Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Agricultural Revolution

Conventionally the Agricultural Revolution is taken as ground zero in the birth of civilization. By regimenting and increasing food production yields the revolution freed up time for other human endeavours. This included the wholesale development of various artisan pursuits that in turn galvanized a technological revolution that continues today. In one could argue that the revolution was in a sense the fore bringer of our modern world.

However the shift toward planned farming (which in the west involved the domestication of wheat, barley, rye and oats and various livestock) was not without its disadvantages. Some feminists see it as the beginning of patriarchy for one. Others argue that it was destructive towards the environment, resource draining and over reliant on a societal hierarchy that at times promoted slavery. It cemented the idea of territory making war an inevitable outcome.

While some of these features endured many were more consistent with the early stages of an evolving dynamic. The Agricultural Revolution cemented the success of our species, freed us from the shackles of subsistence living and opened up the potential that is so evident across the landscape of human achievement.

Confirmation Bias

A typical error that we all are guilty of at one time or another is that we believe in some phenomenon and then look for evidence to support it. We are also less critical of the evidence if want the belief to be true. This is called the confirmation bias. Our challenge as thinkers is to be conscious of this pitfall. Conspiracy theory plays into this bias. People want to believe that there is some grander conspiracy so they look favourably on evidence that points in that direction and ignore or downplay conflicting information

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Abbas - Sitting Pretty

Despite the rhetoric of the chattering classes and the endless flirtations with the media it is becoming more evident that Palestinian Authority Head Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) does not want an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank. If he did he would have called Israel’s bluff a long time ago – dropped the request for the right of return and removed the delegitimization campaigns directed against Israel that dominate the PA’s news outlets and education system (not to mention the all too common Jew hatred that is a regular feature of both). In doing so he would have painted any Israeli government (Likud, Kadima, Labour or Zionist Union) in the corner and presented the strongest case that the Palestinian’s have for workable nation state. This has not happened. In fact overtures by the so-called Israeli center (and indeed left of center) courtesy of the handiwork of the soft and mushy Ehuds (Barak and Olmert) acts were rejected when they could have provided a possible pathway toward statehood.

The problem Abbas faces is that if statehood ever came to fruition he would be forced to hold an election that he would most likely lose. At present he is in the 11th year of an increasingly badly labelled four year term (apologies to Douglas Adams). Hamas has the popular support and election losers don’t fare well in the Arab World.
Abbas will turn eighty this week so it is in his best interests to sit and ride it out.

He will do just that while at the same time bashing the Israelis from the sidelines (why not? its an international sport after all). He seems to have extricated himself from all pressure and in a world with a distorted moral calculus, it his most optimum approach. Sitting pretty makes sense and if that includes making no promises with respect to Netanyahu’s demands then so be it. Unlike Israeli leaders he faces less global scrutiny, has a sympathetic POTUS, European support and behind-the-scenes backing of some of the Arab elites (largely the Saudis) who are equally unenthused about Hamas taking power in the West Bank. Not a bad gig…where can one sign up?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Hunter Gatherer Period

Champions of the primitive often see the Hunter-Gatherer Period (HGP) in human history as some type of ideal. A Shangri-La where humanity lived in blissful co-existence with their environment, where resources were rarely strained and the fight for territory was at most ephemeral. More detailed studies of hunter-gatherer societies that exist on the periphery of the great civilizations reveal that this ideal does not agree with observed actualities but there are nevertheless many positives that are associated with this lifestyle.

Simplicity, an egalitarian social-ethos, kinship in smaller bands and a focus on the fundamental of human existence are a few that spring to mind. In a world where persist as the optimum for a substantial span of time. The longevity of the HGP (by some accounts 1.8 million years if you go back to Homo Erectus - but in terms of Homo sapiens sapiens 70,000 years or so) are testament to this reality.

The term HGP is somewhat of a misnomer as many humans survived during this time period by scavenging and foraging. Nor were the hunting methods as clean as mythology would have one believe. In fact persistence hunting, involving long distance running may have been somewhat of a norm and the basic foundations of wild forest gardening may have provided the transition into the agricultural revolution that would supersede the HGP.

However what bought this period to an end in the west seems to have been a combination of overexploitation, unsustainable killing as well as the encroaching footprint of the Agricultural communities that started their expansion about 12,000 BCE.

Will it return? Perhaps only in a post-apocalyptic scenario. However it did provide the leg up for the agricultural revolution to follow and seems for all intent of purpose to be a necessary stage in the collective evolution of the neophyte western civilization.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Would love to see a Mission to Mars....soon

Buzz Aldrin urges a flight to Mars. I think its about time. Its 2015 after all.

50 Great Milestones in the History of Science prior to 1850

In chronological order (more-or-less)

1. Science of Agriculture (Irrigation, Plant and Animal Domestication).
2. Greek's develop the concept of the Atom.
3. Euclidean Geometry and the Mathematics of Conics.
4. Aristotle formalize logic.
5. Greeks conceptualize the concepts of change and motion.
6. Birth of Diagnostic Medicine - Hippocrates
7. Determination of the circumference of the Earth, distance to the moon and the distance to the sun.
8. Law of the Lever
9. Archimedes and the concept of buoyancy
10. Arabs expand work on Optics.
11. Madgeburg Experiment - Concept of the vacuum.
12. Copernicus and the Heliocentric revolution
13. Brahe and the changing heavens
14. Invention of the Telescope (First Refracting then Reflecting)
15. Galileo and the Birth of the Experimental Method - Inertia + Free Fall + Simple Harmonic Motion + Projectile Motion
16. Mineral Science develops under Agricola.
17. Vesalius and Modern Anatomy/Physiology
18. Kepler's Three Laws
19. Newton's Law of Universal Gravitiation
20. Newton and the Dispersion of White Light
21. Paracelsus and the Field of Toxicology
22. Newtonian Synthesis of Terrestrial and Cosmological Science
23. Newton's Three Laws of Motion - concepts of Impulse, Momentum, Action + Force.
24. Invention of the Calculus (Differential/Integral)
25. Invention of the Microscope
26. Birth of Cartesian Geometry. Synthesis of Trigonometry and Algebra.
27. Pascal's work on Pressure.
28. Mathematics of Probability
29. Fermat's Principle
30. Vector Algenra (and Calculus)
31. Foucault's Pendulum (Rotation of the Earth)
32. Comet Periodicity
33. William Harvey and the Circulatory System
34. Linneaus and the Taxonomic Classification system
35. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and oxygen as the driver for combustion (extension on the work of Priestly).
36. Huygens Wave Theory
37. Cell Theory
38. Mathematics of Differential Equations (Laplace, Euler etc)
39. Benjamin Franklin's work on distinct charge
40. Dalton and the Early Periodic Table
41. Bernoulli and Fluid Mechanics
42. Buffon and advances in Natural Science
43. Hutton - Modern Geology and Gradualism
44. Cuvier and Catastrophism
45. Jenner and the rise of Immunization Theory
46. Volta and the first electric battery
47. Charles Coulomb and the Electrostatic Force.
48. Sadi Carnot and the Ideal Heat Engine
49. Oersted discovers magnetic fields around current carrying conductors
50. Weather Patterns - Coriolis Effect.

The Israeli Election

The Israeli election still looks too close to call but the polls seem to be favouring the Zionist Union (basically an alliance between the Labour Party and the old Kadima crowd). Needless to say the dominant party will need to cobble together a coalition in to govern (nothing new in Israeli politics). Likud will have the backing of The Jewish Home (led by Naftali Bennett – a rising star and possible future PM), Kulanu and Yisrael Beiteinu. The Zionist Union have the support of the uber leftists at Meretz and will probably have to rely on Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and the Joint Arab List (a largely anti-Zionist group) to form a coalition. As always the scandal plagued Shas party is in the mix as well. I don’t envy Israeli president Reuven Rivlin who will play a key role in deciding which group gets first dibs at the formation of a coalition should it come down to the wire. The economy (especially housing) appears to be a key driver and although Netanyahu has a stronger record on national security than his mainstream opponents he has yet to make this count. This is a tragedy.

Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni strike me as lightweights (Livni was part of the disastrous Olmert administration) but they are running a strong campaign that seems to be getting the necessary push from the outside world (including the meddler-in-chief). If they do take over the reins of government it is the hope of all of those who value Israel’s security that they continue with the necessary vigilance in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat. We will wait and see. Anxious times ahead.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Big question

A better question than asking if you are a monotheist, atheist, deist, polytheist, pantheist agnostic or any other combination of the above (indeed if that is at all possible) is one’s answer to the following:

Why does non-human initiated suffering occur (ie. Deaths by natural disaster, most disease etc)? (Human initiated suffering is more easily explained by the free will argument which sets up a whole avenue of debate that is not the intention of this thread).

The following is a list of the common answers given

a. They just do. Humans are nothing special. Change occurs and humans suffer as a consequence. Mother nature is a bitch at times.
b. God wants to teach us a lesson that will help us grow as a people
c. God is angry with us for our evil.
d. The answer will be revealed in time. God knows why. Those who suffer will be rewarded later if they are good.
e. God knows the full picture. We don’t. What we see is suffering may not actually be suffering
f. God wants to help but God is not all-powerful. There are forces beyond his control.
g. The Aliens are toying with us.
h. We are paying the price for errors in past lives.
i. We suffer now but will be rewarded in the future
j. I have no clue. Lets move on and deal with it.
k. God is evil. He indeed may be a demon.
l. Suffering makes us understand God more.
m. We really don’t mean that much to God….in all honesty he doesn’t care one way or the other.
n. God designed the universe but sits back now and certainly doesn’t micromanage.
o. The group of angels that God entrusted the micromanagement to are on strike.
p. Different Gods are battling with each other. This is the consequence of the fight.
q. Its all part of a giant conspiracy controlled by the Illuminati and their shape shifting extra-terrestrial bosses.
r. Random fluctuations of a butterflies wings….Chaos man.
s. God is being held hostage by Satan.
t. God is testing our faith.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ten Misconceptions people have about Evolution

1. Evolution is a Theory.
Correction – It’s a fact in that it does occur. Nevertheless the exact impact of the various factors that are behind it are up for theoretical debate.

2. Evolution has a direction
Correction – Direction implies a goal. There is no goal to evolution, nor is there any purpose it is merely a consequence of a variety of interacting factors.

3. Charles Darwin came up with the idea of Evolution.
Correction – No, he didn’t. The idea has origins in Ancient Greece and has persisted throughout western scientific history (although not with the mainstream support that creationist ideas had). Various scientists have tried to explain what its principle ‘cause’ was (including Darwin’s famous grandfather Erasmus Darwin) however it was ‘Chucky’ himself who came up with the idea of natural selection as the chief phenomenon that drives the process.

4. Natural Selection is the only driver behind evolution
Correction- Natural Selection is a powerful force but it is not the only mechanism. Genetic Drift can be important too.

5. Charles Darwin wrote the definitive all encompassing work on the evolutionary mechanism.

Correction – Darwin’s work on the Galapagos Islands (during his voyage on the HMS Beagle) were critical to the formulation of his ideas on Natural Selection but his work was far from complete. He had no understanding of the Mendelian Genetics (let alone DNA) and in a sense produced more of a macro approach to the science than anything else.

6. Darwin was a the only scientist at the time thinking along these lines re: natural selection

Correction – Much overlooked in the history of this fascinating topic is the work of Alfred Russel Wallace who had reached similar conclusions to Wallace. Darwin published before Wallace (although Wallace had notified Darwin beforehand of the conclusions that he had reached). Wallace was the product of a working class environment and in a time when class distinction was all important in British society Darwin’s ties to the establishment may have given him the edge in this regard.

7. Evolution causes organisms to improve over time.

Correction – This again implies direction. Evolutionary change favours organisms that are better adapted to the environment at the time. However if the environment had to change these better adapted organisms may find themselves on the short end of the stick and out competed by their peers who they currently dominate. In summary it is the environment that is the key.

8. Evolution explains the origin of life.

Correction – Actually it doesn’t. Science has several useful ideas how this may have happened (it also may not be a one time event), almost all of it biochemical, but the issue is far from being meaningfully resolved.

9. Darwin removed the necessity to believe in a God as a creator.

Correction – This is the classic Richard Dawkins argument that has some merit in a world of strict materialism but it still fails to answer the origin of life question mentioned in 8. In addition it is indeed possible that there may be subtle forces at play that drive evolutionary change that our material based science cannot elucidate. If God is indeed all powerful, then God can act with pure subtlety, bypassing our best efforts to notice such action. Remember our science is limited and has constraints defined by sensory and rational limits.

10. Certain features are most certainly intelligently designed.

Correction: Intelligent Design constructs (eg. clotting mechanisms, Flagella in bacteria, the eye) are an illusion driven by an innate human need to see purpose and meaning within pattern. Structures proposed by ID proponents may exhibit facets of design but these can be explained adequately by natural selections without the need to bring in a designer. Besides some designs thought to be intelligent fall short of the description…most notably the blind spot in the retina, our pharynx (which increases choking risks) and the narrowness of the female birth canal.

TV Series of Note

I don't watch much TV ...maybe three hours a week all honesty I prefer reading, writing, pissing on dogma (and leftists in the process) and annoying Dina. However I have managed largely through efficient selection to watch a couple of great shows over the last eight years or so. My Top Nine list would read (don't have enough for a top ten list):

1. The Walking Dead
2. Breaking Bad
3. Big Bang Theory
4. House
5. The Strain
6. House of Cards
7. Orange is the New Black
8. Boston Public (binged watched this)
9. Weeds (First four seasons then it seriously jumped the killer whale...forget about the shark)

I am working on the Americans and Under the Dome so I will let you know how those turn out. Since my watching extravaganza includes zombies, meth production, physics geeks, vampires, corrupt Democrats, women's prisons, dysfunctional high schools and dope dealing housewives, I am starting to wonder what this says about me. Now its true that some of these apparently disparate themes are not as unrelated as one would think at first glance. In fact all eight of them converge at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration but that can't be the answer. I bathe too often to be part of the Occupy crowd and there is that small issue of an ideological difference that spans a chasm bigger than the hole in Willie Nelson's bank balance. Suffice it to say I am without an answer at present so I will place it comfortably in the warmer oven and head off to participate in something even less knowable - deciphering my daughter's fashion preferences.

On Anti-Vaccine Hysteria

One reality that more often that not screams stupid is when the radical left and right come together on an issue that almost every reasonable voice on the center rejects. Typical examples include the negation of Israel’s right to exist, all too frequent 911 conspiracy theories, and the support of such charming personalities as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The latest cause célèbres to come to the fore is the dangerous anti-vaccine hysteria that seems to have crept into the thinking of those who navigate under the illusion of a purple sky.

While leftist anti-vaxxers normally case their argument in the context of nature battling artificial toxins (with a touch of corporate greed mixed in) those on the right of sanity are driven by the need to equate vaccines with some giant government conspiracy. Both viewpoints are dangerous and go against the single greatest weapon that we have against the slide into the sewer of wretched superstition – scientific evidence. Vaccines work and their development together with antiseptics, antibiotics and germ theory itself represent our most potent artillery in the fight against pathogenic diseases.

The demise of smallpox, polio, diptheria, neonatal tetanus, whooping cough and measles can all be credited to vaccines. The smallpox vaccine alone is estimated to have saved the lives of five million people annually.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

My Economic rant for the day.........

Pragmatism is indeed an American tradition/philosophy and many a president has deferred to such a policy in their tenure. FDR was no exception. However when one digs past the ‘myth’ that encapsulates the 32nd president it is evident that there are many fault lines that run through his presidency. I won’t get into his abuse of democracy in loading the Supreme Court with judges favourable to his political stance, or his anaemic response to the Holocaust, nor will I address the way he was consistently manipulated by Stalin in a series of dealings that set the stage for the Cold War. He did however have the foresight to realize that the US was the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ and endeavoured despite much local opposition (many of whom argued along pragmatic lines) in assisting the UK and later the USSR (via the Atlantic Charter, Cash and Carry, Lend Lease etc) in their war efforts. This in spite of a popular (and arguably utilitarian) belief that such intervention was not necessarily in the best interests of the nation.

However there is much debate surrounding the efficacy of the New Deal, an initiative driven by an early form of Keynesian deficit spending, in turning around the economy. To begin with many people believe erroneously that FDR’s predecessor Herbert Hoover was a do-nothing President who steadfastly argued that the economy would turn around on its own. This is not the case. Hoover intervened significantly – he raised the top tax bracket from 25% to 63% (an increase that Obama can only dream about) and upped corporate tax. Like FDR (with the TVA program) Hoover championed big construction projects (most noteworthy the Dam that bears his name today). He greatly increased federal building programs and through his support of the Federal Farm Board provided the foundation for the Agricultural Adjustment Act (a cornerstone of the New Deal). These attempts at fiscal activism did not help, neither did the protectionist Smoot-Tawley Tariff that was designed to safeguard local US industry.

Hoover was an interventionist at heart and the record shows clearly that he clashed with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who favoured a hands-off-approach during the ten years in which he held this post.
What Roosevelt did was extend the policies of Hoover in an attempt to increase consumption. The economy did improve (but then the base was so low to begin with) but unemployment rates continued in the double digits until 1942 when the war effort was in full swing. US GDP rates finally matched their 1929 levels but this did not occur until 1937 and then subsequently dipped again when the US went into a secondary recession (at the time when the New Deal was in full swing). Also private consumption remained low (Wasn’t this the point of the New Deal?).

In researching FDR’s economic initiatives it appears as though many of the policies were cosmetic and made more sense politically than economically. The nation had to be assured that government was working for them and that’s what Roosevelt did. However the Depression dragged on for a considerable amount of time and the New Deal (following on from Hoover’s proto-‘New Deal’) seems to have delayed the natural recovery that is evident with all economic cycles (and that Obama and co. disingenuously take credit for in today’s context)

In the early 1920s, 1960s and 1980s significant economic downturns were cut short by tax reduction policy (+ managed spending). This however was not the policy followed by either Messrs Hoover or Roosevelt.

Political situation in Yemen

The Houthi Shi'ites are fighting against their Sunni adversaries but there is one thing they both agree on...each side hates the US and Israel. Like Syria there is no faction worth supporting here. File this under Jack the Ripper meets Ted Bundy.

On the Federal US Debt - Some Comments

Indeed I am a critic of Obama (no surprise there) but I am not a fan of George Bush either. The Iraq war was a bad idea (strategically as well as economically) and did play a huge role in pumping up the debt (lets not forget though that this was a war supported by many Democrats as well so no party is clean on this front – 58% of Democrat Senators voted for the war including Joe Biden himself).

Tax Cuts work to generate revenue if they are coupled with a decrease in spending (Bush did not do this). Lets look at some evidence – In the 1920s tax rates were slashed from over 70% to less than 25%. Revenues actually rose from $700 million + change to just over $1100 million – an increase of 60% or so. Kennedy did something similar in the 60’s reducing the top rate from 90% to 70% - revenues climbed by 62% (33% if you adjust for inflation).

By the 1970s many taxpayers had been pushed into higher tax brackets (by bracket creep). Enter the Reagan tax cuts of the early 80s that saw tax revenue increase by a whopping 99%. Now I no what you are thinking…Wasn’t Reagan responsible for the bulging deficit to begin with? To some extent…yes…but remember that Reagan did not follow the cardinal rule of reducing spending at the same time as dropping tax rates. The same was true of Bush Jr. almost twenty years later. However the world of the 80s was a different place and Reagan had the menace of the Cold War to deal with. A topic for another time.

So where does this leave Obama? – Well he obviously had faith in the tax cuts, in fact he signed a bill to extend them by two years in 2010. Where Obama went wrong though was just like the Republicans he increased spending, largely through his stimulus package and other initiatives – remember he also had a war to fight in Afghanistan (and later Libya) – and so the debt went up.

In summary there is strong evidence that tax cuts increase tax revenue but it has to be coupled with substantial decrease in spending to offset deficit risk. Both Bush and Obama kept tax rates low (to their credit) but both presided over notable increases in government spending that nullified these gains and have driven up the spiralling debt.

In terms of absolute numbers the debt has increased more under Obama than Bush but both have failed to demonstrate the necessary fiscal acumen that the holder of the Oval Office justifiably owes future generations.