Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Nation of Witnesses

Thousands in Washington, more thousands in cities across America, marching to protest killings and coverups that have become too numerous and obvious to hide.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Rain of Drought

Right here on the North Coast, the biggest storm in five years to hit California didn't amount to much.  The rain was sometimes heavy but mostly moderate to light, and actually that's good, especially as it was spread out over time. We had some temporarily flooded streets (though the photo above is from southern CA.) There was some wind but not alot and not for long.  We had two brief losses of electricity here-- the one last night seemed to go on a long time but when the lights came suddenly back on, it had only been about 20 minutes.

We were prepared for "Rainageddon" especially by Lost Coast Outpost, probably our most reliable source of local news, where the rain puns ("rain of terror") were rife.  They had an ongoing watch on the rivers, but they never got close to flood level. (An aside: Lost Coast Outpost picked up the Person of the Year story below from my post on one of my other blogs.)

But Rainageddon was no misnomer elsewhere in the state.  The Bay Area and the LA area both got hammered, with copious rain and attendant mudslides, flooding, power outages, coastal collapse, cancelled flights, etc.  Also some relief from the drought, as reservoirs and rivers got replenished, and the falls at Yosemite flowed again.

The best long-term news is that the precipitation in the Sierras improved  to 147% of normal for this time of year, although the total snowpack is still only 40% of normal. Many places depend on the melt for their summer water.

But the reign of drought is not over. Though the moisture this month and this storm especially have provided some relief, it will take a very wet winter (75 additional inches of precip) and probably two to end the drought.  Or as Wired reports, about a dozen more epic storms like this one.  This report has a lot of stats and graphs about this storm's dimensions.

There were also stories the other day indicating that the California drought was not "caused" by the climate crisis.  This is a common dodge based on the lack of appreciation for the real complexities (though it's not quite as bad as laughing at the idea of global heating because it snows.)  As Dr. Jeff Masters suggests, the unprecedented heat over the past three years in California likely made the drought worse but about a third--enough to make this drought the worst in 1200 years (that research, as well as before and after photos of the Yosemite falls, are in this Weather Underground post.)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Person of the Year

Time Magazine has chosen its Person of the Year for 2014: The Ebola Fighters.  One of the five covers belongs to Ella Watson-Stryker, the Doctors Without Borders worker I referred to without naming in a previous post.  She's one of our own here in Humboldt--the daughter of a long-time friend, Betsy Watson, and a person we've watched and been proud of for a long time.

According to the magazine's description, Ella didn't even want to spend the ten minutes on having her picture taken, as it was distracting her from her work.

Her mother writes that Ella is good health, and very proud of the work they and the US military did in Liberia, where Ebola has been virtually eradicated.  But after some time in Europe training other workers and some r&r over Christmas in the states, she's back in the fray in Sierra Leone, where things are dire indeed.

I didn't mention her name before because of the stigma that was ignorantly attached to these heroes.  And even now, Ella has to go out of her way in entering the US to avoid airports where she could be forced to spend her holidays in quarantine.

It's hard to have much faith in humanity after something like the wanton torture the US engaged in, as we are being reminded again.  Then there's Ella, and Doctors Without Borders.  And even Time Magazine, for doing this.  A better world is possible.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Water You Saying

Yeah, I know the torture report is hogging all the headlines.  And that it was issued, with unequivocal statements by Senator Feinstein that there was not a single instance in which these barbaric horrific acts yielded any information, and that everybody is forced to face it now--all righteous things.  But as long ago posts here and previous blogs show, it's not new.  We knew all this, if not in such horrifying detail.  And the GOPer response is also not exactly unpredictable, though Borowitz summarized it well in his satiric column claiming that Cheney called for an international ban on torture reports.

But let's talk about something else.  Like water.  It's coming down, East Coast, West Coast.  Changes in the dispersal of water from the heavens over time is likely to be a major effect of the climate crisis.  Deserts will grow, other places will persistently flood.  Food supplies, power generation, transport, health, let alone the human need for drinking water every day, all are disrupted.   It's happening now.

And here's the thing for our vaunted scientific expertise: nobody knows what water really is.  They fool you with that familiar grade school formula: H20.  Two hydrogen atoms and one atom of oxygen.  Sound simple.

But if it is so simple, and so simply described, why can't they make it in the lab?  They make all other kinds of stuff.  Some labs claim they're making organic life out of inorganic material.  But on the most useful possible bit of manufacturing, they come up empty.  They can't make water.  Except by pissing in the wind.

We don't even know where water came from.  There's new research on that--scientists say that at least half of the water on the Earth is not only older than the planet, it is older than the sun.

If not even the Earth knows how to combine two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms,  where did our water come from?  Some place older than the solar system, it seems.  A prominent theory was that comets delivered it, a very long time ago, from cosmic space.

Now there's data from the Euro Space Agency probe that landed on a comet that the water it harbors isn't the same as the water on Earth. (That's the comet up there, real photo, minus tail.)

 Apparently the comet theory has been controversial for some time.  The best story on the whole topic I read today is this one in the NY Times.  It says this kills the comet theory.  Other stories say it suggests it is wrong, but more evidence is needed.

So the prevailing theory now is that water arrived here via asteroids.  The Times story concludes:

In October, in another Science paper, researchers found that meteorites that originated from the large asteroid Vesta, which is believed to have formed inside of the snow line, also possess Earthlike deuterium levels. These scientists believe that ice-rich asteroids from outside the snow line were pushed inward and were among the pieces that combined to form Vesta and Earth hundreds of millions of years before the late heavy bombardment.  In other words, Earth may have been wet from almost the beginning.

So by this description the Earth was originally a large snowball in space. (Asteroids are getting other kinds of attention, too, including the likelihood that one may come this way.)  But the asteroid belt is between Mars and Jupiter, within the solar system.  So that still doesn't explain where the water came from originally.  Or how it came to be.  Or what it is.

Storm Day

It's raining.  We're into a storm that's reputedly to be the strongest in five years, and will last into Friday.  High winds inevitably lead to power outages here, so I'm taking this opportunity now.  That photo is supposedly what the winds look like.  So Van Gogh was a meteorologist?  If this storm really has as much moisture in it as predicted, it's going to help the snow pack in the Sierras a whole lot.  Flooding of course is a worry almost everywhere, including here.  There are also hints that this is going to be a wet winter up here, to remind us of what normal was.  

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Tech Deception, Digital Slavery

In a New York Times oped, George Mason University economics professor, Tyler Cowen claims that the answer to income inequality in America might well be more and better computer technology.

Applying technology in smarter ways could bring down the costs of education and medical care. "We can easily imagine medical diagnosis by online artificial intelligence, greater use of online competitive procurement for health care services, more transparency in pricing and thus more competition, and much cheaper online education for many students, to cite just a few possibilities. In such a world, many wage gains would come from new and cheaper services, rather than from being able to cut a better deal with the boss at work."

Income gains, he suggests, are limited now by lack of computer skills. "Not everyone can work fruitfully with computers now. There is a generation gap when it comes to manipulating electronic devices, and many relevant tasks require knowledge of programming or, more ambitiously, the entrepreneurial skill of creating a start-up. That, in a nutshell, is how our dynamic sector has concentrated its gains among a relatively small number of employees, thus leading to more income inequality."

But simpler "human-computer interfaces" such as computers that respond to spoken commands will open up new job opportunities, such as supervising smart robots on the factory floor.  Income inequality could also lessen as emerging nations like China and India begin to innovate products that are now expensive and make them cheaper.

Cowen's argument in general is that income inequality is not structural, as Thomas Piketty famously wrote, but a product of an application lag in technology and the ability of many people to use this technology.  His conclusion: "growing inequality is highly contingent on particular technologies and the global conditions of the moment. Movements toward greater inequality often set countervailing forces in motion, even if those forces take a long time to come to fruition. From this perspective, rather than seeking to beat down capital, our attention should be directed to leaving open the future possibilities for innovation, change and dynamism. Even if income inequality continues to increase in the short run, as I believe is likely, there exists a plausible and more distant future in which we are mostly much better off and more equal. The history of technology suggests that new opportunities for better living and higher wages are being created, just not as quickly as we might like."

This analysis, hardly reassuring to begin with, and clotted with all its meaningless buzzwords, is wrong on so many levels it's hard to know where to begin, as should be obvious to anyone who lives in the actual world rather than the economics world.  But for a cogent blast of cold water, there's Jacob Silverman in The Baffler which exposes the actual dark side of the computerization of everyday life, including the rise of digital slavery.

I don't mean digital addiction, I mean working for nothing, or next to nothing, which Silverman describes in detail.  We know about the digital sweatshops but most of those are abroad.  He writes about digital slavery in America:

"Increasing numbers of people receive their instructions from, and report back to, software and smartphones. Whether operating a bin selector in an Amazon warehouse or freelancing from a coffee shop, many Americans work long days without having contact with other human beings—neither coworkers nor supervisors. (There are no subordinates for this class of workers.) Everything they do is tracked, because efficiency is the sine qua non. Some of them work for online labor markets like Elance, oDesk, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which offer micro-jobs that can be done remotely, with little to no training. They complete surveys, tag photos, and transcribe interviews, for pay of a few dollars per hour or at a piecework rate of little more than a few cents per task...These labor markets depend on a kind of internalized offshoring."

Contrary to Cowen, computer literacy isn't confined to well-paid professionals.  It is the structure of the market, as well as the devious propaganda of the tech giants, that enslaves people and keeps their incomes down.  And it's all done automatically, without apparent human intervention, as so much in the world as wired now is:

"The software facilitating this transaction acts as the ultimate mediator; the employee and the employer never have to deal with one another directly. Payment can be unreliable and is wholly contingent on the employer accepting the laborer’s product. If the former doesn’t like what he receives, he can simply reject it and not pay the worker for his time. Contract employees have no chance, in this setup, to appeal or to revise their work."

According to Silverman, this is the real meaning of "crowdsourcing." Moreover, it is building into the market an increase in income disparity, by paying a lot of people a little, and forcing them to compete with each other, forever:

Companies begin to think in terms of short-term spending rather than long-term investment, as borrowing and hiring both atrophy. More and more of us are forced to be contingent laborers, freelancers, crowdsourced volunteers, or “permalancers” always on the lookout for more opportunities, always advertising ourselves through social media and public networks, knowing—with a sense of generalized suspicion—that our public utterances on social media may influence our future job prospects. Risk assessment algorithms may already be parsing our social media profiles, pooling information to be used in a future background check."

A lot of this, Silverman writes, is being sold to people as a libertarian ideal, when it is pretty much the opposite: "Workers, in turn, have more mobility and a semblance of greater control over their working lives. But is any of it worth it when we can’t afford health insurance or don’t know how much the next gig might pay, or when it might come? When an app’s terms of service agreement is the closest thing we have to an employment contract? When work orders come through a smartphone and we know that if we don’t respond immediately, we might not get such an opportunity again? When we can’t even talk to another human being about the task at hand and we must work nonstop just to make minimum wage?"

So far in history, capitalism has been unable to survive without slavery somewhere.  With the slaves of the South and elsewhere, slave labor in South American mines, industrial wage slavery, outsourced and piecework slavery in the digital age. Update: Slavery exists in prison labor; the state of California has officially argued it needs prisoners for their slave labor. That's a problem capitalism doesn't even recognize, so of course it has no solution.

Meanwhile, it consumes the planet like the mindless mechanism it is, when people with minds refuse to see the problem.