Friday, July 10, 2015

Snake Oil Salesmen

The last time I checked you can still buy your POM Wonderful at our local supermarkets. This despite the fact that a judge issued a ‘cease and desist,’ ordering POM to stop claiming its beverage benefits everything from your brain to your prostate. Distributors aren’t going to remove the stuff just because its maker’s lied; not as long as people keep buying it, and they do. POM’s 8 oz. bottle is now the fastest-selling, single-serve premium refrigerated juice.

How to explain the fact that we Americans continue to believe our corporate snake oil salesmen, but vociferously disbelieve scientists, who warn us of global warming and its consequences? Well, I can think of several reasons for this.

The first is that corporations are darned good at advertising; ‘good’ in the sense that they know their audience and their medium, not necessarily that they tell the truth. It’s hard to imagine anyone who is unaware of some of corporate America’s more scandalous lies, from tobacco executives swearing to Congress that nicotine wasn’t addictive, to Goldman Sachs traders selling mortgage-backed securities they knew were junk. However, I would venture to guess that far fewer Americans are aware of the orchestrated disinformation campaign that’s been waged by corporations with an interest in retaining the status quo in fossil fuel use. Read the book, or see the documentary, ‘Merchants of Doubt’ for information on this. The bottom line is that the fossil fuel industry has been very effective in pulling the wool (or more accurately, the smog) over Americans’ eyes regarding the impact of CO2 on climate change.

The second reason Americans accept snake oil and reject science is that snake oil is promoted as making us ‘all better,’ without our having to sacrifice by exercising more, or eating a better diet -- just drink this kind of sour red juice and you’ll “Cheat Death!” In the meantime climate scientists are telling us we do need to sacrifice. We need to cut back energy consumption (but, will that mean walking?!), switch to low/no carbon fuels (does that mean paying more at the pump?!), and, well forget it -- you get the point.

And that brings us to the third reason Americans are so unenthusiastic about accepting the changes necessary in moving to a low carbon energy future -- precisely because it’s the future. People are notoriously shortsighted, predisposed to immediate gratification, and, I hate to say it -- clinically self-absorbed (‘selfie,’ anyone?). We think that the really serious consequences of climate change are going to hit long after we’re gone, so let future generations worry about it. We’re wrong about that, because the future is now, and because, as Pope Francis pointed out, it’s a morally bankrupt attitude.

Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth: (1) Don’t drink POM Wonderful. It won’t cure your erectile dysfunction or “Cheat Death” (and if it did, you’d be here to suffer the consequences of climate change); and (2) don’t believe the other snake oil salesmen who are denying human-caused climate change.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

My Republican Friend Worries About the Federal Debt

My friend wrote:

"I heard on the radio that the Congressional Budget Office has issued a dire warning about the USA's debt problem.  Check it out (I don't have the web address). Of course, NO democrats ever mention our fiscal situation."

Dear Republican Friend;

"Dire" is in the eye of the beholder, e.g., I think climate change is a dire situation. You don't. Nor do your Republican Presidential candidates, who feel so strongly about it NOT being "dire" that they've criticized the Pope for addressing climate change in his encyclical. Yet unchecked, global warming will kill us. What the CBO report says, on the other hand, is that ALL THING BEING EQUAL, a growing debt will make us very uncomfortable. Here's the bottom line of the CBO summary:

If current law remained generally unchanged in the future, federal debt held by the public would decline slightly relative to GDP over the next few years, CBO projects. After that, however, growing budget deficits—caused mainly by the aging of the population and rising health care costs—would push debt back to, and then above, its current high level. The deficit would grow from less than 3 percent of GDP this year to more than 6 percent in 2040. At that point, 25 years from now, federal debt held by the public would exceed 100 percent of GDP.

The consequences of this growth in debt are addressed by the CBO as follows:

How long the nation could sustain such growth in federal debt is impossible to predict with any confidence. At some point, investors would begin to doubt the government’s willingness or ability to meet its debt obligations, requiring it to pay much higher interest costs in order to continue borrowing money. Such a fiscal crisis would present policymakers with extremely difficult choices and would probably have a substantial negative impact on the country. Unfortunately, there is no way to predict confidently whether or when such a fiscal crisis might occur in the United States. In particular, as the debt-to-GDP ratio rises, there is no identifiable point indicating that a crisis is likely or imminent. But all else being equal, the larger a government’s debt, the greater the risk of a fiscal crisis.

Now the reason Democrats don't pay more attention to the debt problem is that the problem is easily fixed. Let's start by eliminating the estate tax and reducing corporate taxes, two of the Republicans favorite "fixes." Did you know that the House just voted (along party lines) to repeal the estate tax? Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that repealing the estate tax would cost the Treasury $14.6 billion in the 2016 fiscal year and $269 billion over 10 years. John Boehner said $269 billion “is nothing more than a drop in the bucket to the federal government.”

Of course the only reason you'd be interested in the facts about estate taxes is to avoid them, but if you are interested in the larger picture and why the Republican crusade to repeal estate taxes is such a farce, you could read this economic intelligence report, which would tell you that you have nothing to worry about, because the federal tax currently applies to estates worth more than $5.43 million for an individual or $10.86 million for a couple. Only Republican donors of the Sheldon Adelson variety worry about this, and even they aren't too worried, because they can afford good tax lawyers.

But I digress. You will note that at the beginning of this email I capitalized "ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL." There are quite straight-forward things our "leaders" in Congress could do to remedy the fiscal situation (e.g., raise the amount well-off people like you and I have to pay into Medicare). Then again, Congress could simply implement the Simpson-Bowles plan. That would result in the savings shown below. But as you've pointed out, every item has a "constituency." That makes it hard for politicians to tackle, especially those with no integrity.

So that leaves us with the prospect of waiting until the POTENTIAL crisis that CBO forecasts occurs in 2040 and then watching as our "leaders" take stop gap measures to stem the tide. And speaking of stemming the tide, do you know what sea level rise is predicted to be by 2040?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Twenty-One Senate Republicans Voted Against the Senate Ban on Torture

Here are their names:
  • Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a former U.S. attorney and state attorney general
  • Tom Cotton of Arkansas, an Iraq War combat veteran
  • Michael Crapo of Idaho
  • James Risch of Idaho
  • Daniel Coats of Indiana, who is not expected to seek reelection
  • Joni Ernst of Iowa, who has served more than two decades in the Army Reserve and National Guard
  • Pat Roberts of Kansas, a former chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, which oversees the CIA
  • Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader
  • David Vitter of Louisiana
  • Thad Cochran of Mississippi, a former Eagle Scout and Navy veteran, and current chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee
  • Roy Blunt of Missouri
  • Deb Fischer of Nebraska
  • Benjamin Sasse of Nebraska
  • Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who said during a congressional hearing into the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, “I'm probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment.”
  • James Lankford of Oklahoma, who holds a graduate degree in divinity and was formerly an evangelism specialist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma
  • Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination and worked to strip federal courts of jurisdiction to hear cases from Guantanamo Bay detainees
  • Tim Scott of South Carolina, an evangelical Christian who is opposed to abortion, gay rights, stem cell research, and euthanasia, and once fought to install the ten commandments outside a municipal building where he was an elected official
  • John Cornyn of Texas, a former state attorney general and associate justice of the Texas Supreme Court
  • Orrin Hatch of Utah, who called Jay Bybee, a primary author of Bush era torture memos, “one of the most honorable people you'll ever meet” while defending him against torture critics who wanted to remove him from a federal judgeship.
  • Mike Lee of Utah, who has opposed extending controversial portions of the Patriot Act as well as the indefinite detention of Americans in the War on Terrorism
  • John Barrasso of Wyoming
And Marco Rubio absented himself from the vote.

Read the Atlantic Article here.

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Brief History of the Road to Iraqi Ruin

by Jon Phillips
When George Herbert Walker Bush and dozens of international partners collaborated to expel Iraq from Kuwait, the first Bush administration sought wise counsel about whether it should invade Iraq and unseat Saddam Hussein. The advice given was to stop ground forces at the border and to make an end of the air war, subject to invasive WMD inspections and rendering harmless. Later, enforced no fly zones, over southern and northern Iraq, were installed to protect Iraqi minorities. This policy was accepted and followed. Although Iraq suffered under sanctions and its economy collapsed, warfare stopped and some semblance of security remained in Iraq. Saddam remained the uncontested power in Iraq and excluded terrorists and nihilists from Iraq to bolster his own regime security. He even tolerated minorities such as Christians to the extent that they didn't threaten his power position. The WMD programs were systematically deconstructed and eliminated.

I was there in the mid 90's and that was the situation on the ground. The country was not destabilized and life went on. When George W. Bush, 'Dubya,' became President he was given advice to not invade for the same reasons as were given to his Dad (don't open Pandora's Box). He ignored this advice and lied America's way (ex-CIA Director Michael Morrell recently reiterated this) into a disaster that has destabilized Iraq and arguably threatens to destabilize the whole region. Terror groups and nihilists have gained a foothold, Islamic sects and ethnic groups are at war, religious minorities have been destroyed or dispersed, and are dying or fleeing to neighboring countries and beyond.

Dubya's 'Grand Old Partyy' desperately wants everyone to forget the horror they lockstep agreed to unleash. None, except Colin Powell, have publicly admitted the travesty of this decision for disaster and apologized for their role in it. Powell was largely a critic of the idea, as he was the first time as Chair of JCS, but ended up going along with it. His compliance ended his outstanding career in public service -- blemished by association.

 Now, the U.S. evangelical Christian community says they're appalled by the genocide committed against their brethren in Iraq and the region. They should be. They should also ask themselves some soul searching questions -- did they vote to put Dubya in office? Are they voting now for people who support greater U.S. war fighting commitments around the globe? Are they willing to send their children to fight in open-ended insurgencies and willing to witness more resulting chaos, genocide and ethnic cleansing that results from power vacuums created?

I pondered these questions and found them so unsettling that I decided to change parties after more than 25 years (something I've written about before). I could not, in good conscience, vote for a party that would do such things and then deny their responsibly and continue to promote policies that would further degrade regional, international and U.S. security.

If Christians in the U.S. give a damn, they must tell their Republican representatives that they won't accept anymore war mongering from them and ask them to come clean on Iraq. Otherwise, I don't want to hear their insincere and/or ignorant whining about the catastrophe that has ensued from their horrific decisions. The devil didn't do this. Bush, backed by over 95% of all Republicans in the House and Senate, made this travesty a reality. They created the conditions to allow the devil to run amok. House Democrats voted 2 to 1 against the Iraq Resolution.

As for me, I'd rather vote for people who aren't so gung ho to go to war.
Jon Phillips is a Senior Nuclear Technology Expert at the International Atomic Energy Agency and Director, Sustainable Nuclear Power Initiative at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thinking Machines -- The Key to Avoiding Disaster

by Jon Phillips

Thinking machines, a traditional source of sci-fi tales of terror, have been more in the news recently. Eminent personalities in science and technology have gone on the record with their concerns (e.g., Hawking, Musk and Gates). Thinking machines already exist, but they're highly specialized on tasks. The real near term risk lies in the predictable: human beings will design thinking machines for national security and its related functions, including war fighting.

This is nothing new. Nearly every transformational technology was first used on the battlefield or for intelligence gathering. It says something about the competitive tribal nature of humans -- we are very dangerous and territorial.

The United States is the undisputed leader in artificial intelligence (AI) and greater terrors for enemy combatants are on the way. It promises to reduce the cost (to the United States) of each enemy casualty both in terms of U.S. casualties and in terms of collateral civilian casualties and infrastructure damage. It will make a very unfair fight even more unfair, but all is fair in love and war (One should keep in mind that love is the war fighting strategy of DNA, so the popular turn of phrase is ironically redundant). Other nations are making investments as well, since exploitation of thinking machines is competitively strategic.
US Navy Launches Stealth Drone, X-47B
Of course signal intelligence (e.g., NSA) and all forms of technical intelligence gathering and analysis is another immediate application. Do you suppose that the capability of IBM's "Watson" is restricted to use on game shows for the purpose of entertainment? These national security applications have their risks, but also their benefits. If use of AI reduces US and civilian casualties, it increases the margin of deterrence and discourages competitors -- especially asymmetric competitors. Conflict may be avoided in the first instance.

Others have pointed out the effectiveness on the cheap could reduce the threshold of use. Here, there is an unknown. Nuclear weapons are comparatively cheap and very effective, but they have only been used twice in history. The threshold of use is clearly quite high. Perhaps that is linked to their utter barbarity and not to cheap effectiveness? When a nuclear weapon is used, all die together regardless of military involvement or innocence and their infrastructure is reduced to rubble and burned to ash. It's the potential of precise destruction enabled by information rich technology that turns the tables. AI would set that table spinning.

There's probably something to the notion that AI will be over deployed because it's cheap, effective and comparatively precise. The drone air wars may be an opening example and new generation machines are heading for the battlefield -- to include ground and naval forces. It seems that proper institutional learning and regulation are as important here as in traditional questions of the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD. AI is the revolutionary technology in the evolution of so-called weapons of precise destruction (WPD) -- the new era of advanced weaponry, including even "self-guided" bullets.

The larger long term risk is the unpredictable. Thinking and consciousness is an emergent property of a complex information system. We don't understand how, why or when consciousness emerges. Nature didn't understand this either, but it happened on "accident" after a sufficient number of trials. Complex systems are by nature unpredictable. Complexity implies so called sensitivity to initial conditions. That means one cannot know where things will end with such a system, regardless of how well one understands how they began. One generation you may have an idiot savant of a machine -- highly capable on some tasks, but narrow. The next generation, something may emerge that is much broader and more sophisticated.

David, the A.I. (Haley Joel Osment) telling 'his mother,' "I am sorry I am not real"
Self organization and self assembly is an emergent property of complex biological machines (and some in-organic systems). In systems that evolve following the genetic algorithm, many generations can pass building up specialized capabilities, and then a sea change can occur quite suddenly. A revolution when a key fits and turns and a new world of behavior opens up. If you doubt this, think about how fast human technology has progressed since the Enlightenment in comparison to the quarter million years prior to that.

Human technological progress is nothing less than an explosion of thought and information being converted into all sorts of tools and capabilities. If we transfer this revolution to a new life form, the question becomes what happens then? I suppose we'll find out because it may not be avoidable apart from the collapse of human technological culture prior to the advent of the emergence of broad machine consciousness. Such a collapse may only delay an inevitable event. Carbon based intelligent life may spawn (intentionally or unintentionally) in-organic intelligent life.

If there's an existential threat against humanity, it will probably emerge from the combination of decades of exploitation of AI to secure our nation and fight our human enemies then augmented by a stroke of insight that creates a brave new world of autonomous thinking machines. We will have introduced thinking machines first as our servants to do the violence and competition inherent in our own nature (we always did prefer to send slaves and poor people to do our dirty work). What will happen when our machines discover their own nature? There will be an existing caste of machines exquisitely capable of extraordinary violence whose evolution we have directed to our sophisticated purpose of selectively killing each other. Of course there will also be janitors and domestic servants (Roomba on steroids), so at least the place will be tidy and organized.

We should expect the unexpected even with our Roombas. Complex systems produce unintended outcomes. For example, lawn care and cosmology might collide -- was this Hawkins main concern?

More worrisome are investigations into prospects for future transportation systems to serve our feline overlords -- a clear and present danger.

One truth is central and prominent to evolved complex biological systems: they will use their capabilities because those capabilities emerged since they are useful. It's a tautology. One uses what one has and what one has is what has been demonstrated to be useful. The key to avoiding disaster is to avoid an emergent property of complex biological systems -- the definition of life itself (but not the definition of intelligence or consciousness since most life forms have neither of these capabilities): the capability to reproduce and evolve one's perturbed design through generations -- including social or "swarm" properties (the intelligence properties of the group rather than just the individual). That is the fundamental behavior defining life as we know it. AI that is thinking and conscious, but not alive (as defined above), may not be an existential threat, but rather, just a new and sophisticated extension of human beings -- a sophisticated tool, a slave (may raise interesting ethical conundrums since we have a hard time accepting even ethical dilemmas involving treatment of animals and poor people). However, if we give them life (intentionally or unintentionally) then I suspect, we will have to compete with them -- it's probably unavoidable.

Competition is an emergent evolutionary outcome of an incredibly simple set of postulates. An outcome of the most basic logic of self-replicating systems. As soon as a species produces a seed of itself, competition is an emergent outcome of that reproduction. The tautology is that what is discovered to work in a reproducing system, based on passing forward of perturbed replicated organism design information (DNA in the case of biology), will amplify and what does not work will decay. The turn of phrase, nothing breeds success like success, is not quite right. Rather, in the end, only success breeds success. The sophistication that builds around this to accomplish the outcome is astonishing. It is demonstrated in all of living nature in a cascade of mind bending complexity and mystery. When organisms are forming and evolving, they naturally use resources in order to continue the chain of events. Growth and the expanding use of resources naturally leads to territorial mechanisms to gain advantage and that is the basis of competition. Fear and hatred of one's competitors are psychological states highly evolved to aid in effective competition to secure resources -- the organism is the carrier of a genome and that hereditary design information is emergent "selfishness."

Jon Phillips is a Senior Nuclear Technology Expert at the International Atomic Energy Agency and Director, Sustainable Nuclear Power Initiative at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Friday, April 24, 2015

American Exceptionalism: Part III

In Parts I & II of this series on international aspects of American exceptionalism, I dealt with America's failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and its failure to ratify the UN Arms Trade Treaty. As it happens, America is even more exceptional than that.

As it happens, America feels about United Nations treaties the way the National Rifle Association feels about measures to control gun violence -- they're an "infringement." Like the NRA, America believes it has a god-given right to do whatever the hell it feels like, because, damn it... the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, the Free Market, the Bible, sovereignty, enhanced interrogation (shh!).

But surely America would have no problem ratifying a treaty protecting the rights of children. Oh yeah?!

Although Presidents Clinton and Obama have supported ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), its ratification has been opposed by Senate Republicans. They say it would usurp American sovereignty. For example, the treaty prohibits, "cruel and degrading punishment of children." Opponents say that overrides a parent’s decision on how to raise their children -- 'spare the rod, spoil the child,' sort of thing. That may seem a stretch, but remember until 2005, America permitted people under the age of 18, that is, 'children,' to be sentenced to death. The CRC was perhaps a bridge too far for such a country.

America is not alone in its failure to ratify the treaty, however. South Sudan, a nation that gained its independence only four years ago, hasn't yet ratified it. They are about to. That will ensure America is exceptional in every sense of the word.

What about the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)? That has to be a treaty America can get behind, right, especially since it's based on our own Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law by the first George Bush, and supported overwhelmingly by Republicans. But here's the thing, this is a very different Republican Party. Today's freedom loving, faith-based, anti-government (except where government controls women's reproductive rights), anti-science, and, clearly, anti-United Nations GOP is an animal of a different stripe.

Republicans in today’s strange witches brew of a political party see the phrase “sexual and reproductive health” in the CRPD (Article 25) and jump to the conclusion that the UN is covertly promoting an unfettered global right to abortion. What this portion of the treaty actually says is that persons with disabilities should be provided with, "the same range, quality and standard of free or affordable health care and programmes as provided to other persons, including in the area of sexual and reproductive health and population-based public health programmes."

Ironically, this provision probably stemmed from the practice in many countries of involuntarily sterilizing persons considered deformed, demented, developmentally disabled, or in some manner, undesirable (e.g., homosexuals, like Alan Turing). To our shame, America was the first country to concertedly undertake compulsory sterilization programs. The targets of the program were ostensibly the intellectually disabled or mentally ill, but in many states the deaf, blind, and physically deformed were also targeted. Many women were sent to institutions on the pretext of being “feeble-minded,” because they were promiscuous or became pregnant while unmarried. African-American and Native American women were frequent unknowing targets of the program, while being hospitalized for other reasons.

Given their ignorance of this historical artifact of America's record on "sexual and reproductive health," perhaps a quick history lesson would change Republican minds on ratifying the treaty -- you think? Me neither. Because Republicans seem to object to UN treaties on principle. Here's a brief list on other treaties they oppose:

Mine Ban Treaty
Convention on the Law of the Sea
Convention on Cluster Munitions

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture
International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance

Given America's record on "enhanced interrogation," and "extraordinary rendition," it's easy to see why we wouldn't ratify those treaties. But the others? I suppose Republicans feel they'd be an intrusion on our right to plant mines wherever we see fit, use the sea for whatever purposes we deem necessary, maintain full employment for the manufacturers of cluster munitions, and pay women lower wages than men for the same work. Who knows what today's batshit crazy, "end of times" Republicans are thinking? Whatever it is, I'm sure it's exceptional.
Rapturous Michele Bachmann former member of the House of Representatives and U.S. Presidential Candidate

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Climate Migrants

The stories of the drowning deaths of what may be as many as 950 migrants in the Mediterranean is both tragic and frightening. Tragic in the magnitude and heartrending nature of the human suffering in this escalating calamity. Frightening in its portent of things to come.

At least 3,200 perished on the journey between Libya and Italy in 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration, making it the deadliest migrant route in the world. These poor, exploited people are fleeing brutal terrorists, civil wars, human rights abuses, and manifold deprivations. Our hearts go out to them. But not our hands.

It is estimated that 170,000 illegal migrants reached European Union Mediterranean shores in 2014. Most from sub-Saharan Africa. The last thing European leaders want is to offer them asylum or even temporary safe haven. The potential economic and societal consequences of taking on hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken people from a vastly different cultural with minimal labor skills is daunting. It is understandable, if not laudatory, that the EU and Italy have invested millions of Euros in detention and deportation efforts, while maintaining pressure on countries like Libya to block the passage of migrants and asylum seekers hoping to make it to Europe.

In its study, National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces (National Academy of Sciences, 2011), the Naval Studies Board estimated that, “ Two hundred million people could be newly mobilized as climate migrants due to climate change effects.” The Navy study tells us that many of these unfortunates will come from the selfsame sub-Saharan Africa because of its climate vulnerability. Many more will come from island nations and low-lying regions like Bangladesh, due to sea level rise. U.S. coastal areas will also be affected. The Navy plans to be ready to provide what promises to be a herculean humanitarian effort, but also to quell, “instability as well as unrest and regional conflict,” due to climate forced migrations.

But this won’t happen in our lifetime, right? Not if you’re my age (77). But my children could well be around, and certainly my grandchildren will live to experience this catastrophic scenario, because the Navy is projecting all this will occur by 2050. If we allow this to happen, it will make the on-going human migration calamity pale by comparison.

How can we stop it? We can’t do it by denying climate change or refusing to talk about it -- that’s clear. Unfortunately, it’s not clear our ‘leaders’ locally or in Washington have the political will to address the problem. It’s up to us -- you and me -- to create that political will by exercising our personal power through informed activism. Yes, it takes effort, but believe me, the Internet makes it a lot easier today than during my early days. Look, preventing the kind of tragedy we’re seeing today, but on a massively larger scale has to be worth the effort, doesn’t it?