Tuesday, November 14, 2017

AND THEN THERE WERE THREE

According to the Institute for Policy Studies, three men--Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett--now own more wealth than the poorest 50 percent of the US population. That's three individuals versus more than 162 million.

Bill Gates (2003)

www.swiss-image.ch/Photo by Remy Steinegger


To get a sense of the enormity of this inequality, let's represent the average wealth of those 162 million people--a bit more than $1500 per person--by someone six feet tall, then Bill Gates--worth $89 billion--would stand over 66,000 miles tall in comparison--towering more than one-quarter of the way to the moon!

If we total up the wealth of the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans we find that they own as much as the lower two-thirds of the American population, more than 200 million people, or 80 million households.

Most Americans don't begrudge rich people their wealth, believing rightly or wrongly that much of it was earned through talent, intelligence and hard work. However, they may be less forgiving when they realize that the ultra rich  leverage their wealth into near-total control over our political system and government. A recent study showed that what most voters want simply doesn't count, while the demands of economic elites and well-funded special interest groups consistently win out.

Nor is there much reason to believe that the super rich take the needs of their poorer fellow-citizens into account. One can imagine that from the perspective of 66,000 miles, those 162 million people look like little more than grains of dust.

There are plenty of people, including many economists, who argue that this kind of inequality is inevitable, a necessary result of the grim laws of economics. That this is false can be seen by the fact that many countries--including well-off, highly developed nations such as Denmark, France and Germany--share their wealth much more equitably than here in the US. It's clear that laws protecting workers and unions, curbing corporate abuses, and reining in financial speculation do make a difference, as do policies using taxes to support health, education and equal opportunity across ethnic, class and gender lines.

Solving any problem first requires recognizing that the problem exists, then deciding that there are steps we can take to solve it. If the fact that three individuals have more wealth--and the power and influence that goes with it-- than 162 million of us doesn't set off alarm bells about our democracy, I don't know what could. We may not be able to change the laws of economics, but we can change the laws, policies and practices that push millions of Americans into poverty and debt while showering more and more wealth on the already wealthy. A good start would be to defeat the current Republican tax "reform," which will further enrich the richest few at the expense of most of the rest of us.




Sunday, October 22, 2017

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

The famous Milgram Experiments carried out at Yale in the early 1960’s and verified many times since then show that under the right conditions and given the overt or covert approval of authority figures, normally sane and rational people can carry out or allow others to engage in horrifying acts of aggression and cruelty towards their fellow human beings. One need look no further than current events in Myanmar involving the Rohingya minority, recent Sunni-Shiite atrocities in Syria and Iraq, Serbian attacks on Muslims in Bosnia or the Hutu massacres of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda in the 1990’s to demonstrate the terrible destruction the right combination of conditions and leadership can provoke.

Donald Trump at a rally, May 5, 2016, Charleston, West Virginia. 
AFP PHOTO /BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The question “Can it happen here?” is one which every American, regardless of party affiliation, political ideology or economic standing should be asking at this critical point in our national history. The alternative is to blindly assume that America is somehow exempt or immune from tides of history which have swept over so many other nations before us.


We have, for perhaps the first time, a Chief Executive whose authoritarian tendencies, ability to incite violent passions in significant portions of the population, lack of empathy towards minorities and vindictiveness toward those who stand against him significantly increase the possibility that, under the right conditions, this country as well could act out in a similarly destructive manner both at home and abroad.

The President has frequently demonstrated a willingness and even compulsion to assert his dominance by publicly humiliating and attacking members of his own Party and Administration—as well as gratuitously mocking and demeaning both his predecessors and political opponents. His seemingly boundless capacity for distorting and denying factual evidence while stirring up resentment toward vaguely-defined ‘others’, leaves little hope that he will observe any of the normally accepted rules of personal, social or political discourse or behavior.

By continually attacking the Press (“fake news”) for doing its job he has indicated either profound ignorance of or a deliberate effort to override Constitutional protections regarding freedom of speech and publication. In fact, even when his more cautious advisers have counseled restraint, he has acted as though restrictions on executive power were inconveniences to be ignored or disregarded rather than guidelines carefully designed to preserve the balance of powers necessary for democratic government.

Rather than seeking to understand and heal national or international divisions, President Trump revels in every opportunity to stir controversy and provoke passionate reactions, tweeting relentlessly about alleged ‘wars on Christmas,’ ‘wars on coal,’ ‘disrespect toward the flag;’ or demeaning a foreign leader as ‘Rocket Man’ while heightening tensions with Iran over a nuclear deal hammered-out by the US and multiple powers.

It is not difficult to imagine conditions under which a Trump-led administration would find it nearly irresistible to identify those with differing political interests, ideological beliefs and religious practices, as well as ethnic characteristics, not merely as legitimate opponents but as ‘enemies of the state,’ a term he has already dredged from what the New York Times has called a “Venomous Past.” A serious economic crisis such as that in 2007-2008; the outbreak of war in Asia; a damaging terrorist act on our homeland could provide the necessary excuse.  Each of these scenarios would heighten public polarization and facilitate a default to strong administrative action. Legal restraints would inevitably yield to aggressive policing behavior and the suppression of dissent. In such a moment of crisis, Congressional reaction would likely follow the President’s lead.

For the most part, the American political system has succeeded by containing differences--with the Civil War being the great exception—due ultimately to the recognition by those in power that dissent need not be perceived as disloyalty and that compromise is ultimately more powerful than winning at all cost.  Periods of enormous tension such as those during the “Red Scares” following World Wars I and II and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960’s and ‘70’s tested the system to, and at times, beyond its limits.  But it is this current test, occurring during a period of relative peace and prosperity but enormous cultural, technological and economic upheaval that may well provide its greatest challenge yet.

Never before has so much of our future fallen into the hands of a leader who seems unwilling, and perhaps psychologically unable to abide by either the formal or informal rules and standards of democratic governance.  Checks and balances are fine on paper, but, like paper, they can far-too-easily be blown away by tumultuous winds stirred by the unstable combination of crisis, unfettered passion and the authoritarian proclivities of a populist leader.

Les Adler

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

GRAVITATIONAL-WAVE ASTRONOMY SHOWS ITS POWER

You've probably read or heard about the latest breakthrough in gravitational-wave astronomy--the first detection to two neutron stars merging, with the added bonus of the first follow-on observations of the event across the entire electromagnetic spectrum from gamma rays to radio waves.

Artist's conception of neutron stars merging
Credit: NASA

With three gravitational-wave observatories online (see LIGO and VIRGO), observers were able to accurately triangulate the most recent burst of gravitational waves that rumbled past Earth on August 17. With a much smaller part of the sky to scan, astronomers were able to pin down the source of the event--the merger of two neutron stars in a distant galaxy producing a kilonova--and track its evolution through observations in gamma-rays, x-rays, visible light, infrared and radio waves. 

This unprecedented series of observations let astronomers compare the neutron-star merger to theoretical predictions in great detail, including proving that most of the elements heavier than iron--including gold, platinum and uranium-are forged in these collisions. They also provided new information about the accelerating expansion of the universe. In addition, it demonstates that astronomers now have a huge new window into the universe that promises a stream of surprises and new discoveries.

For great pictures, animations and a more in-depth description of this breakthrough and its implications, click here.



Saturday, October 14, 2017

WHEN CATASTROPHE COMES HOME

I live in Santa Rosa, California. As you know, Santa Rosa, along with many other parts of California, is still reeling from the impact of raging wildfires.

A barn goes up in flames in Glen Ellen, California
Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

My wife and I are lucky--our house happens to be located a mile or two from where the firestorm stopped. We've spent several sleepless nights, bags packed and in our car, monitoring whether or not we would need to flee. But other than that, we have not been directly impacted by the fires.

Many people were not so lucky. This morning's paper lists 50,000 residents of our county--that's one out of every ten--under evacuation orders, 35 confirmed deaths, 235 people still missing, 5700 homes and businesses destroyed, and more than $1.2 billion in economic damage in Santa Rosa alone. Many of our friends and people we know have lost their homes, businesses or jobs.

We're all-too-used to reading about or seeing images of catastrophes somewhere else--floods in Bangladesh, drought in Australia, hurricanes battering Puerto Rico, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Perhaps we've been moved to a moment's empathy or pity, perhaps we make a donation to some aid agency, or perhaps we just shake our heads and move on.

It's different when it's here rather than there, in our home town rather than someone else's, harming our family or friends rather than strangers.

Our natural disaster, our catastrophe has brought several realizations home to me:

--It can happen here. None of us is immune. Here in Santa Rosa, it wasn't just the Journey's End mobile home park that was destroyed, it was also the middle-class Coffey Park neighborhood and the idyllic Fountaingrove neighborhood, home to many doctors, lawyers and other well-off citizens. Like the residents of Journey's End and Coffey Park, the residents of Fountaingrove had to desert their homes with little or no warning in the middle of the night as the unexpected firestorm blasted through, driven by 70 miles-per-hour winds. Some, many of them elderly or disabled, simply could not get out in time.

--It's real, and it hurts.  It's one thing to see struggling people on TV. It's very different when it's you spending hours hosing down your house and yard while hot embers fall from the sky, when it's you trying to decide what necessities to throw into the car, looking around your house wondering if you'll see it again, or you helping a desperate friend rescue a few precious things before the fire strikes again. It's different when the store you shopped in yesterday is gone today and the neighborhood you've visited a hundred times is a blackened wasteland.

--Ordinary, daily life is precious. It's trite to repeat that "you don't really know what you've got 'till it's gone," but it's also a profound truth. We may all strive to do or experience something extraordinary, have a peak experience, change the world, but in the end what's truly valuable is the everyday life of everyday people. When that's disrupted or lost, you suddenly realizes how precious it was.

We've experienced just one corner of one natural disaster. The dozens who have died, the thousands who've been displaced, represent just a tiny fraction of the estimated 65 million displaced persons and refugees in the world today. But even that enormous number pales in comparison to the number of people--people just like you and me--who are at risk from two existential threats--climate disruption and nuclear war.

I'm not going to argue the reality of either threat. I'll only point out that common sense should tell us that the number and intensity of the extreme climatic events that we're experiencing is far from normal, and that further destabilization of the climate could threaten any or all of us. And a moment's thought should be more than enough to remind us that even a "limited nuclear exchange" could result in misery or death for hundreds of millions of people.

The limited, local disaster I'm living through has brought home to me the preciousness--and fragility--of each of our lives. Multiplying the losses experienced here by millions is no longer unthinkable, but it is unacceptable.

I've been extremely impressed by the local leaders who have come to the fore in this disaster--the local and state fire officials, the sheriff and police officers, mayors and other elected officials. They have all been clear, direct, factual, and focused on responding to and resolving the crisis, step by step. Their efforts to protect lives, contain the fires, begin to bring them under control and now, line up the resources needed to rebuild, seem to be well coordinated and, as more resources have been marshaled, increasingly effective. I've been similarly impressed by how ordinary people have responded--rescuing and helping others, giving time, goods and money to help people who've had to evacuate or who have lost their homes, and showing great dignity and resilience in the face of disaster.

Unfortunately, the contrast with how our national leaders are dealing with the existential threats of climate disruption and nuclear war could not be greater. In both cases, actions by President Trump, his advisers and appointees, and Congress are making thinks worse rather than  better. Pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement is just the most blatant of the many steps Trump has taken to reverse global progress on the climate. And undermining the nuclear accord with Iran, and the belly-thumping battle between Trump and Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un are dramatically increasing the risk of a nuclear war.

The point of this commentary is to remind everyone that when it comes to the global risks from climate disruption or nuclear war, there is actually here, and they are actually us. People here in Santa Rosa took action as the flames approached, and most were able to save their lives and those of their loved ones. Government officials and agencies took coordinated action to limit the scope of the disaster. People at all levels did what what needed. We need our nation's leaders to act equally well.

We all need to take action now with respect to the threats of runaway climate change and nuclear war. Now, with every tool at our disposal, because when those fires come roaring out of the skies, it will simply be too late.

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Friday, September 22, 2017

REVISED LIST OF AMERICAN PRESIDENTS

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has now undone Obama-era regulations that protected campus victims of sexual assault, and Scott Pruitt just eviscerated Obama's Clean Power Plan. Those are just two pebbles in a bucketful of progressive changes implemented during the Obama administration that Trump, his appointees, and the current Republican-dominated Congress have erased or reversed, with more to come.

The list of Obama-era policies that have already been erased includes expansion of overtime pay, rules to reduce race-based pay differences, protections for women workers, rules to protect investors, a phase-out of private prisons, protections for voters, protections for the Arctic, fracking regulations, fuel-efficiency standards, and of course the Paris Climate Agreement and Obama's clean power plan. Next on the chopping block, the Iran nuclear deal.

The pattern is so clear that we think it's fair to say that a deep, underlying drive shared by Trump and his allies is to undo everything that Obama accomplished during his eight years as President, no matter the merits. Given that Trump kick-started his campaign by weaponizing the rumor that Obama was not born in the United States--birtherism--and so was not a legitimate President, it doesn't seem that far-fetched to infer that Trump and many of his supporters would be delighted simply to erase Obama, 1984-style, from the history books.

Ever helpful, here's a sample from the forthcoming edition of The Real True Americans: Fair and Balanced American History for Real American High School Students:

21-st Century American Presidents:

Bill Clinton, 1993-2001
George W. Bush, 2001-2009
Barry Whatshisname, 2009-2017
Donald Trump, 2017-

Barry Whatshisname
44th US President
2009-2017
Credit: rishtabliss.com

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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

FUEL ON A FIRE--HOW CLIMATE CHANGE MADE HURRICANE HARVEY WORSE

Just a quick link to an important piece by climatologist Michael Mann detailing the ways in which global warming and climate change added destructive power to Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/28/climate-change-hurricane-harvey-more-deadly

The factors Mann details include sea level rise (compounded by subsidence from oil drilling); warmer surface and deep waters in the Gulf which added to the energy/intensity of the storm, the storm surge it caused, and the amount of water it dumped on land; and the fact that it stalled over Texas, producing those all-time-record-breaking rainfall totals.

In the absence of meaningful action to control climate change, we're going to see a lot more of these "once-in-a-thousand-year" disasters.

One of thousands of rescues in the aftermath
of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey
Credit: Dept. of Defense





Thursday, August 24, 2017

WHERE IS E.T.? ASTROPHYSICIST THINKS TECHNOLOGICAL CIVILIZATIONS DON'T LAST LONG, AND WORRIES WE WON'T EITHER

With President Trump and North Korea's Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un engaged in a nuclear-armed chest-thumping competition, and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock now just 2 and a half minutes before midnight, the possibility that our civilization may annihilate itself is hard to deny. And that doesn't count the risks from climate change, biodiversity loss, runaway artificial intelligence and other human-caused developments.

The Doomsday Clock may tick for most technological civilizations
Credit: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

If we're in this fix just 350 years after the start of the Scientific Revolution and just 7 decades into the Atomic Age, how much longer can we reasonably expect our vaunted but fragile civilization to last?

Not all that long, says Daniel Whitmire, a retired astrophysicist now teaching mathematics at the University of Arkansas. Whitmire bases his argument on one of the long-established principles of philosophy and science, the principle of mediocrity.

The principle of mediocrity makes the reasonable assumption that we're more likely to observe or experience common events than uncommon ones. This idea has helped us to recognize that Earth is not the center of the universe, that our solar system is just one among billions in our galaxy, and that the Milky Way is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe.

Whitmire notes that we are Earth's first technologically advanced species and that it's early in our possible technological evolution. If we are in fact typical of technological civilizations in general, that leads to two unhappy conclusions--technological civilizations don't last long before destroying themselves, and when they do, they take their planet's biosphere down with them.

To grasp Whitmire's reasoning, we need to think like a statistician, in terms of a distribution of technological civilizations with different lifespans. Imagine a big bowl full of marbles, each representing a technological civilization somewhere in our galaxy. So far, we've only gotten to reach into the bowl once, and out came our particular civilization. What can that one draw tell us about the rest?

Whitmire points out that if most technological civilizations last hundreds of thousands or millions of years, our few-hundred-year experience with technology would be very atypical. However, Whitmire calculates, if most technological civilizations last no more than a few thousand years, we would be typical, falling in the middle 95 percent of the distribution, although among the youngest.

The implication from the most likely distribution--most technological civilizations don't last very long, say 500 years or so.

Five hundred or a thousand years may seem like a long time from the perspective of a human lifespan, but it's extremely short compared to the age of the Earth and the Earth's biosphere. Whitmire notes that, left to itself, Earth's biosphere can be expected to survive for at least another billion years. If humans (or other technological species that might evolve here) went extinct, but didn't damage the biosphere in the process, there would be time for many subsequent civilizations to evolve. But that would again make us, as first-timers, atypical.

The implication--when technological civilizations die, they destroy their planet's biosphere, or at least degrade it to a level that doesn't give the planet enough time to evolve a second technological civilization. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are no second chances for planets that evolve technological civilizations.

In short, if we are typical, than other technological civilizations would, like us, be early in in their potential life-spans (implying a short lifespan in general), and be the first on their planet (implying no subsequent technological civilizations, and hence destroyed or massively degraded biospheres).

Whitmire concludes:

Our inferences regarding the fate of the typical technological species are based
on two observations and essentially one assumption. The observations are that
our technological species is (1) the first such species to evolve on Earth and
(2) early in its potential technological evolution. The assumption is that the
Principle of Mediocrity applies to the reference class of all extant technological
species. Given this assumption, the suggested inference is that the typical tech-
nological species has a short lifetime and that their extinction coincides with
the extinction of their planetary biosphere.

Of course, we can always hope that we're not just a typical technological civilization, but one that's smart enough not to annihilate ourselves along with Earth's biosphere. That would be great, but if we follow Whitmire's logic, the odds are against it.

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You can access Whitmire's article in the International Journal of Astrobiology at this URL.

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