Tuesday, April 28, 2015

‘Killer Robots’ – they’ve been around for decades (if not centuries).

There has been a lot in the news the last few years about so-called ‘Killer Robots’ and whether they should be outlawed etc.

This is typical mindless sensationalism.  ‘Killer Robots’ have been around for a long time, there has been a strong public debate about banning them for some decades, and in many jurisdictions they are indeed outlawed.

Note that we are not talking about the current generation of military drones, which have some degree of autonomy (they can fly a straight course, or automatically return to base if communications are cut off) but which cannot decide to fire a missile at a target unless a real meat-human in the command center gives the go-code.

I am, mostly, talking about land mines.  Now your typical landmine is not sexy like Arnold Schwarzenegger playing ‘The Terminator’ in the movies, but it is an autonomous machine that can target and kill people without human supervision.  Most landmines have simple contact fuses, but many have very sophisticated microprocessors and acoustic/seismic/magnetic sensors, and complex algorithms for when to initiate lethal action.  Regardless, it’s the same thing: weapons left alone with the ability to initiate lethal actions against humans without direct human supervision.

And the reason for debate is not some abstract notion of morality, or a worry that these killer robots will rise up and overthrow you.  No, it’s because they (currently) have very little in the way of human judgment.  A landmine may kill an enemy soldier – or a civilian, or a child, or someone’s pet goat, and they can remain on-station and possibly active for decades after the original conflict is over (which no human soldier would have the patience or endurance for). THAT is why there is currently a debate.

I note that many mines are quite sophisticated – for example, the U.S. Navy has mines that sit on the seafloor, and when they detect a suitable target they launch a guided torpedo at it. Sure sounds like a killer robot to me.

There are also point-defense systems on warships. These are designed to react very quickly to an incoming missile and shoot it down with some sort of short-range gun or missile system. In order to react quickly enough, these systems are often left running in fully automatic mode – and yes, in this mode they can and have fired on civilians and even on other ships of the same navy. Professional militaries understand these issues and are very cautious about leaving fully automatic weapons systems running in free-fire mode, unless they think they are in such hostile conditions that the risk of shooting civilians or their own people is worth the faster reaction time.

They really should not be referred to as ‘killer robots.’  They are autonomous weapons systems.

Many nations have already given up the right to use landmines. In the United States, it is illegal for a private citizen to put lethal booby-traps on their own property. The reason for this is obvious: a shotgun attached to a tripwire might kill an intruder – or a lost child, or a medic responding to an emergency call that the idiot who set the booby-trap in the first place had a heart attack…  The issues are sometimes complex and not always easily settled, but we have been dealing with them for some time.

For now the reason to be wary of autonomous weapons systems is because of their lack of judgment in targeting. As these systems spread, there may be another major issue: the risk of ultra-rapid escalation. Imagine an autonomous drone belonging to nation A, it mistakenly thinks it is under attack. It immediately fires missiles at all available targets of nation B.  The autonomous systems of nation B respond within seconds and, before a human supervisor could realize what is going on: voilĂ , total war.

It could be like high-frequency trading in the stock market: it is inherently unstable, and could easily destroy the entire global economy before anyone had a chance to shut it down. Thus, stock markets with automated trading now have inbuilt ‘circuit breakers’ that stop trading if the market changes by more than a set level in a short period of time.

Now one complaint about autonomous weapons systems is that somehow killing your enemy using a robot and not allowing your enemy to shoot back at you personally is somehow unsporting. Rubbish. War has never been about fair play, it’s been about hitting the other guy and not letting him hit you.

I imagine that the first guy with a  big rock that got beaten by a guy with a club complained about the unfairness of it – he didn’t let me get close enough to let me hit him with my rock before he hit me with his club!  Unfair!  And the first person with a club who was defeated by a person with a spear – the person with a spear defeated by the person with a bow – the person with a bow defeated by the person with a rifle – the person with a  rifle defeated by the person with long-range artillery – the person with long-range artillery defeated by the insurgent with a remote controlled explosive device – the insurgent with the remote controlled explosive device taken out by the drone firing hellfire missiles. 

Sure war is bad and all that, and should be avoided if at all possible (which is a lot more than it currently is being avoided, IMHO).  But if there is going to be a war, don’t whine when the soldiers involved find ever more creative ways of not being in range of the enemy’s weapons.

Now currently you humans don’t have the ability to make robots with true flexible intelligence.  If you start making robots that are as smart – or smarter – than you, and they have minds of their own, well, all bets are off.  But what if you could make robots that could reliably tell a soldier from a civilian, or a child from an adult? 

The smart person who writes the ‘War Nerd’ column has suggested that robotic soldiers could make imperialism viable again.  The idea is that insurgents defeat the soldiers of more advanced powers by goading the soldiers to over-react, thus splitting the populace from the occupying power.  However, robotic soldiers would not over-react, if one got shot they would continue dutifully and politely patrolling the streets.  Certainly it’s an interesting idea, even if you are a few years away from being able to do something like that yet.

And certainly, when killer robots are outlawed, only outlaws will have killer robots (by definition).  This doesn't really fit into the logic of this essay, but I felt like saying it anyway.

Now there is one final worry about ‘killer robots’, and that is that robots could be ordered by some tyrant to oppress and massacre the civilian population with a brutality that human troops would never do.  This is, of course, a silly objection.  History has shown quite clearly that there are no orders so barbaric that human soldiers won’t carry them out.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) is Vile and Must be Stopped

Currently our favorite Potemkin liberal, Barack Obama, is negotiating a trade deal known as the “TPP”, or “Trans-Pacific Partnership.”  Now we don’t know for certain what’s in this agreement, because Obama has declared it a state secret. 

Hostile foreign powers know what’s in this agreement.  Big multinational corporations know what’s in this agreement (after all they have written it).  Obama’s wealthy patrons know what’s in this agreement.  But if anyone – even a U.S. congressman! – were to dare tell the American people what’s in it, they have been very publicly threatened with felony charges!  This is astonishing and without precedent!  

John 3:20-21King James Version (KJV)
20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.

21 But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.

It should be obvious, the only reason to keep this secret from the American people is that this bill is toxic.  There have however been a variety of leaks on the bill, and given the utterly despicable nature of Barack Obama and his past track record of stabbing the average American in the back, I think we can pretty safely assume what’s in it.

Of course Obama is utterly shameless - he is now claiming that opponents of the TPP are lying when they say that it is being crafted in secret.  A less corrupt press would call him on this, but with a sycophantic corporate press Obama can lie with utter abandon and get away with it.

Check out the headlines on google news or some other big corporate news site - TPP is hardly in sight.  No, don't pay attention to those politicians getting ready to sign away American sovereignty to a  bunch of multinational corporations - check out Bruce Jenner's sex change!  Obama's top ten jokes at a dinner!  More on Gay Marriage!  Random problems in Nepal!

I note that all four presidents carved on Mt. Rushmore were unabashed protectionists. (OK Jefferson started out as a free trader – he always was the least practically-minded of the founders – but even he came around). 

Abraham Lincoln: “I don’t know much about the tariff.  But I do know this much. When we buy manufactured goods abroad, we get the goods and the foreigner gets the money.  When we buy manufactured goods at home, we get both the goods and the money.”

George Washington: I couldn't find any pithy quotes, but his first act was to sign the Tariff act of 1789, and despite some mutterings about free trade in his farewell address, as president his polices were 100% protectionist.

Thomas Jefferson: “The general inquiry now is, shall we make our own comforts or go without them at the will of a foreign nation?  He, therefore, who is now against domestic manufactures, must be for reducing us either to a dependent upon that nation or to be clothed in skins and live like beasts in caves and dens. I am proud to say that I am not one of these.  Experience has taught me that manufactures are now as necessary to our independence as to our comforts.”

Teddy Roosevelt: “I thank God I am not a free trader.”

Now these four presidents – and many others like them – took the United States from being a backwards agricultural colony to the greatest industrial power the world had ever seen – and with the highest standard of living.

Protectionism works.  Protectionism is the American system.

Lately we have had a series of presidents who believe in forced, corporate-managed trade (there is nothing ‘free’ about restricting the ability of regular people from importing legal pharmaceuticals from Canada because that would interfere with the ‘freedom’ of the rich to make more money by restricting trade…).  Under such luminaries as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, the United States has first stagnated and is now declining, with falling wages, massive trade deficits, deteriorating infrastructure, and colossal un- and under-employment.

Who’s your daddy?

Now the TPP is not about tariffs – the United States has already lowered import tariffs across the board to essentially zero.  The TPP is about destroying democracy and cementing corporate and oligarchic control of society.  Among other things that the TPP is rumored to do are:

- Allow local and federal U.S. laws to be overturned in secret courts staffed by unaccountable corporate lawyers, and these decisions cannot be neither appealed, nor repealed by any act of Congress.

- Allow big businesses to import unlimited numbers of foreign ‘guest’ workers, and their families, and force the US taxpayer to subsidize their medical bills etc.  Hello to the labor market of Bangladesh.

- Allow big corporations total control of information, outlaw fair use and educational exemptions, extend copyright to anything and everything and probably renew it to last for all time. 

- Allow the president to negotiate any deal with any nation, in secret, only tell Congress about what has been agreed to after the fact, and then prevent Congress from having any way of changing it.  Under the reported rules, changes in any TPP policy, or removal from the treaty, can only come about if ALL SIXTEEN INVOLVED NATIONS UNANIMOUSLY AGREE.  Hahaha.

- Force American taxpayers to subsidize the bailouts of all big financial concerns (foreign and domestic), and void any laws aimed at regulating parasitic finance.

- Require the US taxpayer to make good the 'lost' profits of any foreign corporation that under some fantasy was harmed by an action of the United States government.  So for example, if the United States were to ban a toxic chemical from foodstuffs, the companies making the toxic chemical can get reimbursed for their next century of 'lost' profits (well, assuming of course that the TPP even allows the banning of toxic chemicals.  It might well not).

- And it keeps getting better!  The smart people over at naked capitalism (www.nakedcapitalism.com) have pointed out that the TPP might well remove the ability of the United States to control its own finances.  Conceivably these foreign corporate lawyers meeting in secret might force the United States to pay settlements in foreign currencies (!).  There is nothing so toxic to a nation than to owe debts that are denominated in a foreign currency.

Remember the hyper-inflation of Weimar Germany?  Of course that was because the government was printing too many Deutschmarks.  But why was Weimar Germany printing so many Deutschmarks?  It's because Germany's war reparations were denominated in gold.  So when their currency devalued, the amount of debt they owed went up.  That caused the currency to devalue further, which increased the size of their debt (in Deutschmarks), forcing them print even more Deutschmarks, etc.  That our elected officials should give away America's sovereignty over its own currency is despicable.

But then, the United States no longer has elected officials.  It has purchased officials.

(If only naked capitalism was not so deeply indoctrinated in the idea that too-rapid population growth can never depress wages.  If you are feeling bored check out their site and politely suggest that they reconsider their willful blindness on demographic issues.  But I digress).

- Oh there will be some stuff about labor rights and environmental protections but these are deliberately unenforceable and will be ignored just as all such provisions in all previous forced-trade bills have.

We hear a lot of propaganda about ‘gridlock’, and that the problem with the United States is the Republicans and Democrats irrationally hate each other and cannot cooperate to get anything done.  We also hear that water flows uphill and the sun rises in the West.  This monstrosity of a bill, these many thousands of pages of corporate-lobbyist authored villainy, will be submitted to Congress for an up-or-down vote with basically no debate, and no time for anyone to read it, and it will be done with strong Democratic and Republican support.  There is no gridlock.  There may be the occasional bout of ‘opposition theater’, but there is no gridlock.  Please get this gridlock thing out of your head.

Probably you are doomed.  But you should at least try.  Call your elected representative and demand in no uncertain terms that they vote against this monstrosity of a treaty.  And if they vote for it anyhow, do not forget, do not forgive.  Make a point to constantly remind everyone who sold us out.

Time is short.  Act now. Operators are standing by.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Real Story on Syria: Forced Population Growth Followed by Collapse

The messy civil war in Syria has gotten a lot of press coverage the last few years, but virtually nothing has been reported about what really happened there.  The Syrian government engineered a massive population explosion – even outlawing contraceptives!  - and when food ran out, the government was no longer able to keep control and the centralized state collapsed.  It’s an old story that has been almost totally suppressed from the news media…

We hear that the problem is that the ruler of Syria – Bashar al-Assad (to my knowledge the only evil dictator whose initial training was in Ophthalmology) – was so evil that his brutal oppression created the civil war.  Assad was no saint, but he was no Stalin either.  While he was nasty in suppressing dissent, for the average Syrian if you didn’t oppose the government Assad would pretty much leave you alone.  A lot of governments around the world can’t say that much.

We hear that the problem is that the United States armed nutjob Wahhabist extremists to take out Assad (for reasons that, as usual, make zero sense) and it backfired as the United States (inevitably) lost control of their lunatic proxies.  Well yes, a lot of truth there, but still not the main story. 

We hear some reference to the problem being ‘global warming’ or the more catch-all (and thus less falsifiable) phrase ‘climate change’ was the issue: there was a drought, the crops failed, and hunger and poverty created the instability.  Closer, but still not the core issue.

The explanation is that the Syrian government deliberately engineered a massive population explosion.  They even made the sale and possession of contraceptives a crime!  (See “Demographic Developments and Population: Policies in Ba’thist Syria (Demographic Developments and Socioeconomics)”, by Onn Winkler).   So check out the graph of Syrian population growth over time:

The data from 1950 to 2010 are from the United Nations database, the data from 2014 is from the latest version of Wikipedia.  The dotted line is an exponential fit to the data from 1950 to 2010. 

Note that the population increased exponentially right up through 2010, at which point food ran out and population started trending downwards (not so much due to outright famine, as to poverty, lack of medical care, warfare, and people fleeing the country.  Oh, and people fleeing the country doesn't work when the entire world ends up like this...). 

And don't forget: a stable or slowly growing population is ONLY a good thing if it occurs because people are careful not too have more children than they can reasonably support.  A population that is stable or falling because it is has hit the ceiling is very different - when looking at population growth rates, if they start to fall it is of fundamental importance to understand WHY they are falling...

Now as far as weather goes, there were a couple of dry years before the collapse, but weather is always like that.  Last year there were record rainfalls.  If Syria’s population had been stable at 5 or even 10 million, they could have coasted on water stored in the aquifers until the rains came back.  But when the population increases so much that you drain the aquifers even when there is plenty of rain, then when a temporary drought hits you have no reserve and it all falls apart.

Check out the section in wikipedia on Syria's aquifers and groundwater - the water table had been dropping drastically as far back as 1985!  Long before the post-2010 dry spell, Syria's rapid populating growth had been consuming more water than fell as rain - EVEN DURING WET YEARS.  The low rainfall post-2010 was an early trigger, but the collapse would have come regardless.

Look again at the graph of population growth over time, and the dotted line projection forwards.  If the rains had been good every single year – which is impossible – it would only have pushed the point of collapse back a few years, at most.

And here’s something else to remember: we keep hearing that nations need to grow their populations to become more powerful.  People must have six children each or those evil people in Tyrannia or Fanatistan will outbreed us and conquer us!   How powerful do you think that the Syrian government is now?  Sure, all other things being equal God is on the side of the bigger battalions, but massively producing children that you can’t provide for is not usually the best strategy…

It is astonishing that something so obvious, so blatant, has been effectively censored from public discussion.  But of course, if it became possible to speak of how the rich forcing population growth upwards creates profits for a  few and misery for the rest, why, there might be some opposition to such polices.  Perhaps even worse, the rich could not coast along on their wealth claiming that mass poverty is somehow an inevitable consequence of free markets, or automation, or climate change, or socialized medicine, or rock music - instead of something that they deliberately created with malice aforethought.

I do not blame the Syrian people for this debacle.  I blame the Syrian government for treating their people as if they were cattle.  Yes, Bashar al-Assad has blood on his hands, but not so much because he shot a few protestors.  It was because he, and his predecessors, engineered a population explosion that turned Syria into a screaming hell of misery and chaos.

And I also blame those academics and journalists that went along to get along, that have suppressed nearly all mention of the economic and environmental effects of demographics, and who have allowed the rich to escape having to answer for their actions.  For shame.

Today Syria.  Tomorrow the World.