30 December 2015

The Force Awakens (spoilers in article)

I wanted to like the new Star Wars movie, and I did, more or less. I enjoyed the experience, as a space romp with some elements of nostalgia. I did, however, feel like it was more or less a remake of the 1977 original, but without the novelty. The space graphics were good, but actually, far from the best I've ever seen. (For many, this is trivial, but for some of us space realism is vital). For example, I don't know if it was deliberate, but the starfields were actually terrible; almost exactly like those in the original. Real starfields, even "naked eye", have stars of varying brightness, a clearly delineated galactic plane, voids where there are few stars, here and there very bright stars, maybe some nebulosity visible as faint fuzziness; and a "milky" appearance where the more distant galaxy's billions of stars fail to resolve as points of light. The star fields in this movie were pretty much just randomly distributed points of equal brightness. You would never see that in reality, and it's boring. OK, technicality, but it's a symptom. The whole movie felt just a bit formulaic, contrived, not really engaging on a human-story level. I keep thinking "jejune." Afraid the word fits, if perhaps a little harsh.

I have to pretty much agree with this commentary, by Michael Hiltzik, from the LA Times Business section (after all, movies are business here in LA). It's not so much a movie as a giant commercial for the whole Disney Star Wars commercial enterprise.


♦ David Studhalter

25 December 2015

Some Optimistic Thoughts for Christmas

Krugman has a column about the disappointed expectations of technology over the last 40 years or so, and hopes for the future. 

I've been re-reading utopian Space Operatist Iain M. Banks (who died young a couple of years ago) (Player of Games is his best book, IMO). He's not strictly speaking writing about our future, but he is writing about a society that has emerged from our stage of technology to a much higher stage. I set aside his facile assumption that there will be hyperspace, faster than light, etc., because I believe those things probably really are impossible (if they weren't, and civilizations were even a little bit probable to arise now and then in the universe, I think it's pretty obvious that space travelers would have been to Earth many times before in the 14 billion year life of the universe, and we would know about them. There are a helluva lot of planets in any given galaxy, but a society that set about systematically exploring them, if it was capable of surviving at an advanced level of technology, and even without "Warp Drive" or whatever, could plausibly visit every single one of them in just a few million years (out of 14,000 million years to work with). 

But he does make some assumptions I think are likely TRUE. Such as that the Problem of Medicine will eventually yield to knowledge completely; medicine will become perfect, like a game whose rules are completely understood and the outcomes are completely predictable. And the temptation to enhance the evolutionary contingencies that make our bodies less than ideal and that cause us to age and die rather quickly will be irresistible. Future humans will not be immortal, but they will live a LONG, LONG time, free of disease and most forms of physical suffering. 

Such as that ultimately economies of scarcity and elites just don't make any sense. The universe is essentially full of matter and energy; there is no reason why future development of human civilization should be in any way limited by resource availability. This is admittedly a REALLY long term view, but if you think about it, unless you want to talk about the survival of life into the tens of billions of years, there will be plenty of everything, including starshine and any quantity of all the elements in any form desired, essentially forever. This also implies that if we meet up with beings comparable to ourselves, there is no need for competition; there is abundance for all. 

Such as that some sort of moral convergence on freedom of action and freedom from want is essentially inevitable. 

We live in ancient history, from the point of view of most "people" who will ever live, of this I'm reasonably sure. And we have only the barest glimpse of what the future will bring. 

The only thing that can prevent it from happening, apart from the (relatively) unlikely contingency of something like an asteroid destroying our planet before we have a chance to develop some backup sites (a contingecy people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking take quite seriously), is STUPIDITY. Sure, we could blow it. We could wreck our planet and become extinct before we even really get going. But boy oh boy would that ever be DUMB. 
♦ David Studhalter

Find out what the number one song on your birthday was.

This is fun. 

Mine was "Till I Waltz Again with You" by Teresa Brewer. It really dates me. (1953). 

♦ David Studhalter

20 December 2015

Iain Banks's Culture novels and left wing utopianism

 I am currently reading Simone Caroti's rather "academish" critical appraisal of Iain M. Banks's science fiction.* She makes the point that he rejected the implicit libertarian right wing narrative of much of American space opera, and instead posited an advanced society (not actually a future society, because it's only approximately human), based not on the assumption that today's political economy of scarcity and elitism will just continue into the future indefinitely, but on more or less the following assumptions: 
  •   The current regime of production and exploitation of resources and people by and for elites is unsustainable and if not changed will result in the collapse of advanced civilization on Earth (a not unlikely outcome). 
  •   This is true in broad outlines everywhere. 
  •   Where cultures do achieve success and longevity, and become true spacefaring civilizations (leave aside for the moment whether quasi-magical technology is possible; Banks obviously chose to adopt that, since it makes the stories more fun)... they are necessarily economies of abundance, where scarcity is not a driving factor and people can pretty much have what they want; possession and control of resources stops being the primary motivating factor in the existence of the "people." (Who may or may not be human). 
  •   A fairly obvious and consistent kind of overarching morality is a necessary element in all that. 
  •   "Flesh sentients" ultimately aren't as good at balancing all these factors and making good decisions as AIs, so AIs end up running the place. 
None of this is surprising to anyone familiar with Banks, who was a Scottish nationalist democratic socialist, even a Marxist utopian. (Banks died in 2013 at 59 of cancer). 

Personally, both as a premise for fiction and as the essential truth of the matter, I buy into all of these except the last point. I remain unconvinced that AI, which really should be called Artificial Consciousness, since that's the key distinction, is even possible, still less than that it necessarily makes better decisions than flesh minds. Or, for that matter, that it would, as Banks assumes, necessarily have any interest at all in cooperating with icky flesh sentients (a la Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series, which was the inspiration for Star Trek's Borg), if it did. But again, my working assumption is as follows: Cybernetics is unbounded and the ability of machines to emulate intelligence will grow and develop indefinitely; if there are ever starships, they will be physically controlled by artificial "minds," but directed by flesh sentience, because I just don't believe in artificial consciousness. Call it an article of faith. I just don't buy that that inner awareness emerges from efficient computation, any more than that if a star trek transporter were somehow possible to construct, it would actually deliver you (and not a simulacrum that only appeared to be you, whether conscious or not)... to the destination. 

To anyone who's happened to read or listen to my ideas on this overall subject, I know I'm repeating myself, but these ideas are rumbling around in my head and I'm trying to pull them together into a magisterium for a science fiction universe of my own devising. 
*The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction. I don't actually recommend this book except to anyone who has a strong interest in Banks as a writer. 

18 December 2015

Fwd: Almost 250,000 signatures demanding the DNC return Bernie's voter file!

If you believe, as I do, irrespective of who you're supporting for president, that Debbie Wasserman Schulz's virtually complete shutdown of the Sanders campaign is an obviously politically motivated overreaction to what was primarily, and fundamentally, a software glitch for which the DNC's own contractors are responsible, please consider signing the petition demanding that the Sanders campaign have restored access to their own data without delay. It is apparently true that there was improper access to files that should not have been accessible in the first place, but this overreaction to a problem that was mostly caused by a third party and has already been stopped is just not justifiable.

We supporters of Bernie Sanders do not intend to stand for this.

Thank you.

♦ David Studhalter

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Carl Gibson <noreply@list.moveon.org>
Date: Fri, Dec 18, 2015 at 6:09 PM
Subject: Almost 250,000 signatures demanding the DNC return Bernie's voter file!
To: Studhalter@gyromantic.com

Dear Supporters,

Thank you SO much for signing the petition to Debbie Wasserman Schultz demanding the DNC restore the Sanders campaign's access to the voter database. We're on the verge of a quarter million signatures in under 24 hours thanks to your signing and sharing this critically-important petition.

Our goal is to reach 500,000 signatures before tomorrow night's Democratic debate to send a strong message to the DNC that we won't tolerate their sabotage of the Sanders campaign. Please share this link with all of your friends to help us reach our goal:


If the DNC refuses to reverse their decision to cut the Sanders campaign off from their own data this weekend, we'll deliver all of the signatures to the DNC offices on Monday morning.

Thanks for everything you've done so far!

Solidarity forever,

Carl Gibson

This message was sent to David Studhalter by Carl Gibson through MoveOn's public petition website. MoveOn Political Action licensed and paid for this service, but does not endorse contents of this message. To unsubscribe or report this email as inappropriate, click here: http://petitions.moveon.org/unsub.html?i=32323-14160954-h6aO7Q

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14 December 2015

Star Wars

The L. A. Times is republishing its reviews of all the Star Wars films to date, and the verdict is not surprising. Most enthusiastic was Charles Champlin back in 1977 for the original film, now rather sillily retitled "Episode IV -- A New Hope." (As Star Wars geeks all know, it was always Episode IV; that epithet appears on the very first screen). Champlin also liked "Strikes Back" (1980) (as did most reviewers in those days), and even, unlike almost everyone, liked the ewoks in "Return of the Jedi" (1983) (which I never noticed before was intentionally titled to bring to mind Tolkien (Return of the King)). 

Kenneth Turan, along with most of the rest of the known universe, was unimpressed by the three "prequel" films, "Phantom Menace," "Attack of the Clones," and "Revenge of the Sith". (1999-2005) (I only managed to see one of these, and it was awful. Oh wait, I might have seen the second one, too. I honestly can't remember). 

But most of the buzz about Episode VII, "The Force Awakens," the first film under the new Disney franchise, with the original cast as old folks and John Williams composing a new score, and J. J. Abrams, who did a great job reinventing the Star Trek franchise, as director... is positive. 

At its best, space opera is great fun. At its worst, well, frankly, the worst thing you can say about the prequel movies, which have some pretty great graphics, etc., is that they're boring. The invention is just not that special. I have a feeling this new one will overcome that.  

♦ David Studhalter

07 December 2015

Obama's speech and the terrorist threat

It appears that Obama's speech is being widely panned as not enough, etc. Which is unfortunate. Obviously, there are some things that need to be done, primarily in the area of making assault weapons and explosives much harder to get a hold of, and vetting travelers and restricting immigration waivers from the "War Zone" (which I am enough of a realpolitiker to advocate should include Western Asia from Turkey to the Caucasus to Yemen east to India and the Easternmost of the "Stans", and west across Northern Africa from Egypt to Kenya across to Nigeria to Morocco). But it remains a FACT that terrorism is far less significant than the flu, auto accidents, or ordinary murder as a threat to the populace of the United States (64 deaths, total, since Sep. 12, 2001). It's terrible; it needs to be addressed, but we should NOT overreact. I believe had it not been for 9/11 there would not have been a second Bush/Cheney term, and, callous as it may seem, the Bush presidency was far more damaging to the USA than 9/11 itself.

I worry that, although in reality terrorism, awful as it is, simply is NOT an existential threat to the US, it will end up highjacking our whole political climate, AGAIN, and remove the focus from critical issues like income inequality, oligarchic control and and power of money in politics, infrastructure investment, universal health care, and, the real biggie, the REAL existential threat, conversion to a renewable energy future so we have a livable planet as the century progresses.

04 December 2015

Importance of Paris and Insanity of Climate Change Denial

It's no secret that I consider Paul Krugman to be essential reading for just about anyone, but I try to avoid touting his columns too often. However, today's column about the importance of the Paris talks and the absolute, potentially devastating destructiveness of Republican anti-science ideology on this issue is truly, truly, a must-read. 

Thank you.  

23 November 2015

My humble predictions on presidential politics

Here's my prediction, which is hardly a great departure from conventional wisdom, but whatever. IF there is a Paris-level terror attack in the US by ISIS or its hangers-on between now and the election, it is entirely possible that Donald Trump will be our next president. As hideous a prospect as that is. And if it happens before the Democratic primaries are complete, it is virtually certain that it will be Clinton who is nominated. She might still win in November, but it will be a close election. If this does NOT happen, I predict that Clinton, while very likely to be the nominee, could just possibly be upset, and in any case whoever is the Democratic nominee will win relatively easily. The memory of the current jitters will have faded almost entirely. 

This isn't an opinion about my preferences, just my call as to what is LIKELY to happen. I remain a committed Bernie Sanders supporter, and will remain so unless he at some point withdraws and endorses another candidate.

One other point, though. While I disagree with the likes of Joe Scarborough on almost everything, he is right that Pres. Obama needs to get back to the US and stay here for a while, formulate a strong but sensible response to the current apprehension about international terrorism (which, after all, is hardly groundless), and address the American people on the subject, outlining exactly what the US will be doing about it. Tout de suite.

14 November 2015


Amazon's website opens with no ads or other junk, just the French flag and the word "Solidarité".

♦ David Studhalter

13 November 2015

Health Care Cost Comment

​As a follow up to my comment on how for profit diagnostics are a racket, here's an idea. On the way to enhanced Medicare for All, which is what we really need, by way of opt-in to Medicare for Anyone (aka Public Option), providers should be required to publish their negotiated "insurance" prices, and be required to charge the same rates to anyone, regardless of insured or uninsured status. Gouging uninsured patients should be illegal. Moreover, billing in hospitals should be according to published "reasonable and customary" rates, so that, in principle, anyone could calculate what their bill will be based on what was done, without any mysterious and ridiculously high charges, such as $10 for an aspirin. Services should be charged as services, at published prices, and drugs, equipment, and materials should be priced according to a published schedule that is based on cost. ​

In the long run, of course, the prices, reimbursements, premiums, and subsidies to low income people, will all need to be based on reality, so that we have affordable health care with realistic reimbursements to health care facilities and professionals, not so that they can make huge profits, but so that they can cover their costs and pay their employees fair compensation.

My customer comment to a for-profit diagnostic lab (Quest)

OK, I admit to being a curmudgeon, but I really do believe that making profits on health care, which should be considered a human right, is immoral and unacceptable, and is an inherent conflict of interest. So, true to my curmudgeonly nature, I incorporated the following comment into my response to a patient survey for Quest Diagnostics:

​I do not appreciate, being asked to provide a credit card and told a totally incorrect probable patient responsibility amount, and I invariably refuse this request, although it is asked in such a way that many unsuspecting clients may not realize that they are under no legal obligation to comply. My insurance is supposed to pay for diagnostic tests in full but there is usually some amount you people claim I owe you, which indicates that you are charging more than a reasonable and customary amount (not to mention that the practice of charging uninsured patients far more is tantamount to profiteering but is apparently legal, due to a failure of regulation on Federal and State levels). Further, the estimated amount is never correct or even close (the amount they state is usually many hundreds of percent of the actual residual charge). Moreover, I do not and will not give out a credit card to be billed an unknown amount at any time and you should not be asking patients to do this.

It is my firm belief that all health care should be provided on a non-profit basis and therefore companies like Quest are, in my opinion, profiteering rackets which should, by rights, be illegal. In the future, we will eventually reach a consensus that health care is a right, not a privilege, and that profiteering on health care is deeply immoral and unacceptable in a civilized society. At that time, we will look back on operations such as yours the way we look back today on child labor sweatshops of the early 20th century: vestiges of an age of barbarism when activity which is clearly criminal in nature was tolerated. ​

12 November 2015

Fake mental illness diagnosis used to deny vets health care

Ian Masters reported on Veterans Day about the alarming practice of categorizing wounded soldiers as having personality disorder, rather than PTSD or other effects from injuries suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton should come out strongly in favor of ending the practice of categorizing personality disorder as an ineligible condition for continued medical care for veterans. It is absolutely scandalous that this country is turning people out with a fake diagnosis of mental illness, and refusing them the medical care that they need. To add insult to injury, some of these veterans are even being required to rebate part of their signing bonus, because they are being discharged with a fake mental illness. This reminds me of the practice of the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution of billing families for the bullet used to execute their family member. I am ashamed of my country that this is going on.


07 November 2015

Conservative Republican tells it like it is.

Here is a conversation Robert Reich posted, that he had with a conservative Republican former member of Congress with whom he maintains at least cordial relations (but who preferred to remain anonymous for obvious reasons). Reich asked him what he thought of the current crop of Republican candidates for president.
Him: "They're all nuts."
Me: "Seriously. What do you really think of them?"
Him: "I just told you. They're bonkers. Bizarre. They're like a Star Wars bar room."
Me: "How did it happen? How did your party manage to come up with this collection?"
Him: "We didn't. They came up with themselves. There's no party any more. It's chaos. Anybody can just decide they want to be the Republican nominee, and make a run for it. Carson? Trump? They're in the lead, and they're both out of their f*cking minds."
Me: "That's not reassuring."
Him: "It's a disaster. I'm telling you, if either of them is elected, this country is going to hell. The rest of them aren't much better. I mean, Carly Fiorina? Really? Rubio? Please. Ted Cruz? Oh my god. And the people we thought had it sewn up, who are halfway sane — Bush and Christie — they're sounding almost as batty as the rest."
Me: "Who's to blame for this mess?"
Him: "Roger Ailes, David and Charles Koch, Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh. I could go on. They've poisoned the American mind and destroyed the Republican Party.

The following is Washington Monthly weekend blogger, Nancy LeTourneau's comment: "Wow! One has to wonder how many more there are out there like this guy. Too bad he doesn't have the courage to say all that publicly. But that probably wouldn't make much difference anyway."


06 November 2015

Yet another comment on the implications of faster than light travel, or the impossibility thereof.

A friend sent me a link to this youtube presentation hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. With the suggestion that there is new research indicating that the commonly held belief that no massive particles travel faster than light may not be correct. And that somehow this has implications for the future possibility of Star Trek/Star Wars style faster than light space travel. I won't get into the arcane reasons why FTL violates causality and is almost certainly impossible, as I have blathered on about all that before. See gyromantic.com and search for FTL if you are interested. 


Here is my characteristically grumpy response (Warning: of no interest to people who don't think long term and have an interest in the future of humanity at the longest time scales).

This was fairly interesting, although in terms of giving any real indication that it will ever be possible to move ordinary matter (such as human beings) at superluminal speeds, I'd say, pretty much: zippo. Glashow was the most conservative, but there's really nothing any of them said that indicates there's any reason to believe physics will ever open that door.

I'm not troubled by that. It is apparent to me, speaking quasi-teleologically, that the universe is organized in such a way that the great leap, on the scale of the bodies of, and in terms of distances accessible to, naturally evolved beings and their artificial civilizations, is the relatively great distances between stars. The inferrable fact that these distances are bridgeable at all only with difficulty, and that they will never be bridgeable casually, in spans of time short in comparison to the "attention span" of such natural beings, has two major implications: there is a strong natural incentive to achieve long term sustainability, balance and efficient resource utilization within star systems, and the universe is not likely to be overrun by extremely advanced civilizations that plow through the field and destroy the opportunities for unique evolution in many disparate locales. Essentially, physics, and therefore economics, favors staying home and cultivating one's own star-system garden, and maybe colonizing slowly nearby stars. Galaxy-spanning empires are just too expensive and impractical to be worth pursuing. In general.

Another possible implication is that either in the future, or elsewhere already, it is probably transcendent organisms, possibly of artificial origin, that have the capacity to exist for extremely long periods of time, that will or already have the ability to practically travel among the stars. That this is not apparent indicates to me that it happens either rarely, or that, in this comparatively young universe, it has not yet become common.

Note that that doesn't refer to slow colonization of other stars, and slow spread of civilization, which I believe is possible for our kind, or beings much like us, without much enhancement or modification through intentional artificial evolution. The evidence (peace to theories to the contrary) that visitation to the Earth by other life has either not occurred (my view), or, at minimum, has been exceedingly rare (no more than which I believe the evidence allows), suggests that even this does not commonly occur in the wider universe, since, for reasons we've discussed several times before, if civilizations were common that 1) were able to sustainably begin a program of even subluminal speed colonization, and 2) were able to survive and prosecute such a program for at least hundreds of thousands of years or more, we would almost certainly already know about them, because any such civilization could colonize an entire galaxy in a period of time short in relation to the period of time that habitable worlds, and thus, probably, life, have existed in any given galaxy. And as far as we can see, and that's actually rather a lot (I cite Kepler and the "absence of evidence" from SETI), this has not happened in our Galaxy and probably not in any nearby galaxy (since even a civilization of that level of advancement would probably leave evidence of mega-engineering that would be detectable at prodigious distances).

I admit I have very definite views on this subject, which I find endlessly fascinating. I am a little intolerant of speculation that doesn't address the issues. That's one of the things I dislike about a lot of science fiction. Somehow if it just drops all pretense and posits magic (hyperspace drive or whatever), that's preferable to when it pretends to address the implications of the actual limits of physical reality, but then just ignores the objections. Most "wormhole" stuff in science fiction, for example, is just nonsense, because it completely ignores well-known effects of General Relativity.

Now, I can't help but wonder if anyone actually read this post all the way to the end. If you did, please comment.

27 October 2015

Reiterating Reality on Presidential Election System in America

​I hate having to say this over and over again, because it seems so bloody obvious to me. But here, I'll say it again.

Everyone can make their own judgments, of course. That's democracy. As for me, I am working for the nomination and election of Bernie Sanders. But if he is not the nominee, I am realistic. We have a completely bipolar system in this country. The nominee of one of the two "main" parties is always elected president. Ask President Gore about the 200,000 wasted votes for Nader in Florida in 2000, and how that "protest vote" affected his election to the presidency. So, I for one will follow Bernie Sanders's stated preferences, if it comes to that, and VOTE FOR THE DEMOCRATIC NOMINEE in November 2016, whether it's Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or (conceivably but highly unlikely) someone else.

​This is particularly so this year, because the Republican field is, to a man (and one utterly deranged woman), completely unacceptable. I'll go further, this is far and away the worst set of candidates for president, with the greatest potential to wreak possibly irreparable havoc on our country, ever. I will not throw away my vote and increase the chances, even minutely, that one of these lunatics is elected president. ​

26 October 2015

Universal Health Care Blues

I've seen recent reports about efforts in several states to enact Single Payer health care.

Universal health care, many Americans do not know, started in Canada a Saskatchewan provincial law (in 1946; primarily as a response to a shortage of doctors, although it's hardly a coincidence that the NHS in Britain dates from around the same time). Only later was it adopted by the nation as a whole.

America is a more difficult case, because the health insurance industry is so deeply entrenched in a for-profit high-marketing expense model, and is already regulated, for better or worse, heavily, on a Federal level (not particularly for the benefit of consumers, but it is regulated). This makes it really hard for states, especially smaller states, to institute truly universal health care for their own citizens.

What is clearly needed is to amend the ACA to allow more robust negotiation, especially with regard to pharmaceuticals, incentivize and later require health providers to be non-profit, and ditto insurance providers, and, most importantly, 1) enhance Medicare so that for its enrollees it is a true universal health care system, like Australia's or Taiwan's... AND.... 2) offer it, in addition to its current aged-and-disabled enrollee elibility class, as a premium-based PUBLIC OPTION to everyone, and FREE to children. This should be Bernie's (or Hillary's for that matter) plan, and, frankly, they should both publish model legislation and promise to do their damndest to get it passed in their first term.

Either concurrently or shortly afterwards, Medicaid could be converted to sliding scale subsidy program for low income people, to pay for the Public Option. Then we would have one form of public health care, which is available to everyone, although not necessarily free to everyone. The subsidies would have to go deep enough to truly guarantee that public option health care is a RIGHT of all citizens, not a privilege that only the wealthy can afford.

I would envision, down the road, that a VA-style public health network would be instituted as an option available to most people (depending on geography), which would provide advanced health care at the lowest possible cost within this system. 

As Dennis Kucinich used to frequently say, the profit motive and health care simply do not mix. 

21 October 2015

Being pragmatic and realistic: Biden is wrong: the Republicans ARE the enemy

​I support Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, as I've said many times. On the issues, he's better. That's it. But, I also agree with Bill Maher that we have to defeat the Republicans, and if ends up not being Bernie, then we go with whoever it is, and that's almost certainly Clinton. I'm not giving up, and I am working for Bernie, but I will not just stand by and watch the Republicans win.

All of which is prelude to saying that even though I thought it was just possible that a Biden candidacy would end up helping Bernie, probably only marginally, but some, so I was kind of hoping he WOULD run, I AGREE with Clinton's castigation of Republicans, and I think Biden's apologia for his "Republican friends" is nonsense. The Republicans have not made themselves the "enemy" of Progressive policy and politics because they're awful people (although some of them are, of course), but because they are deluded and believe in policies that have terrible consequences for ordinary people. I am not their "enemy" in the way we were the enemies of the Nazis in WWII. It's not a fight with weapons, and something short of total surrender (by them) is possible. But politically, OF COURSE they are the enemy. They are trying to create a society in America that I don't want to see come about, and I'm not sure I could bear to live in. Fighting them on every front is IMPORTANT. And it's TOO IMPORTANT to waste our votes... if we can get Bernie nominated, that will be absolutely wonderful, and I am confident we can get him elected. If not, we have to get the Democrat elected anyway, because at least we will be forestalling the truly frightening and horrible prospect of a unified REPUBLICAN government, free to wreak havoc on our Democracy and society unimpaired.​

19 October 2015

Of course I blame George W. Bush for 9/11... not entirely, but he is partly responsible, and here's why

​For some reason, we're not supposed to acknowledge this.

REPORTS: Jeb! is incredulous that anyone can blame his brother for 9/11.

Here's how it works. If it were a murder, obviously Al Qaida is analogous to the actual murderer. But it you were the newly elected sheriff, and your deputy told you there was a call warning that someone had repeatedly threatened the victim, you knew who that someone was, and all you did was say "OK, Deputy, thanks, you've covered your ass, but that was a big deal to the last sheriff, and I won the election," you'd hold that new sheriff culpable for allowing the PREVENTABLE crime to occur. It's much the same. The Bush administration in the Summer of 2001 had literally hundreds of warnings that Al Qaida was planning a terror operation in the US, and they did absolutely nothing. So, it's reasonable to conclude that 9/11 could have been prevented, and they were too stupid and stubborn to do so. I call that blameworthy. Of course they didn't DO it. But they are nonetheless partially responsible.

And politically, they SHOULD be deemed accountable. Many of the political changes in our country, such as the trillion dollar national security industrial complex since 2001, the Patriot Act and wholesale violation of the Fourth Amendment (imagine the hue and cry if they did that to the Second Amendment!)... are the result of the 9/11 attacks, which by any reasonable analysis the Bush administration FAILED to prevent, due to incompetence and negligence. The party that still adheres to the same world view as Bush and his cronies should be thrown out of every political office in the land!

16 October 2015

Sanders needs his supporters' energy and hard work, but not to complain about the media

​I'm a little discouraged by all the Sanders folks who can talk about nothing else on social media than that the media and commentariat are out of touch with the focus groups and internet polls (which are notoriously selection-biased) showing Bernie "won" the debate. This isn't going to help Bernie win the nomination. Fact is, she did get a shot in the arm for her campaign, which last week looked troubled, and it looked like Biden would get in, and now it doesn't and if I were a better I'd bet he won't. There's a poll today showing she's risen to even or beating Sanders even in New Hampshire, so it's foolish to try to deny that she benefited more than he did from the debate.

And it just doesn't matter. As Sanders supporters, our job is to put out his message and try to convince people to support him on the issues... which is his entire message. His has always been a come-from-behind campaign, and we will have to work like hell if he is to have a chance at success. She has only to hold on to a lead she's had all along. ​


​I have made no secret of my dissatisfaction with DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz's refusal to even consider the opinions of millions of Democrats who have made known that they want more debates than the six her committee scheduled. Now, with charges and countercharges of her having not consulted with her vice-chairs, and lying about it, and all the obvious dissent about this issue and her governance in general it seems to me obvious:

FOR THE GOOD OF THE PARTY and the election of its nominee and House and Senate candidates next year, SHE MUST RESIGN NOW.

It would be helpful if Clinton and Sanders would both, in concert, tell her that, first privately, and then, if necessary, publicly. ​This is no longer just about her obvious Clinton bias. It's about her making a party that is actually remarkably unified appear divisive and at loggerheads when it just isn't necessary. She has become a major liability and IT IS TIME TO GO.

12 October 2015

Robert Reich's new «Saving Capitalism»

Usually I buy these political books and then never read them, but I have found Robert Reich pretty readable in the past. And since it's been billed as a sort of American-style optimistic Piketty* for people who have a life and won't read a 1500 page tome, I plunged ahead and ordered an e-book copy of Robert Reich's new book Saving Capitalism, for the Many, not the Few. 

Reich is almost dead on congruent with Bernie Sanders on economic policy, so this book may serve as a sort of informal manifesto for Sandersism.​ (Despite the fact that, as a former cabinet member under Clinton (Labor) and longtime friend of the Clintons, Reich has not formally endorsed Bernie). 

*Capital in the Twenty-First Century, [Engl. Translation] 2014.

10 October 2015

Pres. Obama's defense of TPP is just diversionary tactic

From my work of many years, I know a little something of how to fairly and squarely rebut an argument. The argument against TPP is detailed and substantive, as presented, for example, at Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch website. Pres Obama offers conclusory statements about how great lower foreign taxes are, when the fact is that we ALREADY have low tarriffs and free trade with almost all of the TPP countries. He avoids the issues of dumping, inflated definitions of intellectual property that benefit only big Pharma, currency manipulation, and rigged dispute resolution, among other major problems with the deal, then resorts to the non sequitur that opponents only want the status quo. Of course opponents prefer the status quo to something worse! This isn't argument, it's the old magician's trick of diversion.

08 October 2015

Are Space Elevators going to be necessary?

​From a recent discussion with an interested friend of whether our potential future interplanetary civilization will necessarily rely on Space Elevator technology for traffic to and from the surface of Earth. ​

​[We have to take] into account the fact that the rocket equation applies to any rocket (i.e., any system that achieves escape by pushing against itself), whereas a space elevator (or any one of a number of other related technologies) does not, and thus is freed from the inexorable logarithmic logic of rockets, which is that the cost of lifting mass to orbit grows exponentially with mass. There's just no way around it. Chemical rockets, atomic rockets, fusion rockets, any rockets. You can improve efficiency but even with 100% efficiency you are still faced with very steep costs to lift substantial mass from a gravity well like Earth's. Only magic, i.e., anti-gravity or something of the sort, can get around this in a self-contained vessel. If you look at the curve of increasing materials strength, and the kinds of materials being researched now (fullerene and carbyne fibers, and even more exotic things), it seems to me far less speculative to infer that it's likely humans (or, by the same logic and some time or place, others), would solve these problems than that they would invent something for which no theoretical basis exists at all.

I rest my case, other than to throw in that I'm pretty sure this is the direction most people who dream of building things like Banks Orbitals are thinking. It's not so much getting up there to build stuff, because that could be done with rockets, but if you want to have traffic, i.e., ordinary people going into space and back routinely, rockets, of any kind, just aren't going to work. (The whole issue of the near impossibility of building rockets that have low environmental impact is a whole other can of worms; and if you're talking about atomic rockets of any kind, then that becomes even worse of an issue).

Of course, if you are talking about leaving the vast majority of humans to fend for themselves on Earth, while a whole new subset of humanity becomes Homo caelestis or whatever, then it won't matter. Rockets of one kind or another work just fine in interplanetary space, away from large gravity wells.

And then there's the whole issue of interstellar travel. Rockets are very poor for that, too, for a set of different reasons. No practical solution for moving significant masses to other stars yet presents itself. For example, a fusion rocket that's 99% efficient would have to carry enough fuel to power the entirety of human civilization for several years just to get a schoolbus sized payload vehicle to .1 of the speed of light, and slow it back to planetary velocities at the other end. The fuel to payload ratio has to be something like 100,000 to 1. And that's still slow enough that it couldn't be practical without some form of suspended animation.

I do believe we will eventually send long range probes to suspected habitable planets orbiting so called nearby stars (<50 l.y. or so), and even longer range, if our culture survives and becomes a thriving spacefaring civilization here in the Solar System, our descendants will figure out some way to go there. But that, I think, will require a quantum leap in technological abilities that we can't really foresee except in general at this point. Somewhere, others have probably done this, but, as I always harp on, the fact that we don't see them is prima facie evidence that it's very hard, and, at least so far in the history of the universe, doesn't happen all that often. ​

Kudos to Hillary Clinton on opposing TPP

Already said this, but I'll say it again. I am a Sanders supporter through and through, and I believe although it is an uphill battle, it is possible for him to win. I think he's better on just about every policy issue than any other candidate.

But I nonetheless congratulate and thank Hillary Clinton for recognizing that the interests of ordinary working people are not served by the corporate-negotiated Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. I believe that her opposition to it will give weak-kneed Democrats in Congress cover to vote against it, and that is a very good thing.

President Obama would be well advised to backpedal the whole deal and just let it die. His own party is pretty overwhelmingly opposed to it.

Thank you, Ms. Clinton.

06 October 2015

Joshua Holland on why progressives should oppose Obama's so-called Trade agenda

​The indomitable Joshua Holland, writing on BillMoyers.com, explains how the TPP and related TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are such bad ideas, and even for Obama supporters, are something they should OPPOSE. {Link}  TPP and TTIP, if passed, will harm ordinary Americans, and the realization that they are a keystone of the Obama legacy will permanently detract from that legacy, just as the failure of NAFTA has permanently detracted from Clinton's.

The fight against these trade deals, which are supported far more by pro-Corporate Republicans than by Democrats (and that should tell you something right there), is going to be UPHILL, but public involvement can make a difference. I urge everyone to write to your Senators and Congress persons and make it clear you EXPECT them to follow the wishes of the majority of their constituents and vote NO on both of these bad deals for America. Thank you.


05 October 2015

Earth and Mars and Life

Here's something to think about.

If all these statements, which are conventional wisdom in the paleontology/paleoplanetology world, are true, there's a problem.

  • Life originated about as quickly on Earth as possible after conditions on this planet settled down to the point where water remained liquid and the planet was no longer being bombarded by numerous large impacts that had the effect of melting the surface of the planet repeatedly; about 4 by ago.
  • Given the presence of minute amounts of liquid water on Mars and the known existence on earth of extremophiles that can live chemoautotrophically deep beneath the surface of Earth, present day Earth life could almost certainly find a toehold and survive on Mars.
  • Conditions on ancient Mars were more hospitable, with a thicker atmosphere and liquid water, earlier than on Earth.
  • No evidence has arisen for the existence of life on Mars.
See, either life should have originated on Mars during its period of brief hospitableness to life (in which case a very real possibility exists that life on Earth is actually from Mars), and we should expect to find life beneath the surface of Mars, hanging on, as it were, for dear life, OR, the first premise above, which implies that life always arises very soon after conditions for its existence arise and stabilize, is wrong. Perhaps, after all, the origin of life on Earth was extremely fortuitous, and often conditions for life may exist, but life does not arise.

Stay tuned. We may have the answer to this conundrum in the not too distant future.

Paul Krugman should denounce the TPP and explain why

Here's an article from last May in which Paul Krugman calls out the Obama administration for failing to address criticisms of the TPP. It's hardly a ringing denunciation, but even Krugman, who has what you might call free trade DNA, saw that this agreement isn't really about trade at all, but corporate privilege. So, Paul, I call on you now: DENOUNCE THE TPP and explain in your inimitable style why it's a bad deal for the American public as a whole.

All the bad arguments for the Trans-Pacific Partnership suggest that it…
nytimes.com|By Paul Krugman

Everest, the movie, and those who want to climb it (Chomolungma)

​We went to see Everest. In a way, it's a horror movie, although the beauty and grandeur are there too, of course. Got me thinking.

The top 15% or so of Chomolungma (you heard it here first (probably): McKinley is Denali, Everest will revert to Chomolungma, the Tibetan name for it recorded at least as early as 1715).... is in the freaking stratosphere. Human beings cannot live there. Not even for a couple of days. 24 hours, maybe, with oxygen. So why do people do this? Up to 1990 or so one in four who tried the summit died. (The first people who probably reached the summit, Mallory and Irvine, in 1924, were never seen again: most people who die on Everest die on the way down.) After they instituted the tourist agencies that did most of the work for the climbers, it went down to about 3%. But if you had a 3% chance of dying if you got in your car to drive to San Franscisco, would you even think about doing it? Yet people paid tens of thousands of dollars to do this; so many that the principal reason the 1996 disaster (the subject of film, since surpassed by the Avalanche of 2014 and the Earthquake/Avalanche of 2015). ..was mainly overcrowding. There were 34 people attempting the summit that day. Secondarily a hellacious blizzard, which is what you expect on Everest.

I confess I don't get it. The desire to go up into near outer space, face terrible pain and serious risk of death, just to be able to say you did it (and get about 15 min. of the best damn view in the world, other than suborbital)? Is that really worth it to anyone?
And I wonder. Some of the mountaineering purists won't use oxygen, even though once you're above 7500 meters, you're basically dying. Even with oxygen, it's a ticking clock towards death. At the summit, you have to breathe 90 times a minute just to stay alive, and it's exhausting. But unless they're walking up there naked, they're using technology, so what's the deal? What I'm getting at is, why the hell don't they just wear lightweight pressure suits? You, know, space suits. Seriously, I don't get it. ​

Please tell Congress you OPPOSE the TPP!

I strongly urge everyone to write to your representatives and OPPOSE the TPP.

This accord, reached largely in secret, with many anti-democratic and pro-corporatist provisions, including governance and arbitration that favors big business over working people and consumers, is a BAD DEAL for America. Read Robert Reich's readily available explanations if you don't already know why this is so. If you disagree, I apologize for "getting in your face," but you're dead wrong and America's future, and the future of the global environment are endangered by the short-sightedness of Democrats who go along with this bad deal.

Here's a convenient way to write to both senators and your Congressional representative, no matter where you live:

http://letter2congress.rallycongress.com/698/   (free email, they'll send paper letters for $3 each).

Here's all you need to say, to keep it simple:

(salutation automatic)

"I am writing you to urge you to VOTE NO on the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Leading experts have concurred that this deal is not in the interests of American working people, or those who care about the environment.

Thank you."

Of course you can make it more elaborate, but hundreds of thousands of letters saying no more than that can have an effect.

Thank you.

04 October 2015

Robert Zubrin: Merchants of Despair

Although I am extremely skeptical of many of his ideas, I decided to spring for $4 for a used copy of the 2012 book by Robert Zubrin (he wroteThe Case for Mars in 1996): Merchants of Despair; Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism. His thesis (apparently) is that there is an antihumanist strain in much of what he refers to as "radical environmentalism;" that sees the solution to human problems as constraints on human activity, population and development, rather than what he really believes we need, which is innovation and expansion into space. He is also skeptical, not so much, if I understand him right, that Climate Change is occurring, but that it's that serious a threat. He takes an anthropocentric view; that we should just modify the world; terraform Earth, so to speak, develop GMO crops that can produce more food; mitigate sea level rise by deliberately modifying the environment, etc. You get the picture. Ultimately a Right Wing libertarian utopian view; just get out of the way, let innovators solve the problems.  
I have long grappled with opposing tendencies in environmentalist thought, and I don't reject this kind of thinking entirely, although I believe that extreme skepticism is in order, and that there is a role of government in steering technology towards a relatively conservative view of mitigation and safe development. But having said that, we do need to rely on innovation to develop the technologies to get us through this century to a world where resources are not limits to prosperity but means to it, and where we understand that the universe, in terms of resources, is virtually unlimited; all that is necessary is the smarts to figure out how to manage it. But at present, as a planetary civilization, we don't have the ability to reverse serious errors. The good news is that technology seems to actually be on the verge of making it possible to produce abundant renewable energy, so that society can indeed move forward into an era of greater abundance and degrees of freedom to innovate, without risking seriously out of control and unpredictable changes to the atmosphere. It's nuts to just assume that CO2 is fine, because it promotes plant growth, when atmospheric scientists and paleontologists who know the most about the kinds of conditions that existed on Earth when, in the past, CO2 levels did reach extremely high levels, are almost unanimous in warning that the acidification and potential for anoxic conditions in the ocean could make our planet almost uninhabitable. That is just too big a risk to take, and people like Zubrin, I think, ignore these very real dangers.  
I guess what I believe is that a balanced approach is necessary. We are not going to conserve and de-technologize our civilization back to the 17th century to escape the consequences of global Climate Change. It just isn't going to happen. Nor should it. There will be mitigation, and even intervention. Because if it's feasible, and the threat is there, people somewhere in our interconnected global community are going to do it. So what we need is to understand what can be done, and try to be smart about it, try to make sure the world remains liveable, so that as we move forward, we will have the freedom of innovation and development that Zubrin and his co-boosters of a future spacefaring civilization envision.  
Anyway, although I admit to being predisposed to disagree with a great deal of what I understand Zubrin says about environmentalism and what I'll call the "case for caution," I've decided I should read his book with an open mind and see what evidence, historical and scientific, he cites for his case.

Stay tuned for my review, if you're interested. Might be a while, I have a lot of things to work on and read at the moment.

02 October 2015

Three Thoughts on a Million Year Old Civilization

I grapple with the thought experiment (grandiose term), what would a million year old civilization be like? Here are some basic parameters I've thought of. 

1.  Technology will flatten out. Eventually technological innovation will be so gradual that it will not be thought of as something that is occurring in perceptible time. 

2.  Biological manipulation will become internalized and routine. Denizens of the civilization will not be immortal, because, well, entropy. But they will be tremendously long lived, reproduce extremely infrequently, and will probably have divided into separate civilizations, those that embrace cybernetics, meaning the actual physical melding of living organism with technology, and those that prefer to remain wholly biological. There might even be purists who want to retain the essential form that they had when they emerged from animal nature into sophontism. But these distinctions may be somewhat academic, because it seems to me that the ability to control living systems will be near total. Not only the intelligent creatures (who will come to have many different forms), but other life, will be planned, not left to random events or natural selection. Much of what we use technology for, they will use living organisms to do, including maintaining the environment in optimal status. But perhaps there will also be an interest in preserving wildness too, so that will be a countervailing force. 

3. Even without magic (such as FTL), a million year old civilization will necessarily be space faring. It will occupy its home star system, and will most likely have seeded its form of life to other star systems. The gradual spread of purposeful intelligent life in and throughout the civilization's home galaxy will, if they survive a million years, be virtually inevitable (which is prima facie evidence that this hasn't happened yet, at least not in this Galaxy. Maybe we'll be the first). Eventually, the entire universe will be permeated with intelligent life. At 13.7 by old, the universe is still in its infancy; this hasn't occurred yet. But that doesn't mean it won't.

The Real Space Age

My father was a rocket scientist (no, seriously. He was a chemical engineer who managed the project for the J2, the second stage engine of the Saturn V moon rockets). As a kid and in my work my interests veered in rather different directions, but I have been interested for a long time in futuristics, astronomy, and space travel, all in a rather casual way (considering I am, shall we say, somewhat mathematically challenged). 

Anyway, if you would like to understand the simplest basic reason that we have not, as a civilization, realized the "Space Age" promise of Gerard O'Neill's cities in space, moon colonies, etc., it's this:
Tsiolkovsky was an autodidact and a genius, who, along with Fyodorov were the intellectual leaders of Cosmism, a late 19th and early 20th cent. movement that envisioned a future for man in space, and influenced the Soviet space program. But his equation, that shows that the ability to achieve escape from the Earth's gravity depends logarithmically on the ratio of mass of propellant to mass of payload, explains a fundamental truth. Which is that lifting large masses off the Earth's surface is always going to be extremely expensive. It's physics. There's no way around it. Not using rockets, anyway. 

But I do believe that humanity, if it doesn't destroy itself and our world first, will eventually move out into space. Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Paul Allen, and their ilk obviously believe this, although I think their faith in rocketry is probably futile. What is needed is leaps forward in materials science, because the way it's done (I'd be willing to bet the way it is being done by some intelligent beings, somewhere out there in the vastness of the cosmos), is with space elevators. It's an old concept. Tsiolkovsky himself wrote about it. The problem is that there is no known material strong enough to create a space elevator on Earth. Mars, almost; the Moon, yes, but not the Earth. Yet. We will have to figure this out. And when we do, which I'd guess will be in a century or two, then, and only then, will the real Space Age begin.
A space elevator is a proposed type of space transportation system.[1] Its main component is a ribbon-like cable (also called a tether) anchored to the surface and extending into space. It is designed to permit vehicle transport along the cable from a planetary surface, such as the Earth's, directly…

29 September 2015

Recommend serious study of roundabouts for improved traffic flow at key No Ho intersections.

Hon. Paul Krekroian
LA City Council

Dear Mr. Krekorian:

I would like to suggest that serious study be made of the efficacy and advisability of installing roundabouts, initially at two key intersections in your district. Studies have shown that roundabouts, especially at 3-street intersections, significantly INCREASE traffic flow, and REDUCE accidents. They are in widespread use in the Greater Boston area, for example, and in some locales in West Coast states as well, although not nearly as much as they should be. Mistimed traffic lights, gridlock caused by inadequate left turn lanes, etc. are serious traffic impediments in the Valley, and where you have 3 arteries coming together, the delays can be quite substantial.

The intersections where this should be seriously considered as soon as possible are Vineland/Camarillo/Lankershim and Tujunga/Camarillo/Riverside. In both of these locations, there is obviously plenty of room to build 2-lane abreast roundabouts to replace the current traffic light-controlled intersections. This is both a question of improved traffic flow and improved public safety, and on both issues the roundabout solution promises to deliver significant improvement.

Thank you. The favor of a response would be appreciated.
♦ David Studhalter

25 September 2015

CNN Poll today New Hampshire Democratic Primary, Sanders ahead by 16 points

CNN Poll results released today, 9/25/2015


CNN Poll results released today, 9/25/2015

Democratic Primary, New Hampshire • Only identified Democratic voters polled


Bernie Sanders


Hillary Clinton


Joe Biden


Martin O'Malley


Lincoln Chafee


Lawrence Lessig




Sanders "favorable"  78%

Clinton "favorable"    67%

ratic Primary, New Hampshire


Bernie Sanders


Hillary Clinton


Joe Biden


Martin O'Malley


Lincoln Chafee


Lawrence Lessig




Sanders "favorable"  78%

Clinton "favorable"    67%