Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Debate followup: Why 'fact-checking' won't work without... judo!

Okay okay. I give up. I’ll comment on the presidential debate...

First off, it appears that the press and punditry are overwhelmingly declaring Hillary the winner.  And certainly she was, in most ways, first by displaying fiercely intelligent grasp of policy issues. Second, she succeeded in drawing Donald Trump to avow smugness in his true record, a past riddled with predatory and dishonest business practices.  Reports tell of sample groups of undecided voters “gasping” when DT proudly claimed to be “smart” by paying little to no federal taxes on annual incomes in the $500 million range.

Still, I don't see it as a blowout. In fact, I am highly ticked off at Secretary Clinton, for a rather shallow performance. Too many times, she wallowed in a Sumo match with Trump over this or that line in the sand, instead of using Judo to send him flying.

== The fact-check trap ==

Oh, there are plenty of sober sites and individuals out there doing truthiness checks. (Some of the best were done by NPR , PolitiFact, and The New York Times.) As someone on Twitter quipped: "We're going to need a bigger Snopes."

Alas, early on, Hillary Clinton invited viewers to go to her own web-site to scan a real time truth inspection of the debate. Seriously? You expect that to sway undecideds? All it did was add weight to the notion that “facts” are a matter of partisan interpretation. Trump has been very effective telling his followers that when a site like CNN or Politico debunks one of his statements, it only means that they are members of a liberal, “lamestream” conspiracy.

What would be effective? Try the following:

“Okay Donald, you dismiss any fact-checking service as biased. Yet the American people need fact-checking they can rely on! So here’s a challenge. You appoint six sages whom you trust – august and respected Americans who will likely serve on your cabinet or as court appointments. I’ll do the same. And we’ll ask retired Supreme Court justices like Sandra Day O’Conner, most of the republican appointees, to pick another six.

“Those 18 folks will meet immediately to set up a truly non-partisan fact checking service, with a million dollars from my campaign and from yours, getting it up and running by the next debate. Come on, let’s get this done, Mr. Businessman! Let’s do it for the nation, on time and under budget!”

That sort of thing would corner him. If he refuses or stalls, that fact becomes instantly clear. If he appoints shills, then those twits will compare unfavorably to HC’s choices and O’Conner’s. And if he goes along, he’ll know he’s about to be fact-checked by a service partly of his own devising, designed from scratch to be impartial.

In fact, there are dozens of areas where HC and the dems could issue simple, direct and unavoidable challenges. For example, below I’ll offer one that would corner Trump regarding his tax return.

It is called jiu jitsu or judo.  And by now Clinton should be good at it.  Alas, she seems stuck in sumo mode. And I find that unimpressive.

== The Missing Elephant ==
Want more such off-angle perspectives? I got a million. Here’s one that’s simply gigantic. It’s… well… huge. I have to wonder – am I the only one who noticed the elephant that was missing from the room?  

Go ahead and do a word search in the debate transcript. Except for a couple of blithe, offhand references to bipartisanship and past officials who have defected to her, there were no uses or instances of the word "Republican." None by Clinton or Trump.
Indeed, if you scan the transcript, you'll find zero uses of the word "Congress," the other and equally important political branch of government that is at-stake in this election.  

This despite the fact that the Republican Party has dominated Congress for 20 of the last 22 years. Two decades of sullen, glowering indolence, during which role models like Dennis (convicted child molester) Hastert and Tom (convicted felon) DeLay transformed the world's greatest deliberative body into the nastiest and laziest in U.S. history, completely obedient to Fox chairman Roger (sexual predator) Ailes.

Sure, democrats have accused these and other GOP leaders of dogmatism in the past. But it is the laziness charge that I find sticks in even conservative voters’ craws. 

Seriously, who is advising Clinton to lay off Republicans? She could ask: what kind of party does not even mention its last two presidents, during their national convention? Indeed, tally up every GOP leader between Reagan and Ryan -- only one of them was even mentioned at the recent RNC! The words “Bush” and Hastert, DeLay, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gingrich, McConnell and so on are unutterable by Donald Trump, or any other Republican, so why does Hillary refrain?

Apparently, she has been advised not to go partisan because some moderate Republican voters might make a lifetime exception, hold their noses and vote for her instead of Trump. Also, Trump is ready with a comeback – “I’m a rebel against all those jerks who ran the party before me!”

Fine. Then use that!  The more he says it, the more he’ll undermine and anger down-ticket Republicans. It’s called judo.

Oh, this is stunning foolishness in several ways! 

(1) Because these associations will help, not hinder, her campaign to defeat Donald Trump. Moreover…

(2) Suppose she does win, but those same Republican voters then reward GOP down-ticket candidates, returning the Senate and House to GOP control. Then Hillary Clinton’s "honeymoon" as president will last three minutes and the rest will be a volcanic, accomplishment-free, living hell. There is only one way to prevent that, and to give the American people what they need, a functioning second branch of government filled with pragmatic, negotiating adults.

(3) Conservative Americans will benefit if their party is demolished – immolated - in 2016, giving them a couple of years to rebuild something that is not just another mad, sequel-froth of Bushes, Cheney, Trump, or Rupert Murdoch. Conservatives might come roaring back as a party of grownups, no longer sending us lazy, dogmatic, gerrymandering cheaters who wage war on science and every other knowledge profession in American life.

Hey, it could happen! Two years in the wilderness and you might achieve that wonder!  But first. Get out of the peoples’ house.  We have work to do.

== Tax returns ==

Clinton did really well exploiting Trump’s refusal to release tax returns, luring him into admitting – in fact proudly avowing – that he was “smart” to avoid helping pay for roads, schools and national defense. She’d have done better still by asking everyone in the audience if they paid any federal income tax last year, suggesting it was probably more than Donald Trump did on 694 million dollars.

And yet, DT can continue to weasel out by claiming the “IRS audit” dodge, leaving this a matter of (again) sumo pushing and shoving to sway the next 1% of voters.

How could it be done as judo? Simple:

“Donald, the IRS has said you can legally release your return during an audit, but you claim your lawyers forbid it. The IRS could choose to waive any audit, removing that excuse. But then you could scream they did it for ‘partisan reasons.’

“Fine, then how about you right now publicly:

(1) ask that the IRS to confirm that you are currently under audit – (so far all we have is your word for it) – and

(2) ask that the IRS to drop the audit, in the national interest, so you can release your returns before the election. By asking, you’ll let them do it without accusations of partisanship. I’ll be happy to go along with it, so the American people can find out what you’ve been up to.”

It’s another of those jiu jitsu challenges that would leave him cornered. How could he not ask to have the audit canceled and to get immunity for this year’s returns? Any excuse he made at that point would sound way beyond smarmy.

== Come on, Hill, stand up! ==

Sure I know your advisers are saying that the public is too angry to listen to good news.  That any attempt to brag over the country’s direction and gains will backfire on you.

They are dead wrong. You can find ways to combine “things are getting better” with “there’s a lot wrong that needs fixing.” You have tried to do that, I admit… and done miserably.

Sure, you offered one sentence about how crime has overall declined. A lot, since your husband was in office. One sentence. Almost as if you were embarrassed.

Sure, FBI crime data published Monday said violent crime rose slightly in 2015 but remains near record lows. A few hot spots like Chicago have surged with violent crime, but even in Chicago, it’s limited to a small number of neighborhoods. Yes, we have some degree of crisis. But cowering and whimpering and dividing Americans will not help. 

Hey how about mentioning how technology is empowering both good cops and citizens, and law and order should be a lot better, once we work out the kinks on this transparency thing.

(Oh, by the way. I don’t expect this as a debate point, but crime was highest in the southern United States, the report found. At 45.9 per 100,000 people, the murder and manslaughter rate in the region was more than twice as high as in the West, the Midwest and the Northeast, according to the FBI. Rates of rape, assault and property crime were dramatically higher as well.  Just saying. We do not need lectures from the Confederacy.)

I’m not done. There are so many other places to angrily (!) stand up, Hill. Like this travesty by DT:

Our energy policies are disaster. Our country is losing so much in terms of energy, in terms of paying off our debt.”

In fact:, as related by Scott Horsley in that NPR fact-check: ‘Domestic oil and gas production have increased steadily during President Obama’s time in office. The U.S. has been the world’s leading producer of natural gas since 2011 and the top producer of oil since 2013. The Energy Information Administration says gasoline prices averaged $2.17 a gallon last week — about a nickel cheaper than a year ago, and about 30 cents a gallon less than Obama’s first year in office, and about a buck and a half less than during George W. Bush’s last year in office.’

The Foxites have blocked sustainables at every turn. But they are arriving anyway. Arriving huge.

And I will offer further post-debate appraisals… more ways to do judo… next time.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

At the intersection of Science Fiction and Future Tech, plus sci fi reviews!

Dig it... two sci-tech postings in a row! Because despite the ravings of media and politicians, they are no what's taking this spectacular civilization forward. Some of them hamper and some help, but the real action is out among the brilliant innovators, explorers and -- yes, amateurs like you -- who are engaged in the Greatest Adventure.

For example...

Can AI and robots learn ethics? In Preparing for our Posthuman Future of Artificial Intelligence, on Omni Reboot, I review a dozen books whose authors range from optimistic to pessimistic to weird… and conclude (as you will) that all of them miss a vital point!  

In Deliver us from the fury of the cyborgs and grant us the peace of cyberspace, evolutionary biologist P. Z. Myers gives a more skeptical assessment of the future of AI. Smart. But mine is better. 

But let's roam onward. In Why You Should Read Science Fiction, Richard MacManus, founder of ReadWriteWeb, offers some perspective on how SF sheds light on speculating about our technological future

In this sci-fi short film, Uncanny Valley, we get a dark look at the possible implications of virtual reality, and what happens when the lines between reality and fiction begin to blur.

Here's a fun infographic showing 25 plausible future techs that will change daily life and that were predicted by science fiction.

Surgically implanted memory prosthetics… are now being tested on human subjects by Los Angeles startup, Kernel.

With interscatter communication, ‘Eye phones’ communicate with smart contact lenses to monitor blood sugar levels and other physiological data.

Mind-controlled nanobots could precisely release drug dosages inside your brain.

== Spreading poison ==

While we are on messages in storytelling...

I look forward to seeing the movie, Sully... anything with Tom Hanks in it. But as this article by Stephen Cass makes clear, the film spews hate against civil servants and the concept of competent government. 

In his recently published memoir, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger lauds the skillful fairness of the NTSB, who never, ever hounded or tried to railroad him and who drew correct conclusions, calmly, sympathetically and professionally. Every negative portrayal in the film is an outright, lying piece of propaganda.

Yes, it is natural in some ways to do this. Modern fiction, especially film, is propelled by several standard motifs. Danger, heroism vs opposition, plus themes of Suspicion of Authority (SoA) whether it be Sauron, an evil emperor, a nasty corporation or government civil servants. (Especially the latter!) Other prevalent themes include tolerance, diversity, personal eccentricity... and I feel most of these are positive themes, overall! But elsewhere I show how these wholesome memes regularly metastacize into a pair of evil messages that are savagely hurting us all -- (1) that a hero cannot count on neighbors and citizens because they are all sheep (utterly belied by the events of 9/11)... and (2) that no institution can ever be trusted. These memes are cancerous. Mr. Eastwood often gives us good movies, when he stays focused on the small scale. He has fine directorial instincts. But by giving in to the politically, polemically-lazy reflex, he has taken a good story and turned it into yet another dollop of poison. See the whole memic structure of modern film and fiction here, and you'll realize how laziness has turned so many directors into enemies of a civilization that's been very very (and five more "veries") good to them.

 == Brief Reviews of Recent SF ==

Winner of the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature, Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, offers a vivid long-scale look at human destiny. The crew of the starship Brin 2, led by scientist Avrana Kern, set off on a terraforming expedition to a distant planet, to establish a future home for humanity. But… the actions of a saboteur destroy the ship. Kern escapes in a cryosleep pod after launching planetward a pod of monkeys and an ‘uplift’ nanovirus – which inadvertently finds a home among the invertebrates of Kern’s World, increasing their intelligence (and complexity of their social web) generation by generation. Meanwhile, centuries of war and plague have rendered homeworld Earth uninhabitable. The last survivors follow ancient celestial maps to reach worlds terraformed by their distant ancestors. They arrive to find that their anticipated new home is not quite what they had anticipated… A compelling read!

Slow Bullets, a novella by Alastair Reynolds. In the aftermath of a brutal interstellar war, a conscripted soldier, Scur is captured and tortured by Orvin, a vicious war criminal, who injects her with a slow bullet (a kind of internal data tag that wreaks havoc on the body). Left for dead, she wakes up from cryosuspension aboard a prisoner transport carrying soldiers from both sides, along with POWs and criminals. But... something has gone wrong with the ship, for they are in unknown space, with no one in charge, out of reach of any sign of civilization. The ship’s memory is rapidly decaying. In the chaos that ensues, Scur vows revenge against Orvin -- who is among the survivors aboard the failing starship – even while seeking to save what remains of humanity.


Lock In, a near-future crime thriller story from John Scalzi. A devastating global pandemic has left millions of people (known as Hadens) paralyzed, in a perpetual state of “lock in.”  While their body remains bedridden, neural network implants in their brains have been developed to enable them to maneuver through the outside world using personal robotic units (Threeps) -- or by temporarily inhabiting the bodies of other rare humans known as Integrators. The story begins, of course, with a dead body… found in the presence of an Integrator, whose professional code of ethics forbids him from revealing if his body was at work for a Haden client when the murder occurred. Our main character is a Haden, a novice FBI agent operating through his Threep, determined to unravel layers of conspiracy and intrigue, even as he becomes a target.

Dark Orbit, by Carolyn Ives Gilman. In this far future universe, interstellar travel is possible, not through FTL, but by lightbeam; individuals are disassembled and reassembled upon arrival. Those who are willing to leave friends and family behind to leap across time and space are called Wasters; in contrast, "Planters" prefer to stay rooted in their own timeframe. Exoethologist Sara Callicot is recruited to travel by questship to a newly discovered habitable planet, Iris, with its unusual gravity fluctuations rooted in elevated concentrations of dark matter. Upon arrival, the crew makes a mess of First Contact with the crystalline planet’s strange, blind sentient beings. A mix of hard science, philosophy and mysticism, Dark Orbit delves into human consciousness and human nature. See a more extensive review on Strange Horizons.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu This book is a few years old, but imaginative, witty and great fun. Time travel is not only possible, but fairly mundane in Minor Universe 31. Things do go wrong, and that’s where social misfit and time machine repairman Charles Yu steps in, to resolve paradoxes and save people who decide to change the past, perhaps by trying to murder their own grandfather. While seeking to find his own father, who is lost somewhere in time, Yu enters a perennial time loop. To exit, he must seek clues by reading (while also writing) a book his future self wrote, titled, How to live safely in a science fictional universe. Great recursive imagining...

Just released: the audiobook for my second short story collection, Otherness, is now available from Audible.  I worked pretty closely with the reader, veteran Hollywood actor, Stephen Mendel. Why not make your commute interstellar and have your strides take you across fate and time?

Just how good is SF at foreseeing future tech? We're just back from the science fiction worldcon, MidAmericaCon II, held in August in Kansas City. Here's a photo from a fascinating panel, Science Fiction Predicts the Future the Way a Shotgun Kills a Duck. I'm in the middle of panelists Chuck Gannon, Greg Bear, Larry Niven, Joe Haldeman and Gregory Benford. Great fun!

And yes, many panels did not just have old male farts. I got to interview the delightful winner of the novella Hugo, for "Folding Beijing," Hao Jingfang, who greeted our family in Chengdu in 2007.  So flattered when she called me a "mentor".  Keep eyes open for her novel "Wandering Maerth."  (Oh, Ken Liu, her translator, was gallant onstage and took home his own rocket!) See his latest collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. Liu also translated Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem.

== ... and finally... ==

For insight into the future: Nicola Danaylov's excellent Singularity 1on1 podcast interviews a number of very sharp minds (including Kevin Kelly, Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, Marshall Brain, Daniel Wilson, Michio Kaku) for in-depth discussions about the major technologic transformations that are coming and how they might be guided. Watch the excerpt reel

...and consider supporting the Crowdfunding effort. (I'm on Episode 78: What's Important Isn't Me. And It Isn't You. It's Us!)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Tech Advances and really interesting angles on science

Every advanced nation on Earth – and many developing ones – have rapid, convenient, economical high speed rail systems linking major cities, allowing millions to bypass congested airports… except the U.S. Now some rays of light. California is plunging ahead with an HSR line – though funding from Bakersfield to Los Angeles will have to wait.  And the Obama Administration has found a way to bypass the laziest Congress in American history by lending Amtrak 2.2 billion dollars to upgrade some eastern corridors to 186 mph with comfortable, modern WiFi rich trains. 

California’s battle to get high speed rail is like LA’s desperate fight in the 1990s to get metro subways and trains. Right wingers fought it hard... and now we know life would be impossible there without the efficient and economical mass transit system.  Seriously, look 50 years from now. The very notion that there would NOT be high speed rail or tube transit up between SoCal and the Bay area is simply absurd. 

The question for sane folks is how? I am willing to listen to arguments that normal, world class high speed rail is obsolete! Maybe we should leapfrog the rest of the world! As Africa is leapfrogging copper wires. In which case, the most valuable part of the California project is clearing the rights of way.

Troglodytes, this will happen. We are a modern, technologically advanced, scientific nation. Get used to it.

== Tech miscellany! ==

UCLA neurosurgeons used ultrasound to “jump-start” the brain of a 25-year-old man from a coma, and he has made remarkable progress following the treatment. The technique, called “low-intensity focused ultrasound pulsation” (LIFUP), works non-invasively and without affecting intervening tissues.  

What is a "Weapon of Math Destruction”? It must be opaque to its subjects, harmful to their interests, and grow exponentially to run at huge scale. This is a clever re-phrasing of the intelligencia’s fad concept of 2016 — otherwise referred to as the Tyranny of the Algorithm. Take a look at Kathy O'Neil's new book: Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increased Inequality and Threatens Democracy, reviewed on Boing Boing.

Are there still folks who watch fox-rants that "humans can't affect the Earth"?  A record-tying earthquake in the edge of Oklahoma’s key energy-producing areas rattled the Midwest from Nebraska to North Texas on Saturday, and likely will bring fresh attention to the practice of disposing oil and gas field wastewater deep underground. 

== Evolution in action ==

An almost sci-fi level of weirdness in this ant colony that’s been discovered inside an ancient, Soviet era bunker, in Poland. Atop the bunker, a normal colony of wood ants does their thing, but occasionally, workers accidentally fall through a pipe into the bunker and must make do in (to them) an apocalyptic, hopeless wasteland.  They produce no queens, no males, and no offspring. The massive group tending the nest is entirely composed of non-reproductive female workers, supplemented every year by a new rain of unfortunate ants falling down the ventilation shaft. The sheer numbers of dead bodies they’ve carried to the periphery suggest that this orphaned wood ant nest has been active for many years.  Shivering, I can imagine so many stories…

In this stunning research video you witness - decisively -  evolution in action. You’re watching living things facing down new challenges, dying, competing, thriving, invading, and adapting—all in a two-minute movie that makes vividly clear how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics. But especially that evolution is very real, going on around us, in real time. 

A teensy silver lining to catastrophic climate change.  Scientists probing a newly exposed, formerly snow-covered outcropping in Greenland claim they have discovered the oldest fossils ever seen, the remnants of microbial mats that lived 3.7 billion years ago.”  (I have a scene reminiscent of this in EARTH.)  If confirmed, this would push the established fossil record more than 200 million years deeper into the past, with many implications. 

A triplet fossil: A well-preserved fossil of a snake that swallowed a small lizard that had eaten an insect, some 48 million years ago. I don't know why she swallowed that fly...

== The nature of reality ==

Is there an objective reality? Plato and so many others have posited that our subjective worlds are unreliable – iffy senses delivering warped impressions to a brain that’s a muddle of murky memories and chaotic or compulsive emotions. Paul Simon summed it up – A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest. Knowing this, sages have tried various ameliorations, some (like fiercely accountable experimental science) more successful than others (priestly declarations or Randian ‘objectivism.’)

Of course, science fiction has always danced along the margins between the subjectivity of art and human experience vs. the objective reality that Science keeps saying lies beyond Maya's veil, beyond Plato's Cave.  

We have to believe science because the results of experiment and of math are both so consistent!  And yet, the veil is always there and art - especially speculative literature - lets us poke at it in ways that science cannot.

Now cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, suggests that our problems perceiving the objective universe may be rooted in evolutionary biology. "Given an arbitrary world and arbitrary fitness functions, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but that is just tuned to fitness."

For many of you in this brainy community, that sentence already makes surprising sense.  For the rest, there’s the linked article or else Dr. Hoffman’s famous TED talk.  But it gets more interesting. “Hoffman then builds something even more radical out of his broken link between objective reality and evolution. He calls it conscious realism and it's based on the premise that "circuits of conscious agents" are what end up defining experienced reality. While there clearly is a world separate from us, Hoffman says, evolution does not give us access to that. Instead, he claims, it's our interactions as conscious agents that give shape to the reality we experience.” 

== Tech Advances ==

Innovation: Stanford researchers have invented a version of polyethylene — kitchen wrap—  that can beincorporated in clothing that allows infrared energy to pass straight through, while being opaque to visible light. (For clothing, duh?) A second issue: polyethylene does not permit water to pass through, was also fixed. The new material allowed a surface to cool more than a cotton garment by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, suggesting such coatings might save up to 45 percent of the energy required for cooling inside a building.  

One of two dozen tech zones where, if early promise comes true, we may change the whole game.  How about a long-lasting, safe, zinc-ion battery -- water-based, using cheap but safe, non-flammable, non-toxic materials, compared to expensive, flammable, organic electrolytes in lithium-ion batteries that cost twice the price. It could help communities shift from traditional power plants to renewable solar and wind energy production, where electricity storage overnight is needed.  

Google is developing a quantum computer in a 48-qubit grid that it believes will outperform the world’s top supercomputers.  

Fujistu Semiconductor Ltd. has become the first manufacturer to announce it is mass producing a new RAM that boasts 1,000 times the performance of DRAM but stores data like NAND flash memory.  The new non-volatile memory known as Nano-RAM (NRAM) was first announced last year and is based on carbon nanotube technology.  Because it uses power in femtojoules and requires no data clean-up operations in the background, as NAND flash does, NRAM could extend the battery life of a mobile device in standby mode for months

Episode two of Popular Science’s new sci- featurette show Future First is titled "Artificial Intelligence: Your Tutor and Nurse," features Ben Goertzel, and takes a look at artificial intelligence and its potential applications for education, health, and more.  A topic I’ve been talking about a lot lately. (It feels like a sudden wave.)  Oh, Episode number four will feature me as a head talking about SETI and METI and the Fermi Paradox.  You know. All that.

This fellah took the original schematics for the legendary CURTA hand-cranked calculator (1940s) and refined tolerances to produce a 3D printed version.  And now that he’s done it, that means YOU will be able to do stuff like this, within the decade. And as I have been saying for 30 years… we are entering the Age of Amateurs, when no truly good thing will ever again be lost.  We’ll, if you don’t count Nature….

A kewl and fun video about the Commodore 64! Which my son and I bought later in original packaging for 75$ (you can’t do that anymore) in order to solve a real problem which I describe here: Why Johnny Can't Code.  And this followup.

And finally... 

Here's an appeal to the group mind.  Someone have a look at this series and report back to us? This series from Terrafiniti addresses important topics… but also may be a be New Agey: Towards 9 Billion addresses the critical issues that face our planet in the 21st century, from business and economics to sustainable energy and technology. I love its wide-ranging intelligence, lucid prose and interdisciplinary approach to scoping a new economics for our age.”  Topics include: What’s the Point of Capitalism? And 21st Century Natural Philosophy.  Yet, these are important topics. The books are free to download and – according to Joss Tantram: “consist of analysis and big ideas for how we might evolve our systems of value and production for a sustainable, equitable future. They also include discussion on the challenges of communicating unpalatable truths and the rise of truthiness rather than scientific method.” Okay. So let’s see which endeavors actually uplift the conversation.

Huh! New research suggests that most teens aren't vaping nicotine at all, but using "sweet and fruity flavors" like strawberry, chocolate cake and bubble gum. 

Wow. So you're going for all of the "cool" of smoking with (little? none?) of the suicidal-addictive parts? I keep telling folks - the next generation is smarter than us! (Though empowered by technology.) 

Mind you, it's still irritating to be near one of these rude "vaping" twits.  But teens have a right to be rude twits - a bit, some - I guess I was! Meanwhile though, this is much smarter and less noxious. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Weaknesses in the fabric of our republic: Infrastructure investment vs finance-wizard parasites

Nothing typifies the American right's nosedive more than the War on Infrastructure. Lawrence Summers, past president of Harvard and former treasury secretary, writes here about this growing consensus, even among more sober conservative thinkers. “The case for infrastructure investment has been strong for a long time, but it gets stronger with each passing year, as government borrowing costs decline and ongoing neglect (of decaying roads and bridges) raises the return on incremental spending increases.”

Read the Summers article, about what should be the simplest matter for consensus, if our Congress contained pragmatic patriots instead of raving dogmatists. Summers lays our various tradeoffs in paying for such a program, which would also inject high velocity cash into our sluggish economic bloodstream. 

It turns out that every approach pays for itself! Making this a no-brainer. Which confirms the Congressfolk who have been blocking an infrastructure bill for 20 years to be brainless.

But this is not about just our roads and bridges. Especially savaged in recent decades have been the glory of an advanced civilization - our universities. Those red states that actually invested in their universities - Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas - thereby succeeded in reducing the brain drain of their brightest kids departing after high school. Only now, those in-state graduates create blue islands like Austin and Raleigh, that then have to be tortuously gerrymandered lest  those smart and knowledgable citizens then elect (shudder) democrats.

Hence the GOP's solution – torch universities nationwide. Saddle students with the costs and debt. And as a side benefit this helps also to wage war on science. See: The right's war on college: destroying America's great public universities. 

Those states – both blue and red - which have resisted the trend and kept investing are reaping fantastically better actual outcomes.  

 == Why the skyrocketing wealth disparities? ==

The Evonomics site is on a roll, aiming at one “emperor” after another, pointing out the lack of clothes. Moreover, these brave iconoclasts are mostly economists who really want capitalism to work well! But they are smart enough to know a rationalization for parasitism when they see it. 

In this article by Lynn Stout - Distinguished Professor of Corporate and Business Law at Cornell Law School – demonstrates that the emperor’s been naked for a very long time: 

Bank executives frequently proclaim that Wall Street is vital to the nation’s economy and performs socially valuable services by raising capital, providing liquidity to investors, and ensuring that securities are priced accurately so that money flows to where it will be most productive. There’s just one problem: no part of this Wall Street mantra is true.” These three “services” are false – or mostly false – because the capital-raising, liquidity and money flow services are mere add-ons to a gambling casino where the house takes a huge cut out of every bet.  

For example: In 2010, corporations issued only $131 billion in new stock. That same year,  more than $15 trillion in stocks were traded more than the nation’s GDP. So, what benefit does society get from all this secondary market trading, besides very rich and self-satisfied bankers like (Goldman-Sachs chair Lloyd) Blankfein?”

So much for raising capital. As for the liquidity argument: Dr. Stout points out that the average human investor “could get by with much less trading—and in fact, they did get by, quite happily. In 1976, when the transactions costs associated with buying and selling securities were much higher, fewer than 20 percent of equity shares changed hands every year. Yet no one was complaining in 1976 about any supposed lack of liquidity. Today we have nearly 10 times more trading, without any apparent benefit for anyone (other than Wall Street bankers and traders) from all that “liquidity.”

I might add that she leaves out HFT or High Frequency Trading by computers, which offer up a vast array of problems and dangers that I list here.  

But the craziest incantation used to justify finance-parasitism is price discovery, the weirdly passionate and utterly evidence-free catechism that Wall Street trading helps allocate society’s resources more efficiently by ensuring securities are ‘priced accurately.’ Stout demolishes this in economist’s terms…

…but I have an even better argument, based on both biology and thermodynamics, the branch of physics that is more reliably true than quantum mechanics or even relativity. In that same essay about HFT, I go on to show that living creatures thrive by finding a steep gradient of usable energy, in much the same way that energy converting machines do. The argument is a little involved. But when these slopes or gradients get too shallow, plants and herbivores and carnivores all get sickly and die! 

And the thing that usually makes this shallowness?

Parasites. 

Make the parallel. It will astonish and appall you, and ultimately enrage you. This is not a simile or a metaphor but an exact diagnosis of how the financial industry has ruined growth rates and sucked life out of the economy.  It’s not mystical or even economics.  It’s physics. It is thermodynamics and the basis of all living ecosystems. 

To be clear... leftists are wrong to blame ‘capitalism’ or competitive enterprise for this mess!

Capitalism… truly competitive and productive market enterprise… is a principal victim of these parasites.

== Technology doubters ==

Uber-techno-grouch Nicholas Carr (author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains) is at it again, railing that: “Technology promised to set us free. Instead it has trained us to withdraw from the world into distraction and dependency.” 

Oh, my, get ready for a choice rant.  From his new book, Uptopia is Creepy and Other Provocations, here’s a good one: 

“The greatest of the United States’ homegrown religions – greater than Jehovah’s Witnesses, greater than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, greater even than Scientology – is the religion of technology.” And: By spreading a utopian view of technology, a view that defines progress as essentially technological, they’ve encouraged people to switch off their critical faculties and give Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and financiers free rein in remaking culture to fit their commercial interests.” (excerpted from Aeon).

As years pass, I am increasingly impatient with the smug superiority of grouches, whose disdain for their neighbors and fellow citizens drips from every missive… while they fail utterly to put our problems and progress into comparison against 6000 years of failed experiments in the only known alternative – hierarchies of feudal-inheritance and privilege. 

Sure there are new addictions to deal with.  But the fraction of the population that breaks away to think deep thoughts – as you the reader are doing right now – has never been higher.

Grouches are very useful for pointing out things to discuss.  But when you start believing them… that is the road to hell.

== The Big Kneel ==

Oh all right.  I give in.... What do I think about second string  49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the US national anthem? (And the subsequent wave of players kneeling as it’s played?) 

First… I don’t… think about him, that is. For one thing, I'm a baseball guy - a better sport for dozens of reasons. For another, we got bigger issues. But heck. If forced to express an opinion, I’ll defer to my FB friend, Jim Wright, who writes to veterans, as a veteran, a very moving missive suggesting that: Real respect can not be compelled, bought, inherited. Read that instead of my screeds. 

Have I an opinion, though? No. I have five at least. First, that we only move forward by applying moral pressure on our faults as a nation, as my father did, when he marched with ML King and as the Black Lives Matter activists are doing now, in the streets.

Second: that the pressure-appliers don’t always have to be personally admirable! 

Many are! Others are – as individuals – sanctimonious bullies, whose preening may be much more about grandstanding than true, moral leadership. And to a large degree that does not matter! What counts is the *direction* in which we are moving. And that we move with purposeful determination. And it is (mostly) irrelevant whether Colin Kaepernick is a showboating prima donna-ingrate who ignores how very far we’ve come. (And he may be none of those things! I truly do not know.)

No, what matters is that America - and the Great Experiment that America leads - have always benefited from critics and criticism. No matter how good we are, we can get *even better*. Always. Lots better. Hence, our reflex should be to give benefit of the doubt to critics. 

And not to those who reflexively shout for them to shut up.