Friday, December 09, 2016

Greed, oligarchy and Marx

Earlier we looked at electoral post-mortems by some on the Right. And last time, we scrutinized the whole range of Electoral College possibilities, in case there turn out to be forty+ republican electors who are simultaneously patriotic, moral and sane... which these fellows deem to be highly unlikely.

Only now let’s do a sudden veer! Taking you into an unexpected direction by citing a name you thought relegated to the dustbin of history. It seems likely that, during the centennial year of his greatest victory, we'll be hearing more of him.

Karl Marx. Nothing puzzled the father of tendentious-socialist theory, more than the USA. Every time America seemed about to tip into his scenario of the "next pohase" - capitalist-oligarchic rule - and from there, on trajectory for communist revolution, we somehow used politics to institute reforms, restoring health to the middle and staunching any thought of class warfare. 

The adjustments made under Teddy Roosevelt and others confused Marx, because politics wasn't supposed to be able to do that. Did this constitute “buying off” the working class? If so, later (Franklin) Rooseveltean Reforms did it even better. So well, in fact, that the entire Baby Boomer generation grew up unable even to picture in their minds something taken for granted by nearly all other generations across 4000 years: class war.

To be clear, the notion of class war was second nature to almost all of our ancestors.  Peasants would hide their harvests from the feudal lord or the confiscating commissar. Those exploiters would swoop in and take whatever they liked, sometimes spurring fierce resistance, even revolution. Marx gained a following because of this expectation. Only in the FDR era and especially post-war, did a generation rise up that took for granted the very opposite. That the rich are just like us. And that a lower middle class worker is just a future rich-dude, whose ship hasn't yet come in.

Despite these American Setbacks, Marxists were confident that such alternative paths would ultimately fail. Oligarchs cannot leave any social contract alone. Greed is a central human attractor state, as is feudalism. The Rooseveltean compact would be betrayed, and Marx described how.

He wrote of how elites stir populist resentment among the lumpen proletariat, using racism and machismo to divert and distract. The Prussian “junkers” lords thought they were clever by supporting (gleefully at first, then to their regret) fascism in 1930s Germany. As French nobles did in the 1780s, and Roman Senators, much earlier. (As if aristocrats are ever truly as smart as they think they are.)

That pattern was vastly more common than our recent experiment in politically fine-tuned class peace. Marxists felt confident that the savvy AFL-CIO negotiators who erased class conflict in the 1950s would be replaced by lesser minds, who would take their eye off the ball. 

So, is Marx coming back into pertinence? As a topic at least, if not inspiration?

We need to step back and look at the big picture, as Dr. Sally J. Goerner does, in her recent Evonomics piece: Why Trump-Sanders Phenomenon Signals an Oligarchy on the Brink of a Civilization-Threatening Collapse: Oligarchies tend to win, except when society enacts effective reforms. Her historically verified assertion: “…oligarchies always collapse because they are designed to extract wealth from the lower levels of society, concentrate it at the top, and block adaptation by concentrating oligarchic power as well.” 

Our difficult task, maintaining a civilization of empowered citizenship -- the "diamond-shaped social structure" about which I often speak – requires constant effort, not only to fight each generation’s oligarchic putsch, but also to avoid the opposite calamity of monolithic socialism… which has always led to just more feudalism under a different vocabulary. (Just because Marx had insights, that did not make him right.)

Our quandary was well described by the famous historians Will and Ariel Durant, in The Lessons of History.  

"…the unstable equilibrium generates a critical situation, 
which history has diversely met by legislation redistributing wealth
or by revolution distributing poverty.”  

Goerner suggests that: 
   “We have forgotten the lessons of the 1760s, 1850s, and 1920s. We have let Economic Royalists hijack our democracy, and turn our economy into their money machine. Now the middle class is evaporating, infrastructure is crumbling, and pressure is reaching a breaking point. Anti-establishment candidates are on the rise, and no one knows how things will turn out.

“What then shall we do? The first step is to remember that our times also hold a positive possibility – a transformation akin to those which followed 1776, 1865, and 1945. Honest reformers from education and agriculture to energy and finance are already reinventing their fields.”

The irony in all this is that our greatest need, at present, is not redistribution of wealth. (Though note that the American Founders seized and redistributed up to a third of all the land in the original 13 colonies. And it could come to that, again.) 

No, we can probably accomplish enough of a reset simply through transparency! Elsewhere, I describe how simply making open and clear who owns what would enable all modern systems to work better, even without any modifications in law. Certainly without any increase in taxes.

But back to us aging, grumpy white male boomers, who pulled this year's latest, nasty trick on our far-better children.  The Trumpists want to "Make America Great Again," without ever specifying when that "again" refers to. But the implication is they're thinking of the 1950s, when the Greatest Generation that overcame Depression and Hitler contained communism and built vast-productive enterprises that made us wealthy enough to turn our attention to old-bad habits like racism. Got that right?

Except the Greatest Generation did all that under high, New Deal tax rates. Labor unions were were strong and admired. And the wealthiest Americans were only a few hundred times as rich - effectively - as average folks. And the Greatest Generation's favorite living human was a person reviled by all right wing media... Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Yeah. Then.  

== Proof that the left contains loons, as well ==

Okay, so I raised the issue of once and future terms like communism.That doesn't mean I want it back!  It is a horrendously simpleminded religion that ignore everything from Darwinian selection to biology to how actual human beings function.  Indeed, one of the right's many crimes is the way that have started to make class war pertinent again, elevating an oligarchic caste whose very stupidity ensure's Marxism's return.

Does today's left contain dogmatic partisans? There are stunning rationalizations that the Democrats had abandoned the middle class, like this article, in which every paragraph makes a statement that is either misleading or false. Refuted in this piece, which almost get it right.

No, the chief difference between the parties is that the Democrats contain some far-left loons. While today’s entire American right wing consists of such. There is all the world’s difference between “contains” and “consists,” as well as between “far” and “entire."

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't glance, occasionally in all directions. Anyone who has spent time on a university campuse knows that PC bullies and maniacs do exist.  They provide the ammo that Fox has used to tar the vast majority of American liberals – the last clade of progress-loving, positive-sum, pragmatic-reforming citizens that remains in the republic. Moreover, while we may be allies with the Left, we should never take our eyes off them. Indeed, making that distinction will always be our first step toward winning back our confederate neighbors. Persuading them to choose to be Americans again.

== Speaking of the economy ==

It’s not just urban vs. Rural. Or race or gender or even the top correlate - education level. And yes, the almost three million more voters who picked Hillary Clinton, smashing all records for public will, stymied by both cheating and the Electoral College.  

The strongest correlation appears to be wherever economic activity is vibrant, healthy and vigorous. From: Donald Trump lost most of the American economy this election, in The Washington Post:  

“The divide is economic, and it is massive. According to the Brookings analysis, the less-than-500 counties that Clinton won nationwide combined to generate 64 percent of America's economic activity in 2015. The more-than-2,600 counties that Trump won combined to generate 36 percent of the country's economic activity last year. Clinton, in other words, carried nearly two-thirds of the American economy,” writes Jim Tankersley.

One can take it several ways… that the outcome reflects comeuppance for elite snobbery toward Regular America who’s been snubbed and left behind. Or else, that Red America was taking revenge, for the fact that their children – the brightest members of every high school graduating class – go hurrying to the America of lights, universities, entrepreneurship and all that.

It's cultural. 

== A human lifetime ==

And finally... It isn’t just NATO and Pax Americana and global trade that made the last 70 years the best in the history of our species. The world and national systems crafted by geniuses like George Marshall also gave one entire, massive generation of Americans a social order that was incredibly flat by historical standards, as well as increasingly inclusive, with each passing decade. So flat (as described above) that we boomers were the first ever to imagine that ‘class war’ was permanently behind us. A delusion that’s been exploited expertly by the folks at Fox.   

And yet, looking back to George Marshall’s era from the Time of Trump, I have an even deeper concern:

What will happen to America’s crown jewel — our 70 year dominance in creativity, R&D and science? With almost every American scientist - along with nearly all the teachers, economists, medical doctors and all the other knowledge castes - deeply fearful about a Trump presidency, there is one clade that seems to be jubilant over his victory. 

No, it is not the traditional republican oligarchy. (Rupert Murdoch has good reasons to fret, that we’ll get into later.)

No, the delighted ones appear to be — foreign despots

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Too fast! All the weird Electoral College possibilities.

None of us has ever seen anything like this. It seems proof that we live in some weird simulation. Or Robert Heinlein's predicted "Crazy Years." Or else that I was right about every century having its true upheaval-beginning approximately in its 15th year.

This time, let me entertain you with just a few politically redolent points, that should shock, amuse and make you cry.

1- Don't expect salvation from the Electoral College. Yes, there'll be more defections-of-conscience than ever before. Some electors are talking out options, as a "college" should. Like the "Hamilton Electors" campaign attempting to match Clinton and Trump electors, combining to choose another republican. A sane-moderate one, like maybe John Kasich. (Though I swallow bile, calling Kasich "moderate" only by comparison.) 

Go look up the Hamilton Electors campaign, though its chances of organizing 270 DP and GOP electors, in consensus? Absolutely nil.

It might have been possible, if support built in the right places for my own great idea... getting some billionaire to offer an all-expense-paid actual meeting of the Electoral College, at some resort - for the first time in 240 years - letting them talk it out, free of outside interference. Under those conditions, a "Hamilton" solution to elect someone else might have been negotiated. Too late, I guess. Ah, judgement, thou art fled...

2- Forget getting the EC to select someone else. But there is another, less-impossible scenario. It's an entirely different story for just enough GOP electors to abstain or vote for a protest candidate, and thus deny Trump his 270 majority. 

Care to join a betting pool, on how many Republican Electors will defect from Donald Trump, because those electors are at some level moral or sane? So far... one Trump Elector from Texas already resigned for religious reasons. Another Texas elector just announced that he cannot vote for Trump and will choose someone else...

(Late News: Another group has come forward, offering to pay all legal bills of Electors who exercise their conscience, and providing confidential legal advice to any who are thinking of doing so.)

...though it still seems virtually impossible there will be the critical mass of 40 honorable patriots needed. That required number could be much smaller, if recounts flip Wisconsin and Michigan... but that's a fantasy. In fact, here's a thought: Ohio's electors could almost do it all by themselves, voting for Kasich. So he'd be in round two...

...which would take place in the House of Representatives. Note that if we got forty GOP abstentions -- or twenty, if Michigan flips --  that would throw it into Paul Ryan's lap, making him take responsibility. A delight in its own right watching him squirm!

Now, the House is limited to choosing among the top three EC vote getters, so if the defectors only abstain, that gives us either Trump again (possibly with some concessions) or perhaps President Pence. (And ponder Trump getting Senate nod to be VP, as a sop to his mob? Oh, the sci fi scenarios spin out!  After all, we are in the Matrix, not a reasoning world.)

Only then, why not a conspiracy scenario? Thirty or forty GOP Electors vote for Paul Ryan, putting him in the top tier. The House then chooses Ryan. We get Bushite factotum-horrors in Ryan's cabinet who will be - or seem - more adult/moderate, or at least not the screeching harridans DT is choosing. And the Trumpists go berserk. We get a wave of Timothy McVeighs. So, maybe the House cuts a deal with Trump, after all.

So, have I laid it out for you?  Aw heck. Also see a fun, informative and interesting graphic-based tutorial about how the Electoral College warps the public will. See especially the Donald Trump quotations at the end. There have been times when he's very insightful! Like when he declared relentlessly "this election is rigged." Boy, was it.

== A very special possibility ==

 Oh, yeah. 

If the recounts find proof there's been real, bigtime voting machine fraud, then everything rips wide open.  

In which case, it's time to go to the Court and demand something never seen in US history. A new vote.

Biden-Sanders 2017.  Just sayin'

== More tidbits on our Crazy Year ==

All right, none of that is going to happen.  Believing it just sets you up for another depression, kids. Alas, this phase of America's recurring confederate fever will not pass so quickly.

And on that note -- more insanity.

3-  Those of you who have both a sense of justice and more than two neurons to rub together - in other words folks who aren't participating in the cult's war on every knowledge profession - please do look at the latest from Lawrence Lessig -- The Equal Protection argument against "winner take all" in the Electoral College -- on why the Dems should file before the Supreme Court on the very same basis that the GOP used to push G.W. Bush into the presidency, in 2000.  Only this year offers a much stronger case than that was.  One simple decision, based on justice, would forever ensure the Electoral College is less out of whack from the people's will.

...and see where I made the same argument - with less legalese erudition - almost a decade ago.

4- At last, someone offers a $100K reward for anyone bringing forward conclusive evidence of election fraud. I've begged for this. The reward should be 10X larger (with help from a zillionaire), plus offers of immunity, hero status and talk show gigs. Oh, and whistleblowers reap 20% of whatever the U.S. gets, when conspiracies are nailed!  Crowdfund this, asap.

5- A recent report by the Centre for Strategic Communications, a Kremlin-connected think tank, neatly summarised Vladimir Putin’s ambition as: World Conservatism’s New Leader’.

6- President-elect Donald Trump plans to nominate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to be attorney general of the United States.  Sen. Sessions, who is a proud white supremacist, has declared that “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and plans to fight states-rights efforts to end criminalization.  How many of these will it take for the (Grateful) Dead-Heads to wake up that they've been backing the wrong party?

7- It turns out that income is not the main determinant of where the white vote went for Donald Trump. It was level of education. The more of it you had – as analyzed on 538 -- the stronger your tendency to vote for Hillary Clinton. Sure, it's old news that Fox has waged war against all knowledge professions, an obsession that will hit a wall when they try this on the Intelligence Services and the U.S. Military Officer Corps.

Okay, at risk of sinking below adult level. (We may have to, folks). Trump got 230 of his 280 electoral votes from states with the most obese adult population. Look at the maps yourselves. TX, OK, KS, NE, SD, ND, IA, MO, AR, LA, MS, AL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, OH, IN, PA, WV.  
There was a movie about this. Exactly this. We just never expected it to come true in our lifetimes.  

8- Fox News, which inflicted this mania upon us, is now trying for equivalence by coining the term "alt-left." How stupid!  Their narrative has always been that "all liberals are the same." All progressive-minded citizens - the majority of Americans - are PC bullies screeching socialism and guilt trips. Commies who cannot be negotiated with. Ever. 

Only this new narrative of theirs says the opposite! By separating out the (admittedly) crazy fringe of PC bullies and calling them "alt-left," Fox admits what any sane person knew -- that that left-fringe never controlled the Democratic Party. The way alt-right utterly controls the GOP.

9-  Notwithstanding futile calls for recounts, this is a problem that needs relentless attention over a matter of years, not weeks. The place where we need to act is at the level of state governments, where the confederacy has been quietly seizing power for decades. And thus controlling the purchase and administration of the voting machines that empowered this technologically-propelled coup-d’etat.

10- Finally (for this roundup), there's the “sore winner” syndrome: Why are Donald Trump’s supporters still so angry?” So asks Heather Parton on Salon. “Has any president-elect ever been asked to reassure the American people that they needn’t be afraid of him and his followers? It’s astonishing. Trump’s lack of understanding about why they are afraid is even more so… but Abraham Lincoln understood.”

To understand what makes them mad – as in insane – read this speech, in his own words, by Trump’s new master strategist, Breitbart maestro of the alt-right Steve Bannon.  There is no place for any of us in his world. 

Again, this will only resolve when we play hardball. Do at least this. Yes, I am talking to you.

Friday, December 02, 2016

More Marvels from Space!

Time to take a breather to recall we're still a magnificent, outward-looking, scientific civilization.  Though I will add a time-sensitive political note, at the end. Especially for all you brainy folks who pin your hopes on salvation by the Electoral College.  Only now...

...on to wonders of Space!

Breathtaking....See this spectacular composite image of Pluto from NASA's New Horizons probe. Then consider: this imagery was taken in blackness deeper than any night you ever knew, amid lifeless, bitter cold. And see more gorgeous Pluto pix and Charon’s mysterious (now explained) red polar caps!

The planet is fully tidal-locked with its big moon, Charon, showing only one face to each other. The heart-shaped region Tombaugh Regio (I once met Clyde Tombaugh) is exactly opposite Charon.  Read what this seems to imply… including a possible sub-surface ocean.

Now take this note of consolation: You are a member of a nation and civilization that does this sort of thing. We did this. We do this.

Remember that. Let it gird and support you.

Water plumes from Europa’s south pole! This suggests that the moon’s vast ocean may be closer to the surface than we thought and might be sampled without having to melt or drill our way down. (At NASA's NIAC we are funding some weird-cool ways to get science done there._

See the latest op-ed by Ed Lu of the B612 Foundation, which aims to detect all the potentially Earth threatening asteroids. An important topic! Especially since we might also mine these for resources! (Disclaimer: I am on their advisory board.) 

Good bye RosettaThe Rosetta probe, which has orbited Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for two years, has collided with the comet. Thanks for proving my doctoral thesis! 

Don't miss this great article from the New Yorker on the OSIRIS-REx mission to sample an asteroid.

== More on Mars and the Moon ==

Hot news from Mars! Radar inspection of Utopia Planitia revealed a deposit of water ice – as much as in Lake Superior – in a relatively flat, low latitude region the size of New Mexico. The layer ranges in thickness from 260 feet to 560 feet (80 to 170 m) and is made up of 50 to 85 percent water ice.  

A fascinating re-examination of results from the 1976 Viking Lander on Mars, the only one to explicitly look for life, which gave us ambiguous results. This new paper suggests that maybe Viking found life, after all.  

Back to the Moon? The Bushes & co. made a repeat of Apollo the centerpiece of their space ambition. It became GOP dogma to join Russia, China, Japan, Europe, India and several billionaires, all flocking to return to a sterile ball without any near-term usefulness or interest by scientists. Now, we see indications that the Trump administration will drop all Obama Era endeavors aimed at the fantastic riches to be found on asteroids, in favor of "been there, done that."

As an adviser to one of NASA's innovative-oriented directorates, I know about all sides of this argument. And there is an overlap of interest in one area, creating a cis-lunar station in orbit above the Moon. It is an ideal spot for both retrieving and studying asteroidal samples and offering services (for pay) to those wannabe copycat nations aiming to brag about being neo-Apollos. That part makes sense. But for that reason, don't expect to see it.

No, what this shows is that the Worst Man in America -- George F. Will -- is wrong in proclaiming Donald Trump to be "a false republican." DT's appointments so far are amplifications, not reversals of standard GOP crazinesses. And his policies toward science and space -- like ending all NASA Earth-science work -- differ from the Fox-propelled line only in being farther to the right.

== Further out in space ==

The most detailed 3D map yet of a billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy includes precise positions and brightness of 1.142 billion stars, plus distances and motions of more than 2 million of them.  You can navigate!  Courtesy ESA’s wonderful GAIA mission.

Space “blobs”! Ten times the diameter of the Milky Way! Glowing! Finally Explained! 

Boyajian’s Star (KIC 8462852) is one of the strangest discoveries of the Kepler mission, which vastly expanded our catalogue of alien planets.  Only in his case, the pattern of light dimming from the star cannot come from planetary eclipses, or even a disk of dust. The star not only dims up to 20% at intervals, it has been secularly dimming across observations spanning a century.  It is hard to accommodate both the long-term dimming and the lack of infrared and submillimeter emission. Explanations (discussed here before) range from internal stellar fluctuations to interstellar blockage of some kind, all the way to vast, alien architectural projects. 

Our galaxy may be more complex than a regular spiral. It’s already been reclassified as one of those “barred” spirals.  Now it seems the “Orion Spur that we sit amid is more than just a spur, but a complex – if not complete – spiral arm in its own right. 

== Exploring Earth ==

Read a fine and moving review – on Centauri Dreams – of Dr. David Grinspoon’s new book (blurbed by yours truly). In Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet's Future, David Grinspoon relates the question of our own survival as we deal with the so-called Anthropocene, a time when our technologies are increasingly affecting our planet, creating a new set of challenges to survival.

Thank Heavens. The GOES-R satellite is in orbit, safe from sabotage. It will nail down climate matters with great accuracy. The Bushites canceled almost every program to study climate and while Obama reversed course, it was hard getting money from Congress. This may be all we get for a long time.

This Japanese company's plan for a real world space elevator garners at least a mention... though I expect some cynicism below, in comments. 

A wonderfully inspiring story about the black women engineers and mathematicians who were deeply involved in the early space program. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly. An except from the interview with the author on the New York Times:

'Some of the white male engineers seemed almost puzzled by the bigotry of the time — they saw a problem that needed to be solved, by the smartest person available. Do you think there’s a connection between the clarity and precision of mathematics and engineering and the ability of NASA and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, to employ people of color? Yes, though at the same time, this institution was also on the front lines of a lot of these conflicts and national emergencies: World War I, World War II, the Cold War, the space race. They needed all hands on deck. Like: “We don’t have enough computers? Where are we going to get them? Oh, there are these black women, at this black school, that’s right across town? Let’s get them in here.” There was a bit of an emergency sensibility a lot of the time."

== METI redux ==

The StarTalk science and astronomy site runs fascinating podcasts. In a recent episode (as of October 18: 7pm EST) host and astrobiology maven David Grinspoon ("Dr. Funkyspoon") interviews astronomer and science fiction author David Brin about a wide range of matters including the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligent civilizations (SETI). They answer fan-submitted Cosmic Queries about communicating with aliens. 

A new book, Waiting for Contact: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Lawrence Squeri offers a cogent, engaging history of humanity's most ambitious quest - seeking outward for other minds. 

This Smithsonian Magazine article by Michael Chorost describes the “Cosmic Call” beaming from the Evpatoria dish in Crimea, in 1999. 

The article does point out (lightly) the fact that dozens of researchers in astronomy, SETI and related fields have protested against stunts such as this "cosmic call." These include former NASA SETI head Dr. John Billingham and former senior US diplomat Michael Michaud, who led the commission that drafted the SETI Protocols. A majority of workers in SETI, in fact, consider such METI stunts -- Messaging to Extra-Terrestrials - to be at-best affronts to grownup scientific process, in which we are expected to vett our projects openly and listen, when peers and others complain about potential for harm. These fellows (and some of them are friends of mine) are so gushy gung-ho that they shrug off every complaint or request to talk it over, before blaring "yoohoo!" into the cosmos.

To be clear, we do not expect these beamings to draw slathering alien invaders tomorrow. But when you aim to alter some principal observable characteristics of our planet, is it too much to ask for an environmental impact statement? And some discussion? For example, examining the history of past HUMAN first contacts between different cultures? Every one of which led to pain?
Those who zealously admire these shout-stunts tend to have the right instincts! To look outward and explore the cosmos. As an astronomer who also has done well with science fiction novels, I approve of the reflex, wholeheartedly! I've spent my whole life pondering the alien. But when people dive into the matter -- as they can do in this article and in this debate...
... they always come away both more informed and more willing to say: "Let's pause and talk over the ramifications, first."
Alas, there are zealots who are so confident in their evidence-free assertions and assumptions that they rush to wager their children -- and yours and mine -- that the universe is nothing but a Sesame Street-Barney wunderland. Oh, please let it be so.
An animated introduction to the Fermi Paradox. A bit simplistic and off by a few factors. But interesting.
And from xkcd:
and (almost) finally...XKCD makes fun astronomical comparisons!  

== And for you, who pray to the Electoral College ==

1- Don't expect salvation from the Electoral College. Yes, there'll be more defections-of-conscience than ever before. Some electors are talking out options, as a "college" should. Like matching Clinton and Trump abstainers, or voting for a sane republican, making Paul Ryan take responsibility. There's even a "Kasich Gambit." Ohio's electors could almost do it all by themselves.

I had no success with my own great idea... getting some billionaire to offer an all-expense-paid actual meeting of the Electoral College, at some resort - for the first time in 240 years - letting them talk it out, free of outside interference. Too late, I guess. Ah, judgement, thou art fled...

2- At last, someone offers a $100K reward for anyone bringing forward conclusive evidence of election fraud. I've begged for this. The reward should be 10X larger, (with help from a zillionaire), plus offers of immunity, hero status and talk show gigs.

Oh, and whistleblowers reap 20% of whatever the U.S. gets, when conspiracies are nailed!  

Crowdfund this, asap.