March 30, 2013

The Singularity Approaches

Source: NASA
For some time now, science fiction writers and scientists have envisioned an event called the singularity, where humans and computers will merge into something transcending both. Stanford researchers have developed genetic transistors, which show how computing does not require what we traditionally have considered 'computers.' This singularity may be achieved by incorporating biologically-based, human-engineered computing into human bodies instead of incorporating mechanisms into human bodies. The implications of this are inconceivable. Indeed, that is why this event is called a 'singularity,' because it is almost impossible to see beyond it.

March 19, 2013

Profiles in Courage

Well, the Clintons finally decided that same-sex marriage is a human rights issue. Just when Secretary Clinton was starting to win me over, she releases a self-serving, just-in-time, public statement in favor of marriage equality. As with her husband's a few weeks earlier it seemed more like a concession to momentum than the joyous announcement of an opened heart. I predict an avalanche of such announcements in the near future by brave Democrats who don't want to be the last one on the bandwagon. I think the response to these johnnies-come-lately should be "That's great -- but don't expect any pats on the back." Let's instead praise those who have taken truly brave stands such as:

  • Gavin Newsom. In 2004 this mayor of San Francisco ordered city authorities to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples -- in defiance of California state law.
  • Ted Olson. Since 2009, this leading Republican attorney (and former Solicitor General of the U.S.) has been leading the legal case for same-sex marriage to be deemed a constitutional right based upon the Fourteenth Amendment. This case is currently in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in the form of Hollingsworth v. Perry.
  • Dennis Kucinich. Since at least 2003, this Democratic Congressman and perennial Presidential candidate from Ohio has been arguing vigorously for same-sex marriage as a human right, shaming his colleagues in the process.
Bravo, Gentlemen!

March 16, 2013

The Irrevocable Mistake

Credit: publik15
The Maryland legislature has repealed the death penalty, assured of the Governor's signature. This is a heartening move and I hope it is emulated by other states in short order. Hopefully in a few years we can eliminate this practice throughout the nation.

The death penalty is inherently flawed because of its irrevocability. There is no way to be absolutely, mathematically certain that a person has committed the crime  for which they are being executed. Even confessions can be lies or delusions. Even eyewitnesses can err. Even DNA evidence can be flawed. While a convicted criminal is adequately incarcerated, the public is insulated from any further crimes and needn't fear for their safety. There is no need to execute and there is great danger in doing so. In cases where a person is falsely convicted, they can be set free from prison and compensated for their time -- but they can never be given their life back.

A good rule of thumb for an individual (or a collection of individuals, such as a state) is to avoid mistakes that are not fixable -- and there is nothing less fixable than taking someone's life mistakenly.

March 12, 2013

Compromise and Consensus

Peter Larson/Medill News Service
Paul Ryan, in his role as chair of the House Budget Committee, has released a budget proposal that calls for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), i.e. Obamacare. The President and his Democratic compatriots ran on the record of the ACA and won popular majorities in the House, Senate, and Presidency. However, per the Huffington Post, Ryan has stated:

"The election didn't go our way. Believe me, I know what that feels like. That means we surrender our principles? That means we stop believing what we believe in? Look, whether the country intended it or not, we have divided government. We have the second largest House majority we've had since World War II. And what we believe in this divided government era, we need to put up our vision."

While the meaning of his last sentence is somewhat unclear, what is clear is that he feels no humility in the face of the popular will, and no responsibility to compromise with those who reflect that will. We tend to admire and support those who stand on principle, even if we disagree with their principles. But the job of legislators is to persuade, cajole, arm-twist, shame, beg, entice, etc. each other into a workable consensus on tough, divisive issues. Their job is not to cross their arms, hold their breath, jump up and down, etc. until they get their way -- or just take their marbles and go home.

Divided government relies upon compromise and consensus to function, and it is necessary that government function. Therefore, as long as we have divided government, we need compromise and consensus -- and anyone in government who isn't seeking compromise and consensus doesn't belong there.

March 09, 2013

The Next Tech Revolution

3-D printing is probably the most life-impacting technology that most people still haven't heard about. The applications range widely from life-saving cranial implants to life-threatening firearms.

Credit: OsteoFab
While we have been able to have messages, music, books, films, etc. delivered to us without human hands involved for a few years now, this technology may allow us to have physical objects manufactured to spec in our homes without human hands involved. (Imagine having a pair of jeans manufactured in your home in a few hours that match your exact measurements.)

The impact this will have on manufacturing, commerce, and the economy in general is almost unfathomable. Fasten your seat belts.

March 07, 2013

Nightmare Bacteria

What the CDC is describing as 'nightmare bacteria' are evidently spreading.

Dangers like this are why we need strong Federal agencies like the CDC, acknowledging that we live side by side, sharing the same facilities, walking the same sidewalks, eating the same foods. We just don't live isolated, truly independent lives. We are collaborative, cooperative, interdependent -- and our public policy needs to acknowledge that.

March 06, 2013

Obstacles to Consensus

Our budget crisis, particularly the current sequester, is driven by the division in Congress and between Congress and the President. That much seems to be well-understood. What isn't so well-understood is that 'rules' and 'policies' are actually thwarting the ability to overcome this division.

In a situation where people with diverse opinions have to come to consensus, they must seek compromise and build their consensus thereupon. Sometimes that entails participants changing their minds, contradicting what they have said earlier, or otherwise exhibiting a lack of consistency. Additionally, it sometimes entails bearing the disappointment of their former allies who stick to their opinions and do not compromise. Put simply, consensus in these situations is built when people are willing to abandon compatriots and embrace opponents.

In today's Congress, not only is there an unwillingness to entertain such consensus, it is actually prohibited by an informal but enforced policy: the so-called Hastert Rule. This prohibits a Republican Speaker of the House from bringing a bill to the floor for a vote unless a majority of Republicans will support it -- even if a majority coalition of Republicans and Democrats would support it.

Every American who is disgusted by the inability of Congress and the President to come to compromise and pass a competent budget should condemn this policy and demand that it be rescinded.