Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Putin and the Russian Economy

Earlier I spoke of the unbelievable adoration-of-Vladimir Putin that has swept the right-wing American press. Officially "grudging respect for a foe," it is nothing less than a worshipful personality cult.

Of what? Perhaps it is exaggeration to accuse VP of destroying the underlying Russian economy so that it relies solely on obsolete fossil fuels. But dating back before his time, we have seen that any trace of entrepreneurialism is pounced upon and gobbled up by oligarchs, backed by organized crime. This is the model of "strong" governance that Fox would have us emulate?

Again, I am not finger-pointing, but Russian men are drinking themselves to death and Russian women have stopped having babies with them. Intellectuals (especially women) are fleeing the country as fast as they can. Russia has to buy its aircraft carriers from France.  It has lost every spaceprobe it sent to Mars and has not innovated in space in decades. And there are harsh reasons for all of this that aren't necessarily Putin's fault...

... But one can't help being irritated by the opposite reflex, as Rupert Murdoch and the mad right fall all over themselves kvelling, proclaiming Putin as a genius and a macho, master chess player.  

Oh, sure, Hannity etc call him a foe!  But their paeans of respect and admiration aren't only meant to belittle Barack Obama.  

They are genuine genuflections toward the kind of leader they truly wish for.

== the latest example of fawning idolatry ==

Ah, but now the Orwellian Ministry of Truth is at it again: Russian President Vladimir Putin was declared the world’s most powerful person for the third time in a row by Forbes magazine.”  ....   With this subliminal sub-text: “Raving-partisan Forbes declares itself loony and irrelevant!”

Setting aside the issue of Forbes being qualified to “declare” any such thing, except as a rant-opinion, here’s the justification:  “The items on Putin’s resume that catapulted him back to the number one position this year included his all-time high approval rating of his constituents of an astonishing 89 percent and his bid to rebuild Russian influence abroad by bombing Islamic State forces in Syria.”

Ooh, a dictator’s state machine declares him to be “popular!” And he’s dropped some bombs (ineffectually) in a desperate attempt to hold onto Russia’s Tartus base, its last vestige of empire west of Cam Ranh Bay? Well, yep that convinced me.  But do go on.

“The world’s most powerful man has seized Crimea and waged war-by-proxy in the Ukraine despite worldwide disapproval. However, he has proven all the more powerful in the process by showing that he can essentially do what he wants with almost reckless abandon due to his level of power.”

Ah, unmentioned is the death spiral of the Russian economy, the flight of almost every cent of movable capital from Moscow to London and New York real estate, “success” at re-invigorating and uniting the NATO alliance and… oh yes, loss of Ukraine from the Russian sphere of influence — the worst setback to Russian expansionist policy since Boris Godunov.

While shouting about small nibble-backs like Crimea and the Donbass, fools at Fox & Forbes attempt frantically to distract from the fact that now Ukraine will never-again be a puppet of Moscow. Ukrainians are swerving westward as fast as they can, clamoring to be part of Europe.  It's the big news, an event so vastly greater in significance than Crimea, that the inability of republicans to notice is prima facie proof of insanity.

Oh, but the Russians themselves have noticed! Russian viewers of Fox are appalled.

Nowadays, when you are bucking the commonly accepted narrative, you must repeat yourself till you are blue in the face.  So let me reiterate, as many times as it takes:

The Russians themselves are not as stupid as Fox commentators. They do not ignore the devastating setback in Ukraine. 

Russians -- including those who love Vladimir Putin -- deem the loss of Ukraine from their orbit to have been a hugely aggressive and successful assault on Russian interests by... get ready for it... Barack Obama. 

They see Obama as anything but the wimp he is portrayed in right wing American press.  They -- including Putin himself -- view Obama as the most aggressive, formidable and successful opponent they have faced, since Reagan.

== But in fact? ==

Look, I have found some real reasons to respect Vladimir Putin. Plus some others (sci fi what-if scenarios, mostly) to wonder if he's got a real plan. (Indeed, there is one plan of such bizarre cleverness -- I give it a 10% possibility -- that would make sense of all this and prove him to be a genius.)

 Moreover -- take note -- the “Russia-China alliance” is not to be sniffed at!

Only, once we have taken all of that into account, dig this. None of my reasons overlap at all with the nasty, treasonous paeans of Hannity and co.  Because Putin's "master chess player" surface moves have -- so far -- shown very little in the way of tangible results. 

Indeed, these pushy-aggressive nibble-backs, guarantee that Ukrainians will never ever again to allow a Russian-loving Yanukovich back into power, sealing their alliance with the West, forever. 

And it goes farther. Resumption of saber rattling bomber flights and submarine penetrations of fjords has driven both Sweden and Finland to seek closer ties to NATO. He has even managed to alienate Angela Merkel and the uber-pragmatist Germans and re-invigorated the NATO alliance, with all members pledging to up defense spending.

Yet he is portrayed as the master mover!  Well... he is so portrayed... by fools.

(This article shines a brief spotlight on VP's billionaire daughter.)

Again... there are ways that I am withholding judgement. I perceive a couple of what-if stories that would make him a player of historical substance, and they (sort-of) actually make sense! There may, indeed, be layers. Look into his fiercely intelligent eyes... there is definitely something going on.

But I reiterate.  None of it relates even glancingly to the Fox-Limbaugh-Beck cult of admiration for strongman saber-rattling.  They admired those traits in Bush-Cheney too, and we have been paying for that clade of macho dunces, whose outcomes have been 100% and without exception negative for the U.S.  

No, it is not Vladimir Putin who comes across as maniacal, here. My arms are warily folded, watching him carefully, skeptically-fascinated. 

No, it is the worshippers of his cartoon image, here in the west, who are completely out of their cotton-pickin' minds..

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Political Sense and Nonsense

Donald Trump puts his name on everything and coats his homes with gold. Ben Carson's homes are plastered with paintings of himself (some of them selfies with Jesus) and blowups of press clippings, even in the baths. Carly Fiorina touts friendships with people who openly loathe her. Ted Cruz brags about burning bridges with every person he would have to work-with, if he became president.  

What's with the frail egos of these GOP front-runners?  Trump's blaring solipsism and Carson's relentless humble-brags say a lot about their followers - our neighbors who would foist such people on us.

Hate-government propaganda has reached a point where having a scintilla of experience at public governance is death to a GOP candidate. Our parents in the Greatest Generation (whose favorite living person was FDR) would be appalled. But ah well. At least Fiorina and Trump don't avow to praying daily (as Carson and Cruz do) for the world to end. Nothing less than that.

Ah then this note on the hate-government one-upmanship! Ben Carson says he does not want to shut down the Department of Education; he would prefer to turn it into an investigatory body which would "monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias." Carson says our tax system should be based upon the Bible... he clearly hasn't read it closely.

== Truth telling and fact-checking ==

Crime rates have been at historic lows during the Obama administration, and police deaths have also dropped to their lowest level in a lifetime.  So how does New Jersey governor Chris Christie get away with saying the diametric opposite, in railing against Obama during the recent debate?  Simple.  There is no longer even a figleaf correlation between dogma and actual fact on the American right.  

Any attempt to set up or refer to a Fact Check site soon devolves, because no matter how sincerely non-partisan the group's original intentions, they will soon be dismissed as "partisan," for one simple reason.  Because there is no longer even a figleaf correlation between dogma and actual fact on the American right. It is the basic reason for the War on Science… and against every other American clade of skill and knowledge, from medical doctors to teachers, civil servants, law professionals, economists, journalists. 

See Fact-checking the Republican debate on FactCheck.org.

Now logically, there is a solution. Ask each candidate to nominate a notoriously nitpicking-honest person from his/her home district -- a supporter, certainly but above all known for being  scrupulously meticulous and truthful.  If they pick a partisan shill, then that fact becomes a blatant stain.  If they pick someone of decent repute for savvy honesty, then all of the candidates' selections might gather to choose members of a new fact-checking organization!  Hey, it could happen, and our politics would improve.

But then again, it won't happen.  Because half of America has been taught to actively hate facts.  And all of the professions (only starting with scientists) who work with and live by facts. 

And nothing makes this clearer than their reaction to the huge disparity of positive vs negative outcomes from democratic and republican administrations. Any sane and sapient and patriotic US citizen would look at outcomes as a principal determination of which party to trust with power.

== Oh but the scion speaks! ==

In his desperation to stand out from the GOP front-runners -- Trump, Carson, FIorina, Cruz -- Jeb Bush has decided to put forward something original for a Republican politician, these days… substance.  He has offered a proposal for entitlement reform -- saving Social Security and Medicare from insolvency -- that contains actually plausible proposals that might contribute to solving the problem. 

Are you surprised that I would say anything nice about a member of the horrifically harmful Bush Clan?  Did I mention he's being reasonable as an act of desperation?

Oh but here's the capper.  Every single one of his proposals comes from the entitlement reform deal that had been worked out long ago, near the end of the last Clinton Administration! Only Jeb has stripped away any mention of that... along with all the compromises that Newt Gingrich and others had agreed to, in exchange for raising the retirement age, etc. 

 What were those compromises? For starters, cutting back the awesome-failures known as the Bush tax cuts for the super rich, which never delivered any economic benefits… any at all.  But Jeb can't include any of THAT in his grand plan. Those pullbacks of supply side (voodoo) idiocy were why the masters of the GOP betrayed Newt and common sense and torpedoed entitlement reform twenty years ago.

No, Jeb's plan is to take only the parts Rupert Murdoch liked, declare that he invented them, and preen that he's the reasonable "policy guy" in contrast to his rivals. And sure, at one level, he's the grownup in the room (leaving out hopeless leprechauns Kasich and Pataki) by talking plausible policy.

But no, sorry, Jeb. Once more, we'll judge you and your entire clan by the OUTCOMES of past Bushite rule. Outcomes that were universally and across-the-board disastrous for the United States of America. 

== Ah... justice... ==

Just above, I alluded to a watershed event in American political life, when it shifted from normal acrimonious negotiation (punctuated by bouts of lunacy) all the way to outright re-ignition of the American Civil War.  Now comes news that should cheer any patriot.

Newly selected House Speaker Paul Ryan’s first official act was removing a portrait of Dennis Hastert from the Speaker's lobby outside the House floor. Hastert, who served in the same position - second in line to the presidency - from 1999-2007, pleaded guilty in a $3.5 million hush money case last week.  “Two sources with knowledge of the federal investigation told CNN in June that Hastert was paying a former student to stay quiet about allegations of sexual abuse from when he was a wrestling coach and teacher in Yorkville, Illinois.” The plea bargain means that none of the details will come out in open trial.

You’re kidding me, right?  The same Dennis Hastert who called the Clintons the “most-corrupt” politicians of our lifetime? (When not one Clintonite wound up even indicted for malfeasance of office.) The Dennis Hastert who screeched at Bill Clinton’s immorality for some adult-consensual, hetero-rubbing in a hallway? Who denounced previous speaker Newt Gingrich for the twin sins of divorce and actually negotiating (shudder) with democrats to pass legislation for the good of the nation?

The Dennis Hastert whose “Hastert Rule” (to punish any republican who ever works with a democrat to craft compromise legislation) did more than even Fox News to destroy politics as a problem solving methodology in the U.S?  Thus wreaking more harm on the republic than anyone since Josef Stalin? In other words, Dennis Hastert the deliberate traitor… and now exposed as perjurer, briber, pervert and hypocrite?

Oh… could not have happened to a more apropos guy. Only note.  The ratio of Republicans to Democrats caught in sexual peccadilloes is at least two-to-one. (Keep track, over the years!) But the ratio of those involving under-age victims is simply enormous.

== Miscellaneous items ==

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

Ukraine has banned all relic Soviet or Russian-Imperial symbols, so the remaining Lenin statues had to go… or else… be transformed!  This one has become -- Darth Vader! Also "hey were planning to install a Wi-fi router on the statue's head so that he can "communicate with the other Siths."  

An interesting article shows that thousands of locales in the U.S. still have place-names that are racist or otherwise offensive by modern and evolving standards.  Most must have been offensive - deliberately so - in their own time and context… though some may have been genuine homages. No matter.  Standards do evolve and we should use names to suit our needs and times. And our time needs to to care. 

The Cybersecurity Podcast runs a series of timely and provocative interviews with figures who are prominent in our transitions era, from White House security czars to sic fi authors and privacy pundits (I overlap, though I've not been on ;-) ) to John MacAfee the anti-virus company owner who is running for President under the Cyber Party banner. 

Phew, interesting times.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Cool science stuff ... and more reasons to be thankful

Put this at the top of your shopping list!  Future Visions: Microsoft has published an anthology of original Science Fiction short stories reflecting its research projects, with entries by Elizabeth Bear, Greg Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Robert Sawyer, Seanan McGuire, and Jack McDevitt. 

I visited Microsoft's cutting edge research labs before writing my story... on predictions. This free ebook is now available on Amazon, Google, Kobo and other sellers.

And soon... my long anticipated and long-delayed third short story collection will be available for pre-order.  Stay tuned.

And now -- a potpourri of items to help us all give thanks for being members of a fantastic civilization.  Our ancestors - who struggled to get us here - would be proud of us in most ways... except for giving in to gloom and failure of confidence, just when we are on the verge of putting it all together.

== Insight into the Brain ==

Mikhail Rabinovich, a physicist and neurocognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, and a group of researchers have now mathematically modeled how the mind switches among different ways of thinking about a sequence of objects, events, or ideas that are based on the activity of “cognitive modes.” The new model, described in an open-access paper in the journal Chaos, may help scientists understand a variety of human psychiatric conditions that may involve sequential memory, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar, and attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia and autism. 

What about thinking machines? A new book from John Brockman, publisher of Edge.org, looks at the future of Artificial Intelligence: What to Think About Machines that Think: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Age of Machine Intelligence, with provocative essays by Steven Pinker, Frank Tipler, Daniel Dennett, George Dyson, Kevin Kelly, Nick Bostrom, Sam Harris, Freeman Dyson, Nicholas Carr, and others...

This Singularity University video examines whether we can reverse-engineer a brain.

== Cool stuff! ==

Physics Girl shows a way-cool trick of bouncing balls transferring momentum... and how this relates to the way a supernova works.  You might like a lot of her other videos.

NASA released this mesmerizing video of a liquid drop floating in space.

Intel is summoning contestants for an upcoming 2016 TV show called “America’s Greatest Makers”.  Competitors will vie for a $1M grand prize. An exceptional opportunity for all you talented Tinkerers out there.

Magnificence on a tiny level: See the winners of this year's microphotography contest hosted by Nikon.

Iceland is building its first humanoid electricity pylons, 150-foot steel figurines that look like mythical male and female giants … and support power lines in their hands. The first one is now scheduled for construction in 2017. 

== Tech news ==

Potassium is 880 times more abundant in the Earth’s crust than lithium the workhorse element in modern batteries. Now there is hope that potassium might replace Lithium in carbon-based batteries, making them far cheaper.  

Scientists have developed a robust, solid-state catalyst that shows promise to replace expensive platinum for hydrogen production from water.  One of many potential "medium game changers." 

The new Anti-UAV Defense System (Auds) beams high-powered radio to freeze drones in mid-flight. The Auds works by disrupting a drone’s signal to make it unresponsive. 

Or... will we soon see drones that dissolve into air once their mission is done? 

4D Printing Tech: Using components made from smart shape-memory materials with slightly different responses to heat, researchers have demonstrated a four-dimensional printing technology that allowed creation of complex self-folding structures.

Drones build a rope bridge you could safely cross. Not only entrancing, but useful. My sons could’ve used this in scouts!

“The Pike,” a 40mm laser semi-guided missile that can be fired using a standard tube grenade launcher, but expanding range from 150 to 2000 yards. 

== Geosciences ==

For many years I have corresponded with  Michael Rampino, a New York University geologist, about theories of mass extinction. (I even filled a small part of idea space with a low probability theory of my own.) Now, with Ken Caldeira, a scientist in the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, Michael offers new support linking the age of meteorite impacts with recurring mass extinctions of life every 26 million years, including the demise of dinosaurs. This cycle has been linked to periodic motion of the sun and planets through the dense mid-plane of our galaxy. Scientists have theorized that gravitational perturbations of the distant Oort comet cloud that surrounds the sun lead to periodic comet showers in the inner solar system, where some comets strike the Earth.

It took a while. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has been producing detailed topographic maps for more than 125 years. Today they are nearly all digitized and free to download through the USGS Map Store, plus the ability to overlay every USGS topographic map on top of Google Earth. An incredible treasure trove for both map junkies and casual hikers alike. Civil servants doing good.   

See these open source methods to make underwater exploring ROVs. 

== BioTech & Health News ==

Offering promise for curing disease... Researchers create complex kidney structures from human stem cells derived from adult skin cells.

Will we all be web-spinners? Genetically engineered yeast can now brew silk proteins that can be spun into fibers. The properties of those fibers can be altered by tinkering with the protein concentration and the temperature, tension, and other aspects of the spinning process.

Wow… Researchers found that when this vine was climbing a tree it was able to imitate the host leaves in terms of size, shape, color, orientation and even vein conspicuousness.  Furthermore, when a single vine was associated with multiple tree species, it was able to sequentially mimic these different hosts.

Do Omega 3 fats actually protect against heart disease?  Conflicting results suggest a mutation that is common among Inuit people and ¼ of Asians may be partly at work. 

According to a recent paper in Scientific Data, about three-fifths of human diseases are believed to have been initially passed along to us by animals.  See this flow in an eerie and daunting visual. As you’d expect, the strongest connection is between humans and livestock.

Simply giving near-sighted children glasses can dramatically boost their school performance. Convincing Chinese teachers and parents is harder.

== Future Fiction ==

Part documentary and part science fiction, The Visit: An Alien Encounter is a faux documentary of first contact, milking a sense of mystery and suspense that might accompany such a transforming event. (Available for streaming on Amazon.) Will it be silly or cogent?  I guess we’ll see…

… though it is highly reminiscent of a TV series I was on called Alien Encounters (Discovery Channel) that took viewers through a similar situation that evolves rapidly and disturbingly in unexpected directions — alternating fictional segments with interviews in which varied sages discuss plausible technologies and conceivable outcomes.

And finally...

Inventor Lowell Wood just broke Edison's record at 1805 awarded U.S. patents. This feature about Wood portrays an American original who just happened to live in exactly the sub-civilization that best leveraged his talents, benefiting us all. (Among the inventions are a few that you might find suggested, way back in 1987, in EARTH… but never mind that.)

Okay!  That great big pile of cool items ought to keep you busy, clicking and skimming while groaning and loosening your belts on Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday)... or else however you folks elsewhere around the world celebrate Thursday.  (Ah... Thursday!)

Don't let grouches undermine our confidence.  Star Trek awaits.  Do thrive and persevere.