Author Archive: Thad

I’d Rather Be Posting Cat Pictures

So now that Trump has confirmed he shared the Intel with his ‘I did it for humanitarian reasons’ tweet, and it’s been revealed that Israel was the source of the Intel, and they did not want it shared, and DEFINITELY not with Russia that is likely to pass it along to Iran… this whole thing has evolved into a rolling cluster-frack with huge potential blow-back. Israel will now almost certainly stop sharing Intelligence with us, which makes us far more vulnerable to terrorist plots arising from the middle east. This confirms every worst case fear I’ve voiced about the foreign policy risk of a Trump Presidency.

To my conservative friends… please please PLEASE set aside your skepticism for a moment and consider what is at stake here. No matter how much you might like the message Trump campaigned on or the domestic policies he’s championed since being elected, he is showing himself to be in WAY over his head diplomatically. At some point you have to consider that, maybe the press isn’t all lying… maybe our allies are actually mad and frightened for a reason… maybe Trump really is a rolling foreign policy disaster. And while it might be fun to see liberals all pissed off about something, maybe this is one of those ‘stopped clock pointing at the right time’ sort of things? Maybe? Can we at least consider it?

Because, let’s be honest… what’s the worst that could happen from a proper investigation of Trump? He is either cleared, and then the Dems have egg on their face, or he is impeached, and then we have President Pence. I can guarantee you liberals like me will not like the policy that is shepherded by a President Pence, but at least the guy will not be an ongoing global security risk. We can get back to arguing about school lunches and tax reform and all that fun stuff. Everyone wins!

Set let’s all ban together and agree on a few things… like a real, bipartisan Senate select committee and/or independent investigator to look into this whole Trump/Russia thing. Make him release his taxes and any financial ties he might have to foreign influences. Let’s clear the air once and for all so we can move on and get back to what the Internet was really meant for… posting pictures of cats.

The Technological Event Horizon – INTRODUCTION

 Captain Amanda Wellington tried to keep the fear from her voice as she activated the comm circuit and shouted, “Baxter, I need all available power routed to the engines immediately or we’re all dead!”

Chief Engineer Baxter Poole took an agonizing number of seconds to reply. “I’m giving it everything I can, captain, but that explosion took out our port side EM drive.”

Amanda stared at the telemetry display. Two colored lines crossed each other. One represented the ship. The other represented their doom. A clock rapidly counted down the seconds toward the intersection of the two. “Helm, plot me the ideal heading and minimum thrust we need to break orbit, and send all data to engineering.”

“I’m on it,” the helm officer replied, “but it’s going to take a bit. Our telemetry gets less reliable the closer we get to the event horizon, the computer will have to extrapolate some of the numbers using dead reckoning.”

“Baxter, how long before you can get that engine back on line.”

“At least three months. That’s the travel time to the closest shipyard that can replace it.”

“I need answers, not jokes.”

“That’s not a joke,” the engineer replied, “the port engine is beyond saving. I can overdrive the starboard engine and get you thirty percent over spec, at least for a while. That’s the best I can do.”

“I can work with that,” the helm officer interjected. She tapped at her terminal for several seconds. “We can’t break orbit with that, but I can plot us a sub-orbital bounce that puts us close to Hawking Station.”

Amanda took a deep breath. It was an all or nothing gamble. A bounce would delay disaster and give the Hawking Science Station time to mount a rescue, but if it failed, they would be worse off. They would eventually plunge toward the black hole at even greater speed.

Precious seconds ticked away.

“Do it,” she ordered. The helm officer immediately turned her attention back to her console. Amanda tried to remember the officer’s name. Julia something. She’d only just joined the bridge crew yesterday. Amanda hadn’t even gotten around to her usual welcome speech yet. No time for that now. “Richard, contact the station, tell them what we’re doing, and have them ready every available grav tug to meet us.”

“Got it,” the communications officer replied. Amanda turned her attention toward the engineering damage report.

It was not good. The explosion had taken out one of the engines, damaged one of the primary power manifolds, and destabilized the fusion core. Baxter must be holding things together with vacuum tape and spit. Oh, and the satellite they’d been sent to repair had instead been knocked off its orbit and sent spiraling toward the black hole. Hawking Station would not be happy about that.

Richard interrupted her thoughts. “Captain, Hawking Station isn’t responding.”

“What, we’ve lost communications now too?”

“No, I’m still getting a signal from them. They’re just not answering my specific hails.”

Amanda brought up the comm screen on her own console and began reviewing the message queue. There was a lot of messages. Personal messages to individual crew members. Messages directed to her from Fleet Headquarters. Too many messages, all sent in the last few seconds. Then she noticed the time code on a recent message. It was dated two years in the future.

No.

She switch from comm back to telemetry. She looked at the line showing the path of the ship, dipping dangerously close to the event horizon before curving up into a sub-orbital bounce. Then she looked at the error bands, a colored region around the line reflecting the amount of guesswork the computer had engaged in because of telemetry problems. The lower bound of the error band dipped below the event horizon.

“We’ve already crossed it.” Amanda gasped, her voice cracking as hope fled. The rest of the bridge crew fell silent. She turned back to her console and flipped back to the damage report. There it was. Damage to the power manifold had deactivated the shields. They’d fallen victim to relativistic effects. Because of the rapid speed of their decaying orbit, time was passing more slowly for them than the rest of the universe. That had thrown off their calculations.

Jason was tapping at his console. Amanda looked up to see him scrolling through the message list. She could see understanding overtake him as he took in their contents. He finally spoke. “We crossed the event horizon only seconds after the explosion, at least from our perspective. We’ve been spiraling toward the singularity for several years already. We are well and truly screwed.”

“No, there’s got to be something…” Julia couldn’t finish. She knew the physics of it as well as the rest of them.

Hawking Station wasn’t answering because the ship’s signal wasn’t reaching them. Nothing could escape the event horizon. Not light, not radio transmissions, and certainly not the ship. Stuff still flowed in with no problem, so they could still hear the station. But from the outside they were long gone and beyond reach.

Nevertheless, Hawking Station hadn’t just written them off. They knew it would take decades for the ship to spiral into the singularity, even if it felt like mere minutes to the crew. They’d spent those first years sending farewell messages from family and friends, the transmission slowed enough that the ship’s computer could keep up.

Amanda flipped back to the comm screen and opened a message from her sister. The tone was sad but affectionate, expressing how much she was missed even as it filled her in on all the family news. It was like a wistful Christmas letter.

The comm app chirped with another incoming message. She glanced at the header and saw it was from the head of research at Hawking Station. She skimmed. He prattled on in his usual long winded manner, so Amanda nearly missed the reference to a research paper titled ‘The Application of Gravitational Warp Field Theory Toward the Breaching of Event Horizon Barriers’. She went back and reread the section.

She read on. She read past the scientific jargon to the deeper story it told. The scientific community had caught fire. The story of the lost science vessel had captured the public imagination, unleashing a torrent of research into gravitational warp field theory. The technology that powered starships across the galaxy might provide the key to their rescue. It was a race between gravity and human ingenuity.

Amanda stopped reading. Her vision had grown blurry. Her initial hope was being overtaken by a sense of amazement. An often fractious galaxy had united around the mission of their rescue. She tried to wipe her tears from her console and only succeeded in closing the comm app.

She laughed. The rest of bridge crew looked at her like she’d gone crazy, but she laughed again. Somehow, beyond all probability or understanding, they had reached up through the impenetrable event horizon to reshaped all human society. Whether or not they were actually rescued seemed secondary to that.

Julia finally interrupted her musing. “Captain, I’m seeing something strange on the sensors.”

Ships were appearing in orbit, just outside the black hole’s event horizon, moving at seemingly impossible speed. A structure was taking shape. Something massive. The ships were bees around a growing hive. The giant machine was like nothing Amanda had seen before. Dozens of kilometers across, with massive antenna-like structures pointed down toward the singularity. The ship’s spiraling course took them directly under it with each orbit.

Amanda activated the ship-wide address system. “All hands to duty stations. Secure for acceleration.”

“What is it,” Richard asked, “what’s going to happen?”

“I don’t know,” Amanda answered. She switched the main display from aft to forward sensors. The approaching black hole disappeared, replaced by the growing machine above them. The ship’s clock ticked away years like seconds. “But I think it’s going to be miraculous.”

* * *

Despite first impressions, this is a work of non-fiction. No, the preceding events did not actually happen. That mini-story only serves to introduce concepts that are central to the larger work. I needed to talk about singularities and event horizons, but I struggled for some time deciding how to go about it. Ultimately, I fell back on the mechanism I’m most comfortable with, fiction. I will likely continue to use this tool going forward.

What do we mean when we talk about a singularity. When you put “definition of singularity” into Google, it comes back with several answers. One definition is “a point at which a function takes an infinite value, especially in space-time when matter is infinitely dense, as at the center of a black hole.” Another is “a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence and other technologies have become so advanced that humanity undergoes a dramatic and irreversible change.” That second definition is inspired by the first. Such a world changing event is more properly called the Technological Singularity, but in the appropriate context it is often shortened to just the Singularity. It’s an apt metaphor. In mathematics or in space, a singularity is a point at which the usual rules break down. Extending the metaphor, Google defines an event horizon as “a theoretical boundary around a black hole beyond which no light or other radiation can escape; a point of no return.

Think about that for a moment.

In our story, the singularity isn’t the critical point of transition. That would be the event horizon. It’s the point of no return. Beyond that barrier, the forces at play will allow movement in only one direction, toward the singularity, and at ever increasing speed.

Scientist and futurists argue about when and even if we will reach the Technological Singularity. Some say it’s only years or decades away, others say centuries. Some say it’s a fantasy that will never occur. I’m not going to argue about the time line. Don’t expect me to stick a pin in a calendar predicting when it arrives. But I will suggest this… we have already crossed the Technological Event Horizon. We are beyond the point of no return. I can’t predict exactly what is coming, but like our heroes on the ship, I can be sure of one thing.

It’s going to be miraculous.

The Golden Age of Video Streaming

I’ll admit it… I’m a fan of Netflix. It’s not just their original programming that I like, it’s the shake-up of the entire video content industry. When they first made the switch from mailing DVDs to streaming video, few in the entertainment industry took them seriously. Now, a few years later, they are spending around 5 BILLION dollars a year making original content, more than industry stalwarts like Time Warner, Fox, Viacom, or even Disney. There subscriber base has surpassed HBO. While the old guard previously fought the entire idea of streaming video as a threat to their established model, now they all must participate or get their lunch eaten.

This is great news for viewers. Streaming has a lot of advantages over the old cable and broadcast model. First, you get to watch the content you want when you want to. Sure, a DVR helps in that regard… but its an imperfect solution. Also, the idea of waiting a week between episodes now seems archaic in this day and age. Netfix’s model of releasing an entire season at once lets you watch at the pace you prefer. Most of all, however, streaming removes the limit that channel based delivery puts on the quantity of content. As long as there is space on the servers, there is always room for another show. This opens the door for niche programs that might not find space on limited cable or broadcast channels.

And as the speed and availability of high speed Internet improves, so does the prospects of streaming vs traditional cable video. Kirsten and I spend a large part of the year traveling the country in our RV. Previously, this would limit our video viewing to DVDs or whatever we could pick up on an antenna (satellite was just more hassle than we wanted to deal with). But recent improvement in cellular mobile Internet have changed that. We now regularly get 10 to 20 Mbps via the mobile hot-spot on our phone, more than enough to stream Netflix, Amazon Video, etc (indeed, it’s often better than we get on our land line Internet). For a while, mobile data caps would make video streaming unthinkable, but recent competition has all the major mobile phone companies offering unlimited data plans or data cap exceptions for video streaming.

I wouldn’t call it the Golden Age of Video Steaming, but it’s getting there.

The Republicans now own Obamacare…

… it’s on them if it fails.

Let me explain. When the Democrats passed the ACA (Obamacare) seven years ago, they were able to do it only because they held the Presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress. Shortly after that, Republicans regained the majority in the House and later the Senate, allowing them to obstruct further legislation by the Democrats. And additional legislation was definitely needed. The ACA was never intended to be the end of the story on health care. Complicated legislation often needs amending after it rolls out, and that was expected in this case. Obama himself even likened the law to a “starter home”… something we could build on.

And renovation is definitely needed. While millions of people have been helped by the law, many others still suffer from rising premiums and lack of choice among insurers. Even before gaining the White House, Republicans have had the opportunity to pass bipartisan legislation, but for the past seven years they’ve preferred to obstruct any effort to fix the law, instead favoring a goal of repealing it. Indeed, not only have they refused to fix the law, they’ve actively worked against it. Premium increases in 2017 are in large part because of Republican sabotage. The GOP succeeded in stripping funding from the ‘risk corridor’ reinsurance program that was meant to stabilize prices while new insurance pools were created. This caused many of the new insurance companies, including most of the non-profit insurance co-ops, to go out of business, reducing competition and choice on the health care exchanges and driving up rates among the remaining companies.

And now that they also have the Presidency, Republicans have even more power to sabotage the ACA. They’ve wasted no time in doing just that. One of Trump’s first actions after taking office was to pull the advertisements reminding people to sign up for insurance before the end of the 2017 enrollment period. Having as many people as possible sign up is important because larger risk pools makes for lower premiums. This is especially true with those last minute sign-ups because healthy people are more likely to procrastinate, and getting them on board will definitely improve the risk ratio, creating lower rates for everyone.  We know this from examining sign-up patterns from previous years.  But trump canceled the last week of advertising despite the fact that it was already paid for with no way of recouping the funds. The only reason to do it was to hurt enrollment (which it did).
Sabotage.
And they’ve signaled that the sabotage will continue. The current health care bill being debated in Congress takes a wrecking ball to Obamacare, but even if they fail to pass that, they can do a lot of damage. Trump himself has said that, should the bill not pass, they would just ‘let Obamacare die’. But will it die a natural death, or will this be an assisted suicide? The GOP now controls Health and Human Services, the department that administers Obamacare. They have the power to do things like eliminate cost sharing subsidies that help make insurance affordable for lower income people. That will drive poor but healthy people from the insurance pool, further driving up rates for everyone else. Even the hint that they might do this could drive up rates as cautious insurance companies price the possibility into their future rates… and Republican leadership is already talking about doing it.
For seven years, the GOP has campaigned on repealing Obamacare. They now have the power to do it. They have the power to replace it with their own legislation or nothing at all. They can fix Obamacare or undermine it. It is all on them. They cannot just stand back and ‘let Obamacare die’ and hope the Democrats get all the blame. Democrats have no power to pass legislation right now. Republicans do. Whatever happens is on them. If they can’t get it together enough to actually deliver on their promises, then they need to get out of the way and let someone else do it (like maybe the party that passed Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP, etc.. the party actually committed to helping people get health care).
It is now almost 19 months until the 2018 midterms. Republicans still have a window to deliver on their promises, but it won’t stay open forever.
The voters are watching.

Trump is Destroying Reagan’s Legacy

Someone actually asked me how I could believe Trump is a Russian spy. I think I nearly blew coffee out my nose. No, I don’t think Trump is a Russian spy. I don’t even think he has any great loyalty to Russia. I think he is exactly what he has always portrayed himself to be… a business man with extensive international holdings and connections.

And therein lies the problem.

After Trump’s multiple bankruptcies, banks in the US would no longer loan to him, so he had to go overseas for credit. That includes some rather large deals with prominent Russian oligarchs and Kremlin connected banks. As far as Trump was concerned this was just good business, which was fine when he wasn’t President. But now that he is President, failing to divest himself of his business connections leaves him vulnerable to foreign influence. The fact that he still refuses to release his tax returns (something every modern President before him has done) raises a huge red flag. The Kremlin might be holding hundreds of millions of dollars of Trump’s debt, and they could use that as leverage against him. It need not even be conscious leverage. When Trump praises Putin and soft peddles the threat of Russian authoritarianism… it could just be a subconscious bias born from years of favorable business dealings. Either way, it’s a threat to our national security.

And Putin understands this. He has already responded by deploying nuclear cruise missiles in violation of earlier agreements and stepping up violence in the Ukraine… and Trump has done nothing. Putin is advancing his plan to undermine NATO and rebuild a Soviet style empire, and Trump doesn’t even see the threat. Worse, Trump seems poised to lift the sanctions that weaken Putin and may even hand control of the Crimean peninsula over to Russia.

In short, trump is destroying the legacy of Ronald Reagan, the President that ended the Cold War.

So no, I don’t think Trump is a Russian spy. I think he is something far worse… a dupe. A foreign policy neophyte who mistakes a favorable business deal as a show of character. Putin is rolling him and getting everything he wants.

God help us all.

Paul Ryan Doesn’t Understand What Insurance Is

Good God… Paul Ryan doesn’t understand what insurance is. I just watched his Powerpoint presentation explaining his healthcare bill, and at one point he describes the ‘fatal conceit’ of Obamacare as being this:

“Young and healthy people are going into the market and pay for the older sicker people. So, the young healthy person is going to be made to buy healthcare, and there going to pay for the person who gets breast cancer in her forties, or gets heart disease in his fifties.”

Yes, Paul, that’s called INSURANCE. That is exactly what it does. It is what it has ALWAYS done. It works that way with auto insurance and homeowners insurance, and yes, health insurance. The premiums from people not making claims collectively pay for the people who do make claims. Yes, my premiums will pay for the person who gets breast cancer or heart disease or cancer or whatever, and I’m fine with that… because someday that person MIGHT BE ME. People in the same group pay the same rate regardless of health condition. It’s called group rating, and its how health insurance has worked in the employer provided market for decades. It is the singular most important reform that Obamacare brought to the individual insurance market, and you want to get rid of it?

Saints preserve us… the Republican healthcare law was drafted by someone who has no clue how any of this stuff actually works.

Ryancare…. a one and a half leg stool

So Paul Ryan has finally made his Obamacare replacement public. It is not too far off from what I expected. It leaves a bit more of the ACA insurance regulations in place, but still carves out much of the existing law in ways that enables ‘adverse selection’, setting the stage for massive rate increases and lost insurance for millions of people. The big winners will be people making more than $250,000 per year… they get a tax cut. Losers will be anyone currently getting any sort of premium subsidy on the ACA exchange as well as those of us who lose insurance as companies exit the market. It also takes an ax to Medicaid, though it delays the pain a couple of years. It is not as bad a full repeal, but it will definitely make things worse than just leaving the ACA in place.

As with Obamacare, this mostly effects people who buy there insurance on the individual market instead of getting through their employer. If you are in the 50 to 64 age demographic, expect your premiums to go up sharply. The bill raises the cap on what insurers can charge that group, increasing it from a 3:1 to a 5:1 ratio. Also, if you currently receive a premium subsidy, that is going away. The Subsidy has been replaced with a flat tax credit that does not scale with income, so most people will receive much less, and they will receive it as a tax refund rather than direct premium support. In related news, the yearly penalty for failing to buy insurance has been replaced with a 30% surcharge on the first year of premiums when you buy insurance after going without. That makes things easier on people who decide to go without insurance, but like the lack of subsidies, it will skew the risk pool toward unhealthy people and cause rates to shoot up.

You can think of Obamacare as three leg stool: 1) Regulations forcing insurance companies to cover everyone who asks. 2) Subsidies to help people afford insurance… what I call ‘the carrot’. 3) Penalties to discourage people from going without insurance… ‘the stick’. Without all three, the insurance market collapses. The Ryan plan basically kicks out one of those legs and saws off part of another. If you are young, healthy, and have a high income, you MIGHT be no worse off under this plan… but even then your rates could go up because of the whole ‘adverse selection’ problem of healthy people failing to buy insurance and insurance companies exiting the market.

Needless to say, I’ll be calling my representatives (both in the House and Senate) to voice my opposition. I recommend everyone else do the same. President Trump has already voiced his support for this mess, so we need to stop it before it makes it out of Congress.
Find your representatives via whoismyrepresentative.com.

Rule the World!

Given the popularity of my Mad Scientist Wisdom aphorisms both at open mic at Nerdcon Stories and with the Superliminal Suggestion Backpack at Teslacon 7, I’ve decided to create a MadScientistWisdom.com website as a permanent home for the Wisdom.  I’ll also use it as a place to document geeky science related projects and the like.  Head on over and check it out.  It doesn’t have a comment section, so if you see anything that needs fixing or just want to make general comments, this post will be the home for that.  I hope you enjoy it.

Together, we will rule the world!  😉

The Truth About Net Neutrality

OK, it has come to my attention that a lot of people have no freaking clue what Net Neutrality really is. As someone who used to own an Internet Service Provider, let me dump some knowledge on you. Net Neutrality, in short, is the idea that ISPs (i.e Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner, etc) must treat every packet of data they route across their network in a neutral fashion… that means not blocking or degrading traffic based on where it is going, were it comes from, or what the content is. In the telecom industry this is called being a ‘common carrier’. They just provide a pipe and don’t concern themselves with what you send through it.

Why is this important? It is the entire concept on which the Internet was built and the reason it is hugely successful. When you pay your monthly Internet subscription fee, you expect to have access to the ENTIRE Internet, not just the parts that sit directly on Time Warner’s cables. You are paying Time Warner to plug into the global system, not just provide you access to the content they deem worthy. Net Neutrality assures that YOU get to choose what parts of the Internet you see.

Without Net Neutrality, large ISPs can use their near monopoly status to extort additional fees out of companies (and this is the important part) EVEN WHEN THAT COMPANY IS NOT THEIR CUSTOMER. Comcast could go to AT&T business customers and say “If you want our Internet subscribers to see your website, you need to pay us additional fees.”

Think they won’t? They are already doing this to Netflix. Their supposed justification is that Netflix is chewing up a lot of their network capacity… but that is a distortion if not outright lie… it is Comcast’s own customers that are using up that bandwidth when they CHOOSE to connect to Netflix. Basically, Netflix is being punished and extorted for being popular and successful.

If the big ISPs get their way, Netflix will be only the beginning; they will extort similar fees from other popular services and websites. They will degrade services that compete with their own. It will be the death of the Internet as a level playing field of entrepreneurial opportunity. Gone will be the days that your tiny start-up can have the same professional looking web presence that a billion dollar company has… only the companies with deep pockets that can afford the extortion (i.e. the Internet ‘fast lane’) will be able to compete.

So when you hear some politician or telecom executive railing against Net Neutrality, understand that they are not trying to protect the Internet or look out for your interests. It is all about lining their own pockets.  This is important to keep in mind in the months ahead, since a new FCC under Donald Trump is likely to scrap Net Neutrality, making the Internet less useful and more expensive for everyone.  But only if we let them.  If we all work together and make our voices heard, we can save Net Neutrality.

I welcome your opinions in the comments.

 

Devious Origins – CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 2

 

She seemed to consider my question as we made our way outside to the sidewalk.

“What sort of superhero would I be if I immediately let you in on my secret identity?” she playfully answered.

“OK, so what is your hero name then?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” I responded, “How can you be a superhero and not know your own hero name?”

“Haven’t you ever read any comic books?” she asked in mock incredulity, “The hero never comes up with their own name. It is always someone else. Someone they rescued. A reporter. Someone like that. The hero has to earn a name. Society bestows it on them.”

“So you haven’t earned yours yet?”

“Not yet I guess. But that’s OK. It isn’t about making a name for yourself. It’s not about getting recognition. It has to be all about the mission, or you are not a true hero.” She seemed to be totally sincere. “So here we are.”

We had arrived at a classic yellow Vespa scooter parked only a block from the court house. My companion plucked a shiny black helmet from the seat. It was small, form fitting, and lacked any sort of eye protection.

“Here, wear this,” she said as she handed it to me.

“Shouldn’t you wear it?” I answered.

“What sort of hero would I be if I let my passenger go unprotected,” she insisted, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep the stunt driving to a minimum.” She then proceeded to take a pair of tennis shoes and a set of aviator goggles out the storage compartment of the Vespa. She changed shoes, put on the goggles, and climbed on the scooter. “Well don’t just stand there, get on.” (more…)