Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Mikhail Gorbachev, rest in peace

Geopolitical events are always work of many, but the end of the Cold War was above all the decision of one man – Mikhail Gorbachev. He made the ending much better than it could have been for the world as a whole. For that, he deserves the world's thanks.

Gorbachev rose to power in 1985. The power he held was like that of a medieval king surrounded by nobles. He was capable of autocratic rule, but he needed the Politburo's support to operate successfully and avoid overthrow. His most distinctive policies were generally aimed at making Communism less bad. The buzzwords of his early rule were glasnost (openness, largely meaning freedom of speech) and perestroika (restructuring, often involving decentralization of power away from Moscow). 

As things progressed, he let the Eastern European nations ruled from Moscow go their own way. Germany appreciates him for letting the East reunite with the West. With a few exceptions close to home (the Baltic states and South Caucusus) he generally avoided using violence to maintain a Moscow-ruled empire. Nations outside the USSR left the Warsaw Pact, and most became democracies. The other Soviet Republics became independent from Moscow, and generally seem to have done better than in the USSR days, but with a wide range of outcomes.

Things went badly for Gorbachev and for Russia in the early 1990s. He overcame an attempted coup with the support of frequent rival Boris Yeltsin, who thereby gained the upper hand. Yeltsin set himself up to rule 1990s Russia, while Gorbachev would be out of power as the USSR vanished under him. Yeltsin's rule was marked by economic chaos, corrupt privatizations, a return to autocracy, and the choice of Vladimir Putin as his successor.

While things in Russia went poorly, the collapse of the USSR was good for the rest of the world. Letting most of the former Warsaw Pact go its own way without a fight dramatically reduced the amount of violence that Moscow could order. The time of the US and the USSR sowing proxy wars across Asia, Africa, and Latin America came to an end.

Ending the Cold War reduced risk of total nuclear annihilation. Obviously the nuclear weapons are still there, but conflicts between two sides with big nuclear arsenals are the most dangerous, because that's where the apocalypse logic of Mutually Assured Destruction gets all the missiles in the air. Gorbachev simply disbanded one of the sides, so we're less likely now to die in nuclear war. 

Overall, Gorbachev was as good a man, and much a force for good in the world, as one could hope for a leader of the USSR to be. He loved his wife Raisa. He made a more peaceful world; may he rest in peace.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Renegotiate NAFTA, get baby formula shortage

America's baby formula shortage is the result of Donald Trump's cunning approach to the politics of trade. He kept his promise to renegotiate NAFTA by putting sweet deals for all his favorite corporate interest groups into NAFTA's replacement, the USMCA. The dairy farmers wanted the US baby formula market to themselves, and they got it.

Why were they so focused on baby formula? The main ingredient in baby formula is powdered milk, the unusual dairy product that lasts forever. Dairy producers have natural advantages in their local fresh milk markets since the product is perishable, but powdered milk can come from a much wider range of places and times. So they want trade restrictions to block out foreign powdered milk. (This is from Sarah Taber, a wonderful source of agriculture-related political information.)

What happens when you've restricted baby formula imports, and one of your major baby formula production plants gets contaminated? We're finding out now.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Carrick Flynn, cryptocurrency, and pandemic prevention

Carrick Flynn is running for Congress in Oregon, with a focus on preventing pandemics. Many Southeast Asian countries protected their people from COVID-19 better than America did, because they had faced the threat of SARS and come up with a plan for addressing the next pandemic. As COVID-19 continues infecting people in 2022, America remains far short of the leadership it needs on the issue. Congress is full of ex-military people who can advise on war, but it’s light on experts in preventing viruses from killing us. 

Carrick worked on preventing pandemics and other world-destroying disasters as Research Faculty in Emerging Technology at Georgetown. He contributed to the Biden Administration's Pandemic Prevention Plan. This expertise convinced me to donate to his campaign earlier this year. 

It’s also why Carrick has attracted the financial support of cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried. Sam and his brother Gabe are heavily involved in anti-pandemic causes, and are influenced by philosophical views that I share. As Bitcoin looks like a useless bubble, and pandemic prevention is one of the things the world needs most, cryptocurrency money focusing the US government on pandemic prevention is trash becoming treasure. Of course, it looks like lots of other things to other people who have an understandable fear of cryptocurrency billionaires funding obscure causes. 

I was gearing up to write a blog post explaining the situation, but Ian Ward at Politico did it for me. I strongly recommend it to anyone trying to figure out what’s going on here. The article even explained longtermism! (And now there's yet another good article on the matter – an interview of Carrick by Dylan Matthews and Miranda Dixon-Luinenberg.) This is one of the deep philosophical reasons why I’m so heavily focused on pandemic prevention. Ward does a good job, but I’ll briefly explain it in my own terms.

As COVID-19 showed, the world isn’t well-defended against pandemics. And with technology getting cheaper and more easily accessible, the ability to design your own highly transmissible lethal virus at home might soon be widely available too. There’s a serious risk that the human species ends soon after that point. 

While it’s pretty important to prevent lots of people from dying, it’s extra important to prevent literally everyone from dying. That cuts off any possibility of a future where the human species makes massive technological and social progress, and achieves a stable high-tech peaceful society where everyone is happy. Obviously that’s a long way off, but if we get there in maybe a thousand years, the next millions of years could be loely. We could use our futuristic technology to enjoy ourselves, explore space, and make all the other earthly beings happy too. If you count value in bits of happiness as we utilitarians do, and you don’t care about when that happiness exists in time, creating that future looks like the most important thing to do.

That’s why preventing humanity from ending just as we acquires the technological power to destroy ourselves looms as the greatest task of our era. We survived nuclear threats in the Cold War. We’ll spend this century grappling with the threat of climate change, and while powerful forces block progress on that issue, there are also many powerful people who understand its seriousness and how to address it. On pandemics, we’re woefully underprepared. If money from the cryptocurrency bubble is going to defend humanity from destruction by killer viruses, so much the better.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Russia invades Ukraine: geopolitical strategy for the aftermath

Russia has invaded Ukraine. Seven years ago, Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Crimea, the part of Ukraine that projects into the Black Sea. There’s no telling how far he plans to go this time. Russian cruise missiles have struck the capital city of Kiev, and Russian troops have begun an amphibious assault on Odessa.

The best practical suggestions for the international community that I’ve seen come from Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba, who tweeted the following “to do list”:

1. Devastating sanctions on Russia NOW, including SWIFT

2. Fully isolate Russia by all means, in all formats

3. Weapons, equipment for Ukraine

4. Financial assistance

5. Humanitarian assistance

Kuleba notably doesn’t call for the West to directly attack Russia or even Russian troops in Ukraine. He just asks for more assistance for his own government and whatever resistance it puts up. If the democratically elected Ukrainian government wants to fight the Russians or operate a resistance movement, the West should support them in all the ways Kuleba suggests. I’ll leave further immediate suggestions about Ukraine to those knowledgeable about the situation on the ground.

Ukraine's President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is best known to Americans from Donald Trump’s impeachment. Just after being elected, Zelenskyy asked Trump to deliver the Javelin anti-tank missiles that Congress had bought for Ukraine’s defense. Delivery of the missiles was part of a US defensive commitment in return for Ukraine agreeing to nuclear nonproliferation treaties. Trump responded by asking for a “favor”: incriminating information about Hunter Biden.

It occurred to me at the time that Putin won whether Zelenskyy agreed or not. Either his ally Trump would get political advantage, or his tanks could move across Ukraine with fewer rockets aimed their way. Now the tanks are rolling.

Over the longer term, It’s becoming increasingly clear that the great foreign policy conflicts of the 21st century will pit authoritarian empires against liberal democracies. I hope this doesn’t return international politics to its state in the Cold War, full of brutal proxy wars and danger that humanity might be annihilated with nuclear weapons. The authoritarian empires will have to grow more powerful for that to happen, but for now they’re on the rise.

My best idea for holding off the authoritarian empires is for liberal democracies around the world to band together in mutual defense alliances. NATO is a regional model for military cooperation, and the world could use some sort of new SEATO for southern and eastern Asian nations. The democracies can also give each other favored trade and immigration status, empowering their people to gain from the benefits of global coordination. The significance of national boundaries between liberal democracies should be reduced, hopefully with EU-like or US-Canada-like relations between all.

Exactly where mutual defense alliance should draw its line in the sand, beyond which a Russia can’t cross without triggering war, is not an easy question to answer. But unless a line is drawn somewhere, empires can just keep conquering small countries one by one until only the large countries are left. Ukraine borders 4 NATO member states, and if Putin conquers it, he’ll be right at the line we’ve already drawn.

A liberal democratic alliance has important structural advantages over ethnic nationalist authoritarian empires. Russia and China can’t win together at world domination. They won’t be able to agree about whether the capital of the authoritarian world government should be Moscow or Beijing, or whether its racial aristocracy will be Russian or Chinese. So there will always be dividing lines between them, with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world on each side of the line. The world survived a similar arrangement for several decades during the Cold War; we might not be here today if that had continued.

Things are different if the liberal democracies win and create a world government to deal with global problems like pandemics and climate change. Then there won’t be a racial aristocracy (it’s liberalism, there are equal rights for all races) and people won’t really care where the capital is (it’s democracy, you get one vote wherever you are). Authoritarian empires can’t create lasting world peace because they create inequalities of rights that engender violent conflict. A global liberal democracy could institute universal human rights, and use the technology of the future to provide for all. With enough resources for everyone and no more enemies across borders, the weapons of war could be put away forever.

I don’t know whether Ukrainian democracy can be saved. But the international community should try, in part to show authoritarians that trying to take over liberal democracies doesn't go well. A resistance led by Zelenskyy should have all the support Kuleba asks for.

The future of humanity is in many more hands. In the long run, the two most likely endings for the era of independent nation-states seem to be lasting world peace through global liberal democracy, and the total destruction of humanity by people using terrifyingly powerful technology at odds with one another. For those who wish for peace, preventing the authoritarian empires from gaining strength is a central task of our geopolitical era. 

Monday, February 14, 2022

Einstein thanks Hume for help with relativity

In 1915, Albert Einstein wrote to Moritz Schlick praising "Hume, whose Treatise of Human Nature I had studied avidly and with admiration shortly before discovering the theory of relativity. It is very possible that without these philosophical studies I would not have arrived at the solution."

Decades later, Einstein would reiterate that "In so far as I can be aware, the immediate influence of D. Hume on me was great. I read him with Konrad Habicht and Solovine in Bern" And 1949, Einstein would write that Hume helped him reject the "axiom of the absolute character of time, viz, simultaneity". Einstein continues, "The type of critical reasoning required for the discovery of this central point... was decisively furthered, in my case, especially by the reading of David Hume’s and Ernst Mach’s philosophical writings."

According to John Norton and Matias Slavov, Hume's empiricist account of concepts was the important thing Einstein found in the Treatise. If time is an a priori form of sensibility with absolute simultaneity built in, as Kant suggested in replying to Hume, relativistic time dilation is impossible. But if the concept of time is empirically acquired and conventionally codified, absolute simultaneity can be a mere approximation suitable for slow things, which fails closer to the speed of light.

The picture is of the mathematician Conrad Habicht, the philosopher Maurice Solovine, and Einstein. They formed a little philosophy reading group in Switzerland and read Hume's Treatise as well as works by Mill, Poincare, and Spinoza. At one point Solovine missed a meeting that was held in his apartment to attend a concert. Einstein and Habicht trashed the apartment, taunted Solovine, and made sure the next meeting lasted until morning to make up for lost time. They remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Well over a century after Hume remarked that his Treatise "fell dead-born from the press", Einstein used it to discover the nature of space and time, and the shape of the universe. It gives me optimism for the power of empiricist philosophy. Many great mysteries may remain to be solved by those carrying empirical data in one hand and Hume's Treatise in the other.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Green Chambers for better color vision in the brain

If scientists had offered me a pill that would make me see green like people with normal color vision and also grow a tail, I would’ve taken it. Then I could see an amazing new color. And when people suggested more experiments that could give me cool powers, I could wag my tail. 

Nobody came to greenpill me, but I did get the new Enchroma glasses. The pictures are of what I see when I’m blasting my eyes full of the most intense green light possible. I think this might be having good long-term effects on my brain’s ability to process green. 

My color vision problem is deuteranomaly. I have a poorly functioning form of the medium-wavelength opsin, a color-receiving eye protein. This is the receptor essential to the famed “green cone”, though it catches a wide range of wavelengths. The effect of my defective opsin that my eyes have limited sensitivity to pure medium greens and reds. The greens get washed out; pure dark green fades quickly into black. I also get fewer brilliant varieties of red; I might be getting more shades of khaki instead. 

Enchroma glasses correct deuteranomaly with notch filters, which cut down specific wavelengths of light. Given the complexities of visual processing, it’s not clear how removing light in the 480-490nm (red-orange) and 580-590nm (blue-green) wavelengths affects the total picture. Probably my system takes these wavelengths as evidence for things not being bright red or green respectively, but I don’t know how that story will go. It’ll start off with photons colliding with receptor molecules, which could be an unpredictable collision. I don’t know how it goes from there through the rest of the visual system. 

But I do know that the story is full of things blocking light. The defective opsin that isn’t doing well at catching medium green is somehow blocking bright red as well. To deal with it, I block two other 10nm bands of light with the Enchroma notch filters. The glasses generally darken everything in a way that may go beyond the mere loss of the two 10nm wavelength bands – they are sunglasses of a sort, blocking other wavelengths too. The old-model Enchromas I had before made this clear. My first big “wow” moment with them was looking at a green traffic light bright enough to shine clearly in the California daytime. With all sorts of things in the system blocking light, I could get strong results only from very bright things. 

The Green Chambers depicted, in little suburban groves, are the best places I’ve found for seeing green. Dead center in each picture is the strongest light source around here: the sun. You can't see it because it's filtered through perhaps the most paradigmatically green thing on Earth: leaves. More leaves all around filter the light to bathe the whole environment in green. Wearing the Enchroma glasses, I stared into midday sunlight through leaves under treetop canopy for periods of around 5-20 minutes over the past month. It’s probably been over six hours of having that green photon cannon blasting through my Enchromas into my retina. 

I’ve had brilliant and vivid experiences of green. My guess is that the brain is able to receive some sort of bright green-signal if it comes in, but the defective opsin prevents that signal from ever coming in, because no light can make that opsin generate it. The glasses block enough muddling wavelengths to give green a fighting chance even with the eye pigments as they are. And with a green photon cannon blasting right into my eyes for minutes on end, green has the firepower to win.

As the experiences became more intense over time, I began to think that the light was conditioning my brain to see green better. After all, what’s outside of me was basically the same. So what’s inside of me had to be changing. 

Why would this happen? My guess is that visual perception generally gets better at processing stuff as it goes from never having had it before to getting more of it. Most of you finished up with visual processing of color quite early, but those of us who just didn’t get the stimuli because of bad eye proteins didn’t get our brain parts excited. The solution is to put on special glasses and go to a Green Chamber.

My neurons may have awaited a signal that strong for 41 years. Get them going, and maybe they'll respond more.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Enchroma 3x showed me that rose gold was pink!

Enchroma improved their color vision glasses, and now I know why people say my rose gold MacBook Air is pink! 

The entire red-green spectrum had been suppressed for me before. Blue and yellow had been my favorite colors because they were the brightest, and in mixtures they overwhelmed red and green. I thought I was getting slight color vision improvements with the old Enchroma glasses five years ago, but the new ones make it obvious.

There seems to be a way of stimulating my brain into being able to better process the new colors. For green, it involves a lot of staring up into trees under the midday sunshine. As I get to know green, I form emotional associations with it: the strange but beautiful color of plants, whose quiet way of life is friendly to a warm-blooded creature like me.

More color vision posts to follow.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Elizabeth Warren planned Biden staffing

Last year I worried that Joe Biden might hold us back on economic issues. Today the 50-50 Senate is the holdup, and the Biden Administration has been moving things forward impressively fast.

The $1.9 trillion stimulus, with its $1400 checks and extended unemployment insurance, is more than twice the size of the Obama stimulus package of 2009. Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure bill is now before Congress (the $45 billion to remove all lead pipes from the water system looks excellent). Vaccine eligibility for all American adults is set for May 1 and may soon be moved earlier, which makes me happy as I'm flying back on April 29 and hoping to get my shots fast.

Biden's staff deserves credit. The White House is run by Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who oversaw the response to the 2014 Ebola pandemic under Obama. His deputy is Jen O'Malley Dillon, who managed Biden's victorious general election campaign. They're basically pragmatic technocrats ending a pandemic and building infrastructure. 

Bharat Ramamurti once drafted Elizabeth Warren's memos to Obama blasting his SEC chair for being too deferential to Wall Street. He was senior counsel in her Senate office when she told the Wells Fargo CEO who had created millions of fake accounts, "You should resign" and "you should be criminally investigated." (The CEO resigned. His successor resigned.) Now Ramamurti is deputy director of Biden's National Economic Council. When Larry Summers criticized the stimulus as too large, it was Ramamurti's job to say on Biden's behalf, "we disagree here."

Warren has always identified staffing as the thing to bargain for in controlling a White House. The SEC is now led by Warren ally Gary Gensler. Rohit Chopra and Julia Margetta Morgan (from her campaign's policy team) are advocating student loan cancellation from Administration policy jobs. I can name 11 Warren allies inside the Biden Administration. Her strategy seems to be working.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

First day

Joe Biden is President and Democrats control Congress. Things are as good as I wanted you to hope for on that horrible November 2016 night when I became your Optimism Guy.

With the Georgia Senators seated, Mitch McConnell can't block Biden's nominees, and I like what I'm seeing. Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken wants to pull the Saudis back from their war in Yemen "immediately". CIA Director nominee William Burns negotiated the Iran peace deal, sneaking around spy-style so other countries wouldn't find out and disrupt it.

On the domestic front, Bernie Sanders is the first democratic socialist to chair the Senate Budget Committee. Elizabeth Warren has gotten her staffer into the NEC deputy directorship, her protege running the CFPB, and an ally as SEC chair. The first Native American Interior Secretary will control the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Rahm Emanuel doesn't have a job.

Thanks to everyone who voted or donated or worked to get us here. A special high-five to anyone who joined my donations to the Merkley Leadership PAC, Stacey Abrams and the Georgia Senators, or those 2018 state Secretary of State campaigns. 

I think especially of our donations to Arizona SoS Katie Hobbs, whose Republican opponent in 2018 wanted to eliminate Spanish-language voting materials. The race was called for him on Election Night, but she won on late ballots. In 2020, Arizona went for Biden by 0.3%, and she withstood violent threats from Trump's hordes in seeing the election through. Where would Arizona be without her, and where would we be without Arizona? If you don't like imagining such things, you're free to focus on this happier reality.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Warnock and Ossoff win!

It's a winning night in Georgia, and it feels like winning all over the world.

With 99% of precincts reporting, Raphael Warnock leads by 1.2%. Jon Ossoff leads by 0.4%, and with a fair share of the remaining ballots in deep-blue Atlanta counties, his lead will likely hold up too. Republican attack ads could darken the black preacher's skin and lengthen the Jewish filmmaker's nose, but they couldn't stop Georgia from making them its new Senators.

This gives Joe Biden a 50-50 Senate majority. With Kamala Harris breaking ties, Mitch McConnell can't block the budget. The filibuster still threatens to hold up any larger business by requiring 60 votes to close debate, and some centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin want to keep it. Our best hope is that McConnell obstructs Democrats enough to change their minds.

The House is organized to pass whatever can get through the Senate. Nancy Pelosi just won another term as Speaker, with votes from young left-wing Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, Katie Porter, Cori Bush, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Pelosi just assigned all four of them to the powerful Oversight and Reform Committee, as I learned from a happy AOC tweet.

A new DNC Chair will be chosen soon. I don't know if Stacey Abrams wants the position -- she may be focused on running for Governor of Georgia in 2022. But after developing a voter turnout operation that saved the first two years of Biden's presidency and gave Georgia its first black Senator, she would be a spectacular person for that job.