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…