Gorbachev: A Man for What Season?

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is dead, and the eulogies are flowing thick and fast, but mainly from those outside Russia. He may well have the record for the most praise for someone who made the worst botch-up of the job he was appointed to do. He is praised in the West for dismantling the Soviet Union, but that was the last thing he was trying to do. He believed that liberalizing the economy would improve the lot of Russians. After he was deposed and the USSR fell, the GDP of Russia almost halved, and only too much that was left fled the country in the hands of a few oligarchs. You see comments by Bill Browder on how bad Putin is, but he made a billion dollars from the ignorance of the ordinary Russian and according to Russia, he never paid a cent in tax to Russia. Quite simply, Gorbachev gave the country that hated Russia (the US) what it wanted and completely failed Russia. He had a dream, but he never checked to see whether it was realistic, and he never had a workable plan to implement it.

Gorbachev’s early important jobs related to agriculture. The Soviet Union should have been a major food exporter, but in the 1970s, in part because of poor weather, it had to import grain. Gorbachev was supposed to do something about this, and his response was to blame central decision-making. That may well have been a factor, but it was not the required answer. I visited the USSR in the early 1980s, and in a drive through the countryside of Uzbekistan the problem was easy to see. There were huge areas of the steppe that had been ploughed, and then, nothing. Not even harrowed to at least make it look as if something was being done. But in small “oases” there was extremely intense productivity. Those in the collective were given very small areas of land for themselves to use, and basically they concentrated on that. This was where almost all the local food came from, a tiny percentage of the total land. Now, if I could see this in a short visit which was really more as a tourist (I was getting over jet lag and enjoying a weekend before heading to Moscow for what I went there for) surely Gorbachev could have found this out if he wanted to.

Part of my life has been devoted as a consultant to fixing problems, and my first rule of fixing a problem has always been, first examine the problem in intense detail and understand it. To examine it, you actually have to go and look at it yourself. Reading a report is no good unless there is a recommendation to fix it, because if whoever wrote the report does not know how to fix it, perforce (s)he does not understand it. This is probably a major failing of leaders everywhere, but it was much worse in the USSR. If the leader cannot take the time off to look at it, he should delegate to someone who can. At this time fixing agriculture was Gorbachev’s main job; he was the delegated man, and at this point he failed. The USSR kept importing food, which also was a drain on foreign currency. One could argue that the system prevented success, but Gorbachev had Yuri Andropov as a friend, and if he could persuade Andropov, almost certainly what he recommended would be done. The simple answer is the farmers had to have an incentive to increase the communal yield. That introduces the most significant problem in economics: how to properly reward people. Something needed to be tried, such as giving small groups of farmers (since they had to maintain some part of communism) the right to take shares of the yield from a block of the commune land.

When Gorbachev became effectively the leader of the USSR, he had learned nothing from his agrarian program, and while he recognized industry needed a better output and productivity, he still relied on central planning, while ignoring implementation. A plan that might work is only of use if there is a working procedure to make it work. For his plans to work, first he had to remove the many layers of bureaucrats between the major decision and implementation. His first move was to remove the “old guard”. This was a clear mistake as a first move. They knew someone younger was needed, which was why they put him there. Many should have been potential allies. His replacements included people like Yeltsin, who ended up doing everything he could to subvert Gorbachev. Gorbachev was not a good judge of character, and completely failed the next step: if you want to run a central system the top priority is to find someone who gets things done. They are seldom people who play the political game making fine speeches praising Lenin. Gorbachev tried to introduce some sort of limited private enterprise and market economics, but because of the layer of incompetents under him and his demand that central planning be retained, that did not work.

The next major blunder was “glasnost”; giving the people the right to complain. There was too much to complain about. Freedom to criticize is all very well, but if the criticisms are going to be well-grounded and nobody is fixing them, the society fragments. Gorbachev apparently thought that if the people knew about all the problems they would rally behind his efforts to fix them. That was ridiculous. The noisiest dissidents are the least constructive. He needed fixers in place before allowing people to shout out what needed fixing. After all, a lot was obvious. Again, I recall going into a building in the old USSR that was supposed to be where you bought things. The shelves were empty. Fixing food production and providing a range of consumable goods should have been the first priority. If everyone had more to purchase, and higher incomes from the increased productivity, now open criticism would be harmless.

Gorbachev made an impression on Western leaders. The nuclear disarmament treaty was an achievement, but when it came to the reunification of Germany and the USSR giving the Warsaw Pact countries their independence from Moscow control, Gorbachev badly needed to ensure that NATO did not march East. Given that he was offering a lot, he needed a signed treaty ensuring the “neutral zone”. He could have obtained that from the Eastern countries, although he probably also needed the US to agree, but for some reason he made no effort at all, which eventually brings us to the current Ukraine conflict. He was to permit some of the republics to leave the USSR, but he made no effort to settle the legal conditions of doing so, which later led to the Georgian and now Ukrainian problems. The USSR owned all the factories, etc, in the breakaway republics, but these ended up in the hands of a very few oligarchs.  Gorbachev had great ideas, but was seemingly uninterested in the details of achieving them, or of ensuring decisions were not undermined by others. The end result was the rule of Yeltsin, and the impoverishment of a very large fraction of the population, the transfer of virtually all of Russia’s industrial and resource assets into the hands of a few oligarchs, the almost halving of the nation’s GDP, and all this really followed from Gorbachev’s inept governance. Gorbachev seemed to think people would rally behind to get the best outcome. That is delusional. They follow incentives or they fly off in different directions. He failed to provide incentives or control where things went. He achieved nothing of substance for those who depended on him. He is popular with those who took advantage of him.

Ukraine and NATO Bases

Despite assurances given to Gorbachev there would be no NATO bases on Russia’s border, there they are, in the Baltic states, Poland and Romania. Vladimir Putin is determined to stop Ukraine from having them and considers the possibility of NATO bases in Ukraine comprises a casus belli. The argument of this post is such NATO bases are a disaster waiting to happen and all of them should be removed. Emotion, patriotism, fear, etc have nothing to do with it. The conclusion comes from simple mathematics.

The reason lies in the mathematics of Game Theory, and is closely related to The Prisoner’s Dilemma. The concept of that is as follows. The police arrest two criminals and keep them separate, so they cannot communicate with each other. They have insufficient evidence to get a conviction so each is offered the following deal. If you stay silent, you go free, at least of this charge, but if you confess and give evidence against your partner, you get two years in prison and he gets ten. If you keep silent and he provides evidence against you, you get ten years in prison. What should the prisoner do? The answer is, he should immediately confess and rat in his partner because he cannot trust his partner to take the option that benefits both of them.

A similar situation occurred in the Cold War. Each country had the option of spending big on armaments, or investing the money on its own infrastructure. Declining to spend on the military would lead to a better country and stronger economy, but would leave you far weaker and the opposition could overrun you. Neither side could trust the other, but that scenario favoured the US because its economy was so much stronger. At the end of WW II, Russia had to rebuild everything the Germans destroyed in Russia and that which both destroyed in the Warsaw Pact countries. The US had no damage in WW II, and had built a huge armaments business.

All the ignorant commentators are rubbishing the Russian military. It is clearly facing problems, but so does every country going to war. So, let us assume it is clearly weaker than the US, and let us say war breaks out between them. What should Russia do? The mathematical answer in the current situation is simple: let fly with every nuclear weapon you have.

Again, each side faces two choices: launch everything you have immediately and hope you can take out all the opposition or remain conventional and wait and see. If one side does not launch and the other does, the one side loses everything. If neither side launches, the situation is currently unstable, and the first one to launch wins, if anything in this could be considered a win. If both sides launch, everyone loses. So why did  this not happen during the Cold War? Mainly because both sides were so well separated if major launches were made, the other side had an hour to get its retaliation under way. In effect, the sides were in an indirect communication with each other, and knew what the other was doing. More than once, that hour gave the time to verify that the opposition had not started WW III once an alarm sounded. Those alarms came from instrumental errors, radar glitches, and in one case, even an exercise where they had forgotten to tell the key people it was an exercise. It is too easy for something to go wrong. Each side has to have its nuclear weapons a long way from the other, so there is time to correct a mistake.

The current NATO bases destroy that equilibrium; Russia has no time to think if a missile is launched from them. They cannot tell what is on the warhead. So why were such bases set up? The original idea was they would be forward conventional military bases. According to the treaty signed in 1987, intermediate-range missiles were banned, but in 2019 the US withdrew from that treaty, arguing violations, and that China was not included. Now those bases could be nuclear capable. Russia cannot do anything about those, but it does not need more. If the bases were not there, and if the US had all its nukes on its own territory, and conventional war broke out, Russia can restrain itself from launching, because there is negative information: if there are no missiles launched from the continental US, the US is not starting a nuclear war. Again, there is time to think and indirect communication.

We now see why NATO cannot afford to send aircraft into Ukraine to help the Ukrainians; if they shoot at a Russian aircraft, that is the start of WW III. Accordingly, both sides are trapped in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If war breaks out, Russia has no option but to incinerate those bases, but that must start the nuclear exchange. Accordingly, it has no option but to try to take out as much of the US as it can before the US can really get involved. That almost certainly won’t work, but there is no other option other than for Russia to totally surrender, and that is not a particularly likely outcome.

So why the bases? To answer that, who benefits? The obvious answer is the US military Industrial complex, which President Eisenhower warned against, and he could be regarded as being fairly knowledgeable about war. The US spends incredible amounts of money on Defence, and they get the most powerful military by far on the planet, but one that can be difficult to use. By enlarging NATO, the US encourages those countries to increase their defence spending, and since an alliance works best with common parts, the US Military Industrial Complex is the major beneficiary of that increased spending. The second beneficiaries are those who supply goods and services to the bases. In the Ukraine, that would be the oligarchs, who run the country. The underlying origin of this crisis is money, and the ordinary Ukrainians will pay with their lives.

Don’t Look Up

No, I am not going to discuss the film, the merits of which you can decide for yourself. However, it might be worth considering some of the things it says about the way we consider and treat science. What the film is supposed to say is that those in society with the power to do something about a crisis wilfully avoid taking action. Consider the excuses for doing nothing.

The film presents a wipe-out event that we will be struck by a comet. The probability of this happening is assessed at 99.8%. So it is not 100%? What we have to recognize that scientific measurements have errors in them. Statistically we make lots of measurements and use a statistical analysis, and while someone in the movie says “Scientists never like to say 100%” that is wrong too. Scientists do not like or dislike; they report the mathematics, and a statistical spread cannot give a 100% because that denies the initial spread. Further, that 0.2% is not physically meaningful either because the errors due to instruments are not randomly probable, but nobody is going to waste time working out the error function for every piece of equipment. Statistical analysis takes care of that. To gain perspective, consider a bag of 1000 50 calibre bullets. You are assured two are blank. One is placed into a gun. What amount of money do you need, if you survive, to put your head in front of the barrel when it is fired?

A second problem for scientists is that long-term realities will be ignored by the public. This more relevant to something like climate change. What are you prepared to do to avoid a major problem fifty years down the track? For many, not a lot, so they ignore the problem on the grounds that it can be dealt with “later”. Related to this are the economic considerations. One response is we cannot afford to do something. When we hear that we seldom see what the costs are of not doing said something. Again, the response might be, but you do not absolutely know that will solve the problem. No, we do not, but that is because we do not think there will be one simple solution for a problem like climate change.

Another response is to rely on technological changes. For an approaching comet, there are probably no other choices. You either construct some space vehicle that will push the comet off course or it strikes you. To make that work, a major investment in development work would be required, since we do not have such a vehicle now. As it happens, for this scenario NASA is doing work, and around the end of September a space vehicle weighing 550 kg will slam into an asteroid called Dimorphos. This is part of a double asteroid system, and we will be able to follow the effect of the impact in fine detail because it will alter the orbital characteristics of Dimorphos as paired with Didymos, the larger companion. The problem with something like climate change is that while technology might fix it, we are not doing the research and development needed to make it work.

Society seems to work against science, simply because people do not trust it. Over 5 million have died with Covid 19, yet we have many very active antivaxxers trying to persuade others not to be vaccinated. The interesting question is why? It is one thing to refuse to be vaccinated yourself, but why impose these views on others?  In their effort το persuade others they spread completely stupid stories. Recall the story that Bill Gates was inserting nano-trackers into the vaccine so he could know what everyone was doing? There are also stories with an element of truth but with no comprehension of relevance. Like our 98.8% above, they focus on the 0.2%. There is a tiny segment of the populations that respond adversely to certain vaccines. The medical profession knows this, and can look out for them and treat them properly if such an event occurs. These stories totally ignore what would happen to these far more sensitive people if the virus struck them. Finally, there is a tendency for navel-gazing. Consider our experiment on Dimorphos. There is a view, “What right have we to change the solar system?” If we took this view to the limit, we would still be hunter-gatherers and our biggest problem would be that lion in the shrubbery planning on eating us. Dimorphos is a lump of rock. It does not have feelings. It is not planning its future. The allied question, do your sensitivities about the Universe and the pristine nature of rocks in it give you the right to prevent the killing of billions of innocent people who do not share your view?

Climate Change and Political inertness

Since the season of goodwill and general cheerfulness is approaching, it seems wrong to present even more bad news for this rather dismal year, yet we cannot hide from it, The problem was presented in Nature ( https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-03758-y  and relates to the Thwaites glacier. This glacier flows off the Antarctic continent into the Southern ocean. The glacier is 120 kilometers wide and about two thirds of this flows into the Southern Ocean, but one third runs into its eastern ice shelf. Here, the flow grinds to a halt because the ice out at sea hits an underwater mountain that is about 40 kilometres offshore. The Mountain is stopping the ice from flowing.

Unfortunately, thanks to the warmer water flowing underneath, that part of the glacier is becoming unstuck from the mountain, and this is causing cracking and fracturing across parts of the ice shelf. The fractures are propagating through the ice at several kilometres per year, and are heading towards thinner ice, which may lead to the whole lot shattering. To add to the problem there is tidal flexing as the glacier starts to separate from the rock and the “up and down” movement with the tides causes the glacier to flex further upstream, including where it is over land. Because of this flexing, warm water from the Southern Ocean could make its way beneath the glacier more easily.

Current estimates are that this mass of ice over the water could shatter within five years, which would release an huge mass of icebergs into the Southern Ocean, and the whole glacier could start flowing much faster into the sea. That means sea level rise. Currently the Thwaites already loses around fifty billion tonnes of ice each year and causes 4% of global sea level rise. If this eastern ice shelf collapses, ice would flow three times faster into the sea. If the glacier were to collapse completely sea levels would rise 65 centimetres. The glacier itself is moving towards the sea at about a mile each year. This is a fairly fast moving glacier.

So, what do we do about it. In this case it is probably impossible to do much. There is no way to stop a glacier moving. The only possible thing to do to stop the sea level rise would be to somehow engineer more snow to fall further inland to Antarctica. Fifty billion tonnes of snow each year would cancel out the sea level rise, but we all know that is not about to happen any time soon. But not to worry. Senator Manchin does not believe in climate change as a hazard, and he will torpedo President Biden’s efforts to get the US to do something. This Senator wants to burn more coal, and this one man will torpedo everyone else’s limited efforts. So is the Senator right? No. We might not be able to stop the Thwaites, but there are worse problems downstream we can still stop if we act before they become activated. Of course, he is not alone. Australia is selling more coal, China is building more coal-foired power stations, Germany has turned of nuclear to burn lignite. A cartoon in our paper had it: the Devil was reading about our activities and he said, “Aw, no fun. They’re not even pretending to try now.”

The nature of the problem is what we call hysteresis. If you have an equilibrium, such as when there is no change of temperature in an object over time, this arises because the heat loss equals the heat input. Now, suppose you increase the heat input a little. Now we are out of equilibrium, but since the heat loss depends on the temperature what you expect is the temperature will rise to reach the equilibrium position corresponding to where the heat loss now equals the heat input. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work like that. Suppose I have a lump of iron, and I increase the amount of heat going into it. The surface may well get warmer, but heat then starts flowing into the inside of the object. It takes time before the object reaches the new temperature. With something like ice, it is worse. The ice will warm, but once it gets to its melting point the increased heat flowing in starts to melt the ice. The ice stays at the same temperature. If we increase the heat flow inwards there is no change, other than the ice melts faster. Then, when it has all melted, suddenly the temperature starts to increase quickly.

To some extent, that is what has happened on our planet. Our greenhouse effect has been slowing the heat loss to space, and since the heat input remains the same, effectively the system is absorbing more heat. However, to start with all that happened was the surface of the oceans warmed up and some ice melted. So we ignored the problem because we observed no change in temperature, and poured more heat in. All that did was warm more water and melt more ice. The problem then is that we have now reached the point where the increase in heat that we are pouring into the Earth is starting to reach the point where the effects that absorbed heat without altering our temperature too much have now reached the end of their capacity. We are now going to make major changes to the planet, and we cannot stop them because the forces are already in place to generate far more heat.

Another characteristic of hysteresis is you cannot reverse what you have done simply by stopping increasing the heat input. Because the ice is melting because the water is above its freezing point, if we stopped adding heat now and stopped all greenhouse emissions, the oceans are still warm and the melting continues. However, there are thresholds. One calculation (Nature 585 (2020) p 538) indicated that for every degree of global temperature rise up to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels will lead to 1.3 metres of sea-level rise. Between 2 – 6 degrees of warming it doubles to 2.4 metres per degree, and between 6 – 9 degrees, we get an extra 10 meters per degree. Further, the nature of hysteresis is that this is irreversible. If we want to turn it around we have to reduce global temperatures to one degree below what they were in 1850.

With that dismal thought, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and all the best for 2022. This will be my last post for the year, and as usual I shall resume in mid-January. Finally, there are still my ebooks on the Smashwords sale.

Punish the Short, and Spinach

For the short, I refer, of course, to the short seller. Most, by now will be aware of Gamestop as a company. It makes and sells videogames, and its share price was something like $US19 before a certain hedge fund decided to short it.

First, to understand how a short works. The shorter borrows shares and has to pay some sort of fee to persuade the owner to lend. The shorter then sells the stock, and at a later stage has to repurchase, to return the “borrow”. You can make a lot this way if you handle enough stock, but also lose a lot, and to load it in your favour the short should involve a very large amount of stock. When that floods the market with unattractive stock, the price tumbles because who wants to buy so much? Then, the critical step: many other reef-fish who hold the stock panic and sell. This is needed because if nobody did anything, the price would go back up, and maybe higher when the repurchase was needed. The short works only because it persuades others it is time to sell and take a loss. If it works, shorter rubs hands and gets seriously richer, however when things go wrong, the loss is unlimited because the repurchase is required. 

So, the hedge fund bet big on Gamestop, and expected the soft market to fall, the reef-fish to try to cash out, and the hedgie to make big. Not much risk, because how could such a feeble company’s stock rise in price? Actually, fairly easily, but to understand that, we have to consider a relatively new phenomenon: the low-cost stock-trading platform. Once upon a time stock had to be purchased in packages of so many, and because bits of paper had to change hands, you usually had to find a buyer and seller prepared to trade the same number. If stock were in units of a dollar, not a significant problem, but some stock now come in units that cost a hundred dollars, which would put stock trading in the hands of the rich. But now we no longer deal with bits of paper; it is all handled electronically. That allows the low-cost trader into the scene, where people can even put up $10 and purchase a fraction of a unit share.

Now we see what went wrong, at least for the hedge fund. A huge number of gamers heard about this and plunged in, purchasing stock. This action from so many pumped up the price by factor of 20 in the middle of the short. These guys were not there to make money; they were there to punish the hedge fund for messing with the company that made their favourite games. They could all well afford to lose $10. Now, how much the hedge fund lost depends on how much stock they were betting with. Thus if they thought they would make a large amount of money if the stock price was depressed by a dollar, see what the loss is when you multiply that amount by 380.

There has since been a big commotion, urging the authorities to stop this “market manipulation”. After all you have to protect the rich on Wall Street. If they get it right, they win big; if they get it wrong, “Bail me out!” appears to be the cry, then if they are bailed out they pay themselves big bonuses for being so clever and continue on their previous ways. Perhaps I should add, I have no problem with short selling. It is a bet, BUT there must be the condition that if the bet loses, the loser pays, not someone else. As for market manipulation, where is the manipulation in advice to “buy this now” and give reasons why? What is different from the average financial advice from the big boys? It is quite reasonable, in my opinion, to buy stock in a company that makes a product you like to avoid it being taken over by some pirate company, be broken up and the assets sold off just to make someone a lot of money. If you are prepared to lose money to keep a company alive, what is wrong with that? They protest too much.

There is another problem with the protests by Wall St.: where does the shorter borrow the stock from in the first place? The easiest source is these new platforms. When the ordinary guy buys such stock, it is the platform that actually possesses it, and the platform can make more money lending it out. Without the small platforms it may not be that easy to purchase enough stock to be worth the effort, so these platforms are needed by Wall St. Regulating the small platforms just to favour Wall St will be very messy.Finally, something totally different. I came across an item in a newspaper that started with, “Spinach sends email”. You might guess this is wrong. What happened was it turns out spinach is surprisingly sensitive to certain soil contaminants, including certain nitrogen oxides. What happened was a camera detected the change and sent an electronic alert. But wait, there’s more. One of the proposed uses was that spinach could detect landmines. Yeah, right. I can just see everyone walking over land, digging it over, then planting spinach to see if there is a landmine below. They would probably know when they started walking over the ground while preparing it.

2021 Underway

Here I am, refreshed with our pleasant summer, starting again another year. I hope I am entertaining, and that you all enjoyed your Christmas period.

In New Zealand, the New Year period tends to be when so many people are away on holiday, the reason being that if you are going away, you get more value for the leave you have to take from your job by adding in the statutory holidays. Accordingly, the news media tends to run on very reduced staff numbers, after all journalists have to have holidays too, not a lot happens locally, and often if something happens offshore it does not matter if it is ignored because it will usually be forgotten when life starts again later.

This year, not so. Two things have happened.  We have to let New Zealanders come home, where they go into managed isolation quarantine. While there is no community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 currently, the managed isolation places are getting almost 20 cases a day, including cases of the new virulent UK strain and the South African strain. These viruses certainly move fast, and it shows that people overseas are not really taking it seriously. So far, it is contained here, but I have this horrible feeling a breakout is almost inevitable. I hope that wherever you, my readers, are, you manage to keep virus-free.

However, the bigger news here was the remarkable scenes at the US Capitol. It seemed to me almost unbelievable that this was happening. Apparently there were many entries on Facebook and other social media sites effectively organizing this and one might have thought that someone like the NSA might have picked up these signs of trouble and arranged for better law enforcement.

In my opinion, this was not, as some seem to assert, a coup, an insurrection, or anything of the sort. It was a bunch of louts behaving really badly and the proper response is to properly enforce the law and prosecute said louts. Of course, the President’s twittering did not exactly help the situation. It is hard to see his strategy there, or even if he had one. Presumably he wanted to keep his political presence alive during the Biden years, to ensure that Biden had the sort of trouble he had, and since the Congress is lost to him, he had to find an alternative. What he chose, in my opinion, resulted in his shooting himself in the foot.

If we think a little more about strategy, what can the Republican Party do right now to get the best from this situation? The Democrats seem determined to make the most of this, and seemingly are determined to impeach Trump for a second time, and hope that enough Republicans will vote in favour in the Senate. Whether they will is debatable, because to do so would give the Democrats huge publicity. That still leaves what to do? As a writer, I have to formulate plots so I wrote the following last Sunday. As can be seen, the Republicans thought differently.

So, my suggested strategy starting last Monday: approach Trump and suggest he resign, thus giving Pence a few days as President. The advantages are:

(a)  For Trump, Pence will pardon him for whatever falls out from his Presidency. This starves the Democrats of political oxygen, Trump gets personal freedom and is able to stand in the primaries again in 2024 if he so wished. That should be enough to persuade Trump to comply. The alternative is the Republicans promise to convict him in the Senate, he will leave in disgrace and he will not run again. He hopefully would comply, but someone with congenital holes in feet may not. 

(b)  For Pence, be President, albeit for no more than a week, and maybe only a couple of days. He goes into history books as the shortest term President, but equally, perhaps the most productive per unit time.

(c)  For the party and for Pence: by getting Trump to resign and pardon him, it starves the Democrats of “political oxygen”. The statement made during the pardon is it is done because it is the only way to start healing the nation. Who can argue with that really? Many won’t like it, but so what? The alternative is continued bitter political fighting at the expense of the nation.

(d) For the Party and the Nation: Pence orders the military to assist with distribution and vaccination. There are apparently difficulties getting people vaccinated because there are not enough people able to do it and the vaccines are not always where they are needed. The military must have available logistics and health workers. This also starves Biden of his first “easy win”.

(e)  To harpoon the Democrats, pardon Assange from extradition. The liberal or progressive parts of the Democrats cannot object and makes the Republicans look good on freedom of speech, which is what they claim they want.Easy, isn’t it? Isn’t it??? My guess, at the time of writing, none of this will happen. More missed opportunities. And (added before posting) about the only thing I got right, I think, was that guess. What will happen now is anybody’s guess, and as you can see, anybody guesses better than me

Do You Feel Lucky, Punk?

One line from a Clint Eastwood movie, but somehow appropriate as the world faces a sequence of crises, so much so that Physics World thought of it and I have followed suit and report some of the more distressing thoughts as the season for jollity approaches. When I was young, the biggest threat to civilization was considered to be nuclear war. We have avoided that, and it seemed as if that was under control, yet the most powerful country in the world has pulled out of treaties and appears to be developing new weapons. Not encouraging.

The biggest problem this year, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, looks like it is being dealt with as vaccines are now coming available. That was a record production of a vaccine, which shows we can respond to crises in a most rapid fashion. Or does it? Actually, these vaccines did not start from scratch. There have been previous potential outbreaks of dangerous coronaviruses that did not spread, and the pharmaceutical companies had been doing vaccine research for coronaviruses for some time. Yes, this was a new virus, so some new work was required, but the general methodology was established, and the companies would have had good expectations of what would work safely. The companies were prepared. The question now is, how well prepared are we for other disasters?

The most spectacular crisis, from a visual point of view, might be an equivalent to the Carrington event. This occurred in 1859, and corresponded to the sun throwing something like 100 million tonne of hydrogen plasma at us. This was spectacular visually; the northern lights were seen as far south as Colombia. Unfortunately, fast moving charged particles cause huge magnetic pulses that in turn induce serious current in electrical conductors. Back then, telegraph lines took on a life of their own. Now, think of all the conductors in our electrical distribution systems? Electric grids would be in real trouble as transformers burn out. Satellites would have their circuits fried, although the rubbish factor may be eased since the atmosphere would swell up and hopefully bring them down. So, how well prepared are we for this? How many spare transformers, etc, are there where we could get the electric systems going again? If the electric supplies ceased, what would be the effect? In short, we don’t know, we are unprepared, and one day we shall find out, but what are the politicians doing about it? How many politicians even care about what is not immediately in front of them?

We have made some preparation for a potential asteroid collision, in that we are studying and cataloguing asteroid trajectories. For any extinction events we shall have plenty of warning, and time to avoid the collision. Further, our space technology has been developed to the extent that avoiding this collision is plausible.

Politicians are now making noises about climate change, and are putting in place some things that will slow the production of greenhouse gases, but to what extent? Have they done the numbers? I have posted previously that the switch to electric vehicles may not be the long-term saviour some think when you integrate the gases over enough time, and include the gases emitted in making the vehicles, the batteries and the electricity. Nevertheless, it could be a step in the right direction if we worked out how to recycle and rebuild the batteries, and were prepared to pay the price of doing so. The problem is, recycling the batteries per vehicle will produce materials worth a few hundred dollars and probably cost thousands to do it. The obvious way around this is to put the appropriate cost of recovery on the batteries when sold, but that would make the electric vehicle so expensive nobody would buy them. As it is, how many realize they will have to replace the batteries in, say, eight years? How much research is being done into replacements? Take biofuels. Most research has been done by companies, and they have opted for the easiest research, and not that which is most likely to produce the largest supply of fuel. By focusing on ethanol from corn, which even blind Fred can see is not a good idea, it fouls the concept for authorities. How much research has been done into geoengineering? Not a lot. How much preparation has been made to ameliorate the effects of increased temperatures? Again, not a lot. The politicians make many speeches about how things will be OK by 2050, but seem remarkably unwilling to do the hard work now.

The Poor in a Democracy

One issue that is finally coming to public notice is the issue of inequality. When the virus started to make an impression, Jeff Bezos’ net wealth increased by tens of billions of dollars and that was effectively a free result of the increased significance of Amazon. Yes, Bezos did very well to set it up and he deserves a life of wealth, but that much? At the same time, a very large number of small businesses around the world were going bankrupt, workers were being fired, and in lands of plenty, very large numbers of people cannot afford a proper place to live, they struggle to buy enough food and electricity, and their children are hampered because they do not have the money to use internet technology for their learning. 

Let’s forget the virus. Before that, if the nation’s GDP went up, the lower incomes remained stationary; if there was a recession, the poor’s net wealth, if they had any, gets obliterated, and if they get sick they are in real trouble. The State makes policies that favour the rich, the bankers, and so on, and it is the poor who pay for it. How does this happen in a democracy? That it happens is shown by India, the world’s largest democracy. It is now a middle-income country, according to statistics, but it has the world’s largest number of extreme poor and the third largest number of billionaires.

A recent article on democracy in the journal Science used water as an example of 

a resource in limited supply. Suppose there is just enough for everyone to drink and wash. Now the rich can pay for huge private swimming pools so they make political donations, they get their water, and the poor get rationed through water meters and charging. The costs are trivial for the rich, but the poor cannot pay for the cost of the meter and the bureaucracy associated with charging and have enough income left over to pay for children’s education. So why did this situation occur? Essentially because the politicians permit it. The simple answer would be to ban swimming pools, but the rich will never permit that, and their power lies in the fact they fund the politicians’ election programs. There may be sufficient voters to have the overall power, but they cannot organise that advantage.

Further, politicians and parties become weaker if information flows improve. One of the first things you find out about governments is they seldom come clear with what they are doing. Politicians make grandiose generalized statements that sound good, but seldom show what is really occurring with any accuracy. That comment is sparked by the fact that New Zealand is having an election soon, and one thing that happens is there are TV slots in which senior politicians are asked questions from the public. Very seldom is a question answered properly. If you think that is just New Zealand, consider the debate (??) between Trump and Biden last night. Trust me, the NZ debates shine very brightly compared with that chaotic fiasco.

Nevertheless, when the word inequality was raised here, it got swiftly deflected. A recent question related to the effect of low interest rates. Strictly speaking, our government has no say in these – they are set by the Reserve Bank, but nevertheless the argument produced was that lower interest rates means less is paid on mortgages, and hence the poor get the benefit of easier accommodation, with money left over to buy food, etc. 

Yeah, right! Lower interest rates tends to lead to an increase in house prices. First, those with money see less return on bank deposits so take the money to buy assets. Accordingly, you get a booming house market and stock markets have record highs, even though thanks to the virus, businesses are not necessarily doing better business. That means house prices rise, so anyone buying simply pays a similar fraction of their income to the bank in interest, but their capital debt is higher. Because house prices rise, rent rises. The poor have just as little money to spend, or even less, business does not turn over better, while the rich stock up on assets, and probably work out ways to get tax relief for them. Thus lower interest rates are yet again another way to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. Those who have houses tend to benefit, but they are not the poor.

We also have parties promising lower taxes. The poor would get enough to buy the odd extra loaf of bread a week, while the rich get serious increases because these tax reductions tend to be proportional to the tax. Rent/housing costs increase and that extra loaf of bread is gobbled up by the bankers, plus a lot more. Worse, we have quantitative easing. Either that has to be paid back (and that will not be paid by the rich, even though they are the only ones to benefit) or it will inflate the currency, at which time again the poor lose because the rich have their wealth tied up in assets. If you don’t believe the rich don’t pay tax, see the recent fuss over a certain Donald Trump.So why do the poor put up with this? There seem to me to be two reasons. The first is the poor cannot get themselves organised. They tend to be the ones who don’t vote. They say no party cares about them, but if they are not going to turn up and vote, guess why the parties concentrate on those who will vote. Another interesting point is that parties that nominally favour the poor usually have politicians who are quite wealthy. Getting elected by the poor might be easy, but getting nominated for a party with any show is hideously difficult. Parties pick candidates that will be trouble-free. Donors must not be upset. Which ends up with getting politicians whose major skill lies in getting elected. Asking them then to do something creative, as opposed to doing what the lobbyists want, is too much. Asking for a conscience is just plain silly. It ain’t goin’ to happen any time soon.

We Need Facts, not Fake News

Some time ago I wrote a post entitled “Conspiracies and Fake News” (https://ianmillerblog.wordpress.com/2020/02/19/conspiracies-and-fake-news/) and needless to say, I have not succeeded in stopping it. However, it seems to me this is a real problem for changing public policy or getting people to comply with the new policy. To be effective, policy needs to be based on facts, not on what someone would like it to be or fears it might be, or worse, doesn’t even care but feels the need to be seen to say something. Recently, our TV news has had about four different quotes of President Trump saying New Zealand is in a crisis regarding COVID – 19. I don’t want to give the impression it is like Utopia here; it isn’t, and we have our problems but we have a population of five million and so far the total deaths come to 22. Take your own country and multiply that 22 by your population in millions and divide by five. I think you will find we are doing some things right, and our current problems are almost certainly because the quarantine restrictions for returning citizens were too kind. Most obeyed the rules, but there were a very small percentage who did not. Here, the policy did not recognize the fact that some people are totally irresponsible. A few days ago someone who knew he had the virus broke out and went to a local supermarket for something. You cannot run a quarantine like that, and that selfish oaf will have made things much worse for future entrants.

But for me, the worst things are those who spout what can only be termed “fake news”. One lot of people, particularly young people, argue the virus is just like a mild cold. Well, fact check. Mild colds do not kill 800,000 people in a little over half a year. It is true that for the young it seems to be not very hazardous, but for the older people it is serious. Why? Here, understanding of causes might be desirable. Part of the reason may lie in angiotensin-converting enzymes, of which for the present there are two important ones: ACE1 and ACE2. These modulate the effects of angiotensin II (ANG II) that increases blood pressure and inflammation, which in turn leads to various tissue injury. The elderly tend to have more ANG II, which leads to higher blood pressure, etc. ACE2 mitigates the pathological effects of ANG II by breaking it down. However, ANG II does have useful effects, and so the body has ACE1, which leads to an increase in ANG II. If you are wondering where this is going, I apologise, but now to the virus, SARS-Cov-2; it binds to the ACE2 receptors as a way of getting into the cells and stops its action. As a result, ACE1 is busy stimulating ANG II, and too much of that leads to cell scarring, etc. As partial good news, ACE inhibitors, used to treat high blood pressure, block the activity of ACE1, and so may help stop the bad effects of the SARS virus. As to why the young are less affected, they seem to have fewer ACE sites. (The very young also have lower levels of androgens, which stimulate viral reproduction.) The reason I have gone on a little on this is because as you learn the facts, it becomes a little easier to see how this virus might be defeated. You win by logically applying true facts.

Another objection I have heard is the flu is worse, and I heard one assertion that in the 2018 season it killed 1.5 million. The CDC website says the figures are not yet in, but the biggest earlier figure was a little under 800,000 infected sufficiently to be hospitalized. On request for where the 1.5 million came from, no reply. It appears some figures are made up. Another figure that gets bandied around is the infection fatality rate. This is cited as extremely low. How? Because the number of infected are estimated. You can estimate anything you like! However, if the number of harmless infections and hence those with immunity were true, the virus problem would be over. It isn’t.

Some other bad news. First, masks don’t make much difference, then suddenly, yes they do and everyone should wear one. How did this situation arise? In the absence of tests, and hence facts, various people have expressed opinions. Here, you have to ask what you are trying to defend from. If you are trying to defend against coarse droplets any mask will do, but if you want to defend against an aerosol you need something more sophisticated, and it has to fit properly. On the other hand, a mask will not make the situation worse, so from mathematics if you don’t know, wear one and hope.Perhaps the worst news: vaccines are bad. Apparently someone made up the claim that vaccines have mercury in them, or aluminium nanoparticles. There are even claims that vaccines will contain nanobots that allow the authorities to keep track of you. The fact that these do not exist (application of energy conservation laws will indicate a minor problem with them) and if they did, someone in the vaccine business would object is no problem for these near paranoid rumourmongers. If someone knows that such pollutants occur, why don’t they take the samples to the authorities so the perpetrators will get long jail sentences. Oh, didn’t you know the government is out to get you? They are encouraging this to kill off citizens. That is the most ridiculous balderdash out. OK, Putin appears to have ordered specific attacks on people like the Skripals, but besides being incompetent, that is not general, and Western governments would not do that, and if they tried they would be exposed. However, it leaves the question, how can society survive if this sort of nonsense and non-critical thinking continues?

How We Got to Our Current Economic Problems

A little while ago, Nature (582, 461) ventured an item on our economic problem, and it is of interest to reflect on this. Most economic presentations, especially those that concern politicians, involve microeconomics: what happens to individual, families, businesses, etc. That is natural because that is where the votes lie, and to some extent it is what politicians can control. The main point of the Nature article revolved around macroeconomics, which involves cross-border capital flows, the role and behaviour of central bankers, the role of global financial markets, and the role of the US Federal Reserve, which, despite its grandiose name is actually not a government owned or controlled institution. The owners of the Federal Reserve are effectively members of the plutocratic class that own the economies.

In 1944, Franklin D Roosevelt decided to make some attempt at fixing the macroeconomic situation and he invited qualified experts to set up a useful system to form an international financial system that represented the needs of diverse geographical regions with diverse economies. Of considerable interest, bankers and financiers were barred, as Roosevelt did not trust them to put aside their own interests. FDR understood them very well. The result was the Bretton Woods system, named after where the procedures were devised. This arguably worked well, although I have little doubt it could be criticized.

In 1971 Richard Nixon dismantled that system and replaced it with, er, not much. A special place arose for the US dollar, which, because the US economy was so large that no single transaction would appear on the overall “balance sheet”, this was the only real currency that was considered to be stable. The idea was, if there were anything resembling an idea, let the market rule. A subsidiary idea was (although this was never openly stated) it gave a special position to the Federal Reserve, who could print what they felt like printing. The market is the proper place for fixing the price of things that are traded according to available supply and demand, and each of those is free of external constraints. The concept is, if something is in short supply, the price rises and new suppliers enter the market. However, if a cartel can control supply, say, as with OPEC in the 1970s, price rises get out of hand, but great profits are made by the cartel. Currencies can be open to manipulation. The very rich can withhold to raise the price and sell at huge profits when more is needed to settle other trading. You see a large number of very rich people who got that way by trading currencies, generally through inside knowledge of what is going on in the broader market. However, that trading does not create anything of value; it merely skims from those who do, so such trading is little better than a bunch of parasites who also precipitate the financial crises we seem to have gone through since 1971. Of course, on the other side of the argument, the value of a nation’s currency should not be set by politicians with other agendas, because long-term, only too many suffer.

This market rules system has led to much greater world trade, it has raised the living standards of many, but in the western world it has done this by permitting the very rich to become ridiculously more wealthy while punishing what we can loosely call the working class. Manufacturing has been shipped to the lowest cost labour, and the multinationals from a limited number of countries built manufacturing complexes, often with very little regard to the health of the local population. Pollution occurred at levels that would be totally unacceptable in the countries where the companies have headquarters. I recall driving through Cubatão, which is just inland from Santos in Brazil, one evening in the mid 1980s. One chemical plant was pouring out clouds of white stuff, which I provisionally guessed was phthalic anhydride. The health effects of this sort of pollution on the locals were terrible, there was no excuse for this, but because general safety and pollution control was absent, the product would be cheaper. So the net result was that a surprising amount of manufacturing fled the West to places that did not care, while workers in the West joined the unemployment queues.

Thus fortunes for the very rich increased dramatically, but at the expense of the not so rich, many of whom became the new poor. The real money was made by bankers, and as they grew richer, not by doing traditional banking but by selling financial “products”. After the 2007-2008 crisis, you might think things improved, but no, the world is still flooded with junk bonds, leveraged loans, and huge debt. You might have expected the US Federal Reserve to act responsibly and limit the potential for excess credit, but after 2009, why, no, they allowed the private credit market to expand to $US 9 trillion. Since a certain virus struck, the Federal Reserve has made a massive cash injection, but where has this gone? Largely to bail out what the Nature article calls “Monetary chicanery”. In short, the bankers pass go and again collect 200 billion.The question then is, can markets provide affordable health care, affordable housing, affordable higher education, security in times of crisis? I leave you to find your own answers, but I suspect the answer will often be no. Then there is the question, what will happen to all this created money? So far it is sitting harmlessly on ledgers, but what happens if enough of the rich decide to cash out at the same time? Who saves the poor, and the innocent? This is a system that needs fixing, but where do you find the fixers? Not from those who have the resources to fix it because they are the major beneficiaries.