Sunday, July 16, 2017

More Alien Weirdness?

Not to get weird, because that ship sailed long ago, but as I was surfing the YouTube channels Sunday afternoon one of the guys I watch on a regular basis posted an interesting and out of the blue video. Turns out that the giant Arecibo radio telescope has detected an "odd" signal that seems to be coming from Ross 128, a red dwarf star about 11 light-years away.

Abel Méndez, an astrobiologist from the University of Puerto Rico said the star was observed for ten minutes, during which time the signal was detected and that it seemed "almost periodic". Méndez admitted that the signal could have originated from a communications satellite, since they often transmit on the frequencies observed but that the radio burst was "very peculiar". The video you will find below does suggest that if the signal was from a communication satellite it would have to be quite a bit farther out from Earth than is normal.

My first thought after hearing that was the signal might be from a spy satellite. Over the last several decades the United States and the Soviet Union have launched numerous secret payloads into space and I've heard a lot of crazy theories that some of them are in weird orbits in an effort to go undetected. There is also a chance that the signal came from the star Ross 128 itself, since red dwarfs often produce massive flares.

Recent speculation about that habitability of red dwarf star systems tends run either hot or cold. On the plus side, those stars live far longer that our sun, thus allowing a lot of time for life and intelligence to evolve, but those massive flares probably sterilize any planets orbiting close enough to be in their Goldilocks zone. Whatever the case, the guys and gals at Arecibo will be trying to tune in on Ross 128 in an effort to pick the signal up again.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Busy Aliens?--An Examination of Przybylski's Star

Curiosity can be a dangerous thing leading to the discovery of all sorts of facts that either challenge existing beliefs, or for some open the door to knowledge showing the spectacular and bizarre nature of the universe. Since the European Renaissance, scientific inquiry has done just that, we've gone from believing our world is the center to the universe to understanding that our planet circles an average yellow-star which is on the outskirts of a boring spiral galaxy lost among trillions of others.

The last real item separating us from the rest of the cosmos is that we have no idea if both intelligence life and simpler organisms exist anywhere else. The probes we've sent out into the solar system strongly suggest the presence of liquid water underneath the surface of several moons of Jupiter and Saturn allowing for the possibility of things like bacteria and other single cell organisms. Many scientists hold out the hope that similar conditions might exist underneath the surface of Mars, sort of like underground reservoirs of liquid water protected from the near vacuum of the surface and the unfiltered UV light coming from the sun. Long story short, while no respectable scientist will go out and say he or she is certain we share the solar system with simple organisms, but they would love to have a more robust space program that would determine that fact. From what I've read and seen on videos, unless humans get real stupid and wreck the planet or commit mass suicide we should know whether or not other life exists in our solar system within fifty years.

It is the search for intelligence life where we have little chance of answering that question barring the interception of radio signals from interstellar or intergalactic space. Yes, there is a more than zero chance that an alien starship might just happen to see our little planet and decide to stop by and say hello. But that “more than zero chance” is so infinitely small it would be better for the average person to plan on winning the lotto than expecting such an event from ever happening. Astrophysicists and other astronomers have made some curious observations about other stars in the galaxy that right now they can't readily explain with existing theories causing a few to hesitatingly suggest the presence of advanced alien civilizations.

The first example is KIC 8462852, which stirred up the media when it was found something was causing that star to periodically dim up to twenty-five percent suggesting something really big was orbiting it. Ideas of why it was dimming an unusual amount ranged from an asteroid field, a cluster of comets, to debris leftover from the collision of two planets. None of them really satisfied the observations leaving someone to jokingly suggest some really industrious aliens were building a Dyson sphere around the star to collect all that easy solar energy.

With curiosity running at warp speeds, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) guys and gals began scanning the star looking for radio communications between all those busy aliens working to enclose the star. None were detected, but fuel was further added to the possible alien fire when astronomers looked at the data collected over the last hundred years or so of observing that star suggesting the dimming has has grown over that time. The actual nature of this dimming is still unknown leaving KIC 8462852 to be the subject of continued intense investigation, although recent ideas put forward squarely put the cause back into the non-alien induced reasons.

Then there is Przybylski's Star, located roughly 370 light-years away, is showing seriously bizarre characteristics that suggest the presence of elements unknown to Earth or maybe aliens dumping heavy substances into it as a way to reveal their existence.

From Wikipedia:

In normal-sized stars like our sun, as it ages and runs low on hydrogen it gets hotter until it starts fusing its remaining fuel into iron. While the sun is even now slowly getting hotter when it fuses iron that when it goes seriously old age and does the expansion out beyond the orbit of our planet. No real worries though, without humans screwing things up, we've got about a billion years before the increasing temperature makes Earth too hot for liquid water and about another three billion before it gets incinerated.

When larger stars run out of fuel they go super nova, the temperatures and pressure involved in those explosions forge all the heavier elements like silver, gold, and many of the heavy elements being detected in Przybylski's Star. So, long story short with Przybylski being one classification bigger than our sun, and because it clearly hasn't exploded, why it contains those types of elements is quite bizarre.

The going non-alien explanation is that there is some source, like a nearby neutron star, feeding the elements into hot plasma that makes up the star. Another, almost as wild possibility as aliens, is that Przybylski's Star somehow contains a as yet unknown on Earth heavy element that is simply decaying into the ones listed above. Once again, how this unknown element was created without any nearby super nova remnants is a big mystery.

Just because when you eliminate all the other possibilities whatever is left, no matter how improbable, must be considered. The one explanation half jokingly suggested is that aliens are producing mass quantities of heavy elements and then feeding them into Przybylski's Star in an attempt to get noticed by other intelligent species. A seriously fascinating idea but although, like Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims must come with extraordinary evidence. This method does seem crazy, but who can tell what another species with technology far more advanced than our own might consider a good idea.

Realistically, there is probably a far more reasonable explanation as to why Przybylski's Star has those wacky elements circulating in its plasma. For a short time scientists entertained the idea that pulsars, rapidly rotating neutron stars, might be navigational beacons for aliens cruising around in their starships. But for me Przybylski's Star and the curious nature of KIC 8462852 are enough to keep hope alive that the SETI guys and gals might just have an exciting announcement to share with the world one day.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

For a More Perfect Union...

With the Fourth of July upon us, and with me marooned in my suburban hell because of traffic issues going down to the coast, now seems a good time for some wild speculation on how to build a more perfect union or society. Given the degree of economic inequality we face in this country, along with the rampant societal issues, and the near collapse of our government due to ignorance, incompetence, and ideological demagoguery, reforming or even scrapping the whole shebang is a circumstance that might need to be pondered.

Unfortunately, even reforming a society with so many special interests and entrenched powers is no easy feat. Yeah lets be clear for a moment, no group is without sin in this area. By definition any group that wants to protect their position is a special interest, which could be as noble as environmentalists wanting to protect vital ecosystems that cleanse our waters and air, or as reckless and irresponsible as corporations that knowingly sell defective or dangerous products. And yes, just to be fair you could easily reverse those two comparisons with radical extremist environmentalists being the bad guys and, at least in theory, a corporation playing the part of the hurt and damaged entity just trying to make a buck and employ people.

Now some might say we've already walked down this path with the Founding Fathers, that they lead the thirteen colonies to victory against the oppressive Great Britain and its crazy ass king. With them a few years later writing up the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and BOOM, we have the most awesome and kick-ass nation ever to existed. Yeah, well something like that but if you look a little closer things aren't that simple.

First of all there's slavery, an economic practice many of the Found Fathers depended on to keep them in powered wings and those seriously weird looking socks and shoes. It's easy to say “all men are created equal,” but its meaning gets lost when you have people in permanent bondage working your tobacco and cotton fields. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—all slave owners-- were exceptional and enlightened men for the 18th century but they were not saints. When something close to the barbaric notion of kings being appointed “divine rights” by God was still a serious thing in Europe and the rest of the world the Founding Fathers decided they would set America on a different but not entirely new path. But their accomplishment is still sullied by the fact that slavery was enshrined in the Constitution with black people being counted as three-fifths of a person.

The Founding Fathers also screwed up with their treatment of Native Americans and of women. The former being treated in ways that some actually use the word genocide and the latter being little better than property up until the twentieth century. Yes, all three of those issues were addressed in time, but you can't honestly say they were successful efforts with African-Americans, Native Americans, and women now seamlessly part of our society. Racism, institutional poverty, economic injustice, and blatant sexism are still wildly prevalent today, and because of certain people who play on fear and hate as well as economic trends, it's getting worse.

The long and the short of it that while the Founding Father were great guys for their time, the society they helped form was centered around rich, white, property owning guys. If you were not a member of that club your standing fell almost exponentially to the point it really didn't make a difference if the ultimate leader was a president or some king. What ultimately saved our experiment was the vast continent that allowed those property-less souls to move westward. And like the proverbial vicious circle that leads back to the Native Americans being slaughtered, ethically cleansed in such things like Jackson's Trail of Tears, and finally herded onto reservations. Sorry for being such a buzz kill, but when you look beyond the warm and fuzzy propaganda, history can be a real bitch.

The bright side in all this is that the United States did slowly and imperfectly reform itself to the point that we have expanded the definition of human rights and liberty to the point the Founding Fathers, those crazy radical 18th century liberals, would run off screaming into the night. The one exception I believe would be Ben Franklin, if you bring one of them forward I believe that old magnificent goat would understand the path we've tried to take.

Unfortunately, from a high point of around the early 1970's the United States has started on a downward spiral. With the frontier long since closed, it was a growing economy that provided the safety valve on the worst aspects of our society. The problem is that technology and simple rules of economics has eliminated many good paying jobs that allowed a man or woman to buy a house, send their kids to college, and later retire. Technological innovation, the thing that raised our lifestyles, is now making many jobs go the way of blacksmiths and switchboard operators. Throw in corporations trying to raise profits by shipping other jobs overseas where pay is insanely less and you have a recipe for societal unrest.

To borrow a phrase from one of my favorite movies, our success is becoming our undoing. With an expanding economy it was easy to start including other segments of our society into the American Dream. There was significant opposition, but when you considered the economic lifeboat was being lifted almost constantly, it only made sense to bring aboard those folks who were in the water hanging on the railing.

Now with the middle class shrinking and the working class folks not so slowly being engulfed in poverty the “Kumbaya” feeling most Americans enjoyed is being replaced with divisiveness and rancor. The worst thing in all this is that everyone knows the economic shit is going sideways but no one really wants to do anything about it. The Democrats spout platitudes about how bad things are while the Republican answer is to apply more tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation. Yes, this is a purely partisan statement but of the two the Democrats at least recognize the problem. But because they are tied to a system where campaigns require huge sums of outside money, they are hamstrung at instituting any real reforms. A fact made worse when a huge chunk of the middle and working class feel any reforms are socialistic in nature thereby giving their hard earned money to lazy ass (insert your idea here).

The Republicans live in a wondrous world of utter delusion where they believe rich elites give a damn about common folks. Sure, once again there are exceptions but the fact that when innovation didn't make a job obsolete, the majority of corporations used their tax breaks to ship jobs overseas to countries free of nasty labor unions and decent pay. Throw in the libertarian/Ayn Rand branch of the Republican party who blatantly say they have their pile of nice things and the rest of the country can go screw themselves and you have a political party perfectly set up to use a convenient dipshit with just enough charisma to promise to Make America Great Again.

Now I'm painting a dismal picture of a United States unable or unwilling to change, something that history suggests isn't true. One of our truest strengths is that we eventually face our problems and work hard to try and correct them. Honestly, I believe our current situation isn't hopeless and in fact I see the beginnings of a realization on the part of the nation as a whole that our current mindsets are outdated. But for wild speculation sake lets ponder what we might be able to do if shit doesn't get better, just how would a more perfect society be built in the face of numerous special interests.

Enter the late John Rawls, who was a moral and political philosopher at Harvard University. In his book A Theory of Justice he attempted to solve the problem of creating a more equal society. Grossly paraphrasing, Rawls understood that any designers hoping to create a new society will by human nature engineer it to their benefit. The only hope of getting around that obstacle was that everyone decides what principles are instituted from behind a Veil of Ignorance.

This group of founders would know nothing of their own positions, themselves, nor history. The only exceptions would be knowledge about human biology, psychology, our values, and various theories of justice. This veil of ignorance would in theory allow the benefits and burdens of social cooperation to be appropriately distributed. Before anyone flies off the handle, while this concept is new to me it is not the recent creation of some wild eyed college professor with nothing better to do. Heavy philosophical hitters like Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and even Thomas Jefferson have played with the idea.

It was be supremely easy to get lost in the complex nature of Rawls' proposal, needless to say that is the beyond the scope of this post and not really the point I am trying to make. Although, Rawls' thoughts on justice can be summed up along these lines:

"First Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”

My take on this is the impossible nature of finding anyone who could realistically serve on any type of committee under such an all encompassing ignorance of their own agendas. Speaking strictly hypothetically if Americans, or any other people, decided to reboot their societies it would be impossible to not feel the weight of history much less ignore centuries old grudges and biases. Both the French and the Russians attempted societal reboots but failed miserably with it taking the former centuries to develop a free society and the latter even now engulfed in an authoritarian regime as birthrates and gross domestic product fall along with the only thing of value they can sell on the world market being oil.

There is one possible, totally hypothetical solution to the quandary, and that is computer-based artificial intelligence (AI). The scenario I've played with while thinking about the fate of the human race, the true nature of existence and reality, along with just what makes up belly button lint is that an AI program is the only possible entity that could realistically judge a situation without any of the inherent biases or prejudices all human beings possess. A tall order, not just because such technology has not yet been developed but because getting everyone to agree to having an AI reboot (redesign) society would almost be as impossible as finding a group of humans without all those preconceived notions that cloud our judgment.

Let's face it, one of the reasons basic reforms are damn next to impossible is that we have too many special interest groups who all feel their scared cows should come first. The rich elites are first on that list, namely because they have the money to make their influence felt far beyond their actual numbers. Their special considerations have grown so out of proportion to their actual worth to the nation that some in that group have suggested they be given more votes, as opposed to the common folks.

But other special interest groups are often just as obnoxious, especially since their positions are often justified by superstition or ancient prejudices. In all honesty, while I am on friendlier terms with religion these days, quite frankly churches need to pay taxes on what they gather from members. There are simply way too many rich preachers running around in two-thousand dollar suites, living in forty room mansions, and flying off to tropical vacations in their personal jet aircraft. As for prejudices, a great majority of Americans would be well served if they had access to mental health counseling concerning how they act to people outside the scope of their understanding.

An AI could in theory be programmed to make rational decisions on just who would get access to resources and level the political playing field in such a way as to prevent gerrymandering and basic demagoguery. As I've already written, I'm just doing some wild speculating because I've got nothing better to do. If such a technology was developed the circumstances that would force people to rely on artificial intelligence to guide them to a more just society falls strictly in the realm of science fiction.

That places us back at the start of our problem. Our society is grossly unfair and getting worse. I guess everything can be summed up to apathy and political polarization. Beyond token efforts, most people really do not give a rip about the their fellow citizens, much less about some poor soul in Africa starving to death. And as far as polarization is concerned, it's easy to blame the situation on politicians, but the nasty truth is that they only reflect the people that vote for them.

The only real way to change the direction of our society will have to come from the realization that there is no saviors or any real quick fixes. We'll have to start electing leaders instead of dead weight whose only real accomplishment is being born rich, but that is only the first step. The next will be rational experimentation with plans that might span the political spectrum, and then be adapted as situations change. This would preclude ideological A-holes who can't think beyond some static party platform. In simpler terms, that might mean taxes have to be raised occasionally and that some guy or gal with a new invention or idea shouldn't be stifled because they might get rich over their creation.

Our destiny as a nation, and the world, is ultimately up to us. Hunkering down and not getting involved is truthfully a suicidal move because the world is constantly changing. Personally, I'm cynical enough that I actually like the idea of an AI taking charge of the government, even if there is a chance such an entity might go all Skynet on us. Given the troll living in the White House right now murderous software bent on world domination doesn't seem that much different.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Lawn Care Ruminations

Sunday morning began with me looking out my kitchen window and struggling to convince myself that my backyard didn't need cutting. Usually this early in the summer I can get away with cutting one yard a weekend and I did the back just last Sunday. Unfortunately something is different this year, not sure if it's the heavier rainfall we've had but as I walked outside on my deck to take a closer look, it was apparent that if I didn't cut the backyard I'd have a jungle the following weekend. A further mystery is the fact that except for a few dandelions, my front yard didn't need to be cut although its already been two weeks it was mowed.

So like a good suburban drone I inserted the headphones attached to my MP3 player into my ears, cranked up the mower, and proceeded walk up and down my yard pushing a ridiculous device that I am sure will be a joke to future generations. I'm sure climate change and simple innovation will eventually make gas powered lawnmowers antiquated relics. Battery powered lawnmowers are already for sale and if I had five hundred dollars I could risk on such a new technology, I'd already have bought one just so I would not have to deal with the frustration of their gas powered counterparts. I know the problems I've had with lawnmowers are from a lack of proper care on my part, but I'll be damned those things weren't as complicated back when I pushed my Granddad's around the neighborhood to earn a few bucks cutting other peoples' grass.

Ideally, and call me insane, I'd like to see the demise of the modern subdivision and have them replaced with a more communal lifestyle. I've heard of a few places like that already exist, it's not an apartment nor condo situation because these new neighborhoods are made up of individual, freestanding family homes but the green spaces have a more open, park-like feel. The homes in these new types of neighborhoods are also much smaller than the Mcmansions many Americans have come to believe are rights enshrined in the Constitution. That right there will have some running off screaming socialism but if I could buy into such a place go ahead and start addressing me as comrade. 

Yes, this means lawn care of the grounds would be relegated down to a contractor or in the future, battery powered robots that would perform their duties without human interaction. Yes, all this pondering is just me whining about having to take care of something I bought back when I was too stupid to realize how demanding lawn care could be.

All told it only took me forty-five minutes to cut the backyard and the small segment on the other side of the fence. Yes, I did come away with a small feeling of accomplishment. Both the backyard and side yard looked better but any satisfaction was short lived, because as I kicked back with a cold soda I realized that I will most certainly have to do the same damn thing next weekend.

It has been said that the definition of insanity is to perform the same act over and over again expecting a different result. How lawn care plays into that idea I'll leave that to each individual to decide. I'm sure everyone can already guess where I fall on that answer.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Staycation Blues

Before anyone gets the wrong idea let me go ahead and state that I actively pushed my wife and daughter to take the trip both are currently on right now. This trip was so important to them that I realized anything less than my enthusiastic support would eventually come back and bite me on my own ass. What trip that I knew from the very beginning I wouldn't be going with them am I speaking about?

As of this very moment my lovely wife and daughter are probably sitting in the bizarrely conceived chairs at one of the Washington DC airports waiting to board a flight that will first take them to New York and then another to Edinburgh, Scotland. You know the kind of seat, it has a frame made up of some sort of shiny metal alloy with the actual place you put your butt and lean back on a vinyl/plastic substance. From a distance these seats, long rows of them, look comfortable but since the arm rests are fixed if you have to wait longer than thirty minutes to board your plane the average person begins a stationary dance sliding their butts to one side or the other in an effort to relax.

Once they arrive in Edinburgh they begin a nine day trip which will have them, and the others in the tour group, heading south and catching some of the beautiful sights and interesting places making up the island of Britain. Like I said, I knew from the beginning I wouldn't be going on the trip, so while I didn't selflessly volunteer to stay back, I didn't make a huge stink about the fact that I would, once again, be keeping the home fires burning while they were gone.

While the cost of the trip was overwhelmingly the main reason I stayed back, another big factor was the fact that one of our two dogs is diabetic and requires insulin shots twice a day. Yeah, there are local kennels we could have boarded both dogs and the two cats we own but that would have just raised the already crazy cost of the trip even more. Throw in the usual crap associated with suburban living like cutting the yard and general overwatch of the house it was mandatory that some adult, other than my college age son who has his own things to do, had to stay home.

No, other than maybe a day trip down to the coast there isn't any sort of conciliation prize in the form of a cheap and easy vacation to the Bahamas waiting for me once they return. Truthfully, when my wife and daughter left the house Friday morning I had images of myself as the hapless loser on any number of game shows who totally embarrassed themselves on national television and came away from the experience with a one year supply of Rice-A-Roni. I'm sure Rice-A-Roni is a tasty treat but you've got to wonder that if they readily give away that much of the product who are they really helping, the hapless game show loser or the company?

What this all amounts to is that I am condemned to a “Staycation” this year with me taking a four-day weekend now and another at the end of the next. A situation I find comparable to having to endure one of the less extreme levels of Hell. Think the Rod Serling's Night Gallery episode where a late 1960's/early 1970's West Coast hipster is forced to spend an eternity of punishment listening to a rural Midwest farmer talk about the weather and crop yields. My attitude come from the fact I really don't like the area I live, don't get me wrong it's a perfectly pleasant place filled with sterile examples of America's corporate feudalism, traffic congestion comparable to big cities during rush hour, and my favorite, authoritarian neighbors on the lookout for any sort of infraction. There is also the fact that I'm just far enough away from the coast, and its beaches, that certain logistical issues become a problem, especially with a diabetic dog.

Since I willingly took one for the team this year to make my wife and daughter happy you would think I might get some iota of consideration from them when it comes to enduring this idyllic suburban hell. No, I'm not looking for an inane souvenir nor some special reward upon their safe return home. But given the conversation I had with my wife yesterday they seem oblivious to my vacation sacrifice.

Due to a slight mix-up my wife called me yesterday afternoon to ask me to track down some paperwork she should have taken with her. After finding the items within minutes I was standing at the scanner/copier/fax waiting for the overly complicated machine to do its duty so I could email her the forms. During those minutes she attempted some idle small talk.

“So, how are things going at the house?” she asked. I'll give my wife credit, she's not the best small talker and would have usually walked off to do something else as I scanned the forms.

“Almost exactly the same as you left them a little of ten hours ago.” I replied trying valiantly not to sound like a smartass even though I was slightly miffed that she had already run into an issue. This trip had been in the works for at least nine months and if the shoe was on the other foot I wouldn't left anything behind.

“Well, are you having any fun?” she asked in a way over twenty years of marriage has taught wasn't an attempt at humor.

To say I was dumbfounded at the question would have been an overstatement. But it did make me uncomfortable since she has to know how I would do anything to move not just to another town but at least to a house where the neighbors are far enough away they can't be quite as nosy.

No, I wasn't kidding.

“Having oodles of fun, playing doorman for the animals here at home is awesome!” I said as sarcastically as possible explaining that since she and my daughter had left I had already lost count of the number of times I had let some combination of dogs and cats inside the house or back outside.

“Okay, that's great,” she said with the total absence of mind that suggests I could have instead said something as outrageous as I brought a Craig's List hooker over the minute they left the house. Not that I would ever seriously consider such an action, the neighbors would have a cow.

Instead, I played it cool and kept my mouth shut, emailed her the documents, and went back to my activities such as they are after hanging up the phone. No, this time I've got to take the staycation hit and deal with the abject boredom that comes with being marooned in a place I'm close to despising. Although I did vaguely threaten my wife a few months back that I could take my own credit card and book a trip somewhere with my departure the day they are scheduled to return home. It's a nice fantasy, and right now it will stay that way.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Socrates Understood...

Despite the obvious benefits of democracy, there has always been certain flaws inherent to any government trying to practice that system. According to Plato in his Dialogues, his mentor the great Socrates asked the question that if you were about to take a long voyage on the ocean who would you want to be in charge of the boat? Commonsense should suggest that the people about to take such a trip would want someone qualified in such niceties as practical sailing, the finer points of navigation, the know-how to repair whatever vessel they are taking, and lets throw in knowledge about weather.

Socrates' response was to further ask the question why then do we let just anyone vote? Voting shouldn't be something we relegate to intuition, or to some fanciful whim based upon a public who really doesn't know their heads from their collective backsides. Voting should be an educated skill and letting people elect leaders without the proper knowledge of government and current events is like making a washed up, semi-senile rock star the captain of a massive cruise ship about to go from San Francisco to Sydney. (I bet you people thought I would say a delusional, lying, and narcissistic reality star who advertise himself as a businessman?)

Socrates' points notwithstanding, we've pulled that restricted voting scheme many times and all were blatant attempts just to oppress various minority groups. So, instituting a system where the average voter has to prove he or she isn't a blithering idiot just will not happen. More to the point, a bigger issue might be the simple fact that most people can't be bothered to vote on election day. For some the reason is that they can't make it to the polling place because of work or family issues. But others, for whatever reason refuse to take part in the very system that ensures their safety and well being.

The common complaint from a number of folks on my side off the political fence is that they refuse to elect a lesser of two evils, which they see as still evil. Nice logic for those who believe in unicorns that fart rainbows which smells like expensive potpourri. The problem for the rest of us is that we have to live in the real world and deal with the results of a delusional, lying, and narcissistic reality star/businessman getting elected.

To sum this short post up, since a realistic education test for voters isn't possible, people can bitch all they want about nasty, divisive politicians and the horrendous things they do in office. But unless more people vote and chose candidates who stand a realistic chance of winning we will continue our spiral downward into oblivion. Watch the video below for a more precise take on the issue. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Political Pearl Harbor

Probably the only instance of me ever uttering something prophetic happened in the immediate aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, commonly referred to as “Operation Desert Storm.” Since history is a weak subject for most lets backtrack for a moment. Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, a much smaller and weaker country was rightly opposed by the United States and the coalition of nations it formed. Oil be damned, had Saddam's actions gone unopposed it would have eventually lead to every second-rate dictatorial cockroach invading weaker neighbors in an effort to build an empire. When you throw in Saddam's treatment of people inside Iraq, the inventory of chemical weapons he had at that time, and his interest in acquiring even more powerful destructive capability he had to be stopped.

That being said, First President Bush's decision to leave Saddam in power was also the right thing to do. The nation of Iraq is a Frankenstein's monster of varying ethnic and religious subgroups created by the British in the aftermath of the First World War and the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Saddam was a monster and if Hell really exists he most certainly is now a resident. But you have only to look at the bloodbath Iraq became after he was removed from power to understand that while the lesser of two evils is still bad, sometimes the alternative is even worse. Yes, I am totally discounting the idea that we invaded Iraq to take away Saddam's WMD's. There was plenty of intelligence, all ignored or hidden, that his desire to produce a nuclear bomb had no basis in reality. As for his stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, aside from a few pitiful exceptions they were all destroyed or taken back during the 1990's.

History lesson over, my post Operation Desert Storm epiphany involved the realization that despite Saddam's real but relatively minor threat in the 1990's, and the much propagandized menace he was made to be after 9/11, he was not an existential danger to the United States. The statement I made to my cohorts at the time was that Saddam Hussein was an idiot and that the United States might find itself in some really deep shit if it ever had to face and adversary with more than a few dozen IQ points.

My point being that given the capabilities Iraq's military had right after he invaded Kuwait, Saddam could have caused significant trouble in such places as Saudi Arabia or even Israel before there was anywhere near enough American troops and equipment on site to deter him. What that means is that since Saudi oil is a major factor in the international economy if Saddam had just attacked its refineries with Scud missiles he could have caused another Great Depression.

Even worse, since one of the worst kept secrets of the modern era is that Israel has a significant cache of nuclear weapons had Saddam said screw it and attempted a full scale attack on the Jewish state an apocalyptic event with clouds of radioactive fallout drifting out from the Middle East would have more than likely occurred. Saddam Hussein didn't hold any military punches out of the hidden, moral goodness of his heart. The man was an utter bastard, which was only exceeded by his ego and incompetence. (On a side note unrelated to my point, I will refrain from the eerie physiological comparisons I could make between Saddam and Trump.)

Of course, my point that Saddam was not an existential threat to the United States was pretty much ignored. This early 1990's when the modern version of American exceptionalism was born with one of the central pillars of that belief being the idea that the United States was immune to all the factors that had brought down numerous other powers all through history. For those on the right, their narrow view held that the United States was king shit and would go on kicking ass forever. Those on the left held a similar but slightly askew view that through its military power and faceless corporations the United States had bullied the world into submission and the idea that anyone else would rise up to threaten us was ridiculous.

Well, history is replete with nations and empires whose citizens and subject were convinced would hold power forever. Low and behold the 2016 presidential election was hacked by the Russians with them flooding both social and television media with stolen emails and fake news stories. Contrary to the more excitable and less rational on the left, I have yet to hear or read any evidence that Russia hacked into the computers that were linked to electronic voting machines. But what the Russians actually did to sabotage Hillary Clinton's campaign was bad enough.

After decades of the Soviet Union pouring untold hundreds of billions of rubles into their military machine in an attempt to overwhelm the United States, it looks like all the Russians had to do was tickle the ugly underbelly of American political paranoia and abject racism to goad us to tearing ourselves apart. Now, I'll admit while I voted for Hillary both her and the people running the campaign made it easy for the Russians to dig up information to use against them. It's funny to think now that back when the collection of Republican clowns, fools, and idiots were in the primary phase of the campaign I had the stupid idea that since Hillary was a long time political warrior there shouldn't be much for them to use against her. I totally ignored the fact that things could be made up out of whole cloth and that Hillary has a history of being her own worst enemy.

With that out of the way, the fact remains that a hostile foreign power, I'll go ahead say existential enemy, has found a dependable way to make the powerful United States look like a sick old man suffering from dementia. What really turns my stomach is how many in the Republican party view Vlad Putin, a dictator who murders journalists and dissidents, as someone who should be admired. Sort of makes a mockery of how they looked down upon and even accused liberals of something close to treason if any mention of peaceful coexistence was suggested during the Cold War.

Of course, to many of the less educated folks on the right Putin is a masculine (white) dude who doesn't spend time worrying about inconvenient things like civil liberties and basic human rights. The acquaintances I known in that group, all certified rednecks, have almost a homoerotic fixation on the manly Putin riding on horses without a shirt and his association with washed up martial artists/movie stars like Steven Segal. It goes along with the perceived notion of him standing against gay marriage, and other liberal causes that they believe America needs to be saved from. But most of all they like Putin because he was white while the democratically elected American president was a black guy.

Since I have lived in the American South most of my life it would have shocked me to hear anyone of that type say anything but the usual thinly veiled racist talk. But I've got to admit it is the established right-wing that has most disappointed me with their downplaying of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. Yes, there are notable exceptions like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham but the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, and the majority leader of the senate, Mitch McConnell have only given the barest lip service to Russian hacking. Those members of Congress and in the Senate occupying the fuzzy middle between the two are just waiting to see what the various investigations will or will not turn up. Largely a rational approach given the nature of the allegations against Trump, but that stance is less about finding the truth and far more with just protecting their asses and cushy jobs.

What it all comes down to is that the Russians pulled a blatant electoral Pearl Harbor on the United States. For me that is almost reason to go to war, but what scares me the most is that Americans are so politically polarized that many on the right are okay with the hacking since they hated Hillary Clinton more than they are concerned with the state of their country.

Don't worry, I'm not excluding Democrats/liberals/progressives for putting party and ideological purity above the health and safety of the nation. The main election strategy for both parties is to convince voters that the other side is evil. Yes, as a liberal Democrat I do believe some Republican ideas are baldfaced attempts to protect the rich elites, but I also realize Democrats have their own faults and inability to see the forest for the trees. I'm not saying we should all go for one big group hug and then break into singing “Kumbaya,” I can be just as partisan as any other dickhead, especially when I believe the Republicans are dead wrong on a subject like climate change. But democracy only works if the different factions compromise, it's an ugly process but works far better than one side controlling everything only to be kicked out of power at the next election when nothing really gets done.

It goes without saying the American political process is a screwed up system. Both parties paint the other as the enemy with many members saying any sort of cooperation with their counterparts is a betrayal of sacred principles. In the past such behavior could largely be overlooked since no other country would dare to interfere. That time has passed with Vlad Putin and the Russian government he controls making it part of their way of dealing with foreign governments. Putin is the worst possible adversary we could face in this current era. He and his minions have found what divides Americans and will not hesitate to widen the existing chasm as long as we continue allow him.

It appears the time when Americans pulled together when faced with an adversary has passed into history. Then again, all we really have to blame for this behavior is ourselves. What should scare every rational American most of all is that the situation is probably only going to get worse.