19 November 2013

A crucial scientific question: finding another biosphere

Paul Davies (noted astronomer and popular science writer) published an article today in the NYT, of which I will essay an executive summary.
We really do not know anything about the probability of the origin of life, given accommodating environments, because we have a sample of only one, Earth, which tells us nothing about probability.

So, recent analyses that suggest that watery worlds somewhat like Earth may be relatively common in the Galaxy (and all other similarly situated galaxies, which may well number in the trillions in the wider universe), actually don't give us any information about whether life in the universe is common, rare, or even unique to Earth.

Of course, most scientists have a "hunch" that life is common, but the truth is we just don't know. The origin of life is an intractable problem; it has not yielded to experimental investigation and there is no well-worked out a priori theory that predicts from first principles that life must evolve from non-life. Again, we just do not know, however "sure" we may feel about it.

So, what then? 

To me, this is a very strong argument for the extreme importance of searching for signs of life. There are very promising research projects being worked on and proposed to investigate the chemical signatures of life in the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars. I would like to suggest that, after research into ameliorating and correcting the effects of climate change, including the development of renewable energy sources and sustainable methods of food production, etc., this is the most significant scientific question of our time.

Because, and this is a critical point, as soon as we have strong evidence of a biosphere anywhere other than Earth, it can then be accepted as a near certainty that life has originated in multiple locations in the universe; and if we find more than one; we can even come by some kind of estimate as to just how common it is.

Why is this important? Well, it just is. If you don't have enough of a sense of wonder to see that, I can't convince you.

18 November 2013

Further Free Trade Deals are Bad Deals for America

One hears much recently about the near desperation of the Administration to conclude a framework for the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement before the end of the year. I'm a Democrat, but I oppose this agreement completely. I hope they fail spectacularly. 

The Obama administration, like every administration since at least Carter, just doesn't get it that global trade agreements do not enhance America's geopolitical interests, and have, in toto, harmed the economy, especially the jobs of ordinary working Americans. The Europeans are righteously ticked off about the NSA wiretaps of their negotiations on the TransAtlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) in the works, and I say, although that's a whole lotta crocodile tears coming from them, good. We don't need a trade agreement that further drains jobs from America. 

The "tilt towards asia" seems to be taking the form of an agreement that would undermine US internet openness, further erode US trade deficit, and undermine US economic interests in a whole host of ways, all the while accomplishing very little, since almost all the countries who are being courted to join in are also parties to a similar agreement with the Economic Hegemon of the region, China. So on balance, those who really have looked into it (like Clyde Prestowitz; check out ianmasters.com for 11/17), have concluded that the TPP is a bad deal for America, and so is TAFTA.

Afghanistan: a very different realpolitik

There's a lot of buzz (Huff.Post) about Karzai supposedly rejecting a key provision of the proposed long term US Security arrangement in Afghanistan.
Look, I realize that this is important to the Administration, for whatever reasons they have. But I believe Christine Fair, the expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan at Georgetown University, has it right. There simply are no significant US interests, and the fact is that we have been played for years and years by the governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Our only major foreign policy objective vis a vis Pakistan should be dicincentivizing nuclear proliferation and brinksmanship on their part (they, not Iran, are the nuclear threat in the region that we should be worried about, and their attitude towards the US is arguably worse than Iran's). As for Afghanistan, there is no good outcome. We should cut our losses and get the hell out of there.

We should just tell Karzai, if you don't like it, we're taking our toys and going home. And mean it. And if we can't (as we probably can't) remove our military equipment, it should just be destroyed in place.
The American people are sick and tired of failed wars in Central Asia. Time to pull the plug, and to make clear to would be little Machiavellis like Hamid Karzai that we don't really care what he thinks or what his country decides to do in the aftermath; if they don't play nice, we're just going to leave, full stop.
In the meantime, the countries that are really benefiting from our presence in Afghanistan, which are China and Russia, should be told, hey, game's over. You want to ensure your interests in that country, the clock is ticking on whatever pax Americana there may be, and you better ramp up your own investments and presence in that country if you want the status quo.

15 November 2013

Ironies and Dangers of the Fiasco of Health Care Rollout

The fiasco of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act is fraught with ironies. The Republicans, of course, are gleeful: they blame the president and Democrats for problems which are, admittedly, largely the result of inexcusable kludginess, mainly on the part of government contractors. And any administration must take the blame for that. But that's the first irony: the kludgy awfulness of the implementation (website, etc.) is largely because of the Right Wing-forced contractor market system enforced on our system of government, which practically guarantees outrageous overrun of costs and woeful inefficiency.

But the even greater irony, which is so galling to Progressive Democrats like myself, is that the failures of the health care reform system itself-- its complexity, its lack of fundamental fairness, its inefficiency, its excessive profits to insurers (still there from the old system)-- these things are the result of the fact that in order to achieve any sort of reform of a badly broken system, Democrats, and in particular the Obama administration, chose to adopt the Republicans' proposed solution: namely market based reform, even though for 35 years before that Democrats had by and large been saying that the way to reform health care was a government insurance program, something like Medicare for All, because ... exactly what we see happening... the Republican idea of a market reform system would be very complicated, very expensive, and not very effective at achieving the goal of universal health care at reduced cost. But we went along, only to have them meet success in achieving their stated goal with betrayal and enmity: they turned against their own idea, and wedded Democrats to its failures.

So here we are. The party that has done absolutely nothing, literally nothing, to address America's problems in the last six years now points the finger at Democrats for the failure of their idea, and, here's the worst part. It's working for them. Already the debacle of the shutdown they caused is all but forgotten, and the "generic" lead that made Democrats just a few weeks ago think it might just be possible to retake the House next year has all but evaporated.

These problems are not unfixable, and the Republicans are likely to do themselves plenty more damage early next year when the fiscal can-kick expires, but Democrats need to remain as united as possible, and the administration has to perform whatever Herculean tasks are needed to get this damn thing working, because we do know from history (Massachusetts) and from what is happening on the state level (California, New Hampshire, Vermont, for example), that once people can buy regulated health insurance, which, however bad, is always better than what the insurance industry offers on its own, especially in the individual market, they like it. And from success comes success, politically. So I sure as hell hope they're doing whatever it's gonna take to make this thing work as soon as humanly possible, because the fate of Democratic governance hangs in the balance. That's for sure.

06 November 2013


I was having a conversation with a rather forward thinking person in my office, and, without veering too far into teleology, I agreed with his premise. Which is more or less what crazy old Timothy Leary used to say.

Which is as follows: 

If intelligent beings (like ourselves) evolve on natural life-bearing worlds anywhere in the universe for any purpose, (or, if you prefer, if they serve any particular function), it is: 

In the big picture and long run, what else matters?