Monday, December 27, 2010

Visigoths inside the gates

The Conflict
America is at war with Al Qaeda.  Their primary target is the throne in Saudi Arabia--an American ally.  This war should be called the Saudi Arabian Civil War.  Bin Laden is a Saudi citizen.  His financial backers are Saudi citizens.  Al Qaeda cloaks itself in Islamic religious trappings.  The califate that Al Qaeda wishes to establish could only rule from Mecca, and must replace the Saudi King to do that.

I have my doubts about the genuineness of Al Qaeda's religious propaganda.  In an important sense it doesn't matter.  The Saudi throne is their goal.  If you believe the propaganda then they want the throne for it's religious importance.  If you disbelieve the propaganda then they want the throne for the money and power that comes with it.  But the religious propaganda is clearly important for many of Al Qaeda's key supporters (the extremist clerics.)  So Al Qaeda is constrained by their own propaganda.  They cannot act in ways that betrays that propaganda in the eyes of those extremist clerics.

The US was attacked for two important reasons.

First, the US was supporting the current ruler of Saudi Arabia.  Most Americans know little about King Saud.  Those who have studied the region generally agree that he is the least bad option.  Certainly it would be very bad for US interests, in many ways, if Al Qaeda won the Saudi throne.  So, even though most of Americans don't understand it, and many don't like it, it is strategically important for the US to support King Saud against Al Qaeda.

Second, the US is the great enemy in the religious propaganda--the "great Satan".  The US is a Christian and secular nation that was interfering in the Middle East--thwarting the extremist clerics from several of their goals (like the destruction of Israel.)

Al Qaeda held Afghanistan.  They wanted to get to Saudi Arabia.  American air and sea power was deployed in the Gulf to protect America's oil interests and allies.  So Al Qaeda was left with two options: sending their armies through neighboring countries, or building a new army closer to the target (like Yemen, Oman, or Jordan.)

When you look at a map, the path from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia is clear: Iran and Iraq.  Iran is a religious enemy of Saudia Arabia, and so could be an ally of Al Qaeda.  Iraq and Saudi Arabia were distrustful allies, but Iran was a common enemy that they could agree on.  So the battle line between Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia would likely form on the border between Iran and Iraq, unless Iraq could be convinced to change teams.

Middle-East-map

In 2001, Al Qaeda had not committed to either option (moving through Iran and Iraq or rebuilding their army elsewhere.)  When they attacked the US mainland in 2001, Al Qaeda was rolling the dice on losing Afghanistan.  This was a risky gambit, but it had the potential to help with both options.  Iraq and the US were enemies (after Gulf War I), and so Al Qaeda and Iraq gained a common enemy.  And extremist clerics throughout the gulf region would flock to Al Qaeda for attacking the great Satan.

When Al Qaeda attacked Manhattan they were expecting all of the American forces in the Gulf region to converge on Afghanistan.  They were probably intending to leave a token resistance force there, to keep the American's engaged.  And they were probably going to drive the rest of their army through open gates in Iran and Iraq to invade Saudi Arabia.  That was Al Qaeda's best-case scenario--their shortest path to victory.

Someone in America (or Saudi Arabia) recognized that scenario and made the highly unlikely decision to invade Iraq before Afghanistan, thereby cutting off Al Qaeda's path to Saudi Arabia.

With that path closed, Al Qaeda's only remaining option is to re-build their army closer to the target.  The rise of Islamic extremists throughout the region seems to indicate that this option is still in play.  This option is not without risk, primarily because it is a slowly-developing strategy.  America is a very powerful enemy, and they will be difficult to evade for a long time.  But Al Qaeda has reason to believe that America will not have the will to pursue the war for long enough to win.

Al Qaeda's best strategy against America is to continue to increase the cost of the war until American decides that the price is too high.

There are four distinct "costs" that America is paying.  Al Qaeda couldn't have predicted how all of this would work out.  They didn't need to.  All that Al Qaeda needs to do is anything that they can think of that increases the price that America is paying.  If they can survive, America will eventually quit.  It is only a matter of time.

After America quits this war, Al Qaeda will soon win the Saudi Arabian throne.  After that there will be a short period of regrouping and rebuilding.  But Al Qaeda will soon return to attacking the US (the great Satan), using the financial resources of the Saudi throne.

America is not fighting a conventional enemy at this point.  America is fighting an existential threat, but they do not realize that the struggle is this serious.  America cannot quit the Saudi Arabian Civil War, or America itself will become the primary target of the new Al Qaeda owned Saudi Arabian extremist Islamic califate.

America cannot continue to pay the costs of this war forever.  And America cannot stop paying the costs of this war.  That is exactly the position that Al Qaeda hoped to put the US in.


The Costs
America is going to continue to pay these four costs until the end of this war.


Money
America is fighting a war far away from it's shores, buying and transporting massive amounts of equipment.  It is employing a large and expensive army.  It is paying huge bribes to marginal enemies to purchase their cooperation.  It is employing bleeding edge technologies.

America could make strategic decisions that would change the structure of the war and lower these costs.  The Obama administration recently approved the sale of a tremendous amount of high tech equipment to Saudi Arabia.  As long as the current Saudi King maintains control of this equipment then this will reduce America's costs in the war.

There are other similar tactics that could be employed.  But all of these tactics involve political pain and tactical risks.  Without significant tactical risk and political pain the financial costs of this war will continue to spiral out of control.


Lives
America's will to fight decreases with each American soldier's death.  America's military leaders understand this, and they are using high technology to minimize the deaths.  But the coffins keep coming.  And they will continue to keep coming.

Conversely, every US citizen that Al Qaeda kills increases America's will to fight.  This is why Al Qaeda is only executing incompetent attacks in the US now.  An incompetent attack on US soil forces the US to spend more on protecting the homeland, without increasing America's will to fight.  All attacks on US soil are now designed to do just that--increase costs without increasing resolve.


Loss of Prestige
Prior to the invasion of Iraq, America enjoyed a tremendous amount of international prestige.

Before 2001, America was the country that had saved the world from the Nazis and Communists.  America was the biggest engine powering global peace and prosperity.  Though far from perfect, America was the most benevolent sole superpower that anyone could imagine.

After 2001, America was the victim of an awful and unfair sneak attack.  No one imagined that Al Qaeda was as dangerous at the Axis of World War II, but Manhattan became a new generation's Pearl Harbor.  Everyone was ready to cheer America's selfless sacrifice as the US stood up to this new brand of violent despotism.

After the invasion of Iraq, America became fickle, fallible, and frightening.  Everyone could see that Iraq was invaded on false pretenses.  If America could openly invade a country and kill the rightful ruler there, for no good reason, then American exceptionalism was a lie.  The claim of Iraqi WMDs was a gamble designed to protect America's reputation.  When that gamble failed the American intelligence apparatus was exposed as a sham.  If American could be so wrong, and do something so terrible and wrong, then what would America do next?

That question continues to hang in the air, haunting every American move.  It has tremendously tarnished America's reputation.  Every day it becomes more and more difficult for America to rally it's allies.  Every innocent death, every abuse of power, every person held without trial, every tortured prisoner, and every unanswered question weakens America's ability to lead the international community.

Soon America will call for help and no one will answer.


Loss of Identity
There is a strong line of reasoning that fire should be fought with fire.  In some circumstances a firebreak is the only way to stop the advance of a raging wildfire.  Burn the ground in front of a wildfire in a controlled manner, denying the fire it's fuel.  Sometimes a raging fire can only be extinguished with a larger explosion that will use up all of the oxygen.

Al Qaeda has used terrorist tactics against the US homeland.  Terrorists tactics have both short-term and long-term effects.  By calling it "terrorism" we have highlighted the short-term effects and ignored the long-term effects.  The short-term effects are fear and disruption--terror.  The long-term effects are much worse.  The government that was attacked has to change itself into a police state (or secret police state) in order to protect against further attacks.

Islamic extremists believe in very limited freedom for individuals.  They want religious authorities to control the government, and they want the government to control the details of people's lives.  Their goal for this control is to force people to obey their religious laws.  They view freedom primarily as freedom to sin, and so they are against individual freedom in principle.

This is part of why Islamic extremists use terrorist tactics.  The governments that they attack have to respond by imposing limits on individual freedoms, and they have to exercise more control over their citizens in order to protect those citizens.  Only part of Al Qaeda genuinely believes that this is a religious struggle.  But those people greatly enjoy seeing US citizens subjected to body scanners, travel restrictions, terrorist watch lists,  invasions of privacy, continual surveillance, and all of the other abuses that a terror-attacked government is bound to perform.

In their view, Americans are simply building the tools that the extremist clerics will eventually use to enforce their religious laws.  Americans are becoming compliant sheep that accept the sorts of invasions of privacy that the extremist clerics wish to perform.

We have encountered the enemy, and it is us.

As an American citizen, this is the cost that I find the most unbearable.


Every terrorist attack brings increases in government control over innocent citizens.  The US government is terrorizing it's own citizens because Al Qada forced it to.  The terrorists are winning.  America is no longer the free country that it used to be.  And it will continue to get less free as long as the terrorist attacks continue.

This isn't an issue of political party.  Both parties are completely committed to increasing the government's power in response to each terrorist threat.

If you believe that governments are capable of propping up external threats in order to maintain their own power then this is your nightmare scenario.  Any invasion of privacy can be justified.  Anyone can be a terrorist threat.  Any means that the government can use to neutralize a threat is allowed.  Citizens are detained or killed without trials.  Constitutional protections are suspended.  Freedom will never return.



The Conclusion
There are several ways in which this war could end, if you are willing to believe that the US government wants the war to end.

The califate crowd could all die.
In the American Civil War, the South could have given up on the idea of keeping their slaves.  Or the North could have given up on the idea of abolishing slavery.  If either side had backed off that issue then the war would have ended.

Not every member of Al Qaeda believes in the religious vision of an extremist Islamic califrate (kingdom) headquartered in Mecca.  If that religious goal dies out then the war can wind down.  This is the Saudi Arabian Civil War, and the hope of that califrate is the issue that is driving this war.  If King Saud agrees to let Al Qaeda form their califrate then he will be killed, along with his family and everyone he loves.  He won't do that.

But Saudi Arabia and america could, theoretically, change their strategy and focus on nothing but identifying and killing the true believers among Al Qaeda.  If they could do it then they could negotiate a peace with whoever remained.



America could reduce the costs to continue the war.
This war is a marathon.  America has to bear the costs for as long as they can.  Al Qaeda has to survive.

Al Qaeda will die of natural causes, if America can keep running long enough.  There are two ways that America could reduce it's costs in this war--and thus extend the amount of time that it can run the marathon.

Focus on cost reduction.
This isn't so much a strategy as it is a collection of tactics.  Don't deploy enough troops to win, just deploy enough troops to avoid losing.  Stop buying exotic and expensive weapons.  Make fewer attacks--and those attacks that you do make must be calculated to inflict an absolute minimum of collateral damage.  Dig in and slow down the pace of the war.

This is anathema to the American psyche.  I hate it.  Every American will hate it.  I'm not sure if America has the stomach to pull it off.

On the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq this should look like a stalemate.  That is exactly what this strategy is looking for.  On the front lines, where American forces are interacting with Afghani and Iraqi citizens, America has to lighten their touch.  Make friends by being a good neighbor.  Apologize for the collateral damage that has been caused.  Just become another part of the scenery.

At home, go back to normal.  Shut down the invasive airport screenings.  Take everyone you can off the terrorist watch list.  Don't issue a terror alert unless you absolutely have to.  Scale Homeland Security back down tremendously.  Quit talking about the "war on terror" and begin talking about protecting our friends in the Middle East.

The Achilles' heel of this strategy is that there will be more terrorist attacks against the US homeland.  Citizens will be killed and injured.  People will scream for more protection.  Politicians have to understand that it is in the citizens' best interest to not give them substantially more protection--because more protection is a cost that America cannot bear for long enough.  The terrorist attacks will only stop after they prove to be ineffective in escalating America's costs.


Change the entire war.
This is what I thought Obama said he was going to do.  Maybe this is what Obama genuinely intended to do.  Or maybe I misunderstood him.  Maybe I was overcome by my own hope for change.

This strategy requires a 180-degree turn from everything that America has done since the invasion of Iraq.  Dust off America's white hat and put it back on.  Become the "good guys" again, and accept all of the limitations that this will bring.

Close Guantanamo.  Give those prisoners public trials (even as enemy combatants, where the burden of proof is much much lower.)  End the policy of torturing prisoners.  Publicly apologize for every single transgression--every person who was tortured, every innocent casualty, every invasion into other nations.

Stop paying bribes.  Stop assassinating people.  Stop interfering with the internal workings of sovereign nations.  No more invasions.  Leave Afghanistan, even if that means losing that battle.  Scale back our Iraqi forces to a desert base far from civilization, that only acts as a deterrent to Iran.

At home, go back to normal.  Shut down the invasive airport screenings.  Take everyone you can off the terrorist watch list.  Don't issue a terror alert unless you absolutely have to.  Abolish the Department of Homeland Security.

Quit talking about the "war on terror" and begin talking about the Saudi Arabian Civil War.  Talk about the evils of extremism, and the peaceful potential of Islam.  Every time America is attacked it should respond with an intense public propaganda campaign against extremism.  Publish the names of clerics.  Publish the names of their supporters.  Isolate them in their religious communities.

The extremist Islamic world-view is in direct conflict with the world-view of every other Muslim in the world.  This conflict is something that both groups refuse to publicly acknowledge.  Rub their noses in it.  Force the extremists to declare that their war is against every Muslim that disagrees with them--because it is.  Every jihadist knows it.  Every jihadists' mother knows it.  Send the jihadists home to kill their mothers, and the movement will dissolve.



Saudi Arabia could learn to defend itself.
A large portion of Al Qaeda's strategy hinged on the fact that Saudi Arabia had almost no army to protect itself.  It was utterly dependent on America for it's physical protection.  If America used it's Saudi Arabian protection forces to attack Afghanistan then Al Qaeda could have overthrown King Saud with a very small force.

If Saudi Arabia builds a substantial army then America could withdraw from Iraq and Saudi Arabia, leaving Saudi Arabia to fight it's civil war on it's own.  Iran would invade Iraq.  Al Qaeda might attack Saudi Arabia in force.  Iran might attack Saudi Arabia in force.  If Saudi Arabia can defend itself, then America's direct involvement could end.

America would continue to be the great Satan.  But the Islamic extremists would be temporarily satiated with their apparent victory over the great Satan--they had forced America to flee their region.  The extremists would be busy fighting Saudi Arabia itself.

The Obama administration recently approved the sale of a tremendous amount of military armaments to Saudi Arabia.  The conventional wisdom is that these arms are the start of this strategy shift.  Weapons are important.  And America's cutting edge high-tech weapons will provide a significant advantage over the more primitive weapons of Al Qaeda and the Iranians.  But weapons do not make an army.  An army is created through a tradition of excellence in training, tactics, and command.  This will take at least a generation (20 years.)


America could deny victory to Al Qaeda.
This is an ugly non-solution that I am vehemently opposed to.  But if
* America does not dramatically change the nature of this war
* Al Qaeda's leadership outlives America's will to defend Saudi Arabia
* and Saudi Arabia cannot defend itself
then this is America's last chance to survive.

America should announce this plan well in advance.  Quit Afghanistan and Iraq.  Leave Saudi Arabia to it's own defense.  And then issue this threat: "America will nuke Mecca the moment that Al Qaeda takes control of Saudi Arabia or Mecca."

Encourage everyone who is not a member of Al Qaeda to evacuate the city if Al Qaeda begins to move in.

Al Qaeda will either move in and get nuked, or it will die of frustration.

The backlash against the threat would be substantial.  The backlash against actually nuking Mecca would be nearly unbearable.  The president that gives the order will be killed.  America's empire would be over.  But America would survive--and America would not survive long if Al Qaeda established their califrate in Mecca.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What cannot be given?

Respect is only learned through toils, both physical and mental.  Hard work is the price of admission, and sweat is the only currency accepted.  Respect can only pour from the inner fountain.  Praises from the outside can only poison the ground of a soul.

Compassion is only learned through suffering, both mine and my loved ones'.  Suffering must be felt deeply and repeatedly before the message can be decoded.  Values, priorities, and desires must all bend in the stream of sufferings before the pain will subside.

Purpose is only learned through seeking, both inside and out.  Only diligent seeking can overturn every stone and examine every leaf.  What can be must become known before what should be can be decided.  Shortcuts are failures.


Discipline is only learned through temptations, both triumphs and failures.  But discipline does not come from the temptations, or from any other external source.  Discipline crawls out only from within.  It is tempered and forged by circumstances only if it first burns from within.

Humility is only learned through frustrations, both large and small.  Humiliations come from the outside, and attempt to destroy the spirit.  Humility blossoms and grows from within, and teaches how to transcend the frustrations and humiliations.

Life is a process.  Scrub away the dirt to reveal the value hidden within.


I cannot be given the things I already possess.  I can only scour my soul against the sharp edges of my trials to remove the mud and bandages, and discover myself hidden within.  I will bleed.  I will cry.  I will continue.

I will toil and suffer as I seek through temptations and frustrations.  I will wear away this stinking husk and discover myself, in myself, for myself.  And we shall see what I am good for, what I was made for.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Merry Christmas

Welcome to the future

Quest Visual has just released Word Lens, an iPhone application that will instantly translate anything that you can point your iPhone camera at.  Right now it is only Spanish-English and English-Spanish.  Signs, menus, whatever you happen to have around you.  You don't even have to take a picture--it translates in real-time while viewing whatever you point your phone at.

I understand how it all works.  But I was still surprised to see it happen this soon.  And the implementation is amazing.  You have to watch the video.

I would almost buy an iPhone, just to play with this.  But I'll wait for the Android version(s).  It can't take long.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Congratulations! You're a felon!

The Espionage Act is going to be used to make it a crime to read this article that references the leaked wikileaks documents.  That's an expansion of how the act has been used in the past, but that is exactly where our government is heading.  We're only an eyelash from thoughtcrimes (1984), and Fahrenheit 451.

The misguided goal of expanding the interpretation of this too-broadly-written law is to trap Julian Assange.  It will trap everyone who has watched the news in the last few weeks.

I'm ashamed.

I'm not ashamed of being a felon under their unjust expansion of a poorly written old law.  I'm ashamed that my government so thoroughly abuses its power.

Building a better stop sign

(Please excuse my poor art skills.  Someone else will have to refine the colors and sizes, etc.)

I have several new ideas a day.  This is just one of the ideas that swam by this morning.  I was intrigued enough to hold on and think it through.  I like it.

You recognize this object:

There is a clear purpose to this sign.  But after you stop there is a good deal of additional information that you need in order to proceed.  You are at an intersection.  What are the other lanes of traffic doing?  Are they stopping, too?  Are they yielding?

My idea is to add information about the other lanes of traffic to this sign in an obvious and easy-to-read manner. So look at this sign and tell me (in the comments) if you immediately understand it:


Simple, right?  Red means the lane is stopping.  Green means it is not stopping.  There is really only one other option, they might be yielding:


The sign has eight sides.  That gives us plenty of options to specify which direction the other lane is in.  Like in the above image the lane that is yielding is intersecting at a narrow angle on the right.  This is a Y-shaped intersection.

This information can be easily added via stickers.  We don't have to replace the existing stop signs.  We can just add the red, yellow, and green stickers to the sides.

Isn't that simpler and more intuitive than the little signs that get hung beneath that say, "Cross traffic does not stop", or "3-Way Stop"?  This has the added advantage of being universal.  You don't have to be able to read the local language to understand what is going on.

What do you think?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Religion in the workplace

A friend of a friend, Dr. Martin Gaskell, was discriminated against in the hiring process, and a lawsuit has ensued.  I've only heard one side of the story, but that side is very clear and seems air-tight.

Here is the trial notebook of the American Center for Law and Justice, containing their notes and views on the trial.  The judge's findings in the preliminary hearing were very enlightening:
  • The record contains “substantial evidence that Gaskell was a leading candidate for the position until the issue of his religion” became part of the search committee’s deliberations.
  • The head of the search committee wrote in an email to the Chair of the Physics & Astronomy Department that “no objective observer could possibly believe that we excluded Martin [Gaskell] on any basis other than religious . . .”
  • The Department Chair admitted “that the debate generated by Gaskell’s website and his religious beliefs was an ‘element’ in the decision not to hire Gaskell.”
  • One member of the search committee admitted that Gaskell’s “views of religious things” were “a factor” in his decision not to support Gaskell’s candidacy.
  • Another member of the committee, having discovered Gaskell’s website, warned fellow committee members that Gaskell was “potentially evangelical.”
  • The search committee head, anticipating a decision against Gaskell by his fellow committee members, wrote that “Other reasons will be given for the choice . . . but the real reason we will not offer him the job is because of his religious beliefs in matters that are unrelated to astronomy or to any of the other duties specified for this position.”
Here is the article that got Dr. Gaskell into trouble.  I've read the article, and he is clearly not a kook of any variety.  Some rumors have started, which say that Dr. Gaskell is a "young Earth creationist."  Anyone who repeats that has clearly not read the article.

Based upon our common friend and that article I assume that Dr. Gaskell is evangelical--meaning that he will share and defend his faith, rather than avoiding those types of conversations.  But that is not a crime, and cannot be considered in the hiring decision.

I know some Christians who are obnoxious in the way that they constantly talk about God and turn every conversation into a religious discourse.  Three altar calls a day, in the office, is just annoying.  That's not religion, it's inability to focus on work.  If a person had that sort of reputation, or if they tried to lead me in the sinner's prayer during the interview, then I wouldn't hire them either.

I'm not sure exactly what Dr. Gaskell is hoping to get from this suit.  I can't imagine he wants the job, and they probably already hired someone else anyway.  He will probably get some money.  But he will also get the reputation of a person who sues people who don't hire him.  That's going to make it harder for him to get a job elsewhere.

The university will certainly learn a lesson.  If nothing else they will learn to not leave a paper trail when they discriminate against a candidate.  I doubt that they will actually learn tolerance and good judgement--those sorts of things are not learned by losing lawsuits.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Julian Assange

I've been quiet on this guy.  I've been busy working on other things.  I've read the headlines and the interview published recently.  I'm not going to rehash anything you've seen elsewhere.

I'm not including any links in this article because there are serious problems with the media coverage on this guy--more on that below.  Julian is the internet's first real lightning rod, and I'm afraid that he will soon be it's first martyr.

Julian's idea is that the powerful (people/companies/nations) are abusing those without power, and that he can end the abuse if he exposes enough of the powerfuls' secrets.

I heartily agree with him that the powerful are abusing the powerless.  I'm not sure if Julian understands that this has been going on since the dawn of civilization, and that the abuse is trending down.  I don't think he cares about that.  I think he is only fixated on the current situation--which is pretty good by historical standards, but still quite awful in absolute terms.

Exposing the deceits and deceptions of the powerful will definitely hurt them.  And since I am powerless, at some level I am inclined to cheer that.  But I do not follow the chain of logic from hurting the powerful to improving the lives of the powerless. In fact, I have grave doubts that hurting the powerful will accomplish anything useful.

For example, the US government is powerful.  The US government is an easy target for Julian because it employs so many potential whistle-blowers, and it contains many potentially embarrassing secrets.  The best result that Julian can hope for is the utter collapse of the US government.  That seems to be the limit of his vision.  But what will actually happen if the US government collapses?  Will the world be better or worse off?


Total collapse is unlikely, even though it seems to be Julian's ideal goal.  A more likely outcome is (a) a diminishing of the power of the US government, (b) some sort of reforms to how the US government wields (abuses) it's power, and (c) some serious improvements in the way that the powerful guard their secrets.  Will that actually benefit the powerless?  I say no, it won't.  I have two reasons for that opinion:
1. Diminishing the power of the US government leaves a power vacuum that will be filled by someone else.  All of the candidates for filling that power vacuum have much worse track records of abuse.
2. The power abuse reforms will probably remain limited to the US government, but the improvements in secret-keeping will accrue to all of the powerful.

If I thought his actions would achieve his intentions then I would join his team.  But I am convinced that his actions will result in the opposite of what he intends.  So I must oppose him.

Attacking the US government in this way challenges it to defend itself.  It will establish laws, treaties, and technologies to protect itself.  Those laws and treaties will, unfortunately, protect all of the other powerful also.  We're only seeing the beginning of that.  The trumped-up rape charges are a sham.  Hopefully some whistle-blower will expose that particular abuse of power soon.  But it doesn't really matter what they grabbed him for.  Now they have him.

I imagine that the CIA (with the cooperation of every security service in the western world) is hacking every part of Julian's life while he cools his heels in isolation.  They will have all of his secrets before they release him.  If they are as good as they advertise then they will find his poison pill and delete it.  I'm not sure if Julian adequately planned for that, but I expect that he did.  In fact, I expect that the security services are walking into a trap that will expose their illegal hacking of Julian's life.

This type of whistle-blowing is going to increase.  The internet just makes the free-flow of information too easy.  Most of the journalists in the mainstream media are crying in their drinks that they don't have Julian's cajones and data.  That's why the mainstream media has cooperated with him so far.  Expect the powers-that-be to get their ducks in a row and put an end to that soon.

This ideal of activism is exactly what sends most journalists into that profession in the first place.  Expect serious journalists to buck the new world order that is coming for them, and leave for independent pastures.  Even if they throw Julian into Guantanamo and delete all of the secret data he has, another Julian will rise up soon enough.  The whistle-blowers are clearly willing to dish their dirt.

Right now the best discussions of wikileaks are happening out on the fringes of the internet where polite society fears to look.  Those are sites that I will not link for various reasons.  But the biggest reason is that I expect the US government to soon go into full attack mode against anyone who keeps a copy of the leaked data.  I don't have a copy, and I won't link to it because getting caught up in that mess is counter to my future plans.

If there were some way that Julian could have attacked smaller targets first, and built up to the more powerful targets later, then that strategy would have been better.  But there was no way to establish his bona-fides and launch his project on small targets.  I expect the next Julians to start smaller.

My own strategy is to develop alternatives to the abuse of power.  Democracy 2.0 is all about reducing the powerfuls' abuse of power.  But I'm coming at the problem from the opposite direction.  I'm avoiding challenging the powerful directly.  I'm keeping the discussion as hypothetical as possible.  I'm idealistic instead of accusative.

I do hope that Julian survives and learns to improve his strategy.  But I don't expect him to.  I expect the powerful to kill him.  Power corrupts, after all.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Their true colors

The Republican party has finally officially openly declared their priorities.  Guess what.  It's not you.

The lame duck Congress has several major issues that it needs to deal with.  The senate Republicans have announced that they will filibuster every bill other than an extension to the Bush tax cuts that includes all of the cuts.  If they were willing to accept only some of the cuts then they would have that bill passed already.  The Republican party is holding out for the cuts for the top income brackets.

One of the bills that they refuse to vote on until after the tax cuts is funding unemployment benefits.  Now I may be a little biased here, because my unemployment benefits have expired because they refused to pass the funding bill before they left for Thanksgiving.  I'll be getting my last unemployment benefits check in two weeks.

But the top income earners are going to get their tax cuts.

I understand the socio-economic theory.  The top earners have been successful, and the unemployed have not.  So the successful should be rewarded ahead of the unsuccessful.  Rewarding the unsuccessful first just encourages more unsuccess.  The top earners are more likely to spend their wealth and drive the economy.  The unemployed are merely going to pay their bills,which does not help the economy recover as much as new spending does.

I understand the theory.  I think it is probably mostly correct.

However, it is against my interests to vote for this theory.  I will do so no longer.

The problem with the two-party system is that I have no good alternative to support now.  The Democrats (and Tea Party) are fools and incompetent.  The Republicans are less foolish and less incompetent, but their policies are contrary to my best interests.  I am left no way to participate in the system.  So, from this moment on I am officially against the system.  The system left me no choice.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Arrest them!

There is a small minority of people who are arguing for the principles of the financial meltdown.  I've been part of the group for many months, for whatever my membership is worth.  Welcome to the party, Joseph Stiglitz, nobel prize winner in economics!

He has an interesting and thoroughly pragmatic take on the whole affair.  The long form is in this article.  The short form is that if we don't punish this behavior it will be repeated, and in larger doses.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The big trends



The life expectancy metric is obvious and clearly the best possible measure of health.

I would be happier with a wealth metric that better respected cost-of-living variations from place to place.  Clearly these numbers have been adjusted for inflation over time.  But a better metric would be something like percent of income spent on food.  The big trend would be similar, but the differences between the west and the rest would not be quite as large; I think.

If this video doesn't brighten your day then I have to question whether you have a heart and a brain.

The ways of the LORD

Bible study today included Psalm 128.  Verse 1 reads:
"Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in His* ways." (NIV)
I read two sources of blessing in this verse.  First, there is 'fear the LORD'.  Second, there is 'walk in His ways'.

Fear of the LORD is acknowledging that He exists, and that He acts in this world.  Fear recognizes His power and control over the universe.  Fearing the LORD is the beginning of a relationship with Him--you cannot have a relationship with Him if you deny that He exists.

There are real, tangible, benefits to a relationship with the LORD.  The LORD is active in the world, pouring blessings on those who love Him.

The ways of the LORD are attitudes, values, and behaviors; like the Judeo-Christian work ethic.  Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.  Hard work, balanced by rest and community involvement.  Compassion.  Honesty.  Investment and delayed gratification.  Servant leadership.  Responsibility.

These are all good things to believe in, strive for, and do.  Even independent of a relationship with God, justice, honesty, compassion, and the rest amount to the best possible philosophy for a person.  There are no guarantees.  And every person is fallible, and will fail to live up to their own ideals and values.  But of all of the possible targets that a person could aim for, this target is the one that will most often lead to the best results.

Even independent of God, this pattern of life just works best in this universe.  I believe that this is because He created this universe, and it just reflects His nature.  So His philosophy of life is the most in line with the way that the world works.

It is not what comes natural to a person.  We are all selfish and short-sighted.  We are all lazy.  We all seek to avoid unpleasant situations.  But when we can overcome our own natural impulses and live according to His principles, then we achieve better results.

I think that the natural consequences of this philosophy apply to groups as well as individuals.

There is a movement within the business community to do good.  I don't think this is a mere fad.  I think it is a long-term trend towards improving business ethics.  If you study the history of business then you will see that companies in earlier ages were significantly more corrupt than they are today.  Much of what we decry today as corporate evil is simply how business has been done for millenia.

Likewise, government has been trending away from evil demagoguery and towards real justice.  This movement has been slow and methodical (and uneven.)  Power in government has been getting more and more distributed for all of recorded history.  I look at this trend and see hope for humanity.

I had not put it into these terms until now, but Democracy 2.0 is an attempt to better implement the ways of the LORD within a secular society.  I am working to see the values of doing good gain a stronger hold in this world.  Justice.  Responsibility.  Honesty.  Community.  These are the cornerstones of Democracy 2.0.

I can't market it to a secular society as "the ways of the LORD."  But I can, I think, improve the lives of people by giving them better government.  I think I can win the arguments for the mechanics of this type of better government, based solely on the results that will come.

If I can improve peoples' lives, then I believe that I am fulfilling Jesus's instruction to care for those in need.


Am I abusing the text, or is this a valid application of this verse?


* The NIV does not capitalize the h in 'his', here.  I couldn't make myself type it that way, I had to capitalize it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The nuclear solution

(This post is entirely serious.  It might seem like sarcasm or irony, but it is not.  This is a serious proposal.)

I have a solution for the nuclear arms race problem.  It would require a more competent UN than we currently have, but I think that it is within reach.

The US should propose the following treaty at the UN (obviously it has to be fleshed out with more legalese and technical details.)

"Nuclear weapons pose a grave existential threat to humanity.  Any attempt to ban nuclear weapons is likely to start a new arms race using other weapons of mass destruction.  Therefore, we, the undersigned nations, commit to entirely eliminate all weapons of mass destruction and enforce verification methods to ensure that no more are produced.
 
* We will safely disable and destroy all weapons of mass destruction in our arsenal within one decade of this treaty being passed by the UN.
* We will closely safeguard all nuclear, biological, chemical, and other WMD components for as long as necessary until they can be safely destroyed.
* We will submit to any and all inspections by the UN's WMD inspection team, with the understanding that all inspection protocols apply to all nations equally.
* We will turn over to the UN WMD inspection team all credible information that we obtain about anyone attempting to build WMDs, including both citizens and non-citizens, both inside and outside of our borders.
* We will partner with all other nations to punish any nation that breaches this treaty.
- A nation that refuses to sign this treaty will be attacked and destroyed.
- A nation that refuses to submit to inspections will not be allowed to trade with any other nation.
- A nation that builds WMDs will be attacked in a targeted manner, to destroy the WMDs, the parties that created the WMDs (either private or public), and the government that allowed the WMDs to be created.
- A nation that uses WMDs will be utterly destroyed.
- A nation that lets a private party within their borders breach this treaty is guilty of breaching the treaty--a nation is responsible for the actions of the people within its borders.
- A nation that supports another nation in breaching this treaty will be equally guilty, and subject to all of the same punishments.
- A nation that plants false information about WMD production in another nation; or that supports WMD production within the borders of another nation, in order to get that nation in trouble; will be utterly destroyed."

I believe that this treaty would be effective if even a small number of nations ratified it.  The threat of conventional war, absent any other war-type provocations, would force other nations to ratify it and participate.  The date would slide for a while, as more nations ratified it and asked for more time to destroy their stockpiles.

If I were president, I would do this.

Double standard

If the Bush administration had done this then there would be marching in the streets.  But the Obama administration is given a free pass by the mainstream media.

The Center for Public Integrity is reporting that in the rush to hand out stimulus funds, the Obama administration took the expedient step of simply exempting recipient projects from most or all environmental regulations and oversight.

BP
Duke Energy
Westar Energy
Dupont

Seriously.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The heart

Bible study this morning was over a couple of the songs of ascent.  The last verse really struck me as one of those Old Testament verses that had little spiritual meaning to the original audience--the Hebrews, but has deep spiritual significance for Christians.  Psalm 126, verse 6:
"The one who weeps as he walks along, carrying his bag of seed, will certainly come in with a shout of joy, carrying his sheaves of grain."
I'm sure that is all true in the natural, physical, obvious sense.  But how much more true is it in light of Jesus' metaphors about the harvest of souls.

It makes me wonder.  Shouldn't we be more heartbroken about the eternal predicament that sinners are trapped in?  Would our witnessing be more effective if we were genuinely sorrowed about the fate that awaited them?

I think of a scene with a weeping prophet, mourning and crying as he shares the gospel and his audience rejects it.  His emotions are in line with the reality he professes.  He should be heartbroken if he truly believes that these people will suffer eternal separation from our heavenly Father.

Friday, November 19, 2010

It is all part of the plan

Obama inherited a pair of wars that he didn't like.  He pledged to get out of Iraq, and then had to backtrack on that promise once he was in office and really came to understand the situation.  As Bruce Bueno de Mesquita explained in The Predictioneer's Game, if American forces leave Iraq then Iraq will quickly become a puppet of Iran.

Letting Iraq become an Iranian puppet would be disastrous--Iraq would start making plans to do the same thing to Saudi Arabia in order to get control of the oil money.  If you dislike Obama then you probably think that he is afraid of taking the blame for that failure.  If you like Obama then you probably think that he recognizes the danger and accepted the lesser of the two evils--leaving the troops in Iraq.  I suspect that both sentiments are mostly true.

Obama is embarrassed and frustrated that he cannot get the troops out of Iraq.  He probably doesn't allow himself the comfort that he didn't really understand the situation when he made the promise during the campaign. He probably regrets the promise, but recognizes that he had to make it in order to get elected.  But I'm sure that he is still looking for a way to finally fulfill that promise.

So he is selling a massive amount of arms to Saudi Arabia in hopes that a real fighting force in Saudi Arabia will be enough to counter-balance Iran and keep Iraq independent after the US forces leave.

It's certainly not a bad idea.  It could work, though I am skeptical.  But he gets points for creativity.

The Saudis must be looking beyond the withdrawal of US forces and preparing for confrontation with Iran + Iraq.  Saudi Arabia has recently been much more interested in paying others to fight their battles for them.  After all, our ongoing war on terror is really just the externalization of the Saudi Arabian civil war.

Why you shouldn't become an archivist





This site, Xtranormal, has a software that will take your spoken words and add a movie.  The technology is so simplistic that it is funny.  The argument is biting and hysterical, in large part because of the monotonous computerized voices.

Grammar and communication

English is a spoken language.  Maybe all human languages are spoken*.  Writing is just an afterthought.  It's a poor second cousin to speaking, when it comes to communicating.

When you speak to someone in person you are able to watch them and hear the intonations in their voice.  Humor, sarcasm, hyperbole, empathy, and a whole range of other emotions are carried by non-verbal queues.  The speaker winces and you feel her pain, even if her words don't communicate pain.

In technology terms, spoken communication is a relatively wide communication channel.  The words are one channel.  The body movements are another channel.  The facial expressions are another channel.  The pitch of the voice is another channel.  The pacing of the words is another channel.  And the listener is able to communicate back across many of those same channels at the same time.

When we write we are restricted to one channel, and we get no feedback.  You can't see the tears in my eyes as I type.  You can't see how long I spent formulating that sentence.  You can't see the emphasis I placed on one word.  And I can't see the look of recognition in your eyes that tells me that you are understanding what I am typing.

Grammar is our crude attempt to insert some of the information from the non-verbal communication channels into the stream of words.

Commas indicate incomplete thoughts.  Periods indicate completed thoughts.  Repetition indicates emphasis.  Brackets and dashes indicate asides for humor, emphasis, empathy, or any number of reasons.

I struggle with that.  I think in ideas, concepts, and frameworks.  I can work out streams of factual words.  I have a hard time expressing my doubts, questions, empathy, confusion, certainty, sarcasm, etc....  I can add many words to clarify every emotional nuance, but the word channel gets overwhelmed and lost in a sea of descriptive flourishes and asides.

I think that this is a large part of the reason why modern writing is so bloated and boring.

Read any good non-fiction book published before 1960 and you will get one complete thought in every sentence.  You won't get that same thought again in the next sentence, or in a sentence in the next paragraph.  The books are generally shorter, but they convey a massive amount of information and ideas.

Read any good non-fiction book published in the last decade and you can easily skip most paragraphs without missing any points.  Authors feel compelled to repeat themselves over and over again.  I think that they are often trying to add all of the non-verbal nuances.  But they are mostly just repeating themselves too much and becoming boring.

I need a new grammar.  Emoticons fail, but they are a step in the right direction.  I need a simple single punctuation mark to indicate sarcasm.  I need a simple single punctuation mark to indicate that I am in pain.  I need a simple single punctuation mark to indicate that I am skeptical.  I need a simple single punctuation mark to indicate that I am exasperated.  (sigh)

I think that this is part of the reason why humans learn better from real life stories than from dry lists of facts.  This is where I would like to go as a writer.  I would like to learn how to translate my dry list of facts into compelling stories.

Aesop was clearly one of the greatest geniuses ever, not just because of his wisdom; but because he communicated that wisdom in stories that people would read and could understand.  Amazing.

The nearest thing I have seen in the modern era is 'The Art of Profitability' by Adrian Slywotzky.  Adrian told the story of a mentor teaching business profitability to a student.  Easy to read and understand.

Fiction has its own mechanisms for conveying emotion.  I'm not proficient with those yet, but I understand them.  I actually think that fiction has become lazy, too.  Too many authors tell you what a person is thinking instead of showing you the non-verbal queues as they speak.  In my fiction writing I endeavor to never tell you what a character is thinking.  Characters act on their thoughts and feelings, even if the act is merely a wince.  That's how people are used to perceiving their worlds and understanding people.

The other side of good fiction is that it has the strength to tell the truth in ways that other writing cannot.  I was struck by this early analysis of Aesop, by Apollonius of Tyana:
"he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events."

* I'm not the first person to argue that language is spoken first.  I just can't find the articles I remember right now.  If you are very interested in that discussion then you can start with this article.  It argues that conventional grammar is applicable only to written words, and that spoken words need to be managed by their own separate grammatical rules.  Same problem, but opposite perspective and solution.

Writing

I like to write fiction because it forces me to think new thoughts.

I like to write non-fiction because it forces me to get to know the things I think.

I'm working on my other blog.  I wrote many of the simple articles.  I got to a set of articles that I could not tease apart.  It's becoming a short book.  (sigh)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Further proof of the corruption in Washington

CNBC is reporting a study by a group called The Center for Responsive Politics about the wealth of members of Congress.

Members of Congress saw their net wealth increase 16% last year.  Average Americans saw their net wealth drop 3% last year.

Members of Congress tend to hold large cap major market stocks.  Which seems fine until you look at the conflict of interest that this creates when these people attempt to legislate regulations and limitations on these companies (this is just some of the interesting companies from the top of the holdings list):

  • GE (one division of which was at the heart of the financial crisis, and was a major recipient of bailout money.)
  • Bank of America (bailed out)
  • Goldman Sachs (bailed out)
  • JP Morgan Chase (bailed out)
  • Wells Fargo (bailed out)
  • Citigroup (bailed out)
  • Morgan Stanley (bailed out)
  • AIG (bailed out)
  • Pfizer (healthcare)
  • Johnson & Johnson (healthcare)
  • Merck (healthcare)

This conflict of interest is virtually impossible to get rid of with our current system.  We certainly cannot expect Congress to fix this problem.  We will have to fix it for them.

This is a large part of why I am working on Democracy 2.0.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The line has been crossed

If this report proves to be true (and given the website that is breaking the report this might not prove out) then the TSA and Department of Homeland Security have way overstepped their bounds.  According to the report the new aggressive pat-down procedure includes a special addendum for people wearing baggy clothes.  A TSA agent will put their hand into your underwear and directly inspect your genitals.

If you don't scream bloody murder at this invasion of privacy then you deserve the Orwellian hell that you life is about to become.  This must end.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I've solved the federal budget crisis

But I still can't find a job.  (sigh)

The New York Times has an interactive budget-balancer puzzle.  I've tried my hand at it (you can click the second link to see what I selected.)
38% savings from tax increases.
62% savings from spending cuts.

The shortfall is $418 for 2015, and I raised $537.  The shortfall is $1,355 for 2030, and I raised $1,805.  I did that by evaluating each proposal on it's merits and selecting the ones that I thought were good ideas.  I didn't look at the amounts each proposal saved.  I would funnel the additional savings to paying down debt.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid that the current two-party system is designed to generate results that no one wants.  So we will never get a fair or reasonable result from Congress, no matter who is in charge of what.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I love Jon Stewart

Funny guy.  Good perspective.  I think he actually tries harder to be fair and balanced than any "real" news program out there.  This interview made me love him more.

Come on, Jon.  Get out on the field.  Let's set up that 24-hours new channel dedicated to fighting corruption.  You, me, and Bill Moyers.  And maybe Jon Stossel.

More in-depth on the mortgage fraud crisis

A new deep article in Rolling Stone takes apart the mortgage fraud mess (warning: potty mouth.)
"You've heard of Too Big to Fail — the foreclosure crisis is Too Big for Fraud. Think of the Bernie Madoff scam, only replicated tens of thousands of times over, infecting every corner of the financial universe. The underlying crime is so pervasive, we simply can't admit to it — and so we are working feverishly to rubber-stamp the problem away..."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The stove of the future

I can't tell who is making this.  It might just be a video mock-up.  But it is pretty cool.  I can't embed the video, so click to watch, and then read the rest of my notes:

http://www.thatvideosite.com/video/the_william_a_glimpse_into_the_stovetops_future

This is a big step in the right direction.  Here's what they need to do in order to make a truly transformational product.

* Add a webcam to the vent-hood, looking down onto the stovetop.
* When you set a pot onto the stove, the webcam looks into the pot and identifies the contents (referencing a database that all stoves share.)
* On the little panel it asks you "is this fresh or frozen broccoli?" if it is unsure.
* If the pot is empty it asks you what you are heating the water for.  If the last time you heated water it was for spaghetti, then that is it's first guess this time.
* It asks you how you want the food cooked.  So for broccoli it would ask how tender you want it.  If it has done this dish for you before then it defaults to how you had it cooked last time.  If need be then it shows you pictures of broccoli in various stages of tenderness and lets you touch the picture you want.
* It asks you what time you want each pot done.
* If you have too little or too much water in the broccoli, then it tells you that, too.
* It has a voice that comes on and says "please come stir the broccoli", when it is time to stir.
* The webcam watches the pots and if something is about to boil over it turns down the heat.

Now that's a stove of the future.  All of the food arrives at the table at the same time and cooked perfectly.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

File it under funny

The Center for Tactical Magic has revived the ages-old tradition of placing curses on repressive and harmful organizations.  Their implementation is both hysterical and poignant.

Read it all the way through, especially if you have no background in witchcraft.

I do not believe in curses.  But I recognize the history and applaud the modern interpretation.  I'm almost tempted to stick a few of these, but I can't afford the gas to drive where the stickers really belong.

The church needs something like this.  I'll bet the Catholics have something that I'm just not aware of.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

What works and doesn't in eco-living?

I ran across this interesting article in the LA Times about what works and doesn't work in practical terms when it comes to ecologically-friendly living.  This looks to be a case of the implementation details mattering as much as the big strategy.  But it's good information, if you are interested in ecological living.

Monday, November 1, 2010

An interesting counter-point on the economy

I ran across this blog post cum letter to Ben Bernake.  The author is a researcher for an investment house.  He believes that Mr. Bernake is now solving the wrong problem because his research indicates that employment is about to improve greatly.

The article is worth the read if you care about the economy or employment.  It's long, but only because he sites so many data points.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Want




From the website:
"The Maverick is the true flying car: drivable on public roads with a civilian driver's license, and pilotable when airborne under S-LSA/E-LSA certification with a Sport Pilot license and Powered Parachute rating. Preparation for flight is quick and simple, thanks to our innovative wing deployment system, which also provides the Maverick maneuvering capabilities unique among powered parachutes."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Job search update

I'm looking for a business software start-up that needs to build their first services team.  I'm the person they need to build that team.

Business software means that I'm looking for a company that sells software to companies.

Services includes both technical support and professional services.  Most business software start-ups will decide they need technical support first, because the salespeople will get tired of doing technical support.  But some will decide that they need professional services first, because they can get paid for professional services (like training and implementation consulting.)

Here is my 'marketing plan', which describes the position/company that I'm looking for in more detail.

This is my resume.

This is my profile on LinkedIn.

This is my new blog.  I'm writing articles there that demonstrate my expertise in this field.

My resume and LinkedIn no longer connect to this blog.  Maybe some potential employer will find this one, but I doubt it.  Most people don't click the links that you put right in front of them, let alone go to Google to dig.

I'm going to empty my brain into that new blog for the next few weeks.  I'm not going to work on anything else until I run out of ideas for what to post there.  When that is done then I'll go back to one of my other side projects.  Posting on this blog will probably be light for the next few weeks, because I'll be writing on the new blog.

Please let me know what you think about the new direction, resume, etc.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Kids say the darndest things

Lincoln decided that he wanted to write a letter the other day.  He got out paper and then made Christy take dictation.  After they finished the first letter he made her write another.  Then he colored in some pictures to fill in the "blind" parts--the parts where there was nothing to see.

Laura and Rachel are two of our cousins that we see regularly.  Lincoln is 4.  I don't think he meant 'like' in the Junior High sense of the word.



What is prayer?

My wife asked me if I knew any good books about prayer.  As a matter of fact, I do.  But I asked what sort of book on prayer she wanted--what question was she trying to answer.  She had an impressive list of questions.

How come God sometimes changes His mind, like in the story of the good king Hezekiah?  How come sometimes He answers the prayer of one person, and sometimes He only answers after many people pray?  We are instructed to go to the elders for prayer when we are sick, but why do the elders' prayers count more than my own?  Is there a formula for how and when we are supposed to share our prayers?

Well, I'm in the process of building a shared prayer journal website, called Pray with Friends.  It turns out that I have some ideas on answers to these questions.  I think best while writing (and editing the dumb things I write in my first draft.)  So I'm writing my thoughts out here.  I'll also include a few books I liked at the end, for further study.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

We are

Yesterday I had an idea for a new novel.  Last night I couldn't go to sleep because I couldn't get that novel out of my head.  The novel is about human colony ships flying out to earth-like planets that have no life and releasing various bacteria to start the terraforming process.

Today I found this fascinating article about bacteria will change your view of the world.  Apparently life is dramatically more complicated than we were taught in school.  How's this strike you:
"Strictly by the numbers, the vast majority — estimated by many scientists at 90 percent — of the cells in what you think of as your body are actually bacteria, not human cells."
It gets better.  The article is long, but well worth your time.

Apparently bacteria research will be a high-growth field for the next few years.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Climategate is not dead

I have discussed climategate several times before.  The issue seems to have fallen out of favor with the media, and I have ignored it because I didn't have any links or new information.

Now one of the most respected physicists of the last 50 years has resigned from the prestigious American Physical Society in protest of the cover-up going on over climategate.  His accounts sure look like something other than science going on at the formerly prestigious APS.

More rumblings on the street

If you care about the economy then you must read The Big Picture every day.  After the election TBP will surpass Drudge as the single most important source of news as the lawsuits against the banks hit the street and the financial services sector's stock take a beating.

I won't copy and paste their excellent work today in rounding up the current state of the mess.  It's unclear whether the big scary lawsuits will hit before or after the election.  This is the only major issue on the American radar where the Democrats are more in synch with the public than the Republicans.  So I would not be surprised to see them turn up the heat on this issue as a way to get some favorable press running up to the election.  Go read the round-up on TBP.

This is the only time when the will of the people matters more than the will of the donors.  About three weeks out of every two years.  Let this be a warning to other industries.  Don't get yourselves in trouble during the last month of the election cycle.

Pattern matching

The video is interesting.  The X-Files background music detracts from the serious nature of the report--a poor editing decision by the El Paso TV station.  I was ready to dismiss this out of hand until they reached the side-by-side comparison of the lights over New York and the lights over El Paso.




I approach life with the assumption that I don't know everything.  I form a framework of what I think is true, and then I try very hard to allow new information to change my framework when it doesn't fit.

I can think of only four possible explanations:
1. Visitors have arrived from another planet.
2. A government is testing some new top secret weapon.
3. A new natural phenomenon has just begun to occur.
4. Somebody is playing a hoax.

I am inclined to dismiss the first three explanations as being too incredibly unlikely.  Long-distance space travel is just plain hard.  Governments have not demonstrated the competence to build technology leaps this large.  And any government that was competent enough to do that wouldn't show it off in the sky above New York City.  And any natural phenomenon would not occur for the first and second times in the same week, like this.

The more times this happens the more likely we are to get an explanation.  My guess is that it has to happen at least ten times or we will not get an explanation.

If I were the marketing director for a new movie about aliens landing on earth, this is exactly the sort of viral marketing campaign I would do.  I wouldn't actually put the lights in the sky.  I would just film realistic crowd scenes of people looking at the sky and then use photoshop to fake the sky images.

That said, the video is still spooky and unnerving.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Evolution is chaos!

New Scientist's recent cover article is a fascinating discussion of some new meta-analysis of several trains of study in evolution.  It's not too thick with technical terms.  The results are interesting and fascinating.  Scientists seem to be disproving one of Darwin's big assumptions.

The really really short version is that evidence appears to indicate that climate change (and similar external events) do not cause evolution.

Plants, animals, and insects all migrate when the climate changes.  And evolutionary changes do not correlate with those migrations.  Evolutionary changes occur completely randomly, probably driven exclusively by internal DNA defects.

This leaves a big hole in evolutionary theory.  DNA defects have shown no ability to perform the big changes, like the development of the eye or the lung.

It also makes it impossible to predict evolutionary change going forward.

Interview with an Economic Hitman

I just ran across a wide-ranging interview with John Perkins.  John is the author of Confessions of an Economic Hitman.  Confessions is one of the best books I've ever read about how the world really works.  I rank it right up there with Michavelli.  Think of it as a tell-all book from one of Michavelli's modern henchmen.

If you want to talk about what's wrong with the world today, or about the battle between the wealthy and the poor, then you have to read Confessions.  And you will get a good taste of John Perkins by reading that interview.

This is how you fix Congress

One of my aunts just sent me this chain email.  I have a policy against forwarding them, because I know that many of them are spawned by spam marketing companies who use them to harvest email addresses.  But this one made me laugh, so I decided to post it.  This is unedited.

"
Congressional Reform Act of 2010
1. Term Limits.

  12 years only, one of the possible options below..

  A. Two Six-year Senate terms
  B. Six Two-year House terms
  C. One Six-year Senate term and three Two-Year House terms

2.  No Tenure / No Pension.

A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.
  

3.  Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security.

All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately.  All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people.
 

4. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

5. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise.  Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.


6. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

7. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

8. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/11.

The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen.  Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves
.

""

It's a good start.  Most of these are too vague to be enforced.  Number eight would probably qualify as an ex poste facto law, and would not hold up in court.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The other shoe is about to drop

The financial crisis was bad.  Round two will be worse.

This crisis was caused by bankers who made risky mortgage loans and then re-sold them as safe investments (CDOs.)  In round one the banks got bailed out and the people on Main Street were thrown a bone (HAMP, which I can personally attest is a huge sink-hole of bureaucracy and incompetence.)  In round two the investors who bought the CDOs will get thrown a bone while the banks get bailed out again.  Or the market as we know it will not survive.

The banks engaged in a risky game of fraud.  They gave mortgages to people who could not afford them, and then repackaged and sold those risky mortgages with AAA credit ratings.  Investors bought those CDOs thinking that they had little risk.

The banks were in a hurry to make as many of these mortgages as they could.  And the loans didn't really meet lending standards anyway.  So the banks didn't actually do their paperwork properly on those mortgages.

Borrowers have been aware of this for years.  Many people have successfully fought foreclosure by arguing that their bank could not show that they have the right to foreclose because they didn't have the paperwork showing that they owned the property.

In an effort to counter that argument, banks have been arguing to streamline the foreclosure process.  They have taken to having a "qualified" employee evaluate the paperwork and sign a legal affidavit saying that the paperwork is all in order.  They succeeded in getting some courts in some jurisdictions to accept their signed summary and foreclose on property without demonstrating the actual paperwork in court.  This practice is now being called "robosigning" because there is strong evidence that these employees are not looking at any paperwork whatsoever and are bald-faced lying to these foreclosure courts.

We know this because there have been numerous cases where the summary documents were quite wrong, and banks have foreclosed on the wrong homes.  Foreclosure agents have literally picked locks and entered homes, with genuine legal paperwork in hands from the foreclosure courts, where the home in question was owned outright by the person living there.  They didn't have a mortgage, and they certainly didn't have a mortgage with the bank that had foreclosed on their home.

Lawsuits followed, of course.  The depositions from those lawsuits revealed the robosigning practice.  And that led directly to the current moratorium on foreclosures for many banks.

The moratorium has caused the investors to get quite nervous.  They have started reviewing the paperwork that the banks gave them.  What are they finding?  The second shoe.

Surprisingly enough, the banks who did shoddy paperwork on the mortgages also did shoddy paperwork on the CDOs that they sold.  So instead of buying tranches of secure mortgages, the investors bought tranches of incomplete paperwork that fail to meet the standards of being "mortgages" in a court of law.

At this very moment investors are consulting their lawyers to determine what to do.  If all investors could somehow agree to not sue the banks for fraud then everyone and everything would be fine.  As long as their is no lawsuits from the investors' side then the banks will find a way to conduct business as usual and will pay those investments in a reasonable manner.  But that is a classic prisoners' dilemma game--a scenario where the first one to defect wins.  Someone will understand that and sue--any minute now.

These lawsuits will cause a huge problem for the banks.  There isn't any way to look at the physical evidence and not see systemic, intentional, wide-spread, large-scale fraud.  Trillions of dollars worth of fraud.  Their only defense is pleading gross negligence and incompetence.  And no one will buy that defense.

The only hope that the banks have is that the federal government still has their claws dug in.  In some of these cases the federal government will be listed as a co-defendant because the federal government owns a large stake in the bank.  And the federal government has a long history of writing ex post facto laws to legalize past bad behavior, especially for the banks.

The moral dilemma here is that convicting those banks of fraud and punishing them appropriately will crash the economy.  The 1930s will look fun by comparison.  Thirty percent unemployment.  Trillions of dollars will be lost.  No one will benefit except the lawyers.  We would genuinely be better off if we could avoid that fate.  But the only way to do it would be to let the crooks get away with fraud.

If you can think of a solution that brings the crooks to justice, keeps the investors from losing everything (even pennies on the dollar would work), and doesn't crash the market, then please speak up.

Do you care about the internet?

Cory Doctrow has a brilliant op-ed in The Guardian concerning freedom, copying, paying artists, and the many bone-headed attempts to police the internet.  If you care about the internet then you need to read this article.

I particularly like this quote:
"copying isn't going to get harder, ever."
That sentence fragment is fairly important.  If you are hoping to never live in an Orwellian nightmare then you need to digest and understand that point.

Do you get the internet?

Take this little test.

If you lol then you understand the internet.

If you don't get it then don't fear.  It's not that important.  It's just the internet.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What's in a name?

I'm a facts and figures guy.  I'm no good at art.  I can recognize attractive, but I can't create it.  And I feel like I'm no good at naming things, either.  Picking a name is just too much of an artistic and marketing exercise.  So....

I'm working on a project that needs a name.  I've researched and come up with a list of possible choices.  I need your feedback on which name you like best.  You are also welcome to suggest other names.  But, frankly, all of the good names are taken.

What It Is
(Feel free to skip this part if you think you don't want to get too caught up in the details.)

Representative democracy is a form of government where the people elect representatives, and the representatives write the laws and manage the government.

Direct democracy is a form of government where the people debate each and every decision themselves--everyone is involved in every decision.

There are dozens of other variant forms of democracy.  Anticipatory, Athenian, Christian, Consensus, Constitutional, etc.  Each of these different forms contains a different set of rules concerning:
* Who makes the decisions (laws, treaties, government spending, etc.).
* How the decisions get made.
* The goal of the decisions.

I'm designing a new form of democracy.  (Yes, this is an extension of Democracy 2.0.)  The big idea is to get rid of the corrupting influence of money, and to put the people back in charge of the government.

This is NOT about liberal or conservative policies.  This is only about the way in which the decisions get made.  I think that debating policy is a waste of time as long as wealthy individuals, companies, and special interest groups can buy whatever policies or loopholes they want.

In my mind representative democracy has several weaknesses, which I hope to address:
* Money corrupts the system, and all of the representatives.
* The representatives are left in charge of their own rules of conduct and ethics.
* There is no check or balance against the government assuming additional powers.
* The system is very rigid and hard to change.
* The system does not respond well to the peoples' changing priorities.
* The results of the decisions are not measured against any goals or reviewed in any organized way.
* There are too many laws, and the laws are too complicated to be understood by average people.

Here are a few goals and ideas that I have for the project:
* Obviously the good parts of our government will be kept: equal protection under the law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc.
* People vote their goals and priorities, which drives the decision-making process.
* Very strong separation of powers and checks and balances.
* Every decision has measurable goals.
* Every decision is regularly reviewed and changed if the goals are not being met.
* The decision-making process itself is monitored and modified as new ideas and technologies become available.
* Strong protections in place to ensure that every law is understandable to average people and that everyone has ample time to review and comment before the law is passed.

Additionally, I'm not going to design the new system all by myself.  I'm going to launch a web-based project where anyone can give their ideas and add their input.  I'll seed the discussion with some of my own ideas.  And I'll moderate the process, to keep everyone on task.  But, ultimately, the crowd will make the final decisions on the design.

Naming Parameters
This is a project to design a new form of democracy.  So we are naming the project and the new form of government at the same time.  If the new form of democracy is called Bobble then the project will be called the Bobble Democracy Design Project.  Or something like that.

I have to be able to get a domain name for the project (and ideally for the new form of democracy.)  So, if we go with Bobble, then I will want to grab these domains:
bobbledemocracy.org
bobbledemocracyproject.org
thebobbledemocracyproject.org
bobbledemocracydesignproject.org
thebobbledemocracydesignproject.org
bddp.org (or .net)

(Yes, there are many 4-character domain names available in the .net and .org extensions.  bddp.org and bddp.net are both available, for instance.  I would only put up a site and email on the short domain name, and I would put simple redirect pages up on all of the others.)

This means that I can't use a name that is already in use, even if it isn't exactly a "form" of democracy.  For instance, reformdemocracy.org is taken.  Lots of good names are taken.  Many of them are just held by squatters who want you to pay $10,000 for the neat domain name.  I can't do that.

Some of the good names are taken by similar projects.  These projects have established branding and history, so I would have to fight them for the name or carry their baggage if I wanted to use that name.  opendemocracy.org is an example.  They are doing some good things to highlight civil rights abuses and stuff like that.  I'd like to see them participate in my project.  But I can't fight them for their name.

My Ideas
I've vetted all of these to make sure that there isn't already someone else using the name.  These are listed in no particular order.

Fair Democracy


Results-Driven Democracy


Adaptive Democracy


Incorruptible Democracy


Adaptable Democracy


Quest Democracy


Principled Democracy


Pragmatic Democracy


Humanitarian Democracy


Systematic Democracy


Planned Democracy


Honest Democracy


Evolving Democracy


Honorable Democracy


Equitable Democracy


Experimental Democracy


Modular Democracy


Scientific Democracy


Vote
Either comment below or send me an email.  If you have another idea I would love to hear it.