Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A coming recession? A war? Or just "infrastructure" graft? Oh, the options!

FLASH addendum up top: Just in case the rumors have substance... Mike Pence hurrying home, GOP senators huddling, a possible Mueller smoking gun... Please, oh please, curb your enthusiasm and read this!  Get every democrat to read it. Especially every DP congress member. Impeachment is a trap. Try, oh try, to be the smart ones, for a change.


Let me put aside the blatancy of our deliberately re-ignited phase of the American civil war.  There are other matters afoot, all sharing a common theme. Lumped together, they add up to everything desired by those seeking an end to the relatively placid and benign era of Pax Americana.

First, economics. Says investment guru John Mauldin, predicting a recession within two years

“U.S. corporations are simultaneously more indebted, less profitable, and more highly valued than they have been in a long time. Furthermore, they are intentionally making themselves more leveraged by distributing cash as dividends and buying back shares instead of saving or investing that cash. Yet investors cannot buy their shares fast enough. Maybe this will end well… but it’s hard to imagine how.”

Note that while he would never admit it, John's forecast is a brutal indictment not of his bêtes noir -- the government and Fed -- but a CEO caste of 5000 incestuously conniving golf buddies, who have set things up (except in the tech sector) so they can steal company assets, use stock buy-backs to boost share price, rake their options and leave the company wrecked, deprived of R&D or any investment beyond a one-year ROI.

These parasites are the true enemies of market enterprise.  And their shortsighted greed may not escape notice, when that recession comes.

== Drumming up a war ==

But that exercise in biased perception ain’t nothing. Remember how the previous Republican president concocted a war-excuse called “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMD)? In the wake of the 9/11 attacks that he arguably allowed to happen, Bush Jr. leaned hard on the U.S. intelligence community (IC) to pin the blame on Saddam Hussein. When they reported no such connection – indeed, most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudis, trained in Wahhabi madrassas and financed by business partners of the Bush family – he and Dick Cheney put thumb screws on the IC to find another excuse – any excuse – for war.

That was the previous manic phase of Republican Bipolar Disease and it seems we’re fast diving into another, as the Trumpists seek escape from domestic woes.  Elsewhere I’ve explored the reasons why their focus will likely be Iran. Sure, North Korea and Venezuela offer tasty temptations. A flare-up in the South China Sea? Maybe. A terror outrage somewhere at home? Don't be shocked!

But none of these offer the confluence of motive, means and opportunity that DT sees in Iran. Moreover reports suggest that he is already arm-twisting the IC, demanding they stop with the boring truth and fact-telling and offer up the casus belli  pretext that he needs.

This article about the hunger for a fight is pretty harsh and partisan.  I’d read it with some grains of salt. But it’s also generally on-target and scary as heck. 

What of recent events? Exactly as I predicted, both Donald Trump and the Ayatollahs have ordered their forces in the Persian Gulf to harass each other, with only one possible motive: a ramp-up to war. Everyone wants it. Trump needs a foreign distraction, Congressional Republicans need feel-good symbolic toughness, the Saudis and dumber Israelis want Tehran knocked down a notch. Putin rubs his hands, knowing such a conflict will send Iran running for shelter under his umbrella, giving him the warm water satrapy Russian potentates have wanted for 300 years. Oh, and the Iranian mullahs? Shrugging off the pippety-pops of a few hundred Tomahawks, they'll use war fever to crush the rising, educated, modernist Persian middle class, a looming threat to their theocracy. 

Oh, and oil prices will skyrocket. Winners all around! Well, not the Iranian or American people. But do you see anyone caring about them? Or the waste of our military strength and personnel?

Why do we still have a carrier task group there? Across the last 8 years, the U.S. achieved virtual energy independence. Our allies are heading that way. What possible reason would we have to cooperate with the Putin-Saudi-Ayatollah-Trump plan, pushing each other with potemkin provocations till the missiles fly? This is not 'national self-interest.' It is the Gulf of Tonkin, all over again.

== Hacking Elections ==

Hackers at Defcon took just minutes to break into and modify a wide array of voting machines. Officials from California provided some. Other  machines were bought on Ebay, and were manufactured by major U.S. voting machine companies such as Diebold Nixorf, Sequoia Voting Systems, and Winvote. `This isn't a great surprise, since many of those companies are owned by political extremists who targeted this vulnerability, ages ago. 

The chief safeguard has always been a system that involved paper ballots or receipts that are scanned in... but that can also be hand audited, in randomly chosen precincts. Wherever random hand recounts are possible, cheating is deterred.

Auditable paper ballot/receipt systems are the norm in blue states. Not in red states, where the GOP Secretary of State can pretty much order up any election result she desires. Also it is blue states and only blue states that have seen voter revolts to end gerrymandering.  And voter initiatives to ease out of the insane War on Drugs. Oh, lecture us about election fraud! Lecture us about dishonesty, confederates.
== Infrastructure on the agenda ==

Ah, infrastructure. One thing all studies agree upon is that a healthy array of highways, bridges, railways and such are like a nation’s veins and arteries, allowing commerce to flow. Under FDR, then Truman and Eisenhower, the “Greatest Generation” invested heavily in interstates, airports, research centers, power systems, hospitals and so on, with huge and unquestioned multiplier effects on the economy. Time and again, it’s proved that well-done projects pay-off and maintenance is money well-spent. Moreover, no form of government spending has higher direct effects on economic stimulation and employment and Money Velocity.

So, why have we been tumbling deeper and deeper into infrastructure malaise, with decaying bridges, corroding highways and underfunded rails?  All parties have uttered words about this, for decades. President Obama submitted proposal after proposal to Congress… and none was even brought up for serious discussion.

Of course the answer was obvious.  Had an Infrastructure Bill passed, during the Republican Congresses of 2011-2016,  it blatantly would have added to economic recovery from the Bush Depression, and the GOP wanted no part of any action that might add to Obama’s luster. (As it is, the recovery during his administration was impressive.)  For purely political reasons — and Paul Ryan and others are on record saying so — they would pass no infrastructure bill during a Democratic President’s tenure. (The word for that is “treason.”)

Okay, now the Republicans have every branch of government — as they did from 2001 to 2007. With a GOP president to claim credit for any stimulation, and terrified of a recession looming otherwise, Ryan and co. are talking up an Infrastructure Bill that might amount to a trillion dollars! Well, okay, at least workers would get jobs. And the treason is over, right?

Wrong. As you might guess, there are several rubs.

1) Paying to build and repair out of tax revenues… the way our parents did it… would conflict with Ryan & co.’s absolute top priority — another huge Supply Side Voodoo tax cut for the aristocracy. Never mind that Supply Side experiments have never worked, ever, at all, even once across 40 years, and many Red States like Kansas have gone bankrupt by doubling down on the witchcraft theory.  To paraphrase Everett Dirksen “A Trillion here, a Trillion there… pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

2) Hence, get others to pay for the infrastructure work! Their magical incantation is now “public-private partnerships.” We the people hand over our property — our bridges, highways and all that — to private interests (e.g. Republican moguls) who will then put some cash into repairs and then charge tolls forever on routes that till-now we (mostly) used as a benefit of civilization.

A win-win? We get some potholes and rusty spans fixed. The moguls get ownership (or lifespan-long leases) of our commons, plus perpetual right to bleed us. Oh, but it gets much worse than I described, here. Read what Robert Reich has to say about this win-win-win for oligarchy.  

3) Of course this is not about jobs or even supply side tax vampirism. It is about graft. As in contracting for an Atlantic City Casino, construction deals are among the juiciest ways to do corruption, unless they are handled with scrupulous transparency and accountability. Which most public infrastructure programs do feature! The methods have been developed ever since the WPA and TVA and Interstate System. They never work perfectly, but they generally keep theft down to a low simmer… far lower than most private enterprises, in fact.

Only all of these nit-picking, open-bidding and accountability procedures are being torn down by the Trump Administration. Gee. I wonder why an Atlantic City casino owner would do that? Note the the only winners of the wasteful, trillion dollar US intervention in Iraq were Cheney Bush family companies like Halliburton, who got sweetheart "emergency" no-bid logistics contracts, bypassing anti-graft laws with a wave of a pen. The GOP lords are in no hurry to fund infrastructure projects until those inconvenient accountability rules are either repressed or swept aside, in the next "emergency."

4) Never mind. Blue states have already decided not to wait. Especially in California, Oregon and Washington, restore-and-rebuild projects are proceeding apace, the old fashioned way, as time and again we prove that the Greatest Generation were right in many more ways than wrong...

... back when "America was great!" And when that generation's favorite living human was named Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Fight the insanity & stupidity... as if you're sane and smart

This one's been sitting in the queue for a while, while the craziness just piles higher, each and every day. So let me begin by addressing just the most fearsome of so many recent lunacies.

Congress must cancel the 2001 War Powers act that gave the president (based on those WMD lies) pretty much carte blanche. If they had a glimmer of gumption they would replace it with a commission of American sages who can - if unanimous - free the military chain of command to ignore or pause precipitate or suicidal orders from any POTUS.

This would likely pass any Supreme Court test. A president is "commander-in-chief" - a tactical role afforded by the Constitution, but Congress has the right to declare actual war and that right must be taken back. Now.

And sure, the saber rattling today is about North Korea. (Elsewhere I've offered a way to motivate China to act, at last -- by declaring they'll be liable for civil damages for any actions taken by Kim. Those accountants will take that seriously!) But come on. Korea? Really?

Bannon and Gorka and every other oligarchic power center, from the Iranian mullahs to the Saudis and many less-smart Israelis to our oil barons and -- above all -- Vladimir Putin all desperately want Donald Trump to distract the world from his troubles by pouring brief swarms of pippety-poppety tomahawks into Iran, making lots of flash and doing very little real harm, while oil prices skyrocket, the mullahs crush the Persian democrats and Putin gets a loyal protectorate. And yes, the mullahs would chortle with joy, as their power in Tehran is locked-in for another generation. It is the win-win scenario deeply desired by every despot on Earth.

But enough said about today's mania.  Let me now put in some bigger perspectives, before the next news cycle exhausts us, further.

== "Resistance" isn't futile. But do it smart ==

Never let it be said that the left lacks its own (much smaller but loud) array of impulsively emotional fools.  “Several thousand protesters marched through downtown Los Angeles on Sunday, waving signs and chanting, “Down, down, down with Trump — up, up, up with the people” as they urged Congress to impeach the president.” 

Oh sure, go ahead and march. But it’s absurd to use the “I” word, yet. Impeachment now would be the height of stupidity, for reasons that I lay down – clearly – here.   

But the simplest is that our civil servants and military officers are now totally alert and will stymie anything truly awful. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is the Republicans’ problem. His replacement - in contrast - would run a tightly disciplined White House packed with Dominionist fanatics, bent on ending the world… and I mean that literally. Go read my many reasons for patience.

Even better would be for some Democrats to use what is blatant about Donald Trump’s psychology!  Is not a single democratic politician able to see?  Actually see what we have before us? Or read a psychological profile?  The dems – led by Schumer, Warren and Franken – need to gather and pick straws.  And the short straw “winners” will have a simple duty – that I lay out here.  It must be done!  For the sake of our nation, civilization and children!

== Pundits: Good, the Bad the Hopeful and Ugly ==

I’ll start with the ugly. This essay, by Vijad Prashad is utter drivel.  A complete panic-rant.  It contains almost nothing that is either true or helpful. And hence, I urge you to read it and inoculate yourself against the kind of leftist babble that will not aid us in our mission of overcoming the right’s psychotic madness. Panic… does… not… help. 

In sharp contrast is this test of your maturity: "How I became a man without a party," by Bruce Bartlett, a lifelong Republican who served in the Reagan White House. (His latest book: The Truth Matters: A Citizen's Guide to Separating Facts from Lies and Stopping Fake News.) In moving gradually – then hastily – against the growing Republican/confederate insanity, he does not apologize for – or recant – at least some of the Reagan-conservative views that he then supported. Others, he admits, appear to have failed. But, he asserts, they sincerely seemed worth trying, at the time. In other words, while conservative, he is also a human being and citizen who is grownup enough to heed facts and evidence. 

Bartlett now freely admits what any sensible citizen must: that the entire conservative movement has been hijacked by monsters.

The incompetence of the George W. Bush administration finally drove me over the edge…. In 2005, I wrote a book attacking Bush from the right called Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy”. No Republican today would disagree with a word that I wrote, but, at the time, criticizing a Republican president was grounds for defenestration. I was fired from my job at a conservative think tank and banished from polite Republican company.”

For a few years, I still considered myself to be a Republican, hoping that some degree of sanity would be restored. But it only got much worse. The election of Obama seemed to drive even moderate Republicans over the edge into hysterical hatred and opposition, egged on by the so-called tea party, which consisted entirely of people who knew absolutely nothing about government or policy except that they were mad as hell.

“This dictatorship of the idiocracy drove me out of the GOP. I began referring to myself as an independent. Once freed from needing to feign party loyalty, I found myself receptive to ideas I had once rejected out of hand. I wrote a book that was skeptical of supply-side economics — the Republican theory that tax cuts are the cure for every economic problem. I wrote columns sympathetic to the welfare state and other heresies. I lost the last few Republican friends I had.”

In other words, this fellow is an archetype of the people we must find, hunt down, and confront, grabbing their lapels until they agree to harrow with us out of hell. Nothing else will make the needed difference, more than luring ten million residually sane, decent, patriotic, science-admiring American “ostrich conservatives” to lift their heads out of denial. Just 10 million, out of a population of 360 million. If we can win over that many more Bruce Bartletts, the nation – and civilization – will be saved.

I referred to this elsewhere, in urging that the Democrats create a Big Tent that’s welcoming, even to Americans who retain this or that conservative trait or view. And yes, I describe where to find candidates who can invade red districts and do this on the ground. Taking our country back. See one spectacular example that has gone viral, a retired Marine Lt. Col. fighter pilot -- she may make a huge difference in Kentucky! Though overall, little good will be done unless these super-smart missiles are aimed into every single red state assembly and senate district, too.

Ah, but will we welcome these folks? Bartlett – apparently sincere – fears we won’t. He writes,I’ve grown to hate my former party. You’d think this would make me a prime candidate for recruitment by the Democrats. But I’m not. First, no Democrat has ever reached out to me. I am not insulted by this, only surprised. And my efforts to suggest ideas to Democrats have been uniformly rebuffed. Like the Republicans, Democrats are wary of apostates and are only receptive to those born into their church, it seems.”

Like so much of what this former Reaganite believed, we must prove that this, too, is mistaken.

== The soup-du-jour ==

The article/essay that's circulating most widely, right now is "How America Lost Its Mind The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history," by Kurt Anderson, which appears in this issue of The Atlantic.  

It might not cheer you up.  (And I don't agree with every appraisal.) 

But now that the War on Science and against all fact-using professions has spread to include the "deep state" FBI, Intelligence agents and the U.S. Military Officer Corps, we really need to dust off our supposedly superior brainpower to solve the potentially lethal sickness of Idiocracy.

 == Hypocrisy at the top ==

Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert was released from prison in Minnesota. For 6 years this admitted child molester was head of the Republican Party and the GOP's standard bearer. He declared the "Hastert Rule" that threatened punishment against any Republican who, at any level or for any reason, ever negotiated - even over matters vital to the national interest - with any Democrat, helping Rupert Murdoch to turn the GOP into the most tightly disciplined partisan machine in U.S. history. 

Hastert's #2 Republican - Tom DeLay - who raised political cheating to a high art, also became a convicted felon. 

(Oh and count the number of Fox News ranters and GOP congressmen who have been revealed as sexual predators! Two recent examples? Members of the Oklahoma legislature were forced to end their time in office prematurely. State Rep. Dan Kirby (R) had a nasty habit of making unwanted sexual advances toward female members of his staff, while State Sen. Ralph Shortey (R) allegedly had an even nastier habit of paying for sex...with children. So, they're both out. Then of course there's more recent news about Fox's alleged sexual predator number... 20? Eric Bolling.)

Hastert's tenure, two heartbeats from the presidency, followed the previous top Republican - a 3x divorc√© - and preceded the fellow who lied to us all about WMDs and plunged us into trillion dollar quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But fundamentalists will make any excuse for the stunning immorality of GOP leaders - including the present "grabber." 

They excuse these opposite-to-Jesus stinkers for one reason. Because they hate the same folks. Scientists. Teachers. Journalists. Law professionals. Anyone who deals in facts.

When you have a common enemy, all is forgiven. And yes. Judge a movement and its members by who they proclaim as their enemies!  All the folks who look at God's creation - called objective reality - with Heaven's greatest gift. Honest curiosity.

== Miscellaneous Facts ==

The U.S. teen birth rate plummeted 53% since 2007, with a 9% drop in 2016 alone, as all of the vigorous Obama-era programs took full effect.

Robert Reich is pushing Medicare-for-all… and sure, yeah, I support it. But with open eyes, cause there are problems.  Medical care is unlimited, "non-fungible," and hence has to be rationed in one way or another. The old vile insurance system rationed by kicking out the sick and the poor to die. Europeans ration by committee and giving 'priority' to children who calculate out to have more quality years at stake. In pushing medicare-for-all, you are asking for the latter. Be honest about it. Yes it is better, but don't pretend it'll be problem-free.

And finally...

Oh, ye yanks out there; do you know any verses of the Star Spangled Banner, other than the first? Have a look - and listen to - the fifth verse added by Oliver Wendell Holmes, as our nation fell into treason and Civil War, back in the 1860s.

Here’s half:

When our land is illum'd with Liberty's smile,
If a foe from within strike a blow at her glory,
Down, down, with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!

The reference to betrayal from “within” seems especially apropos, as a New Confederacy rises, bent on destroying our Great Experiment in ways far more devious and effective than mere secession. Read - and  listen to - the rest. Feel stirred, awakened, and roused to duty.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Transparency and the Wisdom of ... Us

Crowd-sourced crime solving.... Geez can anyone explain why I wasn't a consultant on this upcoming new show - Wisdom of the Crowd? (Though for sure, I'm looking forward to it.) 

Second question: why do so many previews give away almost the whole story?  I hope this one will be as good as Person of Interest was... only with an important difference. I hope that its core message is one that we actually need. A confidence-building notion that we -- all of us working together in the open -- are potentially very powerful.

Speaking of New Era crime solving... how about..

== “Pre-Crime at South by Southwest! ==

Are any of you members of the fantastic culture/arts/tech festival South by Southwest?  If you, you get to help choose some of the events through the “panel-picker” page. Naturally, I hope you’ll vote for one that I’m scheduled to be on: “Pre-Crime: It's Not Just Science Fiction Anymore.”  Here’s the writeup … and a link to vote.

In Philip K. Dick’s 1956 “The Minority Report,” murder was eradicated due to the “Pre-Crime Division,” which anticipated and prevented crime before it happened. Sixty years later, elements of pre-crime cybersecurity technology are already in place. But how do we toe the line between safety and Big Brother? This panel will discuss the history of predictive analytics, privacy implications of monitoring and how AI/machine learning will shape society in the future.”

== Should we fret about the cameras? ==

Back in the eighties, I witnessed video cameras sprouting like crocuses, all over Great Britain. The same thing happened in Paris, in the early nineties, and I began pondering the concepts that would later make their way into my book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? Since then, The U.S. has become just as dense with cameras overlooking almost every street  -- one area where Moore’s Law is still in full force, as the cams every year get smaller, faster, better, cheaper, more mobile and vastly more numerous.

Only there’s a crucial difference. In most U.S. cities, the vast majority of cameras are privately owned. There’s still surveillance! (And elsewhere I talk about how important it is to keep and enhance our “sousveillance” power to look back!) But most of the time, the authorities must knock on doors and ask: “may we please see your footage?”

In the case of the Boston Marathon bombing, every single person or business that was asked fell all over themselves to help! 

On the other hand, during the highly controversial Seattle “police riot” some years back, many companies and private citizens muttered: “Hell no, go get your court order.” That difference could be crucial, positively or negatively. But citizens -- sorry "subjects" -- in Britain don't have the choice. Same number of cams, but a very different society.

Oh, but now we see change afoot. In Detroit, Project Greenlight encourages businesses to put up city operated, standardized surveillance units. Companies that are part of Project Greenlight send live video to directly to Detroit police. Police can access them, monitoring them from the real time crime center at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters

Project Greenlight went into place in January 2016. According to city officials, a recent study shows the original eight Project Greenlight stations continue to see a nearly 40% reduction in violent crime. Project Greenlight was also the key to an arrest after a wild shoot out at a gas station in March 2016. Since then, it has expanded to more than 100 businesses and continues to grow.” reports local Detroit news.
Alas, as you might expect, they keep upping the ante.

“The city of Detroit and the Detroit Police Department are considering making Project Greenlight mandatory for any business that's open after 10 p.m. Police say it's helped to curb violent crime but the plan to make it mandatory is raising privacy concerns,” reports Ryan Ermanni. 

Is this trend inevitable?  Of course it is. The difference between the U.S. and Britain was temporary, after all.  Still, it is the habit that matters. We must maintain the habit of looking back.

== Open Science - Citizen Science  ==

I’ve been asked to comment on the rise of “open science,” a fascinating topic. There is an irony:

1. The one monotonic trend of the 20th Century was the professionalization of everything. This gave us spectacular benefits of both scale and specialization, but it could not be maintained because it is essentially zero-sum.  A skilled person must be one thing or else another.

2. Cracks began to appear in the late 20th as hobbies, pastimes, avocations began to burgeon in positive-sum ways. ("I can be several things - a professional in my day job and almost professional at one or more pastimes.") Today, amid a burgeoning Age of Amateurs, we see the worst rigidity of professional castes crumbling. Most sciences now have processes that welcome input and data collection and even analysis by
individual and affiliated amateur scientists, participating in well-organized mixed projects with professionals.

Moreover, this trend refutes all the hoary accusations that we are "decadent" or losing contact with older wisdom. There are more blacksmiths, sword-makers and hand looms today than at any point in 100 years. Heck, more horses!  While those who are critical of the modern era have (on average) tended toward obesity, many (perhaps most) of the supposedly decadent modernists engage in rising amounts of physical activity. Some of those activities -- like jumping our of airplanes with surfboards -- may be clinically crazy... but ain't it cool?

3. There is a dark side to the amateurism trend. Scurrilous forces in society are now waging propaganda war against all skilled, fact-using castes.The "war on science" is only the tip of the iceberg, as expertise itself is slurred.

So here's the irony.  We needed the reduction in guild categorization that was threatening to hamper progress. The Age of Amateurs and opening of fields, like science, to input from bright and earnest outsiders, will benefit civilization. This is a point that I raise in my book: "The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us ChooseBetween Privacy and Freedom?"

On the other hand, the 20th Century's professionalization of expertise was what brought us to this party. Waves of amateurs can augment skilled elites usefully, and challenge them beneficially! But it is pure suicide to denigrate every clade of people who know their fields and have spent their lives developing stunning levels of skill. Scientists, teachers, journalists, doctors, civil servants, law professionals, military officers... they can be mistaken, from time to time! And they always merit watching...

... but it is the critic who bears the burden of proof, when he says: "I read a couple of articles on a political site, and now I know more about this than folks who have spent their life gathering data and comparing competing models and understanding the field."

See more of my missives:


== Artificial intelligence ==

Get ready for the first robot empathy crisis: Generally a not-bad summary about my talk at the AI Conference in San Francisco, if oversimplifying in a number of ways..  The one glaring error is that I never said you should join a dozen NGOs to save the world for you for $50/month each! 

That's a lot for most people! 

What I said was that you can find a dozen organizations that will actively represent your interests in how the world can be improved, and set them to work doing what you think needs doing for $30 to $50 each per YEAR, annual membership dues.  That's a big difference!

Sure, lots of folks can and should give more.  But if you are a middle class person and not doing that much - that basic, minimal engagement - then you have no right to bitch about the state of the world.  See more about this in my article: Saving the world through Proxy Activism.

But go to the source, of course, of course. For this talk -- How Might Artificial Intelligence Come About? -- I squeezed the topics - if not the details - of my hourlong AI talk for IBM's World of Watson into half an hour.  Could only do that with a very elevated audience.

And finally... This essay makes a case that there is a difference between a “leaker” and a righteous “whistle blower.” Citing both James Comey and Reality Winner as recent examples, the author suggests a discrete difference that is actually (I assert) much more murky and part of a very broad spectrum.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Marvels of Space and Time...

Let's take a break from the absurd reality show that is Earthly politics, and look instead skyward where -- it seems every week, sometimes daily -- we keep seeing fantastic evidence of what human civilization can do. Seriously, you readers who express fascination and pride, as you scan the wonders below... do you ever ask how you can be of the same species as our neighbors who spew hatred of science? Whose hearts have been hardened to such awe and beauty?

Even on the level of theology these things blare out what greatness we're beginning to achieve, and how blessed we are to be apprentices, understanding and learning  and now practicing the craft of Creation.

Proselytize. I mean it. Make your neighbors lift their heads. Help them to see.

== Magnificence ==

Simply stunning. An unprecedented video stitched together from Junocam pictures as our probe's ellipse takes it diving toward one pole of Jupiter to skate over the cloud tops and race by the other pole, almost touching the stormy vortex before plunging back out again.  The embellished addition... "Atmospheres" from 2001 a Space Odyssey... adds to the awe.

The Solar Probe Plus (SPP) mission will dive into the Sun’s atmosphere. Dive… into the sun. The first ever mission to get near the sun, is set to launch by summer 2018. The spacecraft will go into orbit within 4 million miles of the surface of the sun. Behind a carbon composite heat shield, the solar powered mission will pump heat to radiators… conceptually related to the technique that I wrote about in… Sundiver.

In October 2022, as a binary pair of asteroids makes an approach near Earth, NASA will launch a refrigerator-sized spacecraft to strike Didymos Bat 3.7 miles per second. Scientists will study the impact and the effect is has on Didymos B’s orbit around Didymos A, to determine whether this technique is a feasible method for saving the planet from asteroids that could otherwise have devastating impacts.  Doing this near Earth allows precise radar measurements. Still…

Born as twins? New evidence suggests that most star systems probably begin as binaries that then either draw together or drift apart.

A galaxy with two – count em – two supermassive black holes orbiting each other.  Long predicted, and now discovered. Wow. 

Astrophysicist and author Ethan Siegel offers up a brief essay on Forbes about our need, in less than a billion years, to start moving the Earth outward, to keep it habitable at the Sun continues to warm.  Ethan describes the energetics problem fairly well… but doesn’t offer even a smidgeon of an idea of how this mighty feat might be accomplished.  Fortunately… I do.

There may be 10,000 hypervelocity blue stars that escaped from the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) when their binary companions exploded.  That velocity, added to the speed of the LMC itself, could account for their blazing sprints, and why we spot them along a general line leading from the LMC to the constellations of Leo and Sextans.  Since blue stars only have short lives, this means there may be up to a million of their remnants — neutron stars or black holes — speeding along the same general path.

Ohy, but our dreams will face obstacles and challenges to overcome. It seems increasingly likely that the surface of Mars is rife with perchlorates, which, when heated or exposed to UV, are really harsh on living organisms.  “The Martian” would need a lot more water, just to clean his soil.

== METI, SETI and more ==

In Greetings ET: Please Don't Murder Us: Stephen Johnson offers an excellent and thoughtful review of the METI argument -- which appeared in the New York Times Magazine in June, 2017.  My one carp is that the author did not cover how humanity has already been learning how to deal with “unusual risks,” through mature methods like the Asilomar Process and NASA’s Planetary Protection Office, which have pioneered ways to reduce both real and moral hazards, while ultimately enhancing, rather than suppressing, humanity’s bold, exploratory spirit.

Thus, asking for Pre-Discussion -- before beaming messages to space -- is not a zero-sum thing. Such worldwide consultations would be lively, informative, entertaining and ethically just. They would also – very likely – lead to a better (perhaps compromise) decision than leaving all of human destiny up to a narrow cult of over-eager zealots. Seriously, don't leap to a blithe, simplistic opinion on METI!  Start with my paper laying out the pros and cons and the vexing stuff you'll read about nowhere else!

Okay so it pays to wear a variety of hats. In my role as a chief cataloger of hypotheses to explain the “Fermi Paradox” (the puzzling absence of any clear sign of extraterrestrial intelligent life, or ETI), I hadn’t registered on my list the “aestivation hypothesis” – that a sapient species might choose to shut down and hibernate for billions of years, until the cosmos has cooled sufficiently for optimized computational efficiency. 

This notion – offered up by three brainy dudes I know well: Anders SandbergStuart Armstrong and Milan M. Cirkovic – posits that most ETI would care about little else than optimizing computational ability, and hence would nearly all make this choice, rather than while away during the inferno heat of today’s epoch. That’s our current … um… 2.7 degrees Kelvin of the cosmic background radiation temperature, less than three degrees above absolute zero. See their explanation FAQ. And George Dvorsky’s excellent Gizmodo summary.

The value system this requires has been called “dataism” by – among others – Yuval Harari, who claims that humanity is about to make the same shift. Data-ist fetishists – according to Harari - view the entire human race as a complex info-processing system. Human history distills down to a story of improving the system’s efficiency, by increasing the number of processors (humans), increasing the variety of processors (through human specialization and diversity), and improving the connections between the processors (through trade and communication). 

Now our computerized sharing and processing systems are on the verge of a new, exponential leap. If Dataists are right about this then, according to Harari, "homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm," -- as discussed in his latest book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.
And yes, if Data-ism is the monolithic religion that our (presumably machine) heirs cherish above all else, then moving to a time and place with more efficient heat sinks might seem nerdishly attractive. To some. (I’ll be posting more about Harari, soon.)

Still, this concept has several flaws, some logical and others that might (I don’t know yet) arise from physics.

1) In his epic tome The Physics of Immortality,  the brilliant Tulane physicist Frank Tipler offered a stunning, baroque, complex and enticing (and Hugo Award-worthy) view of a far distant era when (hypothetically) the entire known universe comes back together into a Big Crunch. (This notion of an Big Anti-Bang, which for a decade had been thought extinct, is now being revived in new versions of the Cyclical Universe. Really?  My head spins.) 

Tipler posited that during the last few million years before the final crunch, all the sapient races in the universe would combine knowledge and have available near infinite computational power that would let them simulate any degree of subjective reality. Literally any degree, offering virtual immortality and the resurrection (by simulation) of most of their ancestors. (That last bit would require tens of pages for me to explain; trust me, it’s amazing.)

All of which is pertinent to the notion offered by Anders, Stuart and Milan in one way… because Tipler posited infinite computability in the very hot, collapsing universe, not in the very cold expanding one.  I await clarification of this dichotomy.

2) The aestivation hypothesis is another version of the Delay Paradox for interstellar travel (illustrated in my story “The Avalon Probes,” in INSISTENCE OF VISION.  If you are getting better at launching ever faster ships, that can out-race last year’s models, when does it make sense to actually launch one?  Likewise, while you may get better at computation in a colder universe, you are foregoing all the computation that you might accomplish, if you just kept cranking away during the warmer times. (See my short story “The Warm Space,” in OTHERNESS.)

3) Then there is the Danger Problem.  If you ignore the physical world in favor of dataism, you may be surprised by something that erupts in objective reality and bites you, while you slept in search of better (computational) times. Billions of years, during which some upstart NON-dataist race goes booming across the galaxy, building and delving and mining and making both love and war. Can you be sure they won’t find your aestivation chamber and… well.. at-best wake you up?  Or at-worst…

Not to say this isn’t clever! A number of the sub-concepts can be seen in Liu Cixin’s wonderful novel The Three Body Problem, including a species that aestivates through hard times.

== Naturally, I have a story about that ==

I mentioned wearing many hats. Well, as an astrophysicist and SETI scholar, I had not considered the aestivation possibility.  On the other hand, here’s an extract from my (Hugo winning) 1985 short story “The Crystal Spheres" (from The River of Time):

     Better, by far, to stay young until the universe finally becomes a fun place to enjoy!
To wait for that day, the races who came before us sleep at the edge of their time-stretched black hole. Within, they abide to welcome us; and we shall sit out, together, the barren early years of the galaxies.

Ah, well, sometimes art precedes science!

== And more wonders? ==

WOW SIGNAL solved? Forty years ago, astronomer Jerry Ehman using Ohio State University's Big Ear radio telescope, pointed at a group of stars called Chi Sagittarii in the constellation Sagittarius and captured a 72 second burst of radio that has puzzled SETI searchers. Now Antonio Paris, of St Petersburg College, claims to have an explanation. A pair of comets were in that general part of sky. At the time, 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs, were emitting clouds of ionized hydrogen gas millions of kilometers in diameter. Paris claims this led to the radio signal.

Alas, this “explanation” is an amateur speculation by someone who doesn’t seem to have much understanding of radio astronomy.  Or of comets. This caustic response of one RA fellow (on reddit) casts plenty of shade.

I’m not quite so quick to utterly dismiss the idea. The ionized tails of comets are pretty fierce and occasionally do emit noteworthy radio. Still, radio astronomer and SETI pioneer Dan Werthimer says: “the wow signal was almost certainly RFI (Radio Frequency Interference from man-made sources) modulated in power that happens to be close to the beam pattern response of the telescope. We see these signals all the time.” 

 In other words, this widely circulated “paper” offers an initially cool idea that fails to rise to the “5% plausible” test.  Experts aren’t always right and minority-impudent theories are fun, even occasionally correct. I concoct plenty of em! But this is one that bears lots more burden of proof than is being met.

== And finally ==

On June 3, 2017, a mysterious U.S. spy satellite did a close flyby of the International Space Station.

And finally... ah, sci fi. This is tasty cover art (by Steve Stone) for The Winds of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. But argh, can we think a little?  Commenter Mike Gannis asks:

(1) Look at the woman's shadow. Look at the illumination of the moons. Where the hell is the sun?

(2) The moons might last as long as five or six orbits before one either is ejected or crashes into the planet.

Still, there's a level where you answer... who cares? It sure am pretty.