Ghost in the Shell Movie

I’ve had some trouble coming up with topics recently, but I’ve been brainstorming, so I think I’ll be able to get back to once a week posts here now. Today I’ve been thinking a lot about the Ghost in the Shell movie. It’s a movie based on an anime that is currently in production. I’ve been seeing a lot of people talking about how they are upset because a person of European descent, Scarlett Johansson, was cast in the main role of Motoko Kusanagi, aka “The Major”. The discussion has centered around Hollywood whitewashing, and I totally get why people are concerned about that. I think I understood it even before John Oliver did his bit on it. What I don’t understand is why this movie has become so many people’s line in the sand.

I love Ghost in the Shell, its one of my favorite movies/anime series/mangas. I get that people are worried the movie version isn’t going to be good. I am too, as the list of film credits attributed to the producers do not inspire a whole lot of confidence in me. However, ScarJo being cast in the main role just doesn’t bother me all that much, for a couple reasons. First off, because anime characters rarely (if ever) look Japanese. Japanese animators have been heavily influenced by Western animation. Betty Boop’s giant eyes are the reason most anime characters have giant eyes, for example. In the Ghost in the Shell Manga, the only remotely classically Japanese trait the main character has is dark brown/black hair. That changes in the movie and anime adaptations of it. The original movie gave her dark hair, the later series and movies gave her purple or even blue hair. This is typical of anime in general. The characters look like they are of European descent, and many have blond or other colored hair. They also tend to be missing other classically Japanese or Asian traits, such as epicanthic folds in the eyes. In fact, in Ghost in the Shell, Motoko’s partner is a giant blonde dude. So I really just do not understand why people are so upset that an Asian actress was not cast in the this role. Particularly in light of the second reason ScarJo’s casting doesn’t bother me.

The world of Ghost in the Shell is much more high tech than ours, many people have cybernetic body parts. Motoko’s partner has cybernetic eyes, and almost everyone in her unit has neural cybernetic enhancement, known as a “cyberbrain”. It goes a bit further in the case of Motoko though, and that is the second reason the casting doesn’t bother me. Because, you see, Motoko Kusanagi has a completely artificial body. I’m pretty sure someone with an artificial body can choose to look however they want. We don’t know the storyline of the movie as yet, and perhaps she needs to look like Scarlett Johansson for some reason. Or maybe the person who designs her body is a big ScarJo fan. Or hell, maybe she’s a big ScarJo fan. The point is, there is no particular reason why Motoko Kusanagi has to look Japanese. Making a huge deal out of the fact that the main character doesn’t “look Asian” seems a bit silly to me. Particularly at this stage in the movie’s production, when so little is known.

I understand that Hollywood whitewashing is a thing, and I understand the concern, but I just don’t think this particular movie is the best place to draw that line in the sand. Anime characters have never looked particularly Japanese, or even Asian as a whole group, and this particular anime character has no good reason to look Japanese, since she has a c0mpletely artificial body. It seems like a lot of the people either attacking or defending this casting choice are completely missing both of those rather important points. I’m wondering why, because it makes both sides look kind of ignorant. Or is this me being ignorant and missing something important?

Organic Farming

Well, it has been a couple weeks since my last post, sorry about that. I’ve been a bit busy, and I had a little hiccup with taking my anti-depressants, which hurt my motivation a bit. So here’s a topic sure to get people good and worked up to make up for that. 🙂

Recently I’ve been thinking about organic farming quite a bit. I’ve been doing so mostly in relation to the multiple current efforts to get GMO labeling laws passed. The consensus in the scientific community on the safety of genetically engineered crops, or “GMOs”, is very strong, roughly on the same level as the consensus on climate change. The conclusion that 90+% of scientists and virtually every major scientific organization has reached is that genetically engineered crops are safe. (Hereafter I will refer to them as GE crops, because that is the more accurate term, and easier to write out than “genetically engineered crops”.) There is no nutritional or toxicity difference between GE crops and non-GE crops. So the argument for GMO labeling has turned to the practices that are associated with GE farming. Monoculture of crops, the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, and the overall environmental impact of modern farming techniques. These are legitimate issues, but the problem is, they are not specific to GE crops. In fact, I would say that organic farming is actually worse for the environment than farming with GE crops.

To explain why, first I should point out that the following does not apply to all organic farms, some small local growers don’t use all the techniques I’m about to describe, but if someone is buying organic from Whole Foods, or any store that is served by a large organic producer, chances are very good that those foods are produced using large-scale industrial farming techniques. That is the reality of organic farming in the US, it is an industry, and in order to produce food on a large enough scale, they have to use the same techniques GE farmers use. There is a list from the USDA of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that organic farms are allowed to use and still be called “Certified Organic”. The difference is in the chemicals they use. Instead of synthetic chemicals, they use “natural” ones. This, unfortunately, is a false dichotomy. The pesticides and herbicides organic farmers use still have to be toxic, or they wouldn’t do their jobs. Just for an example of natural things that are extremely toxic, snake venom, poison arrow frog secretions, cyanide, and arsenic all occur naturally, and are all incredibly toxic. So natural doesn’t equal better. In some cases, the chemicals used by organic farmers are actually more toxic than the synthetic ones conventional farmers use. An example in particular would be rotenone. Until quite recently, rotenone was a very commonly used organic pesticide. It was used in the US until 2005, when it was taken off the list of approved pesticides because it was discovered to be a powerful neurotoxin, among other things. It works by shutting down your cells mitochondria, and can be fatal to humans. Its now used by the government to kill invasive fish species. Thankfully, the regulatory agencies still monitor the organic approved pesticides and herbicides, so that things like rotenone can be caught. It still goes to show the same false dichotomy I was talking about though, natural doesn’t mean better. The same false dichotomy is true for organic fertilizers, they still have to contain the nutrients that accelerate plant growth, nitrates and phosphates, and so agricultural runoff from organic farms still creates the algal blooms that are so damaging to aquatic life.

All that shows that organic farming is no better than conventional farming, it does not though, show that organic farming is worse for the environment than conventional farming. So, why is it worse? Well, all the things I just cited are bad for the environment, but they are not actually the biggest environmental problem we are facing most of the time. The biggest environmental problem facing most species is habitat loss. Humans radically change the environment of the areas we occupy, and farms are by far the worst at doing so. Every human requires a certain square footage of farm to feed them, something like 60 times the area of a city is required in farmland to feed all the people in that city. That is where organic farms lose out to conventional farms using GE crops. Organic farms are, at best, about 80% as efficient per acre as GE farms, some studies place that even lower, down to around 50%. To produce the same amount of food a farm using GE crops does, an organic farm requires at least 20% more land. That’s less available habitat, more area sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, more area spread with fertilizer. More area also means more agricultural runoff, and more carbon emissions in order to farm that larger area. Reducing the amount of pesticides, herbicides, etc used doesn’t help either, because that just reduces yields further, which means even more area has to be farmed to produce the same amount of food.

So, in conclusion, I think the false narrative that organic crops are somehow better than GE crops needs to end. Its a narrative put out by the organic farming industry in order to increase their market share. Organic foods are not better for you than GE foods, and are certainly not better for the environment than GE foods. Organic farming is, in fact, demonstrably worse for the environment. I’m not saying the people who eat organic, or advocate for organic foods are bad people, they are just misinformed and misled by a $26.7 billion a year industry with lobbyists and advertisers every bit as savvy and influential as the ones that the companies that sell GE crops use. Hell, they are pretty clearly more influential, since they seem to have managed to plant the idea that organic food is better in the minds of most Americans. Its just not true. Organic food is, overall, worse for everyone than GE food is.

About Last Night

Or, Why Bernie Sanders can’t win the Democratic primary.

To preface this, I actually had come to these conclusions awhile ago, but my Facebook feed is such a flood of Bernie supporters, it had me doubting my reasoning. So I was waiting for yesterday to see if I was correct in my thinking. What happened in the Democratic primary last night confirms what I’ve been thinking. Bernie Sanders is fighting three different long term trends, and I do not think he can overcome them to win the primary.

The first trend he is fighting is demographics. Hispanic and black voters make up about 30% of the electorate, but they make up about 70% of Democratic voters. The Republican party has so alienated minorities that for all practical purposes, every minority voter is a Democrat. Which makes them a majority in the Democratic party. For whatever reason, minority voters love Clinton. She is crushing Sanders in that demographic. Her worst performance was in Michigan, and she still got 65% of the black vote there. I have a couple ideas as to why, but I have no way to verify them, so I won’t go into them here. Its not really necessary for me to know why a certain demographic group likes Clinton to see that the trend exists.

Demographics alone do not explain Clinton’s success though. There are people who think that with many of the Southern states now done, the demographics will start to favor Bernie more, and will lead to more Bernie wins. I do not think this is the case. Clinton lost by a razor thin margin in Michigan, and then won Ohio by double digits. Ohio is even whiter than Michigan is. So why is Clinton able to stay very close or win in states where the demographics appear to favor Sanders?

The answer, I think, lies in economics and shifting population density. These are the second and third long term trends I was talking about. There seems to be a general idea in the US that we are a declining industrial power. Trump talks about how China and Mexico are taking our jobs, and “beating us”. Its just flat out not true. The US is still the world leader in industrial output. We have been the top for the last 60 years, ever since the end of WW2. Our industrial output is greater than the entire European Union, greater than Japan’s and almost double China’s. (Here for source: http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Industry/Manufacturing-output) What has shifted in the US is the proportion of people involved in the industrial sector, and more importantly, where that manufacturing is taking place. The traditional manufacturing centers in the Northeast and the Midwest are fading, as industry moves to the Southeast and Southwest. Concurrently, there is also a long term population density shift from the Northeast and Midwest to the Southeast and Southwest. They are not unconnected shifts. People follow the work, in large part, so as industry has moved south, so have people. What this has led to are exploding populations in the southern half of the country and stagnant or declining populations in the North. New York City’s population growth has been nearly flat since 1970, so has Chicago’s, and Detroit is actually shrinking. Meanwhile Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, San Diego and LA are among the fastest growing cities in the country. I think the reason why is pretty simple really. Air conditioning. In the 60s and 70s, air conditioning started to become widely available, and that allowed people to deal with the hot southern summers and not have to deal with the shitty northern winters. So industries and people started moving south.

How does this connect to Clinton winning primaries? Well, she represents the establishment, the status quo. Bernie represents radical change and upheaval. In places like the southern states, where there are more industrial jobs, decent paying jobs are easier to find, and populations are growing. In such conditions, Bernie’s message falls on deaf ears, because for them the status quo is working. In the north, like Michigan, where the economy has been devastated by the ongoing collapse of the car industry, people are a lot more receptive. However, its not universal, Ohio’s economy is actually doing pretty well, it has the strongest economy of the Great Lakes states, so for them Clinton is the more desirable choice. I can’t say I have it all figured out, but these three trends seem to explain what we’ve been seeing in the Democratic primary.

Those trends are why I don’t think Bernie can win. Clinton is winning big in the states that matter. A lot of the southern states have already had their primaries, but she has such a commanding lead at this point that even narrow losses in northern states are to her advantage, especially because those northern states tend to have fewer delegates than the southern ones, due to the population shift I mentioned. There are exceptions to that though, like New York, Pennsylvania, and the Pacific Northwest states. I’m not sure what the economy is like in Pennsylvania, but the economies of New York, Washington State, and Oregon are doing well. In addition, New York is technically Hillary’s home state. She was one of the senators from New York. I expect her to win big there. She’ll probably win more narrowly in the Pacific Northwest, but she’ll probably still win, because thanks to the tech industry, their economies are doing quite well. She’ll continue to crush Sanders in states like Arizona and Utah. I suspect she’ll have the nomination wrapped up by May, but if Sanders supporters are holding out hope for California, I wouldn’t. It has the combination of a rather high minority population, an overall expanding population, and one of the most dynamic and vibrant economies in the country. Clinton should win California by double digits if Sanders hasn’t conceded by that point.

I understand that Sander’s supporters don’t want to give up. I totally get it, I really do, I’m still holding out hope that Drumpf won’t win the Republican nomination. I don’t think that’s very likely though. I also don’t have a goddamn clue what’s going on in the Republican primary, so I can’t make any predictions about it like the Democratic primary. Cruz seems to do better in the Western states, and the more religious states, and who knows what Rubio dropping out will do. Drumpf probably wrapped up the nomination last night, but who really knows at this point? Anyway, point is, I understand where Sander’s supporters are coming from, but I think the Democratic race is over. Absent some massive economic disaster, Bernie just can’t get past the trends that are giving Clinton these dominant victories.

The United States as a Superpower

I’ve been thinking over conversations that I’ve had with people recently, and it seems to me that some, though not all, of them have a sort of fundamental assumption that the world is a worse off place for the US having become a superpower at the end of WW2. Further, they think that the US only deals in its own cynical self-interest at all times, and that any move it makes on the geopolitical stage, even when it seems benevolent, is purely for the gain of the US and the US alone. For example, there are people who claim the entire War in Afghanistan was just an excuse to grab mineral rights or oil rights, or something, so we could become richer. That the war has nothing at all to do with Al Qaeda or 9/11. This seems like nonsense to me, but I’m not going to debate the specific details. Instead, I’m going to talk about the underlying assumption. I would contend that not only is the world a better place for the US having become a superpower, but that the world we live in today is one of the best possible outcomes for the last 50 or 60 years of history.

To do that, I’m going to start back at WW2, before the US was a superpower. In that world, you had multiple competing powers. Britain, France, Germany, and Russia were the major powers of the day. Due to its vast Empire and mighty Navy, Britain was probably the strongest of those powers, though it didn’t enjoy anything like the dominance the US has today. Prior to the outbreak of war, the US was in a firm non-interventionist mood. We wanted no part of what was going on in Europe, and did our best to ignore it. This had led to a number policies that made the US essentially a non-factor on the world stage, and especially it curtailed our military spending. There are some, today, who want the US to go back into that sort of shell. As it was back then, with the multiplicity of threats to world peace that exist right now, such a mindset is probably not a good idea. But I digress. So, why did the US become involved in the war? Well, as anyone with even the slightest knowledge of history knows, the attack on Pearl Harbor is what finally galvanized the US to declare war. However, thanks to the rather hawkish foreign policy of FDR, the US had been steadily becoming more involved in the war before 1941, including things like the Lend-Lease Act, and starting a military buildup in a competition with Japan, as well as enacting policies designed to curtail Japan’s power. Those who cared, like Roosevelt, were also absolutely appalled at what Japan was doing in China. The oil embargo we levied against Japan, in response to the atrocities in China, is probably the most direct cause for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and our entry into the war. When war was actually declared though, we were still in a pretty sorry state to actually pursue it, especially with half our Pacific Fleet on the bottom of the ocean. This was actually something of a blessing in disguise though, as it allowed the US to build a new, entirely modern military in the course of the war. This massive military apparatus, combined with our status as really the only belligerent in the war to have an undamaged homeland, left us in a somewhat unique state at the end of the war. We, along with the Soviet Union, were one of the two most powerful countries on Earth. In addition, of course, we had developed nuclear weapons during the course of the war, and used them to end the war in the Pacific. Our status as the world’s only nuclear power, and the counterweight in power to the Soviet Union essentially forced us into the role of a superpower, whether we really wanted it or not.

I think most people (well the ones who read this blog anyway) know the history after that, first the Marshall Plan, where we rebuilt the countries we had just finished demolishing in order to provide a solid resistance to the encroaching totalitarian Communist rule from the Soviet Union. After that came the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which were proxy wars also against the spread of communism, and finally the Reagan and Bush years which saw the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union. There are, of course, legitimate criticisms of the way the US acted during the Cold War. However, I think many people mistakenly view the US as having acted solely out of cynical self interest. To those people, I ask this question, what do you think would have happened had Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union won the race to build the first nuclear bomb? To me, that is the crux of the matter. If the US was truly as cynically self-interested as some people think, there would have been no Marshall Plan, no bulwark built against Soviet aggression. We would have simply gone to the Soviets and demanded they disband their military and nuclear program, or we would carpet-bomb them with nuclear weapons. Then we would have actually done so if they showed the slightest bit of resistance. We would have instituted a global hegemony using  the power of our sole possession of nuclear weapons, and proceeded to sell other countries the means, at a profit, to begin to rebuild their countries. There is little doubt in my mind that if the Soviets or the Nazis had gotten nuclear weapons first, they would have done something much like that. We’d be living in either Der United Fascist States of Amerika, or the Glorious United People’s Republic of America. The reason the US didn’t do anything like that is because we are a country committed to the ideas of freedom, democracy, and self-determination. We are certainly not the only country with a commitment to such ideals, but we were the only country in a position to do something about it at the end of the Second World War. Had Britain been relatively undamaged, and retained her Empire, and gotten the bomb first, I’m pretty sure Britain would have done things in a similar way as the US. France never really had a chance to do so, but they are another country with similar enough ideals that they would have also done things in a similar way to the US.

Which leads me to my conclusions. The US is not perfect, and I’m hardly claiming it is, but if you look at the history from WW2 onwards, two things jump out at you. The first is deaths from war. A graph of deaths from war from the beginning of civilization to 1945 is a steady upward curve. After 1945, it falls off a cliff. The 60 years or so of history coinciding with the US being a superpower has had the lowest relative death rates from war, well, ever. The US being a superpower has coincided with a period of peace basically unknown in human history. Now, part of the reason for this is because of nuclear weapons. They have made it just too dangerous for the world’s major powers to go to war with each other anymore. I would also say though, that the presence of the US on the global stage, being a counter-weight to the Soviet Union, as well as after the dissolution of the USSR, where we have been working to calm trouble spots, defuse conflicts, and generally act as a sort of “world cop” has played a big role in that as well. We are living in a Pax Americana, in many ways.

The second thing that jumps out at you is the steady increase in the number of democracies in the world. I’m pretty sure people were screaming at their computers during that last section, raging at me for not mentioning the various wars we have been involved in. I would point out though, that the conflicts we have been involved in have in large part been in support of freedom, democracy, and self-determination, and against tyranny and oppression. Has that been the case all the time? No, as I said the US is not perfect, we have sometimes allied ourselves with or supported some rather vile people, simply because they were anti-Soviet. However, in such cases, I would argue that it was the choice of the lesser of two evils. The Soviet Union was a far greater threat to freedom, democracy, and self-determination worldwide than the little tinpot anti-communist dictators we supported during the Cold War. The policies we enacted during the Cold War and since the end of it have, in large part, resulted in the steadily increasing number of democracies we see in the world today. This is even true, to certain extent, with the second Iraq war. Yes, there were of course other motivations, like oil and claims of WMDs, and George W. Bush’s personal animus against Saddam, but really the US taking out a dictator and installing a democracy in his place is in line with many of the ideals Americans hold dear, and the sort of policies we have been enacting and following ever since the end of the Second World War. Is that a good enough justification for the Iraq War by itself? That’s for each person to decide I guess. For myself, I think the problem in Iraq was less the goals than the execution of them. Had I known going in how it would turn out, I would not have supported the Iraq War, but I still support many of the ideals behind war as laudable in and of themselves.

Which is why I say, given the conditions at the end of the Second World War, the US becoming a superpower was overall a good thing. We have made mistakes, and yes, sometimes acted out of self-interest, but I think our worldwide power coupled with our ideals and idealism have resulted in one of the best possible outcomes of the Second World War and following Cold War. This isn’t meant to be an argument for American Exceptionalism, I don’t think the US is really all that exceptional. Its more just me pointing out to people that maybe the US isn’t as bad as some think it is, and that maybe we really aren’t that global threat to world peace that some people think we are.

One additional thought, I also think the past 60 years of history tell us that we can’t really afford to stop being a superpower. We could pretty effectively defend ourselves just by building a fleet of nuclear missile-armed submarines and telling the rest of the world not to mess with us or else. However, in the power vacuum that would create, I think some people might step in who most certainly do not have the level of commitment the US does to freedom, democracy, and self-determination. Frankly, I think if the US stopped being a superpower, the rest of the world would go to hell in a hand-basket, and we’d swiftly be in a situation similar to the one that led to WW2. Only this time there would be states armed with nuclear weapons involved.

The Manned Space Program

I’ve been thinking about the state of the US manned space program recently. I’m generally a big fan of NASA, and always have been, I loved watching and reading about the missions to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto. I am less happy with the manned side of the program though. We went to the moon in the late 60s and early 70s, and have been tooling around in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) ever since. Don’t get me wrong, the ISS is a hell of an accomplishment. It is the largest thing humans have ever built in space. It makes Mir and Skylab look like tinkertoys. Its just not enough, in my opinion. Sending a robot to Mars is great, sending a person to Mars would inspire a whole new generation of kids to pursue a STEM career. I think there is something to be said for actually seeing a person do something, rather than a robot.

I have a few other reasons for supporting a manned, as opposed to robotic, space program as well. One is that a manned program is much more likely to produce spin-off technologies that will directly benefit humans, but spin-off technologies alone aren’t a really good reason to support a manned space program. You could probably pretty much achieve the same results with targeted research. There are two major reasons, to me, to both throw massive support behind getting into space, and specifically putting people into space. The first reason is, there is a a resource crunch coming. The developing world is catching up with the developed world a fairly rapid clip, and there just aren’t enough resources for everyone to live at the standard of living the developed world enjoys. The way I see it, there are really only 3 outcomes, the first of which is to see the standard of living in the developed world slowly decrease as the developing world’s increases, until they meet somewhere in the middle. Then the overall standard of living continues to slowly decline as resources continue to run out. The second is a massive population reduction, perhaps intentional, perhaps unintentional. The most likely scenario to me though is a large scale war over resources. Those two aren’t particularly palatable to me, or I suspect anyone, which brings me to the third outcome. We, as a species, start exploiting the resources of the rest of the solar system. We mine asteroids for organic compounds and metals, and comets for water and more organic compounds. It’s not an infinite supply of resources, but we can support a hell of a lot more people at a high standard of living by exploiting the rest of the solar system than we can with just Earth’s resources. That brings me to my last reason, why we need specifically to put humans in space. The reason is simple. We are vulnerable here on this rock we call Earth. We are changing Earth’s climate in not wholly predictable ways, and there is always the threat of someone being incredibly stupid and setting off a nuclear war. That’s not even counting the risk of being hit by a rock from space. The chance of that in any particular year is very low, but the chance it will happen at some point is 100%. So leaving Earth and colonizing the rest of the solar system is vital to our survival as a species. It is, in fact, the only way to guarantee our long term survival.

Those are my reasons for being such a big supporter of the space program and humans colonizing space, there is one other factor that I haven’t mentioned, and that is time-frame. I think the sooner we get on sending out manned missions to other planets and colonizing the solar system, the better. I would like to see a massive acceleration of NASA’s schedule for capturing an asteroid, and going back to the moon, and sending a person to Mars. A time-frame of getting back to the moon by 2020, and putting a person on Mars by 2025 is what I have in mind. You may be asking yourself, why do I think this? Well, its simple really. I think we are living in a relatively short period of time right now where it is possible for humans to move into space in a large scale way. One part of that is the aforementioned coming resource crunch. I don’t know for sure what that time window is, it could be 50 years, it could be 200, but there is only going to be so much time where the resources necessary to move into space are available here on Earth. The second factor is climate change, which as I mentioned is changing the planet. Our computer models have so far proven pretty good, but we just don’t know when we might hit some sort of tipping point, and move into a new climate regime. There is maybe a 20 to 30 year window where the effects of climate change are going to be minor enough that they aren’t disrupting economies too much. By 2050 or so though, we are looking a major coastal cities starting to drown, and unpredictable weather patterns starting to cause mass crop failures. At that point, people are going to be much to focused on surviving to worry about going into space.

All of which brings me to possible solutions to this. Now, a friend of mine mentioned using tax breaks and such to encourage private industry to contribute, and I’m certainly for that, but I think there are two fundamental flaws in using that alone to stimulate space exploration. The first is that it simply will not be quick enough. The longer we take now, the further behind the eight ball we will be when it really starts to matter. The second is that private companies are necessarily for profit, they just can’t afford to spend the large sums of non-returnable money governments can to jump-start the space program. However, there is a fundamental flaw with governments as well, that makes just having the government increase NASA’s budget a less than ideal solution. The problem with government is that space policy is never really stable, and space funding is both variable and not a priority. Bush started the Constellation program, and then Obama came into office and canceled it, so all the work on Constellation was lost, except for the Orion space capsule. Then Obama laid out his space policy, and it turned out to basically be a variation of Bush’s space policy. The Space Launch System he wants NASA to build is just a slightly modified and scaled down version of Constellation’s Ares V. So now we are building the same thing, but we’ve lost 5-10 years of development time, and the next president may end up canceling Obama’s policy. We should have started regular launches with the Ares I and the Orion to the ISS this year, and could have pulled off Obama’s proposed asteroid capture next year or the year following at latest. Instead of that, we are looking at the first astronauts to go to the ISS in an American-built vehicle, since the Shuttle anyway, launching sometime next year. They will do so in SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, because the first manned Orion launch won’t happen until 2023. So, long story short, I don’t think the government, or private industry, or even some amalgamation of both can be relied on to get into space in the time-frame I’m talking about.

However, I have a solution to this, which I think is pretty good. I think we should decouple NASA’s budget from the rest of the US budget. They don’t get any money from the government, and the government can’t take any money from them. The government still has oversight, and sets general goals, but it is up to NASA to figure out how to meet them. I can hear you asking though, if the government isn’t funding NASA, who will? Well, we will fund them. My idea is to have a special 1% “NASA tax” that specifically and only funds NASA. 1% is nothing for any one US citizen. That’s 10 bucks for every 1000 dollars you make. It would more than dectuple NASA’s budget though. NASA built the ISS on a budget of about 18 billion a year. Imagine with they could have done with a budget of 216 billion. An informal, totally non-representative Facebook poll shows most people being for this tax. Counting two people I asked in real life, there were 26 people in favor and 2 people against a NASA tax, though many did mention making sure the US government couldn’t steal money from NASA, like they pretty regularly do from the Social Security trust fund.

I can see some other issues as well that would have to be addressed for this to work though. It’s not a perfect idea. With such a large budget, we’d need some mechanism to keep administrative bloat and kickbacks and such to a minimum. Perhaps some sort of regulation that only a certain percentage can be spent on administrative positions. Additionally, perhaps we could institute a policy that certain time goals, like the aforementioned Moon by 2020 and Mars by 2025 time-frame, have to be met or face serious consequences, to improve efficiency. We could also make it absolutely clear that the NASA tax is all the budget they will get, so if kickbacks to their industry buddies result in project slowdowns and time goals not being met, too bad so sad, the people running the show are out on their ear, and someone new is appointed. This big budget is so they can accomplish a difficult task quickly, not so Boeing and Lockheed can get even richer off NASA contracts. As previously mentioned we’d also need some way to make absolutely sure the rest of the government couldn’t touch NASA’s budget. There needs to be an absolutely ironclad separation between the two. The US can’t touch the NASA budget, and NASA can’t touch the US budget. It needs some fine tuning, which I am still musing on, but I believe this is a far, far better way to do things than exists right now. Any improvement suggestions, or disagreements, are of course welcome.

The Fallibility of the Human Mind

Or: Why eyewitness testimony should no longer be allowed in a court of law.

This post grew out my musings on something called the “Berenst#in Bears Problem”, which is an extremely creepy phenomenon which I discovered not long ago. If you grew up in the 80s and 90s, you remember them, they were a series of children’s books, and later an animated TV show about a family of bears that taught kids life lessons. The issue is, many people seem to remember the name being spelled “Berenstein”, but they aren’t called that, and never were called that. They were the “Berenstain Bears”. This has thrown many people for a loop, and led some to conclude that they do remember correctly, and it is the universe that is actually wrong. That somehow the timeline changed, or we collectively got shunted into an alternate universe. This is a fascinating idea, but the far more likely explanation is that people just aren’t remembering it correctly, for whatever reason.

The reason this is the far more likely explanation is pretty simple. You see, the human mind is far from perfect, we make associations that don’t exist, see connecti0ns that aren’t there, and remember things that never happened. We also have trouble seeing connections that do exist, making associations that actually are there, and remembering things that actually did happen. Scientists in a number of fields have known this for a very long time.

Unfortunately, despite this, people still tend to believe other people’s stories over numbers and data. One can see this all the time with people selling weight loss stuff on TV, or with pseudoscientists touting some miracle cure. They rely on “success stories” to sway people. You even see it in religion, though its certainly not limited to that, where unscrupulous characters claim they can touch someone and heal whatever is wrong with them. They claim various reasons for this power, they may be in touch with God, or channeling the “energy of the universe”, or simply claim that they themselves are imbued with special powers. If religious, they are faith healers, if secular, they may be called reiki practitioners or energy healers. The methodology is the same, they claim they can heal you in some way, and present you with success stories to prove their claims. These success stories are far more influential than they should be, because what is really happening is something called “confirmation bias”. This is, in simple terms, is where a person believes something, and goes out to find evidence to support their belief, and ignores the evidence that contradicts their belief. Recently, I saw first hand this tendency to believe one’s own experience over scientific evidence. I posted an article that reported that scientists had pretty conclusively proven that the phenomenon of a “sugar rush” simply doesn’t exist. There have been a bunch of studies, and meta studies, and systematic reviews, and they’ve all found that there is no difference in behavior between consuming sugar and consuming a placebo. Many of the people that I’ve told about this, have immediately disagreed with me. Their disagreements stem either from what they’ve seen kids do or what they themselves have experienced. This is confirmation bias at work, we all collectively “know” the effect exists, so we look for things to support it, and ignore the things that contradict it.

The same sort of editing, deletion, and addition goes on with human memory. There are people who have extremely vivid memories of events that never happened. Maybe they dreamed it, maybe they constructed it out of what they think should have happened, and eventually the idealized or otherwise non-real version supplanted the real memory. The opposite also occurs, where memories of real events are deleted. There are various reasons, usually because of some sort of trauma, either emotional or physical. Human memory is extremely unreliable. (Side note: This is one of my issues with certain branches of psychology, certain sub-fields of anthropology, and especially sociology, they rely far too much on people self-reporting for data collection.) Despite this, and the really large amount of evidence for it that practically smacks us all in the face every day, people still tend to accept their memories and other people’s memories as completely valid.

Which leads me to my conclusion. Scientists have long known about the various cognitive biases that exist, and the fallibility of human memory, and it is has led them to classify all anecdotal evidence, no matter who it comes from, as inherently unreliable. An anecdotal story may be the genesis of a scientific investigation, but no anecdotal evidence will ever be accepted on its own, for well, anything. This is why scientists don’t think Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the chupacabra, or any other cryptozoological critters exist. The same holds true for stuff like the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, alien abductions, ghosts, or any other paranormal or supernatural events, entities, or things. Because the only evidence for them are people’s stories about them. The hard evidence for their existence is less than compelling, to say the least. Yet, eyewitness testimony is still valid in a court of law. It is often crucial evidence in a trial. Its crazy, but there was actually a court case in a civil court where the US government was found guilty of assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was all based on the testimony of one guy. Seems like a little skepticism might have gone a long way there. Incidents like that, as well as the volumes of data we have on the inherent unreliability of the human mind, are why I think eyewitness testimony should simply no longer be acceptable evidence in a court of law. It should go the way of the lie detector, and simply no longer be admissible.

Unfortunately, I do not think this will ever happen. I think that for a few reasons, the most important two being firstly, the fact that so many legal battles are cases of “he said, she said”, with very little, or even no, forensic or other forms of corroborating evidence. I highly doubt lawyers want to lose that much business. The second reason is, as I have mentioned, the tendency of humans to believe other humans. Eliminating eyewitness testimony would require a fundamental change of human nature, and I just don’t see that happening any time soon. The best I can hope for is that in criminal cases in a federal court, it may become less acceptable as evidence.

Cam Newton and the Media

So, here it is, the first post of my blog. I’m going to try to update once a week, but it may be more or less frequent, depending on whether I’m thinking any particularly deep thoughts on a given day.

The reason I started this blog is because I’ve been thinking about why the story about Cam Newton’s press conference after losing the Superbowl has such legs. This was going to be posted on Facebook originally, but it was much too long for a Facebook post, and I said I wish I had a blog that lots of people read, and some friends said, “Hey, why not start one?” So, here we are. Anyway, on to the main point of this post.

A lot has been made of the racial angle in the treatment of Cam by the media. I think this is part of the explanation, but I think most of it has to do with a confluence of other factors. The first is simply that the media drives the narrative, they have articles to write and broadcasts to air. You have to feed the beast. What Cam did with his behavior at the press conference was piss off the very people he could least afford to piss off. He didn’t give the quotes and soundbites the media needs for their stories, so the story became about him. He didn’t feed the beast, so the beast ate him.

The second factor in this story is the end of the football season. Football is, by far, the most popular sport in America. Even when football season is over, it still gets almost as much air time as other sports that are currently ongoing. So the people covering football need something to talk about. Usually that would be the NFL draft, National Signing Day, free agent signings, and who’s retiring or entering the football hall of fame. However, Cam’s story is far more interesting than any of those stories. In essence, Cam unintentionally picked the worst possible time to have a mini-meltdown in front of the media. With very little interesting coming along to push the story aside, and no new games on the horizon to talk about, Cam’s behavior is going to be talked about for quite awhile.

The last factor in all this, I think, is simply the cynical nature of sports media, and sports writers/broadcasters. I was recently reading a book by Chuck Klosterman, and in it he reveals a little known fact about sports reporters. If they are more than a few years into a career covering sports, they hate what they are covering. They become a cynical bunch of assholes. They stop fundamentally giving a crap about who or what they are writing or talking about, and really just want to get as many people to watch or read as they can. Because more viewers or more readers means more money for them. What gets people reading and watching? Controversy. So if they can talk about the racial angle, and promote the controversial side, they will get more people reading or watching.

That, my friends, is what has happened to Cam Newton. He’s a fundamentally decent guy, caught in the middle of perfect storm of media, timing, and a cultural conversation that far predates him.