Supersonic Man

May 3, 2016

top science fiction writers

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 1:33 pm

Who would be my picks for the top ten or so science fiction writers of all time?  Let’s take an initial stab:

(the inarguable immortals)
H.G. Wells
Olaf Stapledon
Philip K. Dick
Ursula K. LeGuin

Arthur C. Clarke
Frederik Pohl
Alfred Bester
Cordwainer Smith
Kurt Vonnegut
Frank Herbert
John Brunner
Roger Zelazny
Greg Bear
Octavia Butler
Vernor Vinge
Kim Stanley Robinson

(tempting, but probably not justifiable)
R.A. Lafferty
Greg Egan

(ought to read more before rejecting)
Bruce Sterling
Doris Lessing

Names I will definitely not be listing include Asimov and Heinlein… and also Sturgeon and Bradbury.

April 29, 2016

the meaning of money

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 2:33 pm

“Money’s only paper, only ink”, sang Tracy Chapman.  She’s one of a long line of people who view money as something that has no true value and no true meaning, which we fool ourselves into thinking means everything.  These people have a valuable point to make about the importance of keeping money in proper perspective, and the enrichment one can find by seeking detachment from the pursuit of money… but the idea that money is inherently without meaning or value is one I can’t agree with.  Money means something very important.

Economists call it a store of value.  What is “value”?  We can’t just define it as that which makes people willing to pay money for something.  Where does it come from?

One possible answer is scarcity.  But when a rare natural resource is found in the wild, it doesn’t yet have any value; only when someone fetches it back to civilization and sells it does it become valuable.  And most sources of value don’t come from scarcity.  There is certainly nothing scarce about potatoes or vegetable oil, yet people pay an awful lot over the course of a year to keep themselves supplied with french fries, with little of that payment going to the farmers who produce the ingredients.  More tellingly, people are perfectly capable of making their own french fries at home, yet most would rather pay someone else to make them.

We can now see that most of what people pay for, when they buy something, is not any kind of scarce material, but for the work it takes to make something ready to use from that material.  Rough gemstones might be rare and expensive, but they’re not nearly as expensive as the jewelry made from them is.

If you want a one word answer to what “value” is… it’s labor.  That ephemeral abstract quantity which is stored and made fungible by money is actually something very concrete: it’s the work that people do every day — the sweat and skill that we put into our jobs.  When you pay money for something, what you’re doing is claiming the fruits of someone else’s work.  The magic of money is that, by storing “value” over an indefinite period, it lets the work be accomplished without needing to find out first who it is that wants the work done.  The labor and the benefit from it are uncoupled in time.

What does it really mean to be wealthy?  If you’re rich, it means that a disproportionate number of people spend their time and effort working for you instead of for themselves or each other.  They labor to satisfy your whims, and you do not labor for them anymore.

This gives us a new way to look at people’s dreams of easy money and get-rick-quick schemes.  It may seem like a harmless fantasy to dream of winning the lottery or finding buried treasure — after all, you’re not taking anything from anyone else — but what the dream really amounts to is a desire that people labor on your behalf while you do no labor for them.  It’s not so harmless when you think about it that way.  What people are craving in these dreams is, in a word, privilege.

It’s also a new way to think about the social issue of concentration of wealth.  Sure, it may seem only right and proper that some who perform their labor wisely and adroitly should accumulate greater rewards than those who don’t… but does that justify the creation of a class of people with permanent wealth?  Think of it in the extremes: if everyone had only a tiny amount of money and we all had to work and trade for everything we got, it can’t be denied that we would all have great freedom.  But if, at the opposite extreme, you imagine that all the money was owned by one little group and everyone else had nothing, and depended on the rulers who own everything to dole out the means for sustenance, then the effect in practice would be slavery.

I don’t think it’s an oversimplification to say that concentration of wealth implies a general loss of freedom, and the degree of concentration makes a pretty good metric for how unfree most people are in practice.  This is ironic in that those who defend such concentration often do so in the name of liberty.  Their argument may be coherent on paper, but in practice, the more concentrated wealth becomes, the more difficult it is for someone not already privileged to find any path for bettering their own circumstances; when the problem becomes severe, most forms of labor end up enriching only the already rich, rather than the person who performs the work.  If this were not the case, the concentration would already be correcting itself.

So money certainly isn’t meaningless.  The balance of how much you can get against how much you need determines the degree to which you are personally free to choose how you spend your time.  And that’s why we admire those who speak of detachment from chasing money: because they are speaking of reclaiming freedom.

But we can be free without money only to the extent that we are able to be self-sufficient.  If we have land to grow food on, natural resources around us, and a capacity to work hard to make things for ourselves instead of buying them, it’s possible to live quite well without money.  But if suddenly you can no longer do that — if you have, say, a disabling injury or a chronic medical condition, or your land and property are lost in a catastrophe — the ability to be free without money can vanish in an instant.  It doesn’t even have to be you that falls ill — it could be a family member.  Even without such losses, for millions of people there are insuperable obstacles to overcome before it’s even possible to reach a bit of ground from which one can obtain food or water by one’s own efforts.  If you’re stuck in the middle of a refugee camp or a shantytown or an urban ghetto, with no way out that doesn’t cost money, the freedoms that can come from renouncing pursuit of financial rewards are nothing but a myth.


April 21, 2016

precious substances

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 6:38 am

Are there any substances that are worth a million dollars a kilogram?  I don’t just mean stuff that costs a thousand dollars a gram — I mean stuff which it it possible to buy a whole kilogram of.

There are various radioisotopes that cost way over a kilobuck a gram to buy, but often they cost nearly as much to get rid of as they do to obtain, so it’s far from clear that they count as a precious commodity, and collecting a whole kilogram would generally be impossible.  There are rare biological substances with such costs, but these are often scarcely available in whole grams, let alone kilos.  There are materials available by the kilogram at enormous cost, such as moon rocks, but once obtained, it’s not clear that a resale market exists.  Works of art and rare stamps are this valuable, but the value doesn’t relate to their weight.

What’s the most expensive stuff that’s actually traded by weight in kilograms?

A kilo of gold is about $40,000, and if you’re wealthy enough, you can obtain it by the ton.  Platinum is similar, and so are rhodium and iridium.  Rare earths such as europium don’t cost nearly as much.

A gram of cocaine might go for hundreds in some difficult markets, but at the source a whole kilo costs less than $1000. What about LSD? Now we’re getting somewhere: because dosages are so small, prices per gram do reach four digits. And that’s considered a wholesale price! But I’ve heard that people do sometimes make it by the whole kilogram, and it sure doesn’t cost all that much for materials. All these drugs have prices that go very nonlinear as the batch size decreases.

How about gemstones? Cut diamonds cost a lot, but uncut ones might not, depending on size. Abrasive diamond grit costs a few thousand a kilo as far as I can tell, but fat crystals which can be cut go for a lot more. Pricing depends on personally assessing each batch, maybe each rock in the batch, and then haggling — you can’t just get a bag of rocks for a fixed price. But if you average it out, what might the price of a kilo of large rough diamonds be? Hard to say, but if they’re around two carats rough, and of gemstone quality (after selecting for size, most would still be rejected as too yellow or too full of inclusions), yeah, it would be seven digits. I suppose such trades might be made routinely in the gemstone business, but as far as I can tell, they don’t batch them together all that much.

There are gemstones much rarer than diamond, but they don’t have well developed markets. Taaffeite and painite are both rare and precious… but I don’t think it’s possible to buy a kilogram.

Some perfume ingredients are notoriously expensive.  Ambergris, sometimes called “floating gold”, goes for $20,000 to $50,000 a kg, but orris butter (made from iris roots) and oud resin (produced when an aquilaria tree is fighting a bacterial infection) can sometimes fetch much higher prices.  Mind you, that’s only for the best grades.  I’ve heard of some fanatics paying $100,000 to $300,000 a kilogram for particular batches.  But that still doesn’t quite hit our mark.

What about pharmaceuticals? Some are very costly indeed. Soliris, for instance, has a retail price somewhere around $12,000 a gram. The ones with the most shockingly high prices are made in very small batches because they treat diseases that only a few people have, so I doubt they have kilogram availability. But some on a second tier might still be pretty expensive.

One drug which doesn’t have US approval yet is Acthar, which stacks up as follows: daily dosage (as prepared for subcutaneous injection) is a gram or more and costs about $800 retail, and annual sales are nearly $800 million, meaning annual production is at least a ton. A pharmacy chain might well buy a kilogram at a time, but I don’t know what the wholesale price would be. It might be half a million or more? I gather that the profit margins nade by retailers such as pharmacies are typically under 20%.

The most infuriating high-cost pharmaceutical might be Harvoni for hepatitis C, a contagious disease with millions of untreated sufferers. A complete course is around 40 grams at a US price of $2,500 a gram. They’re making a lot of it now — at least a ton a year — but that’s still far short of enough for all those who need it. (And since the company wants to maintain a long term market for it, maybe it’s not in their interest to make enough for everybody… since it actually is a cure, treating everybody who has the infection would wipe out their supply of customers.)

So there’s our winning substance, I guess — available in heavy quantities at a wholesale price that must be at least a million dollars a kilogram.

Meanwhile, in India, where they have chosen to disregard other countries’ drug-patent laws, they make it for $25 a gram retail.

April 12, 2016

If not for the South…

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 10:29 am

The reason Hillary Clinton has a delegate lead over Bernie Sanders is because she won big in Southern states — specifically, in the Confederate states. What if that weren’t a factor? What if we imagine, say, that the Confederacy had seceded peacefully, gone to hell in its own way, and left the United States to move forward without them?

Bernie would certainly be ahead of Hillary. Or would he? Since in this scenario, Bill Clinton would not be a United States citizen, Hillary probably would have married someone else, and found a completely different path onto the national stage (or not), and if she were still a public figure, her policy record and positions might well be entirely different from her present one. She might still have been part of the Obama administration… which would be more popular and successful than it is in real life, with the Tea Party being much smaller and weaker. But then she might have beaten Obama in 2008 without the albatross of having voted for a war in Iraq, and he could be running now to succeed her.

And Bernie? Without the South, neither George W. Bush nor Bill Clinton would have been President, which means we probably wouldn’t have repealed Glass-Steagall and deregulated Wall Street, and so wouldn’t have had a bank crisis in 2008, which means Bernie would never have had grounds to enter the race.

But wait — the Bush family probably wouldn’t have moved to Texas. If they stayed in New England, maybe W. and Jeb would still have public careers, and Junior might still have become president. There would have been no Al Gore opposing him. But if so, his presidency would be unrecognizably different from what we really got. The real GWB absorbed Southern culture in a way that completely shaped his outlook and political temperament; he’s the most southernized southern president we’ve had since the days when presidents owned slaves. So we can’t begin to guess what kind of politician he’d have been without that (aside from presuming that he wouldn’t be any smarter).

Reagan might still have had much the same sort of presidency that he had in real life, but George Bush the Elder might have failed to carry on after him. The Southern Strategy would not be there to bolster mediocre conservatives. So maybe the other Bushes would have stayed obscure. But the Democrat preceding Reagan wouldn’t have been Jimmy Carter, and might have left a more impressive record of Democratic accomplishment than Carter did, won a second term, and held off Reagan until he was too old to run.

But then, Reagan might have taken office in 1976, because without the Southern Strategy, Nixon would have had a tough time defeating Hubert Humphrey, and with no Watergate to embarrass it, a conservative surge would by that point have been overdue and probably unstoppable, especially if Vietnam became a Democratic embarrassment. If the Republicans managed to elect a successor to Reagan in ’84, we might still be right on time for a Clintonesque “triangulating” Democrat in ’92. But on the other hand, the odds of the right wing staying in office that long without producing a Watergate-sized scandal are probably not good, so we might have ended up with a more Carter-like figure by ’88.

The sixties counterculture would sure have looked different with neither the Civil Rights movement nor Nixon’s Vietnam policies to drive it. If Martin Luther King or someone had gotten a movement going in the South, supporting it from the North might well have been a patriotic position favored by conservatives. Maybe the Republican party would have remained the home of abolitionists and antisegregationists, what with the Confederacy now being a foreign threat rather than a domestic shame.

Kennedy’s successor wouldn’t have been LBJ, but then Kennedy might not have been shot. Hard to say. The Cuban missile crisis might have played out very differently if the Confederacy was the main area under threat — perhaps they would have taken the lead in anti-Castro activities, with the USA taking a secondary backing role. I assume that the USA and CSA would be allies in the Cold War, as both would abhor Communism. It would probably be the CSA pulling crap like the Bay of Pigs invasion.

The whole Cold War might have gone very differently, because we might not have had Eisenhower. He mostly lived in Kansas and his ancestry was Pennsylvania Dutch, but unfortunately he was born in Texas. Maybe his parents wouldn’t have moved there, but if they did, we would have lost the Republican party’s main voice for restraint at the time of anticommunist hysteria, and who knows what sort of belligerent asshole would have become president. We might even have ended up with Joe McCarthy in office. As a consequence, there might have been a huge backlash against conservatism, or on the other hand, there might have been a nuclear war and we might all be dead now.  Or maybe Russia would be a radioactive hell but the United States would be semi-intact, if we attacked before their arsenal reached a mature size, and they couldn’t strike back on the same scale.  Maybe Bernie would be running today on a platform of Russian reconstruction.

Before Eisenhower we enter a long period where the South had little overt influence on national politics, so it’s impossible to speculate any further on individual personalities or particular political races. Suffice it to say that the hypotheticals above are entirely facetious — they couldn’t be anything else, because everything would already have been different to such an unknowable extent that 20th century history might be completely unrecognizable. As early as 1900, the whole world might be so different that we might find nothing corresponding to the familiar crises and turning points of the century we remember, so no comparison could even be drawn.

But it is chilling to contemplate one particular possibility… that the Confederate States of America might well have joined the Axis, and neutralized the USA’s ability to fight Japan and Germany in WWII. You gotta admit, Hitler would have been delighted to invite them in. We might have had to spend all of WWII finally having that war between Northern and Southern states which we had avoided before. The Axis might even have won, and conquered the world. But if tensions had long been high between the USA and CSA, then the American war might well have happened earlier, with them taking opposite sides in WWI.

But since this is all facetious, let’s bring it back to the current presidential contest, and ask what the Republican side of the contest would look like. Well first of all, it probably wouldn’t have had seventeen candidates. No Rubio or Cruz or Jeb!, for starters. Fiorina and Carson might have lasted longer.  Kasich might have been taken more seriously.  There’s all kinds of ways it might be different…

But Donald Trump would be exactly the same asshole he is now. And he might well still be talking about building a wall on the southern border, but now he’d be claiming he would make the Confederacy pay for it.

March 28, 2016

some fatuous computer industry predictions

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 11:15 am

I think I’ll call some trends in where the computer industry is going to go in the coming years. And yes, these are pulled straight from my lower gastrointestinal tract.

  • Is Windows going to start dying off?  Yes, but it will be very slow.  Home use will disappear before office use.
  • What will replace it?  A windowed variant of Android, or something Android-compatible, which doesn’t even exist yet.
  • Will that be Google’s planned merger of Android with ChromeOS?  Maybe, but I think it may be more likely to come from an independent outfit.  And if it’s advertised as being half Android and half ChromeOS, it’ll really be 90% Android.
  • Will ARM architecture replace Intel ’86 architecture?  Yes, but only temporarily.
  • Then what will win out in the long term?  Something designed for massive parallelism, like a GPU.  I predict that in The Future, when comparing the size and power of different computers, the main stat that will be quoted is the number of kilocores.
  • Will these cores be similar to full-blown processors such as an ARM core, or will they be more basic and stripped-down like a GPU core?  I think the trend may be from the former toward the latter — quantity over quality.
  • Will we still be using Android variants when things get into kilocore country?  Nah, something fundamentally more advanced will replace the whole current idea of desktop-like interfaces.
  • Will neural networks be important?  Maybe.  They’ll remain a specialized minority of architectures, but I think as the massively parallel architecture evolves toward having more cores and less in each core, it will converge toward neural-net architecture and then replace it.
  • What about software?  I think it will be stored in portable binary format and adapted to individual architectures with JIT compilation and/or automatic local optimizers.  The actual coding of highly parallel algorithms will rarely be done by hand, and will usually depend heavily on automated assistance.
  • What about quantum computing?  It’s impossible to tell how big an impact it will have.  It’s essentially a form of analog computing, and as such may be confined to niche specialties… but you never know: it could end up beating conventional computing at its own game and become much more general-purpose.  If this happens, the need for automated assistance in coding goes double.
  • Will we eventually use computers through direct brain interfaces?  Yes, but progress toward that will be frustratingly slow and gradual.
  • Will these new architectures lead to Artificial Intelligence?  Yes, though in a quite limited sense for the shorter term.  See this article for how I think that will go.
  • Does this mean that a computer will take your job?  It sure does, and it’s going to be a very difficult social challenge to adapt to.  See this further article.

March 23, 2016


Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 7:45 pm

I grew up sort of unconsciously assuming that there were fairly straightforward rules, fairly consistently applied, for how to turn a place name into the term for the people who live there. Once I actually looked, it turned out I had not appreciated how complex and inconsistent it is. I think it was during the 2000 election controversy, when people on TV kept talking about “Floridians”, that it sunk in for me that there’s no requirement for similar sounding place names to be consistent: it could just as easily be “Floridan” and “Nevadian” as the other way around.

I think I will now inventory the demonyms for people who live in the US states and territories, according to what rule they empirically seem to have used. And I’ll throw in Canadian provinces and Australian states too.

Global rule to apply before other rules: if the place name is a plural, convert it to singular before looking for a rule to apply below.
Cases following this rule: Mariana Islands, Virgin Islands, Northwest Territories.
Exceptions: none.

First rule: if the place name ends in “ia”, just add “n”.
Cases following this rule: California, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, South Australia, Western Australia, Tazmania, Victoria.
Exception: District of Columbia (people just say “Washingtonian”).

Second rule: if the place name ends in “a” but not in “ia”, just add “n”.
Cases: Alaska, Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Samoa, Alberta, Manitoba. (Also, America.)
Exceptions: see next rule.

Third rule: if the place name ends in “a” but not in “ia”, and you don’t want to follow the second rule, you can replace the “a” with “ian”.
Cases: Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, North and South Carolina. (And Canada.)
Remaining exceptions: none.

Fourth rule: if the place name ends in an “ee” sound, add “an”.
Cases: Hawaii, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, Northwest Territories.
Minor exceptions: Kentucky (the “y” is replaced with “i”), Tennessee (the last “e” is dropped), Northern Territories (just “Territorian” with no “Northern”).
Real exception: Australian Capitol Territory (similarly to D.C., it gets covered by “Canberran”).

Fifth rule: if it ends in a vowel sound not covered above, replace that vowel (and any silent letter following it) with “an”.
Cases: Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Ontario, Puerto Rico.
Exceptions: see next rule.

Sixth rule: if it ends in a vowel sound not covered in the first four rules, and you don’t want to follow the fifth rule, add “an” without removing anything.
Cases: Idaho, Ohio.
Remaining exception: Utah (it’s “Utahn”).

Seventh rule: if it ends with “as”, replace the “s” with “n”.
Cases: Kansas, Texas.
Exceptions: none.

Eighth rule: if it ends in a plosive or unvoiced consonant sound, but not with “as”, add “er”.
Cases: Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Mariana Islands, Virgin Islands, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Queensland. (Also, New Zealand.)
Minor exceptions: Connecticutt (the last “t” is dropped), Quebec (any of “Quebecker” or “Quebecer” or “Québécois”).
Real exception: Nunavut (“Nunavummiuq”).

Ninth rule: if it ends with a voiced nonplosive consonant sound, add “ian”, or just “an” if the last letter is a silent “e”.
Cases: Delaware, Oregon, Washington, Labrador, Saskatchewan.
Exceptions: see next rule. Also, Michigan can follow this rule, but it’s optional, as it has two competing official demonyms.

Tenth rule: if it ends with a voiced nonplosive consonant sound, and you don’t want to follow the ninth rule, add “ite”, after dropping any silent “e” at the end.
Cases: New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Wyoming (most people pronounce this nonplosively).
Remaining exceptions: see next rule.

Eleventh rule: if it ends with a voiced nonplosive consonant sound, and you don’t want to follow the ninth rule or the tenth rule, add “er”, or just “r” if the last letter is a silent “e”
Cases: Maine, Yukon.
Remaining exceptions: Michigan (the second official demonym adds “der”), Guam (“Chamorro”), New South Wales (“New South Welshman”).

I’ve restricted this list to English-speaking nations, but I excluded the British Isles themselves: the adjectival forms “English”, “Scottish”, “Irish”, and “Welsh” have their own rule, and for added inconvenience “Englishman”/”Scotsman”/”Irishman”/”Welshman” are gendered. “Briton” doesn’t fit with anything else. And I wouldn’t know where to begin with smaller regions such as Middlesex or Yorkshire or Cork. Given the existence of a case like “Manx”, I don’t even want to look.

And once we get into nonanglophonic areas of the world, anything can happen, even if sticking to Englishized names.

March 5, 2016

how fascism survives

Filed under: Uncategorized — Supersonic Man @ 9:19 am

Can fascism be friendly?  We think of fascism mainly by remembering its most virulent examples — the ones with brutal repression and all-out warmongering.  Those regimes usually self-destruct in a generation or two, and overt examples such as Syria are now rare.

But can fascism stick around long term by toning down the violence?  How would you recognize it — what would be its remaining characteristics?  Single-party government which primarily promotes, and/or is primarily supported by, the major business interests of its homeland, with plenty of patriotic nationalist rhetoric, and optionally some military belligerence against manageable enemies.

Viewed in this light, fascism is abundant around the world today.  China’s government calls itself communist but nowadays is actually fascist.  Putin’s Russia is fascist — this being a more traditional specimen.  Even some very benign and peaceful regimes are technically fascist, such as Japan in the second half of the 20th century, and Singapore to this day, both of which had grest success with their business interests.  And some not-so-peaceful and not-so-successful examples are around too, for instance in Central Asia.

In this light, yes, we’ve certainly got fascists here.  After 9/11, some neocons came pretty close to openly advocating single-party rule and suppression of dissent.  Fortunately our tradition of democracy was too strong for them to ever quite dare being open about it — such ideas didn’t publicly go beyond the level of trial-balloon anonymous leaks.

And then as now, such movements don’t lack for willing followers, here or anywhere.

February 20, 2016

the one magical issue that lets anyone identify crooked politicians

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 1:03 pm

I have found a pretty near foolproof way to separate the decent politicians from the crooked ones.

Normally, we are trained to judge politicians by whether they agree with our values.  We support the ones who agree with us on the classic left-vs-right divisive issues, and bitterly oppose those on the other side.  But the thing is, that doesn’t really help you tell whether that politician will stand by you or sell you out.

One thing about these divisive issues is that even when we disagree, we have to acknowledge the sincerity of both sides.  Whether we’re arguing for or against things like gun control or abortion or the war on drugs or social welfare programs or gay rights or overseas belligerence, we can’t doubt that people are arguing their particular side because they genuinely believe it’s what will help keep their fellow citizens safer and more prosperous.

But there are some choices politicians face which aren’t about these “values” choices at all, and they’re the unglamorous ones that politicians are going to be spending more of their everyday time and attention on.  These choices don’t get nearly as much attention, either in the media or from most citizens.  But they’re the ones that determine how most of your tax money gets spent, and sometimes, whether you have to pay those taxes at all.  At these times, the choice faced by each politician is not whether to stand for conservative or liberal values, it’s whether to stand for the voters they represent, or for special interest campaign donors.  And it’s in that choice where we have to be able to know where someone’s going to stand.

One thing about special-interest corruption is that there is no set of values in which it’s a good thing.  Whether you’re liberal, conservative, libertarian, anarchist, communist, or monarchist, there is no justification for it.  This means that, in order for any politician to support special interest giveaways that benefit their personal donors, they have to lie about why they did it.  And it also means that if we want to judge our politicians properly, it’s these special-interest giveaway actions that we really have to look at.

And I think I’ve found one that’s just about perfect as a litmus test: an issue which is popular and widely supported by politicians, yet so clearly and purely an instance of this kind of corruption, that there is no possible excuse or justification for anyone representing the public to advocate it, no matter what kind of values they purport to represent.  An issue where anyone supporting it can be immediately judged as corrupt, with no further data needed.

What is this miraculous single-issue litmus test? It’s a treaty: the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  Now we’re told that it’s about “free trade”, and free trade is good for the economy.  But the thing is, actual trade across the Pacific is already free, or close enough to it that there are no real economic gains to be made by cleaning up any remaining minor issues.  What the TPP would bring is not freer trade, but a host of business giveaways which grant them, essentially, freedom from laws they don’t like.  Environmental laws, child-labor laws, food and product safety laws, job or wage protections, limitations on intellectual property rights — if concern for the health and safety of mere citizens gets in the way of doing business, the TPP would overrule any national government that tries to forbid the harmful practice.  There are many sites that list the various negative effects that this treaty would have: here is one from Public Citizen.

For years, as it was being negotiated in secret, the Obama administration kept reassuring us that it would be fine, and denigrating those who criticized it, on the grounds that they hadn’t read the full terms, which they were not allowed to read.  Then, when the terms of the deal finally became officially public in October 2015, it turned out to be exactly what all the leaks and warnings had said it would be; the opponents didn’t have to adjust their criticisms at all.

The United States signed the finished treaty on February 4, 2016, but has not yet ratified it.  Under the terms of “fast track” legislation passed earlier to ease that process, they might have to vote yea or nay on it as soon as June, but there is some talk of delaying the formal submission to Congress to allow them to vote next winter during the lame duck session.

So, who are those politicians who are selling us out for this? The top name on the list, unfortunately, is Barack H. Obama. And you have to wonder why — this really doesn’t fit in very well with the rest of his legacy.  This is the move of somebody who, unfortunately, took a lot of money from Wall Street donors.

For members of Congress, we can judge by the vote on the “fast track” legislation — a vote with the sole purpose of undercutting normal review and debate of this treaty before ratification. The fast track legislation was arguably even more corrupt than supporting the treaty itself is.

Who voted how? Broadly, Republicans were almost all for it, suddenly forgetting their otherwise almost universal opposition to letting Obama get what he wants, while Democrats were much more divided.

In the Senate, the only Republican holdouts were Susan Collins, Rand Paul, Richard Shelby, Jeff Sessions, and Ted Cruz. I don’t think this means anything for the latter three except that nothing can overcome their Obama hate, but for Collins and Paul I think it may indicate something significant. For Democrats and independents, the split was as follows:

Possibly clean: Baldwin (WI), Blumenthal (CT), Booker (NJ), Boxer (CA), Brown (OH), Casey (PA), Donnelly (IN), Durbin (IL), Franken (MN), Gillibrand (NY), Heinrich (NM), Hirono (HI), King (I-ME), Klobuchar (MN), Leahy (VT), Manchin (WV), Markey (MA), Menendez (NJ), Merkley (OR), Mikulski (MD), Murphy (CT), Peters (MI), Reed (RI), Reid (NV), Sanders (I-VT), Schatz (HI), Schumer (NY), Stabenow (MI), Tester (MT), Udall (NM), Warren (MA), Whitehouse (RI).

Definitely dirty: Bennet (CO), Cantwell (WA), Cardin (MD), Carper (DE), Coons (DE), Feinstein (CA), Heitkamp (ND), Kaine (VA), McCaskill (MO), Murray (WA), Nelson (FL), Shaheen (NH), Warner (VA), Wyden (OR).

Three senators did not vote: Corker (TN), Lee (UT), and Menendez (NJ).

In the House, the vote was closer, and more partisan, with most Democrats opposing. The exceptions are as follows.

Possibly clean Republicans:  Aderholt (AL), Amash (MI), Brat (VA), Bridenstine (OK), Brooks (AL), Buck (CO), Burgess (TX), Clawson (FL), Chris Collins (NY), Doug Collins (GA), Cook (CA), Donovan (NY), Jeff Duncan (SC), John Duncan (TN), Farenthold (TX), Fleming (LA), Garrett (NJ), Gibson (NY), Gohmert (TX), Gosar (AZ), Griffith (VA), Harris (MD), Hunter (CA), Jenkins (WV), Jolly (FL), Jones (NC), Jordan (OH), Joyce (OH), Katko (NY), Labrador (ID), LoBiondo (NJ), Lummis (WY), MacArthur (NJ), Massie (KY), McKinley (WV), Meadows (NC), Mooney (WV), Mulvaney (SC), Nugent (FL), Palmer (AL), Pearce (NM), Perry (PA), Poliquin (ME), Posey (FL), Rohrabacher (CA), Rothfus (PA), Russell (OK), Smith (NJ), Webster (FL), Westmoreland (GA), Wittman (VA), Yoho (FL), Young (AK), Zeldin (NY).

Definitely dirty Democrats:  Ashford (NE), Bera (CA), Beyer (VA), Blumenauer (OR), Bonamici (OR), Connolly (VA), Cooper (TN), Costa (CA), Cuellar (TX), Davis (CA), Delaney (MD), DelBene (WA), Farr (CA), Himes (CT), Hinojosa (TX), Johnson (TX), Kilmer (WA), Kind (WI), Larsen (WA), Meeks (NY), O’Rourke (TX), Peters (CA), Polis (CO), Quigley (IL), Rice (NY), Schrader (OR), Sewell (AL), Wasserman Schultz (FL).

My own representative, Mike Thompson (D-CA), did not vote.  Other nonvoters were Mark Amodei (R-NV), Jackie Speier (D-CA), and Juan Vargas (D-CA).

It is estimated that $200,000,000 was given to various House members to sway their votes.  John Boehner got over five million for his, apparently with no laws broken in the transaction.  To their credit, many who voted no did so in spite of having received this kind of payment.  I think this shows how public scrutiny and controversy is often the best available means to overcome the pressure of bribery.  Unfortunately, only a small number of issues can receive this level of attention, while dozens of smaller ones pass unnoticed to maintain the special interest gravy train.

What about the presidential candidates? Secretary Clinton is in a dubious position: she opposes it as a candidate even though she supported it (while it was being negotiated) as Secretary of State, calling it a “gold standard” and similar effusive terms. Her current opposition is very recent and very convenient, poll-wise. And woops — here’s a leak which says she’s expected to change her mind back again.

Sanders has, of course, always staunchly opposed this kind of crap.

On the other side, the establishment Republicans such as Kasich and Rubio and Bush all support it, but Trump does not. This issue is tailor made for allowing him to be the fake populist in that bunch. Cruz also opposes it, but he’s quick to point out how much he adores free trade in general. I suspect that he only wants a deal without Obama’s name on it. Like Clinton, both Trump and Cruz originally favored the plan, and then changed their minds. I don’t think I have to spell out that I don’t trust either of them a single millimeter.  Trump, for one, generally hasn’t hesitated to replace his own employees with cheaper overseas workers.

For those who are wondering why Sanders and Trump are stealing all the attention away from the establishment candidates, this should help give you a big clue about what makes that difference. A lot of voters are aware on some level that they’ve been sold out, even if they haven’t fully articulated it in Bernie-like terms, and they’ve heard this particular story before. Much of the public across the political spectrum opposes the TPP (especially among those who consider themselves at all well informed on the question), despite leaders of both sides trying to sell it to them.  And such opposition is spreading across a number of other issues as awareness of the sellout pattern grows.

Much of the wide support for Trump, I believe, comes from the same source as the support for Bernie: the hope for a government that won’t betray them anymore. You may wonder how anyone could ever trust Trump, but the point is, nobody else on his side is offering these people any hope at all of changing the existing pattern of corruption. I think that is, at bottom, why Trump is able to keep winning primaries, despite acting like such a complete asshole.

As for Sanders — the only one in the race who offers real hope on this front, in my opinion… we shall see. If he fails to win the nomination, at least Clinton now has to pretend to want change, and therefore should be amenable to persuasion on those issues which have a big enough public stink raised about them.

February 9, 2016


Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 11:45 am

Battery technology is going to be extremely important to our future.  If someone just came up with a rechargeable battery that improved the energy density of lithium-ion cells by a factor of, say, about six, the effects would be tremendous.  It wouldn’t just suddenly make the electric car really competitive with fossil-fuel powered cars, it could pretty near wipe out small internal combustion engines altogether.  Motor scooters, lawnmowers, maybe even chainsaws would go electric, as would heavy trucks and buses.  The reduction of air pollution would be dramatic.  Vacuum cleaners would start going cordless.  Laptop computers could start being as powerful as desktops.

We could build robots that could walk around for longer than fifteen minutes before needing to plug themselves in.  We could make strength-enhancing exoskeletons.  All kinds of high powered portable doodads.

Also, the economics of shifting from fossil fuels to renewables would become a lot more attractive than they already are.

February 8, 2016


Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry,Uncategorized — Supersonic Man @ 1:00 pm

I’ve always been fascinated by the hymn (if such it is) “Jerusalem”, or “And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time”, by William Blake and Hubert Parry.  In the British Isles, particularly in England (where it’s almost become an unofficial national anthem), it’s inescapable, but here in the States we’re not often exposed to it.  In my younger days I would catch glimpses of it, you might say — a fragment of a verse stuck into an episode of Monty Python, for instance.  And it always seemed to have a magic about it — some quality that other such songs did not possess.  That effect starts with William Blake’s words, which are an odd mix of religion, patriotism, and activism which sound like an inspiring call to arms, but which still mystify us as to exactly what we’re being called to do:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

I didn’t get the full blast effect of it as a work of music until I bought a copy of the canonical prog-rock album Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.  Their version of Jerusalem was their lead single for the album (it almost had to be, as it was about the only track that was short enough to fit on a 7″).  Even in its original form, it’s very catchy and singable and yet, at the same time, kind of strange and modernistic.  It has the same odd mix of simplicity and mystery that I find in the words.

I recently learned the story of how the music came to be written, and it’s a more interesting tale than you might expect.  It was commissioned in 1916, when the Poet Laureate of the UK, Robert Bridges, joined up with an organization called Fight for Right, which was — there may be fairer and more nuanced ways of putting this, but I don’t feel like bothering — a pro-war group.  Bridges saw how badly the public was reacting to the demoralizing horror of endless trench warfare, and decided that what the people needed was a song that would help brace their spirits and inspire them to be cheerful about making further sacrifices.  (Of course, this is easy to call for when it’s the common man who does the sacrificing.  Also, Bridges was highly religious, and so believed that such sacrifices could be balanced in the afterlife.)  He combed through some collections of poems and hit upon the above stanzas by William Blake, which at that time were little known, because Blake wrote them in a totally offhand way, as part of the preface to a much longer work (Milton, a Poem).  Bridges thought these words would function well for inspiring a lot of can-do spirit to aid Britain’s victory.  They just needed music — a tune which people could sing in groups.

The composer he approached was Sir Hubert Parry, a name which today is little remembered aside from this one work, though he was a major influence on a number of people who are much better known, such as Elgar and Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Parry had substantial misgivings about becoming involved with Fight for Right, but didn’t want to disappoint Bridges, or those who were looking forward to performing the work’s premiere.

He originally wrote it for unison voices and pipe organ.  He made it into two verses of eight lines each, with a four bar instrumental bit at each end and between the two verses.  It sounds a lot like a church hymn, and indeed some refer to it explicitly as a hymn, though some argue it doesn’t quite qualify as one on the strictest technical grounds.  He used three-four time, which seems an odd choice given that the meter of the text is a very four-square iambic tetrameter.  This results in a melodic line that flows through graceful curves where someone else might have made a clunking march.  It also results in an unexpected separation between the bar lines and the emphasized syllables, creating a sort of loose syncopation.  This aspect makes it a little trickier to learn and sing along to than you think at first listen — you feel like you’ve got it, and then find you’re off beat.  Aside from that, the melody is simple and easy, though the organ chords are fairly sophisticated.

Between the rhythmic freedom and the varying chord progressions, the music strikes a quite interesting tension between tradition and modernity.  If you don’t know when it was written, it can be quite difficult to guess its actual age.

As originally conceived, it would be performed with a soprano soloist singing the first verse and massed voices singing the second, but this is rarely done.  Here is a typical performance of his original scoring.

Fifteen months later, Parry backed out, and said he could no longer support Fight for Right.  But that didn’t hurt the song at all — Bridges had chosen better than he knew, and by picking lyrics which managed to combine inspiration with obscurity, and discontent with patriotism, he’d managed to create a song which could be taken up by any political cause, left or right or center, as long as it was English.  And the first group which asked if they could use the song, now that Fight for Right was done with it, was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.  Parry was delighted — he and his wife liked suffragism a whole lot better than warcraft.  He didn’t just grant permission to use the hymn for their cause, he gave them ownership of the copyright!  And if that wasn’t enough, he also threw in a scoring for full orchestra.  (Edward Elgar redid it for even fuller orchestra a few years later — it’s this version which is typically used in concert settings.)

Sadly, the flu pandemic of 1918 claimed Parry’s life.  After suffrage was won and the N.U.W.S.S. broke up, his estate passed the copyright to another women’s organization, which kept it until it went public domain in 1968.

Despite that, activist groups of all stripes made fairly free use of the song, including all three political parties.  It’s also used not infrequently in church as an actual hymn, and audience singalongs are routine even in settings that are neither political nor religious — particularly at the conclusion of an annual summer concert series known as “the Proms”.

The Emerson, Lake, and Palmer version was recorded shortly after the public-domaining, but as a single to sell the album, it failed — largely because the BBC decided, for some poorly articulated reason, that it was inappropriate to turn the song into rocknroll, and declared it not suitable to play on the radio.  Their version substantially elaborates Parry’s music, most notably by stretching the three-four rhythm back to four-four (with occasional exceptions).  This does surprisingly little violence to the melody.  The rhythmic fluidity noted above allows it to adapt to this change almost unaffected, just by stretching some long notes a bit longer.  Their intent is clearly to show off the music, rather than to lay any claim to the text, and maybe it’s that which irked the squares — all that God and Country stuff shouldn’t be taken so lightly, perhaps.

Speaking of the text brings us back to Blake.  What did he actually mean by it?  First off, what’s all this about God making a visit to the English countryside?  Well that part, at least, is easy enough to answer, and it’s another bit of culture which is apparently ubiquitous in the UK but little known in the states.  See, there’s an apocryphal story, or at least a folk belief, that Jesus of Nazareth visited the British Isles in the company of Joseph of Arimathea, who in this version was said to be a tin merchant.  (Tin was the main resource for which the Romans colonized Britain.)  Blake doesn’t endorse the tale, but just asks if maybe it were true, and this is the basis for the first half of the poem.

In the second half, he vows to strive and battle for his goal, which is to build Jerusalem in England.  Building Jerusalem is the one idea that unites the two verses.  He doesn’t mean the literal city, of course.  Apparently it was a commonplace (and in some traditions still is) to use the name “Jerusalem” loosely to refer to a righteous and Godly society on Earth, as opposed to the sinful or secular morass that we experience in real life.  The legend of Jesus’s visit is apparently used to make this dream of a new Jerusalem seem achievable, by suggesting that it had a precedent.

This leaves one oddity in the lyrics: “Among these dark Satanic Mills”.  (Parry, or perhaps Bridges, softened that line a bit by changing “these” to “those”.  EL&P changed it back.)  Given that the English environment is otherwise painted as bucolic, the natural tendency is to hear this line as referring to the smoke and blight of the early industrial revolution.  But this is not the only place William Blake used that term, and it’s apparent to readers of Blake that he meant something else, though he was never exactly clear on what.  He apparently meant something in the general ballpark of: those social institutions which train people’s minds into obedience and conformity and ungodliness.  And some say that what he meant more specifically was… the Church of England.

If so, that would explain why he wouldn’t spell it out.  It wasn’t safe.  I used to think, because it was the consensus I heard from those who were supposed to know, that Blake was a kook nutcase who saw visions and wrote in a private symbolic code because he wasn’t able to share the same world as the people around him.  That remains a common way for him to be depicted.  But another reason for his symbolic obscurity becomes apparent when you learn that in 1803, he was arrested on charges of sedition.  The case went nowhere, but still, it’s a clear reminder that having revolutionary sympathies, as he did, was not a safe thing to express in public.

What this makes me wonder is, how many other radicals and idealists are there in history, who we remember now only as kooks and cranks and crazies?  How many times have those who seemed to be speaking visions of madness actually been speaking of reform and revolution, in times when such ideas could not be spoken openly?

One item which comes to mind, when asking that question, is the granddaddy of all kooky visionary texts, the Book of Revelations.  To my eye, verse 13:18, the one which states the number of the beast, is saying that he’s talking in a coded way about real people — names a reader at the time would recognize.

Can you imagine what a different religion Christianity would be if the early councils had placed that book in the Apocrypha instead of in the New Testament?  One kind of wonders why they didn’t — there’s nothing else like it included.  It’s been a magnet for the real kooks and crazies, and on the opposite side, those who insist that everything in the Bible is absolutely literal, rather than at all symbolic, have ended up producing almost the same effect.  Much of the worst stuff that’s gone wrong in the name of Christ might have gone quite a bit differently without that one book.

To return to the song…  I have sometimes dreamed that I might, at some point, manage to write a protest song which has some enduring value, and which could enter the canon of popular tunes which people pull out when it’s time to stand up for what they believe in.  A song which has a memorable and singable melody with some element of beauty, which can benefit from instrumental accompaniment but in no way requires it, and whose lyrics invite people to add their own verses.  Such a song would not be about any one issue, but about the generalities that apply to most any protest issue, such as the eternal conflict between equality and privilege, between liberty and authority — the inevitable opposition that arises between the ordinary populace and the few with power.

If I ever manage to create a song that has any success with such aims, I’ll have to credit “Jerusalem” as its primary inspiration.

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