More on theocracy

In the midst of all the ISIS stuff going on, I had to release my latest literary effort. In the event any of my readers have also read any of my other novels, you might have noticed that they portray a number of different forms of governance, and highlight the flaws in each. And no, I have not worked out what will work best, and maybe nothing will because as some of the books show, what goes wrong is because some of the characters put self-interest before the greater good. That is hardly original, of course, as was the basic reason the Res Publica failed. Anyway, the latest is the theocracy.

You may ask, how could an advanced civilization have theocracy? Well, in this story the planet around Epsilon Eridani was specifically engineered (and no, there is no evidence this planet exists) and seeded with late Cretaceous life that evolved into a civilization. Think about it; in the great debate relating evolution to creation, what would you think if there were no fossils at all prior to 65 My BP? And what is the difference between an advanced alien race of engineers that can operate over several hundred million years and a God? Anyway, the odd one of them ends up deciding that it would be desirable to remove mammals (us) from the planet of creation (Earth). The question is, how can such religious fervour be averted?

After all this thinking, can I suggest anything to apply to ISIS? The best I can come up with is that some Muslims have to overturn the Wahhabi doctrine and reform Islam. That is not exactly a highly probable outcome right now. Nevertheless, I think it is important. If all you do is bomb them, you probably create more angry recruits than you remove. The problem is, you remove infrastructure and kill the innocent as well as the guilty. And here, “innocent” is taken to mean anyone not actively going out there fighting for ISIS. (As usual, it is important to define terms, particularly if you use them in a slightly different way to others.) Even if ISIS were wiped out, what remains? I have seen one estimate that the cost of rebuilding Syria, which has had half its hospitals and about two million homes obliterated, is about $300 billion! And after you leave this mess behind, all the reasons and the Wahhabi philosophy remain, and if anything, are reinforced.

One other alternative is that of Titus Flavius Vespasianus: you start at one end of the country and kill everyone that is not clearly allied. I doubt modern society is ready for that solution. There are only two ways to win a war: remove the opposition from the field, or remove the will to fight. If you are not going to do the first, then you must concentrate on the second. Exactly how to do it remains a problem, but if someone can reform Islam, that would be a great start. The problem is, Islam does not have an official structure, so the only way to do that would appear to require someone with extreme charisma who will overturn wahhabiism. Do I hear a, “Good luck with that”?

Meanwhile, a quick commercial: Ranh, a tale of plotting, conspiracy, religious fervour, murder, treachery, honour, diplomacy, and tail-ball.

Paris terrorism: now what?

The biggest news item of the week was undoubtedly the Paris terrorism, and we need a clear strategy to deal with this sort of activity. The first step in forming a strategy is to clearly define where you are. We all know that ISIS developed as a consequence of inept US management of Iraq, following the Bush led invasion, but thinking about that is irrelevant. We are here, and we cannot alter the past. “Here” involves a large number of religious fanatics following some extreme form of Wahhabi doctrine and who have occupied significant territory in Iraq and Syria; some people, mainly Kurds and Shias, who are fighting back; a huge number of displaced persons fleeing from ISIS; some nations of the West who want to get rid of ISIS, and are prepared to bomb ISIS but will not commit ground troops; Assad, who has promoted a secular government in order to protect his Alawite (Shia) minority, and who sees his control of his country diminishing daily as a consequence of the Arab spring revolutions that were encouraged by the West; Saudi Arabia, which is funding so-called “moderate” opposition to Assad, but is to all intents and purposes funding Sunni extremists who wish to “put the Shias in their place”; Iran and Hezbollah, who will defend the Shias; some nations of the West that want to get rid of Assad and are funding and arming the “moderate opposition”; the “moderate opposition” who are effectively supporting ISIS; and finally the Russians who are prepared to bomb both ISIS and the so-called moderate opposition to Assad. As you can see, where we are is a turgid mess, and in reality it is a lot more complicated than that.

It is not made any easier when we try to define the forces. The West, mainly Europe, has offered sanctuary to a number of Muslim refugees, but many of the Muslims refuse to integrate and accept a secular society. Once there, they see being there as a right, but many of them refuse to accept the obligation of integrating into, or at least accepting, our society. They are welcome to add to our culture, but they have no right to impose theirs. Of course everyone should have freedom of religion, but unfortunately, anyone can declare themselves a Muslim cleric. The net effect of this has been a number of fanatics having an institutional infrastructure to spout hate, to alienate a number of younger Muslims, who have grown up with all the advantages of a Western education, and they have become radicalized. In short, the enemy is within. According to The Telegraph, about 750 young people have left Britain and gone to Syria to train, and many are returning. Once back, they are potential terrorists.

Once we know where we are, the next step is to clearly define your own objectives, and those of your opponent, and here we have a problem. ISIS apparently has no clearly defined goal other than to kill as many infidels as it can. It has the loose objective of wishing to impose its interpretation of Sharia law over the world, but I doubt it really sees this as practical. What about those opposing ISIS? To me, there are only two obvious strategies available: withdraw totally from the region, or wipe out ISIS, but everyone seems reluctant to do either. To be fair, neither has any guaranteed favourable outcome. A further option is to try to get a negotiated peace, and John Kerry has apparently proposed peace talks, but peace talks themselves get nowhere unless there are parties that are prepared to give a bit to gain a bit. When the only objectives of some are totally unacceptable to others, it cannot work. Worse, hidden in this proposal is the concept that there will be elections to get a government, democracy will take hold, and everyone will live happily ever after. This is a classic case of requiring the world to fit in with your wishes, and in general it will not. You cannot have a democracy unless the citizens accept it, and all this will do is get in a different form of tyrant. But it will give Western politicians the chance to say, “we tried, we did something, and it isn’t our fault it all turned to custard.” Unfortunately, it will be their fault, if they succeed in their “negotiated peace”, because while they will get their publicity for “trying”, someone else will pay for the consequences.

In my opinion, ISIS cannot win by force. The problem is, unless we are very careful, we can lose quite a bit. People have the right to go to a concert and not get blown to pieces, and they expect the security forces to stop that. The problem is, if you have hundreds, or even thousands, of citizens that have gone away to train as terrorists, it is rather hard to prevent such outrages. It becomes a lot easier if all peaceful Muslims are prepared to give all information on potential terrorism, but will they? It is also a lot easier if the security forces take on capabilities that we do not like. My guess is, someone like Heydrich would eventually stop the terrorism at home, but do you want to live in that world? It becomes somewhat sad if the right to stay alive means you lose rights to live.

Fusion Power: coming to a place near you (maybe, eventually).

A recent Time magazine had fusion power highlighted on its cover, with the thought, “It might actually work this time”. The concept is that fusion power, if you can make it work, will provide essentially unlimited power, and that will be totally greenhouse gas free. The usual gaseous product is helium, which has no vibrational spectrum at all because it does not form molecules, at least none that have any lifetime that we know of. The so-called miracle here is that this fusion power will come from small companies, and not from government funding to academics. As an example of the biggest government-funded effort, ITER is being constructed in the south of France at a cost of $20 billion, and will take at least another twelve years to construct, then some unknown amount of time to “debug”.

The problems are reasonably obvious. If you can make fusion work, you get/require temperatures in the order of a hundred million degrees centigrade. There is no solid material above about 4,000 degrees centigrade, so how do you contain this? The short answer is by magnetic fields. Unfortunately, the material becomes a plasma after a few thousand degrees, and plasmas are weird. They are extremely difficult to control, nevertheless, in principle plasmas can be controlled with magnetic fields. It is also possible to arrange for the plasmas to generate their own containment fields, but this is not generally done. Of course to get the necessary magnetic field strength you consume an awful lot of electricity, and a lot more to get the material up to reaction temperature, so there is also the problem of getting more energy out than you put in. There have been fusion reactions in the lab, but these have always, so far, consumed more electricity than they could get out. Of course, they were not designed to make electricity, but rather they were designed to uncover and solve the problems in getting fusion to work usefully.

The reason you get so much more energy out than from any other technology lies in the strength of binding. One of the strongest chemical bonds is the hydrogen molecule, which has a binding energy of about 4.3 electron volts (or about 438 kilojoules per mole). The binding energy of deuterium (a proton and a neutron) is about 2.3 MeV, i.e., about a million times more. 4He (the usual form of helium, two protons and two neutrons) is a bit over 28 MeV. So, if you react two deuterium nuclei to form helium, you get about 23.4 MeV. The easiest reaction to get working would be to react deuterium with tritium (a proton bound to two neutrons) and this reacts to give helium plus a neutron. The problem with this is that neutrons will fly off, hit the walls of the reactor, and react with them, making them radioactive. You have to replace your reactor walls every six months, which makes this an added expense. To add to your troubles, tritium is not that stable, and you have to make it somewhere. So, what to do?

One solution that a company called General Fusion ( has come up with is to compress the plasma in a vortex of metal that includes lithium, and lithium captures neutrons and makes tritium. I must confess that as an outsider who is somewhat ignorant of the problems, I like the thinking here. Another reaction is being tried by a company called Tri Alpha,_Inc.
(they do not seem to have a website that rates on Google!) They appear to have chosen a different reaction still: firing a proton (a hydrogen nucleus) at boron 11 (to get carbon 12, which is a very stable nucleus). All you need to make this go is a billion degrees! That could also be misleading. Heat is random kinetic energy, and what you try to do by heating is to get some parts go fast enough so that when they kit, the kinetic energy is enough to get over the barrier to reaction. This could be done “cold” if the protons were accelerated fast enough, in which case you have directed kinetic energy.

So, how long is this going to take? Who knows? Since at present the problems being solved are still scientific ones, not in the immediate future, because once these are sorted, there will still be engineering problems, including the one of how to get power from the heat. In my futuristic novel “Troubles” I guessed fusion would be made to work about 2050, and my proposed method of recovering energy was by the so-called magnetohydrodynamic effect. There was a power station built in the Soviet Union that worked by taking energy from a plasma, the plasma being made from coal. I gather that while it worked, it generated about 60% of the available energy, which is much better than standard coal-fired plants, and it was limited by the fact that the plasmas collapse in the region of about 1500 degrees Centigrade. However, their plasmas were unlikely to exceed 4000 degrees, and energy recovery is dependent on the temperature range (4000 to about 1800 degrees) and what is thrown out is lost. (The plant also probably failed because coal will also contain silicates, and these would produce a slag. No slag is possible from making helium.) From over a hundred million degrees the losses due to the second law of thermodynamics applied to plasma collapse are negligible. As an aside, my guess was the use of the deuterium – deuterium reaction, to keep neutrons to a modest amount. (There will be some 3He + n.). Unfortunately, I probably will not live long enough to see whether that guess turns out to be right.

Russian Metrojet down!

The worst news this week, from my perspective anyway, was the downing of the Russian Metrojet over the Sinai. This is absolutely awful, and my sympathy goes out to all the relatives. Immediately following the destruction of the aircraft, there were a number of statements from all sorts of places, and I find it interesting to consider why they were made. First, both Russians and Egyptians discounted “foul play”. The problem here is, both had reasons why they did not want it to be a consequence of terrorism: the Egyptians because it happened on their soil, and the Russians because they did not want it to known widely that they had been attacked. To stir the pot along, ISIS claimed responsibility, a claim that was remarkably quickly dismissed from many quarters. Personally, I think some weight should be given to this because ISIS is not in the habit of claiming what they have not done. We then heard statements that the aircraft had had a tail impact some years before. Then some Russians suddenly realized that incompetent maintenance was even worse looking for them, so they stated the aircraft was in good mechanical order. Next we have had a claim that a satellite saw an infrared flash, and following that, there appears to be evidence that those seated at the back of the aircraft alone were terribly burned. So, what can we suggest caused this? It is still too early to know, and we need more information, nevertheless an analysis of the above does make some strong suggestions, assuming the information is true.

It was not pilot error. The aircraft was apparently flying normally at 9,000 meters, then it stopped flying, quite suddenly. At that altitude there is nothing the pilot could do that would cause such a sudden failure. I also reject aircraft failure. Engineers have examined the aircraft frequently, and gross problems would have been detected. Suppose something broke, through metal fatigue. Modern aircraft have a lot of strength redundancy, as they have to fly through absolutely violent conditions. If you have ever flown through a tropical cumulus storm you will know what I mean. I have looked out the window and seen the wings flapping. If something does break, there is inevitably plenty of reserve, but suppose the reserve is in trouble. What happens then is that the failure gradually cascades, as each break adds to the problems of that remaining. However, such failures are relatively slow to develop, and the pilot would have had time to take action, such as radio for help, take power off, and try to take the aircraft lower and slower. In this case, the air conditions were very benign, which would greatly help the pilot. From what we can gather, the event was sudden and disastrous, so we can safely assume there was no problem like metal fatigue.

Similarly, we can reject an accidental collision. There is nothing to accidentally collide with at 9,000 meters.

That leaves us with two possibilities. A missile attack is one. As was shown by the Malaysian airline aircraft over the Ukraine, that is feasible. It has been argued that could not be the case because terrorists do not have access to such missiles. That may be true, but we cannot be absolutely sure. It has also been stated the satellite would have tracked the heat trail of a missile, but at this point we have to be a little careful because we do not know whether the evidence really ruled that out as we have no details of the data on which the statement was made. Perhaps it was detected, but nobody was looking at the time and there was no adequate record, or perhaps the detector was not sensitive enough.

The next possibility is an on-board explosion, which is in accord with the infrared flash, and the burnt passengers. There are three possible sources for an explosion: a missile, the fuel tank exploding, and a bomb. An explosion could result from a fuel-air mix in the tank, but that would mean that something really seriously faulty was done on the ground, because while an air-fuel mix can explode, it needs something to ignite it. The ignition temperature is so high that only a spark would do it, such as from static electricity. Aircraft fuel tanks are designed so that no such sparks can be generated.

The remaining option is a bomb loaded in with the cargo, or placed somewhere within the aircraft, either way by someone on the ground, presumably attached to the ground crew at the airport. In my opinion, this is the most likely option, but eventually we shall see. It will be reasonably easy to tell. When all the pieces of the aircraft are assembled, the source of the explosion will have led to metal being distorted away from the source. Either the fuel tank nearest the cargo deformed inwards or outwards. If inwards, it had to be a bomb. There will, of course, be other signs as well, including residues of whatever explosive was used.

Inequality of wealth

The novels I write form a “future history”, not of course intended to be predictive, but rather to occasionally slip in a comment on previous times, i.e. our “now”. Predicting the future is not entirely practical because when the future turns up, it usually refuses to comply. But one surprise I have had is that sometimes when it does turn out that I was wrong, it was because I underestimated the problem. Even though it was recently published, my first effort at Miranda’s Demons was written in the late 1980s, and one of scenes has some characters looking back at our time and scoffing at what we call democracy. Thus the first draft had them pointing out the uneven accumulation of wealth, and too much drifting into too few hands, and then too much of that was wasted on lobbying and boosting favoured politicians, i.e. politicians who would protect their wealth. The characters scoffed at tens of millions of dollars being so wasted. Look what could have been done with it.

Well, talk about an underestimate. In the following link:
it is claimed that half the world’s wealth is held by 1% of the population, while the 80% least well-off currently own just 5.5% of the world’s wealth. We have to be a little careful with such comparisons, because the ownership of a house, say, in a central western city, will have an enormously greater number of dollars attached to it than a quite liveable house in many of the poorer countries of the world, but no matter how you look at it, the wealth distribution is just plain gross. Then, according to the article, the wealth sector spent $550 million lobbying policymakers in Washington and Brussels alone during 2013, and $571 million in campaign contributions during the US 2012 elections. So much for my “tens of millions”! And think what could have been done with a spare billion dollars.

An interesting question is, how did all this come about? Part of the answer would seem to be, the removal of high taxes on the wealthy. The very wealthy and the giant corporations pay very little tax because they somehow manage to file in tax havens, or conduct enough business in tax havens where somehow they manage to export very large tax losses to their home country while making extremely high profits where there is no tax. This is not so difficult when they set the prices in each place. So, why are they allowed to do this? One reason is the politicians let them. First, they do not want to lose that valuable electoral cash support, for the primary objective of any politician is to get re-elected.

Another contributing reason would seem to involve a widespread economic theory that says such wealth “trickles down”. Well, for the current inequality to be possible, anything coming down really is a trickle, while that going up approaches a flood. All of this happened at the same time that there was a burst of computer technology that has allowed a number of jobs that used to require quite large labour forces to be done by machines. This has led to a hollowing out of the middle classes, and too much control has rested in the hands of those moving money. Huge payments to corporate executives in the form of stock options have also contributed, because for the executives to make money from the option, they need the stock prices to rise. That has led to executive decisions being made for short-term profit for those executives, the classic conflict of interest. The problem is, short-term profits are frequently at the expense of long-term development. A classic example was Hewlett Packard where Fiorina cut research and development to invest in shorter-term boost to the stocks. The overall result was 30,000 people, mainly middle class, lost their jobs and the company nose-dived.

My guess is that my discussion in the book is valid, and that in a couple of hundred years, people will look back at this period and shake their heads in despair. How, they will ask, could someone like Fiorina make so much money by doing so much damage to the company she controlled? And she was far from being alone. The corporate world is littered with fairly mediocre performers who take home incredible rewards, and the tragedy here is, they go to all those extremes to get such rewards, and receive a relatively minute benefit from them.

Are drug prices fair?

Recently in the Huffington Post, Allen Frances wrote a blog asking, “Why are most cancer drugs so expensive and so ineffective?” The link is below for those interested.
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That is most certainly a good question. A summary of his points includes that the pharmaceutical industry is essentially a monopoly, in that only one company will make any given patented product. In the US, it exerts far too much political pressure, and as an example, he claimed Congress denied the Medicare program the right to negotiate drug prices. He claims there is a price monopoly, for even when generic drugs can be made, the pharmaceutical companies buy up the companies. He claims patent lives are extended with phoney variations. But in my mind, even worse, drug companies test their own products, but do not have to release the data for analysis by neutral observers. The companies hype the benefits and minimize disclosure of any risks.

He then cites some data from a Dr Prasad. Some of his findings include, the price of Gleevac rose from $30,000 in 2001 to $70,000 today, despite the fact the cost to make it is $200 (for a year’s course). However, at least Gleevac actually works. According to Dr Prasad, the median improvement in survival for 71 drugs for solid tumours produced in the last decade is 2.1 months. That may well be an overestimate because only 36% of those over 65 yrs old were in the trial, but that age group represents 60% of the patients in the wider community. Another interesting question is, given that many of these drugs have very severe consequences to the patient, is that 2.1 months worth it?

So, how do the companies do? Seemingly, remarkably well, with returns of between 10 – 42%. I saw a recent article that stated one product that had been sold for $20 per prescription had it raised to $1,000. When asked why, a spokesman said they wanted to make more money. Well, yes, I suppose they do. Don’t we all? The products are grossly overpriced, and only too often it appears they don’t really work all that well. There is the argument that research costs a lot. Yes, it does, but despite this, these companies are hugely profitable. In my view, this is simply price gouging, and it shows the ugly side of capitalism. A further interesting question would be, how much tax do they pay on these profits? Given that some large companies pay very little, one suspects the answer is, not much.

Usually, economic theory works on the basis that if there is a bad product, people will not buy it. However, with cancer drugs, that theory goes out the window. The average person has no hope whatsoever of deciding whether the product is any good, and you find out it is not when you die, or come close to it. Earlier this year, my wife died of cancer, so I know the pressure on the relations. Who can tell someone dying that product B is a waste of money, and it will bring penury to the remaining family members? And no, this situation did not arise for me. Claire was diagnosed in November, some simple treatment was provided as a holding measure while various things were done, and proper treatment was to start after Christmas. As it happened, her funeral was on the day scheduled for the start of treatment. Nevertheless, when someone you love is dying, you cannot really think rationally. There is a temptation to grasp at straws, but think what the grasping is like if you hear promising things from the drug companies? The very least we could ask for is a fair and open discussion of the prospects, and the basis for saying that. And we should expect that where there is little to substantiate the claims, at the very least the straw to be grasped should involve only reasonable expenses. Price gouging for performance is, in my view, not justifiable, but price gouging for what may be little better than snake oil is in my view criminal.

Russia in Syria

There was a recent article in the New York Times titled “Is Vladimir Putin trying to teach the West a lesson in Syria?” (
In Krastev’s view, Putin’s argument is that either America should be prepared to intervene and sort out any civil war inspired by its lofty rhetoric, or it should quit goading people to revolt. Apparently, in Putin’s speech at the UN General Assembly, his question to America was, “Do you realize what you have done?” According to Krastev, America sees global instability as a result of authoritarian regimes’ desperate attempts to preserve a doomed status quo, while Moscow sees it as arising from America’s obsession with democracy, even where it is implausible. Why implausible? Because our Republic-style form of government only works when the people accept the results of the election. They may grizzle and speak out against the current politicians, but they accept the politicians. In turn, the politicians accept that if they lose the next election, they are out. Further, everyone accepts that government might favour a philosophy, but it will not favour a group based on religion, race, or a number of other aberrant behaviours. This may seem very basic, but in most parts of the world nobody trusts any of these conventions. Krastev’s article cites Libya; what he does not mention is that Libya is relatively chaotic right now. We heard a lot of fuss over an incident in Benghazi, but that is only because it involved Americans. I gather there are plenty of similar incidents in Libya.

If Krastev is correct, can Putin succeed in delivering that message? My guess is no. One of the aspects of the Republic form of government is that the representatives have essentially unlimited speaking rights, and once a politician gets hold of a slogan, it is very difficult to persuade said politician to drop it.

Another question is, is that why Putin is in Syria? My view is, almost certainly not. Yes, he wants the naval base, but I doubt that disappearing would worry him enormously. My guess is that what Putin wants least of all is to have ISIS or whatever spreading trouble into Central Asia. In the old Soviet Union, Muslim, Christian and atheist lived their lives peacefully. The standard of living was well below that of the West in terms of consumer goods, etc, but from what I saw the people were essentially happy, or at least content. The last thing Putin will want to see is any of those republics infested with the sort of problems in Syria.

Rightly or wrongly, there is another lesson that Putin is dishing out, although whether it was intended is another matter. That is, the correct use of air power when dealing with ground insurgency or war. The Russians have released some TV clips on what they are doing, and it is impressive. What they are doing is supporting the Syrian army. Up until now, many of the rebel groups have been using modern US supplied weaponry, including anti-tank weapons. Now the Syrian armour and infantry were shown progressing towards some destination, and when they ran into difficulty, now the Russian air force targeted the problems. If the insurgents stayed put, they died from above; if they moved, they were open to the Syrian army.

They are not exactly revolutionary tactics, in fact they more or less follow the procedures required by Colonel-General Heinz Guderian for blitzkrieg. The air power supports the ground forces because it is only the ground forces that can make lasting gains. Apparently the US air strikes refuse to support any of the Shi’ite armed forces (largely Assad’s and Iranian) and therefore while they are a nuisance to ISIS and while we hear of “important results”, the fact is ISIS has not been reversed in any clear way.