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.

04 January 2015

Musing on the Ultimate

I think the pendulum that, early in the 20th cent. led to Social Darwinism (summed up in the idiotic phrase "might makes right"), had swung so far in the direction of man's animal nature, may now be well into its swing back to the concept that the evolution of the symbolic processing mind of human beings really is "so like an angel," i.e., qualitatively different from the minds even of our close relatives, such as chimps and bonobos. Precisely because we can make the unlimited mental chains and networks of concept, idea, image, emotion... and escape the bonds of the merely biologically imperative. 

We are the Earth's great experiment. Either we will survive our troubled youth and become Old Ones, who dwell among the stars and foster life and love far and wide, or we will surely die out, dust on the husk of our formerly living world (because we now know that life has perhaps 500 million years or so to go before the Earth exits stage hot). It's up to us, and we may very well be living in the cusp time when the future will be decided.

01 January 2015

New Year's Resolutions

What are New Year's Resolutions if not glimmers from the depths of our own minds of the need for mindfulness? For a little reality check? For a chance to develop some good habits to supplant some of our bad ones? For, after all, mindfulness is nothing other than examination of our own minds. The unexamined life not worth living and all that. I've never been much for resolutions, but here goes, anyway. I resolve to keep it simple. I have been fortunate enough to have received some mind training from Buddhist teachers (most of which, I'm sorry to say, failed to 'take'), but I really believe that these simple ideas are true, irrespective of what spiritual tradition or lack thereof they may bubble up from. These are resolutions for people like me; ordinary people whose minds are conflicted and agitated most of the time, but who have a desire, and some means to hand, to do a little something about it. I realized some time ago that I'm not quite cut out to be a Spiritual Warrior, which is what Buddhism is really all about, but as an ordinary person who wants to be happy, like all living beings, I recognize that there are some simple techniques that help.


1.  I will resolve to, at least once each day, intentionally practice mindfulness for a brief period. Something as simple as calming the mind and focusing the attention on the breath. Being aware of the present moment, even for just a few moments, has a very strong positive effect on your mental outlook all the rest of the time. Whether you call this meditation or not, that's what it is, and countless generations of human beings have found that it works best sitting upright, without distractions such as noise or activity around you, to whatever extent possible. Eyes closed or slightly open. 10 minutes is enough to make a difference.

2.  I will resolve to spend each day at least a few moments deliberately and consciously practicing what Buddhists call the Four Sublime Virtues, or "immeasurables" (Brahma-Viharas), with specific reference to other people in my life, or just in general. (Again, this is hardly unique to Buddhism; it's just common sense, and something very like it is taught in all significant spiritual traditions). If you form a habit of thinking of others with these as templates, your attitudes will change. These "immeasurables" are: Lovingkindness (Maitri). (Think how you wish for another or others to be happy). Compassion (Karuna) (Think how you wish that the causes of suffering in others will stop). Those two are directed towards the present moment and actions affecting the future. The other two are directed towards what has led to the present moment: Empathetic Joy (Mudita). Give your mind a tiny push (that's what's referred to as "Free Will")-- to feel joy at another's or others' happiness, and their achievements. It is actually possible to induce joy in your mind, just by deciding to do it. The last is Equanimity (Upeksha) This one is a little more subtle. You realize that your own mind cannot govern the whole world; others will have their happiness and suffering (according to their own karma, if you prefer to think of it that way), but you can maintain an outlook encompassing kindness and compassion, and remain unperturbed. There is no value in mental agitation, grasping, obsessiveness, regret, etc. These mental states cause suffering, in yourself and others. Keep a calm and happy mind. Forming the intention to do this helps make it so; and when you are calm, others are likely to pick up on that and also be calmer and happier. Try to extend mindfulness to the point where before you speak or act, these "immeasurable" habits of mind inform what you say or do. I've been lousy at this, but it can work: you just stop for a fraction of a second before you say that mean thing, and say something else or nothing. You examine, just for a moment, your motives before taking actions, and try to let the immeasurables in. It can become a habit.

3.  I resolve to spend at least a few moments each day intentionally cultivating wisdom. When you look out over the surface of the sea with the sun low in the sky, and see a complicated pattern of reflected light, you have the certain knowledge that the patterns are no more than just that: they are not intrinsic to the water; soon they will be as nothing. Wisdom comes from realizing that on different scales and in different media, all reality is like that: it is just the play of pattern, and our experience of it is not inherently real, it is merely the motions of our mind. Our lives, and even things like the form of the mountains we see out our window, are just shifting and impermanent patterns in the vast energies of which all reality consists; they have no intrinsic reality, and nothing is permanent. Even our perception that we are the same person we were yesterday is mostly illusory. This pattern of mental awareness is the first glimmer of realization of Emptiness, in its simplest approximation, and it helps us to let go of our self-importance. Even on this simplest level, realizing this, and absorbing its truth, will make it easier to live a life that causes less suffering in yourself and others, and comes a little closer to the spiritual ideal we all would prefer for ourselves and others.

So that's it, and Happy New Year one and all.