Archives For politics

microcosm

Really, the politicians in office today, science, and technology simply don’t mix. We have years and years of bills and their behavior proving this. From vapid remarks about science, to serious debate about an internet kill switch, to inviting woefully unqualified people to judge what should be funded by the NSF, it’s as if our lawmakers are trying to live the stereotype of over-confident managers who think they’re experts at all things because they can talk a big game. It would be amusing were they not in a position to actually change how science is being funded, and churn out ridiculous proposal after ridiculous proposal. The latest volley of this oblivious ineptitude is the bill from Lamar Smith (yes, R-TX, a real shocker, I know) which lays out what sort of projects the NSF should be funding and in the process basically discards anything that’s not an applied military or a medical project, negating the entire point of basic research and eviscerating basic research funding not obfuscated to look like a future treatment, weapon, or infosec system.

Basic science is done because we’re curious about something and we don’t know what sorts of applications or spin-offs it might have. Maybe there will be none. Maybe we’ll discover something as incredibly useful as lasers. Maybe there will be no direct benefit but in the process, we’ll build something that will change the world, like the world wide web being derived from a project meant to help particle physicists share data from particle collider results at CERN. We just don’t know, which is why we try to study all these things, and the results provide more than enough ROI as direct applications and spin-offs are commercialized. However, a lot of people will not see it that way, insisting that if something can’t be on the market within a few years, or used to kill bad guys half a world away, it’s a waste of money. And not only do they see it that way, they refuse to even try to understand how basic research and the scientific process work. They also do not care for, or understand scientists, deluding themselves with myths about their lifestyles.

And this is how we get the Lamar Smiths of the world. His constituents truly believe that a typical scientist could never make it in "a real job," and lives off of government welfare in the form of an enormous grant, handed over like a blank check from the NSF. The facts that scientists actually make something like $55,000 per year on average, have to deal with the NSF approving only a small fraction of all the grant applications they receive (below 10% in many fields and up to 20% in some others), and generally to already well established scientists, and that they can be fired for not being top of their field, do not register with them. It’s so sadly ironic that people who can easily out-earn scientists in their lifetimes and can keep their jobs if they’re at least mediocre, are deriding woefully underpaid professionals who can be fired for not being in the top 10% of their discipline and have to pay their own salaries through fundraising and political savvy. And it’s an insult to injury when said people turn scientifically illiterate politicians into their attack dogs.

But this is what happens when people are allowed, and even encouraged, to remain glib and as incurious as they please by politicians and public figures who rush to pat them on the back and give them a gold star for just being who they are. The current push to structure basic education around standardized testing rather than discovery, curiosity, and career orientation isn’t helping either. If we just let kids find out what fascinates them and feed their curiosity with key subjects that will let them pursue it further, they’ll learn the reading, the math, and the history involved to perform well on whatever standardized tests you’ll give them. After all, any field requires a solid command of basic literacy and mathematical competence to fully understand. But that requires the effort to restructure how the education system works, basically, giving a shit and trying to do something about it, to put it bluntly. However, by the choices a lot of people are making in their elected officials, and their support of said officials’ scientific illiteracy and hostility to science, I’m willing to bet that not a whole lot of the required shits are being given on average…

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map of the web

Plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth has accompanied the mostly closed door ITU sessions in which the fate of the free web is supposedly being decided. The global communications group’s head is worried about stopping cyberwarfare and criminals using spyware to pull off heists. The world’s authoritarians and dictators are asking for less online anonymity and more control over what’s being said on the web. The bureaucrats are asking for more centralized oversight on the international level, believing that U.S.-based ICANN to be the internet’s self-appointed masters, despite the ICANN hosting a global advisory board representing over 100 nations. And none of the parties involved in trying to reshape the internet seem to know what they’re doing, almost as if they believe that the global communication networks is a series of tubes they can re-rout with executive orders served to some nerds with gravity-defying ties and black-rimmed glasses. The truth is that whatever they try to do to tame the internet is almost certainly doomed to fail.

First, as it’s been pointed out several times on this blog, filtering and inspecting data generated by web users is impractical, expensive, and won’t catch what those administering the mechanism are trying to catch. Want to try to deep packet inspect all the traffic coming into an IXP? Best of luck there tiger. You will be looking at oceans of data, much of it containing completely useless information, data about background processes, and encrypted transactions. To find a nebulous target in this torrent of bytes is like standing in front of a tsunami and insisting on extracting just an ounce of water from it, and not just any ounce of water but from droplets that started out as a bit of meltwater flowing into a river across the ocean from you. Other than throttling down much of the web to a screeching halt as you parse petabytes of data per day, you’re going to have to give up on this idea. There’s a reason why dictatorships architect their internet infrastructure to easily cut the cord rather than surgically cut down the troublemakers. They know that trying to root out rebels and activists via deep packet inspection alone simply won’t work.

Secondly, you can demand that people use their real names on the web all you want, but there are tools to get around these requirements. Credentials can be spoofed, stolen, or hijacked by someone who has even a modicum of skill, proxies around the world can obscure your origin on the web, and it takes a very dedicated and expensive effort (like the Great Firewall of China) to even make it challenging to hide who you are online if you really don’t want to be tracked. If I run the Tor browser, disable scripts, cookies, and history, and refresh my identity on a regular basis during a browsing session, whatever sites I’m visiting will think I’m from Poland, or Norway, or the Czech Republic. Likewise, they won’t be able to see where I go since they can’t save cookies on my machine or silently load an app in the background via a hidden iframe since Javascript won’t be enabled. Yes, surfing the web like this is rough, but it does make you a lot harder to identify and find unless you’re already on the authorities’ radar for one thing or another, usually political activism outspoken enough to encourage a malevolent regime’s thugs to pay you a visit.

Finally, ICAAN is indeed powerful, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of internet management. It has a vast international advisory board and it handles top level domains and domain name issues; it’s the concierge for the user- and business-friendly aspect of the web. But without ICAAN, you can still have servers running websites. You might need to enter 74.125.224.72 to get to Google in IPv4 or say, 2001:4a2b:6d4f:8f3f in IPv6 to get there, or set up your own DNS server to do your own DNS resolution rather than rely on a large group of professionals to do it for you, but it can be done. In fact there’s a small number of other DNS root providers who index niche domains or try to circumvent the ICAAN roots for ideological and security reasons, essentially creating what amounts to a competing mini-web. So it’s not as if ICAAN has any real monopoly on how much of the web is wired. Likewise, what would controlling ICAAN do for the world’s paper pushers? Their governments can easily register any top level domain they wish for what amounts to a laughable amount of money for them: $185,000 to start and $25,000 a year to renew.

And all that leaves us with the question of what the ITU is trying to accomplish. If they can’t deep packet inspect the web for safety, force people to use their real names, and force the wasteful and unnecessary experiment of creating a non-U.S. ICANN clone, what’s the point of all the big, dramatic meetings? Well, bureaucrats have meetings. It’s just what they do. Their job is to meet and talk about things, then talk about other times they met to talk about related things. Policy is made either at the blistering pace of a narcoleptic turtle on sodium pentothal or cobbled on the fly when an emergency strikes and new laws have to be enacted quickly to soothe the public or authorize a new course of action. But in the meantime, the bureaucrats meet and talk with little to nothing coming out of the meetings. If anything, this ITU summit looks like paper pushers with a more or less passing idea of what the web is — not the internet mind you, just the web — giving each other their wish lists for what they could do with it. And let’s remember what happens with a lot of wish lists. They get discarded when the wishes actually have to be turned into reality.

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lab mouse

There’s a good reason why politics and science don’t, and shouldn’t, mix. It’s one thing to use a number of thorough studies to inform policy. But trying to make law with cherry-picked studies is wrong from beginning to end. Don’t that that to The Guardian’s editor John Vidal. According to him, only GMO industry shills would dispute the widely ridiculed French study that tries to pin an often used weed killer on cancerous tumors in rats, smearing and ridiculing the chief researcher because they can’t handle the truth about their poisonous mutant plants coming out. Just ignore the fact that the chief researcher has a scathing anti-GMO book coming out in stores, and that his idea of peer review was to ban the press from publishing any criticism of his paper if science writers requested to see his work firsthand and solicit expert opinions.

Had a researcher working for Monsanto done the same thing, how much do you want to be that Vidal and his fellow anti-GMO crusaders would holler at the top of their lungs about bad science invading the public discourse? Tellingly, he applies this very double standard when presenting excuses for Gilles-Eric Séralini’s shoddy work, arguing that he used the same benchmarks as a typical Monsanto food safety study and therefore his control groups and timelines for the mice exposed to Roundup are valid. These, by the way, are the very same studies anti-GMO activists say are woefully inadequate to show anything conclusive. But then again, if you believe that any criticism of a study that says what to hear about GMOs is an industry conspiracy, I suppose you would think that industry studies are a proper rebuttal, even if you argue with their validity.

Here are the key issues. Séralini has a major conflict of interest and a heavy ideological slant he doesn’t even try to hide. He used rats known to frequently develop cancerous tumors by the end of a two year span. He didn’t show a relationship between tumor growth and frequency and the doses of Roundup used. The paper has numerous methodological and statistical flaws. And just to put the cherry on top, he sensationalized his findings and tried to ban the press from seeking second opinions before his formal announcement and the launch of his book. Even if you think that GMOs are pure mutated evil, you have to admit that this is a terrible way to do science and there are far better ways to show if GMOs are dangerous. Conducting a sound study and being open to criticism rather than just trying to make a political point would be one example. But for the environmentalist equivalent of global warming denialism, that’s very unlikely to happen…

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exchange abstract

There’s a part of the Republican economic policy that I never understood and really can’t seem to wrap my mind around because the more I think it about it, the more self-contradictory it gets, and the more it resembles an almost prayful fantasy rather than a sound plan. Now I know that the ardent disciples of the right wing will chuckle and say "well duh, you don’t get it because you must be one of those stupid liberal Obamocrats, I mean hell you’re from the former USSR," as it tends to be the level of partisan debate nowadays. But my problem with this policy doesn’t come from some sort of meditation on morality and society. It comes from my wallet since I’m not just a consultant by trade, I’m an independent consultant, so according to the Republican speeches, it’s a miracle that I haven’t been strangled out of business by the socialists in Congress and if I vote for GOP, I’d make so much money thanks to their tax cuts, I could hire a whole staff. This is, in a nutshell, their plan for nurturing the economic recovery. Give entrepreneurs and business owners tax cuts so they hire people in appreciation.

There are a few slight problems with this rosy outlook. First and foremost, have you noticed the surge in productivity as fewer and fewer people have jobs? That’s thanks to new technology. An uncomfortable truth is that a lot of jobs are being made obsolete which is why the job training for those other than master treadespeople will need to be tied to the STEM fields and into a major coalition of research and development labs for government and big corporate clients if we ever hope to make a serious, permanent dent in unemployment. So why would I want to run off and hire someone if I get a tax cut if I can just build some software to do things for me? I can write a program to look for differences in data for tens of thousands of reports and it’ll do the job in just a couple of seconds. Certainly the GOP would balk at the idea that instead of writing a program, I should’ve went out and found someone to manually sift through the reports for me for days and bill me $10 to $15 an hour. But why would they expect me to do the same thing if they give me a tax refund or a tax holiday, especially if I need the job done today, not next week?

Secondly, employees are expensive and the hiring practices of many companies to ensure that the money they spent will go to an employee they’re 100% sure should do the job make it even more expensive and tedious to hire someone. Basically, companies hire as a last resort and for every job they don’t create, they can divert more towards paying down debt, buying new tools, and paying dividends to those who invested in them. There’s nothing corrupt or evil about this. It’s really the same as you not going out for nights on the town to save some money so you can buy that new couch and pay down your credit card bill. You need the couch, your savings need some replenishing in case of a rainy day, and the bills don’t pay themselves. And when the GOP argues that you should spend money because dammit, people are counting on you to pay them so we can maintain a strong economy, I’m sure your first question is whether they’re paying any attention to what they’re saying. But that’s exactly what they’re proposing. Go out to spend your tax refunds, give them to businesses and the businesses will hire you. This view of the economy is simplistic to a fault and ignores what companies actually need to do to stay profitable.

People who are in business do it to make money. If they feel charitable, they donate and get to write off the money they donate off their taxes, which if fair since they’re using it to help those in need or to advance a project that helps educate others. What the Republican idea proposes is an unworkable merger between the two, in which people who need to make money for those who invested in them expecting a return within three to five years, are being relied on to give jobs to people who need them as a reward for their spending despite this arrangement not being in the best long term interests of the companies they run. On top of this, the Republicans play a rather bizarre blame game in which companies that don’t want to hire people because the profits they earn can be invested elsewhere, are victims of a government that’s not creating the necessary environment to get companies to hire. And when people are laid off, the government is blamed for mishandling the economy even though whether people stay or go depends on the policies of an individual company. There are businesses who lay off right and left to make the quarter look better and there are those who refuse to lay people off even in hard times.

The fact of the matter folks is that blaming the government for why you’re not doing well or why you had to lay people off is terrible management. I’ve heard conversations in which people who closed their businesses said that they were lucky they closed up shop before Obama took the oath of office and it always struck me as a handy way of excusing one’s mismanagement. If you had a successful business that brought you a lot of money and with which you paid yourself well, why would you kill this golden goose just because a certain politician came to power? What kind of savvy businessperson decides to do this sort of thing? Maybe the business wasn’t doing very well and you had no idea how to fix it, so you closed up shop and blamed Obama so it doesn’t look like you failed but that you had no choice but to get out? Companies with good models and great products and ideas almost always make money regardless of who occupies Congress and the White House. And our goal should be to give these companies the incentive to invest here, rather than in an emerging market by offering new and more innovative technologies and ways of doing things to help boost their bottom line over the long haul.

We can’t do that with a tax cut and spewing fire and brimstone about government regulations as talking points are chanted with the zeal of a cultist at the apogee of an incantation. We have to expand R&D grants to help improve industrial designs and manufacturing techniques, play up all the strong intellectual property protections American law gives and the kind of infrastructure and government protection of their international interests no emerging market can offer. A quick and easy tax cut is the lazy politician’s way of solving big problems and the effects are short term. If a lawmaker drops my rent for three years and promises to raise it on the fourth, guess what I’ll be doing when the third year is up? That’s right, moving. These inducements are like the weekend sales at the mall, there to help bring in the crowds for those three days. Investments in R&D for retooling our economy which yield tools that can help companies more profitable over the long term and prompt them to hire workers who actually understand how these tools work is what will require hard work and long term planning, but will bring the biggest bang for our buck. Though for an average politician with a two year shelf life, this is simply too big of a project to consider…

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It’s always been a common refrain in politics to call one’s opponents or detractors ignorant and we’re all quite aware that ignorance exists across the entire political spectrum, and that people who don’t have a solid grasp of the issues vote on a regular basis. Or as Politico put it bluntly, there are stupid people out there and they’re voting with their gut rather than their minds. Of course, many political news junkies would shout, voters do not understand what really goes on because they don’t pay attention to the news like we do. But there’s absolutely no indication that just paying attention to the news keeps one informed either and those obsessed with soap operas spun on Capitol Hill and in the White House aren’t necessarily all that knowledgeable either. The vast gap between knowing what issues do and don’t exist, and how they can or can’t be handled seems to exist on a much deeper level with voters believing that politicians have power over things out of their control. Just take something as simple as figuring out whether a president can do something about gas prices. For Politico, it’s just one of the numerous examples of how all too many voters are simply not researching issues…

The present furor over gas prices is a case in point: Obama’s job approval dropped 9 points over the last month according to a CBS/New York Times poll, as the cost of fuel has risen abruptly. The survey found that 54 percent of Americans believe that the president could do a lot to combat high gas prices. That’s not really true, but it’s the dynamic that’s shown up in other polls too: 26 percent of respondents told an ABC News/Washington Post poll that they approve of Obama’s handling of gas prices, versus 65 percent who disapprove. […] To reassess a president’s performance in the context of a short-term increase in gas prices is more of a tantrum-like response to a new feeling of discomfort over which the president has relatively little control.

Certainly a president could have a direct effect on gas prices with things like, oh say, military actions in a very volatile and oil rich region, but other than that, he would have to start controlling the international commodities market which can a) infuriate fiscal conservatives around the world, b) trigger dangerous conflicts between oil exporters and consumers that could erupt into paroxysms of military threats, c) disrupt global trade leading to serious market convulsions, or d) all of the above and worse, which is why it will never happen. But the voters still expect him to do something because hey, he’s the president and we elected him to fix things so he better do his job and fix things. Remember the "will this be on the test" culture developed by many Americans? It’s also at play in politics. Understandably, if one wanted to be informed about everything happening in the world today as well as study it’s social and economic context and consequences, reading the news and volumes of books on the relevant subjects would quickly become this person’s predominant occupation. But this isn’t an issue of knowing exactly how trade between the U.S. and Azerbaijan breaks down to the dollar. This is a basic matter of knowing that the president’s power if far from unlimited and gas prices are set by the market, not an edict from one government, no matter how powerful this government is or how much oil it consumes.

The paradoxical thing at play here seems to be that Americans consider voting to be a right and an obligation, and see politicians as people who are chosen to fix problems, but they don’t really want to care about the real scope or nature of the problems, and don’t really want to educate themselves on how likely it is that what their chosen politicians are offering good solutions to current dilemmas. They’ll elect someone to fix Washington’s culture of political stagnation, create jobs, and lower healthcare costs, but woefully underestimate the level of entrenchment in the establishment, won’t realize that no politician can fix decades of mismanagement in both primary and secondary education with no resources and in one term, or change the multi-trillion dollar market for healthcare without insurance companies, lawyers, and medical equipment corporations playing ball for a common good rather than their bottom lines, or change the course of global trade. They don’t even know how much we spend and on what, assuming we devote more than ten times what we do to science and that as much as 25 times more foreign aid is given than actually is. And that’s pretty scary. Too many voters just don’t care, wanting a charismatic someone to solve complex problems while strictly adhering to a partisan dogma many of the most vocal voters take to be nothing short of holy writ, and just skip all the details…

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Obviously there’s no justification or mitigating facet when it comes to child pornography and it is, just as it has to remain, an instant condemnation that leaves a giant skidmark on anything good someone involved with this horrid form of child abuse may have accomplished at any point in his life. You could avert World War 3 then go on to create a democratic, transparent, and effective government for the people of Somalia thus winning a well deserved Nobel Peace Prize. But get caught with child porn and you’re an instant pariah and no wonder. We’re supposed to protect children. They’re our future. They’re our hopes, dreams, and when we have children, it’s a commitment to decades of raising and educating them, and we’ll do whatever it takes to keep them safe from violent sociopaths and perverts, especially when those perverts claim to study divine moral authorities and get easy access to kids by invoking their position in society. But as much as we want to protect children, we have to ask ourselves if we really want to completely obliterate legal online privacy and security while promptly exposing ourselves to blackmail, abuse, and a high potential for identity theft and financial fraud to do that?

Just like the issue with SOPA and PROTECT IP, the bill which opens another digital Pandora’s box has a very noble-sounding title and gives those intended to enforce it nearly limitless powers. A real world equivalent to this legislation would be declaring martial law to cut down on convenience store robberies. This isn’t just web traffic friendly hyperbole since both SOPA and PROTECT IP would’ve allowed anyone to take sites offline for any report of copyright infringement, real or not, the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographer’s Act is mandating that your ISP store absolutely everything about your activities on the web for 18 months, and when I say everything, I’m also talking about keeping your personal financial information on file. That odd rash that could be mistaken for an STD you looked up on WebMD? Or the sexy lingerie you bought online? All saved by the company providing your internet access along with your bank accounts so if someone at your ISP decides to blackmail you in the future or take a luxury vacation with your savings or your credit card, all that’s needed is access to your personal data, data that’s unlikely to be all that well secured since your ISP is not on the hook if your personal information is compromised unlike your bank or credit card issuer. They’re just storing it in data centers because they have to and PCIPA doesn’t come with any guidelines for handling sensitive data.

Basically the whole point is to give law enforcement instant access to everyone’s personal data if they want to investigate someone for involvement in child pornography and come up with arrest warrant worthy evidence in several hours rather than several weeks or months. But as for those of us who have nothing to do with sordid child abuse and whose data is to be archived for effectively all time (not to get too technical, but such data will be around for a lot more than 18 months in the real world, I assure you), there’s no safeguard that will keep all this crucial information safe from characters with dubious intentions. Personally, if someone wants to peruse my financial records for an investigation in a court of law, I have no problem with producing what’s required as I’ve committed no crime and have nothing to fear from a judge. But just because I have nothing to fear doesn’t mean that I’m fine with my financial records and internet searches just floating around for a random employee or contractor at an ISP to dig through. Unlike law enforcement, they have zero business looking through them, and having seen how seriously they take security (hint, not very at all), I don’t trust them to have any of it. To go after child pornographers and pedophiles whether they are businessmen or holy men is noble. To declare an open season on everyone who uses the web and treat them as guilty until proven innocent is not.

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Despite the dedicated efforts of the Global Atheist Conspiracy, it seems that the War on Christmas has been lost again this year since the holiday is scheduled to proceed without a hitch, store clerks still wish us a Merry Christmas, and just about every place that can be decorated with a Christmas motif, was decorated with one. It really is almost like there’s no sinister conspiracy to dismantle Christmas just to oppress Christians and an annual stream of sensationalistic half-truths and paranoia about the supposed secular crackdown on one of the biggest holidays of the year, is really a plea for ratings by pundits who want you to tune in rather than turn off the TV and spend more time with your family and wrapping presents. Oh right, that’s exactly what happens every year as those looking to be offended and claim oppression see the all-inclusive and cost-saving Happy Holidays moniker as an anti-religious plot rather than just getting into the holiday spirit of good will and calm reflection on the year that’s coming to a close. Holidays are a time to have fun rather than to look for fights.

Christmas may have started out as a planned celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth, which was attributed to old polytheistic traditions of celebrations of the winter solstice which ended the year for many ancient cultures. In today’s world, we’re well aware that if Jesus really was born two millennia ago just as the Bible says, he may have been born anywhere between mid-spring to early fall, but definitely not anywhere during the winter. Had he been born close to the solstice in Roman-ruled Judea, their Saturnalia parties would have certainly played some role in the narrative as the three wise men would’ve had to present their gifts as the Romans held their games and feasts in the background, right next door to where Jesus is said to have been born. We also know that many Christmas traditions like the decorated pine tree, the Yule log, and even the holiday feasts came to us from Norse and Mediterranean cultures which existed before and alongside Christianity, incorporated with the spread of the new religion over hundreds of years and allowed to exist side by side with Christmas for an easier time managing newly converted people with their own rich traditions and ancient heritages.

Over time, Christmas has become more of a secular holiday about family and presents than a pious event of just one religious movement, with the winter solstices caused by our planet’s axial tilt as the reason for some sort of celebration and us simply coming up with the appropriate one. And that’s perfectly ok. The whole point is to celebrate the passing year and have an excuse to slow down to spend more time with the people in your life. Whether your excuse is Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Saturnalia, or the birthday of the other legendary figure said to born around the winter solstice of a virgin, the Persian deity Mithras, go for it. To waste your time frustrated about whether someone is pious enough about what was once a purely religious event and fighting culture wars over etiquette and which screaming head on TV is better than an uncannily similar loudmouth on another news channel just seems to miss the whole point of what this season has to offer. So let the culture warriors perpetually looking to be outraged and to feel threatened by those who are different have their annual politically religious aneurism. It’s their issue if their hearts skip a beat when they hear a “happy holidays.” We, the skeptics, secularists, and atheists, don’t have to play their games. We can, and should, just enjoy our time with friends and loved ones, swapping presents and decorating something to look festive.

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Usually, I try to avoid current events. Too many blogs and news sites tend to be swamped by them and they’re really not my trade since I prefer to ponder a topic for a bit before writing about it. However, when our globe is captured by a singular event, it’s impossible not to acknowledge it. Osama bin Laden is finally dead and gone thanks to years of effort. As odd it may sound, it seems like everyone got what they wanted from this event. We got to kill our modern day political bogeyman, and he got to die as a martyr for his misguided cause. Though we’ll never know his last thoughts, I wonder if bin Laden had a moment of clarity before he was shot, unsure if his boasts of wanting to be killed for his beliefs should’ve been anything but boasts, wondering if he really did want to die like that. His legacy will be that of a typical wealthy and obsessed sociopath with weapons: a long swath of destruction in which he declared that anyone who his men hurt or got caught in the crossfire as a fair target, including fellow Muslims who were no fans of American foreign policy but didn’t want war either, killed by bombings and shootings all because they wouldn’t bow before bin Laden’s crusade.

It’s one thing to protest what’s happening in politics and on the world’s stage, and I think we can all agree that every nation makes missteps or decides on courses of action which are almost guaranteed not to work. But there is no situation in which it’s acceptable to simply declare war on anyone and everyone who doesn’t share your obsessions and religious beliefs, demanding that people who want no part of any battle do your bidding and kill whoever catches your ire that day, or become targets. Yet this is exactly what bin Laden did, and while we can argue the mechanics of the conflicts engulfing the world today for decades to come (and I assure you that many historians will be doing just that), I think it’s fair to say that his influence only lead to more death and more violence. Like so many religious fundamentalists on a warpath, he treated the lives of others as cheap, and even his foot soldiers seemed little more than disposable pawns to him, used as human weapons, told that the people they’ll kill in their last moments on Earth, be they American soldiers or terrified little children in their mothers’ arms, are all legitimate targets who need to be slaughtered. The fewer monsters with such an unspeakably evil attitude towards other human beings exist in this world, the better.

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Here’s an interesting plan being floated around once in a while: an itemized receipt which shows how all the taxes you pay are being distributed among government programs. A good example of how an online version would work is Third Way’s tax receipt calculator, which breaks down exactly how much of your money was slated to go to virtually all the major line items of the federal budget. What’s the purpose of all this? To give a realistic idea of how much the government actually spends and for what this money is used. Basically, as we saw before with off-the-cuff estimates for NASA’s budget, it seems that Americans don’t actually know how much is being spent on seemingly big ticket items every year. They think that NASA gets nearly $500 billion in cash when it actually gets closer to $18 billion, or that we spend almost $900 billion on foreign aid, a quarter of the entire budget, when the number is actually 0.6% or so. No wonder, wonk reasoning goes, that so many people are just fine with slashing aid programs and scientific research. They think they’re saving trillions.

Really, though, how many people will be willing to take the time to notice that the programs that they say can’t be cut actually make up nearly three quarters of the budget on an online calculator if they haven’t yet taken any to jump on one of the hundreds of sites which every tax season break down government expenditures with a dazzling array of static and interactive charts? How many times must one be bashed over the head with facts to finally notice that half of his taxes was spent on Social Security, the Department of Defense, and Homeland Security as well as the $83 billion a year intelligence apparatus involving the CIA and the NSA? Education and science get a mere pittance by comparison, less than $55 billion if we omit NASA. The news that science was not well funded has been trumpeted for years across the web, complete with charts and graphs to show just how little was actually being doled out to scientists who are claimed by politicians to be the best in the world, working at the global nexus for the brightest and most creative minds: American universities. The very same politicians, by the way, who go on to decry advanced education as a waste of time on the next breath, then rush to cut its already paltry budgets even further to pretend that they’re doing something about deficits.

So if people are still guessing that we spend $1.3 trillion, or some other ridiculous sum on science, research, and education in the U.S., enough to turn college professors into millionaires and scientists into wealthy, jet- setting experts sought around the world for their advice, what hope do we have of convincing them otherwise with yet another interactive little flash chart? After nearly a decade of complaints we still have voters who have convinced themselves despite all available facts on the matter, that they can cut aid, science, education, and swaths of small federal bureaucracies, balance the budget, and keep their immense military, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as is, with no changes. How many charts do we have to bring up? How many times does someone have to go on TV and slowly, painstakingly, almost hypnotically repeat that it’s those exact and very programs the voters want left as is that are bleeding us dry and if they really want to keep them as is, they will have to pay higher taxes, which happens to be one of the wildly taboo suggestions in politics today? This is probably the most discouraging issue when it comes to government budgets nowadays: an electorate that doesn’t want to take the time to learn about the national finances, and which thinks that by inflicting death by a thousand cuts on agencies amounting to roughly a quarter of the budget combined, we’ll be back in the black and ready to pay down the yawning foreign debt. Math? Who needs it? We have budgets to balance!

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President Obama has been trying to rejuvenate NASA and trying to move a great deal of spacecraft design to ambitious space tourism startups who’ve been just waiting for a chance to sell their skills to the agency, and in a recent speech, he tried to aim the engineers and astronauts towards landing on asteroids by 2025 and on Mars by the mid 2030s. While this is the strategy that’s really needed to prod NASA out of its rut from a very high level overview, it’s missing some crucial components. In reality, the planned upticks in funding are not as big as they seem at first glance, the long and rather vague timelines leave far too much room for the agency to loose its course, and there seems to be a lack of urgency and the kind of short focus needed to kick NASA into high gear. To once again lead the way in space exploration, the agency needs far more radical changes.

To really understand what’s going on at NASA, we need to start with what’s probably the most important thing about the agency: its history. Rather than a civilian group coming together to explore space, NASA is a spawn of a military R&D lab which was tasked with the singular goal of landing on the Moon. This is why JFK was so forceful in his famous speech challenging the United States to land on the Moon by 1969 and the agency’s goals were a top priority for the government, meaning that whenever NASA needed cash, it got cash. When the space race was won and it became clear that Soviet astronauts simply couldn’t match the Apollo program, the agency’s goals became more nebulous and less committed. Instead of going forward with ambitious military projects and high brow civilian concepts, the agency saw its budget drained in both real and relative terms, became saddled with a risk and innovation averse bureaucracy, and managed to start moving backwards in its technologies for what amounted to a very transparent effort to recapture the glory of its heyday.

Now, it may seem like great goal setting to tell an agency to land on asteroids in 2025, but where’s the rush or the challenge? Where’s the pressure from the media and the public? These ingredients just aren’t there. Over the next 15 years, another administration would have plenty of time to refocus the agency yet again, pointing it back at the Moon (where it should really be going). The same applies with the notion of a mission to Mars. We saw what happened to some three decades of similar plans and challenges and suffice it to say, we’re not on the Red Planet yet. Instead, if we really want to rev up NASA, we need to set a short term goal of going back to the Moon with technology to be provided by the small, nimble aerospace startups mentioned above. And not in a decade or two. No, let’s challenge NASA to do it within eight years with the plan to start setting up a base on the lunar surface. Rather than repeat the heyday of Apollo, have the agency go all out and push the envelope from a technical and scientific standpoint.

But of course, this won’t happen until we give NASA some serious monetary support. Sure, Obama promised a $6 billion addition over the next ten years which sounds impressive at first, but it actually averages just $600 million more per year for an agency with an existing budget of nearly $19 billion. That’s just over a 3% raise. It might keep up with inflation, but it certainly won’t help NASA go farther into space. And while half of American voters support this sad state of affairs, it seems that the government’s hands are tied. Even if Congress had a revelation and finally understood that heavy investments in science generate jobs and spur innovation, as well as contribute to higher literacy and education in such demand by military labs, lawmakers just wouldn’t be willing to do it in a fit of faux frugality. The offer of more money for new, far reaching programs in the coming decades coming from Obama was really the promise of a pittance to pursue rather vague goals outlined in a pep talk unlikely to be followed by any serious action from the government at large. How unfortunate that those who once explored the outer limits of human technology are now just an afterthought by politicians who care much more about partisan mudslinging than leading their nation and unwilling to commit to a real scientific challenge which could contribute decades worth of new technologies and jobs to the economy…

[ illustration by Kenn Brown and Chris Wren ]

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