A Plethora of Links to End 2014

2014 is just about gone, and for the large part, I say: Good riddance. In many ways, 2014 was an awful year for civil liberties, freedom, and for people in general. Yet on the other hand, there are some positive things to report.

One of my 2015 resolutions is to stop posting so much political stuff. I know, I know – I say this almost every month, and yet it never happens. I'm going to try, though, this year, especially since I'm making the effort to make some resolutions. (I'm even going to print them out and put them up on my wall in my bedroom and in my office.) So in honor of that, I wanted to post some last political and semi-political links before the year ended, links that have been sitting on my mind:

THE BAD

2014 was a really rotten year for privacy, civil liberties, and in particular for public-police relations. For a long time I thought of writing up a list of all the issues of police overreach and brutality, but I don't have to. Radley Balko, one of the best journalists on the planet, rounded up 2014's civil liberties violations as a "Let me give some predictions for 2015" post. It's chilling to think that, in the nation that is supposedly the leader of the free world, we have so many horrible things going on – most, but not all, being conducted by state and local governments.

I mean, seizing someone's assets, then charging them with a crime, so they can't pay for their own defense? Arresting parents for letting their kids play without supervision? Claiming that your SWAT team is a private corporation and is thus immune to open records laws? Push for extrajudicial tribunals for people who may or may not commit crimes against a certain class of individuals, tribunals where "innocent until proven guilty" and the rule of law are thrown out the airlock? Punishing people who haven't been convicted of a crime?

These are not the signs of a healthy liberal democracy, they're the signs of a damaged one that needs repair, fast.

One story in particular has stood out to me. As many have defended the police in the recent incidents and stories, one thing they may have failed to notice is that even black police officers feel threatened by the "boys in blue". I think once cops are fearful of other cops, then we have indisputable proof that there is a serious problem. And yet people still ignore it. Read the link above for a maddening, frustrating look at what is wrong with policing today. (That one really grinds my gourd, because I think it will be ignored by most.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, in 2014 progressives became nattering nabobs of negativity – or, in other words, conservatives. reason magazine highlights how 2014 heralded the return of "Neo-Victorianism", and I'm thankful that Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote that article because I've been struggling to find the right word for this new trend. It's the trend of using coercion and bullying to enforce a set of social norms, mostly deployed by feminists, it seems. The four major areas are increasing art censorship, a hysteria over sex-trafficking (that trampled over individual rights while simultaneously punishing sex workers, many of whom don't think they're victims and like their jobs, thank you very much), a dragging out of hate speech to absurd lengths that means you shouldn't say anything that could potentially offend anyone at any time, and a trend of treating women as dainty little flowers that need to be coddled and protected rather than being allowed to develop into strong and independent individuals.

It's all rather sickening. It too, is not a sign of a healthy democracy.

And let's not get me started on the various abuses by the NSA. Let's just not go there for once.

The Good

There are, however, some great things to look forward to in 2015 that continue from 2014.

The first is in terms of war and crime. Steven Pinker, a wonderful academic, details in a great article for Slate that planet Earth is actually becoming a very peaceful world. I found the article particularly interesting for the following tidbit:

But the red curve in the graph shows a recent development that is less benign: The number of wars jumped from four in 2010—the lowest total since the end of World War II—to seven in 2013. These wars were fought in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Syria. Conflict data for 2014 will not be available until next year, but we already know that four new wars broke out in the past 12 months, for a total of 11. The jump from 2010 to 2014, the steepest since the end of the Cold War, has brought us to the highest number of wars since 2000.
[…]
The 2010–2014 upsurge is circumscribed in a second way. In seven of the 11 wars that flared during this period, radical Islamist groups were one of the warring parties: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Gaza, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen. (Indeed, absent the Islamist conflicts, there would have been no increase in wars in the last few years, with just two in 2013 and three in 2014.) This reflects a broader trend.

That "broader trend" being religious hostilities, with "all but two of these countries" having those hostilities being "associated with extremist Islamist groups." I always find myself on a narrow tightrope when it comes to Islamism; on the one hand, I always find conservatives are far too hostile and kneejerk when they want to just fight Muslims and bomb them; on the other hand, I think that many libertarians and leftists slide Islam's problems under the rug and prefer not to notice. Don't kid yourselves, guys: although Christianity has issues, it has largely been tamed and neutered by modernity. Islam hasn't. And Islam has got loads of problems.

But even despite that, the world is far more peaceful than the news reports make it out to be. Outside of the Middle East, we have the conflict in Ukraine – and that has basically been frozen. The drop in oil prices has crushed the Russian economy, so I don't know if Putin will continue to help his "allies" in Donetsk and Lugansk. There are conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, but to be honest I know very little about them.

Meanwhile, Fraser Nelson in The Spectator (UK) reports on how we're winning the war on disease. In 1990, diseases claimed roughly 37,500 years of life per 100,000 people; now they claim only about 26,000 (judging by my eyes on that chart.) Starvation has dropped by over ten percentage points. Infant mortality has plummeted. These are all extremely good news to hear.

The last one is a story on upcoming disruptive technologies, many of which are going to build on 2014 discoveries. I post this one because I have a bit of a quibble with the author, Vivek Wadhwa. Although I think most of his points are relatively sound, inasmuch as I, not being an expert in these areas, could judge them, his section on energy has problems. First, he leads off by saying that fracking is a harmful technology – newsflash, it isn't. Second, he says that solar power will hit grid parity by 2020, which I think is unlikely considering how expensive solar power is. (Seriously, the people I know who study energy saw a similar story by Wadwha and they claimed it hurt their brains.) Third, Wadwha claims that if we have unlimited energy,

we can have unlimited clean water, because we can simply boil as much ocean water as we want. We can afford to grow food locally in vertical farms. This can be 100 percent organic, because we won’t need insecticides in the sealed farm buildings. Imagine also being able to 3D print meat and not having to slaughter animals. This will transform and disrupt agriculture and the entire food-production industry.

Wadwha might be right about unlimited energy and unlimited clean water, but even if he is, the rest doesn't follow. Water isn't the only resource. Why would we grow food locally? It's not necessarily more efficient than growing food on larger farms elsewhere. Secondly, what about the time involved? When Wadwha says "locally," I see the localist woo argument about people growing food in their backyards. But that takes time, and who wants to waste time growing your own food when you can buy it at the store and instead spend your time going to sports events, watching TV, writing blog posts, or going on romantic getaways? Wadwha ignores that, and it hurts, both his piece and my head.

I'm also a little miffed he didn't mentioned Lockheed Martin's new fusion reactor project (more on that later), but I totally agree with him on synthetic meat – which I think will be a huge advance – and he makes good points about 3D printing, finance, and healthcare. In all areas, we're talking about some radical decentralization.

The Awesome

Okay, the last bit. The really cool stuff.

Scientists did some really cool things in 2014. I mean, some really scifi things. Quantum teleportation for instaneous communication, blood based nanites to repair your body, 3D food printers, hoverboards – 2014 was a really cool year for tech.

Meanwhile, the one news item that really made me jump was Lockheed Martin's announcement that in five years they'll have a prototype for a commercial fusion reactor. There are a lot of questions and criticisms of this, with many having doubts – but if anyone is going to deliver a power source that is clean and nearly limitless, it's going to be Lockheed Martin. And I hope it turns out correct, because I think that:

  1. It would provide enough energy to avoid the coming energy shortfalls as our iCivilization keeps getting bigger
  2. It would go a long way towards making climate change a nonissue
  3. It would go a long way towards getting the US out of the Middle East as we wouldn't have to worry about the oil reserves there
  4. It would weaken OPEC, Venezuela, and Russia (yes that's a cheap geopolitical shot but I think it's valid)
  5. A fusion rocket could get us from Earth to Mars in 30 days rather than six months
  6. It could power the warp drive that NASA is working on
  7. As energy is one of the largest input costs, this could make everything cheaper across the board by a considerable factor
  8. Bonus – Gundams.

I'm really hoping that 2015 will turn out to be even cooler.

And finally, for one last speculative item, there's a guy in Nebraska building a warp drive in his garage. Okay, okay, it's pretty far out there, man, but when you read stuff like this:

He turns around and points to the back of his garage door, where a red laser — beamed at the weight and reflected back against the door to demonstrate the movement happening in the case — drifts from its original spot. Slowly, in incremental amounts, the weight is drawn toward the V-shape motor.

You gotta wonder.

Welcome to the Future, Part 1

27 Science Fictions That Became Science Facts In 2012.

This is truly a great list here from the folks at BuzzFeed. The past year–indeed, the past decade–have seen some amazing technological leaps and discoveries. The science fiction world of even the 1980s, or even the mid 1990s, is within our grasp. And I suspect that by 2022, only ten years from now, ideas that we have floating around now in our heads will be within our grasp too.

The only thing I quibble with is 18. No doubt that’s cool. But are solar panels really reaching the point where they’re competitive with fossil fuels? No. Not by a long shot. I don’t care if that thing is half the price of traditional solar panels. You need more than just the input cost to make that kind of evaluation. What kind of energy levels do you get out of it? Is it anywhere near enough energy to supply the world? I don’t think so. Robert Bryce in the Wall Street Journal notes that demand for electricity increases so fast we would have to add one Brazil worth of power generators to the energy sector every year. You can’t do that with solar panels; they just don’t generate enough.

Also, 13, 19, and 26: they’re cool and all, but is that really the “future”? Hardly. They are discoveries out there, but the “future” is really predicated on technology. That stuff is just seeing things from very far away and in the past. Even though 19 is really cool.

Otherwise, though, a stupendous list. I look forward to the next article BuzzFeed writes in 2013.

You may ask why I put down “Part 1” in the title. That’s because I was originally planning on doing a “Welcome to the Future” post in January, after the apocalypse ended, because in 2013, that’s when the notion of the “future” in terms of science fiction really hits home. But I’ll save that for January.

Until then, welcome to the future. It’s already here. And it’s getting better all the time.

Another Example Of The Folly of Blind Belief

A Year After the Non-Apocalypse: Where Are They Now? | Culture | Religion Dispatches.

The above is a fantastic essay on what happening to all of Harold Camping’s followers, how they were deceived and how many suffered enormous financial, social, and emotional damage from the belief that the world would end in May on 2011…and then didn’t.

I think this is a lesson for any large belief structures. This includes Communism, American conservatism, the Most Holy and Triumphant Church of Environmentalism, and any belief in big government. Rest assured, with the way things are going, their worlds are going to come tumbling down…and when they do, they’re going to be in just as bad a shape as Harold Camping’s misled followers.

And people wonder why I’m an ignostic.

Thomas Friedman is Full (Of It)

The Earth Is Full – NYTimes.com.

Next to Paul Krugman–also a New York Times columnist–Thomas L. Friedman (no relation to the other Friedman family of Milton, David, and Patri) may be one of the silliest columnists I have ever read.

He came up with the idea that the “Earth is flat”–an idea whose origin was appropriately ridiculed in the National Review Online–stated that he preferred a Chinese style dictatorship to good old-fashioned American democracy where people have the gall to disagree, and is now preaching his usual schtick that the world is going to change very dramatically very soon. This time, it’s because Earth has hit its carrying capacity of human beings.

Which might be believable, if Friedman had done some research and hadn’t completely lost his credibility.

Where does he get this idea (in part) as well as his silliness? From Yemen:

While in Yemen last year, I saw a tanker truck delivering water in the capital, Sana. Why? Because Sana could be the first big city in the world to run out of water, within a decade. That is what happens when one generation in one country lives at 150 percent of sustainable capacity.

No, that’s what happens when you live in a goddamn desert. The average rainfall in Sana is approximately 7 inches. How much does Washington, DC get? 39. When you live in a desert, there’s naturally a lack of water. That’s why i’ts called a desert. How this escapes Friedman, I am not sure. I’m not even sure if I want to be sure.

One of his other sources is China’s environmental minister. Excuse me, but are we really going to take the government official from a one-party, authoritarian state that continually represses its people at face value? He could be the Minister of Silly Walks for all I care, I’m going to take a very critical look at what he’s saying. Friedman gives no evidence that he does so.

He also blames increasing world population for driving up food prices. Apparently he forget about what the Federal Reserve was doing with its monetary diarrhea. There’s more than one aspect to everything.

The final thing that Friedman ignores is the massive leap in technological progress we’ve achieved over the past 20 years.

You could say it was a--oh never mind.

Let’s think back to 1990 and the end of the Cold War. Cellphones–still called “cellular phones” or “mobile phones” back then, before we had bit.ly shortening our language–were massive bricks that a judge could use if there was no book to throw. Laptops? Fougettaboudit. The Internet? What’s that? Being able to talk to someone for free across the world? That’s crazy! Knowing where a friend goes every day, what she’s doing, who she’s dating, and how she’s feeling? Now that’s just science fiction! (“And a bit creepy, too.” “No argument there.”)

And that’s just the past twenty years. We keep coming up with new stuff all the time. Read io9, Engadget, CNet, or this man’s fine blog, and you’ll see that “Holy Scott Bakula, Batman, we’re really chugging along!” In fact, if you go back and read the main source for Friedman’s piece:

We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit, given current technologies.

Emphasis is so obviously mine. The point is: what the hell is current? Things are changing on a daily basis. What is current today is nigh-obsolete tomorrow, and not just because manufacturers plan it that way. We are constantly developing new technologies that increase crop yields, better utilize natural resources, unleash new sources of energy, and increase material strength while decreasing mass and weight (which is very important if you’re building, oh, I dunno, an orbital habitat.)

Friedman seems to think that this will radically change our entire society, agreeing with the source of the above quote, Paul Gilding. He seems to think that we’re going to move to a “happiness-based economy,” ignoring that we’re already sort of (a hamburger brings me happiness, so I buy it and I’m happy; not a difficult concept to get your head around) have it. True, its not perfect, but it would be far better than any sense of top-down, artificial command/management. And yet, despite all these massive changes in the past twenty years–or heck, past fifty–have we really changed all that dramatically? Did we completely transform our economies? I would say no. There has been tremendous social change–the Civil Rights movement, the acceptance of gays and lesbians, and the simple demographic changes–but has the economy been transformed? No. Despite all the government mucking about, it has still remained a fairly free market system, based on hard work, individual choice, and voluntary agreements. If the past fifty years haven’t wrecked it–and with our ability to use resources and new forms of energy getting better all the time–I highly doubt that fears of global warming are going to do it.

In short, Friedman just didn’t do his research. He missed a ton of issues, from the laughably obvious (Yemen) to the not so obvious (Federal Reserve and technological growth, though the last one’s obviousness is debatable.) That’s an important thing, when you’re a writer, and I would say that I’m shocked that the Times employs a columnist who fails to do it, but then, I have done my research.

Science’s real problem

I was reading this interesting article in the Independent about scientists, and namely, their lamentation that they are under “villification” by “polemicists” in the media. And that’s a fair question; science has been misrepresented and misconstrued for years. Journalists like big, definite things to sell to their readers, even when science doesn’t really have such a big thing, or it has misgivings or qualifications as to what it’s trying to present.

But the problem that the new president of the Royal Society brings up isn’t so much the media’s fault. Rather, I feel it lies at the fault of the scientists. We are both, of course, talking about “climate change” (or “anthropogenic global warming,” or what-have-you.) This is certainly a field full of controversy. But what exactly is Sir Paul talking about when he says that scientists are “under attack” and that he is shocked at the “vilification and distrust levelled at some scientists?” I don’t really see that going on. Sure, you have some blowhards on talk radio and late night cable saying some dumb things. Ignore them, they say dumb things about everybody. But in general, has there been vilification and distrust?

I argue against the former but tentatively for the latter. No, people are not “vilifying” scientists, and we are not going on a crusade against them. But there are a great number who are skeptical of what these scientists are saying, and are even more skeptical at their so-called “remedies” to our so-called “problems.” And is not skepticism the entire crux of which science depends upon? Is not science saying, “What is that, how does it work, why does it happen that way, and I’m not sure I buy that explanation“?

For this case, I point to the scandal at East Anglia. The article states that “four independent inquiries have cleared the scientists involved of scientific fraud or misconduct” but pray tell, what was the point of altering the data in such a fashion? No one has explained this to me. Not one. And I’m just supposed to buy that “this is how we do science?” Balderdash.

There are also serious questions raised over how they gained the data, namely over their temperature stations, many of which started out in rural areas but were then absorbed and surrounded by pent-up conurbations, particularly in China, thus distorting the data for later years. There’s the question of the IPCC’s inclusion of an unfinished grad student’s paper in their report, and their information on receding glaciers taken from casual remarks made by hikers.

There is undoubtedly a great deal of questioning about how much federal funding goes into projects to study “global warming” and into the supposed remedies for it. Let’s open up that can of worms; I’d be very interested in that sort of information, though I doubt Sir Paul and his ilk would be. They always croon about “global warming denialists” receiving money from the big bad oil companies, but has anyone done a serious inquiry into how much money government pours into the coffers of climate change scientists? And has anyone connected the dots and thought, if the scientists concluded that global warming was not happening, what would happen to said government funds?

And finally, there’s a very big question of: have their looked up recently? I can excuse the scientists at East Anglia for missing this–they do live in England, after all–but there is a very large body of burning gas up there that emits a huge amount of light and heat, and is one, if not the one, major factor in our climate. Maybe if they talked more about the Sun rather than us piddling human beings who cannot hope to blow this planet asunder–well, not yet, anyways–they’d get less dubious looks.

No, the real problem facing scientists is that they act shocked–shocked, I tell you–that the public has the temerity to doubt their assertions. Other intellectuals, fine, they’re used to that. But the public? The public is supposed to take their statements unquestioningly! After all, they’re scientists! This is their job! They cannot accept the public doubting their conclusions. They (probably) feel its going back to pre-Enlightenment times. That is the problem facing scientists today. And thus, the problem is not with science at all.

For the record, I do believe in climate change and global warming, however, I do not believe it affects us nearly as much as these scientists do. No, I believe that it will not be a serious threat to our existence for at least three or four centuries, most likely longer. New York City will not be flooded by 2050 (maybe if there was a god, it would be), the polar bears will still have glaciers, and demagogues will have other issues to complain about.

I welcome scientists who wish to enter the debate, and “take on” those “polemicists” in the “media” who distort what they say. But let’s all be honest about this. Otherwise, they’re being as polemical as all those other guys.