Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Risks of economic depression and you losing your money or job very soon

A day or two ago, Vanguard Funds – the best performing mutual fund system available to ordinary folks like me --  sent out a quick summary of world economic prospects. Not so good. Not recovering as fast as we hoped. As of today, there have been steep declines in stock markets all over the world.

As it happens, just before the main declines started, I posted a piece on the near-term economic risks. My analysis (below) was mainly based on the problem of not enough eocnomic demand. Vanguage says there is a debate about whether the problems are due to demand ort to some supply isssues. Do first I post what I sent on the damend side; below that, I comment on how this analysis fits with supply issues and with what is happening in China.  


I agree with Gail that the world economy is very much at risk right now, in the short term, even before any possible changes in the energy system are factored in. It's almost as if the world "wanted" a major depression starting in 2008, and is still hanging on until that impulse is satisfied. I have the impression that the serious top economists are deeply concerned -- but I am amazed at some of the basic points in mainstream economics which are being missed. And yes, I believe that major new actions on energy COULD save the EU, at least, even though they did not at all cause the recent problems. (They had some role in the US experience of 2008, in causing mortgage defaults.)

But -- I say that having had a lot of mainstream economics education at Harvard and LDE, and having built a few major econometric models used by DOE for its Annual Energy Outlook in the 1980's. 

Gail mentioned debt. That is PART of the problem. There is scurrilous attack on Bernanke which nonetheless quotes him as saying something very reasonable, like: "Because of legitimate concerns about debt, the three big economies (US, ECU, China) are not stimulating their economies enough to get us out of deep chronic unemployment like Japan's Lost Decade.  Monetary people will try to prevent it geting worse, and enable at least a slow recovery, but our capabilities are limited and if you expect us to solve the whole thing, you may be in line for a VERY rude awakening."

So -- the tradeoff between government debt, on the one hand, versus "jobs" (and growth and even sustainability) on the other. Certainly we should all know from the news that the "war" between enemies of debt and enemies of austerity is the number one issue in Europe.  A few years ago, I saw figures in the Financial Times showing about the same huge problematic government debt ratios in all three big economies (US, China, EU). It's actually a good thing that the problem is a common one, reducing a little the pressure for nasty downward spirals; however, the recent Chinese devaluation does remind us of the competitive trade things (in Bernanke's PhD thesis!) which were the final trigger of the Grea tDepression. The big drop in the stock market today reminded me of Gail's post. 

A side note -- there is a huge amount of misinformation about China out there. Traveling there a lot has been a great eye-opener for me. It turns out -- in some ways there is less economic integration between provinces of China than of nations of the EU. It's fascinating to compare and contrast European nations versus provinces of China over the past 3000 years ro so... but I should resist for now. The key point is that in 2009, the Year of Stimulus, China relied on provinces to do so much stimulus that they continued rapid economic growth -- and ended up with a debt problem as bad as ours.

What I find hard to understand, emotionally, is why the leaders of the profession have not done more to ask about "Pareto optimality," which any serious economist is supposed to know all about. In other words: instead of just fighting about debt versus jobs and growth and sustainability, why can't we focus more effort on analyzing clearly what could be done to get the best of all four worlds?  I have seen some insightful stuff from Stiglitz, and recently saw a woman from his Roosevelt Institute, whose startled me with how coherent and serious she was compared to the others parading on TV who look more and more like a parade of clowns. But I haven't followed up.

Maybe part of the problem is that a lot of economists were trained to understand the basics of aggregate demand and monetary policy, but not  
on multisectoral models. Back when I worked for DOE, it became brutally clear that decent forecasting required us to break out least the 18 main SIC codes in manufacturing -- something which the Wharton Annual model did, but few others. The possibility of reconciling the requirements of debt versus those of growth and jobs depend a lot on having a kind of fine resolution, going beyond the aggregate seven-variable models they commonly teach in college. 

In the US, the main shit on its way to the fan is with sequestration. It amazes me how little sense of reality there seems to be out there about sequestration. Maybe folks don't understand what "8% cut per year" means, both to civilian and to military budgets, and the likely impacts not only on jobs but on security and growth. We are on course for that. The small partial budget agreement two years ago was only a temporary thing, running out even now.  It doesn't help that lots of folks would PREFER to just shut down half the government permanently, and would enjoy entertaining us all again in a couple of months. 

For space in particular -- I really wonder how the supporters of SLS can possibly fail to understand what a gift they are offering the budgeteers, desperate for ways to accommodate sequestration, by displaying a giant piece of useless pork on a silver platter. No HINT of restructuring it to make it fill more serious technology and national security needs of the US in space.

I also wonder at times why people like the defense contractors do not exploit their clout to build quiet coalitions to break through the vested interests which are blocking the two more serious large-scale opportunities to honestly cu back on the need for sequestration in a way which does not crush aggregate demand: (1) closing big loophole,s not like mortgages, but corporate welfare things, like the billions the oil industry gets as part of the "distressed industry" special break; andor (2) the continued RISE in government medical spending, for example as certain folks think they are entitled to churn out more unnecessary and questionable hip replacements and Caesarians (SOME are useful, but..) and the new bonanza they are hoping for in electrical brain stimulation (a concept similar to "great medical breakthroughs" of the past like frontal lobotomies and cocaine). .  Cutting debt that way, instead of some of the awful alternatives some are pushing, would not reduce jobs as much... but still, it's hard to avoid SOME increase in US employment when the net spending cuts kick in.

But the EU has a much better set of options. 

The EU is all agog about whether Greece will drop the euro, but they seem to be using that emotionally as a distraction form the much bigger problems they are not working their way out of. With or without Greece using the euro, issues of jobs versus debt are huge in the whole continent, and even Germany won't do well if its main export partners falter. But there is a way out.

At nss.org/EU, we posted a quick summary recommendation, which has direct bearing on SSP as well as ordinary solar farms.  The suggestion is that the feed-in tariff system be KEPT STRONG, but REORGANIZED, so that it's EU-WIDE (with investment also demanded for more of an EU grid), so that tariffs for higher-cost options like rooftop solar get cut back to what large solar farms get paid, and expanded to support large solar farms OR RECTENNAS anywhere in the EU. This would NOT call for government investment in SSP! But it would seriously empower the private sector, by providing a solid predictable market.  New investment in the energy sector has huge potential, and it's beautiful that it would provide economic demand WITHOUT new government spending. It could soak up the loose cash floating around without a good home. So long as the new feed-in tariffs are no more than 20 eurocents per kwh, it would also be cheaper than what European electricity users are paying today, and reduce dependence on Russian natural gas -- a rather serious problem.

At times, I wonder why EU authorities have not seen this obvious approach, not unlike the "three pillars" strategy of Japan which seemed likely to save their economy before Fukushima hit. Perhaps it is difficult in part because Schroder and Chirac are now funded by the Russian gas industry?

In any case, SSP, solar energy, CO2 emission and the EU economy would all benefit from two parallel efforts:

(1) To get passage of treaties or laws like what is recommended at nss.org/EU;


'(2)   Major private sector and R&D efforts to maximize the ability of the private sector to respond to the new opportunities which nss.org/EU would open up. I do see BOTH SSP and new types of large solar farm as a crucial part of that, and would be happy to get into the technical details of either one.  

Best of luck to us all. We really need it. 


P.S., Speaking of one of the reasons we need faster progress on these technologies...

A couple of days ago, I did a quick google on:

NOAA Antarctic deep ocean oxygen

I have several more detailed papers on the original work somewhere, but the two images below do basically tell the story: 

The colors tell how much oxygen is left, and the red numbers how fast it is depleting. 
I seem to recall a bit more detail in what I saw before, but you can see which side is the Pacific side, and this should be OK at least as a starting point. I think these sources do cite the originals. 


Vanguard says there is a debate as to whether the faltering of growth worldwide is due to demand side problems (as above) or supply issues – more specifically, the failure of supply side forces to provide worthwhile investment opportunities.

As I think over what Vanguard is saying, I remember of course that THEY have money to invest, that real investment does lead to more economic demand,  and that they are struggling to find really productive and promising places to invest their money in.

This is totally consistent with what I have been assuming above, that there is plenty of private sector capital available right now (due a lot to central banks trying to prevent depression), but without a good place to put it. The key idea of nss.org/EU is exactly to CREATE new opportunities for such investment, opportunities which are truly productive in a very serious and fundamental way, on a scale large enough to turn around any economy on this planet.  Roughly, if world electricity is about a $2 trillion per year industry – 10 cents per kwh over 20,000 terawatts per year, or more, then the INVESTMENT behind it is even larger. Rebuilding that investment for security and sustainability, saving the customer money, is plenty big enough to reinvigorate the EU economy. The EU is lucky and unique in having SUCH a clear opportunity... if nly they would see it and act on it... but what about other folks?

The question of the week is: what is happening to China?

Thanks to a nice article in Bloomber this week, and some books I recently read about setting up companies in China, I do begin to see what could be a way ahead for them.

In essence, the central government there does have some degrees of freedom we don’t have here, even though the provinces have more power than Americans usually understand. Bloomberg reports how China has been moving towards rpleicating the US script on eocnomics much more than many Americans wuld expect... but it is not working as well as hoped. Under strict banking rules, ruling out shady local investments in real estate based on off-the-book loans, demand and growth do falter. So they are holding up growth, AT THE EXPENSE of letting money flow back into questionable real estate stuff. In a way, it’s just like what Vanguard talks about – using investment to drive a return to growth, but investment in WHAT to WHAT benefit, under what market rules?

Real estate... hey, that’s where I parked my liquid cash this month myself...

But the EU opportunity in renewable energy is much greater, and more reliably something they need.  China has also put money into R&D, renewables, grids and energy secure transportation, but they could do a lot more. (Some folks in China at high levels might even understand the IEEEUSA recommendations and ideas for good investment in that area.) There is a lot more to be said about unmet technical opportunities... as I have discussed with Chileans lately. Hina is doing a lot already, but could profitably do more.

IN real estate proper, I remember very vividly a talk at the Internal Fund for China’s Environment (IFCE) a couple of years ago... when a city planner/developer for the US described the challenge of getting maximum value for money in building new cities, avoiding destructive externalities which tend to cause lack of value in the investment in most nations. That too might be a guide to constraints on new real estate investments, to avoid channeling money into waste. Suddenly a variant of their “ecocities” comes to mind, for the primary economic growth and market rules.

There is a possible way forward for China here... and better sustainable, grounded economic growth in ANY of the big three benefits all three, if we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot.  

How Stalin Invented Capitalism and Imams Created a Devil

When well-meaning people fail to take the moral highground in pursuing their noble goals, terrible things sometimes result.

The moral highground demands that we work towards a world of more authentic, honest and open dialogue,  resonant with the concrete reality that we are all part of the earth and need to mobilize our higher consciousness more and more to solve ever more difficult problems coming our way. But many leaders of great causes are willing to do ANYTHING at times to advance their cause, even when it  involves demonizing, belittling and distorting other important well-meaning people on the earth. Today I will talk about four important examples of  this phenomenon:

1. How Stalin invented “capitalism” – a particular concept of capitalism which is now coming back to
cause huge problems in the US;

2. How the Catholic Church invented devil worship and the black mass

3. How the Orthodox Church invented evil life-opposing Gnostics

4. How certain Imams invented the concept of Yezidi as devil-worshippers, thereby themselves creating their own devil.

These are all important, but I will say more about 1 and 4 today because they are more prominent in current events. There are many other examples, however. I also think of scientologists talk about the Organized Great Insanity, and the wonderful interview yesterday with the head of the international olympics organization. He said: “No, the organization was not corrupt. It is just the PEOPLE in the organization who were  INDIVIDUALLY corrupt.” No conspiracy, just the systematic effect of certain rules, systems and beliefs. Lethal entropy and active destruction can indeed happen even without a monolithic organized conspiracy – and that is part of what is happening both to US government and to world economy at this moment, threatening our very existence.

So let us start with (1), which is already enough to inflame some people.
==============   EXAMPLE 1 ===============================

There is no doubt that Stalin was one of a group of many people (not just the Communist party) who believed they were promoting progress and a hope for a better life for humanity. But he also believed that the ends justify the means, and he engaged in a rather vigorous well-organized propaganda effort. Attacks on “capitalism” were a very central part of those propaganda efforts, and they worked very hard to paint their adversaries in the most negative possible light, without much attention to accuracy and precision. Is that putting it nicely? Well, we too require a bit of niceness these days. There is also no doubt that the founder of the Koch dynasty, and Ayn Rand, grew up in the sphere of that propaganda – and were inspired BY THAT propaganda to embrace precisely what Stalin was attacking, a concept of capitalism which came from Eastern Europe especially –not even the milder more analytic story on capitalism taught by Marx himself as an unhappy outlier still in Trier and London. Many of the oligarch types in power in Russia today came from the same cultural background, in which capitalism means “it’s just business” when they kill their competitors or use other underhanded means, totally eroding the economy of the country. And now they and their attitudes are coming here.

Was there ever a different concept of capitalism?

Some of the extreme Koch followers would say no, that other stuff is all a bunch of pointy headed socialist propagandists, like those communists who teach at Harvard or write for the Financial Times. I have even heard some describe Jefferson and Washington as evil freemasonic conspirators trying to take us to a socialist new order, whose evil innovations like freedom of religion and belief and practice should be “reformed”  so that we can return to the more enlightened ways of the Middle Ages (like 600AD?).

But when I was growing up... I actually went to Harvard, and read a lot of what Jefferson had to say. Here in Virginia, I have learned real stuff when visiting Mount Vernon and the George Washington Masonic Memorial  (which also informs us about changes in the US, not all encouraging). And yes, I even joined the Quakers, not for political reasons, but for reasons people might call “spiritual,” though the word “spiritual” does not do full justice to the great power and reality which is really out there. (More on that later, if I get around to all four examples I started with.) I even learned about the friendly Irish tavern on Haley Street, owned by relatives of my mother, where Jefferson, Franklin and Washington had friendly deep conversations over madeira, bringing out the harmony between the unique insights they had which helped create the original version of the United States. (Franklin was not a Quaker... but Free Friends and their friends were one of the major forces here).

Yes, there was another concept of America and freedom, not created by Stalin or by the Koch brothers. It was not at all feeble and it was not just a shadow of socialism or materialism or of the Holy Inquisition . I am tempted to say more about it right now, because of how important the ideas are... but let me get back to the point. (Well... OK... given time, Weber’s book on the spirit of Protestantism and the capitalist revolution is one of many relevant sources in addition to what I mentioned above. Honorable competition... chivalry... workable consciously analyzed rules... the social contracts and compacts Yeshua talks about a lot..)

It is very disturbing to me lately how successful the efforts have been to polarize the US along the lines envisioned by Stalin – HIS version of capitalism and oligarchs versus something like his version of Stalinism.

Just two presidential-level people in the US have spoken out really strongly on this problem since World War II, that I know of. Ronald Reagan and Hilary Clinton. Neither are perfect or omniscient people, but at least they had a basic awareness of a very deep and serious problem here.

Reagan was very clear – “WE should not let our adversaries define who we are. We are for FREEDOM, not for their warped version of capitalism.” Hilary was even more clear about this dilemma in recent years. – how to be really strong in defense of freedom and the REAL American culture, without causing a growth in the corruption and Stalin-capitalism which threaten our survival as surely as any foreign enemies do.

Are the Koch brothers themselves as bad as some of their followers – like the ones who in the past few years have systematically liquidated almost all of the most advanced S&T R&D in the US, replacing it with a chain of folks more like puppets on a string (oligarchs love to play at being organ grinders and eliminating independent thought)? After all, there are folks who claim to follow Jesus who engage in hate and violence radically different from what Jesus himself taught.  I have friends who believe that the Koch brothers themselves sincerely want to advance freedom, and can’t help it that they don’t know what damage their own followers are doing.  But in fact, failure to pay honest attention to the real physical threats like diminishing oxygen levels in the deep waters of the Pacific (just one important example) ... may be understandable, but fatal. We should try to be understanding... but also fight to stay alive.  At least, that’s part of our calling here on this tiny planet.

Luda says: “Hey, don’t blame it all on Stalin. People were shooting it out long before he was born. Consider your self-righteous Andrew Carnegie, who hid in Scotland when his people were murdering those free people of Pennsylvania.” My reply: “People of all beliefs have had episodes of crime, of individual lapses, and challenge in following through their beliefs. But in those days, the  original culture here was stronger and more alive, and that was crucial in enabling Teddy Roosevelt to come in and fix the problem, by building new systems to more fully implement our basic values. Our problems now are more serious.”


But to avoid putting too much into this post, let me skip point 2 about the black mass (which is already well-covered in the literature), be brief about 3, and then move to 4.

(3) – the orthodox church and Gnosticism – is an obscure footnote to most people in the US, but to those of Greek culture it is a big deal. And a lot of people further east still resonate with Greek culture.

But what IS Gnosticism?

One can find two definitions out there:

(1) A deep general movement, in existence for millennia to develop “spiritual wisdom” – and to enhance direct human experience in a way which supports deeper personal understanding and engagement with spiritual reality as such.

(2) A specific cultural movement, which sounds a bit like a warped form of Buddhism, which regards life on earth as evil and tries to change the whole world to put it on a path of collective suicide, to eliminate such life.

As I type this, I am reminded of SOME strands of AI and transhumanism which actually fit (2) pretty well, shockingly so, more than most people would imagine.

There are even some people who would say with great confidence: “OF COURSE 2 is the correct definition. Don’t you have a basic education? Haven’t you read....?”

Yes, but even a rural type of Greek should remember that “gnosis” was not really a synonym for “thanatos.”

More precisely – there is no such thing as “the one and only correct definition” of a word like this. We really need to have some perspective in how we use words. How would we respond if Stalin said: “Capitalism does mean shooting everyone who gets in your way, without rules. In capitalism “It’s just business.” That’s what it is, because I get to define the word. I have that right. Anyone who uses the word in a different way, whether their names be Smith or Walras or Mills, is guilty of a violation of language and therefore should have their works burned for incorrectness and incoherence. It is all incorrect by definition, since they do not use the correct definition of the word ‘capitalism.” I suppose that most people would see through that by now if Stalin said it, but with the word “gnostic” the same type of perverse illogic seems to sell better.

A stereotype like (2) really can be useful to local power-seeking priests in the orthodox church, to terrify people away from liberating their minds and seeking true wisdom and spiritual growth. Just like the fear of black masses and devils was used to control lots of people in the west. And in the same way, it also encouraged a dissident small minority, the spiritual equivalent of Koch brothers, to perform black mass or embrace concept (2) of gnosticism. All contrived ways to try to enslave the mind and the spirit, supposedly as a means towards a higher end, but not really. It doesn’t work. What does work (if anything at all can save our endangered species) is more like what Reagan called “the moral highground.” It is very worrisome and ironic that the most visible person still pushing that in the US today is our embattled and fallible Hilary Clinton... but hey, lots of us have been embattled and fallible forever now.


Can you sincerely imagine Mohammed himself crying out “oy veh”? I certainly can.

In fact – in the past few years I have learned a lot about the deeper power and significance of three words I had underestimated, in order: zhengqi, aloha and oy veh. After I learned about zhengqi and aloha, I decided to look into oy veh.. and was surprised but not surprised. I think of oy veh as what Moses said when he saw his people worshipping a golden calf. (And yes, I have seen such golden animals myself many times in China.) And what Jesus said to the money makers in the temple, the scene in the Bible which I have more total belief in than any other, even though Jesus usually tried to be more peaceful. (He would say the same about hypocrites and money-changers in Congress. Jefferson did not argue for a free market in trading puppets to fill seats in Congress.) And for Mohammed, the real Mohammed, seeing the money changers in Mecca, making money from abusing the spiritual inclinations of the people, was just as serious and fundamental. It was the perversion of spirit, corruption, myopia and failure to connect with greater spiritual reality which drove him to action. Indeed, he already said “oy veh” (the inner word said by Moses on seeing the golden calf) the first time, that day in Mecca.

But if he saw ISIS and the folks plotting their version of the Third Caliphate, he would certainly say “oy veh” again, many times. (Strange as it may sound... I have some feeling I have actually heard this.) This is a very important part of our world today.. but.. as with our friends drinking madeira in Philadelphia... I will skip many important things, to pick out just one, the slander being committed against the Kurds and the Yezidi. (Those are APPROXIMATELY the same, though I know they are not identical, and I don’t know the degree of overlap. I do know that some Kurds are Marxists rather than Yezidi, but then again some Russians are true Marxists too, while others have other beliefs.)

I was struck briefly but intensely back in the 1970s, when I read (probably in something written by Gurdjieff) that the Yezidi are devil worshippers. This is very well known all across the Middle East, he said. Gurdjieff was certainly not a jihadi sharia fundamentalist type... and he traveled a lot in those areas... but he did have a lot of contact with Sufis. Sufis are among the most enlightened of all people in the Middle East, and followers of the true struggle of gnosis or itzjihad, working to bring people personally closer to the spirit and God and love. Yet even the most enlightened people on earth (like me?) can make serious mistakes at times, especially when it comes to accepting popular culture in their part of the world.  
It is not easy to liberate the spirit from excessive dependence on provincial tribal practices, from golden calfs to belief in witch hunts. So perhaps even Sufis assumed that this propaganda produced by a different type of imam is true. (Of course, the exact same kind or propaganda in the west says that of course all Moslems are murderers, devil worshippers and enemies of the spirit committed to getting all humans killed in the end. Evil PR in the hands of the powerful exists in all nations.)

But now, as ISIL engages in mass murder of Yezidi and Kurds in general... some of the truth has begun to come out, even in mass media. Of course, searching on Yezidi on the wbe gives a view of what THEY say they believe.

Should we believe them, when they say someting quite different?

I can imagine a sketch of a poor honest sincere Moslem being confronted by an arrogant nasty Crusader saying: “You believe in murder of innocents and crimes against humanity and total intolerance. I know this, because I know the real truth about Islam.” This Moslem may say honestly, “But please, sir, that ISN’
T what I believe. What I believe..” and then he gets cut off: “Silence! I will not tolerate your lies and your disrespect. I know what you REALLY believe...” Yet the Third Caliphate folks are doing exactly the same way with the Yezidi and the Kurds! Perhaps they have heard so many stories about powerful evil crusaders that deep in their minds they try to be the same from their own base. (Actually, I have experienced much the same myself from Litmus Test Rightists in the US, who tell me what I believe about climate change and do not respect my right to have an informed alternative view!)

But what DO the Yezidi actually believe, and what truth may it contain?

Their beliefs have some relation to the old question: “Just exactly what IS God, assuming the word ‘God’ actually refers to something alive and intelligent to some degree?”

Official traditional Catholics say: God is the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Jesus, the son, talked a lot about The Father, and we all know the spirit is in there somehow.

A couple of years ago, in a friendly late night conversation at my brother’s house in New Jersey, I mentioned: “Yes, and we saw a lot about the main holy trinity, you know – the momma, the papa and the kid...” and my mother suddenly jumped up out of her clam sleepy state. “Hey, Paul, where did YOU go to school? Don’t you know, it’s the father, the son and the holy ghost... how could you possibly say such a thing?” I did not argue. Sometimes she shows deep and powerful sensitivity and spiritual connection, but some of those Catholic flags will rouse her to a state where argument is not the right response.

In fact, “what is God” doesn’t really mean much if people do not make any effort at all to connect or account for that phenomenon in real life. But Quakers, for example, mostly believe in trying hard on a personal basis to listen for the “voice of God” – and it becomes increasingly important to try to figure out which voice is which and sort out what you are listening to and how to communicate with it.

Mohammed did not say: “Bow to your Imam five times a day and show obedience to him.” Lots of imams try to convey that idea, but fortunately many others, more honest, do not succumb to that temptation of ego and lust for power.  He wanted people to look to the east or look to Mecca, to try to connect with something bigger than themselves. Could it be that in the sad world today the Yezidi are actually doing that more than most Moslems (though of course serious Sufis also practice itzjihad)?

As they open their eyes and look... I have the impression... the Yezidi do talk of something more like a duality rather than a trinity or “just one thing.”

Looking at reality... the kind of trinity I see is more like us, the earth and the galaxy. I do not see Jesus as co-creator of the universe (as is depicted in Hagia Sophia, where the Roman Emperor portrayed Jesus and himself as the two co-creators, and tried to get Christianity to accommodate as much as he could of the old idea that the Roman Emperor is also a person or God or god). (Hey guys, I am not making this up. I was there, in flesh and blood. See an earlier blog post.) I see Yeshua as part of  the “us,” as he seems to say himself again and again in the New Testament. Of course, Islam agrees with THAT part.

But earth and galaxy?

Is it true that we are part of the earth and children of the galaxy?

I like the term “pater galacticus,” which merges a couple of things and reminds us that there is something quite real and quite a bit bigger than all of us on earth.

In deepest meditation, and in “cosmic consciousness,” it is really important that we distinguish between voices of “us”  (which may include a crazy axe murderer or political PR agent across the street), the “voice of the earth” and the light, high frequency, powerful elusive traces from pater galacticus which should never be confused with the local imam. In my view, even the famous white horse of Mohammed rising up to “heaven” is all part of the earth, a positive and powerful realm/level of spirit/mind which is still quite small compared to the galaxy and what is larger. To open at all to pater galacticus... it certainly does help to look at a clear night sky and SEE the galaxy right in front of us, and remember how small this earth is in the lager scheme of things. But even so, I agree with the mezzo imams that most of us have more important things to work on... involving our role as part of the earth.

Even all together, forming the “noosphere” or Gaia, we of the earth are very much fallible, and our lives as a WHOLE are very much at risk right now.

The Yezidi make exactly this distinction – the spiritual reality we are PART of, as part of the earth, and the greater reality beyond it. Being part of the earth and trying to keep it alive is not an act of worship so much as an act of survival and sanity and recognition of how small we are as individuals, even when we aspire to the highest benefits and impacts we are capable of. (Faust in Goethe’s version was not really a devil worshipper either, even though he too had to learn just enough of the right kind of humility and respect for love.) This duality is not an affront or disrespect to pater galacticus, or to the greater whole. On the contrary. At least in my view, a proper parent WANTS his children to learn to solve their own problems, without having to be manipulated down to strings on their arms and legs. By the Father, we are called to be part of the whole, and to engage properly as part of the earth.

To the Russians, “Yezidi” is basically the word for “pagan,” for folks inheriting common sense perceptions dating back millennia, to a time when it seemed natural for natural people all around the world to talk about “earth mother, sky father.” Their categories of perception and analysis were limited... but in my view, their perceptions make a lot of sense.

There is a lot more to be said about all this, and the many twists and turns it has taken in human history in many places... but this is already long enough for a blog post.

Best of luck. We need it.


Oops. What about this election coming up in the US? I am not involved at all in that kind of politics, though I do plan to stay informed, open-minded and alive on a spiritual level. And yes, though I know of Hilary's failings and am an Independent, I notice that she is the only candidate on the horizon who seems even aware of some of the really hard challenges we are facing. At the recent Republican debate, I saw only one candidate of the ten who lived up to the moral highground as discussed above.  Certainly if you asked whether anyone was slandering or belittling other people ... well, though he was not alone, you can easily remember for yourself who took the lead in selling that kind of behavior! But if we need a new Teddy Roosevelt, would he also be our best chance of redoing that kind of necessary housecleanning, and returning to a lot of essential innovations needed to keep the real American spirit alive? Maybe. I doubt it. But I will try to be open-minded. If he could make up with Arianna Huffington (who was part of Gingrich's entourage after all, and author of "Pigs at the trough"), I might see some hope for him. I suspect that Hilary feels very overwhelmed right now... as do I... 
but we will see.

What if the Republicans nominate the one guy out of the ten who was really sticking to the moral highground? 
Well, we will see. As I see it, my duty now is to keep an open mind and be engaged with the spirit of the people. 



Friday, August 21, 2015

The Middle Way – Living Between Fire and Ice

The experience of reality constantly reminds me of how many ways so many people delude themselves with extreme viewpoints – extreme viewpoints they cling to because somehow it feels better and more clear to answer every question with “100% yes” or “100% no.”

My “experience of reality” includes everything from the mix of things I am lucky enough to see from my back porch on a cool calm morning like today, to the things I see in mathematics and the things I see in reading about scientific experiments (and sometimes seeing them), to the things I can see in meditation, particularly in a state which some describe as “cosmic consciousness.” And yes, I keep an eye on places like Washington DC ten minutes down the road. (Literally: Constitution Avenue, route 50, is the road I hear but do not see on top of the deep forest ridge opposite the forested ridge I look down from.)

Mathematics  contains a nice, clear image of how we are all stuck in the middle, not at the extremes. There are some dynamical systems in which everything moves inexorably to a definite, fixed state – “fixed point equilibrium.” There are other systems where everything moves to a totally random stochastic state, with no patterns or form or correlation between what happens in one place and what happens in another – “the heat death, the ultimate gas.” The first is rigid like ice. The second is like fire. Life itself is possible only BETWEEN these extremes of fire and ice.  If we find this middle zone unnatural to us and suspiciously complex, and we try to simplify it all by going towards fire or towards ice – we end up opposing life itself. We are stuck here in the middle. Given the alternatives of total fire and total ice, the middle is where we want to be.

“Does God exist or does he not? If so, is he/she one or is he a trinity? Will we have a life after death or not? Is this imam or priest telling the truth or not? Is this computer system conscious or not? Should we all strive to be focused, effective true Christians? Moslems? Buddhists? Materialists?” In every one of these cases, people tend to demand a simple “yes” or “no” answer. They tend to assume that any clear revelation of truth must give a clear “yes” or “no.”  But in all these cases, the demand for a yes or no answer is in fact a demand for blindness, a demand which is not consistent with a clear understanding of what is being discussed.

Of course, these are all big issues – so where do I begin in describing how clear answers are possible which are NOT “yes” or “no?”

First – some simple general thoughts. In engineering, there is now a large school of “fuzzy logic,” which has led to lots of practical automated systems in situations where the old binary expert systems did not work so well. (It started becoming very popular in Japan after a major government effort to fund rule-based automated systems, when they discovered what actually worked and what didn’t in such applications.) A pure follower of fuzzy logic might say “Thinking in black and white gets you in trouble. You need to think in terms of degree of truth, of shades of grey, of truth value BETWEEN 0 and 1.” But at one point Jesus warned us about those folks who are neither hot not cold, but just lukewarm.  So which side do we support – thinking in black and white and thinking in shades of grey? (This isn’t just philosophy; it’s also computer design!) My own knee-jerk response: “Let’s try to get past thinking in black and white by thinking in vivid color.” There is a place for simpler kinds of thought, but the clearest vision is in vivid color. That often means breaking down a question... and coming up with a kind of multidimensional description or clear image of whatever we are asking about. It often means what Hegel and the Rosicrucians talked about, responding to a thesis and an antithesis by striving for a synthesis which transcends the binary extremes. This is all old stuff – but it’s important to remember old stuff when we are at risk of falling into ancient fantasies and delusions, as the people are who ask for binary answers to the questions I listed above.

This morning, in particular, I am thinking about some thoughts which came to me in Quaker meeting last Sunday, and about an important science fiction trilogy I finished yesterday by Peter Hamilton – “The Dreaming Void,” “The Temporal Void” and the “Evolutionary Void.” Both of them bear very seriously on those questions, and on the question “What is the meaning of life – in practical terms?”  I am glad that retirement allowed me both important experiences.

This new trilogy from Hamilton is really pretty important and unique. I suppose I should write a glowing review of it. It has characters I can empathize with a lot more than traditional boring kinds of literature where everyone is fully absorbed by petty personal things. There is a kind of primitive life out there where people just live day to day, without thought of any grand or heroic goals. (Hey, kids, to get into Harvard, they say you need “passion.” What is this “passion” if not some kind of heroic goal?) Is that like ice? Is it like fire, then, to be fiery kind of fanatic whose whole life is focused on some random choice of extreme goal, usually out of touch with the complexities of reality? Hamilton’s trilogy is unique in really working through the territory between that fire and ice, full of serious and sincere heroic striving, but coping with the way that human fallibility and limitations modulate the valid heroic striving. And, of course, it fully accepts the fact that we live in a big galaxy – one of the core realities we can see with our own eyes. It is such a fantasy to think as if earth were the only planet which counts in this vast galaxy, let alone the universe and the cosmos!

Deeply as I respect this book... at the end, I can see that he gives a binary answer to one of the key questions here, an answer which I think is a bit biased towards the heroic – too crisp, too black and white to be true. And yes, it has a strong, almost pure Silicon Valley attitude; I fully appreciate Silicon Valley, but I try to be a bit bigger.

That question is the question of afterlife.

Old men (like me) are famous for wondering what comes next: are we about to just evaporate completely, or will we continue to exist somehow?

A couple of years ago, I had the great experience of visiting one of the catacombs of the early Christians (before Constantine’s radical reconstruction of his brand of Caesarian Christianity). It was one hell of a full three-dimensional experience in color to feel those cool damp rocky rooms, which were basically crypts, not churches. In fact, they were very much the ancient version of corpsicle facilities, where inert bodies are stored in hope/expectation that soon someone will come back and bring them back to full life. Dawn of the living dead and all that. Zombie wannabees? It was a very strict doctrine of the early church to believe in the “resurrection of the body,” and those words echo in the Catholic Church today. Years ago, my German grandfather, a Catholic, had his leg amputated – and the priest told him he needed to have a special funeral and burial for the leg, lest he be reborn one-legged. (My forthcoming cataract surgery reminded me of that.) But in fact, most Catholics today, like most mass religions, state that the afterlife is a kind of afterlife of the person in heaven. Almost all the Buddhist temples in China have statues depicting the kind of thing you read about in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, where the soul comes up to a gate or reception hall and faces... someone important, whoever, who gives some kind of guidance to the next stage.  People imagine that it is the same “me” who floats out of the dead body, as in those great videos “What Dreams May Come” and “Beetlejuice.” And it’s everyone.

But many important cultures (like the Druze?) believe that some people have afterlives, and some people don’t.  In fact, there is even a book in the Bible (one of the Apochrypha, in the standard New English Catholic bible), the Book of Esdras, which suggests this. It does NOT reflect another very vivid piece of modern science fiction, Dante’s Inferno, which they teach to lots of kids in modern “Christian” schools. It does not say that souls are allocated to hell versus heaven versus limbo and so on. No one lives in hell burning for eternity. Rather, those who don’t cut it, the chaff, are simply burned away to nothing, to lifeless ash which drifts away on the wind. Every time I think of this, I think of an old nun I saw on a place called “Chicken Dragon Mountain” in South Korea, a woman who strived her whole life to achieve lack of emotion and passion and emptiness..,. who had the weirdest expression on her face, a smile of achievement (she did get to her goal!) and a rictus of terror (was this REALLY what she wanted? Is it not as violation of her deepest soul?) both at the same time. She reminded me of the “Crystalman smile” in the very important science fiction novel Voyage to Arcturus by Lindsay. (Quick aside: if you ever look it up, DON’T believe the “new introduction” by the cult version of Gnostics who got it reprinted!)  And so: some people believe that they should dedicate their lives to becoming part of the minority which DOES have an afterlife, which doesn’t just get burned to ash by the great garbage collector in the sky.  (Most powerful computer systems, whether intelligent or conscious or not, do have garbage collection routines.  It is not at all strange to suggest that our spiritual environment has the same. It would be strange if it didn’t. It is curious how some  folks who have been strict about deleting enterprises and people which did not contribute to their own particular bottom line might well experience being deleted themselves, based on a different bottom line.)

Hamilton’s trilogy essentially does take that point of view, grounded in something like a synthesis of transhumanism and popularized Gurdjieff teachings. He explores MANY viewpoints in some depth (lots of pages to do that!), but ends up supporting the goal of evolution towards the “postphysical.” A striving for a kind of transcendence, where somehow our highest intelligence or consciousness migrates to another level of existence. And no, in his picture there is not much hope of having that kind of afterlife if you just hang around doing what your grandparents did in the local farm or casbah.  It basically happens when an entire culture or species rises high enough to be ABLE to reach a higher level of existence, which sounds like some kind of quantum hyperspace or matrix of mind or something like that. Not pious, but vivid and real.

Vividness and real I appreciate... but I simply do not agree with the binary nature of all this, and, as a mere human, I cannot claim to know whether such a change is really possible.

So far as I can tell, loss of a body and “physical” brain must be at least as severe in its implications as total loss of one’s library and hard drives. Jane Roberts, in her (short clear) Oversoul Seven trilogy, gives great images of people who move out of their bodies regularly... but in a foggy state so barely conscious that they cannot do or remember much later. Gurdjieff describes something similar. (I suppose that Bennett’s book, Is There Intelligent Life on Earth?, explains this more clearly than Gurdjieff’s own writings do.) That fits what I have seen as well.  In their view, most people who strive to experience “out of body travel” (what a gas! How binary can you get!)... might better strive to raise the level of consciousness in their “essence,” so that they can do more with the out of body stuff they ALREADY do routinely. In that view, SOMETHING lives after the death of the body, but HOW MUCH? To put it another way... if you value your data, maybe you should strive to store it or back it up on a more durable medium.

But why? Why should we bother?

Long long ago, I remember thinking about the meaning and possible heroic goals of life as I rode my bike down Haws Lane, and walked by a forest next to a parking lot where Haws Lane met Bethlehem Pike, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It seemed pretty clear that no matter what we do, no matter how extreme our human abilities might be, it is not realistic to imagine that the whole cosmos is at a crossroads where we decide the outcome. No matter how huge it is... it is more realistic to picture the cosmos as a kind of gigantic Markov process. Our impact may be much more than the small impacts many people are content with, and we have every reason to try for more.. but even so, it will be finite. In the cosmos as a whole, it is still meaningful what intelligent people do, and it affects our large neighborhood within the cosmos... but it is finite. Does it even matter at all? It matters because it matters to US... because WE as intelligent creatures have feelings which WE naturally care about, born into our “material” and “spiritual” utility function systems. And so, a few weeks back, when someone at Quaker Meeting asked: “How did this boy have the strength to carry on and do what is rational in the face of so much extreme adversity and shock,” I could truthfully say: “I faced some incredibly strong adversity and shock myself on 7/14/14... and it was not faith which kept me from totally falling apart of going nuts.. it was memory of commitment... commitment to life, light and love”.. (see Rose-Croix)... which is an articulation of my nonverbal sense of what seems ultimately good to me. Likewise, in a draft space policy for IEEE, I put a “quotation in front:

“Who needs humans in space?
Who needs humans on earth?
Humans, that’s us.”

WE value human life, for its own sake, as part of our fundamental ground. BUT that doesn’t mean that there is some bean-counter regulation that all ova must be nurtured to become humans, or even that fetal human brains less conscious than that of an adult cow should receive more legal protection! That is such a grotesque twisting and misunderstanding of what it really means to support life! And life on earth in general is very much at risk at the present time. Will the entire planet go Esdras, and could even more permanent hard drives get trashed? Maybe, maybe not. That’s something we should pay real attention to.


All for now. Lots more I ought to write, but this is probably too long already for modern media.
Best of luck.

Monday, August 10, 2015

email to an environmentalist list about space solar power

An environmentalist said: "The world shows sign of collapsing NOW. Isn't SSP too far in the future?"
My reply:


I certainly see signs of collapse all over the world which worry me. It is a valid intuition. It is also a valid intuition that energy is a very important part of the game, and that we need more action on energy now -- upon how we power our cars and how we generate electricity. I have worked hard for many years to try to move those faster.
However -- I do believe that a RATIONAL approach to getting the best benefits possible from SSP WOULD BE a natural part of such efforts.

However -- I really don't think that ALL our problems come from the single cause energy. At the most, energy problems create a strain, and our ability to withstand that strain is also crucial. The balance between stress and strain, between the pull and ur ability to withstand the pull, is what determines whether we go under or not.

Our ability to survive the energy challenges and other challenges depends above all on how much consciousness, truth, deep intuition, scientific thinbking and sanity we bring to bear on the challenges. If we engage in that type of "advocacy behavior" which stretches the truth as far as possible to support a cause, or use a cause to inflate our ego, we end up being as deep in our insights as a four year old (if we are lucky). Solving energy problems with a four year old mentality is like... a poor class of four year olds presented with thousands of car parts and asked to assemble a working car. Today's energy policies and energy debates often remind me of that class. The human system and the energy system are very complex nonlinear systems; we have to oversimplify a little, to map the territory, but if we simplify too much and don't look more deeply, we will get nowhere. Thinking more deeply each day, and really listening in dialogue, are essential parts of the work which needs to be done. 

It is a serious oversimplification to say that the world economy cannot possibly function without energy much cheaper than what we have today. No way. OECD/EIA data showed just over 20,000 terawatt hours of electricity generation per year in the most recent year of data. IEEE folks would give us a rough idea of what that costs by multiplying by 10 cents per kwh, which results in $2 trillion per year. $2 trillion per year is a significant amount of money, but in a world  economy of $80 trillion per year  we COULD afford to double that or even quadruple that if we had to. Many would say that our ability to ADAPT to higher energy prices is the life or death issue, not the energy prices themselves.

The "collapse" problem... often feels like a "perfect storm" to me. I am having real personal problems trying to prioritize action on all the many ways we might die or seek to survive. In the short term, the big risks facing most of the world are economic problems in the US, EU and China (all different in how the problem works) each of which could spill over to the rest of the world. These problems are not about energy or about adaptation to high energy problems, on the whole, though in the EU there may be a way to SOLVE the current economic threat through new action on energy.  If you worry about "collapse today" (this decade), economic problems and conflict/war/terrorism kinds of things top the list, in my view. (Though again our lack of consciousness may aggravate the risk they pose more than we think.)

Of the many energy problems which concern me, most absolute is the "brimstone problem." I remember vividly when Professor Peter Ward, author of "Under a Green Sky," came to give a public talk at NSF on his work, in 2009. The NSF Geosciences Directorate introduced him as the leading front-line expert on the dozen or so mass extinctions of life which have occurred before on the earth. I do not agree with all of his theories, but he went in great detail in his talk and his book about the hard data we now have available, which shows that the level of H2S poison gas in the atmosphere and the level of radiation (from ozone depletion they assume, which seems reasonable) has 5-10 times been high enough to kill every human on earth, if there had been people there. I remember especially the end of his talk when he said, roughly: "I have studied these patterns of mass death in great detail, and tracked the history of all these variables. Here is a graph which lets you compare the RATE of CO2 increase and the sudden death which has followed, again and again. As I compare the present rate of CO2 increase, greater than any ever before...    it is clear to me that we on the same path today. My gut feeling is that we humans will all die if it gets to 1000 ppm, which seems pretty much inevitable if we don't change our ways a lot. But that's just a gut feeling, from looking at the data. To really know, someone would have to do new research, connecting the study of thermohaline currents (THC) with the study of mass extinctions."

Part of what kills us today is how people react to that kind of thing. Probably more than 90% of the people who heard the talk reacted in one of two ways: (1) "Just another one of those rotten climate scientist liberal types trying to make us feel bad as part of their campaign for socialism; as an up[right person, of course I will not listen one bit"; or (2) yes, he is right, climate change is important, and I can feel like a super good person because I vote for the right people who are doing their best to address climate change.  Neither solves nor scopes the problem, and if on one solves or scopes the problem, it is serious. There were also folks who walked out saying :"Yes, someone should look into that, but it's not my job. I have to get back to work.. forever." And there are all those folks who still seem to believe that forcefully burying their head in the sand will ward off all kinds of bad things.

For myself... well, if ten ton grizzly bear MIGHT be about to charge you, or you MIGHT be about to lose your house due to some weird financial stuff... wouldn't you want to KNOW, first, and the figure out how to act? I hope at least a few of you want to know enough to read a little further. I wanted to know enough to try to learn about THC myself. I don't like having a grizzly bear near me, but I don't just sit there and ignore him. (Actually I never have been near a grizzly bear in the open, but I have been near crocodiles... a story for later.)  

The physics of THC are remarkably simple, really, It's not about incomprehensible mega models. 
Still, unless someone asks, I will spare you some of the details. The key facts are as follows: (1) the mass extinctions Ward discussed were primarily the result of H2S production by a particular type of microbe, a species in the archaea group; (2) Ward cites Kump, who explains that these microbes proliferate when two conditions are met, low oxygen levels and enough nutrients in the water; (3) the THC from the waters of Antarctica have been the primary "lungs of the planet," as oxygen-rich salty cold water on the surface gets heated by the sun and gets forced down by the rise in density due to heating, a vast convection current;
(4) NOAA data show that fresh water flowing from the  Antarctica, due to melting of the surface of that continent, have totally blocked that THC; (5) oxygen levels are not falling so rapidly on one side of the Antarctic, but on the side which feeds the Pacific Ocean, we seem to be 40 years from ground zero; (6) humans are ALREADY pouring more nutrients into the oceans than they have ever experienced before; (7) from Ward's history, a nutrient-rich  "stratified Pacific" would be more than enough to generate enough H2S to kill every primate on earth. (Even just the North Atlantic was enough to do it, in the most recent mass extinction, the eocene-paleocene event.)

So we have 40 years to turn it around. If we do SSP right, it can help. To do SSP right, we have to reduce launch cost ... which might ALSO be crucial to trying some alternative, more benign approaches to "geoengineering," to brute force direct ways to try to save us. 

There is a more immediate huge energy problem connected with oil, conflict and the security of the world economy.  If we move as fast as we can to deploy fuel flexibility, new liquid fuels, and electrified transportation.,
in 25 years we MIGHT be able to change the world economy so that it can adapt gracefully to sudden changes in world oil price.  IEEE has a very nice piece on transportation fuels which shows what we could do -- that we are not doing. But that's not about SSP. Electricity is much cheaper per mile than oil already; the challenge 
on the electricity side is more about how to improve local distribution systems, to handle cars which get plugged in, and how to keep prices from rising too much as we shift to more sustainable source of electricity.

A lot of unreliable advocacy stuff exists out there about renewable energy, and the data are tricky. I would see the best simple hope to be a MIX of reduced-cost solar farms and SSP, both at about 10 cents per kwh, serving the markets at different times of day, eliminating most of the high expense of new storage, which an all-solar approach would require. Lat time I ran the numbers, requirements for new storage and  transmission would change a 10 cents per kwh solar generation into a 20 cents per kwh cost. For the world, that would raise costs from $2 trillion per year to $4 trillion. We could pay that, in principle, but getting real humans to accept a doubling of their electricity bills may be more of a barrier than all of the barriers to making SSP work, multiplied by five. 

That's the big picture. Lots of details of course for every point here.

Best of luck. We really need it. 


Minor addendum on timing: I see no TECHNICAL reason why we couldn't get to 10 cents per kwh electricity from SSP in ten years -- a working profitable gigawatt scale prototype -- if we put in enough resources AND did things right, neither of which I take for granted.  9 cents per kwh is a very reasonable best guess on costs from what we know now, but in the real world there are always unknown things which could make that higher or lower, and it is near impossible to predict the relative timing of such disturbances. That applies to earth-based solar farms as well.