Recently in Politics Category

I'm not a Solarpunk, I just play one in real life, it seems. While Charlie's out doing important stuff, I decided I'd drop a brief, meandering essay in here for the regular crowd of commenters to say some variation on, "Why yes, that's (adjective) obvious," and to eventually turn the conversation around to the relative merits of either trains or 20th Century weapons systems, if we can get past comment 100.

As most of you know, I do a lot of environmentalism, so much so in fact that I'm not working any creative writing right now (except this!), just going to meetings and reading environmental impact reports (if you don't know anything about California's perennial punching bag, CEQA), well, don't bother, it's tedious). This post was inspired by what I saw in the process of the San Diego County Supervisors approving the most developer-friendly version of the County Climate Action Plan (CAP) that they could. The details of about seven hours of meetings really don't matter, but the universality of what happened might, at least a little.

This post is inspired by a real-life issue I'm dealing with, and there are so many possibilities, I figured it would make a great early August chew toy for the group.

The basic issue is adaptation to climate change. If our global civilization isn't going to shatter under the strain of increasingly weird weather, it's going to need to massively adapt. To give you an idea of the scope of the problem, I'll use the mundane example of my household in San Diego, where we're committed to partially decarbonizing over the next 5 years. We've already got solar panels, we're going to get an electric car (a Chevy Bolt, because I don't want to wait three years for a Tesla 3), and we plan to get a wall battery for storage and to remodel our house so that everything runs on electricity. We're looking at vaguely around $100,000 to go partially decarbonized (it won't be total decarbonization until we get rid of the other car, which we need for hauling stuff every week.). There are ways to cut these costs, like using electric Uber cars and the like (mass transit would be lovely too, if only...), but if all of San Diego County's 3.3 million people were to spend $100,000 per household to decarbonize, that's somewhere north of $100,000,000,000 to decarbonize the homes of this county alone (not the businesses, just the homes). Spread over enough time, $100,000 is doable for my family, but costs need to drop by at least an order of magnitude for mass decarbonization. The point of this example is that decarbonization can't be about just retrofitting existing systems, it will have to create new, cost-effective systems. Just depending on families to invest more than most make per year into retrofitting existing lifestyles is too expensive. That's one big root of the climate change crisis.

For every expensive crisis that comes along, though, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of scams, schemes, and bad ideas to take advantage of it. And that's your early August chew toy: come up with some of these schemes, figure out what ordinary citizens can do to counter them, and then speculate on what happens as a consequence of the counter. Want to play? I'll warn you, it's a bit like making sausage.

Hugh Hancock, your friendly neighbourhood crafter of tales about supernatural get-rich-quick schemes gone horribly wrong, back with another bit of musing on what the Chatbot Future holds... See also Part 1 - Sexbots and Part 2 - Magical Beasts

In "Accelerando", Charlie posited the idea of a swarm of legal robots, creating a neverending stream of companies which exchange ownership so fast they can't be tracked.

It's rather clear to me that the same thing is about to happen to social media. And possibly politics.

What makes me so sure?

Microsoft's Tay Chatbot. Oh, and the state of the art in Customer Relationship Management software.

Turing Test 2: Is The Bot Distinguishable From An Asshole?

Microsoft unleashed its conversational bot on Twitter, and 4chan's /pol/ unleashed their opinions - or possibly their sense of humour - on it in turn. Hours later, it was a racist asshole.

But that's not the interesting bit.

The interesting and worrying part of the entire test was that it became a plausible, creative racist asshole. A lot of the worst things that Tay is quoted as saying were the result of users abusing the "repeat" function, but not all. It came out with racist statements entirely off its own bat. It even made things that look disturbingly like jokes.

Add a bit of DeepMind-style regret-based learning to the entire process - optimising toward replies or retweets, say - and you have a bot that on first glance, and possibly second through fourth glance, is indistinguishable from a real, human shitposter.

A lot of ink has been spilled worrying about what this says about the Internet. But that's the wrong thing to worry about.

The right thing to worry about is what the Internet is going to look like after more than one Tay is unleashed on it.

More than a hundred. More than a thousand.

(null)I can't remember a time when, as an adult, I regularly watched TV news. In the days before the internet, there were times when I got and read newspapers: the excellent Edmonton Journal in its heyday, The Globe and Mail, and the Sunday edition of the New York Times. But most of my news, in the nineties, came from CBC Radio One. They do regional, national and international series daily. Their coverage was balanced and interesting, their journalists are brilliant, and the people they got to do interviews had legit expertise in whatever they were being asked about. None of these were gimmes, even then, and it was all nicely curated and informative. It gave me that feeling I used to seek from the news, that of being connected to global goings-on.

All of that changed overnight, pretty much, on September 11, 2001.

My name is M Harold Page and I recently sold a short story with a dragon in it.

As I wrote the story, I could hear the voices of snarky snobbery in the back of my head:

"Oh look, LOL, you could reduce all Fantasy maps to a blotchy version of Europe but swap in Orks for Mongols.... OMG another book about E'lves and D'warves... (chortle) Historical fiction for authors too lazy to do research."


"Sigh. Isn't it time to explore other cultures?"

Yes it's pretty easy to snark at -- call it - Traditional Fantasy, and also to give it a political kicking critique. It is, after all, a genre in which everything is possible, and yet where it usually delivers European-style secondary worlds and archetypes.

I think the snarks and critiques rather miss the point. However that's for a different blog post. Instead let's consider the short defence of Traditional Fantasy, which is the starkly simple...

NSA Headquarters Yes. Yes we can. The last year has brought with it the revelations of massive government-run domestic spying machineries in the US and UK. On the horizon is more technology that will make it even easier for governments to monitor and track everything that citizens do. Yet I'm convinced that, if we're sufficiently motivated and sufficiently clever, the future can be one of more freedom rather than less.

bloody water

It's about three years since I predicted that the Iraq occupation would slide into a genocidal civil war in this blog, and I really wish I'd been wrong.

It's also been about that length of time since I decided to try and keep politics out of my blog. After all, arguing politics in a weblog probably doesn't do much good; it alienates some readers, attracts others, and if I'm going to be brutally honest, part of the reason I maintain this toe-hold on the web is to seduce readers (who will, I hope, want to read my fictions rather than my opinions).

Still, I can't keep quiet all the time.

The Lancet isn't just any medical journal, it's one of the big three that you used to — and probably still do — find in common rooms in hospitals all over the UK (along with the British Medical Journal and sometimes the New England Journal of Medicine). It is not noted for publishing random speculation, agitprop, and crank letters — it's the top journal of record in its field. Getting an article into The Lancet is like getting one in Nature, or Science: it's a big one.

So when it turns out that tomorrow's issue is carrying a detailed epidemiological study that indicates 655,000 Iraqis have died since the invasion in 2003 (Full PDF of the article here) I had to sit up and take notice.

This is an epidemiological study of surplus mortality, because the occupiers are refusing to keep records of civilian deaths. (Which, I should note, is strictly illegal and a breach of their obligations under the Geneva Conventions, but let it slide — one more indignity among many). As such, it can't nail the precise death toll — but it points in the general direction. Mortality has risen from 5.5 per 1,000 per year prior to the invasion to 13.3 per thousand (and most recently, to 19.8 per thousand between June 2005 and June 2006).

Quadrupling the death rate in a country isn't something that you can write off as statistically insignificant. It correlates very clearly with the invasion and subsequent occupation, and the detailed breakdown ascribes 31% of the death toll to military action by the occupiers (with the remainder due to other causes including gunshot wounds and bombs).

The spin machine is, of course, already trying to play down the news. As this biased AP wire article puts it

A controversial new study contends nearly 655,000 Iraqis have died because of the war, suggesting a far higher death toll than other estimates.
(Way to go! Start by pinning the "controversial" adjective on a piece that's been peer-reviewed four times for the most authoritative medical journal on the planet. Let me just point out that's why I felt like pinning the "biased" adjective right back on the author.)

Rather than examining the statistical basis of the report, the propaganda continues:

one respected group puts its rough estimate at closer to 50,000. And at least one expert was skeptical of the new findings. "They're almost certainly way too high," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. He criticized the way the estimate was derived and noted that the results were released shortly before the Nov. 7 election.
While the CSIS is officially bipartisan, its executive is dominated by Republicans, with a particular leaning toward Defense Department officials, Wall Street investment bankers and oil company executives. And if you can't figure out what kind of spin they would like to put on the Iraq occupation in the run-up to an election their friends and donors are running in, you're too bloody stupid to read my lips.

In case you think the Iraq business is all in the past and it's time to move on, let me remind you that as of September 30th, the USS Eisenhower and Expeditionary Strike Group 5 are en route to the Persian gulf, and the rhetoric for an attack on Iran has been hotting up since January. Think it won't happen? The Eisenhower (and another carrier group) are due to arrive in the gulf on October 21st. Now who's planning something convenient in time for the election?

No less an analyst than Bob Woodward warns that Bush invaded Iraq in the first place to secure the last mid-term elections. Now it looks very much like he's doing it again.

"This is not analysis, this is politics," Cordesman [of the CSIS] said.
Dead right (and as a denizen of a Republican think tank he should know). Bush's analysis is that if he attacks Iran in the two weeks leading up to the mid-term, he can roll the swing vote. So he's getting ready to do it all over again (hey, it worked last time!), despite the body count.

Now I've said enough, and I'm going to get back to my job (which is finishing the current novel I'm working on before I get stuck into the next one).

Your job, if you're voting in the upcoming election, is to decide whether you want to let a politician who cold-bloodedly ordered 655,000 murders in order to win his last mid-term election get away with the same trick twice, on behalf of his page-buggering, bribe-taking buddies.

But don't mind me. I'm just a foreigner, and my opinions don't count.

In the first extensive study of the causal/correlative relationship between the use of pornography and sexual offenses, researcher Anthony D'Amato (of the faculty of law at Northwestern University) has concluded that rape statistics have declined 85% while availability of pornography rose significantly throughout the USA over the preceding 25 years. The Reagan-era Meese commission failed to derive a causal link proving that pornography caused sexual offenses; this appears to be a study proving the exact opposite — that availability of pornography reduces the incidence of violent sexual assaults. (Possible explanations are considered; follow the link for details.)

So it is quite interesting to see that the British government has decided to respond to this study by cracking down on pornography in a manner likely to backfire quite spectacularly (as well as infringing seriously on the right to freedom of speech). More details at the Prattle (thanks to Feorag) via the link above. (Home Office consultation process report here; more details on the origin of a stupid moral panic scare campaign here. (It appears the conviction of the man accused of murder that provided the impetus for the campaign has been referred back to the Court of Appeal.)

This government has created an average of one new criminal offense for every day it has spent in power — and it's been in power for nearly a decade. I am getting more than a little sick of these control freaks ...

Caution: author about to express political opinion! (Flee for the hills, if you don't approve of that sort of un-authorly behaviour.)

Dr Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary (new touchy-feely cabinet ministerial post) has just called for the closure of Islamic schools that promote isolationism or extremism.

She said the government had to "stamp out" Muslim schools which were trying to change British society to fit Islamic values.

"They should be shut down," she said. "Different institutions are open to abuse and where we find abuse we have got to stamp it out and prevent that happening."

Yes, indeed, she's quite right.

And while she's on the subject, perhaps she'd like to enhance her credibility by doing something about the overwhelmingly Christian fundamentalist faith schools that have been springing up like toadstools under the Blair government (42% of the City Academies trumpeted by Kelly and Blair are avowedly Christian Fundamentalist institutions which in some cases teach creationist nonsense in biology classes) and that two thirds of the UK's population are opposed to?

Certainly one might have fewer grounds for accusing Ruth Kelly of partiality if she applied her criticism of extremism across the board. But given her own religious affiliation (and Tony Blair's notorious piety) that's not terribly likely ...

Authorial opinion: There's a big difference between the new fundamentalist brainwashing academies and the old-school going-through-the-motions religious curriculum that was standard (and slept through) in all English schools back when I was subjected to it. The atmosphere of an avowedly religious institution is inimical to the development of cross-cultural tolerance; teaching kids in an environment in which One True Faith is exalted and all deviation is sneered at as Error is a sure-fire way to inculcate intolerance and hostility.

We need to get religion out of education in the UK and adopt the French model of strict separation right now, before we find ourselves drowning in brainwashed extremists of whichever stripe. The only way to do it is to do it even-handedly — simply banning Islamic schools at this point would inflame the extremist sentiments Ruth Kelly is so keen to stamp out — so a complete ban on all religion in schools is at this point the route of least resistance.

And let's face it, every cloud has a silver lining: the extra teaching time freed up by ditching dogma could be usefully used to improve the dismal standards of mathematics and grammar in school leavers.

Ah. So the details of last week's horrendous "worse than 9/11" conspiracy are now coming out piecemeal.

It appears that none of the conspirators had assembled any bombs or bought plane tickets. Several of them didn't even have passports, making it rather unlikely that they'd be able to smuggle an imaginary bomb onto an imaginary flight.

And they'd been under surveillance for up to a year before the sudden arrests, prompted by the confession of one man who "broke under interrogation" in Pakistan, a country notorious for torturing confessions out of prisoners.

(This rubbish is used as the basis for mass arrests and a huge security clampdown that results in close to 30% of all commercial flights in/out of British airports being cancelled for a week.)

Meanwhile, our glorious Home Secretary, John Reid, is saying "people don't get it" and that he's going to introduce a new anti-terrorism bill into parliament in the next session.

I'm afraid some of us do "get it". And we're not impressed.

Anyone got a photograph of Emmanuel Goldstein for me to link to?

"Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts."

For full details, see this paper ("A False Sense of Insecurity (PDF)", John Mueller, Ohio State University.)

This is nothing new. Here in the UK we've lived through 30 years of terrorist insurgency in Northern Ireland; it only ended recently, and it claimed 3000 lives — a per-capita death rate for the UK roughly five to six times higher than 9/11 (for the UK as a whole — it's much higher if you consider only Northern Ireland). Guess what? More people died in car accidents in NI during the Troubles than in the Troubles themselves.

It used to be said that patriotism was the first resort of the scoundrel. Now terror-mongering is giving it a close run for its money. When someone tries to scare you, the first question you should ask is "who benefits?" Al Qaida and their friends carry out terrorist actsin order to terrorise you, with a specific political agenda in mind. Why are the US and UK governments trying to do the terrorists jobs for them? And what is their fear-facilitated agenda?

From today's Sunday Times:

ID cards doomed, say officials

TONY BLAIR’S flagship identity cards scheme is set to fail and may not be introduced for a generation, according to leaked Whitehall e-mails from the senior officials responsible for the multi-billion-pound project.

The problems are so serious that ministers have been forced to draw up plans for a scaled-down “face-saving��? version to meet their pledge of phasing in the cards from 2008.

However, civil servants say there is no evidence that even this compromise is “remotely feasible��? and accuse ministers of “ignoring reality��? by pressing ahead.

One official warns of a “botched operation��? that could put back the introduction of ID cards for a generation. He added: “I conclude that we are setting ourselves up to fail.��? Another admits he is planning Home Office strategy around the possibility that the scheme could be “canned completely��?.

Read the whole thing here.

... That the World Transhumanist Association have decided to award me the 2006 H.G. Wells award for Outstanding Contributions to Transhumanism.

(I'm still not entirely sure why — my contributions are of a purely fictional nature — but I'm pleased as punch; I just regret that I can't be in Helsinki this August to receive the award in person at TransVision 2006.)

The definition of a real Virtual Reality environment is one where somebody can hold a coup d'etat in it and make it stick in the real world.

Adolf Hitler or Ann Coulter: can you tell the difference?

(It's remarkable how similar their rhetoric is, when you put it under a microscope like that ...)

Just in case that leaves a nasty taste in your mouth, here are a collection of cats who resemble Hitler.



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