03 February 2023

Unemployment at lowest level in decades... BAD news?

What a strange world it is when the effective unemployment rate has hit its lowest point since 1969 and yet the Masters of the Universe through their bought and paid for media are telling us that this is a bad thing for the economy, and the Democratic president is widely thought of as having presided over a weak economy. Economic inequity is still a huge policy issue, don't get me wrong, but it's Alice in Wonderland not to recognize that Democratic policies have worked, and the economy is capable of strong growth with renewable energy infrastructure leading the way. Only death-wish delusion on the part of the Know Nothing and Fascist factions of the Republican Party is standing in the way. 

They're wearing their treason proud

Several observers have noted that several of the American Fascist cohort in the House have ditched their cheesy American flag pins for pins in the shape of an AR-15 assault rifle. At least their total treachery and disloyalty to the United States is now out in the open. 

28 January 2023

Tipping point on EVs

Anyone who doubts that the tipping point of conversion of the world's auto fleet to electric vehicles is upon us needs to explain how of the top ten global sellers, only two, the Tesla Model Y and the Tesla Model 3, showed increased sales. The Camry, Corolla, F-series Ford pick ups, CRV, RAV-4... all the internal combustion models, saw declines in sales. All  of them. And, here's the thing: Tesla just cut the price of the Model Y and the Model 3 substantially, and Tesla is about to release its next-generation subcompact (dubbed "Model 2" or "Model A" but likely to be named something else), which will sell, after subsidies, for as little as $20,000 in the US. And, while other than Chinese BYD no other automaker can produce enough EVs to meet demand, the fact is that demand for nearly all EVs is exceeding demand for gas powered cars, across the board. 

26 January 2023

Katie for Senate!

What? It's 2023, not 2024! But people are running already. I'm no longer a Californian, so I guess I should stay the hell out of it, but I would vote for Katie Porter over Adam Schiff for Senate in California. I think her kind of probity and intellectual virtuosity is exactly what is needed in the Senate. All this presumes that Feinstein will finally step down... I consider it a stain on her career (one of several) that she failed to step down last time. But, come to think of it, if she doesn't, it won't matter. In California's Jungle Primary, I'd say Feinstein has about zero chance of retaining her seat at this point, since other Democrats have already announced they're running to replace her, and at her level of mental infirmity, she simply cannot mount a credible campaign. 


  

24 January 2023

A little planetary rhapsody

The constellation Cetus, the Whale or Sea Monster, can be seen around this time of year in much of the Northern Hemisphere, despite being a "southern constellation," and thanks to the Earth's axial tilt, which gives us a view of a good percentage of the sky at one time or another when it's clear throughout the year. I first picked out Cetus's stars about 50 years ago, and even then I was particularly intrigued with the relatively inconspicuous star Tau Ceti. It's not much to look at with the naked eye. Slightly orange yellow, once you accustom yourself to distinguishing the colors of stars. It is one of the "Bayer" stars, named after the astronomer Bayer who gave the brighter stars in the sky greek-letter  + constellation name designations (in Latin genitive case) back in the early 17th century. 

But TC was one of the subjects of Frank Drake's 1961 Project Ozma, where he first tried to listen for signals from possible extraterrestrial intelligence. This is because, the thinking went, such signals are likely to attenuate, so would be most likely detected, if at all, only from nearby sunlike stars, which might have planets and life much like Earth. (Others have since expanded this view, but no signals have yet been found, and some of us have already concluded that they may well never be found because they aren't there). Anyway, Tau Ceti was thought to be one of the better candidates. It's somewhat smaller than the Sun, but is the closest solitary G-type dwarf, albeit somewhat "later" in the parlance, meaning dimmer and smaller than the Sun, at about 78% solar mass. It's about 12 light years, which is close in stellar terms, although that's something like 75 trillion miles, so it's not close by any human standard. We will not have the technology to actually go there for a very long time, and will never be able to travel back and forth the way you go to Europe. Some will disagree with that, but they are engaging in wishful thinking; the speed of light is an absolute speed limit and it will never be possible to travel to nearby stars in less than years. Likely we will have the technology to send some kind of robot probe, on a long, long journey, long before we could actually try to travel to Tau Ceti or other nearby stars. But even that is not currently in the offing. Our knowledge of stars and star systems comes from ground based telescopes and satellites; currently the best investigation is from the James Webb Space Telescope and some other space based platforms.

Technically Tau Ceti is a G8 dwarf, which is dimmer and smaller than the Sun's G2 class. These classes don't tell you everything about a star. Tau Ceti is older than the Sun, at about 6 billion years by most estimates, and is lower in metallicity, meaning preponderance of elements heavier than helium. That would affect the chemistry of the planets it has. In 1961, it was thought that only solitary stars like the Sun would likely have planets, although it was known even then that the majority of stars are found in systems with at least two stars. (Not the majority of systems, but the majority of stars. Many smaller, red dwarf stars are solitary, so the slight majority of systems are solitary, but since by definition even a binary system has two stars, the stars in binary and multiple systems do outnumber the singletons. Turns out even stars in multiple systems almost always have at least some planets anyway). 

In 1973 when I spotted Tau Ceti in a dark winter sky and thought about what might be there, we really knew nothing. Now, thanks to huge advances in exoplanetology, it's fairly certain that Tau Ceti has at least five planets, and likely all of the ones so far detected are in a class of planets that, by chance perhaps or for unknown reasons, does not exist in the Solar System, namely so-called Super Earths. Super Earths are defined as rocky "terrestrial" planets larger than Earth in both diameter and mass, but enough smaller than so-called Ice Giants like Neptune and Uranus in the Solar System, which have sufficient gravity to retain hydrogen and helium in their atmospheres, to not have that kind of atmosphere. Hydrogen and helium escape from the atmospheres of planets like Earth, so they tend to have thinner atmospheres made up of other gases. Turns out, from the investigation of now thousands of planetary systems, Super Earths are very, very common. Most planetary systems have at least one, and frequently they are much closer to the star even than Mercury is to the Sun, especially in the cases of less massive stars. We have now realized that the Solar System is actually rather unusual, even for stars of the approximate mass of the Sun, and not even taking into account the extremely unusual planet Earth, with its huge moon and... highly developed life. Also, by far the majority of stars in the Galactic population are smaller...most of them much smaller... than the Sun, but almost all of them have planetary systems. Whether the Sun's higher than average metallicity has anything to do with its distribution of planets and what those planets are like is the subject of a lot of research but is not at all well understood at this point. 

So, Frank Drake's 1961 investigation now appears pretty quixotic. There is no particular reason that Super Earths could not have life; indeed it has been speculated that planets between 1.1 and 1.5 Earth Masses might actually be somewhat more hospitable to life than Earth, all other things being equal. But other things usually aren't equal, and in all the searching and investigation, an approximate endeavor all around in any case, we have yet to come across a really close analog to Earth, in terms of mass, distance from its star to give approximately equal "sunlight," etc. Not that these parameters are well known or easily confirmed, and equally important questions arising about composition of the planet and its potential oceans and atmospheres is mostly still in the realm of speculation. But planets with 3 and 4 times the mass of Earth, which is most of Tau Ceti's planets, seem unlikely to host life similar to Earth's, as their atmospheres are likely to be extremely dense, like Venus's. Whether high gravity alone would be a major obstacle or not is unknown. (TC may well have a "Jupiter" or "Super Jupiter" further out; planets distant from the star can be hard to detect so there's a selection bias). But, still, most systems just don't include a planet with all the "goldilocks" characteristics to have liquid water and stable temperatures for ultra-long periods of time, which seems to be what made complex life on Earth possible. 

There are other reasons for believing that complex life like ours is actually pretty rare. We don't know enough to rule out a range of biochemistries, but a good deal of work on the possible origin of life on Earth suggests that the range is far from infinite, and that conditions have to be fairly circumscribed by planetary conditions, and remain stable for long periods of time, for evolution to work its magic and produce complex macroscopic life. See any discussion of the Fermi Paradox for reasons other than direct observation to infer that the evolution of complex life and intelligence is very probably quite rare in the universe. 

So, you may ask, what is my point? Just this: let's not lose sight of the wonder of it all. Tau Ceti is a real place. It has real worlds. They're not just like our world, but they have existed for longer than the Earth, presumably, and we have no idea whether some form of life might have originated on one or even two of them, where liquid water could exist on their surfaces. And it is just one of countless stars... literally countless. There are about 400 billion stars in the Galaxy alone, and the observable universe (not the entire universe, just the part you can see from here) contains about that many entire galaxies, each with tens of millions to up to a trillion or so stars (like our nearest big galactic neighbor, M31 in Andromeda, which as about 1 trillion stars at roughly 2 million light years' distance). The universe is actually more diverse than most science fiction writers over the years have imagined. And it is out there, in a sense, waiting for us. Apparently, in terms of conscious living beings, mostly empty, but nonetheless are real as our world, made of the same stuff, governed by the same physics and chemistry. We as a species are like a petulant child, obsessed narcissistically with our own petty concerns and narrowly perceived world. If we could but look out at the stars and realize that our job for the present is to learn to live with each other in peace and sustainable technology on the only world anywhere near here that can sustain us, we can dream that one day we will actually begin the long future where the stars are real places, where our descendants and successors may go, and find a whole universe of wonder we can scarcely dream of. We can, if we can just get through this toddler phase of rampant stupidity and short-sightedness, emerge into a maturity of an almost limitless future, where what it means to be human and aware will evolve and grow in ways we can't imagine. 

20 January 2023

Stupid, deliberately evasive report on the Dobbs leak

 I frankly don't much care who leaked Dobbs, because I generally prefer transparency anyway. And any misconduct involved pales in comparison to what I consider the rank evil of the opinion itself, and its hideous arrogance in addition to the plain and devastating effects it will have as "the law of the land." But here's the thing: to me it is obvious that the draft opinion was almost certainly leaked by someone on the right, not by one of the clerks or justices on the so called left, which I prefer to think of as the "Centrist Minority." There is no left in American government, by and large and certainly not on the Supreme Court. Anyway, the Supreme Court's embarassingly, even shamefully, inept investigative report fairly stinks of the inference that it was not only someone on the right, but very likely one of the justices or someone very close to one of the rightist justices. It's clear the investigators didn't even ask them anything. Someday we will probably know. My money would be on Alito himself, probably concealed by some sort of shenanigans. If not him, then Thomas or Ginni Thomas. I have no evidence for this, just a hunch, but this is what I expect history will reveal. 

19 January 2023

Buy forever stamps

 Most people don't use 1st class mail much anymore, which is one of the reasons the USPS is struggling. But I actually do; including for volunteer political mailing. So I just bought a shitload of FOREVER stamps from usps.com, since they're 60¢ each till the end of this week, but will be going up to 63¢ thereafter. That actually makes it a good deal to buy a few years' supply... my sweet spot was about $235 worth. OK, not a huge big deal, but everybody likes a bargain. And, I submit, US 1st class mail is still a bargain, even at 63¢. I still have maybe 300 or so stamps I bought over the years with the FOREVER logo, an idea I actually advocated for before they adopted it... sort of a way for them to borrow money at modest interest. And since probably a significant percentage of stamps that get issued and sold are never used, it makes financial sense to the Postal Service too. 

18 January 2023

Congressman Nadler is taking this suggestion seriously

Apparently, this is a very real suggestion which would actually work. Rather than let the nihilistic crazies in charge of the House wreck the world economy and America's credit (and possibly even permanently tank the status of the USD as the world's reserve currency), the Administration could use an obscure but perfectly valid law to mint a single coin, with at least a small amount of platinum in it (that's actually in the law). The denomination could be $1 trillion, or any other amount deemed sufficient. This could then be deposited in the Federal Reserve and used to fund already authorized spending until sane adults are again able to address the issue. Whereupon, it is to be fervently hoped and expected, they will eliminate the debt ceiling once and for all. 

This is technically not debt, it's the equivalent of "printing money," but it's expected any inflationary effect would be far less than the devastation that might very well result from a first-ever default. Just coming uncomfortably close in 2011 is estimated to have cost taxpayers over $18 billion in increased interest payments, which is just wasted money from a public welfare point of view. 
 

17 January 2023

Renewable Energy Future

Now and then, it's good to stop and take stock. It seems already clear that in the near term, the best prospects for renewable energy, especially for transportation, is the greatly reduced cost and increased efficiency of solar cells and batteries. Hydrogen fuel cells, which require hydrogen to be produced at huge cost both of Co2+Methane emissions and just plain cost, are not a good solution. Natural gas and coal as "bridges" should be considered at the end of their usefulness already: nowhere in the world should new fossil fuel plants be built, and the cessation of production of fossil fuel burning engines should be a near term goal. Stationary and mobile batteries and solar cells continue to get cheaper and better, so electric ground transportation and solar power production are very promising. Lowered cost and safer nuclear power plants appear to be feasible, and further down the road fusion power plants may prove feasible. It now appears that conversion to carbon neutral energy production in by 2050 to 2060 is going to be feasible, with most of the transportation using battery electric technology. Ocean going ships may be feasible using combination solar/wind/battery with electric propulsion. Air travel is problematic and may require the manufacture of carbon neutral fuel from biomass, but net zero is likely feasible. Artificially manufactured turbojet fuel can be produced, at least in principle, that generates no net CO2. 

It begins

Worldwide EV Price War. Tesla just cut the price on the Model Y crossover model from $65 to $52K, less the $7.5K rebate. This makes it cheaper, for example, than the Hyundai Ioniq 5 in the US. This is still somewhat expensive for a car, but when you factor in longevity and cost of operation, these cars are now more economical than comparable gas powered cars on the basis of life of car overall cost, and, frankly, it's not even close. 
 

16 January 2023

Beautiful MLK Day «Letter from an American» (Heather Cox Richardson)

This kinda made my day. 


You hear sometimes that, now that we know the sordid details of the lives of some of our leading figures, America has no heroes left.

When I was writing a book about the Wounded Knee Massacre, where heroism was pretty thin on the ground, I gave that a lot of thought. And I came to believe that heroism is neither being perfect, nor doing something spectacular. In fact, it's just the opposite: it's regular, flawed human beings, choosing to put others before themselves, even at great cost, even if no one will ever know, even as they realize the walls might be closing in around them.

It means sitting down the night before D-Day and writing a letter praising the troops and taking all the blame for the next day's failure upon yourself, in case things went wrong, as General Dwight D. Eisenhower did.

It means writing in your diary that you "still believe that people are really good at heart," even while you are hiding in an attic from the men who are soon going to kill you, as Anne Frank did.

It means signing your name to the bottom of the Declaration of Independence in bold print, even though you know you are signing your own death warrant should the British capture you, as John Hancock did.

It means defending your people's right to practice a religion you don't share, even though you know you are becoming a dangerously visible target, as Sitting Bull did.

Sometimes it just means sitting down, even when you are told to stand up, as Rosa Parks did.

None of those people woke up one morning and said to themselves that they were about to do something heroic. It's just that, when they had to, they did what was right.

On April 3, 1968, the night before the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white supremacist, he gave a speech in support of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Since 1966, King had tried to broaden the Civil Rights Movement for racial equality into a larger movement for economic justice. He joined the sanitation workers in Memphis, who were on strike after years of bad pay and such dangerous conditions that two men had been crushed to death in garbage compactors.

After his friend Ralph Abernathy introduced him to the crowd, King had something to say about heroes: "As I listened to Ralph Abernathy and his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about."

Dr. King told the audience that, if God had let him choose any era in which to live, he would have chosen the one in which he had landed. "Now, that's a strange statement to make," King went on, "because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around…. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars." Dr. King said that he felt blessed to live in an era when people had finally woken up and were working together for freedom and economic justice.

He knew he was in danger as he worked for a racially and economically just America. "I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter…because I've been to the mountaintop…. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life…. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"

People are wrong to say that we have no heroes left.

Just as they have always been, they are all around us, choosing to do the right thing, no matter what.

Wishing you all a day of peace for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2023.

Notes:

Dr. King's final speech: 

https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/martin-luther-kings-final-speech-ive-mountaintop-full/story?id=18872817


15 January 2023

The state of the auto industry

It's a bit of a cliché to say "numbers don't lie." But there is fundamental truth in it. And here's what the numbers show:

  • Worldwide, and in North America, the only segment of the new auto market that is increasing is the electric vehicle segment, and no automaker is currently able to keep up with demand. All other segments have had decreased sales year/year as of 2022. The oft repeated mantra touted by CEOs of companies like Toyota and BMW that people "don't really want EVs" is just not true. People really really want EVs and they can't get enough of them. 
  • None of the legacy makers can produce enough EVs to meet demand. The Cadillac Lyriq, introduced to great fanfare, sold less than 1500 vehicles in 2022. Not because of lack of demand, but because they can't produce anywhere near enough to meet demand, which causes price gouging in America's ridiculous dealer sales system. Ford has over 200,000 orders for its electric pick up truck, but can't anywhere near meet that demand. So, as you would expect, people are canceling orders. Tesla sales, especially in California, are breaking records. 
  • Tesla and BYD (Chinese) are currently the only automakers in the world that have done the legwork sufficiently that they can make EVs at scale and make a profit on them. Tesla projects over 1 million EVs in 2023, quite realistically, and intends to ramp up from there to however many there is demand for. They have a huge plant in Shanghai and another in Texas, waiting to be expanded. One reason other makers cannot match this growth for now is that both VW and GM (for example) had close to $1 billion in recall and warranty chargeoffs in the last year, whereas Tesla's was not only much less in dollars, it was less than 10% of that on a per car basis. EVs are just much more reliable than ICE cars, cost less to operate, and last longer without mechanical failures on average. (Batteries are part of that, lasting longer and maintaining reliability better). Tesla will benefit from the US tax rebate, whereas the Chinese will not, so this is a huge plus for them, especially in North America.  
  • Batteries are following something similar to Moore's law in the current industrialization phase. Technologies are emerging that allow production at scale for a fraction of the cost of even ten years ago, and new battery designs will not require increasingly expensive rare materials like lithium and cobalt. (A design already in preproduction replaces lithium with sodium, which is virtually inexhaustible and cheap). The only companies that are already in development of the latest, most efficient and cheapest battery technologies are the Chinese makers and... you guessed it... Tesla. This is likely to become the competitive edge in the next few years. Something similar is happening with solar cells; new technology allows them to be about 5% the weight, and to be made into flexible rolls that can be glued to almost any surface, so future EVs will get a significant fraction of their power from sunlight as they're running.  

I've talked about this before, but here's what this all boils down to. The legacy automakers worldwide, all of them, are at a competitive disadvantage resulting from the biggest industrial disruption in the auto industry since about 1920, currently underway. Some, like VW, BMW, Mercedes, Tata, Hyundai Group, Ford, and GM, are at least working vigorously to catch up and some of them will likely succeed. Chinese makers, with heavy subsidies, and particularly BYD, and Tesla, are clear leaders. Much of Tesla's manufacturing, development and sales are in China. The Japanese, who have all missed the boat on this and are all very far behind in EV development despite having been early adopters and developers of hybrid technology, are in very, very serious jeopardy and Japan's entire economy is likely to be massively disrupted in the next 5 years. Toyota and BMW made a huge mistake in sticking with hydrogen fuel cell technology R&D (which GM abandoned over a decade ago), when it's clear that the infrastructure costs are just not going to allow this technology to be competitive. 

Japanese EVs that do exist, such as the Nissan Leaf and the BZ3 or whatever the hell Toyota calls it, are being made in small numbers at a loss, and are not particularly good compared to the Koreans, Chinese, and Tesla, or even the Europeans. Toyota stopped production of their car, which is just not competitive... along with the Subaru rebadge version. They say they are looking at an overhaul of the EV project, which is great, but about a decade too late. Honda is getting GM to make EVs for them, since they have nothing in the pipeline. Mazda's EV is so pitiful they are hardly selling at all and it's just a hollowed out ICE design with glommed on EV componentry, so it's highly inefficient and low-range. The Japanese bet heavily on hybrid technology, but it's clearer than ever that hybrids, including plug-in hybrids, are only a stopgap... the future of the auto industry is electric, where the infrastructure, still inadequate, is being rapidly developed and is relatively easy and cheap to build out. There's power everywhere, already, after all. And the cars are already good enough to replace gas cars across the board. 

It's a brave new world, but it's a safe bet that the huge majority of new cars in 2030 will be electric, and the largest automakers in the world will probably be Tesla and BYD. GM and Ford are poised to survive, probably, but VW and Toyota, both of which have absolutely massive debt, will be in real trouble, probably with vastly shrunken market share. It is even possible that several of the Japanese makers (like Mazda and Nissan, which are losing share fast), will be bankrupt. Stellantis (Fiat/Peugeot/Citroen/Chrysler) is in deep trouble. A mark you may see more of is Volvo... why? Because Volvo is now Geely, a Chinese company that is pretty far along in EV production and development. The Germans are experiencing growing pains and high costs, but at least they seem to be working on the problem assiduously and not just ignoring it and hoping it will go away, which is what the Japanese appear to be doing. The legacy makers, including the Japanese, do obviously have a lot of institutional wherewithal, so it's certainly possible that they will rapidly turn around and still be competitive, but if that's going to happen, they have to make up for a lot of lost time, starting yesterday. 

But, hey, let's remember. This is all pretty much good news. The conversion of transportation to electric power, which can and will be produced from nonfossil carbon neutral sources in the future, is just necessary for the global enterprise needed to combat the looming climate catastrophe. Disruption is inevitable. Governments can help their industries face reality and get the job done, but the bottom line is that it is already happening, and those that bring up the rear will lose out. 

Next up: air transport. Gotta get busy on that front. That one's gonna be hard. Might have to use carbon neutral manufactured fuels, which could make air transportation relatively more expensive. Ocean going transport might be easier, but that development is barely started too.

06 January 2023

Clavichord Nearing Completion

 


My Silbermann replica 61 key unfretted clavichord, nearing completion in Pennsylvania in the workshop of master harpsichord/clavichord builder Douglas Maple. (Not yet strung). 

05 January 2023

Red Lentil Flat Bread (Masoor dal chilla)

I came across this extremely simple starch substitute (well, it's starch, but also protein and no grain). It's used in the Middle East a lot. Somewhat like socca but actually easier and more versatile.  

Half-recipe suitable for one or two: 

½ cup red lentils, also called masoor dal, picked over to remove gravel, etc., although nowadays that's hardly necessary if using packaged product. Do not use green or brown lentils, these are a different plant! 
1 cup warm but not hot water
½ tsp. salt
a little oil if you like
any seasoning or herbs you may want, or none

Soak the lentils in the water for 2 to 3 hours at room temperature (you can actually keep this soaked lentil mix in the refrig. for up to several days, but not the mixed batter, which will harden if left too long). 

If water is standing on top of the lentils after 3 hours, pour off excess, but there probably won't be any. 

Put in blender or use immersion blender and blend thoroughly until the consistency of pancake batter. If too thick, add more water, but only a little at a time. You do not want the batter to be runny. 

Heat nonstick skillet (it really has to be nonstick) to fairly high temperature, as if you were making pancakes (because you are). 

Pour about a 5" circle of the batter and move pan back and forth evenly to spread out to a large round pancake. Return to heat and brown for about 3 min., lifting the edges with a large silicone or nonscratch spatula . When the underside is browned a bit (about 3 min.), slide all the way under and turn over. Cook another minute and remove. Can be eaten warm or cold, under sauces or stews or with jam, butter, peanut butter, any way you would use bread. Will keep a decent texture a day or two and is resilient enough that you can even use it to make something like a gyros or wrap. And no gluten, of course; the resiliency is from the legume proteins. No eggs or baking powder necessary. 

You could make this with yellow lentils but not conventional lentils, which are a different variety and possibly even a different species (several cultivars are designated variously, all derived from the wild species Lens orientalis). Red lentils are conventionally split like split peas while brown lentils remain with their covering intact. They don't really behave the same way. Chickpeas (chana dal) work, too, but the result is stiffer, and is essentially socca (chickpea flatbread, usually made under broiler or in oven but otherwise similar). 

The lentil batter hardens easily and can be hard to clean off utensils, so soak anything right away in warm water to make cleanup easier. 

None of the many varieties of new world bean Phaseolus, including pinto, black beans, great northern, white beans, cannellini, black-eyed peas, etc. will work; they all require much longer soaking and don't readily cook as pancake from raw batter. 
 

Good News on Solar Power

Sam Evans, the Electric Viking on YouTube, has noted an interesting development amidst a moderate global economic recession, which is actually quite good news. Due to the intense price competition among Chinese manufacturers faced with excess capacity and weak demand, the price of solar panels has dropped about 30% in the last year. This caps a decade of declines whereby electric panels are approximately 90% cheaper than a decade ago. 

At these prices, the commercial and residential production of solar electric power will prove cheaper than any fossil fuel production. And for the future of the climate, this is very good news indeed. 
 

01 January 2023

The (very brief) Lovingkindness Sutra.

As I believe I've made clear to my farflung correspondents, I am a secular Buddhist, meaning I think of it, oversimplifying a bit, as a philosophy rather than as a religion (although of course it is a religion for many). Thinking about the "Four Immeasurables" I was discussing recently, I chanced to ask the ChatBot ChatGPT about it, and it gave me a contemporary translation of the Metta Sutta ("Lovingkindness Sutra"), traditionally the teachings of the historical Buddha, Shakyamnuni, himself, in a contemporary translation, done by the Theravada monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Here it is:


"This is what should be done By one who is skilled in goodness, And who knows the path of peace: Let them be able and upright, Straightforward and gentle in speech. Humble and not conceited, Contented and easily satisfied, Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways. Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful, Not proud and demanding in nature. Let them not do the slightest thing That the wise would later reprove. Wishing: In gladness and in safety, May all beings be at ease. Whatever living beings there may be; Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none, The great or the mighty, medium, short or small, The seen and the unseen, Those living near and far away, Those born and to-be-born, May all beings be at ease! Let none deceive another, Or despise any being in any state. Let none through anger or ill-will Wish harm upon another. Even as a mother protects with her life Her child, her only child, So with a boundless heart Should one cherish all living beings: Radiating kindness over the entire world Spreading upwards to the skies, And downwards to the depths; Outwards and unbounded, Freed from hatred and ill-will. Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down Free from drowsiness, One should sustain this recollection. This is said to be the sublime abiding. By not holding to fixed views, The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision, Being freed from all sense desires, Is not born again into this world."

Happy New Year, and may these thoughts be of benefit. (I take the last lines a tad metaphorically, but there is real wisdom here).



"Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it."
― Spinoza (Ethics)

Happy New Year

Happy New Year everyone. In our weekly men's meditation, we recite the "Four limitless ones" chant, in a version I believe derives from Chögyam Trungpa, or at least the Shambhala tradition. It goes as follows (based on the Buddhist brahma-viharas, or limitless ones; metta (lovingkindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy) and upekkha (equanimity): 

May all beings enjoy happiness, and the root of happiness. 
May we be free from suffering, and the root of suffering. 
May we never be separated from the great happiness, devoid of suffering.
May we dwell in the great equanimity, free from passion, aggression and prejudice. 

This is traditional now, and I know it by heart, but today I was thinking, it somehow isn't quite right, especially the third one, so I presumptuously offer this "re-write," and extend it as a wish to everyone I know and don't know. 

The Four Limitless Qualities (rewrite)

May all beings be happy, and know the root of happiness.

May we be free from suffering, and know the root of suffering.

May we experience joy when others are joyful.

May our minds repose in equanimity, free from passion, aggression, and prejudice. 


 


 

31 December 2022

On the authoritarian government in Israel and American policy

 After reading in the NYT about the factionalism and ethnocentric exclusionism in the, let's call a spade, far right wing authoritarian government of Israel, whereby most American Jews might no longer be considered Jews by the authorities in Israel, I think it's just possible that the stranglehold this small, no longer democratic apartheid regime thousands of miles away has had on aspects of American policy going back more than seven decades may finally be eroding away. 

Please don't accuse me of antisemitism, because it's just not true. I am against authoritarianism. I support the right of Israel to exist. But not to systematically deprive civil rights to its Arab citizens, to define a class of privileged citizens on the basis of religion, and, worst of all, to continue a territorial occupation, with no serious effort underway to resolve the issue, that is now well over 50 years running, one of the longest occupations in modern history. These things are not existential threats to the US, and I don't suggest we should "do anything" about them. But neither should we continue to reflexively support the regime that continues these policies. 

30 December 2022

On economists

The inscrutability [of economics] is perhaps not unintentional. It gives endless employment to dialecticians who otherwise might become public charges or, at very worst, swindlers and tricksters. 
--Jack Vance (1916-2013)

Age of Wonder

Every now and then, I like to renew my sense of wonder by contemplating the extent of all that exists (at least in this universe). 

Although there are some anomalies, it seems fairly certain that the region of the Big-Bang universe (excluding any consideration of a "Multiverse") within the so-called "cosmic light horizon," in other words, the "observable universe," is only a small fraction of the entire universe. Indeed, the majority view among cosmologists is that the universe beyond the cosmic light horizon is at least many hundreds of times larger than the region inside it, and it cannot even be ruled out that the entire universe is actually infinite. It does, however, seem more likely that it is a curved multi-dimensional torus, unbounded (like the surface of a sphere is unbounded), but finite. But really, really big. The observable universe is approximately 92 billion light years across, and expanding at faster than the speed of light, frontier vs. frontier. (This is possible, and, in fact, well, fact, even though the Big-Bang universe is 13.7 billion years old, because space is expanding, so regions that were once closer are now exponentially further away, a process that with the unchanging limit of the speed of light will eventually actually shrink the cosmic light horizon in terms of what is visible, so that observers at any given location will see less and less of the universe as a whole). 

The observable portion of the universe contains approximately the same number of large galaxies (as large as or larger than the Milky Way's companion galaxies visible in the southern skies, the Large and Small Clouds of Magellan) as there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy... about 200 billion. That's about 17 galaxies for every man, woman and child on Earth. And that's just the part of the universe we could, in principle, see. Beyond that, far more, maybe an incredibly large factor more. The large scale structure is inhomogeneous on a pretty large scale: there are large voids, up to a billion light years in diameter, where there are few galaxies, and there are tendrils and filaments where they are more concentrated, somewhat like suds or froth, but on the very largest scales, including the vast extent beyond the cosmic light horizon, it is believed to be essentially homogeneous, approximately the same in every direction. I wanted to say "as far as the eye can see," but, actually, it's much, much farther than the eye can see. To quote a line from my favorite speculative fiction author, Jack Vance, "and to think some believe the Age of Wonder to be past and gone!" 
  

Trump Tax Evader

Trump's Tax Returns show that he paid more money to the People's Republic of China in taxes in the last six years than to the United States of America. Let that sink in. 

29 December 2022

Jamie Raskin diagnosis

As a Spinozan, I don't actually believe in a personal God that hears prayers, but "praying for someone" or being "in my prayers" is a way of saying you care and have the best possible wishes, so most people say this regardless of their metaphysics. So, no contradiction: Jamie Raskin, who has been diagnosed with treatable B cell lymphoma and is about to begin chemotherapy, is in my prayers. He's a good guy, and I hope he has a great future. I've even thought of him as a possible future president. I hope he recovers easily and completely. 
 
"If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past."
― Spinoza

Trump to split Republicans?

If reports are really true that Trump and that fascist idiot Marjorie Greene want to split the Republican into MAGAts and NeverTrumpers (or whatever), there can scarcely be better news . . .  for Democrats. 

Asking Chatbot about Power Distribution

After the power outage we just lived through galvanized my interest (pardon the pun), I asked the chatbot ChatGPT about power distribution technologies. Its answer was predictable, but it shows me that the solution, in particular with regard to local distribution, is actually pretty obvious. We are still using essentially 1930s power distribution technology in much of America. And, given the climate crisis and technological changes we must make, it's just not good enough. We need to invest in new distribution technology, including battery storage at the building-level (including private homes), and replacing overhead lines with hardened underground transmission. This isn't rocket science. But it requires willingness to spend the money, which is a policy issue. Good example of the short sighted stupidity of reflexive condemnation of government's role in making our infrastructure better. We can either do these things or we can fall hopelessly behind. Which is it gonna be? 

David Studhalter

ME:Are there new technologies on the horizon to improve power transmission, both across long distances, and to prevent weather related outages from failures in local power distribution?

CHATBOT: Yes, there are a number of new technologies that have the potential to improve power transmission and distribution, both across long distances and in local networks. Here are a few examples:

  1. High-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission: HVDC transmission allows electricity to be transmitted over long distances with minimal loss, making it an attractive option for transmitting power from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind farms.

  2. Superconducting cables: Superconducting cables have extremely low electrical resistance and can transmit large amounts of electricity with minimal loss. They are currently being developed for use in power transmission and distribution systems.

  3. Smart grids: Smart grids use advanced technologies such as sensors, smart meters, and control systems to improve the efficiency and reliability of the electric power system. They can also help to prevent power outages caused by weather or other disruptions.

  4. Underground power transmission: Underground power transmission involves burying power lines underground, which can help to prevent power outages caused by storms or other weather-related events. It is also more aesthetically pleasing than overhead transmission lines.

  5. Energy storage systems: Energy storage systems such as batteries and pumped hydro storage can store excess electricity generated by renewable energy sources and release it when needed, helping to improve the reliability and stability of the power grid.



28 December 2022

Power back on... but it only illustrates the scope of a crisis

Our power just came back on at 11:09 PM after being off for almost exactly 42 hours. A minor windstorm and mild winter weather. We have a lot of trees around here, but I still say that it's something like what happened to Southwest Airlines this week. Everything shaved too thin, more concern for shareholder profits than system operability, cavalier attitude towards the suffering and needs of customers deprived of power in Winter. We're supposed to be converting to an all electric future: electric heat pumps, electric cars, electric induction cooking, real time electric water heaters. But this will only work if America's utilities commit themselves to AT LEAST 99.9% continuous-on operation. We have had no fewer than 20 days of no power in the last four years here... do the math, that's more than .1% by a good deal. And it's not an hour here or there. We were without power in 2020 for 9 days straight... it was 40° inside our house. We had to move out, to a motel, with no compensation for the disruption it caused. This is just plain not good enough. And the cause was highly predictable winter weather that could've been anticipated and accommodated with adequate multiply redundant infrastructure, which is even more true of this present two-day outage. I intend to bring this problem to the attention of my State representatives. My solution is to make the private utility Portland General Electric into a public utility, and force it to commit to major upgrades in resilience and redundancy of infrastructure and capacity. I doubt this will happen anytime soon, but it's one of those things: the obvious and necessary solution... that will just have to come to pass eventually. 

26 December 2022

Gov. Abbott's cruel and hideous stunt

Some way, some how, sending legal asylum seekers in a bus hundreds of miles and dumping them in the freezing cold as a political stunt, which is what the hideous excuse for a human being Greg Abbott just did, has got to be a crime. There has simply got to be a way to prosecute and send this man to jail for this horrible crime against humanity. I don't know how, but there just has to be. 

24 December 2022

Democratic Values, Redux

 I posted this on my then nascent blog [this blog] in 2004. I still maintain all of it.  

I believe in Christian Values, without regard to faith:

· Humility

· Compassion

· Caring for the Poor, the aged, the sick

· Caring for and educating the young

· Loving your neighbor as yourself

I am a Conservative:

· I believe in conservation and protecting our precious environment

· I believe the government should pay as it goes, and not accumulate enormous debt to burden this generation's children and grandchildren and harm our nation's economy in the World

· I believe taxes should be fair, and not unduly benefit the wealthy with tax advantages

· I believe our country should be strong and should defend its interests, but it should not be the world's policeman

· I believe in Fair Trade, which favors American jobs for Americans, not the interests of multinational corporations

I am a Patriot and I believe in the Constitution:

· Elections should be fair, congress should reflect the will of the people

· I believe in Freedom of Expression, even when I disagree or am offended, because it makes America stronger


I am a Democrat.

23 December 2022

The evidence with the Jan. 6 Committee Report and the fate of Trump

So, now we shall see. Evidence more than sufficient to convict Trump and several of his consiglieri of several different felonies is now a matter of public record. If there is no indictment and conviction, there will be an indictment all right... of our legal system on the charge of undue favoritism towards the powerful. 

As an aside, there is also strong evidence of witness tampering and suborning of perjury, although it may not turn out to be possible to pin that on Trump personally. The historical record is clear as a bell, nonetheless. Trump is the one and only president to actively resist the peaceful transfer of power at the end of his term, and he is far and away the most criminally culpable president in US history. Nixon didn't even come close. 

The only ray of light in all this is that there is pretty good reason to believe that he has finally been cornered and marginalized politically. We still have the tremendous problem that the Republican Party is by and large pro-fascist and anti-democratic, partly but not entirely due to Trump. But at least it now seems much less likely that there will be a second Trump presidency. Which would obviously be a catastrophe for our country, and even the whole world. 

22 December 2022

Is the liar George Santos even really gay?

I just don't know what to say. It appears that very nearly everything Republican congressman elect George Santos has said about his background is a lie. As a gay man, I have a hard time understanding how any gay person can be a Republican, but, of course, in general, I'm pleased to see openly gay people elected to public office. And, of course, many gay people have been married to people of the opposite sex, for whatever reasons, and that's their business. But in this case, I have to wonder, is this guy even for real? Is he even really gay? He claimed to be descended from a Holocaust survivor and that his mother was killed in the 9/11 collapse, and both of these statements have been shown to be lies (along with his financial and educational background). His family isn't even Jewish. So if he'd lie about that, maybe he'd lie about being gay, to try to appear to be a pioneer in Republican politics or some such horseshit. I honestly have no idea. All I can say is that this kind of wholesale fraud in politics is the legacy of Trump. We will take quite some little while to live it down, as a society. In a more at least superficially ethically-minded past, this guy would not even be seated, and would be forced to resign. I will be quite surprised if that happens. 

Middle East "Allies" ?

I'd just like to point out that our supposed major allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi, have done absolutely zip to assist the United States in its major foreign policy initiatives, including, especially, assisting the Ukrainians in resisting the War of Aggression being waged against it... a European Democracy... by the Christofacsist state, the Russian Federation. This should not be forgotten. If it were up to me, we would suspend all aid and military cooperation with Saudi and Israel. I know many disagree, but it has been a long time since either of these countries were a reliable ally to our country, or lived up meaningfully to the values we profess in the world. 

19 December 2022

Socca (chickpea flatbrad)

I've posted a version of this before, but it's so simple and good I thought I would again. It's high in protein, complex carb, gluten free, and makes a substitute for bread, rice or potatoes, or even pizza crust. 

Recipe requires a cast iron or other very heavy pan about 12" in diameter. Doen't need to be deep. A cast iron round griddle is perfect. But a skillet works fine too. A pizza pan, unless it's heavy, might not be ideal, but would probably also work. 

1 cup besan (aka gram, chickpea or garbanzo bean flour) sifted. Don't skip sifting. 
1 cup cold water. 
1/2 tsp. salt 
1 1/2 tsp. olive oil
rosemary, tarragon, za'atar, or other seasoning, to taste, optional but very good. Rosemary is traditional in southern France for this
a little garlic powder (also optional), also cumin (which is also part of the za'atar mix)
I also put in 1/4 tsp. of baking powder, but note: there is no gluten in gram, and this "bread" does not rise. Not even a little. 

Preheat oven to 450°. Put the pan in the oven to get it very hot, with a thin coating of oil
Mix ingredients well, with a whisk or similar, but don't beat it to death
Take pan out of the oven with mitts, pour mix in and use a scraper to get all the batter
Turn on broiler and put pan under broiler for 6-7 min.

That's it. If you don't have a broiler, you can just put it in the hot oven. Might take a little longer. Should be just slightly brown on top. You can even make it like a pancake on the stovetop (don't turn it over; cover for a minute or two after cooking for 3-4 min.; but the oven is better)

Cut into wedges. Can be eaten warm or cold. With syrup or honey it's a dessert, with butter it's nice for toast in the morning. You can put other stuff on it, including cheese, tomatoes, etc. and heat up for quick "pizza." Very versatile, simple, and delicious 
 

18 December 2022

Bach Stiftung (Foundation) • St Gallen, Switzerland • BWV 122, "Das Neugeborne Kindelein"

I cannot recommend the YouTube channel for the Bach Stiftung highly enough. This is their recent production of Cantata No. 122, Das Neugeborne Kindelein, for the Sunday after Christmas. If your taste is wide enough to include Bach vocal music (some of the finest there is), this is a simply fantastic free resource. I am grateful enough that I have several times sent them a bit of money, and they send me nice letters on A4 paper in German (with no postage on the envelopes; apparently charities in Switzerland get free franking). Coincidentally, Portland's Bach Cantata Choir did this same cantata at their annual holiday concert. Pretty well, but, honestly, not as well as these musicians, who are uniformly and invariably excellent. 


There is also a quite charming explanation by Rudolf Lutz and his colleague (in English... most are in German).   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmicFT8Tpfs 

EV Paradigm Shift

It's become increasingly clear that the Chinese, and Tesla, respectively, have gotten way out ahead of the EV paradigm shift. Europe faces a virtual flood of cheaper, and actually quite well made, Chinese EVs, starting now. European makers are going to be severely stressed and some will likely not even survive. Same with the Japanese makers, who depend on the US and European markets. But the US, through subsidy policy, tariffs on countries not participating in Free Trade Agreements, has essentially forestalled the same thing happening here. Most Chinese makers have no plans to build factories in US, and few intend to sell cars here at all. This could be very, very good for the US, as it gives Ford and GM, and some new startups like Aptera, Rivian, Canoo, etc., a chance to establish a market share. Not to mention Tesla, which is likely to be the worldwide sales leader at least of higher end EVs for the foreseeable future. Elon Musk should stop bitching and celebrate the fact that US policy has benefited his company enormously. 

15 December 2022

Trump hits new low

With his NFT trading card announcement (I had to look up what that even is... it's a grift, unsurprisingly)... Trump has reached the level of the utterly ridiculous. I predict he will fade away quickly after his indictment and conviction next year.  

14 December 2022

Tesla, as a company, should reject and denounce Elon Musk's hatemongering

I admire Tesla and even SpaceX, but I am seriously concerned about the far right "stochastic terrorism" being displayed and promoted by Elon Musk. I think for the sake of the future of Tesla, in particular, the board of directors should ask him to resign. There is no place in business for promotion of hate. This is not just a question of freedom of expression. Using a platform like Twitter to actively promote hate and dogwhistling political violence actually causes real harm, even deaths. Musk must be condemned for this unacceptable behavior. I, for one, will not buy products from companies where he has a management role until and unless they do so. 

Some musings on the future of life, the nonprevalence of intelligent life, and the danger of exobiology


 
I find that even most intellectually curious people have a bit of a mental block when it comes to deep time, especially in the forward direction. They may be somewhat comfortable with thinking of the history of life in tens and even hundreds of millions of years in the past, but they find it hard to take seriously the notion that life, including life descended from humanity, is likely to persist for the same order of magnitude of time, or possibly even longer, into the future. But this is a subject dear to me, as some of my long suffering farflung correspondents will know. 

I find the radical right wing libertarian and AI-centric points of view equally (albeit for different reasons) repugnant. There are actually folks out there who think, what the hell, burn all the fossil fuel, don't worry about the millions who are starving, we just have to get to the future, some of us, and it will all work out. This is so wrong on so many levels. Our grand future in space is clearly not imminent. We are only taking the baby steps. In fact, I would say our enterprise to become an interplanetary, and eventually interstellar, civilization is almost certainly doomed to failure if we cannot first learn, as a baby advanced civilization, to live sustainably on our planet, and to cooperate as a species in a sustainable and, dare I say it, ethical, manner. And as for the AI singularity, all I can say is, don't hold your breath. I see no signs at all that we are anywhere near creating artificial consciousness. And as a corollary, I think the chances that AI will "take over" anytime soon, or that we will learn how to upload our minds into machines and live forever, anytime in the foreseeable future, are pretty much exactly zero. 

But if you take seriously the idea that all of human history so far is but an eyeblink compared to the time to come, when intelligent beings evolved from the biosystem of this little planet a few thousand light years out into the calm and boring disk region of a fairly ordinary barred spiral galaxy, will emerge and begin to spread life from this world into a much larger space. It seems very likely to me, from recent research on exoplanets and the requirements for the origin and prevalence of life on this planet over several billion years, that planets like Earth, with advanced life, are probably quite rare, but environments where life can exist, whether artificial habitats or modified planetary surfaces, are abundant. But the stars are very, very far away, so the next phase(s) of our future, including the future of descendants who will not be entirely recognizable as human (in all likelihood) will take shape mostly in our Solar System. And for a long, long while, almost entirely on Earth itself. 

But if there is a principle of all life, it is that it seeks out new places, and new ways, to live. So it is truly inevitable, unless we blow it completely and become extinct soon, that life from Earth will expand beyond Earth, beyond the Solar System, into a wider universe. 

And, of course, as all science fiction readers will recognize at once, this begs the question, who is out there already? Is life common, even if it's just microorganisms? Are there other intelligent beings, who will have their own agendas that may not comport well with ours? What problems will our descendants face from the answers to these questions? And we don't know. We just don't. But we can surmise somewhat, and make some informed speculations. 

I was reading the other day in a 20 year old book on the Fermi Paradox titled Where is Everybody? I didn't actually read the book, because there was literally nothing in it I hadn't already thought about and considered, and I found about 80% of it to be fairly useless. It devoted several chapters to the possibility that aliens are already here, on Earth, and we just can't see them. To me this is a preposterous idea that isn't really even worth talking about. If you disagree, I could debate you till the cows come home, but the arguments for this possibility aren't merely flawed. They're dumb, resembling QAnon conspiracy theories at their core, in that they require the most ridiculous special pleading of extremely unlikely concatenations of events and mass delusion to be possible. So, forget that. 

Then there's the idea that "they're out there, but they're ignoring us," for whatever reason. I consider this almost equally ludicrous. Mainly because it completely ignores deep time. We're not talking about just the present. We can say, with near 100% certainty, that our biosphere has never encountered life that didn't originate here on Earth. The genetic code of all organisms, and even the most minute details of biochemistry, all point to a single origin of life, about 3.5 billion years ago, on this planet. If alien civilizations were close enough that they had ever visited this planet, we would almost certainly know it. And time is long. Stars much like the sun, and planets more or less like the Earth, have existed elsewhere in this Galaxy (and in countless other galaxies) for many billions of years. So there is no reason aliens would just happen to encounter Earth now, as opposed to long ago, when their likelihood to exist was about the same as it is now. And if they ever had, it seems very likely that they would have contaminated our biosphere with living organisms that did not originate on Earth. Think this through. Sure, it's remotely possible they could have been careful not to contaminate Earth with their life (we've already done that), and were only interested in studying us, not living here or changing anything. Sure. Could be. But all of them? In all time? And nowhere even a hint of their existence? It strains credulity. Same with the "Zoo" hypothesis, that they're out there watching us, or nurturing us, or whatever. This is like a conspiracy theory; it requires that all the supposed aliens have all conspired to keep their existence secret from us for huge swaths of time. It just doesn't make sense. Much more likely, I think, is the following set of inferences: 

1.  Life may not be terribly rare, but the evolution of stable, highly complex biospheres like Earth's, and perhaps even moreso the actual evolution of intelligent life in such places, is very, very rare. 
2.  One of the reasons for drawing that conclusion is that intelligent life is likely, in times short in comparison to the age of the galaxy or the time it takes life to evolve to Earthlike complexity, to figure out how to migrate through space and colonize other worlds, which process could proceed, again, in times short compared to the geological eras of nonintelligent life, to colonize the entire Galaxy, or even beyond. 
3.  QED: the most likely conclusion is that we are, indeed, alone, as a smart species potentially capable of interstellar migration, in a swath of the universe large enough that we do not see evidence of others like us, and enough time for the nearest of them to colonize our galaxy has not yet transpired. 

I know this kind of thinking is anathema to a lot of people. They just can't take it seriously. But I think this is, really and truly, most likely the way things are. We arose naturally on Earth, from abiogenesis, a long, long time ago, and we have yet to encounter any other life from anywhere else. And the circumstances described above are why that is the case. 

But what of other life that is not intelligent, not capable of interstellar migration, or comparable to humanity in general? Might this not be common? This is the great question NASA and other space programs are to a great extent dedicated to answering. But what are the implications? 

It has occurred to me that non-Earth origin life could be extremely dangerous. Not that it would cause disease, but that it would change the course of evolution irreversibly, and that the introduction of even tiny quantities of living matter could be completely catastrophic and irreversible. We do not know the extent to which the course of evolution on Earth is purely contingent-- dependent on essentially arbitrary events that have shaped the way biochemistry works. We do know that natural selection is merciless... if organisms from another planet were better able to adapt to conditions on Earth, or elsewhere where we were trying to establish our form of life, they would be unstoppable. 

I am not a believer in "Providence." The universe is miraculous in a sense, but it is not, I feel sure, guided by benign intelligence. For those who believe it is, wonderful, I hope you're right, and you are certainly entitled to your philosophy. But do we take chances based on wishful thinking? I think that the only prudent conclusion is that naturally evolved biospheres must assume the worst case, and must keep themselves isolated, completely, from all other life, forever. This needs to be an imperative. 

And, just perhaps, I'd like to suggest, this is also one of the reasons we have no evidence of life from elsewhere. OK, it is a modification of the Zoo hypothesis. Maybe, just maybe, intelligent life that is smart enough to survive for geological time periods, invariably learns to avoid other naturally occurring life, as too dangerous to have any intercourse with. But that, too, would require perfection of intention and historical contingency, that leads me inevitably back to the supposition that, indeed, intelligent life must be very rare, and thus, other instances of it are likely very, very far away. Many galaxies away... most galaxies are likely, I think, completely devoid of intelligent life. But since we have the potential to spread out into our own Galaxy, over long periods of time during which we will evolve into other forms beyond all recognition, perhaps that's a form of unintended Providence, after all, because a crowded universe with competing civilizations would be a dangerous place indeed. 

13 December 2022

Coffee and Chocolate Chemistry

 


Caffeine. 1,3,7-dimethylxanthine. Principal psychoactive agent in coffee, tea, guarana, and maté. Guarana has much more caffeine than coffee, by volume of plant material. 

Theobromine. Principal psychoactive agent in chocolate. 3,7-dimethylxanthine. About 12% of ingested caffeine is metabolized into theobromine by the liver, so coffee also causes more or less the same effects, in addition to its own stimulant effects, since there is much more caffeine in coffee than theobromine in chocolate.