Decentralized democracy, sputtering economy, Iranian Empire, the “Marxifix” and The Festival of Insignificance

Democracy today needs to be right more often and more quickly, because our accelerating technology creates more rapidly developing threats abroad, like new weapons of mass destruction, and new dislocations at home, like the disruption of employment through automation.   Man is both homo faber–nature’s preeminent maker of tools to change the world– and homo sapiens–nature’s master of symbols and language to represent and understand it.   We will continue to thrive only if these capacities develop in tandem.

“Without question, we need to disarm Saddam Hussein. A deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a real and grave threat to our security.”
— Sen. John F. Kerry, Oct. 9, 2002

“We know that he has stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country.” — Al Gore, Sept. 23, 2002

“The community of nations may see more and more of the very kind of threat Iraq poses now: a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists.”
— President Bill Clinton, 1998

“In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program… ” — Sen. Hillary Clinton, Oct 10, 2002

Sometimes the price of being right is looking like you’re wrong, eh guys?

But the four people quoted above weren’t lying. Okay, maybe they weren’t 100% certain, but based on whatever intelligence they had access to at the time, clearly they were convinced Saddam Hussein had WMD’s.

And would ‘ya looky here:

Sunni extremists in Iraq have now occupied what was once Saddam Hussein’s premier chemical-weapons facility and found…. wait for it: The dreaded, long lost, never were there in the first-place, Bush lied – people died: Weapons of mass destruction.

ISIS, the group people are saying is worse than Al Qaeda – I guess you have to be competitive in today’s world – has apparently captured a stockpile of chemical weapons which if you listen to the aforementioned Clinton, Clinton, Gore & Kerry since the war, never existed.

To sum up: The agreement with Iran, even if Iran complies (which is a heroic assumption), will merely delay the weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program by a few years, while giving Iran a massive boost in conventional power in the meantime. What do you think Iran’s Sunni neighbors, all of whom are terrified of Iranian power, will do in response? There is a good possibility that this agreement will set off a massive regional arms race, in both conventional and nuclear weaponry, while also leading states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to make common cause with the Islamic State as a hedge against Iranian designs in the region.

That’s assuming, of course, that the agreement is not blocked by Congress. But it’s unlikely that the Senate can muster a veto-proof majority to override the veto Obama promised to deliver of any bill that seeks to block this terrible deal. Assuming, as appears probable, that this deal is in fact implemented, future historians may well write of July 14, 2015, as the date when American dominance in the Middle East was supplanted by the Iranian Imperium.

In 2015, the human race will create about $75 trillion in economic output, well more than half of which will be the product of the three largest economies: those of the United States ($18 trillion), the European Union ($16 trillion), and China ($11 trillion). Two of those economies are in the midst of serious economic and political crises. The other is in the grip of something much more difficult to overcome: complacency.

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The Marxifix was created by radical Jesuit Luis Espinal as a symbol for Liberation Theology, an attempt to blend Marxism and Christianity—or rather, to take over the latter as an instrument of the former. The previous pope who understood the evil of Communism—John Paul II—made a significant effort to suppress Liberation Theology during the 1980s, particularly in its stronghold in Latin America. So the presentation of the Marxifix to Francis is a deliberately provocative act, aimed by a socialist at a fissure within the Church.

That’s why Francis’s response is ominous. Hetook Morales’s gesture, not as an affront to the faith, but as an opportunity for “dialogue” between Christianity and Marxism.

“Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence,” Kundera writes. “It is all around us, and everywhere and always. It is present even when no one wants to see it: in atrocities, in bloody battles, in the worst disasters.” Here he echoes a passage from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and an idea that he’s developed in much of his work:

The assassination of Allende quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Bohemia, the bloody massacre in Bangladesh caused Allende to be forgotten, the din of war in the Sinai Desert drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the massacres in Cambodia caused the Sinai to be forgotten, and so on, and on and on, until everyone has completely forgotten everything.

In Kundera’s novels, forgetting is often not only unavoidable but also desirable. “How sweet it would be to forget history!” he wrote in Life Is Elsewhere (1973).

Neo-liberalism, human hands, anti-capitalist culture, graphene desalination, Pluto flyby and medieval leather shoes

The clear implication is that what governments do under ‘neo-liberalism’ is not simply to withdraw and allow markets to operate unfettered, but rather to interfere with them in different kinds of ways. This prompts the obvious yet important question: ‘different from what?’ – and we shall return to that below. But first, it is worth our considering another thing that neo-liberalism is not: the Eurozone.

“The inevitable implication is that when hominins (the extended human family excluding apes) started producing flaked stone tools in a systematic fashion, probably as early as 3.3 million years ago, their hands were—in terms of overall proportions—pretty much like ours today,” Almecija told AFP by email.

“Another important take-home message is that if are largely primitive, the ‘relevant’ changes promoting the emergence of widespread reliance on stone tool culture were probably neurological” and not manual—meaning it was our brains that allowed for adaptation.

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In The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality Ludwig von Mises described this cultural anti-capitalism:

As John Doe sees it, all those new industries that are supplying him with amenities unknown to his father came into being by some mythical agency called progress. Capital accumulation, entrepreneurship and technological ingenuity did not contribute anything to the spontaneous generation of prosperity. If any man has to be credited with what John Doe considers as the rise in the productivity of labor, then it is the man on the assembly line. …

The authors of this description of capitalistic industry are praised at universities as the greatest philosophers and benefactors of mankind and their teachings are accepted with reverential awe by the millions whose homes, besides other gadgets, are equipped with radio and television sets.

While more work is required to build a robust and cost-effective filtration system, the new ability to align sheets of graphene so that water but nothing else is transmitted may be the simple game-changer that allows the world to finally address the growing water crisis.

“The most striking thing geologically is we have not yet found a single impact feature on this image,” says New Horizons science team member John Spencer. “Just eyeballing it we think it has to be less than 100 million years old, which is a small fraction of the age of the solar system — it could be active right now.”

And the high-resolution image is only one of many that are still to come.

Experts uncovered 50 medieval leather shoes and a bag as well as a wooden bowl and timber posts at the Westgate Shopping Centre excavation.

The objects which “tell us about everyday people” have been so well preserved because the Thames floodplain area is below the water level.

Project director Ben Ford said: “These finds are as rare as gold.”

Krugman-care, the four horsemen, hammer-and-sickle crucifix, meats, Pluto, Iran deal, Trumpism and racehorses

This is what happened last week during a debate at Freedom Fest between Krugman and Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation. The general topic concerned the restoration of the American dream and, considering the amount of damage Obamacare has inflicted on that dream, it was inevitable that the misbegotten health care law would come up sooner or later. Krugman, desperate to convince the audience that the rattletrap was “working quite well,” claimed that it had lowered the cost of U.S. health care. PJ Media’s Liz Sheld reports, “The whole room laughed at that howler.”

The U.S. and its allies are faced with four major threats, and they are as diverse and yet as akin as the proverbial apocalyptic horsemen.

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The Vatican announced that the pope had not been informed in advance about the gift. And some commentators said that photos of the pope and Morales show that the pope was actually offended. That was a false — probably wishful — interpretation. The pope himself later announced that he was keeping the hammer-and-sickle crucifix and taking it home, saying, “I understand this work. For me it wasn’t an offense.” And “Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi . . . said he personally wasn’t offended by Morales’ gift” (the Guardian).

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British researchers Patrick Sharman and Alatair J. Wilson argue that racehorses are indeed getting faster.

The ideology is a 21st century version of right fascism — one of the most politically successful ideological strains of 20th century politics. Though hardly anyone talks about it today, we really should. It is still real. It exists. It is distinct. It is not going away. Trump has tapped into it, absorbing unto his own political ambitions every conceivable bourgeois resentment: race, class, sex, religion, economic. You would have to be hopelessly ignorant of modern history not to see the outlines and where they end up.

For now, Trump seems more like comedy than reality. I want to laugh about what he said, like reading a comic-book version of Franco, Mussolini, or Hitler. And truly I did laugh, as when he denounced the existence of tech support in India that serves American companies (“how can it be cheaper to call people there than here?” — as if he still thinks that long-distance charges apply).

Let’s hope this laughter doesn’t turn to tears.

Now, here’s the thing that gets me and makes me think: if Pluto weren’t in our Solar System, we would have no problem calling it a “rogue planet.”

So why do we stop calling it a planet because it’s in our Solar System? Perhaps we need a better word that encompasses all the artificial categories we created. Something that includes rocky planets, large moons, gas giants, dwarf planets, rogue planets, large Kuiper belt objects, large asteroids, and so on.

Why don’t we just call them what they are: worlds.

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Also, some evidence shows that vegetarians kill more animals than meat-eaters. Steven Davis, a researcher in the animal science department at Oregon State University, found that tractors, making space for more fields of kale and whole grains, kill tons of rabbits, mice, and other field-dwelling cutie pies.

“What is it that makes it OK to kill animals of the field so that we can eat [vegetables or fruits] but not pigs or chickens or cows?”

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Of the administration’s accumulated foreign-policy mistakes in the last six years, none have been catastrophic for the United States: Not the Chinese building islands, the Russians’ taking Crimea, or the collapse into civil wars of Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. But the Iran deal has the makings of a catastrophe. Attention now shifts to the U.S. Congress to review today’s accord, arguably the worst international accord not just in American history or modern history, but ever. Congress must reject this deal. Republican senators and representatives have shown themselves firm on this topic; will the Democrats rise to the occasion and provide the votes for a veto override? They need to feel the pressure.

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Hillaritynomics, pyramids, Syriza, pentaquarks, rival economists, samarium hexaboride and the French Revolution

It is a supreme irony of modern American life that the political movement that terms itself “progressive” is, in the economic realm at least, increasingly passionate about the status quo. Speaking today about the burgeoning “gig economy,” presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton could not help herself but to set modernity firmly within aging ideological tram-lines. Developments such as AirBnB, Zaarly, Uber, DogVacay, and RelayRides, Clinton conceded, are not likely to “go away” any time soon. But they are worrying nonetheless. Indeed, the “sharing economy,” she proposed, is “polarizing” and it is disruptive — guilty of no less than “displacing or downgrading blue-collar jobs.” Technological advances, she concluded, must not “determine our destiny.”

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The period from roughly 2700 BCE to 2500 BCE was the age of the pyramid in Egypt, and one of these was so massive that it remained the tallest building in the world for the next thirty-eight centuries

Syriza’s strategy, insofar as there was one, uncovered a method of failing that was much more complete and all-encompassing than anyone had thought possible at the start of the process.

“The pentaquark is not just any new particle,” said LHCb spokesperson Guy Wilkinson. It represents a way to aggregate quarks, namely the fundamental constituents of ordinary protons and neutrons, in a pattern that has never been observed before in over fifty years of experimental searches. Studying its properties may allow us to understand better how ordinary matter, the protons and neutrons from which we’re all made, is constituted.”

The economic causes of the French Revolution are sometimes insufficiently appreciated. In his book The French Revolution: An Economic Interpretation, Florin Aftalion outlines some of those causes. The French state engaged in wars throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. To pay for the wars, it employed complex and burdensome taxation, tax farming, borrowing, debt repudiation and forced “disgorgement” from the financiers, and debasement of the currency. Lord Acton wrote that people had been anticipating revolution in France for a century. And revolution came.

Liberals and libertarians admired the fundamental values it represented. Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek both hailed “the ideas of 1789” and contrasted them with “the ideas of 1914” — that is, liberty versus state-directed organization.

In other words, candidate Clinton is signaling that she’s a member of the economic illiterati – a group that for centuries has warned that ordinary people will be impoverished by expanded opportunities to buy and sell (that is, by globalization), by machinery that releases labor to perform tasks that would otherwise be too costly to perform (that is, by automation), and by innovations that increase the supply of goods and services by encouraging owners of private property to use their properties more intensively to satisfy consumer demands (that is, by the sharing economy).

Biography is no substitute for history, much less for theory and history of thought, and journalism is, at best, only a provisional substitute for biography. But one way of understanding what happened in economics in the twentieth century is to view it as an argument between Samuelson and Friedman that lasted nearly eighty years, until one aspect of it, at least, was resolved by the financial crisis of 2008. The departments of economics they founded in Cambridge and Chicago, headquarters in the long wars between the Keynesians and the monetarists, came to be the Athens and Sparta of their day.

“This is a big shock,” said Suchitra Sebastian, a condensed matter physicist at the University of Cambridge whose findings appeared today in an advance online edition of the journal Science. Insulators and metals are essentially opposites, she said. “But somehow, it’s a material that’s both. It’s contrary to everything that we know.”

PLDD, blended-learning and the beautiful messines of freedom, Science Mag and hiatus redivivus

I would like to tell you about a serious condition afflicting thousands of policy analysts.  It’s called Petty Little Dictator Disorder, or PLDD, and you or someone you love could be suffering from this epidemic sweeping through our think tanks, advocacy groups, and government offices.

By way of comparison, the arrangement of having teachers act as both instructors and assessors is akin to asking the judges in a gymnastics competition to also coach the gymnasts leading up to the event, or asking a restaurant manager to conduct official food handling inspections at his restaurant. In many domains of life, we recognize that we create problematic conflicts of interest if we ask people who produce or perform to also provide the ratings of their outputs for external audiences. Yet, in education it is the norm to ask teachers to both coach their students and rate their students’ academic achievements.

Just five weeks after Science magazine prominently featured a paper proclaiming that the multidecadal slowdown in the rate of the earth’s average temperature rise—aka, the “pause” or “hiatus”—was but a figment of bad data, comes a new paper in Science magazine explaining the physical mechanisms that have led to the slowdown.

Wait, what?

You read it right. What Science laid to rest but a month ago, Science has now resurrected. Science (with a capital “S”), and those dedicated to it, should not be amused.

But such is the nature of the game. Science the magazine is more interested in generating publicity for itself than in best serving Science the field—a point being increasingly raised by prominent scientific figures.

Fracking and the climate debate, universal daemonization, mathematical rigour, the cult of genius and illegal trolling

The turn against shale gas rests on three beliefs that have calcified into conventional wisdom among many environmental advocates. The first is that shale gas development causes massive damage to communities and the local environment—regardless of what regulations are put in place. This sets a daunting bar for any climate strategy that includes shale gas production. The second is that gas is no better than coal when it comes to climate change—at least not without big changes to the way gas is produced—and might even increase greenhouse gas emissions. This undercuts any imperative to wrestle with trade-offs between local risks and climate benefits from gas. The third is that renewable energy has made such rapid progress that a shift to a zero-carbon energy future is imminent. This makes natural gas unnecessary, and potentially a threat to a complete and speedy transition away from fossil fuels.

But each of these is a myth or half-truth. Strict rules and smart planning can safeguard communities. If policy drives natural gas to displace coal, the result can be much lower emissions. And, while renewables have made big strides, the biggest beneficiary of a setback to natural gas would, for now, still be coal.

People are colossally underestimating the Internet of Things. It’s not about alarm clocks that start your coffee maker, or about making more “things” talk to each other on a global network. The IoT will fundamentally alter how humans interact with the physical world, and will ultimately register as more significant than the Internet itself.

One can roughly divide mathematical education into three stages:

  1. The “pre-rigorous” stage, in which mathematics is taught in an informal, intuitive manner, based on examples, fuzzy notions, and hand-waving. (For instance, calculus is usually first introduced in terms of slopes, areas, rates of change, and so forth.) The emphasis is more on computation than on theory. This stage generally lasts until the early undergraduate years.
  2. The “rigorous” stage, in which one is now taught that in order to do maths “properly”, one needs to work and think in a much more precise and formal manner (e.g. re-doing calculus by using epsilons and deltas all over the place). The emphasis is now primarily on theory; and one is expected to be able to comfortably manipulate abstract mathematical objects without focusing too much on what such objects actually “mean”. This stage usually occupies the later undergraduate and early graduate years.
  3. The “post-rigorous” stage, in which one has grown comfortable with all the rigorous foundations of one’s chosen field, and is now ready to revisit and refine one’s pre-rigorous intuition on the subject, but this time with the intuition solidly buttressed by rigorous theory. (For instance, in this stage one would be able to quickly and accurately perform computations in vector calculus by using analogies with scalar calculus, or informal and semi-rigorous use of infinitesimals, big-O notation, and so forth, and be able to convert all such calculations into a rigorous argument whenever required.) The emphasis is now on applications, intuition, and the “big picture”. This stage usually occupies the late graduate years and beyond.

The popular image of the lone (and possibly slightly mad) genius – who ignores the literature and other conventional wisdom and manages by some inexplicable inspiration (enhanced, perhaps, with a liberal dash of suffering) to come up with a breathtakingly original solution to a problem that confounded all the experts – is a charming and romantic image, but also a wildly inaccurate one, at least in the world of modern mathematics. We do have spectacular, deep and remarkable results and insights in this subject, of course, but they are the hard-won and cumulative achievement of years, decades, or even centuries of steady work and progress of many good and great mathematicians; the advance from one stage of understanding to the next can be highly non-trivial, and sometimes rather unexpected, but still builds upon the foundation of earlier work rather than starting totally anew.

Internet trolls face up to two years’ jail in New Zealand under a controversial new law which bans “harmful digital communications”.

And under a parallel amendment to New Zealand’s Crimes Act, a person who tells another to kill themselves faces up to three years in prison.

The law will help mitigate the harm caused by cyber-bulling and give victims a quick and effective means of redress, supporters said.

But critics said the law harms free speech and its fine print could threaten public interest journalism in the country.

Common planets, incremental change, Moldova, capitalist theory, animal mind-melds and the (not so) Dark Ages

But the biggest surprise is this: there’s a whole class of worlds in between the size of Earth and Neptune, called either super-Earths or mini-Neptunes, where a rocky core is surrounded by a hydrogen-and-helium envelope of gas. This class not only exists, but it’s the most common type of planet in the Universe, to the best of our knowledge.

So why don’t we have even one in our Solar System?

Believe it or not, the chances are very good that we did. Once.

Imagining an effective strategy aimed at social transformation is an intrinsically complex matter, and no single method will succeed. A viable strategic mix must include, among other things, efforts to roll back the size and scope of the state incrementally. Government is unlikely to vanish all at once, so it is illegitimate to object that incremental changes can be reversed. (Of course they can — eternal vigilance, you know.)

Bringing down pro-EU governments fits all too well with Russia’s ambitions in the region. In which case the EU’s denial of budgetary support to Moldova is political suicide. Without that support, Moldova will collapse. And a failed state sandwiched between the unstable Ukraine and fragile Balkans – and featuring a pro-Kremlin enclave described by the FTas a “flashpoint – is the last thing the EU needs. It should think again.

There are other responses to the claim that socialism is more just and humane than capitalism, but I would like to focus on the one that I’ve often used: socialism in practice has always and everywhere tended to lead, to the degree that it is consistently applied, not to freedom and material well-being, but to tyranny and want. In other words, while socialism in theory may be all good things to all good people, the more government has practiced collectivism and central planning to achieve its goals of justice and equality, the farther it has fallen short of those goals.

In recent years, scientists have wondered what brains could do if they were linked together into even bigger networks. Miguel A. Nicolelis, director of the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University, and his colleagues have now made the idea a bit more tangible by linking together animal brains with electrodes.

The idea that economic integration leads inexorably to political integration or is in itself sufficient was the brainchild of Jean Monnet, the “Father of Europe”. But it is based on a misreading of the unification process of Germany in the 19th century, which involved a customs union called theZollverein. This misconception continues to undermine the single currency because its advocates fail to appreciate that a polity’s primary concern is security rather than trade, as Otto von Bismarck, the “Father of Germany”, well understood. The great perversion for many people across Southern Europe is that the euro, by undermining economic security, has stoked political instability and a widespread feeling of powerlessness.

The aim? To perfect and mass-produce a novel silicon-based version of the transistor. This minute, solid device, no bigger than a fingernail, would be composed of silicon treated chemically in complex ways. It promised unprecedented standards of reliability to electronic devices. Shockley was counting on the reality that, in high-stakes defense markets, performance always trumped mere price. To accomplish his ambition, he urgently needed a competent chemist. He knew that Moore had recently turned down a position at a nuclear weapons lab in California. Might this young scientist be interested in the race to produce a reliable silicon transistor instead?

For many, the Middle Ages are ineradicably reprehensible, as well as comic: knights immobilized in their armor, fat monks panting after licentious nuns, ladies locked into chastity belts. The stand-bys of eighteenth-century derision have stood the test of time. Remember those angels dancing on a pinpoint? They still dance for those who believe that the medieval schools were engaged in a wasted intellectual effort.

Unfair! the medievalists have shouted, from the days when Edward Gibbon cried “Gone Away!” and set the enlightened hounds on the scent of decay and moldy monks that in his nostrils accompanied the fall of the Roman Empire. Unfair because it has been found again and again that our skills, laws, liberties, nations, and languages are the result of hard work in the millennium reputed dark, unlit by reason, and recessive from the sunshine of the classical civilizations, when perfectly formed philosophers sat debating in public colonnades, monk-free.