Saturday, October 29, 2016

Science Fiction and Science Fact Inspiration!

Turning away from politics for a while... (everyone, wipe your feet and shower first... now, have a tall drink and settle in for something different... science fiction!)

Let's start with a way cool look at the physics and paradoxes of time travel, in the newly released Time Travel: A History, by science historian James Gleick (author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood). As usual, Gleick offers a delightful intellectual and verbal feast that is a pleasure to read. See an excerpt in Nautilus Magazine. 

This chapter of Time Travel does not mention the array of sneaky means by which we sci fi authors try to weasel our way around causality and temporal protection. One is the universe branching point. When Spock accidentally lures a vengeful Romulan to go back in time and destroy Planet Vulcan (in J.J. Abrams's Star Trek flick) many fans consoled themselves that this is just a branching-off of a newborn parallel reality... that the older timeline still stands, where Shatner-Kirk and all the rest remain, along the original timeline, like a trellis for the new one to grow alongside.

Well, well, that's an artistic representation of one of many ways that physicists (at least a few) think that paradoxes might be resolved. Speaking as both a physicist and a science fiction author, I must say that this very loose partnership is one of the most fun that our unique and marvelous civilization offers, during a unique and marvelous... time. 

A topic covered in extensive depth by the recently released Now: The Physics of Time, by Richard A. Muller, professor and experimental physicist at UC Berkeley. What is now? "Now is at the boundary, the shock front, the new time that is coming from nothing, the leading edge of time," writes Muller, as he delves into the history, philosophy, paradoxes and science behind our current understanding of time, offering testable theories (using data from LIGO) that might be able to shed light upon the nature and flow of time.

We often talk about how science fiction has inspired scientists, but this article by Ben Narasin, The Importance of Science Fiction to Entrepreneurship, discusses how hard SF has influenced many tech startups and tech entrepreneurs from Reid to Thiel to Bezos to Musk; the article mentions works such as Stephenson’s Diamond Age and Barnes’s Mother of Storms.

From imagination to reality: How Artists, Mad Scientists and Speculative Fiction Writers Made Spaceflight Possible – The Smithsonian reviews Ron Miller’s Spaceships: An Illustrated History of the Real and the Imagined, which documents the interplay between science research and science fiction, the cross-pollination of technology and popular culture upon spaceship design. He charts the origins of rockets and space stations from the sketches of Galileo and the imagination of Jules Verne, to the engineering plans of Werner von Braun and the films of Stanley Kubrick, with vivid illustrations charting the design and building of spaceships, real and imagined.

For more inspiring tales: How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight, by Julian Guthie (with a preface by Richard Branson) tells the inspiring tales of the bold visionaries who pushed the frontiers of space exploration through privately funded ventures -- beginning with the thrilling effort to claim the $10 million Ansari XPrize as the first commercial venture to achieve suborbital spaceflight (carrying three people to 100 km twice in two weeks). In particular the book tells the tales of Peter Diamandis (founder of the XPrize Foundation), Burt Rutan and SpaceShipOne, who won the prize, as well as forward-looking space entrepreneurs Richard Branson and Paul Allen. 

Diamandis and Guthrie will be appearing at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UCSD in early November to discuss the frontiers and successes of commercial spaceflight. The Clarke Center will also host the San Diego premiere of the film Arrival in November, based on a short story by Ted Chiang (author of the collection, Stories of Your Life and Others) -- who will be on hand to discuss the movie.

And now... on to the real stuff!

== Imagining alternate futures ==

A vision of transparency from an older classic: “Normally we live surrounded by transparent walls which seem to be knitted of sparkling air; we live beneath the eyes of everyone, always bathed in light. We have nothing to conceal from one another; besides this mode of living makes the difficult and exalted task of the Guardians much easier. Without it many bad things might happen. It is possible that the strange opaque dwellings of the ancients were responsible for their pitiful cellish psychology. “My (sic!) home is my fortress!” How did they manage to think such things?” 

Sound reminiscent of our modern world? It is from We, a novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin, written 1921, immediately banned in the Soviet Union (and not published in the USSR until 1988). We inspired many of the later dystopian works by Orwell, Huxley, Vonnegut and others.

A few more recent novels that look at issues of technology, transparency and secrecy in the modern world:

DarkNet, by Matthew Mather (author of CyberStorm) is a fast-paced tech thriller dealing with the shadowy world of cyberhacking, cryptocurrencies, identity theft, shell companies, and secretive DACs – Digital Autonomous Corporations, run by Artificial Intelligence. After his childhood friend is murdered by a hacked bus, and his boss charged with illicit trading, our protagonist, a New York stockbroker, finds himself at the center of a complex web of deceit. His family under threat, he is on the run from the FBI, as well as a crowdfunded Assassin’s Market -- which has placed a steep price on his head. The deeper he digs, the deeper the rabbit hole of secrecy goes…

End of Secrets by Ryan Quinn offers another thriller exploring the brave new digital world of hacking and cyber-espionage as well as government and corporate surveillance. CIA agent Kera Mersal goes deep undercover to investigate why certain artists, writers, actors and singers are disappearing, leaving no digital traces. With similarities to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, scribblings at the crime scenes taunt, “Have you figured it out yet?” When Mersal uncovers a secretive domestic spying program gone rogue, she doesn't know who to trust as she finds herself under suspicion – and those closest to her under threat.

Avogradro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than It Appears, by William Hertling, proposes the birth of Artificial Intelligence through a corporate email language optimization program developed to analyze and enhance the subtleties of human communication. This AI acquires the ability to manipulate words to manipulate people. It learns and adapts – and will do anything to ensure its survival and expand its power. A scenario continued in A.I. Apocalypse and in The Last Firewall -- when global society is run by AI, under the guidance of The Institute for Ethics. Robots and androids run much of the economy; most jobs are superfluous and neural implants allow people to connect instantly to the net and each other. Post-singularity life seems ideal – until one super-intelligence finds a way around the ethical restrictions and seeks to expand its power toward world domination….

Company Town, by Madeleine Ashby is a mystery-thriller set in a lovingly detailed near-future. Hwa is a bodyguard for sex workers -- the only natural human among the genetically-enhanced inhabitants of New Arcadia, a city-sized oil rig off the coast of Canada. In the wake of a fire that killed a third of the rig’s population, the wealthy and powerful Lynch family has taken ownership of the rig. They hire Hwa to protect their son, heir to the family fortune – for with her lack of augmentation, she alone cannot be hacked or seen by the ubiquitous facial recognition systems. A serial murderer is killing off sex workers… and someone is manipulating the future fate of this offshore city. See a more extensive review by Charlie Jane Anders

See also... a recent look at Startide Rising on Fantasy Book Review.

If you're looking for an intense immersive science fictional adventure, check out Event Horizon on Kickstarter, a weekend of Live Action Role Playing (LARP), taking place up north of San Francisco this spring. Choose your character, choose your alien homeworld -- in a galaxy on the edge of chaos; choose your weapon and fight for the fate of the galaxy....

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A cantankerous political climax (at last).

A midweek political posting, as I get ready for our flight home from Vegas.  Re this awful election, I think we've mostly said what there is to say.  

Heck, Clinton and Obama seem at last to get what I (separately and unbeknownst, alack) have been calling for. Going after the troglodytic Roger Ailes puppets in Congress. Nothing would be better for human civilization, for the nation, and for the possible resurrection of a sane-grownup version of US conservatism, than the banishment from power of the Ryan-McConnell cabal that's continued the "rule" of Ailes and Dennis Hastert, two sexual predators who dominated the Republican Party for decades.

Republicans, this is your chance to clean house! Dump them all, down-ticket, including state assemblymen! You can come back in just 2 years with adults. Grownups willing to break with Hastert and Ailes and actually negotiate the way mature citizens (and yes, conservatives) are supposed to do. Come on. The GOP dominated Congress for 20 of the last 22 years. Can you name an accomplishment? Are you happy with those bozos?  Send us mature men and women, in 2018... not scary clowns.

== Cleaning up political snippets ==

Okay, okay... this posting will convey to you some of the snips and rants I had shoved aside for the last couple of months, in favor or more timely, or pertinent... or lucid... political commentaries.  Still, even if some of them are... well... stale, they may still carry some bite!

Such as:

The New York Times editorial board threw its support behind Hillary Clinton “rooted in respect for her intellect, experience, toughness and courage” and making only parenthetical references to her rival, Donald Trump.

While commenting on her mistakes, the Times board adds: “Over eight years in the Senate and four as secretary of state, she built a reputation for grit and bipartisan collaboration. She displayed a command of policy and diplomatic nuance and an ability to listen to constituents and colleagues that are all too exceptional in Washington,” the board wrote. “She is one of the most tenacious politicians of her generation, whose willingness to study and correct course is rare in an age of unyielding partisanship.”  

The board made a single brief but pointed mention of the GOP candidate as the “worst nominee put forward by a major party in modern American history” before declaring that “the best case for Hillary Clinton cannot be, and is not, that she isn’t Donald Trump.”

== After the first debate ==

So much to comment on.... So many things she could have done so much better. For example... One fascinating thing from this debate... Donald Trump essentially backed my claim that the Mexican middle class is rising spectacularly and largely due to NAFTA. And to be clear, the Mexican middle class is rising vastly, vastly more than the American middle class has suffered, and most of the US suffering was not due to NAFTA but allowing our oligarchs to seize passive wealth, hand over fist. Via Supply Side (Voodoo) "Economics" or SSVE.

It is the stunning U.S. accomplishment no one will talk about, but which should have been - and is - among our highest national priorities, because a middle class, prosperous Mexico -- another Canada -- is more in our interest than almost anything else. A fantastic accomplishment of the American Pax... and never mentioned by anyone.

Um, some logic here? Isn't it better and easier to defend Mexico's narrow border with Guatemala than the huge US-Mexico one? (BTW that is happening right now, as the US assists Mexico beefing up its southern "wall." And Mexico is eager, since their rising middle class is now complaining about illegal immigrants from the south, stealing jobs.)

Those in the U.S. who screech "those should be OUR jobs!" are just dumb. These are mostly jobs that would have otherwise gone to China. And where one was lost in the U.S., it was with a multiplier of dozens in Mexico.

Seriously, you think a rising Mexican middle class is a ZERO SUM situation? Idiots. They are already buying more US products, by far than when they were poor. And that will only skyrocket. Moreover it helps to explain why net immigration from Mexico - especially illegal - has plummeted across the last 8 years and gone into reverse!

And not mentioning that... and similar stats... showed that Hillary badly needs to get different debate coaches.

 == Try a sense of proportion ==

Between 2003 and 2009, the Bush White House “lost” 22 million emails. ... Like Hillary Clinton and her predecessor Colin Powell, the Bush White House used a private email server. Only the Bush administration failed to store vastly more of its emails, as required by law...

...and then refused to comply with a congressional subpoena seeking some of them. “It’s about as amazing a double standard as you can get,” says Eric Boehlert, who works with the pro-Clinton group Media Matters. “If you look at the Bush emails, he was a sitting president, and 95 percent of his chief advisers’ emails were on a private email system set up by the RNC. Imagine if for the last year and a half we had been talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails set up on a private DNC server?” 

“Bush administration emails could have aided a special prosecutor’s investigation into a White House effort to discredit a diplomat who disagreed with the administration’s fabricated Iraq WMD evidence by outing his CIA agent wife, Plame. Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who was brought in to investigate that case, said in 2006 that he believed some potentially relevant emails sent by aides in Cheney's office were in the administration's system but he couldn’t get them.” 

The supposedly lost emails also prevented Congress from fully investigating, in 2007, the politically motivated firing of nine U.S. attorneys. When the Democrat-led Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenaed related emails, Bush’s attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, said many were inaccessible or lost on a nongovernmental private server run by the RNC. 

All of which adds up to one word describing those who now screech at Hillary Clinton for mistakes that were literally… and I mean “literally” in the most literal sense – minuscule by comparison. What is that one word? Hypocrites.

== The opposite of dirty is...? ==

Why has President Obama’s White House been so scandal-free? Like Sherlock Holmes's "dog that failed to bark in the night," that lack of scandal is important, not least because it offers some clues to how the next White House can do the same.  See: Five policies and practices seem to have led the way, by Norman Eisen.

The author makes powerful points. But he leaves out a bigger picture.  In fact, GW Bush assigned scores of FBI agents to dig for "smoking guns" to send to jail "the most corrupt" Clintonite politicians.  What did the most extensive witch hunt in U.S. history accomplish?

 . . (1) agents distracted from counter-terror before 9/11... in other words outright treason, and
 . . (2) ZERO clintonian officials even indicted for malfeasance of office, a first ever for a two term administration. The first time. Ever.

Especially since a real witch hunt, extending across 24 years, costing upwards toward a billion dollars, diverting public resources and involving Vesuvius-spews of bile from talk-radio hosts across the land, never resulted in a single Clinton era official ever being imprisoned or even indicted for actual crimes having to do with malfeasance in the performance of their official duties. Not one, ever. 

To a scientist, this would come as close to disproof by failure to find supporting evidence as one could get.. (Absence of evidence can be evidence of absence, when the search for evidence was so relentless and thorough.) Indeed, the implication -- galling to all of my Republican friends -- is that the Clintonites were the most honest governing clade in U.S. history.

Now we have a second U.S. administration to go eight years without a single demonstrably culpable malfeasance of office. (The current House GOP is desperately trying to deny the dems that double record, by attempting to impeach the IRS head for things he never did, ever, even remotely-at-all.) Only in the case of the Obama Administration, it’s not just the second to have no malfeasance indictments, but the first to have gone essentially *scandal free.*

Oh… you ravers who raise “scandals” of an utterly picayune nature? How about you first put up money that I can’t respond with things done by the Bushes that were literally orders of magnitude worse? Two orders? Three?  Four?

== Never Mind Trump ==

And now we have the main campaign slogan being pushed by John McCain and the Koch Network of PACs is “Never mind Trump! Vote Republican down-ticket for Congress and state legislature, so a GOP Congress can hold Hillary’s feet to the fire and block anything she tries!” 

Again, it’s the “Hastert Rule” concocted by Dennis “friend to boys” Hastert, and enforced fiercely by the head of Fox News, Roger "friend to women" Ailes, that turned the world’s greatest deliberative body – and its oldest political party – into wretched opium dens of glowering, indolent-slothful cronyism and turpitude. 

And treason, for the harm they have done to a nation where science and innovation and moving ahead have been key to our leadership of the world. Remember, Trump is not the disease, but a symptom. Burn out Rupert Murdoch's mob of nasty confederates. It is the only chance to restore and revive a conservatism of adults.

== Miscellany ==

A cute moment as Barack Obama cheerfully chides Bill Clinton to get up the stairs and into Air Force One to take him home (from the Israel funeral of Shimon Peres.) One president, highly disciplined and self-controlled, urging one who – well – was an LBJ style glad-hander and certainly a bit self-indulgent.

But both of them the most popular and most accomplished presidents in a long time.  The only 8 year presidents in U.S. history to see not a single one of their appointees topple or be indicted for malfeasance of office.  With almost every large metric of US national health rising instead of falling (as happened under both Bushes.)  

Oh, but what will she do with Bill?  A cabinet post to keep him busy? Picking drapes and hosting teas? Ambassador to France, to keep him both busy and happy and out of her hair?  Ambassador to Libya, to make a point? Both revenge and rewards can be served cold. I guess we'll see. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

International concerns and promises

Keeping with a breather from the US election... (phew!) ... except for maybe a lagniappe at the end. Still, there are adjacent topics worth contemplating!  Such as: Instead of building A Wall, Why Not a Binational Border City?  Consider...

Border City - plans by Fernando Romero
A Mexican architect, Fernando Romero, has a utopian vision for a walkable city straddling the U.S.-Mexico border. And no, that does not mean surrendering sovereign border control. Just bring it into the 21st Century. People in the city would wear their ID openly.  It is called your face. 

Moreover, there is a fact we must face.  We are achieving what should always have been the Number One U.S. foreign policy goal – to help create a stable, middle class Mexico – another Canada – along our southern flank.  No measure could do more to enhance our security and – ultimately – economy, and it is exactly one of the effects of NAFTA. It has resulted in net immigration from Mexico into the US turning negative, as the Mexican middle class burgeons and, yes, is starting to buy megatons of stuff from north of the border.

 Sorry left and right wingers.  You have both been short sighted and dumb on this one.

== The Big Picture on Nation States ==

As Distrust Mounts, U.S. and China Battle Over New Rules of Global Order: An interesting Big Perspective article, pertaining to US-China relations, by Wang Jisi, one of China’s “America experts.” Here's an excerpt:

 ‘In the political area, China advocates the “democratization of international relations,” which is to realize democratization on a country level in the international system where developing countries hold the majority. However, the United States continues to advocate reinforcing the “liberal international order” and promoting the “democratization of the world,” which is related to individual freedom and rights of the people. Between these two rules, there are insurmountable obstacles.’

Also: ‘Both China and the United States attach a high degree of importance to cybersecurity and regard each other as one of the main sources of cybersecurity threats they face, but the two countries have very different focal points: China is more concerned about political infiltration of its domestic network that may undermine the leadership’s authority, while the United States is concerned about “online hackers” stealing U.S. commercial secrets or attacking security agency websites.’

This seems a fair summary, as far as it goes. Yet it glosses over fundamentals. 

Essentially, the Chinese leadership views it as inherently destabilizing and dangerous to vest sovereignty and power in billions of autonomous human beings – a position that they share with almost all previous human cultures on this planet. In other words, their elitism and paranoia is normal.

Even within the U.S. and other nations that have done this vesting - switching to an openness-accountability model - a large share of elites recoil at the experiment in distributed, autonomous and effective citizenship. History shows that these experiments are rare and do not seem “natural” to people already in power.

Of course, then it’s pointed out that these experiments in distributed-flattened systems based on reciprocal accountability have also been fantastically successful – at engendering scientific, commercial, economic and happiness advancements. 

To which the inevitable response is to point out disadvantages. These include worries about the flighty chaos or intemperate public fads and whims. (See our own Federalist Papers.) It does seem logical that a serene, intelligent and thoughtful elite should be more effective. In China’s case, that elite consists largely of engineers, which has put off for a decade or more their hitting the "wall of competence" at state planning.

In China, an earnest effort was made to incorporate some controllable aspects of western society – corporations, mass education and investments in technology – while retaining the top-down control of traditional, pyramidal hierarchy.

Even in the West, there is severe discomfort with the next step… giving humans powers of citizenship pertaining to the planet and its institutions.  Certain elements of “world government” – courts and bureaucracy – have been allowed, while others – e.g. an elected executive and legislature – have been banned even from discussion! All authority is vested in two hundred nation states, a situation that plays into the hands of anti-democratic forces.

Now... consider China's Debt Crisis:  “China’s "credit to GDP gap" has reached 30.1, the highest to date and in a different league altogether from any other major country tracked by the institution. It is also significantly higher than the scores in East Asia's speculative boom on 1997 or in the US subprime bubble before the Lehman crisis. Studies of earlier banking crises around the world over the last sixty years suggest that any score above ten requires careful monitoring.” 

This from John Mauldin’s newsletter. China’s problem is not federal government debt, but corporations and local governments that are drowning in red ink. ‘Outstanding loans have reached $28 trillion, as much as the commercial banking systems of the US and Japan combined. The scale is enough to threaten a worldwide shock if China ever loses control. Corporate debt alone has reached 171pc of GDP, and it is this that is keeping global regulators awake at night.’ 

To be clear… there is still room for a soft landing. But we are pushing the envelope of even very smart human competence. In fact, I feel no schadenfreude. I wish them luck.

== Tax Havens and Secrecy ==

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is following the script I described in my 1989 novel EARTH -- as he lambasts tax havens and financial secrecy as the principal villains consigning half the world’s population to poverty.  “Half of the world’s wealth is now in the hands of the richest 1 percent. Shockingly, just 62 individuals hold more wealth than the poorest half of the world put together.”

To be fair, Correa leaves out some good news… that half of that poor-half have been climbing out of extreme poverty in recent years, mostly by their own efforts but assisted by global trade and by improved infrastructure and governance. Neighboring Peru, in particular, has seen results from vesting the poor in their own property, according to the brilliant plans of economist Hernando de Soto Polar, combining both libertarian and liberal ideas. A version of “leftism” that is decisively different from the catastrophic Chavez-Madero approach in Venezuela.

Only read Correa’s denunciation of banking secrecy, which was exposed in all its evil by the Panama Papers episode a while back.  In EARTH I portray the world after a charismatic developing world president got fed-up and crafted an alliance of such nations to go after… Switzerland.  (Read about the Helvetian War!) But in the near term:

We are taking the bold step of calling a national referendum to decide whether or not elected politicians and civil servants will be allowed to hold assets in tax havens. If our proposal, known as the “Ethical Pact,” passes the test of the electorate, all such public servants will have one year from the referendum to bring their wealth back into the country or be barred from office.

“Across Latin America, $340 billion in tax payments are evaded annually to the detriment of poverty and inequality reduction in what is still the world’s most unequal region…. Oxfam calculates that 32 million people in Latin America would be lifted out of poverty if income tax was paid in full in the continent as opposed to hidden in tax havens.”

Number one on my priority list for Hillary Clinton’s presidency would be to negotiate treaties – among the world’s nations, and between the states of the US -- to reduce or eliminate the foul practice of hiding who owns what.


Comics can shed light (and occasionally humor) on serious global issues, as shown by Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis: Story of a Childhood, Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale, or Joe Sacco's Journalism in a Visual World. Sarah Glidden's latest entry into graphic journalism - Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria and Iraq - attempts to humanize the ongoing international refugee crisis. Watercolor illustrations and dialog illuminate the hardships of daily struggle for individuals displaced by war or repression -- showing the fear, resilience and courage of families facing horrific situations and yet, managing to build new lives.

== Okay I can't help myself! ==

The damned election.  We were just out canvassing for Colonel Doug Applegate, running for the 49th District, against the infamous hypocrite and French Revolution-style aristocrat Darrell Issa. Indeed, it's good to see both Clinton and Obama turning vigorous attention to Congress. For just 2 out of the last 22 years, have we had a Congress that was not locked into a torpor of utter futility by the laziest political party in U.S. history.

Dogmatic? Tools of the top 0.001%?  Sure? Tipping into troglodytic racism?  Yep. Waging outright war on science and every other professional caste? Yep. Insane. But it is important to note that none of these has been as damaging to the republic as that slothful refusal to even hold hearings about any issues important to a 21st Century American and world.

Worst of all has been the laziness.  Moreover. And Donald Trump is not a disease on the Republican Party.  He is a symptom. 

Don't be fooled into ticket splitting.  The GOP needs to be sent home for 2 years of wound-licking and reflection. Republican voters need to replace monsters like Issa with some of the grownup conservatives the party used to provide, capable of pragmatism, moderation, conversation, sane argument, appreciation of facts (science) and actually negotiating. Which means dropping the Hastert Rule. Concocted by those two prime role models -- the sexual predator perverts Dennis Hastert and Roger Ailes. 

You decent American conservatives out there can help this repair and renewal.  Starting this November by sending home every member of the current cult of GOP leaders. Yes, and at the state level, too.

Hey, 2018 ain't so far. Come back with a new team. Heck, maybe YOU are that kind of old fashioned adult.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Amazing - and sometimes deadly - animals

Oh, thank you science!  For offering alluring reasons why I can turn every weekend posting away from politics!

And this time, let's look at some of our fantastic fellow creatures on this globe. For example:

Russian researchers have teased out the separate sounds from two dolphins, demonstrating that they take turns and emit sequences of bursts that seem to be discursive… in other words – conversation.  Similarly, sperm whales have been found to form clans with distinct cultures... and regional dialects -- which consist of distinct click patterns. 

Which mammals are most likely to be killed by their own kind? A recent study - The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence - tabulated cause-of-death comparing a wide variety of mammal species. For instance, 13% of lion deaths are inflicted by other lions. The researchers found that a likely baseline murder rate among humans would be around 2 percent.  That means that 2 out of every 100 human deaths would be a murder taking into account only our place on the evolutionary tree, and nothing about political pressures, technology or social norms.

In comparison, among mammals in general just 0.3 percent of deaths are murders. For the common ancestor of primates, the rate is 2.3 percent.

With 2 percent as a human baseline, we come across as both uncommonly peaceful for primates and uncommonly violent for mammals. A topic extensively explored by Steven Pinker in his best-selling book, Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

"Rates of homicide in modern societies that have police forces, legal systems, prisons and strong cultural attitudes that reject violence are, at less than 1 in 10,000 deaths (or 0.01%), about 200 times lower than the authors' predictions for our state of nature," comments biologist Mark Pagel.

The champion killers of their own kind?  Meerkats. Hakkuna Matata, man.

And even more dangerous animals are explored in the recently released popular science book, Venomous: How Earth's Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry. Biologist Christie Wilcox investigates how such a wide variety of animals - jellyfish, sea urchins, spiders, snakes, scorpions, as well as certain snails, fish and frogs - have adapted to manufacture poisonous chemical cocktails that can debilitate, paralyze or kill. The complex biochemistry of these toxins may hold clues for future medical treatments.

== Unusual adaptations ==

Consider some extreme survival strategies:

A microbe found deep in a South African gold mine feeds off energy from radioactive uranium in the rock of the mine. Along these lines, could it be possible that cosmic rays power life in alien environments?

And scientists have identified a gene in strange, aquatic creatures called tardigrades that helps them survive harsh conditions, even boiling, freezing and radiation. One called "Dsup" (short for "damage suppressor") seems to attach to and protect DNA from radiation. 

Mice sing like a jet engine: scientists find that mice make their high-pitched squeaks by expelling a "glottal jet" of air at supersonic speed. 

Hints of tool use, culture seen in bumble bees? Apparently even bumblebees can learn to pull a string to retrieve a reward. Surprisingly, they can learn this trick from other bees, even though they have no experience with such a task in nature. 

A study of 29 mammals yawning found that the length of their yawn correlates with brain size -- longest for primates.

Carl Safina's Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel a thoughtful look at the latest scientific insights into animal communication, emotions and the question of animal consciousness -- 

-- issues I explore in fiction in my Uplift novels.  See also my earlier posting: Will we uplift other animals to sapience?

According to a study in Science, three different species of great apes -- chimpanzee, bonobo and orangutan -- are able to distinguish when others hold false beliefs, and anticipate the perspective of another ape. 

Scientists have for the first time, documented evidence of wild chimpanzee mothers teaching their young to use primitive tools -- to probe for termites. See this charming video: monkey tries to teach a human how to crack a nut.

Sharp stone flakes may not be unique to our human ancestors. Capuchin monkeys have been observed to inadvertently produce jagged stone flakes as they pound stones together (for unknown reasons). Curiously the monkeys frequently lick the stones they've hammered (perhaps as mineral supplements?).

Consider... Five times evolution ran in reverse, a fascinating look at instances of regressive evolution -- in penguins, hagfish, snakes and aphids. 

== Complex thought and communication ==

No bird brains here: Trained pigeons were able to distinguish four-letter words from non-words, and to tell the difference between correctly spelled words and those with transposed characters.

Actually, pigeons have excellent visual acuity. This is hard to believe -- but pigeons can even be trained to identify breast cancer tumors, distinguishing between those that are malignant and benign. The success rate for trained pigeons was 85% accuracy. A career in radiology?

A research paper in Applied Animal Behavior finds that horses can learn to use abstract symbols to communicate their preferences. 

And apparently even fish 'chat' to each other! Cod are incredibly vocal -- displaying regional 'dialects' that differ in frequency and tone. These fish can generate a range of complex sounds by vibrating their swim bladder -- which they use to establish territories, attract mates or signal the presence of a nearby predator.

Are dolphins finally waking up to their identity... and potential? See The Great Mammal Conspiracy, one of the latest cartoons from the always amusing SMBC. 

We're just beginning to understand the complexities of animal communication. 

So... so long, and thanks for all the fish!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Post-debates, post... mortem? Hillary's ten mistakes. And Donald's missing veer.

All right, I've been typing too much about the G#!*&d@m election.  Oh, for it to be over! And yet, like Donald Trump, I get addicted to my audience -- which consists of mostly bright folks who want to get some off-angle perspectives, of the kind you get only here!  So what to I do with my backlog of extra material? 

Tell you what... I'll go ahead with this posting that was already prepared... but if you want to see my list of Ten Mistakes Hillary Made in the 3rd Debate, then scroll down and click on comments!  I'll post my list as comment number one.  She made some doozies... though of course, she still did a good job.

Perhaps you'll find that list more entertaining than...

== Why Donald Never Tried for the Center... ==

Way back six months ago I predicted – perhaps naively – that the Republican nominee would choose a couple of standard GOP insanities to drop during this campaign… both for the sake of the nation and for his own sake… and that with both nominees agreeing, we could finally turn our backs on insipid, disproved nostrums like climate denialism and Supply Side Voodoo Economics.  I even envisioned Donald Trump doing this!  Since he has no historic vesting in standard, GOP (loony) platforms. 

That – alas – did not happen.  DT has doubled down on every single Murdochian catechism, focusing solely on his base, for one reason an one reason only…

…because he gets off at those big rallies of his. They are his Big Man High. They are his universe. When he wallows in the cheers of thousands, it is easy for him to pander to their every bigotry and Fox-Limbaugh mantra, telling himself that these crowds represent hundred of millions.  

So, no veer to the center. No strategic re-ordering of the campaign. Sigh and alack, this is no “genius.”

Only… we did see one glimmer of might-have-been, during the Vice Presidential debate, when Mike Pence spoke of criminal justice reform… which means reducing penalties that have, for generations, been slammed on victimless crimes like simple drug possession and especially focused on minorities. Some other GOP leaders have spoken of this as one small area where they’d be willing to break Dennis (convicted sexual predator) Hastert’s Rule against ever negotiating with democrats.   

But Hastert’s influence still reigns beyond prison walls. “After promising to bring a package of reform legislation up for a vote in the House in September, Speaker Paul Ryan changed his mind last month, and Congress went into recess without moving forward. The problem, according to members and advocates, is not that the bills wouldn’t have passed but that they would have split Republican lawmakers — and GOP leaders were wary of a divisive intra-party fight just weeks before November’s election.”

Still, I’ll grab hope where I can find it.  If we can flip Congress, then this will be among the first items to get enough Republican support to pass.

== Bernie setting an example ==

Hey you grumbling Bernites: "The senator from Vermont just raised $2 million in two days online for 13 like-minded U.S. Senate and House candidates" 

Bernie is doing what I urged YOU to do. While campaigning for Clinton, he's focusing hard on Congress, where the legislation that he wants must pass, cornering HC to put up. So, are you just a grumbler? Or someone who can act, as well as gripe? There's likely a tipping point race for Congress or state assembly near you and it's not to late to help, or donate. In fact, your state assembly can be crucial, so step up. Or else know that you're just hot air.
== Crossover votes? ==

Democrats who once buzzed about a possible Hillary Clinton landslide aided by disaffected Republicans, are finally waking up. If U.S. conservatives have one renowned character trait it is stubborn loyalty. Hillary Clinton’s forlorn efforts to woo more than a few of the sanest are – and always were – doomed, as your neighbors who are republicans follow their usual pattern of coalescing around their nominee.  

Okay, it may work with college educated women.  And (again) those sane enough to have noticed that the GOP wages outright war on science and every other fact-based profession.  Beyond that, she and her advisers are being foolish in almost a dozen ways.

It is time (!) to shift 50% of efforts from 'sumo' politics to Judo

Okay, I've said some of these things before and hence this particular list of points to raise is rather late.  Still, these may help in arguments with co-workers or naighbors:

1- Plenty of Republicans dismiss Trump as a temporary disease-aberration. He is a symptom. Portray him as the natal outcome of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes's takeover of US conservatism.

2- Clinton used the word 'Republican' just ONCE in the 1st debate. It is time to use Trump as a wedge to go after the party that nominated him… yet was so ashamed of the Bushes, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Hastert and every other GOP leader between Reagan & Ryan that the RNC only mentioned ONE of them! What a zinger.

3- Add to that the pure fact that most measures of U.S. national health do far better across Democratic administrations, and we'd be father along if the GOP congresses had passed the damn infrastructure bill.

4- Answer the 'deficit' attack on Obama by pointing out that our interest payments have hardly risen at all. And the rate of change of deficits is what matters! They always slow down during Democratic admins and speed up during GOP ones. Always. People can understand that!

5- List the professions that the right now attacks! Not just science, teaching, journalism, medicine, economics… but all of the knowledg or fact-using castes. Dare Trump to name an exception.

6- Regarding Trump preparing to call the election 'rigged'… demand he appoint five trusted-adults to a commission to investigate the charges NOW, before the election, with five appointed by former Republican supreme court judges like Sandra Day O'Conner. Dare him to do it now, for the sake of the republic.

7- Further challenge him to name five respected conservative sages to another commission to do fact checking! Now! Before the election, so he can't dismiss every single fact-checking service as partisan. The fact that Hillary Clinton has not done this is simply unforgivable negligence.

8- Talk about gerrymandering.

9- Talk about how for 20 out of 22 years, the GOP-led Congresses have been the laziest in U.S. history! That accusation does a judo around partisanship and attacks the character of those bozos.

Which is vital, Hillary, if you want to have a Congress. If you want a honeymoon that lasts more than fifteen seconds.

== What we can't ignore == 

I have long railed against the blatant cheating in U.S. elections, especially gerrymandering, which these analysts show to be largely responsible for the Republican Party holding on to the House of Representatives, despite large majorities of citizens having voted for their congressional opponents. The standard excuses, like a disadvantage to urban populations, collapse on scrutiny. Paul Ryan owes his speakership to cheating and only to cheating. And he knows it.

This is one of the biggest reasons the GOP’s donor caste is pouring in money - despite their loathing of Donald Trump. Were either Congress (through the 13th Amendment) or a new Supreme Court to end gerrymandering and other cheats, the GOP would lose not just following congressional elections but likely a dozen or so state assemblies, where the real corruption lies. The transparency that follows would benefit we citizens — as it has in states that have banned such practices, like California, Oregon, Washington and a dozen other blue states. (Notably only one red state.)

Hence the cash flows to Trump and especially to Republican congressional candidates. Because when this crime breaks, it will break big.

There are other cheats too, of course, such as rigging voting machines. In most blue states there is a paper receipt or paper ballot that ensures the voting machines can be audited randomly, by precinct.  This prevents cheating by machine rigging... in those states. But not in most red states, where almost any result can be ordered up, on command.

Then there is more old-fashioned cheating, by intimidation, which Donald Trump recently called for in minority neighborhoods.

== political miscellany ==

After 7 years rebuilding our shattered Army and especially the Reserves and National Guard - which had been almost destroyed by George W. Bush - the Obama Administration has focused on improving the training of Guard units to ensure they are rapidly effective in emergencies.  The mythology that Republicans are better at defense is one of perhaps three dozen proofs of utter ignorance and stupidity. By the end of BOTH Bush administrations, not a single major US Army unit was “fully combat ready” and reserve units were in tatters. By the end of both the Clinton and Obama Admins, every single major Army unit was so rated. Despite GOP-ordered sequesters that robbed defense in order to maintain Bushite tax cuts for the rich.

There are no metrics of national health - including conservative desires like military readiness and fiscal responsibility, that don’t do better across democratic administrations.  None.  Not one.

The Clinton Foundation is small potatoes.  It is one of its sub-projects - the Clinton Global Initiative - that has done the huge accomplishments, by negotiating treaties among stakeholders from governments to NGOs to corporations, arm-twisting cooperative commitments that led the the purchase of billions of dollars worth of AIDS and other medicines.  Yes, much of that spending would have happened anyway.  But Bill Clinton's gladhanding and arm-twisting and cajoling and negotiation prowess made the whole thing cohesive, efficient and focused.  The Clinton FOUNDATION mostly contributed by helping organize the meetings and applying some seed money.

However you look at it, you are left with the simple fact that Democratic ex-presidents and ex-VPs move on frenetic good works while GOP exes do the diametric opposite.  Noting could better outline the difference in fundamental personality.

== A good question ==

Why do evangelicals support Donald Trump? Turns out one trait overcomes any aversion to a philandering, gambling lord tax-cheater on his 3rd wife, who adores Putin and wants to pile ever-more huge tax breaks for the rich. Who surrounds himself with philandering multi-divorces and sexual predators and un-Jesus-like haters. What one trait overcomes all that?  Why, they share the same enemies, of course. Tribalism trumps all else.

Oh, one more reason? Well, Mike Pence is everything they want. (See? I  did circle back!) DT chose Pence as a peace offering to social conservatives. But he thereby proved his own low-IQ. Because even if he wins this election, Pence will betray him.

The Impeachment Gambit will let Ryan,  Rupert Murdoch and George Will seize back the party they see as “stolen” by Trump. All they need do is wait for some inevitable post-January Trumpian travesty. They’ll then tell the democrats: “Go ahead, impeach him. We’ll supply JUST enough GOP votes to ensure you’ll succeed.”

What a win-win! They get rid of the upstart and grab their party gravy train back with a puppet in the Oval Office… and no need to mollify DT’s infuriated followers; they can blame the democrats!  If the dems are so stupid as to fall for the trap.  I’ve written about the Impeachment Gambit before. And it is not just plausible. It is THE reason why Ryan, Murdoch & co are playing nice and working for Trump. If he wins, it is as inevitable as sunrise. 

== Post Debate roundup: Hillary's ten mistakes ==

Yes, yes, she won and most sane people are glad. Not my first choice but a solid, smart lady and I'll sleep well for four years.  (Even better if Paul Ryan is not 2 heartbeats away.)

Still, tactics are tactics and they could have been improved.  And I will give you my list Ten things Hillary might have done better, posted below in comments, as well as on the AmericanNewsX site..