The Long View 2007-01-09: Anti-Freeze Life; Ethical Racket; Charles Fort Lives; Towards Universal Health Care; Steyn on Russia

John Reilly had a minor sideline in Fortean phenomena, named after Charles Fort, strange and uncanny events sometimes described as being outside of what science can explain, but often better seen as low frequency events that are difficult to describe. In that vein, the recent juvenile humpback whale found in a mangrove swamp in Brazil is an excellent example. Not quite far enough from the water to be truly inexplicable, but strange nonetheless.

Small whale in Mangrove forest

Small whale in Mangrove forest

There is also a line in this post which I’ve thought about for a long time, and I think I finally understand what is going on.

If the California system is implemented, we can expect it to work better than the plans in the New England states, for the simple reason that California has a younger population. There are more workers to support the system. Still, I do not expect any of the state plans to be altogether satisfactory. As I have remarked before, health insurance may follow the pattern of bank-deposit insurance. That had been tried in a few states in the early 20th century, but the insurance systems kept collapsing because the the risk pools were not big enough. As an afterthought, Franklin Roosevelt included mandatory national deposit insurance among the bank reforms at the beginning of his administration. To everyone's surprise, the insurance restored popular confidence in the banks immediately.

John thought that the difficulty with universal healthcare systems in the United States was that the risk pool wasn’t big enough. That never seemed quite right to me, but it took a long time to figure out why. There are plenty of healthcare systems in the world that cover smaller and older populations than many US states. For example, in 2005, Sweden had just over 9 million resident. Massachusetts at the time had about 6.4 million. It is at least conceivable that the extra 2.5 million people would make the difference, until you look at the population pyramids.

Massachusetts population pyramid 2000  By No machine-readable author provided. WarX assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=973229

Massachusetts population pyramid 2000

By No machine-readable author provided. WarX assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=973229

Population Pyramid of Sweden 2016  By Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). - CIA World Factbook, 2017., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64345478

Population Pyramid of Sweden 2016

By Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). - CIA World Factbook, 2017., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64345478

Massachusetts is relatively younger, even though smaller. In theory, this should make your healthcare system, especially if seen in the insurance model, work better. However, universal healthcare didn’t work out as well in Massachusetts as it does in Sweden, because it cost more than expected. Pseudonymous blogger Random Critical Analysis provided me with the reason why: Americans spend much more on health care than Swedes because we are a lot richer, and people don’t understand this and keep being surprised.

John Reilly always insisted that healthcare wasn’t a right, but rather a matter of public order, but I think he was missing some critical quantitative details that would have really made his case better.


Anti-Freeze Life; Ethical Racket; Charles Fort Lives; Towards Universal Health Care; Steyn on Russia


We can probably bet against this ingenious speculation:

Two NASA space probes that visited Mars 30 years ago may have stumbled upon alien microbes on the Red Planet and inadvertently killed them, a scientist theorizes in a paper released Sunday....Dirk Schulze-Makuch...a geology professor at Washington State University. ...In the '70s, the Viking mission found no signs of life. But it was looking for Earth-like life, in which salt water is the internal liquid of living cells. Given the cold dry conditions of Mars, that life could have evolved on Mars with the key internal fluid consisting of a mix of water and hydrogen peroxide, said Dirk Schulze-Makuch, author of the new research.

Perhaps the paper addresses this issue, but there are many places on Earth where an anti-freeze biochemistry would be very useful, yet we do not find it here. That strongly suggests it is not possible.

* * *

When I see this kind of story (from the LA Times, in this case), I think "racket:"

Dark cloud over good works of Gates Foundation:

Ebocha, Nigeria — Justice Eta, 14 months old, held out his tiny thumb.

An ink spot certified that he had been immunized against polio and measles, thanks to a vaccination drive supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

But polio is not the only threat Justice faces. Almost since birth, he has had respiratory trouble. His neighbors call it "the cough." People blame fumes and soot spewing from flames that tower 300 feet into the air over a nearby oil plant. It is owned by the Italian petroleum giant Eni, whose investors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Could someone be gingering up a law suit against the foundation, or are we dealing here with honest idiocy?

* * *

Fortean phenomena should stay off the frontpages, but we have had a flurry of prominent ones in the past few days. Yesterday we had the Manhattan gas incident that interrupted some underground train service and caused buildings to be evacuated, plus the bird die-off that closed much of Houston. That brazen (as in "bold," not "made of bronze") UFO actually visited O'Hare in November, but we heard about only last week. The odds are that all these things, including the UFO, probably were caused by weather conditions that really are unique in our not-very-extensive records.

Regarding the gas smell, I could hear the fire department vehicles looking for the source here in Jersey City, but I could not smell it: I'm getting over a cold.

On the other hand, National Public Radio saw fit to advise its listeners of this development:

Poems, songs, and stories praising Saddam and lamenting his death are popping up all over Arab Internet sites. A few mosques in Baghdad announced that an image of his face could be seen on the moon, and people spilled into the streets this week for a glimpse of their former leader in the night skies.

It's much too early in the year for Silly Season stories.

* * *

In the realm of sober public policy, we see that Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed a state health-care system that would add California to Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont as states that require universal coverage. The plan looks plausible, but I note that almost half the funding would come from new federal money to which the state believes it would be entitled under existing federal rules. I am not pleased that at least some of the funding would also come from new payroll taxes, but that could be a wash in terms of the business climate, since a state with universal coverage is going to be a more attractive place to work. The great red herring in the debate over the Schwarzenegger Plan is going to be its coverage of illegals. The objections to that rather miss the point of the exercise: this is a matter of public order, not social generosity.

If the California system is implemented, we can expect it to work better than the plans in the New England states, for the simple reason that California has a younger population. There are more workers to support the system. Still, I do not expect any of the state plans to be altogether satisfactory. As I have remarked before, health insurance may follow the pattern of bank-deposit insurance. That had been tried in a few states in the early 20th century, but the insurance systems kept collapsing because the the risk pools were not big enough. As an afterthought, Franklin Roosevelt included mandatory national deposit insurance among the bank reforms at the beginning of his administration. To everyone's surprise, the insurance restored popular confidence in the banks immediately.

* * *

Even the House of the Seven Gables demographics of New England looks perky compared to that of Russia, as Mark Steyn recently noted:

The Toronto Star (which is Canada’s biggest-selling newspaper and impeccably liberal) recently noted that by 2015 Muslims will make up a majority of Russia’s army...

The Litvinenko murder is only the first of many stories in which Islam, nuclear materials and Russian decline will intersect in novel ways.

Which brings me, alas, to the Iraq Study Group. This silly shallow report, of which James Baker, Lee Hamilton and the rest should be ashamed, betrays no understanding of how fast events are moving. It falls back on the usual multilateral mood music....By 2050, Russia will be the umpteenth Muslim nuclear power, but the first with a permanent seat on the UNSC. Or maybe the second, if France gets there first....forget the extrapolations: already, domestic Muslim constituencies are an important factor in the foreign policy thinking of three out of the big five. Are Baker and Hamilton even aware of that?

I suspect that France will be the first European country to pull out of the deathspiral. The question is how much discontinuity there will be with mid-20th century liberal modernity. In Russia the problem is more serious, but Russia has fewer inhibitions to overcome in order to solve them.

Now that was a scary sentence.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2002-12-12: Anomalous Phenomena

The world we live in is a strange place. Truth is stranger than fiction, and now we have the Internet and camera phones to document it. It is trivially easy to find as many uncanny things as you wish lurking in the Web. Most of these things are fabrications designed to attract clicks, and most of the rest are exaggerations or misunderstandings or misinterpretations, but there remains some small fraction of unusual things that have actually happened, but no one really has any understanding of them, or any useful way to synthesize the scattered occurrences into knowledge.

John Reilly sometimes commented upon these Fortean phenomena. However, what I find really interesting about the strange and uncanny is how very normal it all really is. People have always told stories, spread rumors, and seen things that they don't understand. This is part of the human condition, and it reflects the mysterious character of the world we find ourselves in. I would probably find the simulated universe people more convincing if the world made more sense. The very extraordinariness of the world is what makes it seem ordinary to us. There is a way in which everything is right with the world while fish still fall from the sky.

Anomalous Phenomena
 
You can always find a good reason to head for the bunkers. Consider, for instance, the US declaration earlier this week that it would respond to the use of a weapon of mass destruction with anything up to and including nuclear weapons. Couple that with a report that appeared just this morning, to the effect that al-Qaeda recently acquired nerve gas in Iraq. The latter report is based on sources as anonymous as they are unsubstantiated, but the gist is the possibility that the gas could be released in a major subway system when the war begins in Iraq.
This all sounds pretty bad, but we have seen comparably alarming headlines in the recent past that came to nothing. In order to help calm the public, here are some items that treat of less lethal prodigies.
 
* * *
English may be growing a new mood. That, at any rate, is the speculative construction I would like to put on some recent observations by Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. In an article in the New York Times (December 8: "Cablespeak: I Seeing the News Today, Oh Boy!"), he points out that the news stations are increasingly favoring tenseless constructions, like "The Navy using the island for 60 years but ceasing its tests soon." These forms are not really contractions; they certainly are not headlines. In fact, they are generally as long or longer than standard speech. What we are dealing with, he suggests, is the breakdown of the the "news day" as a frame of reference. Newspapers report events that happened before their date of publication, or announce events scheduled to happen after it. On the 24-hour news networks, however, there is no before or after. There is just the period of the news-anchor's attention.
Perhaps the language is developing a refinement that removes the possibility of confusing the historical present with the habitual present. As Nunberg notes, though, it's not a tense. I would suggest calling it the "extensional mood," as in "extensional logic." That is the logic which deals with specific instances, and not with qualities or open-ended classes. In the matter of orthography, it is reasonably clear we have not seen "Classical English" yet. Maybe the same is true of grammar.
On the other hand, the better course might be to just hang a few cable-news copyeditors and save ourselves some trouble.
 
* * *
The Turing Test has become a major business issue. I am sure we are all familiar with this one. The great mathematician, Alan Turing, said that any computer whose responses could not be distinguished from those of a human being would have to be considered to be thinking. This has led to contests to create the most human-like computer program. The Web is full of chatterbots, which can chat like human beings for those who suspend their disbelief and don't ask awkward questions. The problem is that more limited programs are being used by evil marketers to sign up for email accounts and join discussion groups, the better to spread spam.
Once it became commercially necessary to tell human beings from cheap imitations, some stop-gap solutions were found. You have probably already encountered some version of CAPTCHA program. (The name is an acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart.".) The most familiar CAPTCHAs use visual distortion of text or images. People can see through the distortion right away, but it's a problem for computers. However, such problems are difficult rather than insoluable. The CAPTCHAs get better, but so do the programs to defeat them.
And suppose the programmers devised a pattern that a program could recognize, but that human beings could not? No: that way madness lies.
 
-----
Perhaps there is a simple legal solution to the problem of spam, one that avoids the unacceptable pitfalls of simply outlawing the transmission of large numbers of email messages. The worst kind of email is sent by, or for, people who want to make a contract of some sort with the recipient. A minor change to the Uniform Commercial Code could make such contracts unenforceable, at least if they are consummated over the Internet. It would just be a question of demanding hardcopy for sales and subscriptions.
 
* * *
Finally, we come to the kind of story that makes it worthwhile to read a daily newspaper. I quote in part from a story distributed by the Agence France-Presse:
 
ATHENS, Dec. 11 A shower of tiny fish rained down on Korona, a village in the mountains of northern Greece, Greek television reported today, attributing the incident to a mini-tornado.
Fishfalls are the classic Fortean phenomenon. Such events are named after Charles Fort, the one-time editor of a newspaper morgue who published a number of delightful books strongly suggesting that Things Are Not as They Seem. There is a wonderful continuity in these stories. Year after year, the same strange lights appear in the sky, the same metallic artifacts are found in Jurassic rock, the same improbable animals just miss being caught and stuffed (evidence for the Jersey Devil is better than you think, though not by much). Similar, too, is the Party Line put out by the defenders of consensus reality, such as the otherwise unremarked tornado in Korona.
Fortean phenomena are usually imaginary and always annoying. Still, I find them comforting. In a deep sense, everything is right with the world, as long as fish continue to fall from the sky.

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The Long View 2002-06-02

Parkes 64m Radio TelescopeJohn was interested in Fortean phenomena. While this subject provides plenty of opportunity to poke fun at the credulous, every so often fish and frogs really do rain from the sky. One might also note that the spectacular electrical phenomena known as sprites and blue jets have been observed for over a century by pilots, but such reports were widely dismissed until someone managed to catch one on camera.

Cold fusion and reactionless thrusters keep disappointing everyone, but there is a big enough payoff in these things that federal agencies with no sense of humor keep funding small experiments in the hope of a breakthrough.

I am disinclined to dismiss data out of hand. I am also disinclined to give an n of 1 more weight than it deserves. I think John understood this pretty well.

Science!

 

Apropos of nothing in particular, here are some science stories I have been following. They are not quite fringe science. All they have in common is that, if they have substance, the world will never be the same again.

Talking to Extraterrestrials: I have my own, rather convoluted ideas about the likelihood of detecting extraterrestrial intelligence with radio telescopes. The fact is, though, this is one of those questions about which almost all speculation is equally ill-founded. The matter is bound up with fashions in evolutionary theory and often driven by bad metaphysics. There really is no way to settle these issues other than by experiment; that is, to just search.

Let us assume that signals are detected, and the source is near enough for an exchange of messages. This leaves us with the problem of communicating with a non-human intelligence. The difficulties in this connection may have been underestimated. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein went so far as to say that, if a lion spoke, we could not understand it. The idea is that understanding language is as dependent on the nature of the hearer as on the structure and use of the language. Even creatures as closely related as a human being and a lion experience the world so differently that they could not be expected to devise a common code.

Scientists often skip over this problem by asserting that "mathematics is a universal language." This position is known as Mathematical Platonism. It is one of the perennials of philosophy, but so is the position that mathematics is just another arbitrary language. John Barrow, in his wonderful book Pi in the Sky, considered whether and to what degree mathematics is culturally conditioned. He even considered the possibility that we might contact extraterrestrials who have no concept of a "theorem." He came down, grudgingly, on the side of Platonism, though he admitted he had no answer for the old objection that there is no obvious way to connect the Platonic world to this one.

I write about this now because I recently came across some research from Yale that might cast light on the matter. The study concerned the way that autistic people watch movies. Both the autistic subjects and the normal control group were highly intelligent and verbal. Nonetheless, the researchers found that the two groups watched movie dialogue differently. The normals watched the eyes of the characters, while the autistic people watched the mouths.

As with so much else about autism, probably we are just seeing an extreme manifestation of ordinary behavior. If you watch a film in a language you do not know well, for instance, you might find yourself looking at the mouths, too. In any case, what seemed to be happening was that the normals assembled what they saw on the screen into the integral Gestalt we call a person. The autistic people were processing information, without integrating the behaviors they saw into persons. Autistic people can do that, of course, but it takes work.

This could be the kind of problem we might have with extraterrestrials, and they with us. We might be able to mirror signals that refer to the same physical events, but we would not see what the events meant, or indeed that they meant anything. At least initially, the flow of data would not suggest mind or consciousness. We would be lucky to spot the flow as artificial. At that point, we might do well to send for special education teachers.

Black Light: I fell for Cold Fusion from the time when the claims to have produced it first surfaced in 1989. There were so many other wonders in that year; the discovery of a perpetual source of virtually free power seemed to be natural. I was inclined to attribute the early skepticism about the discovery to malice and jealousy on the part of the skeptics. The subject still makes me grumpy.

I still think that, if I wait long enough, some table-top physics will come along to change life as we know it. The best contender at the moment is "black light," ultraviolet radiation produced by an excited plasma. Black Light Power, a New Jersey company, has already built some interesting batteries and generators using proprietary Black Light technology. Even more interesting, NASA has invested some money to pursue Black Light. The technology's proponents say they can make a hydrogen plasma rocket engine that will work in the atmosphere.

The problem is that the technology may require ripping up 20th-century physics. The Black Light people say they have found classical solutions for quantum phenomena. They say they are getting energy from hydrogen atoms below the ground state. They have peer-reviewed articles documenting some novel effects. I don't understand the claims well enough to say whether the hair-raising physics has to be correct for the technology to work.

As we say in New Jersey, it's nice work if you can get it.

Lost Civilizations: When people claim to have found a lost civilization, they are usually either (1) lying; (2) failing to recognize the remains of some known culture; or (3) mistaking natural formations for artificial ones. I was thus somewhat surprised that last year's reports about submerged megalithic structures off western Cuba's Guanahacabibes Peninsula have not gone away. The observations were made by a Cuban-Canadian partnership looking for sunken treasure ships. What they found, using sonar and robot submersibles, looks like an extensive area of roads, walls, and pyramids. A sunken city is not by itself so remarkable. The problem is that this one is 2,000 feet down.

Even in the geologically unstable Caribbean, there is no obvious way this could have happened. The region in question probably once connected Cuba with Central America, but that was on the order of 50,000 years ago. At that time, there were no civilizations. There were some barely human hominids in the eastern hemisphere, but no one in the west.

The odds are still strong that the find will turn out to be natural structures after all. If they are not, then no doubt special explanations will be found to fit the subsidence into known history. Huge, submarine landslides are not unheard of: a ridge might have slid into the sea just a few thousand years ago, raising a great tsunami in the process. To discover that such a thing had happened would be wonder enough.

The alternative is too disconcerting to be wonderful. We would not be talking about Atlantis anymore, but of a city out of Lovecraft.


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