Supersonic Man

October 22, 2013

“pension crisis”

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 5:30 pm

I’m starting to hear policymakers complaining again about the exploding cost of pensions, and looking for ways to screw their older workers out of the pay they were promised for doing their jobs.

Let me make one thing clear: there is no soaring cost associated with pensions.  Pensions are no more expensive, and no more valuable, than they ever were.  It is not their price that has gone up.  It is our willingness to pay that has gone down.  Pension costs are only exploding exponentially in comparison to what we currently like to pay working people.  Or in comparison to our willingness to raise tax revenue from investors and corporations.

The only reason we don’t realize how much less we’re all paid is because we can still afford all the insanely cheap consumer products we import from China, which don’t even make a profit for their manufacturers in many cases, and in a fairly real sense are probably paid for more by the federal reserve’s export of dollars for use by overseas capitalists as an international trading currency, than by the retail prices we pay in the big-box stores.

The anti-pension propagandists would have us believe that it was runaway pension costs that sunk the municipal government of Detroit.  Not true.  What ruined Detroit financially — besides the obvious problems of massive cutbacks in manufacturing employment throughout the region — was an “interest rate swap” scheme sold to them and other cities by Wall Street banks Merrill Lynch and UBS.  Sold, in some cases, by directly giving campaign contributions to the politicians who agreed to the plans.  Under this scheme, surprise: the banks got rich and the cities got poor.  Because this scheme was applied to the pension funds, suddenly the big budget hole was a “pension cost”.

September 28, 2013

the end of the US trade deficit?

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 9:55 pm

Two years ago, I wrote a post about deficits, and whether we should respond to the recession by printing even more money.  It discussed the causes of our deficit spending, and the theory which says that it’s impossible not to run a constant governmental spending deficit as long as we run a trade deficit… which means, in other words, as long as other countries keep selling us goods in exchange for dollars that they don’t spend back here, but instead use as the medium of capitalism at home.  This theory, as best I know, is most identified with the liberal economist James Galbraith.  It says that as long as we act as treasurer and currency supplier to capitalists overseas, we must run corresponding deficits domestically, which means the shortfall has to be either borrowed or printed (and watch out you don’t print too much).

But now I’m hearing about interesting happenings on this front from the more conservative economist John Mauldin.  And there’s big news here that I never expected.  I had thought that the “strong dollar policy” — the political decision to encourage worldwide demand for dollars, which produces all our deficits — would be something that it might be very difficult to back our way out of.  Among other things, it would require that some other currency could step up and be the new “reserve currency” that people use for international wealth.  I thought no other currency was in a position to take on that role.

Well, it looks like the Chinese renminbi (or yuan, informally) is starting to do just that.  And at the same time, the US is starting to do a lot more exporting.  Some of this has to do with increased fossil fuel production, some of it has to do with decreased wages, some of it has to do with Obama administration policies… and maybe some of it is actually a direct result of yuans coming out to play.

So quicker and easier than I ever thought could happen, we might be scaling back our production of dollars to a volume more suitable for a domestic economy.  And we’ll start seeing “Made in USA” on products again… which means that the incredible cheapness we’ve become accustomed to from Chinese products will become a thing of the past. (Some of the products we import now actually lose money for their makers.)  This would mean people will start to feel how poor they’ve actually become, and want better pay.  It’ll cause some discomfort.

And meanwhile, the newly ascended Chinese economy will find its greatest source of wealth drying up, and suddenly have to create prosperity on its own.  These factors will all tend to create a negative feedback on any such change, causing an inertia that will slow down the transition.  But Mauldin believes it will still happen faster than anyone expects.  Maybe, maybe not.

Mauldin’s friend David Brin, the SF novelist, points out one aspect of this which I hadn’t appreciated: namely, that the strong dollar policy, though best known here for how it hurt American workers, has done a tremendous amount of good for people overseas.  It has subsidized the creation of middle classes in China, India, and many other countries. It has helped lift a huge number of the world’s citizens out of poverty!  Brin has been accused of exaggerating the economic importance of this money, but still, in that light, the mild impoverishment of the American working class suddenly doesn’t seem like such a high price.

The “quantitative easing” that has been supporting the big banks since the last crash has also done a lot to stimulate developing economies, Mauldin says. That obviously needs to wind down. The Fed has warned that the first decreases may start soon.

Maybe the strong dollar policy’s job is now largely done and it’s time to move past that phase — time to wean the developing world from the dollar teat, in Brin’s terms.  It’ll have to be a gradual thing — too sudden a move might cause a crash in areas with a lot of current dependency on that cash flow.  And even a very gradual reduction is going to eventually cause some kind of shakeout. But apparently that transition is under way.

But it does sound alarmingly like it all depends, more than anyone likes to admit, on natural gas fracking. Which means that tightening the environmental regulations on that very unclean practice might end up restoring all our deficits. At least for the short term. This certainly helps me understand why policymakers are so eager to continue fracking despute the blatantly awful environmental costs… because it produces wealth vast enough to reshape the entire world economy.

September 27, 2013

Why I marched against Monsanto

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 10:24 pm

(I originally posted this on Facebook — this is just a copy-and-paste.  Another march is coming around…)

I’m pro-science and pro-innovation, so I’m not against genetic engineering as such. If somebody wants to Frankenstein up a zucchini that tastes like bacon, or a caterpillar that shits dental fillings, I say have at it. So why oppose Monstanto’s GMOing?

Well firstly, because the main thing they’re using it for is to add more pesticides to our food. And not just the pesticide itself, but the DNA to keep making more… if that gets taken up by one of your gut bacteria and expressed there, you’re in trouble.

I don’t fancy eating food soaked in Roundup (glyphosate) either.

On the longer term front, Monsanto has been particularly bad at abusing the legislative lobbying process to short-circuit any decent oversight, or legal responsibility. They’re trying to make it so that even when they screw up and create some kind of environmental disaster, they won’t even be held responsible for it after the fact. This is bioscience done in the style of wall street banksterism.

Note that I say when, not if, they screw up and create a disaster. I say this because of two clear trends. One is that the more familiar we get with genetic engineering, the more we’re inclined to treat it as familiar and predictable and safe. Our perception of the risk trends downward. (And Monsanto’s perception of risk is even lower — helped along by the connivance of bought legislatures who want to insulate them from even the risk they acknowledge.) But while our idea of the risk is going downward, the actual risk we take is going nowhere but up.

When Calgene came up with the Flavr Savr tomato, the first GMO to be approved for human consumption, it was treated as a big scary thing to be handled with great care. But the actual risk was miniscule; it pretty much couldn’t go wrong. Nowadays, things like Bt Soybeans are far more seriously risky — they and their fellow insecticidal crops may well be one cause of the poor health of honeybees across North America, not to mention any number of possible intestinal health complications — but we treat it as if it were safe and routine.

Sooner or later, the lines on the graph, of rising risk and dropping perception of risk, have to cross. Sooner or later, we’ll take one chance too many. And then we get an environmental disaster. And perhaps not just a one-time incident that can be cleaned up, like an oil spill… it might be a disaster that keeps on inflicting additional damage indefinitely into the future. And as long as we don’t get our attitudes right and watch the GMO industry in a way appropriate to the real risk they present, it is guaranteed that risk-taking behavior will only be checked when a disaster is eventually produced. That’s the way it goes in every other industry that isn’t watched. And the potential downside risk for GMOs is enormously large.

Monsanto needs firm opposition not so much for what they make now — though that’s objectionable enough — but for the way they’re actively working to keep the road to future catastrophe as wide and open as they possibly can.

September 21, 2013

Java is doomed?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 9:25 am

I was talking earlier about Windows now having a somewhat bleak future despite still being firmly dominant today, and now I have to recognize something else that’s gotten itself into a similar position: the Java language. Over much of the last decade it’s probably been the most widely used programming language… though it’s hard to be sure, and it certainly was never in any position of majority dominance.  But now nobody sees any kind of growth in its future, and other languages like C# are making it look outdated.  Combine that with the well-publicized security troubles which, among other things, nailed shut the coffin for applets in the browser (the one place where the average computer user came into direct contact with the Java brand), and nobody’s seeing it as the right horse to bet on anymore.

Which is a shame, because it’s still one of the most widely supported and most available languages, and it’s probably still the best teaching language in the C-derived family.  It’s going to have to be fairly widely used in schools, even if it drops slowly out of use in industry.  There isn’t a suitable replacement for that role yet, as far as I can see.

Even as it gets into a state where people scoff at it for real work, it might still be unavoidable for a long time as something you have to know.

. . . . .

Another sad observation of decline: I think MS Office is now better at supporting Open Office than is at supporting MS Office.

September 10, 2013

strict doctypes and old markup

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 9:49 am

I thought strict doctypes, like XMTML Strict, were just for eliminating all the deprecated HTML tags that were used for stuff that now uses CSS, such as <font> and <center>.  But there are a couple of gotchas with it.  For instance, strict [X]HTML does not allow you to put a target= attribute on a link.  Apparently this is considered a matter of presentation and styling, though only cutting-edge implementations of CSS support setting it in a stylesheet.  But the one that really makes me scratch my head is that <blockquote> is only allowed to contain block-level elements.  What?  The obvious semantics of a block quote are that it should contain text.  But no, now it’s only supposed to contain paragraphs and divs, not act as a paragraph in itself.

(I’m posting this partly just as a sort of note to myself.)

I do try to use modern standards, but my website has content dating back as far as 1996, so no way am I going to clean out all the old <font> tags.

Maybe I should at least validate, since the content there is all fairly new, and generated from a single master page that I can easily modernize.

[update] I did: is now fully XHTML Strict compliant, though still has tons of content that’s stuck at a Netscape 4 level of markup, using no CSS at all.  The front landing page is the only part that uses any modern browser technology, and even that dates mainly from about 2005.

[update 2] I made a spreadsheet of all the HTML pages on assessing their state of modernity in terms of styling.  The current status is:

  • root level: almost everything is archaic except the index page and the one page that draws the most search traffic.
  • the old film-era photo gallery folder (which frankly, has been an embarrassment for some time, and really needs updating, or even just some severe culling) is also completely archaic.
  • the Enron & Friends material is 90% bad, with a light sprinkling of modern style tweaks, but the current events movie reviews in the same folder are 90% good.
  • the B movie folder is good, and the boids folder, plus bits in the Amiga folder and the Reagan folder.
  • two of the biggest folders are good, but they’re both unfinished projects which are not yet exposed to the public.

The question is, which of these archaic areas is even worth updating?  The answer would be, almost none.  They’re all dated, essentially of historical interest only, except for the gallery, where markup is the least of its problems.

August 28, 2013

automation is going to take our jobs

Filed under: thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 10:28 am

That sounds like a fear-mongering headline from fifty years ago, doesn’t it?  It never happened, right?  But I think the time is coming when it could.

In a previous post, I discussed the prospects for what’s coming in the field of Artificial Intelligence — the likelihood that in another couple of generations, there will be machines among us which have superhuman intelligence, and possibly superhuman awareness and consciousness as well.  With luck, such entities will help us make the world a far better place, by greatly increasing the world’s supply of wisdom.  (Of course, much less positive outcomes are also possible, up to an including a B-movie robot uprising.)  But even in the best-case scenario, where the machine minds act consistently in our interest and do their honest best to help us all out of any trouble we get in, it’s going to be a rough transition, and machine intelligence is probably going to be used harmfully before it’s used helpfully.

This is because, as I described in that post, machine intellection will come first, and machine consciousness will only be possible later on.  (The former is something we’re closing in on today, while on the latter goal we still have no idea where to start.)  So in the early phases of AI, intelligent machines will not be autonomous entities that make their own decisions according to their own values; they will, rather, be simply a souped-up version of the computers we know today, and will solve whatever problems they are given by their owners according to whatever criteria they’re programmed with.  Which means they will mostly be serving the interests either of governmental power and security, or of making money for some corporation.

And that means that when they can do so cheaply — which they will be able to do more easily with every passing year — they will replace us at our jobs.  The old fear that automation would create widespread unemployment will finally come true.


July 13, 2013


Filed under: birds,Photo — Supersonic Man @ 11:51 am

What’s more fun than seeing a young male Bullock’s Oriole in your back yard?

How about a male Hooded Oriole?

With his whole family!

Here’s the Mrs or one of the youngsters (I can’t tell which) going after some flower nectar.

These guys have all been showing up in the last week.  We’ve put out orange slices to tempt them.  They haven’t eaten those yet, but there’s plenty of other fruit and berries in the yard.

June 4, 2013

global warming — what do we do?

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 7:54 am

So what course should we take about global warming?

First of all, that we should conserve energy, reduce fossil fuel consumption, and migrate to renewable energy resources as rapidly as we can, is not open for debate.  Anyone who denies the need for such effort is just irresponsible.  I’m asking, what do we do beyond that?  How do we handle the growing consequences of the carbon dioxide levels we’ve already created, and will continue to add to even if we make our best effort to reduce the problem?

May 25, 2013

the Great Filter

Filed under: thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 9:23 am

The Fermi Paradox.  The Silentum Universum.  The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence that comes up empty.  The appearance that we may be alone in the cosmos.  What’s up with that?

The “paradox” is named for Enrico Fermi, the inventor of the first nuclear reactor.  Here’s how it goes.  See,


April 3, 2013

an embarrasingly close closeup

Filed under: birds,Photo — Supersonic Man @ 7:23 pm

I’ve settled on a lens to use with the tiny Q camera… it’s a Nikkor 180mm f2.8 ED, an oldie but goodie considered to have been one of the sharpest telephotos of the film era.

The new Q-gun can really pull things in tight…

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