Military-Industrial-Media Complex

A bit of a slow news day, or rather a day slow on news that prompts me to comment. I read this article earlier today and was on the edge of blogging on it, but the activation energy was just not quite enough. However, upon reading his second update that last bit of energy was supplied…

Gen. McCaffrey privately briefs NBC execs on war with Iran

It seems the military has so thoroughly learned its lessons about manipulating the media (it seems to me I wrote on this before, but wasn’t able to find the post, but they learned it during the first Gulf war) that it can’t help itself even when it is no longer in the military. Of course it could all be about naked greed and secrete payola, but that implies conspiracy, planning, forethought and coordination, something I am not yet convinced is actually possible for these sorts of people (maybe they really are so much smarter than I am that they can act like morons as a smoke screen?). Anyway, were I a god believer instead of the pagan heretic I am, I might say “Thank God for the Internet” and its ability to provide some news that isn’t in direct control by the 1%. Not content with three unfunded wars (everyone is so quick to forget Libya), now the drum beats for a fourth (well, more than that if we count Yemen, Somalia, etc., etc.) get hot and heavy and one of the purported news agencies is offended that they are being accused of bias because they only get information from one side of the debate. Of course, they are all pretty much ‘reporting’ (government stenographers is their real role) the same thing and offering the same biased viewpoint, so I guess we should all happily prepare for a whole new war just because, well, that is what _they_ tell us to do!

As a by the by, anyone notice that North Korea has decided to ditch its nuclear weapon program in exchange for food? I suspect that the thought that leaving the sanctions to work on Iran for a few more years is totally out of the worldview of all the drum beaters. Sanctions are boring. I am reminded of a scene in Issac Asimov’s Foundation series where one of the little empires the Foundation had been trading with got upset and started a war only to have the Foundation simply refuse to engage in war-like activity. Remarkably, in a fairly short period the populace got very upset about all the sacrifices demanded of them and overthrew the government (at least that is how I remember it, I haven’t read the stories in years). If Israel and the US would simply stop all the talk of war the Iranian government would be left without an external enemy (of course, they could try to get people fired up about the sanctions, but that argument likely will ring hollow) and would have to respond to internal dissent and might finally be inclined to moderate their stance.

Anyone else as frustratingly amused as I am that Iran’s ‘dictator’ is democratically elected? Since the sheeple seem to eat whatever they are fed I guess I should stop complaining about them. My problem is that by admitting that to myself I now become one of ‘them’ who tailor arguments specifically for the sheeple to lead them around. Even if I did it for the greatest good of the greatest number, I am still treating them like shit. Why can’t they pull their heads out of their asses and learn to think? Why, oh why, is the sky not pink?

Got to be seen!

So, here’s why I’m not moving to Wyoming

This really has to be read! Wyoming wants to explore the feasibility of having its own aircraft carrier in the event there is a nation-wide economic meltdown! While I am quick to discuss the looming apocalypse I advocate doing things that make economic sense even if the apocalypse fails to materialize. I would never advocate doing things that make no economic sense no matter how bad the apocalypse turned out to be and I can’t think of any way that Wyoming having an aircraft carrier makes the slightest amount of sense.

The crazies are now running the asylum!

What is the chance of a favorable ruling?

Favorable, of course, to the poor people

Shell Oil must aid workers abused overseas

Somehow I expect the Supreme Court will follow the lower court ruling and agree that corporations are only people when it comes to Constitutional _benefits_ but magically revert to helpless scraps of paper as soon as anything negative comes along.

Of course, the idea that the US ‘justice’ system should be the world’s watchdog is more than a little bit silly but given the global nature of business today and the absolute uselessness of the UN (there isn’t, to my knowledge, any other organization that even purports to act for the world as a whole) there is some sense in allowing the US courts to arbitrate some of these things. Of course, if the targeted company chooses to avoid doing any business in the US then they should be immune, but even if they do business in the US given our silly-assed tailored for global mega corporations accounting laws that allow profit to be squirreled away overseas, even suing in the US might not achieve anything meaningful as they could easily show that they have no profits in the US to take.

Of course the idea that everyone is equal under the law is quite quaint; clearly the author hasn’t been keeping up with local events.

He makes this sound very attractive

Privacy versus Efficiency

Adams makes the idea of zero privacy sound very attractive. I am sure that for youth of today (probably anyone under 35) this ‘loss’ of privacy wouldn’t even be noticed. Barring biblical apocalypse or some such this is probably the direction we are going whether we like it or not, and probably in the very near future. I have to say I am on the fence when it comes to having a _thing_ I have to tote around, but I will probably be quick (but not the first, I will let someone else be the test subject) to have the brain implants that would allow for direct computer interface and get the same _result_. Yes, very Matrix-like, but I have long cursed my inefficient mind and having an accurate storage mechanism as well as the ability to start, monitor and see search results makes me think I can be immensely more productive (well, depending on how you measure things, perhaps infinitely more productive). I have thoughts all the time I wish I could record in some meaningful way but since I lack access to pen and paper (and couldn’t read my damn chicken scratch anyway) I lose quite a few. I like to think the good ones pop back up often enough to leave enough of a trace I can start documenting them, but I am left with a nagging feeling that I often am unable to reproduce the thought process at a later date and the idea is lost.

Of course, then we bring hacking to a whole new level as how many people would have the intelligence and education to actually secure their own minds?

Microbial fuel cell and Bacillus stratosphericus

Superbugs: Efficient Generator of Electricity

I had heard about the idea of the microbial fuel cell before and if I could somehow motivate myself to work in my lab again it might be something I would pursue, but when I read the name Bacillus stratosphericus I thought it must be an April Fools joke or something. It seems that B. stratosphericus isn’t a joke (though I found it difficult to find web pages that weren’t related to this basic premise) so there might be something interesting there. However, the reported output of “200 Watts per cubic metre” makes me want to grin again. From a purely scientific point of view it is interesting, but from any other point of view it seems totally useless. Sure, if we ignore every other bit of reality, bacteria doubling every 30 minutes quickly coat the universe in goo in just a few days. The reality, though, is that level of output is unsustainable and real systems collapse. So, to talk about a cubic meter putting out 200 watts is almost silly. I am sure I can build something biological based that occupies a cubic meter and will produce more than 200 watts and I bet it will cost orders of magnitude less than whatever silly thing they are talking about and of course solar panels can easily capture that much energy per square meter.

Still, from a scientific point of view, this is interesting as if we can convert biological fuel directly into electricity and avoid the need to boil water and spin up turbines we can handle a lot of inefficiency. At this point, though, it seems like nothing more than a curiosity. Bump up the output by an order of magnitude or twain and ensure the cost/watt is very low and now you are on to something!

Giving home schooling a bad name

Rick Santorum’s home-school hokum
America’s most famous home-schooler spent three years soaking Pennsylvania taxpayers for his kids’ education

I don’t need other reasons to not like Santorum and almost didn’t bother to read this article (I had already heard about his highly ethically questionable behavior) but decided to take a look just for the heck of it. I found it surprising in the article’s focus on home schooling and since I am interested in education in general and have studied homes schooling quite a bit (I had intended to home school our boy) I felt I had something to say, hence this post…

I had a massive dislike of my public school educational time. I am sure that a great deal of that was due to my dad being in the Navy and us moving every couple of years (I attended quite a few schools and lemme tell you, that scars you for life!). However, I also found the pace, particularly in high school, to be abysmally slow (keep in mind, this was 30 years ago, I can’t imagine things have improved) and could, even in advanced ‘AP’ classes, pass (I was, and likely will always remain, a ‘C’ student (in graduate school ‘B’ is the new ‘C’ and that is all I achieved)) simply by being in class and exposed to lecture (I was able to, for the most part, drift through my bachelors degree the same way, but things changed dramatically in graduate school where I likely studied for each class as much as I had in my entire career up to that point). Though I am sure some will consider this a form of bragging, I consider it a clear sign that our educational expectations of a society are so poor that someone like me can lazily drift through school without having to apply himself. If (as I like to believe; who doesn’t think they are the smartest (and best looking!) thing around?) I am pretty smart, oughtn’t the educational system have the obligation to recognize that and put me in the situation (which finally happened in graduate school) where I had to actually apply myself in order to succeed? I am quite sure that if my classes were 10x more challenging I would have exerted 10x more effort (perhaps I would finally been inspired and put in 20x more) and been able to learn so much more. As I often comment, I have become a scientist and a lover of learning in spite of my education, not because of it.

Back to home schooling… I thought a lot about how I would try to educate any children I might have, even before I ever had any (despite my wife’s convictions from time to time, I have always had an interest in being a dad, just not a strong enough interest to be the prime motivator to make it happen). Those thoughts happened much more often after I did become a dad (hard to believe it was 7 years ago; I swear I was able to hold the little bologna loaf in my arm just a few weeks ago) and I had pretty much settled on doing the home school thing. One thing I hadn’t considered until it was time to put rubber to road was the rather acute lack of social experiences that one gets when one is home schooled. Yes, people talk about their kids being so much better able to interact with adults, but you know what? Learning to deal with peer pressure and the nasty, mean things that other children do, is important in life because there are always adults (in stature and chronological age) that have the mentality of these spiteful, nasty, cliquish children one almost inevitably meets in school.

A couple of things that drove that point home to me happened when we would take our boy to the playground (he has always been a big boy (consistently at the 99% percentile height and weight) and we try to encourage him to exercise regularly (sadly without a lot of positive results)). One time he met another boy about his age (3 or 4 I guess) and the other boy had basically no knowledge or experience with other kids and was very hesitant to play. He worked his way out of that shell, but I was interested in looking at his care giver (looked like a grandma) and how cautious she looked. I tend to play pretty rough with my boy (he doesn’t seem to feel pain unless something unexpected happens, indeed he seems to enjoy getting beaten up (and beating up) and I am sure will be recruited into football as soon as some coach finds this out about him) and he has picked some of that up (most of his cousins play pretty rough as well, so I am not the only culprit). Another time we were at a playground and he was playing with another boy (older at this point, perhaps they were 4 or 5) and that boy was hesitating climbing over something or other and my boy gave him a swat to the butt to get him moving. To all of our surprise the boy immediately started to cry, ran to his mother who then hustled him off the playground and away. Our boy was quite confused, he hadn’t even manhandled the other kid and I wasn’t able to offer much in the way of explanation (well, didn’t choose to). I was thinking as I observed this event that the parents probably were keeping the boy so protected from the world that he would probably grow up totally incapable of interactions as an adult.

These events (and plenty of others) started me thinking that as much as I felt home schooling was a better educational approach, it was incomplete. So incomplete that homeschooling at a young age might lead to a lifetime of scaring just like my education process did, though with totally different sets of scars. I read this article a while ago:

A home-schooler goes to college
It wasn’t the schoolwork or social life that threw me. It’s that I never realized how dull a classroom could be

and it also had me thinking. As much as I disliked high school it did prepare me (in a sad way) for college. Since there is no current way to get an advanced degree without having achieved the earlier milestones, perhaps some organized school is a necessary preparation for the ‘rigors’ of college. In any case, due to money issues we had to put our boy into preschool so my wife could go back to work full-time so our window to home school pretty much snapped shut in my face (my wife was far from convinced she (the responsibilities would have fallen mostly on her shoulders) could manage anyway). I found that in the preschools he was attending (some at the YMCA, others at a Catholic school) he was actually learning quite well. For kindergarten we opted to go with public school (largely because that is what the boy wanted, he had had some speech classes (he was a very slow talker, but was walking at around 6 months) at the local elementary school and he remembered those times with fondness (though after he actually started school he said he wanted to go back to the Catholic school, though I am sure their kindergarten would have been much more rigorous than their preschool)) and because of the head start he got in the preschool he was actually promoted to first grade halfway through kindergarten. His progress in second grade doesn’t seem to be going as well and it is hard for me to judge where the problems might lie. However, he is still making overall progress and appears to be doing satisfactorily, but his 6 month older cousin is much more advanced, at least so it seems to me (but then again girls supposedly take to education better than boys).

So I still can’t make up my mind about home schooling. Perhaps when he gets older we can discuss as a family the idea of his learning from home. At the tender age of 7 he doesn’t seem to have what it takes to progress without heavy handed direction and I am generally way too tired to provide that when I get home. Maybe if he picks up some personal discipline (he has been making good progress as a Taekwondo student the last year) we can contemplate that route. He has got lots of social exposure at this point and my understanding it is increasingly common for home schooled students to be allowed to play organized school sports (he seems to love sports, though they have been mostly ‘disorganized’ up to this point) so he might be able to have his cake and eat it also.

The hypnotic spell of apocalypse

America’s endless apocalypse
Over the last decade, we’ve become obsessed with the end of the world — and it’s hurting us all

OK, I freely admit that I engage in apocalyptic talk from time to time (sometimes way more often) and as a student of history I should be more open to the unlikelihood of apocalypse and be thinking more along these lines:

When we free ourselves from the hypnotic spell of apocalypse, when we let go of our desire to see how things will turn out, we are free to answer a more important question. Not, are my beliefs correct? But, how do I live in accord with my values right now? Our insistence that a new world is coming later is a delusion; it is already here. We have met many who say that they will go start an organic farm when things come undone. We have met others who are already farming and say that they are doing it to prepare for the Great Unraveling. Why not choose to farm, as one example, because you value independence, self-sufficiency, and the environment and want to live in accordance with your values, rather than framing your life through the prism of the apocalypse, hoping to be proven right and others proven wrong? The answer as to how to live into our values is different for each of us — it may be about traveling the world as much as manning the ramparts. But the right public policy prescriptions and personal decisions will come only when we abandon our expectations that some future cataclysmic moment will eventually prove us right.

However (you knew there had to be a however, didn’t you ;-)), when I babble about apocalypse I am not talking the end of the world, the rising of the dead, celestial trumpets, etc. I am talking about a decade (or longer!) of privation as we as a society have to adapt to a dramatic loss of infrastructure, a government acting exactly contrary to the interests of the greatest number (whoa, that is already happening!), an economy that is so ruined that one takes several bags of ‘money’ to the store to return with one bag of groceries (one needn’t look far in our history to find several occurrences of such) and the total inability to make meaningful plans more than a season or so. That is the apocalypse I dread, the one that makes it impossible for me to maintain even my fantasies of building space stations and taking the first stepping stones to explore the universe.

Much like I tend to poo poo the hysterical babble about the nuclear destruction of the world (the average hurricane expends more energy than the entire world’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, so while it would really suck to be at ground zero, it isn’t even necessary to entertain notions that evolution would be pushed to restart with cockroaches, there would be more than enough humans to continue down our path of destruction of an entire biosphere) I generally tend to poo poo any talk of exceptional broad-scale events having world-wide impact on society. That doesn’t mean, though, that, much like Greece today, the US can be abruptly thrown into sub-third world status through a highly probable series of events and because that would largely mean the end of the world as I choose to know it (much like I am sure that a lot of people considered Hitler’s invasion into France to be an apocalyptic change of the world, though in the fullness of time it was just a blip). Only by considering the potential for such society altering events, assigning probabilities and making preparatory decisions based this analysis can we possibly hope to minimize the personal effects of apocalypse. Yes, during the short period of societal breakdown the preparations of the survivalists will look quite prescient, but anarchy is unstable and it quickly devolves into some form of collective governing action (warlordism is most common in the immediate aftermath) and barricading yourself in your bomb shelter (I wonder, how trivial would it be to simply block them in there and cut off their air?) is probably not the ideal response.

Anyway, I liked the author and found the topic interesting so thought I would let my dear reader(s) know about it.

I guess I am a “smart idiot”

The ugly delusions of the educated conservative
Better-educated Republicans are more likely to doubt global warming and believe Obama’s a Muslim. Here’s why

I have talked about my ‘skeptical’ thoughts on global warming before (and talked many other times on the subject as well). I have followed the subject of ‘global warming’ for nigh on 20 years and long before it became controversial. It is undeniable that levels of CO2 are rising. There is also very compelling evidence that we are experiencing a relative rise in global temps (where you pick your start date has a huge impact on how significant our current temps are). I think there is very undeniable evidence that the human species has had a dramatic and often drastic impact on the biosphere through deforestation and harvests from the sea. However to say that because of the observed rise in CO2 our failure to drastically cut back the use of fossil fuels is the only solution is a leap I think has no scientific merit. There are lines of research that indicate that the rise in levels of CO2 are actually not due to burning fossil fuels at all, but are due to converting land into agriculture. There are also lines of research that indicate the transoceanic movements of ships has put enough sulfur in our atmosphere that the subsequent reflection of sunlight has ameliorated heating we might otherwise have experienced (ditto with airplane contrails), so reducing the use of fossil fuels could exacerbate the warming. To me these uncertainties are so great that it is impossible for me to lend any credence to people who insist the _only_ ‘solution’ to global warming is to destroy the global economy by eliminating the use of fossil fuels. Yes, we will eventually run out and yes we will eventually need replacements of some sort and yes the adaptation is likely to be painful and better if started sooner rather than later, but those are not reasons to prematurely kick ourselves back to the stone age. Perhaps that is where we are destined to wind up (though I have lots of faith in the power of nuclear fission, though unfortunately that provides no solution for the needs of airplanes, the loss of which would make our planet so much larger), but we should not hurry the situation.

I was a bit skeptical that the author claimed that liberals are more opened minded about nuclear energy than conservatives are about global warming, I find a huge amount of resistance to the idea of nuclear energy and based on my rather extensive experience working with it in the lab coupled with my decades of research on the topic (I was going to do a term paper on how to build a nuclear bomb back in high school, but the teacher told me she didn’t have the knowledge to grade it if I did) I know that it can be done at least as safe as the alternatives (there are HUGE problems associated with ALL other forms of energy (fossil or otherwise) that are often totally ignored) and has the capacity to supply us with nearly all of our (non-transportation, its big weakness) needs.

By this author’s measures I must be the smart idiot, though I can’t stand Fox News, Rush or any of those other blowhards. I am not terribly fond of MSNBC and over the last couple of years have lost respect for CNN. I actually go to Salon to get a lot of news (am a big fan of their Glenn Greenwald), but in the case of global warming and in particular the case of the ‘only’ solution being destroying our economy, I am very much the smart idiot.

A follow-up

A follow up to Life as we don’t know it:

‘Nomad planets’ could carry bacterial life

According to the article there might be as many as 100,000x ‘nomad’ planets for each visible star which, if true, would almost require that a number of them harbor some sort of life.

As mentioned in my earlier post, in an infinite universe even events with very low probability must have happened an infinite number of times. According to our current understanding of astrophysics our universe is ‘only’ 13.5 billion years (and our solar system 4.5 billion years old) so quite a far bit from infinite, but still a really long time. If life is as common and ordinary as I believe (meaning just about anywhere there is water, thermal gradients and a certain minimum variety of chemical compounds results in some sort of life and from thence to evolutionary development) then we aren’t talking about any sort of vanishingly small probability that would require an infinite universe, we are talking about something that might happen dozens, if not thousands, of times in each solar system. Now, if life is indeed common, but the probability of intelligent life (giving us the benefit of the doubt ;-)) is very low, as the incidence of life increases so must the incidence of intelligent life. I was watching a show on whales and dolphins last night discussing their intelligence (or rather our ability to measure their intelligence as in my mind there is no question regarding their intelligence) and it seems clear to me that just our planet alone has evolved several intelligent life forms. As I mentioned a bit earlier if octopi and cuttlefish lived longer I figure there is a very high probability that they would have been the technologically advanced race on this planet and probably millions of years ago. Thus, to me it would seem that the paltry single example we have to evaluate has produced several (wildly different) life forms all capable of (or already exhibiting) sentience and intelligence. With our planet as an example I would have to say that intelligence is not rare and while the number of planets that can support multicellular life and have the evolutionary pressures that might produce intelligence could be relatively rare, I would have to say that as the probable incidence of life increases the probable incidence of intelligence increases such that we really have to question why we are not seeing any evidence of such intelligence.

Now, again using our planet as an example, we have at least two intelligent groups (whales and dolphins) that lack the ability to produce any sort of technology that would allow them to communicate off planet. If we were to posit intelligent octopi or cuttlefish, given their very soft bodies and requirement for immersion in water it is easy to imagine a technological society that fails to make any sort of radiation that could be detected off planet and lacks the technological skills to go to space (it is hard to imagine it would be easy to smelt metals under water) might be too much of a challenge for sea creatures. Thus there may be huge numbers of intelligent organisms in our universe that simply lack the ability to communicate past their planet. I am amused by Larry Niven’s Bandersnatch, a species created as both a food and a spy that resorted to selling hunting licenses on itself in exchange for technological tools. What if we monkey tool users ever develop the ability to explore the galaxy? Perhaps we can sell our technology to other species in exchange for knowledge.

Of course it would seem highly probable that if life is almost inevitable and intelligence is therefore fairly common it would seem that there should still be a number of species technologically advanced enough to communicate solar system to solar system. Why haven’t we heard from them? Perhaps there is some benign Federation that blocks access to undeveloped systems until some technological hurdle has been overcome. Perhaps the energy necessary to communicate and the lag between messages is such that very few species with the skills bother (most of our attempts to communicate outside our solar system are almost laughable).

Then again, perhaps there is no solution to faster-than-light (FTL) travel (all Star Trek wishes to the contrary) and there is no way to visit with other solar systems in a meaningful amount of time, which might be just the sort of disincentive that would keep any species from undertaking the organized effort communicate.

On the other, other hand (or on the gripping hand) perhaps we are being observed and the observers don’t want to communicate. I can easily imagine that if we had very long life spans (or develop that ability as I believe is feasible in the next 50 years or so) we could tolerate sending out probes that would report back after making the long sub-light speed journey to adjacent solar systems. With enough pre-programming I don’t see the requirement for two-way communication with the probes, they might only report back, so we might be being monitored by a plethora of different technological species even as I write this. If FTL travel really is impossible then there isn’t much concern with alien species attacking us as the effort necessary to travel between stars has to be so huge that it is probably more economical to just invest that energy in becoming self sufficient where they are. As I describe in my Trillions paper, by making use of a Dyson sphere we could support 440 quintillion people simply using the Sun’s energy. Surely any species technologically advanced enough to build craft capable of traveling between solar systems would also be advanced enough to maximize their utilization of their own system, so it seems to me that without FTL we have nothing to worry about. By taking advantage of objects in the Kuiper belt or even the Oort cloud it should be possible, presuming enough nuclear fuel is available (and if we ever sort out economic fusion that is a certainty) to completely populate a given solar system to the point that the measurements will be in millions or even billions of quintillions.

I would think, though, that with the energy situation resolved and such a huge population scattered throughout a solar system, that enough individuals would be interested enough in communication attempts that we would still see some signs. Perhaps there is some ‘Macroscope-esque‘ technology we are lacking that keeps us from communicating.

Exercise and get smarter!

How Exercise Fuels the Brain

As if we needed more reasons to exercise, now it makes us smarter! The article didn’t make it clear if you had to bust your ass exercise or if walking for an hour would be good enough. Of course this might not apply to humans, but somehow I doubt they will get permission to microwave the brains of humans just to test this.

I have found that I tend to be more creative when I am moving about, though I find running tends to take just enough thought to pay enough attention that I don’t run into something that I am more creative walking. I have got out of the habit of bike riding, unfortunately, and give that it is nigh on a decade now since I was a regular biker I can’t recall whether biking allowed for more creative thoughts than walking. I try to walk briskly (though I tend to jog slowly, doing pretty good to maintain 6.5 mph), I wonder if that is good enough to trigger the observed results.