Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The 2016 Election

It's over and that is good.  The choice was not the best and either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders might have done better than Hillary.  She carried self-inflicted wounds and the weight of being the first serious woman candidate in a country where lots of white men are still challenged by that.  (Now watch for Elizabeth.)

However, it is also clear that yesterday the global reaction against globalization – which has benefited the rich more than the bottom – came to the US with the election of Trump as President.  Not just white men felt left behind by what seems an elite project to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest.  But if the Republican conservative fundamentalists fill Trump's Administration and have their way, our country and the world will continue coming apart and there will be many losers.  Watch for encouragement of foreign extremists (and Putin) as well as chaos in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan if the US hand is removed or rejected.  Watch for Republicans ruining the economy again with more trickle-down.  Watch for those people feeling empowered now to do nasty things to others not like them (including some who may get cabinet jobs.)  Things all around could get dangerous. 
But being an optimist, one can hope that Trump will surprise in some good ways.  Perhaps centrist Congressional Republicans, Democrats in the Senate and the former Democrat version of Trump (he was one a few years back) will save us from the excesses of the campaign Trump.  Trump's victory comments were at least more presidential.  

Boy, do we ever need Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Ethnic Conflict Helps Bacteria Cooperate

A recent Science News piece reports research indicating that “bacteria assassinating each other when crowded together ironically can favor the evolution of cooperation.” This happens when different strains of bacteria are initially mixed randomly. Using their own brand of natural antibiotic, each bacterium launches an attack on its neighbors from different strains. This eventually leads – through a kind of bacterial ethnic conflict – to clumps of same strain bacteria that can then shift from expending energy on warfare with opposing clumps to cooperating with each other in its same-strain clump. As the researcher summed up: “This resulting clumpy distribution, despite its murderous origin, favors the rise of cooperation, such as secreting substances useful to a whole community.”

This seems quite clear and while not really surprising – like prefers like – also suggests a possibly illuminating thought experiment. Imagine a beneficent bacterial power – lets call it the USA (Union for Safe Association) – that seeks to use carrots and sticks – super-antibacterial agents plus sugar – to push the different strains into coexisting rather than trying to kill each other. This would require maintaining an unnatural balance and might never succeed in making each bacterium focus its energies on anything but finding other ways to win living space. Perhaps it could work as long as the USA worked diligently, non-stop and forever. But should the effort lag, nature would probably just take its course.

Despite billions of years of evolution, identity-specific living organisms – strains – seem to follow the same imperative to clump. This is the state of nature. Past human experience suggests that there are only a few ways to establish a stable order out of mixture: strong, perhaps brutal central rule (whether from inside or outside, a Leviathan), sufficient nutrient (wealth) to allow all strains a piece of the pie (Western liberal democracy), or letting nature take its course (“ethnic” conflict finally ending in more or less homogeneous entities that at least have that to be proud of). Does the human species suggest better?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What if non-avian dinosaurs survived?

There seems to be a growing consensus that the number of dinosaur species was already in decline before the great asteroid impact that ended the Cretaceous era 66 million years ago. As Science News reports, as of about 50 million years before the mass extinction the number of new dinosaur species was being eclipsed by the number going extinct and dinosaur diversity was decreasing. Duck-billed and Triceratops-type dinosaurs were doing well until the end of dinosaur days as was a group of small toothed raptors. But ultimately, only avian dinosaurs – the birds – survived.

Why did the number of dinosaur species decline over time and why did only avian dinosaurs survive? The dinosaur decline might have been due to climate change perhaps brought on by continental drift and the resulting land-form, rainfall and ocean current alterations from the late Jurassic onward. Perhaps only birds survived the long “nuclear-type” winter after the impact because they could eat carrion and seeds, of which there might have been much. Some small non-avian dinosaurs also could have been able to do the same but they might not have been able to travel long distances. Perhaps only a small number of birds – even just a few species – made it through on remote islands and as the earth recovered, they could spread. The land-bound non-avian dinosaur survivors – if any – might not have been able to reach places where their numbers could then rebound.

But what if there was no impact or somewhere creatures like the small raptors made it through? Carnivorous tyrannosaur- and velociraptor-type dinosaurs (theropods) were doing well at the end of the Cretaceous. Indeed, it may be that the hundred million year-plus competition between carnivores and herbivores had led to the evolution of a lesser number of species but ones ever more evenly matched. Some of the largest herbivores and carnivores ever were alive at the end. And it may have been that the carnivores were getting smarter, perhaps even hunting in packs. (The herbivores apparently had long been herd animals.) Seems the smaller theropods – like Troodon – were the (relatively) smarter ones. It is interesting to speculate how earth's evolutionary processes might have played out differently if at least some of these non-avian theropods had survived the great impact. With another 66 million years of evolutionary competition, might they have gotten even bigger brains, as primitive primates eventually did. Or perhaps I was just too impressed at an early age with the Gorn captain forced into combat with Captain Kirk.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Repeal the 2nd Amendment

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

There are more guns than people in the United States today. Every time there is a mass killing, some will argue for gun control and others – led by the NRA – will push back by using the opportunity to loosen guns laws even further. Mass killings get the news but many more people are killed by guns in suicides and criminal homicides.

The victims of gun death from homicide tend to be young black men. Gun crime follows the social and economic inequality of America's inner cities where our police must protect their communities while facing the possibility of being out-gunned themselves. The police are in the front lines of a society still plagued by this race-based inequality and the fact that there are too many guns too easily had.

The advocates of unrestrained “gun rights” base their case on the 2nd amendment to the US constitution. That amendment might be read to suggest that given that a state has the right of self-defense, people must be allowed to have guns so that when they come together in that state's army (militia) they know how to use them. Or it could be read to mean that people have a right to have guns in order for them to be able to protect themselves from the state. This second reading is the implicit – if not always explicit – argument of the NRA-led gun lobby. They may also seize upon the word “militia” to suggest the right to come together in bands to resist government encroachment.

The pro-gun readings of the 2nd amendment highlight the fact that the amendment itself is outdated. In 21st Century America, the notion of a citizen uprising to defend us from a central government dictatorship is simply the realm of fantasy. Indeed it has been repeatedly enacted as such in movies about citizen uprisings against foreign or alien invaders. In reality, we have a government of and by the people. When it over-reaches, there are checks and balances. (Someday, a Supreme Court may correct the notion that money is speech.) It is difficult to credit the founding fathers with the belief that they were providing the right to bear arms in order to empower the citizens of the United States to overthrow the government they themselves had established. The language of the 2nd amendment seems to make clear that the right of self-protection belonged to the state and not to individuals.

But even the first reading of the amendment – indeed any reading – must confront the clear language that for whatever the reason, the right to have guns shall not be infringed. It does appear absolute. So that should lead to the obvious conclusion that the 2nd amendment is obsolescent and injurious to the nation's health. We all – people in their homes and on the streets, police and young black men – would be safer in a country where there were no guns beyond those modest ones used by hunters and sportsmen under reasonable regulation. The 2nd amendment should be repealed.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Senior Citizen Event Horizon

A friend at work today mentioned a news report he saw about some driver-less car going up a mountainous road with no guard rail and with passengers on board but with no one actually driving. This comes as part of a blitz of developments in smart cars and appliances, bots, the Internet of Things, wireless everywhere and Artificial Intelligence. I recently bought a smart TV mostly because I finally wanted HighDef. The TV is a 2015 model so not so smart. As far as I am concerned, this is a good thing. With OPM, the DNC, banks and businesses, etcetera, falling victim to an alarming array of professional and military hackers, I really am comfortable with all the inanimate devices I use being dumb and unconnected. I've come to realize that the ever-increasing wave of technological change has swept by me and that's okay. I'm comfortable in the world of pre-2016 things. I really don't need to live in the world of future tech. It's beyond my event horizon. I don't mind doing my own shopping list and don't see myself buying a fridge that will do it for me. My washer and dryer have settings I can set. The house thermostat responds directly to my pressing its buttons. My car does allow hand-free calls and hooks my music through Bluetooth from my iPhone. But I like driving it myself. (I even have stick.)

Those who have grown up after the time when users could write his/her own programs – I used Basic to do a recipe program on my Commodore 64 – and even more those now getting iPads in school will feel quite comfortable traveling through a world best captured in the sci-fi series of The Golden Age. Hopefully, it won't all collapse into a singularity.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

What Hillary Needs to Do to Win in November

Donald Trump has been winning votes in places and with constituencies that the Democrats usually win in presidential races. Bernie Sanders has been winning votes that in the past went to Hillary. Both men have understood the dynamics of a political landscape transformed by the rise of the unprotected. Both understand that the great majority of non-elite Americans – those outside the 1% – live with varying degrees and kinds of fear. They have seen administration after administration, whichever party, remain complacent with erosion of America's place in the world, increasing inequality, loss of jobs and decay of basic infrastructure. Prospects for a better future – if not for themselves, for their children – seem to have gone up in smoke. Hillary Clinton has her core constituency of minorities but her ability to gather in those who have been voting for Trump and Sanders – working/middle class whites and the young – is very much open to question.

In part, Trump has prospered on the Republican side because of the ideological rigidity and uninspiring nature of his opponents. Clinton has been able to keep the lead on the Democratic side because of her establishment support and core constituencies. Whether the Republican establishment likes it or not, Trump has seized their party. The Democrats appear stuck with Hillary. Sanders may well have a better chance of beating Trump by keeping the traditional Democratic base while adding the young and inspired. Perhaps the party will yet grab hold of itself – what if Sanders won California? – and switch the super-delegates to Bernie. But otherwise, it will have to go into the November race with an uncharismatic, widely disliked, upholder of the establishment.

How might Hillary nevertheless win? She would have to meet Trump issue by issue with specific, focused plans to actually deal with the challenges that he only promises to overcome by merely being Trump.

Top of the list are jobs and free trade. Both parties' long adherence to the free-trade religion has clearly led to the shifting of American jobs abroad. The supposed benefits have included a plethora of imported “cheaper” goods that the working/middle class must struggle to buy with the wages of the lower paying service jobs left them. Clinton might instead call for a moratorium on free-trade agreements – including the TPP – and a re-evaluation of all existing such agreements (except for NAFTA which remains a vital part of our own neighborhood). Trade agreements that benefit far-off workers in repressive regimes – and thus help keep such regimes in power – should be special targets for possibly rolling back. Re-visiting free-trade would be accompanied by a re-industrialization program to support the creation of jobs in the productive sectors that could be competitive provided with limited government support and perhaps protective tariffs. Free-traders would offer many objections but the country at large is living with the reality that free-trade globalization may have been premature.

Clinton might also go beyond platitudes about re-building America by offering a detailed outline of infrastructure spending. Our drinking-water systems, city streets and mass transport systems, inter-city rails, highways, bridges, tunnels and waterways all need repair or replacement. Areas prone to sea-level and climate change need to be identified and communities, places and activities perhaps re-configured or relocated. Everywhere-wireless internet access might be built. All these would create good jobs and add value to our economy.

Clinton might outline detailed plans to curtail the ability of “Wall Street” – too-big-to-fail financial activities and entities – to cause or heighten economic recessions. She might also commit to seeking legislation (and Supreme Court nominees) that will reduce the role of money in our elections and enable universal voter participation. She might also decide to fund her campaign only from direct fundraising from individual small donors.

Finally, Clinton might take on directly the longstanding Republican attack on government. Government is our collective capability to act on our collective behalf. It is not the “enemy.” She should definitively eschew the sort of “triangulation” that looks to “compromise” with every 1% -inspired effort to cut government spending and target entitlements. This also means taking on the debt-issue. The US prints the world's money and there is no competitor yet on the scene.  Taxes on the well-off could be raised considerably without scaring them away. (The US is still the best place on earth to enjoy your money.) Clinton might also combine a continued commitment to a strong US defense with a commitment to look again at our need for such things as $13 billion aircraft carriers and expensive equipment and weapons that are seldom used or don't work or cost as promised.

In the general election, Trump will be the transformation candidate in the narrowest sense of trying to convince American voters that he himself is all the transformation they need. If she gets the nomination, Hillary Clinton may have to become the candidate of real, detailed plans for transformation in order to win in November. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Gravity Waves, Relativity, Quantum Physics and Consciousness

Previously, I suggested that the confirmation of gravity waves grounds general relativity theory (GR) more firmly than the Standard Model of quantum physics (SM). The latter remains incomplete in a way the former is not. Relativity accounts for gravity (as a bending of spacetime); the Standard Model is still looking to do the same, perhaps via supersymmetry or string theory. For this reason, it seemed perhaps useful to look at quantum physics in light of relativity, instead of trying to extend the SM to account for gravity. GR is complete as it is and now provides the basis of classical cosmology which traces the origin of the universe to the Big Bang. But practitioners of the SM are busy seeking to use quantum physics to get beyond the Big Bang. One important and interesting effort is contained in the unbounded-universe approach pioneered by Stephen Hawking and James Hartle (see also this SETI talk brought to attention through @GeorgeShiber). This posits the origin of the universe not with a Big Bang but with the conversion of a dimension of space into a dimension of time.

With GR, the universe originates with a Big Bang that by itself has no explanation. Where does the original singularity that explodes come from? According to what physical laws does it exist? The Hawking-Hartle approach seeks to explain this by suggesting that four dimensions of space without time – and therefore without origin – give rise to the universe through a process akin to quantum tunneling that converts one space dimension into time and thus produces spacetime. But even the Hawking-Hartle approach does not offer an explanation of where and how the four dimensions of space come from. Neither theory provides any way to get a grip on the question of first causes. Both approaches reveal in their own way a reality that apparently was given, suggesting there may be no more layers of the onion to peel back. Perhaps, mathematically based science has brought us to the edge of what we can know in this way. There may simply be nothing beyond what we presently understand; we now know the givens of the universe we exist within. Or it may be that both are useful in understanding a reality that we cannot ultimately know through a single lens. The key may lie in pondering more deeply consciousness and the role of the observer.

GR and the SM appear fundamentally incompatible. Yet the observer seems central to both approaches. For the SM, it is the act of observing – measuring – which collapses the wave function of probabilities of a quantum wave (or entangled state) into a specific value. For GR, there is no privileged place to measure the state of anything else, all is in motion and each observer will see time and space differently depending upon his position relative to everything else. The relationship between light and mass creates the framework for observation by providing a measure of time and the three dimensions of space. Light “travels” at the cosmic speed limit but takes no time to get anywhere since at its speed, time stops. A surfer riding a photon is everywhere that photon will ever be at the same moment. It is stuff with mass that experiences, bends and moves through spacetime.

Observation requires consciousness; without being heard, trees that fall in the forest make no sound. Tied in some way to mass, consciousness manifests probabilities as it moves through spacetime. Looking from the perspective of what both GR and the SM tell us, the universe is one big wave function outside of time where at one level everything happens at once while to the observers immersed in the Higgs field, time exists. Why should this be true?

The practitioners of quantum physics remain focused on considering various ways to reconcile the SM with GR. Whether these efforts will ever lead to anything that can be observed and measured is an open question. But even in the event of some unification – or a new theory that subsumes both – the problem would remain of where does that come from? This leads to the ultimate question of the origin of the universe. If it's not the Big Bang but some other beginning or even some steady state, it would then beg the question of why that?

Both GR and the SM describe the universe we find ourselves in from different points of the observer's view. In one we experience relative time. In the other, we determine what is by looking at it. As conscious observers and living creatures, we are, in effect, at the center of everything. This would suggest that if we are to gain further, deeper understanding of reality we must understand more about consciousness and its relation to reality. Those who try to explain consciousness as a product of organic matter and processes get it exactly wrong. In some way, consciousness creates reality. Consciousness is not derivative but somehow primordial. There is a ghost in the machine.

This leaves us with two apparent options. One would be to accept that we can go no further. Science may yet produce new ways to manipulate the world – via technology – but we will be unable to penetrate further the veils of the cosmos we inhabit. The other would be to start with a more profound understanding of consciousness and perhaps by creating a science based upon qualia rather than quantity. This would require a new way of thinking more akin, perhaps, to philosophy than mathematics. And it might start with the question of why there should be anything rather than nothing.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Another Interlude: What do Gravity Waves Mean?

Just read the typically excellent articles in Science News on the recent confirmation of gravity waves. The merger of two black holes that triggered the waves that reached earth some 1.3 billion years later converted three solar masses into sufficient energy to send a tiny but measurable ripple to the two LIGO detectors. The total energy released “exceeded that of all the stars in the universe combined.” But as SN notes, the gravity waves did not travel through space – as does light – but as a wave in the fabric of spacetime itself traveling at the speed of light.

It is worth pondering the fact that gravity and light – both seemingly very different types of elementary vectors – both travel at the same finite speed. What is it about the universe that is revealed by the cosmic speed limit of 186,000 miles per second that even gravity obeys?

I've previously suggested that the speed of light measures “our awareness of the distance traveled within spacetime” and that “the speed of light may actually be the speed of consciousness.” At the speed of light, time stops. Someone surfing a photon would be everywhere that photon would ever be at the same moment. We experience the universe as spacetime. We move through it while, in a sense, the universe itself must exist all at once outside space and time. Lots of scientists are looking at ways to use string theory or supersymmetry, positing extra dimensions and multiple universes, to try to explain our universe through what might seem an updated version of efforts to find how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (Regrets to St Thomas, whom I follow in the thought that when you reach the end of reason, it's a finger pointing to god.) But these efforts beg a question: whatever theory they come up with, why would the cosmos be that way? Reality may not be an infinitely peel-able onion. The fact remains that we live in a universe where even gravity takes time to travel as perceived by us. (I suppose a surfer riding that gravity wave would also be everywhere that four-dimension wave would be at the very same moment.)

Why ask what all this means? The notion of deriving meaning from the fact that we exist and in a world that seems perfect for us is basic to humanity. But beyond this, facing up to these questions may be the way forward to a new science. This would not mean abandoning quantum physics and relativity but thinking our way through them without trying to find dancing angels.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Premature Globalization

Globalization has come too early in humanity's history and gone too far. It is unsustainable with burdens and benefits distributed too unevenly to provide a basis for global stability. Globalization of the market has concentrated wealth in some places at the cost elsewhere of erratic consumer- and export-driven growth that distorts economic development and entrenches poverty. Free trade has meant cross-border transfers of jobs that have left many struggling to make ends meet in the “new economy” while helping others in low wage markets to enter the cycle. The resultant distortions have thus both concentrated and generalized inequality. Globalized media greatly magnifies the perception of inequality by delivering clear images of what is available elsewhere thus potentiating large-scale population movements. Globalization in the 21st Century benefits only some at the cost of the many who have been encouraged to believe that they too benefit from the increased availability of cheaper goods that they can't fix but must constantly buy anew. The majority of humanity still must struggle to attain or maintain a decent living for themselves and their families and a future offering hope for their children.

Within countries, those who directly benefit from the various facets of globalization face a rising tide of political opposition. In what may turn out to be a seminal offering, Peggy Noonan in a recent WSJ piece outlines an important distinction between what she calls the "protected" and the "unprotected." Taking this concept perhaps a little further than she would, the protected are those who make public policy or have purchased the people who do. Through their decisions and predominant political power, the protected impose mechanisms, processes and conditions that provide them direct benefit. The unprotected are those who must survive in the world that the protected make for them. The protected live the good life secure in their own communities. Because they are mostly insulated from any negative effects of their policies, they feel they can inflict anything on the rest. The unprotected live with none of these advantages and all of the fallout. Populist political movements from the left and the right have arisen in may places as the unprotected have lost their patience with traditional politics and politicians. In the US that includes Trump and Bernie Sanders, in Europe populist parties from France to Poland threatening or wresting political power from the “centrists.”

The root problem could be termed premature globalization. It might seem that the tying together of the world's economies might have been the result of some inevitable natural force. But the lowering of trade barriers and opening of borders has been the result of a myriad of political decisions by the protected. They have been able to move jobs to places with lower labor costs and to “import” – through legal and “illegal” migration – cheap labor to where they need it. Free trade always means that jobs move from one place to another. All those Chinese “lifted” out of poverty through years of high growth have come directly from jobs moved from America and elsewhere. The benefit to the unprotected – including the many in the developing world not able to compete with China or the West – has been slim and often fleeting. But as a friend has noted, free trade is only Pareto-optimal if the gains are broadly shared. The gains have not been broadly shared but the costs have.

Who benefits from free trade: the owners of capital and their public servants. They reap the profits and gain extra from buying favored treatment (openly or through corruption). Also, the local political elites of developing countries who monopolize power and skim off what comparatively little wealth trickles in from the global trade channels. Some from supplying raw materials (often mined or grown in ways wasteful and injurious to the environment and local populations), some from importing those planned-obsolescence consumer goods. (I freely admit to “benefitting” from the endless series of iPhones.) In America, they use their advantage to win favorable tax rates (or move operations elsewhere) while pushing to reduce “wasteful” government expenditure on things like infrastructure, healthcare or social welfare.

The primary role of government should be to ensure that all citizens can earn a basic living while helping them provide a suitable and nurturing environment for their children. This means the economy needs to provide a range of jobs from the highly skilled to the basic to mirror the natural mix of abilities and interests. Taking just the United States, over the last decades the Democrats and Republicans both have failed to meet this test. They have pushed the “benefits” of free trade at the cost of millions of jobs lost. Their mantra has been the benefits of those cheaper consumer goods and the possibility of newer jobs in the advanced economy. Even before the 2008 financial tsunami, those newer jobs were hard to find and most were lower pay.

When I was a lad in the 1950s and 60s, my parents raised five children on the salary of a truck driver plus the occasional factory employment of my mother. Try raising five children today on a working stiff's salary, even if both parents work. (How many political hacks rail against abortion but don't care a whit about how to pay for raising those children once they are born?) The protected also benefit from cheap imported labor, often forced to work off the books or as “contractors” without benefits. They do the jobs “Americans won't do.” Translation, they do the jobs Americans won't do at wages too low to allow a decent living.

Globalization would work well in a world of less pronounced inequality. But we have been pushed into it prematurely. The world of the 21st Century perhaps just does not produce enough wealth to share sufficiently for most people to have a decent life where they were born. Thus the wave of refugees – who come from the ranks of the unprotected whether because of conflict or poverty – overwhelming the gates of Europe or trying to somehow get through Mexico to the US. Maybe the only recourse is for societies that can afford to go it alone to raise the walls, close the doors and pull those jobs back to the homeland by ending free trade. Leave China to deal with its population without the benefit of those jobs imported from America. This is the appeal of the Trumps. It's hard to argue against and certainly the same old refrains from the protected – Democrats and Republicans – have lost their popular appeal. No matter who wins the American presidency or how hard Europe tries to prevent migrants from trying to cross, the unprotected are not likely to be denied forever.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The rise of the unprotected

In Europe breaking (on TransConflict), I suggest that the renewed flood of refugees this year will tear up the reality of a border-less EU while raising a popular political backlash from the populist left and right.  As noted there, Peggy Noonan in a recent WSJ piece makes an interesting distinction between the "protected" and the "unprotected."  Taking her concept perhaps a little further than she does, the protected make public policy (and/or influence how it is made through money) while the unprotected are those who have to live in it (with no real influence over how its made). The protected make the decisions (directly or indirectly), living the good life secure in their own communities. Because they are mostly insulated from any negative effects of their policies, they feel they can impose anything on the rest. The unprotected live with none of these advantages. Noonan credits the rise of Trump in the US with his understanding that the unprotected have given up hope on the usual politics and politicians.  But this also explains the rise of populist parties in Europe where the unprotected live with insecurity and enforced austerity.

Here in the US, the protected are oddly enough taking on one of their own, Donald Trump.  He has cleverly rode -- enabled even -- a wave of angst from the unprotected to the lead in the Republican Party race for its presidential nomination.  The party grandees (and their moneyed supporters) are now taking unprecedented measures to try and cut him down.  They claim he is not a true conservative.  By this they mean he does not follow the mantra of any government is bad government, any taxes are bad taxes and any social welfare program is bad social welfare.  The "true conservatives" -- funded by the very rich contributing hundreds of millions of dollars -- don't need government.  They simply want to control it and use it for their own ends, including cutting tax rates on them and ensuring little money is "wasted" on the unprotected.  These folks don't like Trump.  He does not seem to share their reluctance to use government for certain ends.  While he wants to abolish "Obamacare" he also says he will "broaden healthcare access, make healthcare more affordable and improve the quality of the care available to all Americans."  On taxes, he would abolish most tax exemptions and "loopholes" for the rich and for corporations.  This almost sounds socialist.

Given Trump's anti-immigrant position and over-the-top rhetoric, he is not everyone's cup of tea.  But he has tapped into the same popular sense of having been left out that Bernie Sanders has. This all suggests a wave of revulsion against the rule of the protected that may sweep over the November elections and change the landscape or simply run aground against the rocks.  The protected will pull out everything they have to stop Trump.  Sanders they will leave to Hillary while burnishing their Bengazi/email knives for her.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Deep Time: Take Two

It's hard to fully comprehend the depth of time past. The universe came into existence some 13.8 billion years ago (BYA). The earth was formed around 4.5 BYA. The first signs of life – simple microbes – appear about 3.5 BYA. But as presented in a wonderful book about just how complex and essential they are – Life's Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable by Paul Falkowski – microbes are anything but simple. Microbes – bacteria and archaea – are prokaryotes, single cell life without a nucleus or organelles. Everything else – single cell or multi-cell plants and animals – are eukaryotes: cells containing a nucleus and organelles such as mitochondria. The prokaryotes developed the ability to extract energy from the chemical environment and, eventually, from the sun. It took another two billion years for them to evolve into complex cells: the eukaryotes.

Two billion years is a long time. Why did it take that long to go from bacteria and archaea to the first eukaryotes? The machinery to convert chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide or ammonia, and then the much harder task of using sunlight, to fuel life would have taken a long time to develop. But not just that. Extracting energy from the environment meant a complex process of freeing electrons from chemical bonds, transferring those electrons around within the cell and using them ultimately to create other chemicals that would store those electrons (i.e., serve as “food”) to provide energy for cellular processes. Photosynthesis is an even more complex process that uses sunlight to crack electrons from water and combine them – through intermediate steps – with carbon dioxide to produce carbohydrates and, as a waste product, oxygen. This complex machinery had to evolve step by step through the repeated random changes in DNA and RNA as winnowed through natural selection. (A good part of the first billion years after the formation of earth would have been used for the construction of the RNA/DNA mechanism itself.) As Falkowski argues, the processes for producing and consuming biologic energy work as tightly as a complex and precise system of interlocking gears: one out of place and the whole won't work. All the parts of the machinery had to come on line more or less at once or it would not function. Somehow, the machinery evolved anyway, implying that a lot of time was required for vastly more failures – in which the resulting organism from random mutation simply died – than successes.

That the machinery was there to be evolved – that the givens of the universe allowed such a thing to come into existence – is also worth pondering. As is the fact that we would not be here otherwise.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Broken Symmetry – An Interlude on Potholders and the Big Bang

Was working on finishing a potholder recently – on one of those old-fashioned hand looms – and ran out of the colors I needed to finish it in my preferred manner. I usually like to do symmetrical color schemes where warp and woof mirror each other. But this time, though I thought I planned it out properly, I came up short on a key color. I thought of trying to hide the misalignment by using a near match but that didn't seem right. I eventually decided to just break the symmetry in a way that suggested a kind of purpose. It later occurred to me that this might have been at work at the Big Bang as well.

When the energy released by the Big Bang cooled enough to allow the appearance of charged particles, an equal amount of matter and anti-matter should have been created. But if that had been the case, the two would have combined in mutual annihilation. This obviously didn't happen since we are here. For some reason, the symmetry broke. So far, every measurement seems to confirm that particles of matter and their anti-matter counterparts are identical except for charge. So how did matter baryons come to outnumber anti-mater baryons and thus survive annihilation to form the observable universe? Now maybe – and here come the potholder point – there was simply not enough of something. Perhaps the very singularity that expanded into the Big Bang was already imprinted with some characteristic that meant less of one flavor of charged particle than the other, just as it seems different particles were imprinted with varying degrees of stickiness in the Higgs field?

The search for the physics determining the basic constituents and constants of the universe may simply have reached the point of having to think about these matters in a different way

                                                       The potholder in question

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Gravity Waves, Relativity and Quantum Physics: Part I

The recent finding of gravity waves produced by the merger of two distant black holes has been taken as yet another confirmation of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. There have been various such confirming measurements, including the gravitational redshift and lensing of light and non-Newtonian, changes in the orbit of Mercury. But the deeper significance of this latest discovery lies in what it may say about the rival grand theory, quantum physics. The Standard Model of modern physics has proven remarkably good at accounting for the known elementary particles (fermions, hadrons and bosons). The measurement of the Higgs boson in 2012 was an astounding confirmation of our most basic understanding of the origin of mass. Despite the “spookiness” of some of the predictions of quantum physics – such as quantum entanglement – many of its strangest have been verified.

Indeed, the Standard Model is rather too perfect. It seems to account for most of the basic parameters of matter and energy including three of the four fundamental forces: —electromagnetic and the weak nuclear (unified as electro-weak) and the strong nuclear interaction (which holds together the atomic nucleus). But it cannot explain gravity, dark matter or dark energy (thus leaveing out 95% of what we believe to be the universe). In trying to extend its reach – to achieve a grand unified theory to include gravity –- physicists have so far failed to find the new phenomenon that would hint at new physics in the form of supersymmetry or string theory. The Standard Model explains what it does so perfectly that those seeking to take it further cannot seem to find any of the discrepancies that might point the way to a Grand Unified Theory of Everything.

General Relativity, on the other hand, has been confirmed in every case. It provides a coherent theory of the universe as framed by spacetime and the speed of light. It does not explain the Big Bang or the menagerie of fundamental particles. Rather, General Relativity describes how mass interacts with space and across time. Mass deforms spacetime and matter and energy – including gravity waves – travel in straight lines along the bends. Einstein's famous equation – the E=MC2 of Special Relativity – does not explain why mass and energy are interchangeable but provides a way to measure the transformation of one into the other within the limitation imposed by the speed of light (which cannot be exceeded).

Relativity is in essence a top-down theory. It begins with Einstein's grand view of the very nature of spacetime, the basic fabric of the universe. Quantum physics is more bottoms-up, seeking to discover the basic pieces of reality. Relativity is a complete and verified theory within its defined area. The Standard Model of quantum physics is incomplete within its domain. It may be that relativity is somehow the more fruitful way to think about the universe. For Einstein, gravity is not a force, as it was for Newton, but an artifact of mass bending spacetime. Quantum physics again treats gravity as a force and seeks to find its particle, the “graviton.” But what considerations may be drawn from looking at quantum physics in light of relativity, instead of trying to extend it to account for gravity? The key may lie in pondering more deeply mass, light and the role of the observer.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Mistakes Were Made II

The US is now in the process of choosing its next president. Everyone – in America and beyond – should insist that all the candidates clearly define their notion of national interest and explain how it addresses limitations as well as possibilities. Then the American people must choose very wisely. The 21st Century appears to be just beginning a wild ride.

Full piece in TransConflict.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Republican Conundrum

A good friend of mine, a Republican former Hill staffer and Bush Administration (W) official, tells me that as of this week he cast his support to Kasich. As he sees it, Trump and Cruz would spell disaster for the party. He believes that while Trump and Cruz together get around 50% of the Republican vote, they can't make much headway into the other half. He would even vote for Bernie rather than them and believes many other Republicans would too. He discounts Bush – whom he believes would have been a better president than his brother – because of dynasty fatigue and distrust from the Bush presidents not keeping their word (on taxes and war). Rubio might be able to recover but Kasich has more experience.

My friend also also believes Bernie may prevail over Hillary because of her negatives. He thinks Sanders would win over either Trump or Cruz but not with enough votes to bring in a Democratic majority in either house. (He would find a divided government, and continued political stalemate, an acceptable outcome.)

This is the Republican conundrum. A significant part of the Republican electorate is deeply distressed about the prospect of either Trump or Cruz winning the nomination. But they don't yet see a clear path for anyone who may be able to stop them. The possibility that the peculiar political circumstances of this year – an electorate wanting something new and aligned along the “extreme” wings of the two parties – could lead to a Trump vs Sanders match-up is startling. But the Fat Lady hasn't sung yet and things may sort out a bit come South Carolina. However, if Trump wins there and the non-Trump/Cruz candidates bunch up without any clear breakout, the Republican Party will be in difficult straits.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Bernie Concedes While it'll be Trump vs Cruz and Bush throwing a "Hail Mary"

Some commentators noted Bernie Sanders' victory speech on Tuesday night, after winning the New Hampshire primary, was a bit too long. This may have been because Senator Sanders gave two different speeches in one. Right off he complimented Hillary Clinton. He then noted that in a few months, the Democrats would have to come together. He then explained that the competition between the two Democratic candidates was injecting energy into the party and bringing the young people in. It would need both to win in November. In the middle of his speech, he again complimented Clinton and at the end he made clear that the purpose of it all was to prevent any of the Republicans from winning the presidency. Seems to me that this part of his speech was in effect a concession that he didn't really count on winning the nomination but that his raising issues that brought in the young people, targeted the 1% and Wall Street and pushed the party to embrace its progressive past would make Hillary a better candidate and the help the Democrats win in November.

Now Bernie could not say any of this outright. He needs to go on to continue the contest in upcoming primaries and continue to “energize” the Democratic base. You don't do that by making it clear you really don't expect to win and are running just to help the cause. So the second part of the speech was more of the standard “when I'm president” type. Along the way, he kept the focus on inequality but also addressed international affairs and race, gender and gay issues.

Bernie may have suspected that this win in New Hampshire might be his one really big chance to address the country. He used it, including a pitch in the middle for donations. Bernie hit all his notes and expanded his message. But his chief objective seemed to be a message to Hillary, take this medicine, it will be good for you, the party and the nation.

On the Republican side, the big news was the expected – but necessary to renew his self-declared “winner” image – big win by Donald Trump and the second place by heretofore quasi-unknown Ohio Governor John Kasich. But the real story is the cards falling today, the day after with Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina both dropping out. This leaves Cruz, Jeb Bush and maybe RoboRubio to contend for the job of knocking down Trump. Kasich spent a lot of time in New Hampshire and probably can't replicate his success in the southern primaries coming up. Bush has tons of money and may be able to keep in the race long enough to become, by default, the only “moderate” establishment Republican left standing. In the upcoming South Carolina primary, it will in effect be Trump vs Cruz while Bush tries to pull away from the rest of the pack.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Africa by 2100?

Talked recently with a young man originally from Ethiopia but now living in the US. He keeps up with his native land and was just back from a visit. I asked him how things were. He said: “It's Africa, you know what that means, corruption and conflict.” He spoke of the 2005 election and the resulting denial and repression of those he termed the “winners” and lamented the current situation in which, as he put it, the third largest ethnic group rules over the rest of the “80 tribes” that live in Ethiopia.

It is easy to see why someone might see Africa – mired in poverty, corruption and violence – as a land without much of a future. It's hard to name one functioning multi-ethnic democracy on the continent. Some countries have elections but these serve either to anoint those already in control and holding all the advantages of state power – official and otherwise – or to simply provide a patina of legitimacy for autocratic, tribally based rulers and cliques. African countries remain on the periphery of the global economy. As such they must earn their living in an environment where rapid technological change and the built-in advantages of the already developed core leave them little room for much more than the export of raw materials and the importation of finished goods. This may produce some wealth but it runs into the hands of those with the local monopoly. At best, it may feature as a form of primitive capital accumulation but even then the trickle down cannot keep up with rising populations and expectations. It would take an extraordinary amount of good governance, popular support and patience for even gradual economic development to lift these countries to the level of societal well-being basic to sustaining democratic norms, procedures and results.

History dealt Africa two cruel blows. The first was the slave traffic. Slavery certainly existed before the outsiders – European and Arab – brought it to the continent. But the tremendous demand created especially by the traffic to the New World magnified the level of violence already existing among the many native groupings. Slavery also was the entry point of European expansion into Africa, followed by the exploitation of natural resources and colonization. This was the second blow, the carving up of Africa into territorial units that took no regard of existing tribal patterns and political arrangements. There had been empires and nascent states before colonization but these were based on local realities with their own ebb and flow. Once this was super-ceded by the state boundaries drawn up by the Europeans, disparate peoples found themselves lumped together inside arbitrarily chosen fences. After independence – with almost no experience of political participation or democracy – they were left in the hands of those willing and able to use identity politics and violence to seize and hold power. Corruption, poverty and repression within the framework of tribally-based competition for space – economic and political – became the norm.

Some see democracy as the way to move forward. But democracy requires a level of economic development and political maturity (especially a willingness to see someone not like yourself win power). In a context of scarce resources, winner-take-all, tribal politics democracy is likely either to fail or simply produce further conflict between winners and losers. It would be nice if some model of power-sharing might work within federal or confederal arrangements. But such mechanisms also require an extraordinary degree of tolerance and political experience to function in a sustained fashion, especially in the context of economic underdevelopment.

In the history of Europe, stable states grew from heterogeneous tribes only through the growth of centralized states imposing a “national” culture and language. For the future of Africa, it may be necessary for the West to temper efforts to export “democracy” with an understanding of its own history. Acting against genocide or gross human rights abuse is an international responsibility. But it will also be necessary to recognize that over the next decades that African states will have to find their own way of constructing nations within the confines of the colonial fences left them.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Krypton Discovered?

Science News reports the discovery of a second mega earth. This is an apparently rocky planet many times more massive than our own. Could this then be a Krypton-type planet with greater gravity where if two-legged folk evolved, and they could somehow get to earth, they could jump further than mere earth people and travel faster than a speeding bullet?

Sixteen times as heavy as earth, massive BD+20594b should be a gas giant like Neptune or Uranus. But instead it's 100% rock. The planet orbits its star in 42 days. A little online research indicates the star itself is very slightly smaller and cooler than the sun and also about one billion years younger. This makes it a yellow star as is our sun, i.e., not red.

Judging from the planet's orbital period, it is even closer to its sun than is Mercury to ours. This probably means it's too hot for life as we know it. It also seems too massive for plate tectonics to exist. Scientists suggest that plate tectonics is key to the circulation of carbon which is the basis for life on earth. Without moving continents and circulation between core, mantle and crust, everything remains locked in place.

Now, if the planet might be tidally locked to its star – one side always facing toward and the other away – there might be a transitional zone between -- in perpetual twilight -- where the temperature might be more conducive to life. And in twilight, at sunset, that sun might appear red. Tidal forces might also create enough internal tension to stimulate circulation within the rocky layers. So, perhaps the possibility of finding Superman's home planet cannot be completely discounted.

What is clear is that recent discoveries of exoplanets make a strong case for the existence of a wide range of planet types including ones that might support life. We also should not limit our consideration to forms of life based on carbon or water such as ours.  Might someone be sailing methane seas on Titan?  Is anyone out there?

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Return DC to Maryland: A Case for Retrocession

Every week or so I get an email from folks supporting statehood for Washington, DC. As a long-time resident and taxpayer of the District, I understand why they do. As it says on our license plates, it's “taxation without representation.” DC is smaller than any of the 50 states but has a larger population than two of them. Yet we get no vote in the US Senate or House of Representatives. Instead, we get a voteless Delegate to the House like some overseas territory.

The Constitution allowed for the establishment of a federal capital through the “cession” of territory from willing states. Washington, DC was formally established in 1790 on swampy land, straddling the Potomac River, taken from Maryland and Virginia to be a neutral place between North and South. The District of Columbia was a square 10 miles on each side. In 1846, the Congress passed a law allowing for the retrocession of the part of the District in Virginia back to that state if approved by the people affected in a referendum and if accepted by the State of Virginia. This was accomplished in 1847. Through this action, the District shrunk from 100 sq. miles to the present 68.

While one may argue that DC should be a state, politically it remains very unlikely. Given that most would expect statehood to mean two more Democratic senators and one Democratic congressperson, this would never pass muster in any Congress without an overwhelming Democratic majority. Maybe not then either.

So, how about carving out the part of the District outside the federal government core – the White House, Congress and the office buildings around the Mall – and giving the rest back to Maryland? The various wards of the city might become a new Maryland city – Washington City? – or perhaps the various wards might each become their own local jurisdiction. The Congress might agree with this as it would not do anything beyond making Maryland a bit more Democratic without adding actual new seats to the Senate. Maryland would have to agree too but why not?

Washington City, Maryland. Maryland is a nice state, I wouldn't mind living there. And no more “taxation without representation.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Post-Iowa: No Real Winners Yet

Lots of ink being split and voices braying on what the Iowa primary results mean. My simple take is that Trump needs to win New Hampshire (NH) big or his patina of invincibility – remember he can shoot someone in the middle of NYC and not lose support? – will wash away. Without that, people will begin to consider more carefully what he actually says. Now, Trump is very smart. He might yet rise to the occasion but he will become a longer shot.

Rubio – billed by some as the “real winner” – is now target #1 of the remaining “moderate” candidates. (Rand Paul – the one Republican of principle – sadly dropped out today.) The “moderates” will try to tear Marco a new one to drag him back down. Rubio seems a lightweight but if he manages to hang on and do well in NH, he may suck the rest of the air from the not-so-crazy-as-Cruz side of the spectrum.

Cruz may think he can survive a loss in NH and go on into the South. Hillary may hope so because if Cruz can win votes there, she'll win more in November from the non-white-extremist majority down that way.

Hillary lost in Iowa despite her technical tenths of a percentage point “win.” She has issues, including apparently the fact that she earns few points for transparency. Once, when I worked in the White House, she served me tea as I was accompanying the visit of the First Lady of Argentina upstairs in the private quarters. Mrs. Clinton was very gracious to include me as if I was also a guest.

I admit to liking Bernie because of his razor-sharp focus on inequality, our number one problem (globally as well as in America). Some say that since Bernie – a “socialist” – cannot possibly win in America, a vote for him is wasted. But if he wins in NH, he just may get enough wind in his sails – and votes from the under-45 – to make it a long race.

Now Jeb, and I won't say poor Jeb. I personally believe he was the Bush – if we had to have one – we should have gotten in 2000. But that is a low bar. He apparently has received too much money to simply bow out just because it's clear he has bombed out. If you walk away from the $150 million plus he's been given, the investors will not be pleased. Bush may hope that Rubio stumbles in NH and he gets a second look. So he may actually have to crash and burn before dropping out. Better for all if this happens in New Hampshire.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Time for the US to take the bull by the hand in Kosovo

Today I posted on TransConflict a piece on the detention of Kosovo Serb political activist Oliver Ivanovic.  I know and respect Oliver through the three 1/2 years I served with the UN in north Kosovo.  It appears that the European Union prosecuted him with the agreement -- if not encouragement -- of the Serbian government in Belgrade.  Seems no one wants a strong, independent leader for the Kosovo Serbs no matter how moderate and pragmatic he may be.  Or maybe I might say, almost no one.  The United States, long the motive force behind carving out of Serbia a majority Albanian state, might see the utility in helping the Serb community in the country become a positive element in a truly democratic, multi-ethnic state. 

For a long time, I was critical of the unilateral move to Kosovo independence outside the ambit of the UN Security Council resolution (1244) which entered into force after the NATO bombing of Milosevic' Serbia.  But the fact is there is nothing wrong with Kosovo independence and given the treatment of Kosovo Albanians by Milosevic, it certainly is understandable why they would not want to risk that again.  Perhaps more to the point, there is nothing about current day Serbia that suggests it would be better for Kosovo to have remained part of it.  Both Kosovo and Serbia have problems -- corruption, low growth, tardy economic reform and dysfunctional politics.  Nothing could possibly be gained by bringing the two together in one failed state.   Indeed, much would be gained for both if Serbia recognized Kosovo independence.  Serbia could move ahead on EU membership before the door is nailed shut and Kosova could start to face its real problems.

The US had hoped that the Europeans would handle Kosovo, move it steadily to something the internationals could declare a success and leave behind.  That hasn't happened.  The US Embassy in Pristina must still play an out-sized role in keeping the lid on political conflict among the Albanians and the US still has troops in Kosovo.  Bringing a unified, pragmatic Serb community into the mix would not change things fundamentally in Kosovo.  But it could be an important step in bringing some light into a smoke-filled room.

The US should do whatever is necessary to end the political persecution of Oliver Ivanovic.  And along the way, end its affair with Hashim Thaci and bow to reality by finding a way to bring Ramush Haradinaj into the mix.  The future of Kosovo should not be left in the hands of EU mandarins or ghosts of the past.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Killer Species: Us vs Them

The human species has a long record of Us vs Them conflict. Indeed, our species of Homo sapiens is the only surviving one from a long period in which various other kinds of humans shared the evolutionary record. For whatever reason, we emerged the sole survivor. We had various advantages. Deprived of in-built weapons such as claws and saber teeth, we evolved as especially inventive and effective tool-using killers. Our social organization – depending very much on our ability to use symbols and language to reaffirm in-group bonds and work effectively in coordinated activities – plus our advancing toolset made us formidable hunters and gatherers. While some of these advantages may have characterized the other members of the Homo genus, we did them better. Even our closest relative, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, may not have had our full capacity for the advanced suite. After coexisting with us for some 160,000 years, the Neanderthals joined the long list of the extinct other humans.

Since our arriving on the scene some 200 thousand years ago, we have succeeded in eliminating, replacing and enslaving Them. Recent discoveries have pushed back the known origins of warfare within our own species to 10,000 years ago. The University of Cambridge anthropologist who discovered the evidence suggested that “lethal raids by competing groups were part of life for hunter-gatherer communities at the time.” A recent excavation in France of 6000 year old remains provides signs of violence including against women and children and perhaps ritual dismemberment. But it would be surprising if we were not already – and since the beginning – omni-predators of anything not Us.

We have come up with various reasons and motives for using violence against others. We want their food, water, land, gold, women, men. But these have often been overlaid or supplemented by the simple desire to rid ourselves of Them. We tend, all too frequently, to establish who we are by defining who we are not. Attacking Them reaffirms our identity. In the Hobbesian state of nature, nothing prevents the war of all against all. Within a society, a stable governing order – the Leviathan – can regularize this war. (Regularize, not end. Witness the current political conflict between Red and Blue in America or the current wave of xenophobia sweeping through the EU.) Between societies in conflict, or when internal order breaks down, the simplest way to distinguish the enemy is to focus on Them.

The conflicts of the last 100 years have been mainly of this Us vs Them kind, primarily over identity: ethnic, tribal or religious. They have spun from control when the regimes that ruled over multi-ethnic states have fallen or been seized or overthrown. Once identity conflicts begin, they quickly turn zero-sum. Violence begets violence and the possibility of achieving a political solution recedes beyond the horizon. In the globalized and technologically complex 21st Century, these conflicts tend to produce regional and global insecurity.

It should seem obvious that international relations requires a version of the Leviathan, an internationally acceptable way to manage conflict between and within states and address the tensions that allow conflict to emerge along identity lines. The UN provides a mechanism to do both. Seems that our choice may be to use it better and act more multi-laterally or perhaps see that we have all become the universal Them on the way to our own demise.