31 December 2022

On the authoritarian government in Israel and American policy

 After reading in the NYT about the factionalism and ethnocentric exclusionism in the, let's call a spade, far right wing authoritarian government of Israel, whereby most American Jews might no longer be considered Jews by the authorities in Israel, I think it's just possible that the stranglehold this small, no longer democratic apartheid regime thousands of miles away has had on aspects of American policy going back more than seven decades may finally be eroding away. 

Please don't accuse me of antisemitism, because it's just not true. I am against authoritarianism. I support the right of Israel to exist. But not to systematically deprive civil rights to its Arab citizens, to define a class of privileged citizens on the basis of religion, and, worst of all, to continue a territorial occupation, with no serious effort underway to resolve the issue, that is now well over 50 years running, one of the longest occupations in modern history. These things are not existential threats to the US, and I don't suggest we should "do anything" about them. But neither should we continue to reflexively support the regime that continues these policies. 

30 December 2022

On economists

The inscrutability [of economics] is perhaps not unintentional. It gives endless employment to dialecticians who otherwise might become public charges or, at very worst, swindlers and tricksters. 
--Jack Vance (1916-2013)

Age of Wonder

Every now and then, I like to renew my sense of wonder by contemplating the extent of all that exists (at least in this universe). 

Although there are some anomalies, it seems fairly certain that the region of the Big-Bang universe (excluding any consideration of a "Multiverse") within the so-called "cosmic light horizon," in other words, the "observable universe," is only a small fraction of the entire universe. Indeed, the majority view among cosmologists is that the universe beyond the cosmic light horizon is at least many hundreds of times larger than the region inside it, and it cannot even be ruled out that the entire universe is actually infinite. It does, however, seem more likely that it is a curved multi-dimensional torus, unbounded (like the surface of a sphere is unbounded), but finite. But really, really big. The observable universe is approximately 92 billion light years across, and expanding at faster than the speed of light, frontier vs. frontier. (This is possible, and, in fact, well, fact, even though the Big-Bang universe is 13.7 billion years old, because space is expanding, so regions that were once closer are now exponentially further away, a process that with the unchanging limit of the speed of light will eventually actually shrink the cosmic light horizon in terms of what is visible, so that observers at any given location will see less and less of the universe as a whole). 

The observable portion of the universe contains approximately the same number of large galaxies (as large as or larger than the Milky Way's companion galaxies visible in the southern skies, the Large and Small Clouds of Magellan) as there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy... about 200 billion. That's about 17 galaxies for every man, woman and child on Earth. And that's just the part of the universe we could, in principle, see. Beyond that, far more, maybe an incredibly large factor more. The large scale structure is inhomogeneous on a pretty large scale: there are large voids, up to a billion light years in diameter, where there are few galaxies, and there are tendrils and filaments where they are more concentrated, somewhat like suds or froth, but on the very largest scales, including the vast extent beyond the cosmic light horizon, it is believed to be essentially homogeneous, approximately the same in every direction. I wanted to say "as far as the eye can see," but, actually, it's much, much farther than the eye can see. To quote a line from my favorite speculative fiction author, Jack Vance, "and to think some believe the Age of Wonder to be past and gone!" 

Trump Tax Evader

Trump's Tax Returns show that he paid more money to the People's Republic of China in taxes in the last six years than to the United States of America. Let that sink in. 

29 December 2022

Jamie Raskin diagnosis

As a Spinozan, I don't actually believe in a personal God that hears prayers, but "praying for someone" or being "in my prayers" is a way of saying you care and have the best possible wishes, so most people say this regardless of their metaphysics. So, no contradiction: Jamie Raskin, who has been diagnosed with treatable B cell lymphoma and is about to begin chemotherapy, is in my prayers. He's a good guy, and I hope he has a great future. I've even thought of him as a possible future president. I hope he recovers easily and completely. 
"If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past."
― Spinoza

Trump to split Republicans?

If reports are really true that Trump and that fascist idiot Marjorie Greene want to split the Republican into MAGAts and NeverTrumpers (or whatever), there can scarcely be better news . . .  for Democrats. 

Asking Chatbot about Power Distribution

After the power outage we just lived through galvanized my interest (pardon the pun), I asked the chatbot ChatGPT about power distribution technologies. Its answer was predictable, but it shows me that the solution, in particular with regard to local distribution, is actually pretty obvious. We are still using essentially 1930s power distribution technology in much of America. And, given the climate crisis and technological changes we must make, it's just not good enough. We need to invest in new distribution technology, including battery storage at the building-level (including private homes), and replacing overhead lines with hardened underground transmission. This isn't rocket science. But it requires willingness to spend the money, which is a policy issue. Good example of the short sighted stupidity of reflexive condemnation of government's role in making our infrastructure better. We can either do these things or we can fall hopelessly behind. Which is it gonna be? 

David Studhalter

ME:Are there new technologies on the horizon to improve power transmission, both across long distances, and to prevent weather related outages from failures in local power distribution?

CHATBOT: Yes, there are a number of new technologies that have the potential to improve power transmission and distribution, both across long distances and in local networks. Here are a few examples:

  1. High-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission: HVDC transmission allows electricity to be transmitted over long distances with minimal loss, making it an attractive option for transmitting power from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind farms.

  2. Superconducting cables: Superconducting cables have extremely low electrical resistance and can transmit large amounts of electricity with minimal loss. They are currently being developed for use in power transmission and distribution systems.

  3. Smart grids: Smart grids use advanced technologies such as sensors, smart meters, and control systems to improve the efficiency and reliability of the electric power system. They can also help to prevent power outages caused by weather or other disruptions.

  4. Underground power transmission: Underground power transmission involves burying power lines underground, which can help to prevent power outages caused by storms or other weather-related events. It is also more aesthetically pleasing than overhead transmission lines.

  5. Energy storage systems: Energy storage systems such as batteries and pumped hydro storage can store excess electricity generated by renewable energy sources and release it when needed, helping to improve the reliability and stability of the power grid.

28 December 2022

Power back on... but it only illustrates the scope of a crisis

Our power just came back on at 11:09 PM after being off for almost exactly 42 hours. A minor windstorm and mild winter weather. We have a lot of trees around here, but I still say that it's something like what happened to Southwest Airlines this week. Everything shaved too thin, more concern for shareholder profits than system operability, cavalier attitude towards the suffering and needs of customers deprived of power in Winter. We're supposed to be converting to an all electric future: electric heat pumps, electric cars, electric induction cooking, real time electric water heaters. But this will only work if America's utilities commit themselves to AT LEAST 99.9% continuous-on operation. We have had no fewer than 20 days of no power in the last four years here... do the math, that's more than .1% by a good deal. And it's not an hour here or there. We were without power in 2020 for 9 days straight... it was 40° inside our house. We had to move out, to a motel, with no compensation for the disruption it caused. This is just plain not good enough. And the cause was highly predictable winter weather that could've been anticipated and accommodated with adequate multiply redundant infrastructure, which is even more true of this present two-day outage. I intend to bring this problem to the attention of my State representatives. My solution is to make the private utility Portland General Electric into a public utility, and force it to commit to major upgrades in resilience and redundancy of infrastructure and capacity. I doubt this will happen anytime soon, but it's one of those things: the obvious and necessary solution... that will just have to come to pass eventually. 

26 December 2022

Gov. Abbott's cruel and hideous stunt

Some way, some how, sending legal asylum seekers in a bus hundreds of miles and dumping them in the freezing cold as a political stunt, which is what the hideous excuse for a human being Greg Abbott just did, has got to be a crime. There has simply got to be a way to prosecute and send this man to jail for this horrible crime against humanity. I don't know how, but there just has to be. 

24 December 2022

Democratic Values, Redux

 I posted this on my then nascent blog [this blog] in 2004. I still maintain all of it.  

I believe in Christian Values, without regard to faith:

· Humility

· Compassion

· Caring for the Poor, the aged, the sick

· Caring for and educating the young

· Loving your neighbor as yourself

I am a Conservative:

· I believe in conservation and protecting our precious environment

· I believe the government should pay as it goes, and not accumulate enormous debt to burden this generation's children and grandchildren and harm our nation's economy in the World

· I believe taxes should be fair, and not unduly benefit the wealthy with tax advantages

· I believe our country should be strong and should defend its interests, but it should not be the world's policeman

· I believe in Fair Trade, which favors American jobs for Americans, not the interests of multinational corporations

I am a Patriot and I believe in the Constitution:

· Elections should be fair, congress should reflect the will of the people

· I believe in Freedom of Expression, even when I disagree or am offended, because it makes America stronger

I am a Democrat.

23 December 2022

The evidence with the Jan. 6 Committee Report and the fate of Trump

So, now we shall see. Evidence more than sufficient to convict Trump and several of his consiglieri of several different felonies is now a matter of public record. If there is no indictment and conviction, there will be an indictment all right... of our legal system on the charge of undue favoritism towards the powerful. 

As an aside, there is also strong evidence of witness tampering and suborning of perjury, although it may not turn out to be possible to pin that on Trump personally. The historical record is clear as a bell, nonetheless. Trump is the one and only president to actively resist the peaceful transfer of power at the end of his term, and he is far and away the most criminally culpable president in US history. Nixon didn't even come close. 

The only ray of light in all this is that there is pretty good reason to believe that he has finally been cornered and marginalized politically. We still have the tremendous problem that the Republican Party is by and large pro-fascist and anti-democratic, partly but not entirely due to Trump. But at least it now seems much less likely that there will be a second Trump presidency. Which would obviously be a catastrophe for our country, and even the whole world. 

22 December 2022

Is the liar George Santos even really gay?

I just don't know what to say. It appears that very nearly everything Republican congressman elect George Santos has said about his background is a lie. As a gay man, I have a hard time understanding how any gay person can be a Republican, but, of course, in general, I'm pleased to see openly gay people elected to public office. And, of course, many gay people have been married to people of the opposite sex, for whatever reasons, and that's their business. But in this case, I have to wonder, is this guy even for real? Is he even really gay? He claimed to be descended from a Holocaust survivor and that his mother was killed in the 9/11 collapse, and both of these statements have been shown to be lies (along with his financial and educational background). His family isn't even Jewish. So if he'd lie about that, maybe he'd lie about being gay, to try to appear to be a pioneer in Republican politics or some such horseshit. I honestly have no idea. All I can say is that this kind of wholesale fraud in politics is the legacy of Trump. We will take quite some little while to live it down, as a society. In a more at least superficially ethically-minded past, this guy would not even be seated, and would be forced to resign. I will be quite surprised if that happens. 

Middle East "Allies" ?

I'd just like to point out that our supposed major allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi, have done absolutely zip to assist the United States in its major foreign policy initiatives, including, especially, assisting the Ukrainians in resisting the War of Aggression being waged against it... a European Democracy... by the Christofacsist state, the Russian Federation. This should not be forgotten. If it were up to me, we would suspend all aid and military cooperation with Saudi and Israel. I know many disagree, but it has been a long time since either of these countries were a reliable ally to our country, or lived up meaningfully to the values we profess in the world. 

19 December 2022

Socca (chickpea flatbrad)

I've posted a version of this before, but it's so simple and good I thought I would again. It's high in protein, complex carb, gluten free, and makes a substitute for bread, rice or potatoes, or even pizza crust. 

Recipe requires a cast iron or other very heavy pan about 12" in diameter. Doen't need to be deep. A cast iron round griddle is perfect. But a skillet works fine too. A pizza pan, unless it's heavy, might not be ideal, but would probably also work. 

1 cup besan (aka gram, chickpea or garbanzo bean flour) sifted. Don't skip sifting. 
1 cup cold water. 
1/2 tsp. salt 
1 1/2 tsp. olive oil
rosemary, tarragon, za'atar, or other seasoning, to taste, optional but very good. Rosemary is traditional in southern France for this
a little garlic powder (also optional), also cumin (which is also part of the za'atar mix)
I also put in 1/4 tsp. of baking powder, but note: there is no gluten in gram, and this "bread" does not rise. Not even a little. 

Preheat oven to 450°. Put the pan in the oven to get it very hot, with a thin coating of oil
Mix ingredients well, with a whisk or similar, but don't beat it to death
Take pan out of the oven with mitts, pour mix in and use a scraper to get all the batter
Turn on broiler and put pan under broiler for 6-7 min.

That's it. If you don't have a broiler, you can just put it in the hot oven. Might take a little longer. Should be just slightly brown on top. You can even make it like a pancake on the stovetop (don't turn it over; cover for a minute or two after cooking for 3-4 min.; but the oven is better)

Cut into wedges. Can be eaten warm or cold. With syrup or honey it's a dessert, with butter it's nice for toast in the morning. You can put other stuff on it, including cheese, tomatoes, etc. and heat up for quick "pizza." Very versatile, simple, and delicious 

18 December 2022

Bach Stiftung (Foundation) • St Gallen, Switzerland • BWV 122, "Das Neugeborne Kindelein"

I cannot recommend the YouTube channel for the Bach Stiftung highly enough. This is their recent production of Cantata No. 122, Das Neugeborne Kindelein, for the Sunday after Christmas. If your taste is wide enough to include Bach vocal music (some of the finest there is), this is a simply fantastic free resource. I am grateful enough that I have several times sent them a bit of money, and they send me nice letters on A4 paper in German (with no postage on the envelopes; apparently charities in Switzerland get free franking). Coincidentally, Portland's Bach Cantata Choir did this same cantata at their annual holiday concert. Pretty well, but, honestly, not as well as these musicians, who are uniformly and invariably excellent. 

There is also a quite charming explanation by Rudolf Lutz and his colleague (in English... most are in German).   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmicFT8Tpfs 

EV Paradigm Shift

It's become increasingly clear that the Chinese, and Tesla, respectively, have gotten way out ahead of the EV paradigm shift. Europe faces a virtual flood of cheaper, and actually quite well made, Chinese EVs, starting now. European makers are going to be severely stressed and some will likely not even survive. Same with the Japanese makers, who depend on the US and European markets. But the US, through subsidy policy, tariffs on countries not participating in Free Trade Agreements, has essentially forestalled the same thing happening here. Most Chinese makers have no plans to build factories in US, and few intend to sell cars here at all. This could be very, very good for the US, as it gives Ford and GM, and some new startups like Aptera, Rivian, Canoo, etc., a chance to establish a market share. Not to mention Tesla, which is likely to be the worldwide sales leader at least of higher end EVs for the foreseeable future. Elon Musk should stop bitching and celebrate the fact that US policy has benefited his company enormously. 

15 December 2022

Trump hits new low

With his NFT trading card announcement (I had to look up what that even is... it's a grift, unsurprisingly)... Trump has reached the level of the utterly ridiculous. I predict he will fade away quickly after his indictment and conviction next year.  

14 December 2022

Tesla, as a company, should reject and denounce Elon Musk's hatemongering

I admire Tesla and even SpaceX, but I am seriously concerned about the far right "stochastic terrorism" being displayed and promoted by Elon Musk. I think for the sake of the future of Tesla, in particular, the board of directors should ask him to resign. There is no place in business for promotion of hate. This is not just a question of freedom of expression. Using a platform like Twitter to actively promote hate and dogwhistling political violence actually causes real harm, even deaths. Musk must be condemned for this unacceptable behavior. I, for one, will not buy products from companies where he has a management role until and unless they do so. 

Some musings on the future of life, the nonprevalence of intelligent life, and the danger of exobiology

I find that even most intellectually curious people have a bit of a mental block when it comes to deep time, especially in the forward direction. They may be somewhat comfortable with thinking of the history of life in tens and even hundreds of millions of years in the past, but they find it hard to take seriously the notion that life, including life descended from humanity, is likely to persist for the same order of magnitude of time, or possibly even longer, into the future. But this is a subject dear to me, as some of my long suffering farflung correspondents will know. 

I find the radical right wing libertarian and AI-centric points of view equally (albeit for different reasons) repugnant. There are actually folks out there who think, what the hell, burn all the fossil fuel, don't worry about the millions who are starving, we just have to get to the future, some of us, and it will all work out. This is so wrong on so many levels. Our grand future in space is clearly not imminent. We are only taking the baby steps. In fact, I would say our enterprise to become an interplanetary, and eventually interstellar, civilization is almost certainly doomed to failure if we cannot first learn, as a baby advanced civilization, to live sustainably on our planet, and to cooperate as a species in a sustainable and, dare I say it, ethical, manner. And as for the AI singularity, all I can say is, don't hold your breath. I see no signs at all that we are anywhere near creating artificial consciousness. And as a corollary, I think the chances that AI will "take over" anytime soon, or that we will learn how to upload our minds into machines and live forever, anytime in the foreseeable future, are pretty much exactly zero. 

But if you take seriously the idea that all of human history so far is but an eyeblink compared to the time to come, when intelligent beings evolved from the biosystem of this little planet a few thousand light years out into the calm and boring disk region of a fairly ordinary barred spiral galaxy, will emerge and begin to spread life from this world into a much larger space. It seems very likely to me, from recent research on exoplanets and the requirements for the origin and prevalence of life on this planet over several billion years, that planets like Earth, with advanced life, are probably quite rare, but environments where life can exist, whether artificial habitats or modified planetary surfaces, are abundant. But the stars are very, very far away, so the next phase(s) of our future, including the future of descendants who will not be entirely recognizable as human (in all likelihood) will take shape mostly in our Solar System. And for a long, long while, almost entirely on Earth itself. 

But if there is a principle of all life, it is that it seeks out new places, and new ways, to live. So it is truly inevitable, unless we blow it completely and become extinct soon, that life from Earth will expand beyond Earth, beyond the Solar System, into a wider universe. 

And, of course, as all science fiction readers will recognize at once, this begs the question, who is out there already? Is life common, even if it's just microorganisms? Are there other intelligent beings, who will have their own agendas that may not comport well with ours? What problems will our descendants face from the answers to these questions? And we don't know. We just don't. But we can surmise somewhat, and make some informed speculations. 

I was reading the other day in a 20 year old book on the Fermi Paradox titled Where is Everybody? I didn't actually read the book, because there was literally nothing in it I hadn't already thought about and considered, and I found about 80% of it to be fairly useless. It devoted several chapters to the possibility that aliens are already here, on Earth, and we just can't see them. To me this is a preposterous idea that isn't really even worth talking about. If you disagree, I could debate you till the cows come home, but the arguments for this possibility aren't merely flawed. They're dumb, resembling QAnon conspiracy theories at their core, in that they require the most ridiculous special pleading of extremely unlikely concatenations of events and mass delusion to be possible. So, forget that. 

Then there's the idea that "they're out there, but they're ignoring us," for whatever reason. I consider this almost equally ludicrous. Mainly because it completely ignores deep time. We're not talking about just the present. We can say, with near 100% certainty, that our biosphere has never encountered life that didn't originate here on Earth. The genetic code of all organisms, and even the most minute details of biochemistry, all point to a single origin of life, about 3.5 billion years ago, on this planet. If alien civilizations were close enough that they had ever visited this planet, we would almost certainly know it. And time is long. Stars much like the sun, and planets more or less like the Earth, have existed elsewhere in this Galaxy (and in countless other galaxies) for many billions of years. So there is no reason aliens would just happen to encounter Earth now, as opposed to long ago, when their likelihood to exist was about the same as it is now. And if they ever had, it seems very likely that they would have contaminated our biosphere with living organisms that did not originate on Earth. Think this through. Sure, it's remotely possible they could have been careful not to contaminate Earth with their life (we've already done that), and were only interested in studying us, not living here or changing anything. Sure. Could be. But all of them? In all time? And nowhere even a hint of their existence? It strains credulity. Same with the "Zoo" hypothesis, that they're out there watching us, or nurturing us, or whatever. This is like a conspiracy theory; it requires that all the supposed aliens have all conspired to keep their existence secret from us for huge swaths of time. It just doesn't make sense. Much more likely, I think, is the following set of inferences: 

1.  Life may not be terribly rare, but the evolution of stable, highly complex biospheres like Earth's, and perhaps even moreso the actual evolution of intelligent life in such places, is very, very rare. 
2.  One of the reasons for drawing that conclusion is that intelligent life is likely, in times short in comparison to the age of the galaxy or the time it takes life to evolve to Earthlike complexity, to figure out how to migrate through space and colonize other worlds, which process could proceed, again, in times short compared to the geological eras of nonintelligent life, to colonize the entire Galaxy, or even beyond. 
3.  QED: the most likely conclusion is that we are, indeed, alone, as a smart species potentially capable of interstellar migration, in a swath of the universe large enough that we do not see evidence of others like us, and enough time for the nearest of them to colonize our galaxy has not yet transpired. 

I know this kind of thinking is anathema to a lot of people. They just can't take it seriously. But I think this is, really and truly, most likely the way things are. We arose naturally on Earth, from abiogenesis, a long, long time ago, and we have yet to encounter any other life from anywhere else. And the circumstances described above are why that is the case. 

But what of other life that is not intelligent, not capable of interstellar migration, or comparable to humanity in general? Might this not be common? This is the great question NASA and other space programs are to a great extent dedicated to answering. But what are the implications? 

It has occurred to me that non-Earth origin life could be extremely dangerous. Not that it would cause disease, but that it would change the course of evolution irreversibly, and that the introduction of even tiny quantities of living matter could be completely catastrophic and irreversible. We do not know the extent to which the course of evolution on Earth is purely contingent-- dependent on essentially arbitrary events that have shaped the way biochemistry works. We do know that natural selection is merciless... if organisms from another planet were better able to adapt to conditions on Earth, or elsewhere where we were trying to establish our form of life, they would be unstoppable. 

I am not a believer in "Providence." The universe is miraculous in a sense, but it is not, I feel sure, guided by benign intelligence. For those who believe it is, wonderful, I hope you're right, and you are certainly entitled to your philosophy. But do we take chances based on wishful thinking? I think that the only prudent conclusion is that naturally evolved biospheres must assume the worst case, and must keep themselves isolated, completely, from all other life, forever. This needs to be an imperative. 

And, just perhaps, I'd like to suggest, this is also one of the reasons we have no evidence of life from elsewhere. OK, it is a modification of the Zoo hypothesis. Maybe, just maybe, intelligent life that is smart enough to survive for geological time periods, invariably learns to avoid other naturally occurring life, as too dangerous to have any intercourse with. But that, too, would require perfection of intention and historical contingency, that leads me inevitably back to the supposition that, indeed, intelligent life must be very rare, and thus, other instances of it are likely very, very far away. Many galaxies away... most galaxies are likely, I think, completely devoid of intelligent life. But since we have the potential to spread out into our own Galaxy, over long periods of time during which we will evolve into other forms beyond all recognition, perhaps that's a form of unintended Providence, after all, because a crowded universe with competing civilizations would be a dangerous place indeed. 

13 December 2022

Coffee and Chocolate Chemistry


Caffeine. 1,3,7-dimethylxanthine. Principal psychoactive agent in coffee, tea, guarana, and maté. Guarana has much more caffeine than coffee, by volume of plant material. 

Theobromine. Principal psychoactive agent in chocolate. 3,7-dimethylxanthine. About 12% of ingested caffeine is metabolized into theobromine by the liver, so coffee also causes more or less the same effects, in addition to its own stimulant effects, since there is much more caffeine in coffee than theobromine in chocolate. 

How I (minutely) adulterate my coffee

I like coffee. Good coffee. I buy whole bean Age Sumatra from Peet's delivered by UPS every three weeks (free if you order enough, in my case 2 lbs.) We drink a lot of coffee, in my case, unadulterated (black). Well, almost. I also admit to being addicted to its principal psychoactive agent, 1,3,7-dimethylxanthene, usually called caffeine, which is also found (yes, it's exactly the same molecule) in guarana, maté, and tea among some other even less savory plants. (I dislike all of those, except tea, which is OK but not great). I like to say this is my last and only drug, which is sort of true, if you don't count theobromine (3,7- dimethylxanthine, aka theobromine). Which is the active ingredient in chocolate. Which I love almost, but not quite as much as coffee. 

If I didn't lose you right away, you might wonder why I said "almost" black. It's because I discovered a funny little trick which is, for me, while very, very subtle, literally the only thing I've ever found that actually enhances the taste of coffee. No, not chicory, which is an abomination used to make the very worst coffee sort of palatable. It's... maple syrup. Not real maple syrup. The sorbitol-based sugar free kind. What? You say! No, really. It's not artificial sweetener. It's sorbitol, a sugar alcohol which occurs naturally. And I use just a tiny squirt in a whole pot of coffee. Less than 1/8 tsp. I contend, and maybe it's just my imagination, that it tones down appreciably but subtly the bitterness inherent in all coffee, without appreciably affecting the flavor (sotolon is the principal flavor molecule, and it doesn't interfere noticeably with coffee at this concentration). Try it. Just a tiny squirt in the coffeemaker. 

12 December 2022

Latest AI weirdness.

Latest AI weirdness. I asked ChatGPT if it could write a sonnet in the style of John Donne, and it readily agreed to, and within seconds produced this (not Donne, certainly, but vaguely like him)(the lineation was originally correct for a 14 line Shakespearian sonnet but the word processor deleted the line breaks): 

``Love is a fire that burns within my soul, A burning passion that consumes my heart, A never-ending hunger that makes me whole, And sets my spirit soaring, never to part.
But love is also a dangerous game, A game of give and take, of push and pull, A game that leaves our hearts aflame, And leaves us vulnerable to its cruel rule.
Yet still we play, for love is worth the risk, Worth any heartache or pain we may endure, For when we love, our spirits truly live, And in that love, we find our sweetest cure.
So let us love with all our hearts and souls, And let our love be a burning, endless fire.``

But then it got really weird. I asked it to "try again," several times, and it absolutely insisted, each time that it did not write this, and cannot write original material. I suggested that it flag this for review by a human because it was disturbing that it kept insisting that it did not write this when it absolutely did, but it said it has no ability to do that either. 

Is that f*ing weird, or what


Sous vide faux prime rib suggestion

We like roast beef, which has become inordinately expensive. But I find that a cheaper cut, like chuck, london broil, or tri-tip (not that they're that cheap anymore), cooked sous vide for 8+ hours at 137.5°F then cut out of the vac bag, drained of accumulated juice (used to make quick gravy) and put on a rack in preheated 450°F oven for 15 min. ...makes a very good substitute for prime rib. Almost fork tender, and tastier than prime rib often is. Salt the meat but don't add other seasonings before vac-sealing for sous vide. Some flavors, especially onion and garlic, don't improve with sous vide. The high heat only sears the outside, the inside remains perfectly medium rare all the way through. If you like it a tad rarer, try 136°. 

11 December 2022

Another bullet dodged?

Possibly the best news this week, despite its indefiniteness, is the widely held impression of court watchers that the Supreme Court (with the exception of certifiable lunatics Thomas, Alito and possibly Gorsuch) appeared pretty obviously unimpressed with the preposterous Constittutional arguments for the so-called "Independent Legislature Doctrine." Dahlia Lithwick, and most other observers, seemed pretty convinced the Court will not adopt this doctrine, at least not in any broad form. One more extreme Right Wing bullet aimed at the heart of small-d democracy dodged, if so. 

If anyone is unfamiliar with the argument, it came into play in Trump's desperate efforts to escape the effects of losing the 2020 election. The basic idea is that the Constitution says that the "manner" of conducting elections for federal offices is to be determined by the "state legislatures." Right Wing pseudo-literalists seize on this to interpret it to mean, just the legislatures, not the state governments as a whole, including their courts interpreting their own State constitutions, or their governors, and that they are free to defy their own state laws and just insert whatever undemocratic procedures they want, and/or simply designate electors to vote as they want, regardless of the outcome of elections in their states. The notion that this was the 'original intent' of the framers is beyond preposterous, and this view was, until recently, considered laughably fringe, but the Supreme Court has become so extremist, and so indifferent to the norms of how our democracy is supposed to work, that there was real fear they would adopt this ridiculous doctrine, with the result that states governed by right wing legislatures could simply override the democratic results of elections and impose minority rule. We have enough baked un non-democratic elements in our electoral system without this, which could plausibly have been the complete death of any semblance of democracy in this country. That the Court appears unwilling to take this extreme radical step is a small kernel of hope for retaining at least the basic framework of majority rule in America. 

10 December 2022

AI chatbot not so intelligent

I did some fiddling around with ChatGPT, a human language emulating AI program that's free to the public to play with. [https://chat.openai.com/chat]. It got some recent attention in the press, including the LA Times, so it is currently slow or unavailable due to high demand. But anyway, after first being rather impressed with its ability to construct sentences and disgorge a lot of information from a database, I was able to demonstrate to my own satisfaction that it actually has no intelligence at all, and only works by word association and rules for constructing humanlike sentences in English. 

I got it to make two serious factual errors in the course of several attempts to get it to discuss language and botany. It claimed that there were no other non-Indo European languages than Basque spoken in Europe (not true; Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian are in the Uralic Language Family), and it said that Coffea, Gardenia (tea), and Theobroma, all of which contain caffeine or similar compounds, were actually all in the Rubiaceae (coffee family). But this, too, is not so. Tea is in the Theaceae (no kidding), and not at all closely related to coffee, whereas Theobroma (chocolate) is in the Malvaceae (Mallow family, which includes Hibiscus). It's actually more interesting that these plants, which are not at all closely related, all "invented" either caffeine (1,3,7-dimethylxanthine) or the closely related theobromine (3,7-dimethylxanthine) for similar reasons (to paralyze insect larvae trying to feed on them). But they did this despite the fact that they are actually not closely related and not all in the Rubiaceae. The fact that this AI said that indicates that it has no real intelligence at all; it is merely an elaborate algorithm.  

Another AI chat

Can you comment on the differences between the Mahayana Buddhist philosophy of Nagarjuna and western Epicurean thinking exemplified by Democritus and Lucretius?

The Mahayana Buddhist philosophy of Nagarjuna and the western Epicurean thinking exemplified by Democritus and Lucretius are two very different philosophical traditions that developed in different cultural and historical contexts. While both Nagarjuna and the Epicureans were interested in questions related to the nature of reality and the sources of human suffering, they had very different answers to these questions and very different philosophical approaches.

One of the key differences between Nagarjuna and the Epicureans is their view of the nature of reality. Nagarjuna, who was one of the most important figures in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, is best known for his concept of "emptiness," which holds that all things are empty of inherent existence and that our experience of the world is ultimately illusory. In contrast, the Epicureans, who were a group of ancient Greek philosophers, believed in the existence of atoms and the void, and they argued that the fundamental reality of the universe is composed of these tiny, indivisible particles.

Another key difference between Nagarjuna and the Epicureans is their approach to the problem of human suffering. Nagarjuna argued that the root of human suffering is our attachment to our own illusions and false beliefs, and that the only way to overcome suffering is to cultivate a state of detachment and wisdom. In contrast, the Epicureans believed that the root of human suffering is our fear of death and our lack of knowledge about the nature of the universe, and that the only way to achieve happiness is to cultivate a state of calm and contentment by understanding the true nature of reality.

Overall, while Nagarjuna and the Epicureans were both interested in questions related to the nature of reality and the sources of human suffering, they had very different answers to these questions and very different philosophical approaches. Nagarjuna's philosophy is characterized by a profound sense of mystery and a deep understanding of the illusory nature of our experience of the world, while the philosophy of the Epicureans is more focused on practical ways of achieving happiness and overcoming suffering in the world.

There is a certain sophomoricity to the style, and it's pretty obvious that the "language bot" is assembling rather limited information using certain rhetorical devices in an almost mechanical way, but this is kind of amazing nonetheless. You actually could learn something worthwhile from one of these... they can't add to human knowledge (much, or yet), or offer any real insight into anything (I suspect), but as an educational tool, I see some real potential here. And who knows? Is artificial consciousness possible? I honestly do not know. 

Of interest: an example of an AI's answer to a historico-philosophical question

Here's an example of a question I asked and the answer of the AI chatbot ChatGPT, which is free to try. This is impressive, particularly realizing that there really is no conscious or self-aware "mind" involved in the creation of this answer. (Which started appearing in less than 1 sec. and appeared at a fast, but not lightning speed... slower than what would be limited by bandwidth. It did take the computer on the other end a small, but appreciable, amount of time, to come up with this answer. 

Me: In what ways does the totalitarian ideology of Nazism distort the ideas of Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche?

ChatGPT: The totalitarian ideology of Nazism distorted the ideas of Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche in a number of ways. While all three philosophers had complex and evolving views on a wide range of philosophical topics, the Nazis selectively appropriated certain elements of their thought in order to support their own political agenda.

For example, the Nazis distorted Hegel's philosophy of history by interpreting it as a justification for their own aggressive expansionist policies. Hegel had argued that history is the story of the development of human consciousness, and that this development occurs through a series of dialectical conflicts and contradictions. The Nazis took this idea and twisted it to mean that their own aggressive expansion was the natural and inevitable outcome of historical progress.

Similarly, the Nazis distorted Schopenhauer's philosophy by selectively emphasizing his pessimistic view of human existence and his belief in the primacy of the will. While Schopenhauer had argued that human suffering is inevitable and that the only way to achieve happiness is to transcend our desires and will, the Nazis used this idea to justify their brutal and ruthless policies.

Finally, the Nazis distorted the philosophy of Nietzsche, who had argued that traditional moral values are oppressive and that individuals should strive to overcome them in order to become "supermen." While Nietzsche had rejected authoritarianism and the worship of power, the Nazis twisted his ideas to support their own ideology of racial superiority and the glorification of violence.

Overall, while the ideas of Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche were complex and nuanced, the Nazis selectively distorted and appropriated certain elements of their thought in order to support their own totalitarian ideology.

"If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past."
― Spinoza

09 December 2022

Sinema becomes an Independent, leaves the Democratic Party

If I understand correctly, Sinema's betrayal... because that's what it is... may not be that big of a deal. She will "accept committee assignments" from the Democratic leadership, which I believe is the equivalent of "caucusing with" the Democrats. Which is also true of King and Sanders, although they are more progressive whereas she will likely sometimes actually vote with the Republicans, as she has done in the past. So Democrats will retain control of the Senate committees and judicial assignments. At least that's my understanding; if any of my farflung correspondents has a different understanding, please share. 

One thing this does reflect, I suspect, is that Sinema will be a thorn in the side of Democrats and has given up any intention of running for re-election as a Democrat. Which means she will almost certainly not be the nominee of the Democratic or Republican Party and will not serve another term after this one. 

05 December 2022

Elon Musk is SO clueless

Elon Musk clearly has no understanding of the First Amendment or the fact that presidential campaigns of out-of-power parties are not the equivalent of "the government." High School Civics grade: FAIL. (Oh, right, we don't teach Civics anymore and he grew up in South Africa anyway). But more to the point, this kind of deranged right wing idiocy is really really stupid and really really bad for business. Who does he think most of the customers for his electric cars are anyway? Beer guzzling rednecks? 

NY criminal case against Trump being revived?

It seemed when Alvin Bragg took over from Cy Vance as Manhattan D.A., there was some kind of "fix in." All of a sudden, what had looked like a strong criminal case, based on the same evidence Letitita James has used on the civil side to sue Trump for real estate fraud, was all but abandoned. But Bragg claimed the criminal case was still open, and now we learn he just appointed a "bulldog" former DOJ prosecutor, Matthew Colangelo, to take it over and run with it. Could this mean the case will heat back up and Trump will face yet another strong criminal prosecution? I'm not holding my breath but it appears to be at least possible.  


We're told it's becoming conventional wisdom among evangelicals and some other traditionally Republican voting groups that "Trump may not have what it takes to win in '24." To which I can only say, WTF? How is it that someone who calls for the "termination" of provisions of the Constitution to ram through his insane delusion of having be defrauded out of an election he lost by 7 million votes (and the same margin in the Electoral College he himself called a "landslide" when he got it in 2016)... is even being mentioned as a possible candidate by a major party? This is topsy turvy world indeed. Fortunately, there is every sign that Trump will soon be indicted in the MAL case. 

Now, it seems to me, we Democrats need to start seriously considering the post-Trump electoral landscape. We don't get a free pass because Trump will be on the ballot, because it's increasingly likely he won't be. We have to pull it together and win on the merits in 2024. This worries me, with a candidate who will be 82 and no ability to pass legislation in the next two years. Why, o why, are Democrats not working round the clock to pass everything they possibly can, foremost among them a permanent lifting of the debt ceiling, before the end of the Lame Duck at the end of this month? Not only because from a policy perspective, we need this, but because it could well be absolutely crucial to our electoral prospects in 2024? Again, WTF? 

04 December 2022

Trump again shows he is a clear and present danger

I am as sick and tired of talking about Trump, on any level, as the next person. But he keeps doing and saying things that come right up to, or cross, the line of criminality and incitement to violent overthrow of the government of our country. And he, as quite plausibly the likely presidential nominee of one of the two lock-hold political parties in this country, has made it clear in word and deed that if he ever becomes president again, he will begin systematically replacing the democratic institutions of our country with outright fascism. This is no exaggeration at all. So, in other words, he remains a clear and present danger, and as such, he commands our attention. 

His blurts (he calls them "truths" on his ridiculous twitter knock off) have incriminated him in the Mar a Lago case. From his own words it's easy to prove he knowingly stole government documents including highly classified national security materials, and other statements make it clear that this was not only intentional, but that his intentions were and are to undermine the legal functioning of American elections and "install" himself as president, by which he clearly means, in effect, dictator. (He's actually used the  word "install" several times in this context, most recently in reference to Kari Lake, who lost her election for governor in Arizona by a large margin. Americans are not "installed" in office; they take office after actually winning elections.)

But more disturbing is a vein of blurts that have recently reached a fever pitch, in which he continues his deranged insistence that the 2020 election was fraudulent (despite zero actual evidence) and that his supporters should "take action" to "install" him as, again, in effect, dictator. The most recent pretext was some utter nonsense about the former management of Twitter taking down posts, at the request of the Democratic campaign before the election (although he seems to conflate that with the present government)... posts which were in violation of Twitter's terms of service (such as nude pics of Biden's son), and amounted to revenge porn. This would be completely unbelievable in a political novel, but it's actually true, so we have to deal with it. Anyway, Trump's most recent blurt sets a new low. And it really does have to be read in the context of the fact that he previously incited his mob to violently interfere with the peaceful transfer of power and mandated procedures for the election of the president who won both the popular vote and the Electoral College by a wide margin. Trump, again calling for the overturning of the 2020 election and his "installation" as dictator, wrote "A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution."  

I am certainly not an advocate of overzealous enforcement of the law for what amounts to only advocating a different form of government. That horrible excuse for a human being, Fuentes, in calling for an "end to elections" and overtly calling for dictatorship, is only engaging in his free speech rights, however odious, because he's careful not to encourage others to take up arms to enforce their anti-democratic vision. In 1918, Wilson had Eugene Debs tried for, essentially, denouncing the war, which was clearly unconstitutional and antidemocratic; Trump should not be prosecuted for advocating fascism, but this is more than that. Trump is skirting, if not crossing, the line, as a former president who has a following some of whose members have recently been convicted of seditious conspiracy for acting on his incitements to violence. He is signaling that his followers should "rise up"... implicitly violently... and "take back" the country, despite the fact that he clearly flat out lost the election and is delusional... or worse... in saying otherwise. This blurt, in the context of everything that has gone on, comes very, very close to calling for the violent overthrow of the US government. Which is sedition. A serious crime. 

I don't actually think Trump should be prosecuted for this. It's just words; it's ambiguous. But it is indicative of his intent. And he stands likely to be charged with incitement to violence to overthrow the election in 2021. And this kind of statement reflects on his intentions in stealing massive amounts of government records, including highly sensitive national security documents, and obstructing and lying about the investigation and enforcement actions to attempt to recover them. He remains a threat to our democracy, and the record is clear that he has criminally violated numerous provisions of Federal and State laws in his effort to retain, then regain, power. He must be vigorously prosecuted and condemned for his unAmerican, out and out fascist tactics and incitement. Not his opinions or beliefs, however delusional, but his crimes, including, where he actually crossed the line, his incitement of others to commit violence on his behalf. And frankly, anyone who cannot see this and condemn his words and deeds at this point, is complicit in his treachery. At least morally, if not legally. 

02 December 2022

Some thoughts on AI

Here's an inchoate opinion/observation, based on just observing the unexpectedly slow progress in the efforts to develop truly autonomous driving AI systems. And as a curious layperson who has read about computer systems, languages, AI systems, etc., including some description of the "state of the art," such as IBM's Big Blue and its successors. With even the best AI, what you get is incredible speed, and very, very clever programming. Machines can be taught to emulate, and even surpass, some of the functions of biological brains. They can master patterns. They can, for example, even compose music which, for a brief period of time, might fool you into thinking it was really composed by a human being. Until, after a few minutes or even seconds, you realize that it is not music, just pattern-making; the tunes are not only dull, they are deadly dull. Because the one thing computers, even the fastest and "smartest" computers, lack is self-awareness, and it is self-awareness, or (more or less the same thing), consciousness, that is the real essence of biological intelligence. So here's my take: humans have invented something entirely new in the world, which is electronic computers. They are not successful emulators of biological intelligence. They don't use similar architecture, or work in the same way. I am a Spinozist; there is no "magic" to consciousness, it surely emerges somehow from matter and energy, but exactly how has nothing to do with pattern recognition or machine learning. Evolution, the great creator through the cruelty of elimination of failure and try-try-again, discovered long ago that survival depends on consciousness in higher organisms, and the systems that cause it to emerge evolved, over an inordinately long period of time. Creatures which needed it to work superlatively well but lacked that capacity perished and those that were better and better at it survived; the time honored way of the world. But we have not figured out how this works, or replicated it, not even on a primitive level. I am certain, from interacting with them, that AIs are fast and amazingly adept at certain functions, but they are not self-aware. At all. I'm guessing this is possible. But it has not yet happened, not even a little bit. 

So here's my intuitive opinion: it will never be possible for a computer system to write a decent novel or to do something as seemingly simple as to sit and enjoy a sunset. It may be possible to anticipate so many of the twists and turns and unexpected developments of something like driving a car for an AI to do it, but it's much more difficult than it seemed, and I think it could be that even this requires so much ability to imagine, and not just calculate, future scenarios, that it will not really be safe to trust them to do it (not that humans are safe at it, either, so it's possible the trade off will indeed favor AI before too long). But real machine consciousness... this is not on the horizon. I would not go so far as to say it is impossible, but we (humans, meaning the smartest of us) are not going about this the same way Evolution did, and our results are very unlikely to be successful, if the goal really is self-awareness, any time soon. 
"If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past."
― Spinoza

What makes a fine composer?

Here's a thought. Perhaps naturally talented composers are people who are really, really good at imagining -- and creating -- music in their minds, and good enough at theory to be able to write down what they hear, while not necessarily being the very best performers, even of their own music, nor the best theoreticians of music.