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Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentines Day

Larry Niven and Steve Barnes came over just after my morning walk and we had a conference on a notion for a new book in the Avalon (Beowulf's Children) series. We used Skype to call Dr. Jack Cohen who has agreed to help us construct a new ecological creature to be part of a short novel involving some of the characters from Beowulf's Children.

For those who don't know, Legacy of Heorot and Beowulf's Children were stories of a slower than light ship (frozen sleep) interstellar colony on a relatively nearby planet. The colony was on an island.  The first book dealt with interactions with creatures on the island of Avalon, the second moves to the mainland.  They were pretty good yarns.

I am looking into getting them into Kindle and other eBook formats; at the moment they are not available as eBooks you can buy and I don't really encourage my readers to go looking for pirate editions.  We're dancing as fast as we can on getting them into legal format. Anyway, Barnes has a notion for a short novel to be set in that universe. Larry and I like it. Steve will do most of the work once the book is planned out. Of course talking about books gives us a good excuse to have lunch.


Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria, Gaza, Iran, Iraq, and Points East and West

The change of government in Egypt is complete. The Constitution is suspended, the parliament dissolved, the Cabinet dismisses, and the courts put under restriction; the Supreme Military Council is now in charge. The press seems to believe this is quite different from the more usual coup d'etat (golpe de estado in Spanish) that results in the rule of a military council (junta in Spanish) that generally ends up with a new President who generally turns out to be a Colonel or General as opposed to the Party Leader (Caudillo in Spanish) who was previously in charge. This time there will be free elections in six months, after which the Army will get out of the way.

That has happened in other times and places. although I recall none in the Arab world (Turkey is not an Arabic nation). The difference is the Internet and the ability to generate flash crowds. In the past a March on Rome by blackshirts, or some similar street insurrection, required considerable organizational talent and effort. Now a charismatic figure can call one out of thin air, or, as in the Egyptian and Tunisian cases, the crowds can be summoned by incidents without a charismatic leader at all.

Barricades in the capital city (or threats of them as in the case of the 1922 March on Rome by Mussolini) have long been a revolutionary tactic. They sometimes work, as with the Mussolini in 1922, and sometimes succeed for a short time then are suppressed as with most of the Revolutions of 1847. Of course the 1847 Paris insurrections ended the Second Monarchy of Louis Philippe and ushered in the short-lived Second Republic (which succumbed to Napoleon III and his Second Empire).

The point being that the story isn't over, and while we can all speculate on the future, none of us know. Some facts remain: a large crowd in the capital city isn't producing anything to bring it income, but it must be fed, it must have water, and the waste must be disposed of. Without food and water the crowd disperses or dies, no matter how much the ardor for freedom and the will of the people. Without some kind of sanitation system, cholera and plague take over, perhaps not in the first weeks, but when the sewer system fails plague is inevitable.

Most of the crowd in the Cairo square has dispersed. What the rest will do is not clear.

Meanwhile the people assemble in other cities across the Arab world, and there are mutterings in China.

We live in interesting times. We can all speculate on what happens next, but I am not convinced that anyone knows.


Magnetic Pole Shift

The web is full of stories about the magnetic pole shift. There are horror stories and debunking stories. We've pointed to a few here. We've all known for a long time that the magnetic poles of the Earth are wandering: I believe I was first exposed to that story in 5th grade. Our compasses don't point to the North Pole (unless you live in certain areas) and worse don't over decades point to the same place. The poles wander a bit.

Some see impending disaster. Most don't. Some see climactic effects. Most don't. In another conference, mostly made up of hard science writers including several physicists, I idly wondered how much attention the subject was worth, either as a phenomenon or as a story idea.

I said

Can we correlate any climatic observations to pole shifting? I still have no idea of how much energy is involved. We have an enormous magnet spinning about in the solar wind. This would appear to have many of the characteristics of a dynamo. How much energy does that generate? What happens to that energy? Does it add to the interior heat of the Earth, and if so how much? Enough to affect volcanism?

 All this may be trivial, but it sure looks big enough to be worth investigating. We are spending trillions because of a one degree in a century temperature rise; surely we can spare a couple of man-years worth of research on what we might expect from this polar shift?

 I just don't see how a magnet that big spinning and moving through space would have no energy effects at all.

 Jerry Pournelle

Chaos Manor

I had forgotten how ardently some believe:

> Can we correlate any climatic observations to pole shifting? I still have no idea of how much energy is involved. > ... > All this may be trivial, but it sure looks big enough to be worth investigating.

If you "have no idea of how much energy is involved," then how can you say "it sure looks big enough to be worth investigating"?

It's not science until you are willing to do roll up your sleeves and do numbers.

Saying "I have this idea, I have no idea whether it works or if it is off by thirteen orders of magnitude, but why doesn't somebody else do the work for free and figure it out" is about as welcome to a scientist as saying "I have an idea for a science fiction story, I haven't really thought it out, why don't you write it and we'll split the money" is welcome to a science fiction writer.

Propose a mechanism and do a back of the envelope calculation to suggest it's worth looking at further.

Oh, and by the way: you wrote:

>We are spending trillions because of a one degree ...

We are?????

Who is spending these "trillions"? What trillions? Being spent on what?

Ah well. I had hoped to save myself some time, on the theory that among the members of that conference there would be one or another who had actually done the back of the envelope calculations, or might be induced to do them: I don't work with this subject very often, and while it's easy enough to do, we are talking about a couple of hours of work. I admit I had hoped to save myself the time, and that still may happen.

I include this here as an illustration of how difficult it is to get a rational discussion on certain subjects. I suppose what prompted such horror and disdain was my suggestion that we could spare a man year or two (like one graduate master's thesis?) on looking into the possibilities out of the enormous sums that go into AGW research. As to the trillions, I meant the money spent on remedies like cap and trade, adding alcohol to gasoline, and the like. Trillions is of course a bit of exaggeration, but the exact amounts aren't really known. I should I suppose have said billions. I don't think that's too big a stretch. And the science budgets, while quite possibly not large enough -- finding out just what is going on and thus reducing the uncertainties in what we have to prepare for is worth a lot -- certainly are not so small.

I still wonder about the energies involved in a big spinning magnet. The Earth rotates, and moves in an orbital path. It certainly interacts with the solar wind. The composition of that wind seems to change rather often: not that the wind changes so much, but our understanding of it does.

As I say, I include this snippet of conversation as an illustration of the kind of debate one seems to get when bringing up such subjects among professional physicists devoted to the AGW hypothesis.

Meanwhile, I have yet to find much discussion of the methods used to determine planetary temperatures to an accuracy of a tenth of a degree. The various data collection models seem to be contradictory, and certainly do not correspond to any distribution curve assumptions I know of: that is. we have a collection of numbers for temperatures. We have them largely because we can get them: they are certainly not chosen as a result of random processes. We want to use the numbers we have to determine the temperature of the entire Earth to a tenth of a degree. We have temperatures from the bottom of the sea and various other sea levels. We have temperatures from the surface of the Earth and at various altitudes. We have lots of data from some places on Earth, and very little from others (poles, interiors of some continents where settlement is sparse and communications are sporadic). I do not know how the representative temperatures are chosen, and with what weights they are combined to come up with averages. I am sure there must be some sort of explanation of how what is done is done, and how those procedures were chosen, and why we should therefore have confidence that we know the temperature of the Earth as an average over days, months, and years, and thus can compare temperatures over time, thus knowing that the Earth is warming or cooling. Sure as I am that such explanations exist, I haven't been able to find them. I am referred to really complex reports, and I am certain that the methods of data refinement are complicated; but surely there is a less complicated explanation of how those methods were selected and how they are applied? But I haven't found them.

Anyway I hadn't intended to offend a busy scientist by silly questions, but does anyone have a good idea of just how much energy is involved when a large mass of whirling magnetized metal shifts poles? The naive view is that it's a lot. If the question offends anyone, please feel free to ignore it. But if you think about such things all the time, are we talking about kilotons or megatons of energy here?

As to mechanisms, if you heat the interior of the Earth then some equilibrium has to be established. The excess energy has to go somewhere. If we don't know where, we ought to be looking for it. If there isn't any excess energy, then of course it can be ignored. I admit to what may be no more than a superstition: I keep wondering if the interior heat of the Earth is adequately accounted for in the climate models, or is there the possibility that undersea volcanic activity -- now known to be larger than anyone thought it was back when I was in school -- might be heating water way down in the deeps, causing warm currents to rise and changing sea temperature conditions? It's probably a silly notion, and I wouldn't want to waste anyone's time. On the other hand I am old enough to remember when the official view of Science was that plate tectonics was silly and Wegener was off his head to suggest that continents drifted. Science fiction writers were the only people who took the notion seriously. They did so largely because it made a good story, of course. Pole shift might make for a good story too.


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Tuesday, February 15, 2011   

The speculations about the future of the Middle East continue. Some posit this as the beginning of a wave of democratic revolutions that will sweep not only North Africa, but the entire Middle East, then Asia, and then the world. I am reminded of the neoconservative euphoria after the collapse of the USSR, culminating with the Fukuyama essay "The End of History", which postulated that all the world would now turn to constitutional government and liberal democracy.

"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." [1992, The End of History]

It didn't quite happen that way, although the concept and its popularity with the neoconservatives shows something of their origins in non-Leninist Marxist philosophy (aka Trotskyism).

We're seeing something of the same rush. In 1848 a wave of democratic revolutions generated barricades in the capitals of a number of European countries. The results were a bit less than the expectations.

Cheap pamphlet presses, and later the mimeograph, were supposed to change the world but the world wasn't ready for the consequences of those revolutions in communications. Will Facebook have a wider effect? We have two facts: Tunisia's President is now in exile among the Saudis; and the Mamelukes are in control in Egypt. As for the rest, we can speculate. Is Arabia itself to remain a safe place of exile? It has about 1/4 of the world oil market: will the population there take to the streets? The last street activities I recall from Arabia were when the religious police chased young girls back into a burning school because they were improperly attired to come out in public, but perhaps that was a local phenomenon and not a national sentiment. Still, I do not believe that any action was taken against the mob that enforced that concept of modesty.

The revolutions of 1848 were often led by students who sought the fruits of the enlightenment, and joined by factory workers who hated city life. They were suppressed by standing armies, although in France militias played a part. The revolutionaries were popular in the United States. In those days we were for the liberation of the people, and while Marx hadn't yet promulgated his notion of the end of history -- the Communist Manifesto was, not coincidentally, written in 1848 -- many American intellectuals envisioned and longed for a time of universal liberal democracy across Europe. We were also sponsors of the free colony of Liberia as a path to enlightened democracy in Africa as well as a place of refuge for liberated slaves. Hope springs eternal.


The point here is that these waves of revolutionary hope are an old phenomenon. At one time the hidden knowledge -- the gnosis, the secrets of philosophy which was the secret of how the world works -- would be discovered and distributed to the world, and the world would be transformed as the enlightened took charge. The philosophical gnosis was replaced by the science of history, an objective way to see where the world was going. Anyone could learn science, just join the Communist Party. This was the objective science, the Plan. There was a new wave of revolutionary fervor as all the old regimes fell into abyss created by World War One. But the only place The Revolution prevailed was in Russia, which was not what the objective science of history had predicted. Under the Marxist view, Russia wasn't ready for The Revolution. It hadn't evolved far enough. Lenin produced his own interpretations, as did Trotsky. When Lenin took power he required Trotsky and Stalin to work together. Trotsky had the army. Stalin was General Secretary and built the Party. After Lenin died, Trotsky was squeezed out, went into exile, and was eventually murdered in Mexico by a Stalinist Agent.

The lesson, that Party can be more powerful than the Army, was not lost on Mao and on the North Korean dynasty; it is applicable in the present wave of revolutionary fervor. It should not be forgotten. In Egypt, though, there is no well developed Party structure set up to control the Army. In Iran the situation is less clear.

In Russia after the fall of Communism there was hope that the Army, which retained some of the respect of the people, would rule during the transition from Communist rule by the Party nomenklatura to something else, but after Yeltsin failed to build any kind of liberal structure, the Secret Police took control and remain so; the current system is in transition, and although you can find hundreds of expert, I have no reason to think I know what will happen.

The notion of a transformation of the world into a steady state peaceful world in which everyone will be at peace and brotherly love will prevail has been with us for a very long time. At one time Christianity was to prevail. The Church wasn't able to do that, but by establishing Charlemagne as the successor to the Roman Emperors it was hoped that a Holy Roman Empire would prevail over the barbarians, convert the world, and world peace would return to the Earth. When it became clear that the Church was ruled by men, not Saints, it was hoped that the Emperor would reform the Church; see Dante Alighieri. Then Martin Luther, then the Anabaptists, Reformation and Counter Reformation.

The American Revolution was to create a new world order, and some American revolutionary heroes wanted to export the American principles across the world. Two years after the Convention of 1787, France brought in a new world order of its own, and sent its armies out to export Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity across Europe. The Republic transmogrified into the Empire, and the Code Napoleon was to reform Europe.

We do not know what will happen across the world in this wave of revolutionary hope, but I think it unlikely that this time we will have the end of history and the establishment of a New World Order of liberty and equality; and as to the role of the United States, I point out that for all the blood and treasure expended in Iraq, they do not yet have a government of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and few see a path to that. If American GI's can't export American liberal democracy, who can? Perhaps the State Department?


The Egyptian Mob Celebrates:


CBS correspondent Lara Logan was beaten and sexually assaulted by a mob while covering the jubilation in Cairo's Tahrir Square on the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, the U.S. broadcasting network said on Tuesday.

Logan, a 39-year-old South Africa native and longtime war correspondent, has since flown back to the United States and is recovering in hospital. She was one of dozens of journalists attacked during the three weeks of protests throughout Egypt.

She was apparently rescued by the Army.

On Friday February 11, the day Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, CBS correspondent Lara Logan was covering the jubilation in Tahrir Square for a 60 MINUTES story when she and her team and their security were surrounded by a dangerous element amidst the celebration. It was a mob of more than 200 people whipped into frenzy.

In the crush of the mob, she was separated from her crew. She was surrounded and suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers. She reconnected with the CBS team, returned to her hotel and returned to the United States on the first flight the next morning. She is currently in the hospital recovering.

There will be no further comment from CBS News and Correspondent Logan and her family respectfully request privacy at this time.

This was after the resignation of President Mubarak. It is unclear who attacked her or why. One might understand why Egyptian security forces AKA Party goons might attack news crews when there was still doubt as to the outcome of the demonstrations. Of course it may be senseless to try to make sense of anything a mob does.


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Wednesday,  February 16, 2011


For me one of the most interesting questions of the Egyptian revolution has nothing to do with Egypt: why is the American press minimizing the sexual assault on Lara Logan by the victory celebrants in Cairo? This morning's papers have no additional information other than that it was a "frenzy". Given the proclivity of the media, it's unlikely that these frenzied celebrants, about 200 in number, were Mubarak supporters or secret police. If there were any hint of that, the story would be everywhere. I can only conclude that the media are afraid that these were "the people" celebrating the coming of "democracy", and that in that culture freedom and democracy includes the right of sexual assaults on blonde women. Perhaps I have stated that too strongly, but the lack of coverage is puzzling. Surely there is a lot of story here.

I do note that she was rescued by twenty Egyptian soldiers, but not until multiple sexual assaults had taken place. Was this because the Army wasn't near the incident and didn't know until informed by someone not taking part in the celebration frenzies? How long did the Army -- which as of now appears to be the only authority in Egypt -- know that an assault on an American TV star was taking place? Was there some kind of meeting to determine policy? Who gave the orders to rescue her? Surely these are not difficult facts to discover, yet we see nothing from either the US or regional media. Here is all I can find from Al Jazeera:

11:48am Al Jazeera's Alan Fisher expresses his condolences for Lara Logan from CBS News in the US. She was beaten and sexually assaulted while covering the protests in Egypt. 

Thoughts with my friend and former colleague @CBSNews Lara Logan who suffered brutal attack in #Egypt - hope she gets well and recovers soon.

This is a very strange form of journalism. Why are there no details to the story? Why does everyone act as if it hadn't happened? As if, somehow, this was an unfortunate sequence of events, with no moral or cultural consequences, more like a story of a tsunami than a rape?


One possible clue is given in an unrelated story by Dorothy Rabinowitz in today's Wall Street Journal, entitled "Major Hasan, 'Star Officer'" (link), which shows just how far political correctness and the suicidal wish for diversity has penetrated into not only the American society and schools, but even into the Legions. Recently the Congress issued a report on the Fort Hood Massacre.

In this report, titled "A Ticking Time Bomb" and put out by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, there is a detail as dazzling in its bleak way as all the glowing misrepresentations of Dr. Hasan's skills and character, which his superiors poured into their evaluations of him. It concerns the Department of Defense's official report on the Fort Hood killings—a study whose recital of fact made no mention of Hasan's well-documented jihadist sympathies. Subsequent DoD memoranda portray the bloodbath—which began with Hasan shouting "Allahu Akbar!"—as a kind of undefined extremism, something on the order, perhaps, of work-place violence.

This avoidance of specifics was apparently contagious—or, more precisely, policy. In November 2010, each branch of the military issued a final report on the Fort Hood shooting. Not one mentioned the perpetrator's ties to radical Islam. Even today, "A Ticking Time Bomb," co-authored by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.) and Susan Collins (R., Maine), reminds us that DoD still hasn't specifically named the threat represented by the Fort Hood attack—a signal to the entire Defense bureaucracy that the subject is taboo.

Everyone in Hasan's chain of command understood that he was a fanatic Muslim who put allegiance to the Muslim religion far above his allegiance to the Constituti0n, and thought the United States was making war on his religion. This was known to his professors and his classmates. The result was that he was promoted, and considered a great asset, although he was in the lowest quartile of his class.

That's all right. That sort of thing is taught in almost all the public schools now, and you get to pay for it. Where the school system used to be a significant part of the melting pot that produced Americans from the tired and poor and huddled masses longing to be free, it not longer does: the teachers you are paying for preach multi-culturalism, diversity, "respect" for barbarous customs to the point of suppressing any support of our own culture, and anyone who calls attention to that is denounced as a bigot. So it goes.

Rabinowitz has one ray of hope for us:

In a month of momentous change, it was easy to overlook the significance of another revolutionary event. Who would have believed that in the space of a few weeks the leaders of the three major European powers would publicly denounce multiculturalism and declare, in so many words, that it was a proven disaster and a threat to society?

One after another they announced their findings—Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, Great Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, and France's President Nicolas Sarkozy. Multicultural values had not only led to segregated communities: They had, Mr. Cameron noted, imposed policies of blind toleration that had helped nurture radical Islam's terrorist cells.

There can be no underestimating the in-so-many-words aspect of these renunciations. This was multiculturalism they were talking about—the unofficial established religion of the universities, the faith whose requirements have shaped every aspect of cultural, economic and political life in Western democracies for the last 50 years. Still, they were out there—words coolly specific, their target clear.

We are constantly told how much better European institutions are than our own. Those who tell us this also insist that we pay them more of our money, raise their pensions, give them free health care, and give them "academic freedom" to denounce us while raising their pay. Perhaps with the disillusionment of Europe there will be some lessening of the flow of praise for diversity in our schools, and we might once again be allowed to look at what it used to mean to be an American? The old Melting Pot wasn't perfect, and the products had their flaws. There was diversity across the land from region to region, but it was possible, as Bill Buckley used to remind us, to learn how to be an American -- a process not open to those who wanted to learn how to be Swiss, or German, or Swedish.

Of course the old American culture would have had a somewhat different opinion of a culture that leads to a doctor firing on his unarmed comrades.



I was clearing out some old open windows in Firefox, and found all these. They are on different topics but I thought all of them were interesting enough to keep around as reminders of possible items to write about. I cleared most of that today, but I put these up in case they have any interest.







Poking about I find this

I don't get around as much as I might. I don't know journalist Nir Rosen. I'm not sure I want to. But it's an interesting view. I still don't understand why there is not more attention in the mainstream press.


Apple have lost their minds.


-- Roland Dobbins

I must confess it looks like it.




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Thursday,  February 17, 2011


For 25,000 years  the material quality of life for the average person changed but little. It could be summed up in the single word poverty. For all the glitter of Bath and Brighton Beach, the average English citizen in the early 19th Century had a quality of life hardly superior to that of the average lake or marsh or forest dweller in Europe or Mesopotamia in 4000 BC. There was glamour in those Regency times. The pelisse of the hussar, the splendid uniforms of Napoleon's Grenadiers, the country houses so well described by Jane Austen; but beneath that layer of glitter was uniform poverty. If you doubt it, read A Farewell to Alms (kindle link) and see the evidence marshaled by Gregory Clark. If you think he has made too extreme a case, factor in your own interpretation of his data; but be aware of the data. If you think the life of the average Englishman of 1810 to be that much better than that of the average Roman in Etruria in the year in which Caesar Augustus decreed that all the world should be taxed, look at the numbers and make your adjustments; but do understand that his point is well made. For the average human, there was not a lot of progress through all of history.

For most of history, for most of humanity, life was hard, and seldom got better. Clark ascribes this to the Malthusian Trap: when conditions get better, people breed up a new population that lowers the average to subsistence level again. Add the observations that Possony and I made in our study of the strategy of progress: that human societies convert more and more of their output to structure, so that bureaucracy absorbs all surpluses, all creativity and progress ceases except for short periods when output grows so rapidly that the structure can't keep up. Examples would be the Discovery of the New World, gunpowder, and all three Industrial Revolutions, and the Silicon Valley revolution. For a while human ingenuity outstrips the ability of government to control it; but inevitably the regulators return. Note also that the bureaucracy inevitably assumes a patron status to its clients, so that the apparatus always takes a high place in the distribution of the society's assets. There is always a nomenklatura, which does not live spectacularly well, but has comfortable conditions. It makes nothing but it is needed so that all will be tranquil. It provides security, regulation, order. And it eats better than those it regulates.

Of course there will always be those at the very top, with wealth beyond the dreams of avarice; how they acquire that status varies with the society, and varies greatly even within that society -- contrast Bill Gates, Al Gore, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, in this era as opposed to Rockefeller, Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Mellon of the past -- but that niche is always filled.

With that as background, read "Is Your Job an Endangered Species" by Andy Kessler in today's Wall Street Journal (link). If you think his job classification list is whimsical, substitute your own. Then read "When Computers Beat Humans on Jeopardy" by Roy Kurzweil, also in today's Wall Street Journal (link), and fold that back into your job classification scheme.

Kurzweil believes that the ratio of computer performance to price doubles in less than a year now. Moore's Law is accelerating. We are on an S curve and the rate of change is itself accelerating. Whether that's true or not, it's pretty clear that Moore's Law at least prevails. Performance/price rises exponentially. We each have on our desks more computing power than existed in all the world when I acquired my first computer, and computers now do jobs that were once thought absolutely secure.

Now contemplate the financial situation: neither the Federal nor the State governments have any money; indeed all have unpayable debts, and are almost at the limit of their borrowing, to the point that they are now contemplating selling capital assets like state office buildings in order to stave off collapse for another year or so.  Bullying the politicians will continue, but the largesse they have to dispense is much shrunk and shrinking still. You will now be ready to take stock of your situation.

From Kessler's article:

You can't blame the fact that 26 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed on lost housing jobs or globalization—those excuses are played out. To understand what's going on, you have to look behind the headlines. That 36,000 is a net number. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in December some 4,184,000 workers (seasonally adjusted) were hired, and 4,162,000 were "separated" (i.e., laid off or quit). This turnover tells the story of our economy—especially if you focus on jobs lost as a clue to future job growth.

With a heavy regulatory burden, payroll taxes and health-care costs, employing people is very expensive. In January, the Golden Gate Bridge announced that it will have zero toll takers next year: They've been replaced by wireless FastTrak payments and license-plate snapshots.

Technology is eating jobs—and not just toll takers.

Tellers, phone operators, stock brokers, stock traders: These jobs are nearly extinct. Since 2007, the New York Stock Exchange has eliminated 1,000 jobs. And when was the last time you spoke to a travel agent? Nearly all of them have been displaced by technology and the Web. Librarians can't find 36,000 results in 0.14 seconds, as Google can. And a snappily dressed postal worker can't instantly deliver a 140-character tweet from a plane at 36,000 feet.

So which jobs will be destroyed next? Figure that out and you'll solve the puzzle of where new jobs will appear.

Now read Kurzweil's estimate (link) that every one of you will have a Watson on his desk by 2020. Watson is the IBM computer that just beat the previous champions of the very human talented intellectual game "Jeopardy". Kurzweil's customary optimism about technological progress may be an exaggeration, but then again it may not be: we are well up on the steeply rising part of the S curve of computer technological progress. Now an iPad app can do some clerical jobs. The biggest bookseller in the world doesn't have any pleasant clerks to welcome you to the store. And for those whose jobs are safe only because there are government requirements for licenses, contemplate Kessler:

Sponges are those who earned their jobs by passing a test meant to limit supply. According to this newspaper, 23% of U.S. workers now need a state license. The Series 7 exam is required for stock brokers. Cosmetologists, real estate brokers, doctors and lawyers all need government certification. All this does is legally bar others from doing the same job, so existing workers can charge more and sponge off the rest of us.

But eDiscovery is the hottest thing right now in corporate legal departments. The software scans documents and looks for important keywords and phrases, displacing lawyers and paralegals who charge hundreds of dollars per hour to read the often millions of litigation documents. Lawyers, understandably, hate eDiscovery.

Doctors are under fire as well, from computer imaging that looks inside of us and from Computer Aided Diagnosis, which looks for patterns in X-rays to identify breast cancer and other diseases more cheaply and effectively than radiologists do. Other than barbers, no sponges are safe.

 Such job restrictions are enforced by unions. Private sector unions are vanishing, in part because they drove their industries out of the state, or out of the country, Public sector unions are growing; but their power rests on political ability to extract money from the public institutions, and the public institutions are flat broke. That won't stop the bureaucracies, which will eventually devour their own.

Now add in the recent dramatic rises in commodity futures: food, fuel, it's all going up. In the old days that was known as inflation. In Carter's time unemployment plus inflation was known as stagflation, and added up to a misery index. No one thinks in those terms now.

In Wisconsin they have taken to the streets, and the Democrats are boycotting the Senate. The police are now trying to round up Senators to require them to attend the legislature to form a quorum. There are crowds in the streets, How that plays out is uncertain. Perhaps the Wisconsin governor will be driven out of the state to exile in some right to work state?

Humor aside, we live in interesting times, and unrest in the Middle East drive up oil prices, which will drive up the price of energy, which translates into increased food prices. We will continue to mandate adding alcohol to gasoline. Burn food to save the planet.

And technology marches on. Whether or not a computer passes the Turing Test next year or next decade, we can be sure that more and more service jobs can become apps on the pocket computers we will all carry in 2015. Meanwhile, various agencies, boards, commissions, inspectors will make it more and more expensive to hire a human to do that job. And the public service unions will continue to insist on their rights to pensions and benefits. And the teachers will insist on their right to pensions, and benefits, and academic freedom while more and more of their students drop out. And the students will insist on more and more money to be paid to their professors who will teach them that they deserve low tuition and cheap room and board while studying womyn's studies, ethnic studies, social science, or whatever they choose to study at someone else's expense.

Where this all goes is not at all clear. The governments are out of money. There is probably another round of tax increases to be endured before it all collapses. "And they never catch wise." But of course everyone catches wise eventually. And meanwhile there is no more money. We can run the printing presses for a while longer, but those with goods to sell will demand higher and higher prices, and without money to invest, perhaps the technological revolution will be slowed, at least in the United States.

The Industrial Revolution beginning in about 1850 produced the world we know, in which every generation could look forward to more: longer life, more to eat, better housing, and all that and more for their children. Progress, not just for the officer class, but for everyone; a time when everyone would be a lady or gentleman, not a peasant or a servant; when hard work could create a better life for everyone. The world changed, progress outran the Iron Law. But that was in another country.



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Friday,  February 18, 2011

The tempests continue. The Democrat state senators of Wisconsin continue their lonely exile in a motel in Illinois (doubtless getting a per diem travel allowance to do so.) Handfuls of protestors continue their vigils in the public square in Cairo. Tourists stay out of Egypt in droves.

In Bahrain the protests continue, but the army, mostly mercenaries with Royalist officers, has that in hand, and the nightly expeditions from prohibitionist Saudi Arabia across the causeway to more or less wide open Bahrain have only been slowed, not halted.

And in Gaza things are a bit more serious.


Home sweet home. The good news continues to pile on for Israel. As if it weren’t enough that Israel is losing its only peace partner in the Middle East and the Muslim Brotherhood has announced plans to scrap the peace deal with the Jewish state, it now it is being reported that a top Hamas commander has successfully made his way back into Gaza following a prison break from Cairo. Ayman Nofal received a warm greeting by Hamas supporters upon his arrival home to Nusairat refugee camp in the Central Gaza strip.

There are a number of dangerous prisoners that were set free during the raid on Abu Zaabal prison in Cairo amidst of all the unrest that has taken place in Egypt, including Hezbollah member Sami Chehab, responsible for weapons smuggling across the Egypt-Gaza border. Several other Palestinian militants are said to have made their way back to Gaza after the prison escape, by way of smuggling tunnels, out of the view of Egyptian security forces.

Of course the "blockade" of Gaza was a mixture of security, shakedown, and farce: weapons flow in and out, while there is a brisk trade in bribes. One of the items Israel forbids is construction materials, so one of the items smuggled in -- read, smugglers pay bribes to get through -- is gravel in burlap bags. Think on that for a bit as you read about the importance of the blockade to Israel's security, and you will see why many who live in that area think it is more drive by greed and the opportunity for shakedown than anything else. Hamas gave up firing rockets -- more or less -- from Gaza, although plenty of rocket materials get through and there are thousands hidden away on standby. Meanwhile, Muslim Brotherhood agents uyse Gaza as a base for strikes against the pipelines through Egypt's Sinai. The pipeline strikes don't have a lot of effect, but they do give the  opportunity for collecting protection money. So it goes.

On the  US Border, chaos continues. US agents are assassinated. Armed Mexicans patrol US forest lands. And the assault against Arizona from Washington and California continues.

And in Wisconsin the Senators flee lest they have to vote on a bill that reduces the benefits paid to state employee unions, and the teachers have occupied the Wisconsin capitol rotunda. As it was in Athens, so it shall be in the United States?

The demand is that we borrow more, sell capital assets, raise taxes, do anything to put off the day of reckoning for a few more years.

And the songs about deficit reduction continue to ring out everywhere.


I found a peculiar story in the back pages of the morning paper. Mark Eckstrum, of the Tucson fire department, refused to respond to the 911 call from the parking lot where Congresswoman Giffords was shot, supposedly on the grounds of his political beliefs. http://www.foxnews.com/us/2011/02/18/

I have no idea what Mr. Eckstrum's politics are, or what he thought Miss Giffords' politics are. She is, so far as I can tell, among the last of the Blue Dog Democrats, with a tough stance on illegal immigration and border control, but   voted for Obamacare. She was personally popular in her district and spent considerable time doing constituent services and being available to the constituents; indeed her accessibility resulted in her being shot. What I do learn is that Eckstrum was permitted to retire to avoid being disciplined for this action, so he will now receive a large salary and benefits for the rest of his life. He ought to have been cashiered, dismissed for cause, forfeiting all salaries and benefits including retirement benefits.

Civil Service was ushered in to end the Spoils System under which the winners of elections fired all the government employees and brought in their own people. The Spoils System made it important that you know or be related to an Alderman or other official of your party. It also made it possible for the party that won to enforce its will (as well as, in many cases, run scams and graft schemes and fill jobs by nepotism and simony, of course): but the winners got the spoils but also the responsibility. In many cases the system worked. Some of the best periods of local government in many cities were under political bosses, who made sure their relatives were employed, but also that the potholes were filled, and much of the routine services of government flowed smoothly. In some cities the police received bribes but only from approved sources: taking bribes from organized crime got you fired. In any event, the notion was that Good Government required a civil service not subject to dismissal by election whim, particularly on the Federal level. The Civil Service was established, then reformed under the Hatch Act which forbade civil servants from unionizing -- civil service rules and the Civil Service Commission were considered sufficient protection -- and from organizing into political parties or making political donations, or indeed being involved at all in politics. The notion was that State Department diplomats, Justice Department FBI and Treasury Revenue Agents, Agriculture Department crop and meat inspectors, should work for whomever was elected, and do so fairly and impartially. That was the theory, and at one time it worked. I can recall civil servants telling party workers of both parties that "I'm Hatched" and meaning it: you weren't allowed to ask them to participate in party work. Of course there were exceptions, and some winking at the law, but things weren't so awful as all that. The theory was the civil servants were employees of the government, whatever party was in power, whoever held city hall: their jobs were protected, and in return the accepted what they were paid and stayed out of politics.

Under Kennedy US Civil Service workers got unions, and the Hatch Act was gutted.

In Wisconsin the civil servants are saying that things aren't so bad, the state isn't YET bankrupt, and therefore What do we want? Raises! When do we want them? Now!  You're not bankrupt yet! Give us what we want!

And the State Troopers in Wisconsin are now looking for the Democrat Senators who say they will never come back to the capital to vote on the budget. Never!

"We are here to defend the middle class today, tomorrow, next week, next year!" proclaims a strike leader occupying the capitol building in Wisconsin, where the legislature has been shut down by demonstrators. Apparently enough  demonstrators are teachers that many public schools have had to shut down. I don't know if that applies to other state civil service workers, but certainly some of them are protesting that they will shut down the state rather than take a cent less in salary and benefits. Let the State sell assets, raise taxes, do anything rather than cut benefits for government workers. Wisconsin isn't bankrupt yet!

It's not different in Greece, and it won't be different in California. Their jobs are secure, their pensions are secure, and even insubordination gets you retirement. And the beat goes on.


The Wisconsin Democrat Senators say they are prepared to stay in Illinois for weeks rather than return to their jobs. Schools are closed in Milwaukee. A traveling protest, busloads of union protestors, is threatened.

And there is mail.









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Saturday,  February 19, 2011

I took the day off.







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Sunday,  February 20, 2011

The SAS-trained mercenaries (mostly French speaking) in Libya, most of them from the Libyan special forces brigade commanded by Gadaffi's son attacked the street demonstrators.

Protesters, inspired by uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, are demanding an end to the 41-year rule of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. His security forces have responded with a violent crackdown.


Gaddafi followed the rules for tyrants: decide you want to stay in power, have troops that will fire when commanded, shoot early and often, and own all the guns. Oh, and keep Western media out of your country. Whether that will work isn't clear. It depends on how much nerve he has. Even if he runs for it -- he has plenty of overseas assets and a Gulf Stream -- it is not clear that his sons who control military brigades will. Civil war is possible.

 Breaking news is that it didn't work, and the elite SAS-trained mercenary brigade is being fought in the streets, while Gaddafi is headed for Venezuela. This is being widely reported. Who is taking charge now is not at all clear. There are stories of a gunfight between two of Gadafi's sons, with the one who does not command the SAS-trained brigade having won. And the Taureg are now in revolt. The blue Taureg are the equivalent of the Bedouin; and they seem to have thrown off their loyalty to the regime. There is another report that in Benghazi the mercenary forces are fleeing to the airport. Civil war is expected. Some of the security forces have gone over to the population. Another data point in the question of whether one can rule by Janissaries. They certainly could not in Benghazi where the best brigade of the Libyan Army has been defeated by the crowd. The story continues. Gaddafi is gone. His best army unit is gone. One of his major cities is gone. And the story goes on.

Gaddafi had a nuclear weapons program but after the US invasion of Iraq gave it up and invited the inspectors in to prove that he wasn't building nukes; that bought him safety from the US Marines returning to the shores of Tripoli. His mercenary army and his campaign to hold the loyalty of the Taureg was supposed to take care of the rest. His son is on the air on Al Jazeera now, but it is not at all clear who is in charge in Tripoli, much less in Benghazi.

On the week's news the gasoline prices are rising in California and I presume elsewhere. Higher gasoline prices will bring about more unemployment. Libya is a major oil country. Look for higher gasoline prices.

And they aren't quite rioting in Wisconsin. A good time is being had by all.


I don't do breaking news for obvious reasons. I was working on this summary of North Africa and the Middle East when all this broke. It may well be wrong. I don't have the kind of sources

In Bahrain they don't know what's going on. The population is literate, no one is poor -- if you don't have any money they pay you not to be poor, and pay pretty good at that. The King's first reaction was to pay a large bribe to everyone in the kingdom. When that didn't instantly work he had to rethink. What is he willing to do to stay in power? He doesn't want to shoot his own people down in the streets, but he has the power. He will probably get an advisory scolding call from Obama, but the US isn't pulling the Fleet out. Bahrain is not particularly corrupt (not compared to the region), the population gets lots of benefits including education and very high welfare benefits, the standard of living ain't bad for citizens, but most of the population is Shiite (think evangelical Protestant) and the Royal Family is Sunni (think fairly conservative Orthodox, there being no pope).

Morocco: unstable.

Algeria: long civil war for the past ten years. They have a loyal security force.

Tunisia: the army got tired of the boss. The army will get a new boss.

Egypt: the army is in power, and will stay there. Unlike many places over there, the Egyptian Army is mostly Egyptian, both troopers and officers. It is even popular. It is not clear who led the sexual attack on CBS newslady Lara Logan. I find it hard to believe that the perpetrators were Mubarak security forces still in the square on victory day and expressing their anti-Western sentiments. Why the popular celebrators would attack a Western TV anchor while shouting "Jew! Jew!" is unclear, but frightening.

Arabia: there is a mercenary army, and loyal Bedouins, and a fairly ruthless royal clan, not all of who are incompetent.

Jordan: the Bedouins are loyal to the Hashemites.

Iran: the Revolutionary Guard has plenty of ammunition and would be toast if there were a real revolution. Twitter vs. rifles doesn't usually win.

Tunisia and Egypt may be real revolutions.


The stories are still breaking, and I have work to do.


I have disturbing information about the Lara Logan incident, but I have no way to evaluate its quality. And I still have no evidence on the identity of the perps or why it took so long for the Army to intervence.







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