29 March 2015

House Recital Program (link)

Here is a link to the overly ambitious program for my little house recital in May. Now all I have to do is make sure I can actually make it through the pieces, which is not at all a sure thing.


The Age of Space and lack of interest in Technological Grand Ideas in Jack Vance

My favorite spec fic author (who was a stylist, with no real interest in grand ideas), the late Jack Vance, had his future descendants of our civilization rather prosaically designate 2000 as the end of the prior era, and 2001 was redesignated as the Year One of the Age of Space. His Demon Princes series (five books, three written in the 60s, 2 in the mid-70s) takes place around 1500, when inhabited space is divided into the Oikumene, where there is a sort of rule of law; and the Beyond, where there isn't. The by turns poignant and nostalgic interstellar epic, The Cadwal Chronicles (Araminta Station, Ecce and Old Earth, and Throy) (~1988-90) takes place around 8000 (A.S.). By then the Oikumene has become the Gaean Reach, and since it's become clear that only some semi-intelligent autochthones here and there inhabit the Galaxy along with Man, there isn't too much concern about what lies beyond. A few of his other books (young adult Planet of Adventure series and the Durdane series) take place in a slightly modified alternate universe, where there are a few hostile aliens. Vance, who was 97 when he died, really was a bit of a human chauvinist, but what the hell. 

As examples of Vance's lack of concern for technological speculation: he briefly expounds in The Star King (1962-63) on the "intersplit," which makes faster than light travel possible, without really venturing to explain it. Then he scarcely ever mentions it again. You just get in spaceships that are essentially yachts, and go; you get there lickety-split, no turgid exposition required. The other is that when our hero, Glawen Clattuc, in Araminta Station, is walking along the seaside and needs urgently to contact the authorities, he seeks out a pay phone. This is in something like 10,000 A.D. But, it matters not at all; they are delightful stories, even if there is some truth in the frequent criticism that Vance sometimes seems to lose interest and rush the endings a bit.

James Lovelock's start date for the Anthropocene

James Lovelock's* choice of 1712 (Newcomen Atmospheric Engine) as the start of the Anthropocene epoch is based on the fact that it was the first artificial system capable of focusing applied energy at a rate greater than the Solar constant, ~1.35 kW/m^2. To his thinking, this was the threshold wherein technology transcended the energetics of the natural world, and there was and is no going back.
*Gaia, (1979); A Rough Ride to the Future (2014).
Update: a friend suggests we start the calendar over. If so, this year is the year 303 (A.E., for Anthopocene Epoch). Traditionally geological epochs are not precise to the calendar year, but that is one of the things that makes this new one different. 

27 March 2015

Lessons of Germanwings

It now seems pretty obvious that the Germanwings air disaster is a classic example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. After the 9/11 highjackings, it was thought paramount to secure cockpits from invasion by possibly bad actor passengers seeking to seize control of commercial aircraft. But that in turn made it nearly impossible to prevent a bad actor pilot from seizing an opportunity to crash a plane. All he had to do was get the other pilot out of the cockpit, lock the door, and crash the plane. In the US, they have the rule of 2, where someone else is supposed to be in the cockpit when one of the pilots leaves, and that probably would've prevented this tragedy. But it seems to me, again, pretty obvious, that a comprehensive review of aircraft control security is in order. What about having an emergency override by Air Traffic Control, that would enable them to take control of an aircraft remotely? (In addition to new protocols to ensure than authorized flight deck crew can get in when they need to).

25 March 2015

Mitigating Climate Change: Solar Power Satellites.

Short radio interview on the practicality of Solar Power Satellites. I first saw these suggested back in the 1970s. Supposedly the technology is "off the shelf," and, also supposedly, the oft-cited issue of danger of birds or aircraft intercepting the microwave energy and being harmed is also not a problem (that would have to be unequivocally demonstrated). Cost per equivalent power generation (including rectifier array on the ground, which uses quite a bit of land): approximately the same as the cost of a nuclear power plant (which is much more expensive than coal or gas generating plant in construction costs). But the upside of course, is no greenhouse gas emission at all, and no use of energy resources that could be used elsewhere (the only opportunity cost is the use of land resources to receive beams, and the finite amount of space in geosynchronous orbits; you can't build an infinite number of these things).

24 March 2015

Secular Skeptic

I am a secular skeptic for much the same reasons as David Hume gave, writing more than 200 years ago; since his time science -- especially evolutionary biology, physics, and astronomy -- has given anyone inclined to a nominalist, rationalist view of the world all the more reason to reject any kind of supernatural explanations as unjustified by evidence and unnecessary to explain the phenomena we observe as the natural world. 

I do not judge those who have a different view, nor do I discount or deny spirituality, in much the sense that Sam Harris uses the term (though I do not endorse all of his views). There is a wondrous quality to self-awareness, that is impossible, given our state of knowledge, to fully explain. It is a mystery, and a wonder. But that does not impel me in any way to believe or practice hidebound traditions based on ancient speculation about the way things are. Simply put, I do not find compelling in the least the explanation for consciousness and the existence of the universe that (paraphrasing) "the Sky God did it, for reasons he doesn't care to explain to the likes of you."

And I claim; I demand the protection and respect that freedom of and from religion affords in our Constitution. The Founders, many of them, were secularists themselves, and it is clear to me that it was their intent that citizens of this country have the right to be left entirely alone in matters of religion and faith. As a practical matter, that means that faith, prayer, religious practice, worship, etc. have no place in public institutions or public practices. I don't get excited by "In God We Trust" on the currency (although, technically, of course, it does not belong there). But I do get incensed when people spout nonsense such as that America is a "Christian nation," or that non-scientific religious gobbledygook such as "Creation Science" and "Intelligent Design" should be taught in public schools or accredited for teaching in any schools. And I get very angry when (self-proclaimed!) religiously-inspired idiots seek to deny the evidence in front of their eyes on the serious environmental crisis our technological civilization finds itself in, which only makes it far harder to deal intelligently and pragmatically with that crisis. 

The Peoples' Budget

Subject: I just became a citizen co-sponsor of the People’s Budget The People’s Budget, if implemented, can make the American economy work for everyone, not just for the 1/10 of 1% who already own almost everything and who are being made richer at everyone else's expense continually, thanks to the legal structure they bought and paid for. It's not OK to just say, 'we have no power,' and give up. We must DEMAND that our government work for us.

Please join me by becoming a citizen co-sponsor today.

Martin O'Malley staking out claim as Progressive Clinton alternative

As recounted by Ed Kilgore, Martin O'Malley, former Maryland governor, is clearly staking out a claim as the more-Progressive alternative to Clinton.

Iowa Daily Democrat with a headline that probably cheered Team O’Malley: “Progressive Candidate for President Woos Davenport Activists.” 

After a five-month absence since he last visited Iowa, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley gave hope and inspiration to a crowd of around 300 people at the Scott County Democrats’ “Red, White, and Blue” Banquet Friday night in Davenport, Iowa. He reminded the gathering: “As Americans, we have faced highs and lows in our country, but it isn’t how low we have gone but how high we bounce back,” he said to rousing applause…. 

He delivered on the progressive agenda as governor and he did the same to Iowa Democratic activists. “We can also keep the dream alive by never allowing another Wall Street economic meltdown by reinstating Glass-Steagall and punishing those that break the law.” The crowd enthusiastically replied with thunderous applause and a standing ovation.

O’Malley found favor in Democrats looking for a fresh, more progressive voice to lead the party in 2016. “We don’t need a candidate with baggage—hers and his,” said one attendee, referring to Hillary Clinton. “And we can’t afford a candidate that has more loyalty to corporate America than the American people,” she added.

Walker may skate, but it's possible he could be in real trouble

Thusfar, Scott Walker has managed to avoid any real investigation into his shady campaign finanace practices, and if the Wisconsin Supreme Court goes along next month, there is a fair chance the whole thing will go away for him permanently. But, as this Michael Isikoff piece for Yahoo! shows, maybe not so fast. (See also this post by the redoubtable Ed Kilgore, calling attention to it and explaining it in brief).

23 March 2015

Netroots v. Emmanuel

Digby on Netroots vs. Rahm Emmanuel's political machinations


22 March 2015

D. R. Tucker in WaMo on being a patriot

My America

I have always considered myself a patriot, though I’ve never really described myself as such. It’s probably because I’ve always had the sense that the term “patriotism” was shorthand for a blind, jingoistic love of America, an illogical sense that America doesn’t have any flaws, a refusal to recognize where the country goes wrong.

However, I wonder if it’s time for me to get over that perception, and to embrace the terms “patriotism” and “patriot.” You can love this country while recognizing its flaws—its unfinished work on racial, sexual, religious, economic and educational equality, its corrupt campaign financing system, its unrestrained pollution, its dishonest or cowardly media entities. You can love this country because you recognize that with enough effort, and enough political will, America can overcome its chronic flaws.

I’m a patriot because I want America to achieve its promise of excellence. We’re nowhere near that point, of course, which is why we can’t stop fighting to make a better country reality.

I may not live to see a better America, but I hope that when I die, we’re closer than ever to that better America.

An America where a girl has the exact same chance as a boy, and a black child has the exact same chance as a white child.

An America where a young child who feels he or she cannot live up to the unreasonable demands of a society obsessed with old-school gender roles can believe that it does in fact get better.

An America where immigrants, legal and illegal, will be welcomed with compassion instead of scorn.

An America where we actually pay women the exact same wage as men.

An America where the income disparity between the rich and the poor is the smallest in the industrialized world.

An America in which voters are fully knowledgeable on issues and fully engaged in politics.

An America in which the Fox News Channel is dismissed as a live-action cartoon.

An America in which Meet the Press, Face the Nation and This Week ask real questions of our elected officials.

An America in which no child dies of senseless gun violence.

An America in which no child goes to school or to sleep hungry.

An America in which a woman’s right to choose can never be abridged.

An America in which billionaires cannot buy elections.

An America that stays out of needless wars.

An America that cherishes science, logic and reason.

An America that doesn’t care if you’re Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist or agnostic.

An America where we realize we’re all in this together.

That’s the America I’m fighting for.

That’s the America we’re fighting for.

And it’s a fight we absolutely have to win.

Schubert's Annus Mirabilis (reposted from Facebook)

Just received the 9 CD set of Schubert sonatas (all of them) played by the excellentissimus, András Schiff (recorded in the 90s). He makes even the juvenile D 157 sonata sparkle. I am thinking of (foolishly, from a 'real performance' point of view) undertaking to learn one of the late sonatas in the coming year.

There was an article in the New York Review of Books about a complete edition (score) of the Songs, and it mentioned that annus mirabilis... the year between Beethoven's death and Schubert's death. (1827-28). If you know Schubert's music, just think of it: the 4 Impromptus, D 935, the last 3 sonatas (all of which are sparkling and sublime masterpieces), Die Winterreise (Schubert's greatest liederkreis, or song-cycle), The Mass in E-flat, the Symphonny No. 9, Trios Nos. 1 in Bflat, op. 99, and No. 2, op. 100, the most wonderful String Quintet of the century, the Fantasy in F minor, a whole passle of other songs by the greatest lied composer ever. Most composers would be done proud by this volume of output in a decade, irrespective of quality, and some of this is among the most sublime music ever created by a human mind.

21 March 2015

Musings on KPFK and Pacifica

Report: Critics advocate just letting the venerable Pacifica Foundation lapse into bankruptcy. 

Below are some of my musings, taken from a private e-mail to a KPFK activist of long standing. 

I am a marginal KPFKer (although I do send them a little money monthly and listen to Ian Masters and a few other things somewhat sporadically). So my ideas may be ignorant or less than fully informed. But I have an idea and a question that may interest you. First the question:

Could (and I mean 'is it financially and legally possible for') KPFK [to] separate itself from Pacifica and own and operate the station independently, as an LA based foundation? I have gotten the impression in recent years that Pacifica Foundation has been overrun by people who have no realistic understanding of what it really takes to operate a public media resource. Maybe divorce is the best course of action. It's pretty obvious, though, that this could well be either legally or financially completely impossible (or both). Ironically, the situation, from my outsider perspective, looks the opposite with regard to KPFA, where it was the relative sanity of Pacifica that had to deal with local lunatics who literally wrested physical control of the station, Cuba revolution style, despite having been voted out of power. (Do I have that right?) That kinda thing just won't work in 21st Century corporate America. They'll send in cops and take it back, eventually. And once that happens, it will be lost forever. 
And my other idea is this. We live in an oligarchy. We all know this. The rich control the resources, and without them, ordinary people have to struggle valiantly but will often lose anyway. As it applies to electronic media: but for the Joan B. Kroc Fellowship (you know, the one that created a nation of McRadio Stations), NPR probably would have been totally eviscerated by the Republicans and by its own special brand of infighting over scarce resources (instead of becoming simply a fourth mainstream propaganda outlet with all of her money, to which I imagine very significant strings were attached). (Personal note: I used to listen to NPR. Now, apart from "Wait, Wait, don't tell me," which I sometimes leave on on a Saturday morning, I can't abide them. I haven't sat through an entire hour of Morning Edition or ATC, even when traveling where there was nothing else on the car radio but Top 40, in years and years. Even Teri Gross is too much for me. It's the sanctimony, partly, not to mention the CNN-like refusal to actually confront issues or call out lies. Even MSNBC does a better job). 
So what about appealing to people like Pierce Brosnan, Richard Gere, hell, even George Lucas or David Geffen, to endow a reorganized and rationalized Pacifica foundation? It seems that the community funding model is finally failing, in this age of the disappeared middle class. There are a lot of relatively Progressive, very rich people in Siliconia and the LA Film/TV world. Some of these people, like Spielberg & Geffen who tried mightily to save the LA Times only to be outbid by a crooked and evil corporate raider (Sam Zell)-- who would love to have some kind of public affairs legacy permanently associated with their name. Even if it meant calling it the Lucas Pacifica Foundation or some other horror. Might have to swallow that. If, and only if, actual independence could be written into the deal. 
It would be a terrible tragedy to see Pacifica, and especially KPFK, lost to the media raptors. I'm sure Comcast would love to have a 100,000 watt FM station in L.A. But the current situation is so clearly unsustainable that people are going to have to sacrifice some sacred cows and make some major changes if the institution is to survive. One of those sacred cows could be the cumbersome governance, and another may be that there would have to be a somewhat more uniform standard of professionalism and "objectivity." I know that's a landmine, but the fact is that many people perceive KPFK and especially KPFA to be powerful radio stations mostly dominated by people in the near lunatic fringe. My experience is that that is far from true (usually), but that IS a common perception among the hordes of Hillary supporter types. And they MUST be part of KPFK's audience or the station can't survive.

20 March 2015

My contribution to the DNC

I made a contribution to the DNC website, which refers to "President Obama's policies." But I appended the following comment:

I have made a contribution, despite the fact that I am entirely opposed to the Trans Pacific Partnership and am supporting only Progressive Democrats who have endorsed an agenda of pro-labor, pro-environment, pro-middle class progressive policies.

People who think like me, who are planning on supporting Bernie Sanders or Martin O'Malley over Hillary Clinton in 2016 primaries, because they support working people and income equalization policies, as well as serious action on Climate Change, are the BASE OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY, and our energy and support are essential. But YOU GOTTA LISTEN TO OUR CONCERNS if you want our support.

Thank you.

Lovelock's newest idea: Humanity as Mind of Life

I confess to a bit of irritation with James Lovelock's new book (cited below), A Rough Ride to the Future. His basic thesis, that technology is a new form of evolution, and that human intelligence must become the directing mind of the biosphere if we are to survive as an intelligent race living within the mostly naturally evolved biosphere of a natural planet, is something that a lot of people have realized and talked about. It isn't exactly new. But, I suppose, since he is the one who took up the challenge and articulated the Gaia hypothesis, or as I prefer to think of it, the Gaia metaphor, he probably gets a pass on passing on relatively commonplace ideas as his own. (The basic idea, if you aren't familiar with it, is that the biosphere of the planet has feedback mechanisms and quasi-sensory systems that make it function almost as a meta-organism. There is a great deal of truth in this idea, although some take it way too far and make it into almost a religion).


A friend (one of a very few) with whom I enjoy engaging in very long range futuristic speculation, mentioned in an email conversation that he saw the only "course" for humanity as an escape into space. I misread that in my initial reply as "hope for humanity" and replied that if that was our only hope, we are doomed. But when I noticed that he had said "course," not "hope," I came up with this:

Well, if it's "course" not "hope," then, of course. 

Our civilization has, as Lovelock says* (and as have others), evolved as a life-form something really, really important and new, at least to this world, very, very, recently. This being intelligent self-awareness/technological capability. I see these elements as inseparable, but other animals have a good deal of the first part, hardly any of the second. Language is implicit, integral, essential, necessary.

With this adaptation, we, as a species, have become simultaneously the greatest threat to the biosphere of the Earth since the end of the Permian, a quarter of a billion years ago (approximately 1 revolution of the Sun through the disk of the Galaxy)-- and its singular opportunity to really flourish, reproduce in Space, and thus survive really long term. (Without space migration, life on Earth will almost certainly become extinct completely, in a shorter period of time than the period of time in which it has existed to date; if you consider only complex life, then the same time period becomes "about the same period of time as...")

In other words, we have stressed the biosphere of our planet severely, possibly fatally, but we not only have the means to address this, and become the intelligent operator of the biosphere, for sustainable survivability, but we have the fairly obvious potential to develop the only means there is of surviving the eventual sterilization of the planet by the normal evolution of its star (which will be fatal to life on Earth within 1 billion years otherwise). That being, of course, migration of Earth life into space.

I see the next few hundred years as the Long Crisis, which will eventually resolve itself by the arrival at steady states. Stable populations. Stable extinction rates. Stable environments, including large areas of the planet set aside mostly for non-human life. We may not get there smoothly, easily, non-violently, but we will get there. Then, and only then, will begin the true Age of Space, when humans devise the means to dwell first mainly in the Solar System, then later, in long voyages of migration and colonization, elsewhere in the vicinity. Perhaps eventually we will meet (more likely only discover and learn about from afar) our equivalents from other biospheres, and, even longer term, life may be seen to have found its way to all the available habitats... but that could take a period on the same order of magnitude as the current age of the Universe, so, although we may have given rise to (some of) that life, it will almost certainly no longer resemble us.

* James Lovelock, who wrote Gaia and the more recent A Rough Ride to the Future. Creator of the "Gaia hypothesis," q.v. Lovelock thinks it's our recent technological acceleration (i.e., the Steam Engine and since) that makes the critical difference, but I would argue that the most important technology ever invented by any animal on this planet is language, and that advanced technology, including spacefaring, may be all but inevitable once that comes onto the scene.

13 March 2015

Time to get a real Primary Contest going in the Democratic Party

I'm for Sanders. I like Warren, but she's not running. I've encouraged Washington Governor Jay Inslee to run (like he's listening to the likes of me). So I'll add Martin O'Malley. A rundown in WaMo's Political Animal blog, referencing an interview by Joan Walsh convinces me he'd be more progressive than Clinton. So, I'm on board with him too, depending on how things shake out. What I don't want to see happen is a Clinton Juggernaut, causing there to be no debate, insufficient grassroots organizing, not enough real to and fro to settle on exactly what Democrats are offering. I think the e-mail kerfuffle is ridiculous, but it does show that the Media and the Rightists will jump all over every little thing with Clinton and make THAT the story, while if there were a real race going, they wouldn't be able to. I've said over and over, if Clinton proves to be the nominee, fine, I will vote for her. But she does not represent my interests and views particularly well, so I want to see other Democrats take the 2016 opportunity seriously and throw in their hats. And, for the first time, I feel like saying, let's get going. The time is NOW. Mrs. Warren? Are you listening?
See this.

10 March 2015

Ukraine and the Future of the World

There's an interesting piece in today's NYT about "Russia's endgame" in Ukraine. 

I am a believer in realpolitik, but not in the way the word is sometimes used. I believe that foreign policy, of my country in particular, should be based on long term national interests, which, in many cases, are the same as the long term interests of the human species, namely (chiefly) survival. And sustainable continued existence of our technological civilization would be nice, too. 

So, with that in mind, here's my take on the Ukraine crisis. Putin is a thug, granted. Russia is behaving like kleptocratic power politics dictatorship with territorial ambitions. Bad. Ukraine has a right to self-determination. 

But having acknowledged all that, it remains the case that the territorial integrity and pro-Western stance of an independent Ukraine is not a vital American interest. It is not as vital as preventing a long slide into conflagration, which, this time, our civilization would probably not survive. If you don't think that's a possible outcome, you are not paying attention. 

I do agree with those who see a closer parallel to the years before World War I than to Munich in the 1930s. But in any case, we must treat this crisis as something to be managed, not a stage in which to exert national machismo. We should recognize the historical reality that Russia was actually born in Kiev 1000 years ago, and Ukraine is connected to Russian history and heritage at least as closely as Mexico or Canada to the US. Had the Cold War ended rather differently, and Russia was courting Canada or Mexico to join its defense alliance and Economic Protection Racket... oh, I mean economic cooperation zone or whatever, how would we react? Yes, we should take actions short of war to encourage continued cooperation and co-existence, and for an independent Ukraine. We should do what we can to make it clear to Putin that the costs of pushing too far are too great. But we should also recognize that Russia has interests in this region, and will not just back down entirely. There will have to be a territorial compromise, eventually. That's all there is to it, and while the American government may for good reason not want to go around shouting the fact from the rooftops, the warmongering clatter of idiots like Lindsay Graham is most unhelpful, and I sure hope there are cooler, more calculating heads in the Administration and Pentagon. Fortunately, I suspect that, in fact, there are. 

04 March 2015

King v Burwell oral argument... may come down to Kennedy after all

From what I read in Slate and in Talkingpointsmemo today, it appears from the questions and comments of the justices during today's King v. Burwell (Obamacare) oral argument, that it may well be Kennedy, after all, and not Roberts, who is the best chance for the government's position to prevail. He expressed serious concern about the effect of deciding with the plaintiffs on States' prerogatives, and he did seem to have at least a scintilla of concern for the chaos and human suffering a decision in their favor would likely cause. Stay tuned. Decision likely at the end of June.

If the Right Wing majority does in fact strike down the subsidies for Federal Exchanges (it will be 5-4 if they do), the Republicans in Congress will be in a real pickle. Some of them are already talking about an "18 month extension" to be passed as legislation. I will go out on a limb and say if they do that, the "extension" will eventually be made permanent. After all there would be no issue if you could change the words "by the State" in one sentence in a humongous law to "by the State or the Federal Government in lieu of the State, as provided for in this section." That's it. No issue. Even just taking out the three words "by the State" would actually be enough.

If the Righties do this, they will be shredding hundreds of years of judicial practice of interpreting statutes in such a way as to avoid their being totally meaningless or having large sections of them be nonfunctional. There is NO QUESTION in the mind of any serious person, not motivated by naked ideology, that it was the intention of the drafters of the legislation that the subsidies would apply to the Federal exchanges. Anyone who tells you different is a mendacious asshole. Period.

17 February 2015

Meta-adaptation as a categorical imperative

Having read some stuff recently on evolutionary biology and human nature (Edward O. Wilson, for example), I'm more convinced than ever that humanity really is just at the point where a critical binary decision point is upon us. Either we adapt to our own (in-progress) technological adaptation (sort of meta-adaptation), and learn to control it, so that it permits our continued existence as a planetary species in a stable, life-sustaining environment, or we spiral downward into extinction. It's the existential imperative of sophont life forms everywhere they may exist in the Universe. Everything else, including the unchecked aggression that could prevent the level of intraspecific cooperation necessary to achieve such meta-adaptation, is subsumed within this imperative.

16 February 2015

Bionic biofuels and molecular synthesis from sunlight: implications for the big picture

There's an article in Scientific American about how "bionic" systems are going to be better than plants at producing biofuels and other useful molecules using the energy of sunlight. I think this is a milestone, and extremely interesting. It's inevitable, I would argue, that as human understanding of chemistry and energetics increases, the time must come when artificial systems outperform natural ones at the particular purpose for which they are designed (since, after all, evolution results in adaptation to natural environments, not particular human purposes). There is no reason at all to be resistant to this kind of technology. In the future, the extent to which we are able to consciously and deliberately minimize our adverse impact on the Earth's natural environments will be precisely the extent to which those environments are able to continue to exist.

Human "interference" with nature cannot be avoided. If one group of people altruistically control their behavior in this regard, another will not. The only option is to understand nature fully, serve human purposes in such a way as to avoid destruction of natural environments, and thereby create positive synergy. The alternative is the opposite: downward spiral and extinction.

13 February 2015

Ron Dermer should be asked to leave the US

Said before and I'll say it again, short of actually declaring him persona non grata, the Administration should inform the Israeli government that Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador, has become someone with whom the US government can no longer work productively, and if they want to maintain cordial and more-than-cordial relations with our country, they should withdraw him tout de suite and appoint someone else. Dermer has shown himself all too willing to act as virtually a Republican operative, which it TOTALLY inappropriate for a diplomat.

Fact is, Netanyahu himself is acting as virtually a Republican operative, but this is how it works. The Ambassador is the surrogate for the head of state. If the head of state does something that crosses the line, it's the Ambassador who is expelled. In this case, the ambassador is also acting totally out of line, but the more nuanced response would be to say, "Look, we've noticed. So pull him out and cut it out. Or things will get worse for you, not better." This is the kind of message that bullies like Netanyahu understand.

11 February 2015

"Geo-engineering" to address climate change ?

See this

I agree, in general, that poorly thought out "geo-engineering" is a bad idea, but I have come to believe that the time to PREVENT climate change is probably already past, and serious, risky, probably even desperate MITIGATION measures (which will inevitably include this kind of 'geo-engineering') will probably be necessary. And if such efforts are possible, and the situation gets as bad as it likely will, someone in the World will do them, whether the big Liberal Democracies do it or not. Just the facts, ma'm.

That being the case, we had better make sure the science is there, and sound, so I actually think that research into what may work and what definitely doesn't should not be suppressed, but encouraged. What's important is to UNDERSTAND the possible dangers, as well as the possible benefits, and figure out how to control for them, now, while there's still time to do carefully limited and controlled experiments.

09 February 2015

Turning CO-2 into rock?

Count me among the severe skeptics of "carbon sequestration," which I believe is, for the most part, a fraud perpetrated by a fossil fuel industry desperate to pull the wool over the public's eyes on the effects of their pollution. But we have to look at every possible solution, and mitigation, to the world's climate crisis. Including researching the possibility of extracting greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and processing it into the Earth. After all, this IS how the Earth itself maintains an isostasy of CO2 long term in the atmosphere, so there is no reason, in principle, that intentional artificial processes can't have the same effect.

See this.  

Artificial Intelligence the current greatest existential threat to humanity? (!)


I'm in the camp of the ostriches on this one (somewhat), because I disbelieve, for philosophical reasons, in artificial consciousness, and because I tend to think that people will have enough instinct for self-preservation to avoid giving real power and control over human life to machines. (Note an important distinction between artificial intelligence, which can be mindless algorithm, and
artificial consciousness. And I admit I may be very, very wrong). Anyway, these are the big quotes from the piece.

Bill Gates:

“I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence,” Gates wrote. “First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”

Here’s what Elon Musk had to say:

"I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess like what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful with the artificial intelligence. Increasingly scientists think there should be some regulatory oversight maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out."

07 February 2015

What to do about corrupt special interest influence in government

I posted this as a comment on Facebook (slightly edited), but it represents my long-held opinion. I think this problem is so pervasive, and so destructive, that only a "root and branch" approach has any possibility of working:

I concluded long ago that not only do we need public financing of (short) political campaigns, but it should be illegal to take any good or service from anyone for any reason while campaigning or in public office, with severe penalties. If you can't live with that, don't run for office. (OK, there would have to be exceptions for presents from immediate family members... but that's it). And any quid pro quo that shows up after the official leaves office (such as job offers from regulated industries, lobbying jobs, etc.), also should be illegal. Officials should learn to err on the side of caution, lest they spend a few years eating prison fare. Unenforceable? I think not... it's no worse than, in fact in many ways similar to, laws against insider trading, which don't work perfectly but which do work to some degree to "keep 'em honest."

20 January 2015

Low Sat Fat Myth

Interesting article in WaMo about how the govamint has bought into a "low saturated fat" diet myth. Here.

Climate Change as a test of civilization's surivability

Some may have seen the interesting article by Adam Frank in the Sunday NYT, Is Climate Disaster Inevitable?
The article is more about the astrobiology of civilizations than Climate Change on Earth, but it asks the question how likely is it for a planetary civilization to 'break through' to real sustainability?   
And he posits that the relative degree of unlikelihood of that process' succeeding may account for the Fermi Paradox. If not familiar with the idea of the Fermi Paradox, may I gratuitously recommend my own essays on the subject, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The gist is that the Galaxy (and, for that matter all galaxies, since they're all about the same age) have existed for nearly as long as the universe itself, and have evolved slowly, such that the universe has everywhere been more or less as it is now for at least a few billion years. So in all the Galaxy, if civilizations are common, all, or surely nearly all, that exist right now must be older than ours, unless we are the only one (which is possible). And if you imagine that in 10,000 years time we might figure out how to send robots or ourselves to visit the nearest, say, 50 star systems.... the math comes out that if there are more than a tiny number of civilizations, and each one exists for at least 50,000 years (very roughly), then every single star in the Galaxy, including the Sun, would have been visited by an alien civilization by now. (If you doubt this, e-mail me and I'll explain the numbers). And since that doesn't appear to be the case here, Fermi's famous question in 1950 was «Where are they? » Good question.   
Tim Ferris in a 15 year old documentary called "Life Beyond Planet Earth" said it was false logic; it was like wondering why a lobster doesn't come to the door and climb up onto your plate. But I think that's a false analogy. Civilizations will, by biological imperative, seek to discover new potential habitats for life. Any that survive and have the capacity to develop technology will develop space travel, at least to some level. It is a real and serious issue, to answer why, if the supposition that life, and in particular intelligent life, is common, then why is not evident? (Other than here, of course, and jokes about no intelligent life on Earth are a bit old, thank you).

It took life to go from origin to complex, multicellular forms nearly 3¼ billion years on Earth, then another 600 million before intelligent life arose. There is no reason to believe that the emergence of intelligent life was inevitable in that time. (Cf. Stephen Jay Gould, and his speculation that if you re-ran the "tape," there would likely be no intelligent life a second time around). With an example of one, we can't know whether this was typical, remarkable in that intelligent life emerged quickly (or at all), or that Earth was a bit retarded (in comparison to the rapid emergence of intelligence on average). Statistically meaningful estimates could be made if we had even two examples. But with only one, as with the likelihood of life originating at all given the availability of certain requisites, we really can't say anything meaningful. All we have is our intuition that life should be common in so vast a universe; and if we can have arisen in the only known example of a living world (Earth), why not elsewhere? Why not, indeed. But the Fermi phenomenon is an important data point. We know, whether we like to admit it or not, that the "Star Trek" universe, where the Galaxy is teeming with advanced civilizations zipping to and fro, visiting and colonizing hundreds of planets, and inexorably expanding in space... almost certainly does not exist in our Galaxy, and probably does not exist anywhere.   
But the Fermi paradox can be quite easily explained by the supposition that life requires some rather rare (not exceedingly rare, just rather rare) conditions, and that intelligent civilizations are really quite rare, such as only one or two... or ten... but not 100... existent in a galaxy like ours at at any given time during the current epoch (say ± 2 billion years). And that only some fraction, say 1/10 of them, survive long term, such as over 10,000 years. With those kinds of numbers, if they're anything like reality, it is not at all surprising, in fact is exactly what would be expected, that we see no evidence that the Earth has ever been visited by extraterrestrials, and we see no vast Galactic network of communicating civilizations.

Which is not to say that tomorrow, we will not find a signal or some evidence that others are out there somewhere. 
And if sustainability is perhaps an unlikely achievement, for any given form of intelligent life, we must take it as our challenge. To become one of the ones that succeeds.

End profiteering in health and education now... Defense next?

I am not opposed to private property and industry as an organizing principle of the economy as a whole, but there are two large areas of American life where, I would argue, there should be no place for profit-oriented organizations. 1). Health care, including health insurance. What we have today is more an "illness profit industry" than a health care industry. 2). Education, including higher education and vocational training. Ditto, mutatis mutandis.

Ultimately, the profit motive in these endeavors creates an inherent conflict of interest, which makes the effective accomplishment of the obvious goals impossible. I'm not saying no private organizations. Private non-profits can work well. But no for-profit corporations.
And the first order of business would be to end the obscenity of the government making a profit from student loans.

And then we can think about mandating that the defense industry be non-profit, to remove that obvious and ongoing conflict of interest, that has very nearly wrecked our constitutional system of government already.

19 January 2015

We need Municipal Broadband NOW and then....

I just called AT&T to ask them what the best available "broadband" speed they offered at my address, which is located in a densely populated close-in suburb of Los Angeles, America's second largest city. The best speed they offer is 6 MB/sec. on DSL. There's no fiber optic and no HD television available. Verizon FIOS is not available either (thanks to the vestiges of past telecom monopolies). And thanks to corporate lobbying, the City and State have failed to provide any municipal broadband option. The alternative, which is cable, is supposed to be 50 MB/sec. but my actual measured speed is more like 17 MB/sec. This compares to 1 Gigabyte/sec. routinely available in Cedar Falls, IA where Obama gave a speech recently in favor of removing barriers to municipal broadband. (Similar speed is available in Chattanooga, TN, which also pioneered a municipal system, and, for businesses, in Santa Monica, CA). This speed is also routinely available in France, South Korea, and Japan.

America "invented" the internet, but we're falling behind the rest of the world in internet infrastructure, and the reason is that the short term profit model of for-profit media companies does not achieve the necessary infrastructure investment. Public internet infrastructure must be introduced to create the necessary competition to force the whole system to advance... just as happened in the past with electrification, natural gas supplies, and even to a degree radio and television (which aren't entirely comparable because there's no "last mile" infrastructure that has to be built).

I urge everyone to demand that your local municipality work to create municipal broadband, and if your state (like California, in part) has impediments to it, demand that they be lifted.

And then, once that's achieved, maybe the USA could regain the initiative and commit to building a worldwide satellite based secure worldwide network... that would bring true secure interconnectivity to the entire world. The technology to do this is already understood; there is simply a lack of willingness to make the investment. Time was the US would make such investments as a matter of course, but no more. If we really care about regaining and maintaining our role as a world technology leader, this would be just the sort of thing that would do it. 

15 January 2015

Pope Gets One Wrong

I've been pretty complimentary to Pope Francis lately, but here, he is showing a deep misunderstanding (or at least failing to express an understanding) of the difference between what may be good manners and what is the proper province of law. (From TPM).
«... Francis spoke about the Paris terror attacks while en route to the Philippines, defending free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one's mind for the sake of the common good.
But he said there were limits.
By way of example, he referred to Alberto Gasparri, who organizes papal trips and was standing by his side aboard the papal plane.
"If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch," Francis said, throwing a pretend punch his way. "It's normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others."

If he'd said, "it is wrong to make fun of the faith of others," that would be one thing. But we have learned through long and bitter struggle over centuries that the only reasonable limitation on freedom of expression is where it crosses the line into direct incitement to violence or deliberate creation of panic. Truly, the right of free expression IS THE RIGHT TO OFFEND, and it is a keystone of real civilization.

13 January 2015

Francis Fukuyama right this time: our government is not sufficient

Historian and Toynbee wannabe Francis Fukuyama made a bit of a fool of himself in the 90s with his "End of History" meme, but this time, in arguing that our occluded government has become not TOO powerful, but not powerful enough, I believe he is right on.


Where is Progressive unity on REAL Social Security Reform?

With the Republicans trying their damndest to gin up a totally phony Social Security funding crisis, there is real fear that Obama and some Democrats in Congress will not be there to defend the Program's integrity. WHERE, I ask, is the simple and sensible Progressive proposal to increase the FICA ceiling, in order to fund the Disability portion of Social Security well into the next generation by increasing revenue, sourced entirely from higher income Americans, rather than cutting benefits?

WHY is this not a major policy agenda of the Senate and House Democrats and the Administration? Then, at least, the American people could compare simple, straightforward proposals of the two parties side by side. And, if presented in such a straightforward manner, I will venture to say that way over half the people will support the Democratic position. 

This, then, could set the stage, for when we next have control of the Legislature, to EXPAND, rather than contract, Social Security, something that polling shows a majority of Americans support. 

12 January 2015

Republicans as servants of the Oligarchy

I admit I sometimes conflate "Republicans" with Republican politicians," which is probably unfair and lazy. I certainly agree that we need to get past "us vs. them" and focus on what unites us as Americans. But it is an undeniable fact that while at least some Democrats in Congress, and certainly pres. Obama, have bent over backwards to try to find accommodations with the GOP, Republicans in Congress have been almost completely obstructionist, and by and large have been nearly of one voice in supporting the oligarchic agenda of their Wall Street paymasters. Not all Dems are much better, but it's high time the interests of the people, and not just the very wealthy few, were the watchwords for our representatives. 

It's also undeniable that once upon a time there was a great overlap between the most rightward Democrats in Congress and the more liberal among the Republicans. Even in the Reagan Era you had maybe the most liberal 1/4 Dems, the most conservative 1/4 Republican, and the 1/2 in the middle a mixture. This had some drawbacks, but at least coalitions could be formed and worthwhile actions taken. Unless you adhre to the atavistic notion that government is unnecessary and incapable of doing anything worthwhile at all, you have to deplore the current state where the most conservative Democrat is to the left of the most liberal Republican, and both camps are in implacable opposition so that almost nothing gets done for the people.

10 January 2015

Wake Up Call for Democrats

I think it's time Democrats woke up and realized fully a fundamental political truth in this country. And that is that the demographics of the House, and to a lesser extent the Senate, are likely to make the presidential race in 2016 all but irrelevant. Clinton, or Warren, or whoever ends up running, may well get elected, but she (or he) will be unable to govern in the FDR or Johnson-in-1964 manner, with real policy progress, because there is almost no way we can win back the House (and possibly not even the Senate), without the most massive popular movement and organization in more than a generation. And every day that goes by that this isn't happening means that Democratic policies are less likely to become national policy any time soon. Where is the leadership? Where are the street demonstrations for economic justice, endorsed and even joined in by Democratic pols? Where, even, is the clear and coherent Progressive platform, that declares once and for all that the era of coddling Wall Street and being no better than Republican lite, is OVER?

08 January 2015

Nous sommes tous Charlie Hebdo

The targeted assassination in Paris yesterday by Jihadist Fundamentalists of journalists and, in particular, political cartoonists, has of course shocked the World. While it is important to remember that for all its awfulness and terrible symbolism, this kind of terrorism is not an existential threat to Western societies, and should not be overreacted to in the way that the US, it is now clear, overreacted to 9/11. 

Having said that, there is a serious issue here. We wink and nod at Saudi Arabia, because of its huge oil reserves, despite the fact that it is a nation that fosters and harbors violent fundamentalists, arising from its foundation in the extremist Wahabi cult. We falsely compare the violence of these terrorists to Fundamentalists of other religions, when, in fact, while some Bible Thumpers in the US may literally believe in the Bible, for the most part they do not raid the homes of people who disagree with them, and drag out and stone their non-virginal daughters. 

The fact is that radical Islamist cults are fostered and harbored by Muslim communities both in the Middle East and in Europe (less in the USA). Islam never underwent a Reformation, and consequently, Muslim cultures are, it is a simple fact, far more misogynist and repressive than Western societies. But if so-called moderate Muslims, as people like Reza Aslan are always telling us are the majority, seriously want to be treated with respect and not be lumped together with the violent intolerance of people like these assassins, they need to do more than wring their hands. They need to make clear, in their mosques, in their newspapers and media, in the actions of their supposedly moderate governments, that these people will not be tolerated. That when someone's relative is making bombs and attending meetings of extremist cells... and you can't tell me people in these communities don't often know that this is going on... they must report it just as they would report anyone contemplating murder. And the sad truth is, out of misplaced loyalty to their supposed co-religionists, there is all too much looking the other way.

There will be a reaction to this awful terrorism. Marie LePen's Nationalist party will benefit. French people will tend to regard even ordinary Muslims with suspicion. This is just the way it is. And if moderate Muslims, who want to live in peace as part of a pluralistic society, want to avoid being tarred with the same brush as is applied to the Jihadists, they must stand against them, clearly and forthrightly, and declare their support for freedom of expression, even when it is directed against their sacred cows. Muslim societies must eradicate this violent intolerance root and branch, or it will parasitize their entire culture and destroy them.

Every time a Jihadist steals the life of someone for the "crime" of disagreeing with their Medieval attitude towards faith and freedom, the violence is confined in space and time, but the response, the "meme" of revulsion and such acts, grows and spreads. 12 are killed, and a few Jihadist extremists celebrate, but 10,000 gather in the Place de la Republique and chant "Je suis Charlie," and the world condemns the terrorists. In the long run, the reality is that they weaken their religion; people inevitably negatively associate their professed religion with them and their evil acts. Rather than avenging their "prophet," they are besmirching his name and lessening his influence in the future.