other civilizations exist across the universe, many of them far more advanced than ours. What beautiful thoughts, enlightenment, art, and science have they produced? We’ll almost certainly never know. If God existed, he would be a cosmic father who produces innumerable beautiful, loving children and then locks each one of them away in a soundproofed room.

And more than that. The beautiful stars have a finite lifetime, and therefore every civilization in the universe is doomed to destruction. Not only will the wonders each civilization produces never be communicated to the rest of the universe; at some point, those wonders themselves will be destroyed and cease to exist entirely.

The blog post I referred to in the beginning said that, faced with such beauty, it must be hard to be an atheist. It requires effort to deny the immense and beautiful mind behind the beauties of nature. In a sense, it’s true that atheism involves effort. The atheist understands that nature is mindless and that we make our own goodness and beauty. There is no invisible daddy in the sky directing everything and rewarding and punishing us. Being a grownup is demanding, and we accept that role.

It takes an effort to be a theist, too. It requires deliberate blindness to revere a being who would be a monster if he existed. It requires remarkable mental gymnastics to cope with the contradictions and logical absurdities inherent in that belief. And it requires looking only at the surface of the world, and only at part of that surface, so that you can continue to believe that nature is just so gosh darn wonderful.

Friday, December 09, 2016

The Immigrant, His Country, and Trump

© 2016 David Dvorkin 

  In “America,” Neil Diamond sang of immigrants coming to America and never looking back. That’s true of some immigrants, but it’s not a common feeling. Those who immigrate as adults, or even as teenagers, rarely feel entirely at home in their new country.

Most of the millions of Jews who fled the pogroms of the Russian Empire came to America. Overwhelmed by homesickness, many of them went back again. They preferred the dangers and restrictions of life in Russia to the everpresent feeling of being strangers in a strange land. That feeling has always been a central part of the immigrant experience.

Those who stay in the adopted country usually don’t become truly part of it. My paternal grandparents fled Russia for England when they were a young couple. She died in her 30s. My grandfather never did learn English, even though he lived in London to an old age—in a Jewish neighborhood, surrounded by Yiddish. The creation of such ethnic neighborhoods, shelters from the alien world outside, a recreation of the old homeland to the greatest degree possible, is also a central part of the immigrant experience.

By contrast, outwardly, my adjustment to America was easy when I came here as a teenager. English is my native language, and I had grown up in a Western environment in South Africa. I’m white, and I wore the same clothes as American teenagers. Moreover, I didn’t move into an ethnic ghetto.

But I missed South Africa fiercely. I always felt like an outsider. My accent, my attitudes, my viewpoints all marked me as one. When I became a citizen, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was doing the right thing. I admired the principles espoused by the Founding Fathers, but mine was a detached, intellectual admiration, not an emotional response to the idea of the American Revolution itself. I’m an American, but I’m not stirred by patriotic songs or waving flags.

The hypocrisy of America angered me back then and still does. I’ve heard expressions of racism every bit as vile as anything I heard in Apartheid−era South Africa. America, the country that touts itself as a moral exemplar to the world, was built on genocide and slavery. Throughout its history, waves of nativism and xenophobia have engulfed it. I listened, read, and judged. This detached feeling of judgment is yet another common part of the immigrant experience.

Some will say that I should return to South Africa. But the immigrant, no matter how ill at ease he may feel in his new country, is also no longer a part of the old one. Apartheid was in force when I left South Africa; it’s a very different country now. Even if it were still under white rule, the country would have changed enormously in the almost 60 years since I left. More to the point, inevitably, those 60 years have changed me fundamentally. I have absorbed far more of America than I probably realize.

(Mind you, I didn’t spend those 60 years not participating in America. After high school, college, and graduate school, I went to work for NASA. I was one of the people who sent Americans to the moon. Later, I was part of the team that sent unmanned American landers to Mars. I like to think that I have contributed significantly to, well, I have to say it, making America great.)

In the last few years, I began to feel a welcome sense that the internal struggle about my true national identity was resolving itself. With great relief, I found myself feeling American at last—just American, nothing else, truly part of this country. Sixty years! It had taken an absurdly long time, but finally here it was, a feeling of belonging, of being at home.

Much of this change was probably due simply to the passage of time. I think that to a considerable degree, though, it was because of the direction the country seemed finally to be moving in. The racists who came slithering out from under their rocks when Barack Obama was elected seemed to be a minority. Despite the occasional retrogression, the country was becoming more accepting—most noticeably of gays and gay marriage, but also of other formerly spurned groups. The political power of religion was diminishing. Progressive legislation was moving forward. Some barrier holding us back had been broken. My optimism soared.

I was deluding myself. The 2016 election was my rude awakening. Yes, Trump, the bloviating carnival barker, lost the popular vote by a huge margin and only won the election because of massive voter suppression combined with that antidemocratic monstrosity, the Electoral College. But what his victory exposed—what had already been exposed during the campaign—was just how much primitive hatred there is in this country, how many of my fellow Americans hate anyone who’s different from them, and how much they hate the very progress that had filled me with optimism.

Perhaps the racists who exposed themselves in 2008 are a minority, but if so, they’re a far larger minority than I realized. Their racism extends to a xenophobia that seems to know no bounds. The extent and intensity of American Islamophobia is stunning. Homophobia and anti−semitism are not far behind. For years, the haters hesitated to be entirely open with their hatred. No longer. Trump has legitimized them. 2008 was not a last gasp, as I thought at the time; it was the tip of the iceberg.

Maybe I was being naïve. Maybe nothing had changed, and I was only seeing what I wanted or needed to see. What I am sure of is that the country I finally felt part of has suddenly revealed itself as another country entirely, a place filled with hatred and rage. Madness is in control. What is this land? Am I truly a part of it?

I am adrift again.