Sunday, December 31, 2017

SOME GOOD (CLIMATE) NEWS TO FINISH THE YEAR

AUSTRALIA CAN MEET ITS 2030 PARIS CLIMATE PLEDGE FOR FREE

Australia made a bold pledge when it signed the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement -- to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 - 28 percent by 3030. A new study by the Australian National University (ANU) shows that because of the rapidly falling cost of renewable energy, Australia can meet that goal at zero net cost.

 Sundrop Farms, Port Augusta, South Australia
Credit: Sundrop Farms

As anyone who has spent time in Australia knows, the country has abundant solar and wind potential. The ANU researchers note that these renewable energy sources will reach grid parity -- that is, they'll be no more costly than electricity on Australia's current national grid -- by 2020 (and cheaper soon after that). As a result, phasing out existing coal- and gas-fired generating plants and replacing them with renewable sources will actually save money.

Even when the researchers added in the costs of new pumped hydro storage and new long-distance power lines to ensure adequate electricity at night or during low-wind periods, the net cost still turns out to be zero.

Lower level of Tumut 3 Pumped Hydropower Station, NSW, Australia/Credit: CMH at English Wikipedia

“The cost of renewables includes stabilising the electricity grid with energy storage and stronger interstate powerlines to ensure that the grid continues to be reliable,” says Andrew Blakers, at the ANU Research School of Engineering. "Our study shows that we can make the switch to affordable and reliable clean power."

Kudos to Australia for its vision and willingness to move rapidly in this vitally necessary direction. With the cost of renewable energy plummeting worldwide, Australia can serve as a bellwether for the rest of the world.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

DANCING ON THE EDGE WITH THE BOMB

In 1898 a mysterious explosion sank the American battleship Maine in Havana harbor. While the exact cause is still debated, the results were undeniable and decisive. Press and public clamor for retaliation led swiftly to an American declaration of war against Spain followed by an invasion of Cuba, the conquest the Philippines and Guam and the sudden leap of the United States into the position of world-wide imperialistic dominance it still occupies.

Slightly more than a decade later, in 1914, two shots fired by a Serbian terrorist in little-known Sarajevo, Bosnia set off World War I, a conflagration of earthshaking global consequences which no one expected or wanted, causing nearly 40,000,000 military and civilian deaths, the results of which continue to reverberate throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East to the present day.

             In 1950, at a peak in Cold War tensions, political and strategic overreach by General Douglas MacArthur commanding United Nations forces fighting North Korean aggression against the South triggered an unanticipated and overwhelming Chinese response. The result was three years of additional bloody warfare in Korea, which in addition to hundreds of thousands of deaths on all sides brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

 Hydrogen Bomb
Credit: Unshootables.com/Creative Commons

             Once again, in 1962, a dangerous miscalculation by Soviet Premier Nikita
Khrushchev in attempting to place nuclear missiles in Cuba to balance the presence of American missiles around his country, brought the world closer than ever to the edge of a nuclear war with unimaginable global consequences. How close we came to disaster, we later learned, rested less on diplomacy than on the heroic choice by a Soviet submarine Captain NOT to launch a nuclear torpedo at an American destroyer despite faulty indications that an attack was underway.

             We know now that on at least three other occasions, false positive readings on radar screens in both Soviet and American nuclear defense systems nearly led to the launching of retaliatory responses which could have brought catastrophic results for both human civilization and the global environment. In each case, only the actions of individual humans, under intense pressure, choosing to interpret the reports as electronic glitches rather than incoming missile tracks, prevented disaster. 

 Slim Pickins rides the bomb in the movie Dr. Strangelove
Credit: basementrejects.com/Creative Commons

             Exactly what chain of events might be set off by the provocative statements, military posturing, accidents, missile tests, war games or even deliberate actions by players in the current dramatic standoff between North Korean dictator, Kim Jung Ill and President Donald Trump is not yet known. What we do know, however, is that massive historical conflicts and global disasters can be triggered by rogue individuals or unanticipated events at multiple levels in complex systems, often in ways that are unimaginable and, in fact, entirely unpredictable.

             The more heated the crisis atmosphere, the more likely it is that preexisting ideological predispositions or perceptual biases rather than objective facts will determine the decision-making process. Were American destroyers really under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin the summer of 1964—as early reports reaching Washington indicated? Or, to what degree were the reports interpreted, or shaped, to bring about the desired political results?

             Likewise, how was the intelligence perceived or even “fixed” in the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, to support the incorrect preconception that Saddam Hussein was on the cusp of developing nuclear weapons? And what cascade of seemingly endless tragedy has ensued in the region because of that decision?

             Recent exposure to what have been called “Black Swans” (unpredictable or unforeseen events with extreme consequences) like the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, 9/11, or the almost-complete global financial meltdown in 2008 should certainly give us pause; as should our growing understanding of the sensitivity of interconnected planetary systems to human activity. 

            What Chaos Theorists describe as the “Butterfly effect” might, at least metaphorically, allow us to recognize the snowballing impact that small, seemingly inconsequential changes in one part of a complex system can unleash in the system as a whole.

             What this means in the current nuclear standoff with North Korea is that there is no room for even the slightest miscalculation, error or lack of caution. Threats and over-heated rhetoric can only set the stage for a cascade of disastrous consequences, the like of which only sheer good fortune has prevented multiple times during our dangerous three-quarter century experiment of dancing on the edge with the bomb. We can no longer rely on blind luck to save us--from ourselves.

Les Adler

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You can also find this commentary on OpEdNews 

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WELCOME ABOARD THE TITANIC

I'm not sure which of Trump's never-ending stream of tweets, fiats, provocations, sadistic put-downs and flip-flopping decisions finally gave me that unmistakable sinking feeling. I think it was the announcement in his National Security Speech of December 18, that he is cutting climate change out of America's national security strategy. This marks a major shift away from the Obama administration's security strategy, which recognized climate change as one of the major risks facing the nation and the world, and put international cooperation to minimize that threat high on the national security to-do list. As Trump said in his speech, “We are charting a new and very different course.”

 The RMS Titanic--the greatest ship of the day
Credit:  F.G.O. Stuart/Wikimedia Commons

It's been clear for a long time that climate-change denial has been the price of admission to the current Republican Party regardless of the real-world consequences. A saving grace, however, has been that the US Department of Defense and the intelligence agencies responsible for the security of the nation have generally resisted this politically convenient untruth and have made plans and deployed resources in response to such “risk or threat multipliers” as “livelihood devastation, state fragility, human displacement, and mass death,” not to mention extreme weather, coastal flooding, environmental degradation, threats to infrastructure, forced migration, and what James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence characterized as “unpredictable instability”caused by climate change.

Now, thanks to Trump, and as reflected in the accompanying 55-page document, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, by choice and design, climate change and its impacts are not to be found. Instead, there's a lot of focus on accelerated economic growth, bigger and better armaments, “fairer” trade and “energy dominance,” all of which, in the absence of a recognition of climate change and environmental degradation, will only increase the threats and impacts we will be encountering.

This stance is all too reminiscent of the first (and last) voyage of the RMS Titanic, the greatest ship of its day, carrying the cream of international society as well as hundreds of ordinary people, and believed at the time to be unsinkable. Despite warnings from other ships about sea ice, Captain Edward Smith ordered the Titanic to steam full speed ahead through the north Atlantic night.

Everyone knows the result—nature in the form of an iceberg proved mightier than the great ship, the "unsinkable" vessel sank at 5:18 in the morning of April 15, 1912, and 1500 lives were lost, including that of Captain Smith himself. The Titanic, broken in two, is now slowly disintegrating 12,415 feet beneath the Atlantic.

The bow of the Titanic, in the depths of the North Atlantic
Credit: NOAA/ University of Rhode Island

Like the 2,224 souls aboard the Titanic on that ill-stared night, we are now shoveling on the coal and steaming full speed ahead across a treacherous sea with our captain and crew willfully blind to one of the gravest risks we face. That's making it a bit hard for me to just sit back and enjoy the glittering company, the fine food and drink, and the band's lively music. I can't get the image of the dark, icy waters just ahead out of my mind.

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Friday, December 08, 2017

EUROPE COMMITS TO 100 PERCENT CLEAN ELECTRICITY BY 2050

This is just a quicklink to a remarkable piece of news.

Eurelectric, the body that represents 3,500 of Europe's electric companies, has now committed to carbon-neutral generation of all of Europe's electricity by 2050 or before. They point out that this is a win-win decision, since electricity from wind and solar is rapidly becoming cheaper than electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, and of course pumps far less climate-destabilizing methane and CO2 into the atmosphere.

Wind farm in Romania, 2011
Credit: Sandri Alexandra




Given America's seemingly unbreakable, politically driven addiction to fossil fuels, the reporter's final comment is remarkably restrained:

"It is refreshing to see a regional commitment to clean electricity in Europe. Industry leaders in the US would do well to study the European approach and adjust their thinking accordingly."

Duh!

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GOOGLE'S ALPHAZERO IS NOW SCARY SMART

What would you think if you taught your child the rules of chess at breakfast and found that by lunchtime she had beaten the world champion? Awe? Parental pride? A bit of fear perhaps?

That's essentially what just happened at Google's DeepMind subsidiary in London. They created an ultra-powerful game-playing computer system called AlphaZero based on a neural network capable of deep learning through reinforcement.

Unlike other chess-playing programs--which have outperformed humans since IBM's Deep Blue beat the human world champion, Gary Kasparov, in 1997--AlphaZero was not pre-programmed with any specialized knowledge or expertise about chess. It was simply given the rules of the game and allowed to learn by playing against itself.

Four hours later AlphaZero crushed the World Computer Champion, Stockfish, with 28 wins and zero losses in a 100-game tournament (the remaining games were ties).

 World Champion Gary Kasparov struggles against IBM's DeepBlue, 1997
Credit: iChess.net

British chess expert Colin McGurty sums up AlphaZero's achievement:

The AlphaZero algorithm developed by Google and DeepMind took just four hours of playing against itself to synthesise the chess knowledge of one and a half millennium and reach a level where it not only surpassed humans but crushed the reigning World Computer Champion Stockfish 28 wins to 0 in a 100-game match. All the brilliant stratagems and refinements that human programmers used to build chess engines have been outdone, and like Go players we can only marvel at a wholly new approach to the game.

Other chess experts describe AlphaZero's play as "divine," or "from another galaxy." 

As if one superhuman feat were not enough, the AlphaZero team used the same artificial intelligence (AI) system to tackle the games of Go and the Japanese chess game, Shogi. It took AlphaZero just two hours of play against itself to surge past Elmo, the Shogi Computer World Champion, and all of 8 hours to surpass AlphaGo (another DeepMind program), which itself dethroned the human Go champion, Ke Jie, earlier this year.

So, to summarize, in less than a day, starting as a blank slate knowing nothing more than the rules of the games, and simply by playing against itself, AlphaZero reached a superhuman level of play in three abstract games that have challenged humans for millennia. Not a bad day's work.

And just in case you're thinking that AlphaZero reached these superhuman levels simply by calculating faster than any other computer, that's far from the case.  It is blindingly fast compared to humans--for example searching 80 thousand chess positions per second, but it is tortise-slow compared to other chess-playing systems. Stockfish, which AlphaZero completely dominated, searches 70 million positions every second. The system's creators explain, "AlphaZero compensates for the lower number of evaluations by using its deep neural network to focus much more selectively on the most promising variations -- arguably a more 'human-like approach to search."

In recent years some very smart people including Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have warned about the threat posed by out-of-control artificial intelligence. While the superhuman learning and game-playing of AlphaZero seem benign, and ubiquitous, mostly invisible AI applications help us every day in a huge variety of areas, there are red flags raised by robo-cops and soldiers, vital infrastructure managed by AI, increasingly capable and autonomous robots that may replace most workers, and the potential for super-intelligent AI creations that may not have the interests of humans at heart. AlphaZero, for example, could equally well learn to "play" at a superhuman level at politics, finance or war.

Gates and others emphasize that we need to figure this out before such intelligences emerge because once they do, like AlphaZero, they could leave us in the dust within a few hours.

So if your child became the world champion chess player after four hours of play, wouldn't you be scared? I would.

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You can read the scientific paper describing AlphaZero's accomplishments here.
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Ahora AlphaZero de Google está peligrosamente inteligente

¿Que pensaría si le hubiera enseñado a su niña las reglas de ajedrez a las ocho de la mañana y descubriera que a mediodía ella ha ganado contra el campeón del mundo? ¿Asombro? ¿Orgullo parental? ¿Quizás un poco de miedo?

Eso es esencialmente lo que pasó en DeepMind, un subsidiario de Google en Londres. Ellos crearon un sistema informático ultra poderoso para jugar juegos, se llama AlphaZero, lo que implementa una red neuronal artificial capáz de realizar un aprendizaje profundo a través del refuerzo autónomo.

Es importante darse quenta que programas que juegan al ajedrez han superado a los humanos desde entonces Deep Blue, de IBM, lo ganó el campeon del mundo humano, Gary Kasparov, en 1997. Deep Blue y todas los programas aun mas poderosos que han sido desarrolados después, empiezan con una gran cantidad de conocimiento y pericia dado por expertos humanos. Por el contrario, AlphaZero no fue programado con algun conocimiento especializado, ni pericia. Nada mas supo las reglas del juego, y recibió instrucciones de aprender a través de jugar contra sí mismo.

Cuatro horas más tarde, AlphaZero le aplastó el Campeón Mundial de Ajedrez por Computadora, Stockfish, con 28 victorias y zero derrotas en un torneo de 100 juegos (los juegos restantes fueron atados).

El experto de ajedrez británico, Colin McGurty, resume lo que logró AlphaZero asi:

El algoritmo AlphaZero desarrollado por Google y DeepMind necesitaba nada más cuatro horas de juego contra si mismo para sintetizar el conociemiento de ajedrez de un milenio y medio y llegar a un nivel donde el no solo superó los humanos pero aplastó el reinante Campeón Mundial de Computadora, Stockfish, 28 victorias a 0 en un torneo de 100 juegos. Todas las estratagemas y refinamientos que los programadores humanos usaban para construir engines de ajedrez han sido superados, y como los jugadores de Go, no podemos hacer más que maravillarnos con un enfoque totalmente nuevo para el juego.

Otros expertos de ajedrez describen el juego de AlphaZero como “divino,” o “de otra galaxia.”

Como si una hazaña sobrehumana no fuera suficiente, el equipo de AlphaZero usaron el mismo sistema de inteligencia artificial (AI) para tratar de dominar el juego de Go y el juego de ajedrez japonés, Shogi. AlphaZero necesitaba nada más dos horas de juego contra si mismo para abrumar a Elmo, el Campeon Mudial de Computadora de Shogi, y un totál de 8 horas para superar al AlphaGo (un otro programa de DeepMind), lo cual destronó el campeon humano de Go, Ke Jie, a principions de este año.

Entonces, para resumir, en menos de un día, empezando como una pizarra en blanco, sabiendo solo las reglas de los juegos, y simplemente jugando contra sí mismo, AlphaZero alcanzó un nivel de juego sobrehumano en tres juegos abstractos que han desafiado los humanos por milenia. No está mal para el trabajo de un día.

Y si estás pensando que AlphaZero alcanzó estos niveles sobrehumanos simplemente por calculando más rapidamente que alguna otra computadora, no es la verdad. AlphaZero si es deslumbrantemente rapido comparado con los humanos—por ejemplo buscando 80 mil posiciones de ajedrez cada sugundo, pero es lento como una tortuga comparado con otros sistemas que juegan al ajedrez. Stockfish, lo cual AlphaZero dominó por completo, busca 70 millones de posiciones cada segunda. Los creadores del sistema explican, “AlphaZero compensa el menor número de evaluaciones mediante el uso de su red neuronal profunda para enfocar mucho más selectivamente en las variaciones más prometedoras – discutiblemente un enfoque mas humano a la busqueda.

En los años recentes, algunas personas muy inteligentes, incluso Bill Gates, Elon Musk y Stephen Hawking han advitido sobre la amenaza de inteligencia artificial fuera de control. Es verdad que el aprendizaje y el juego de AlphaZero parecen benignos, y hay un monton de aplicaciones de AI, ubicuos y en su mayoría invisibles, que nos ayudan diaramente y en una variedad grande de maneras. Pero, al mismo momento, debemos de notar la posibilidad de soldados y policías robóticos, infraestructura vital administrada por AI, robots cada vez más capaces y autónomos que pueden reemplazar la mayoría de los trabajadores, y el potencial para creaciones AI de inteligencia sobrehumano que no tendrían los intereses humanos “en sus corazones.”

AlphaZero, por ejemplo, podría “jugar” a un nivel sobrehumano a la política, las finanzas, o la guerra.

Gates y otros enfatizan que necesitamos resolver este asunto antes de que una inteligencia de este tipo surja, porque, una vez que aparezca, nos puede dominar o superceder entre pocas horas.

Entonces, si su hija se convirtió en campeona mundial de ajedrez después de cuatro horas de juego, ¿no estaría asustado? Yo si estaría.



Thursday, December 07, 2017

HOW CLEVER IS A CROW? -- New Caledonian crows carefully craft hooks

In Jean de La Fontaine's fable "Le Corbeau et le Renard" (The Crow and the Fox), it's Mr. Crow who plays the fool, tricked into dropping his morsel of cheese because of flattery from crafty Mr. Fox. However, if de La Fontaine had known about some eye-opening  recent research, he might have switched their roles. Crows, it seems, are nobody's fools.

It turns out that New Caledonian Crows not only use tools, as do many of their corvid cousins, but are the only animals other than humans who spontaneously make and use hooks. Although our ancestors started crafting stone tools more than 2.5 million years ago, it wasn't until about 25 thousand years ago that humans started to make hooks--initially for fishing.


 Goin' fishin'--a New Caledonian Crow uses a hook to snag insects
Credit: James St. Claire


Our closest animal relatives, chimpanzees, also use tools, including hook-shaped twigs. However, unlike the New Caledonian Crows, which use their claws and sharp beaks to carefully shape and trim twigs into deep hooks, chimpanzees don't modify the hook-shaped twigs they use. "We have recently discovered that chimpanzees routinely use naturally-hooked stems to fish for algae," says primate expert Christophe Boesch, "but they don't actively craft these hooks. The crows can reshape plant material with their pointed bills, which act like 'precision pliers', but this would be very difficult for chimpanzees with their large fingers."

 Chimpanzee using a twig to fish for termites
Credit: Valerie

The extra skill and effort the crows put into crafting their hooks pays off in how efficient they are at snagging bugs. "We suspected that tools with pronounced hooks are more efficient, and were able to confirm this in controlled experiments with wild-caught crows," says Christian Rutz, who led this research and has been studying New Caledonian crows for ten years. "The deeper the hook, the faster birds winkled bait from holes in wooden logs." The researchers found that the hooked tools allowed crows to catch their prey two to ten times faster.

A month or two ago I saw a plain old American crow fly up to the peak of a multi-story building, land, and then let something drop from its beak. It turned out not to be a morsel of cheese but a walnut, which rolled down the slanted roof, picked up speed as it fell, and cracked open when it hit the pavement. The crow flapped his way down and snacked on the now-available seed. At the time I thought that this Mr. Crow must have dropped his prize by accident. But now, after reading this research report, I'm willing to bet it was quite deliberate. Their brains may be small by our standards, but crows, it seems, make very good use of them.

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You can find a link to the research report in Current Biology here.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

TWENTY MINUTES A DAY KEEPS THE DOCTOR AWAY

Busy office workers who spent just 20 fewer minutes per day sitting at their desks maintained more muscle mass and were healthier at the end of a year than their less-active peers. It appears that even a little exercise can go a long way towards staying healthy.

Get up from that desk!
Credit: Phil Whitehouse/Jonund 

Researchers in Finland studied 133 office workers participated in the one-year study. One group was encouraged to set goals and develop personal strategies aimed at spending less time sitting both at work and away. At the start of the study, the participants averaged 9.4 seated hours per day, as measured by accelerometers. The men and women who had set goals initially reduced their sitting time by an average of 21 minutes per day. Even at the end of one year, they were still spending an average of 8 more minutes per day on their feet.

Yet even those few minutes a day up and moving around continued to make a difference. Blood glucose levels, cardiovascular risk and lower-body muscle mass were all better than the more sedentary participants.

Arto Pesola, the study's lead author, points out that the increased activity levels carried over to participants' homes as well, where they could benefit participants and their families. "Parents may think at first that spending time with their children is away from their own physical exercise. However, that way they can reduce sitting time and show a good example to their offspring about a physically active lifestyle. This is motivating, and as shown in the study, may be beneficial for health in the long run."

As I've detailed in several previous posts, this study adds to a growing body of research that convincingly shows multiple physical and psychological benefits from exercise.

 I don't know about you, but I'm getting up from the computer right now!

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Saturday, December 02, 2017

PLUG-IN ELECTRIC CARS NOW THE CHEAPEST TO OWN AND OPERATE

Forget climate change, air pollution, the environment, or any other non-economic reasons for switching to an all-electric car. Even if all you're interested in is your personal bottom line, a new study in the UK, Japan, California and Texas shows that all-electric cars are now cheaper to own and operate than gasoline, diesel or hybrids.

The study, published in the journal Applied Energy tracked the total annual cost of ownership--TCO--in four major markets from 1997 through 2015. TCO includes depreciation, tax, insurance, maintenance and the cost of fuel or electricity. The differences were significant, with all-electric cars averaging more than $1000 per year less to own and operate than diesel, and close to $2000 per year less than gasoline powered cars over the last four years.

Tesla Model S at a Supercharger Station
Credit: Jusdafex
All-electric cars typically cost more than comparable gasoline or diesel models, depending on applicable subsidies, but more than made up for the difference because of lower maintenance and energy costs.

2016 Nissan Leaf being charged
Credit: Jakob Härter

Of course this doesn't mean that everyone is going to make their next car all-electric. Although lower-cost cars like the 100-mile range Nissan Leaf will work for some drivers, and high-end models like the Tesla Model S are attractive to others, there are few options in the vast mid-range market. And many potential buyers are waiting until electric cars have more range and can be charged faster and in more locations.

However, the study's authors point out, as electric vehicle production ramps up, prices are going down, and batteries are rapidly getting better and cheaper as well. "It is a really good news story," says James Tate, a transportation specialist at the University of Leeds, in the UK, and one of the study's authors. We couldn't agree more.

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You can read the Guardian story on this subject here.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

SEX AND TAXES

Sex Sells!  The Ad man’s motto since modern advertising began has never been truer or more evident than in our latest “Cultural Moment” of coming to terms with sexual misconduct itself.    

Is it just coincidental that just as the most momentous tax shift in recent history is working its way through the halls of Congress, potentially affecting the entire economy and every American’s life for decades to come, the news is dominated with story after story of sexual misconduct by powerful men?

Sex sells because of both its attractive and repulsive qualities.  But its most notable quality at present is its tremendous power to distract.  Certainly the issues raised by overly aggressive or predatory behavior need to be vigorously aired and legal or social boundaries re-defined.  But with its magnetic public appeal, sex is dangerously drawing media and national attention away from other critical issues: in particular the egregious Republican effort to shift the tax burden from corporations and the already-wealthy to nearly everyone else.  

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain"
The Wizard of Oz, 1939
Credit: Creative Commons

The role that mainstream media might be playing in explaining and analyzing the tax “sausage” as it’s being made in unseemly haste in private party caucuses, without open hearings, serious debate or attempts to assemble a bipartisan coalition has somehow been superseded by the demands of reporting on the latest sexual harassment scandals.  

From Roy Moore to Harvey Weinstein to Al Franken and now Charlie Rose (with the specter of Donald Trump’s behavior looming in the background) sex has dominated both the news and the debate over national ethics and morals.  One result, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg has pointedly noted is that because of their responsiveness to issues of sexism, it “feels as if liberal institutions are devouring themselves over sex while conservatives, unburdened by the pretense of caring about gender equality, blithely continue their misrule.”

This is the climate in which a massive, detailed and highly controversial tax bill which permanently cuts corporate taxes from 35% to 20% and ends the estate tax while greatly reducing, phasing out or eliminating middle class benefits such as deductions for medical costs, state and local taxes, school loans and mortgage interest is being rushed through Congress. Not to mention the recent approval of more than a trillion dollar addition to the national debt which seems miraculously to have left deficit hawks in the GOP unfazed!


All under the guise of tax reform—surely a topic worthy of everyone’s serious attention—but now being railroaded by the demands of major donors and a Senate rules deadline.


Donald Trump’s election and presidency, for complex reasons, has clearly allowed a number of previously repressed and unresolved national issues to rise to the surface, some largely symbolic such as the removal of Confederate statues, and others such as sexism and racism  painfully real.

Yet behind the scenes, and certainly taking advantage of the fortunate distractions provided by juicy sexual scandals, Trump’s tweets about black athletes disrespecting the flag, and border walls, powerful and very determined masters of the universe are moving to alter the basic economic ground on which we all stand.  Whether by design or coincidence, the explosive “cultural moment” provided by our current obsession with sexual wrongdoing may just create the necessary conditions to allow them to prevail.

Les Adler

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

AND THEN THERE WERE THREE (MULTI-BILLIONAIRES)

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! Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO has done well this year; on this scale he'd tower 72,000 miles. They would both dwarf "poor" Warren Buffett, who would barely top 62,000 miles.

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, and hoping that they too might someday join their ranks. However, they may be less forgiving when they realize that the ultra rich  leverage that wealth into near-total control over our political system and government. A recent study matched what many of us feel, showing that what most voters want simply doesn't count, while the demands of economic elites and well-funded special interest groups consistently win out in terms of legislation, policy and regulation.

Nor is there much reason to believe that the super rich take the needs of their poorer fellow-citizens into account as they groom candidates and influence elections, lawmakers and the executive branch of government. One can imagine that from the perspective of 72,000 miles, those 162 million people look like little more than grains of dust. Perhaps we should re-write "We the people . . ." to read "Wee the people . . ."

There are plenty of commentators, 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, Sweden, Germany, New Zealand and the Netherlands--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 tax revenues to support health, education and equal opportunity across ethnic, class and gender lines.

According to the World Economic Forum, the US ranks 23rd out of 30 developed countries in terms of "inclusive development"--a measure of how fairly income, health and opportunity are distributed. That means that 22 thriving countries do it better than we do.

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. Shall we wait until just one person has more wealth and power than 50 percent of us? 60 percent? 90 percent?

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, not just the poor, but also much of the middle class, seniors and students.

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More on inequity at my post "Winner take all: 7 richest men own more than poorest 3.8 billion people."

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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 things 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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