Thursday, December 11, 2008

Water, Water Nowhere

The UN and others have been circulating the idea that water, and not fuel, will be the resource impetus for the nextmajor world war. The popularity of bottled water already shows a trend towards outlandish, inaccessible pricing for a resource that is utterly essential to life. Control over water equates to control over life and death (just ask Tank Girl), and any time some authority asserts that level of control over peoples' lives, war becomes inevitable, even if it takes time before it actually happens. Not only do we squander water on things like bottling it, washing cars, watering wasteful plants such as grass (even in the L.A. desert), and so on -- we also pollute it like crazy, to the point where our fish are loaded with Mercury. The whole "Green Revolution" that people are talking about needs to include not only alternative fuel production, but a serious retooling of our water usage policies, including subsidizing the clean-up of drinking and fishing waters with taxes and fines on industrial users of water. This isn't socialism, it is transferring costs borne by one set of businesses (fishing, farming, restaurants, etc.) and the public (their drinking water) to the cause of the costs (industrial polluters, bottlers, and anyone who profits off water at the expense of other industries because unfair policies skew in their favor).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Day Without A Gay

Today has been declared Day Without A Gay in protest of California's Proposition 8, and various other discriminatory legislation across the country. Because our workplace is so supportive of people, regardless of their sexual orientation (or race, religion, or other compartmentalizer), most anti-8 supporters here are volunteering before or after work, and/or are helping to spread the word through e-mails, blogs, and so on.

If you're not gay, imagine yourself in their position, being unable to live the same kind of lives as all your friends and neighbors because of discrimination. "The other," when observed, turns out to be much more like you than they are different. As Graham Greene says in The Power and The Glory: “When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity — that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”

Supporting gay rights is indirect support of your own rights, because the same kinds of unimaginative people who oppose gay rights would be just as keen to oppose your rights should doing so increase their own power and prestige in some way. I know they'd oppose mine, because very similar arguments were made from very similar pulpits about miscegenation not too long ago. In those times, Anu and I could not have married. Perhaps only a fringe consciously want to return to those times, but the parallels are obvious to me.

So this is my missive encouraging people to get out there and support gay rights in some way. If you can't take a day off work, or want to show support for a supportive workplace by not taking the day off, find some way -- volunteering, donations, propagandizing -- to help people secure rights you may very well take for granted, even if only because by doing so you help increase the value and security of your own rights.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

China winning Cyberwar

According to the Guardian, Telegraph, and other sources, China is currently engaged in, and winning, a Cyberwar against the United States. Not only is China allegedly targeting US industrial and commercial capacity, committing corporate espionage and undermining US businesses, but it is also already in position to disrupt deployment of high-tech US troops. Given China's laggard deployment of high-end military technology itself, this superiority in the area of hacking is intended as a bulwark against our otherwise superior deployment capabilities. If the Chinese can interrupt our military networks, they can use this technique to prevent us from deploying rapidly, or to throw our deployments into chaos by sending incorrect orders and generaly causing problems in our command and control structures.

As someone generally opposed to war in all but the most extreme of circumstances, I am not particularly excited about the idea of a war with China to begin with, but this situation would make it far worse by giving China's conventional forces an opportunity to make use of their superior numbers by decreasing our technical advantages. Russia is said to be pursing a similar strategy. What the US needs to do, and this is true whether or not the military finally gets its act together and does a far better job of (understanding and) securing its networks, is to take seriously cyberwar and cybercrime and put money into training, deploying, and supporting our own cyberwarriors and cybercops. This, much like cleanup of the environment, AI R&D, and R&D into life extension medicine, needs a Manhattan Project or Space Program style investment in order to really achieve its goals.

We should be concerned that China and Russia targeting our military computing systems, but we should be just as concerned that gangs (and especially Chinese and Russian ones, allegedly in collusion with their militaries) are targeting our online economic and business activity. The losses from cybercrime are estimated at around $240 Million, which while a drop in the bucket compared to bailing out Wall Street, is still significant criminal activity. The US, Europe and Japan need to get their acts together and protect our militaries and economies from being undermined by technologies that we created, and therefore we should be able to exploit just as well as the others.

If we're willing to make engineering and science careers seem fashionable again, rather than promoting only sports and entertainment, we can entice more younger people into those disciplines and generate enough qualified people to attack a variety of problems: cybercrime, environmental issues, health care, and so on. The first big step is, as a society, wanting to do it.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Let's Make Jobs

I've been busy at work, too busy to blog much for the last couple weeks, and am quite thankful for that. After all, I have a job, and a good one at that. According to reports, the U.S. has lost around two million jobs, the worst decline since 1974. With job loss numbers like that, people are starting to get desperate.

Obama has announced, but not detailed, a plan for job creation. Some of the components are sensible, such as renovate deteriorating school buildings and making public buildings energy efficient. Others, however, miss the mark. Rebuilding the national highway system cites Eisenhower, probably a good P.R. move, but it seems unwise in our current economic and environmental situation to do so without also making a priority of rebuilding of our once-great national railway system, and giving matching funds to cities and suburbs to expand commuter rail and metro systems.

The idea of upgrading hospitals being limited to giving them access to electronic medical records also seems sorely lacking. Many hospitals need facilities expansions and upgrades, equipment modernization, and most importantly staffing expansions (especially in nursing and emergency room doctors).

Furthermore, a national effort towards preventative medicine, nutrition, and fitness would not only reduce healthcare costs (an economic win), it would also create jobs and business opportunities in these areas (another economic win). Legislation mandating insurance (including government plans) pay for preventative care would be a good start.

Cutting subisides on beef and corn would also be a good plan. This would force a cometitive agricultural market and allow other food options to be cost competitive, such as real sugar vs. corn syrup. It also brings me to energy, as corn ethanol should not receive subsidies, and neither should oil. Cutting both would save taxpayer dollars, and open-up the alternative fuel markets by making alternatives to these two options more competitive.

Corn ethanol is not much of an alternative to oil, as corn is a resource-intensive crop to produce (I love to eat it, but am not so keen on as a monocultural basis for all agricultural production in our country). In tandem with transferring subsidies from processes that are already mature (corn and oil) to R&D into better processes, the government should also encourage hemp ehtanol production. Hemp is a lower water usage plant than corn, and is a hearty stock that can grow on "waste" land not used for food production.

Hemp ethanol could ameliorate several problems with corn ethanol: that using corn to make ethanol is preferencing fuel over food, that corn is a resource-intensive crop, that corn ethanol doesn't seem to have a gross energy win as a fuel source, and that subsidizing a mature process that isn't hampered by previously restrictive laws or counter-subsidies of another product and therefore should be able to compete on the open market is the worst kind of corporate welfare.

Any plan to create jobs in this economy will be met with public acceptance, but I hope the Obama team will be more creative and contemporary in their thinking about such plans. Simply looking back at Eisenhower and F.D.R., and adding the word "Internet" in a couple places, isn't going to be enough to create enough new markets for the U.S. to be a world leader not just economically, but in terms of economic and environmentall problem solving and technical innovation as well.