Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Archive for September, 2006

Let’s Sock It To Those Nasty, Greedy Oil Companies!

Posted by hyperpat on September 27, 2006

Politcal ads for and against Proposition 87 in California have become rampant on the TV here recently. The official title of this is

ALTERNATIVE ENERGY. RESEARCH, PRODUCTION,
INCENTIVES. TAX ON CALIFORNIA OIL PRODUCERS.
INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT AND STATUTE.

What it proposes to do is put up to a 6% tax on the value of every barrel of oil extracted from the ground in California, and use the proceeds to fund research in alternative fuels and infrastructure, with a stated goal of reducing oil consumption in this state by 25% by 2017. It has a provision that states that the oil companies so taxed will not be allowed to pass on the cost of this tax by raising their prices. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But is it really?

The ads for and against this measure are reaching a pretty high level of vitriol, each claiming the other is falsifying the facts. Pretty normal doings for the political arena, though I find the whole process of politics by sound-bite and mud-slinging distasteful and unlikely to lead to proper logical conclusions by the electorate, but given the level of voter apathy it may be the only way to least get some attention paid to things like this.

But what I find very disturbing is the implicit assumption of this measure that the government has the right to arbitrarily decide that some business (or type of business) is making too much money and that therefore their profits are fair game to be scooped up and spent on whatever the government decides is a good thing. This is the communistic concept of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”, and at least to my mind, has no business being part of the American political landscape. But it seems that this type of mind-set has thoroughly infected the law-making bodies and citizenry of this country – if it’s there, let’s grab it, just because we want to and think we can get away with it. In blunter language, this is effectively looting.

This doesn’t even consider the fact that the measure is poorly written. How the tax would be applied has a huge gray area that will take the courts some time to interpret, exactly what product and what lands are covered is not totally clear, just how they are going to go about enforcing that ‘no pass along price hikes’ provision looks like either a bureaucratic or legal nightmare, and what the companies most affected by this measure will actually do if it passes is not even considered.

Maybe we should be passing a Constitutional amendment that prohibits discriminatory taxation practices instead. If the goal is for the common good of all, then all should be taxed to fund progress towards that goal.

Posted in Politics | Leave a Comment »

The Neverending Story

Posted by hyperpat on September 26, 2006

Why is it that fantasy authors can’t seem to get their story told in something less than 6,000 pages spread across six volumes? Examples include George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (not complete), Stephen King’s Dark Tower (finally complete after thirty years), Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant (thought to be complete at six volumes, but now he’s adding more), Robin Hobb’s Farseer, Live Ship Traders, and Tawny Man set (three closely interrelated trilogies), Terry Brooks Shannara set, and the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Wheel of Time monster by Robert Jordan. Now this is not to say that these works are bad (in fact, the first four listed fall in the very good to excellent class, IMO), but it does sometimes seem as if these stories never have an end, have a cast of thousands (literally, in some cases) that sorely tax the poor reader’s ability to remember who’s who, and descriptive passages that go on and on.

Now certainly part of the reason for these monsters is the fact that the authors have spent a lot of time in creating their fantasy worlds, investing them with so much detail that these worlds can literally come alive for the reader. Naturally, they are reluctant to just throw all that hard work away and start on something totally new. And in general, the readers clearly want this, as they eagerly buy up whatever the next volume is, often waiting years in anticipation for it to appear. Which makes the publishers request more from the authors, as this is obviously money in the bank.

But I’d like to see more fantasy works that are really complete in one volume. And there are a few authors who seem to produce such things: Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn, A Fine and Private Place), Emma Bull (War for the Oaks, Bone Dance), Terri Windling (The Wood Wife), and John Crowley (Little, Big). All these are good reading, and you won’t have wait another decade for the authors to finish these stories.

Posted in Books, Science fiction and fantasy | 4 Comments »

Kids and Porn

Posted by hyperpat on September 22, 2006

You’ve got kids and you’ve got a computer hooked to the internet. Now what? Afraid that your kids will start lurking around all those sites that portray sex very explicitly? Afraid that they might see something there that they might decide to go out and emulate in the real world? Most parents, I think, have some such fears, and many, many groups and organizations are continuously putting out warnings to parents that their kid’s internet use needs to be monitored for just such reasons. But in the real world, what can parents do about this, and what should they do?

Option one is the obvious: get rid of pornography on the net. While this is seemingly obvious, trying to really do so runs into a hornet’s nest of not just problems in trying to define what pornography is, why it should be restricted, what harm it causes, and how to physically stop it when much of it is produced outside the jurisdiction of American courts, but also the legal rampart of free speech and not implementing any remedy that also restricts the right to publish and access non-pornographic material. Congress has tried a couple of times to implement restrictions in this area, and has stumbled over this particular point every time. Sex is a very powerful human drive, and as long as the demand for this material exists, it will be produced and distributed. The only real question is is if and how access to such material can be restricted without causing an essential breach in the right of free speech, or worse, a government that snoops on everything posted on the net.

Option two: Teach your kids about sex. Seems like most parents either don’t want to do this or don’t know how. Teach them not just what sex is, but what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior in this area. And by inappropriate I mean violence, sadism, rape, and other such power trips masquerading as sex. Part of this education should be that pornography exists, and that in and of itself it’s essentially harmless, that the human body and its sexual functions are not evil, but beautiful and normal. The schools will not do this. You’re lucky if they manage to cover the mechanics of it, and perhaps some of the risks such as STDs associated with having sex. Be aware that until kids reach a certain age, even if they should happen to run across some sexually explicit material while roaming the net, it just won’t interest them. Once they do reach that age, though (and it’s a lot younger than most parents realize), knowing what it is, why it is, and what is good and bad about sexual relations will allow these kids to process such material appropriately. Having your kids made aware of sex will also allow them to be a bit more cautious in chat rooms and such, where there is a very real danger of sexual predators hanging out – and this is a danger parents should be worried about, not whether their little Johnny or Jane so happened to catch sight of a video of two people having sex.

Posted in General, Politics | Leave a Comment »

The Downside of Living Longer

Posted by hyperpat on September 14, 2006

As part of the process of getting my new mortgage approved, I had to go through all of our various retirement type accounts, which for us amounts to four different 401K’s, three different pension plans, savings bonds and certificates of deposit. When I totaled everything up, the sum looked fairly impressive. But when I look at it another way, it’s not so much, less than two years worth of our current combined salary. Will it be enough to really make our retirement financially worry-free?

Now there’s still some time that we have before retirement, and I expect that in that time our total savings will almost triple from current levels if we can continue to save as we have been. And if (that’s a big if) Social Security is still around and paying what they say they will, it looks like there will be enough, barring any major illnesses or Congress deciding to dismantle the SS program. But that’s the worry – I can’t predict the future, but I can point to high probabilities.

The first of these is that the likelihood of major medical problems for us is quite high. My wife is a Type II diabetic, which at the moment has not caused her any major problems, but this ailment is known for catching up to you in many nasty ways, including glaucoma, kidney problems, high blood pressure, circulation problems, and neurological disorders. Treatment for these ‘side effects’ can be extensive and expensive. I have Crohn’s disease and COPD, both long term, essentially incurable problems. Either of these, if they get out of control, would make it impossible for me to work. And Medicare (Parts A, B, C, D, and by then probably part Z) will not cover all of the medical costs I can see coming.

The second high probability is that Congress will do something with Social Security. The program as it stands is financially unsound. Raising SS taxes even more to fund projected shortfalls doesn’t look like it’s in the cards, which leaves some form of benefit reduction as the most likely path for reform.

So I fiddle with the numbers, and look to see if we can set even a bit more aside each month. But I’m afraid I’ll have to live with this nagging worry about retirement. Still, we are far better off than many people, who have little or no savings. Which is still another worry. If there are too many people who don’t have enough to live comfortably at retirement time, who have to be supported by additional aid from the government in the form of housing and food subsidies, this will leave even less wiggle-room in the government budget for Social Security and Medicare. It’s something of a nasty spiral, and it at least partially springs from something that everyone wants, the ability to live longer thanks to the improvements in medical care in the last century.

Posted in Daily Happenings, General, Politics | 2 Comments »

Self Defense

Posted by hyperpat on September 13, 2006

Robert Heinlein wrote a story called Coventry (included in his Revolt in 2100) back in the early forties. In it, he envisioned a society in which everyone was free to do exactly what they pleased, unless such action either physically or financially injured someone else. Violators of this ‘damage’ restriction had a choice of either getting psychologically ‘readjusted’ or taking a hike to a special area set aside for such malcontents, where they could play Wild West to their heart’s content.

Unfortunately, real life is not so clear cut. First is the area generally labeled ‘self-defense’. When does it become justifiable to take action against someone whom you perceive to be a threat to you? If someone is walking towards you with a knife in their hand and body language that is screaming “I’m going to get you”, do you have to wait till he actually takes a swipe at you with that knife before you would be justified in hammering him with a judo chop? I don’t think so – but be careful, as our current court system can come up with some very strange interpretations of the law.

Then there is a thing called ‘verbal abuse’. In Heinlein’s story, you could call someone whatever you wanted, and it was not considered grounds for the offended person to take a swing at you. But sometimes verbal abuse can be just as painful, cause just as much damage as a left hook to the jaw. Many people are stuck in marriages where such abuse happens on a daily basis – and the end result is all too often spousal homicide when the abused person ‘snaps’. Is such abuse then justification for taking physical action? Perhaps not, perhaps ‘walking away’ is the only answer to such abuse, but I think there should be some way for the abused person to get redress (and once again, our current court system is highly inconsistent in this area).

Simplistic solutions to the problem of defining what rights you have versus those of others don’t work. And we need to see about making our courts more consistent in this area.

Posted in Books, Politics, science fiction | Leave a Comment »

Five Years On

Posted by hyperpat on September 11, 2006

It’s the fifth anniversary of a very dark day. I remember getting up that morning, and walking out in the living room where the news was on the TV. Didn’t think much about it till I saw airplane #2 fly directly into that tower. Quite a wake up call.

In the years since, there have been a few changes in America, ostensibly to try and prevent any recurrence of that day. While some of them have been common sense improvements in the security of basic infrastructures, there have also been changes that I think attack the fabric of America in a far more serious manner than those suicide planes did. What I refer to here are the impositions on some of our basic freedoms: freedom not to be spied on by our own government, freedom of speech (if you don’t think this one has been limited, try yelling ‘bomb!’ in an airport tomorrow), freedom to be considered innocent until proven guilty (every time they inspect your luggage, the premise is that you’re guilty of trying to transport illegal substances), limitations on citizen’s basic rights to know what their government is doing.

In some ways, the terrorists have already won. And that’s a very sad legacy of 9/11.

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments »

Oh, to Fly Like a Bird

Posted by hyperpat on September 11, 2006

The personal air car has been a dream for a very long time. Within ten years of Kitty Hawk, the first flying car was designed and built (although it never flew). As the saying goes, what happened? How come we don’t have one in every driveway today?

The first part of the reason is purely technical. Vehicles that can act like planes or helicopters at one moment and like normal cars the next are not simple mechanical things to design. Power plant issues, size constraints, materials that can take the stresses, simple operator controls, noise, all contribute to the difficulty. Economics comes next. A vehicle like this would necessarily be, at least at first roll-out, extraordinarily expensive. And until there was a mass market for them, there would be little mechanism to drive the price down (a typical chicken-and-egg problem, just like the one facing fuel-cell powered cars right now). So don’t look for one in your local showroom for $20,000 any time soon.

But the biggest headache is safety. The average person is not an airline pilot. He doesn’t have the training, he probably has no clue as to the ‘rules-of-road’ in the air, nor has he ever had to communicate via two-way radio with someone who will direct every aspect of his flight. And at least so far, the FAA is not going to sign off on any aircar that lands or flies to some point other than an airfield. With pretty good reason. Can you just imagine what it would be like in, say, Chicago, when two million commuters fly up in the sky at eight AM in their VTOL skycars, all heading for downtown, without flight plans, without navigation other than compass and eyes, without some central dispatch agency directing all this traffic? Not even counting the problem of ensuring minimum height for these craft to make sure they clear things like telephone wires and skyscrapers, the collision potential isn’t just high, it’s a dead certainty.

Robert Heinlein, in Methuselah’s Children, first published in 1941, already recognized this problem, and envisioned that all such vehicles would actually be driven, not by their occupants, but by a central traffic computer. Poke in your desired destination to the onboard computer, and it would communicate with its big brother on the ground for routing info, and proceed to its destination while the occupants sat back and read the morning newspaper. Some aircars currently in design are working on something equivalent to this. Also being built in is automatic collision detection and avoidance circuitry, along with GPS tracking. Of course, all this ‘extra’ stuff just makes the price tag that much higher…

I’m afraid this is one ‘Buck Rogers’ type idea that won’t really become a reality much before Buck Rogers time – which was 2419 A. D.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction | 1 Comment »

A More Perfect Union

Posted by hyperpat on September 8, 2006

Just what is a government supposed to do? Why do we need to have one at all? The framers of the Constitution certainly had an idea of what functions and services a government should provide:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Justice, peace, defense, general welfare all sound like things most people want. But what about the very first item listed: a ‘more perfect Union’? Union implies a group, and here is where many people have problems. Humans do not exist very well as isolated individuals, they are very definitely a social species, in some aspects just like bees and ants. Societies have structures that allow for:

1. Specialization. All the members of the group don’t have to do or know everything, some members can dedicate their efforts to particular types of work that benefit all while receiving the same types of benefits from others of the group that specialize in other types of activities. Soldiers, policemen, scientists, doctors, plumbers, even cable tv repairmen – each can contribute to the overall benefit of the group.

2. Control: Rogue members of the group can be restrained or removed from the group by the actions of many against a few. Criminals, ‘undesirables’, someone ‘different’ from the majority – control can be both a gain to the society and an inequitable injustice to a minority.

3. Protection: a large group can more easily defend itself from both the ravages of nature and of other men than can individuals.

4. Continuity: The group lives on even though its individual members die off. Knowledge can be communicated and passed down.

In other words, one of the functions of government is to allow a group of individuals to band together to achieve the benefits described above. But as also alluded to above, these benefits come at a price: the individual must conform to the rules of the society. And here is where most of the conflict that plagues the human race comes from, as where the dividing line is drawn between what the individual wants and is allowed to do and what the group mandates for him.

The socialistic and capitalistic models of government are merely two points along this spectrum of division between individual and group. As such, probably neither is perfect, and elements of one philosophy may be able to co-exist with the other.

Right now there is a certain amount of political discussion about two items that would affect almost everyone in America: Universal health care coverage and Social Security. Both of these programs have as their basis a socialistic ideal that people should not have weather all of life’s vagaries on their own, but that all should contribute to a general pool of funds that members can access when needed. Both these programs have merit; properly implemented they would, on average, improve the health and welfare of the entire group. Ayn Rand, in several of her books (Atlas Shrugged, The Virtue of Selfishness), railed against this type of thing, considering them the actions of ‘moochers’, people who don’t contribute anything of their own to society, taking from those who do produce, merely because they can. Or, in its more extreme form, “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their need”, the communistic ideal. But I think she underestimated the benefit that all can derive from carefully selected taxes on everyone, along with dismissing the true compassion humans, as social animals, can feel for another member of their group.

Social Security needs a more reliable funding method, and universal health care has yet to be implemented. Neither will happen unless a goodly number of Americans make it clear to their elected representatives that these are things they think should happen. Think about this. Think what type of government the Constitution’s framers were trying to create. Then tell your representative what your decisions are, and perhaps we will end up with ‘a more perfect Union’.

Posted in Books, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Being Poor Is Not a Crime, But We Treat It Like One

Posted by hyperpat on September 6, 2006

John Scalzi, the author who just won the Campbell Award and who had one of his novels on the short list for the Hugo, wrote an essay on being poor a year ago, in the aftermath of Katrina. That piece, and some 700 comments, are posted on his Whatever blog here. I highly recommend that if you haven’t read this piece yet, you do so now. And read the comments – this might take you awhile, but I can almost guarantee that when you finish you will have:

Some very moist eyes

A much better understanding of what being poor in America is like

An urge to do something about the conditions described

Have I ever been poor? No. There have been times when I had to literally count pennies, there were days when I had zero dollars and rent coming due, but I’ve never had to go hungry, never had to make a choice between putting food on the table or paying the power bill, never had to wear Goodwill clothing, never had to use a medical clinic instead of seeing my doctor. Oh, I had a few times when I had to collect unemployment, and one four month stretch when there simply were no jobs to be had, and during that period I had to dedicate all the money I had to just rent and food, but these are picayune things compared to the situations described in that set of blog comments.

One thing that comes through those comments loud and clear is the sense of embarrassment that so many of these people feel. Embarrassed that they are in that situation, when in most cases it was entirely beyond their control. This, perhaps, is what we need to try and fix. Those of us who are better off can always make donations, can go down to the community help center and provide some labor to help get things to people who desperately need them, can ‘adopt’ a family in need and see that they at least have the basics. But how do we get rid of that sense that everyone looks down on them simply because they are poor? The current mess of food stamps is guaranteed to cause embarrassment in the check out line, with all the government red tape that causes considerable extra time to process and all of its restrictions on just what can be bought with those stamps, while everyone else waiting in line scrutinizes the person and purchases, sure that here is another example of someone ‘working the system’ and taking their tax dollars, when if they would just go out and get a job —

Sometimes they can’t get a job. Sometimes they are working two jobs and it still doesn’t pay enough to properly feed, clothe, and house their family.

Step one is to quit looking down your nose at people in such situations. Sure, there are some who are gaming the system, but most are there through no choice of their own. And you could be there yourself – all would take is one little downsizing, and after a few months of looking for a job while what savings you have disappear, and not finding anything that pays even close to what you used to make, taking anything to bring in a few dollars, and finding that’s not enough, and that this downward spiral has no end.

Step two is to make it possible for those receiving assistance to do so without having to let the whole world know they are. Get them a special debit card, where their purchases get charged against their assistance account, and get rid of the restrictions on what types of things they can purchase with that account. Use that same type of card to allow them to make clothes purchases at discounted prices. Make it possible for their children in school to get their lunches just like everyone else – why does everyone have to know that Johnny is getting free lunches because he’s so poor?

Step three is to provide basic health and dental care for everyone. If you’re sick, you can’t work, and currently the price of medical care for anyone who doesn’t have insurance is prohibitive. This may sound like an advocation of socialism, and to some degree it is. But in the end, having a healthy population benefits everyone, and being able to go see the doctor about a problem before it turns into a major catastrophe would actually end up saving everyone money. How this is set up needs very careful thought, such that we don’t just create another huge government bureaucracy that fritters away your taxes in administrative costs while adding paperwork barriers to actual medical access or driving doctors into some other field because they aren’t paid properly for their labor, but somehow the richest nation on earth should be able to do this!

Read that essay. Think about it. Help.

Posted in General, Politics | 5 Comments »

Heating Up and Cooling Down

Posted by hyperpat on September 1, 2006

Just finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s Fifty Degrees Below, book 2 in his current set centered around the effects of global warming. Not a great book, as I had a fair amount of trouble getting deeply involved with his main viewpoint character, but the scientific points he raises are certainly worth taking a look at. Not so much about whether global warming is happening (he takes that as a given), but just what the hell are we going to do about it? What strategies would work best to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being produced and dumped into the atmosphere? Are there methods for taking things like CO2 and methane out of the atmosphere in signifcant quantities at bearable costs in terms of time, money, and resources? Could we just live with the increased temperature and not worry about it? What happens if the great Atlantic Ocean Current stops circulating (answer to this one is contained in the book title). All intriguing points, and he gives some good potential answers to these items.

But most significantly, he brings up the point that the scientific community is fractured, split into many, many organizations, study groups, universities, business ventures, and government agencies. Getting consensus on what to do and funding for these actions is almost impossible. Can we force our government to give greater priority to scientific proposals? Is there a way to organize, prioritize, and direct all the various research projects with a real end goal in mind?

Read your paper. Do some research of your own. Find out who your representatives in Congress are, and what their positions on things like this are. Vote. Change your own life style to be less intrusive on the planetary ecosphere. Else our children may not have a much a world to live in.

Posted in Books, Politics, Science & Engineering, science fiction | 5 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.