Sunday, January 31, 2016

Rag-Heads, Camel Jockeys & Modern Science

The perception of Arabs and other Middle Easterners in the West has hardly ever engendered a strong, positive view in the nations of the modern Western world. Arabs have often been accorded second class status even within the ranks of Middle Easterners, labeled as rootless, ignorant and isolated nomads on the edges of some of the earliest and most powerful organized societies in early history. Long before the birth of Christianity, even the rise of the Roman Empire, and most certainly even longer before the establishment of Islam, the areas around modern Iran and Iraq gave rise to some of the most sophisticated and organized civilizations the world had even seen.
Beyond our visions of ancient Egypt and Carthage, these early civilizations, in Assyria, Babylon, Mesopotamia, etc., etc. had cities with massive buildings, aqueducts transporting water across these urban areas. Science, mathematics, art and the establishment of a written language flourished. This is the ancient region that centered on the great rivers, the Tigress and Euphrates, and expanded from there. It was where the powerful Persian Empire took root. Cyrus the Great ruled and expanded the Empire from 559 to 530 B.C. after defeating unpopular regional monarchs.
Cyrus is a politician as well as a conqueror. He presents himself as liberator of Babylon, releasing the people from the yoke of an unpopular king, and he is received as such. He makes a point of respecting the Babylonian religion. He allows the Jews to return from their Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem, and encourages the rebuilding of their Temple.”
From 522 to 546, Persia’s Darius I moved his conquests into Macedonia and Northern India. The system of government divided the nation in to satraps, provinces each with their own governors and a local governance structure tailored to individual regional needs and practices. These were ultra-modern people for the time, when the Western world was ruled by barbaric tribes and scattered villages. Rome found little in the way of resistance (until their fall in 476 A.D.) from these primitive Westerners as they marched northwards.
But the levels of achievement of these ancient peoples are staggering given the world in which they lived. One most recent analysis of clay tablets from an era between 350 and 50 B.C. explains just how advanced these ancient societies really were. 1400 years before Westerns tackled the same issues, these ancient Babylonians created a mathematical system that could be used to track the motion of heavenly bodies. Mathieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University in Berlin, is an astrophysicist who became an expert in the history of ancient science who deciphered these writings. Recently, looking at these clay tablets, Ossendrijver realized what they said.
“The astronomers of Babylonia, scratching tiny marks in soft clay, used surprisingly sophisticated geometry to calculate the orbit of what they called the White Star — the planet Jupiter…  Officially named BM 40054 by the [British Museum in London], and dubbed Text A by Ossendrijver, the little tablet had markings that served as a kind of abbreviation of a longer calculation that looked familiar to him. By comparing Text A to the four previously mysterious tablets, he was able to decode what was going on: This was all about Jupiter. The five tablets computed the predictable motion of Jupiter relative to the other planets and the distant stars.” Washington Post, January 28th.
Indeed, triumphs in medicine, geography and mathematics emanated in the Middle East from these ancient societies. Maps were increasingly accurate. Anatomy was codified. Math? Ever try adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing using Roman Numerals? Yeah, it just doesn’t work. Mathematicians in the second century B.C. in ancient Persia began exploring new ways to use numbers. It was complicated. When the concept of “zero” emanated from somewhere in Northern India circa 500 A.D., scholars began the move to a modern decimal system using what we today call “Arabic Numerals.” “Between the years 825 and 830, Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi and Arab mathematician Al-Kindi each wrote separate books on the principles of using Arabic numerals.” These scholars quickly found new values for these constructs as noted below.
The ancient Arabs were also famous for keeping and cataloging books from all over the world, with scholars pouring over those writings to understand history and literature. The famed Library of Alexandria (Egypt) was one such repository, but its knowledge threatened ancient leaders such that by 270 A.D. (picture Julius Caesar with a match), it was burned to the ground. But the notion of Arabic scholars preserving ancient texts, including our Greco-Roman philosophical and literary writings that barbarians were burning in the name of Christ during the Middle Ages, is a gift which would have been lost had the Westerners been in charge.
Even after the Muslim conquests in the seventh century, science, medicine, geography and mathematics progressed rapidly. Remember your algebra classes in high school. Seemed really complicated at the time. But who moved mathematics into this new, higher plane of analysis? First, even the word “algebra” is an Arabic word (from Al-Jabr). The system of balancing equations we call algebra “comes from the treatise written in 830 AD/CE by the medieval Persian mathematician, Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, entitled, in Arabic Kitāb al-muḫtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa-l-muqābala, which can be translated as The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing. The treatise provided for the systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations.” Wikipedia. It wasn’t until the 16thcentury that the West really began embracing this new mathematical system with any vigor.
We could call-up Steve Jobs’ Syrian ethnicity as further evidence of this pattern of mathematical achievement, but the reality is that we forget or simply do not even know of this significant set of seminal achievements. So as the Western world looks down on these darker-skinned peoples from the very cradle of civilization, the birthplace of Christianity itself, we need to know that the essence of our entire modern technological world could not exist without the contributions of these “rag-heads and camel jockeys,” and that in fact our entire understanding of ancient literature and philosophy is based on the books they preserved.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I think that a lack “respect” for cultures seemingly so different from our own often blinds us to the achievements that have allowed our own triumphs to have happened.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

An “Ad Hominem” Campaign

The dictionary defines “ad hominem” as “appealing to one’s prejudices, emotions, or special interests rather than to one’s intellect or reason”; “an attack against the person, challenging an opponent’s character rather than responding to the relevant argument or issues.” In a court of law, impeaching an opponent’s credibility is allowed to evaluate a witness’s testimony, but an ad hominem attack is a very different assault, often directed at opposing counsel and occasionally raw emotional assertions again witnesses in an effort to distract the trier of fact (judge or jury) from the facts and issues on trial. The path to impeaching a witness is a clearly set-out procedural approach whereas ad hominem attacks are simply disallowed. In political matters, the ad hominem attacks have become increasingly routine over time.
“The ad hominem argument is not a new phenomenon in American political discourse. A pamphlet was circulated telling of Andrew Jackson's ‘youthful indiscretions.’ Newspapers attacked Abraham Lincoln's policies using the words, ‘drunk,’ ‘too slow’ and ‘foolish.’ What is new is the greatly increased and much more visible use of negative campaign tactics, and the accepted relevance of the character issue. Personal matters that were once ‘off limits’ for media reporting are now probed into, using opposition research, and routinely used in attack ads.”
Andrew Jackson lost his first election to John Quincy Adams in 1924, winning the popular vote but not achieving enough electoral votes to avoid a decision by the House of Representatives. In 1928, Jackson tried running against Adams again, each side unleashing broadsides at each at each other. Most of these malignant assaults were in the form of flyers and statements other than from the candidates themselves (it was considered undignified for the candidates to make such statements directly).
“Both camps resorted to ad hominem attacks: Democrats continued to charge Adams with striking a 'corrupt bargain' with Henry Clay to steal the 1824 election from Jackson. Adams forces raked up charges of adultery against Jackson for having lived with [his future wife] Rachel [Donelson Robards] before her divorce was final, rank mudslinging that contributed to the sudden death of Mrs. Jackson just weeks after the election. They also charged Jackson with murder for having approved the execution of soldiers for minor offenses during the War of 1812.” Jackson won. “Swiftboating” allegations in the 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential contest notwithstanding, the 1928 presidential contest has long been considered the nastiest, most personally abusive ad hominem presidential campaign in American history. Until now.
Donald Trump, Washington outsider and incumbent dragon-slayer, probably surprised even himself that not only were his ad hominem attacks against fellow GOP candidates wildly successful, but even when fact-checking completely negated major factual statements, his poll numbers soared. He labeled Jeb Bush a “low energy” candidate, not remotely up to the job of president, lambasting his brother, George W., as pretty much responsible for failing to prevent the 9/11/01 World Trade Center attacks. Trump then attacked candidate Carly Fiorina based on her face. Trump leveled charges against Marco Rubio ranging from his Senatorial voting record to his youth and even his hair. He slammed fellow GOP debaters based on their excessive sweat, particularly Governor Chris Christie. Any time an opponent showed any vitality in a poll, Trump instantly followed up with an ad hominem assault.
I am quite surprised that Trump’s fellow candidates, each trying to out-conservative the other, have left his former nude model wife, Melania, alone, because Trump himself has hardly held back on rather personal sexual attacks on Bill Clinton – who at last count was not actually running for anything – as a slam on Hillary for staying with her purported Lothario husband. Hard to picture how the Evangelical community has ignored this facet of Mrs. Trump’s life and the seeming calm acceptance by the other Republican candidates. They’re probably too terrified to mount those attacks, given that Mr. Trump is the grand master of the responsive ad hominem vituperative. By the way, if you want to see a rather complete summary of Mr. Bill’s actual and alleged sexual dalliances, check out:
Unfortunately, Mr. Clinton’s sexual issues are actually his issues alone and have little or nothing to do with his candidate wife’s playing, as Trump as described it, the “woman card.” Yes, she is a woman, and there is no reason for her to ignore that reality. Mr. Trump’s sexist attack on Ms. Fiorina’s face kid of speaks for itself, and his conservative leanings clearly put him against issues like gay marriage, a woman’s choice regarding abortion, equal pay, which a majority of women find opposite of their stance on these issues.
Will Trump’s patterns of ad hominem attacks lead him to the GOP nomination, or will the Republican establishment find a way to contain his candidacy and push a less embarrassing candidate to the fore? Has he already set the new rules for the general election, a battle that seems to threaten a wide divergence from the issues into personal attacks? Why? Is it because the candidates actually might not know what to do to solve the serious problems of our time, so personal attacks are what’s left?
How do you clearly defeat ISIS? Even Congress refuses to vote on this issue. The candidates have been short on details, and even Hillary’s responses don’t generate any particular level of comfort. If the Affordable Care Act is repealed, what happens to all those folks currently covered under it? What replaces it? If the tax code is reformed, to either a flat tax or one with fewer rate levels, what replaces the billions and billions of dollars in a new shortfall under any of these proposals with a deficit that is slowly choking us to death? How does education get better and more affordable without more government funding? What happens to our crumbling infrastructure without remotely investing the two trillion dollars experts tell us we need?
Look at the weather reports from the past year. Republicans can’t deal with global warming without offending their Evangelical Base, and Democrats prefer a global partnership at a time when the United States is turning inwards. How we get more money into the pockets of Americans when we replace their work with outsourcing and automated machines? How do we stop the decline of the middle class and further enrichment of the one percenters (the ones who write the campaign funding checks)? Trump tells us he’ll build a wall and solve immigration problems accordingly, hiring smart people to do the rest where he has no expertise. This will fix the economy too, he maintains. No one has ever really explained the linkage with any credibility. And exactly why do we keep overfunding a military that hasn’t won a major military engagement since WWII, money desperately needed for so many domestic issues.
So maybe, we can expect an ad hominem campaign for 2016, because it’s too hard to tackle the issues themselves. We seem to lack the direction, capacity, unity and will to solve our issues. We even have trouble agreeing on root causes. Leadership seems to have taken second place to poll-watching and reactive campaigning. The new mantra: “I’ll do whatever the polls of scared and uncertain Americans tell me I should do.” No country has gotten better, stronger, achieved more and accelerated its growth or standing without clear leadership. Leading, unfortunately, means not just following.
I’m Peter Dekom, and exactly how do we solve the real problems we face when there is no consensus, where the factions are torn by uncompromising irreconcilable differences, and where our budgetary restraints have severely limited our options?

Friday, January 29, 2016

How Great Are Those Lakes Anyway?

Concentrated bodies of water tend to see temperature rises that are significantly more rapid than experienced by the oceans and seas. Shallower surfaces, including lakes and streams, absorb and retain solar-generated heat faster than deeper bodies, a fairly intuitive observation. Some of the results we see happening in oceans are actually happening faster in these smaller bodies of water… even in larger water formations such as the Great Lakes.
Here are some of the symptoms where global climate change has impacted this fresh water sources of water: “Streams and lakes may become unsuitable for cold-water fish but support species that thrive in warmer waters. Some warm-water species are already moving to waters at higher latitudes and altitudes…In a warming climate, a warmer upper layer in deep lakes slows down air exchange—a process that normally adds oxygen to the water. This, in turn, often creates large ‘dead zones’—areas depleted of oxygen and unable to support life. Persistent dead zones can produce toxic algal blooms, foul-smelling drinking water, and massive fish kills…
“Earlier snowmelt, rising amounts of precipitation that falls as rain rather than snow, and more severe and frequent flooding—all linked to global warming—may affect the reproduction of aquatic species. Some salmon populations have declined, for example, as more intense spring floods have washed away salmon eggs laid in stream beds…
“When stream flow peaks earlier in the spring owing to warmer temperatures, low stream flow begins earlier in the summer and lasts longer in the fall. These changes stress aquatic plants and animals that have adapted to specific low-flow conditions. The survival rates of fish such as salmon and trout are known to diminish when water levels in rivers and streams are dangerously low, for example. That's partly because bears can snag spawning salmon more easily in very shallow water, as the salmon struggle upstream.
“The more intense precipitation that accompanies a warming world makes river flooding more likely. This flooding—combined with sewer system overflows and other problems stemming from inadequate sanitation infrastructure—can lead to disease outbreaks from water-borne bacteria.” These changes are quite evident in our own Great Lakes.
But despite the inconvenience of flooding and the devastating impact on any number of critters and plant life that make (made?) the Great Lakes their home, there is an off-setting benefit according to others: “National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data show a beneficial increase in precipitation and soil moisture and a remarkable lack of drought during recent decades in the Great Lakes region and the Upper Midwest. During the first half of the twentieth century, when carbon dioxide emissions were minimal and global temperatures were cooler, precipitation was much less frequent and drought frequently afflicted the Upper Midwest. In contrast, NOAA records show, precipitation has been much more prevalent and drought conditions virtually nonexistent in the Upper Midwest during the past 50 years as the Earth continues its modest and beneficial recovery from the cold temperatures of the Little Ice Age.”, November 26, 2014.
Indeed, Russia, Canada, Greenland, Alaska and other northernmost regions may actually get richer over global warming. These lands have seen an opening in the Northwest Passage, deicing of vast plains making access to minerals, oil and gas easier and defrosting of tundra now (or soon) fit for farming. As ice that once contained frozen and trapped methane (over 23 times heavier than carbon dioxide) and reflected sunlight back off the earth’s surface, now melts and provides darker land and water that absorbs heat and that sunlight, releasing gobs of methane into the atmosphere, global warming accelerates. Good for these nations in part. Bad for just about everyone else.
We’ve learned a lot recently about our own Great Lakes, and since these are the most important bodies of fresh water in the United States, they merit special attention in these days of excessive flooding in parts of our nation and unending drought in others. “University of Minnesota Duluth Professor Jay Austin says the thick sheets of ice that blanketed Lake Superior for the past two winters did nothing to change the fact that Superior, like the other Great Lakes, is growing ever warmer.
“‘Lake Superior is one of the more rapidly warming lakes’ among the 235 lakes in the [recently released NASA-driven] study, Austin said. A two-degree temperature shift can mean the difference between an iced-over Superior or an ice-free lake, he said. ‘Relatively small changes can lead to large changes in systems that define our region. Duluth would be a fundamentally different place if Lake Superior never formed ice.’
“The study, which was funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, found that lakes have been warming by more than half a degree per decade. That might not sound like much, but when lakes warm up, toxic clouds of algae can bloom, fish habitats can be disrupted and invasive species currently held at bay by Superior’s inhospitable cold might be able to make themselves at home…
“The world’s lakes are warming faster than the oceans or the atmosphere, Austin said. Unlike air temperatures, which can fluctuate wildly from day to day or even hourly, lake temperatures are stable, making them ideal systems for measuring climate change. It takes a significant shift to change the temperature of a lake — much as it takes as much energy to heat a pot of water on the stove as it does to heat an entire room.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 17th.
This NASA study of 235 lakes (more than half the world’s fresh water supply) produces some additional observations that impact us all: “Algal blooms, which can ultimately rob water of oxygen, are projected to increase 20 percent in lakes over the next century as warming rates increase. Algal blooms that are toxic to fish and animals would increase by 5 percent. If these rates continue, emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide on 100-year time scales, will increase 4 percent over the next decade.
“‘Society depends on surface water for the vast majority of human uses,’ said [NASA report] co-author Stephanie Hampton, director of Washington State University's Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach in Pullman. ‘Not just for drinking water, but manufacturing, for energy production, for irrigation of our crops. Protein from freshwater fish is especially important in the developing world.’
“The temperature of water influences a host of its other properties critical to the health and viability of ecosystems. When temperature swings quickly and widely from the norm, life forms in a lake can change dramatically and even disappear.”, December 16th, which also presented the above graphic.
Bottom line: The world is going to face astounding changes at rates that we currently are unable to calculate with any certainty, all due to measurable climate change. The data we have generated speaks to some alterations we are unable to stop. We do not even know if we have passed the tipping-point-of-no-return on some of the biggest issues. Whole sections of the United States, coastal regions that face inevitable surges and flooding, have no real plans on what to do either to stem the tide or live with the geographical changes that threaten serious damage, including, for example, flooding the bottom 30% of the entire state of Florida. The only true thing is that we are not remotely doing enough, climate change deniers are a big part of the problem, and nature does not care if human beings become complete extinct. She’s been there before.
I’m Peter Dekom, and Nature is neither a voter nor a politician running for office, but she is quite prepared to deal with profligate humanity in the harshest terms imaginable.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Another Side of Polarization – The Worldwide Web

We live in an information-driven world, from strategic decision-making, financial transactions, news, life-saving connectivity to down-and-dirty influence-peddling, manipulation and marketing. There was a time when third world folks would slip pen-tops into their pockets (minus the bottom part that actually does the writing) to suggest that they were literate. Today, it’s a smart phone… a real one. So much connectivity is through mobile vs. fixed platform tech. But without actual literacy, without the money to pay for the instrument to connect to the Web, the benefits that can be derived from connecting to the Worldwide Web simply don’t exist.
To the extent that others in your society have that literacy plus access to the Web, via computers, laptops or smart phones, those “without” are pushed further behind, have even lower economic potential and face increasing isolation from the rest of the world. They are the subsistence farmers, the uneducated poor crawling though desperation in urban ghettos and too many eking out a living in a marginal existence on the edge of everybody else.
On January 13th, the World Bank issued a report challenging the assumption that technology has created such a ubiquitous and open access to the massive stash of information and data such that the Web has become the great equalizer among people who literally never had so much unrestricted access to so very much. For those who cannot read, however, the World Bank report has stressed that the world has left them even further behind. There are significant communities on earth which are living pretty much the same way they lived 200 years ago, even half a millennium ago. (January 14th) summarizes: “The report's authors pointed out that those already well-off and well-educated have taken advantage of the Internet to achieve great success, however those on the lower end of the economic and education spectrums have seen fewer benefits, if any. The bank notes that 20% of the world’s population is still illiterate, making the Internet almost entirely useless to them. In other countries, women are discouraged from going online. In specific regions of the world, mobile phone ownership is disproportionately low, meaning that fewer citizens have access to the Internet. In total, 60% of the world’s population still remain offline.
“And even in places where populations do have easy access to the Internet and booming technology sectors, the economic benefits remain skewered mostly toward people who were already well-off. In developed countries, the technology sector still only employs 3% to 5% of the workforce. In developing countries, it’s less than 1%. In short, though the Internet and technology sectors have made some people very, very rich—virtually overnight—it’s not creating as many jobs as need be.
“The countries that are best able to take advantage of the economic benefits of the Internet are those with the largest number of users: China, the United States, and India, the report said.
“‘Countries that are investing in both digital technology and its analog complements will reap significant dividends, while others are likely to fall behind’ the bank said in the report. ‘Technology without a strong foundation risks creating divergent economic fortunes, higher inequality, and an intrusive state.’”
So what can a government do? Simply sending Web access to remote regions, expanding the reach into areas where technology would not normally reach, is not enough according to the World Bank. “[The report] says that governments must ensure competition between companies remains strong, programs are launched so workers can gain new skills needed by the tech sector, and that government institutions themselves remain accountable. These three things, the report said ‘are the foundation of economic development.’” Not to mention expanding fundamental literacy!
I’m Peter Dekom, and in a world where technology creates wealth, those who are denied the education and training to use it lose even more than they have ever lost before.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

$$On a Wing and a Prayer$$

The price of jet fuel has plunged by more than half. You’d think that the cost of commercial flights would have dropped significantly as a result, since fuel represents roughly 30% of their operating costs. But instead, prices have barely budged, and we still face the new baggage charges, food-for-sale (except on really long international flights), less seat-room, shorter leg-room, few or no pillows or blankets and generally a less-satisfying travel experience. What’s going on?
We call it “consolidation,” mergers that limit consumer choices, particularly at smaller airports or less-traveled routes. With these mergers, there is very little price elasticity. All the arguments to our antitrust regulators, when these mergers were proposed, of “better consumer services” and creating “economies of scale” that would be “passed on to consumers” were bunk at the time the words were uttered before the regulators, fabrications that remain bunk today. The difference? The bunk is our new reality. And you can bet when oil prices rise again, the prices will soar to new heights.
So U.S. airlines keep the difference when they benefit from the price of oil but push consumer airline tickets to the limit anytime costs rise. That’s what you get when companies merge. The Republican-led deregulation efforts have created a very different reality here in the United States, where business is favored over people, as compared to the deeper regulatory oversight we see in the European Union, where people are favored over business.
Further, funds in the U.S. financial sectors wedged their way into the airline industry when fuel prices were pressing the carrier into difficult financial decisions and occasionally formal reorganization. So the decisions being made at the top of the airline industry today are, for the most part, being dictated by these new financial manager-shareholders who are cashing in from their restructuring. And given the dilution of ownership of the big carriers, it doesn’t take that much ownership to control the airlines’ policies.
The January 23rd Economist explains: “Unsurprisingly, then, the [United States’] four biggest airlines—Southwest, Delta, American and United—are coining it. On January 19th Delta kicked off the results season for the airlines, announcing record fourth-quarter profits and forecasting that first-quarter margins in 2016 would be twice as high as in 2015. Analysts also expect its rivals to report bumper earnings for the most recent quarter. In July the US Department of Justice launched an investigation into allegations of collusion over pricing and capacity between the big four (which they deny). But arguments abound on why air fares are so high in America—and what regulators should do to cut them.
“Some think the fact that America’s five biggest fund managers happen to be among the largest shareholders in each of the big four airlines discourages the carriers from competing vigorously. Together, for example, the five investors own around 17% of both American and Delta. In a paper published in April José Azar, an economist, and two co-authors looked at the data and concluded that this common ownership means ticket prices may be up to 11% higher than they would otherwise be. Mr Azar was the lead author of another study, published this month, which found similar effects from overlapping shareholders in American banks.
“In Europe the industry’s falling costs will translate into cheaper tickets (see article). Low-cost carriers such as easyJet and Ryanair compete fiercely with older airlines such as BA and Air France, and young upstarts such as Norwegian Air Shuttle and Wizz Air of Hungary are muscling into the market. The overlap among institutional shareholders in all these carriers is much smaller than in America. It is clear, to say the least, that the same economic forces are not present in North America as they are in Europe, says Jonathan Wober at CAPA, an aviation-research firm [Centre for Aviation]. Operating margins for North American carriers are likely to exceed 14% this year, around double those of airlines from Asia and Europe, reckons CAPA.”
In the United States, our business-friendly GOP majority hands-out-all-the-time-House-representatives-since-we-have-an-election-every-two-years Congress, responds to big business lobbies like puppets on a string. Just as big business rails against regulation, they ply the halls of Congress to make sure that the loopholes and “benefits only for the rich” statutory provisions remain and even expand. Consumers lose big time. Again and again and again.
“One reason for American carriers’ fat profits is a rule banning foreigners from owning more than 25% of voting shares in a domestic carrier in America. Besides preventing the likes of Ryanair and AirAsia from creating wholly-owned American subsidiaries, the rule starves domestic challenger airlines of foreign capital. Analysts say Virgin America would have attacked the domestic incumbents more vigorously if Virgin Group, a British firm that holds an 18.6% stake, were able to inject more capital. Even an increase in the limit to 49.9%, as in the European Union, might encourage more foreign carriers to enter America in joint ventures with locals.
“Perhaps a greater problem is that a shortage of take-off and landing slots at America’s busiest airports makes it hard for challengers to achieve a decent share of the market. At 40 of America’s 100 biggest hubs, a single carrier now operates more than half of the seat capacity. This pushes up prices. For instance, the merger of American and US Airways in 2013 increased American’s market share at Philadelphia’s airport to 77%, resulting in fares there rising from 4% below the national average in 2013 to 10% above it now.” The Economist. Competition appears to be the carriers’ biggest enemy, and they are totally committed to make sure true competition doesn’t happen anytime soon.
But I do have to be fair. Awash in embarrassing riches, there may be a little guilt-motivating to make at least a few minor concessions to consumers: “Many passengers had all but given up on the airline after a painful merger with Continental Airlines in 2010. United had managed to alienate customers ranging from frequent fliers… to ordinary vacationers, thanks to significant cuts in its loyalty program and new policies that seemingly demanded fees for everything. Not surprisingly, its customer service scores were among the lowest in the industry… But, in September, United’s new chief executive, Oscar Munoz, said enough was enough… ‘Let’s be honest,’ he declared in a videotaped message to customers. ‘The implementation of the United and Continental merger has been rocky for customers and employees. While it’s been improving recently, we still haven’t lived up to our promise or our potential.’
“The changes have been small, but they’ve added up. In November, the airline eliminated an unpopular $50 processing fee for tickets refunded to passengers after unplanned events such as jury duty, illness or death. In December, it announced that, starting this month, it would serve a choice of snacks to economy class passengers at no additional charge. It also plans to eliminate another charge this month: a $25 fee for ticket receipts.” Chris Elliot writing for Pulse, January 24th. But these moves are more the exception than the rule… and it really isn’t much more than an airline doing what it should have in the first place.
Contrary to the cries of the Republican right, we’re not creating new jobs (nor are we able to create more jobs in the airline industry); airport capacity isn’t allowing the airline industry to grow. Our relevant infrastructure – from viable airports to air traffic control – is limited, and we are not spending enough to upgrade and expand. What our Congress and their regulators are doing is helping that heavily polarizing richest of the rich to maintain their massive wealth holdings… at the expense of almost everybody else.
Even with a Democrat in the White House, regulators have to look over their shoulders at a GOP-controlled Congress that is pulling back funding to those regulators. The airline industry, and particularly the relevant fund managers, calling the shots. “The Department of Justice has started to wake up to this. In November it blocked the sale of 24 slots at Newark airport to United, already its biggest operator. But so far there have been few other signs that the authorities are ready to brave the wrath of the incumbents and take the sort of vigorous action that is needed to make American air travel a competitive market.” Economist. We elected them. They lied to us. And they are running on the same-old, same-old “our path will fix the economy” mantra… after years of controlling both houses of Congress.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the willingness of American voters to embrace clever but erroneous slogans and mythology over cold, hard facts never ceases to amaze me.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A New Missing Link

Science fiction has always been fascinated with the merger of a human being with power generated by some form of robotic assist system. Themes like those contained in the Six Million Dollar Man, Universal Soldier, Transformers, Iron Man the infamous Borg in Star Trek, etc., etc. have permeated film and television for decades. We have witnessed the admonishment from Stephen Hawkins, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates, to name a few, warning us of the dangers of artificial intelligence, perhaps militant robot a la Terminator, but it’s all the stuff of wild imaginations and writers seeking a lucrative audience, right?
Not if the Department of Defense has anything to say about it. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – yup, that scary agency (DARPA) with designs for the future, stuff you might really be uncomfortable knowing about – seems to get too many of its ideas from the movies. What would happen, for example, if we could plant a chip in a soldier’s brain that would allow direct communications and controls from brain to machine, and perhaps back again?
You see, DARPA “launched a new project [January 18th] to develop an interface that could be implanted in the human skull for ‘unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth’ — a phrase usually reserved for Verizon Fios salespeople — between human brains and computer interfaces.
“The new program, called Neural Engineering System Design [NESD], wants to harness the electrochemical communication between neurons so that it can be translated to digital signals to control computer programs — or, perhaps, robotics and prosthetics. According to the NESD program manager, the goal is to increase the modem-like bandwidth of current neural interfaces to open up the communication between a digital interface and millions of human neurons.
“DARPA claims that such a chip would be about the size of a few small coins stacked one on top of the other.” Tech.Mic, January 20th. Feeling a bit squirmy already. We have to assume that soldiers have to volunteer for such implants. We have to wonder what happens when the chips become obsolete, so they need another surgery or will there be a trap door to allow an easy replacement.
What happens in their non-military lives? Any privacy issues? And if a soldier commits a crime or goes rogue, who’s responsible? Do we get the same kinds of bioethics opinions that justified waterboarding and extreme discomfort for long periods of time? Or is this technology just a gentle move into the world of replacing limbs and other organs from injured soldiers and combat victims with prosthetics that can be integrated with normal brain function? All of the above? Who is authorized to draw the lines? And exactly what has happened and will happen under this program?
“DARPA has been working on multiple long-term projects to bring humans and machines closer together. Following President Barack Obama's 2013 BRAIN initiative, DARPA has kickstarted a series of programs that either try to increase connectivity between computers and the human brain or further understand how the brain works to increase our understanding of artificial intelligence.
“In August DARPA began using music — specifically jazz — to help teach computers how to have natural, improvisational and useful communications with humans. And in June, at the Biology Is Technology conference, DARPA program manager Doug Weber challenged third-party labs to develop scientific ways to control soldiers' adrenal response — adjusting their fear and anxiety in high-stress situations… but the primary goal of programs like NESD is to make soldiers more efficient, safe and deadly.”Tech.Mic. Real soldiers? Is this a move away from or the next generation of “drones”? Can the soldiers’ minds be control from an extrinsic force?
Such automated weapon systems were a hot topic at Davos. The buzz: don’t worry about Terminator-like robots; they’re not the big threat. “Autonomous weapons haven’t surfaced in the mainstream but loom on the horizon as the technology behind them is young, but rapidly advancing. Based on existing technology, the weapons could be able to independently find and kill enemies, so that a country doesn’t put its humans in harm’s way. The weapons may arrive in a variety of forms, including small drones or robot soldiers.
“‘Being attacked by an army of Terminators is a piece of cake when compared to being attacked by this kind of weapon,’ said Stuart Russell, a computer science professor at the University of California-Berkeley. ‘We’re [talking] about systems that weigh less than an ounce, that can fly faster than a person can run, can blow holes in their heads with one gram of shape-charge explosive, and can be launched in the millions.’” Washington Post, January 25th. I’m really not feeling good about all this!
I’m Peter Dekom, and I wonder exactly what could go wrong… go wrong… go wrong.