Monday, September 18, 2017

Musk, killer robots, Trump, the Eclipse


By Bob Gaydos

Melania uses the recommended glasses to view
 the eclipse while her husband goes with the naked eye. 
Elon Musk and Donald Trump made significant scientific statements on the same day in August. Digest that sentence for a second. …

OK, it’s not as strange as it sounds because each man was true to himself. That is, neither message was surprising, considering the source, but each was important, also considering the source.

Musk and 115 other prominent scientists in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence attending a conference in Melbourne, Australia, delivered a letter to the United Nations urging a ban on development and use of killer robots. This is not science fiction.

Responding to previous urging by members of the group of AI and robotics specialists, the UN had recently voted to hold formal discussions on so-called autonomous weapons. With their open letter, Musk and the others, coming from 26 countries, wanted the UN to be clear about their position -- these are uniquely dangerous weapons and not so far off in the future.

Also on the same Monday, on the other side of the planet, as millions of Americans, equipped with special glasses or cardboard box viewers,  marveled at the rare site of a solar eclipse, Trump, accompanied by his wife, Melania, and their son, Barron, walked out onto a balcony at the White House and stared directly at the sun. No glasses. No cardboard box. No problem. I’m Trump. Watch me give the middle finger to science.

Of course, the only reason Trump shows up in the same sentence as Musk in a scientific discussion is that the man with the orange hair holds the title of president of the United States and, as such, has the power to decide what kind of weapons this nation employs and when to use them. Also, the president -- any president -- has the power, through words and actions, to exert profound influence on the beliefs, attitudes and opinions of people used to looking to the holder of the office to set an example. Hey, if it’s good enough for the president, it’s good enough for me. This is science fiction.

Please, fellow Americans, don’t stare at the sun during the next eclipse.

Trump’s disdain for science (for knowledge of any kind, really) and his apparently pathological need to do the opposite of what more knowledgeable people recommend, regardless of the topic, are a dangerous combination. When you’re talking about killer robots, it's a potentially deadly one.

How deadly? Here’s a quote from the letter the AI specialists wrote: “Once developed, lethal autonomous weapons will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways.

“We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.”

In fact, it’s already opened. On the Korean peninsula -- brimming with diplomatic tension, the rattling of nuclear weapons by the North Koreans and the corresponding threats of “fire and fury” from Trump -- a fixed-place sentry gun, reportedly capable of firing autonomously, is in place along the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone.

Developed by Samsung for South Korea, the gun reportedly has an autonomous system capable of surveillance up to two miles, voice-recognition, tracking and firing with mounted machine gun or grenade launcher. There is disagreement over whether the weapon is actually deployed to operate on its own, but it can. Currently, the gun and other autonomous weapons being developed by the U.S., Russia, Germany, China, the United Kingdom and others require a human to approve their actions, but usually in a split-second decision. There is little time to weigh the consequences and the human will likely assume the robot is correct rather than risk the consequences of an incorrect second-guess.

But it is precisely the removal of the human element from warfare that Musk and the other AI developers are worried about. Removing the calculation of deaths on “our side” makes deciding to use a killer robot against humans on the other side much easier. Too easy perhaps. And robots that can actually make that decision remove the human factor entirely. A machine will not agonize over causing the deaths of thousands of “enemies.”

And make no mistake, the robots will be used to kill humans as well as destroy enemy machines. Imagine a commander-in-chief who talks cavalierly about using nuclear weapons against a nation also being able to deploy robots that will think for themselves about who and what to attack. No second-guessing generals.

Musk, a pioneer in the AI field, has also been consistent with regard to his respect for the potential danger posed to humans by machines that think for themselves or by intelligences -- artificial or otherwise -- that are infinitely superior to ours. The Tesla CEO has regularly spoken out, for example, against earthlings sending messages into space to try to contact other societies, lest they deploy their technology to destroy us. One may take issue with him on solar energy, space exploration, driverless cars, but one dismisses his warnings on killer robots at one’s own risk. He knows whereof he speaks.

Trump is another matter. His showboating stunt of a brief look at the sun, sans glasses, will probably not harm his eyes. But the image lingers and the warnings, including one from his own daughter, Ivanka, were explicit: Staring directly at the sun during the eclipse can damage your retina and damage your vision. Considering the blind faith some of his followers display in his words and actions, it was yet another incredibly irresponsible display of ego and another insult to science.

Artificial intelligence is not going away. It has the potential for enormous benefit. If you want an example of its effect on daily life just look at the impact autonomous computer programs have on the financial markets. Having weapons that can think for themselves may also sound like a good idea, especially when a commander-in-chief displays erratic judgment, but their own creators -- and several human rights groups -- urge the U.N. to ban their use as weapons, in the same way chemical weapons and land mines are banned.

It may be one of the few remaining autonomous decisions humans can make in this area, and the most important one. We dare not wait until the next eclipse to make it.

bobgaydos.blogspot.com

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A one-sided story: Trump must go

By Bob Gaydos

A white supremacist carries a Nazi flag into the entrance to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va. on Saturday, Aug. 12. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Apparently a lot of people in this country are under the impression that the news media are obliged to present both -- indeed, all -- sides of a story equally, which is to suggest, fairly, and which is to imply, inevitably, that both (or all) sides have equal legitimacy.

This is nonsense. In the first place, a free and unfettered press as protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution is under no obligation to be fair, unbiased or even factual. 

You just can’t make stuff up with the intent to hurt someone. That’s why there are so many unreliable sources of information in this country making money while posing as responsible journalism. Take Fox News, as Henny Youngman said, please.

The idea of the press being responsible and reliable as a source of useful information has evolved over time with the most responsible sources establishing themselves with readers and listeners through dedication to one thing overall -- truth. Not truth as a publisher sees it. Not truth as a big advertiser sees it. Not truth as a politician, even a president, sees it. And not necessarily truth as everyone on all sides of an issue would like it to be seen.

Just the plain and simple facts of the matter. Here’s what happened. Here’s what people did. Here’s what people said. And yes, here’s what we think based on all those facts.

The United States and its Allies fought a worldwide war to defeat Naziism, anti-semitism and the belief that certain fair-haired, light-skinned people were born superior to others and that millions of those “others” had to be murdered to protect the so-called super race. The U.S. and it Allies won that war, at great cost. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died to defeat Nazis, white supremacists, fascists, anti-Semites. Fact.

There is no “other” side. Those who sought to subjugate and slaughter others because of their religion, nationality, or race were rejected. Nazis and fascists were rejected. Those who defended or sought to appease them were rejected. Some were sent to prison.

The United States also fought a bloody Civil War to defeat white supremacists who believed they were born superior to people with dark skin and, thus, could use and treat those “other” people as property, as slaves. Many Americans, including President Abraham Lincoln, disagreed. Some people in the South tried to argue -- still do -- that the “other,” legitimate, side of the story was that the war was over states’ rights. That’s only if you consider that the “right” the Southern states sought to protect in seceding from the Union and starting a war (treason) was to own and treat people of color as slaves. The South lost. Fact.

Hate was rejected. White supremacy was rejected. Slavery was rejected. Nazis and fascists were rejected. Anti-semites were rejected.  Case closed. We did not agree to disagree. In words the current president of the United States might understand, Americans agreed that bigotry and racism were “bad.” That the KKK, neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups were “evil.” That there were no “fine people” who support such groups and their hateful messages. That America stands for inclusiveness. That our differences make us stronger. That it is the primary job of the president to spread that message and to make sure it is enforced.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating -- “alt-right” is a bogus word created to give a veneer of legitimacy to white supremacists, Nazi sympathizers and wannabe fascist bullies. These are hate groups parading under the absurd banner that white men have been somehow denied their due because of the color of their skin. To deny this absurdity or to remain silent about it is to give these groups a false standing. It suggests a moral legitimacy that hundreds of thousands of Americans gave their lives to deny.

This is a time of serious unrest in America, stoked by the divisive language and actions of Donald Trump and those who advise and enable him. There is no other side to that story either. He was elected on a campaign built on lies, bigotry and bullying. The Republican Party allowed it. They continue to allow him to shred the fabric of this nation. They own him even though he is not and never has been one of them. That is the price of silence in the face of fascism.

There was never any chance that Trump was going to “grow into the job” of president. He has not grown emotionally in his 71 years. Regressed, more likely. He must be removed from office, by Republicans or Robert Mueller, the special counsel. More likely the latter.

But ultimately every American has a stake in this fight against authoritarianism. Trump has disgraced the Office of the President. He has failed at every opportunity to display moral leadership. Congress, world leaders, his own staff do not respect him. At most, the white supremacists in his circle use him for their own agenda.

This is not a theoretical exercise. It is personal. The question for every American is: Do you support the statements from the president that “both sides” bear responsibility for what happened in Charlottesville, Va.? In sum, do you grant neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Klansmen moral standing to the point that you create words like “anti-Nazi” and “antifa” (anti-fascist) when all that used to be necessary was “them” and the rest of us. Evil. Good.

I have spent more than half a century in journalism, three decades writing editorials about every possible topic. This is simply by way of saying that I am programmed to look for both sides of any story and then write about it. For this, because he is uncomfortable with any straight reporting of the things he says and does -- including pointing out inconsistencies and lies as well as insults -- the wholly unqualified president has declared me and my colleagues to be an “enemy of the people.” That’s a line used by every fascist in history about the press.

Trump should not be president. Those who voted for him were wrong. Many have had the honesty to admit it. Some, for their own reasons, never will. History will remember those who allowed him to disgrace this nation. It will not be a pretty tale. There’s only one side to this story.

bobgaydos.blogspot.com

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Trump, Korea, the Marines and a Photo

By Bob Gaydos
The photo that inspired a nation ... in spite of the facts.
The photo that inspired a nation ... in spite of the facts. AP/Joe Rosenthal
“Well, that’s good,” I said to myself with a tension-reducing sigh. Congress is taking August off and the Senate actually took steps to keep Trump from making any recess appointments should he decide to, say, fire the attorney general or anyone else. That probably didn’t sit well with the Donald, but what the heck, I figured, he’s going on another vacation, so what trouble could he possibly get us into?

 Yeah, I know. A momentary lapse of judgment on my part, perhaps prompted by a need for some relief from the constant drumbeat of incoherent, inarticulate, insensitive, insulting, indecent and incredibly embarrassing flow of bigotry and B.S. coming from the White House. A vocabulary-challenging administration.

I guess he figured a man can’t play golf and tweet all the time, so why not go mano-a-mano with North Korea over nuclear war. Ramp up the language and fire up the still-remaining base of support who don’t want to think about Russia or losing their health insurance because, after all, the Muslims are coming, the Muslims are coming. And Kim what’s-his-name, too!

It has come to this: Trump’s own staff members are telling us to ignore what he says. Don’t worry, says the secretary of state. Senators and generals are ignoring what he says. But the world is not ignoring what he says because, like it or not, he speaks for this nation.

I don’t like it.

Not when he talks so cavalierly about taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of people because of his ego. Not when he shows no awareness of the devastating power of nuclear weapons. Not when he displays no comprehension of the wisdom of trying to avoid war through frank and honest diplomacy: You have weapons; we have more weapons. We will suffer greatly. You will be destroyed. No one wins. What do you want to allow your people to see what a magnificent leader you are by giving up your nuclear weapons and giving your people a better life? Let’s talk.

What gets lost in this frenetic, theoretical talk about war is the simple fact of the individual lives that will be ended. Even efforts by some politicians to lower the threat level to Americans by saying any war with North Korea will not be nuclear and will be fought on the Korean peninsula ignore this fact. It is obviously intended to relieve Americans’ fears of war on their homeland, but conveniently overlooks the fact that, in addition to Koreans, it will be young American men and women fighting and dying on the Korean peninsula, which they have already done once before. Failure to negotiate a peace settlement after that war has led to a divided nation and well-armed ceasefire for more than half a century.

Trump’s ”fire and fury” remarks regarding North Korea coincided with the anniversary of the U.S. dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, to hasten the end of World War II with Japan in 1945. The reasoning by President Harry S Truman and his advisers at the time was that a traditional military invasion of Japan with a million or so troops would cost  hundreds of thousands of Allied deaths given the Japanese strategy of everyone, soldier or not, fighting to the death.

Whether or not one agrees with Truman’s decision, he and his advisers were undoubtedly correct in their assessment of a traditional invasion. Not long before the bomb was dropped, U.S. Marines fought their bloodiest, most courageous, most decorated battle on Iwo Jima, an island fortress defending the Japanese homeland. As recounted in often painful detail in the book, “Flags Of Our Fathers,” by James Bradley and Ron Powers, the conquest of Iwo, commemorated with the planting of the American flag on Mount Suribachi, was the result of sending wave after wave of young American men, with no cover, to attack a heavily armed, entrenched, literally underground, Japanese army and eventually overwhelming the enemy by determination, incredible bravery, and sheer numbers.

That is a strategy. A terribly costly one as it turned out for thousands of American families who lost sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, friends on the beaches of Iwo and on the slopes of Suribachi. It was thought to be necessary by some, at the time, in order to defeat an enemy that didn’t recognize any so-called rules of warfare. Maybe it was, but a nation that respects and cherishes its young people still ought not casually consider sending them off to die or be wounded in any war, however justified it may sound.

That’s what I hate most about Trump’s and others’ flippant remarks about war. They ignore the cost in lives, in futures, in dreams, by wrapping everything in a flag of patriotism. Duty. Honor. Courage.

In addition to being a chilling account of combat, “Flags Of Our Fathers,” which I’m reading as part of a stash of used books I recently bought at the library, provides a perfect example of Americans refusing to take an event at face value and, instead, repackaging it to fit their preconceived notions. It is about one of the most famous photographs ever taken -- six Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi. The photo brought hope to a war-weary nation, became a famous monument, propelled a successful bond tour to support the war effort, inspired a John Wayne movie. Today, it remains a stirring symbol of American courage.

But the photo itself was not of a heroic moment. As the authors recount, it was a lucky shot by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal at a second flag-raising, after the heroic one following an assault up Suribachi a day earlier. The Marine commander wanted a larger flag flying over Iwo. The men who planted the second flag happened to be there. Photos were taken. One was dramatic. They became heroes back home, sought after everywhere for much of their lives. As often as the three flag-raisers who survived Iwo Jima tried to tell the real story of the flag, they were ignored. The photo was too powerful. It said so much of what Americans wanted it to say. Needed it to say.

Bradley’s father, Jack “Doc” Bradley, was identified as one of the six flag-raisers, but even that remains questioned today. A medical corpsman who was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions on Iwo, all he and the others ever said was that the real heroes were the Marines and Navy corpsmen who died on the island -- 6,800 of them. The Japanese suffered 22,000 casualties, mostly deaths. American casualties exceeded 26,000. One battle. One island. Two flags.

As a nation, we have a tendency to try to make things -- flag-raisings, presidents -- fit our perceptions (our hopes and wishes perhaps), so that we don’t have to face reality. War is brutal. Talk is cheap.

The Iwo Jima photo, while it does not represent an actual heroic moment in combat, has come to symbolize the heroism of U.S. Marines, especially at Iwo Jima. It has obtained true, lasting value because it represents something real -- the courage, determination, resilience, loyalty, and brotherhood the Marines demonstrated on Iwo Jima and, indeed, have demonstrated throughout their proud history. If you need to raise a flag, they are there. 
They are the real deal.

Take as many photos of Donald Trump as you want. Wearing that silly Make America Great Again cap if you want. Wrap him in flags and give him tough-sounding words if you want. Gild the lily all you want. It doesn’t matter. The image will never match the reality of the man's history. Gutless and callous and phony to the core.

bobgaydos.blogspot.com

Monday, August 28, 2017

Test your knowledge on addiction

Addiction and recovery
By Bob Gaydos
The more things change, the more some other things seem to stay the same. This is particularly true in the field of addiction and substance abuse. With (a) an opioid epidemic sweeping the nation, (b) a growing nationwide movement to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal and even recreational use, and (c) a growing consensus that the “war on drugs” has failed, a new administration in Washington seems determined to stick to the old, law-and-order approach to addiction.
This suggests that, while we may be in the midst of an unprecedented technological revolution, some of us may still be operating with outdated information. That’s why, from time to time, I devote a column to facts about alcohol and drug addiction. After all, if we’re going to treat it as a war, or as a crusade against a major health issue, we should know what we’re up against.
And, since Americans love quizzes, I’ve put one together to test your addiction IQ. It’s updated from one I offered a few years ago. Quizzes may be fun, but obviously this is a serious issue. The questions and answers are based on reports and other published materials of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
What’s your addiction IQ?
  1. a) 10 million; b) 20 million); c) 40 million; d) 60 million Americans 12 or older have substance abuse problems.
  2. a) 15%; b) 25%; c) 50%; d) 75% of all high school students have used addictive substances, including cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana or cocaine.
  3. More than a) 50%; b) 60%; c) 75%; d) 90% of people with a substance problem began smoking, drinking or using other drugs before age 18.
  4. a) 26%; b) 36%; c) 46%; d) 56% of children under age 18 live in a household where someone age 18 or older is smoking, drinking excessively, misusing prescription drugs or using illegal drugs.
  5. Seven in 10 people with the chronic diseases of high blood pressure, major depression and diabetes receive treatment. How many people who need treatment for substance problems receive any form of care? a) 1 in 10; b) 2 in 10; c) 3 in 10; d) 5 in 10.
  6. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines risky drinking for women as: a) 3; b) 7; c) 10; d) 12 drinks in a week.
  7. The NIAAA defines risky drinking for men as more than: a) 12; b) 14; c) 16; d) 20 drinks in a week.
  8. Among people with a prescription drug use problem, nearly: a) 25%; b) 30%; c) 50%; d) 75% have another substance problem.
    9. Of every dollar state and federal governments spend on substance problems: a) 2 cents; b) 5 cents; c) 10 cents; d) 25 cents goes to prevention and treatment.

True or false
   10. Having a high tolerance (feeling less effect from the substance with continued use) is a sign that the person is not addictive.
   11. Because they use substances at lower levels than men, women typically progress from substance use to addiction more slowly than men and experience the health consequences of substance use, such as death, cancer, heart disease and memory problems, less intensely than men.
   12. Addiction, substance use and abuse are the largest preventable and most costly health problems facing the U.S. today, responsible for more than 20 percent of deaths in the U.S.
   13. Addiction, substance use and abuse cause or contribute to more than 70 other conditions requiring medical care, including cancer, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, HIV/AIDS, pregnancy complications, cirrhosis, ulcers and trauma, and account for one-third of all hospital in-patient costs.
   14. Total costs to federal, state and local governments of addiction, substance use and abuse are at least $468 billion per year – almost $1,500 for every person in America.
    15. Addiction can’t be a disease because it is caused by the individual’s choice to use drugs or alcohol.

Answers: 1(c); 2(d); 3(d); 4(c); 5(a); 6(b); 7(b); 8(d); 9(a).
10: False. High tolerance is a warning sign of a possible substance problem.
11: False. Women generally progress more quickly than men in addiction and suffer more intensely.
12, 13 and 14: True. Just putting out some perspective on the scope of the problem.
15: False, according to National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse: “While the first use (or early stage use) may be by choice, once the brain has been changed by addiction, most experts believe that the person loses control of his or her behavior. Choice does not determine whether something is a disease. Heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer involve personal choices, such as diet, exercise, sun exposure, etc. A disease is what happens in the body as a result of those choices.”
Keep score yourself. The only way to fail is to ignore the issue altogether.
* * *
More info:
www.centeronaddiction.org.
www.niaaa.nih.gov.

bobgaydos.blogspot.com

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Lining up for the smell of death in D.C.

By Bob Gaydos
People viewing -- and smelling -- the corpse flower (titan arum) in Washington, D.C.
People viewing -- and smelling -- the corpse flower (titan arum) in Washington, D.C.
  There was a distinct stench of decay in the nation’s capital last week and thousands of visitors showed up to get a whiff -- heck, a full, deep inhalation -- of it. What’s that? No, no, this had nothing to do with the White House or Congress … stick with me. The odor emanated from, of all things, a flower.
  The corpse flower. These large malodorous plants are not for sale at your local garden store. For one thing, they’re huge -- this one is 8 feet tall -- and bloom rarely. Unpredictably, really. And then for only two days at most.  This makes such occasions an excuse for people to line up around the block, as they did at the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory, to look and smell.
  A plant scientist who is public programs manager at the U.S. Botanic Garden, told the website LiveScience “... once you get into that room, it really hits you pretty hard. It reminded me of a dead deer on the side of the road in the Florida Everglades with a big pile of really soggy, moldy laundry next to it. It was really, really unpleasant.”
  I think I know what the man is talking about. In my neck of the woods in upstate New York, about 75 miles from New York City, some farmers have taken to spreading what they say is fertilizer on their land, but which, to noses familiar and comfortable with normal fertilizer, smells like dead deer times ten. Death smell, we call it. Really unpleasant. The farmers never said it was the corpse flower, though. Duck eggs is the story they’re going with.
  Unlike the corpse flower, no one around here lined up to take a good, deep whiff. You really only had to drive by to get it. A lot of people did complain to public officials, however, and that may have stopped the practice. Lately, it’s just been good, old-fashioned cow manure.
  In Washington, though, Amorphophallus titanum was holding forth last week to no apparent purpose. While it rarely blooms and no one can say when one will bloom, the plant can be long-lived and botanists say the blooming has a specific purpose. Get this: The corpse plant uses its death smell to attract flesh-eating bugs such as beetles and flies that will carry its pollen to cross pollinate other corpse flowers.
  So its purpose is simply to perpetuate itself apparently. Thank you, Mother Nature. One bloomed in the Bronx last August, but the plant is native to the rain forests of Sumatra and I suppose it makes sense in the ecological framework of western Indonesia. As for the D.C. transplant, I’m not certain.
  This particular plant, which blossomed for the first time, is said to have grown from 4 feet tall to 8 feet tall just in the time it was put on display in the greenhouse -- less than a week-and-a-half. It reeked of death for a couple of days then withered.
  The folks at the Botanic Garden said this particular plant was the first corpse flower to bloom in Washington, D.C., since 2007. So for eight years -- from 2008 to 2016 -- there was no call to line up for the smell of death in the nation’s capital. This year -- bloom!
  Hmmm. Maybe I was wrong about the plant’s purpose. Maybe it’s trying to tell us something. Let’s see … what blooms big and garish without warning for no purpose other than to promote itself, attracts a crowd, appeals to flesh-eating bugs, stinks to hell for a brief period and then withers and goes away for a long time?
  Maybe they’ll have a clue at the White House.

bobgaydos.blogspot.com

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Helloooooooooooooo out there!

By Bob Gaydos
The Arecibo Message ... 1974
I pause in my search for intelligent life in the White House to ruminate on another project which may well promise quicker results -- the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

The search is known as METI: Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence. This is not to be confused with SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which deals with searching for messages from aliens. To/from. Therein lies the difference as well as a major scientific/philosophical dispute.

The SETI project was popularized in the novel, “Contact,” by astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who was central, along with astronomer, astrophysicist Frank Drake, in creating the program by which huge radio telescopes have listened for decades -- still do -- for signals from far-distant civilizations.

The book was later made into a movie starring Jodie Foster. You may remember it. It vaguely resembles the book, which I only recently finished reading as part of my return-to-reading movement that was sparked by a “sudden” appreciation of the science of synchronicity. In brief, I started noticing that coincidences led to more coincidences -- books led to other books, ideas to other ideas, etc. -- and that I ignored the connection between events/people/things at my own loss.

There was a reason that article by Steven Johnson about METI appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine two weeks ago. It was to catch me up on where the search for evidence of life elsewhere in the universe had gone since Sagan’s book was published in 1985. What purpose it may have served for you, I haven’t a clue, but for me it meant there was probably some issue to write about that could lead to more fruitful thought than that monotonous White House disaster.

The fact that I live in Pine Bush, a hamlet in upstate New York known as the UFO capital of the Northeast, just clinched the deal. Of course, in Pine Bush there are quite a few people who believe that extraterrestrials have already been here more than once. Checking us out. Maybe so, but since I have yet to experience a UFO, I’m interested in the debate going on over SETI vs. METI.

It boils down to: It’s all well and good to listen for messages from outer space. If we receive one, it means there is other life out there. We can then decide how, or whether, to respond. The hesitation has to do with not knowing if the other life is friendly or not. If we send out a big hello to the universe, the nay-sayers argue, any civilization that receives it will be far more advanced than ours and could well look upon us as Columbus did on the Native Americans. As Stephen Hawking, the most prominent METI nay-sayer, pointed out, that experience “did not go well” for the Native Americans. Do not advertise our presence, he says, and Elon Musk and many other scientists agree.

But many others disagree, arguing that another civilization, advanced enough to receive our message, would likely also be advanced enough to  understand the value of being peaceful.

So, what to do?

METI’s web page lists several objectives, including:

  • “Promote international cooperation and collaboration in METI, SETI, and astrobiology.
  • “Understand and communicate the societal implications and relevance of searching for life beyond Earth, even before detection of extraterrestrial life.
  • “Research and communicate to the public the many factors that influence the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe …”

I’d say the non-profit agency has noble, worthwhile goals. It’s the kind of project that could serve to remind all of us Earthlings of our relative insignificance in the universe and serve as a unifying, educational mission for our querulous planet. Of course, with even scientists being in disagreement about whether to send or just keep listening, I’m skeptical about political leaders being able to reach agreement. In fact, there’s an argument just waiting for the anti-science crowd to adopt: The Fermi Paradox.

Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist who created the first nuclear reactor, asked (I paraphrase): If the universe is so big (100 billion galaxies, 50 sextillion Earth-like planets) and so old (13.82 billion years), there should be 10,000,000,000,000,000 intelligent civilizations in the observable universe and, after millions of years of technological progress, an alien civilization should be capable of long-distance space travel. So where is everyone?

Well, as I said, there are some neighbors of mine who say aliens have already been here. How could we miss them? Government coverup of UFO sightings is a popular -- and not wholly dismissible -- theory.

Either way, I say the METI people -- who used to be the SETI people -- have the right idea. Be pro-active. Send out a big hello to the universe. An inter-galactic tweet. Get an international group of smart, sensitive people from various walks of life to create it. Set up contingencies for what to do if we get a reply … or a visit. War or peace. Then push the button over and over again for however long it takes for some life form out there to receive and understand it.

For the record, a three-minute message was sent out to the universe from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico in 1974, under the direction of Drake. It has yet to reach its destination, but it drew immediate strong opposition from the Royal Astronomer of England at the time, who, like Hawking, warned of placing the earth in peril. Since then, we’ve been mostly listening.

I don’t expect to be around when the message is received -- they’re talking about light years here, remember -- but I do think it’s the synchronistic thing to do. Someone has to get the ball rolling. Douglas Vakoch, the head of METI, says the fears are exaggerated. He thinks 100 years of television and radio signals sent into space should have -- for better or worse -- already alerted aliens to our existence and he plans to start sending messages next year.

So … hello, world.

bobgaydos.blogspot.com

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Republican Party: Mean to the bone

By Bob Gaydos


Trump signs a bill allowing the shooting
 of bear cubs ... as they hibernate.

In much the same way that a broken clock is correct twice a day, so did our narcissist-in-chief (NIC) stumble into a truism the other day when he described a “health-care” bill approved by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives as “mean.”


Why did our clueless leader suddenly think a bill he had only recently pushed for and extravagantly celebrated at the White House was “mean”? Surely not because almost everyone who knew anything about it except for Tea Party Republicans thought it was mean. That’s never bothered him before.


I suspect it had more to do with the fact that he needed the Senate, also run by Republicans, to also pass a health-care bill so he could brag about it again and he just happened to be in the room, sitting there like a broken clock, when someone said if there was any hope of getting a bill through the Senate it had to be different from the House bill, which was, as he subsequently repeated, “too mean.”


Those are the kind of simple words the NIC understands. Big. Great. Best. Bad. Fat. Lousy, Mean. He likes to use them. A lot. Mean is not good. It’s bad. People don’t like mean things. How is the bill “mean”? Nuance is another matter.


Well, the bill that was presented to the Senate by a 13-member, all-white, all-male, Republican-only task force was apparently only a tad less mean than the GOP House bill, which means most of the country still thinks it’s awful policy, as do a handful of Senate Republicans. Actually, a lot of Senate Republicans think it’s not mean enough. In fact, not enough Republicans like it for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring it to a vote that would carry, so he put it off to allow for arm-twisting and bribing.


As he apparently demonstrated at a ballyhooed arm-twisting meeting with all the Senate Republicans at the White House, the NIC doesn’t know -- or even care -- how the bill works. He’s apparently confused about the difference between Medicare and Medicaid, stuff like that. No matter. Mean or not, he just wants a health care bill passed so he can have another Rose Garden celebration and thumb his nose at Barack Obama. That’s pretty much the entire Trump policy.


McConnell, for his part, resorted to his favorite weapon --- bribery -- to try to get 50 Republicans to buy in to the bill. That comes in the form of billions of dollars in local projects for Republican senators who might face difficult reelection if they vote for the still-mean health care bill.


Tell me that’s not an awfully mean way to conduct public policy. And to no purpose other than to give tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans so they will continue to fund campaigns and vote for Republican candidates who promise to cut taxes even more, to eliminate pesky regulations that force businesses to be accountable for any harm they do, and to remove all those “deadbeats” Rush Limbaugh rails about from the Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment and welfare rolls.


In other words, Republicans have totally lost the concept of governing for the public good. They have been against everything for so long they don’t know how -- or seem to even care to try -- to work with Democrats on creating useful legislation. I’ve been trying to figure out when “mean” became the Republican go-to word in policy. Maybe it was Ronald Reagan’s phony trickle-down spiel. The middle class and poor are still waiting for the first nourishing drops. A lot of them -- many Trump supporters -- are those supposed “deadbeats” of Limbaugh’s. Of course, they did have to suffer through a major economic disaster brought on by those rich individuals and corporations, who apparently didn’t have enough stashed away from the tax breaks so they had to simply cheat people out of their money. And they got away with it.


By the way, Republicans just voted to do away with an Obama regulation that required people dealing with other people’s money -- brokers -- to tell their clients what was in their best financial interests, not the brokers’. Bad idea, according to Republicans. Mean, I say.


Mean is slashing hundreds of millions from Medicaid, which pays for health care for 20 percent of Americans, including seniors in nursing homes, simply to cut taxes for those who don’t need it -- the one percent. The very wealthiest Americans. Mean is cutting funding for Meals on Wheels and food stamps. Mean is promising coal workers that their dying industry will be revived while creating no jobs for them, but allowing coal companies to dump their waste into streams from which the workers get their drinking water. Mean is putting the Environmental Protection Agency, which protects Americans from such things as water pollution, under the direction of someone who wants to eliminate the agency.


Mean is looking to do away with hundreds of regulations that protect people from health and safety risks posed by unscrupulous cost-cutting minded corporations looking to improve their standing with shareholders. If Republicans want to take an object lesson about such short-sighted governing, they need only to look at the recent Grenfell Tower fire in London that killed 79 people.


The fire is believed to have been started by a faulty refrigerator and spread rapidly up the high-rise, fueled by a highly flammable exterior wrapping, called cladding, that is banned for use on high-rises in the United States, but which its maker is allowed to sell in places where regulations aren’t as stringent. In the aftermath of the deadly blaze, Arconic -- formerly Alcoa -- said it would no longer sell the cladding, which has a polyethylene core, for high rise projects anywhere in the world. The company makes a more-expensive, fire-resistant cladding. Grenfell is a public housing project whose residents had complained for years that there were no fire alarms, no sprinklers, no safety tests and only one stairwell.


Public housing. No safety features. Total disregard for safety regulations. Cheaper construction material. Years of complaining with no response from British politicians more concerned with helping businesses save money rather than protecting people’s lives. Mean.


Since Republicans took control of the White House and both houses of Congress, they have eagerly worked to erase safety regulations issued late in the Obama administration, including rules to keep coal companies from dumping waste in streams and denying federal contracts to dangerous companies. And it’s not just people who are the target of Republican callousness. The NIC recently signed a bill to allow the shooting of bears and wolves -- including cubs -- as they hibernate. Heartless.


This list could go on and on and undoubtedly will so long as Republicans, once the proud party of Lincoln, now seemingly a collection of mean-spirited individuals lacking in compassion and tolerance, have access to power. Trump is not really even a Republican, but party leaders have been cynical enough to try to use him to advance their cruel agenda.


It is an utterly depressing state of affairs that calls for new Republican leadership or a new party entirely. If you’re a Republican and are offended by any of this, that’s your problem. The rest of us are appalled. It’s your party. You are responsible for what is being promulgated and promoted in the seats of power in Washington. Your silence is tacit approval.


Like the clueless one said, “Mean.”


bobgaydos.blogspot.com