Monday, July 28, 2008

poli-miscellany

Completely short on time, I can only satisfy my weekly blog hit by simply posting what I have here... Sorry folks. But some of it is pretty interesting, starting with some good misc political links.

(BTW that was some lively discussion session, after the last one!)

Barack Obama drains 3-point jumper on first try in Kuwait. Wow. (I am hoping also to get some grapevine buzz over how commanders felt, after meeting him. I hope he works as hard as Clinton did, to meet and understand the Officer Corps. It would do him no harm to quietly invite a senior officer with him on the plane, every other day. And listen.)

-- Senior aides to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales broke the law by using politics to guide their hiring decisions for a wide range of important department positions, slowing the hiring process at critical times and damaging the department’s credibility and independence, an internal report concluded Monday.

-- Another tedious reminder... I have long said don’t forget local races. Booting the paleocons out of a dozen statehouses will do as much for America as anything else could. Indeed, nothing else could more devastatingly show the GOP that they must re-invent themselves from the ground up. Find the nearest state assembly or senate or congressional race that is “competitive.” That is where a little volunteer time could make the biggest leverage-effect... and where you’ll have more personal fun... than just helping the national campaign. If there are no such local races, or you live in California or New York, where it doesn’t matter, then look farther afield. If just five Texas Assembly seats change hands, this year, that state will experience an earthquake-level flip, reversing the horrible deLay Gerrymandering. This will not only doubly punish the cheaters, but (I predict) cause the GOP to “discover virtue” and suddenly become the party that opposes gerrymandering! (If so... 2010, some of us may even start listening to conservatives again! But they’ll have a ways to go, to re-earn any trust.)

-- Stuff from Russ Daggatt:
Turns out, McCain is WAY out in front for the most votes missed by any Senator: He has missed 62.6% of all votes – the only other Senator to miss a majority of votes was Tim Johnson of South Dakota who, as you may recall, suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrhage and spent several months recovering. Even then, Johnson only missed 50.3% of Senate votes. Apparently a senator would have to die to have a worse voting record than McCain. (So now you are probably asking, what about Obama? Despite a much longer primary campaign than McCain, Obama only missed 43.7% of the Senates votes – casting 50% more votes than McCain.)

Oh, and despite being the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain attended ZERO of his own committee’s six hearings on Afghanistan – not important, I guess. And now McCain is running attack ads against Obama asserting that as chairman of the European Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Obama failed to hold a single hearing on Afghanistan . I bet you didn’t know Afghanistan was in Europe , did you? But, see, according to McCain, since we have NATO allies in Afghanistan , the war there falls under Obama’s subcommittee jurisdiction (even though Committee chairman Biden thinks otherwise).


Identifying Who Survives Disasters — And Why -- "Since 9/11 the U.S. government has sent over $23 billion to states and cities in the name of homeland security. Almost none of that money has gone toward intelligently enrolling regular people like you and me in the cause." http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92616679
____

More Worries about McCain Mother Jones co-founder Jeffrey Klein is hardly impartial. Still, he’s a respected journalist and the facts in his recent scathing article about John McCain speak for themselves. Some snippets:”All of the (accusations) that the New York Times published a flattering lie about McCain's (naval) career on its front page are easy for John McCain to refute. All he needs to do is sign Standard Form 180, which authorizes the Navy to send an undeleted copy of McCain's naval file to news organizations. ... There's no reason McCain's full file shouldn't be released immediately. In June 2005, seven months after he lost his bid for president, Senator John Kerry signed the 180 waiver, authorizing the release of his complete military service record ... Unlike Kerry, McCain shouldn't wait until after the election to do so....

“Some of the unreleased pages in McCain's Navy file may not reflect well upon his qualifications for the presidency. From day one in the Navy, McCain screwed-up again and again, only to be forgiven because his father and grandfather were four-star admirals. McCain's sense of entitlement to privileged treatment bears an eerie resemblance to George W. Bush's.Despite graduating in the bottom 1 percent of his Annapolis class, McCain was offered the most sought-after Navy assignment -- to become an aircraft carrier pilot.... (even so) instead of the sleek and newer Phantoms and Crusaders, McCain flew the dependable Douglas A-4 Skyhawk in an attack, not a fighter squadron. He was thus on the lower end of the flying totem pole."


In training exercises, he crashed four expensive jets... not a major indictment in itself, but Klein describes a devil may-care and flippant, fly-boy attitude that bears uncanny resemblance to that of Air National Guard pilot George W Bush, who similarly got his wings under strong aromas of favoritism.

---
FUNDAMENTALS OF LIBERAL VS CONSERVATIVE THINKING? ---

'A study funded by the US government has concluded that conservatism can be explained psychologically as a set of neuroses rooted in "fear and aggression, dogmatism and the intolerance of ambiguity".' .

Well... for the sake of credibility, let’s be fair: as we've seen, there are countless leftists who exhibit precisely the same neurotic failings. Indeed, these are traits far more typical of romanticism - of left or right - than conservatism, per se. And romanticism, as a deep, memic imperative, most definitely is deeply opposed to the entire Enlightenment project.

Certainly, it seems quite valid to make a distinction between most "liberals"-- who tend to be non-dogmatic, adaptable, and sensitive to nuance -- and the "leftists" who fixate on dogmas, litmus-tests and nonsensical political correctness. The latter are classic romantics and can be as anger-drenched as anyone on the right. Only with one major distinction...the loony lefties do not - and never have - control a major American political party, while the loony right has seized total control over theirs.

Are conservatives statistically more likely, en masse, to be romantics than liberals are? I think that can be argued with a great deal of confidence. Still, I am frankly disgusted with "psychological researchers" who are so blind to the common threads that link the far right and left, rather than dividing them.

Vastly more interesting is the work of Jonathan Haidt, who found a liberal-conservative distinction that seems to have far more generality, correlation and explanatory power. Haidt found five general drivers of moral opinion and fervor:

1 ingroup/loyalty,
2 authority/respect,
3 purity/sanctity,
4 harm/care
5 fairness/reciprocity.

Cultural conservatives work hard to cultivate moral virtues based on all five of these... in keeping with the patterns that are seen in nearly all predecessor cultures.

Liberals are the ones who are historically anomalous -- raised in a modern society with high degrees of personal safety, predictability, comfort, physical and social mobility and education, they tend to pick only the latter pair of fundamental moral drivers -- (4) who is being harmed/neglected and (5) whether a situation seems fair. Hence unusual marriage patterns and/or recreational drugs seem less threatening, lacking any victims. Indeed, Haidt’s research reveals a very powerful point -- one of the things that has driven the decline of liberalism has been its refusal to credit any validity to the other three moral drivers, even though all five were potent in every known, prior human culture.

In fact, liberalism’s refusal to grant any honor or dignity to the “older” three drivers would have to qualify as a form of... well... bigotry. Let’s admit it, and try to listen better, so we can fight for the future more effectively. (Oh, and consider the many ways in which liberals, especially of the left, actually carry dogmatic passions of “sanctity and purity and authority” themselves! What is political correctness, then?)

---
More from Daggatt: Asked by Diane Sawyer whether the situation in Afghanistan in precarious and urgent," McCain responded: "I think it's serious. . . . It's a serious situation, but there's a lot of things we need to do. We have a lot of work to do and I'm afraid it's a very hard struggle, particularly given the situation on the Iraq/Pakistan border."

But as ABC's Rick Klein noted: " Iraq and Pakistan do not share a border. Afghanistan and Pakistan do."


Okay, maybe you’ve heard that one. But just last week, McCain repeatedly referred to Czechoslovakia, a country that hasn't existed since 1993. And, of course, there was his confusion of “Shiites” and “Sunnis” in Iraq . Not just once. But at least twice.

----
And finally... I just learned how much of the world's investment capital is held by pension funds and similar workers' retirement plans. THIRTY TRILLION DOLLARS. That is more than a third of the amount currently invested in available investment equities, including the stock of nearly all corporations. In other words, the workers already own the means of production. Wrap your heads around that one... then discuss why they aren't using that ownership power.


Got to run.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Win Over Those Conservatives Who Still Think

One of my frequent themes is how easy it is to show that the Republican Party has not only betrayed America, our children and civilization... but also any decent interpretation of conservatism. Gradually, skilled propagandists (with some inadvertent help from intemperate liberals) have drawn our conservative neighbors to redefine their movement --

-- away from prudence to utter recklessness
-- away from fiscal responsibility toward the full suite of gamblers' rationalization.
-- from waste-not belief in efficiency to wastrel slovenliness
-- from home-first skepticism to international meddlesomeness and adventurism
-- from belief in the rational and palpable to mystical arm-waving
-- from a grounding in science and pragmatism to utter disdain for fact driven reason

And so on....

We know that many of our neighbors are uncomfortable with the outcomes. While the GOP core circles the wagons, they are losing many citizens who still retain a glimmer of rationality and fealty to a Goldwater style of conservative values. These people need to be our focus. Because Their overall influence will be far greater than any other converts. Only, in order to "convert" them back into Americans, we must learn to speak to them from the perspective of the older conservatism. One still worthy of some respect. An opposing viewpoint worth arguing-with. Even listening-to.

==Bring them back==

ostrichpapersDrag folks - especially ostriches - to watch Obama’s big recent foreign policy speech. Watch it yourself. He talks about how Marshall, Acheson, Truman etc created an over arching strategy to save the world, out of the hopeless nadir of World War II. Unlike almost anybody else, Obama actually notices that the “Marshall Plan” was only a narrow part of this grand strategy. This speech went a long way toward closing my own small “gap” re Obama. This man has a grasp of the important basics.

If your ostrich claims to be too busy, start them off with this handy chart. Invite them to guess how things also fall out regarding other measurements of a country’s actual success. Do Americans start more small businesses under Republicans or Democrats? Get better return on their retirement funds? File for more patents? What about inflation? Crime rates? In fact, invite them to find more than one criterion under which we are better ruled by the GOP... except tax rates for the rich and CEO compensation rates for monopolies.

Of course the grand-daddy ostrich site -- for anyone truly dedicated to transforming a decent conservative Republican back into a decent (still somewhat )American -- remains my own Ostrich Manifesto.

One of the best articles I have seen, aiming some light into the deeper drives of Barack Obama, would be “Barack by the books,” by Laura Miller, which appeared recently on Salon. The article dives into Obama’s memoir, "Dreams From My Father," focusing not only on his complex journey, raised in mostly-white society by white grandparents, but impelled to explore also the culture and needs of America’s other half. What Miller does, instead, is inspect the list of authors who Obama claims as influences, during his period of intellectual growth at Occidental College, Columbia and Harvard, and while working to organize communities in Illinois.

==Improving Society==

MoralManAmong the books about the process of improving society that influenced Obama were Reinhold Niebuhr's "Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics." Both Niebhur and another author, Saul Alinsky, were men who practiced the art of self criticism and self-reinvention. Both preached wariness toward what I have called the drug high of self-righteous romanticism, and instead emphasized the power of pragmatic incrementalism... the very thing that Barack Obama appears to represent and iconify, wherever he stands and speaks.

”Alinsky was a self-described radical and Niebuhr was a devout Christian but neither man was an idealist. Both tended to see morality as a kind of cover story used by groups who, in Niebuhr's words, "take for themselves whatever their power can command." That doesn't mean that these two men believed that nobody had the ability or will to change the world for the better. However, anyone who attempts to do so better be ready to get his hands dirty. So when we turn to the book Obama has most recently cited as a major influence, Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," it's not the Lincoln of popular American myth -- the secular saint and martyr -- we find praised there. It's Lincoln the wily politician, who was not above carefully hedging his public positions and who prided himself on cajoling his opponents to his side.”

AudacityHopeIn "The Audacity of Hope," Obama states: "I think my party can be smug, detached and dogmatic at times. I believe in the free market, competition and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of government programs don't work as advertised ... I think America has more often been a force for good than for ill in the world; I carry few illusions about our enemies, and revere the courage and competence of our military. I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally. I think much of what ails the inner city involves a breakdown in culture that will not be cured by money alone, and that our values and spiritual life matter at least as much as our GDP."

Dare an ostrich to call the author of that paragraph their enemy. Above all, even if that was packaged FOR conservatives, doesn’t it mean something that he would know how? Or think it worth the effort?

==The Audacity of Listening==

Another article I found both enlightening and mature was from Gail Collins, a new and promising columnist for the New York Times. “The Audacity of Listening” talks about how Obama the Pragmatist may infuriate purists, by actually meaning by what he said about moving past the outdated politics of left-vs-right. But that is precisely the sort of person he has always claimed to be.

On the other hand, Russ Daggatt says: ”Last week, Max Bergmann had a piece on The Huffington Post entitled, “.The Week That Should Have Ended McCain’s Hopes ” It listed just a week’s worth of examples of the train wreck that the McCain campaign has become. Of course, the media has a financial interest in the campaign being a “dead-heat” or a “real horserace” – that is much better for ratings. It seems impossible for McCain to commit a “gaffe” no matter what manner of erroneous or contradictory nonsense comes out of his mouth (because a “gaffe”, by definition, is something that the media pundits pounce upon – which cannot happen to McCain).

“Back in February, McCain said he would balance the budget in his first term. Then, in April when he proposed a series of costly tax cuts for corporations and high earners, he abandoned that pledge and said he would balance the budget by the end of his second term (assuming he can live that long). Then, on , the McCain campaign reversed itself again and reaffirmed that he would, indeed, balance the budget in his first term. That was followed by an immediate “clarification” from McCain’s top economic advisor saying the commitment was to balance the budget by the end of a second McCain term. This is all absurd. McCain has proposed to extend all of Bush’s tax cuts and add a bunch of other tax cuts for the rich, like lowering the maximum corporate tax rate from 35% to 25%. According to the non-partisan , McCain’s tax cuts would add $4 TRILLION dollars to the federal deficit over 10 years. And that’s not including McCain’s proposed spending increases.

“The McCain campaign has not explained how it would balance the budget while subtracting $4 TRILLION in revenue. As a means of balancing the budget, McCain has said he would veto all Congressional “earmarks”. But in the current fiscal year all Congressional “earmarks” total only $18 Billion (down 23% since Republicans lost control of Congress).”


A final pair of ostrich slugs... about how the divide is not so much “Red vs Blue” but a struggle between those who feel that we need smart leaders and those who feel it is cute and smart to be dumb.

And... repeat over and over again. Halliburton has moved its headquarters and re-registered itself as a company based and owned in Dubai... (repeat)...

==On Global Competitiveness==

The DLC has issued a major paper on US Global Competitiveness. As one might expect, it rejects lefty anti-globalization sentiment, supporting instead aggressive programs to boost the competitiveness of America and Americans. Among its recommendations:

• Create 250 Science/Technology Charter Schools. At present count, American universities graduate 60,000 engineers annually, while China produces 200,000 and India 100,000.

• Universal Broadband by 2012. The United States has fallen behind South Korea, Japan and several European nations in household connection to the Internet.

• Health Insurance for All Dislocated Workers and Portable Pensions. 46% of workers who lose their jobs also lose their health insurance. Congress has created a labyrinth of provisions meant to spur savings by maintaining 16 separate incentives.

• Revive Trade Enforcement and Open Markets. While the Clinton administration filed 66 cases with the World Trade Organization to defend American jobs against unfair trading practices, the Bush administration has filed only 19, even as foreign nations have filed 46 cases against the United States.

• Global Environmental Organization. Environmental policy is the gap in the world's international institutions. Especially with a climate-change agreement on the horizon, the world needs an institution comparable to the UN, World Trade Organization, International Labor Organization, IMF and World Bank capable of serving as the central venue for negotiating and implementing international environmental agreements.

  Another way to help US competitiveness -- AND help poor people overseas -- will be to push hard for labor-exploiting nations to adopt and enforce laws that meet international standards regarding child labor, unionization, health and safety and environmental protection.


==Worried Capitalists==

I do not hold it against my dear friend, the brilliant economic analyst and investment consultant John Mauldin, that he defends some members of the present U.S. administration. After all, loyalty, gratitude and friendship are among the highest of all human traits. Nevertheless, there comes a time to realize that a disaster is in the works, and that the hands presently at the tiller are proving, well, less than capable of steering a 21st Century ship of state. Moreover, John has shown that he is no ostrich, burying his head. Recently, he cited the following passage from HCM Market Letter, by Michael E. Lewitt, and I’d like to share it with you:

“At this point, the domestic economic picture can only be described as ominous. Energy prices have risen from dangerously high to prohibitively high. Housing prices are continuing to drop at alarming rates in many sections of the country. Banks remain reluctant to lend either to individuals or corporations for virtually any type of transaction. And our political and business elites remain a prosper of Hollow Men who continue to whistle past the graveyard as their limousines chauffeur them home each night to their gated mansions.... (P)olicy failures led us into our current difficulties. Inadequate financial regulation allowed unfettered securitization and leverage to push the system to the brink of collapse. A complete failure to fashion a responsible energy policy has led to skyrocketing gasoline prices. The damage inflicted on investors, consumers and businesses by these failures were avoidable. Instead, the political and financial elite placed their own short-term interests ahead of the long-term interests of everybody else, and the results are plain to see: burgeoning inflation, choked credit markets, and a deteriorating physical, moral and cultural climate. The only way to improve things is to identify what ails us and then initiate systemic reform. But systems cannot change unless the individuals who manage and participate in them are willing to change.”

What does all of the above show? That there definitely are some capitalists who have noticed how much things have gone awry. We need to drop our stereotypes and create a new coalition of the decent and the smart and the accountable. And that can include fellows in Brooks Brothers suits.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Potpourri of Science, technology and Whiz-Bang Stuff

Time to take a break from politics and worries about the "October Surprise in August". Let's have the latest flood of misc marvels, quirky quandaries and technological teasers.

For starters, an announcement: The winners of the “Uplift” computer graphics challenge have been announced in the video and animated categories.

I’ve spoken before about the still-image entries, many of which were truly wonderful, dramatic and astonishingly vivid. Some of them even related to the topic! (One can’t complain about talented artists following their own muse. Wonderful stuff!) Now see the video entries.

One, by Christopher Bischoff, though unfinished, has the makings of something really interesting. I hope he continues working on it and shows us some more. (It seems the only one that might do, for my books, what half a dozen entries did - spectacularly - for Greg Bear’s book EON, a couple of years ago... that is, actually help to sell a movie. Alas, I have no idea why none of the video teams thought it worth even cracking one of my books.) Several other entries ranged from cute to way-cool. Like the amusing work by Juraj Molcak, 'Adventures of Lifter Joe', which at least uses the verb “lift” - and George Kiparissous’s, 'Uplift', which does have a token chimp. As does the incredibly weird but really well (and creepily) rendered short film by Yiming Lin, Ong Kok Ping and Ishan Shukla called ‘Maternity'.

Oh, and if you know anybody who’d like to get into this field? Well, I have scripts for trailers for Startide and Uplift War.... Unused so far.

------- Solar Sails at last? ---

SolarSailsThis summer, NASA engineers will try to realize a dream older than the Space Age itself: the deployment of a working solar sail in Earth orbit. The name of the sail is NanoSail-D and it is scheduled for launch onboard a SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket as early as July 29, 2008. Um... about time? Note, the Falcon is the rocket of Paypal founder Elon Musk, also impressario of the Tesla Roadster. Hence NASA had to be proded and offered a free ride, to do what anybody sensible would have done way back in 1991, when I edited PROJECT SOLAR SAIL. (We hoped the run a regatta of privately-made sails past the moon, in honor of the Columbus Quincentennial. Sigh.)

Also. Those interested in interstellar travel, might have a look at Marc Millis Tau Zero Foundation - TZF - or the avowedly more “plebian” peregrinus interstellar (THE PI-CLUB) of Dr. Tibor Pacher. Of course the grand-daddy is the British Interplanetary Society which had pushed for spaceflight for decades, till big governments suddenly rushed into the business in the 1960s, at which point, with great agility, they shifted to speculative work on IS travel.

----- Movies better and worse than expected.

Expectations are half of perception. If you tune your dials beforehand, you can find the good in (say) a joyfully stupid film like “The Fifth Element” (brainless and utterly delightful) or “Get Smart” (surprisingly funny and even above average in the action department.)

Alas, my problem in recently watching “Jumper” was that someone told me it was pretty good science fiction...when, in fact, even low expectations could not have saved my reaction to this horrible dog. Noxious, immoral, illogical and stupid, it falls for every “idiot plot” device while portraying dismally unlikeable people at war with even more dismally unlikeable people... a scenario that can work (e.g. DUNE and the MATRIX) when the authors are aware of what they are doing... and not brain-dead/evil. Just one logical no brainer? Um... teleporters could gain protection at any time, by offering their services to national governments... or even (!) by going public and doing open good with their powers. Much like Hancock. Irony! Though deeply flawed in many ways, Hancock was probably written by one of the few Hwood screenwriters with a brain not fried/paranoid on coke. (Well, Akiva Goldsman does have some neurons. And guts. He does.)

the_stars_my_destinationWorst of all is when such a high-budget pile of drivel poisons the well for an entire zone of science fictional premise (e.g. personal “jaunting” or teleportation) that was already there, in excellent novels, like Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION. Bester did something that I often try to do... directly violating the Idiot Plot. He asked -- “what if the new thing wound up being shared by everybody?” Exactly as we’ve shared most of the cool new things that transformed civilization, so far.)

=== A Mess of Miscelany ===

NOTE! Some of these items have better provenance than others. Grain o' salt time...!)

Hospitals and doctors apologizing and fessing up have seen REDUCED malpractice costs, fights and even insurance premiums.

Now, as China prepares to showcase its economic advances during the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, Shenzhen is once again serving as a laboratory, a testing ground for the next phase of this vast social experiment. Over the past two years, some 200,000 surveillance cameras have been installed throughout the city. Many are in public spaces, disguised as lampposts. The closed-circuit TV cameras will soon be connected to a single, nationwide network.

Read the previous two items carefully. One shows the west learning the wisdom of eastern style version of transparency... while the other shows the east using western methods to cling to eastern traditions of control.

--- Rick Rolled to child porn = you're a pedophile, says FBI. Everyone has had it happen to them: a "friend" sends you a link that purports to be something like a cat in an awkward position with a hilarious caption. Soon, however, you discover that the link wasn't to a lolcat at all; instead, you've been Rick Rolled into a porno site. (Actually, it’s never happened to me, but I clipped this link so some of you out there can be warned. Apparently, one fellow got sniffed accidentally linking and won a criminal conviction.)

--- Billboards That Look Back - NYT - 5-31-08 “The cameras, they say, use software to determine that a person is standing in front of a billboard, then analyze facial features (like cheekbone height and the distance between the nose and the chin) to judge the person’s gender and age. So far the companies are not using race as a parameter, but they say that they can and will soon.”

=== Even More Random ===

In recent years, global photovoltaic (PV) production has been increasing at a rate of 50 percent per year, so that accumulated global capacity doubles about every 18 months. The PV Moore's law states that with every doubling of capacity, PV costs come down by 20 percent. Extrapolate those gains out six or seven years, and PV costs will be competitive by 2015... well, maybe. Still, in 2005, production of silicon for solar cells already surpassed production of silicon for semiconductors.

University of Melbourne researchers have shown that a DNA fragment taken from Tasmanian tiger samples (the thylacine, extinct for 70 years) can be added to mouse embryos, where the DNA functioned normally in making collagen. This is the first time that genetic material from an extinct animal has functioned inside a living host. More impressive, from a marsupial into a placental. Ah, but I’ve I’ve said since Jurassic Park -- the “reader machine” (the right egg and womb) is just as necessary as the code itself.

After an extensive search, astronomers say they have definitely found half of the universe's missing normal matter in the spaces between galaxies. The missing part of baryonic matter has largely escaped detection because it is too hot to be seen in visible light but too cool to be seen in X-rays. Dubbed the "intergalactic medium," or IGM, it extends essentially throughout all of space like a cosmic spider web.

Engineers and applied physicists from Harvard University have demonstrated the first room-temperature electrically-pumped semiconductor source of coherent Terahertz (THz) radiation, also known as T-rays. The breakthrough in laser technology, based upon commercially available nanotechnology, has the potential to become a standard Terahertz source to support applications ranging from security screening to chemical sensing.

The doughnut is making a comeback – at least as a possible shape for our Universe. The idea that the universe is finite and relatively small, rather than infinitely large, first became popular in 2003, when cosmologists noticed unexpected patterns in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – the relic radiation left behind by the Big Bang.

Straight-line extrapolation shows that China and India, with their faster growth rates, will eventually catch up to the U.S. in terms of pure economic size. But America has a final competitive advantage: its confluence of bright, hungry entrepreneurs and flush, eager investors; and its stable, highly adaptable system. Huh... well, we can hope.

With the help of U.S. defense contractors, China is building the prototype for a high-tech police state. It is ready for export. We'll see. There are other trends.

Despite a court-ordered ban on the teaching of creationism in US schools, about one in eight high-school biology teachers still teach it as valid science, a survey by Pennsylvania State University researchers reveals. About 16 percent said they believed human beings had been created by God within the last 10,000 years.

Researchers at the University of Tskuba in Japan have designed a quantum eavesdropper that can extract information from a quantum message without the sender or receiver knowing. It exploits a loophole: the ability to make imperfect copies of quantum states without destroying the original coded entanglement. Whoops! There goes yet another straw grasped by the encryption transcendentalists!

BroadStar Wind Systems' new AeroCam wind turbine is the first to break through the $1/watt cost barrier, the company claims. Designed with a low profile on a horizontal axis with multiple blades, it looks like an old McCormack reaper!

A new scanning electron microscope (SEM) design by physicist Derek Eastham could achieve a resolution around four times better than existing SEMs--as low as 0.01 nanometers (roughly the distance between a hydrogen nucleus and its electron).

“There's nothing special about the Sun that makes it more likely than other stars to host life, a new study shows. The finding adds weight to the idea that alien life should be common throughout the universe.” Well... maybe. In fact: “The Sun did stand out in two ways: it is more massive than 95% of nearby stars and its orbit around the centre of our galaxy is more circular than those of 93% of nearby stars...But when all 11 properties were taken on board, the Sun looked very ordinary. Robles's team calculates that there would be only about one chance in three that a star selected at random would be "more typical" than the Sun.”

Um... that sounds like begging the question by being pedantic about terminology. In fact, any one or two traits might be responsible for our anomalous conditions. Heaping in a dozen others, just to smear things out, does not make for good science, nor refute the unusual-ness of Sol. Indeed: “They conclude that there are probably no special attributes that a star requires to have a habitable planet, other than the obvious one – the planet must be within the star's habitable "goldilocks" zone, orbiting at a distance where the temperature is not too hot for life, nor too cold, but just right.” And, indeed, this may be a trait that is very much anomalous in our solar system.

Chinese scientists have developed 500-nanometer lithium-ion-battery electrode materials using tin Nanoparticles encapsulated in elastic hollow carbon-nanotube-based spheres, replacing conventional graphite. The scientists have found that the new materials provide higher initial and long-term ampere-hours capacity, prolonging battery life....

Argonne National Laboratory scientists have developed composite battery materials that can make batteries for laptops and cell phones both safer and longer lived, while increasing their capacity to store energy by 30 percent. The new materials are one example of a new generation of lithium-ion electrode chemistries that address the shortcomings...

Highly efficient nanotube-based tile materials that can convert radiation, not heat, from nuclear materials into electricity.

Tomorrow's laptop? (Thanks to Ray Kurzweil for many of these links. Just remember that Ray tends to be... enthusiastic.)

Low doses of hydrogen sulfide (smell of rotten eggs) can safely and reversibly produce a suspended-animation-like state in mice.

Intel and Microsoft plan to fund researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Illinois $20 million to start over and design a new generation of computing systems. The move was motivated in part by an increasing sense that the industry is in a crisis of a sort because advanced parallel software has failed to emerge.

Our skin contains millions of microscopic helical sweat ducts that may act as antennas that reveal a person's physical and emotional state from a distance, Hebrew University researches have discovered. Treating the skin as an array of helical antennas could open up a new method of measuring physiological changes.

Northwestern University researchers have found that a nanoengineered gel inhibits the formation of scar tissue at a spinal cord injury site and enables the severed spinal cord fibers to regenerate and grow.

Popsci.com offers ”10 Audacious Ideas to Save the Planet.” Of course, my “EON” proposal would make this sort of list systematic, persuasive and effective...

Which countries make the grade when it comes to fuel efficiency — and which earn failing marks?

The total number of people online will climb to 1.8 billion by 2012, encompassing roughly 25 percent of the planet, with the highest growth rates in areas such as China, Russia, India and Brazil.

Rresearchers at the University of California at Davis have found that fructose, but not glucose, causes alarming changes in increased intra-abdominal fat. (Arg, I planted so many fruit trees, thinking “it’s organic,” and now what do I do with all the plums?)

=== Hysterical Historical Quotes ===

[The telegraph] binds together by a vital cord all the nations of the earth. It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for an exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth. *Charles Briggs and Augustus Maverick, 1858*

[It is] inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service and for news and for entertainment and education [as radio] ... to be drowned in advertising chatter or used for commercial purposes. *Herbert Hoover, 1922*

Television drama of high caliber, produced by first-rate artists, will materially raise the level of dramatic taste of the American nation. *David Sarnoff, 1941*

Cable [television] will create great access to information; it will also greatly assist self-identity, democratic processes, educational environments, and community cohesion. *Barry Schwartz, 1973*

Our new ways of communicating [the Internet] will entertain as well as inform. More importantly, they will educate, promote democracy, and save lives. *Al Gore, 1994*

In fairness... this cynicism festival misses the point. Sure, each new generation of electronic communications became drenched with crass commercialism. But, then, most forms of PRINT communication became drenched in porn! Nevertheless, and despite incredibly bad cable TV laws that have destroyed so-called “public-access” and all competition, I have to point out something that nobody else has -- that half of the cable channels you see today are “daughters of PBS”... what else would you call the History Channel, Discovery, Food, Home & Garden, A&E, Classic Movies, and so on? Oh, there’s a cynical answer; good, nonfiction TV is cheap to produce! Look at how little the History Channel pays me (generally nothing) to be a talking head on “The Universe” or “Life After People.” So? It’s an irony! It’s the crap that costs more to make.

---- Keep an eye on India. ---

In engineering studies, the number of students enrolled in full-time, four-year undergraduate degree programs has risen from 250,000 in 1997 to 1.5 million in 2007, and is currently growing at 25% annually. Most surprisingly, the higher-education sector has moved from a primarily state-provided service to private provision within a decade. Ninety-five percent of the above increase comes from enrollment in privately run colleges, which now account for 80% of the total. The storied state-owned Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), which made up 10% of national engineering enrollment in 1990, now account for less than 2% and graduate 5,000 students a year. In brief, the national government has increasingly yielded control over higher education to the individual states over the past 10 years. The states have, in turn, allowed the private sector in, something that the national government resisted when it was in charge. OTOH, recent commodities price rises have hurt India in particular. And it is arguable what fraction of their “engineers” can actually innovate or problem solve. And wealth disparities --- well, let’s hope.

---
“If we could ever competitively—at a cheap rate—get fresh water from salt water,” observed President John Kennedy nearly 50 years ago, “that would be in the long-range interest of humanity, and would really dwarf any other scientific accomplishment.” There are now 13,080 desalination plants in operation around the world. Together they have the capacity to produce up to 55.6m cubic metres of drinkable water a day—a mere 0.5% of global water use. About half of the capacity is in the Middle East. (Where energy is cheap.) But now things are changing. As more parts of the world face prolonged droughts or water shortages, desalination is on the rise. In California alone some 20 seawater-desalination plants have been proposed, including a $300m facility near San Diego. Several Australian cities are planning or constructing huge desalination plants, with the biggest, near Melbourne, expected to cost about $2.9 billion.

Wired editor Chris Anderson’s THE LONG TAIL predicted people would go for individualism, rewarding niche producers. But Anita Elberse, a marketing professor at Harvard's business school, looked at data for online video rentals and song purchases, and discovered that the patterns by which people shop online are essentially the same as the ones from offline. Not only do hits and blockbusters remain every bit as important online, but the evidence suggests that the Web is actually causing their role to grow, not shrink. Following the fad. Lets the best push out the merely good. As seen in Kiln People.

Carved out in a barley field, this 150ft wide pattern is said to be a pictorial representation of the first ten digits of Pi, one of the most fundamental symbols in mathematics.

Giant Snake-Shaped Generators Could Capture Wave Power.

Marine fossil records show that biodiversity increases and decreases based on a 62-million-year cycle. At least two of the Earth's great mass extinctions-the Permian extinction 250 million years ago and the Ordovician extinction about 450 million years ago-correspond with peaks of this cycle, which can't be explained by evolutionary theory. Our own star moves toward and away from the Milky Way's center, and also up and down through the galactic plane. One complete up-and-down cycle takes 64 million years- suspiciously close to the Earth's biodiversity cycle. (See my 1980s era article in Analog: "The Deadly Thing at 2.2 Kiloparsecs.")

And from the i-told-you-the-voices-were-real dept. Science Sportsqs writes "The Sierra Nevada Corporation claimed this week that it is ready to begin production on the MEDUSA, a damned scary ray gun that uses the 'microwave audio effect' to implant sounds and perhaps even specific messages inside people's heads." (Got my doubts about this one.)

Project Dragonfly has pioneered inquiry-driven reform to increase public engagement in science and global understanding.

---
Here’s a rather breathless screed about the so-called “teen pregnancy pact”... a crazy story generated by an irresponsible high school principal, completely false and yet fanned into flames by an insane media machine. The screed is intemperate but entertaining. It also misses the core point. That “Red America” has higher rates of domestic violence, divorce, premarital sex, extramarital sex, STDs and teen pregnancy than “Blue America.”

Period.

Repeat as needed. Over and over and over and over. Screeds are less effective than repetition, alas. And this from an inveterate screed writer.

---
Ask two people to answer a question like "how many windows are there on a London double-decker bus" and average their answers. Their combined guesses will usually be more accurate than if just one person had been asked. Ask a crowd, rather than a pair, and the average is often very close to the truth. The phenomenon was called "the wisdom of crowds" by James Surowiecki, a columnist for the New Yorker who wrote a book about it. Now a pair of psychologists have found an intriguing corollary. They have discovered that two guesses made by the same person at different times are also better than one... the average of the two guesses was better than either guess on its own. ... Second guesses made immediately improved accuracy by an average of 6.5%; those made after three weeks improved the accuracy by 16%. Jun 26th 2008 From The Economist

Even after three weeks, the result is still only one-third as good as the wisdom of several different people. But that this happens at all raises questions about "individuality" within an individual. If guesses can shift almost at random, where are they coming from? One answer could be that they are evidence for the "generate and test" model of creative thinking. This suggests that the brain is constantly creating hypotheses about the world and checking them against reality. Those that pass muster are adopted. Guessing the answers to questions you do not know the correct answer to, but have some idea of what the right answer ought to look like, could tap into such a system. A hive mind buzzing with ideas, as it were, but inside a single skull.

---- The sun usually operates on an 11-year cycle with maximum activity occurring in the middle of the cycle. Minimum activity generally occurs as the cycles change. The last cycle reached its peak in 2001 and is believed to be just ending now. The next cycle is just beginning and is expected to reach its peak sometime around 2012. Today's sun, however, is as inactive as it was two years ago, and scientists aren't sure why. The sun once went 50 years without producing sunspots. That period coincided with a “little ice age” that lasted from 1650 to 1700.

It started as a search for a way to provide cold storage for vaccines in underdeveloped areas. Adam Grosser talks about a project to build a refrigerator that works without electricity or other stored fuels to bring the vital tool to villages and clinics worldwide. Tweaking some old technology, he's come up with a system that works.

... and on a positive note... that will have to do for now....


Sunday, July 06, 2008

Four Reflections On Patriotism

Are we really 232 years old? Already? Why, it seems only yesterday...

Reflecting on the meaning of July Fourth, I joined millions wondering how we found ourselves in national crisis. Only a decade ago, it seemed that America was at a pinnacle and still rising. Aside from a few grumbles in Moscow, Beijing and Paris, the world seemed happy to accept a “unipolar” world, led (gently) by a consensus-seeking but also overwhelmingly powerful Pax Americana. Our alliances and popularity (the underpinnings of real international strength) were unsurpassed. Our technology, economy, finances and science, appeared unparalleled.

Even from a conservative perspective, it took real contortions to find things to get vexed about, during the 1990s. (Though that did not keep the lurid, livid rationalizations from flowing).

Military readiness was at an all-time high. (Every US Army brigade was prepared to defend us... vs. none (zero) today.) The economy boomed, small business startups surged as never before, deficits turned into surpluses, crime plummeted along with teen pregnancy rates, secrecy declined and the government’s share of GDP dropped, for the first time since the Great Depression. Note that all of the examples that I chose should appeal to conservatives -- that is, those who aren't hypocrites.

Moreover, after a century in which our triumphs - over fascism, communism, racism, outer space and our own inner devils - seemed so vast compared to our (also extravagant) mistakes, it seemed that America held a high and near permanent status on the world's moral high ground. If patriotism is more than just a reflexive rush of righteous hormones, chanting worshipfully at your tribal totem, then it flourishes best when your country is truly different. When it stands for something new and powerful for good.

How things change in a few short years. Our status as unquestioned leader of a unipolar world is shriveled to the point of ridicule. Our strengths have been spent and frittered. Worst of all, here in Phase Three of the U.S. Civil War, there now appear to be two Americas and one of them wallows in deep denial that their beloved cause has wrought all this terrible harm. The “red” half nods, entranced, as Sean Hannity stakes his outrageous personal claim as ultimate arbiter of patriotism - by waving the flag harder and louder than anybody else - while he continues aiding and abetting those who have betrayed the republic far more than Benedict Arnold ever did.

Alas.

Fortunately, there are better voices, urging a more mature version of patriotism. Columnist Robert Scheer offers the following excerpt from Washington's "Farewell Address" - a declaration of our first president’s high expectations for a republic of free men:

"In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But, if I may even flatter myself, that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism. ..."

(Scheer goes on to offer much wisdom... but lamentably falls for the most common, Michael Moore delusion of the left, that our invasion of Iraq was about “getting Iraqi oil.” This flies in the face of blatant facts, e.g. that only NOW, after five years, is that oil starting to flow (and yes, corruptly to some US oilco interests.) Indeed, one can argue that keeping Iraqi oil OFF of world markets may have been a core objective, all along.

(Looking at actual effects of the Iraq Imbroglio, one sees a better case for the use of “emergency” overrides so that multi-billion dollar, no-bid crony contracts could be handed over to Bush friends for “war zone services” by Halliburton, KBR, Blackwater, etc, making the old Military Industrial Complex (Boeing etc) look like absolute angels, by comparison. One could get even more paranoid by tallying the actual results of this insane adventure - all converging upon the demolition of Pax Americana, the one thing the neocons claimed to be fighting for! Why do even opponents of the Bushite Cabal reflexively refuse to consider the parsimonious explanation? That results, so relentlessly and consistently achieved, might have been the aim, all along?)


Of even greater resonance and importance, at this point, is Barack Obama’s speech about this matter, on June 30.

It is a deeply articulate, passionate and yet intelligently nuanced essay that we all ought to read, even opponents, so that we can get some of the measure of this man.

This line was special: "For a young man of mixed race, without firm anchor in any particular community, without even a father's steadying hand, it is this essential American idea – that we are not constrained by the accident of birth but can make of our lives what we will – that has defined my life, just as it has defined the life of so many other Americans."

Oh, and later on, amid many fine insights, he speaks for those of us who remember the future, when he calls for rediscovering our role as a scientific nation. It is the first time I have heard any candidate in this election cycle refer to science unsolicited. (Along these lines, see “Questions For the Candidates About Science and America’s Future.”)

Do read it all the way through. I still have many questions about him. But this is an unusual fellow.

-----
Obama and States Rights.

I’ve made a habit of offering jiu jitsu moves that Barack Obama and the democrats might use to shatter the standard, partisan strawmen that Fox-Rove&co have used, to foment Culture War. (And some of my suggestions would do good, even if they were used, effectively, by John McCain!) The “Stipulation Gambit” -- and a vow to Honor the Losers -- would surprise and woo many fence-sitters, while transforming American politics forever.

Obama has already shown a level of agility that bodes well Now another suggestion -- that he should embrace States Rights as an important modern cause. Dave Rickey wrote in to say: “We all know that only Nixon could go to China’. So if Obama stood up and made an honest appeal for "State's Rights," against the wave of federal power-usurpation by the Cheney Cabal, it would have special resonance.”

With jiu jitsu in mind, think about States Rights. The term carries an old-timey feel of connection to Dixiecrats fighting for Jim Crow, so nobody uses it anymore. But that makes the term available, to be snatched up by a new and agile leader! Imagine how it would rock back those who assume one pattern “typical” of liberalism, for the liberal standard bearer to demand a good version of states rights... one that will allow innovative regions like California to pursue paths toward energy independence, environmentalism, health reform, and so on, without being bludgeoned by a heavy-handed presidency. Could anything better show Obama’s contrast vs a power-mad imperial Bush Cabal, that has betrayed everything decent conservatism ought to stand for?

Obama did something similar when he said he would seek a reform of the U.S. tax code if elected in November, saying the current tax system is a "10,000-page monstrosity." But that promise lacks power simply because it has been made so many times before. (In fact though, I have a simple way that the tax code could be trimmed by 70% without much political pain or obstructionism! It is a method that is mostly politically neutral, gores very few sacred cows, is cheap and easy to implement, and is almost guaranteed to work! Yet, to the best of my knowledge it has never been tried, or even proposed! Alas.)

---See also: American Exceptionalism vs What has Made America Exceptional

Final Note: osama bin laden: mission accomplished?

''[Osama bin Laden] said at one point that he wants oil to be $144 a barrel'' -- about six times what it sells for now." Roger Diwan, a managing director, Petroleum Finance Company, New York Times October 14, 2001

Ten years ago, back in the awful Clinton years, the price of a barrel of oil was just $11. Heading into this holiday weekend, the price of a barrel of oil rested at $144 — a thirteen-fold increase.