Class Warfare Blog

May 30, 2017

If the Universe Is So Vast, Where Is Everybody?

Filed under: Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:29 am
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The question in the title is a variant of “Are we alone?” Are there other sentient life forms in our galaxy? Enquiring minds want to know.

This post is prompted by a review of a new book (ALIENS: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, edited and with an introduction by Jim Al-Khalili).  I have not read the book and do not intend to. The reason? The discussion is premature.

One of the powers of human minds is to imagine (possibly the greatest of human powers) but it has a gigantic flaw: garbage in, garbage out. If our imagination has little to no data to work on we come up with quite fallacious outcomes. This is how we got demons and gods and unicorns and leprechauns.

So, what evidence do we have regarding the universe? We have optical and EMR evidence for the existence of billion upon billions of stars in our galaxy and billions upon billions of galaxies in our universe. But realize we have not known this for long. One hundred years ago, we knew that the Milky Way was a manifestation of other stars in our “neighborhood” but we though that that represented the totality our universe, too. We had observed fuzzy spots in those star fields but hadn’t acquired the evidence to recognize them as other galaxies. And while we had speculated that many of those stars would have planets about them, we had no direct evidence that was so until quite recently. The first actual planet circling another star was identified in … wait for it … 1992. So, we have been aware that there are other planets “out there” for all of 25 years. We have subsequently identified hundreds of others.

Do we have any evidence that life exists on those planets? No, but we do not have any evidence that life does not exist either. At this point, we are not yet ready to make those discoveries (although we are close).

The question in the title implies that since there are so many stars, there must also be unbelievably large numbers of planets, and if life is not an isolated accident, or divine bit of magic, occurring here and only here, then where are those other peoples? There is a mistake embedded in this question though, leading to flights of imagination fueled only by fairy dust. The universe is indeed vast, but the primary constituent of our universe is empty space, aka nothing. The next closest star to us is about four light years away from us. To go there to get direct evidence of what exists there, we would have to travel for four years at the speed of light. Since the fastest speed ever achieved by a man-made object is about 25 miles per second, and the speed of light is about 186,000 miles per second, at that speed (as an average), a trip to Alpha Centauri would take a bit under 35,000 years. If we could get their magically and then sent data back to Earth, it would take four years to get here and when it arrived the information would be four years old.

The universe is unimaginably vast, but this is also misleading because it is also vast in time. A civilization could have arisen around Alpha Centauri, to the point that it was capable of building spacecraft capable of very high speeds who could have made the trip in under 20 years, let’s say. But if this occurred 100,000 years ago, there wouldn’t have been anyone here to notice. (That doesn’t stop the imagination, of course, … Ancient Aliens!)

The universe is vast in time as well as space. In order to generate a signal that we could interpret as synthetic instead of natural, that civilization would have to exist within a small radius in space and time. If it is over 100 years out of phase with us now, we wouldn’t have a chance of detecting it. So, 100 years in time is our bubble. How many years has the universe been around? That number is 14,000,000,000 years, roughly. Our “time” as a species capable of detecting another sentient species in our vicinity is therefore about 0.0000025% of the time that has occurred to now. Considering that our spatial bubble is roughly 100 light years wide and the universe is roughly 28,000,000,000 light years wide, we have in out neighborhood, 0.0000012% of the universe’s space. Consequently, we have a combined fraction of the universe’s space and time of  3 x 10–14%. In other words, 99.99999 … 9999% of the universe is outside of our purview, either existing in the past or so far away as to be unattainable.

Something you need to know. Those extra-solar planet hunters … when they “find” evidence of yet another such planet, if that planet is, say, 540 light years away, when the light gets to us it is showing us what was going on 540 years ago. Even if there were a planet with a civilization what could produce radio waves or some such we could detect, that information is 540 years old. What is to say what will happen to us in the next 540 years? Right now our prospects of existing that long do not look good. At the rate we are shitting in our own food bowl, we might not have much of a civilization to be found by aliens.

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May 24, 2017

A Picture is Worth …

Filed under: Culture,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 10:53 am
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Which of these men is happy to be there and which is not? Which stands off to the side so as to not be too closely associated with the others? Which of the women looks happy to be there?

Joy, oh joy, is only felt by the vacuous one.

May 22, 2017

Terrorism: A Battle Between Good and Evil?

Filed under: History,Morality,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 1:13 pm
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Recently President Trump characterized the terrorism surrounding the disputes between the West and Muslim countries this way: “This is a battle between good and evil.” I guess I should confess that I do not believe there are such things as good and evil, other than as amorphous words we use to vaguely describe how we feel about events.

And terrorism is not such a battle, terrorism is a tool used by the weak against the strong, just like guerrilla warfare. In the American Revolutionary War, we Americans used Guerrilla warfare because we were weak and England was strong. You use the tools you have.

Terrorism is not something used by the strong. Strong entities use overwhelming force (Shock and awe, baby! Shock and awe.) and even brutality to impress their will. This is not an option for weaker countries or weaker groups. So, they use terrorism and guerrilla warfare to intimidate and dissuade. The Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War was a clear indication of the threat that no one could be safe anywhere in the country, a brilliant tactic by a weaker country against a more powerful one. “You have B-52 bombers, Agent Orange, and Vulcan cannons; we have soldiers with a rifle and a few rounds of ammunition and you will never be safe.”

So, is terrorism a “battle between good and evil”?

No.

Actually, anyone who uses that phrase, “a battle between good and evil,” is being manipulatory and disingenuous. They are trying to lay the mantle of “good” on their shoulders and the mantle of “evil” on the other guy’s. They are inviting simplistic thinking in the extreme. Me good, you bad; that kind of thinking.

When you hear that phrase, hold on to your wallet and back away; the person uttering it is not to be trusted.

Our Cultural Heritage: Witches

Filed under: Culture — Steve Ruis @ 8:34 am
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I see witches in the conversation stream … not actual witches, but discussions of said. There are cultures in existence that still “believe” in witches. (Isn’t belief wonderful! Imagine a life with no boundaries!) It is clear to me, though, that the idea of a “witch” is clearly a male invention.

My logic is simple: women are weak, weak of body and weak of mind, consequently any woman exerting power (real or imagined) must be doing it with supernatural (aka unnatural) help. And since “God is good” and wouldn’t really do anything to harm a man(!), that supernatural help must be in the form of help from evil spirits … ergo, witches.

How do you recognize a witch? No, it is not a pointed hat or green face as school children think. Look for sources of power, like beauty or a royal title or high political office or even just a “wife” who seem to dominate her poor husband.

All you have to do to understand this is think like a man … ? WTF?

High School Graduation Rates Going Up? Maybe . . .

Filed under: Education — Steve Ruis @ 7:49 am
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The Brookings Institution published a piece on high school graduation rates. According to that piece, studies show high school graduation rates had been higher in the 1970s, for example, but from 1990 to 2007 they had been “stable” in the 71%–75% range, but since then have crept up to 82%. Their point was that the statistics, while being soft, were also unexplained; we don’t know why they declined and we don’t know why they have increased lately.

I don’t know either, but I’d be willing to bet a dollar that the cause is that high school students aren’t leaving high school because they got a good job as much as they used to. The years 2007-2008 were pivotal. That is when the Great Recession began. Since then young people have witnessed the impact of the shitty job market and the wage suppression efforts of the plutocrats’ effects on their parents. The economic uncertainty of those parents trickled down to their children, no matter how hard they tried to shield them from it. So, the pressure to “stay in school” was higher and the opportunities to take a “good job” in lieu of graduating were many fewer. Both could increase the high school graduation rate.

Congratulations economy destroying capitalists!

I graduated high school in 1964 and at that time, not everyone went to college. You didn’t even consider it unless you had B average grades. Many of my classmates went off into the world of work right away. It was “normal.” Now, it seems that the only path forward recommended to high school students is college. Trade apprentice programs, the military, technical schools, all of the alternatives available when I was young seem to be no longer in favor. Granted, community colleges offer certificates in cosmetology and welding and auto mechanics, filling the “trade school” gap somewhat, but children are actively discouraged from going into trades for the most part.

So, apparently my generation has effed up the economy of this country sufficiently that while we were unable to use the “scared straight” approach to stop drug use, we apparently have done a good job of scaring youths straight to high school graduation.

May 20, 2017

An Argument for a Minimum Wage

There have been myriad studies about the impact of having a minimum wage. Some indicate that there is no particularly strong linkage between creating a higher wage for low wage workers and some indicate that a rise in the min wage causes unemployment.

The politicians arguing against a min wage use a very simplified argument: namely that if employers have to pay their workers more, they will only be able to hire so many workers, mostly fewer. This is way too simple in thinking this. For one, if people are paid more money, they then spend more money (what goes around, comes around) which is good for business. There are many more facets to this issue.

If labor costs go up, and they have myriad times due to labor contracts, etc. how, oh how, do companies cope? (Yes, I am being sarcastic.) The amount of money that goes to labor in any company is not a fixed amount or even a fixed percentage of the company’s budget. There are many, many ways that those increased labor costs can be offset. For one, you can raise prices for the goods created. You could decrease profits. You could find other ways to reduce operating costs (reduce energy costs by going solar, etc.).

Knee jerk responses to these actions abound, of course. “If we raise prices, we will reduce sales!” Really? Companies never raise prices, then? C’mon, get real. Just raising prices alone, of course, is the lazy way to deal with increased labor costs; a combination of actions would be better.

Most of these minimum wage discussions are shallow and politically motivated. Basically, the opponents of min wage increases give minimal arguments and only add to them if we don’t accept (aka we reject vehemently) their overly simplistic argument.

Let me explain a real reason for min wage increases. Minimum wage increases are justified for the simple reason is that business interests (aka the plutocrats) have conspired to suppress wages for a long, long time. This involves bribing politicians to undermine union powers and privileges, delaying minimum wage increases, changing the laws in favor of employers over employees, etc. They have been particularly effective over the past 40 years (see the chart below as to the effectiveness of wage suppression over the past 40 years). The only power source of ordinary people to oppose these powerful business interests is government. The cabal wants wages low (too low) and so government must set a floor on wages. It is not simple but at least that is the political dynamic.

If you want to see this playing out right now, consider the current stance of the GOP. The GOP has been the champion of local rights for a long time. Education, for example, should not be a federal issue, but should reside in the states, with the states deferring to local communities and their school boards. So, what has been the GOP response to cities who have enacted their own min wage increases? GOP dominated states are passing laws to roll back those democratically achieved minimum wage increases and to bar such local increases in the future. Local control doesn’t mean a fig when the GOP’s paymasters issue directives (You will keep wages down, or else).

May 18, 2017

GOP Gives Lie to Their “Small Government” Goal

The GOP has clamored for smaller government, mostly at the federal level, for many decades. “Big Government” was a term said only as a slur. In particular, the GOP has advocated that the federal Department of Education should be dispensed with as education was the responsibility of the states. (I do not argue with that point.)

But, well, times have changed. In particular, the GOP is in power and positioned to do almost anything they want to do. So what do we get? According to a press release from the American Association of School Administrators:
“Alexandria, Va. – May 17, 2017 – Legislation pending in Congress would create new opportunities for corporations and successful investors to earn huge profits by transferring public funding to private schools, according to a report released today by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
“The legislation—the Educational Opportunities Act—would put two new federal voucher tax shelters within reach for many more Americans and lead to an explosion in funding for private schools. It would also keep in place an existing federal loophole that permits savvy taxpayers to benefit from ‘double dipping’ practices, where they receive a federal deduction and state tax credit on the same donation to a private school entity. At present, high-income taxpayers in nine of the 17 states offering voucher tax credits can turn a profit using this technique.

So, apparently, federal meddling in the state’s business of educating the next generations is now okay now, because … money.

May 17, 2017

Trapped Between Two Ideals

Filed under: Religion — Steve Ruis @ 11:03 am
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The religions I see around me all talk of people as if they are scum. We are all sinners. We are unworthy. We are saved by God’s grace, not by becoming a good person, or achieving a stage of enlightenment. Speaking for myself I have never sinned. I have no reason to seek salvation as I am not condemned, except by the ignorant or those seeking political advantage over me.

There seems to be little middle ground in this discussion. On one side we have statements such as:
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”
Prince Hamlet (via a Mr. W. Shakespeare)

And on the other we have:
“I am, after all, only human”
Everyone

Admittedly, Prince Hamlet’s outburst is stated with no little irony, but there are oodles of comments of how humans are “the peak achievement of evolution,” “made in God’s image,” etc., etc. Likewise the “what can you expect from me?” comments abound also.

Interestingly, religions encourage both of these extreme viewpoints.

Both viewpoints, I hope you believe, are deeply flawed, playing upon common emotions and observations. We are amazed at the things infants can do; we sometimes amaze ourselves. We see professional athletes and scientists and artists do things that are so far beyond our abilities that we must believe that we have some sort of divine spark in them and therefore, us.

We also see incredibly stupid things done by humans having temporarily, we hope temporarily, been bereft of their senses. There seems to be a cottage industry on cable TV providing video clips of these astoundingly stupid things, for us to marvel and laugh at, and despair of.

But the vast majority of people I meet are just people, people who have skills and flaws, and are mostly just trying to get through life with some grace. When a religion comes around addressing us as we really are and encouraging “the better angels of our nature,” I will consider it.

 

 

 

May 15, 2017

Economists Fail and Fail and Fail …

I could envision a role for economists in modern society except they continue to be willfully blind. They are blind because they have their heads so far up their asses.

Follow me now. Before the Great Depression, economists were only interested in small economic exchanges. But the misery of the Great Depression created the impetus to look at the economies of entire countries, even regions. Macroeconomics was born. (The goal was to prevent depressions, even recessions from ever occurring again.)

Like the “old” economics, microeconomics, certain simplifying assumptions had to be made and like the old economics, the simplifying assumptions lead to completely false conclusions. In microeconomics we ended up with the philosophy that markets were self-correcting and created an optimal economic situation. This dogma is, in truth, a piece of wishful thinking on the part of these academics. They wanted something that seemed directed at keeping the fairy systems they created balanced and whole. This belief that markets are benign and create a natural equilibrium inside of a larger economy still exists today as a political goal of those profiting from that mistaken assumption.

Macroeconomics, not to be out done, also had to make some “simplifying assumptions,” in its quest to understand how to prevent events like large recessions and depressions. In order to make things “doable” they decided to include the role banks play in our national economy but leave out finance. For reasons strange to a casual observer to understand, they also decided to leave out private debt. So, what has been the role of finance in the last 40-50 years in the U.S.? It has been to “financialize” the economy to the point that Wall Street doesn’t serve businesses in the manner you learned in school (by providing capital for businesses to modernize, expand, etc.) but now businesses exist to serve Wall Street. The money generated through finance has created a class of oligarchs who have captured the mechanisms of government and are now running it for their own benefit. They went on to shift governmental burdens off of businesses and onto private citizens, so that private debt has ballooned mightily, leaving citizens with little to buy anything with after ordinary expenses and debt service.

And what do economists have to say? “Move along, nothing to see here,” like all good Stormtroopers. One has to wonder whether the rich of a hundred years ago, having taken such a financial beating in the Great Depression, didn’t guide the creation of modern economic theory as a way for them to get back to the top and stay there. And this time, they are serious about hanging on, no matter what it does to you, me, or the country as a whole.

We Don’ Need No Protection Cause Racism Ain’t No More

According to The Nation magazine:

“On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, ruling that states with the longest histories of voting discrimination no longer had to approve their voting changes with the federal government. A month after that decision, North Carolina – where 40 counties were previously subject to that requirement – passed the country’s most sweeping voting restrictions.

“The state required strict voter ID to cast a ballot, cut a week of early voting and eliminated same-day voter registration, out of precinct voting and pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds. On July 29, 2016, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit invalidated these restrictions, which it said targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision” in violation of the Voting Rights Act and 14th Amendment.”

If I remember rightly, the Supreme Court argued that singling out those states for “special treatment” under the Voting Rights Act (basically requiring any changes to voting laws to be screened for approval by the Justice Department) wasn’t needed any more because, well those states had reformed and were no longer what they were. Besides there’s racism everywhere.

So, here we are just under four years later addressing racist voting regulations which “targeted African Americans ‘with almost surgical precision’ in violation of the Voting Rights Act and 14th Amendment”  in one of those very states. I am sure glad their ain’ no racists no more in No’th Carolina.

Three cheers for the Supreme Court … uh, no?

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