Saturday, April 23, 2016
With England's "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, England permanently established its independence from French influence. At the time, England's population and economy were roughly half the size of France's. What followed was a 127 year war of attrition for world domination that ended at Waterloo in 1812 with England's victory over France. How did England pull this off? I think is came down to one thing. The English people viewed their government as more legitimate because it downsized its military during peacetime.
The war with France was actually a series of wars between periods of peace. During the times of peace, the English government would reduce spending and the economy would grow. This legitimized the English government and enable it to raise taxes in wartime. The English aristocracy was willing to pay these taxes because they were temporary and necessary. The English government was thus able to match France's spending during wartime even though its economy was much smaller. The French monarchy was much more corrupt and did not reduce spending in peace time. During wartime, the French aristocracy was not willing to pay taxes because they felt their money would be wasted and that it would only lead to more taxes. As a result, by the time the French finally got rid of their monarchy in 1789, England's economy had grown to equal France's.
During the Cold War, the US was threatened by the Soviet Union and we needed to respond to that threat. But that threat went away with the collapse of the Soviet Union. While there was some downsizing of the military, it was not nearly enough. When I left the Navy in 1991, there were 18 Trident submarines either in operation or under construction. Guess how many there are in operation today? 18! My ship is still in operation 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 25 years after the threat it was built for went away. In the 1980's, at the height of the Cold War, US defense spending was about 6% of GDP. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, US defense spending gradually declined to about 3.5% of GDP in 2001. In 2015, defense spending was about 4.5% of GDP. The Russian economy is currently about 7% the size of the United State's economy. Russia is not the biggest threat facing the United States, it's China. China's economy is about 50% the size of the US economy and growing fast, a situation similar to England and France in 1688. China's defense budget is difficult to determine but is somewhere around 1% of GDP (about 20% of US defense spending). This lower defense spending and faster economic growth in China are related. With current trends, China's economy is predicted to overtake the US in 11 years. We need to get our defense spending down now, while China is not a military threat, and grow our economy. Otherwise we are heading for our own Waterloo.
Tuesday, January 19, 2016
I supported Barack Obama for president in the 2008 election. As the election was approaching, Obama had a comfortable lead in the polls. I wanted to be a part of this historical event so I decided to be a poll worker. I volunteered and went through the training program. I was assigned to a mostly African American polling station in an Atlanta housing project.
I ended up working the registration computers because I had the best computer skills even though I was the least experienced poll worker. There were some computer problems and the line was out the door all day long. Hundreds of people came to vote. Many were elderly and had not voted since the Kennedy election. Many people had registration issues. We tried everything we could to allow them to vote but often we could not. When we called city officials for help the response was always the same, "do not let them vote." It was not voter suppression but more a case of not wanting to take any chances in risking the integrity of the election. The voters took it in stride. They knew Barack Obama was going to win and they were excited about it. It felt like a big party all day long.
One major concern I did have was with the computer voting machines. The voting computers printed out a tally of the vote at the end of the day that we collected and passed on, along with the memory cards. There was no way the poll workers could verify that the printout was accurate. There really is no system of checks on the voting machines and it would be simple to rig them. With so much at stake, this is ludicrous, and we should not stand for it. Even if it takes going back to paper ballots, I would prefer that to using a system so susceptible to fraud.
Like most people, I am particularly disappointed in this year's presidential election. There is enormous rage against both parties. People are fed up and desperate. I think the support for Trump is a protest vote more than anything. People know he is a buffoon. What people are saying is that, given a choice between a clown and the status-quo, a clown is better. I hear you.
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
What is the computing power of the brain? Well, it is so vast, no one really has any idea. There are some expensive research programs that are using some of the fastest arrays of supercomputers to model a neuron. But these programs are only modeling the inputs and outputs of a neuron, not the processing that goes on inside a single neuron, which is vast. The human brain has about 80 billion neurons with 100 trillion connections.
Current technology (microscopes and phosphorescence) can record 80,000 neurons firing a second. That is one millionth of the number of neurons in the human brain. Neurons fire at a rate of about once a millisecond so that is one thousand times faster than is currently recordable. So just to record the neurons firing in the human brain, current technology is nine orders of magnitude short. Plus a neuron firing is not a binary operation but a very complex phenomenon that transmits much more than one bit of information. No one really knows how much data is transmitted in a neuron firing. And again this take no consideration of the processing going on inside the neuron. Plus, the tools to analyses the information from recording 80,000 neurons firing a second is still quite basic and has not yielded much of use. I am sure this technology will continue to improve and make useful discoveries but it is so far from modeling the human brain that it is just guess work to know even how many ordered of magnitude it has to go. We do not understand many basic questions about how the brain operates such as how the brain stores information.
The movies like to show us robots that look, think, and act like humans (The Terminator series, Ex-Machina, on and on). It is easier for the movie makers to use humans for robots than to try to build an actual robot. The same goes for time travel. Instead of trying to build a whole new futuristic set, they just have the future travel back to our time and look like us. They just saved millions of dollars in production costs. But these are just stories. You can not go back in time and you can not build a human brain out of silicon chips. It is just never going to happen.
Many reasonable people are quick to assume that the brain is simply a deterministic machine. I am sure many scientists at the dawn of the industrial age thought the brain was some kind of hydrolic or mechanical geared machine like a stream engine, the leading technology at the time. Now people think the brain is some kind of digital information processor. They will tell you that consciousness and free will are illusions. If pressed, they will often resort to ad hominem attacks, which I find ironic. I find no basis for giving up on the idea of free will. Free will is an experience that I have prior to the deterministic world. Extrapolating the relatively paltry processing power of computers to what the brain does seems a particularly ludicrous argument against free will.
Monday, June 29, 2015
When Walmart successfully sued Visa/MasterCard for monopoly practices, Visa/MasterCard appealed to the Supreme Court. Several industry trade associations petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the decision. These trade associations were:
Why would these trade associations weigh in on the side of Visa/MasterCard in an antitrust suite? It is because they are concerned about a similar lawsuit against them. All these industries are operating as monopolies. This is a rare and clear showing of what I will call "The Cartel" that has control of our economy. The Cartel is the 800 pound gorilla in the room that no one is talking about.
For example, the oil industry operated as a cartel. The price of oil is volatile and seems to currently be fluctuating between $40/barrel and $120/barrel on a roughly five year cycle. The price at the gas pump roughly follows this. But the price of oil company stocks has almost no relation to the price of oil. How can this be? It is because the oil market is not operating as a free market. Investors can not invest directly in oil as a commodity like they can in virtually all other commodities. An investor, such as a hedge fund, can not buy a barrel of oil and sell it five years later. The price of a barrel of oil is a totally artificial price set by the oil companies.
Breaking up the cartel would have an enormous positive impact on the US and world economy. It is THE source of most of our economic problems. The problem is not that the US economy is facing greater competition from abroad. This should be a good thing. The problem is that we are not competitive at home.
The way to fix this is straight forward. Antitrust laws already exist. They just need to be enforced.
Saturday, February 1, 2014
I am going to get preachy. That’s normally a bad thing but, for this particular topic, it is necessary. I would like you to consider balancing your vote and by that I mean voting for at least one candidate in each of the two parties every election. Now before you freak out, let me finish.
There is more to a candidate than just party affiliation. There is more to a candidate than the issues. Candidates should be judged on who they are as a person. Qualities like honesty, work ethic, charisma, management skill, relevant experience, intelligence. Can this candidate inspire people to do their best? Can this candidate get things done? These are the questions we need to ask.
When you vote all for one party, you are not considering these qualities. The odds that one party has all the best candidates for every position are pretty much zero.
I bet you are wondering why when your party gets elected, very little of what they promised gets done. Well if you always vote for the same party, the problem is you. Your party leadership knows all they need to do is pay lip service to your issues and you will vote for them regardless of how much they deliver or who they run for office. They know as long as they can keep the election about the issues and not the candidates, they have your vote. It is easy for them. It is lazy of you.
So consider this. The deadlock is not in Congress. The deadlock is in your head. Find a candidate in the other party to vote for in the next election.
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Seoul - 1991
When I got out of the Navy, I had several weeks of vacation time that I was never able to take. I went on what the Navy calls “terminal leave”. I processed out of the Navy but continued to get paid for several weeks. I was technically still in the Navy during this time and I was allowed to keep my ID card. I hopped on an Air Force cargo plane and went to Korea.
At the time, there were videos on the news of large student protests in Seoul. The students would gather on a street at a time and place that was not announced to the public. The Korean government responded with tear gas and water cannons. By the time I got there, the US military had banded its personnel from entering Seoul but I went anyway.
I found the city mostly deserted that day. There were Korean soldiers at most intersections and armored cars with water cannons at the larger intersections. A few businessmen were going to/from work. There were no tourist, women, or children on the streets. No shopping. The museums were open and eerily empty.
For lunch, I bought a bowl of noodles from a street vender and sat down at a picnic table in a park to eat it. A man dressed in a suit in his late 50’s sat down across from me. He was friendly and spoke fluent English. He told me he had been an interpreter for the US Army during the Korean war. He asked me who I was and what I was doing there and I told him. He could tell I was military from my haircut. We talked about politics and Korean history and American culture. I had a map of Seoul and had marked out several tourist places I wanted to see. He studied my map carefully and said he would go with me.
As we walked through Seoul, each time we passed a group of soldiers, he would stop and talk to the squad leader. I could not tell what he was saying but I could tell he outranked everyone we passed. I never saw any protests that day. The whole city was quite. At the end of the day, he rode the bus with me halfway back to the air base I was stay at. He asked me to write down my name and contact information for him, which I did. I got the impression that he was grateful to the US military for saving Korea. I enjoyed our conversations that day and I never had any trouble with him or the Korean government.
Colombia - 1995
I went on a human rights fact finding mission to Colombia with Witness for Peace. There were seven of us, five Americans and two Colombians. There was widespread violence in Colombia and virtually no foreigners. US embassy personnel were not allowed to leave Bogotá.
Shortly after we arrived, we found out about a protest that was going on in a small town named Castillo in the Colombian Amazon and decided to go. It was an extremely remote. As we approached, we noticed the small farms were abandoned. In the town we found about a thousand people camped out in the plaza and the Colombian army patrolling the parameter. We shocked everyone when we showed up.
We had a letter from the president of Colombia explaining who we were and granting us freedom to move around the country. We showed it to the Army officer in charge and there was a tense moment where he decided what to do with us. He let us pass. He could just as easily arrested us. Inside the plaza, people were living in tents they constructed out of plastic sheeting. They had been there for a week. Sanitation was poor. These people were substance farmers, peasants, campasinos. The campasinos had put up a rope around the plaza and asked the military to say out of it, which they did. I videoed the whole scene.
They had come in from the countryside because they were being killed by a gang supported by the region's large cattle ranchers. The process was simple. The gang would put a notice on the door of the farmer’s house telling him to get off his land. If he did not leave, he was killed. There was a communist rebel group in the area too that was fighting the rancher’s gang. The communist would take food and supplies from the campasinos but generally did not kill them. The army actively fought the communist rebels and allowed the rancher gangs to operate freely.
We met with the town’s elected communist mayor who was in his early twenties. He was feeding his baby Coca-cola while we talked to him. Several previous majors had been assassinated. He struck me as a nice, honest, simple guy who was either very brave or unaware of the danger he was in.
The campasenos could not hold out much longer. They needed to get back to their farms and take care of their animals. An agreement was reached in which the government promised to help protect the farmers and they went home. We went back to Bogota and debriefed the CIA at the US Embassy. Then we went to Medellin.
The mayor of Castillo was assassinated shortly after our visit. A nun that had helped us get there was threatened and had to leave the country.
In meeting with human rights activist throughout Colombia, I always asked them what I could do, as an American, to help them. The US government had minimal influence in Colombia so this was not an easy question to answer. The answer I got was always the same – “close the School of the Americas”.
School of the Americas - 1997
There was a big difference between the Colombian army and the US Army. You could see it in the eyes of the civilians. The Colombians were terrified of their army.
The School of the Americas is a US Army school located at Fort Benning, Georgia that trains soldiers from Latin American. The school has trained some of the world’s worst thugs who have committed many massacres. By 1997, documents had leaked showing that the school taught torture techniques. This was before Guantanamo and was a major scandal. Father Roy had created and ran SOA Watch to shut down the school. I joined their protest at Fort Benning in the fall of 1997.
There were thousands of protesters at the gate to Fort Benning and I was among 600 people who walked into the base. We were quickly arrested. We were taken to a fenced field. We were processed at a tent where our pictures and fingerprints were taken. We were treated well. We were given hot soup and sandwiches. A school bus was driven in so the elderly could get out of the cold. After about six hours, we were released.
The Army decided to prosecute 21 of the 600 of us. These were the people who had trespassed at Fort Benning the previous year and I was not among them. I watched the trial. The Federal judge was demented and could not stay awake during the trial. The only thing he was capable of was declaring a guilty verdict and sentencing the maximum. The 21 charged spent six months in jail each. The judge had no business being there and should have been forcibly retired. But the Army knew this would happen and did it anyway.
The protests continued with thousands of people and hundreds of arrests and prison sentences to people who were acting selflessly on their consciences. The Army changed the name of the school but nothing else about the school changed and it remains open today. The protests continue.
Today the US has Guantanamo and probably secret CIA prisons were we torture suspected terrorists. I would not have imagined this possible twenty years ago. We seem to have done a serious backslide on human rights. I have kids now so I do not do protests anymore. Maybe I will do protests again when my kids are older.
Friday, January 11, 2013
Gonochoristic is the opposite of hermaphroditic. In gonochoristic reproduction, individuals are either male or female but not both. About 3-4% of plant species are gonochoristic. The rest of plant species are hermaphriditic. A few animal species are hermaphraditic, mostly mollusks. The vast majority of animal species are gonochoristic. Hermaphroditic reproduction is much more efficient than gonochoristic reproduction because all individuals can reproduce. Hermaphroditic reproduction can be obligatory out breed to achieve the similar genetic diversity as gonochoristic reproduction.
So what is it about a species' mobility that makes gonochoristic reproduction such an advantage?
Insects are gonochoristic and they are the epitome of mobile. They are highly adaptable, with short life spans and large numbers of offspring per generation. The variety of insects is staggering. Butterflys and dragonflys migrate with the seasons hundreds of miles over several generations. Butterfly metamorph to completely different body plans. Yet in all their adaptation, no insect species is hermaphroditic.
Gonochoristic reproduction is faster adapting than hermaphriditic reproduction. By having two distinct sexes, a species can divide its risks. Males can take on more risks than females. This allows the species to reap the benefits of the risking with half the exposure. Lets take for example the amount of fur a mammal grows to protect itself from the cold. Suppose the females could grow and loose fur with the temperature change while males must keep a fixed amount of fur. Male fur follows a normal distribution with some males having a lot of fur and some having little but they do not grow more or less of it. Now suppose the climate radically cools down to the point that half the males freeze to death while most of the females grow more fur and survive. The next generation will have much more fur since they inherit this trait from the surviving males. Also, the population is little impacted since most of the females survive. Now imagine this same scenario with hermaphroditic reproduction. Almost all the individual grow more fur and survive. The hermaphroditic species is very slow to adapt at the genetic level and can not compete with the gonochoristic species.
This could explain things like why men have weaker immune systems than women. It is adaptive to the survival of the species. By some of the men dying of disease, the next generation is more resistant. A species with a stronger male immune system could not compete with a species with a weaker male immune system.
Gonochoristic reproduction is faster adapting while hermaphroditic reproduction is more efficient. So one possibility is that mobility makes the faster adaptation of gonochoristic reproduction more significant than the efficiency of hermaphroditic reproduction.