28 February 2012

"The path to the future now looks more like a series of very hard engineering problems rather than an uphill fight against physics."

I really like that quote from the article below.

Of all the events that have happened recently, the politics, the economy, Greek debt crisis, what have you, this is the kind of quiet background technological development that is more important than any of that other stuff we discuss.

In my lifetime, I have seen incredible advances in computing. Get quantum computing figured out, then progress will really accelerate.

N.Y Times: I.B.M. Researchers Inch Toward Quantum Computer
“In the past, people have said, maybe it’s 50 years away, it’s a dream, maybe it’ll happen sometime,” said Mark B. Ketchen, manager of the physics of information group at I.B.M.’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. “I used to think it was 50. Now I’m thinking like it’s 15 or a little more. It’s within reach. It’s within our lifetime. It’s going to happen.”

These days, the path to the future now looks more like a series of very hard engineering problems rather than an uphill fight against physics.

For certain problems like searching databases or factoring very large numbers — the basis of today’s encryption techniques — quantum computers could produce an answer in days or maybe even seconds, whereas the fastest conventional computer would take longer than 13.7 billion years.

Time To Get Busy

Foreign Policy: Go Forth and Multiply

Want to stop the slide in U.S. dominance? Make more Americans.

27 February 2012

Limited Time Offer

One Good Thing The Internet Is For

When I was a kid, they would give out the Academy award for animated shorts, and of course, there was no way to ever see them.

Score one for the Internet, I suppose. Above is the winner of the 2011 Academy Award for best animated short.

Ad Astra

The Atlantic: Project Icarus: Laying the Plans for Interstellar Travel
To be sure, the bundle of technologies that could conceivably send a spacecraft to another star won't be here within the decade, or even within several, but neither are those technologies mere magical realism -- indeed, planning for their development has begun in earnest.
More about Project Icarus can be found here: Icarus Interstellar

I Always Suspected ...

The Atlantic: How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy
Could tiny organisms carried by house cats be creeping into our brains, causing everything from car wrecks to schizophrenia?

But if Flegr is right, the “latent” parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents.

And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.”

Issues With The CFPB

So as I'm getting back up to speed, I've been poking around the interwebs looking from posts by Whigs. Here is one I found, from last month, that discusses Obama's recess appointment for Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Although this issue has dropped from the news, the aggression of this action in asserting the executive over the legislative continues to bother me. A brief excerpt is below. Go read the whole thing, I think you will find it is a very thoughtful analysis.

Matt Glassman: In Which A Whig Thinks About Recess Appointments
The first question was resolved in the 19th century after numerous court decisions: it does not matter when the vacancy itself was created. The latter question — what constitutes a recess?— is still of much dispute, and is one of the reasons that today’s action by the President is controversial.

President Obama is making an appointment during a three-day intra-session recess of the Senate; if allowed to stand, such a precedent would go beyond even the most expansive current reading of the clause, one offered by the Justice Department on behalf of the executive in the past — that the Senate must be in recess for at least three days before a valid intra-session recess appointment can be made. (The President is also apparently arguing that the Senate is not even really in session — insert Whig head explosion here — but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

What we don’t want to end up in is a situation in which it has become the norm for the President to use recess appointments as the primary mechanism of filling the judiciary or the Executive Branch with judges/officers.
The other issue that bothers this Whig is the policy that is being immediately pursued, that is looking into overdraft protection fees. Once again, the government is pursuing regulations and policies that seek to protect individuals from their own irresponsible behavior, while placing a burden on those who behave responsibly.

Look, banks are going to charge fees to cover the costs of providing banking services. If you don't bounce checks, and aren't planning to, then you have little to worry from overdraft fees. The fees charged to those who would otherwise bounce checks reduce the fees for the rest of us.

But the proposed regulations will protect those who bounce checks, while inevitably causing fee increases on those who don't bounce checks, once again punishing those who follow the rules.

25 February 2012

I Just Hope He Doesn't Start Talking About Precious Bodily Fluids

The Hill: Santorum: US would lose its 'very essence' if Obama reelected
It's incredibly obvious, isn't it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual, and certainly without any choice.
That's the way your hard-core Commie works. I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love... Yes, a profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I — I was able to interpret these feelings correctly.
Loss of essence. I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women, er, women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake...but I do deny them my essence.

Links To Two Sci-Fi Short Stories

I've always been a fan of science fiction, and lately, I've become more interested in sci fi short stories.

Stories where humans are the more aggressive, clever, and warlike than the aliens are always amusing. I guess they are a form of self-flattery. Of course, if we ever do discover life in the universe, I doubt that humans would be the most anything. I suppose reality would be more like that envisioned by Stanislaw Lem. In his stories, alien life is so truly alien, that it is difficult to even understand if it is alive, and is usually impossible to communicate with, or nearly impossible.

Here are two oldies but goodies that I enjoy, and hope you find entertaining.

The first, is an older short story called Rescue Party by Arthur C. Clark. From 1946, it is a classic. If you've never read it before, check it out.

The second is The Road Not Taken by Harry Turtledove. From 1983, the story is one of Mr. Turtledove's earlier works, and is a bit rough around the edges, particularly some of the dialogue. But the concept is so absurd and surprising that this early work, from an author that has become one of the great writers of alternative history, is worth reading.

24 February 2012

Corruption Inherent in the System

I am not so naive as to believe that politics has ever been free of corruption and self enrichment. No belief exists within me that the "good old days" were a halcyon period of upright public servants. Even the most casual student of history quickly realizes that governance has always lent itself to corruption.

But I did used to believe that at least some political actors were honest. Perhaps I am naive. But now, after Citizens United, and the rise of the super-PACs, is it possible that there is anyone -- anyone at all -- who can remain clean? Just the sheer numbers alone would indicate that any successful politician must be enormously compromised.

My great frustration when I was working with the Modern Whig Party was the immediate need of money. No matter the level of involvement, no matter the enthusiasm, without money, and lots of it, the powers-that-be will simply not allow admission to the political process.

Even the Tea Party was not taken seriously until money started being raised and spent. And then of course that effort was quickly co-opted by the entrenched money interests and directed into already established channels.

NY Times: Donors With Agendas
Just two dozen or so individuals, couples and companies have given more than 80 percent of the money collected by super PACs, or $54 million, according to disclosure forms released on Monday.
Many are involved in businesses or ideological causes that have clear policy agendas with the federal government. Their huge influence on individual candidates demonstrates the potential for corruption inherent in the super PAC era.
Until a few weeks ago, the president might have credibly campaigned against the undue influence of special interests on his Republican rivals. He can no longer make the case because, after his PAC received only $58,816 last month, Mr. Obama invited donors to give without limits.
And all but the most privileged Americans will pay the price if the nation’s wealthiest can buy elections.

In This Economy, Not Even Debt Collectors Are Thriving

You can't get blood from a stone, as they say.

But just as with most businesses in the U.S., debt collectors have been hit with declining margins since 2008 and have been forced to make cuts in their workforce.

Bureaucrats and Politicians Not So Good At Picking Economic Winners and Losers

The American: Government Is a Lousy Venture Capitalist
While government has a legitimate and valuable role in basic science, technology, engineering, and mathematics research, it is a lousy venture capitalist and is largely incapable of picking winning technologies in the market.
My favorite quote from this piece:
Government, like a really bad surgeon, sings the praises of patients it heals and buries those it mangles, quietly when it can, and loudly blaming others when it can’t.

Complexity Favors the Establishment

From Reason: Distorting the Economy Is the Whole Point
Distorting the economy is not ... an unwanted side effect of Obama's proposals; it is his avowed aim, because he thinks he knows how resources should be distributed better than the market does.
As long as we have leaders with this kind of overblown faith in their own knowledge, wisdom, and competence, we will have "a tax system that's a complex, inefficient, and loophole-riddled mess."

Chart: U.S. Heading to Debt Disaster

From Zero Hedge. Click to enlarge.

23 February 2012

Turnabout Is Fair Play

An Australian woman scammed some Nigerian scammers.

Courier Mail: Aussie woman scammed Nigerians: court
A Brisbane woman fleeced Nigerian scam artists by stealing more than $30,000 from their internet car sales racket, a court has been told.

A Reorientation Towards Start-ups Needed

From The Atlantic: The Entrepreneur State: Safety Nets for Startups, Capitalism for Corporations
What if the law were biased, not toward the oil and gas industry or the cotton farmers, but to the creative, the self-employed, and the entrepreneurs?

This isn't industrial planning. It's not about picking winners. It's making rules that increase the odds that entrepreneurs play the game in the hope that many of them will win.

[W]hat if the law were biased, not toward the oil and gas industry or the cotton farmers, but toward the creative, the self-employed, and the entrepreneurs? What if we combined a liberal approach toward mitigating risk for startups with a conservative approach toward taxing and regulating established corporations?

The result might be more people playing the entrepreneur's game, more entrepreneurs winning the game and ramping up their companies, and more companies to hire more workers.
But since such an approach might threaten a vested interest that has, at great expense, captured the system, it's probably not a good idea to get our hopes up.

Don't Let 'Em Blow Sunshine Up Your Skirt

Investor's Business Daily: High Real Unemployment Data Reflect Poorly On Obama
The media machine that desperately wants Barack Obama re-elected has turned its focus on what it says are good unemployment numbers. The truth, though, is the job climate in America is miserable. While the media and the administration portray the most recent jobs number — 8.3% unemployment — as good economic news, more sober minds understand what's really going on.

Even worse for an administration straining to make the case that it deserves to be around for another four years is the real unemployment rate. It's not 8.3%, but closer to 15%, a figure that reflects those who "would like to work but have not searched for a job in the past four weeks as well as those who are working part time but would prefer full-time work," says the CBO.

Another White House problem comes from this in the CBO report: "The share of unemployed people looking for work for more than six months — referred to as the long-term unemployed — topped 40% in December 2009 for the first time since 1948, when such data began to be collected; it has remained above that level ever since."

The CBO data aren't isolated. Gallup reports that its unemployment rate based on weekly surveys stands at 9%, while underemployment is at a hefty 19%.

Also threatening Obama's re-election offensive is the nation's shrinking labor force (see chart). Many laid-off workers, frustrated by grim prospects, have stopped looking for jobs and are no longer in the labor pool.

That makes the jobless rate look better, as that number is a percentage of the labor force, not the overall national population. But those jobless Americans are real people who will cast real votes in November.

The trouble is fixing these facts in voters' minds. They need to know the full truth, not the half-truth the media and the White House feed them.

So how can anyone support another term? Two reasons. First, the Republican candidates are pathetic. Just pathetic. Yet another illustration of the desperate need for additional political parties. But that's another post.

The other would be increased dependency on the government, and a desire to get even more benefits. The trend of recent government policies is to reward the irresponsible while punishing the productive and responsible. If we haven't already reached a "tipping point" we are well on our way.

Two trends worth noting:

From the Social Security Administration: Trends in the Social Security and Supplemental Security Income Disability Programs
The total cost of cash benefits for the Social Security disability program has increased dramatically since its inception. Since 1990 the total cost of disability has risen 93 percent in real terms (160 percent in nominal terms).

Much of the increase in costs for Social Security disability benefits is due to increases in the number of beneficiaries.

Since 1990, the number of disabled-worker beneficiaries has increased 84 percent; disabled 105 percent; and disabled adult children, 24 percent.
Mail Online: HALF of Americans don't pay income tax despite crippling government debt
Only half of U.S. citizens pay federal income tax, according to the latest available figures.

Another finding by the Heritage Foundation shows that 21.8 per cent of U.S. citizens receive financial assistance from the federal government.

This means that 67.3million people - a record high - are 'dependent on the federal government', excluding government employees who rely on the public sector for their salaries.

The conjunction of fewer taxpayers with higher welfare payments has led to intense pressure on the public purse, with the national deficit running at $1.3trillion per year.

The Heritage Foundation argues that the reduction in the number of taxpayers will create an electorate dominated by non-taxpayers, who will always support higher taxes and spending because their own money is not at stake.

Is Attacking Iran The Least Bad Option?

Interesting discussion at Foreign Affairs magazine. While starting a war with Iran is something that no one really wants, it might be the best option in a difficult situation:

Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option
Fearing the costs of a bombing campaign, most critics maintain that if these other tactics fail to impede Tehran’s progress, the United States should simply learn to live with a nuclear Iran.

But skeptics of military action fail to appreciate the true danger that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond. And their grim forecasts assume that the cure would be worse than the disease -- that is, that the consequences of a U.S. assault on Iran would be as bad as or worse than those of Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions. But that is a faulty assumption.

The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.

The article linked to above prompted a response, also worth reading, The Case For Regime Change in Iran: Go Big -- Then Go Home
[A] limited military strike would only be a temporary fix, and it could actually do the opposite of what it intends -- drive the program further underground and allow Iran to retain the ability to threaten the United States and its allies.

If the United States seriously considers military action, it would be better to plan an operation that not only strikes the nuclear program but aims to destabilize the regime, potentially resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis once and for all.

Wow. So the argument against hitting Iran nuclear sites is that it doesn't go far enough? Maybe. At the link are other articles arguing we shouldn't strike at all, and that sanctions will change the Iranian regime's course. The problem is that time and time again, brutal regimes are capable of inflicting much misery and suffering on the people, and still stay in power for prolonged periods. There just doesn't seem to be any good options in dealing with Iran.

22 February 2012

As Much Fun As You Can Have With The Greek Debt Crisis

I thought, and maybe you will too, that the following was not only educational but probably the only chance to have a (small) bit of fun resolving the Greek Debt Crisis.

I kept ending up recommending "The Full Argentina", ending up on page 52 repeatedly. My thirteen year old daughter kept ending up (most of the time) on page 5, doing at least as well as actual Eurocrats in charge.

From the blog, Crooked Timber:

So, what would your plan for Greece be?
Because the whole issue is a twisty turny maze which at times seems to consist of nothing but false moves, I am presenting it in the form of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.

Time For An Upgrade

Here's an article that I came across that is worth reading, from The American Interest. It's a long article, and worth checking out. We need to get our act together to preserve our classical liberal heritage.
The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age.
The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.
Millions of Americans are conservatives and even reactionaries but think of themselves as “liberals”; at the same time, millions of genuine liberals and even radicals call themselves conservative. It’s an unholy mess that calls desperately for a language intervention.
Liberalism insists that an open, dynamic society will lead to a better life for all, and that promoting ordered liberty is the morally obligatory as well as the pragmatically desirable thing to do.
Nobody has a real answer for the restructuring of manufacturing and the loss of jobs to automation and outsourcing. As long as we are stuck with the current structures, nobody can provide the growing levels of medical and educational services we want without bankrupting the country.
Neither “liberals” nor “conservatives” can end the generation-long stagnation in the wage level of ordinary American families. Neither can stop the accelerating erosion of the fiscal strength of our governments at all levels without disastrous reductions in the benefits and services on which many Americans depend.

This should be a time of adventure, innovation and creativity in the building of liberalism 5.0. America is ready for an upgrade to a new and higher level; indeed, we are overdue for a project that can capture the best energies of our rising generations, those who will lead the United States and the world to new and richer ways of living that will make the “advanced” societies of the 20th century look primitive, backward and unfulfilled.

We’ve wasted too many years arguing over how to retrieve the irretrievable; can we please now get on with the actual business of this great, liberal, unapologetically forward-looking nation?

Time to Dust Off The Old Blog

Let out a big yawn and a stretch and let's get going again.