02 June 2023

Default Bill and the Push for 55%

I choose to believe that the 5 Democrats who voted against the default limit (including Sanders, technically not a Democrat, and including our Senator, Merkley), did so as a symbolic protest against cuts in vital programs and a particularly insidious fossil fuel pipeline, just about the worst kind of corrupt public policy imaginable. Had the vote been truly close, I believe every single one of them would have voted Yes, because they have all shown in their overall stances that they put the interests of the nation and its people above mere politics. 

The 31 Republicans who voted No, however, constitute a veritable rogues' list of traitorous MAGA Fascists, who were truly voting to destroy the American economy and fiscal stability, in the mad belief that such would inure to their benefit in their constant quest to put antidemocratic powergrabbing above all else. 

Democrats need to do everything possible to shorten the careers of every one of them. 

We cannot let up. I'm an enthusiastic endorser of Simon Rosenberg's "Push for 55" where we should not only grapple desperately to retain the Senate, re-elect Biden and retake the House, but we should push for a massive repudiation of Fascism by getting a landslide nationally in 24, and making gains in the local governments of every Red State, while consolidating control in every Blue State. This is not impossible. But you have to work for it, and believe you can succeed. 

We suffer more in imagination than in reality. 
-- Seneca 

01 June 2023

NO to denying medical care due to indebtedness

Let me just be totally clear. Supposedly nonprofit healthcare systems turning away patients because they have unpaid medical bills is totally unacceptable. I realize that as a society we have to have realistic ways to pay for medical care. But this is not it. We simply have to do better, and part of that solution has to be to make it totally illegal to deny care due to medical indebtedness. Period, and I will not countenance or even listen to any arguments to the contrary. This is a red line we should never have crossed and must not continue to tolerate. 

31 May 2023

Terrane Accretion Animation, Western North America since 170 Ma

This is a really long, albeit to me totally fascinating, video about the mantle tomography evidence for major terrane and plate movements on the margin of North America mostly between about 100 Ma* and 50 Ma. But I'm not proposing my farflung correspondents watch the whole thing necessarily. But, please pull it up and watch between 56:00 and 60:00 to see how, much like Australia ramming New Guinea, several large and small microcontinents (comparable to Borneo, Sumatra, or Japan, say) were accreted to North America to make the Western Mobile belt, which is all of the three West Coast states, and some adjacent areas (not including the Rockies, a different story), much of Mexico, all of Brit. Columbia, and all of Alaska. From 170 Ma to the present. If this doesn't pique your interest just a little bit, you're hopeless when it comes to "lay interest in science." No offense.  

(*means "million years ago," usually pronounced "M-a"... notice that Karin sometimes just says "Years," since it's obvious she means "million years").

These ideas are somewhat controversial in detail, but in general the fact that something very like this happened is by now indisputable. 

29 May 2023

Biological Imperative

My impression is that even many "futuristical" thinkers and science fiction writers have not yet fully absorbed what I believe is the emergent picture of where we, as an intelligent, inchoate technological species on a relatively isolated natural life-bearing world in a quiet spiral arm of a (relatively) quiet galaxy, find ourselves. 

Here's how I see it, as succinctly as I can manage. I'll put it in Powerpointese (aka bullet points). 
  • Whether through the Anthropic Principle or otherwise, the universe is much the same, at least in the filaments rather than the voids, everywhere: galaxies form stars, which are accompanied by planets. This process is stochastic, but it is possible for planets to be relatively stable for very long periods of time with conditions favorable for the origin and persistence of life. And, at least occasionally, life evolves self-awareness and intelligence, which in its broadest strokes means the ability to correctly perceive the actual nature of the cosmos, and use technology to expand life beyond the surface of the single planet of origin. 
  • Although this process is clearly possible, there are very good reasons to believe that it is somewhere between exceedingly and very rare. The origin of life may be (just barely) "downhill," meaning it is likely to happen given the initial conditions favorable for it, which clearly occurred on Earth fairly quickly after the surface cooled down and the early solar system era of heavy bombardment had come to an end. (In some systems this bombardment phase might never end, which would be one of the filters making life and advanced life respectively less common than they otherwise would be). 
  • On the other hand, there are clearly "choke points," developments in the history of life which are not likely to happen, and so typically only happen in the history of any given life bearing world after long periods of trial and error. And some may, occasionally, never happen in any given system. Examples are the origin of a reliable and accurate system of coding and transmitting genetic information; the origin of oxygen production through a particularly efficient form of photosynthesis (necessary ultimately for the survival of any but the most limited and basic chemoautotrophic life); the parallel and concomitant evolution of respiration, which makes life much more energy efficient; the origin of a eukaryote-like cellular structure (making sex possible and evolution more efficient, also making the emergence of macroscopic life possible); and the origin of human-level intelligence, which has the potential to speed up evolution enormously by introducing the ability of organisms to perceive their situation and respond to it rationally rather than purely through trial and error type biological evolution. If any of these kinds of transitions (there are several others) were to fail to happen, then life would be stuck, and would not evolve to a "higher phase." What the "higher phase" that results from the evolution of intelligence looks like we do not yet fully know or understand, but it appears that it is of at least equal importance in the evolution of life on, or from, this planet, as the evolution of photosynthesis. 
  • Stars, especially little red dwarfs (over 70% of all stars), and planets (nearly all stars have planets)... are, on the other hand, very common. So there is plenty of undeveloped but developable real estate. A big catch is that stars, vis a vis other stars, are very, very far apart. This may be a feature, not a bug. If stars are too close together, as they are near galactic centers, encounters and such things as proximal supernovae, are probably common enough to disrupt most planetary systems before life really has a chance to evolve to higher levels there. But distance makes interstellar exploitation of resources very difficult. We have to solve some truly humongous engineering problems to be able to make use of "the stars," literally. But in the meantime our "solar nursery" is actually quite large and resource-rich. Once our civilization has achieved sustainable advanced technology on our planet, we can become a "system" civilization, with orbital habitats, asteroid mining, and even some utilization of the planets and moons of the Solar System.
  • From the foregoing facts it becomes inescapable to conclude that a sort of universal biological imperative exists: to go forth into wider space, and spread life as far and as wide as possible. To seek out and colonize habitats; make use of matter and energy available literally everywhere to expand the sphere of life to encompass the entire universe. While not embracing a religious or teleological perspective, this seems to be pretty clearly the "purpose" of intelligence: to figure this out and accomplish it. I don't doubt that somewhere out in the vast cosmos others are dealing with these same issues, or have long since passed the initial phases and are well along on such a program. But here and now, in this little corner of the cosmos, we are it, and this is our history, our task, and our fate. 

23 May 2023

We need to start thinking WIPEOUT

I keep thinking that the election in my lifetime that 2024 should most closely resemble should be 1964. The complete wipeout of an extremist and a lot of his party by the onrushing of common sense in a somewhat battered electorate. Of course in many ways 1964 was still the 50s and it was a very different time, but I think Simon Rosenberg might be onto something when he talks about going all out, pushing for a 55% landslide and taking back the House, keeping the Senate, and making gains in some surprising state races, like Mississippi. Dobbs may turn out to be the Fascists' Achilles' Heel. 

22 May 2023

Chinese "manipulate" their market, but there's absolutely nothing anyone can do about it

You kinda gotta hand it to the Chinese. Rather than impose even more prohibitive tariffs (which is what Trump did), they have announced emissions requirements for new cars to be sold in China that essentially prevent any but full battery-electric-drive cars from being sold. Guess what? The Japanese makers, who formerly depended on the Chinese market, have no competitive vehicles to sell there, and won't for some time, if ever. Ford and GM have a small number, and so will lose most of this market. Mercedes will do halfway OK, but all other European makers are screwed. Since China has 18 different EV manufacturers, including the second largest (BYD), only Tesla, which manufactures many of its cars there, among foreign manufacturers, will be competitive in the Chinese market, starting next year. This is hugely disruptive, although in the case of the Japanese, they've pretty much lost this huge market already. 

19 May 2023

Step down already, Dianne Feinstein

It's kind of sad, really, but Dianne Feinstein has probably already lingered past her best-advice retirement date long enough that overstaying her incumbency is likely to be what she is most remembered for, at least for the next few years. I happen to think she has never been the kind of public-service oriented Democrat we need more of, but her recent tenancy in office has been mostly a problem, not part of any solutions.  

There is no shame in recognizing that it's time to step down. And, hey Dianne, come on. It couldn't be more obvious that it's past time. 

18 May 2023

Biden must announce that the 14th amendment makes the debt ceiling moot.

I will reiterate. I think Biden makes a mistake every day he fails to announce that the Administration is going to regard the fourth clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which requires that the debt of the United States not be subject to "question," as supreme. Regardless of what the Congress does. Let the anti-US fascists file in some right wing district court; the Supreme Court will have no choice but to take the case instanter. And, OK, we'll be rolling the dice. But the supposed textualists of the Supreme Court, however mad they may be, are beholden to the big business interests that are truly horrified by the prospect of default. And how could they possibly twist their doctrine to say that a WW1 era statute should trump the black letter of the Constitution? Well, sure, they could, but I can't believe they would. Dumbos like McCarthy, Gosar and MTG may think somehow it would inure to their advantage to crash the world economy and destroy the advantageous position America derives from having the reference currency and most desirable bonds. But I cannot believe a Supreme Court majority would do that. And if I'm wrong, we would be no worse off, because if we again give in to this extortion, by a minoritarian party that will probably never receive a majority of the popular vote nationwide, we will have lost our democracy anyway. 

16 May 2023

China No. 1 vehicle exporter in the world

I know, I know, electric cars, again? But a milestone just occurred, according to respected economic metrics. As of around now, China will have surpassed both Japan and Germany as the world's top vehicle exporter.  (Almost all EVs or plug in hybrids... including Tesla and other foreign manufacturers with plants in China, but only Tesla constituted a significant fraction). This reverses an economic status that had lasted for almost 50 years. Chances are this development will not go backward any time in the foreseeable future. The only country that is not importing Chinese cars at record rates is the US. Which has its pluses and minuses. 

Most countries outside Europe and North American now import most of the cars sold there from China. China strategically targeted the auto industry as the next phase of its long term economic development, about 15 years ago, and realized immediately and correctly that battery electric vehicles would be the future. A conclusion several of the legacy car makers, especially in Japan, have still not accepted. 

If you think this is no big deal, consider this: At least two thirds of Japan's industrial economy is based on the auto industry. They dominated (especially Toyota) for half a century. But that dominance is over

12 May 2023

Town Hall fiasco: Get to 55

Apologize for belaboring the point, for those who are following the long nightmarish trainwreck that is Donald Trump. But not only was the CNN "Town Hall" a free, handpicked Trumpster-audienced infomercial for Trump (when's Biden getting a Town Hall on CNN?)... it was a total fiasco. I did not watch it, but I've seen enough to get the gist. Trump is a complete idiot, digging himself in deeper and deeper with admissions of criminal conduct on the record. And he clumsily evaded questions on support for Ukraine and the human right of women to control their own bodies. Both of which are strong majority issues where Republicans are totally out of touch. Not only that, but I have to believe that however much red meat he may be giving over to his moronic, White Supremacist cult followers, he is making it abundantly clear to the normal majority that he is completely nutso, and must never, ever be allowed anywhere near public office again. 

I could be wrong. I am dumbfounded that more than single digits of the population can even entertain the notion of another Trump presidency. But I almost feel at this point that when it comes right down to it, however problematic voting for an 80 year old "pol" like Biden may seem to some especially younger, so-called "independent" voters, it will be no real contest. I am drawn to Simon Rosenberg's idea of "get to 55" (percent)... that Democrats can not only can win, but we can blow out the election. And this is worth whatever time and money we beleaguered normies can muster. 

(Watch out for "no labels," because they are completely fraudulent; they would rather elect Trump again with a spoiler candidate than help Biden win. This cannot be allowed to happen). 

(Rosenberg is the Democratic electioneer/pollster who correctly predicted the much stronger than expected showing in 2022, apart from New York, which pretty much lost us the House all by itself). 

07 May 2023

Example of extended mind

An example of extended mind from things like e mail. 

Many years ago in a Chinese language class I adopted Shang Da Wen (), with appropriate tones, as my "Chinese name." Shang, 尚, meaning something like "Esteem," is a common Chinese surname. Da Wen means "great literature," but it's actually not something the Chinese would recognize as a name. 大衛 , dà wèi, is the more usual form for "David."

But a few years ago (apparently) I poked around and decided I liked 城大衛 , Chéng dà wèi, better. It means "City of David", or, perhaps, David Towne.

Thing is, I had forgotten this. It ceased to be part of my conscious mind. But stumbling around in gmail's settings brought it back again. 

We are groping around in the dark with this digital augmentation of mind thing, but it is already real, and is already making our lives qualitatively different from the lives of humans of any previous time. 


Extended Mind

We are asked to believe that there is this inchoate thing called Extended Mind, already nascent. So, say, a pen and notebook (or ancient equivalents) are "technology" to help you remember things, and even becomes a separate mode of expression after a surprisingly short time after writing was invented. But they're not actually a part of mind, merely tools of mind. You have to go and find the notebook, physically, and decipher it using the extremely slow and inefficient frontal cortex. It's a big picture machine, but when it has to decipher symbols and such it's actually s l o w .  But, the idea is, digital technology is getting close to the point where it can update mind and memory in real time. Already if you are by a computer (phones are computers, just not very good ones), you can remember almost anything from general knowledge, and, if you're so inclined, you can organize for retrieval images and sounds from your life. I don't choose to do that, but one could. And the means to retrieve digitized data through some sort of neural link or digital/bio-analog translator may well be at hand, or nearly so. 

I dunno. I suppose so. Anyone who tries the impossible task of writing "hard" science fiction, meaning based on reasonable extrapolation of the way things really are rather than endless Deus-ex-machinae, will now I suppose have to take into account that human minds are on the verge of expanding exponentially; something that probably hasn't happened for, oh, a million years. Give or take. 

06 May 2023

Coronation nonsense

I honestly don't care much about whether the Brits keep or ditch their anachronistic monarchical system. We have our own problems. But "God Save the King?" Whatever... not my king, and I disapprove entirely of monarchy from top to bottom. 

04 May 2023

When Justices accept bribes

I know this is pretty commonplace, but I can't resist. Does anyone believe for a second that if a "left leaning" judge accepted tuition for a kid in private school being paid by George Souros the right wouldn't have a collective paroxysm? Well, that is exactly what Clarence Thomas did with Harlan Crowe (still can't believe that name). And that was only one of many thinly disguised bribes. There is no other word that fits. If it were Kagan or Sotomayor there'd be impeachment hearings scheduled already.  

03 May 2023

Simply Refuse to let the US default on its debt

I am completely uninterested in legal technical reasons against my view that what I'm suggesting here is the way forward given the insane intransigence of the Republican caucus in the house with regard to the debt ceiling. We are beyond the phase where legal niceties can be allowed to impede action to protect our country from catastrophe. I won't even go into why using the already incurred debt of the United States is profoundly damaging to the country and downright unpatriotic in its essence. I think everyone of good faith and even modest intelligence already understands that. But my point is this: the extortion of the Republicans is an anti-constitutional, wholly unjustified, and potentially truly devastating action which has no justifiable rationale or purpose other than naked, anti-democratic power grabbing. So, I argue, the response must be equally blatant and willing to set aside tradition based on civility and "not upsetting the applecart." Too late for that: the applecart is racing toward the cliff edge, and it's getting close fast. 

Section 4 of the  Fourteenth Amendment reads: "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned."

So, the Biden administration should get an OLC opinion tout de suite to the effect that the WW1 era debt ceiling law is unconstitutional under this provision, and the administration simply will not default on the US debt no matter what the House or Senate do, because the Constitution trumps their actions. 

Of course, the Righties will sue. Take it to their stacked Supreme Court. But that will put the issue in its most naked power-struggle terms: Will the Supreme Court actually vote to throw the world economy into depression, and probably destroy the advantageous position of the US dollar as the reference currency and its debt as a "gold standard," foreverMaybe they will, but as I see it there is no real alternative if the Rightists in Congress refuse to secure the debt, and the question must be pressed. The fact is that by any reasonable interpretation the debt laws do contradict the 14th amendment, in that there is no way to satisfy the provisions of both if the Congress refuses to act to secure the debt. The Biden administration should try in good faith to get them to back down, without giving in to blackmail on policy that is, in fact, profoundly and overwhelmingly unpopular. But if, as appears likely, the fascists in the Right Wing caucus refuse to protect the financial stability of our nation, the administration should simply say that in their view the Constitution prohibits this from happening, so they're just not going to do it. We will pay the debts our nation has incurred, no matter what the right wing traitors say. 

Paul Krugman a while back opined that this was probably the fallback position, or something like it, for the Democratic administration. But I would argue that the time is at hand. In order to protect our country from serious negative impacts which even the threat of default (as we learned in 2011 when they tried this before)... can cause. The announcement should be prepared, and should actually be given, soon. This charade needs to be brought to a final and decisive end, soon. And if the Supreme Court decides to pitch us into a global financial crisis and at the same time probably the worst Constitutional crisis since the Civil War, so be it. At least the battle lines will have been drawn unmistakably. 

Japan is in trouble

As some of my farflung correspondents will no doubt have noticed, I harp on the electric car revolution a lot. This post expands that a bit, to the looming facts about Japan, which sits poised to nudge the entire world economy into global recession (if the idiots in the Republican caucus of the House don't do it for them first). 

Contemplate this. Since 1990, Japan has lost its lead in several areas of global commerce. Sony invented the walkman and was a major player in consumer electronics in the 80s and 90s, even buying Columbia and CBS in the US as if they were just crumbs from the table. But they missed the "chip" revolution and failed to develop the iPhone or anything like it... and this is just symptomatic. The Japanese are barely in the consumer electronics or large appliance markets anymore, sectors largely dominated now by South Korea and the US, with some participation by Europe especially in larger appliances. China makes these things for its domestic market, as well as under contract to US and Korean manufacturers. In fact, other than scientific and technical instrumentation (important but not huge), and autos and other transportation technology such as shipbuilding, Japan is no longer at the forefront of any global technology. 

And now, the handwriting is on the wall. They have completely missed the boat on the EV revolution. They were pioneers, developing the hybrid drive and some early electrics (e.g., the Nissan Leaf), but they aren't even in the top 25 of any electric vehicle sales anywhere, and they have been resistant. Mitsubishi, Mazda, Subaru, Suzuki, and Honda have no potentially viable mass market electric vehicle even in preproduction, much less production. Toyota and Nissan are way behind too, with no credible plans to mass produce EVs at a profit anytime soon. Toyota, Nissan and Honda, the Japan big 3, all have global sales (of all cars, not just EVs) down 20 to 40% year over year due to their failure to produce cars that people want to buy. In the US a significant part of this sales loss has gone to Tesla, which is also the #1 seller of EVs in China. But the #2 to 20 or so brands are all Chinese, and the Chinese are poised to start selling their well engineered and popular cars (dominated by BYD) everywhere (except North America, interestingly). And EVs by Tesla and the Chinese are all going down in price, to levels that only Ford, GM, and possibly one or two European makers (not including BMW) have a prayer of matching. 

So what is the takeaway? Autos are 65-70% of Japan's manufacturing exports. And they are losing their market share at an alarming rate, with no end in sight. Japan has a national debt, that, proportionally, is far worse than America's. There is every reason to believe that Japan is headed for a massive economic downturn that may last for decades, and could drag the whole world economy down. 

Cheers, enjoy the springtime everyone. 


29 April 2023

What is at stake

Maybe I'm out of touch, but I am baffled by headlines like this from The Guardian: "Biden v Trump: US is unenthused by likely rematch of two old white men." Seriously? OK, I think we've had enough gerontocracy, too, but the similarity in ages and race of these two pales to total insignificance when any person of integrity and good faith ponders for a single second what is at stake. 

The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog. 
       --Mark Twain

20 April 2023

Straight dope on electric vehicles

 I know I harp on this a lot, but let me just lay out what I believe are irrefutable facts: 
  1. Battery technology is currently undergoing a massive technological upgrade, which will result in batteries being chargeable in less than half an hour to run a car for about 300 miles; they will also cost less, weigh less, be made interchangeable with existing battery packs in the most advanced companies (Tesla and a few others, maybe), and be made from materials that are not unduly expensive or rare (sodium ion technology uses no "unobtainium"). This battery technology will be rolled out over the next two or three years and will also be used to make the grid more efficient, making "peaker plants" obsolete and helping to green up and reduce the cost of grid power. Most people will have household backup batteries installed within a decade, in addition to the proliferation of charging stations. 
  2. Electric motors for cars and trucks are a fully mature technology which is cheaper, more efficient, simpler to build, and lasts about ten times as long with almost zero maintenance as compared to  internal combustion ("ICE") powered drive trains. They also have superior performance and will, with the introduction of more fast charging and the battery technology improvements, make all motor vehicle transportation, including long distance trucking, far more energy efficient, cheaper in the long run, and superior in all aspects of performance other than speed of "filling up," which will require some adjustments but nothing that can't be accomplished. 
  3. The techniques to manufacture affordable and superior electric vehicles have now been developed, and the manufacture of ICE vehicles is rapidly becoming a technological dinosaur that will be phased out surprisingly rapidly over the next 15 years... at most.  
This, and not some diabolical strategy, is why Tesla is reducing prices and outcompeting on both quality and price nearly all of its competitors right now. Other American manufacturers are way behind in this. Tesla and the Chinese have been way out in front, with Americans (apart from Tesla) and Europeans doing less well, and the Japanese having miscalculated so badly that they are likely to massively lose market share over the next ten years. I would expect that several of them will likely fail altogether (Nissan, Subaru, Mazda, Honda unless it reverses course soon). Although actually one of the worst in terms of strategy, Toyota will likely survive and eventually thrive, just because they have so many resources they can probably pull it out and change over. Stellantis, BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen will struggle but probably manage to stay in business, but only if they commit to a rapid changeover like yesterday. And some of them still haven't.

Nearly all new cars by the early 2030s will be electric worldwide. Companies that don't prepare for this will have nothing to sell because no one will want to buy expensive and obsolete ICE vehicles. 

15 April 2023

Some musing on the Abiogenetic Origin of Life

I started reading what I thought was a scientific critique of some of the ideas for the Origin of Life (abiogenesis at origin), by Robert Stadler and Change Lee Tan, entitled The Stairway to Life, an Origin-of-Life Reality Check. The book is essentially based on the idea that each the 20 or so steps they identify as essential to the origin of self-reproducing cellular life is extremely unlikely to occur spontaneously even in an available time of tens or hundreds of millions of years, and that each must be multiplied, not added, to yield an estimate of the overall probability of that happening. Their conclusion: an abiogenetic origin of life on the early Earth was spectacularly unlikely (so it must be God). Sure enough, looking into it a bit they're Intelligent Design Creationists, and he's funded by the "Creation Science Institute." (An oxymoron, to be sure). I should've suspected this. 

All these arguments legitimately do is to demonstrate just how complex and difficult a problem this is, since the predicate, that it "must be God," is not in any sense scientific or supported by evidence. Even if you accept some of their assumptions, they play fast and loose with estimates for how likely certain sequences of events that may actually be driven by the energetics of the environment actually are.  (They are very critical of the (to them) overly optimistic assumptions of people like Carl Sagan and Nick Lane). They tend to treat them more like the question, if you just mix the ingredients for life together, how likely is it to spontaneously form an organism?... which ignores the function of synergy in complex systems. It becomes increasingly obvious as you follow their arguments that they are driven by a preconceived faith agenda: that life must have been created by God, so let's tear apart all the thinking and work that has gone into investigating how life might have originated on Earth naturally. It's pretty easy to tear down intellectual edifices if all you intend to replace them with is "it's supernatural." After all, this is one of the great mysteries of our time, and there is no one who seriously claims that we fully understand the origin of life. 

Having said that, we have to face the fact that this really is a virtually entirely unresolved question. You often read that "life seems to have originated within a relatively short time after its continued existence under the conditions of the early Earth had stabilized," and that this should be at least some indication that the origin of life itself may be pretty likely, as opposed to some of the milestones along the way to the evolution of the complex ecosystems of the current earth, and the evolution of human-level intelligence, some of which appear to have been "difficult," i.e., weren't very likely and took a long time to emerge in the course of evolution. The basic idea is that the origin of life must be likely, because it seems to have happened right off the bat on Earth. 

But is this really a reasonable supposition? I'd submit that we just do not know. It is at least possible that the arguments for why the abiogenetic origin of life is very unlikely are essentially right, and that the fact that it (apparently) happened early on Earth falls more in the Anthropic Principle sphere of reasoning. In other words, maybe it is extremely, extremely unlikely, but since we would not be here to talk about it if it hadn't happened, our very existence is a selection effect that isolates an extremely unlikely event. And, of course, if that is so, we should not expect life to have originated anywhere else in the universe, ever. Which, so far, we cannot absolutely rule out. In fact, the fact that no evidence for life originating elsewhere than Earth has emerged after decades of searching all available evidence is becoming somewhat concerning to those who are predisposed to expect life to be common (this is what's called a scientific bias, but it's the predominant one, we have to admit).

Truth is, we simply do not have enough evidence to choose between these alternatives, or some intermediate. This is why I believe NASA's (and others') goal of searching for evidence of non-terrestrial life, somewhere, is crucial. A discovery of a second presumptively abiogenetic origin of life will change this debate radically, and serve as an impetus to finally figure out what happens when the conditions for the origin of life arise, presumably in planetary environments more or less like the early Earth. Until we are sure that this actually does happen, and is not some incredible, never-to-be-repeated fluke, we cannot fully refute the Creationist view. That doesn't mean Creationism (or Intelligent Design) is science; it isn't. They demonstrate fairly thoroughly the tough nut of the problem, but then they just say, well, it's impossible, so it must be God. To me that's as good an example of specious reasoning as you'll ever find. Even if all their critiques are right, and it just seems like a miracle, all that proves is that it's unlikely; it says nothing about some posited agency that "created" life... that is an intellectual leap that isn't justified by any evidence at all. And, of course, carrying that forward to the particular, historically contingent and arbitrary version of a supernatural origin invariably favored by these pseudoscientists can't even pretend to be logical, rational, or scientific. Faith requires none of those, but if they are the criteria, as they should be, then any conclusions based on faith are excluded from scientific consideration. 

23 February 2023

Are we witnessing the emergence of Madman Xi?

 If reports that the Chinese government is considering sending lethal aid to Russia to help it continue its war of aggression in Ukraine are true, I would venture to say we are witnessing the biggest strategic mistake in Xi Jin Peng's career. China, throughout its history, has generally played the long game, biding time when invaders' strength was overwhelming, maintaining tense but nonetheless productive relationships with neighbors. In a long history there have been many setbacks and poor policy choices, of course, but in general Chinese leaders have done a better job of basing policy on their grandchildrens' interests rather than the immediate short term than have most nations' leaders. And the recent past is mostly exemplary of this generalization. But this move, if it's true, will be a foolish reversal. Xi may see Putin as an ally in its resistance to Western domination militarily and even to some extent economically, but if he looks beyond the immediate concerns, he should see that Russia is in danger of becoming a failed state, and has really nothing to offer China other than raw materials which it will probably get anyway in the long run. But engaging with them in their revanchist imperialist war thousands of miles to the West, in a region critical to Europe but of scant importance to China, will carry a huge cost in terms of debased trade relations and destabilization of a global order that has, for the most part, operated to their advantage since Tian An Men. Another area where he could be about to throw away China's future is Taiwan. It had seemed, until recently, that the sabre rattling was mostly just show: it seemed likely that the Chinese had correctly calculated that they would end up in control of Taiwan eventually anyway and triggering a crisis now would not serve anyone's interests. But there are at least hints that Xi has, like many "presidents for life" and other autocrats, become drunk on power and delusional, believing his own personal power can overcome the drawbacks, from a global power politics perspective, of the present situation. It is mania, delusion, and narcissism of individuals that have attained outsize power and stopped listening to the accurate information others are trying to bring to them that have caused most atrocities in human history. It certainly is what happened to Putin. Are we watching something similar unfolding in China's new Great Emperor? The whole world had better hope the hell not. 

21 February 2023

Criticizing Biden on the train crash!? Seriously!?

It's beyond my fortitude to respond to every stupid, mendacious, hypocritical and pro-fascist salvo from the ultra right that now controls one of the two political parties in our nation, so mostly I don't. But I've gotta say, it's rich that they're criticizing Biden for "visiting Ukraine instead of the train disaster in Ohio," when it has been entirely Republican administrations and legislatures that are responsible for gutting the regulation and subsidization of the US rail system that is the primary cause. Not to mention that Biden is showing real leadership on the international front, something that crony capitalist and grifter Trump certainly never did.

That said, a more robust Federal response is indeed called for. 

15 February 2023

Avoiding Bots on YouTube

For some folks, these comments will probably seem so obvious or naive as to be laughable, but there's a point. I ended my account on Facebook because I found that their algorithm actually causes dissension and pointless argument, and I lacked the energy or inclination to constantly monitor my reaction to things and edit what I read and responded to critically in real time. It became exhausting and the utility of the platform came to seem less and less worth it. 

YouTube, I contend, is different. I never use comments to argue with anyone, and I use "don't recommend" to filter out propaganda, so I don't see nearly as much of it. Plus there is really, really good and informative content on YouTube, which you can set it up so that it shows you that, and not a bunch of trivial or propagandistic nonsense, most of the time. An example: I am interested in the EV revolution, so when I saw a video from a channel called Tech Revolution that seemed to be touting the imminent introduction into North America of Chinese EVs from BYD, X Peng, Nio, and Ora, I watched with avid interest even though I was under the impression from other sources that none of these companies have plans to sell EVs in the US anytime soon. So I subscribed and liked, but I checked other sources and none of this seemed to be true. So I went back and looked. Turns out Tech Revolution is a pro-Russia anti-Ukraine troll channel that spreads various forms of disinformation about the Ukraine war, European energy crisis, etc. So I unsubscribed and clicked "don't recommend this channel." 

It's easier to cross check and eliminate bad content on YouTube than other social media platforms. And the architecture of the site makes it more difficult for it to be used as a mode of propaganda by bad actors. You do have to consciously avoid the "rabbit hole" tendency that all autobot algorithms will devolve into if you let them; but it is easier and more pleasant to do, I've found. Of course FB and YT are entirely different, but in the end, how and what you spend your internet time on is up to you. 

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.