Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Dark matter anomalies, galaxies, moons and more!

Perfect fare to start off the New Year and give you that desperately needed jolt of optimistic determination -- every few years this epic-good short film - Wanderers -- gets rediscovered by the Web and re-viraled. As it should, be, yet again. It is that good. That beautiful and inspiring.

== Dark Matter anomalies ==

Let's dig in for one of our periodic space and science compilations, as a way of celebrating what has to have been by-far humanity's best year in exploration of the cosmos. A truly spectacular year... almost as amazing as the fact that almost none of our fellow citizens even remotely realize it.

And so...

Streams of dark matter particles may interact with our planet’s gravitational field. Non-baryonic mass seems to not engage our kind (baryonic) via electromagnetism or interacting with light. But we know it is out there, from the orbital speeds of stars around galactic centers… and from cases of gravitational lensing.  Now this “stream” concept intrigues: “A (dark matter) stream can be much larger than the solar system… perhaps many streams crisscross our galactic neighborhood… When gravity interacts with the cold dark matter gas during galaxy formation, all particles within a stream continue traveling at the same velocity.”

Further: “As these streams begin to interact with a planet, according to results from his computer simulation, the streams pass straight through, focusing as an “ultra-dense filament,” producing many dark matter “hairs” that seem to sprout well above Earth’s surface. This stream will not interact with our planet’s normal matter, it will pass through as if nothing were there, but channeled by the intensity of Earth’s gravity.

And: “For Earth, the dark matter streams will emerge from the planet, concentrating as “roots” of the dark matter hairs around 600,000 miles above the surface (about twice the Earth-moon distance)… “tips” of the hairs should be located over twice as far away from the planet’s surface….”

What’s cool is that this hypothesis should be testable with sensitive gravimetric satellite probes. Already some discrepancies seem to point to dark matter anomalies… though not yet “hairs.” 

== Moons, asteroids and more ==

Go to Phobos before landing on Mars itself?  I have pushed this idea for twenty years and now some at NASA agree.  Not only is the larger moon far easier to reach and might serve as an ideal research platform, it also has two advantages never mentioned in this article.  It can serve as a logistics hub where supplies might be pre-positioned and tended without complex orbital management.  It also might (some figure) be carbonaceous chondritic material, containing volatiles like water.  If these could be mined and stored and prepared, subsequent Mars landing missions would find all the water and rocket fuel they need, lowering both cost and risk by an order of magnitude.  

I’ve long held that Phobos, the larger moon of Mars, is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the solar system.  Certainly the Russians seem to think so, though none of their efforts have delivered a lander, yet.  (Note, Phobos has far less of a gravitational well to deal with than out vastly larger Moon, which renders the latter almost useless as a staging area or logistics hub.)

Now there are indications we had better hurry!  There may be only a little time left to exploit this resource! Phobos is being slowly torn apart by gravity as it approaches the Red Planet at a rate of 2 meters every century, a rate that will cause it to break apart completely within the next 50 million years. Mars may lose a moon, but gain a ring, so hurry up!

Speaking of fascinating moons… “At half the diameter of Pluto, Charon is the largest satellite relative to its planet in the solar system. Many New Horizons scientists expected Charon to be a monotonous, crater-battered world; instead, they're finding a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more.” Signs of a possible once-molten interior point to very active early days in the solar system.  And the features on one side of Charon are named after… science fiction characters!  The other side, never seen clearly by New Horizons, will get names only after some future mission… so make my characters famous and beloved enough to get places of their own!  

== More excitement... for those capable of looking up ==

Oh, what a wonderful year it's been, in humanity's advancement through space and the cosmos!  Possibly the best year ever, and I include the 1960s.  And now -- the Cassini probe just completed a dive to within 50 kilometers of Enceledus, Saturn's little moon whose under-ice ocean is spewing plumes of water into space.  Cassini’s passage through those plumes will reveal much about ice-roofed ocean moons and the possibility they may be abodes of life. 

A new study, published in Science, suggests that the asteroid or comet that impacted the Earth 66 million years ago rocked the planet severely enough to set off massive volcanic eruptions in India, spreading lava across the Deccan Traps. Together, the impact and volcanism finished off the dinosaurs and 70 percent of the Earth's species.

By now you’ve all seen the news (dismissed as a hoax by Rush Limbaugh) that there is (briny) liquid water occasionally flowing on a current-day Mars.  Suggesting that the precious material is both more common and accessible than expected. Not everyone greets the news with enthusiasm, though: “…but the very fact that it’s in a liquid state is troubling. In fact, it could be deadly.”  Because highly caustic perchlorates are known to be common on Mars and these may be among the salty substances in the brine-stew. And perchlorates destroy organic compounds. (They are also components of solid rocket fuel.) Though there are also a few earthly organisms that find them yummy.  And who can fault a liquid that's... brin-y?

Once a week a thousand ton asteroid passes between the Earth and Moon.  Thousands of small ones are easier to reach energetically than the surface of the moon, and laced with vastly more useful minerals. This spooky “skull-shaped” asteroid passed near us on Halloween!

Three times as far away as Pluto, V774104 is officially the most distant object yet in our solar system.

== Galaxies and black holes ==

Most galaxies appear to have a supermassive black hole at the center. About one percent are “active galaxies” where this central black hole is sucking in matter fast enough to create fierce jets, spewing from the north and south poles. A ‘blazar’ happens when one of these jets happens to be aimed our way.  In one case, the Fermi orbiting gamma ray observatory has seven years’ data suggesting a two year periodicity with real implications.  Stay tuned. 

Have we found evidence of another universe bumping into ours? Some anomalies in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) might — (not the top probability, but not excluded) be caused by contact with another “bang” cosmos next to ours.    

An aged mini-galaxy, near the Milky Way, has just 1000 or so stars and is making no new ones… yet its dark matter component may be huge. A number of dwarf galaxies - just discovered - are changing our perceptions.

A lovely article on the newly augmented LIGO gravitational wave detector system that recently came online and that may finally give us a whole new window onto the cosmos.

== Space Technologies == 

The idea of Space Solar Power Satellites is making some headway. A proposal titled "Carbon-Free Energy for Global Resilience and International Goodwill" has been selected for semi-finals in the Secretary of Defense's innovation challenge.  Led by Lt Col. Pete Garretson, the group seeks to "empower global prosperity and security: through a three step program leading to an ambitious international on-orbit demo of an orbital power station within 10 years."

Cool… literally!   3-D Printed Igloo Wins Mars Habitat Contest.  If astronauts land in a place where water is abundant, this could be the ideal building material.  

Did I invent the concept of the “refrigerator laser?”  Someone find a mention before my 1980 novel Sundiver!  Now scientists claim to have brought a version into the real world, using an infrared laser to excite electrons in a single microscopic crystal suspended in water. That produced emissions that transmitted-away slightly more energy than the amount of light absorbed, and the surrounding water cooled.

Super Strypi is a system to launch a rocket along a 45 degree slanted rail in order to give it rapid turnaround and self-correcting spin, in order to access Low Earth Orbit with small payloads with minimized cost and time.  

Let me conclude this amalgam by thanking Elon and the SpaceX team for the finest Solstice present  - capping our best yet year in space.  Now every other rocket company will have to innovate and re-land their boosters too.  Just like Tesla forced them to admit it's time for electric cars.  Even if he winds up in the poor house, he will have changed the world. Forever.

Onward!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

J.J. Abrams Awakens the Force

Okay we saw it.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens (SW:TFA), on Christmas Eve.  And although I am lead author — and “prosecuting attorney” — of the book Star Wars on Trial, and hence a leading critic of the series, I must admit that: 

(1) The newest installment of the franchise — directed by J.J. Abrams under Disney management — has none of the deeply objectionable traits of Episodes I, II, III and VI that I denounced in that controversial tome. Abrams and Disney shrugged off the lunacies George Lucas compulsively preached in those vividly colorful-yet-wretched flicks.

(2) On the other hand, TFA had less than I had hoped for, of the magic and brilliance of Episodes IV and V.  Alas.

But let’s do a scorecard of this film's Good aspects, its Okay ones, the Bad… and the Ugly.

WARNING: TOTAL SPOILERS AHEAD!  Including some if you've already seen the film.


The GOOD:

  Characters! … Character is J.J. Abrams's strong suit. We knew this from LOST, where we cared deeply about them all, despite there being no sense to the story. And to be clear, Mr. Abrams did the Star Trek characters very well, too -- individually and interacting, one-on-one.  Hence, no surprise, he worked the same magic here, in SW:TFA. These people were all well crafted, the actors well-directed, and I could feel them. Moreover, let there be no doubt that characters are the most important element in all types of drama, especially film. This alone made The Force Awakens worthwhile. 

More on characters, below. Grade A-

(Why the A-minus? Because after all, well, it is Star Wars and Abrams had a limited character palette to work with. But he worked it well.)

   Effects and visuals... These were always George Lucas's fixation and the one area where he always came through. The team he built delivered nicely in this latest film. Grade  A.

    Music...  I listened carefully for the themes for the new characters. They were nice, but did not tug at the heart quite as powerfully as I felt the riffs for Luke and Darth and Leia, back in the 1970s. All right, I was younger then. Solid Williams. Grade A-

The OKAY:

    Dialogue... I had so hoped for the sizzle of Laurence Kasden's earlier script, with the great Leigh Brackett, for The Empire Strikes Back.  Clearly, Mr. Abrams wanted it too, in re-hiring Kasden for another go!  Alas, while the script for SW:TFA is serviceable, getting us from point to point, it contains almost nothing truly memorable, this time.  

Well, at least it wasn't memorably awful, like the dialogue in Lucas's cringeworthy prequels. So, in fact, "serviceable" came as a huge relief. Grade B

     Memory lane indulgences... oh preserve us from the stunning need of all series directors to slavishly show us every beloved character in every possible coincidence, like the way Mr. Abrams made every classic Enterprise bridge officer be part of the very same Starfleet Academy class, and then bringing in Carol Marcus and Khaaaan. Oy.

Still, I give Mr. Abrams some credit for self-control this time. In fact, there were fewer of these self-indulgences than I feared, in SW:TFA. Just way too many.  (Though I admit it was a shock to re-encounter Edna Mode from The Incredibles in this flick, doing pretty much the same work. She does get around.)  C+

     Messages…. There were almost none! Which came as a relief, given how deeply George Lucas dived into propagandizing demigod-worship and spitefulness toward democracy or citizenship or common men and women. (ref: Star Wars on Trial.) I knew neither Disney nor Abrams would repeat that sickness — but there was no correction, either.  

Mind you, I kept hoping to hear that the Republic Fleet might show up and neutralize the First Order Armada, so that our heroes could do their thing. Would that have hurt?  Three extra minutes and some added battle-sizzle, while showing that the Republic and its quadrillion citizens can actually do something. Even in a supporting role?

But the damage to our notions of civilization self-confidence runs so deep that I do not blame Abrams for never thinking of it.  C+

     Sci Fi….  What’s to grade? This is not science fiction. Except briefly, in Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back, it never was. For example where does the First Order get its money, its industrial base? Where do these gigantic war machines suddenly appear from? Do folks on planets resent having their sons stolen to become janissary Storm Troopers? If one henchman - Finn - can refuse to shoot a couple of villagers, might another, somewhere in the guts of that giant weapon, balk at helping to kill billions? 

A sci fi flick might have contemplated realistic ways that conflicted good overcomes ornery-plausible evil. Star Trek has taken on that question in countless nuanced variations. 

Heck, if J.J. Abrams were ever to ask my advice (and he never will), I would suggest a plot device of a villain seeking to technologize access to the Force! How much more interesting that would be, than just inserting another Sauron-style emperor and another Darth Vader wannabee.

But Star Wars is not science fiction! It is fantasy of the old school: Good and Evil are archetypes of utter simplicity. Pure light versus pure dark. Sweet folk versus red-glowing eyes.  Pretty=good and ugly=evil. The Force Awakens does all this about as well as other flicks that wallow fantasy-obsessions like "long-ago" lords and mages and mystical mumbo, e.g. Tolkien, except that in Star Wars the wizard wands are light sabers.  

Oh, this could have been science fiction. But hey, that boat sailed long ago and so let's take the franchise for what it is. And heck, why deny myself a bona fide pleasure? I can enjoy a good fantasy wallow.  Grade___ pass. 

(Oh, can you dig it? In this photo I'm wearing the crew jacket from Kevin Costner's The Postman flick.  Don't get me started on THAT!)  

The BAD:

    Plot....  Lord help us, we should have known what to expect, after LOST and Star Trek: Into Darkness... If characters are J.J. Abrams's genius strong suit, plotting is pretty much hopeless.  

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (episode VII) is essentially a remake of Star Wars: A New Hope (ep.IV), starting with a dreamy youngster stuck on a desert world wearing beige-offwhite, who rescues a fugitive droid from scavengers and storm troopers. A droid containing a secret that might save the rebellion. Followed by a cantina scene, then a Millennium Falcon swoop-escape, then some tentacled monsters. After which we observe a helmeted baddy first report to an ugly-hissing hologram of an evil emperor, then see him leer and grill a captured princess aboard a giant planet-killer. At which point goodguy infiltrators lower the shields and have fun with a trash compacter...

... all of it culminating with a little ship diving or shooting into a big ship to blow it up from the inside.

Seriously, this makes FOUR out of seven flicks in which that happens. Four… out…of… seven. 

Really? Must you? Sure, character is more important than plot. Still, plotting matters. And here TFA gets a Grade D+

The UGLY... and a missed opportunity:

There were moments, alas, when I just had to fiercely quash all critical faculties in order to stay in the spirit of the film. I succeeded! (I get plenty of practice, alack.) But these tucked-away moments did come to mind, later. 

One was an embarrassing scene in the rebel base -- (will we ever see Leia actually use some force?) -- when some rebel warrior asks incredulously (I paraphrase) "But... but... isn't this just another damn Death Star?"  

To which came the lame answer - delivered in a voice that I swear sounded apologetic -  "But can't you see? This one is much BIGGER!" 

Seriously? The dial now goes to Eleven? Even the minor human characters are complaining and rationalizing, from inside the film itself!

But most of the lame scenes involved the lead villain: Kylo Ren. I mean, when he removed his helmet for the first time, transforming muffled echoes into normal (perchance rather whiney) tones, did you expect to find Rick Moranis under there? A part of me did. A part I hated! Because I really wanted to enjoy this flick...

...and I did! Truly, I did. Especially Max Von Sydow (!!!) doing his impression of Obiwan, first as a desert hermit, then getting struck down by Darth Junior. Only to come back later, more powerful than we can imagine? Oh Please? 

Still, dang, you couldn't have given Max Von Sydow a soliloquy? Just a little one? I mean... were you aware of the fact that you were aiming a camera at ... Max... Von... Sydow?

 ("There comes a time, barbarian, when jewels cease to sparkle, when gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father's love for his child." Now that was a movie!)

But getting back to Kylo Ren. Um, we’re supposed to be impressed that Ren’s light saber has teeny little cross guards? Feh. Get a midichlorian fix, dude. Grade D-

Summing up:

Sure, this flick was essentially a remake of A New Hope, punctuated with other borrowings. In fact, next time you watch ep.VII, try to count the number of scenes that weren't homages to other SW flicks. Like Rey going underground to encounter the Force, the way Luke did on Dagoba. 

Or like another father-son confrontation on a bridge. That wasn't a bad idea, actually, though meh-executed, deserving far better attention to masterful dialogue. At least Han could have done a remise on the most-famous line by saying: “remember your mother.”  

(Good death scene for Han, though.)

My favorite part of SW: TFA? The very last scene. It was well done and a fine capper. (And possibly Mark Hamill’s best acting, ever.) 

Still, ask yourself this. Did Luke have to repeat Yoda’s path so precisely? Allowing one apprentice to kill all his other apprentices and then, instead of fixing the problem, going into a sulking exile till some new-hope trainee shows up? Um, didn't Obiwan do that, too? I mean, how many such things must repeat endlessly before fans start to stir, take notice and demand… 

...okay, okay, the answer to that question, I already know. 

Know it, so do you. 
Obvious -- and sad -- it is. 
Never, will they demand better.

But let's end up positive, here! Another set of high points were Rey’s confrontations with Ren. Cool stuff. Well drawn and acted and directed. I like her. 

And Finn. And all the women in my life vote for Oscar Isaac's character "Poe" who has the "force" of enviable masculinity. As I said, J.J. Abrams knows characters! He is brilliant with characters, as George Lucas was brilliant with visuals. And yet, as Clint Eastwood said - so-wisely - in Magnum Force: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” 

Clearly, J.J. Abrams knows this (Lucas did not.) Hence Abrams hired Laurence Kasden to work magic. And it worked, somewhat.  Extra credit points for good intentions.

The crux?  

I’ll not bother railing against this one — nor shouting joy, as I did after the anomalously wonderful Empire Strikes Back.  This newest installment is a decent-entertaining flick, benefiting from near complete absence of earlier Lucasian poisons.  A solid, fun, self-indulgent and utterly repetitive-cliched good investment of twenty bucks and a couple of hours of lifespan.  I regret nothing… 

…partly because my expectations were so low, to start with.



Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Back to Carson and Trump… and other ideal men!

Last political posting I broached my what-if scenario (1:4 odds) that the powers in the Grand Old Republican Party will try for a brokered convention aimed at throwing the nomination to Paul Ryan. Now let's have a glance at why they are desperate to do this. 

Hate-government propaganda has reached a point where having a scintilla of experience at public governance is poison to a GOP candidate. Our parents in the Greatest Generation would be appalled by this betrayal of everything they fought for, using government as one tool in their ambitious kit. Even more so, they'd be stunned by the boomer and GenXer candidates’ stunning self-obsession.

Donald Trump puts his name on everything and coats his homes with gold. Ben Carson's homes are plastered with paintings of himself (including selfies with Jesus) and blowups of press clippings, even in the baths. Carly Fiorina touts friendships with people who openly loathe her. Ted Cruz calls himself the only Republican with any cojones. What's with the frail egos of these GOP front-runners? Trump's blaring self-touting and Carson's relentless humble-brags say a lot about their followers - our neighbors who would foist such people on us.

== Oh the scenarios! ==

What an entertaining season.  I wrote much of what follows in this posting back when Ben Carson was the flavor of the moment. (It's still fun stuff so read on!) Now it's all Donald Trump again.  Before I go on though...

If Trump gets the GOP nomination, will other goppers (many of them calling him “unhinged” or a “bigot” or "jerk") support him as the other candidates have signed a pledge to do? They used that pledge to corner Trump, now it is they who are cornered. But this article points out why they’ll back him, if he gets the nom:

 “Let’s say you’re a Republican politician who is sincerely disgusted by Trump’s demagoguery. Here’s what you’d have to consider on the other side of the scale. If Trump becomes president, he’d inevitably fill the 3,000 or so appointed positions in the executive branch almost entirely from the Republican government-in-waiting currently camped out in think tanks and advocacy organizations; those people will then proceed to advance conservative goals in every agency of government. He’ll appoint conservative judges who want to overturn Roe v. Wade, undermine laws protecting worker and minority rights, and so on. He’ll carry out a pleasingly belligerent foreign policy. And perhaps most of all, he’ll sign most everything the Republican Congress delivers to his desk, which could be quite a lot; repealing the Affordable Care Act would be only the beginning.”  

Good point.  And yet, recall he’s the only GOP contender not utterly beholden to Rupert Murdoch and the Saudi co-owned Fox News, or to the Bush-Cheney clan.  My own guess is that a President Trump would not appoint the normal GOP factotums.  Oh, but even if he swore to to that, is it worth choosing a maniac?  Well, given that measurable outcomes from both Bush presidencies were 100% negative in every single category, I’d call that a plus in Trump’s favor. 

On the other hand, well, he is a screeching solipsistic bully.  See this article drawing interesting comparisons to the 1920s racist mogul Henry Ford.

Since collating and preparing this piece (in bits) I find that the news cycle keeps shining new lights on this madness. Jeb Bush calling Donald a "jerk" - while declaring support for whomever is the eventual nominee (Oh, multiple ironies!) Then the exchange of respectful praise between Trump and Vladimir Putin! After Fox spent the last several years kvelling and adulating Putin at every turn, crafting a cult of respect-idolatry around the Russian leader (which I dissect and demolish here), Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes must feel personally hurt when Putin goes and heaps praise on the fellow Fox least wants and can least control. See a satirical website, trump-putin2016.com, promoting Putin as Trump's running mate.

Seriously, just like Putin, the man has a seriously high IQ. Trump knows that Outcomes eventually matter to swing voters. Outcomes from governance -- metrics of US national health across the board -- were steeply negative across both Bush presidencies and nearly all metrics of US national health were positive across the Clinton and Obama administrations. This set of diametrically opposite outcomes includes conservative desires like economic activity, entrepreneurship, deficit trends and military readiness. That kind of fact chops away at dogmatic loyalties and starts to tug at some voters sense of self-interest. 

 Hence, Trump recently actually said he hopes for a US economic bubble collapse soon! 

"I don't want to sound rude, but I hope if it explodes, it's going to be now, rather than two months into another administration."

... an openly treasonous sentiment that makes Donald Trump a genuine republican after all, through and through.

But then the cycle veers again!  And now it's Dr. Ben Carson, prying his way back into headlines by saying he is thinking of bolting the Republican Party.  Also he's still beating Trump in one place... on Facebook.  And so... 

I== The other entertaining one ==

Though he's fading, can we linger a little with the other fun-one?  I agree with essayist Amy Davidson that too much has been made of Ben Carson's exaggerated tales about his personal history.  

For example, the 'knife' and 'hammer' stories tell us more about his intended audience -- redemptionist Christians -- than about his actual character.  To them, his past does not show a messy, volatile personality fizzing below the surface, now asking for control over nuclear missiles. (A man who actively prays daily for the world and the United States to come to an end.) Rather, to his core base, these stories fit a specific narrative, that he is a reborn, his past sins and flaws washed away in the blood of the lamb. 

In other words, Carson is tailoring his life story to get support from the radicals who vote in GOP primaries. So? I agree with Ms. Davidson that this is yawner stuff.  No, Davidson urges that we pay attention instead to other Carsonisms:

"He has been utterly dismissive of climate change, and he has fostered the idea that vaccines cause autism. The numbers for his tax plan, insofar as there are any, don't add up. He has said that Joseph, of the coat of many colors, built the pyramids in order to store the grain of the seven fat years… troubling not because we expect our Presidents to be up on the distinction between Early and Middle Kingdom dynasties but because Carson presented it as an example of why one should reject the theories of experts and scientists and turn, instead, to the Bible.

"Similarly, his claim that none of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had experience in elective office, when a great number of them did, is significant not only because it is false but because it speaks to a particular view of history and politics. (Carson later amended the statement to say that none had federal experience. Of course, they couldn't have, because there was no federal government when the Declaration was signed.)  (Brin note: Some of them had served in royal offices, which was the “federal” of their time.)

Davidson continues: "He has suggested that President Obama might declare martial law, and that the 2016 elections might be cancelled amid scenes of untenable civil disorder. He has compared Obamacare to slavery and to Nazism. He has also made what PolitiFact judged to be outright false statements in the last Republican debate about his ties to a nutritional-supplement company. (In contrast, PolitiFact rated Carson's description of West Point's 'scholarships' as mostly true.) Perhaps the problem isn't that the media is too partisan but that, in looking at Carson, there was a hope that there might be a non-partisan way to address a campaign whose success is hard for observers of American politics to understand."

How one is tempted to want him to be the GOP nominee! So that America's endlessly reviving Civil War may come ironic full circle, with an African American man leading the Confederacy's latest attempt to destroy the Great Experiment from within.

Indeed, were there a "moderate" on the GOP side, with a shot at the nomination, I'd say Carson would likely be the Republicans' traditional VP pick -- the usual, stark-jibbering-loopy choice to help keep the crazy wing mollified.... and maybe draw some black vote.  Were Jeb still viable, I would lay money on a Bush-Carson ticket.  (Lately? Money is moving to Ted Cruz as the inevitable, Nixon-like VP choice.)

Almost certainly the Iowa Caucus winner will (once again) not be the nominee. (What's the point of these things, again?) The decision will again emerge from South Carolina... the irony that tops them all.


Oh, but just when you think Carson has plumbed to very bottom of the Silly Ocean, there’s this:  “Various scientists have said, ‘Well, you know there were alien beings that came down and they have special knowledge and that’s how they were,” Carson said, at a graduation speech at Andrews University, in 1998. (BuzzFeed found the video.) “You know, it doesn’t require an alien being when God is with you.” 

Um – let’s look at that again: “Various scientists have said, ‘Well, you know there were alien beings that came down…” 

Oh, please try that “the parties are all the same,” malarkey on us, now.  The only hope of US conservatism is for the few remaining sane fellows to rise up and denounce what Rupert Murdoch has done to your movement.

== Strange bedfellows in the war on reason ==

Islamic leaders from 20 countries at the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium concluded their two-day summit in Istanbul, Turkey by issuing a formal declaration on global environmental issues. The declaration — which was clear to stipulate that climate change is both real and “human induced” — was equal parts theological and scientific, using an Islamic moral lens to insist that world leaders take immediate action to assist our warming planet. Thus joining the Pope and nearly all Jewish leaders and so many others in demanding we pay up on our obligation to future generations.  Who does this leave out?  

Not Protestants, per se. Methodists and Episcopals etc have no truck with the War on Science.

Rather, it is being waged by two groups in the world today. Muslim jihadists and a special sub category of protestant Christians called “Book of Revelation fetishists.”  Those relishing the schadenfreude thought that the world can be treated like disposable toilet paper, because it will all end soon, in an orgy of vengeful blood and eternal torment for whomever they dislike.  In that scenario, anyone calling for “creation tending” and care for the planet we were given must be a satanic being trying to defy heaven’s plan.  And the fact that they are clearly morons, does that come into it, anywhere?

== Political Miscellany ==

Under the category of you-knew-this-already…. The House science committee is even worse than the Benghazi committee, with most of the republican members vociferously hateful toward science.


A new browser plug-in will highlight the names of U.S. politicians in news articles, letting you hover over them, creating a pop-out that informs you who their major donors are.  A great way to verify that their pronouncements and stances are - yes - bought and paid for.  Says the 16 year old designer of the App: “It is my hope that providing increased transparency around the amount and source of funding of our elected representatives may play a small role in educating citizens and promoting change. If you use the extension when reading about a Congressional vote on energy policy, for example, maybe you’ll discover that a sponsor of a bill has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the oil and gas industry. Or maybe you’ll learn that the top donors to a member of Congress who opposes tort reform are lawyers and law firms.” The motto of Greenhouse is: “Some are red. Some are blue. All are green.” As in the color of cash. 

== A falsifiable hypothesis ==

Winding up, let us take note of an actually interesting and testable suggestion from someone on the far right! "At a time when most college campuses prohibit guns, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. thinks the opposite should be the case -- urging his school's students to be armed, especially in light of this week's massacre in San Bernardino, California."  Yes!  By all means, let us test the mantra of the gun cult that "an armed society is a polite society," as coined by the hyper conservative longtime editor of Analog Science Fiction, John W. Campbell.  Let all students at Liberty University be the first to volunteer to create such a society.

A university campus is perfect.  Almost everyone is there completely of his or her own volition, knowing in advance the school's quirks.  And they are relatively isolated and contained.  Sure the surrounding communities should be consulted and accommodated. But by all means, Jerry, get on with it. Arm every co-ed, jock, cheerleader and Book of Revelation apocalypse fan. Let's see how it goes.


And finally… How on Earth did this SMBC cartoon actually come true?  At least in the Crazy Party...



Saturday, December 19, 2015

Who Controls the Internet?

The End of the Internet Dream? Ever since Congress passed Al Gore's bill, around 1990, setting the Internet free to pervade the world and empower billions, repressive governments have complained, seeing their despotic methods undermined. And yes, democratic governments have often muttered: "Why'd we go and do that?" as their citizens became increasingly rambunctious, knowing and independent-minded!

As we'll see below, the ruling classes in undemocratic lands have been striving to adapt, and showing real signs of success. So frets Jennifer Granick who was keynote speaker at Black Hat 2015 – a hacker’s conference.  “In 20 years, the Web might complete its shift from liberator to oppressor. It’s up to us to prevent that.”

Amen, as far as that goes. I am motivated by the same dream – a mostly-open world, in which most people know most of what’s going on, most of the time, so that light can serve as the great disinfectant of oppression and error.  That is the core message of The Transparent Society

We share the same fear, that elites of one kind or another – governmental, commercial, aristocratic, criminal, international or technological… even AI – might find ways to consolidate or monopolize light, and thus power, returning us to the pyramidal hierarchies that so utterly failed to deliver for our ancestors, providing pain and injustice, never prosperity or freedom or joy.

Ms Granick focused her speech on legal matters in the West, especially the U.S., as was fitting and proper, given her background as an attorney in some of the most important online-rights cases of the last 20 years.  Her speech is educational and I urge you to read it.  

She is especially incisive about our need to let private parties explore and tinker with proprietary company software that comes in the products we all buy. How else are terrible errors to be discovered and corrections offered before inadvertent errors bring calamity?  “Without the Freedom to Tinker, the right to reverse engineer these products, we will be living in a world of opaque black boxes. We don’t know what they do, and you’ll be punished for peeking inside.”

Granick cites a recent book on the subject: “In a Black Box Society, how can we ensure that the outcome is in the public interest? The first step is obviously transparency, but our ability to understand is limited by current law and also by the limits of our human intelligence. The companies that make these products might not necessarily know how their product works either. Without adequate information, how can we democratically influence or oversee these decisions? We are going to have to learn how, or live in a society that is less fair and less free.”

Ironically, the Obama Administration just addressed this issue: 

"U.S. regulators announced new exemptions to a provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that will make it possible for nerds to tinker with cars and gadgets without breaking copyright laws."  The Electronic Frontier Foundation called the move a big victory for fair use.

This is, in fact, huge, and I will have more on it, soon. It means we have a right to scrutinize, as consumers and citizens, the algorithms and programs that will increasingly control every aspect of our lives. 


(Take the latest example -- a ludicrously simple way to hack into a number of the boot processes used to a large extent by Linux distributions, but also potentially even more general: Just tap the backspace key 28 times in a row. A stunningly awful backdoor, especially given the US defense equipment is often Linux-based, under the notion that most bugs -- like this one -- get discovered by open-source methods. Note that some basic BIOS and Grub precautions can prevent this. Alas, you must be savvy-nerdy to get it just right, but see Comments, below.))

The Administration's support of this shift to support of Open Source and personal access to our own purchases is just as important as when, two years ago, they declared decisively that we have a right to record our interactions with police. While one might have hoped for a a more full-throated and less tentative (three year) ruling -- and we must fight on -- you would not get this under any GOP president. Period.

== The Enemies of Openness are cranking up ==

Lest there be any doubt, I am fretful about the same trends that worry Granick and the EFF and other web-liberties activists. Take for example China, which we now know to have about 668 million web usersGoogle and Facebook would love to operate in China. But China's all-powerful Internet czar, Lu Wei (Minister of Cyberspace Administration) represents a wholly different fundamental ethos of how human beings can and should oiperate in relation to their states.  One that, for centuries, has empowered state authorities to rule on behalf of the people. Chinese President Xi Jinping told the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen this week that "freedom and order are both necessary in cyberspace." 

"We do not welcome those who make money off China even as they slander China's people," Lu has said. "These kinds of websites I definitely will not allow in my house." That he believes such a comment is somehow meritorious indicates that we are still revolutionaries against a way of thinking that enslaved nearly all our ancestors.

Political leaders in the West, like Hillary Clinton, have said in the past that they want an open house. "Countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century," she said when U.S. Secretary of State

Yet, authors like Ms. Granick have a well-justified -- if very western -- reflex to see plots against such freedom looming in all directions.  Even those that deem themselves to be protectors of liberty. 

Is that reflex wrong? Of course not!  I share it.  But, as we'll see, she and a vast majority of would be civil liberties defenders get it all wrong, when it comes to how. 

== More warnings... without any useful guidance  == 

Ms. Granick then goes on to discuss where even worse dangers lie: “Globalization means more governments are getting into the Internet regulation mix. They want to both protect and to regulate their citizens. And remember, the next billion Internet users are going to come from countries without a First Amendment, without a Bill of Rights, maybe even without due process or the rule of law. So these limitations won’t necessarily be informed by what we in the U.S. consider basic civil liberties.”

Nice, words or warning. Alas, without a scintilla of suggestion how to respond to the volcanic determination of undemocratic nations to use the Internet as a vehicle of public control. We need democratic governments to be fiercely assertive in this matter, assisting those companies who are about to offer end-run technologies like new satellite systems that could let oppressed populations bypass state control.  

The ironies in that sentence are profound. Granick does not deal with them, because it would entail viewing our own government as having a white hat role to play. Something difficult for her adversarial reflexes to grok.

Alas, things get less cogent when she discusses emails and the 4th Amendment, hailing a court decision that puts emails under that protection, while ignoring the fact that technology moves on and is more powerful than even law. And while such protections are, indeed, meaningful over the short term, they simply will not stand up to tech&time. (Show me a secret corner of the web that has ever been reliably and uniformly secure? Ever. Even one.)  Indeed, the 2013 lesson was that hiding is futile...

...and that our militance should be focused instead on stripping shadows and shrouds away from the world’s elites.  That can work. Ah, but try to follow this logic:

Surveillance couldn’t get much worse, but in the next 20 years, it actually will. Now we have networked devices, the so-called Internet of Things, that will keep track of our home heating, and how much food we take out of our refrigerator, and our exercise, sleep, heartbeat, and more. These things are taking our off-line physical lives and making them digital and networked, in other words, surveillable.

“To have any hope of attaining the Dream of Internet Freedom, we have to implement legal reforms to stop suspicion-less spying. We have to protect email and our physical location from warrantless searches. We have to stop overriding the few privacy laws we have to gain with a false sense of online security. We have to utterly reject secret surveillance laws, if only because secret law is an abomination in a democracy.

== What?  But… but you just said, just one paragraph earlier…. ==

In the end, for all her cogency and passion and determination to protect freedom and justice and all good things,Granick falls for the same zero sum thinking that dominates the Age of Sanctimony.  

That we must choose between safety and freedom, between security and liberty, between a skilled caste of civil-servant protectors and a citizenry that can go about their lives unhampered and unafraid.  

This fundamental flaw – zero sum thinking – will undermine and demolish everything Ms. Granick claims to stand for.  As I showed in The Transparent Society – especially on the creepy-prescient page 206 – any future calamity will cause a panicked public to ratchet back any and every restriction that you now place on those protectors’ power to surveil.  Notice how Edward Snowden has faded from view and conversation, in the wake of recent terror incidents?  The Ratchet-Effect is very real, predictable, and it is just plain dumb to oppose it head-on, like an indignant sumo wrestler confronting a train.

You are erecting safety barriers made of smoke. Just smoke.

There is a way to aggressively and assertively protect freedom, with the equivalent of Judo. It can be done by putting choke chains not so much on what any caste of elites – from government protectors to corporations to foreign rulers can see as on what they can do to us. And the best way to stop them from doing bad things is to see them.

History supports that method. It has already proved vastly more effective than hiding… which is (make no mistake) the prescription of most activists, from Edward Snowden on down the line... and which is cowardly, in any event.

In fact though, Ms. Granick shows her own depth -- or lack of it -- when she openly avows that she no longer blogs, but only posts on Facebook.  Enough said.

== Transparency-related Miscellany ==

See 2,600 years of Western culture spread across the map in five minutes – a stunning visualisation of historical trends.  

Eeep!  A perfect example of why locks are not our best safety measure. “If you have sensitive keys—say, a set of master keys that can open locks you’ve asked millions of Americans to use — don’t post pictures of them on the Internet.” 

The U.S. wants access to anyone's email on earth and Microsoft is fighting back. Seeking to read a suspect’s emails in a drug case, the U.S. government served Microsoft with a warrant in December of 2013, requesting the company provide information including the content of emails of an Outlook.com user. Microsoft refused to comply, arguing that the data in question is stored only on servers in Ireland, and that the US government should go through Irish authorities, before going to Microsoft, to get it.  Microsoft has been using such tactics to dig in its heels over access to users’ emails. The government has argued that US law, specifically the Stored Communications Act, which is part of the oft-malignedElectronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) passed in 1986, compels American companies to disclose data under their control, regardless of where the data is actually stored.  

Brin’s Corollary to Moore’s Law: The cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper, better and more mobile every year, at a rate much faster than ML.  Add better-distributed, as minority groups start arming themselves with the true Great Equalizer.  And now… smarter.  “In an era where artificial intelligence is beginning to converge with surveillance—in the wake of the Boston bombings, for instance, the BPD is reportedly experimenting with artificially intelligent mass surveillance.”  “They call it their “sentient surveillance camera.” 

Shades of Person of Interest? The only surprising thing about all this is that anyone finds any of it surprising.